Stream of Consciousness – Drawer Six

The Lighthouse – Nicki Blake

I have a photograph by my bed that everyone has seen before – the classic lighthouse by French photographer, Guichard, the one from a thousand inspirational motivational posters (I hate those things) with the lighthouse jutting out of a milky green sea, the waves crashing up around it reminding me of the lace in an extravagant Elizabethan ruff which makes the lighthouse a skinny brown neck. We all had this picture back in the day, we Gen Xers, along with our copies of Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Fleetwood Mac albums, back when metaphysics was cool, the summers were simpler and we had the time for self-discovery – such a very sixth-form thing to do, to go into ourselves and mouth off at the cosmos under the influence of cheap cider and cigarettes. We sat on the edge of the cricket pitch and stubbed our cigarettes out on the grass so we could have our hands free to make daisy-chains which we placed on our heads like little crowns.

The Latin word for crown is corona and I told someone recently how strange it is to see a connotation shift, not in a sneaky creeping way as with some words and their etymologies, but within the space of weeks. Before, the only time I knew corona was from astronomy, meteorology, when there was a circle of light around the sun or the moon. Another way of saying it is ’22 degree halo’ but corona sounds more impressive, or at least it did. The ruff of lacy waves around the Guichard lighthouse could be a called a corona too, I suppose.

There were no drones in those days, so I imagine the photographer with his camera equipment hanging out of the helicopter door in the kind of Atlantic storm that would send the waves two storeys high. And all to give us a lesson in what? Humans versus nature? Fortitude? Endurance? Up and down the coasts of France, collecting lighthouses, repeated symbols of warning and of our care for those at sea.

I wonder what the helicopter pilot thought? When the photographer came to him and asked to be flown into the maelstrom? How much do you charge for something like that and what kind of mindset do you have to have to take on such a commission? Does he brag about it in his old age? “I was Guichard’s pilot – he was insane, made me do all these low fly-bys in the worst weather!” Did he get any credit for his role in creating the art? Look at me, assuming it was a man who was the pilot – though, in those days, it probably was. I wonder if (s)he reminisces now, in mandatory lockdown in some apartment in France, lonely as a lighthouse keeper, remembering taking on the elements with Guichard and thinking they’d conquered them, never imagining that when defeat finally came it would not be through great waves but in tiny droplets.

Nicki Blake is an emerging poet and writer of short stories based in Perth, Western Australia. Her work has been published both online and in print anthologies. Nicki’s writing draws on her lived experiences of working with words, as well as a heritage that is both European and South-East Asian.

 

100 Days of March – Vincent JS Wood

March went on for 100 days, morning after morning trickling into one another in a syrupy haze. It took half the year, but we’re now in April and everything is exactly the same. I feel like dead meat in formaldehyde, just a useless hunk of flesh, not visibly decaying but certainly not alive. Everything around me feels like it’s covered in a thin layer of amber so that you can’t touch and test how it really feels, like a world lightly honey glazed.

For the past three days (or is it four? five? six?…) I’ve had thoughts of chain-smoking in the sun. Flicking discarded butts into the scum collected at the bottom of the, now defunct, pond at the heart of the garden. Hearing the sizzle, then hiss, and proceeding to light up another to pass the time, is a recurring vision that appeals in both its grotesque imagery and its promise of fulfilment that it could never live up to. The irony of desiring lung hardening apparatus, to turn my chest to wheezy black dust, is not lost on me during a time of contagious respiratory disease. It’s odd because I don’t physically crave them either, I haven’t smoked in quite some time, but the thought of them has resurfaced as a cure-all to boredom and it scares me just how deep that hook goes. If that particular vice remains embedded in my muscle memory, what other sharp barb is waiting to resurface from a forgotten wound at any given moment?

I spend a lot of time in the garden now. Just to be outside is a tiny freedom in and of itself at the moment and I try to busy myself with labouring in the unkempt, overgrown peripherals of the property. An inherently absurd task given that I have the patience, demeanour and physicality of a man whose lower-middle-class parents actively encouraged his ridiculous notions of becoming a writer and, subsequently, has avoided doing a single day of ‘proper’ work in his life. And yet, I have a particular penchant for destructive work; cutting, digging, uprooting and the like. I know that creating something will overcome this boredom, it may not be anything special but the joy of the craft is its own reward and yet, I always opt for demolition which may also explain the part of my psyche that wants to smoke the days away. Destruction is a form of creativity I suppose.

Of course, people are dying and you’re here making flippant remarks about your own mortality and not contributing anything to the situation so perhaps you are an arsehole. Perhaps you’re just another self-involved moron postulating on being isolated with a mental illness when really all you need is a cigarette and to shut the fuck up. Perhaps destruction isn’t creative at all, perhaps you’re just digging holes because it’s all you know how to do.

March went on for 100 days, I pray to the unknowable void that April doesn’t too..

 

Untitled – Lindsay Bamfield

I walk my daily walk, a different way each day through the maze of roads round here, that I’m still discovering. No-one knows me but a few of the other solitary walkers respond to my greeting as we pass each other, one of us veering onto the nature strip for our obligatory two metres. I hope to see the elderly gentleman who sings as he walks. Instead I hear rainbow lorikeets screeching as they fight over ripening figs in a tree, and a lone wattlebird sitting on a branch making a forlorn squawk. It is autumn here and the front garden flowers are fading but there is still loveliness to be seen. Fading flowers have their own beauty signalling younger, more radiant days in the past. My own past has disappeared now I’m in a country where there are only two people who knew me when I worked, made a difference in people’s lives. No-one else here is interested in my past. The few people who have got to know me here view me as someone’s mother and a grandmother, that’s all.

I am making a new present life for myself but my plans, like everyone else’s, have been interrupted by social lockdown. The holiday I’d booked has been lost, and the theatre tickets I bought have been refunded. The course I signed on for will now be online and the writing group I had just joined has been put on hold for the duration. So yet again I must rely on myself to keep alive, active and creative.

My baking has had to stop because there’s only me to eat the result. My gardening in my tiny garden connects me to precious nature. Even though I’ll have to wait so long for the outcome, I plod on in hope. My sewing calms me but my writing bothers me because I can’t get it right. I hadn’t realised how much I relied on being around other people to energise me. Not just people in the social groups I had joined but people on trains, in parks, in shops. Not just the people I was drawn to but the infantile, giggling girls who annoyed me with their loud music on the train, the noisy youngsters that barged into me on the road crossing, the dawdling mother and children who obstructed the shop escalator, the earnest young man who gave me his life story, mercifully quite short because he’s young, at the writing workshop when I asked him what sort of writing he does.

I continue my daily walk, looking at flowers, the trees, listening to the birds, saying hello to the few people who pass me or are tending their front gardens. I say hello to the dog who looks out through the gate of the house on the corner, and know that one day this too will be in my past and strangely this will connect me to the people I’ve yet to meet. One day when this is over.

Lindsay Bamfield relocated from London to Melbourne last year. She writes flash fiction and short stories and may one day even get her novel published.

 

I had children, only one of which I knew – Colin Alcock

I look down into the still water of the pond. The reflection is clear, but I take no narcistic pleasure in what I see. I see lines and wrinkles that are not ripples and the blue sky of summer behind me. And there the truth lies. If I look back the sun shines on high, but I lose sight of myself. Yet looking down, all I see is an illusion. And beneath it the unknown future. Except I know, that for me, there is no future. I am spent. I have thrown away the right to live. I have taken life away from another.

In my twenties, I was a butterfly sipping from a thousand flowers. I spread my wings and mirrored the beauty of the world, but never settled long on any bloom. Admirers only saw my brightest colours, never my dark underbelly that craved intoxication from the finest nectars. That saw me creep into the corners of the night, feared of predators who would demand their due, for what I had consumed.

In my thirties, I metamorphosised into a devious demon, plucking the strings of others’ hearts, leaving behind a trail of tears, twisting and turning my way through countless loves that I never loved and gathering their gifts, their coin, to feed my taste for luxury.

My forties came and my game had run. Bankrupt of soul; jobless; taking the handouts of the poor; theft and cunning carrying me in a downward spiral. A sycamore seed whirling at the wind’s pleasure. Until I met her. The real butterfly, who was as beautiful and generous inside as the myriad glints she displayed to my eyes. She made me believe what I could be.

I had children, none of which I knew, left behind in the darker days. And now another, on whom I lavished a love equal to my butterfly and through my fifties I watched him grow and sparkle in new sunlight. Until he emerged from the chrysalis of early teens with traits that I can only call mine. The same dark underbelly to the bright aura of his personality. His gift to attract beauty to his side, to take only the pleasure and live off the nectar of society. Never giving back.

I didn’t need a mirror to see myself. My face creased with worry, with horror and with regret at what I had spawned. He took no heed of my story; he had an even meaner streak and I watched him destroy lives, leaving his own trail of misery, until I could take no more. I lured him back with the promise of precious nectars, an offer of gold and brought him to this pond. Intoxicated. Incapable.

I’m in my sixties, now. Staring down in quiet isolation. I turn away from my mirror image, but still see myself reflected, deep below the surface, ripples now stilled, in the upturned face of my son. And, as dragonflies hover and butterflies alight beside me, I weep.

Colin Alcock is a septuagenarian storymaker, mainly of shorter works, who has published two collections and three novels. Swopped to fiction from copywriting, in retirement, and writes simply for the love of words and the images they can create.
Website: http://colinalcock.co.uk  Twitter: https://twitter.com/ColinAlcock

 

neighborhood watch – Matthew Daley

Of course I remember when I took classwork home to a friend who stayed home from school because he wasn’t going to spread himself to others how thoughtful so considerate so his mother called the school and the message went from one to the other till I was prevented from joining in the straight line walk to the cafeteria because Ms. H- said I needed to take work home to S-and someone in the office confirmed with my mother by calling my mother at work that I could make the heroic quest to deliver homework if I wouldn’t mind and this was the seriousness of a combat medic getting to the front line to give a bite-sized kick of morphine and yes I was ready for the mission because I was born for this moment because heroes aren’t born they are chosen by time in its incremental mood so I took a different route home and don’t worry Ms. H- I know the way and I did and I stepped over different sidewalk stories and avoided breaking mothers’ backs until I knocked on S- door and no he wasn’t home or wasn’t answering and the woman in the other half of the divided house opened in a bathrobe confession with her grey wasp next hair and Lipton teeth wanted to know if I wouldn’t mind being so kind to help her move her couch it wouldn’t take but a minute but I knew she had a monster inside she had to feed and I ran because my parents didn’t buy milk so how would they ever know I’d gone missing

 

Nesting – Lindsay Bennett Ford

After he got sick he said “Don’t let me end up with a phone strapped to my wrist ordering food. I want life locked in here to seem real. Not on demand, scrolling and clicking like a fool. We’ll need to talk to get through this together.” She looked at his body soft and folded on the bed, sprained by the weight of the unknown – wondering how and when he would heal.

Outside, when she dares look, the birds flap and part ways suddenly as if caught in the act of something shameful, elicit like teenagers flying apart when the door opens on them unannounced.

The weeks before lockdown she had seen things: the boy with no shoes and soaking wet socks making footprints on the concrete steps; the seagull speaking in tongues with squawks of a misremembered song from years ago. The chalk rocks crumbling in the storm of silence while the wind howled all the ears shut.

