Buddha in the River with Sticks – Richard Hillesley

Sometimes when I was a kid I would hear him in the street in the village after the pubs had shut. The lights on the street cast slivers of light across my room through the lines and haloes of the window panes and I lay in bed, the quilt pulled round my shoulders, curled up for warmth, watching the lines of the planks that led towards the door, listening to the sounds of the world outside, the clack of shoes on the street or the bark of dogs in the crisp snow. I knew it was him because he had a tin leg and it crashed and banged and echoed between the walls of the narrow streets.

Sometimes I would pull myself up, rub the condensation from the window, and watch him, lifting his tin leg in a stiff and lazy arc until it crashed onto the pavement, his dim and steady gaze fixed on a light somewhere between the horizon and the end of the street. I would jump back into bed, and pull the cold sheets over my head, shivering.

He was a Tibetan. That much I knew, and that he came from the land of snow where holy men spent their lives drawing images of the Buddha in the river with sticks, images that dissolved as soon as they were drawn.
I knew that too and wanted to try it for myself. So I sat by the stream, and drew a face in the water with a stick, watching the water cover the marks I had made. Emily said,
– What you doin’?
She was my sister. She followed me everywhere.
– Gan awa’.
– Na. A’ll not.à
– It’s a face.
– It’s not.

I ignored her, and drew another face in the stream, a round face with two eyes, a capital L for its nose and a letter I on its side for a mouth, and she threw a stone into the water where the face should have been, and ran off.

I threw the stick after her but I didn’t really care, even if I did want to know why monks sat beside the river for years on end and drew images of the Buddha in the water that went away as soon as they were drawn. It didn’t make any sense to me, but the world of adults never did. So I asked my grandfather if it was true.

– Aye,
he said, but you couldn’t believe him.
– Na,
I said,
– They would know, wouldn’t they? A mean, what’s the point?
But he said it was true, so I asked my mother.
– Is it true?
and she just laughed.
– Na, a’m serious.

And she laughed again, so I was never sure. Granda could tell a story, and I never knew whether to believe him. He always left enough truth in the bones of the story to let us believe, and I was always left to wonder.

The Tibetan first came into our lives one winter when I was six or seven. I saw him in the snow with his lank hair and his hooded hat, flaps over the ears, high cheekbones and piercing eyes, his clanking leg cutting an arc across the pavement, and the mystery that surrounded him followed me everywhere. He lived in the big house in the centre of the village behind the high walls of moss and stone, huge in the doorway with his tin leg, the Colonel and the Colonel’s tiny wife. And he came from Tibet.

The Colonel was another mystery. He was hardly ever seen. Granda said the Tibetan had been the Colonel’s driver during some foreign war. The Colonel was wounded, and the Tibetan stayed with him, fighting off the enemy and pulling him to safety, saving his life.

– Is it true?,
I asked my mother once.
– Is what true?
– Is it true the Tibetan saved the Colonel’s life?
– No idea,
she said, and I could only wonder. Tibet to me was a remote and magic land where glaciers spat ice and snow, high above the earth and lost in clouds, where no-one lived but monks and yetis and warriors, and the monks spent their lives drawing images of the Buddha in the river with sticks.

I learnt some of these things from granda, some from a Children’s Encyclopedia, and some from a story I read about the Bash Street Kids in the Beano. The Bash Street Kids discovered there was a magic lake in Tibet where the monks took ugly people and threw them into the water, and when they came out the other side they were transformed and beautiful.

One of the Kids, Plug, was ‘the ugliest kid in the world’, so the rest of them took him on a magic trip to the lake so he too could become beautiful. But it didn’t work out like that. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and the monks who were the Guardians of the Lake all looked exactly like Plug, and Plug was beautiful to them, and being monks and generous and kind, they wanted to throw all the other kids into the lake so they could be beautiful too.

When I asked granda why the Tibetan had come to live here, he told me the Tibetan had lost his leg guarding the Dalai Lama on his exit from Tibet, and the Colonel had searched for him through the refugee camps of northern India and had brought him back to England for his own good and to be his manservant, which seemed a cruel fate for a monk and a warrior.

None of this meant much to me, nor that a monk could be a warrior too, but it coloured my dreams and my play, and I ran in the woods by the long fields at the top of the farm, over the drystone walls and between the hedges and into the long grass. And the cattle became yaks, and the farmhand a Yeti, chasing us through the gloom, his footsteps in the mud. I shot him with a stick.

And the slag became Everest and the village was laid out below, from the farm to the pit where the Chinese Hordes came running through the gates with their red flags and their guns, looking a lot like the pitmen on their way home.

And my mother would emerge from the back of granda’s house and call us home for tea, and spoil it all. And I would run home like a guerilla hiding behind the walls and trees, popping from one hiding place to another, shooting as I went until I scrambled into the kitchen, shutting the door behind me.

– Just made it,
I would say.
– Wash your hands,
my mother would say.
– They’re clean.
– Wash your hands.
– But mam.

The Tibetan was arrested and put into a police cell one night near the end of that year. He passed the window three times that night, going back and forth to the pub, and the last time I lifted the curtain to see him, clanking along the street. He wasn’t the same as usual. He was swinging a huge bladed sword above his head. I thought I’d imagined it and I looked again. But it was true. He had a sword and was swinging it over his head, which played with all the images I had of him as a warrior in the snow.

