Tessa – Emily Livingstone

There she sits, a queen of death and life, on the chair next to Mom’s bed. Mom has been dead for two weeks, and I’m ready to touch Tessa. Tessa’s chestnut curls have called to me since I was five. Her face is still perfectly smooth, her eyes still shiny and piercing. I’m sweating, I realize, but I grab her anyway, feeling the stiff petticoats brush against me as I carry her.

When I was a girl, I longed to play with her, and Mom always said no. But I couldn’t resist—she would be the perfect tea party guest, the most obedient child in a game of house—I needed her. I took her once, when Mom was lying down, and brought her into the garden to smell the roses. Then, I just sat on the grass, and looked at her, holding my breath as I stroked the hem of her dress, rubbed those delicate fingers. And then, Tessa and I were yanked apart, and I spent two days in my room, listening to the click of Mom’s heels outside the door and the clomping footsteps of Sean, two years older and never in trouble. Mom took me out every few hours for the bathroom, but she didn’t speak to me. When I washed my hands in the sink, I met her eyes in the mirror. They were like dark glass, with no special recognition for me.

I am holding her in Mom’s garden now, and I hear my name. I go red from cheeks to core. I’m a grown woman, holding Tessa in the yard and looking at the neighbor woman.

“I’m Becca,” she says. She’s tanned and thin, holding a watering can and looking at me through the chain link. “I just wanted to say sorry about your Mom. Let me know if we can help with anything—my husband’s Pete.”

I nod, waving at her awkwardly while I hold the doll. Then, I flee.

Mom hated that family. There was the day it rained—one of Mom’s good days—and the kids were out playing in the mud. “Shame on their mother, letting them run around in the muck like that.”

I thought they looked like something out of a children’s book, running, shrieking, floating little boats in a puddle near the swing set. But I said, “Let’s close the curtains. Then we won’t have to see.”

I sit Tessa on the couch and start microwaving a Lean Cuisine, trying to get it all out of my head. Mom. Becca. I keep catching Tessa’s eye. Even now, even when I’m the only one left (Sean can’t be bothered to come back to deal with Mom’s death, just as he couldn’t be bothered to come back and care for her when she was alive), Tessa is distant. She looks through me and past me, past my own death to a time when she can rule over an empire of tidy solitude.

The microwave beeps and I flinch. Tessa looks smug. And then, I know what to do, and I go and take Tessa by the arm so that her body clunks against my leg, and I bring her up the driveway to the street and sit her on the trash bags I’ve put out for garbage collection.

My heart is beating wildly, and all evening, I think of her out there. I imagine tomorrow, when she is thrown in the back of the truck and coffee grounds smear her pale face, and egg yolk sticks to her dress. When she is compressed.

I fall asleep watching TV, and wake to the sound of the truck pulling away. A rush of nausea washes over me, and I go to the window, but the trash is gone. Tessa is gone.

I’m lonely. Lonelier than after the funeral. The only time I’ve felt like this was after Candy. Candy, my secret. Candy, who plucked me from the sidelines of a college party and taught my body to move. Candy, who held me in her arms for weeks and let me hold all her secrets. She left me so easily.

I sit on the couch as Mom used to do, and stare out the window at the neighbors’ yard. And then, there is the little girl. She is carrying a big blanket and a basket, and it’s so much for her, she almost looks like she could fall over. Then, she leaves again without unpacking her picnic, and returns with a teapot, which must hold real water, because she carries it against her chest, right under her chin, and walks very carefully. She unrolls the blanket, and there—green dress, black shoes, chestnut ringlets.

The girl bends Tessa into a sitting position and slowly pours two cups of water. The little girl solicitously holds a cup to Tessa’s little bow mouth, but all the while, Tessa’s eyes look over the girl’s shoulder, fixed on me.

I hold my own oily, stringy, dull hair and pull. My eyes are watering. I take a step toward the slider, then stop. I should never, never have thrown her away. She’s valuable, probably. She’s mine. The girl will ruin her.

I watch the girl speak to Tessa and lean in for her replies. When the tea is complete, the girl picks Tessa up and hugs her around the waist, bringing her inside with all the casual intimacy of a sister.

I pack more things in boxes, but then I have to unpack them in case I’ve made another mistake. It’s around two a.m. when an idea comes and hope coats my tired brain and lets me sleep.

*      *      *

The aisles are filled with cheap, plastic dolls wearing outfits in garish hues and looking blankly out into the fluorescent light with overdone expressions of wonder or joy. How can I possibly get the girl to want one of these? They are nothing like Tessa. They would be all wrong at a tea party. They would drool on the table cloth and spit up the tea. They would crawl away and get mud on their jumpers.

I settle, finally, on a doll whose name has already been chosen by some marketing team. “Mackenzie” has straight, shiny blonde hair and makeup painted over her eyes. She has a denim jacket over a tank top and a skirt that’s repulsively short. But at least she has eyes that open and close.

*      *      *

I knock on the door while I balance Mackenzie’s box on my hip. She’s wrapped in appropriately heinous paper depicting hundreds of balloons rising with snaking, curly-cue strings underneath them. There’s a pre-done, iridescent bow to top it all off.

The mother seems happy to see me, eyes flicking to the box. She invites me in. The happiness doesn’t last long when I explain the mistake—that Tessa belongs with me, that I’ve brought this other doll for her little girl.

The mother gets cold, her face losing its flexibility. “I know you must be going through a tough time,” she says, “but Lyddie’s really taken to the doll, and you did throw her away.” She takes Mackenzie and promises to try.

*      *      *

The girl goes outside later, holding Tessa. She sits on the ground hugging Tessa tight, stroking the perfect curls, and I open the slider slowly, go out there, drawn to them. She hears me, and stands—her face is red and blotchy with crying. She holds Tessa’s head under the chin and shouts, “You can’t have her! She loves me!”

The girl runs with Tessa behind an oak where I can’t see her. A moment later, the door to the house opens, and the mother makes a beeline for the girl. My breath catches. She’s going to get it now. The doll will be taken away. The little girl will be locked up.

The mother scoops up girl and doll and carries them into the house, smoothing the daughter’s hair and murmuring to her. She doesn’t look at me.

My knees feel wobbly. I go inside, to my room. I lie down on the old pink comforter, burying my nose in the mildewing cotton.

I used to lie just this way when I was bad—when Mom put me here. I would go in and out of sleep, and each time I woke up I would try the doorknob, sweaty in my hands, but it was always stuck. Sometimes, I shouted, but Mom never answered. Sometimes, when Sean was home, he would come to the keyhole and yell, “Shut up, Adah!”

Finally, Mom would open the door and say, “That’s all done now. Time to come out.” I’d be so hungry, and Mom would give me a bowl of white rice and a glass of milk. Always that meal. What did it mean?

I can leave my room whenever I like now. When I finally do, I see an envelope lying on the floor just inside the front door. I read the message and open the door.

There is Mackenzie, smiling up at me from her plastic box.

With scissors, I cut into the box, freeing Mackenzie. I hold the doll up and look into her face. Mackenzie looks friendly, open, maybe a little pathetic. Of course, the little girl had not wanted this doll. Of course, she had not been fooled. Her hair isn’t even right. Not even close to right.

My hands are trembling as I plug in the curling iron in the bathroom and use it on Mackenzie’s slick blonde hair. There’s an unpleasant smell, but I bite my lip.

“Beauty is pain,” I tell Mackenzie.

The doll is horizontal on the vanity and her eyes are closed against the heat of the iron. What else? Wipe off that makeup. There must be a way to get it off. Different clothes. I meet my own eyes in the mirror and I see my damp, red face, the wrinkles around my eyes and mouth, my wet eyes. I look back down at Mackenzie. The curling iron has melted part of her cheek and her hair is caught in the plastic wound.

“Come now,” I tell her. “Be a good girl.”

Really, her hair is better, and the curls almost hide the burn.

When I lie Mackenzie down on the welcome mat next door, I think she looks quite well.