That’s why she waited two moons to tell him about the baby.

The only time she leaves him is to get supplies from the warehouse of late capitalism. They sit in silence when she returns – the scene sits burned in the collective from too many movies when the end comes and fear brays on the doors smearing blood. Pinkish like sarsaparilla. Now the aisles are almost empty and she takes the last packets of dolmio sauces and whispers an apology to the pigeons nesting in the rafters; “Don’t leave breadcrumbs, save them for the hunger in you that will never be full.”

At night when the owl hoots they talk of the future. A precious jewel in her belly – they agree on only one thing; old ways will become new again.

On the balcony in the midst of someone else’s plan she sits dumbstruck in spring sunlight listening to the blackbirds making nests, preparing to be Gods once more.

 

I Miss My Mum – Sarah Day

I miss my Mum I miss my Mum I miss my Mum. I miss how she wouldn’t say anything I wanted her to say but would surprise me with something else. Always left field. Seeing our old house again, I remembered how my first years were spent with her, just the two of us. Just my Mum and I for most of the day and how even then I was aware that she was going out of her mind and trying to find distractions from this life with me, this relentless boredom that I seemed able to produce. It is a slight feeling, not a huge one, but it has always been there this feeling that I am not good enough to keep someone company. That I was not enough for my mother, or that I wasn’t what she had wanted. That what I wanted was a secondary thing. That I needed to get out of the way for her desires, that I needed to be quiet so she could think. That I was the reason she had to do all these boring tasks. That if she didn’t have me she would be living an exciting life, full of stories and books and adventures that she had all had to give up to be a mum. That our house wasn’t a permanent thing for her but a temporary structure because she had to do this tedious task of bringing me up. That she wanted to be elsewhere, always. Always elsewhere. That each thing she had to do during the day was tedious -– washing, cleaning, cooking, but she did it anyway hoping that soon it would all be over and I would be grown up and she could move on to the next stage in her life. Watching her drink her iced coffee with my plastic periscope through the screen window. She must have said that she wanted some time to read on her own, some ‘me time’ before people said that, and I felt so strange that she was now down in our new car port with its painted concrete floor and sofa made from wooden planks my dad screwed together and a foam they covered with an old sheet stapled round it. This new room that I thought might be for all of us was being commandeered as a room for grown-ups to have reading time, alone, sipping iced coffee.

She thought it was funny that I couldn’t leave her alone for one moment that I spent so long spying on her when she was only reading. She laughed at my constant needy energy. Perhaps touched that I needed her so much. That I missed her for that half hour she decided to take for herself.

Now I miss her all the time and always will as she has taken all the time for herself. She has gone to the carport of me time forever. Where the periscope can’t see her. Where even if I crouch down beneath the lip of the windowsill there are no mirrors that can reflect off each other to get the right angle for that. She is gone gone. Forever gone. And now I’m left feeling just not enough still for the memories. Just not enough of a person to hold down a life. Wondering if I was supposed to be brought here at all, and feeling slightly apologetic for taking up space. Reminding myself over and over again that this life is mine to lead. That I have every right to it.

 

Magnolia Breath – Karin Hedetniemi

There were deer tracks in our wet cement this morning. “They like to nibble on your magnolia blossoms,” our neighbour said as she walked past. I’m never awake so late at night, but I smiled at the thought of a buck, standing under moonlight, reaching up into the branches, and chewing the thick, soft petals. I took a picture of the carved imprints with my phone, so I could refer back to this moment again and again, whenever I need assurance the world is imperfect and kind of whimsical and never lets you forget this in small offerings you don’t expect and interactions you can’t control: squirrels that nest in your grandmother’s hammock and wasps that build a nest under the eaves, just outside your reach when standing on the tallest rung on your ladder and now this deer, who will probably be back again tonight when the cement is dry, but there won’t be any evidence it was here.

I actually saw a deer later this morning in the cemetery, standing motionless between the headstones, sunlight streaming from behind carving him into a cement statue. Different from an angel or an obelisk or a simple slab. More majestic, fitting of the landscape. Standing on someone’s grave, sinking imprints in the dewy grass and cool earth. Standing over someone named Eunice or Alfred or Elsworth or Adelia May. Someone who once lived in a house like mine, or maybe even mine, who surveyed the garden every morning to consider the growing wasp nest, or the branch sheared off in last night’s wind storm, or to cradle a tiny, cracked robin’s egg. Someone who now waits every night for tall trees to drop pine cones on their bed, and small creatures to nibble on their sheet of wildflowers. He was standing there, blink, now he’s slightly to the left, blink, further, blink, now I can’t find him.

I scanned the cemetery, but the deer was gone, camouflaged by hazy sunlight and shadows. The pup never even noticed, never picked up the scent, and trust me she smells everything, including the mere thought you might reach into your pocket to give her a treat. Suddenly her wide eyes are locked on you, and she’s commanding you with her doggie ESP “give me the treat” before you even involuntarily twitch a muscle in your arm or make a conscious decision, whether it will be here or after we round the next corner. She just knows, she’s onto you, she can already smell that savoury morsel in the future, now making its way to her mouth across time and space. She knows five minutes before someone’s coming home or when someone’s leaving, even before the suitcase is pulled from the closet. But she didn’t sense the deer at all. She didn’t bark last night when the trespasser stepped across our wet cement and stretched its neck and buried its nose in the sweet fragrant blooms of the hundred-year-old tree, making its moonlit offerings to ghost deer.

Karin Hedetniemi lives by the sea in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada where she photographs and writes about nature, inspiration, and being human. Her work has appeared in Sky Island Journal, Pomme Journal, Barren Magazine, Door is A Jar, and elsewhere. She publishes essays, photos, and stories on her website: http://www.agoldenhour.com

 

For Zip – Wendy Chrikos

What it means to disappear. What it means to die. What it means to roll around in the sheets and wake up gasping for fresh air, afraid that you’ve been choked, somehow, in your sleep. I don’t know what any of it means, frankly, or if our words and good thoughts and collective prayers even mattered — actually, of course they didn’t matter — but it feels especially harsh that the very last picture of you is you standing in the middle of an empty West Village intersection, donning a mask. Documenting your life ’til the end.

Save the memory, you’d say.

In the caption you wrote that you were off to the bank, needed cash, still had to buy groceries, y’know, but it was fine, you were fine, everything was fine fine fine fine fine fine fine…

What it means to show up. What it means to share. What it means to grab at the day with both hands so that it has been squeezed of its life by dusk, tucking each and every blessing inside the wrinkles of your pillowcase so that one morning, years later, you can see a familiar face on the 6 train and say, Oh, wasn’t it your birthday last week?

How did you know? How did you always know? I am never a person someone remembers, not ever. So how did you?

What it means to matter. What it means to make others matter. What it means to remember, to be the keeper of all of the memories, to understand what remembrance means. What it means that by doing what you love and loving what you do, you became our touchstone, the binding of our book, the connective tissue pulling us back to the best years of our lives.

Oh, God, I am sick and I am so, so sad.

Because what does it mean for us? To have our nucleus gone? What will it mean for us to spin out from you, unconnected? Who are we without you?

What it means to breathe. What it means to touch. What it means to be alive from the touch and the breath and to die from the breathing and the touch and…and can you regret a touch? Would you? Would you say it was worth it? That held hand, that hug, that impassioned kiss or familiar peck on the cheek, or, hell, that shared cup of coffee, whatever it was. Was it worth it, still, now that we gather on your page of memories, sending our hopes and prayers and declarations of adoration, believing somehow that it will reach out through this space and find its way to you so that you know what you mean — what you meant. What did it mean? What does any of it mean? And would you do it all over again, again and again and again and say yes, it did, it did matter, that you regretted none of it, not a single solitary breath of it?

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Stream Of Consciousness Drawer Five

The Elevator Scene – Catherine Thoms

The first thing I’m doing when this is all over is getting a haircut, I text my mother. My ends are frayed and splitting just like my mind is frayed and splitting and it’s all I can do to just sit here and focus on my fingers moving across my keyboard without wanting to stop and pick at my hair. My mother says she feels like we’re living the elevator scene from You’ve Got Mail, the one where they’re all talking about the nice things they’ll do for the people they love once the elevator gets unstuck and Tom Hanks realizes his girlfriend, Parker Posey, is kind of a terrible person. Except in this version of the movie, the one we’re living, Tom Hanks is the one with the virus, so maybe Meg Ryan leaves daisies on his doorstep because she takes social distancing very seriously but either way, The Shop Around the Corner closes and I’m still out of a job.

Normally I’d be at work today at the New York City bookstore that inspired that movie, slipping my page-a-day crossword into my back pocket to complete while standing at the register, bothering my co-workers for answers. Now, I’m all alone and thinking about all the things I never thought I’d miss about work, like the old woman who calls every week like clockwork, the one who nobody wants to talk to because you have to speak slowly and loudly and repeat yourself, and because she always asks if we have anything new that fits her very specific interests (beautiful ballet books, girls in other countries, girls with disabilities), and even though we all know her interests by heart, there never seems to be anything for her. I think nobody wants to talk to her because we all feel guilty, for not trying harder, for dreading having to talk to her in the first place. Every week she buys at least one book and gives her credit card and shipping information over the phone. I looked up her address once and saw that it’s a senior living community right off the expressway. The website made it sound nice enough, and at the time I thought to myself that it must be nice to get old and live with all your friends again like college, with activities scheduled every day, and to be able to simply call your favorite store every week and have someone pick out a book for you and pop it in the mail. Now I think of her and I hope she isn’t afraid, I hope someone still answers the phone when she calls, I hope she feels safe and isn’t too terribly alone. Today I thought about asking her—if I ever get to go back to work and if she is still alive (a morbid thought)—why she always calls, why this store, why those interests. Funny, the idea that I could deal in stories all day and never once think to ask about hers.

Catherine Thoms is a Brooklyn-based writer and bookseller. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Honey & Lime, Nightingale & Sparrow, and Oh Reader literary magazines. She retweets Jane Austen memes @c_thoms137.

 

Untitled – Elizabeth Moura

Mama doesn’t like me writing; but today she gave me a paper and pencil and told me to go ahead. I was very surprised, because she usually takes paper and pencils away from me, and locks them in her bedroom.

I wanted to thank Mama, but didn’t have a chance. She was coughing worse; she turned away from me, coughing like I had done last year, when I got sick at Christmas. Her mouth was covered with one of the thin old dishcloths she was always going to throw away.

What shall I write, Mama, I said, turning my head. She had already left the room; only the cat was there, washing itself again, and staring after my mother. Mama shut the bathroom door, still coughing. She turned on the water in the sink, real hard. It must have been splashing all over, I thought.

I lay down on the floor with my pencil and started to write on the single sheet of paper she had given me.

Here is my story:

I put on my best baseball hat, the one mama bought me, and hurried outside to play with the other kids. I couldn’t find any kids, so I spent time hitting a ball, and watching it roll to a stop far away in the brown field. You’d hardly know it was spring; the grass hadn’t turned green yet; one droopy little dandelion got squashed by the baseball. I spent my day hitting the ball around the field, figuring other kids would show up.

I stopped playing to watch two big black birds pecking at something. They were very busy doing this. I walked as close as I could; they were pecking at a dead squirrel. It was disgusting. The eyes had already been pecked out; one of the ears was half gone. They weren’t interested in me, they just kept pecking. I became bored by them and walked away.