– Bloody hell,
I said, and ran into the next room to wake Emily.
– The Tibetan’s out there and he’s swinging a sword.
– Get back to sleep,
she said.
– Na. It’s true. Listen.
A siren was going off, and a police car was racing down the road. We could see the echo of its lights flashing off the ceiling.
– He’s gone to the pub, and he’s taken a sword with him,
I said, and she jumped up and we both ran to the window of her room.
We could see the coppas dragging him out of the pub. They had him in handcuffs, and one of them was carrying his sword.
– Wonder what he’s done?
I said.
– Chopped off someone’s head,
Emily said. And our mother shouted up from downstairs.
– I can hear you. Get back to bed.
He was up in court a few weeks later, but I only knew about it when granda read the local paper out loud at supper, and told us the news.
– They let the bugga off,
he said. Some of the lads in the pub had taken the piss out of him, and he didn’t like it, so he’d gone home for his sword to wave it in their faces and shut them up. It worked and they were terrified of him and the police were called, and the Colonel turned up in court to vouch for his character. He was given a suspended sentence and his sword was put in safe keeping. He hadn’t hurt a soul, but that made no difference.

He was a bad man because everybody said so, and they were all a little scared of him. He liked a drink and was lonely, and when he was lonely he drank some more.

– Why?
I said, and granda said he’d been yanked out of a world lit by yak butter and prayer flags and thrown into a cold Northumbrian winter,
– Not as cold as Tibet,
I said.
– Not if you’re from Tibet,
he said, and it was a long time before I recognised the truth. The story of the Tibetan’s relationship with the Colonel was less an exciting tale of hope and redemption than a tale of slavery. He was a monk and a warrior, but had been forced to abandon the rivers that ran through his life and the springs that were the source of his dreams. He liked a drink and was lonely, and when he was lonely he drank some more, and that was the story of his life in the days between his arrival in the village and the day two or three years later when he fell over in the street and died. One of the fishermen found him. He had a grimace on his face and his sword in his hand. Granda said it was the Colonel who killed him, bringing him to this place, and I asked my mam, and she said it was true.
He may as well have hung him from the highest tree, she said, and after a summer or two I forgot the monks who whiled their lives away drawing images of the Buddha in the stream with a stick, and found other games to play.

Image via Pixabay

The Umpteenth Time – D S Levy

Some of us were goofing off when Butterbaugh came in the conference room and slammed the door behind him. He dimmed the lights, glanced over his bifocals, beamed a slide on the screen. “Okay, folks, I called this meeting because some of you are still turning in bad reports.”

* * *

Some of us shifted in our seats. Some of us tried not to make eye contact with the boss. Some of us looked at him glassy-eyed.

* * *

Some of us squinted at the slide, a copy of the new form. The new form was as complicated as the old form. After a year of research, the folks in corporate decided to change the font to sans serif. Supposedly easier on the eyes. More officious. Streamlined, sleek, like our operation.

* * *

“Some of you still don’t know the difference between a ‘Quantum’ and a ‘Quip,’” Butterbaugh said. He flashed a jumpy red dot on the screen. “This is Quantum,” he said, pointing. “This is Quip.”

* * *

Some of us had heard this speech before. More than once. Butterbaugh made the red dot jerk back and forth. “Quantum, Quip. Quip, Quantum. Got it?” He flashed the red dot at the ceiling. “Some of you wanting to move up in this organization? You better damn well get your shit together!”

* * *

Some of us had cubicles in the basement, below the parking garage. Exhaust fumes stole in through the vents. Lots of cold blue-white fluorescence. Our phones still bore the grease and sweat from third shift’s grubby hands. Framed slogans decorated the walls: “Opportunities don’t happen—you create them.” “Fall seven times, stand up eight.”

* * *

Some of us had been having trouble in our personal lives. As soon as we entered the building it wasn’t like we could just turn things off. It wasn’t like our problems didn’t sometimes tag along. “It’s a goddamned Quip, folks,” he said, “a goddamned Quantum. It’s not rocket science.”

* * *

Some of us had gone to the moon and back. Some of us never came back. Some of us ate so much crap we joined the gym to reduce our health insurance premiums. Some of us worked out; some of us just went, signed in, left. Some of us smoked out on the porch—the far porch, that is, the one 500 feet from the building. Some of us used our bathroom breaks to pop pills or sneak nips. Some of us watched porn on our smartphones in the privacy of the stalls.

* * *

Some of us didn’t know the difference between a Quantum and Quip and didn’t give a flying Quantum-Quip. Some of us made paper airplanes out of bad reports and sailed them over the cubicles when Butterbaugh left to screw his secretary in the supply closet. Some of us pretended our planes were rockets carrying us to the moon. Sanguinely, we looked back down on earth, nibbling our junk food and sighing until our oxygen was all used up.

D S LEVY’s work has been published in New Flash Fiction Review, Little Fiction, the Alaska Quarterly Review, Columbia, South Dakota Review, Brevity, The Pinch, and others. My collection of flash fiction, A Binary Heart, was published in 2017 by Finishing Line Press.

Image via Pixabay

Grounded – Lisa Kenway

How will I find Nance in this vast space? If only I could remember where we arranged to meet. The sterile airport terminal, white and cavernous, could be the halfway house between heaven and earth, or earth and hell, or earth and wherever you go after you croak. If you go anywhere. Lost souls mill about, waiting for a ticket to eternity.