*      *      *

The knock on the door is angry—like a movie where they will come to take people away to a secret prison. But I feel a kind of calm return to me. It will only be Tessa, coming home.

But no—it’s the father from next door, gripping Mackenzie tightly by the neck. Mackenzie’s wide-eyed, scarred face thrusts into mine, and I reach for her, only to have her yanked back again.

“You left this on our doorstep,” he says.

I’m afraid. I’ve never had a man mad at me who wasn’t my own brother, and Sean was bad enough. The father is tall and a little overweight. He’s still wearing work clothes, a suit and everything. He is like an old TV father gone wrong.

“You did this as what—a threat? Well, I’ll have you know that if this doesn’t stop—if you don’t cut this out, I will call the police. You leave my daughter alone—and my wife.”

Now, he shoves Mackenzie at my chest and my arms come up to close around her. I’m shaking and I have to pee. I don’t move until I hear the neighbors’ door slam shut.

“There now,” I say, and sit Mackenzie on the couch. I’m still shaking when I make it to the toilet and my bladder lets go.

My legs feel unsteady as I return to the living room. “Mackenzie, quiet down. You’re getting on my nerves.”

I pick her up.

“Why don’t you go and lie down,” I say. “I’ll let you know when it’s time to come out.”

I lie Mackenzie down on the faded pink bedspread, and her eyelids click closed.

I close the door and lock it.

I go over to the sofa and sit, holding my knees to my chest. I turn on the TV and let the programs play and play. Mackenzie wants to come out, but it isn’t time.

There’s a noise from next door, and I’m up, looking out the window. I hear running, stomping feet, then a boy’s low grunt, and a small sound I can’t identify. The brother is on the porch of their house. I go for the slider, and I can hear more happening—footsteps and angry yelling and a girl’s wail.

I fumble with the handle, then I’m outside, and four pairs of eyes are on me. There is the father, red-faced and frozen mid-yell. The mother, kneeling and hugging the little girl around her middle; the little girl, red-faced, too, and crying. There is the boy, staring at me and holding Tessa by one leg, her petticoats all overturned and her poor bare legs exposed, and her hair hanging down, but even worse, her face. Her face is in pieces on the porch—I can just see it from here, through the chain link that separates the yards. The boy glares at me. The mother ushers all of them into the house. Tessa goes, too. Only her face remains.

I moan, backing into the house. I crawl into bed with Mackenzie and clutch her tightly.

*      *      *

Mackenzie and I spend the next few days together. We don’t go out or answer the phone. When the real estate agent Sean arranged for comes, we are quiet and don’t move a muscle.

The night before trash pickup, I’m anxious. Mackenzie tries to comfort me, but she doesn’t understand.

We watch out the window. Finally, the father brings his trash in a black bag up to the curb and leaves it there. When it’s dark, I tell Mackenzie to wait, and open the front door and creep up to the road. I tear open the trash bag and reach through the coffee grounds and liquids and soggy tissues until I feel her.

I take her by the waist and hug her, carrying her home.

Tessa is quiet during the bath, which is a blessing, since the water could get inside her head if she makes too much of a fuss. Much of her face is gone now. The eyes, nose, and most of the mouth are broken away. All that remains is a bit of lower lip and jaw, delicate temples and a touch of forehead at the hairline. Mostly, there is a dark cavity where Tessa’s face was, showing the concave back of her little bisque cranium.

After the bath, when I bring Tessa out to the living room, Mackenzie offers a friendly smile. Tessa has only her bottom lip now, and it can’t smile.

It doesn’t matter.

We are together now.

We eat frozen meals I have stored in the basement freezer until the power gets turned off. We light candles and drink lukewarm tea slowly in the silence, with not even the hum of the refrigerator to disturb us. There is knocking sometimes, but the phone no longer rings.

We get notices in bright colors, slipped under the door. There is more knocking.

We know what to do. It’s simple. We just use the candles—the curtains, the old bedspreads, the couch, they all burn easily, and there is light again, one last time.

 

Cabinet Of Heed Contents Link 24

Image via Pixabay

In Which a Tinker Courts Constable Arlene – Michael Grant Smith

Summertime in Last Chance conjures images of longer days, the constant threat of dehydration, and our annual Dust Festival. Last Chance’s citizens are hardworking humble heroes and we never miss an opportunity to celebrate the community’s leadership in powdered grime production. Similarly, throughout the rainy winter and spring seasons, our mud industry thrives.

The world outside Hubert’s mobile home was the color of old straw. July had wedged itself into the atmospheric layer between pavement and the stratosphere; air weighed nearly twice as much as usual. Frenzied preparations for the upcoming Dust Festival placed a chokehold on the bowels of local authorities.

Constable Arlene dumped beans & franks into a saucepan set to simmer. The can opener’s whine had triggered dozens of cats, whose chorus climbed from teakettle pitch to ultrasonic. Arlene waded shin-deep into the living room, where soft-footed predators also swarmed her uncle’s floor, sofa, and coffee table. Feline breath displaced the alkaline air.

“So, how are you, sir?”

“Me?” said Hubert. “I get by. Better than some, probably.” He sipped his fifth or sixth cup of the day’s black coffee. “Better than your daddy, I expect.”

A light of violence flickered in Arlene’s eyes but she said nothing. Hubert didn’t notice; his attention pinballed itself to remote dates and locales.

“Could be worse. What about the time I kicked dirt over my third ex-wife?” he said, tight-faced. “Nice casket, nice service. She didn’t appreciate it, though. Kept hollering, wouldn’t shut up. Almost ruined her own funeral. Maybe I jumped the gun?”

Hubert shook and coughed. It wasn’t a seizure; he was laughing. After a minute the oldster’s features settled the way custard folds into a par-baked pie crust. He rubbed his tears.

“Never killed no perps when I was on the job,” he said. “Forty-nine years as constable without being shot. Stabbed, though. Just once. The guy yelled at me after because I was still alive.”

“I know, sir.”

Lucidity dealt Hubert a glancing blow. He pointed a finger the shape and color of uncooked breakfast sausage left out overnight.

“You has to stop dating them jailbirds! Aim higher. Make yourself less available. Quit doing kindnesses.”

Arlene’s cheeks burned. In her mind, and unbidden, floated brain-pictures of Dolly Everett’s arched eyebrows and pianist’s hands.

“Just because Councilman Everett’s wife sleeps in the lockup now and then,” said Arlene, “it don’t make her a criminal. She needs to be away from home sometimes…”

“Away from her husband and babies, you mean! Why do you fall for the bad ones, and her all married to the hilt? Pretty little filly such as yourself — some of them gals at Charlotte’s, them what say things, they say your prospects ought to be sky-high.”

“If the staff at Charlotte’s Salon & Barber wants to gab about my so-called behaviors, maybe I need to drop by and verify their licenses are in good order and up-to-date!”

“That’s my girl!” shouted Hubert. He beat the arms of his chair as if they were bongo drums. The cats, boiled by the commotion, resumed their mewling. “Get on out of here, Arlene Candace Nelson, and abuse your office a little bit. It’ll perk you up! Go make your uncle proud — and your famous daddy as well, wherever he is!”

Constable Arlene evacuated herself from the old man’s trailer and fired up her motor-scooter. Gravel ricocheted off sheet metal and pinged the living room window as she twisted the throttle and sped off. Last Chance’s best and only law enforcement officer rode in a cloud of dust, exhaust, and a dark mood. She’d concede one point to her uncle: there was no better tonic than writing a few tickets.

She parked her scooter in the Farm & Fleet’s loading zone; the building also housed Last Chance’s municipal offices ever since the Grange Hall got a termite fumigation tent. Next door, Carl’s Chicken Shack displayed a hand-written sign in its order window:

welcome dusters

no public toilet

Bending to tie a bootlace, Arlene growled at the shimmer of cat hair wedded to her pressed uniform trousers. She licked her fingers and rubbed furiously at the stubborn fuzz until she heard an unfamiliar voice:

“I can make your problems disappear, officer!”

