On the Inside, Moon pulls without water. Head batteries go dead, and time stalls. Angie strikes the match inside her brain. Shield the flame, she tells herself, capture the gleam. Watch wind stir sea oats by the bay. Let the seagulls wail and the engines of small craft sputter. Seek a secret place to exult.
A soul-search by first-person Angie has tanked in a wide ocean of conflicting currents. Third-person Angie needs to sort muddle from mistake in a new plan of redemption, meaning escape. She images the license-plate outline of the State of Florida. An inlet, a toe of the sea would do her fine, but here she is.
All hail the slammer, the maceration facility, the Women’s so-called Reception Center. No meet-and-greet tea parties or covered-dish mac and cheese in this fishbowl run by men, done up by men, dumbed down by men.
On quest, Angie’s mind wanders, bumps, and bounces off concrete walls like the talk radio piped-in to keep the inmates amused. In the noisy off-on, she hears a song of siren’s warning.
Adrift at sea, beware ease. Teach your fins to walk, your mouth to please. Canvas empires with grander mer— manatees in senior years.
She composes a refrain to honor Trichechus manatus, the state marine mammal, once called the sea cow and pictured as a chubby mermaid:
Rash boaters, rethink speed and wake. Propeller blades lacerate. Manatees, awake! Vacate dredged channels and shallow lakes.
She feels like she’s shouting Fire! in a movie theatre, but her clarion call, her angelus, falls on deaf ears. Other sounds drown her out with second-hand words—ad jingles, jive, hymns…soul-search detritus left unswept, unwept.
Boaters who hit manatees gripe about their marred hulls. No one serves time for killing s sea cow. Angie’s cell mates include baby-snatchers, check kiters, and arsonists, but most of the women are murderers, lifers like her with a twenty-five-year turn-over. They come in slick young killers and leave prison as wobbly old ladies, rank as smoked mullet. Few on the Outside remember them or the fishy details of their crimes. Cep maybe the dead man’s people, an extended family of beloved junkies who have moved their tents to the intersection of Meth and Opioids. Who wants to put a nostril to their damn straw?
Talk about bad. Angie knows the official go-low drill: Find a ditch, head down, stay in place. She also knows under is only as safe as over. What goes up must come down. Angie wants to turn back the hands of time and go home to her backwater digs. So that the man she bludgeoned to death might fall in love with her. Bashed, he’s too broken to haunt her, but she wants to haunt him, drive him wild as penal statutes have forced her to become in prison.
Skip the brake fluid, the so-called psychiatric meds. She’s not thinking to catch a ride and get high on a bestie’s dope. Her escape, tricky for the average upright biped, involves force of will, iron-clad attitude with mile markers and rest stops. She reviews the three-part plan: female human to mermaid median to finny fish finale. As needed, she will remix her dots into different energy fields, tinted flesh tone to aquamarine to golden green.
These changes from human to poetic to feral bypass justice. Mermaids make their own rules. Fish swap out genders in crowded or polluted conditions. But who gives the ass-pass to a female convict, a felon? More than the mercury levels of the water, grammar is at issue. She can linger in first-person mer, but the odds are stacked against her survival as a third-person fish—he, she, or it. Angie has done her pronoun research. A woman isn’t a captive guppy. Or, a flounder with eyeball crossed anon as fountain fill, femmepurloined.
Angie flat out rejects a portrait painted by dead white male artist, Pablo Picasso. On the Other Side, the Seated Woman will cut him bad, pay him back for her trashed face. Like she’s turned flounder, crying a river over him. Wrong weep, wrong playbill. At Pablo’s hands, poor lady endured the searing grill. Not the Fountain of Youth. Only look-space on a museum wall. What with private-hire guards and alarm systems, Seated Woman might as well be in prison. Well now, Angie could repay society as a painting, set an example, hang by a wire and, real still in fester-mode, set the gallery on fire.
But she remains soleful, ha, ha. She can shimmy fins, fan the flatness of sand. She can hope a dreamy boy will admire her mottle and, by mistake, graze her scaled skin with his cherry lips as he bends to buss his vain reflection. Perhaps, kiss-boy will toss coins—small change for immortality, bubbler bliss. Hey, money’s money—all contributions welcome.
Love, luck, charity, ah fantasy. Life in the Big House is a dim font—chamfered with no second chance, no second glance. Spring-fed to pan-fried, Angie recognizes the harsh truth of her sentence. As is, her female self is too stubborn, too persistent. To break free, she must shed the feminine and do deep-sea time wending a switchback, reminding light sleepers of lost glory. But whose eye chink can fathom steep couloir?
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Practice makes perfect. Come evening, Angie will slip into the sea wash and swims for miles. Come dawn, she’ll takes a breather on the return trip and turn flying fish. Picasso can like lead paint. How pretty the tourmaline flash above crested waves!
For now, nearly merly in broad daylight, Angie tarries on the strand. Fiddler crabs, lefty maestros, rendezvous with careless clams. The sky is clear, and the sand cool under her belly. Rolling over, she tastes the sea on her lips and remembers her younger smelty self, still confident of flounce.
Behind bars, she has become a tad near-sighted. No big deal. Stranger things have happened than a tadpole in the eye. Think moat, no, mote, motel where she, tired, tired of him and smashed his brains like spermaceti across the pillows.
From habit, she squints as fleet dots become human joggers. She bares her bosom so they’ll run in place, show out, pant. They don’t. They watch man-meet-water, that primordial kingfisher saga about tall waders and cast flies reeling lures in wide zigzags across the surface.
Angie chides herself, sunbathing on the block, unloading human adages of self-help:
Pack a spare beach toga for upstart gene pool party. Tamp down your cunning sea comb. Learn to like beach volleyball.
She knows flirty banter is but merry pastime in the vast playground of the sea. As if mer girls cared about coastal hookers, arched back, famed snatch. Our tribal thing, she reassures herself, is certain dive to test leader, break line.
She craves revenge, a nonstop ballad of a small-town woman wronged—her. Given adequate food and shelter, she can make a comeback. Merness will fill out her ungainly spaces and starved innards. Full-figure for her return, she can loom in his eye salt, trespass in his everyman’s dream. Nodding off, he will ache for her wavy auburn hair, smooth shoulders, firm breasts.
On fire, he’ll gladly plunge into benthic trenches forging continents. Let him surface with the bends. Doubled over with lust, he won’t feel bliss. He won’t even feel wet. His lungs will snap like burning branches, again and again, as schools of carnivorous minnows devour his sleep.
Let him cry to the rock for succor. She’ll dart into the shallows. No need to hold her ground and stay on scene like the last time. With luck, a fish her size can make her way north through inland wetlands to the St Lawrence Seaway. Under the stars, she can follow cod and navigate the Outer Banks to North Sea landings made magical by Hans Christian Anderson.
Angie bursts into song. She has done her dunce time on crappers without seats. On her voyage, she’ll miss springtime on the river and fringe trees abuzz with bees. Such sweet haze, the drifts of pollen. Let cell-rats twitch their whiskers with envy. Bubble-gazers will proclaim that she, the fish bitch with adipose eyelids, schools at Wit’s End, the brink trolled by monsters, sea monks and swirlpools. Wit’s End, wherein ends reasonable doubt.
Angie must stay on plan. She’s worked hard to keep river green against ocean blue with silver moonbeam ladder for up and out. She checks her brain feed re: offshore breezes and sea chop. Soon she’ll be swimming past wetlands drained for golf courses downstream to the bay.
She must wait for the riptide. In a house without change, she needs tidal turmoil at the river’s mouth She imagines discharge of 155,000, 000 gallons per day. What math! What mouth! Fish spew. Phosphenes implode.
Gaol or goal?
Should be a picture postcard of a powerful fountainhead, right? A bold female numen, a potent avatar with red-eyed eels for hair. But doing time messes up the head poem. Sentence turns every variance into crime.
Or pulp fiction.
When the inquisitors arrive with stun guns and options for parole, Angie, dripping on the wet cement, proves uncooperative. She tucks in her gills and forgets how to talk. They poke, but she doesn’t wince at mention of the prince of a man she bludgeoned. They prod, she burps. She doesn’t let on that tough girl turned lifer destroyed what she loved.
She leaves them no choice. They throw her back with the others.
Charlotte M. Porter lives and writes in an old citrus hamlet in north central Florida. Look for her short story collections on Amazon and her flash fiction and poems in literary journals. Literistic publishes her serial novels. Her recent work, an adult puppet play, is part of a COVID anthology in press with Archway Publishing.
My husband left me for Pat Tillman’s mother. You know Pat Tillman; he of the long blonde hair flowing out from underneath his football helmet before it became de rigueur. The one who famously walked away from a multimillion-dollar NFL career to fight the bad guys after 9/11. The one who was killed in Afghanistan by friendly fire.
I never met Pat Tillman, but his ghost haunts me. I cannot get away from him. Even after all this time, hardly a month goes by that his name, his apparition, doesn’t bedevil me. My grandson wears a hat bearing Pat’s Run’s logo, an annual fundraiser for the Patrick Tillman Foundation. My sister texts me that on her Facebook page, someone posted it’s the anniversary of Pat’s death. After moving away from the San Francisco Bay Area, I find myself in the same city as one of Pat’s two brothers, the name Tillman periodically conjured up in conjunction with his wife’s law practice and his children’s books. If I only watch one college football game the entire season, it’s a sure bet that some footage will show Pat’s statue at Arizona State. At least once a semester in the college library I work at, I’ll get a rush of students looking for Jon Krakauer’s book, Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, which is required reading in some classes. “That’s with two L’s and one N,” I say as they type his name into the online catalogue.
My husband had broken it off with Pat’s mother right before Pat died, but his death brought them back together. Why did he have to die just then? As far as I was concerned, my husband could be with any other woman as long as it wasn’t her, she who was a colleague of my husband’s and sat at my kitchen table drinking beer before I knew my husband had already left me emotionally, pretending nothing had changed. A friend of mine who believes in reincarnation says I’ve probably been enemies with Pat’s mother for many turns on the wheel and, no doubt, sometimes, friends as well. I suppose I could be friends with her in another life.
But not this one.
I wasn’t gleeful when Pat died. No one would wish that on another mother, let alone a young man just starting out in his adult life. But it felt like karma, retribution. After all, I had lost someone I loved, so should Pat’s mother. The scales were in balance.
This is hard to write, and I’m not proud of how it makes me sound. And maybe you’re wondering why go there at all? What good does it do to dredge it all up? It’s been years, you say, and, of course, you would be right.
But that’s not how the human heart, this human heart, works.
What I’ve discovered, after all these years, is that grief isn’t linear. You don’t move away from it in a straight line. You orbit around it elliptically. The ellipses get bigger as the years pass, but sometimes the gravity of your life slingshots you back into the heart of your hurt and anger, and it feels almost as intense as it did when it happened.
I seem to be back at the perigee now.
I’m not sure what’s pulled me in so close this time. I’ve been pretty good lately about letting the past lie, looking at all the brilliant things in my life now that wouldn’t have come otherwise. I wouldn’t be living in this home that feeds my soul. I wouldn’t have this job that satisfies me. I wouldn’t have this loving (current) husband, wonderful (step)kids, fabulous grandkids, a whole new branch to the family tree.
Perhaps the coronavirus triggered it. Maybe it’s the fact that my (current) husband and I are snapping at each other, worn down from months of working from home, sharing broadband and printer time. (I still think of my (former) husband as my husband, and both of them are just my husband in my head.)
It might be because my subconscious is playing havoc with my sleep. I’ve been dreaming crazy lately: intense, sometimes violent, occasionally lustful, always anxious and featuring my (former) husband. The dreams are so confusing. Sometimes we’re still together and in love, and sometimes we aren’t. The pendulum swings from profound sadness to vicious hatred and, when I wake up, those feelings are roiling in me still.
I’m having a rough time of it lately, and I’m exhausted.
I’ve written about that time in my life many times before, trying to make sense of it, to find some epiphany, some tidy resolution, a way to corral it into a container and box it up. I’ve fictionalized it. I’ve written essays. I’ve created PowerPoint on it. Seriously. I’ve even written pretty pathetic poetry—with amazingly awful alliteration. But the peace hasn’t happened yet, and I keep trying. And, as I try, I am always reminded of a line from a made-for-tv movie, F. Scott Fitzgerald and the “Last of the Belles,” I liked when I was a teenager. Zelda says to her husband, “Seems like no matter who you start out writin’ about, it always turns out to be about us. Poor Goofy. I reckon you think that if you write the story often enough, maybe some time, some way, it will have a happy ending.”
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I think I’ve been writing for that happy ending for a long time.
I need to go deeper this time. I’m trying to be as honest to my feelings as they were then as I possibly can. I tell myself I need to get this shit out in the open, turn it over, and maybe it will finally compost into fertilizer, feed something good, and Pat can leave me alone. I will have exorcized him. And everything else.
Anger, I find, is so much easier to deal with than sadness. With anger, you have the crust to protect you from the core, but with sadness, you’re just split wide open. I think I’m scared to find out how much hurt I still feel because of them.
Them. There I said it. Not him.
So why is Pat Tillman at the center of my rage? He’s a goddamned national symbol. He didn’t have anything to do with my husband leaving me for his mother, yet somehow his spectre has come to symbolize it.
Pat was a defensive player, and I think I’ve got him protecting his line, his mother in the backfield. But I can’t go after her. Her son was killed. I spoke of karma before. I’ve got children I would be devastated to lose as well. It’s just too close.
Of course, the primary target’s deeper down the field than she. My husband. But I can’t go after him either. My children, my grandchildren, love him. I loved him once too. He was my best friend.
He was my best friend, and he left me.
And there it is, the molten core of my anger and the pith of my sadness.
I’m getting frustrated because dredging up these feelings isn’t helping. So, yes, I unearthed them, but some things are too tender to expose.
It doesn’t matter how deep I make myself go; I can’t change how I felt.
I can only change how I feel.
So, instead of being annoying, maybe these hauntings are my mind’s way of getting my attention about these emotions—not necessarily to do anything about them, but just to acknowledge that they exist. Maybe all the anger and hurt wants is to be seen and heard, and then maybe my subconscious will be appeased; I’ll have executed an effective end-around.
I’ve been sleeping much better as I write this, my dreams benign, so maybe I’m on to something. I’m watching the planet of my pain recede in my rearview mirror as the trajectory of my orbit pulls me away. I’m headin’ out—until I lose the tug-of-war between inertia and gravity, past and present, and get catapulted again around that corner, heading back on in.
But maybe I can lengthen the duration it takes for that to happen.
Life has no ending, happy or otherwise. It’s life that moves on, moves forward, and you need to go along with it, or it will just go along without you. These reminders that pop up in my feed, the memes of my previous life, I’ll just have to look at them differently. Feel them differently. Embrace them, if you will.
Yesterday I was texting my daughter, and I mistyped until and my phone’s autocorrect replaced it with I Tillman. There’s no way I could make this stuff up. But it made me laugh, and that made a difference.
It seems I’m going to be stalked for the rest of my life by Pat Tillman, for good or for ill, right or wrong, literally or figuratively. He’s never going to leave me alone.
But when I hit that next point of apoapsis, and I head back in towards the pain, I hope I’ll know how to deal with it better. When Pat Tillman’s shade appears again, I hope I’ll be able to say, Hi, Pat. Thanks for checking in. I’m doin’ okay.
It may not be peace, perfect peace, but maybe it’s a start.
Note: Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004. The initial report from the Bush Administration and the Pentagon was that he was killed in an exchange of gunfire with the enemy. Five weeks after his death, it came out that Pat was killed by his fellow Rangers, and officials had gone to great lengths to keep the circumstances secret. Six investigations were conducted, but none entirely satisfying all the contradictions. Pat’s mother, Mary Tillman, wrote a memoir, Boots on the Ground by Dusk, that details those proceedings.
My husband and Pat’s mother are still together.