A flight crew waddle past in single file, a brood of ducklings in high heels. I scan the hostesses for a platinum-blonde chignon, for pantyhose with a red spot on the calf from a last-minute nail polish repair. But these women are all brunettes with frozen expressions and bare legs. And they’re gone in a moment. Everyone’s in such a hurry these days. Blank faces tug on suitcases and small children, avoiding eye contact at all cost. If you stand still too long, they’ll mow you down.

At airport security, I study the pictures of forbidden items: cartoon matches and aerosols, sticks of dynamite, bottles marked with skull and crossbones. A garbled announcement echoes over the PA and a swarm of bees fills my chest. Did they call my name? Was it about my suitcase? Nance always does the packing. What would she have included? Underwear, folded handkerchiefs and my grey rain jacket. A toothbrush and a plastic bag full of pills. So many pills, but certainly no matches. Or dynamite. Would she?

‘Can I help you, Sir?’ A young man gestures at my carry-on. Does he think I can’t lift it? I make a show of flinging the bag onto the conveyer belt. He shrugs and empties keys and coins into a square tray.

The security guard on the other side of the body scanner gestures to me. I walk through the narrow archway to an electronic chorus. He slides a wand up and down my body, identifying the offending hip.

‘Bionic man, I am.’ I wink. Charm the authorities, Nance always says. Confuse them with congeniality.

‘Thank you, Sir. Is this your bag?’ He points at my suitcase on a small metal table.

I nod.

‘Please open it.’

I fumble with the zip and swing it open. The suitcase is empty.

‘Travelling light?’

I lean over to peer inside the bag and trace Nance’s spidery writing on the address label. It’s my bag all right, but where are the neatly folded shirts and slacks, the bundled-up socks and underwear? And the pills? Where’s the packet of Monte Carlo biscuits Nance always sneaks between the business shirts in case there’s no decent food on the plane? I pat the base, searching for a hidden compartment.

The man holds out his hand and shouts, ‘Do. You. Have. A. Boarding. Pass?’

I rummage around in my pocket.

The guard closes my suitcase and escorts me through the beeping archway with one hand on my elbow. Back to the line of passengers.

He sighs. ‘Where do you live? Can I call someone to collect you?’

The queue stretches out before me. A young blonde woman barges to the front of the line. Her hair is cropped, like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, sunglasses pushed to the top of her head and a phone pressed to her ear. She slides the phone into her handbag and opens her arms to embrace me. ‘When I heard you’d gone missing, I took a chance. I thought I might find you here again.’

Who is this stranger who thinks she knows me? She smiles a sad smile and a dimple appears on her cheek. Instantly, I can see her twisting apart the two halves of a Monte Carlo to lick out the twist of raspberry cream. Or sinking into a bubble bath with Frank Sinatra blasting from the stereo.

‘Nance?’

I remember the day we met like it was yesterday. My first plane flight: Sydney to Hong Kong. Nance leaned over to fasten my seatbelt and her hair tickled my cheek. A waft of Chanel No. 5., and a dimple when she smiled.

‘Where’ve you been, Nance?’

She kisses my cheek. ‘It’s Kathy, Grandad.’

The mob presses forward, a sea of bodies, shimmering movement. I can’t hold focus, can’t pick out a single detail. The bees that were in my chest now buzz in my ears, crowd my brain.

The young woman takes my bag from the security guard and pulls out the handle. ‘The planes are grounded today.’

LISA KENWAY is an Australian writer and doctor. Her short fiction has appeared in Meniscus Literary Journal, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Ellipsis Zine and is forthcoming in The Sunlight Press. Find her at http://www.lisakenway.com or on Twitter @LisaKenway.

Image via Pixabay

Clairvoyant – Will Cordeiro

I wandered past the goat pens, craft barns, and ring-toss barkers. Past the bandshell and the freak show. Across the Midway, behind the chicken coops, tucked into a shadowed corner, an odd little booth advertised Fortune Teller. I stepped through the creaking door and across the beaded curtains. I ventured deeper into the half-lit recess, past the thick velvet drapes. I felt for the path forward. I could no longer discern my hand held out in front of me. Uncertainly, my groping palm led me through a room. A cobweb brushed my face. The floorboards creaked. I stopped. I imagined if I took another step I might fall through a trapdoor. The ground might give way beneath me like a fresh grave. I stood there a long moment in silence. How much time passed, I’d no idea. The darkness opened onto darkness. It was thick with darkness for as far as one couldn’t see.

I felt time radiating out in concentric spheres, each heartbeat pulsing through the vacuum.

“You,” a voice said, “tell me why you came here.”

“I, um… wanna know my future?” I answered.

“A foolish wish.”

“Hey, I thought you were a Fortune Teller?”

“Ok, then. Open your eyes. Look ahead.”

Slowly a thread of light unraveled just beyond my hand, like a spider’s silk. It swayed with my breath. Then the thread was snipped. It drifted, unsteady, a cross-lit silver hair, and then was gone. Tiny flashes, comets, glimmers zinged and fizzled. Stardust, maybe phosphenes. Perhaps this was all just chemicals reacting in my skull. Perhaps this was the edge of some revelation—the future being born. Either way, inside this clairvoyant darkness I had no way to measure distance. The space between myself and my own hand appeared infinite. The blood rocking my body (thump-thump, thump-thump) was like a small boat floating on black waves.

“And what do you see?”

“Nothing. Nothing, really.”

With one hand I tried to read the vacant space in front of me to no effect. I threw a few coins on the floor which had been sweating in my other palm. They clattered and revolved as I turned around.