A stranger grinned. He appeared stocky but fit, fleshy yet firm; a bell pepper in human form. Without waiting for Arlene’s permission he ran a tiny paint roller device up and down the furred fabric once, twice, thrice, and the mess was gone, transferred to the sticky rotating cylinder. Meanwhile, Arlene gripped her hefty flashlight in one hand and a citation book in the other.

She drew a lung-snapping deep breath and said, “Sir, you invaded my pants’ personal space. I am fixing to ring your bell but professional guidelines dictate I warn you first.”

The man and his smile both froze right there in the street. His eyes — gentle, lovely ones they seemed to Arlene — grew as big as hubcaps.

“My deepest and most profound apologies!” he said. “I encountered a beautiful woman experiencing garment distress and I could not suppress my urge to assist. Please, can you forgive my presumption?”

“If forgiveness and arresting go together, so do spareribs and soap,” replied the constable, her voice as flat and brittle as a saltine cracker. “Who are you, sir, and what brings you to Last Chance?”

“My name is Durwood Ott. I am a purveyor of essentials, gimcracks, and baubles; a sharpener of dull edges, a singer of songs.” He waved a copy of The Last Chance Gazette & Intelligencer. “News of your Dust Festival has traveled and I came here to ply my trade, or so I believed.”

Durwood removed the battered, wide-brimmed hat from his bald noggin. He extended a hand, which Arlene caught with her own firm grip (contrary to departmental procedure and her own regular instincts). A spark sizzled but no one recoiled. Might have been an electrical jolt of the static persuasion, maybe it was something else.

“Well, now,” said Durwood. “Aren’t you intriguing!”

“A tinker,” whispered Constable Arlene. Her hand felt jazzy. “You had to be a tinker.”

He smiled, mistaking her meaning. “I prefer to say the profession chose me, not the inverse. Perhaps we could take a coffee together? I would be delighted to share with you my life’s story.”

“No, thank you, my official counteroffer is for you to vacate town at once or spend a few days in jail.”

“I did not intend to upset you! How selfish of me…we could talk about your story instead?”

“Mr. Ott, you stand in violation of Last Chance civil ordinance 326-A-2001 Sections 1 through 5, to wit: no hobo, grifter, drifter, transient, tinker, or any other classification of vagabond shall be permitted temporary or permanent residency within Last Chance’s jurisdiction. In smaller words, I am bound to escort you to yon outskirts or invite you to be locked up a spell.”

“May I ask you this: If I am to be incarcerated, will you be my jailer?”

“Yes, sir, it is my swore duty.”

Durwood laughed; not the way people do when a scooter’s front wheel drops into a damn pothole and pitches a constable over the handlebars, but more in the manner of expressing joy. Arlene’s fingers, all on their own, tucked some loose dark curls back up under her cap. The tinker held out his wrists in an unmistakable gesture of Coming Along Quietly.

“You locked up my heart from the moment I saw you brush cat hair from your leg. I surrender myself to your custody!”

Mr. Ott probably had a few regrets during the first few days of his incarceration, maybe missed his freedom or whatnot. As the years turned to decades, however, his affection for Constable Arlene grew stronger. Not once did he petition for release, or attempt an escape, even on weeks she left the lockup door open.

Similarly, Arlene’s fondness for her prisoner stuck like roofing cement. She spent long, pleasant hours in her office chair, adjacent to Last Chance’s fantastically aged and persistently dozing clerk “Frisky” Clinchett, and listened to her caged songbird. Durwood the tinker warbled about traipsing to distant places and having adventures and meeting improbable outcomes head-on. The shoosh of an unseen ocean hovered behind every one of his melodies.

Folks tend to settle in Last Chance and seldom depart, except under cover of darkness or frog-marched by the authorities. Constable Arlene had never left and was certain to remain. Latches of affection slip between gear cogs from low speed to high and in between, a fact known also to Dolly Everett.

Arlene Nelson struggled to visualize the size and shape of her fugitive daddy’s probable prison cell (as if any such structure of stone and metal could contain a legend). She wondered what song former-Mayor Lowell “Fuzzy” Nelson would sing to his only daughter, and whether chain gang sledgehammers could break asunder a big heart.

 

Cabinet Of Heed Contents Link 24

Image via Pixabay

Parallel Lines – Tina M Edwards

I was a child of the ‘70’s. Growing up amongst bell bottoms and foot long collars, brown and orange wallpaper. It was a time of political change, and one very hot summer. Fleetwood Mac was on the record player and Stevie Nicks was pinned on the inside door of the garden shed.

On the days that dad went to see a man about a dog, I was allowed inside the warm small space. ‘To keep an eye on things,’ Dad said. Make sure Mum didn’t ‘tidy’ the place. When he eventually returned, stumbling and slurring words, we sat in a haze of Woodbine that mingled with the smell of fresh creosote. We were happy then. Me, Dad and Stevie, until mum started banging on about how she always did everything around the house while we had a life of Riley. Whoever he was, he must have been one lucky bugger, because I thought it was us who were the lucky ones.

Then one day Mum decided to get a job, as a Tupperware lady, and almost overnight everything changed. The fridge was full of plastic containers stuffed with carrot sticks and there was no dinner on the table when Dad got home from work. That was when the rumours started, from number 28, that Mum was carrying on with another man. Someone high up in Tupperware. So when she upped and left, one Sunday evening, dragging an oversized brown suitcase down the back lane, I guessed it must have something to do with the Riley bloke.

By the time she came back, six months later, the fridge was full of Vesta curries and Dad had finally brought the dog home. A deaf black and white mongrel with a dodgy back leg who we named Debbie. The shed had been dismantled one night when the coal bunker was empty and Stevie Nicks had been stripped and used to pick up Debbies shit. Dad was growing side burns and ironing his own shirts, and on the record player was Blondie. And all dad said to mum when she walked through the front door was; Pamela, things are going to be different around here now.

The next morning I opened the fridge and found a lone Tupperware container on the top shelf next to the cheese. A piece of paper had been stuck to the lid and read; ‘This is a reminder to never leave things for too long or else they will go off.’

It stayed there for a while until I saw dad remove it after breakfast one morning and replace it with a Vesta curry. He winked at me and I nodded as if I knew. Knew what the hell was happening in the cold space that no one talked about. His secret was safe with me. I’d not let on I’d seen the woman down the road from number 28 shopping in the corner shop, her basket full to the brim with Vesta Curries.

 

TINA M EDWARDS poetry and fiction has been published in the U.K. and America. She has a penchant for ducks and Cornwall and has been told since childhood she has a vivid imagination. Which is just as well, considering she loves to write. In another life she was probably a Chirologist.   www.tinamedwardswriter.wordpress.com

Cabinet Of Heed Contents Link 24

Image via Pixabay

Banshee – Claire Loader

They say the banshee came the night my grandmother died, the night my mother was born. Through their screams and wails it was said another sound could be heard, a keening howl that tore about the hedgerows, raced upon the fields. The desperate cries of life and death dancing above the thatch as both bled into the floor beneath it.

I never really believed in all that shite. My Grandmother dying as she gave birth on the barren earth of a dingy cottage was horror enough without the need of a spectral element. I think Mam was always disappointed in me in that way, as if not believing in another piseog I was turning my back on her somehow. Just another disappointment to add to the pile.

“Could you make your bed this morning please, just once?”

“Yes, Ma.”

“And don’t go using the dryer so much. You know it eats up the electricity.”

“I’m sorry, Ma.”

“And you better not fail that maths test this morning. If I have to be called in to talk to Mrs Kennedy one more time…”

“I’ve been studying Mammy, don’t worry.”

If the banshee really did exist surely it was in the form of Mrs Kennedy, she heralded the death of all things. That pursed upper lip, those awful tanned stockings, the way she spoke Irish like she was squeezing it past a carrot squashed up the hole of her arse. Her classes were like one long drawn out scream in which we were all forced to remain silent, not knowing which one of us would drop next from shear boredom. And I was late, again.

“Ms Kavanagh, Dia dhuit.” The words slid out of her mouth like putrid yoghurt. “Delighted you could join us.”