Laurel Doud is an academic librarian at Fresno City College in Fresno, California.
Percy Rainbow felt he’d seen a lot in his nearly seventy years, though he really hadn’t. He started life in the deep south, migrated up to Baltimore to work in its factories in the late 1950s then made his way to New York. He had an older cousin named Ellwood who started a small printing business in the Bronx and offered to take Percy in and teach him the trade. Percy caught on all right, and when Ellwood died in the early 1980s, he inherited the business. Ever since that time, Percy had kept things going, though he never seemed to be able to make the business grow. He hired one assistant and was thinking of taking on another, but that was mostly because he was getting old. He couldn’t do it all by himself anymore. He’d been married for a while in the ’70s and had a son, but both the wife and boy left in their own good time, and he hadn’t heard from either in years.
It was a lonely life, but he had his business, he had his drinking buddies, and he had his neighbours. He also had his collection of guitars and occasional gigs in bars, where he sang and played the blues. He’d spent a good part of his life listening to recordings of old-time bluesmen like Leadbelly, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Muddy Waters, and he could play all their licks by heart. His singing wasn’t bad either, and he’d always felt he missed his real calling as a southern bluesman just by being born too late. He may not have had a career as a professional musician, but he did have a trunk full of original songs. He’d taken guitar lessons over the years, learned a lot about harmony and chording and studied music notation – something the great blues masters never did. He’d had many songs published, and more than a few were out there “on the circuit” – being sung by various singers and bands. He even received royalty checks – not nearly enough to support him, but enough to make him feel he was recognized. Many musicians and fans knew him, appreciated his songwriting and to him, being appreciated was what mattered.
He lived in a rent-controlled tenement building in the South Bronx. The place wasn’t great, and it wasn’t terrible. He’d never been robbed in all his years there, and he figured that was because robbers probably went to more affluent-looking places. Other reasons were the three strong locks on his door and the “neighbourhood watch” – the organized cadre of residents who kept an eye on things. He had a number of guitars that could be fenced, but he reasoned that when he carried one of his guitars to a gig, people only saw the case, never the guitar and never realized he had a whole collection of them and that several were quite valuable. Then again, they were mostly the acoustic kind, with the “f” shaped holes like a violin or the big round hole in the middle, and these were harder to fence and therefore less likely to be stolen than the much more popular electric guitars used in rock and most popular music. He called the latter “canoe paddles” – solid wood instruments that could only be used with an amplifier.
“Gas range, she ain’t workin’,”
It was Thursday, and Percy was a little more tired than usual after work. He stopped at the deli on the way home and bought several days’ worth of food – as much as he thought he could carry. He only bought a quart of milk because the half-gallon and gallon sizes felt as heavy as barbell plates. He bought a steak he planned to broil and some asparagus spears to boil on the stove. By the time the grocer piled the bread, potato salad, jar of peanut butter, canned veggies and a plastic cup of tapioca pudding into the bag, he wasn’t sure he could carry it the half-mile to his home, but somehow, he managed. Without a car, it was a long walk, but it was his main form of exercise, and as he’d never once had to stop and rest, he figured he’d be all right. As he walked, he wondered what he’d do when he couldn’t carry his own groceries anymore. Sure, you can pay people to shop for you, but one of these days, he’d retire and then who’d have money for such things? By the time he made it to the top of the three flights of stairs and started to fumble for his keys, he’d put all such thoughts out of his mind.
By the time he finally set his groceries down on the kitchen table, his hunger was dominating his thinking. He was really looking forward to the thick, juicy steak, and he put said steak on some tin foil, put it on a rack in the broiler section of the oven then turned on the gas. He dumped in the asparagus spears into a pan, placed it on the gas range and poured in some water. He turned the knob on the burner and stood there staring, waiting for the flame to come on. It didn’t.
“Damn!” he said when nothing happened. He put aside the pan, lifted the range’s top cover to see if the pilot light had gone out, then turned around, walked over to the oven, opened the bottom drawer and looked inside, hoping to see flames. He saw nothing but a pitch-black oven and decided to call one of his neighbours.
“Gas went off this aft’noon boss,” he was told.
“Anybody doin’ anything ’bout it?”
“Building super’s being sought.”
“Being sought? What the hell’s that?” asked Percy incredulously.
“I don’t know any more than you,” said the neighbour. “Being sought means can’t be found, don’t it? That what it means to me.”
“Sorry, didn’t mean to get on you,” said Percy.
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“It’s all right, man, we’re all pissed. The dude’s never done us wrong before, so he’ll show up, maybe tonight if we’re lucky.”
“But I got to eat!” said Percy, sounding like he was ready to cry.
“You got a microwave? Nuke you a dinner, man! I don’t even have one.”
“Yeah, man,” said Percy. “Talk to you later.”
Percy looked over at his small microwave oven. It looked pitiful on its small stand, nothing around it, like a lone soldier guarding a solitary post on the frontier, no one but his commander knowing he was out there. Suddenly the urge to write a song hit Percy. He was getting hungrier by the minute, but like Duke Ellington used to say, his head would already be on the pillows when that idea for a new song would arrive like the proverbial stork carrying a baby. Sure, the Duke wanted to sleep like anybody else, but when a good idea hit you had to get up and write it down before it was gone or that idea would leave you forever, kind of like the stork carrying the baby away because he thought you didn’t want it.
Percy walked into his tiny living room where sat his large, old Gibson “f” hole guitar. He picked it up and started strumming. He played it every day then scrupulously cleaned the strings with WD-40. The strings were kept so clean this way they didn’t even need to be tuned on some days. Percy went through a familiar 12-bar blues pattern centered on B7, A major and E Major chords and played a familiar “turn-around” used by generations of blues musicians. He smiled when he recalled that day in the late ’50’s when he first noticed that pattern. He was listening to the radio when Buddy Holly’s hit song “That’ll Be the Day” came on. In the middle was a guitar break that ended with just that blues turn-around. He’d never forgotten it. He thought about his current predicament and words starting coming to him. It was turning into a comical blues song – if there could ever be such a thing. It was about a fellow who could think of nothing but that juicy steak he was about to cook when he found his oven wasn’t working.
Percy juggled the words in his head for a while then wrote it all down on paper, chord symbols too. He’d been playing, singing and writing music for so long he didn’t even have to play a new song on his guitar to write it down; he just heard it in his head. A few minutes later he was singing the whole song from memory. “That’s what a little musical training will do for you,” he thought to himself. He picked up his big Gibson and ran through it with guitar accompaniment – just to make sure it sounded the way he heard it in his head – it did. Then another idea hit him; he’d call some of his neighbors, all stuck in the same oven-less boat, many of them without their own microwaves, and sing it for them. They’d have a few laughs then everybody’d pitch in with the food he’d ask them to bring and they’d have a sort of pot-luck cook-in, accompanied by the blues and a microwave oven. That’s when the title for the song hit him.
It took a few phone calls and some cajoling but gradually people started filing in, ’till he had eleven people in his living room, including himself. Somehow the shared experience of being without gas brought everyone together. Finally, they were all settled down and quiet. Percy used his thickest, hardest guitar pick, the one that produced the most volume from his guitar and he started with a chord lead-in then proceeded to sing:
“Gas range, she ain’t workin’,
“‘It’s a cook-out man!’ yelled one neighbor.”
Oven conked out too.
That’s why I be sittin’ here – Wit dem mean ol’ microwave blues.
I be sittin’ here nukin’, Nukin’ all night long. Hope I don’t glow in the dark By da time I finished this song!
Whole thing start on Thursday, When they cut off the gas. But I still got the juice on, ‘lectric comin’ out my ass!
I say I be sittin’ here, Wit’ dem mean ol’ microwave blues. Might make it till Monday But I won’t hold out to Tues.!
Wonder what I’ll cook me – Chicken or a roast Meat loaf or a pizza – Might make me some toast.
“I be sittin’ here nukin’, Nukin’ all night long. Hope I don’t glow in the dark By da time I finished this song!”
Percy ended the song with an improvised guitar solo, one that was pure blues. Even though it was instrumental it recalled everything from the field hollers and Negro spirituals of slavery days to the gravel-voiced “Oh-yeahs” of Louis Armstrong and the last few notes of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Percy hadn’t played anything like this in so long that even he was surprised by what came out, as his fingers flew around the fretboard and cajoled lonliness and heartache, even defiance out of his guitar. He ended his solo with guitar licks, ones that Buddy Holly’s song made famous long ago, only he didn’t play it like the slicked-up white man’s version from the record, but rather like the rendering of a blues man – someone who’d lived a long life, been around, seen it all, done it all. When he finished everyone sat in silence for a few seconds, like they’d just witnessed something rare and special. Then everybody commenced applauding and laughing, for the song and the whole get-together were more than a bit comic, an attempt to deal with one of life’s little adversities with humor.
Somebody yelled out “Got to get me some food!” as he got up and headed for the kitchen and the microwave oven. At that everyone rose and formed a line, with their food in their hands as they waited their turn to cook up a quick microwave meal.
“It’s a cook-out man!” yelled one neighbor. Another added “No, man – it’s a nuke out!” Still another piped up “No, man – it’s a nuke-in … with some blues.”
Doug M. Dawsonhails from Brooklyn, New York, wrote extensively for the US Defense Dept. and as a freelancer had some 40 articles and fiction published by car magazines (“Vette Vues,” “Corvette Enthusiast,” “Corvette” magazine). He holds degrees in music and computer science (American University, Univ. of Maryland, UMBC) has had his short stories accepted for publication by Academy of the Heart & Mind, Ariel Chart, Aphelion Webzine, Literary Yard, Scars Publications in the U.K. (3 stories), Scarlet Review and poetry accepted by Page & Spine.
Rosa, the widow of Andrés Romero, did not wear black to her husband’s funeral. Instead, she wore a bright red, skintight vinyl zip-up dress, bright red lipstick, and red faux-leather stiletto heels. Her mother-in-law gaped in undisguised outrage from behind her black lace veil, and even her own mother tried to usher her out of the church. It was no good. The new widow stood defiantly in the front row of the old Parroquia de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción throughout the funeral Mass, then took her place under the heavy black pall. Throughout the whole of the procession, starting on the steps of the church and proceeding in blistering shadeless afternoon sun along Cuesta de la Bolita, past squat barred-windowed brick apartments and dying gardens, Rosa was a glittering redfish in a sea of black ink. With her heels clacking and her bangles ringing, she gave the small Spanish town of Tarancón something to gossip about for the rest of the month.
Her husband waited to inquire about it until she came home and only did so with the utmost politeness.
“It’s not my fault you died,” she snapped, turning on the bathtub faucet at full blast. She unzipped her dress, shucked it off and tossed it on the floor. “I wanted to look how I did the day I met you. I’d been wanting to do that for one of our dates. When are you coming back, anyway?”
“I don’t think I’ll be back anytime soon,” said Andrés’ disembodied voice. “I’m dead.”
“Fuck you.” She sank into the bath so forcefully that water lapped over the sides.
On the edge of Tarancón, their apartment was one of many in a boxy, thin-walled brick building constructed back in the sixties. The couple had moved in a few months before their wedding three years ago. Rosa hadn’t cleaned often when times were normal, and since Andrés’ death last week, it had already become a chaos vortex of unwashed clothes and dishes.
They hadn’t meant to stay so long, in this town where both of them had grown up and where nothing much ever happened. Back when they were newlyweds ready to conquer the world, Rosa had assumed that their love would be enough to catapult them out of town in a few months. Her longtime dream of moving to Madrid to become a professional dancer had slipped away somehow, forgotten in her obsession with Andrés. Life happened: Andrés lost his job and spent months unemployed, and Rosa picked up the slack with her restaurant job. There was never enough money to move; it was never quite the right time. Her obsession with him turned into a clinging desperation as his eyes stopped following her, as he grew accustomed to a bride whose youthful body no longer held any secrets for him.
Now she folded her arms, still refusing to look in his direction. “I hear José’s still single. And then there’s your friend Antonio. Maybe I’ll call them both up.”
“Please, no. At least not José; he’s a scumbag.”
“These are going to charity today. I’ll have nothing of yours left in this house.”
“What do you care? You’re fucking dead.”
There was a long silence between them. Rosa leaned her head back in the water, washing the shampoo out of her hair.
“How’s the afterlife, anyway?” she asked. “Was it worth giving us up? It fucking better have been.”
“Haven’t been there yet. I’ve heard it’s good, though. Like being born again, but not into a place as sad as this. They call it the Land of Flowers.”
“Then why aren’t you there instead of here?”
“Well, no one can pass through that gate unless they truly want to go, and they can’t come back once they’ve gone. And I wanted to see you and say goodbye to you and make sure you’re all right before I go.”
“Why do you care all of a sudden? You should have cared when you were alive.” She almost looked back in the direction of his voice but forced herself not to.
“You didn’t show it. You ignored me.”
“It’s a little overwhelming to be drowning in an unlimited amount of Rosa while being expected to adore every atom of you the whole time.” His voice carried only a sad hint of the sarcasm that used to permeate most things he’d say when he was alive, but Rosa still felt the heat of rage rush to her face and ears.
“But I’m concerned, Rosa,” he continued before she could retort. “You ironed all my clothes and polished all my shoes before my funeral, which I appreciate, but you know I won’t be around to wear those anymore. You even made me a coffee and breakfast, which looked delicious, and I would have eaten them if I could, but I can’t.”
“Well, you weren’t here to do your own laundry or make your own damn breakfast, so here I am being the dutiful wife. Why’d you get into that stupid crash in the first place? How dare you do that?”
“It wasn’t my fault, Rosa.”
She jumped to her feet and whirled around towards his voice, water sloshing out of the tub. It was coming from the open window just outside the bathroom. Behind the thin white curtain, she could see the shadowy silhouette of the late Andrés Romero.
As soon as she focused on it, his shape disappeared.
“Get back here!” she cried, stomping over and yanking the curtain aside. When she leaned out the window, she saw not a single human shape up or down the street.
“Fine,” she muttered bitterly, shutting the window and locking it. She wrenched a towel off the bathroom rack and dried herself off.
His voice came again from behind her, as clearly as if he were inside the house. “I’m sorry I have to hide, Rosa. It’s just that I’m dead, and I’m a little insecure about it. I don’t want you to see me like this.”
Refusing to look back towards him, she marched over to the bedroom closet, still naked, pulling out armloads of his clothes and throwing them on the floor.
“These are going to charity today. I’ll have nothing of yours left in this house.” She lifted a framed photo from their honeymoon off the wall and smashed its glass pane on the floor. “Getting rid of that stupid project car of yours too. It’ll be like you never lived here. I’m twenty-four. I’m going to start all over again. I’m going to live a new life.”
No response came. She looked over her shoulder, saw no one, and let out a few more strings of curse words in case he was still around to hear them. Then she sank to her knees and gathered his clothes up against herself in bunches, clutching them as if ten of his empty shirts could somehow equal some fraction of a full embrace.
“When she woke in the evening, the room was empty.”
He next appeared two days later as Rosa woke up well past noon after a full twelve hours of sleep, finding herself splayed facedown in the middle of the bed and clutching the twisted blankets and sheets in a sort of nest. Back when Andrés was alive, she knew he would have scooted her back over to her side of the bed in an instant, grumbling under his breath. Now, all he could say was, “Feel better?”
“No.” She rolled over. “Let me sleep.”
She lay awake and stared at the ceiling for an hour.
She glared. “What, you’re still there?”
“Yup. Look, Rosa, you can’t just keep living like this. Also, aren’t you supposed to be at work? Do they know what’s going on?”
“Guess I’ll just lose my job, then.”
“I know you hate working at that restaurant, but now that I’m dead, you really need to—”
“I haven’t had a break from anything since I married you, not from work or from cooking and cleaning or from hearing you talk your shit all the time, and now I am taking that break.”