I ran back out, past the rank sawdust and horse trailers, the sideshows of oddities and wonders, the carnies and hucksters, through the blinding afternoon.

WILL CORDEIRO has new work appearing or forthcoming in Cimarron Review, The Cincinnati Review, DIAGRAM, Poet Lore, Salamander, Sycamore Review, Typehouse, The Threepenny Review, Yemassee, Zone 3, and elsewhere. Will co-edits Eggtooth Editions and lives in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Image via Pixabay

Don Pedro’s Dog – Philip Charter

Winter

Six storeys below, the plaza bristles with morning life. A stiff wind whips up the last of the leaves, revealing the patterned carpet of interlocking bricks underneath. We go about our business here, regardless of the conditions. We’re not all mouth and no trousers, like they are down in Andalucía. I’ll visit the library today, and make progress with my family research.

Life in the square gives me a sense of order and routine. Schoolchildren with mittens are safely deposited, and the snaking queue for the warmth of the medical centre grows. I sip my coffee out on the balcony, even though it’s four degrees.

He’s late today; the gentleman with the hat and the dog. He’s here every day at ten, to walk the dog, and take in the sights and sounds of the square.

I’ve enquired about him, in a casual manner, trying not to alert the abuelitas in the block to the possibility of ‘widow’s gossip’. He is a little older than me, but he holds himself in a way that draws me in. And, he’s always well turned-out.

Winter is not a time for introductions, even if his dog is the perfect ice-breaker even for a shy type like me. It was two months ago that I lost Blanquita, my own four-legged companion. The flat feels cold without her. I used to fill her bowl with biscuits as the coffee pot boiled. Now I just stare out of the window.

My son, José owns a labrador, but they’re not the same. Bigger dogs don’t have the sharp personalities of the miniatures. He tells me to get a new pet. ‘Mamá, you need the company, and it would get you out of the apartment.’ It takes time.

Spring

These last months have seen my family tree sprout little shoots of hope. José took me to the cemetery in Guadalajara and the municipal archives in Soria. I’ve unearthed a good number of dates, photos and even contact information for some distant cousins. When you are blessed to be in the right place, asking the right questions, these new connections come in bursts.

The characters in the square are less consistent. Shops come and go before you get the chance to forge a relationship with them. A Chino family bought out the café. I watch their children run between the stainless steel chairs in a game of ‘you can’t catch me’. Today I’ll visit their café, read the paper and try their menu del día.

The sun’s high rays are starting to bathe the white buildings. A breeze drifts over from the mountains. Down below, a gypsy with a thick moustache idles while he delivers fruit to the shop. Nobody rushes their business here, not even delivery men.

Finally, he arrives. Don Pedro. That’s the name I have given him, even though we’ve not spoken. He wears a diamond-patterned jacket, pressed grey trousers, and a short brimmed hat. Holding the lead in one hand and a cane in the other, he navigates the central garden of the square, taking shorter paces with his stiffer left leg. His sidekick, the overweight Chihuahua, hurries along behind him.

He’s the one thing in this picture that won’t be gone next month or even next year. I imagine he used to be a tradesman, something practical. Perhaps he has a gaggle of daughters who nag him to eat healthily. He likes to dance.

My coffee is now cold. Some days I don’t know where time goes. The dog sniffs the bushes and urinates on each post he passes. Don Pedro completes three laps of the gardens, buys a lottery ticket from the kiosk next to the main road, and then smokes his pipe.

Sometimes he buys a pintxo de tortilla and eats it standing outside. He doesn’t seem the type to dedicate himself to neighbourhood gossip. We’re alike in that respect. I prefer to listen, and observe town life — the clinks of glasses, the movements of families heading to church, and the changing of colours as the warmer weather approaches. This must be what Don Pedro thinks about behind his tinted glasses and pipe smoke. I wave goodbye as he departs for another day and head back inside to my books.

Summer

The clouds keep the sun at arm’s length, but there’s no breeze to speak of. This heat makes everyone sluggish. While the school is out, nothing in the square moves.

He’s late again today. Ten-fifteen comes and goes. I drink the coffee.

Last week I took the train to Madrid and visited the national archives. The documents I obtained told me some of the Garcías worked in Equatorial Guinea. Africa of all places. I suppose there’s not much difference in temperature at the moment. Today I’ll write to the addresses I found, then wait to see if anybody writes back.

Despite the heat, I wish the clouds would go. They make me uneasy. The gypsy has been replaced by a woman with a fringe and a tracksuit. Traffic fumes seem worse — cars belching out thick fumes and the buses hissing as they come to a halt. Younger families will be heading to the coast; Cantabria or Galícia.

When Don Pedro shuffles into view, he clutches his stick in his left hand and his pipe in the right. The dog isn’t with him. He wears a jacket and a black tie, in this heat. It would be terrible if his dog is unwell . . . or even worse. It seems to be one friend after the other now; monthly trips to the cemetery for funerals.

Down below, the man completes his circuits of the square, smoking all the while. He has something on his mind. He stops and inspects every corner of the space, walking the routes his Chihuahua did the days and months before. The vendor in the lottery booth perks up as he passes, but Don Pedro neglects to buy a ticket.

As he taps the pipe tobacco into the bin, he catches me watching. He looks right at me. The embarrassment. I don’t want to be seen as one of those loud-mouthed grandmothers who have nothing better to do than spy on others all day. I have my family, my books, my research. Just as I lower my gaze to pretend I was watching something else, the man waves up at me and smiles. He has noticed. We have our own patterns and routines, and today, I’m part of his. We are the two constants of this ever-changing barrio. I wave back sympathetically, hoping that the black tie doesn’t mean what I think it means.