I sat quickly in my seat, determined to ace this thing, to prove to Mam I was more than just a future burger flipper at Supermacs, pregnant at seventeen to the likes of Enda Costello. I looked up at him from my exam paper, broad shoulders hunched over his own, the bottom edges of his pants mucky with this morning’s dirt. Up early on his Dad’s farm most like, his large hands at work long before I managed to drag mine out of bed. His pen was dwarfed by them, and I could suddenly see myself in its place, albeit far less rigid…

“Ms Kavanagh! Eyes on your paper please!”

The banshee again, screaming at me from my future. I looked at my blank paper, then at the clock. I didn’t need the gift of foresight to know I was in deep shit.

When I arrived home Mam looked shook, as if she knew already of my imminent F.

“You alright, Ma?”

Her hands paused in the sink, “Yes. Yes, it’s nothing.”

My eyes narrowed, full sure she could somehow see into my mind, into all of its scraggly compartments, see clearly my morning equations that had nothing to do with numbers. I wavered like an unsure cat, not knowing if it was truly safe.

“Why don’t you go walk the dog or something?”

My brow creased in suspicion. “Sure, Ma.”

I grabbed the dog, hand sliding over the small box in my pocket as I headed out to the quiet of the back field. My parents hadn’t built far from the old cottage, its stony gable end the only thing visible now through the tangle of brambles. I turned from the kitchen window, lighting up a cigarette away from the ‘Great Eye of Mammy’ that was otherwise always watching, Molly rustling about the long grass as I drank in the quiet of the afternoon, certain at any moment Mrs Kennedy would appear with my fast food uniform at the ready, the stitched white shirt proclaiming my doom.

Molly started barking suddenly and I nearly tripped as, quickly turning, I saw her growling wasn’t at the house but the ruins, a dark movement catching my eye from between the bushes.

“Those little Halloran shits again.”

I don’t know what I was doing heading towards the cottage, as if my cigarette was some kind of lightsaber against local vandals, but I stopped abruptly, the dog trembling at my feet, a hooded figure looming out from the stone.

“What the…”

A shriek broke the air and, not waiting to find out if it hadn’t come from my own mouth, I ran through the paddock, my fingers fumbling on the kitchen door, before slipping inside and slamming it safely behind me.

Mam spoke suddenly from the middle of the kitchen, as I leaned heavily against the door, my chest heaving. “You saw her too, didn’t you?”

“I, no, um… maybe?”

Mam stood ashen, her gaze suddenly fearful and I barely made out her whisper, “But she only comes to warn of another’s passing. But that means…”

Our eyes locked. Perhaps now was a good time to tell her about the test.

 

CLAIRE LOADER was born in New Zealand & spent several years in China before moving to County Galway. A photographer & writer, she was a recent winner in the Women Speak poetry competition and blogs at http://www.allthefallingstones.com

Cabinet Of Heed Contents Link 24

Image via Pixabay

The Layover (Bellies On The Breeze) – Stephen Mead

Some birds have heart attacks in mid-air,
the pulse suddenly fluttering at too rapid
a rate. We, as well, often travel that
accelerated. Our eyes, cameras, process
micro seconds, our limbs; long distance
runners, our energy; hormonal stimuli
thrown into overdrive…

Let up. Let up.
Tranquility spills into panic, sifts
like rain through tired joints, spreads,
steams invisibly.

Remember the bends?
They are resigned now, detached, clasping
stillness like wings that have flown
into the tower of a large glass marina…

As water things slide, fin-sprinting
here & there for the ebbing of concentric
ripples. The beauty of such motion,
observed & next, entered, is what holds us
to existence as we again dive, gut-gripped,
in flight.

 

A resident of NY, STEPHEN MEAD is an Outsider multi-media artist and writer. Since the 1990s he’s been grateful to many editors for publishing his work in print zines and eventually online. He is also grateful to have managed to keep various day jobs for the Health Insurance. In 2014 he began a webpage to gather various links to his published poetry in one place.

Cabinet Of Heed Contents Link 24

Image via Pixabay

Flamenco Tat – Chloe Balcomb

Turning the corner into Vernon Street, Daisy tastes vermillion and her unease grows. It’s been a while since Rhoda had one of her turns but then she’s just finished a commission, always a trigger. Daisy sighs. She’s an Art student herself so it’s not that she minds having an unusual mum who’s a bit batty and dresses like someone from the 1920s, it’s just the unpredictability factor.

Daisy pauses at the front door and takes a deep breath. Beneath the grey blue paint, the grain shimmers. She admires its silky taffeta appearance, will one day replicate it on her own front door, ‘Not long now!’ she thinks giddily. Living with Rhoda is taking its toll.

‘Rhoda, I’m back! ’ Daisy calls from the hallway. She squeezes her jacket onto the overflowing hooks, pausing to rest her cheek against Rhoda’s favourite, a moss green maxi coat that looks incredible against her mother’s auburn hair. Daisy’s own hair is an ordinary brown, though thick and glossy, while Rhoda’s is beginning to thin.

She bends down to unlace her boots. They’re still pinching at the bridge, which is weird because surely ‘vintage’ Docs should be worn in by now? Her mother distrusts second hand shoes, says they bring a stranger’s energy into the house that’s hard to eradicate. Claims Daisy’s been ripped off anyway, says purple Doc Martens didn’t even exist back in the day.

Daisy hates it when Rhoda bursts her bubble but has learnt to keep quiet. The consequences of shaming her mother are worse than the initial pain. Take that time Rhoda killed Goldy in an ill thought out spell. To be fair, though Rhoda had found a substitute, Daisy had spotted the change. Tired of her daughter’s protest and growing impatient at her tears, Rhoda had turned herself into a hat.

A straw boater trimmed with green ribbon was completely useless to eleven year old Daisy, who for the rest of the week had to cook her own meals and walk the four miles to and from school because Rhoda hadn’t thought to leave bus fares. A week felt like forever in a quiet house and a hat wasn’t something she could easily chat to.

Daisy’s father Robert had left them by then. And little wonder, given her mother’s outbursts and eccentricities, though the suddenness of his departure and his continuing silence, still rankles.

Daisy’s tried hard to respect his choices but this Christmas, after one too many Snowballs, she found herself asking Rhoda whether she ever missed him? Annoyed, Rhoda declared that she certainly didn’t and nor should Daisy. She went on to list Robert’s faults, including his unimaginative dress sense, complete lack of skills and general neediness.

Despite her mother’s vehemence, Daisy detected a note of regret in this tirade but was deterred from further questioning by Rhoda’s final remark that Robert smelt strongly of seaweed. This last part was true at least and suddenly reminded of his metallic, salty scent, Daisy had mourned that too. So what if Robert had dressed conventionally, couldn’t’ summon smoke or turn cupcakes into mushrooms? As far as she knew, neither could anyone else’s father.

’Mum, I’m back!’ Daisy calls again but still there’s no reply. She wiggles her bruised feet and pads into in the front room.

Light splashes through the stained glass window, flooding the carpet with colour. As a little girl she’d loved bathing in the translucent strands and relished the way they’d clothed her skin. Purple was her favourite because it made her happy and she loved the underwater feeling of emerald green. The blue was deliciously calming and made her sleepy. Orange could be sickly if you got too much of it and red made her so itchy that she’d continued to avoid it.

‘Why are you standing there, Poppet?’ Robert would ask, but such things were hard to explain and though he ruffled her hair and nodded seriously, she could tell that he didn’t understand.

By contrast, Rhoda positively encouraged unusual behaviours and signs of exuberance. She understood that Monday, a red day, was spiky and uncomfortable. She knew instinctively which fabrics Daisy would enjoy and why her daughter rejected clothes that smelt wrong when loosely crumpled.

Early on in Secondary school there’d been an embarrassing Parents’ Evening when Miss Price had openly gawped at Daisy and Rhoda’s contrasting velour capes, before suggesting that Daisy might be on the Autistic Spectrum, what with her ‘heightened sensory reactions.’ Rhoda had responded by pinching Daisy’s cheek delightedly and laughing her wild laugh, before saying,

‘You might call it that but we know different, don’t we Daisy love?’