“You shouldn’t be all alone like this. You should be with your mamá or your sisters. Or you could call my mamá even—she’s not easy to get along with, but she’ll at least cook a—”
“They all hate me, and they all think I’m trash anyway, especially after that funeral. Besides, I’ve told you a million times, I pushed everyone away when I married you because they told me it was a bad idea, and I can’t go back. I should have listened to them.”
“I wore what you wanted. I pretended to enjoy things in bed that I didn’t. I gave up going to dance conservatory in Madrid. I gave up my backup school plans….”
“We need to talk about what you’re doing with the rest of your life.”
“Are you going to keep micromanaging me like this for the rest of my life? Aren’t there plenty of dead whores in the underworld for you to enjoy now that death’s done us part?”
“That’s enough, Rosa. You need to figure out some sort of career now that you’re the only one taking care of yourself—”
“Like you ever had one!”
“—and you should probably start dating again. A hobby would be a good idea, too.”
She laughed. “What, start dancing again?”
“Isn’t that what you’d be doing if you hadn’t married me?”
“I don’t even want to think about how much I wish I hadn’t married you.” She lay back on the pillow for a while, then sat up slowly and looked around for him. She could see his silhouette behind the curtain again.
“How’d you get out of that coffin, Andrés? I saw them lock it. I saw them bury it.”
“I go where I want, when I want, now that I’m not one of the living. Though I’m the same man, they buried.”
“Why do you stand over there? Come over here.”
His shadow didn’t move.
“Come on,” she said again. “Can’t I see you and touch you?”
“Well, as I said, I’m the same man they buried.”
“You can’t be that bad, and I need you now.”
“You identified my body at the police station. You know what that crash did to me.”
“I guess, but I don’t remember. My memory must have cut that part out of the camera roll. Besides, that wasn’t really you. Just a torn-up piece of meat.”
He gave a sigh, the same sigh that had infuriated her for the whole of their marriage, that always told her that she wasn’t about to get her way. “I will come closer, only if you agree to keep your eyes shut and don’t try to touch me. I will sit in the chair next to the bed until you fall asleep.”
She shrugged. “I’ll take what I can get.” Obediently facing away from him, she lay back down. She heard the floor creak under slow, careful footsteps, heard the chair shift as he settled into it. She lay there for several minutes, considering breaking the agreement and turning to see him before she fell asleep.
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When she woke in the evening, the room was empty. Hauling herself out of bed, she picked up the red vinyl dress off the floor and zipped it back on.
“Where are you off to in that?” she heard him say.
“Going out. Going to have some fun.”
“Prowling for fresh meat tonight, aren’t you?”
She plopped down on the bed dejectedly, pulling her stilettos on. “I need someone to touch me. Someone I can close my eyes and pretend is you.”
“That’s a terrible idea.”
“I thought you wanted me to date.”
“Not like that. Take your time, find someone responsible and stable who’ll treat you—”
“I need someone tonight. You can’t stop me, not unless you’re willing to take my hand and drag me into that grave of yours and take me with you to wherever you people go. The Land of Plants, or wherever. So we can keep having stupid arguments like this forever and ever.”
Hearing a dead man sputter was almost enough to make her laugh. “You… I… Look, I’m… that’s not… don’t think like that… don’t make me think like that!”
“If you won’t take me with you, don’t you dare tell me not to look for someone else. I need… I need to be beautiful. To be treated like I’m beautiful.”
She waited through a long pause, then heard him give that infuriating sigh again. He seemed to do that more often since his death than when he was alive.
“Careful, then. Don’t drink too much. I’ll keep an eye on you as best I can, but don’t you have any friends who can go with—”
“All my friends are fucking married.”
“… she heard a shrill male scream, and José rushed out with his pants unzipped and bolted for the door.”
A few hours later, she came home.
“You’re alone,” he said.
“Couldn’t find anyone I was into. Stupid idea. Anyway, I realized taking home some drunk idiot for a one-night stand won’t make me feel any better.” She could feel tears start to prick at the insides of her eyelids and hid her face in case he could see.
“Remember to think about your life, too.”
“Come here and touch me, Andrés.”
“Yes. Go, please go. I need… I need some time.”
The next day, she called José. That night, they went out to dinner.
She had dated José for a few months in high school before meeting Andrés. He’d been cool back then, a whole year-and-a-half older than her, an aspiring rapper, a real ladies’ man. Since then, he’d put on about thirty pounds and worked his way up to being a branch manager at a banking franchise, which suited her just fine.
She tried to converse as a normal single woman, but found it impossible to talk about her life without mentioning Andrés every step of the way. She felt dull and superficial. José, on the other hand, did Andrés’ memory no favors, slurring on Andrés’ few months of unemployment, his later bartending job, even his music tastes. “Bastard thought he’d gotten you forever, Rosa, but we know who got the last laugh now, don’t we? Your good old first flame.” Rosa rolled her eyes but ignored the smear, because before they left the restaurant, José had at least told her what she wanted to hear: “Rosa, you are so beautiful and I have been thinking about you ever since we broke up. You should have been with me this whole time.”
She brought him home. When they got there, she poured two glasses of wine, then fixed her lipstick in the bedroom mirror while José stepped into the bathroom, saying he’d be just a minute. About thirty seconds later, she heard a shrill male scream, and José rushed out with his pants unzipped and bolted for the door.
“I saw him! I saw HIM!!” José cried, before bursting out the door. She heard his car engine start, then fade quickly into the night.
“You owe me a screw, Andrés,” she growled, moodily sipping her wine.
“I told you he was a scumbag. You never knew the things he’d say about you and your body, even after we got married—”
“He was the only man I could think of who’d be enough of a scumbag to go out with me a week after my husband dies.”
“I’m sorry. It’d be easier for me to watch you sleep with a stranger than with him. Did I tell you what he did at my bachelor party? Remember he was married to Manuela at the time—”
“I don’t want to hear a damn thing about your bachelor party. You told me you all you guys did was watch the fútbol game.”
“Well, I lied. Anyway, José lost his wedding ring inside the stripper and didn’t realize it until—”
“I didn’t pick him for his upstanding character, Andrés. Also, someone’s got to help me finish the rest of this bottle.”
“I can’t drink it. I’m dead.”
“I suppose you’re going to tell me you can’t get it up because you’re dead, either.”
She put down her glass and wandered over to the bed, stripping off her red dress as she went. “We’ll see about that.” She slid her undergarments off, tossing them in different directions around the room. Leaving her stilettos on, she climbed onto the bed, posing on hands and knees, arching her back to tilt her hips upwards. She slid one hand between her thighs and slowly began to rub.
“Still can’t get it up?”
She heard that sigh again. “Okay, Rosa. You win. You’ve given a dead man a boner. Happy now?”
“Of course not. I want a lot more than just hearing that you’ve got a boner.”
He was silent for a few long seconds. She swayed her hips in the air, still rubbing. In her mind, she played through all their best memories as vividly as she could: the night he’d first taken her home in that stupid red dress; the time she’d straddled him in the surf, on their honeymoon in Valencia; the few months of wildness here in this room, before it all started to wear off and before she was suddenly nothing but a wife.
He gave his signature sigh yet again. “Fine. But you have to promise not to look at me, okay?”
“Okay. You can even blindfold me if that turns you on.”
“Eyes closed is fine.”
She heard his footsteps move across the creaky wooden floor, and felt the edge of the mattress depress as he put his weight on it. She kept her eyes closed as she felt two hands take hold of her hips and run up and down her back. “Oh yes, Andrés,” she whispered. “Oh yes.”
The hands were cold, though. They were softer than before, too, and moist and slippery. Something in the air smelled strange; rotten and sickly sweet.
She held her breath, letting her mind soar into a perfect world, letting the funeral and burial and the misery of widowhood melt away. She fantasized about his lips on hers, his hands tracing circles around her nipples. She pictured his strong hands and forearms, his lean, muscled chest and abs, the dragon tattoo on his left pec and the crucifix on his right. The image became so strong that she instinctively rolled over to face him, and in doing so, she opened her eyes.
Then she screamed, and pulled away from him and jumped off the bed.
“I told you not to look!” he shouted. She tried to run and immediately tripped over her stilettos, face-planting on the floor. A retch jumped up in her throat, and she pulled herself up on her knees again, vomiting the remains of her date-night dinner on the rug.
“I… I need…”
“You need me to go?”
The sweet, rotten smell was overpowering now, seeming to restrict her throat and choke her as strongly as a hand. The smell of a decaying corpse.
“Yes. Go, please go. I need… I need some time.”
She turned her face away from him and heard his footsteps rush across the floor to the window, and then she was alone.
“… blurring her vision and clouding her mind until her world went black from complete exhaustion.”
After he was gone, she leaned over the bathroom sink and finished clearing the bile from her throat, then stared at her face in the mirror for a long time. She’d looked good at the beginning of the night, but now her eyeliner ran in streaks, and her skin looked drawn and clammy.
The sight of his corpse wouldn’t leave her mind. She focused on her own face instead, trying to block out his mangled image, but instead saw the state of his face juxtaposed over hers. Her own face was torn up, with the nose missing and half the skin burned off, and the lips twisted up on one side, showing far too many teeth.
The memories that she’d clung to for so long were gone now, probably marred forever by what she’d seen. He was dead now and wouldn’t get any less dead. The night ticked slowly by. She finished the bottle of wine. Everything around her—the off-white walls of the apartment, the marriage bed, the pictures of them together on the wall—started to feel less and less real. Andrés’ ruined face kept intruding on her mind, and that was when she started toying with the kitchen knife.
At first, she considered whether the knife was the best method and visualized which way was most botch-proof—just jab it in? Slit her own throat in front of the mirror and hope she’d have the nerve to cut deep enough? Or just prop the blade up somehow, use bookends or firm pillows, and fall on it? Maybe a knife wasn’t the best bet. She could use bedsheets to hang herself (from what? The shower curtain rod? Would it support her weight?) or try to make a reasonably fast-acting cocktail of over-the-counter painkillers. She could crash her car into a tree.
If you won’t take me with you, Andrés, then who says I can’t go after you myself? Be your bride in the afterlife? She couldn’t take the thought of him loving someone else in the Land of Flowers. And if she lived her life out until death found her in old age surrounded by great-grandchildren, wouldn’t she enter the Land of Flowers as an old woman while Andrés had stayed forever young? What was so wrong with her dying young and pretty, to be together forever in tragedy?
She tossed the knife away, watching it skitter across the floor. She made her way to the bed and lay down, then took out her phone and began scrolling through old photos of him, from back when he was alive and handsome and before everything was all wrong. All the date photos, beach photos, hanging-around-and-goofing-off photos. She began to cry. The tears came slowly and unnaturally at first, then the faucets turned on, and her face crumpled, and she sobbed and sobbed. She pressed her face briefly into the pillow, then kept scrolling.
There were wedding photos on her phone, too, which brought a sudden wave of bitterness now. She closed her eyes and let it pass, trying to understand what it was all about, letting the pain roll until she realized how badly she wished that she had never married him in the first place. Was it because she knew about the strippers at his bachelor party? That didn’t seem to fit as an explanation now—maybe if he was still alive, she’d throw a fit, but now the thought just bounced dully off her brain. Her longing to step into those photos faded now. She felt numb and lifeless.
She scrolled back before the wedding. Mostly dance photos now; a few semi-professionally-shot music videos; selfies with friends dolled up for a dance competition or a night out. A few date photos with Andrés. And here, she realized, was where she wanted to go back to. Not to the past days of their marriage—who knew how long they’d have lasted, anyway? Another couple of years?—but to those days before. Start over.
She had loved Andrés, for sure, but there’d been something wrong from the start. She’d needed him or thought she had. She’d needed to be beautiful, needed it more desperately than she needed Andrés or dance conservatory in Madrid. However, they were both means to the same end. Being beautiful and perfect; feeling wanted, admired, desired. She must have thought marriage would give that to her because enough was never enough in dance. But it was the same in marriage.
She glanced again at the knife lying on the floor.
Maybe she’d loved him, maybe he’d deserved every ounce of love and done the best he could with it, and maybe she had already committed some form of suicide to be with him, two years ago, at that wedding.
Her mind began to widen out as if stretched by holding thoughts that it had never held before. She saw realities and futures branch out like city streets leading in opposite directions. One led into the shadows of the life she could have had with him, which she would have taken for granted if he had never died, being ignored forever and indefinitely, nagging and begging until something snapped. Conversely, she also saw the life she could have had without him if she’d listened to her family and her friends and gone to dance school instead: the late, hard-partying nights in Madrid, in between competitions and performances and video shoots and relentless practicing, and the makeup and the staring at herself in the mirror and the dietary obsessions. It was gone now; she was years out of practice and too old to compete with eighteen-year-olds. She longed and ached for that future as she itemized it and boxed it up, realizing how much that unacknowledged longing had dug into their marriage since the beginning, deepening the pain under the numbness of being taken for granted.
But the one future that stayed dark was the one into which she was headed, without Andrés and without those youthful dreams. Every time she tried to see through that darkness, her mind hurt uncontrollably. The tears came again and again, blurring her vision and clouding her mind until her world went black from complete exhaustion.
When he did not, she pulled away from his grip, the opened her eyes and turned around.”
A few days later, the widow of Andrés Romero wore black.
She had emptied her husband’s closet, donating its contents to charity. She’d even fetched a fair price for his half-finished project car, letting some collector tow it out of the garage on a trailer. Now, early on a Sunday morning, she stood by his grave in her high-necked black dress and black lace mantilla, holding a bouquet of white lilies and roses, memorizing the sight of his engraved name and epitaph.
She bent down and laid the bouquet on his grave. Tied to the bouquet were a photo of the two of them—the one from the wall, whose frame she had smashed—and a thick cream-coloured envelope containing a several-pages-long handwritten letter. She’d tried to convey everything she needed to in that letter and had been up most of the past two nights writing it.
As she straightened up, she heard a voice from behind.
“I’m just here to look out for you, Rosa. I’ll protect you as long as you need me. Forever, if need be.”
She felt a hand trace down her spine. She closed her eyes, letting the ecstasy of human touch wash over her, but did not look back.
“Nothing can take me away from you,” he murmured in her ear.
“Andrés, I’ll be okay. It’ll be a while, but it’ll happen. I can’t move on with my life until you’re gone, and I want you to go to the Land of Flowers. Isn’t there a lot waiting for you there? This world isn’t the place for you anymore.”
“I’m afraid. To go. I’m afraid to be without you, to be alone. You’re my soul, Rosa.”
She closed her eyes, feeling the tears start to prick behind them, realizing she’d been waiting to hear words like that throughout their whole marriage. Why did they have to come now, of all times?
“Neither of us can stay here, standing between life and death. I’m leaving town. I’m leaving our home and your grave behind. You should go too.”
“No.” His voice had a desperate, trapped-animal edge to it now. She felt his hands take hold of her shoulders. “You need me, and I’m afraid of what will happen to you.”
“Andrés, I can’t be okay until you’re gone.” She kept her eyes closed. Her voice was almost a whisper. “Let go of me.”
When he did not, she pulled away from his grip, then opened her eyes and turned around.
No one was there.
“As she pulled out of the driveway, she found herself smiling.”
She had left the apartment in complete disarray after getting rid of his clothes and halfway packing her own things for a move. Still, when she got home, everything had been neatly put away, and the floor had been swept clean and scrubbed. The pile of dresses and blouses that she’d pulled out of the closet and tossed on the bed had been folded and packed into the cardboard boxes she’d brought home yesterday; all the kitchen utensils and dinnerware sat in two more boxes in the hall.
“Where do you plan to go?” She could see a shadow behind the curtains.
“Madrid. Going to start over, somewhere where no one knows me. Going to look for a job that I don’t hate. Think about putting myself through college.”
“What about dance?”
“That dream’s gone. I need new dreams. Don’t worry, I’ll get them. But what about you?”
“Dreams?” he murmured.
He paused for a long time before she heard his voice. When it came, it was soft and distant. “…Without you, now there are so many.”