There were no kids coming, so I decided to go home.

I forgot to wear socks, so my shoes flapped as I walked along the street to our house.

I was glad to be heading home; playing alone is no fun after a while. I opened the door and my mother had made my favorite food, macaroni and cheese. I sat down at the table, and when mama turned her back I let my cat eat some off my fingers. I still had my cat to play with. This is good.

I put down my pencil, and ran around the house, looking for Mama.

I finished the story! It’s real good! I said.

She must still be in the bathroom, I thought; the water had stopped running. I opened the door. Mama was lying on her back on the floor; her eyes were open and staring at the ceiling, but she wasn’t coughing anymore. She was very quiet.

This is a perfect ending for my story, I thought; I ran to find another piece of paper and my pencil.

 

Stamens I have kissed (or, a prayer for our pestilence) – Faye Brinsmead

Ooievaar is Dutch for stork, and a daffodil grows in my ear.

Saying it drives the drear away. Ooievaar, ooievaar, ooievaamen. Hail daffodil, frill of grace, the auricle is with you. If I ask for a lend of my ear, if I beg – ooievaar! – do, please, refuse. I need your brown boot root, I need you bulbous, bibulous. Bubbles, yes; bibles, no. Blessed be the fruit of my fear.

Ooievaar is stork for daffodil, and an ear grows in my Dutch. Finest process powder fights cocoavirus. Droste, Valrhona, E. Guittard Cocoa Rouge in wearable keepsake tin. My daffodil’s corona masks disaster. Ooievaar, poor cochlea. I knew them, Eustachian. Fellows of infinite pollen dust. Here stung those stamens I have kissed… Have kissed… Young Lochinvar stoops in his stirrup. To kiss… Ooievaar.

Ooievaar is daffodil for ear, and a Dutch grows in my stork. They traded loonly in the cloud. That banks on higher cryptoshares. The daffodil craze made the stalk market crash. Hashtags, hashtags, we all fall. My dame has a lame tame daffodil. Daffodo, daffodon’t. Count to happy birthday while you hanitise your sands. Covert short cuts can kill. A sneeze on the breeze is worth 46,000 in ICU. I see you. My anvil restyles your stigma. Your corolla come, your calyx be done, at home as it is in Hubei. For Wuhan and Wuhan. Ooievaamen.

Ooievaar is ear for Dutch. Will a stork grow in my daffodil? I sprinkle sugar on the soil, pray for red-beaked innocence. From time-before marshes, Neanderthal caves of care. I imagine the stork in its yellow frou-frou nest. Wombing a Trojan cargo of reborn souls. A pandemic of peace, itching to infect. We’ll exclench fists, quiver fingers outwards, unthread isolation’s web. We’ll wash suspicion from behind our eyes. Leave three-ply pinatas on strangers’ doorsteps. Cosset random grandmothers with mugs of cocoakindness.

I imagine stamens I will kiss to kingdom come.

Ooievaar, ooievaar, ooievaamen.

Faye Brinsmead lives in Canberra, Australia. Her work appears or is forthcoming in The Cabinet of Heed, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, MoonPark Review, The Disappointed Housewife and other places. She sporadically tweets microfictions @ContesdeFaye.

 

The stars have fallen – Cath Barton

The stars have fallen from the heavens and landed in beds of celandines, blanketing our fields. I would hold them up to your chin like so many buttercups, asking if you like butter and you would bat me away in annoyance because the time for that is gone, or so you fear. And in any case I now have no right. My right is only to follow the line that undulates in front of me and takes me on the path I did not know I had to travel, so close to the edge I did not ever guess was there. Was I blind, or merely unthinking, or downright selfish? Oh, we have all been selfish, we have all thought we could have… No, stop. Now there is just this, now, here, and the swish of the traffic on the road, cars coming and going who knows where or why.

There is, nonetheless, warmth in the sun, which is a kind of miracle after all that rain, the unremitting rain. It was so on the day I learned to make the bread that will sustain us through this. It is an obsession now. I wake and think of how I will mix the flours, lift and fold the dough, stage by slow stage, until the heat, slash and bake. Do stars have these obsessions? Dead? How can they be dead, shining as they do? Only a reflection? The hills would return my laughter. They are impassive, have been there longer than you or I can comprehend. Now the butterfly flits and a humble bee appears outside my window, disorientated, this is not his place, he seeks greenery not asphalt, and flies on, the only way he knows.

Nature is all of this, stars, celandines, rocks, tiny living things, precariously strong. There is, in her domain, neither good nor evil, merely a striving for balance. That’s the trick, to arrive at the point of equilibrium and hold it. It see-saws, the pendulum movement chaotic and unpredictable, even by the largest of the cleverest. Hold steady, fall, regain your composure for a moment and fall again. We must not seek gain. Shall I say it once more so that one of us may understand it? No gain. Look into my eyes, see the reflection of the light from the celandines, feel my breath on your cheek and know that it is benign. This is the impulse, to carry on, to feel the warmth on our foreheads and hear the sparows in the lilac which will blossom in mere days, open from tight buds to an unleashing of scent.

It is merely this that is required of us, to wait for the time of the lilacs, to breathe them in and to let them go, knowing that the pendulum will swing back. Holding on is useless, we will fall. So sit, listen to the birdsong close, the hum of the traffic on the road beyond and, further off, the quiet river and the flow and the continuity of everything.

Cath Barton’s second novella, In the Sweep of the Bay, will be published in September 2020 by Louise Walters Books

 

March is Now Officially 300 Days Long – Sheila Scott

Go for it, brain. The next five hundred words are all yours. Actually only four hundred and eighty six now…seventy eight. Stop counting.

It’s now half past midnight though we all know it’s really only half eleven. I’ve never understood this insistence in putting the clocks forward and back so, for one week either end of summer, our Pineal Gland can sit smugly in the midbrain going ‘Well I’m not seeing any extra daylight here, how about you?’ And Pineal Gland would be absolutely right. All we’re doing is shifting the window ever so slightly while nature rolls its eyes at us like teenagers – mother of f- something just went ‘BONG!’ in the ceiling. Adrenal Glands’ turn to take centre stage and send a muscle-jangling squirt of homebrew amphetamine into the system.

That’ll help me sleep.

It’ll be the house settling no doubt. That’s what people say when big structures make disquieting creaks and groans: the house settling. Should it have hung in there and waited for something better instead? Is it unhappy with us? We’ve treated it well, bought it nice things like windows and doors, hell, even walls in places. To be honest, we’ve practically rebuilt it to the point where I feel we paid a really big sum of money for a patch of ground and the cube of air hovering above it. We even plastered the front room ceiling twice after the first effort applied by Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid fell on our heads before twenty-four hours were out. Perhaps it liked its old seventies vibe with the geometric carpets, spirograph-on-acid wallpaper and flesh-grating Artex.

The big, bricky ingrate.

I do not see why I can’t have a portal. I think it’s a perfectly reasonable request in 2020.

Wy do people like flying dreams. What on (or, in fact, off) earth is so wonderful about flapping around completely detached from anything of substance?

Do fish have walking dreams?

The fox left a turd right in the middle of the back grass last night and I can’t help but feel it was making a statement.

If the CIA and Russian Secret Police are really listening to us through the smart telly, all they’ll get from our house is sarcasm and farts.

We found a summer replacement for Fireplace on YouTube today. In the dark, sodden winter nights, Fireplace really tied the room together, man, and with our first energy inefficient smart telly it actually warmed it too. It was like having an ornamental panel-heater with a light entertainment function. Now we have an ice-cold Euro-thingummy rated upgrade. For the coming months which we shall optimistically call summer, we’ve got Tropical Beach, replete with lapping waves. They must loop these things perfectly because, from the palm tree shadows, the sun stayed in the exact same spot this afternoon for eight solid hours. So did we.

How can it be a full moon when the Apollo astronauts fecked off with bagfuls of it?

No more ceiling-bongs. For now.

 

gently rocks the chair – Christine A Brooks

When my mother was dying and the end was so near we could hear it creep around the house, creaking floorboards and gently rocking the chair, I made a promise to her. I vowed that, no matter what, she would not die alone.

No matter what.

My family and I stayed with her around the clock, at her hospice bed in their dining room, monitoring each inhale waiting for the corresponding exhale. Each rise of the floral bed sheet seemed to stay longer, resting, before finally releasing and falling to her chest. On the third night of our vigil, I stayed alone with her trying somehow to take in her last last’s and let her know I there and she was not alone.

When Death came, He did not thunder in snatching her away from me with brutal force. He did not cause her pain or fear as He came to be with us that night. She lay in a deep peaceful sleep with a look of acceptance, not defeat, on her waxen face and breathed easily, free from pain. Death joined us that cold night in February with grace and peace and what can best be described as respect. We sat for a moment with Him before He absorbed her last exhale and just like that —I was alone.

If Death should come for you, tell Him I said hello. We’re old friends. He’ll take good care of you.

Christine Brooks is a graduate of Western New England University with her B.A. in Literature and her M.F.A. from Bay Path University in Creative Nonfiction. Her recent poems are in The Cabinet of Heed, Door Is a Jar, Cathexis Northwest Press and Pub House Books. Her book of poems, The Cigar Box Poems, was released in February 2020.

 

Communion – Glad Doggett

Preparing and sharing food is one of the ways I express myself creatively. But it’s more than that: It’s a way to communicate love. Basically, cooking is my love language.

It started when I was a young, single mother of two small children. I would pore over cookbooks and watch chefs and cooks on PBS. This was before the days of HGTV on 24×7. Back then, I had to seek out the cooking mentors. There was no Gordon Ramsey or Giada on TV at Prime Time.

I watched, I burned, I learned. Over time, I figured out how to combine ingredients to make a dish that tasted good. I knew almost intuitively how to get around in the spice drawer. I never measured or worried. And in spite of being raised in a family that never
ventured beyond salt and pepper, I was not intimidated by what I thought were “exotic spices” like cumin or ginger. I added this and that, throwing caution to the wind. In the end, my reckless abandon became dinner. And most of the time it tasted good.

My kids are grown now and I cook primarily for my husband and myself. But this Coronavirus lockdown has changed everything. I cook as an escape from the uncertainty of the outside world. When I make soups, bake cookies, mix up casseroles, a switch flips and the worries fall away. These culinary distractions come easily. No thought or recipe required. No chemistry involved.

The one thing I’ve never tried until now is to bake bread.

The real test for a home cook is to transform flour, salt, yeast and water into bread. In bread, you can’t hide your mistakes. There are rules to the measurements and bake times. Bread keeps no secrets: too much salt, it’s inedible; too little, it’s bland; not
enough yeast, it’s flat; short-change the rise time, it’s a brick.

But oh, bread is worth the effort. Fresh homemade bread is manna. It nourishes the body, pleases the palate, and delights the senses. Everybody loves warm bread. A buttery slice of bread briefly heightens your senses, and stops your wandering mind. You forget to worry. You just taste joy.

It’s no small thing to create sustenance from a list of ingredients. Baking bread is a form of magic. Wet dough comes to life, rising and breathing. Add heat and the conjuring is complete.

Baking bread is a form of meditation. It requires you to get quiet, slow down and purposefully use your hands to knead, measure and mix the components. You stop to read the recipe, focus on the instructions, ensure the measurements and the oven temperature are right. It requires present-moment attention to wait and watch the crumb become browned and crisp. Time slows; it’s just you and the bread.

Offering the finished loaf to another person is communion. It’s a way to say, “I offer you my time, attention, and love through this nourishment.”

 

Revels with Nic – Will Fihn Ramsay

Two weeks ago, an actor friend of mine died.

Due to the pandemic, there was no funeral.

There was, however, a brief window to say goodbye. The hour after I found out, I was in a suit, ironed shirt, and at the Chapel.

I hadn’t realised, but here they do open-casket.

So I “saw” him. Made it easier to say goodbye. Talked for ages. Cried.

At the end, gave him a rendition of Revels (Tempest).

Which was so utterly apt. I had learnt it the week prior and had had trouble linking it to death.

Then I walked out. He was a dearheart.

It was a beautiful glimmer of time. Little things. I had chosen black and silver cufflinks. Had combed my hair. (My hair is unmanageable). He lay motionless, peaceful, wearing a tux with a rainbow bowtie.

I remembered our time together and how kind and supportive he was.

And twice when I spoke to him, I am convinced, absolutely convinced, he smiled, and that whilst I delivered Revels he opened an eye and looked at me. And he was still supporting and encouraging me in death. As a fellow actor.

Then the speech just made ever more sense.

And I thought about the bizarre synchronicity of it all. How I’d only learnt it the previous week as an exercise, and struggled, and now everything clicked.

Something important about our friendship for you to know:

We once had a conversation in the car driving back from some terrible am-dram show. We were talking about smoking. We both said we used to. I mentioned how I sometimes miss it and still think it’s “cool.” He looked slightly, ever so slightly, reproachful, said nothing.

It was later someone told me he had only one lung. By then we were already friends. As I believe quite strongly in agency, and don’t like hearing people’s news from others. I cut that conversation and walked away. It was for Nic to relay to me if he wanted and he hadn’t.

And I knew he was ill from what he’d said to me, and that was enough.

And this was germane to how we spoke.

Incidents and happenings and retellings prima facie formed the basis of our friendship. Perhaps it can only be that way with someone who is daily made aware of their mortality.

I don’t know whether he had been terminally ill, nor how he died. I hope it was that final and wonderful natural progression of a life-well-lived and a body worn-out and I was peaceful.

I am honoured to have shared some time and some thoughts with him, and I’ll miss him.

Saying ‘goodbye’ was genuinely lovely, and melancholic, but only in that cathartic way that humans need, and hold a perverse longing for that we never voice.

These layered and muddled thoughts, I hope, explain why the speech was so utterly intrinsic in bidding him adieu as his little life was rounded with a sleep.

Will Fihn Ramsay sometimes acts, sometimes writes. Skis often. Lives in Geneva, Switzerland. You can check out some of his other stuff at http://www.fihnramsay.com

 

Blossom – Sherri Turner

There is a tree in next-door’s garden, cherry I think, hooching with blossom and purring like a well oiled Ducati. The bees are feeding, oblivious to the danger that they are in, that they are a threatened species. Such lovely oblivion. We think we want to know things, we Google and we Wikipedia and we ask Siri – ‘What was he in?’ ‘What’s the population of China?’ ‘When do the clocks go back (or forward) and which is which?’ Information overload. Stuff we need to know to live our busy-as-a-bee lives and pretend that we are enjoying ourselves. There are things I’d rather not know, things we would be better off not knowing, so that we could just be happy, enjoy the passage of time, feed on the blossoms. But we do know, though nobody likes to talk about it. Or they didn’t use to. Some days there is talk of nothing else. Yet the tulips are flowering as though nothing is happening, as though they can’t hear or smell the fear and the sadness. Thank goodness for that. And please, nobody tell the bees.

 

A Little Bit of Rain – Michelle Noonan

Midday on a warm Sunday, I’m out for a run. The streets are quiet, empty of both cars and people. A bright orange sign warns that the park is closed until further notice. I think of that app I used to use while running, the one with the story in which you run from zombies in your search for survival supplies. Wouldn’t that be so eerie right now? I’m tempted to try it, for a moment, before deciding maybe that would be a little too spooky even for this horror movie lover. The sky is gray and somber, like everyone’s recent mood. But as I turn the corner, I discover brightly colored words chalked across the sidewalk. Messages left by neighborhood children: be happy, love always, read books, keep learning, learn love. One has drawn a rainbow, with a reminder that you can’t have a rainbow without a little bit of rain. I stop to take a picture of each one, grateful to be smiling. I start to notice other bright bits of the day: birds singing, trees budding, a few flowers beginning to bloom. Amidst all the news of illness and death and looming catastrophe, the world is coming to life as it always does in the spring. Our children remain hopeful. I think of the parents or teachers or whoever sparked the idea of leaving messages on the sidewalk, and am reminded that this is how we care for our children. We give them hope. We remind them of the bright spots and silver linings. I think about how opening my eyes to let in the light, to notice beauty, has kept me going since I tried to take my own life last year. How long I struggled, clawing my way through each day for the sake of my own children, with determination but without true desire to live. And now here I am, running on this sidewalk, shedding worry with every step and hearing, for the first time in a long time, the voice inside myself that wants to live. I want to keep going, keep moving, keep living, keep running. I want to see where life will lead me now, to see what will happen, who I’ll become, who my children will become. And I’m scared, not of becoming ill or of dying, but of not living, of missing out, of not being able to experience what the future holds, however grim or joyful or difficult or exhilarating it might be. I want to be. I want to become. I want to learn. I want to always be this free, the way I am right now, running through the cool spring air, my body moving as if this is what I were born for, heart pumping, lungs working, eyes seeing, ears hearing. The earth beneath me is solid, the sky above boundless with promise and wonder. The birds are singing. Each step I take feels like a wish, like a mantra, like a promise to my children: alive, alive, alive.

Cabinet Of Heed SOC Drawer 31.06

Stream Of Consciousness Drawer Four

The Butter Stone – Mary-Jane Holmes

Outside my window, a palimpsest of snow, moles home-school their children in the art of house-building, arctic terns drone the moors and one unidentified wader sits on a capstone scoping for worms. Not a common snipe or oyster catcher – my usual neighbours. Who was it that recently twittered ‘our neighbours have been cancelled?’ Bigger, chevron-winged, cryptic brown and black. I’ve looked it up – dismissed dunlin, dotterel, sanderling, redshank … a woodcock? Perhaps – but in a land devoid of trees? Perhaps in a world gone mad so in this ménage rustique of sociability and solitude, the imagination soars for something more exotic – a long-billed dowitcher from Siberia, a rostratula from Africa, a tutuwiki from New Zealand. Not that last one – it needs to be extant. That word has so much more heft now doesn’t it? I’ll plump for the dowitcher. My father (no longer extant) worked in a brewery in Novosibirsk. I wonder if he ever saw a dowitcher feeding on the banks of the Ob? All I know is he flew there every month with an airline called Crash – but to fly, the longing for it, to be lifted out of all this, to be like the clocks, to spring forward into the dog days of a summer, salad days unvaried accept by accident. Salad – I’ve ordered Cut-and-Come-Again lettuce, and early seed potatoes that I’ll chit and bury in the soil left by the mole’s excavations, like my grandparents did ‘earthing up’ their Casablancas and Maris Pipers in another time of crisis and now the sun still seemingly in its winter quarantine, marches its slow gait across the horizon, appearing suddenly, luminous as fever, above Goldsborough’s cap of gritstone, over the Herdwicks and Swaledale flocks self-shielding from the three day north-easterly the Met office had predicted. Oh, to be able to forecast, to grasp some reassurance from our modern-day oracles! What would Pythia make of our modelling and algorithms? If we burn laurel and barley, pour cold water over a goat to see if it shudders, would Apollo tell us what is to be done, or perhaps his son Asclepius, god of medicine or perhaps his goddess granddaughters? Hygeia, Panacea. Goddess. God. Godwit, that is what that bird is sitting on the wall, once thought of as ‘the daintiest dish in England’, its eggs a trophy for any Victorian collector’s display cabinet. The eggs I will go and collect are from a more sustainable source – pure breed Marans – left by the farmer down the road, in a small metal tin, each dozen with a happy face felt-penned on its box and I will leave my money sprayed with a 3:1 mixture of surgical spirit and water in return, like the villagers once did four miles from here in the Great Plague of 1636, where they picked up fresh wares and left their money in vinegar in the single cup mark set in the weathered rock, that came to be known as the Butter Stone.

Elephants in Silhouette – Mark Sadler

Anton came knocking on me door, absolutely over the moon, on account of a herd of elephants, that roam in the vicinity, having been reported as gone down with a pachyderm variant of polio, meaning they all had to be culled.

“We going to hunt thee mighty mammoth,” he says/sings. Already he’s unlocking me gun safe with the key to his safe. That lazy sod, Fisher, wot makes them, gave them all identical locks. It opens out like a drinks cabinet. Can’t fault the craftsmanship. That’s all done in Thailand; the inlay and the internal compartments. All Fisher does is ship the pieces over and add a few finishing touches.

Okay, so the hunting licences will cost more than you’ll get back from selling off the parts of the animal, even when you factor-in the traditional-medicine barrel-scrapers wot will will buy anything. You do it for the sport, don’t you? When was the last time anyone got to legally hunt elephants in this neck of the woods?

Anton fired up the sat-tracker. We piled into his truck. Well, when we got there, mate, it was all sick animals far as the eye could see; staggering about; some already toppled over, and the hyenas gearing up for a big feed. It weren’t no hunt.

Cropsie was there with his band of men, wot been paid by the National Park Service to carry out the cull.

He says: “You can take first swing of the bat if you want, mate.”

Then, cos he can’t pass on an opportunity to get a dig in, he looks me long-bore up and down an’ he says: “Nice little poaching toy you got there,” knowing full well I ain’t poached more than a hen’s egg in me life.

Jason looks at me an’ says: ‘I can’t do it mate.’

We drive back to the parks office. Even get a full-refund on our hunting licences. Next day, the herd comes rumbling past in a convoy of covered lorries.

I moved to Amsterdam the same year. Things was getting too hot where I was. The Chapples got butchered on their ranch. I mean literally butchered. I could see the way the wind was blowin’, bringin’ the fire to me door.

I was telling the story about the elephants to this girl here the other night. She’s an animal rights type. Doesn’t like hunting. Hates big game hunters, even when I told her the licence money goes into conservation. She screams at me for five minutes. When she runs out of words, she pitches me own drink in me face! The worst people are the ones wot are so privileged, they don’t see their feet treading down on the backs of others.

Me and Jason was proper pissed that night, staggering along Geldersekade, like a pair of elephants with polio trying not to tumble into the canal: The silhouettes of men who should have fallen down a long time ago, holding each other up by accident.

The Pedestrian Underpass – Sebnem Sanders

Mama told me not to go into the pedestrian underpass. She said bad people live there, in the darkness. On the way to Mama’s kiosk, it was hot at noon, and I forgot to wear my hat. One could cook eggs on the pavement. Sweating and thirsty, I sipped water from the bottle I filled from the tap at home, while covering my head with one hand to protect myself from the fierce sunrays.