To all future events Daisy wore her school uniform. She became a model student and avoided further incident by saying that her single parent working mother, was unable to attend. Of course, things would have been simpler if Robert had still been around. Daisy fondly remembers her father’s ordinariness, the nubbly feel of his soft worn corduroys, his wooly cardigans.

Gradually, over time, Rhoda has become more stable and there are fewer surprises. Usually when Daisy returns from college, Rhoda’s absorbed in one of her spectacular paintings. Great splashes of colour on vast canvases, she works on them late into the night. Daisy herself can only glance briefly at them before she’s affected, but Rhoda’s London dealer has no such problem and they always sell well.

As a result, Daisy has rarely gone without, though it’s true to say that Rhoda, an ardent anti-consumerist, is increasingly a hoarder not a spender. Despite her love of textiles and original design, Rhoda’s wardrobes creak with faded garments that no longer fit her and are pocked with moth holes. Like elderly recalcitrant relatives, Rhoda declares that they have earned their space and must stay.

Standing in the sitting room Daisy takes stock of the overstuffed bookcase and ancient couch spewing its innards. The place is cluttered with useless objects, like these on the mantelpiece – a pile of irregular shaped green stones, a carved elephant with a broken trunk, the sooty stump of a candle and a creamy limpet shell that, if she’s not mistaken, has recently migrated here from Rhoda’s bedside table.

A delicate thing with a tinge of softest primrose yellow, it reminds Daisy of a summer dress she once had. She picks it up tenderly, blows dust from its slim flutes and feels an intense and immediate sorrow. A tear plops onto the shell. Rubbing it in gently she feels the hairs on the back of her neck rise to attention.

She turns round slowly. To all intents and purposes the room is empty but the air crackles with electricity and little puffs of wind ruffle the curtains,

‘Mum?’ she murmurs tentatively and then more impatiently, ‘Mum, I know you’re here somewhere, please make yourself known!’

There’s no response and Daisy finds herself sighing again. Rhoda’s timing stinks as usual. Either she’s forgotten that Daisy’s having friends over from college tonight or this is a deliberate ploy because she doesn’t want others in the house.

Daisy stalks into the kitchen and makes herself a cup of tea. She fills Smokey’s empty saucer with milk and calls him. He doesn’t appear either and her irritation rises. How many times has Rhoda promised she’ll stick to inanimate objects? And what can possibly be learnt by turning a cat into a notebook or place mat anyway? Smokey will be cranky and off his food for days, no doubt emphasising his annoyance by crapping in the bath.

Daisy fishes out her teabag and throws it in the compost bin before clocking the acrid smell of singed paint from near the pantry. She scans the area for alien objects and spots a black enamel tea tray, blowsy with roses and rimmed with gold, the style of which can only be described as Flamenco Tat.

The tray shimmers. She picks it up carefully. It’s faintly warm and sticky, the enamel not quite set. Anger rises in her body. Surely Rhoda could have given Daisy a chance to talk her round? Or at least chosen colours more thoughtfully? God knows how long she’ll be in this form, leaving Daisy as usual, to field awkward questions.

‘Jesus Mum!’ she exclaims, ‘You’re an Artist! Why not choose a Faith Ringgold or a Tracey Emin? At least I’d have something decent to look at!’

Daisy slaps the tray back down and stomps back into the front room. To her relief Smokey slides in beside her. She picks him up and strokes his soft grey fur but he struggles uneasily from her arms.

Alerted, she looks around. Something in here is different but what? She turns to the mantelpiece, her skin tingling. The air around and above it is shimmering softly, creating light and shadow, a sense of movement.

The tingling continues and she finds herself picking up the limpet shell and inhaling its briny odour. Its pleated creamy surface is emitting heat and appears to be pulsing. Daisy stands stock still, blood pulsing in her head. Surely Rhoda couldn’t’t have? Wouldn’t’ have?

‘Robert,’ she whispers incredulously and the shell gives the smallest of shivers,

‘Dad? Is that you?’

 

Cabinet Of Heed Contents Link 24

Image via Pixabay

Magical Objects – Caroljean Gavin

The Aunts came one after the other in a procession of pantsuits and leather loafers. I purchased their services with the money I had left from my father. They marched up the concrete stairwell of our fifth floor walk-up, never-minding the shed snakeskins of used condoms, the daggers of broken brown bottles, the oily mystery puddles, the ground out cigarette butts, the walls smeared with ash and feces. They would give my daughter the gifts and blessings I could not, the gifts and blessings my parents didn’t give me. The Aunts ascended armed and perfumed with their lilac, their lavender. Tea rose. Sandalwood. Potato salad. Ziti casserole. Banana bread. French roast. Wrapping paper, tape, and ribbon. I watched them through the peephole.

They rapped on our door; seven soft knocks with their seven soft fists.

Petal swaddled in pink muslin and sleeping, was oblivious to the knocks of the world.

The Aunts shuffled in. Pant legs aflutter, they glided past the wiped and whitened walls.

Things would get better when I wasn’t birth sore, bleeding, sleepless, and so in love with my little princess and my prince charming, Rex, that I was a float-y, blissful, ache. And things would be better when Rex got it under control. He was working on getting it under control. He really, really, really was. I wouldn’t have stayed if he hadn’t promised. The Aunts were paid to give their gifts to our daughter; they wouldn’t judge. Still I polished every fucking thing till it shined, sparkled, and glittered like the Northern Lights on the coldest, darkest, Northern winter night.

The Aunts shed their coats and their packages, piling them on the table I had fancied up with a stiff, floral, dollar store tablecloth and a large yellowed doily my grandmother had crocheted once upon a time.

The Aunts gathered around Petal’s crib of thin white spindles.

“Live Nudes!!!” blinked in daylight neon through the window. A police car flashed its reds and blues, siren-ing down the street. Someone yelled, “Get off my tits motherfucker.”

“Look-it,” said one of the Aunts leaning down over Petal’s puckered bud of a face, “Look-it how peaceful.”

Petal, my five-day-old sleeping beauty, her eyes fastened tight, eyelashes intertwined, her soft little lips, almost quivering with breath rested, with her arms stretched past her head.

Rex was retching in the bathroom. Just puking out his guts, rattling the porcelain, kicking his feet backward into the door, banging the hell out of it. He had the faucet going as if the anemic trickle of low-pressure water could drown out his frantic racket.

The First Aunt, at the head of the crib, bent down over Petal, slipped an object out from the depths of her trench coat and pinned it to Petal’s swaddle, right above her bird-tiny chest. The gold of the rose brooch glittered, and the diamonds encrusting it sang out stars of light. “May you always be the most beautiful girl in the room. May you always glitter as brilliantly as a rare jewel on the sun. Even in the deepest caves of darkness, your beauty will shine.” She bent down and kissed Petal on her lips.

“Coffee,” I said. “I should make coffee.”

The Aunts didn’t move their gaze from Petal for a breath, a blink, or a twitch while I ground their gourmet French Roast in my rumbling, screaming blender.

“Alright then,” said the Second Aunt, stationed the first on the right side of the crib. She was tall and stern, gray and brown, some kind of shore bird of the apocalypse, “My gift to you is intelligence, the capacity for wisdom and for wit.” She licked her finger and made a circle of slobber on Petal’s forehead. “Among the pile of packages, wrapped quite effectively, is a large, leather-bound book of tales, fables, stories, and myths, with which you can enhance your already increased capacity for understanding and navigating the world. Also there, you will find a second leather volume full of History. A third is devoted to Geography, and a fourth to Science and the Natural World.

You will have a flexible and fertile mind. You will be clever and cunning, and wise. You will know more than the most tenured professors…more than the most versed trivia masters.”

“Perhaps you should have saved the poor girl’s body the weight of all those pages and sprung for a laptop,” one of the Aunts on the other side of the crib teased though I was the one who had not sprung for the top tier package.