Autumn

The forecast was for cool weather, but when I pull back the curtains to the balcony the square is bright, as if someone has turned up the colour settings on my television screen.

As I step out, a warm breeze and the scent of roasting chestnuts greets me. The vendors have started their season. At the school gates, children whizz around as parents try to hand them their lunches and other forgotten items.

The fruit shop opens its shutters to reveal a display of beautiful red cherries. Everything seems balanced; the barrio is back to normal. Businessmen in suits drink their morning café con leches while reading the newspapers. Today I will walk around the city ramparts then along the river, where I used to go with Blanquita.

As I take a final glance at my surroundings, I notice a familiar figure entering into the picture. Although he’s been absent this last month, he’s early today, wearing his familiar green jacket and walking at a brisk pace. He turns into the plaza and as he does, a sand-coloured ball of fur scurries past him and into the garden. The dog is back, and better than ever. God bless the little thing. A healing smile forms.

Without giving it a second thought, I take the elevator down, and step out into the square.

Don Pedro calls his dog. ‘Vaya, Arturito. Haz tu negocios allí.’ I chuckle to myself. Of course, the dog is called Arturo; the same as my fat little ex-husband. What a wonderful coincidence.

“Excuse me, sir,” I say.

He puts out his pipe. “Oh hello. You live on the block, no?”

“Yes.” I feel like the nervous teens I see outside the school. “I’ve a question about your dog.”

“Arturo? He’s been poorly.”

“Yes, I gather. It’s been a year, since my . . . well, I was considering a Chihuahua and just wondered about—”

“Oh, they’re wonderful.” His eyes brim with the energy of a much younger man. “My son breeds them.”

I laugh at the thought of his family sat around the dinner table each with a tiny dog in tow.

Don Pedro says, “Here, take this.”

The business card reads Jose Calleja Vasquez Jr. So he is actually Don Pepe. I was so close. I smile again.

“I really am interested,” I say. “I’d like a new dog soon, before winter.”

“Best to get things organised,” he says.

There’s never the perfect time for new beginnings, but each autumn feels like it’s my last chance to start something. Years go by. We share a glance, an understanding. “I’d love to chat more. To get more information,” I say.

Arturo interrupts our moment by pulling at the lead.

“He’s an impatient old mutt, like me,” he says. “When he has to go . . .”

“I understand,” I say. “Encantada.”

He tips his hat, as gentleman have done for generations, and with that, they’re gone. Around the corner and away. I feel a rush, like I do when I discover an old relative’s name. Another piece of the puzzle completed. Don Pepe.

Does he believe, like me, that things occur in cycles in this town? The square will still be here tomorrow, as will its occupants. In time, I will walk my new dog with Pepe and Arturo, and I hope that we will become part of this scene, for many seasons to come.

PHILIP CHARTER is a British writer who lives and works in Spain. His work has been featured in numerous magazines and anthologies such as Storgy, Fictive Dream and The National Flash Fiction Day anthology. Foreign Voices, his debut collection was published in 2018. You can find out more at philipcharter.com

Image via Pixabay

What’s In A Name – Marissa Glover

Our name is the first secret we tell a stranger. I know from Sunday school that Father Abraham had many sons and God changed his name from Abram to Father of Many Nations as part of the promise. It was like smack talk—same as Deion Sanders, showing up to play ball. Here you call him Prime Time. Even before the pro contracts and Super Bowl rings—he is he that he says he is and woe to the Gators and Tigers who do not believe. “Danny Rand” won’t pack the punch of “Iron Fist.” Don Diego de la Vega is a cowardly fop. No one’s afraid of Bruce Banner. After the name change, Big Abe could roll up to Canaan, or wherever, with his flock and barren wife—a walking talking billboard, calling things that be not as though they be. His introductions functioned as prophecy: Hello, I’m the Father of Sand & Stars & Sons. Seems the name mattered. Even for God, the promise was not enough.

My father promised my mother they’d name all their kids with the letter “M.” My brother Michael’s babysitter was called Larissa—such a pretty name, my parents agreed. So I was born Marissa and some websites say the name’s from Mara, meaning bitter, or Mary, of the sea. It’s hard to tell, really—what secrets we keep locked in the chest. After the divorce, my dad broke his promise, naming his third and final child Joshua—the brother who watched Inspector Gadget and G.I. Joe; who played cowboy, loaded cap guns blazing through palmettos; a boy who was and is God’s way of saving us all.

MARISSA GLOVER teaches and writes in Florida, where she is co-editor of Orange Blossom Review. Marissa’s work has been published in journals such as Helen: A Literary Magazine, The Furious Gazelle, Ghost City Review, The Coil, and New Verse News. Follow her on Twitter @_MarissaGlover_.

Image via Pixabay

7p.m. Whirlpool – B F Jones

The boat is in great trouble. Its lopsided position isn’t the most ideal for survival and the fact that the captain lies face down in the water doesn’t bode well for the future.

Beautiful Sandra is also drowning; the power of the waves having propelled her off, and the water is now slowly swallowing her, the tips of her fingers and the mess of her blond hair still just caressing the surface.

The large shark, strangely blue, has spotted her long legs and is slowly edging towards her, its mouth gaping in anticipation.

Still aboard, Dora, Jasper and Mrs Fairhell clutching her ginger cat, are being swung around while the boat heads towards the large iceberg ahead. Dora stares wordlessly at the white mount, her arms outstretched in front of her in a futile attempt at pushing back the ice. Next to her, Jasper, equally silent, has raised his golden sword. Mrs Fairhell, with complete disregard for the situation, is lying down next to faithful Whiskers.

But the collision isn’t the pain of broken bones they expected, for the boat miraculously travels through the iceberg, coming out on the other side somewhat foamy.

It however transpires that Whiskers is no longer aboard and, while Jasper consoles Mrs Fairhell, Dora takes charge of the vessel.

Mustering the little strength she has left, she unfolds her rigid legs and stands up, placing her arms, still outstretched, on each side of the wheel. The boat gently steers and backs away from the ice, passing the captain’s listing body and the last tuft of Sandra’s hair. The strangely blue shark is nowhere to be seen and Dora wonders how much of Sandra’s body has remained.

“Ellie!”

No matter how much stirring Dora does, it seems the boat is dragged towards a large whirlpool.

“El-lie!”

They brutally bob up and down, causing Jasper to lose his sword and flinging Mrs Fairhell to rejoin her cat. Soon they will all be swallowed by the slurping mouth and…

“Ellie, for the last time, get out of the bath!”

Image via Pixabay

The Servants of the People – Michael Bloor

Some said that Alwyn Wyckham-Smith M.P. had suffered ‘a mid-life crisis.’ Some said it was ‘a secret sorrow.’ Some said it was Brexit. But no-one really knew what happened…

The M.P. held two constituency ‘surgeries’ in his West Barsetshire constituency every month, one in Barchester and one twenty miles away in Blister. He would have preferred to have held them all in Barchester, where his constituency office was, along with the constituency secretary. But at the selection meeting, six years ago, the officers of the constituency party had enquired closely whether Wyckham-Smith would keep on the Blister surgery, if he was selected. Naturally, he’d laid great stress, in his reply, on the importance of ensuring that the elderly and infirm of Blister should continue to have easy access to their elected representative. So, as he told himself, looking in vain for a parking space and cruising wearily round Blister market square for the third time, he’d once more succeeded in being the agent of his own suffering.

Eventually, he found a space by the device of motorised shadowing: driving slowly behind (and alarming) an old lady, tottering over to her battered Nissan Micra with her shopping. Running late, he jogged across the square to the Mason’s Arms Hotel, where the surgery was to be held in a rented back room. He handed the list of appointments to the hotel receptionist, apologised to the first appointee (a local builder), opened up the room, and got down to work.

It was dispiriting stuff. The builder was complaining about the local council turning down his planning application to build next to a famed beauty spot. A Sikh constituent was complaining about his brother-in-law’s niece being held in an immigration detention centre. The chair of the local civic society wanted to know why there was still no start-date for the anticipated Blister By-Pass. One local activist demanded to know why the government were shilly-shallying over Brexit. Another local activist demanded action to prevent the post-Brexit sale of Britain’s wonderful National Health Service to the Americans…

Two-and-a-half hours of hopeless cases and of impossible demands, and Wyckham-Smith’s polite smile was wearing thin. The last name on the appointments list was vaguely familiar, Mr A. Burton. In response to the knock on the door, Wyckham-Smith suppressed a yawn and gave out a faux-hearty ‘Come In!’ A thin, pale, hesitant person entered, smoothing down what little was left of his thin, pale hair.

‘Pleased to meet you, Mr Burton. Won’t you take a seat? What can I do for you?’

‘Actually, it’s Reverend Burton. Not an appellation I insist upon, but in this case it’s really rather reverend, I mean relevant…’ (spoken in a sibilant whisper).

‘Good grief, it’s “Gone” isn’t it? Old Gone-for-a-Burton?’

‘Mmm.’

‘Sorry. I’m being disrespectful: I’m afraid you took me by surprise. Er… Do you remember me perhaps?’

‘Indeed yes, you were Head of School. Although then, you were just “Alwyn Smith”.’

‘Ah, yes. Under the terms of grandfather’s will, I was required to add the “Wyckham” bit… Families, eh? So, you’re a churchman – jolly good. You know, although you took me by surprise just now, I’m not actually surprised that you joined the clergy. Haha.’

The Reverend Burton smiled and looked down at his hands. ‘Odd you should mention occupational choices Mr Wyckham-Smith. I was remembering…’

‘Call me Alwyn please, old chap. May I still call you “Gone”?’

‘If you wish, er, Alwyn. I was remembering a conversation we once had, waiting to go into the Chemistry Lab. You turned to me and said, rather out of the blue, “My father’s a Weights and Measures Inspector. He says that’s a good job. I don’t think that’s a good job, do you?’

‘Crickey. Did I really say that? And you remembered it after all these years, eh Gone? Well, well.’

‘Mmm. I suppose I remembered it because it was a rather odd conversation. And because you were confiding in me. After the incident in the school play, I’m afraid I was rather shunned by my fellow classmates.’

‘The school play?’

‘Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. You played Caesar and I played The Soothsayer. It was when I had to repeat my warning about the Ides of March…’

‘Ah yeeesss, I remember! You were The Soothsayer… I’m sitting on my dais-thingy and Tank Thompson, the Roman Soldier, throws you at my feet. I say, “Well Soothsayer, the Ides of March are come.” And you’re supposed to answer…’

‘Yes, I was supposed to answer, ‘Aye Caesar, but not gone.’

‘Mmm. And we were all looking forward to it: to Gone saying “not gone.” Schoolboy humour eh?’

‘Yes, but I didn’t answer.’

‘That’s right, you didn’t.’

‘I didn’t answer because Tank Thompson threw me too hard. I tripped on my robe and cracked my head on the corner of your dais.’

‘Mmm. You were out cold, old chap. The English teacher kept whispering your line from the wings. But there wasn’t a cheep from you. Eventually, the English teacher and The Roman Soldier (aka Tank Thompson) carried you off into the wings. An unexpected humorous episode like that could’ve made you a school hero. What rather spoilt it for you was…’

‘What rather spoilt it for me was my mother erupting from the third row, and shouting “Let me through. That’s my son.”’

‘Well. Yes, it did rather. Schoolboys can be very cruel, eh?’

Both parties reflected for a moment or two on the terrifying mob-rule of schoolboy societies. Wyckham-Smith, weary as he was, made an effort to lift the mood. ‘Y’know Gone, it could’ve been worse. My cousin, Roderick Colin Stevens, had the initials “R.C.” So he was known throughout his schooldays as Arsie Stevens.’ The Reverend Burton merely nodded.

There was another pause and Wyckham-Smith asked what it was that had decided Gone to make an appointment for the constituency surgery.

‘It’s about my mother. She’s 92 and she’s being evicted from her flat by her new landlord.’

The story came out in dribs and drabs. His mother retired to Blister when Gone Burton was appointed the vicar of St Alkmund’s on Blister’s shambolic Summerleys Estate. She had a comfortable ground-floor flat in one of Blister’s last remaining Georgian terraces. But the whole block had been sold to a hotel chain for conversion to a boutique hotel. Planning permission had already been granted.

Wyckham-Smith knew about the hotel development. The exasperated owner of the Mason’s Arms (where they were currently seated) had been bending his ear about it for the last eighteen months. Sadly for Mrs Burton, it was a done deal.

‘Couldn’t your mother stay with you in the vicarage, Gone?’

‘On the Summerleys Estate?? I’ve had three break-ins in the last nine months. There was a stabbing in the bus queue last week. The only shop that’s not boarded up is the betting shop. My mother’s terrified of the place.’ Gone paused and muttered, ‘So am I.’

‘Well, technically, if the eviction was served, your mother would be classed as homeless and eligible for rented accommodation from the council…’

‘Yes, she’d be offered one of the hard-to-let flats on the Summerleys Estate.’

Wyckham-Smith had canvassed on the Estate during his first election campaign. He had experienced first-hand the discomfort of the genteel, forced by circumstances into proximity with the poor. How had it happened to his country, this apartheid of the poor? He wondered how the Reverend Burton coped on a daily basis – the empty church, the stares of the children, and the sniggers of the teenagers – each morning’s fragile hopes shattered in the dirt and the spittle of each evening.

His constituent seemed to intuit the M.P.s unspoken thought. ‘I have had two great consolations in my life: the power of prayer and the love of my mother. Cleaning the mess in the church porch last week, I found the local paper with your picture on the cover… So I thought, perhaps…’ His voice was cracking. ‘I fear I’m losing my soul-mate. And I fear I’m losing my soul. You’re my last hope… Alwyn?’

* * *

Trudging through the rain to his BMW, afterwards, Wyckham-Smith, reflected back on his schooldays alongside Gone Burton and the others. He remembered the morning school assemblies when he’d thought the words of the hymns they sang were meant for him. ‘Onward Christian soldiers,’ and the rest of them. What was left of the idealism he’d felt when he was elected to Parliament? He paused, squinted up at the louring sky and muttered, ‘I fear I’m losing my soul too.’

The electronic car-lock clicked.

MICHAEL BLOOR is a retired sociologist living in Dunblane, Scotland, who has discovered the exhilarations of short creative writing, with more than fifty pieces published in The Cabinet of Heed, The Drabble, Everyday Fiction, The Copperfield Review, Firewords, Litro Online and elsewhere.

Image via Pixabay

A Passing Caprice – Rekha Valliappan

‘The only difference between a caprice and a life-long passion
is that the caprice lasts a little longer.’
– Oscar Wilde

I am playing hooky on a Friday, you know F-r-i + d-a-y! 3 + 3 head to butt swing on the nose regular kind of Friday that places the cone of silence of deep sleep in juxtaposition with quaffing stinky cheese, crackers and other bite-sized breakfast-in-bed morsels so I can be off to a routine start. My only thought is to laze around and flip my handful of coins. This week’s collection, jangling in my pockets, ready to capriole. Not a disease. The camelids, a caravan system of dromedary ruminants traversed the Atacama Desert for millennia simply because man and beast played hooky.

The door bell rings. Damn! My doorbell doesn’t just ring, it hacks, like Gabby having a scarf-and-barf, when she wants to spit out a hairball, only none comes. I am meaning to fix it, only the flathead screwdriver and wrench once stored in my tool-box is laying in a puzzled assortment on my work bench in the basement below. Like everybody I open one eyelid. Salesmen I think, blinking my watering eyes first at the front door, then at my vaulting coins, all bouncing like adrenaline junkies having their trampoline moment. Let them ring!

With my belly rumbling, the same as always, several coins flip, bound, leap, some unwillingly, defying laws of nature, expelled without incident on a starving stomach and roll away into crevices and cracks here and there in the floorboards and under the bed. As I lazily watch them airborne, the singular happens. And the plural of singular?Singularity. It’s not like my life is not miserable enough for some superpower moments to happen. It’s not Gabby, although at times she flips the rest, swallows others, not today. If her innards are ever documented shining round nickel-sized objects will be spotted. She’s grown old. Age makes her anti-social. She doesn’t chase my hopping coins as much.

Truth to tell, I am not good with loose change, except for flipping. It’s not as if you have hundreds of dollars in spare change laying around that you can afford to lose, as my mother would say, but her not being around any more I can flip all I want, so here I am flipping like crazy, silver showers in plume, fifty coins or more, when lo and behold I see what any disbelieving adult will not normally see. I swear on my mother’s grave, and her more than six feet below, bless her discerning soul. Jay, you’ve done it!

The metal coin jumps in the air in a way I’m never going to see it jump and makes a three-point landfall on its edge, you know standing up, tin soldier like. And there it stands, dead stop, after wobbling a bit, without further quavers. Given my state of mind I accept the arrival of my sun and moon, sea and land, Narcissus und Goldmund epiphany moment of life’s meaning and destiny. “Gabby,” I yelp mouse-like for fear the magic will disintegrate. Gabby is having one of her own Eureka! moments looks like, hookier than mine. She opens her lazy eye, the silver-ghost one, gives a pig’s grunt and rolls over, playing dead. I stare at my hands. I recognize one but not the other. They look larger than last night, the one I recognize. My smaller hand gives me delicious shivers. How else could I have flipped?

“What do you think, Gabby?” No answer. Later the door-buzzers leave. I quickly tune to Dr. Math in my laptop to gain some algebra knowledge. I am not willing to touch my shining quarter for I cannot help thinking it will subvert the truth hitting me in the left side of my face, the side that resembles my mother’s, down to the long distance nose-line. I feel the bee sting of the moment’s life-bite. I’ve been stung before. A fresh wave of delicious trembles descend to my toes. The angle of accuracy on this day means my chances at redirected caprice are astronomical. They have improved by ninety to one. I discover from Dr. Math a coin landing on its edge is a one in a trillion stand-off. Holy Guacamole! Caprice has hit enterprising good luck. Imagine sailing to Paris, walks in the Tuileries. Ibiza. Stay away from that coin unless you want to be imprisoned in your own delusional dreams. They be fool’s gold in the empty air! The cascade of my mother’s crackles descend in a fountain from Rishikesh to ensure my eternal salvation to Nirvana. But, the fundamental facts of kinship dictates that in a matter of wills caprice is by invention.

Satisfied my hooky caper is going slam dunk ad infinitum I make wordless noises at Gabby and take off to my regular joint, a diner few blocks down the road, to replenish my vitals. First things first is an irreplaceable matter of accumulated experiences. It’s not as if you are starving that you cannot afford to stand any more hunger, as my mother would say, but her not being around and all I can eat all I want, so there I am salivating like crazy that F-r-i + d-a-y! 3 + 3 morning for falafels and black coffee, when Gina who serves me whoppers at my usual table gets a surprise at my earlier than usual arrival.

I tell her I am celebrating my coin flip. Gina, of course bursts into loud laughter. She ought to get a manicure. “Oh, that!” she says disinterested-like, studying her nails, painted bright blue. “It’s landed on the nose,” I bubble, excitement flying spittle off my mouth, I miss all distribution points. She asks to see the wonder-coin. I peel it out of my inner coat pocket, undo the gauze covered in tin foil. Concealed inside is a small pewter case afraid to lose its star-sprinkled sparkling coin. I had won the case in a raffle at a new year’s party. “Chedi,” she says dismissively, to be irritable. I glower at her. Chedi to her means mere metallic, I suspect. She has gained some views of stupas and stuff from touring the east. Her hope is to one day be the curator of the Met in New York. Once she told a group of us university delinquents a lively but likely story of an empress in brass which ended in her, the empress, being turned into a chedi. I want to know more.

I turn my magic coin this way and that, too eager to mind Gina’s haughtiness or dispute her chedi claims. I am not convinced. I would hate to know She disappears into the kitchen. The place is filling up and I lose another opportunity to chat with her, the way we are used to, over cups of steaming black coffee.

I hail a yellow cab to head downtown.

Where to, Sir? asks the friendly cab driver in turban and a beard.

I’m celebrating my coin flip, I reply.

Jolly good, he says, I know top class celebration spot for coins.

That’s the place I want to go, nowhere and everywhere, is my expansive reply.

This side is up . . . that side is down.

Down, then up, then up and down, FLIP! I yell deliriously at the cabbie, and there’s an extra for you.

The traffic flows briskly We are headed downtown. To Chinatown. .Anyone who attempts to reach downtown from uptown at the height of mid-morning rush will know it takes over a couple of hours give or take a few minutes. And never on a Friday! I have all the time in the world. Flip!

Like a kid mesmerized by Pachinko at that moment if I can fly to the moon I will. The Big Bang occurred when the right chemicals in the universe all fused together after the initial burst. It is true I tell the cabbie. While it took a few hundred billion years, in reality it lasted less than a second, for life to form. He doesn’t mind me, humming ‘Stairway to Heaven’ under his breath. I grin, eschewing all airy matter leading to unexpected weird and my cluster of cascading silver coins. Two sides of the same, fault lines and all. A passing caprice? Perhaps. Chased by my dreams. Could be. A handful. Flipping?! The very reason I like to play hooky. Especially, on a Friday.

 

Image via Pixabay

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