Then I saw a girl. Older, taller than me, heading down the steps of the underpass. Her sundress was similar to mine, even its belt tied with a bow at the back. Her haircut exactly the same. Perhaps she also had it styled at Joe’s on the high-street. Sunbeams followed her down the labyrinth of steps. I felt safe and tailed her into the fading light.

At the very bottom, darkness swallowed her. Goose pimples on my arms, I thought I’d lost her. Once my eyes adjusted to the inky dark, I spotted her walking down the bleak corridor. I heard noises. Guttural and harsh, they terrified me. I didn’t see who or what pulled her aside. It happened too quickly, but I ran forward, saw them tearing off her clothes. They did bad things to her, and I couldn’t move. I couldn’t move.

At last, I screamed at the top of my voice. They came after me. I flung the glass bottle at them, and when they grabbed me, I bit their arms with my sharp teeth. Somehow, I freed myself from the demons of darkness, and ran down the tunnel like rabid in flight, and up the steps towards the street. Breathless, I dashed into the daylight and found a policeman who listened to me. He followed me to the underpass and said, “Wait here. I’ll be back!”

I waited and waited, and saw the young girl being carried outside on a stretcher. Thank you, God, for hearing me. She’s alive, Mama. I saved her life.

Sorry, Mama, for not listening to your advice. I’ll never ever use the underpass again. I love helping you sort out the glossy magazines on the news-stand. I learn so much from reading the bold titles and looking at the pictures. Please, don’t be angry with me, Mama. I’ll be careful next time.

My head is bursting. I’m tired now. I need a story from you before I go to sleep. I love it when you read to me and tell me tales from foreign lands. Please, don’t cry, Mama. I’m here, lying next to you. Can’t you see me? Read to me, Mama, so I can rest in peace.

Sebnem E. Sanders lives on the Southern Aegean coast of Turkey and writes short and longer works of fiction. Her stories have appeared in various online literary magazines, and two anthologies. Her collection of short and flash fiction stories, Ripples on the Pond , was published in December 2017. More information can be found at her website where she shares some of her work: https://sebnemsanders.wordpress.com/

Wrinkles – K E Warner

We had a connection, my Gran and me. I loved her quirky eccentricities, she loved my malleable adulation. Gran was an eclectic product of the Irish potato famine, the Great War, and the roaring twenties, me a spin-off of TV dinners, the assassination of JFK, and free love. One would wonder what we could have in common.

‘Kim’, she would state – Gran never simply said anything, she stated everything – ‘Kim, you need to use eye cream. Every day. Start now. I know you’re only eleven, but this is important.’ My Gran had the most beautiful skin. Soft as butter, white as cream, and as plump as a cow’s full udder. I must have inherited my skin from my father’s side. But I tried eye cream. Well, not real eye cream, I used petroleum jelly and woke up most mornings with a film over my eyeballs. But damned if I was going to get wrinkles around the eyes. I was going to have skin like my Gran’s.

One day I arrived at her farm for a visit, hopped out of the car and before I was within ten feet of her she gripped her throat, rolled her eyes, and appeared to be in the throes of death. ‘Don’t come any closer. You were smoking. That is a disgusting filthy habit. And it will give you wrinkles.’ My fourteen-year-old self knew there could be only one response. ‘No gran, not me, my friends were smoking. It’s just on my clothes.’ Yeah. I stopped smoking that day. Not sure if it was the threat of wrinkles or the disappointment in her voice.

She had the voice of an angel too. She sang with the Sweet Adelines in Winnipeg. I used to love going to watch her sing. When I was sixteen they were going to perform at the Winnipeg Concert Hall. For Winnipeg – that was huge! I was supposed to be part of a group of cheerleaders – all granddaughters of the ladies in the choir. We rehearsed for weeks. I never missed a practice – even though my part was limited to approximately six seconds. She must have warned me a million times to ‘Never miss a rehearsal and never, ever be late – it’s disrespectful of everyone’s time when you are late.’ When it was finally time for the big show, I hung around the dressing room waiting for her, asking everyone else if they had seen her. When she finally arrived, I heard her before I saw her. Her friends must have told her that I was going to rub it in that she was late. ‘Well, she wouldn’t if she knew her great-grandmother had died and I was getting her off to the morgue.’ I slumped on the floor and cried. She found me in tears and stated, ‘Don’t cry. You’ll get wrinkles.’ To this day, I am rarely late for anything.

Gran has been gone for many years now. I still feel connected. Most often it is when I look in the mirror and see the wrinkles.

Isolation – Michelle Walshe

It’s not so different to the way it was before. The front door kept them out, those enemies of peace and solitude – people, chatter, noise. The air inside the house embraced me, settled quietly on my skin. Soothing.

Suddenly, there is a terror is in the air. The front door is sullen, forbidding. People, chatter, noise are ghosts. The air inside the house scratches my skin. Panic comes in waves at the thought of the particles of pestilence bombarding each other all around me.

Do they bounce off each other like dust motes in the sunlight and scatter far and wide or do they congregate, their coronas entwining, binding them together, making them stronger, ready for invasion? They resemble falling snowflakes but is each one a different shape like a true snowflake or are they uniform, like soldiers, identikit, prepared for maximum impact?

Do those spikes help to burrow into the soft, spongy lung tissue of their new-found hosts? Do they squirt poison or are they suction points for deeper attachment? Do they assist the march through the airways and arteries, spinning their continuous cartwheels, silent and invisible until you are unable to breathe? This scares me most. The reports of a vice like grip on the chest, a burning feeling in the lungs.

Victim’s bodies feel like they are on fire inside. Outside, Rome burns. And the world. Like the ancient landmarks that rose to the surface of the earth during the heatwave of two years ago, old truths rise from history. Mistakes are doomed to repetition. Society is fragile. Economy even more so. Crisis reveals the best and worst of humanity. Fear spreads faster than fire. Behavioural scientists have case studies in real time. Herds are interesting. Especially when they don’t have immunity. Planet Earth can recover, if only we took the same measures to save her as we are taking to save ourselves.

It seems much can be accomplished in an emergency that is impossible in real life. Fakery abounds. The spin has never felt so spun. Our house of cards is tumbling, card by card. Every day as a another one flutters away a new fissure in the land is exposed. The way we treat the people who sew the fabric of our society stands in stark comparison to the way we treat the ones who consume it.

Speechwriters look to the past for inspiration, spouting lines ripped from previous orators. The current leaders trot them out in solemn tones with grave expressions in minimalist surroundings. They say we are at war. We are. At war with ourselves. With our bodies. With our habits. With our preconceptions and our need for distraction.

For it is distraction that has led us here. Too distracted to be hygienic, too distracted to notice the elderly, the supermarket workers, the health care professionals, too self-absorbed to notice the wilful destruction of the planet.

Will this bring us back to simplicity, to nature, to family, to better communication? We’re being told to stay at home, but do we really understand where that is?

Michelle Walshe is a writer from Dublin. She began writing in 2017 and has been published in The Irish Times, The Irish Examiner, The Telegraph, The Sunday Independent, The Gloss and Woman’s Way magazines and in an anthology, Teachers Who Write. She has won bursaries, residencies and writing prizes, most recently the Iceland Writers Retreat.

Thoughts On Pandem(ic)onium – Sara Hodgkinson

Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Probably not because none of us share a brain and none of us are psychic (or are we?) but then we might all be thinking something similar because let’s face it there’s one main thing that is hanging about us all like a terrible smell – a deadly one, even deadlier than the dog’s worst guff – and no it’s not Brexit (for once). Is there anything stranger than the pandemonium of a pandemic where you can’t actually SEE anything happening other than in the figures and data that the news spews out every evening around five when you’re normally cooking your tea but Boris is now there bumbling his way through yet another emergency conference? I don’t think so, but then we’re only at the beginning of what will likely be weeks of this or months even, though months are incomprehensible when all I can see is the end of today and curling up in bed to slip silently into delicious dreams of all the things that Tesco couldn’t give me when I dared to venture out for a dash through the aisles. What do we even do if toilet roll runs out? I’m all for cutting down on waste, but WASTE from US is not something you really have much choice in and cleaning it up is far easier with Andrex on your side. ALTHOUGH. When we were in Nepal there was less faffing about with paper and more squatting and shaking so perhaps that’s the way forward? And in Asia there’s the whole hand thing which most of us have two of so I guess there shouldn’t be a problem, and I’m more worried anyway about never getting going again because once you’ve stopped – stopped, slowed, broken the usual routine, started to get used to doing less – how do you start up again and get back to the pace of before? What if we can never return to how it all used to be but then do we really want to anyway because wasn’t there all that concern over how modern society is toxic and we’re all doing too much and there’s a looming mental health crisis and so on? There’s something to be said for the slowness and the silence that comes from waking without an alarm to absolutely nothing – no cars going past on their way to work, no idle chatter of kids on their way to school, just quietness that I never really realised wasn’t there until it was and now I sort of like it, really. Maybe this is a chance to start again, in a society where we all actually care a bit more. Then again, maybe there won’t be enough of us left to do that anyway! I’m not being flippant, it’s just a thought, but maybe – maybe – we’ll be changed in some way that makes us all, on some level, slightly better human beings than we were Before It Came.

A Brief Sojourn – Emily Harrison

You wonder how old you’ll be when this is all over – this being the pandemic but also this being the altered life you now have to lead which, in any case, is a pointless, fruitless thing to wonder because you imagine there will be no ending. No one is going to write THE END. Although they’ll probably say it on the news and well, maybe they will write it, but they’ll most definitely be wrong because these things don’t really end, do they? They reduce and we return but the memory bones and breath of it endure for however long eternity lasts. How long does eternity last? Erm. Perhaps a better question is how long does the daily invasion of information last? The data, the intelligence – the lack thereof, the charting of death; too much to ingest. It makes you feel sick, just like all that pasta that’s been hoarded in kitchen cupboards. You can’t eat pasta because it makes your stomach tighten like the taut turn of a screw. Unlucky for some. You suppose it’s better to feel something than nothing. That’s what happens when information is an onslaught – information that is horrific and scary and do you know someone that will die from this? Probably. In the blitz of information, you’ve started to become numb to its daunting fissure and your protection policy is to simply retreat into the great vastitude of your brain where nothing is felt, and nothing is gained, just a plain sailing ignorance of avoidance tactics and escapism.

It’s like the time you weren’t sure if you had cancer.

Mum sat next to you as the consultant spoke and you assume her brain was reeling with feeling and thought and dread and terror and she’ll confirm it if you ask but for some reason, you stared at the consultant as he said you would need a biopsy and felt nothing. Perhaps your brain levitated out of the room and your body stayed put – the body that maybe had cancer. It would’ve been in its throat. Maybe the body does have cancer, but you don’t know it yet. Oh fuck. Back away from that and to this, which is thinking about how old you’ll be which leads into questions about who you might be and what you might achieve which is to say that you’ll probably achieve living life – no mean feat, considering. Three years ago, you weren’t sure about living life, which is both a comfort and not – a sort of background noise to dwell upon and look back upon in moments when your mortality is hurled straight into your face like the blare of a police siren going out to fine someone for being outside longer than the government allotted time. Remember when you considered dying? An odd time. An awful time, in many ways. In most ways, actually. In all ways, truth be told.

You wonder how old you’ll be when this is all over. You hope you don’t figure it out.

Emily Harrison uses writing as an escape from reality and doesn’t drink enough water. She has had work published with Barren Magazine, Gone Lawn, Ellipsis Zine, Storgy, The Molotov Cocktail, Retreat West and Riggwelter Press to name a few. She can be found on Twitter at @emily__harrison

Featherweight – Kyle Tinga

When it came down to it, the only reason a human heart would ever be the same weight as a feather is if it was a damn heavy feather. Thoth knew this, Anubis knew it, even mightiest of all ye mighties Ra knew it. Then the question became where to source the feather, and that’s where all the ideas at the council dried up. The gods with feathers coughed and began to very politely shuffle back towards the temple entrance, while Ra rubbed his temples in a way that screamed “If I wasn’t the Supreme God then I’d be praying right now”.

“Right then, when we create humankind and judge their deeds, what feather do we weigh their hearts up against?”

A tentative hand was raised by Hathor, ready in all of her plumpness and finery, jingling and jiggling as it rose. “We could do one of those larger birds? You know, the ones that go around the liver of something or other in one of the Northern countries. Protoman, Promare, something of that nature. I’m sure a feather of that size would be heavy enough to give humankind some kind of advantage.”

“Still feather weight, innit?” That came from Sekhmet, arms folded across his chest and sharpened teeth gnashing and snarling. “And when it’s FEATHER weight it’s light as a FEATHER! Nobody’s going to come to the heavens which means nobody makes their way to us which means people will stop believing! Got to be a heavy one.”

“We could craft it out of precious metals. Gold and silver and suchlike.” The words came from an overgrown beetle, whose shining carapace was studded with diamonds and jewels of every size and colour. “That would make it suitably heavy for our purposes.”

“Then it would be a falsehood,” came the reply from Anubis in a low growl, his jackal’s jaw exposing elongated canines. “If we are weighing up the truth and sin within a human heart, it would taint the core of morality to use a fake feather.”

“What about sunbird?”

All eyes darted towards the speaker, her voice serene amidst the growing clamour. Mother Isis, mother of man and mother of the world, had her hands rested in her lap and a very small smile upon her face. “Sunbirds,” she replied, “Are truth and flame. Remember that they hold the weight of eternity in their feathers, and shed it as they’re reborn. So they are light and heavy in equal measure.”

At once whispers became chatter became yells of “Sunbird! Sunbird! SUNBIRD!” At last! A solution!

“All well and good. But,” said a no-nonsense Thoth, adjusting his spectacles with a rigid wingtip, “Where on earth do we find the sunbird?”

Ra blinked. Blinked again. Blinked thrice, and then laughed a full-bellied laugh that echoed throughout the desert dunes and palm trees. “Why, my dear Thoth, on the sun! And luckily for us, I believe I know exactly where.”

My Job to Remember – Michael Edwards

This limp I acquired cost the most of all. My left foot drags across sidewalks, floors and sunsets. Soles of my shoes scuff and abrade to the point of skin grazing rough concrete exfoliating the calloused bottom of everything. Limping is a symptom of trying to get somewhere. I can’t tell you where that is because I’m not there yet. Forget I said the thing about the limp. I’m walking fine, stride in time one leading to the next and I pace the room digging ruts in the same path like oxen at the millstone. I’m yoked to forget that linear is expected and radial, axial, actual work is looked down on. How to be blue collar begins with myth and ends with bills unpaid until each credit card juggles the chainsaws or falling batons blindfolded. This is the circus that you dreamt of running away to, the horizon and over the purple sky of twilight, dimmer than the last century and a sun sizzling fried eggs in August heat on the sidewalk, segmented, control joints, planned fractures where tree roots push up and tectonics of urban expansion and contraction, freeze-thaw – leaves pile up to elbows and rot. Cars disappear in leaf litter and trees send their seeds sprouting, humus, new earth, rich neglect, they would say extinction, extermination, self-determination, individuation. This last week or so the sky has bloomed like dandelions gone to seed and the spheres of the heaven are filled with fluffy parachutes swirling in gales of warm winter, snowless, creatureless – only the proliferation of weeds, of plants, of phloem and xylem. Sapwood bleeds through bark bursting, the high pressure pulse of Pacific forests, climatic shifts – birches so warm their sap rots in-place and punky wood is all that’s left as winds snap fragile limbs, milkless, decalcified, malnourished, hyperthermic entropy. Decay, waste, recycled and deposited. Injected, and this won’t make the cut. I can’t remember why I even started. The rains stopped months ago. The humid heat took over and the limp is back. The last man limping through detritus and logs decomposing, reanimating, vegetating. Well, if the last man is what I am, at least these plants will feed me. The last winter coat was sold for parts and the only thing I remember is the frost on the windshield when January chilled my fingers, blood rushing to the core, protecting vital organs and the north has become south and I’m never coming back. The last man on earth. Only the tops of pyramids peek out through the soil layer, coating the earth with fertile foundation from new life – plants have heartbeats they say. Water has a pulse and they synchronize to the tide’s ebb and flow and the mud we make of words that we used to sling at each other. And now I’m the last man on earth and it’s my job to remember, but there’s no one left to remind me how I got this limp.

Michael Edwards is a poet, writer and young dad living in Vancouver, BC. Follow him on Twitter at: twitter.com/michaelwrites1

Black Mirror – Mehreen Ahmed

I sat in front of a mirror. The many glaring lights fixed on its frame, enhanced my reflection on the mirror. I saw a masked face in white make-up paste. The make-up artist diligently applied colour dust with a small sponge on my dark skin. Eye make-up was the hardest to do.

“Take a closer look.” She held another mirror. It looked black. I saw a cinema. Of my mind. Of a stream. Of a monologue.

The winds were rough. In the early dawn, the door rattled in the stormy winds. I screamed and held on to the flimsy bed frame. On a summer’s day, The winds revved up like a car in the hands of a novice. Five years of age. I sat by the window. The winds knocked on the glass pane. Another morning. Some clouds had gathered. I opened the windows and a sudden gust of wind whipped my face as it passed through the hut. My hair blew wildly over my face, almost veiling it with a mass of dark locks. I looked at the distant sky and saw layers upon layers of dark clouds; each layer a different shade of grey. The little daisies down by the mountain stream, danced insanely in the ferocity of the winds. Poor yellow little souls and bleeding blades of grass. Then there was a knock on the door. They came back. There was a ship wreck off the peninsula. Couldn’t make it in the storm. How was I to endure that? Those faces of desperate sailors floated in the ocean of my eyes; their bodies floating. The gardens bled.

Who’s at the door? My son? Did you come back for me? Have you come for my soul. Oh God. The wooden door went off the latch. It flung apart. Crazy! The crazy winds. My hut seemed to be wrung out of its soil. The mountains green, but dark and grey today. Dark. Yes, pitched dark it

was too, when my unfledged 16 year old went away to the edge of the peninsula toward a faraway coral island.

The mountain spring. The fall from this height among the rocks and the craggy crevice. The rains lashed its spray across the – My son, my little boy, Are you even alive? Come back. But no drugs and overdose. The ship that drowned in that ever engulfing sea. Took away. The water. The ocean. This stream. How I miss you? Little baby. Little. No more. Down by the green valley, I see him running. I see him now and then, he vanishes. There he is again. Play. Play. Hide and seek. Don’t run to the ocean though. Come back. Come back. Dear child. There he comes now. Up the ragged hill he climbs back. He’s here. In my arms. Kisses and hugs. The ocean rises and falls. Boats passing through mountain ridges. Suddenly all falls apart. No boats. No ships, only the sounds of the raging seas.

Cabinet Of Heed SOC Drawer 31.05

Qs and As (Storm Story) – Ursula Troche

The storm is out. Out there, everywhere. The birds are tumbling up! Considering the laws of gravity apply to us all, one would assume one can only tumble down but right now it’s difficult to do so. The wind outdoes the laws of physics, waves take temporary flight in the water frequently, on the coast there are duels between waves from different directions, battle fronts emerge by force, gale force, wind stream lines. The tide is high and the waves are high. We are holding on, and the birds and bushes too. Everyone and everything is trying to counter the wind, stem the tidal air-flow, the high tremors.

The answers may be blowing in the wind – that’s what Bob Dylan promised us – but they fly by too fast for us to catch them, so their messages are unheard and overblown. Interwoven with unknowing like waves blowing because wind is blowing. It’s a blow-up, tumble-up, an up-rising, I get wet. Oh tumble, can’t you dry me! Now I’ve blown it, the waves had got to me. I escape, going home, blowing home, being blown, now the wind is helping me, I get home faster. there at last, now there, now there, now here, and stop, keys out, this is my door! My friend, the answer is out there, blowing in the air, but did you manage to hear it? I couldn’t.

The following day, even the following week, there is still storm – though it’s not keeping still, but it’s still out there, well oh, not still, we go round in circles, we don’t know what to say but it’s still, erm, persistant. Even the house is loud with storm. Storm had been going on for a while now, blowing, whistling by, and by, repeatedly.

I am thinking about the distance one again between places, and how fast the storm gets from A to B, wherever that may be – and how long it takes for us to do the same, less elegantly so but more kindly!

We walk whilst the wind flies and the world is in motion! It gets everything going, the trees, objects, and, repeatedly, the waves in the sea. Wind manages to make mountains out of molehill-waves, and ephemeral walls appear in the water. Now, are they water-walls, or sea-walls, wave-walls, or what? Waves and walls are so frequent that they make ridges among them – ridges until they break. Break open like some kind of volcano, or is it an implosion rather than an eruption? This is the view from the promenade, here is the wave-show from a safe distance (and I had been wondering about the distance – between places, hadn’t I?) Here I can see more than just a rough dance and a roaring wave-rave. The whole sea like a jaccuzzi, or as if there’s a whale underneath, or as if it’s trying to give birth. Wild birth on a wild sea caused by the wild wind, exaggerating the high tide. What now? What more can the wind throw at us but itself, its energy which is too much for us.

Wobbly from the gale force, I let myself be blown homewards. I am on way to seeking refuge, from the waves to the cave of my home.

The week after that, it’s cold outside and the wind is – guess what, strong! And once, again – I am now on repetition-mode – I can hear it, seems that I can feel it too. It sounds like it wants to come into the house. Or break in, make its way through the wall, this time the house-wall, not its own water wall, as if it wants to tell me something important, and it’s very urgent. The message is blowing in the wind, getting more and more intense, now screaming. Maybe it’s an answer, blowing in there. I think it’s possible that it might have all the answers, the wind, but I have to be able to decipher them, and to decide what I want to know, what questions I should ask it.

Though it might not need me to ask. That’s wisdom for you: it tells me what I need to know. If I could only identify the meaning of its blow. I guess it wants to blow our minds, open them up, refresh them.

The wind, the message, the mystery. What has it got to say when it’s speaking in blows, must we communicate, us and the wind.

This storm, it could blow our mind easily! It does feel refreshing.

It’s so cool!

But is it, really, I ask, and might even be bold enough to wait for the next wind that’s blowing for an answer. This is the kind of stormy communication I got used to. Airwaves, and waterwaves too, like radiowaves. The transmission is enormous, the radius reaches wide and far – though it’s doubtful whether that has really answered any questions we have. I think after the storm- even after so many storms, reinforced by a multitude of waves, we still don’t know very much.

The Cabinet Of Heed Issue 33 Contents Link

Image by Ursula Troche

Dale’s Shoe Emporium – Amy Barnes

I steal feet souls.

The back-of-store shoe pile — the one people think is for charity — is for me. I love sniff-smells of sweaty footprints left behind in tried-on piles and bronzed discarded baby shoes holding up my Bible and Shoes of the World books. When I measure room-to-grow shoe lengths, I have to resist snapping off toes and heels in my hands.

People deserve to have their souls pilfered: never playing tennis yet wanting tennis shoes, dusty Eleanor Roosevelt orthopedics worn by trendy young women, brown leather pumps with devil-red soles spooning with outdated mom-chosen saddle shoes and pointy-toed witch shoes. I catch soul bits on my medieval wooden shoe stretchers, heel pushers, shoe devil horns and discarded shoelace nooses.

Shoe-needing children are the easiest to steal from: baby tip-toe feet in the shoe sizing, growth-inhibiting x-ray machine and distracted parents mean their tiny feet are mine. I love stinky teenager feet too but have to ask perpetual Johnny Hates to Wear Shoes to take off the back room plastic hooker heels and for his mom to stop taking wedding day shaming pictures.

I could guess shoe sizes with a quick thumb press estimation; but dislike the feel of still-not-solid kid feet moving under my hands like too-far from death skeletons. I guess radiated feet sizes like part carnival barkery, part snake oil quackery. They’re amazed when I announce to no one and everyone.

You’re a size 6.

It’s easy to steal from suspicious wives who know the blue suede Lothario loafers and boy band boots will be under someone else’s bed. I briefly feel for those women but really want their pink pedicure flip flop souls. Satin pink ballet slippers make scorned feet look angelic, trapped-wrapped in pretty pink ribbons. Gladiator sandals wrap carefully up their Cleopatra-worthy ankles and knees as I fasten each buckle.

I wrap shoes in brown paper boxes with brown-paper-paper, tied with favorite-things-shoe strings like dirty magazines. The split-soled, broken-down-arched shoe cast-offs line up like soldiers.

Ushering out customers and impatient nap-needing, lollipop-wielding children ten minutes before I really close, I smell the familiar musk of leather, foot sweat and blister blood crawling into my nose. I take quick breaths and count my daily prizes. The customers will be back in six months; feet regrown, pushing through shoe fronts, begging me to steal again.

 

Amy Barnes has words at a variety of sites including McSweeney’s, The New Southern Fugitives, FlashBack Fiction, Popshot Quarterly, Flash Fiction Magazine, X-Ray Lit, Anti-Heroin Chic, Museum of Americana, Re-side, Detritus, Penny Fiction, Lucent Dreaming, Lunate Fiction, Spartan Lit, Perhappened Mag, Rejection Letters and others. She volunteers at CRAFT, Fractured Lit, Retreat West, Taco Bell Quarterly, NFFD and Narratively.

The Cabinet Of Heed Issue 33 Contents Link

Image via Pixabay

The Baby With The Open Back – Katie Piper

“They’ve got one for us!”

Jo calls her husband, organises the house, and waits.

She opens the sliding door to the patio, lights up a ciggie and exhales into the sky until the nervousness in her stomach has no oxygen.

The doorbell rings.

Jo tosses the smoke over her shoulder, shooing remaining swirls outside before scurrying down the hallway to the shadow behind the door. The latch opens effortlessly, a woman stands on the doorstep with her phone and file. The baby is in a capsule on the porch, her eyelashes printed against her brow bones. Wide eyed and silent. This is baby Amelia.

Jo carries Amelia inside. The baby unblinking, eyes fanning. She lifts her out of the capsule, gently unwrapping the swaddles, releasing the smell of Amelia into her home. Jo can tell from the weight of the baby; this one has an Open Back. She turns her over, and there it is. Her back is cold to touch and open from her neck to her iliac crests. Her organs are grey and cracked. The handles of her spine are spinning to keep the bats out. The draught around Amelia’s back is bitter and brittle.

Amelia drinks some warm milk and Jo cautiously wraps her up. She huddles behind the baby in her bed, her own chest freezing.

10 days. 10 days is all she has.

Each day she cradles Amelia to protect her Open Back. When Amelia’s cries, it’s in drones and whimpers, her spine spins and spins but the bats claw and tear at her organs, stringing out her ligaments, her tissues, until they are tattered flags of flesh. Organs cold and orphan grey.

By day 4, Amelia’s organ cracks seal. They begin to turn the colour of pale flesh. They begin to moisten and shine. Her spine slows, swinging back and forth on its hinges.

Then day 5 – parental access. Amelia returns, wide eyed and still. Her back freezing and open, again. Organs embossed in a dull top coat. Matte crack-pipe-grey. This time Amelia doesn’t cry, yet bats tangle in the threads of her tissues like a pornographic cat’s cradle.

Night 6, Amelia wines all night, Jo swaddles her with her bare chest, bat wings protruding and elbowing the baby’s skin, stretching it until it’s translucent.

Day 8.

Back almost sealed, self-zipping from cervical and lumbar spine. Thoracic still gaping. Heart still not pink enough, but bats have migrated to find another Open Back.

Day 10.

The lady with the file shadows the door again, Amelia’s back is closed and warm, she coos and babbles, eyes blink, and she cries without her back unzipping. Jo hands her over tenderly, a chill swirling around her own neck. A tiny hole opens just above the collar of her cardigan. She shuts the door, shudders, and pulls her cardigan up to cover the hole. She glances at the photo of her with her own mother; the only photo she has.

The Cabinet Of Heed Issue 33 Contents Link

Image via Pixabay

The Treatment – Susan Earlam

In the round of the arena, black pumps settled on a dusty floor and a face turned toward a canvas sky. He was on the front row in his usual spot and in his usual state; transfixed by the trapeze rehearsals. Despite his constant gaze upwards, neck strain was never a problem for Pierrot. Sometimes he brought a sketchbook and graphite. Clothed in his loose costume, it was the only way his fellow performers recognised him, the Clown. The white makeup given a rest when not on duty.

“Have you nothing better to do, Pierrot?” Artem asked him from above. Pierrot ignored the man, gave no sign he had even heard the question.

This was the only thing for him to do. There was nothing else. Other than being clean. Bathing was Pierrot’s first love. It had been too long since the last time. The folds in his flesh were littered with a rash. Dusting powder no longer enough to stave away the damp, or the smell. He’d begged the boss to organise something for him at the next town. The next town was this one. He should go and check again. After the rehearsal that is exactly what he would do.

Below the trapezes, stagehands began setting up the spinning ring. The ring was a huge draw for the attendees of the circus. One of a kind; a metal frame that spun on the ellipse and was mounted on a support frame at either end. Tracks on the frame enabled the chair performers, whilst plenty of bars and joints supported the aerial silk team. A feat of mechanical engineering.

Pierrot sighed as the trapeze practice came to an end. Boris and Artem leapt down, they always made it look so easy. He watched them carefully. Another heated debate. These were happening increasingly often. Artem wandered off but Boris came toward the clown. Pierrot sat up a little straighter and placed a smile on his face. Don’t come too close, my sweet. I don’t want you to catch a whiff of the aroma I carry around.

Boris stopped as if he’d heard Pierrot’s thoughts.

“Are you okay? You look a little strained today, is something bothering you?”

“I’m alright. Thank you for asking though.”

Boris nodded in acknowledgement and continued past him and outside.

Right then, nothing left but to remind the boss about his dire need. He rose slowly from the seat, the faster he moved the more smell he’d give off. Even his gowns had started to yellow, especially around the crotch and armpit areas. He was alternating three of the costumes but they all needed a deep clean. Some of the knees and elbows were grubby and he didn’t know what else to do.

His place in the hierarchy of the circus was low. Very low. He needed permission for everything. Onward to the boss’s office. To Pierrot’s surprise the boss was expecting him.

Gemini Bathhouse; someone would be waiting for him there. He was to bring all his clothes for laundering. Everything. Excitement filled Pierrot’s bones as he packed his costumes into a bag. The boss said there were steam rooms, an exfoliating treatment, and a massage he could look forward to. Pierrot became aroused thinking about the touch he longed for. The pressure of palms on his body. He was overdue this treatment and the boss knew it. That would explain why it seemed so indulgent this time.

Pierrot left his caravan, making sure he had the map within one of his pockets. This time the circus was set up on a wasteland outside a greying town. He wore his only set of civilian clothing. The boss didn’t like townies making connections to the performers, Pierrot hated these clothes.

“Going somewhere nice, P?” Artem shouted from the backstage area that grew outside at every town. The performers’ caravans formed layers of concentric circles around a bonfire. Most would bring out camping tables and chairs to sit and chat between performances. Pierrot never joined them.

“I’m off on an errand,” he shouted back to nosy Artem.

Pierrot quickened his pace and found himself within the grey town sooner than he’d expected. He looked down at the map his boss had given him. He was close, the bathhouse was on this side of town.

Today is my day, everything is going my way.

He had five hours before the performance later that night. Plenty of time to get himself back up to scratch. He was going to enjoy himself. As if on cue, it was there again: the excitement clutching at him, and that feeling deep inside his pelvis.

The place was two streets away. The town was quiet, only laborers milled about getting food from street vendors. The shops and restaurants must be on the opposite side of town, he thought. The land is always cheaper to rent on the rougher edges, it was the same everywhere.

He arrived. Hardly able to contain himself he reached to ring the bell, but a voice stopped him.

“Pierrot, wait. You don’t have to do this.”

He turned to see Boris a few steps behind.

“What? Why? You followed…?” Pierrot felt confused, but flattered. What was Boris doing?

“You don’t have to do this. I’m sorry for following you, but I can’t stand back and watch this again.”

So that’s what the arguments were about with Artem. He’s losing it, not cut out for a life on the road.

The civilian clothes enhanced the acrobat’s beauty rather than diminished it; Boris couldn’t even pretend to be normal.

“Boris, I’m overdue some TLC that’s all this is. Nothing else.” He congratulated himself for not stumbling over his words. A truck trundled down the grey street, its inhabitant leaning out to get a better view of Boris. Pierrot wasn’t like other men, not like that anyway.

“Do you think I followed you here to stop you from having a wash? Don’t you see, Pierrot, it’s more than that, what they do here… in these places…”

“I’ve never been to this town before, I’m pretty sure you haven’t either…”

“It’s a set up, I know the boss’s scams. How long have you been in this circus?”

Pierott paused, his finger still above the doorbell, “Longer than you,” he pushed down. The bell reverberated into the walls beyond. The siren call of the bathhouse overwhelmed him. The thought of a clean body, face, feet, costume all too delectable. A buzzer sounded and Pierrot pushed the door open. He looked over his shoulder at Boris. “I’ll be fine, see you tonight. I’ll be looking up for you.”

“I’m sorry. I should’ve told you sooner, I wanted to—”

The pleading faded as Pierott made his way into the building. He followed the signs pointing downstairs. The humid air hit him along the staircase. The smell of tea tree, lavender, then camphor filled his nostrils. He began to perspire, the itch, the folds of his skin covered with sores, screamed at him. He hoped the staff here could help. He hoped he wouldn’t disgust them.

“How are you doing today?” A man dressed in blue cotton at a desk at the bottom of the stairs asked Pierrot.

“I’m okay, excited to be here,” the clown replied. “My boss arranged for me to attend today, I am Pierrot.”

“Yes, we have you here on the schedule. Welcome!”

The corners of Pierrot’s mouth turned upward as his shoulders relaxed. He left his laundry at the desk and followed the man to the changing area.

“Someone will come and collect you shortly. Put one of these on.” The man pulled a white waffle cotton robe from a shelf where they were folded on top of one another. Pierrot wanted to touch them. They were so white, so perfect; so clean. The man left Pierrot alone, leaving behind a fresh, grassy aroma. The clown made a mental note to ask for its name on the way out, he’d love to smell like that every day. If it were sold somewhere nearby he could go home via the perfumery.

The changing room was all terrazzo. Four cubicles on one side and a long row of benches opposite with mirrors above. He didn’t bother with a cubicle, being here alone, there was no point. He tugged at his civilian clothes and shoes and placed them on the bench.

Standing straight, he examined himself in the mirror; his beastly skin marbled with the pinky-red rash. A wave of worry washed over him; what if the treatments here stung, what if they made his skin worse? He couldn’t bear the reflection any longer and grabbed the robe. As he put it on he realised it was far too small for him. He went back to the shelf near the door to try and find one in a bigger size. He felt sick. This should be an enjoyable experience. There was a knock at the door.

“I’m not quite ready yet,” Pierrot said as he rifled through the robes. He took one that seemed bigger and put it on. It was still on the small side, but at least this overlapped and covered him up. Opening the door, he found the therapist waiting for him.

“Sorry about that, I had some issues with the robe.”

“No problem, you aren’t wearing it for long so there are no problems.” The therapist had an accent he didn’t recognise. They walked down the corridor and then directed Pierrot into a shadowy, small room.

“We start with massage.” The therapist explained. “You strip, lie face down on the treatment table. Put your face through this hole. This towel is for your modesty but I’ll be moving it around as I work on your body.”

“Thank you,” was all Pierrot managed to say. The therapist left the room. Pierrot trembled as he hung the robe up and climbed onto the table, following the instructions exactly. He lay there grateful for being on his front, the anticipation was almost too much to bear.

The warm room made him sweat, the itchy crevices of his skin pleading for attention. He gazed at the floor below the table, his features squashed into the face cradle. A knock at the door and the therapist reentered.

“You are here to relax, I will help you.”

“Thank you.” Saliva dropped out of his mouth onto the tiles below as he tried to speak.

“You don’t need to talk.”

He felt a pair of hot, damp towels on his neck. They pushed along his spine and down to his buttocks. It gave him goosebumps, his skin felt alive where they’d passed over. Then again, this time from the tops of his shoulders down his torso, over his ribcage and to his waist.

He flinched. “Sorry, I’m a little ticklish there.”

“No worries. We need to loosen you up.” The therapist ran the cloths over him more delicately this time. Then collected fresh ones for cleaning his arms and legs.

“Now we start the massage. We fix this rash for you.”

The kneading began. Around his neck at first, then across his shoulders. There were lots of knots, lots of clicking. The borders between pain and pleasure blurred. He felt the therapist’s elbow under his shoulder blades loosening things up.

The therapist brushed down his arms and legs with a steaming body brush. He couldn’t tell if his skin was stinging anymore, everything felt on fire.

“Now we do your facial. Roll over, please.”

Pierrot did as instructed. He covered his enlarged groin with the towel and closed his eyes, waiting for the more precise work on his face. It was then he felt a needle in his neck, his eyes sprang open and he tried to get up.

“Don’t worry, this is normal. You’ll be fine in a moment. You won’t feel a thing.”

The therapist held him down, he was losing any power he’d had. He couldn’t feel his hands, nor could he tell if he was even breathing. The numbness travelled quickly through his body. He tried wiggling his toes and then he was out.

A second therapist came in dressed in similar clinical scrubs. They wheeled in a tray of surgical tools and a large bin.

“Is he slackened?” They prodded Pierrot’s abdomen.

“Yes, very loose now. It shouldn’t be a problem removing this one.”

“Good work, this a hide replacement only, they want him to keep everything else.”

“We still remove some memories though, right?”

“Yes, yes of course. Let’s begin.”They worked with a skill that came from repetition. The therapists sliced into Pierrot and removed his skin. Every part of his epidermis was peeled away, revealing a milky, near transparent flesh. Underneath was a steely mechanical structure: Pierrot’s skeleton.

“The silicone is starting to rupture.”

“That explains the rash, we should seal that. We’ll have to add it to the bill.”They set about their work, Pierrot’s old skin was thrown in the bin and its replacement wheeled in.

Later, Pierrot woke up on a lounger. The robe around him, fitted him like it had been made to measure. He must have dozed off. He felt groggy, but oh so clean. The therapist came in, smiling this time.

“I was about to come and wake you. It’s time you were getting back to the circus, there’s sure to be a queue forming.”

“Thanks. Yes, I was wondering what time it was.”

“Your things have are all laundered and are waiting for you in the changing rooms. We cleaned everything you brought with you.”

“Wonderful, thanks for everything.”

“No problem.”

At least he wouldn’t smell anymore. He was ashamed for letting it get as bad as it had. He dressed in the clean, civilian clothing and packed away the costumes. He headed back to the circus site, consulting the map more than he’d care to admit.

Artem spotted him arriving back into the camp and came straight over.

“Have you seen Boris? He’s not come back yet.”

“Come back from where?” Pierrot said.

“Didn’t he leave with you earlier?”

“No, I haven’t seen him since this morning when you two were arguing.”

“Yes, of course. You’re feeling much better now? You look it.”

“I am like a new man.” Pierrot said as Artem turned away. “Are you worried about Boris? Does the boss know he’s missing?”

“Yes, and no. I’d better go and tell him.”

Pierrot got back to his caravan and put his bag on the table inside. He went to the mirror and pulled off the T-shirt. His skin was beautiful, so smooth, there was no sign of the rash, nor the odor from before. The bathhouse had performed a miracle. Something did smell though, the caravan needed a clean. He hung the costumes up and opened the windows wide. There was an hour before the performance time.

As dusk fell the music of the circus boomed through the speaker system for the waiting guests. Pierrot put on one of his laundered costumes. It no longer irritated his skin. The caravan was clean and his face painted back to its chalky Clown White. Everything felt right again. Sitting back down at his dressing table he started to attach the ruff around his neck and heard a tap at the door.

“It’s open,” he called out, as he fiddled with the fasteners. The small door to the caravan swung open and in stepped Boris.

“Good evening, Pierrot.”

“They found you then?”

“I don’t know what you mean. I’ve not been anywhere.” He sat down and put his head in his hands.

“That’s exactly what I said. Artem tried to tell me you’d come with me to the Baths.” Pierott finally fastened up the ruff at the back of his neck and looked up at Boris through the mirror. He looked beautiful; covered in gold sequins with scarlet feathers entwined in his black curls. Was he crying?

“I’m scared, Pierrot. My head feels strange, I thought you might have some painkillers here.” He lifted his head off his hands and swooned, then his chin began to judder. He tried to speak but it was gibberish. Pierrot turned on his chair as Boris’s nose began to bleed. His body slid off the small cushioned caravan settee and began convulsing. He banged his head on a cupboard on the way down to the floor, scraping the side of his face up to the ear.

Pierrot jumped off his chair and tried to lift him onto the seat again. The acrobat’s head lolled around on his neck. Pierott called out for help while Boris convulsed in his arms and the gold sequins flew everywhere, covering the inside of the caravan. Then Pierott saw the scrape had caused the ear to be severed from Boris’s head. He stopped convulsing. Pierott knew no one was coming. No one had heard him over the loudspeakers. He placed Boris’s body on the settee and stood. Blood covered the front of his costume and the sequins clung to the red like stars in a claret sky.

 

Since 2010, Susan Earlam has written for a wide variety of media outlets. But, the call of the strange and unusual has grown irresistible. Now, she mixes words like potions at her laptop in South Manchester. Currently, looking for an agent for her first novel, she procrastinates by writing shorter, and weirder, stuff.

The Cabinet Of Heed Issue 33 Contents Link

Photo by Alexander Shustov on Unsplash

Soap Opera Digest-ion – Marie Gethins

Cerise nails moved across her lap. A finger tarantella. Digits knitted, released, flexed. I took one hand, pressed it flat between my palms. The other, now partner-less, danced solo, gathering dress fabric into tufts. Five digits of chipped Fuchsia Fantasy creating a landscape of navy cotton mounds.

Her ancient eyes clouded years ago. ‘Ocean blue’ she used to self-compliment to the mirror. Never mum, she insisted we were on a first name basis. In the Day Lounge, I called to her and she scanned my face. A smile flicker and she looked beyond me, beyond the chair, beyond the window. I stroked her hand to limpness. When shoulders sagged into the vinyl wingback, I returned the right to the left, both settled for whatever mental reruns she viewed.

‘You’re so good with her,’ the nurse said. She placed a cup of tea and two mikados at my elbow. I demurred with a coy head tilt. The prefect trio for this tableau: Caring Nurse, Adoring Daughter, Senile Mother. A script I found easy to write. Earlier roles, the ones my mother cast, were harder to flesh out. I was the niece, later the sister, occasionally the roommate. At eighteen I wrote myself out of this series, but family dramas run forever. Those frequent call-backs. I became a featured guest, now a regular player.

I pulled the tiny ziplock from my pocket. It dissolved like sugar, this dust from angel wings. An extra generous measure to send her on her way. I watched the whirlpool swirl, gave the delph rim two taps with the spoon. She frowned at the first taste, but coaxing was central to this role. Cup empty, I took a final bow, air kissed her cheeks, and imagined tomorrow’s credits.

The Cabinet Of Heed Issue 33 Contents Link

Image via Pixabay

Burn, Baby, Burn – Sandra Arnold

Sophie’s head was deep in her book when her father came into the room. He stood in front of her with his closed hands outstretched.

She dragged her eyes up.

“A surprise for you,” he said. Guess which hand.”

She pointed. He opened his fingers to reveal a fat red worm wriggling on his palm. Sophie clenched her teeth to keep her scream inside.

Her father laughed. “Didn’t specify the surprise, did I?”

“Not as hilarious as your spider in my bed trick,” she deadpanned.

He laughed again, “Learn to take a joke, baby. Humour gets us through life.”

The teacher asked the class a question. He said there’d be a surprise for the child who answered it correctly. Sophie’s hand shot up. When she gave the correct answer the teacher called her to the front of the class.

“Bend down and touch your toes,” he said, swishing his ruler.

She stared at him, tears welling.

“Now don’t be a cry-baby,” he grinned. “Enjoy your surprise.”

The whole class exploded with laughter when he tapped her bum three times with his ruler. She dug her teeth into her lip so hard she drew blood.

She hid in the bike shed after school. She was surprised at how easy it was to break the classroom window with a brick and strike the match and light the ball of paper and throw it through the hole.

She was reading her book when her father came home from work. She heard him tell her mother about the fire.

“Arson,” he said. “Lucky the whole school didn’t burn down. They know who did it.”

Sophie stopped breathing.

“That little sod in Sophie’s class. Caught watching the flames. No surprises there. Parents as thick as pig shit.”

Sophie turned the page of her book.

 

Sandra Arnold lives in New Zealand. She is the author of five books and her flash fiction has been widely published and anthologised.

The Cabinet Of Heed Issue 33 Contents Link

Image via Pixabay

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