The next Aunt, the Third Aunt, had a dusty-rose tint to her clothes. She wore a pleated skirt, a cashmere sweater, and pantyhose two shades too dark. She only came up to the shoulders of the Second Aunt. When she moved, it seemed as if her bones were made of mercury or some kind of liquid that gravity didn’t apply to. Her voice, when she allowed her lips to part, was soft, fluid yet measured, somehow maintaining a sense of sternness with no hard edges. “My darling,” she spoke, “May you learn to flow over the rocks with nary a twist to your gait. May you grow to sway with the breeze and never tremble or tremor. May you know the excesses of your own demeanor and of the world, so you may be all the more steeled against them.” She opened her palm, and resting inside was a small, glass-worked koi on a thread. She tied it to the crib. It spun and spun between two of the perfectly white spindles.

“What a nice segue,” said the Fourth Aunt, the Aunt at the foot of the crib. “What a nice segue indeed.” The Fourth Aunt was exactly the tallest of all the Aunts, the most athletic, and the most lithe. Her clothes moved with her and she was moving all the time with an assortment of purposeful gestures and poses that seemed to be part communication. She did a plié, and then tossed her body up into a small, joyful leap. “Dance,” she shouted, and I imagined Petal throwing up her arms in startle, but she didn’t stir at all. “Dance!” The Fourth Aunt folded over into downward facing dog, her derriere pointed up to the ceiling. She unfastened her scuffed oxfords. She drew her feet out of her shoes, tied the laces together and hung them over Petal’s crib. “My child,” she said, taking my baby’s feet in her hands, “There will be no dance that can defeat you. Your body will be fluent in the language of music, of rhythm, nuance, expression. Your muscles, your very bones will speak in music, in dance, as natural as breath, as enchanting as magic.”

“Very well spoken, my dear,” said the Third Aunt. The Fourth Aunt nodded and dropped to a deep, show-off-y curtsy, then deepened to a low bow, gesturing to the Fifth Aunt on the left side of the crib.

“Beautiful,” she trilled. The Fifth Aunt had a labyrinth of tight braids running along her head, short sprigs of baby’s breath sprayed from them. Her skirt and her blouse were both ecru, long and loose. She reached behind her and pulled out a ukulele that she had set against the wall.

The First Aunt clapped her hands together, “How delightful.”

The Fifth Aunt smiled back at her, held the ukulele against her body, opened her mouth and…

“Help me!” Rex screamed from the bathroom. The Fifth Aunt put the ukulele down, and slipped her finger into Petal’s hand.

“Let me out of this mother fucking prison! I need medicine!” Aunts shifted in their shoes, tugged on their skirts or at the knees of their khakis. The Sixth Aunt turned over her wrist to check the time. I didn’t want to make them late for their next appointment.

“Excuse me,” I said.

The wooden chair wedged under the bathroom doorknob rattled, shook, and leapt in place. I took a deep breath. Rex just needed fresh air, and it wasn’t really fair of me to keep him from the Aunt’s blessings. He should be there.

I knocked the chair out from under the knob. The door burst open. Something hard caught me above the eye. Rex shoved the door and me behind it, thump-sprinted down the hallway bare-chested and barefooted and barreled out the front door.

The bathroom was a mess. The toilet was stopped up with toilet paper. Water burped off the lip of porcelain. Every thing, every bottle, jar, makeup palette, Q-Tip was on the floor. The medicine cabinet mirror was hanging on by a hinge.

“Lovely, lovely,” the Fifth Aunt said when I made it back to the living room. The coffee was half gone, and the banana bread had been nibbled on. Our chipped plates and mismatched mugs filled the sink.

The Fifth Aunt picked her ukulele off the wall and cradled it back in her arms, “I simply must get the recipe for that banana bread dear.”

“Just a secret family recipe,” The Second Aunt said looking at her hands, “No big deal. Of course I did adjust it to be gluten free, so it’s made with combination almond and coconut flour. I also substituted brown sugar for most of the white sugar, and of course I toasted the walnuts before including them, and then there’s the matter of browning the butter, which really should go without saying.”

“Oh yes, yes,” ad-libbed the First Aunt, “I think I came across that recipe on the Internet. AllRecipes? The pictures of it were awful. Not appetizing at all.”

The Fifth Aunt closed her eyes, dropped her jaw, held a chord with her left hand, lifted her fingers and slid them up and down the fret board while her right hand fingerpicked frantically, tickling and teasing the music out of the ukulele. “Baby mine” she sang, with her eyes closed, her tongue rolling out the syllables, savoring them, spinning them gently out of her mouth, and into our ears.

I wiped a tear with my sleeve.

When the Fifth Aunt was done, the Aunts clapped. The Fifth Aunt slipped the ukulele back in the case, and kissed each of her palms. One she pressed lightly against Petal’s lips, and the other she wrapped around Petal’s tiny hands. “And like that,” she said, “the music is yours.” Looking at me, she said, “And so is the ukulele. Hers. It is not worth much in money,” she warned me, “but to the girl it will be priceless.”

The Sixth Aunt folded her hands in front of her; they hung down with her skirts. “What a kind offering,” her voice cooed, highly pitched, but not too highly pitched, sweet, but not too sweet, softly, but perfectly audible. “Everyone, such kind offerings.”

The Sixth Aunt dipped her head down to study Petal, “And my precious soul, that is exactly what I have to offer you. Kindness. Goodness. A clear sense of what’s right and wrong. Humility. Compassion. Empathy. You will understand that you are superior to no one and that no one is superior to you, and you will treat people accordingly. You will take responsibility for your actions, and you will give people second chances. You will give gifts for no reason. Your generosity will be purely motivated and boundless. If you have any enemy in this life it will be Injustice.”

The Sixth Aunt drew an index finger over her lips, pulled back Petal’s swaddle, uncovering her chest and painted a heart over Petal’s in lipstick. “Never forget that above all, your heart is who you are.”

“Hear, Hear,” applauded the First Aunt.

“I say, that was a fine job,” said the Second Aunt.

“Thank you all, very much,” I said, “We really appreciate it.”

“Of course, my dear,” said the Third Aunt. Would I have to tip them? I hadn’t thought of that before. I had a little cash I’d been saving in a tampon box, but not enough for all of them.

“True, true,” agreed the Fourth Aunt, wiggling her toes into the carpet, “We do not get as much work as we used to. My legs need the stretch every once in awhile you know.”

“This darling has been particularly quiet,” said the Fifth Aunt.

“Not a peep from her,” the Sixth Aunt agreed, “Not a peep.”

“She’ll be hungry soon,” I said. My breasts were heavy and full, uncomfortable. “Anytime.” I said.

“Of course, of course,” said the Third Aunt. “Well it was brilliant to meet you, to come to your beautiful home.”

One of the Aunts coughed deep in her throat, I’m not sure which.

The Seventh Aunt, shuffled up to the crib from the back of the apartment, my room. She yawned and rubbed at her eyes with slim tan boxing gloves over her hands.

The Aunt of Strength. The Aunt who would teach my daughter how to kick ass and take names. The Aunt whose gift would inspire her to never relent to fear, to bullying, to other people and other things controlling her. I hadn’t noticed the Seventh Aunt slip away. There were so many Aunts; it was hard to keep track of them all.

“Did I miss anything?” the Seventh Aunt asked on her way to the coffee pot. “Just black,” she called to me.

“It’s gone a little bitter,” I warned.

“The bitterer the better,” she blurted, “This old tongue can take it.”

I poured her a cup. She fumbled at the mug with her boxing gloves, batting it around the counter like a cat. I grabbed a straw and popped it in her mug.

The other Aunts were gathering their coats and riffling themselves back together in a line.

“Hey, I haven’t gone yet,” the Seventh Aunt shouted, “Keep your wigs on and wait for me will you?”

“My dear, said the Second Aunt, “You were supposed to go first.”

“Hey,” the Seventh Aunt countered, “Don’t tell me how to live my life. She’ll get her gift. After my coffee. I’m not as young as I used to be.”