As she watched, the silhouette blurred and faded away until only rays of sun were left, streaming in through the thin curtains.
She changed into jeans and tennis shoes, hauled the boxes into the trunk of the car, mailed the key and the final check to the landlord, and climbed into the driver’s seat.
As she pulled out of the driveway, she found herself smiling.
C.L. Baptiste’s short stories have appeared in Aphelion, Mithila Review, and Lamplit Underground under various pseudonyms. She resides in the U.S. Pacific Northwest and is currently working on her first novel.
Beckett knew he was being followed as soon as he stepped out of the bookies. It was an instinct you developed after a lifetime in the business – someone in your peripheral vision, standing too still or pausing too often, or the pale flash of a face turned in your direction.
The instinct could go wrong, of course. He knew all the stories, and there’d been moments over the past few years when he’d wondered whether he was cracking up himself and would end up like Old Frayn, who – he’d heard – was now in a psychiatric ward, convinced that everyone who visited him was a North Korean spy.
But this time, he knew it wasn’t simply paranoia.
Maintaining his usual slightly dour expression, he walked on, ignoring the urge to look ’round. Two doors down, he paused in front of the plate glass window of Greenberg’s Suits For All Occasions, pretending to examine their array of unimaginatively displayed men’s jackets but actually scanning the reflections to see whether he could spot anyone suspicious. Two people passed along the street behind him – a young woman pushing a pram and a middle-aged man carrying two plastic bags of shopping. Across the street, a couple of women were standing in front of the window of Marks and Spencer, deep in conversation, and three teenagers were lounging on the benches ’round the fountain in the square. No obvious North Korean spies there, he thought, his reflection smiling sardonically.
Then he spotted what he was looking for – a tall, slender man in a dark coat, who stepped inside Boots just as Beckett’s gaze fell on him. It could have been a coincidence – or it could have been the action of an experienced agent or even a cop. But it wasn’t just his behaviour that snagged Beckett’s attention: the man looked somehow familiar. Beckett had seen him, or someone like him, before, though he couldn’t think where.
What should he do? So many years after his retirement, it seemed unlikely that someone from his past would be here now to shake his hand and tell him he’d won the jackpot on the MI5 lottery. No one was supposed to know where he was, who he was, what he was. Even his wife, May, hadn’t known precisely what he’d retired from. If this guy was an agent, it couldn’t mean anything good; if he was someone from one of the terrorist organizations Beckett had infiltrated, it would be a great deal worse. And why hadn’t the guy just approached him in the usual way? It was broad daylight, and even spooks knew the rules of normal social interaction.
But maybe he was wrong. Maybe the tall man wasn’t following him at all. Maybe Beckett was succumbing to paranoia. A life like the one he’d led tended to take its toll.
Inside Greenberg’s, an assistant was straightening a jacket and glancing at him suspiciously. A better move, he thought. There’s only so long a man can gaze at a shop window convincingly. He took out a cigarette, lit it, and walked on. Before she died, three years ago, May had tried to stop him smoking, telling him it was bad for him, but he enjoyed it, so he compromised by smoking only outside. It soothed his nerves.
As he walked on down the street, turning right onto Lowry Road, he desperately wanted to turn his head and check whether the tall man was following, but he knew better.
There was a café at the end of Hogarth Row, where it joined Lowry Road, crowded at this time of day. Beckett ground the remains of his cigarette into the pavement with his toe, then – cursing himself silently – he bent down and picked up the squashed stub, slipping it into his pocket. Might as well leave a trail of breadcrumbs, he thought, allowing himself a quick glance ’round. He was out of practice. He dodged through the café’s doorway just as a family group were coming out, then slipped between the tables to the back where he knew there were toilets. The place was packed, windows misted with condensation; it reeked of hot fat and bubbling batter, a smell that would have made his mouth water any other lunchtime. The young man behind the counter nodded at him – he was a regular customer – and Beckett tried to force his grim face into a friendly expression.
He pushed open the toilet door. The sharp smell of disinfectant met the salt-and-vinegar of the restaurant, and a wave of nausea rose in his gullet. The door swung shut behind him. The room was empty, a short urinal on one side, a single cubicle, its door open, in the corner beside a cracked sink. A large sash window, textured glass, half-filled the wall at the end, a twisted plastic Venetian blind doing its best to add an extra layer of privacy. Thank God he’d remembered the window correctly. It was open a few inches, the plastic blind rattling gently in the breeze off the sea. Using all his strength, he yanked it up as far as it would go. It squealed and grunted in protest, but he ignored the noise. It wasn’t much of a drop to the alleyway outside.
As he clambered through the gap, the door between the restaurant and the toilet swung open, letting in the noise of conversation and the gurgling coffee machine, and again the pungent odour of frying fish. A boy about thirteen stared at him in astonishment, his mouth falling open to reveal multi-coloured braces on his teeth. Beckett put his forefinger to his lips. The boy continued to stare at him. Then, with an agility unusual in men his age, Beckett slid through the aperture and dropped carefully and quietly to the ground. Glancing up and down the empty alley, he made a rapid decision to head towards the seafront. As he began to run, he heard the window behind him rattling. Someone was leaning out, but he daren’t look back to check whether it was the boy with the braces or the tall man.
“The man gave a weird half-smile, the edge of his mouth twitching as if Beckett had made a feeble joke.”
The alley led out onto the promenade, not far from the pier. It became a different place here, the sober Victorian town centre giving way to grubby bunting, garishly striped awnings, and kiosks piled high with boxes of fudge, kiss-me-quick hats and sugar dummies the colour of old-fashioned prosthetic limbs. Beckett skimmed the street, taking in his surroundings swiftly. Every third shop seemed to be a newsagent’s with racks of postcards in its doorway and inflated beachballs hanging over its windows. The pavements were crowded with strolling families in flip-flops and shorts, holding ice-creams and plastic buckets and spades. Hot, sugary smells – doughnuts and candyfloss – drifted above the sour scent of seaweed, making him feel nauseous again. Bursts of pop music from the arcades accosted him, a bingo caller’s amplified voice reverberating from across the street (‘Are you ready, ladies and gents?’) – and he could hear a more distant, older cry from the fairground further along: ‘The louder you scream, the faster we go!’. For a second, the world felt uncanny to Beckett, like he’d stepped into an old Joseph Losey film, or the dislocating cacophony of a Graham Greene novel.
And there, standing in the shadow of an old lifeboat across the promenade, was the tall man, dropping a cigarette stub on the pavement and grinding it out with the toe of his shoe, as if in mockery of Beckett’s earlier actions.
He was staring straight at him.
But how could he be there? Beckett knew the man hadn’t passed him. If he’d taken a different route, how had he anticipated where Beckett would go?
At least there was now no doubt that the man was following him.
He felt himself trembling. He’d never been a nervous type; it didn’t go with the job. But there was something about that long-boned figure that made the hairs on his neck rise, digging out memories he’d rather stayed buried.
His training took over. He looked away, glanced down at the floor, stuffed his hands in his pockets and fell into a casual amble, threading through the crowds that spilled off the pavements into the road. When Nash Street branched off at a crossroads, he took the left turn, down the main high street in the town, then darted across the busy road and headed off down Turner Lane, a narrow, cobbled alleyway between a mini-mart and a pub. He knew this was a shortcut to Dadd Street, which ran ’round the edge of the Old Town, parallel to the high street, and he could dart into one of the quiet shops there before his pursuer could get down the alley.
On Dadd Street, moving quickly but not quite running, he crossed the road to a small gift shop with a dark interior. The door tinkled as he pushed it open, and an old man reading a newspaper behind the counter looked up, without interest, and muttered a brief greeting. There was no one else in the shop. It was a dusty, gloomy sort of place, shelves holding second-rate souvenirs and cheap children’s toys, mugs decorated with photographs of the seafront, little ships and miniature lighthouses made out of painted driftwood. Pretending to examine the dreary merchandise, Beckett lurked behind a display of plastic ships-in-bottles and fake Scrimshaw near the window, inspecting the street.
Though he knew he was right to think the man was tailing him, it was still a shock when the tall, slim figure emerged from the mouth of Turner Lane, scrutinising the street quite openly now. He was the kind of man you’d expect people to notice, with his exceptional height and that skinny frame, but no one on the street seemed to give him even a first glance. Beckett had a sudden feeling that maybe only he could see him, but he dismissed this idea immediately. No point in giving in to such ideas. His next impulse was to confront him, to step outside, walk across and ask him what he wanted, what he was doing here, why he was following him – but he knew this was just the adrenaline coursing through his veins. He’d learned years ago that, sometimes, there are moments when it feels easier – when it feels like it might even be a relief – to give yourself up rather than endure a second more of excruciating terror. These are the dangerous moments, the ones you need to guard against. The moments when you need to regulate your breathing, focus on the task at hand. Fear is the killer.
Besides which, he had no weapon, not even a knife. When he left his house that morning, to visit the bookies and pick up a newspaper, he hadn’t expected his past to creep up on him in the street, on its spidery legs. He’d thought he was free of all that. And, anyway, he suddenly knew, with a shivering certainty, that he could never voluntarily confront this man. There was something about him that was quickening his heartbeat and making the gooseflesh rise on his arms.
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Beckett pulled his head back into the shadows, but he was sure the man had spotted him, as he had begun to look for a gap in the traffic so he could cross over to the shop. Seeing the man’s angular features clearly now, a newly-lit cigarette cupped in one bony hand, Beckett realized where he’d seen him before. He’d been there when O’Leary was killed. He’d been standing a little behind the gang leader, off to one side, in the shadows, when Beckett shot the sadistic bastard in the chest and then in the head, just to make sure. Presumably, one of O’Leary’s entourage, though not one he’d recognized. A new guy, perhaps. He’d darted away, deeper into the shadows, before Beckett could shoot him too. When Beckett chased after him, he’d vanished into the shadowy alleyways ’round the docks. The other agents said they hadn’t seen anyone running away in that direction, but they hadn’t been as close to the gang. Beckett remembered that gaunt frame and that cruel face – small, deep-set eyes peering out from beneath a bony brow, above prominent cheekbones. A large, hooked nose and solid, heavy jaw. He looked like he’d been carved from granite. In fact, Beckett wasn’t sure, now, how he could ever have forgotten that face.
O’Leary’s death had been just over a decade ago. His final undercover mission. He retired soon afterwards. Infiltrating the IRA cell had won him a commendation. Later, after he discovered that the man he’d killed hadn’t actually been responsible for the kidnapping and torture of two fellow intelligence agents, as he’d been told – that in fact, he’d killed the wrong man (though a man who surely deserved to die nonetheless) – his previous certainties had crumbled like sandstone. Beckett had killed a lot of people in his career. Still, even though he knew how much of a scumbag the Irishman had been, he’d never quite shrugged off the unease he’d felt when he pulled the trigger that last time. On some level, he’d known they’d got the wrong man. He’d killed him out of fury, a reckless sense of anger and a desire for retribution, punishment for all the sordid brutalities committed by men like O’Leary that had discoloured Beckett’s world.
It had faded over the years, this sour lump of disquiet in his gut. Still, he sometimes dreamt of that winter evening, in another, much drearier, seaside town, so far away from here. That greasy wharf, the creak of the sea against its struts, pushing the tied-up boats up and down in the darkness, casting peculiar moving shadows. The look of surprise on O’Leary’s face when a man he trusted put a bullet through his chest. He dreamt about it sometimes.
And he remembered, with a sick sense of inevitability, that the tall man had been in all those dreams.
You could never really shrug off the sort of life Beckett had led. It always followed you, close as a shadow; however, many years passed by.
The tall man had almost reached the shop’s door. Beckett stepped back towards the counter, pushing the shopkeeper’s newspaper aside so he could look straight at his outraged face.
‘Is there a back way out?’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘A back door? Is it through here?’
‘You can’t go back there! That’s private, that is!’
Beckett shouldered the man aside, pulled open a door behind him, and stepped into a tiny kitchenette. Thank God it wasn’t just a storeroom. There was an external door at the other side of the room, with a cat flap. To Beckett’s relief, the door was unlocked, though it was stiff and took some tugging before it opened. He half-fell down a short flight of concrete steps that led into another cobbled alley. A black cat scooted behind the tall dustbins which stood at either side of the steps, overflowing with junk. Beckett could hear the sound of the tall man following him through the shop, through the back room. Panicking, he decided to head right. He knew that way he’d be close to the promenade and the pier, again – lots of people around, potential safety.
However, before he reached the end of the alley, he heard the tall man’s feet on the cobbles behind him. And suddenly, he was engulfed by a giddy black sense that it was all over. Instinctively, he felt for the gun he no longer carried. Why would a grandfather like him need to carry a gun?
Slowly, he turned.
The tall man was standing only a few feet behind him. Beckett could see now that, beneath his long black coat, he was wearing threadbare jeans, patterned with dark stains, and a loose-knit woollen sweater with holes in it. The coat looked new, and it flapped around the man’s long, thin legs, in the wind tunnel of the alley, with the noise a flag makes in a strong breeze. A black beanie pulled low over his forehead accentuated the sharp ridges of his bone structure. Except for the coat, which Beckett remembered him wearing when he’d seen him standing behind O’Leary – so it couldn’t be new, after all – he looked like a weather-beaten fisherman. It was almost a caricature, a fancy dress ‘seaside town’ outfit. But he was too thin, the thinnest man Beckett had ever seen. He looked like a man in the late stages of cancer, but he also looked – somehow – immensely strong.
And there was something else odd about him.
‘Who are you?’ asked Beckett, his voice thin with stress. The man gave a weird half-smile, the edge of his mouth twitching as if Beckett had made a feeble joke.
Then Beckett realized what it was about the man that looked wrong. The sun was shining on Beckett’s face, making him squint a little and stretching his own shadow out over the cobbles behind him. But there was no shadow in front of the tall man.
“his nostrils and drifting off on the breeze, and began – slowly, relentlessly – to walk towards Beckett.”
Panic overwhelmed Beckett. Stumbling slightly as he turned, he fled down the alley, desperate to getaway. He moved now like a hare fleeing from a fox, giving no thought to others, his mind a swirling chaos of terror. His training deserted him as he sped along the promenade, clattering down a flight of wooden steps onto the beach, scrambling across the expanse of pebbles that marked the edge between manmade and natural, past groups of astonished sunbathers. He could hear the scratchy rattle of the stones as he ran, and slipped, and ran again over them, then a kind of silence as he reached the edge of the screen and his trainers slapped against the smooth wet sand by the sea’s edge. All he could think of was escape and sanctuary.
After a few minutes, with no evidence of pursuit, he began to calm down, the worst of his panic subsiding and rational thought kicking in. Feeling exposed on the sand, he cursed himself again, dodged ’round two children staring into a rockpool, and began toslow down. The crowds were thinning out at this end of the beach, where the tide seemed to be coming in a little faster, waves foaming over the sand like fingers clutching at a life-raft. Beckett fell into a brisk walk, glancing around and behind frequently. Eventually, he forced himself to stop, to turn slowly, scanning in all directions. Off to his left, back along the beach, a child was throwing a frisbee for a border collie to chase, and a family group was packing up their deckchairs and windbreaks. Further inland, a young couple were strolling arm in arm, and three bikini-ed women were lying side by side like steaks under a grill. The gaudy noise of the seafront had receded to a background hum, like a fading recollection, and the smell of the seaweed draped along the sand in dark green strands was more intense.
The tall man was nowhere to be seen.
Half-sobbing, half-laughing with relief, he looked out over the grey-blue waves and tried to pull himself together. He made a conscious effort to slow his breathing, steady his heart rate. He’d kept a low profile in this town for ten years, so he didn’t want to draw attention to himself now by galloping over a crowded beach like a madman being pursued by demons. A lone seagull swooped through the air above the sea’s edge, screeching loudly, the sound filling Beckett’s head with images of screaming children. He gritted his teeth and shook these thoughts out of his mind. Got to get a hold of myself, he thought. Get my bearings. His hand went to his forehead, pushing his sweaty hair from his face as he peered around desperately, then down at the sand around his feet, like a man who’d lost his wallet. Scraps of sweet wrappers, crisp packets, lollipop sticks embedded in the sand; the straw from an empty orange juice carton; glossy pink shells and rounded pebbles; sea glass smooth as a jewel.
Beckett looked up, squinting against the sun. Between the beach and the road, a familiar higgledy-piggledy collection of black, clinker-built fishing-net huts stood. He’d seen them often on his walks, and he’d always found them slightly disturbing. They were unusually tall and thin, and he always felt they might topple over and crush him, their horizontal black weather-boards filling his thoughts with distorted images of endless parallel lines. As he stared at them, the tall man stepped out from the narrow, shadowy space between the closest two. He took a long inhale of the cigarette held between his lips, tendrils of smoke curling out of his nostrils and drifting off on the breeze, and began – slowly, relentlessly – to walk towards Beckett.
Beckett heard his own voice muttering ‘No, no, no!’ and felt water slosh over the tops of his brogues as he stepped backwards into the waves. Soon the sea was above his knees, but he continued to stare at the tall man, who maintained his unhurried stride towards him.
Then, with a sudden terrifying movement, Beckett turned, splashing through the deepening water until his feet felt only the movement of the sea beneath them – then swimming, with wild, determined strokes – then, at last, breathless and hopeless, waiting for the current to carry him to freedom.
Louise Wilford lives in Yorkshire, UK. Her poetry and short stories have been widely published, most recently in Bandit, Failbetter, Jaden, POTB, Makarelle and English Review. In 2020, she won First Prize in the Arts Quarterly Short Story Competition and the Merefest poetry competition. She was awarded a Masters in Creative Writing (Distinction). She is working on a fantasy novel.
All day, I’ve struggled not to remember the day, but my cramp has been building, and I sit clutching my belly. I confront my dinner, seeking the culprit: another thing to eliminate.
My coffee’s decaf. (Decaf is safest after heart surgery, so I’m hoping it’ll help prevent heart surgery.) No dairy. (When I was five, I had diarrhea after a pint of ice cream: I might be lactose-intolerant.) White bread-and-vegan-mayo sandwiches. (Grandma has high cholesterol.)
Nothing left to eliminate: everything that could hurt me is already gone.
All day, I’ve kept my eyes on my work, but now they steal towards where Aurora’s portrait used to hang. We got an old-fashioned studio portrait on her first birthday. Afterwards, I was desperately relieved to have one more thing to hold on to. But it became one more thorn in my heart: so the portrait’s gone, leaving behind its spot on the wall.
I stare at the telly. I’ve muted it: less scary so. A microwave has exploded in a Munich flat. “This was probably an accident,” says the reporter in the subtitle, “Though police are considering arson….” The resident had a vengeful ex-boyfriend, who’s been spotted lurking in the neighbourhood. Fortunately, the resident was dispatched on a last-minute work trip last night.
“The property damage is minimal, though the noise frightened neighbours….”
My throat clamps closed. Forcing it open, with swallows of sugar-free milk-free caffeine-free coffee, I absorb the news. Munich’s just 6,000km away. What if Savazios had blown up my microwave? Aurora’s death wasn’t my fault, but he blamed me: I saw it in his eyes.
Time to lock away my microwave. Why have I deferred this? Grandpa warned us about microwaves. He was prescient: splashed across every newspaper, now, is Cancer! I confront my Sunday dinner. Yes: I’ll make do with cold sandwiches and cold-stirred decaf every day. Hot food today isn’t worth the risk of being blown up tomorrow. I unplug my microwave oven. I’ll eBay it later; for now, I haul it out of sight: to the storeroom, formerly Savazios’s office.
It’s a small room; it’s been a long three years. I nudge the door half-open. Photo frames, anniversary gifts, rocks and twigs picked off the forest floor on weekend walks half-spill out. (We didn’t call our walks ‘hikes’ or ‘forest bathing’ – that was hipster, and we felt smug together, resisting fads. But our smugness was airy: it left room for laughter and fresh air.) I thrust the microwave oven into the clutter. I relock the storeroom-door, and slump against it, massaging my belly.
I’m used to grief cramps – what the doctors call psychosomatic symptomology. Now I get them only on significant dates. I’ve locked away the calendars: but my gut masochistically marks time.
Today’s cramp is worse. It’s sapped my self-control: I’ve allowed myself to say their names. I swore not to do this to myself. Someday I’ll confront the past. Meanwhile, it’s only sensible to lock away the things that can cripple me. Microwaves and photo frames. From my cardigan pocket, I dry-swallow another paracetamol. Tomorrow I’ll awake cramp-free and memory-free. I heave myself up and clear away my half-eaten dinner.
I finish my assignment: blueprints for Manchester’s first pagoda. I sign my name. Anna Rossi. I seal the blueprints in an envelope. I can’t face leaving the flat today. I’ll nip down to the lobby early tomorrow, when only the guard’s nodding, under his cap, over his desk.
I was an architect. Good enough that when I became housebound, they let me draft from home. I am an architect. I can still see a few buildings through my windows and as many buildings as I want in the books I get delivered to my lobby.
Time for bedtime checks. Windows: now opened a chink (don’t want to suffocate); opened no more. (Last December, in Tours, a pigeon flew through a window into a flat, couldn’t fly out again, shit and flapped all over, terrified, and terrorized the old couple, one of whom then had a heart attack.) Rubbish-bin, lidded and lifted for the night onto the counter. (Yesterday, in the lift, a resident told her great-grandson there’d been rats on her honeymoon ocean-liner in 1923.) Rat-traps: set. Radiators: not leaking. Power-sockets: not afire.
Bedtime. I spend the first half of the night drifting in and out of nightmares. They’re abating: now, when I awaken, I remember them for a half-second – then they’re gone.
Sleepless, I run checks a few more times. There’s not much left, now, to check.
“Her jaws close on my forefinger. Playfully, pressureless – but lightning-fast.”
Past midnight, I awake, gasping. My gut feels ready to slip out my backside. Convulsions sit me up, then double me over. Even gasping hurts. Is it my gut? I’ve eaten nothing unusual. Nor does this feel like grief cramps.
Suddenly it’s here, and I’m on my feet, and I realize what this is. Arms clutching my abdomen, I stumble to the bathroom. My head swims. How can it be? Savazios left weeks after Aurora died. I’ve been alone for three years.
In the bathroom, I lower my pyjama shorts. With a final convulsion, my body ejects something. I feel it in my pants: a puddle, slimy soft. Well, I know what to do. I didn’t know I was pregnant; I can’t possibly be, yet here we are. I perch on the bathtub’s edge and plant my feet, knees apart. I ease my pants down around my knees. In a puddle of mucous and blood – swim two mites of flesh: hairless, obscenely nude, squirming.
What have I given birth to? Another monstrosity. Panic cramps my larynx. Vividly I see myself fleeing the scene. That’s what I should’ve done three years ago: fled this flat, where only guilt lives, bashing its head against the empty walls.
I massage my larynx. Gently I lower my pants to the white tiles. I squat. I peer. The mites of the flesh are two creatures, each about an inch long. Their skin is a transparent sac: taut over pink-and-black innards, sealing in the black dots representing eyes and ears. I know what I’ve had. Rats.
Does their skin seal in their mouths, too? How will they eat? I offer a fingertip. Breath, tiny but warm, scopes me; then two tiny mouths nudge my fingertip, and toothless gums nibble me. So: the sacs don’t seal the mouths. They can eat.
I withdraw my hand. I must make this decision rationally. Undecided, I squat and stare. My cramp disappeared the moment I ejected these things. I could flush them down the toilet, incinerate my pants – and, tomorrow, resume a normal life. I didn’t ask for any of this. I am not guilty.
My hand’s found its way over to the mites again. They nose blindly around my fingertip, seeking a teat. They whine.
If I were thinking, I’d be again overcome with revulsion, paralyzed. I’m no longer thinking. I scoop them up in a white terry hand-towel, clean them up as best I can – they’re tiny, and I’m afraid of squishing them – and carry them in the palm of my hand to the fridge.
Here’s the milk carton. (I still keep milk: in case a starving street cat sneaks through the window-chink, and only a milk-offering can save me from her wrath.) In my palm, the two morsels wriggle, rearranging themselves, seeking the warmest crannies. They’re cold. I must heat the milk.
I reopen the storeroom. The microwave oven topples into my arms. I microwave the milk, one second at a time. I remember: it must be warm, not hot. I’m not used to microwaving a thimbleful of milk. But I remember to check the temperature with my elbow.
My babies love to sniff!
I’ve set them down right at the saucer: still, they sniff blindly around, wriggling away; it’s sniffing that brings them wriggling back to the saucer. They sniff while they drink. They knead the saucer as if it were rat-teats; they must knead to release milk. Sniffing, snorting, they get milk-soaked. All through this, they’re fully blind, half-asleep. After their meal, I swaddle them in a fresh hand towel, tucking it around them, their noses unobstructed.
Again I confront the storeroom door. For three years, I’ve been half-opening the door, shoving things in. Now I need to step inside. I thrust the door open. Things spill out. I kick them back in. Then, remembering, I kneel, pick them up, fight my way in, and lay down further inside the things that’ve toppled out. Here’s Muncher’s crate.
After a short illness, Muncher died peacefully at 21: he felt no pain, and I felt no surprise. Still, his loss, treading on the heels of the others, overwhelmed me. I vowed: no more pets.
I dust Muncher’s crate, bed down inside it, my babies’ towel-swaddled, and lock the door. I’ve never raised rat-babies: better safe than sorry. Dog-crate by my pillow, feeding-alarms set for every half-hour, I go to bed. Perhaps this is just another nightmare.
I half-hope it isn’t. I’ve been clinging to what my life has become. Now I see what my life had become.
The alarm awakens me. I’d fallen asleep! Fully asleep. I lie, in the darkness, waiting for the nightmares to recede. Looks like this time, I wasn’t having any. Through the grill, I check my babies under my two forefingers, two tiny heartbeats race.
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All week, my babies’ bodies stay pink-skinned, their eyes and ears skin-sealed. All day, I watch them: sleeping, feeding, whining, squirming. Checking again for abnormalities, I run my finger down their tiny bodies, palpitating with their heartbeats impossibly fast – but normal, Google reassures me. Their bones are spongy as cartilage. Again I count their appendages: four toes, plus one ankle-hoof. Tiny toes whittled by microscopic elves.
Skilled elves: my babies are perfect, and there’s nothing wrong with them. Under the translucent skin-sacs, their facial features grow. Then they protrude. Into the smooth eye-sockets protrude rubbery black raisins. From either side of the skull protrude tiny rosebuds. Their eyes and ears are coming.
I tried putting my babies in the kitchen, in the sun, while I worked: but I kept nipping around to pore over them. So now I keep them by myself. I peep at them every minute – but my work’s getting done, too. Details over which I’d vacillated for hours now fall into place. How was I ever so silly as to agonize over trivia? I carry them around, even on bathroom breaks: tucked into my cardigan pockets, lined with paper napkins. This phase – I remember – won’t last this blind, deaf, total dependence.
They mustn’t suffocate. So, instead of closing the windows to a chink at night, now I leave them half-open.
The eighth morning, my final feeding alarm awakens me from sleep, still nightmare-free but awakens me to panic. Across our bed, sunrays fall, aslant, on something sick-shiny. My babies have wriggled, out of towel and crate, up against my calf. But what’s wrong with them? Why do they lie, unmoving, where Aurora lay that morning? My heart is preemptively bursting, preparing me for tragedy. But, this time, my resolve is steeling me to deal with it. Nobody knows about my rat-babies. If they’ve died, again for no fault of my own, I shall flush them down the toilet. I sit up and fumble at them. My eyes adjust to the sun in them. Now I see. Fur!
It’s just fur that they’ve begun growing: still thin and colourless, but already lustrous. That’s all the sick-shine was. Laughing, I clutch my babies to my bosom. They wriggle and squirm. Flush my babies down the toilet, indeed! I hear the hysteria in my laugh; only now that the terror has passed do I feel it shaking me. My hysteria ebbs, leaving only soft relief. At two weeks old, their eyes open: black and sleepy. Their ears pop free of their skulls and nestle, still flat, in their fur. The fur’s gray now, but still just a dusting, just shielding their raw pink nudity. Babyfur, softer than safety.
Three weeks. I run my finger down their backs, neck to tail. They’re as long as my index finger. Springy muscle, and bones no longer spongy, resist my finger, now. Life is growing up against. But they’re still babies: they whine with pleasure and squirm into my fingertip massage. I watch them constantly; still, again, their next metamorphosis happens overnight. I bid my half-nude mites goodnight and awaken to find them in fur coats big and fancy. They’ve been playing Castle between the crenellations of my toes. Hearing me laugh, they come scurrying, nosing my lips, welcoming me to their new day, unself-conscious of their new beauty.
At four weeks old, the dull gray of their infant fur differentiates into their adult colours. One baby is mostly Cocoa, the other wheat. I give Cocoa and Wheatie the run of the flat. Hither and thither, they scurry and scamper: whiskers quivering, pink noses glistening.
Always their globe-trotting expeditions terminate at the Bermuda Triangle: the storeroom door. They rear up: forepaws hanging, fore-wrists lax. They turn on me, black eyes glistening, begging. I open the storeroom door – but don’t let them in. If they got in amongst my life’s rubbish, I’d never find them again.
I go in alone to retrieve toys for my babies. The books I bought after my losses. Books on trauma, grief, and healing. Cocoa shreds them into ribbons.
I retrieve Muncher’s toys. To a rubber chew-ball textured, tennis-ball-sized, Wheatie clings two-handed, like a drunken pilot, whiskers wriggling like Medusa’s snake hair. Heart in mouth, I watch her. What if she topples backwards and gets steamrolled by the tennis ball? But, dancing awkwardly, she stays aloft.
They fish out a fountain pen from the calligraphy set I gave Savazios on our first anniversary. Savazios never filled the pens: he’d always wanted to try calligraphy, but even with a set, he never got around to it. And he took nothing with him when he left: not even his clothes. He had the right idea: walk away from everything. When did I appoint myself museum-curator of our lives?
“I’m the world’s worst museum-curator,” I confess to Cocoa, scratching her neck with the pristine gold always-empty nib. “Exhibits all tossed away in the backroom, unlabelled.” Cocoa’s got an idiosyncratic pleasure point right of centre from where her skull meets her torso; a brief scratch here has saved me many reward pellets during training. As I scratch, Cocoa’s eyes close, hoarding the privacy of her pleasure. Her right hindleg windmills: she thinks she’s scratching herself.
I laugh. When will she outgrow her silliness? Muncher never did. Affection surging, I squeeze Cocoa. Her jaws close on my forefinger. Playfully, pressureless – but lightning-fast. My babies’ nonhumanness astonishes me.
Also astonishing: I’ve remembered what to do.
I thought I’d forgotten. I thought forgetting was my only hope.
“As the tears stand in my eyes, refusing to fall, I laugh at my own folly.”
Wheatie spends hours peering out the balcony door on hind legs, which I’ve kept locked since the prank.
A harmless prank: but, coming when it did, it did me in. First, we lost Aurora weeks before her second birthday. She’d been born with a unique heart defect: the doctors had given her two years. Savazios and I blamed one another when she was born. Not in words: but, for us, there were no more walks-not-hikes. I awoke one morning to find Aurora, as usual, in our bed – she was always crawling out of her special crib into our bed – but that morning, she hadn’t made it past my calf. After the first shock of grief, Savazios and I again blamed one another, again not in words.
Then Savazios left. Then Muncher died. Then, one morning, alone in the flat, I awoke, shivering in the draught, to find the balcony door ajar. A sticky note on the glass: I took a plastic spork from your takeaway in the trash; sorry, I was dared to climb up here and take something, and your door won’t close from the outside, sorry.
I opened the balcony door, leaned over – we’re on the third storey – and retreated, shut the balcony door, had a lock installed that evening – and it’s been locked since. For it was after the prank – which shouldn’t’ve mattered at all, which I should’ve laughed at – that I finally heard the universe shouting at me: ‘Enough. Life is not for you.’
Now I watch Wheatie watching the world through the glass. I prostrate myself behind her, wondering what she can see. She promptly abandons her studies and climbs into my hair. I give her a hand to battle. She’s as big as an adult, with the energy of a teenager. She roughs up my hand; I sit up and cease play. Acknowledging my that’s-too-much signal, she sits back at once: but her whole body quivers, pleading. She darts back to the balcony door, standing again, peering out, now scratching the glass. Cocoa, distracted from her mid-afternoon treasure-hunt under the bed, joins her.
They’re nine weeks old. For six weeks, I’ve wondered: Should I open the balcony door? I’ve made a series of concessions. I’ve let them root in the rubbish bin: there’s never anything spoiled or sharp in there. I’ve let them in the bathtub: they seem immune to drowning. But, about the balcony door, I’ve vacillated.
Back at work across the drawing-room, I watch my babies still scratching at the balcony door. Fully grown, but noses still pink, quivering with the moist curiosity of babes fearing no tomorrow. Have I the right to fear, for them, what they don’t fear for themselves?
Scratching the glass, they look like they’re running. Running nowhere, trapped here with me.
If I were thinking, I’d be again vacillating, paralyzed. I’m no longer thinking. I cross the drawing-room. Hands clasping the balcony door handle, I brace myself. Do Cocoa and Wheatie know what door handles are for, or is it my stance that cues them in? They jump onto my socked and slippered feet: meerkat-standing, sniffing the door-crack. Craning their necks up at ridiculous angles, they beseech me with galaxy-bright black eyes.
Air rushes from the world across the balcony into me. I stumble out and steady myself, hands-on banister. With slow forceful breaths, I massage my gut out of its clench. The breeze stirs on my face: sun-warmed, autumn-sharp, bursting with smells red, blue and yellow. My senses are overwhelmed; I close my eyes and slow my breath.
Cautious, quivering, my nose sniffs the world’s scrambled smell-rainbow, picking out memories. Honey-roasted peanuts. Wine. Leaf-fire, smouldering.
I used to be able to identify leaves by their smell. After the flames envelop them, they all smell the same, but they smell different when they’re just smoking. Hickory. Chestnut. Oak. Had I known I’d be hibernating for three years, I would’ve hoarded these smells for my long winter.
I open my eyes. The sky’s too blue: I can’t face it yet. I peer below. The vendor across the street is hawking honey-roasted peanuts in paper cups and mulled wine in styrofoam cups.
‘Mulled.’ ‘Styrofoam.’ Out here is the world, still. In my head are the names for things, still. The tide surges up my throat. The joy that it’s all still here. Sorrow that I’ve wasted three years of it. Joy and sorrow compete in my throat, threatening to choke me.
Squeals at my feet half-awaken me. Stunned by memories and the world, unthinking, I shut the balcony door behind my babies, who’ve scurried away.
Motionless above my head, now in my face, a wingspan wavers, blotting, briefly, the afternoon sun’s indolent gold. A falcon lands on my banister, a foot away from me. Fully awake now, I look him in his golden eyes. His wings fold away and under. He regards my babies, safe behind glass, and turns on me eyes fire-bright, ice-cold.
I stand paralyzed, waiting for the panic to rush me into action. A microwave oven exploded 6,000km away? Quick, lock away my own. I lost a fetus, then lost a baby, then lost my husband? Quick, lock me away. I wait for my panic, but instead, up my throat rises something else. I recognize it when I hear it.
Laughter. Not hysterical, this time. Raucous.
The falcon starts, flaps a bit, then steadies himself and glares. I laugh harder, clutching my stomach: but my stomach is all loose now, loose with laugher. There’s nothing to hold onto: and that’s alright, for there’s nothing to hold in anymore.
I wipe my eyes and clap my hands. “Boo!” The falcon flies away.
I reopen the balcony door. My babies scamper back into the wine-drunk sunshine and huddle against my ankles. “So, my explorers, is that the end of your intrepidity? You’ll stay near me, now, eh?” They will, but perhaps not forever. And that’s alright.
It wasn’t my fault. Birthing a sick child. Losing her. Losing my husband. Losing Muncher. Getting pranked. None of it was my fault. But neither was it the world’s. So why, to punish the world, did I lock myself away?
The instructions the universe shouted at me three years ago were right: for three years ago. As the tears stand in my eyes, refusing to fall, I laugh at my own folly. The tide that was surging up my throat, threatening to choke me – ebbs, dissipated by my laughter. Leaving only soft froth. Leaving, in grief’s wake, rebirth.
My first life was terrifying. So would this second life be if I were alone? Thank god my babies are with me.
Amita Basuis a cognitive scientist by day. Her fiction has appeared/is forthcoming in CommuterLit, Bandit Fiction, Toyon, Bewildering Stories, Flash Fiction Magazine, Gasher, and other magazines and anthologies. Her nonfiction has appeared in The Curious Reader, Deccan Herald, and other venues. She lives in Bangalore and blogs at http://amitabasu.com/.
“I always knew I wasn’t normal,” Hank thought to himself, eyes folded into his chubby baby fat face in the mirror on the visor. Even at twenty-six, he looked like a fat baby, hardly any beard yet. He never felt grown up. Maybe because he stayed back a couple times.
“Hey, wake up. We’ll be at the station soon,” said his big brother Al, “I don’t know why the hell you’re going now, Hank. You couldn’t wait till after the holidays?”
Hank sat up higher in the car seat. This was his time to say goodbye to everything familiar and painful. “Nah,” he muttered. “I gotta go now because they invited me for Christmas, and I don’t know if they’ll ever ask me again.” He ran his hand nervously through his black hair, smelled the Vitalis on his fingers. Bad habit, he knew he would have to stop doing that when he was with strangers. He’d have to stop thinking abnormal thoughts, too. “And I don’t have any friends here…I never did.”
“You got us, ya dummy! You got two little nieces who love you.”
“Fran doesn’t like me that much; the girls are okay with me,” Hank muttered out the window of the Desoto, which he’d rolled open because he was sweating out so many secrets. That his heart broke to leave the girls. He loved holding them, the way they clung to his leg, and he dragged them through the house. That he couldn’t let his big brother know he had to leave because he was attracted to men, not women, and not in a normal way.
“Ah the hell with her. I’m the boss in my house, and you are my goddamn brother!”
And mostly the goddamn brother had to leave because he’d been in love with Al since they were kids—one of the biggest ways he knew he was abnormal—and he knew he could never tell him or anybody else around here how hard it had been to roughhouse, or go swimming with him, to suffer his jibes. He cast a glance toward Al’s profile, pretty much like a movie actor’s, his shiny black hair, his strong shoulders. Soon he’d never have to look at his brother’s good-looking face or body again. And he’d be free to be whatever the hell he was supposed to be.
Maybe in California, he could become the whole him.
Hank took a long look out the passenger window as they passed his old red brick high school on Chapel Street. The high school where he got beat up by a bunch of classmates when he was sixteen. It was because he wrote that paper about sex, a subject that fascinated him. And he got an F minus. Not because the paper was bad. He did a lot of work on it at the library, knew it was good, was very proud of it. Because the old maid teacher was a prude. She was embarrassed by it, so she flunked him and wouldn’t discuss it with his mother or anybody else.
He thought about sex a lot, read about it a lot, probably since he’d never had it, and he wanted to have it, bad. Even in the service when there were lots of chances, he could never bring himself to touch anyone with the tenderness he felt so keenly. But those guys knew something even he didn’t let himself know at eighteen. They flirted and teased him, walked around with their muscled chests bared in the barracks even on cold nights, passing by his bunk more times than necessary. He hated his two and a half years in the Army.
With its snazzy white stripe on a sleek green body, the sleek Desoto, spotted with mud and rock salt around the bumpers and white wall wheels, pulled up in front of the New Haven Station. It would be great to get away from another slushy winter and feel some sun.
“Well, okay, Al, thanks a lot for the ride,” he winces and smiles sidelong at his brother, opening the car door, heaving himself over to get out fast. He didn’t want to cry in front of Al.
His brother’s face reddened. “Hold your horses! You got twenty minutes; what’s the rush?”
He kept his back to Al. “I gotta use the boys’ room.”
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“C’mon, wait five minutes! So, you stayin’ with Evelyn and them out there?”
Hank sat back on the edge of the car seat. “For a few nights. Then I’m gonna look around a little, maybe go up to San Francisco.”
His brother growled at him in envy. “California. Boy, I wish I was goin’. You can make a lotta money out there, y’know.”
“Yeah. I wonder what kind of food they have out there. No New Haven Apizza or fried clams p’rolly.”
Al jeered, poked at his gut, and Hank recoiled. “Ah, you always find enough to eat. Wouldn’t hurt you to lose a few pounds.”
“I try; it’s hard. I love food, especially at night.”
“Make sure you get back in time for Memorial Day cookout—kosher hot dogs splitting open on the grill, eh? With Mom’s sauerkraut recipe? I make it good.” Al turns off the car. “I’ll get your bag, walk you in.”
“Nah, no need.” Al, jumping out, slamming the door, never did listen to him. It was like Hank’s voice disappeared in the air just outside his mouth, never to be heard by anyone but himself. Al pulled the medium suitcase out of the trunk; Hank took his bloated briefcase under his arm and pulled himself up out of the car, stepping over a frozen drift at the curb. The two, pelted with stinging sleet, dashed into the station’s waiting and ticketing area with its monotone drone announcing comings and goings of trains on the PA over the hushed bustle of excited travellers happy to be getting the hell out of New Haven.
“So? You wanna talk about anything?”
Hank felt on the spot. “Nah, not really.”
Al sat down on an ancient wooden bench and pulled him down to sit, too. “I want you to have a good time, okay? I know it’s been hard since Mom died. For me, too. For you, the hardest”
Hank grunted “yeah,” and was suddenly overcome with tears. Al was taken aback.
“Hey, hey! I know you miss her; we all do. She missed Dad, so it was good she had you living there with her those last years.”
“It’s not just that…” snuffled Hank.
“What is it??”
“I gotta go to the bathroom, Al. I’ll see ya, okay? Take care, okay? Tell the girls I love them.” He got up to gather his stuff.
“Okay, Hank, okay. Write us a postcard when you get there, okay? Hey! Gimme a hug.”
Then Al grabbed his kid brother and pulled him chummily clumsy but close, saddened to feel big sobs coursing through that big body of his.
“Hey, hey, hey….” Hank’s face crumpled into his brother’s shoulder for a moment—it was the closest they had ever been—then he wrenched away and ran with his stuff, as if unhinged, toward the train portals and away from everything he knew. And everything that knew him.
Melanie Chartoffis a lifelong stage and screen actor residing in Los Angeles. She is a first-time author of “Odd Woman Out: Exposure in Essays and Stories,” rated 5 stars on Barnes & Noble and Amazon.Find her on Twitter and Instagram.
Tina braced her hands against the dashboard of the car and looked into the snow-covered landscape.
“Okay, okay, don’t worry. I’ve got good tires.” Paul eased up on the gas.
“But not front-wheel drive like Dad’s car.”
Paul smirked. “If you weren’t so skinny you could give the car more weight.” He shot a sly glance at his stepsister.
“Oh yeah, very funny!” Tina tried hard to sound annoyed but she was used to her stepbrother’s quirky sense of humour. She expected a certain playful immaturity from a high school senior. Tonight he had treated her to a movie, a belated birthday present. During those two hours new snow had fallen. The streetlights stood like sentries along the road and gave off an otherworldly glow. Random snowflakes tumbled towards the headlights as if they had lost their way and were searching for a home.
Paul steered the car around the corner.
“What’s that?” Tina pointed to something by the side of the road. “Maybe you should stop.”
“You really want me to stop?”
“Yes, I saw something.”
Paul gave the brake pedal a quick touch and skidded to a halt. Tina opened the door and looked back.
“Paul,” she whispered. “It’s a person. Oh God, is he dead?”
Both stepped out of the car and stared at the figure in the snow bank.
“He might still be alive. We can’t just leave him here The least we can do is to call an ambulance.” Paul fumbled in his pocket and looked at his cell phone. “Damn, it’s dead.” He looked down at the figure. The man’s eyes were closed. Was he smiling?
“The dead man smiled. What a title for a movie. Come on, let’s go to the house there. They can phone the ambulance.”
Paul pushed the chime button on the front door. A man answered. His eyebrows shot up in surprise when Paul told him of the find in the snow.
“My wife will call 911,” he offered. “I’ll come with you. Let me get my jacket and a flashlight.”
When they arrived at the snowbank, he shone the light into the face of the figure sprawled there. “Hm. Strange. He looks familiar. Couldn’t be sure, though.” He shook his head. “I wonder how he got here. Very tragic.”
Far away, they heard the sirens of the ambulance. That was fast despite the icy roads, Tina thought. She shivered in the cold wind. That smile, it’s unreal, as if the man had been glad to die.
“No pulse!” one of the attendants shouted as he knelt by the frozen man. “Let’s get going and try to revive him.”
The man from across the road looked at Paul and Tina. “Glad you stopped. Good of you to care about this person, even if it might be too late.” He waved and walked back to his house.
Neither Paul nor Tina spoke during the last stretch home. At the front door, Tina looked at Paul. “I have a funny feeling about that man. He might not be dead.”
Paul chuckled. “You’ve seen too many movies. Better sleep on it. Want a sandwich?”
“No thanks. See you in the morning.” Cold shivers still ran down Tina’s spine. I probably dream about it, she thought. Before she drifted off to sleep, thoughts about her mother came to her. She had only been two years old when her mother died. Death caused by a drunk driver, her father told her when she was old enough to understand. Tina’s dad had married again, and her stepmother was the only mom she knew.
Sometimes she would look at the picture of her mother. It was displayed in the hallway next to the portraits of her grandparents. Tina wondered, do I look like my mother, do I act or talk like her?
Her father never spoke of the accident. All the information Tina got came from her stepmother. She was grateful for that. Why am I thinking of this now? Is my mother giving me a sign? Tina pulled her blanket up to her neck and finally fell asleep.
“Could this mystery be solved? It would be useless to phone the police or newspaper.”
Nothing had prepared Tina for the news that awaited her the next morning. A picture in the newspaper caught her attention. It showed an ambulance with its front tires halfway down a snow-filled ditch. The caption under it read, “Not even an ambulance is immune.”
Tina sat down and read how a man, found frozen in a snowbank, revived in the ambulance, started thrashing around and tried to attack one of the paramedics. In the confusion, the driver lost control of the vehicle and slid into a ditch. They weren’t seriously hurt, but the frozen man disappeared.
Paul ambled into the kitchen. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Tina pointed to the newspaper. Paul let out a whistle.
“Holy cow! Where could he be now?”
“This whole thing is too weird,” Tina mumbled. “I don’t know why, but this is not the end.”
“For now, he’s disappeared.” Paul snatched some cookies out of the cookie jar and headed out the door. “You coming, sis?” he called. “If you go with me, he might not nab you.”
In spite of herself, Tina had to smile. Paul and his jokes! She grabbed her school bag and followed him.
Even though school had her favourite subjects that day, she had a hard time concentrating. Again and again, the face of the frozen man appeared before her mind’s eye.
After supper, the T.V. news had another surprise. The announcer reported, “A pedestrian has been killed by a car during rush hour. The man carried no I.D. Anyone knowing this person, please, call your local police station.”
Tina gasped. “That’s him! It’s the same man we found yesterday.” What was going on? One does not die and live and die again. And then what?
Paul got up. “Death number two. Any more? This confuses me.”
Tina shook herself. Could this mystery be solved? It would be useless to phone the police or newspaper. The man would be long gone by now, just like he disappeared from the ambulance.
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The next week flew by, filled with schoolwork and a snowstorm. Tina hoped never to hear from the mystery man again. However, a few days later, the newspaper carried a headline, “Dead Man Disappeared.” While police were still waiting for friends or relatives to identify the body of the hit-and-run accident, the morgue had lost him.
“Lost him?” Paul chuckled. “Man, he was lying on a slab with a tag on his toe. How could they lose him? How about the autopsy? I hope he is still in one piece.”
Tina’s stomach felt like a hand was squeezing it. “It will start all over again.” Like Paul, she had her doubts about the whole thing. How could it be the same person?
The next day was warm and sunny, with a hint of spring in the air. Tina decided to take the long way home from school through a nearby park. The sun felt good on her face. This will bring out my freckles again, she thought. Her friends and Paul would tease her about it. She sat down on a dry bench under a big cedar tree and watched busy sparrows scurrying through the bushes and around her feet. As she got up to continue on home, a shadow fell across the walk. A man approached and stood still. Tina looked up and froze. Her heart jumped into her throat. She heard a deep calm voice.
“Yes, it’s me. Please, don’t be alarmed.”
Tina swallowed; she had a hard time breathing. Did this deep, calm voice really belong to the mystery man who had occupied her thoughts all these days?
“May I talk to you, Tina?” the man asked.
She could only nod; she was unable to control her voice. How did he know her name?
As if reading her mind, he said, “When you and Paul found me, I knew you were sympathetic souls. If I tell you my story, will you help me?” Tina looked up at him. His dark-blue eyes were kind and a bit sorrowful. How old was he? Forty, fifty? She was not afraid; she was calm now.
“I will make it as short as possible,” the man promised.
“Okay, go on.” Nothing wrong with listening, she thought.
“I have to die to atone for things I did – or neglected to do. It has to happen once more. But don’t worry about it. The important thing is that you come to the playground near your house one week from today at seven o’clock in the evening.”
“What am I supposed to do there? Why do you need me?”
“I need you to be my witness and to forgive me,” the man answered. Tina was puzzled. “Forgive you? For what?”
The man sighed. “Let me start at the beginning. My three deaths are ones I should have prevented but didn’t. My friend fell drunk into a snowbank and froze to death. Instead of carrying him to shelter, I laughed, staggered home and went to sleep. The second time I was drunk again, ran down a pedestrian with a car and didn’t stop.”
“The police didn’t catch you?” Tina’s looked at him wide-eyed.
The man shook his head. “That punishment would have been easy. The third death started with a fight in a pub over a girl. I pulled a gun I had hidden in the inside of my jacket. I didn’t even remember whether it was loaded or not. I pulled the trigger. Instead of shooting the man, the girl fell. I ran, left town, got rid of the gun. Then strange things began to happen. A voice told me, ‘You must atone for those three deaths.’ I didn’t want to listen. Every night the voice came back. I didn’t know what to expect or where it came from. After my first death, I knew that I had to experience all three of them.” He paused and looked at Tina. “What I have to tell you now will shock you. You might not be able to forgive me. The pedestrian I killed was your mother.”
Tina stared at the man. “My mother?” she whispered.
The man nodded. “Do you remember her at all?”
Tina shook her head. “Only from pictures. I was a baby then. My stepmother is the only Mom I’ve known. When I was older, she told me that my real mother was killed in an accident.”
The man looked away. “I was the one who killed her. Now you might understand why I chose you to find me in the snowbank. I realize that it is a lot to ask you to forgive me and be my witness when my own time comes. It’s all part of my redemption.”
Tina still struggled to understand it all. “How do you know all this about me, how to find me . . .”
“The voice told me.”
“But what do you mean by ‘when your own time comes?”
The man took a deep breath. “That will be my real death. My life has been bad. I was callous and a coward. I want to try again for a new life.”
“How can you do that?” Tina remembered reading about reincarnation once and how she had been intrigued by it. “Is that possible?”
“That’s my only hope. I believe I’ll be granted that much.”
Tina looked down at her hands. “How are you going to die?”
“Don’t worry about it,” he answered. “Just be there, please. My next adventure will be on the news. But – can you forgive me? If you do you’ll be my saving angel.” The man got up, gave Tina’s arm a light touch and was gone.
She sat still for quite a while. This encounter was too fantastic. Should she believe this man? Could he really be the drunk driver who robbed her of her mother and her father of his wife? Again, she tried to imagine how horrific it must have been for her dad. What would happen if she decided not to forgive him and not show up at the playground next week? No. Somehow she didn’t find it in her heart to condemn him. To go through three deaths was suffering enough aside from the guilt he must have felt all those years. And now, he was facing his own demise. The man would be gone forever.
At last, she got up and made her way home. She had made up her mind not to talk about her mother’s death to her family. What good would that do? Everyone would just be upset all over again. And they wouldn’t be able to understand the man’s plight and his connection to her mother.
“Only a black circle showed in the grass, and a strong smell of something burning lingered in the air.”
“Tina, where have you been?” were the first words she heard on opening the front door. Her mother looked worried. “Are you okay? You’re two hours late.”
“I’m sorry, Mom. Something’s happened. Are Dad and Paul home?” Her mother pointed to the living room.
“Okay, come and listen.”
Paul stood in the door. “Can’t we eat and listen? I’m starving.”
“It won’t take long,” Tina promised. “Your stomach has to wait.”
“It’s this strange guy again, right?” her father asked.
“Yes, and even if you don’t believe me, please, listen, ‘til I’ve finished.” Tina related the events of the afternoon. She was careful not to mention her mother’s accident. She realized how sympathetic towards the man she had become.
“You’re not going to the playground alone,” her father stated. “Whatever crazy idea this guy has; I’m going to be there! This is rubbish.”
“No!” Tina almost shouted. “That might spoil it for him. It’s going to be all right. If he’d wanted to harm me, he would’ve done so in the park. Sometimes –“ she paused, then “things are not what they seem.” She saw Paul going over to her father and talked to him quietly. Then her father nodded.
Paul switched on the T.V. “Let’s see if he’s died again.”
“Too early,” Tina said. “It’s going to happen tomorrow.”
But neither the newspaper nor radio or T.V. mentioned anything out of the ordinary the next day.
“The day isn’t over yet,” Tina persisted. “He wouldn’t lie to me.”
Paul looked at her. “You’re so convinced; it’s amazing, almost annoying.”
“If you had met him, you would believe him, too!” Tina shot back. Against her normal routine, she stayed up that evening to check on the late news. She almost jumped out of her chair when the announcer reported, “There has been a shooting in a downtown bar. A fight over a girl ended in the wounding of a man in his forties. He was last seen staggering into the street. Police have not been able to locate the victim. Hospitals have been alerted.”
Tina flew up the stairs. Without knocking, she burst into Paul’s room. He stared at her open-mouthed.
“He’s done it! He’s been shot!”
Paul turned off his CD player. “Really? Man, that’s cool.”
“Now, are you convinced that I’ll have to go to the playground on Monday?”
Tina felt triumphant.
“Yeah, maybe that’ll be finally the end of it. You have a way of shaking me up – again.”
Tina tossed and turned that night with images of guns and speeding cars threatening her dreams. In the morning, she had only one regret: Monday was still five days away.
On that day, the weather was again mild and sunny. Small groups of parents and children played ball and had fun on the swings in the playground. Tina started to worry. What if their presence interfered with the man’s fate? What if he did not come because of them? Go away, she thought, please, go home.
She leaned against a tree and tried to take a few deep breaths. How must he feel knowing he had to die? “God, let it be fast,” she prayed. She checked her watch. Ten minutes to seven. Through the pounding of her heart, she heard laughter and children’s delighted squeals from the play area. At five minutes to seven, the atmosphere changed. A breeze came up, and dark clouds appeared in the sky. Tina could have sworn that she heard a faint rumble like thunder. The people looked up, and words like “Let’s go, it’s going to rain” drifted towards her.
She huddled closer to the tree and checked her watch again. Seven o’clock. The air felt heavy. Clouds hung directly overhead. The rumbling got louder. Then she saw him. The man walked from the entrance into the middle of the field. He raised both arms as if to greet her. Tina’s knees were shaking. The next moment a blinding lightning bolt shot out of the cloud, followed by a crash. Where the man stood, flames shot high into the air. Tina covered her ears and screamed. In an instant, the flames subsided, and a deep quiet surrounded her. The dark cloud had disappeared. Then she felt an arm around her shoulders.
“It’s okay; it’s over.” Paul’s voice brought her back to reality.
“Where is he?” A sob bubbled up in Tina’s throat.
“He’s gone. The lightning got him,” said Paul. “I was too curious to stay home. I saw it all.”
They walked over to where the man had stood. Only a black circle showed in the grass, and a strong smell of something burning lingered in the air.
As Tina got closer, she felt a slight touch on her arm, and a voice whispered, “Thank you, Tina, we’ll meet again.”
She wiped away her tears and smiled. He had given her a sign. She knew his atonement was complete.
Gisela Woldengawas born in Germany, came to Canada in 1954. She has published seven books (Black Opal Books, Scholastic Canada) and various short stories and poems in many magazines. Book no. eight is at Black Opal right now. Most books are sold privately, at launches, at Amazone’s etc. She lives in Coquitlam, BC, Canada.
Previously published online at Burning House Press
By Stephanie Parent
My Ariadne can see the future.
(My Ariadne. This is my version of the story.)
She spins her red thread, and it twists into shapes before her eyes, hearts and nooses. It tells her that Theseus turns out to be an asshole.
Seven young men and seven maidens arrive on the island, and Theseus outshines them all. His eyes are the sky blue of someone who believes he cannot fail, who believes he has no darkness within him. Those eyes make Ariadne dream of flight.
Theseus wonders how such a creature as the minotaur, half-beast, half-man, could be allowed to exist. Ariadne doesn’t tell him the last of the halves: the monster is her half-brother. She dreams of blue eyes in the evening, but her hands twist and turn the red thread. At midnight she dreams of mazes like arteries and veins, running red and blue.
Ariadne gives Theseus a coiled ball of thread the size of a heart. She tells him the thread will guide him out of the labyrinth.
Ariadne understands mazes. Her mind is a maze that switches back on itself, with dead ends and false passages. You love Theseus, one path says. You love the brother you’ve never met, says another. Don’t trust his blue eyes, says a third.
She pictures Theseus in the maze, trailing red thread with each step he takes. The walls are tall and damp and dripping moss as though they are alive. The sky is black and distant, and he can’t see the stars. The minotaur’s breath sounds like wind passing through the gaps between stones.
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Ariadne can see the future, but she couldn’t see the sword Theseus slid beneath his tunic, how he broke the rules of the sacrifice with his blue-eyed impunity.
Theseus stabs Ariadne’s brother. The blood drips from the minotaur’s human chest to its bull’s tail, long crimson strands like threads. The blue-eyed boy turns to follow the red thread out, but the spell Ariadne wove within it is working. The far end of the string has ignited, flames flying toward Theseus till the red thread dissolves to black ash in his hand.
He thinks he can follow the ash-like breadcrumbs, but the minotaur’s last breaths blow it away.
Theseus wanders the stone pathway as the sky above him lightens to the hue of a robin’s egg. Once the echo of the minotaur’s breath has faded, he can hear each slap of his leather sandals against the stone. The sound will grow fainter and fainter until, like the thread, it stops.
In the maze in Ariadne’s mind, walls burn away, and new ones ascend, passages reformed. Her brother is dead. Her almost-lover is dead. She will never be left alone on the shore of Naxos with only a saltwater lullaby to soothe her tears. Her brother will never devour another young man or maiden. She will never again hear his roar at night, the way his cries sounded almost like the syllables of her name.
Ariadne sits at her spindle and spins her thread all night long. The next day, she will gather madder for red dye and woad for blue.
Stephanie Parentis a graduate of the Master of Professional Writing program at USC. Her poetry has been nominated for a Rhysling Award and Best of the Net.
Something slammed stone-like against the tiled roof and thudded onto the porch. I pricked my ears. Perhaps this was Dorf, my erstwhile hospital neighbour, who would lob stones at cats when afflicted by one of his seizures.
Cautiously cracking open the door, I poked my head out, but disturbed Dorf was nowhere to be seen. On the porch steps lay three tattered bird-clumps. I bent down for a closer inspection. No wounds riddled the birds’ bodies. Raising my head to the sky, I saw in it nothing that might have caused a sudden collision. I pictured the birds as self-destroyers grown suddenly determined to plunge with dumb rapture from some immeasurable altitude, their heavy, fragile forms rupturing the air’s draperies, and to dash themselves upon the naked skull of the earth, whereupon they would shatter into countless shardlets, fragments of porcelain figurines.
The birds lay unmoving. Their little corpses could not dispel the bewilderment that had possessed me. Still unrecovered from my dream, I was in a state of confusion. Deciding that the birds probably ought to be buried, I headed for the square to find out whether a cemetery suitable for such a purpose existed in our town. But the desperate cries of my neighbours soon stopped me in my tracks. Their yards, too, were thick with fallen birds. Frau Breusser screamed without ceasing: the sight of their dead bodies disgusted her. Her husband, a plump, moustachioed gentleman, tried to shunt her back into the house with both hands, but, wriggling herself out of his broad grip, she thrust her head under his armpit, glanced anew at the birds, and let loose another shrill, despairing scream.
Townsfolk came running from all directions with the incredible news on their lips. Four dozen birds had fallen onto the town. The event was beyond explanation. Standing in the square, I threw back my head and immediately discerned several more black dots plunging from on high. As they hurtled earthward, the dots sprouted feathers, beaks, wings, then thudded dully into people’s yards. It was hailing—no, raining birds. One falling corpse killed the dog of gaunt, bony Herr Frohmbruck. Another crashed through the ramshackle roof of Frau Towitsch’s kitchen and nosedived right into the boiling soup. Frau Towitsch now sat atop her bed, face covered with pieces of granular ice, which, so Doctor Ruf assured her, would save her from burns. Herr Frohmbruck, meanwhile, wandered the town’s streets with the dog’s carcass in his outstretched arms, inanely addressing anyone who crossed his path with the same rhetorical question: “Why? To what end?!”
The birdfall continued. We had poured out into the streets when it began, but now we all retreated into our houses and gazed on our roofs in consternation: would they hold firm? Herr Frohmbruck, finding no one else to whom he might pose his absurd question, presently turned homeward, too. But as he approached his house, he was forced to hasten his pace and then to run, dodging bird bodies as they plummeted down at him while pressing his cherished companion tightly to his breast. A little skylark missiled into his shoulder: opening his arms in surprise, Herr Frohmbruck dropped the dog, uttered a shriek and fled in panic.
The streets now stood unpeopled save for Tamar, weedy little Tamar, who strode the empty pavements and exclaimed grandiloquently, “This is a punishment from God!” Birds fell behind her and before her, to her right and to her left. Still, Tamar, like a solitary wanderess, raised her long, withered arms ever heavenward, calling unto her unfathomable Lord. We all slept badly that night, ears pricked in trepidation. Against roofs, roadways, pavements beat the hooves of unseen horses: birdfall, incessant. Now abating, now rising to a fresh crescendo, the thud continued all night. As if some strange blacksmith, unknown in our parts, was forging chariots for us. One by one, these unfathomable chariots trundled through the town, and the staccato clip-clop of the horses’ hooves set its denizens atremble.
Morning pressed us to our windows. The world beyond the glass dismayed me. The streets were thick with a jumble of bird bodies. Adrift of feathers, heads, and wings had formed on my porch. I cracked open the front door with difficulty and slammed it shut at once. I was loath to step out into this dead world. I still clung to life.
All that livelong day, I remained indoors. But in the silence, interrupted only by the dull thud of falling bodies, I fancied that I, too, was now ceasing to exist. My neighbours did not venture outside either. Not even the lecherous ringmaster and his vile company showed their faces in the open air. Everyone yelled back and forth from flung-wide windows. The entire town remained homebound.
Townsfolk shouted from window to window to pass on the latest news. Resolving to send word to someone, anyone, about what had transpired in the town, Shai, the boy with the carrot-orange jug ears, tied an alarm-signalling red ribbon to one of his pigeons and released it into the sky. The pigeon arrowed aloft but plummeted lifeless onto the roof of its own coop a moment later. Shai released pigeon after pigeon, only for them to fall, prone and dead, against the sheet metal of the coop. Shai lost all his birds. No one dared venture out of doors that day.
At night I was awoken by an eldritch wail. I leapt out of bed at once. The air rang with the sounds of yowling and caterwauling. I ran to the window. The birdfall had slowed now. In the glow of the street lamps, miraculously ignited by our one-eyed lighter, I managed to discern a deranged feline feast. Cats—bloodthirsty hordes of them, hordes more populous than any we had yet seen hereabouts—were devouring the fallen game. Enticed by the prospect of a wondrous repast, they must have converged on the town from all its environs. It was difficult to make them all out in the half-dark, but those of them illumined by the dull lamplight was a dread spectacle to look upon. Their muzzles were smeared with the blood of the torn-asunder birds and smothered with their own. They threw themselves upon the prostrate little carcasses with a blunt, voracious fury. Their triumphant, throaty gurgle-purring resounded throughout the town. They bared their teeth and hissed at one another even as they tormented the bodies of the wretched birds. As if these pickings were too slim.
But, ears shut to their terrible wailing, you might—so long as you did not scrutinize them too closely in the dark—have taken the cats for wayfarers who had gravitated come nightfall to lonely, smouldering, sparsely sited fire pits where they now sat, shoulder against shoulder, breathing hotly on their frozen hands. These wayfarers, I fancied, had occupied all the streets of our town and were now settled in them, warming themselves by the feeble, fickle flames. It struck me that I, too, was just another wayfarer gone astray. As if I had embarked upon a journey—only to forget its purpose…
The cats exulted until morning. Come sunrise, as if growing fearful of what they had wrought, they dispersed, hid away in lurking places known only to them. What would they do there? Gather strength, perhaps, for a fresh blood-spattered feast?
By degrees, uneasily, our town began to recover from the shock it had sustained. People peered from their windows, emerged, cautious and vigilant, into the streets, and gradually inured themselves to this new reality. An absence of preternatural goings-on gave them all the more reason for doing so. Birds continued to fall, of course, but not as often as before. At any rate, they fell less portentously than they did on that first day. Or did we merely perceive things thus? And although our streets were still scattered with lifeless bird bodies, we had somehow grown accustomed to them. Without filling anyone with joy, this spectacle no longer prompted the primeval horror we had all felt at the outset. Not that this lightened my heart. I felt just like the birds who had unlearned to fly…
A few days later, a scholarly expedition arrived, God knows from where in the town. Clad in blue mantles, its members, stepping over the fragments of Frau Frenkel’s bust, solemnly gathered in the museum next to Herr Dwork’s pupa and deliberated for a long time the possible reasons for our misadventure. Emerging into the streets, they took a stroll about the town. The birds continued to fall. The scholars failed to reach any conclusion and, astonished by this peculiar happening, its causes unknown to science, hurriedly quit the town limits.
The townsfolk devised explanations of their own for what had befallen them, giving voice to myriads of deranged theories. Still, they ultimately came up with nothing that could account for the strange bird deaths. In the town’s environs, the birds lived carefree, soaring on high, weaving their nests, screeching their songs, but no sooner did they cross some unseen aerial frontier than they plummeted dead to the ground. And there was nothing to be done about it. Our street sweepers, headed by Herr Punck, managed, with some difficulty, to remove the freshly accumulated corpses overnight, only for the roadways to overflow the following day with yet more bodies of smashed birds.
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Eventually, Herr Korp, who had devised a special chair for Frau Fisch, invented a certain contraption and demonstrated it to us one day. His invention was akin to a Chinese parasol, but one that had been strengthened, made more robust, and atop protruded several sharp little points. Herr Korp explained to us that the force of a bird’s fall, or rather the force of its impact, would be diminished if, instead of crashing flat onto such a parasol, the bird’s body was impaled on—that is, transpierced by—one of the protruding points. Having tried out Herr Korp’s contraption, we felt a measure of relief. To a certain extent, we were now protected from the blows raining down on us. Our joiner, the corpulent, thick-necked Pohlman, immediately set about fashioning these marvellous contraptions, and within a week, there was not a single unparasoled passerby to be seen on our streets.
Truly, the denizens of our town were inventive folk. With a great number of birds impaled on these magnificent parasol-spits, my former neighbour, the culinarian Ruther, wasted no time in cooking up an exquisite stew made of assorted varieties of fallen game. Thereupon we, who but recently had understood nothing of matters ornithological, at last, came to grasp the fine differences in how these wondrous viands tasted on the tongue. We learned that throstle made for a fine luncheon when accompanied by dry white wine. That skylark baked in a pie numbered among the lightest and pleasantest of breakfasts. That nachlieli was remarkably good in a stew, providing, of course, that it was served as a second course after a luscious hors d’oeuvre—braised pelican head. And that, without a shred of doubt, there could be nothing more wonderful than a formal candlelit supper at a festive table adorned with a dozen minuscule hummingbirds threaded onto a spit, roasted to a crispy finish, and garnished with foie-gras made from the liver of a wild Muscovy duck.
This unexpected surfeit of remarkable bird dishes transformed everybody into such gourmets that culinarians from neighbouring towns began penning us regular missives with a view to wheedling recipes from us. But since no one in our town could read, they never managed to winkle out our secrets.
Our cats grew fat, becoming so gargantuan in their dimensions that they struck fear into our dogs. If the quiet yowl of a cat, hungering in a basement somewhere, should reach canine ears even during daylight hours, canine bodies pressed themselves at once against the legs of human masters. Things came to such a pitch that the town’s fire brigade, led by the splendid Herr Esch, embarked upon a special hunt for these behemoths. As witnesses would later testify, the hunt was nothing if not a danger-fraught nocturnal safari. The cats, staggering in their hugeness, leapt at the foolhardy firemen, seeking to sink their claws into the humans’ throats while simultaneously pinning them to the ground with the weight of their bodies. A few brave souls who had undertaken to assist the firemen sustained injuries that night, with some bitten so severely they suffered massive blood loss. The accursed cats, who themselves had incurred heavy casualties during the hunt, gathered the remainder of their forces came daybreak and avenged themselves by tracking down the wretched Dorf.
When still fancying himself a tamed-and-trained white mouse, he hazarded a step beyond the threshold of his home, the merciless brutes pounced upon him from all sides and in an eye-blink had ripped him asunder before the eyes of his stupefied family. The very next night, the fire brigade, its ranks swelled with fresh volunteers, squared off against the cats in a final battle to the death. The cats fought with a fury that defies description. They were a far cry indeed from the hares we had vanquished with a few clyster pipes. The town rang with the din of battle. But the firemen emerged triumphantly. The cats retreated. Some of these behemoths, succumbing under the onslaught, fled the town. At the same time, the rest took refuge under buildings and remained long in hiding, not daring to show their faces. This battle was not one they would forget in a hurry. It was now only rarely that they snatched fallen birds from the roadways and dragged them, furtive, back to their basements, forever glancing about them as they did so. And, with Herr Esch keeping sentry every night, the cats’ sorties were seldom crowned with success. Their meagre diet, the boy Shai informed us, left them so emaciated that little by little, they were forced to kiss goodbye to their colossal dimensions. Those of them who survived at all on the starvation regimen eventually regained their former commonplace look. Having rid itself of the insatiable, voracious cats, the town began to flourish. Now that the bird meat formerly devoured by the nocturnal marauders was ours in abundance, a wonderful idea suggested itself. Mere days later, the efficient Herr Prück had already delivered the first batch of a magnificent game ragout to the railway station, from where it would be dispatched to different towns. Orders poured in from every direction. Everyone wanted to treat themselves to some delicacy or other. Our street sweepers no longer dumped yesterday’s carcasses beyond the town limits. The town began to grow rich. Birds fell as regularly as ever.
Scrawny Tamar was no more to be spied darting about the vespertine streets, no more to be heard calling unto her God or raving madly about a mystical punishment. Restored to health and grown plump, she was the first of us to leap out of doors each morning, raring to pile the birds that had fallen overnight into a roomy trolley. “God’s blessing!” could have been her mantra now.
I, too, began to feel better. My gloom-ridden thoughts abated somewhat. “Well now,” I would ask myself, “why not at long last indulge in a little happiness along with everybody else?” The money raised from the sales of the game delicacies went towards purchasing a tremendous number of exotic trees. These we planted far and wide, each and every street now bristling with branches, our yards now thick with baobab and eucalyptus, Japanese spruce and silken Scottish heather. No birds sang in the trees, of course, but no one grumbled at fate: beneath the trees, after all, were birds aplenty.
I ought not, perhaps, to have shared in the general delight. Why would it seem I should care anything for culinary delicacies and exotic flora if I did not know who I was or how I must proceed with my life? Yet, the acuteness of my inner turmoil began to soften. The sensations that had only recently afflicted me were dulled somewhat as if my memory grew gradually enfeebled. I revived them ever more seldom in my recollections.
The town, meanwhile, was witnessing new developments. One day, Frau Breusser, the selfsame Frau Breusser who had threatened to faint at the sight of the wretched bird-corpses, drew our attention to the extraordinary colouring of their plumages. As yet unused in our commercial endeavours, the birds’ feathers, in point of fact, where simply being discarded at the dump. Frau Breusser took the lead in fashioning herself a dress, stunning in its beauty, from condor plumes, swallow down, and black crow wings. So subtle, so refined was this combination of colours that the town’s ladies all set to dressmaking without delay. No more than a week later, these mistresses of seamstressing, headed by the indefatigable, once-enamoured-of-me Frau Fink, were parading about the square in astonishing fineries. Again, however, Frau Breusser outshone them, fashioning for her plump husband a mantle of sorts from the long tail feathers of a wild swan. The mantle was trimmed with jay-plumage, which iridesced blue-green. Roused to genuine envy, the other men—myself included—soon acquired wondrous raiments of our own.
I no longer deliberated the worth of continued existence. Such deliberations had come to seem odd to me. I forgot what prompted them to begin with. So exuberant were my fellow townsfolk, so beautiful our surroundings, that lamenting my lot would have been absurd, unwarranted. An extraordinary lightness, a genuine elation suffused my spirit at long last. How good, how glorious life had become! What elan, what euphoria reigned over the town! I felt capable of exulting in it alongside all and sundry.
Come evening, our alleys metamorphosed into wondrous, fantastical gardens beneath whose trees strolled townsfolk arrayed in bright attire fashioned from the many-hued gifts of fallen birds. But five days ago, the birds suddenly ceased to fall. We failed to take this seriously. We simply could not believe it. Everything that had happened here of late, everything that had transformed our lives so absolutely—it could not, had no right, simply to cease all at once! But not only had these strange birds stopped falling, they no longer so much as ventured into our town. We awaited them every day, but no one crossed the town limits, even by accident. Could it be that they had communicated to one another by some mysterious system of avian post that our town held danger for them?
We tried to lure them in, scattering grain about the street and courtyard. But even the sparrows made no response to our desperate call. Nimble-minded Herr Prück then purchased several birds in a neighbouring town and brought them to ours. But no sooner were the birds released from their cages than they soared aloft and quit our town at full tilt. Ah, how we wanted to take to the air in pursuit! Were we truly incapable of compelling their return?!
There followed a collective throwing up of hands. Could it be that our birds would never reappear? Would not a single one fall anew from the sky, venturing, at last, to rupture the air’s quilted draperies in the act of self-destruction? Would we, leaving our houses of a morning, never again find their bodies warm, prone, open-winged in our yards?
Tamar once again walked the streets with mad lamentations on her lips. How were we to live now? We could not, after all, return to a time when the birds did not fall upon us from the sky. We wandered senselessly in our variegated raiments amongst the silent trees. Living in this town has become more than we can bear. Donning mantles and dresses fashioned of the finest feathers, we all proceed to its outer reaches. A field spreads out before us. There are no birds here either. Silence. Unable to contain himself, a townsman breaks into a run. The wind ruffles his plumage. And now, shot with flash flickers of bird-colour, we all run across the empty field, onward to wherever birds may still be falling from the sky. We all run: Herr Esch sporting his shiny, eagle-crested fireman’s helmet, the boy Shai flourishing his peacock-tail, Frau Breusser flapping her black crow-wings, Herr Frohmbruck kicking high his crane-legs, the culinarian Ruther squawking, the joiner Pohlman craning his thick neck. I, too, run with all my might, doing my utmost to break free—even for a single instant—of the round, ponderous earth. Up ahead, Tamar flaps her wings faster and faster. Only Dorf, devoured by the accursed cats, is not in our midst. We dash across the field, wings aquiver, taut-feathered tails outspread, heads craned, beaks agape, screeching, screeching… Another moment and an updraught shall send our flock aloft. We shall soar into the sky, and trace in it one furious circle, and then, wings folded, plunge, heavy stoned, stone-birded, down to our damned town.
Testimony is a Russian-language novel by an Israeli author. Reminiscent, in its power and scope, of Süskind’s Perfume, it is, in the words of one critic, “the ultimate psychedelic phantasmagoria.”
The plot of the novel isn’t complicated. A man who considers himself a writer accidentally ends up in a town whose inhabitants cannot read. In all other respects, the denizens of this place are almost indistinguishable from those of other similarly sleepy, godforsaken settlements. But no, come to think of it, something else sets them apart, too: they’ve become remarkably adept at forgetting. Forgetting all their tragedies, troubles, misfortunes, and even their workday worries.
Exuberant and cruel, these simpletons come to regard the newly arrived man as a Messiah of sorts. But he fails to live up to the hopes they place on his shoulders. In fact, he fails to live up even to his own hopes since the book on which he has expended so much time, and energy ultimately vanishes from his mind. Doing his utmost to understand who exactly he has become now that he’s no longer a man of letters, the former writer realizes, with some surprise, that his own failure is gradually slipping from his memory. In a newfound state of happiness, he hurtles rapidly towards his end together with the other denizens of the deranged town.
This is a novel about hope and the futility of aspiration, about the isolatedness and insularity of our consciousness, about the tragicomic, absurd nature of human relations, about the insane passions of the people surrounding us. Little by little, the narrative takes its readers into a reality that borders on phantasmagoria and immerses them into the world of the human unconscious – a world of clandestine hopes and secret fantasies.
Attempts to peer into the unconscious give rise to myths. The more said myths become part of daily life, the more they frighten people away or, on the contrary, suck them into a vortex of being, endless and unknowable. The novel’s protagonists – ordinary, run-of-the-mill men and women – become participants in inconceivable events; mirages and chimeras become an everyday reality.
The language of the novel is, if anything, the language of parable; it is concrete in its details yet simultaneously metaphorical.
Alexander Jonathan Vidgopis a theatre director, author and screenwriter. Alexander is the founder of the Am haZikaron Institute for Science and Heritage of the Jewish People. He is the recipient of the Zeiti Yerushalaim Prize and the medal “For contribution to the development of the national spiritual heritage of the Jewish People.”
Alexander was born in Leningrad in 1955. In 1974 he was expelled from what is now called the Saint-Petersburg State University of Culture and Arts “for behaviour unworthy of the title of Soviet student.” Having worked as a locksmith, loader and White Sea sailor, he was drafted into the army and sent to serve in the Arctic Circle. Graduating from the Russian State Academy of Performing Arts in 1982, he was involved in 23 productions across the USSR, 12 of which were shut down. In 1989 he emigrated to Israel, where he has worked as a director, editor and researcher. He is the author of several books.You may find him on Facebook.