“None of us are,” said the Third Aunt, but she wasn’t agreeing.

“There is supposed to be an order to these things,” the Sixth Aunt reminded her.

“Order, schmorder,” The Seventh Aunt said, and then miraculously drew up the rest of the coffee through the straw, rubbed her boxing gloves together, and sauntered up to Petal’s crib like a bulldog. “Let’s do this thing.”

The rest of the Aunts shuffled back to their places around Petal’s crib.

“Come on, dear,” the Seventh Aunt shouted to me, “What are you doing all the way over in the kitchen?”

“Watching,” I said, “Staying out of everyone’s hair.”

“Being respectful, I would imagine,” piped in the Third Aunt.

“No, no no,” the Seventh Aunt admonished, “Be anything but that.”

“My, my,” the Sixth Aunt tutted as I make my way over, “Brashness does not become us.”

“It isn’t ladylike I know,” the Seventh Aunt scratched at her bottom with her boxing glove, “Being ladylike is not all it’s cracked up to be.”

“Surely…” started the First Aunt.

“Look, look,” the Seventh Aunt blustered. She was red faced and her hair seemed to be escaping its loose bun out of a yearning for adventure, “We can argue this all day. I used to be Obedience for Christ’s sake. I never would have survived this long if I hadn’t changed. Anyway,” she bent her head down and wiped her sweaty forehead off on her sleeve. “Back to the matter at hand.” She looked down at Petal and smiled. “Oh, how cute. Look at how hard she is. You can already tell, this one is going to be tough. This one is going to punch life in the nose and while it’s bleeding she’s going to tell it to screw itself with a chainsaw.”

“It will be bedtime soon,” warned the First Aunt.

“That it will be,” agreed the Seventh, “ So my darling, my gift to you is…”

“Holy fucking God,” Rex howled as he fell back into the apartment. “What the hell is wrong with you woman?”

“Keep your nasty ass boxers on and sit down.” The old woman behind Rex looked a little like the Aunts: gray hair and tiny bones, but she was dressed in black and gray instead of various shades of brown. She did not come in laden with packages or with a pleasant scent. She smelled a little bit like mold and carried with her only a small black purse that hung from her shoulder. Also she wore too much blue eye makeup and a terrible shade of orange lipstick. It took me too long to realize it was my actual aunt, Mildred. She looked ten years older than the last time I saw her, a year ago, my father’s funeral.

“While you’ve been having your nice little party,” she said to me, “I found this one in a frenzy in the hallways, knocking on people’s doors, causing chaos. I just took a wild guess that he belonged to you.”

Aunt Mildred had Rex by the wrist, her nails digging in. She threw him at the couch, and then sat down beside him, tucking her skirt under her knees. When he tried to pop back up, she hit him in the chest with her handbag.

The aunts shuffled in their shoes, and just looked at each other. The Second Aunt checked her watch.

“I thought we didn’t do the evil, curse-y one anymore,” The Fifth Aunt said. “People were asking for their money back.”

“This is Mildred,” I said, “My father’s sister.”

“So who are you all then?” Mildred asked, scowling directly at the Third Aunt, “Her mother’s sisters?”

“We are The Aunts, that’s all you need to know,” the Seventh Aunt said, bouncing her boxing gloves together and off each other, for some reason, like she was getting warmed up to use them.

“Well whoever the hell you are, congratulations. Congratulations on getting to celebrate this little hot mess.”

“That is no way to talk about a baby,” the Fourth Aunt scolded.

“Yeah, because that’s who I’m talking about,” Aunt Mildred said.

“Why did you come?” I asked her. There was a smudge of something on a wall behind the crib, something I must have neglected to clean off, something that escaped my attention. The smudge moved, scampering quickly to a crack in the ceiling.

“I guess I heard the news. Didn’t I?” Aunt Mildred said.

“Mom?”

“Ding, ding, sweetheart. She’s a delight. Wanted me to check on you.”

“Don’t tell her where I am,” I said, “Please.”

“Well,” the First Aunt said, “We just need to finish up with the final blessing and then we can be on our way and let you catch up with your loved one.”

“That’s right. That’s right,” the Sixth Aunt agreed. She patted the Seventh Aunt on the shoulder, “Go ahead dear.”

Aunt Mildred said, “Your daughter doesn’t deserve to grow up like this.”

“There’s love here,” I shouted.

“Your daughter doesn’t deserve to grow up like this,” Aunt Mildred repeated.

I stared at my ragged ass, stupid, stupid fingers. “What about me?” I muttered to those asshole hands of mine, “Did I deserve to grow up like that?”

Aunt Mildred’s orange lips tightened. “I did what I could at the time.”

“Trips to the zoo? Pizza parlor dinners?” I cried, “You took me out, but you always brought me back.”

“With books,” she said like it was a defense. “Clearly they gave you hope. Clearly they still give you hope.”

The Seventh Aunt approached Aunt Mildred, “You want me to punch her lights out?”

“No.” I said. I sank to the ground. The carpet smelled like actual shit.

Rex crawled over the arm of the couch and ducked and dodged Aunt Mildred’s graspy fingers, running back out the door and down the stairs, thumping, thumping, thumping.

“He’ll be back soon enough,” Aunt Mildred said.

“I know.”

“Maybe you’ve avoided it,” she said. “But one day your daughter is going to find that damned needle, just like her father, just like your father, and when she pricks herself, she’s not going to be gone for a 100 years until someone saves her. She’ll be gone forever. Forever. There will be no saving. No miracles kisses. That’s not how it works. Just fucking memories and funeral lilies. Who cares if she knows how to sing and dance?”

The Seventh Aunt crouched down beside me, put a boxing glove on my shoulder. “Hey,” she said, “Look in my pocket.”

“You’re not a real fairy godmother,” I answered, “You get paid by the hour.”

She said, “So what? We need to eat like everyone. Doesn’t mean we don’t have magic. ”

She pushed her hip out to me and there was something paper sticking out of her pocket. I slipped it out and stared at the photo, the Polaroid of me as a little girl that I hadn’t seen in years. Maybe Strength found it in my closet, maybe she found it in some hidden time capsule. In the photo, I am snarling with a smile tucked under my irises, too young for the teeth I am missing. I am holding a huge water gun, pointing it at the photographer. It was empty, Dad thought it was funny. I was trying to protect him. Thought he was dead when I came down the stairs, the way he was laid out on the floor. I was so confused after he took that picture, I cried, and my mom yanked the water gun out of my grip and gave me something to cry about, and the bruises left over had me crying for days, had me learning how not to cry, how to absorb pain, hold it, not show it, never show it to the person who caused it.

“I look…plucky,” I said and handed the picture back to the Seventh Aunt, “but you don’t know that photo like I do.”

“You are still alive,” she said. “Your mom, your dad, they were doing the best they could.”

“Their best was pretty shitty.”

“Yes, it was pretty shitty,” the Seventh Aunt said, “but…”

“The family curse,” Aunt Mildred said, as she began scooping things out of her handbag and then dropping the same things back in. She handed me a check and a handful of strawberry hard candies.

“Needles and fairy tales,” I muttered. Prince Charming, you wait for him to save you and he’s a trash can, and his kingdom is a landfill, and he puts you to the same damn work you were at before, and one day you wake up as your own stepmother, and one day you wake up, and you’ve been asleep for your whole life, and you are covered in bruises and ashes and pumpkins, globby seeds threaded in your hair, rotting, and fairy godmothers surround you with your one beautiful uncomfortable shoe held so tightly around your foot. As they chitter, chatter, trill and coo, you feel breeze refreshing your leaves, you feel grass growing beneath you.

Petal began to cry. My nipples started purging milk, the wet spot on my top spread fast, like from a wound in my heart. The Aunts parted as I approached the crib and lifted Petal into my arms. Petal was not a glass shoe. Her skin was warm, soft, pink, and her own. She snuffled for my breast, brought her mouth to me, feeding herself. Petal was not a wishing well. She was not a golden key or a poisoned apple. She was not a talking frog. Not a secret name. I held her in a one-arm cradle, my other hand grasping a thin white spindle. Not a blessing. Not a curse. Not a promise. Not a threat. Not even a miracle. Just a daughter. Just like me.

 

CAROLJEAN GAVIN’s work has appeared in places such as Bending Genres, Barrelhouse, Flash Flood, The Ampersand Review and is forthcoming from The Conium Review. Currently she is raising two rambunctious boys, a novel and a story collection.

Cabinet Of Heed Contents Link 24

Image via Pixabay

The Trouble With Larry – Mark Czanik

Dora and Dorcas were on the 476 to Ledbury, sitting in the seats reserved for the elderly. Dora’s friend Irene had told her there were gammon steaks on offer in Tescos, and since they were sold out in her local store by the time she got there, she had decided to catch the bus to Ledbury and try the Tescos there. Dorcas was just along for the ride.

‘I had to laugh yesterday,’ said Dora. ‘This Polish man sitting opposite me on the bus kept asking me if I had a shoe. “Have you got a shoe?” he asked me. I said, “A shoe?” “No, a shoe,” he says. “No, I ant got a shoe.” Only the ones I had on anyway, and he wun having those. “A shoe!” he kept saying. And then eventually I realised what he was trying to say. “Oh, a tissue!” I said.

The two women laughed.

‘I couldn’t understand a word he was saying,’ Dora went on. ‘Not only was he foreign, but he had this bad cold too. Breathing his germs all over me.’

The bus gears gave a violent scrunch, as if the vehicle were clearing its throat, and began its slow struggle up Prospect Hill.

‘That reminds me of this cat I took in last summer,’ Dorcas said. ‘This beautiful grey cat. It just sort of made itself at home for three weeks on my sofa. I mean, I put him out in the morning, but he kept coming back and settling onto my sofa. It seemed quite content. So I started bringing it tins of cat food home and feeding it. And I called him Larry. I even bought him a litter tray in case of accidents, which he was quite obliging about.’

‘They’ve closed more public toilets in town now,’ Dora said.

‘I know, terrible, ennit. I mean, we can’t all squat down in the street like Basil whenever we please.’

Basil looked up from where he lay in the aisle at this affront to his dignity, and then returned his head stoically to his recently washed paws, which smelt strongly of disinfectant.

‘Pam was in Cornwall last summer and she said there are lots of conveniences still open down there.’

‘You can judge a town by its toilets.’

‘You can.’

‘Dan and Denise have got five ensuites in their house now,’ Dora said.

‘Where do they go for the other two days?’ Dorcas replied.

The two women laughed again.

‘No, I enjoyed his company,’ Dorcas said, picking up her story. ‘Basil enjoyed his company too, funnily enough. I mean, he likes terrorising cats like the best of them, and he’s normally quite possessive of me, but somehow he made allowances for this cat. And Larry seemed quite at ease with Basil. Not put out at all. He looked content on my grey sofa. Blended in very nicely. I was even thinking about getting a cat flap put in so he could come and go as he pleased.

‘Oh, there’s Arthur, look,’ she interrupted herself, gesturing to an old man with a walking stick as they passed the Cock of Tupsley. ‘You know, I never see him out with his wife. I don’t think they’re that enamoured. I might be wrong.’

The two women watched the old man making his solitary way along Hampton Dene Road.

‘Anyway,’ Dorcas continued, ‘one day this builder from over the street came in to give me an estimate on some work I wanted doing. I had plans for a new kitchen, and he made such a nice job of Irene’s downstairs toilet after Derek’s stroke. And this builder kept looking at this cat lying on the sofa. ‘“That looks a bit like our cat,” he said. So he went out and came back with his wife for a second opinion. And it turned out it was. And she got quite angry with me for taking her cat. She said they’d been looking for him everywhere. Didn’t I notice the identity chip on the back of his neck? Apparently, there were all these posters up in the area as well – on lampposts and in shop windows, and all down Watery Lane. But I hadn’t seen them, or the identity chip. So she bundled him up in this blanket and took him away.’

‘Well, that’s a mistake anyone could make,’ Dora said.

‘That’s what I said, but they didn’t seem to think so. And that wasn’t the end of it. The cat came back the following day, and they came knocking on my door. More strong words were spoken. They started swearing and calling me a cat thief and all sorts of terrible things. Anyone would have thought I’d done it deliberately. And you could see Larry was getting upset about it. I had to ask them to leave in the end. I threatened to call the police and take out a restraining order.’

The two women fell into a habitual silence while the bus negotiated the old stone packhorse bridge over the river Lugg, where so many travellers had come to grief. ‘Must have been a very special cat,’ Dora said, once the danger had passed.

‘Probably a pedigree. I expect it cost a lot. Basil didn’t cost me a penny. I was lucky to find him in the rescue home. But then you were the one who rescued me really weren’t you after I lost my Bernie,’ she said, reaching down to give her dog a stroke.

Basil, finding his coat being ruffled, looked up with his eyes only, like one well acquainted with the transitory nature of compliments. Still, his tail gave a little involuntary thump.

‘Anyway, Larry still visits me every day and sleeps on my sofa. I think he prefers it with me. This family, they’ve got a lot of children about, and cats don’t like being moithered do they. And this builder’s always making a lot of noise in his garage where he has his workshop. I can hear him banging away all day sometimes.’

‘I bet you’ve never complained about him.’

‘Well, not to his face. No wonder Larry needed a bit of peace and quiet.’

The bus was passing the new golf course now on the other side of the new redbrick estate at Bartestree.

‘This used to be all hop fields once,’ Dora said.

‘It did,’ said Dorcas.

‘So where’s this cat now?’

‘On my sofa. But I make sure to put him out every evening so he can go home, and at least put in an appearance. I don’t want them to catch him in my living room and get told off again. What was I saying all that for? Oh, yes, that Polish man asking you for a tissue. Well, I called this cat Larry because he was as happy as Larry. And his real name turned out to be Harry.’

 

MARK CZANIK’s stories have appeared in The Interpreter’s House, Southword, Wasafiri, Cyphers, and elsewhere. He used to write poetry too, and plans to go back to it one day, along with drawing and learning Hungarian. He was born in Hereford, and currently lives in exile in Bath.

Cabinet Of Heed Contents Link 24

Image via Pixabay

A Cello Story – Heather Sager

Of course, the children still returned to have my mother’s cookies, to be petted about the head, but they never again came to hear her play the cello. To play with me—and my brother—in the open in our comfortable home, that Mother did not do either. Not since the incident. Sadly, the neighbors admired my mother’s technical skills—on that one occasion—then declined her future invitations. What had happened that night, shades drawn to our Ohio street as Mother played celestial music, my brother and I in our rooms? Though I couldn’t say it at the time—I didn’t know what to say when Mother cried in the kitchen—the neighbors were philistines. They did not know their Shostakovich from Oum Kalthoum, as Mother did.

Father was a digital parts salesman. He never once heard Mother play. He wasn’t the type to appreciate Music, he said. Music was always spoken of in a revered whisper in our house—because of Mother. Soon, Mother practiced only behind closed doors, sending out warm, arachnoid tones from her barricaded office. I imagined my brooding, faceless Mother as the oracle in the de Chirico painting.

Friends stopped coming. Breakfast dishes piled in the sink. A limousine came to take Father and he never returned after that.

Mother’s hair grew wild and she became strange—recklessly beautiful. I never sought advice from Mother—I, her daughter, her young pea. It seemed dangerous to do so. And so it was that one Sunday, when I returned from the mall, job application in hand, I found with utter astonishment that the house was abandoned. A screech of notes—violent, Schoenberg—came from Mother’s cello and the ventilation system. But I looked and Mother—she was gone.

Over the years I got such wonderful postcards.

 

HEATHER SAGER is a fiction writer and poet. Her work appears in New World Writing, Mantis, Sweet Tree Review, Little Patuxent Review, and other journals. Heather grew up in rural Minnesota and lives in northern Illinois.

Cabinet Of Heed Contents Link 24

Image via Pixabay

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: