Singing to the Cow – Maureen Sherbondy

I belted out the entire Sound of Music
soundtrack to Denny the cow
while he chewed cud in sync with
Climb Every Mountain
Do-Re-Mi, Edelweiss.

I swear he listened,
even swaying his tail
to the daily tunes.
Then one evening on this dairy farm
in Upstate New York
I inquired about Denny’s
absence from the singalong.

Too late, the mother grinned
as she pointed to
the half-eaten meat on my plate.
Though the Von Trapps
had escaped death
by fleeing, this did not prove
to be poor Denny’s fate.

Cabinet Of Heed Contents Link 24

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The Spirit Bear by Jake Kendall Cover

Independence.  July 16th. 1878.

We departed for Topeka shortly after first light and made good progress throughout the day. I am informed that we have travelled a little over halfway, and can expect to arrive tomorrow afternoon. 

I had assumed that a taste of life away from the din and stench of the city would serve as a spiritual awakening for a man with aspirations for adventure. However, I must confess the countryside has already caused considerable disillusionment. 

We are confronted by constant niggling obstacles: the midges and flies that swarm around the horses and food; the stings and irritation of plant matter to which my nostrils and eyes are unaccustomed; and worse still, the inability to escape one’s travelling companions regardless of how tiresome they become.

Truthfully, I am also unused to many hours mounted on horseback. I will try hard to conceal my discomfort and splayed posture from my companions, for I believe they are ready to mock my greenness and their perception of my faintness at any given cause. 

In particular, a carpenter by the name of Lee Adams tests my fortitude. As we rode earlier today, he took to enquiring about my inexperience with women. Did I know that “their breasts produce different fluids depending on their mood and diet?” Or that “they howl like wolves when kissed in a certain, secret place?”

It is true I have yet to be with a woman: nevertheless I have some comprehension of the fair sex. I know Adams’ assertions to be lies. Furthermore, I understand these fabrications are made wholly to indulge an insecure and ignorant nature, attaining cheap giggles at the expense of those he believes unable to defend themselves. 

I think it likely that his ignorance encompasses many subjects. The name of Socrates, for example, and the interrogative method that bears his name. Accordingly I resolved to challenge my intellectual inferior, to force him onto untenable ground and weave a noose around his neck until the only available recourse was to hang. 

“Just how many women have you made howl this way?” I demanded once the communal tittering had ceased.
“More’n you can count” he replied, conveniently evading a direct answer.
“I do not relish boasting,” I lied. “But since you are forcing my hand, I assure you I can count higher than three. Besides which, I am sure we are unconcerned with particulars – more than two then? Less than a million? Provide an estimation.”
“Why should I do that boy?”

I noted Adams’ has a curiously and unattractive habit when thinking; he pauses, blinks hard, and wets his lips with his tongue.

“Because if the phenomena to which you allude occurred only once, how are we to know that the poor woman in question was not afflicted with a unique and monstrous deformity? Or indeed that the creature whose secret parts you kissed was not, in fact, a wolf?”

His companions laughed at that and began their own taunts, derivatives of my own of course – did she remain on all fours throughout the experience? Were there any other among her pack who might be make themselves available? So forth.

Adams was deeply irked by this. Compelled to defend his honor, he began boasting of the many beautiful women he had seduced and bedded. His tales were crude and not worth relaying here. Nevertheless you may imagine he always told them in a self-aggrandising manner, portraying himself as the adroit and charming man that women cannot resist. The other men were soon guffawing at the right moments as he slowly regained social acceptance and legitimacy through this facile display of bravado. 

I said nothing further to provoke the man, having no intention to instigate a personal feud so early into my journey. But in addition to being thick-headed, Adams proved thin-skinned, and I had provided him with a slight to avenge. 

Perhaps an hour after our initial engagement, Adams decided – with lips freshly wetted – that it was time for a resumption of hostilities between us. 

“The trick is this” he imparted. “You find no joy with the real beauties. So you find yourself the right kind of girl. Find yourself something you can just about stand the fucking of and feed lies to the bitch. You tell her she is the most beautiful girl in town – or that you ever saw. You take care to notice everything about the way she dresses, the way she wears her hair. You tell her you like any changes she makes. You ask about her day and no matter how much it ain’t interesting, you pretend like it is right? See, women are vain and tedious things; forever at the mercy of a man’s attention. Before you know it, they get excited for your kind words, look forward to it. You are soon the highlight of their dull days. At that point I can charm anything ugly enough to need it.” Adams pointed to me, and shouted “this one’s mother, for one!”

The men laughed at that – I am at a loss to say why. Mother passed two years previous, and in any case, she was a devout woman and dedicated to my father. I would be surprised if any of my companions had truly made her acquaintance, or were indeed aware of her existence as anything more than conceptual necessity. Nevertheless, in all probability the validity of the claim was not motivation for their mirth – nor indeed the wit required in conjuring the accusation. In all likelihood their laughter came from the expectation of stakes raised: the sense that now two combatants were engaged in a duel of wits and words. 

I wished my opponent good fortune.

“It would seem then, Mr. Adams, that your tongue is woven from silk.” I gestured back towards the group of women and children riding behind us. “I am certain that any one of the fair ladies riding with us would be enslaved by your charm should you choose to employ it… And yet, I cannot help but recall your attempt earlier this morning. Tell me: is it often that you find women – or indeed most people – are in a rush to be elsewhere when you speak to them?”

I completed the taunt with a specific mime, for Adams had attempted to sweet-talk a pretty daughter of the Mormon family. The girl was probably encouraged to demonstrate indisposition towards all outside the faith; but regardless she had plainly baulked at the twitching, wart-covered face and his lecherous grin, and exculpated herself without even the courtesy of an excuse. 

The men laughed raucously at the memory. I saw Adams blinking; preparing to stick out his tongue, and felt sure he was mentally preparing an interjection. Rather than allowing the retort, I elected to conclude the argument emphatically on my terms. 

“Of course sir, no one here accuses you of a disingenuous nature. We accept, despite all evidence to the contrary, that women have found you very attractive. Perhaps you would concur then that lies are the sad refuge of failures? That the men that sit in saloons fabricating tales of glorious deeds never realized, and beautiful women they pretend to have seduced are the most pitiful. I conceive that, in truth, their words are as meaningful as the words of the working girls who profess love to a hundred strangers.”

Our companions bawdily declared me the winner of the debate, chastening Adams into silence. 

I must stress at this stage to anyone reading these accounts that my stated belief regarding liars was more than just conversational point-scoring, rather it is a sincere and deeply held conviction. At seventeen I am yet too young to require such tragic needs and, as such, I will take this moment to assure any reader of my account that I record my journey truthfully: without exaggeration or deception, regardless of transpiration. 

A few unremarkable hours later we stopped to camp for the night. It will be light a few hours yet. A retired soldier by the name of Mr. Pollock offered earlier in the day to assist my attempts to master the art of shooting – perhaps I will find this man and remind him of the offer.

Topeka. July 17th. 1878.

We have reached Topeka. 

I am greatly relieved to have shed my former companions. The merits of solitude and a little whiskey are most welcome, they have allowed me to repose myself sufficiently to record the disturbing events of the previous night.

After establishing a place to rest for the night, the men and women did as they needed and then as they pleased. Eating and drinking, some singing and joking around a fire until the gradual dispersing as excuses were made for bed. Sleeping outside on the ground is not an experience I am accustomed to, but after several false starts I passed into unconsciousness, lulled by the background chatter of the last of those awake and the crackling of embers. I never recall my dreams however vivid they were at the time. I believe I was following some lucid, secret path through a forest when some unseen branch sprang into my face, dousing me instantly of the phantom of pain and shock experienced in dreams. 

Normally these feelings are a curious and amusing phenomenon – the distress dissipating the instant one awakes – yet this time the pain did not fade. Falsely I concluded that an unconscious movement must have caused some painful contact. Yet as I sat to deduce the situation fully I saw firstly a shadow, and then a clenched fist swinging from my peripheral and I hit the floor once more. The impulse to cry out took hold but before I could, I felt something shoved hard into my mouth – old linen that smelled and tasted of body parts best left unmentioned. Vainly I pushed back against the assault and felt my body bucking against the compulsion to vomit but found myself unable to do either.

My attacker leaned closely enough that I was able to discern Lee Adams’ face. He was drunk and hateful, a triumphant toothy sneer fixed malevolently on his face. 

“That’s a weeks’ worth of wear there boy – two days hard riding too. I do not imagine it tastes too good. See, all afternoon I got to thinking of all the ways I could shut your fucking mouth and then it came to me…” 

He wheezed one slow exhalation of laughter at his own cruel joke before he whipped out a long knife and pressed it against my throat. 

“Still, another way would be even better… Once I take my johns out your face, you’ll be back to your smart-cunt little ways no doubt, but this way… Well, count yourself lucky we’re in company and you ain’t worth the hanging for.”

Adams relaxed his grip on his undergarments. I was able to withdraw them and tried hard not to retch with the knife still pressed against my throat. In the darkness I could not see, but felt sure the tension had heightened my sense of hearing accordingly that I could hear his facial twitches and self-licking as he considered his next move.

“How it will work tomorrow is this: you don’t tell another soul about this, you don’t talk to me or even fucking look in my direction. Just ride at the back with the cunts and the babies. After Topeka, you best hope we don’t cross paths again.”

I nodded as best as I could with the knife still pressing, before Adams withdrew the blade, gave me a parting kick, and left me to heave and spit until near-dawn.

As we remounted the following morning I briefly considered defying his command, if only to evince a lack of cowardice. Yet despite Adams’ rational acknowledgement that our feud was not worthy of execution, push a man too far and murderous rage can supersede rationality and even self-preservation. Duly then I fell in behind the men and rode alone between the two sub-groupings of our caravan. 

I would have been content enough this way throughout the remainder of the journey, but the Mormon father rode on to accompany me, probably sensing a lost soul to comfort.

“It’s a beautiful day” he observed as he rode alongside me. 

I offered the awkward smile of a man too polite to spurn company. The Mormon looked around at the clear blue sky, the array of fields, flowers and trees stretching alongside the roadside. 

“Yes sir, a beautiful day indeed. Praise the Lord.” 

I said nothing in return, and hoped that by adopting the guise of a dullard, the man might tire and return to his flock. Instead he began to hum a melody, eventually erupting into lyrical flourish before completing the chorus to some hymn or other. I kept my tongue and thought of happier things. As the chorus concluded, he turned to face me.

“God Be My Light – do you know it?“
I told him I did not.

“Well, you just heard yourself the tune, want me to teach you the words?”
I told him I did not.

“Why not? You have to praise the Lord and, if you’re asking me, I’d tell you singing is the best way to thank Him.”

Motivated by stung pride, or perhaps the way the man smiled at me with his mouth stupidly agape, even when silent, but either way I felt no inclination to offer thanks for much, and told him so.

“If you stop admiring creation, stop admiring all that is remarkable and good in the world I fear eventually your soul will be lost,” he replied breezily. “Today it’s just cynicism and coldness; tomorrow its pride, sloth and all five of their friends. After that comes the damnation and hellfire, sure as effluence runs downhill. Best way to stem the decay is by staying humble, staying grateful and being pleasant to all – just praise Him with me, look at this beautiful day. Isn’t it remarkable?”
“With respect sir, it is not” I replied “it is July. Far from remarkable, I would say this day is typical. If we reached these temperatures in mid-winter than, hallelujah, a minor miracle perhaps. Until then you might just as well sing your little ditties about how a piss is needed after drinking too much beer.”

We rode on in silence after my outburst. I felt him staring at me, no doubt trying to gauge the fruitfulness of further discourse. In no mood to discuss Theology or social manners, I kept my eyes focused straight ahead in a sullenly protracted display of proud indifference. 

“I think,” he began in a voice quiet and subdued, “that you have made your feelings clear. Good luck son, in whatever endeavors you attempt. May I offer a piece of advice for the road?” He pointed at my neck where Adams’ blade had scored and left a mark. “The Lord is not the only source of self-knowledge. Perhaps watching that tongue amongst strangers would be a useful resolution.”

He slowed his horse down to re-join his family. I spent the remaining few hours reflecting that just perhaps he had a point. Father would often tell me that I am an irredeemable sinner: prone to frequently indulging all of the mortal sins, and none more so than pride. Perhaps however, belief that I was victorious in any conversation on my travels will likely offer little consolation if I am to end up bleeding out from a shot in the stomach, or the victim of some savage act of scalping. 

No one had any particular want to bid farewell at the town gates. Consequently I excused myself and set off to discover the location of my brother’s butchers practice.  William and his wife are due to close the day’s business very shortly. I must ask beg their favor. They have permitted me to bath before we convene properly over an evening meal. I will go now to prepare: I must exhibit myself at my most charming and erudite this evening and hope my request is permitted. 

Topeka. July 18th. 1878.

I woke today filled with elation, tinged with nervousness. Secretly there was a small part of my being that hoped my brother would find the means to thwart and comprehensively quash my proposal.

At first we indulged in idle conversation while his wife served some venison, along with vegetables and bread. It was the first hot meal I have eaten in nearly a week and I fought hard to maintain a dignified composure and to eat at an acceptable rate; resisting every urge to treat the meal as a reacquainted lover. 

My brother’s wife is named Mary and, between you and I, that is fitting: an unremarkable name for an unremarkable person. William’s reasons for marrying her are plain enough: he has mistaken fair hair and a petite figure for prettiness, a common enough error in the judgement of men. However if and when I take a wife, I hope to find a face with more character and a little more intelligence behind it. 

Thus, the first hour or so in the company of my hosts passed not so much spent in conversation as it was enduring observations on the rudimentary particulars of immediate phenomena: “The weather is hot in summer” and “I look better rested for having a rest” – and so forth.

After the initial round of pleasantries we talked of the passing of our father. Invariably an element of grief permeated these proceedings, all borne no doubt from nostalgia and not affection. When Mother passed it had been different and our collective sadness was very real. However, Father had been a difficult man in every sense of the word: at times difficult to like, always impossible to love. He was quiet and private and always looking for more tasks, more work and more ways to distance himself from his family. I grew to feel as if there was little chance of us ever truly understanding one another. Or perhaps otherwise, that there simply was little to understand of him. As William and I confirmed the death and read the official testimony it was as if we were compelled to recite the correct words, but they were little more than a façade – pleasant noises concealing hollow feelings.

When the lives of our parents had all been accounted for, I had been entrusted to deliver the sum a little under four hundred dollars to William. 

Father had not planned to expire at this time and so we both agreed that the distribution of the inheritance had been clumsy and favored the eldest nominally and without due consideration. I put forth my case that William already had established his business, settled, and secured an income. That additionally, the proper duty of a brother would be to divide our parent’s money equally. Furthermore I confessed to spending forty already, to purchase the horse I had travelled on, this I assured, would be taken from my half. William considered my argument, produced a bottle of whiskey he had been saving for an occasion and drank. After some deliberation, he consented.

“What will you do?” He asked me pouring us a second. “I already have an assistant; he’s a good man and a hard worker. It would be grossly unfair to dismiss him, and against my wishes besides. Nevertheless, you can sleep in the spare room for free while I refine what skills you remember, or while you seek employment elsewhere?”

The offer was made through gritted teeth. The spare room would be for the children Mary bore; from the looks of her it would not be spare for much longer. 

Butchery is our family practice. Our father taught us both the essentials of the craft. Yet to my mind it is a grim and dirty living, the constant odors of blood and death holding as much attraction as working the dung heap. My revulsion and natural inelegance resulted in my father neglecting me to devote his time and efforts more fruitfully to improving William into a fine practitioner. I did not mind, this left me free to develop my own abilities. I possess a good mind, a sharp wit and way with words. Through perseverance and persuasion I was able instead to secure apprenticeship with the Independence printing press. Consequently, I am wasteful when skinning and gutting a carcass, but learning to read, write, and most crucially, to think for myself is ample compensation.

“Thank you brother, your offer is both kind and fair. However you cannot instill a work ethic in me, nor skill with my fingers, any more than father could.” 

William tried and failed to hide his relief. 

“Think of it this way – I am free. I have no ties to a profession or a family, and no duty to anyone. I am seventeen and keen to take full advantage of this fact.”
“I would like to use my share of the inheritance to entice the aid of those that know the Indian lands to the South-West.”
“Why in God’s name would you do that?”
“I would find Uncle Jack.”

William’s face broke at that announcement, as if he would have preferred to hear that I intended to spend the money on a concerted effort to die a syphilitic death. We argued back and forth for some time over the point, but he had already consented to giving me the money, and I have chosen my path. Once William exhausted his counter-arguments he conceded that agency is mine and mine alone; and that although his concerns were duly noted, he possessed no authority to impede me further. He has informed me as to the saloon where the travelers, the adventurers and the outlaws convene. I will go there today, at once, and recruit a guide before my nerve deserts me.

Topeka.  July 19th. 1878.

Topeka defies my preconceptions. The name conjures allusions of its past: an outpost on the frontier of civilization, a city half-Shawnee Indian, and half-White. I had expected to find outlaws, whores, and other refugees from the encroachment of legitimacy, hidden in dark dens of vice and violence. Instead, I learned that the name translates to “a good place for potatoes” and that the character of the place is equally functional. There are solid builds, and nearly as many facilities and comforts as can be found in Independence. Moreover the river enables constant trading and money-making. In short, it has become content and fat, devoid of the dangerous and the clandestine. An increasingly ordinary place indeed.

I took my personal money out with me and purchased effects necessary for a lengthy venture: a sharp knife, a wood axe and a good flask. After some deliberation I decided in favor of the acquisition of a pistol. As mentioned in entries previous I am inaccurate with firearms, and severely lacking in confidence. Nevertheless any enemies met on the road will be ignorant to that fact, allowing the weapon to function as a deterrent, if nothing else. 

William had instructed me to enquire for guides at a saloon near the outskirts of town. As the day lengthened I estimated that the likeliest candidates would be those with no other preoccupations in their days, and would therefore have taken to drinking in the afternoon. 

Inside there must have been at least two dozen men engrossed in conversations held in a variety of tongues and all vigorously engaged in the art of intoxication. I purchased several beers for myself and forced down the revolting, sour beverages to induce courage while I scouted the room.

The offer I could make was thus: I could spare 120 dollars in the hiring of one or two guides. We would depart for a tribe of Osage Indians that I believe to reside South-West of Topeka in a journey that may take a week or more of riding. I would pay forty percent of the fee on departure, with the remainder to stay with William until my guide returned either in my company, or bearing a signed agreement. 

I took this offer unsuccessfully to a number of tables before eventually catching the interest of two fur trappers: a loud Frenchman named Bertrand Dupont who gesticulates wildly as he talks in heavily-accented English, and his companion Willem Steenwijck who seemed surly by comparison. All matters of conviviality aside, the two men claimed to know the region well, and have had dealings with the Osage dwelling there. They consented to accept my money on the promise that once at our destination they would be allowed the time to trap and hunt. We drank a toast to the arrangement and agreed to depart immediately upon the following daybreak.

My intentions of leaving at that moment were thwarted when the door opened and the carpenter Lee Adams strode in. He took up a position at the bar near the entrance and stood, ordering for whiskey with another man that had walked in alongside him. I asked my companions if they did not begrudge my company for another round of drinks at my expense while I awaited a moment to pass Adams discretely. Dupont seemed glad of the drink and observed that we would be spending perhaps two weeks together, so what is half an hour? I concurred, gave him some money and sent him to the counter in my stead. We spent this second drink together (and my fifth in total that day) in empty conversation while throughout I maintained watch on Adams.

Remembering the threat made at camp, and believing that I should hope to embark uninjured, I hoped for opportunity to slip past him. In the waiting, my fifth became my sixth, and then my seventh drink as I was forced to wait a further hour. I have only drank this much twice in my life so far, once at the funeral of my mother and once again on my seventeenth birthday. I assure you that neither occasion proved out favorably either. As Dupont countenanced yet another drink, I felt I must decline as a sudden rush of hot blood rushed to infuse me with reckless abandon:  the tune of the fiddle-player was calling, enticing me to take to the table-top and attempt a dance. 

I resisted this compulsion, but welcomed the dawning realization: the drink was stupefying me, a longer stay was an invitation to jeopardy. Once more I had them repeat the time and address of our meeting tomorrow before excusing myself and making way to the door. I had made it halfway across the bar when a large man at the counter, heavily muscled and marred by facial scarring, turned to Adams.

“Bastard. Son of a whore” the man slurred at Adams, pushing him slowly but powerfully to ensure he had caught attention. 

Naturally, I lingered to observe the spectacle.

“What seems to be the matter sir?” Adams replied, finding a better class of manners when intimidated.
“Pig-fucker! Don’t lie to me – give it back or I’m smashing every god-damn tooth out that ugly, twisted face of yours.”
“Give what back?” The man answered wordlessly; choosing instead to seize Adams by the crotch, clamp hard and bring him close to. Adams emitted a noise half-way between a gasp and squeal.

I tried hard to suppress a smile as I pointed Adams out. “Thief!” I bellowed in my most theatrical of voices. Both men turned to view me, Adams’ eyes widening as he shook his head at me, imploring me to stop. However, the devil had entered me by then. All I could do was maintain the card-man’s face as I fabricated a story. 

“There’s the man who took our purses on the road yesterday! He fled with over three hundred dollars in cash!”

A clever lie I felt, enough money to suggest to Adams’ attacker that he could not possibly have spent it all in one day, thereby bestowing double motivation. Adams began to counter my accusations, his eyes blinking frantically and his tongue flapping in panic. But any attempts to form noises into credible words were cut short by a second squeeze of his nethers. The man tending the bar sighed as if bored by another display of the arbitrary violence engendered by his trade. 

“If you’re gunna do him Dan, take the poor bastard outside this time.”

The big man punched Adams fully in the face before half-carrying and half-dragging him through the doors. I found myself shrugging at the bar-keep before excusing myself from the building. The sudden harsh glare of the summer evening and the rush of alcohol re-circulating around my head as I stood made my head swim and my legs unsteady. I took a moment outside to acclimatize and to watch the big man’s assault. Adams had gone to the ground and was trying to adopt a position that would save his head and stomach from the barrage of kicks and punches he was experiencing. The big man turned to me to inform me that I would be allowed to join in what he termed “the fight” if I so wished, though any money recovered from it were his alone. I declined the offer and watched on awhile, until guilt urged me to intervene. 

However as I stepped forward Adams defecated in his trousers from a combination of the fear and pain. With a gut full of drink, the sight, stench and sheer pitiful calamity of it all is almost as bad a memory as it was at the point of occurrence. As I collapsed against the side of the saloon, fighting the nausea I recall the big man stopped his attack and turned to me. 

“I like it when they do that” he assured with a sadistic laugh.

Neither William nor Mary were pleased with my brash return from the bar. A ruder guest has not been welcomed into a home, perhaps since Odysseus crept from his horse. All civility was expunged by the alcohol and the fire it had lit in my blood. I was later told that as they conversed I frequently interjected with some crude observation or half-baked witticism. With every intention to stabilizing or silencing me, Mary forced me to force a meal down. However I was unable to resist the abrupt and instinctive reaction within. I believe I soaked her dress and dining table with the bile of drinker’s remorse; shortly after I had helped to clean I excused myself for the night as quietly as was possible.

Chase County. July 21st. 1878.

We have ridden for two days which have passed pleasantly and without sufficient impetus for immediate recording. Now granted a private hour amply bathed by the light of dusk, I will recount our progress thus far.

The morning of departure I made preparations with sincere apologies to my hosts, who woke with me to formally observe my leaving. Mary provided some provisions for the road and bade me farewell, along with a hope that she would see me again. I noticed her words were devoid of any depth of genuine feeling: her hopes that I would not perish were uttered with all the passion of a casual wish against rainfall. 

William took me aside to chastise my drunkenness, to accuse me of rashness and self-centeredness once more. He informed me that if my nerve had privately deserted me there would be no shame in abandoning the expedition. He offered, quite kindly, to partially reimburse the advance for our guides himself. 

“I feel no fear brother, but thank you nonetheless” I lied.
“God-dammit Ben. I believe it would easier to teach a pig to sing than teaching you good sense. You know, I never knew the man much more than you did; but from the stories they told, I did used to wonder if you might not have secretly been Jack’s boy all along.”

I laughed at that. William touched on private, yet pervasive, thoughts never expressed to any other. I have always been so different from all immediate family that the only true kinship I ever felt was through the tales of “wild” Jack Carson and his misadventures. Certainly I learned nothing of risk-taking from mother who, despite many fond memories, I cannot truthfully recall deviating from routine once in my lifetime. Likewise I cannot credit father as a source of wit. For him the pinnacle of amusement was that someone somewhere might lose their balance or otherwise trip over at an inopportune moment. Yet Jack’s compulsion for conflict and romance are innate facets of my soul; my keen wit and gregarious nature clear traces of my Uncle too. 

That is of course, not to say I believe Uncle Jack to be my true progenitor. Mother would not countenance adultery with any person, let alone a person as morally repulsive as her husband’s brother. Besides which I believe dates and circumstances would rule such a crude revelation an absolute impossibility. 

But family blood does not flow through the generations as predictably as water falls downstream; be it chance or fate, the inheritance of familial blessings and curses find themselves interestingly distributed.

My guides arrived soon thereafter. William paid the men the advance, noting, with unwarranted distaste, that neither were of English descent. Afterwards he too said his goodbye, and the three of us set off from Topeka. 

We spent that first day in high spirits. Rather mercifully Mr. Dupont transpired to be the cheerful type who laughs at jokes and interjects with his own. He asked of me if my accusation in the bar against Adams held any credence whatsoever, I told him of my recent history with the man and showed him the mark across my throat. Dupont bellowed with laughter as he deduced the manner in which I had counterfeited the guilt of my rival. Mr. Steenwijck found the matter less amusing and inferred that we may have an enemy to our rear. Dupont and I disagreed, noting that the condition in which we last observed the man would take perhaps four days or more of recovery. 

After this we spent the day discussing our professions, the art of trapping and skinning the animals of the region, their stories of close encounters with big cats, massive bears and Indian people. I asked how they had found themselves on this part of the world. I persuaded the taciturn Steenwijck to introduce himself more fully. I learned that he had outcast himself from his hometown in a Lowlands province called North Brabant. He fell in love with the daughter of a popular local minister and took to following the girl obsessively, often in states of extreme intoxication. He did this until the girl became afraid for her well-being and reported Steenwijck to her father who confronted him publicly. In a drunken stew of melodramatic rage my new companion claimed that he would sooner die than live without this girl, but she spurned his advances nonetheless. Believing his position to be a choice of suicide or exile, Steenwijck chose to travel to America. 

“Tell me true, do you believe that – had you stayed – the men of your village would have forced a gun to your head?” I asked of him, stifling my mirth. He said nothing in reply, though his face flushed red with embarrassment. 

Dupont informed me that they met onboard that boat and soon became fast friends. For Dupont, America was the answer to turmoil in his home country. 

“In France, always there is war, or there is revolution,” he mused. “Yesterday’s traitors are the martyrs of today and then back again tomorrow. It is easy to choose the wrong side, no? Fuck France, fuck Kings and Emperors, fuck the revolution too – we are living in the true land of liberté and égalité!”

Dupont shouted the last, his passions stirred in the way that those of Latin blood find altogether natural. It is as if these are a people forever half-drunk. The logical mind of the northern European can therefore see why our southern cousins are doomed to career perpetually between powerfully irreconcilable ideals.

As dusk approached we made a private camp for the night. I was tasked with lighting a fire while my companions hunted rabbit for the evening meal. To my shame they returned successfully from their endeavor before I had lit the flames. I told them I knew the process in theory, but was finding the generation of sufficient friction rather more challenging than I had anticipated. Steenwijck took control of the task while Dupont skinned the rabbits and passed their carcasses to me for butchery. In truth, here too, my efforts were dissatisfactory and I passed back the animals mutilated and mangled.

“And you told me you were a butcher’s boy!” Dupont complained as he skewered the meat and roasted it on the fire.
“I take my name from my father, but little else. It is a particular quirk of linguistics that one word can describe vastly different singularities. Some friendly advice, for instance: should anyone offer to show you their pecker, always decline. For they may not have ornithology in mind.”

Dupont laughed and produced a flask of hard apple cider and shared it around the fire.

Progress today was even better. As a consequence, conversation flowed less freely, but we covered our ground with swift efficiency. Just before midday the rain began to fall intermittently throughout the remainder of the afternoon, it fell warm and light and our clothes dried out quickly in the hot and dry spells between. 

Steenwijck stopped his horse a few hours before dusk and bade us to listen. Across the horizon we saw a horse that looked to be saddled and laden despite a lack of rider. The creature was distressed, pelting forwards and pursued by a group of some six or seven wolves. I had never seen one like that before, dead and skinned of course, alive once at a travelling fare where the three they had chained looked almost dog-like in subservience. Here they were ferocious and wild; but wild with intelligent purpose. They attack in coordination, collectively gaining incrementally on their prey and taking it by turn to leap forward and bite at the legs in order to maintain pressure and fear on the larger creature in addition to draining it of strength and stamina. As the creatures disappeared from sight I wondered what had become of the horses’ master, and reflected that I would sooner turn my pistol on myself than die torn apart by the teeth of wild beasts.

It was the afternoon still when we saw a sizeable camp of some thirty people or so, setting fires and preparing for an evening by a lakeside. We agreed that although it might cost us two or three hours of riding, the human comforts and safety of numbers was worth that sacrifice. The group accepted us cheerfully enough and explained that they were diverging the following morning, with the majority of the travelers joining a homestead called Cottonwood Falls to the West, and the others continuing south towards unassigned lands in Kansas. 

Steenwijck joined some of the men at the lakeside in hunting its ducks and fish. Dupont produced another flask of his sweet strong cider.

“When we reach the Osage, what do you want of them?” He asked after the long drink of a genuine thirst.
“My Uncle joined a tribe, some eleven years ago. Perhaps he remains with them.”
“You have savagery in the blood!” His exclamation was part-surprise and part-amusement.
“Is that so? Eleven years is a long time, no; perhaps he is no longer, perhaps he is dead? It is quite some money to spend on perhaps.”
I shrugged at his comments and took a long sip of cider. Dupont laughed as he retrieved his drink.
“Then you do not care. You spend your money, our time and risk all our lives without a care.”
“What is a life time spent without risk?” I countered. “Does it not seem a shame to live the same day, the same week, the same year until God takes you?”
“I see Benjamin. Then you are better than ordinary… This is a song I have heard before – though usually its singer has taken more than just a few sips of cider! I have lived longer and spoken with more people and can tell you that even a lowest-born pig farmer will tell you why he deserves to be Emperor if he is indulged long enough.” Dupont grinned and slapped me hard on the shoulder. “Me? I say: fuck that pig farmer, and his assumption God owes him something more. Let him drown in disappointment.”

There were still hours left of light, yet we were tired enough to just lie on the grass; to eat, drink and talk of nothing. Steenwijck produced a flask containing what I believe to be the most disgusting fluid ever to be labelled “rum”. I took one drink and found myself spluttering on all fours, hoping to find the position from which the vomit would not flow. Dupont was soon drunk and laughing at my inability to drink the drinks of frontiersmen. 

Shortly afterwards a woman who could only have been a whore, staggered over in an extreme condition. Her fair hair was dirtied and greasy. Her face and figure gaunt and stretched. But what struck me most was the manic glint in her eyes; somewhere between merriment and destructive abandon. 

“Opium!” She cackled, “I have opium, will swap Opium for whatever you’re drinking.” Dupont waved her away dismissively, Steenwijck shook his head. I shrugged at the woman to indicate that I was in the possession of no alcohol of my own. 

“Look at this young face,” she bent and grabbed hold of it and pulled it close to, I tried to smile politely and hope that my noticing of missing teeth was not plain to her. “I bet you can’t even be much more than sixteen. Nice young lad like you, still girl-pretty. See, this is how I like a man!”
“Ben’s no man – a man holds his drink!” Dupont replied pointing to the latest pool of my refutations.
“Believe me, he’s all the better without it. Enjoy your life boy, it hasn’t made you bitter and angry yet. Why – I bet you haven’t got a single wart down there yet either. Have you even been with a girl? You haven’t, I can tell.”

She winked, let go and stood. I noticed that she was swaying so badly that a mild breeze might have tipped her over. For a moment she seemed entirely lost in private contemplation before she lifted her skirt to three of us to reveal only the second pudenta I had glimpsed in my lifetime. 

The first had been a purely accidental incident. I wondered behind a tree back home and observed a girl urinating behind it. The girl was as young as I and the sight had been respectable enough. If the woman’s before me had ever looked similar, time had not been complimentary. I found myself looking immediately down into the grass below.

She laughed wildly at my unease. 

“Not ready to become a man today then? Well if either of your friends fancy the fucking – come, follow me.”

The woman staggered off, not looking back to see if any of us followed. Dupont shook his head incredulously and lay onto his back to stare at the sky. 

I watched the woman recede into the group and wondered if she had ever been a respectable or pretty woman, and what may have happened to lead her to such a state. I was on the verge of asking my companions if they believed her solicitation to be sincere, or simple provocation, when I noted Steenwijck had stood wordlessly and was following the woman. He put his hands on her hip and diverted her towards the bushes by the lake. I told Dupont as much, but he had closed his eyes and was either asleep of feigning so. 

Sedgwick County. July 23. 1878

We have spent much time on the Great Plains; the vast openness of our terrain inducing a state of reflective reverie within me. Dupont assures me we are close to the town Wichita. The Osage reservation lays a further day or so beyond. I do not know when next I will have such time as this again, and so I will relate to you the story of “Wild” Jack Carson. 

I met my uncle only a few times in infancy, but even I could see there was presence and a power about his person. When Uncle Jack entered a room the chatter from others inside would recede into silent anticipation, all eyes would turn his way. 

Jack was a striking man; well over six feet in height, handsome and blessed with an air of rakish intelligence that made many onlookers feel instantaneously party to some great act of mischief. For us children Jack became temporarily one of us, always ready and willing to join our imaginary fights, often raucously adopting the persona of some great outlaw or Indian chief as he chased us down. On one occasion, we lured Jack into an ambush and collectively brought him to the ground, whereupon he pretended to submit. I can still recall the great pride I felt as he insisted on surrendering to me personally, making me chieftain of our imaginary tribe. 

I was mesmerized by Jack. Watching on from the margins I took care to learn as much as possible about how a man should carry himself. Now older I realize that his humour was less clever than my own perhaps; but whereas mine has a tendency to makes enemies of acquaintances, his was kinder and made instant allies of all he approached. Even those surly old men who never liked anybody and criticized all that came from the mouths of their juniors could not help but break into smiling as Jack took time to indulge them; pitched the exact quip for their enjoyment; or simply bought them a drink on pay-day. 

But Jack’s passion was to be found in neither children nor in old men. 

A long-unmarried man is usually the subject of gossip and slander. Other men and spurned women will begin to peddle malicious lies about their compulsion to sodomize their closest friends, or perhaps livestock or wild beasts instead. However no one could have accused Jack of anything less than a voracious appetite for the fairer sex.  

To see him at work was to see a master musician, instinctively aware of what notes to play and when. Jack always spoke directly to women, never through or over them as most men do. He would not presume to know their thoughts, feelings or desires either, but listened to them as if they were equal. Jack would complement their appearance, assist with everyday acts of gentlemanly conduct and so on – but these bland niceties were just a facet of an elaborate roguish performance. With well-placed smiles, sly winks he would always suggest his availability to his audience, allowing them to establish their own Rubicon-crossings. 

His antics left many of Independence’s women weak-kneed and giggling. I overheard several nursing genuine belief that it was they who were special in the eyes of my uncle and more frequently still, lamenting their marriages to other men.

I always assumed that it stopped there. That the tales of his scandalous seductions and de-flowering of many young girls were fabrications passed around by those bored sufficiently to require embellishments and exaggerations to enrich their own mundane existences. Yet as I developed a truer understanding of how love and honor work these stories became ever-more plausible in my mind. If only half of his conquests proved real, I wonder to this day how he had the nerve to walk about town, unafraid of challenges laid down by cuckolded husbands and dishonored fathers. Though I suppose his other reputation may have proved a sufficient constraint against such vengeances.

Jack was a skillful and enthusiastic fighter; both as a boxer and marksman. He had joined the army before the war and fought with distinction on the side of the Union. When last I saw him he had returned from military service in 1866 and told us harrowing accounts of “Hells’ half-acre” at the battle of Stones River: The possibility of a complete Unionist route stemmed by an impregnable defense. 

“We took their victory and made it god-damn Pyrrhic – turned it to ash in their bastard mouths.” he once boasted. 

After the war he returned home a while, but stayed with the military. Six months later, Jack was posted at Fort Reiley in Kansas, and that was the last our family saw of him.

It was the following summer that the soldiers came to our door, asking for him. They tore father’s house to pieces before accepting our ignorance of his location. They told us the story of a beautiful daughter of Jack’s commanding officer. Naturally Jack spent his off-duty time attempting to seduce the girl, despite orders for immediate cessation. Allegedly my uncle pretended in public to abandon his pursuit, but was later caught in the act of love with her against the side of the Fort stable. Jack was immediately placed under arrest, chained, beaten and stripped of his rank before being sentenced to death by firing squad the next day. Facing execution, Jack somehow broke free. We would later hear of the rumors going around the fort that Jack proved too popular among his fellows, that the girl freed him for love, or that he simply succeeded by virtue of his own wits and charm. 

However we may speculate on how he achieved his freedom, Jack’s cell was vacant by morning, and a cartful of weapons and ammunitions had vanished with him.

Our family presumed never to hear from him again and mourned him as a dead man. Yet as the years marched on and other soldiers retired, or were otherwise discharged from Fort Reiley, they brought back strange tales of Uncle Jack, now riding with the Osage people. Jack had taken them firearms and instructed them in use. He had taught them discipline and modern military tactical thought. He had accompanied their chieftains in great battles against the Cheyenne people and re-established the Osage as the pre-dominant Indian force in the region. Jack had also imparted secret knowledge of where the U.S. army was strong and weak, when to attack and when to hold back. Together they raided even white settlements and were growing increasingly wealthy. For all this Jack had been awarded a name and rank amongst these people. He had even been presented with an Osage wife – no less than the Chieftain’s own daughter – as a show of gratitude and deep respect. They said that she was the most beautiful specimen ever of Indian descent; and every bit as wild and fierce as any man among their warrior tribe.

I always liked to hear these stories and often sought out any returning soldiers for more tales such as these. I had hoped to convince the Independence printing press to write a story about my uncle, the war-hero turned savage outlaw, but now I am as close as one day’s ride away and cannot wait to see him for myself.

Osage Territory. July 24th 1878

We have made contact with the Indians. 

I consider it my first real encounter. 

Now and then, some Indian people passed through Independence of course. But it was they who had been out of place, wearing the clothing of white people, and speaking our language. In many ways they were much like the Negroes: stripped of their strength and power, and knowing fully it is best to remain courteous and live by white terms, or risk of severe consequences. 

Today was different. I cannot vouch for Dupont or Steenwijck, who have met these people many times previously, but to my shame I was filled with a profound fear that would drag its heels in dissipation.

At dusk we came upon a narrow gorge where the bank of a stream to our right pushed us close to a rock wall to our left. We were forced to ride through slowly, and in single file. Steenwijck was leading the way as was usual but he came to a halt so suddenly that we nearly collided.

“What is… ?” I began to ask but he silenced me with a gesture and remained still and attentive. After long moments I heard the sound of a bird calling ahead and a second call atop the rock wall.

“It is only birdsong” I began naively, but Steenwijck had already thrown up his hands and bade me be silent.
“Do as he does” Dupont urged. 

Steenwijck shouted something I presumed in the Osage tongue, and then in English “peace, trade, talk”. It was then that I realized we had been surrounded quietly and efficiently. Five mounted Osage warriors emerged to obstruct our passage ahead, while four had been following us at least throughout the gorge. Half a dozen or so had left their horses behind and were waiting at the top of the rock wall. They descended to complete the flanking maneuver, whooping and shrieking once noticed, and brandishing their rifles and bows. The stream blocked our one remaining escape route. 

We were well and truly at their mercy here. Uncle Jack had taught them well, I thought, this location was perfect for our total annihilation.

As they drew near Steenwijck engaged their leader; speaking in a mixture of staccato English and broken Osage, complete with mimes and pointing at his pelts and weapons. It was a fine submissive performance that could have been understood as a demonstration of obsequiousness even without speech at all. 

I devoted this time to a full assessment of the Indians. My initial impressions were that they were tall – taller as a general rule than those of European stock. The men near-universally exceeded six feet in height. There were women in this group too, four I counted, and even they were more-or-less equal in height to myself and my companions. Both genders alike display their flesh seemingly without shame at the relative nakedness; I had to refrain from gazing too long at the glimpses of painted legs, stomachs and even the breasts of the women.

I promise any readers that one glance is adequate persuasion for any onlooker to be convinced of the sanguineous aptitude of the Osage; many men proudly wear scars and trophies taken from wild animals, and their weapons look so naturally suited to their hands that they resemble an extension of being. More than their physicality however was the way they stared at us; their gaze was free of malevolence, but filled with something worse, a composed and inscrutable assurance that they were ready to slaughter us in a heartbeat should we display aggression or attempt to flee. 

Never before have I experienced such intense feelings of subjection. Even that night under Lee Adams’ blade in the darkness I felt a modicum of reassurance, borne surreptitiously from a private belief that Adams’ lacked the conviction to commit murder – a consolation thoroughly denied here.

After their deliberations the Osage retreated a little, giving us adequate space to strategize.

“They believe we are not here with malicious intentions. If they did, their leader assures me we would not have had time to scream before death rained upon us, our bodies hacked to pieces, defiled and displayed as a fair warning to other intruders.”

I found Steenwijck oddly nonchalant in his relaying of such an explicit threat. 

“But make no mistake, we are on Osage lands now and must pay due toll for the privilege of passage. In short, they want our pelts Mr. Carson, some twenty-five dollars’ worth that I have on my person. Since we are here on your business, I trust you will reimburse us for this on our return.”

That I should bear the additional payment seemed excessive and exploitative; yet the alternative appeared to be an imminent and violent death. This proved a compelling and effective position to negotiate from, and I consented to pay the toll without outward complaint. Before Steenwijck rode over to hand over his pelts, I asked him to enquire about Uncle Jack. As I witnessed the back and forth between the Indian leader and my guide, I noted the Dutchman pointing me out. The Osage man rode to me, and leaned close to inspect my face. 

Something about my person clearly amused him, as he broke into a broad and rather mocking smile. I did not know the correct response and so I found myself smiling and nodding back, vainly hoping that my countenance had not been betrayed by the nervousness felt. 

I believe at this juncture the Indian was satisfied by sufficient similarity in my face to Jack’s; or perhaps I had given him a gesture or motion that was suitably reminiscent in the way that family members sometimes do. Either way, the manner in which he greeted the kin of one of his tribesmen was bizarrely imperceptible to a man accustomed to European civility: the man barked out a raucous laugh, jabbed at my chest and barked something in his harsh and savage language. I tried to deduce his meaning but was only able to suppose that his slight intonations might have inferred questions. But if so they were questions I was entirely incapable of answering. 

The Indian stared long and hard before obviously concluding that the linguistic barrier between us was indeed an impasse. 

He turned back to Steenwijck and his people barking out laughter and I believe the same sounds he had addressed me with. Collectively the Osage found this amusing and some pointed me out. Dupont shrugged at me to demonstrate his own bemusement as my cheeks flushed with embarrassment.

“It is quite possible I do not measure up to Uncle Jack” I murmured to him, reflecting on my own five foot and six, slender frame, and youthful face. They talked some more, gesturing to me, and then back over the horizon to the South-East before they nodded and Steenwijck rode back to meet us.

“Indeed your uncle is known to them, and is still living. They do not know him as “Jack Carson” however they call him…” at this Steenwijck made noises similar to the ones the Indian had made at me, I assumed they were Jack’s Osage name. “He lives with a tribe living half a day’s ride to the South East. They have granted permission for you to see him and travel across their land, they will even send guides on with us to prevent other Osage people from attacking us and to ensure we find our way quickly. For this service they would take your pistol and axe as payment. Furthermore they will allow us to spend time hunting on their lands while you reunite with your uncle so long as we give half our pelts and meat to the tribe – although that is perhaps of little interest or consequence to you.”

I accepted the offer gladly, allowing their leader to relive me of my weapons and ammunition. They escorted us through the remainder of the gorge and to a suitable place to make camp for the evening. Afterwards the majority of their party rode on, leaving one of their women and one of their men with us as promised. 

As they departed some of them smiled at me or laughed in ways that I instinctively disliked, muttering to each other rudely in their tongue. A braver man might have challenged them, demanding they explain their amusement in what English they knew – for I had heard some usage. Instead I allowed the opportunity pass meekly by. 

Our new guides both look younger than the others in their party, perhaps not much older than I. They have more interest in discussing hunting methods with Steenwijck than they have in my person. I have therefore left them to it, in order to record this entry and to regenerate some pride.

I may not be the man that Jack is, but I feel I have my qualities. I hope Jack will not mock me, as his new kin have; or that my visitation is not the cause of some mortal humiliation.

Osage Encampment. July 25th 1878.

I recall assurances made to any prospective reader of these journals in my initial entry; promises that I would relay the journey without embellishment or any economical verisimilitude. I believe I have done so admirably thus far, remaining truthful about my own ineptitude, moments of cowardice and vindictiveness along the road. 

I do this as a matter of principle: lies being either fraud or delusion. The temptation I feel now to deceive my reader emanates clearly from the latter motive. I care little for the repute of the Carson family name. Instead, the disappointment that I am loathe to report is profoundly personal in nature. Yet report it I will, even if it the truth weighs heavy upon my heart.

Our guides took us quickly to the Osage encampment. We arrived after some hours of riding, during which I fell back from the others to ride alone with the purpose of gathering my thoughts. 

To any other eye the signs of inhabitation were routine enough: farmed land that supported meagre amounts of livestock and produce, the youths and women tending it pausing to watch us as we passed. Yet I was overwhelmed. This was El Dorado: the home of “Wild Jack”; the passage between legend and reality.

We rode uphill to the main site. I noted there were no walls or gates to pass through, just two parallel rows of wooden huts and canvas tents. Most of the Osage we passed were women, children and the elderly. Only a few men remained to guard, who looked on our passing with the over-curiosity of bored housewives.

The largest of the huts was situated at the exact center. We stopped our horses, dismounted and let the female guide lead them away. The male bade us wait outside the hut before entering. Dupont turned to me and gave a nod that I presumed to be something of a token of encouragement. I found myself too nervous to smile in return. Shortly afterwards our guide re-emerged, accompanying a woman the like of which I have never seen before. 

She was older than I, but young still. Her body highly decorated with paints, feathers, teeth and bones; a grander expression of the warrior style we had encountered the previous day. In truth I found her attractive, though only in the most literal definition of the word, her appearance received every bit of the attention it demanded. 

That is not to say her features were unpleasant. I am certain that the aesthetes would have found little to criticize amongst her handsome and well-defined features. Yet equally, would many men proclaim her beautiful? Feminine beauty is prettiness, a delicate little thing to be privately admired and jealously cherished. The thought of any man attempting so with this one seemed almost preposterous. Nothing about this woman was demure, or concerned with the gaze of myself or my companions. Instead she emanated the overwhelming impression that any unsolicited hands that might touch her person would find themselves broken, mutilated and thrown back at the face of their owner.

She was attended to by less-striking companions. I assumed her therefore to be the wife or daughter of a Chieftain. I recalled those stories of the fierce Osage woman gifted to my uncle, and realized that, notionally, I could be looking upon an Aunt. 

As the freedom to look elsewhere returned, I noticed the presence of a white man stood behind. My heart skipped a false beat, on the presumption of Jack. However the briefest of scrutiny revealed the man to be too short, too young, and with dark and serious features that were almost as contrary to Jack’s as any Indian’s. 

Our guide spoke to the woman in their tongue and Steenwijck felt compelled to interoperate in a hushed voice: assuring that the Indian guide was notifying her of our identities and purpose. This superfluous information would not have been beyond the deductive capacity of a fool or a cretin. Nevertheless, civility compelled me to thank him for it. The guide then pointed to Dupont, and then to Steenwijck before the woman bowed her head, approaching in a solemn salutation.

She introduced herself in her own tongue, a name that I would later understand to be “Hula”. Switching to reasonably fluid English, Hula assured them that hunters were a welcome presence amongst her people provided they dedicate time to contributing food for the tribe, and killed only what was needed. She assured them that many of the men spend their days riding out as far as the Great Plains doing precisely this, but always there could be more. As Dupont replied she cocked her head, looking near-pained by deep concentration.

“Bon-joor” she attempted “you maison Français?”
“Oui Madame. Je viens de Bayeux, la Normandie.”

Hula tried not to show her lack of comprehension show too greatly, instead she nodded her head slowly and deliberately. 

“That is good” she concluded making an awkward and clumsy sign of the Catholic cross over her shoulders, head and chest. Hula then turned her attention towards me. “And you?” she demanded, the token warmth and friendliness offered to the others rescinded in an instant.
“Please Ma’am, I am looking for someone. I have been told he is here. He is my uncle and I believe you call him…”

All day I had tried muttering his name in their tongue to myself, the exact sounds were already a hazy recollection but under the pressure of Hula’s glare it disappeared completely, I trailed off after a weak approximation of the first word. Hula snapped his Indian name back with in a questioning tone before, angrily, she added “Jack?”

I nodded, suddenly unsure of the reaction his name might elicit, and with awareness dawning that my understanding of his popularity had been furnished exclusively on hearsay and rumors. 

“Are you the chieftain’s daughter?” I asked, panicking under her obvious disapproval. “Word back home was that you were married to my Uncle and that together you lead your people. I was told he is a great hero to you all.”

A congregation of curious bystanders had gathered behind me to observe the conversation. At my last pronouncement many collapsed shrieking in gales of hysterical laughter. It did little to alleviate Hula’s irritation. Even that serious-faced white man forced back the thin grimace that broke across his face. Hula’s eyes narrowed into intense fury, her lips curled into the look of a woman grievously insulted. Not for the first time, I was afraid of these people. As the laughter died down, Hula barked my uncle’s name at an onlooker who scampered off back into the village. She then gave what resembled a sour sort of smile, and ordered in English for me to follow her at a distance and she would show me the “Great Father” – words that snarled with insincerity. 

We paraded downhill to a makeshift stable where several horses were tethered. 

“Wait here. Watch.” She commanded, a little distance away before making her way towards the horses.

Horror stories are often told of the savage Indians of the Americas; their scalpings are legendary of course, trophies of heads and skin taken from bitter enemies and prestigious rivals. Superstitious Christians tell tales of pagan worship and the barbaric worship of death, pain and even the devil too. I stood feeling physically nauseous at those thoughts, and wondering what state Jack would be presented in. Perhaps he had fallen from grace, or betrayed the village and faced execution. Perhaps whatever his transgressions had been they would hold his family accountable for them too, and perhaps I would share whatever fate had befallen him.

Instead for the first time in over a decade, I saw Jack and beheld a pitiful sight. 

The proud handsome man of his late twenties had acquiesced into a shuffling and staggering wretch, unable to graciously traverse the declining trajectory of the hill. His feet were bare, what clothes he wore were tattered and shabby. His hair grown long and matted and mingling with a wild beard inhabited by clots of blood and the remnants of food visible from twenty paces. So fixated was he on maintaining his balance and avoiding a fall that he failed to register the new presence of three white men beside him.

Jack lost his footing near the stable, and crawled the last few yards to rest before Hula. He made a slight bow in her direction. Hula clicked her fingers, and pointed to one of the horses. Jack pulled himself through the dirt and the horseshit, stopping parallel to the horse indicated and staring passively into the mud. Hula put her weight heavily on his back and he gave an involuntary cry of pain, before she hoisted herself onto the horse. 

The villagers were laughing again, at Jack, and at myself. Unwilling to watch Hula ordering my uncle to remain in his humiliating position, and unable to look elsewhere for support I found myself following Jack’s lead – examining the ground until I heard the sound of hooves clattering towards me. I forced back the tears to look Hula in the eyes.

“There is your uncle, the “Great Father” of our people” she snapped. “I am not his wife as you say. I would cut off his penis before I would let it near me. The father of my children is where a man should be – finding food for our people. This one spends his days in the sun, drinking devil water and trying to fuck any girl young and stupid enough to listen to his lies.” At this, Hula either exhausted her anger, or took pity upon me. “I will have my people tell Jack you are here. He can put his head in water and I will have him send for you when he is sober enough to believe the sight of you is not caused by the drink.” She turned to the serious-faced white man stood beside her when we first met. “Thomas, show them where they will sleep. And tell this one about his uncle, the “hero”.”

And with that, Hula rode away.

The dark and serious man ushered me back towards the huts.

“Hula is a proud woman. Perhaps to you it seems needlessly so. But these people have endured much. Many lies and many betrayals. You must appreciate that so much has been taken from them, that their resentment is not unjustified. You personally are not the source of her anger, do not take it to heart.”

We walked on in silence before I found the courage to ask. 

“Uncle Jack is the village drunk? You know their language; tell me, what is their name for him?” The man paused in his answer, no doubt assessing whether to choose a lie or the truth. 
“In their language he is called the “Stinking Drunken White Man”.”
“Folks back home were told he was a hero or a chief. Stories told by his comrades and close friends from the army.”
“Later you can ask him the truth of that yourself. I have only been here in camp for six months, and so cannot talk of these matters with any authority.  Nevertheless I myself have heard talk of his first years here being conducted with more dignity and respect.”
“That Hula woman acts as if she despises him.”
“Unfortunately that is so. My understanding is that your Uncle once held romantic intentions towards her. Hula has never discussed this with me; but I witnessed the many moral failures of rejected men before, enough to presume why a woman might hate a man without knowing fully the particulars of the case. Certainly Hula takes many occasions to punish and humiliate your Uncle.” 

I remained silent on this and he sighed as he showed me into one of the huts and bade me rest a moment. 

“I suppose nothing less than as full an explanation of accounts will suffice” he began, full of reluctant obligation. “This is perhaps not my duty, but I recognize your immediate need for answers. Please appreciate that I did not bear witness to these events, but collective accounts are broadly consistent. All stories I have heard from those who witnessed his induction to the tribe tell claim that Jack Carson was a soldier. He fled execution after escaping his posting at some Kansas fort. Allegedly his commanding officer obstructed a great romance between his daughter and your uncle. Jack defended the honor of the girl and was duly punished for it. He took with him a wagon loaded with rifles and ammunition, and bought them here to the Wazhaze people, hoping to buy a place in their tribe. The Chieftain of the time accepted the offer – not least for the horses Jack had brought with him – horses and weapons being scarce after wartime raids on Wazhaze lands.” He saw the confusion flicker across my face “Wazhaze is their own word; Osage deriving from the French.”

I asked him then of the rumors of marriage within the tribe, of the great military victories won together. He shrugged in reply.

“It is possible that they fought together but to my knowledge Jack was never given tactical command of any Wazhaze, and I have never heard him spoken of as a great warrior. I gather he was well-liked by the Chieftain of that day – Hula’s father – but I have always supposed their relationship was more a friendship than anything greater. While that Chieftain lived they drank together. Whiskey. That was Jack’s primary contribution to these people. That contribution endures to this day; Jack retains smuggling contacts from outlaws around Wichita. The Wazhaze are just as disposed towards drinking as any Europeans I have encountered. They happily trade food, pelts, even money. A small, but important percentage of whatever the tribe possesses is exchanged for regular deliveries of Whiskey. This does nothing to appease Hula’s distaste: Jack encourages the men to take precious resources away from their children, simply so that they can poison their minds and bodies with European vices. She has watched strong young men from her tribe following your dull and useless uncle down the path of the degenerate.”

I asked the man his name, and why he was with the Wazhaze given their apparent dislike of the white man. He introduced himself as Father Thomas Calvert, a Jesuit priest of British decent.

“The hostility you perceive is not a matter of dogmatic opposition towards whites. Indeed the Wazhaze remember both the French and the Catholic Church quite fondly. They have requested Jesuits, such as myself, to live among them and help administer protection against diseases. Often they tell me of the similarities they believe exist between their beliefs and mine; the mysticism and the belief in the transcendental. However, it is true that they have no great love for the whites. They have seen them steal land, impose compulsory repurchases of reduced spaces at inflated rates; they have seen supposed allies break promises, raid against them or arm their rivals according to the needs of the day. Currently the Wazhaze await long-overdue payment for the lands they were forced to sell in Kansas, and are living now on meagre rations. Some, such as Hula, think white people to be moralizing hypocrites, in servitude only to their own ends. Perhaps these beliefs are not entirely without justification.”

There was nothing more to say for either of us then. Father Calvert offered something of a sad smile and patted my shoulder as he excused himself. I had word from an Osage man that Jack was ready to receive me in his hut, but I sent the man back to inform him we would meet tomorrow instead. I have had much to digest, enough for one day. I did not venture out again instead relaying all that I could while the details remain.

I find that it speaks to the volume of shame my uncle must feel that he did not seek me out. And, on sad reflection I was glad of it.

Osage Encampment. July 26th. 1878.

Jack visited our hut first thing the following morning. 

His greeting was an approximation of cheeriness, severely diluted by palpable confusion. I noted that age had diminished my Uncle Jack’s ability to charm strangers into friendship. Once I believe Jack would have created an instant bond with Dupont at least; in that bawdy manner in which newly-acquainted extroverts compete in displays of charisma. 

My guides took the earliest opportunity to excuse themselves, assuring me that they would return at dusk after a day in the fields.

Jack positioned himself on the floor, not quite opposite me. He shuffled uncomfortably and produced a half-drunk bottle of whiskey. While conceiving of the best route into the conversation he would sip intermittently from his bottle, without once extending the offer to me. 

“My God, you really are here” he eventually offered in a tentative tone that I felt somehow uncharacteristic. I have since realized that I could not now make a single certain claim about his character, and that perhaps I never could. As he sat close by I studied his face in detail. Jack was always clean-shaven. I took this as symbol of pride and assurance in the fine qualities of his face. Now the patches of skin visible through the tangled masses of hair were blotchy, dried-out and flaking away; and either as a result of natural decay, or the consequence of some violent altercation his smile lacked teeth. 

I could not help but recall the name Father Calvert had told me, “Stinking Drunken White Man”. The description was doubtless meant as a token of disrespect, but the intention did not contravene its accuracy: the stench emanating from Jack was dirt, whiskey and perspiration. Needless to say, were the women of Independence to see my Uncle in his present condition, their knees would stand resolute and firm.

I forced a smile in return and found this to be a rare occasion in which a riposte was not forthcoming.

“How on God’s… or more importantly, why are you here Ben?”
The truth of that answer was merely a private surge of silent sadness. I found myself unable to profess a lifetime of adoration for this man, and unwilling to articulate the sense of deep affinity I’d assumed existed between us. I told him instead of the death of Mother and of Father. Jack nodded sadly at the news yet by then his brother and his brother’s wife were distant memories to him, hazy indifferent silhouettes where clarity once had been. I informed him too of my brother, his burgeoning family, their butchers practice, and his offer I had spurned to journey here. 

I confess I had mentally rehearsed that moment and fantasized many replies: I thought of Jack, slapping a knee, barking with laughter and declaring that I was clearly above such a life. I hoped for an offer to immediately embark together on some grand adventure. Not once in my imaginings did Jack simply nod with a bemused expression on his face and take a stultified swig from his whiskey bottle. I concluded weakly, expressing a vague dislike for regularity and routine.

Jack took my tailing off as an invitation for the guidance and advice he seemed to suppose was the purpose of my visit. He paused to drink and contrive of some.

“As you entered our settlement, did you notice the arrangement of huts? Two parallel rows: half facing south, the rest face north. This is because we Osage understand that there are two soul-types. Those on the south are Earth people; grounded and practically minded. Your brother is an Earth-soul, he requires labor, his sense of happiness derives from a job well done. Your Father too. Hell, Hula is an Earth person, all that “get food, get water, do this, do that…” The people of the north are Sky-souls Ben, people like you and me: we need the higher things in life – romance, escapade, ambition, danger… But you see, the souls face each other because not only do they complement each other, but they need each other. The Osage taught me these ideas Ben. Oneness: God, nature, people all part of the same energy. This means fear and courage; desire and shame; sin and redemption – they are one too. What I’m trying to say is that whole lifetimes can be spent contesting against themselves, but to fight your nature is futility itself.”

I sat, listened and learned nothing. I heard only a man absolving himself from failure and error.

“You mention sin. Are you a sinner? Are you are ashamed of things you have done?” I eventually asked him.
“The hell makes you think to ask that?”
“Because here, you are a footstool.” I was glad of the angle he had chosen to sit at. We mutually averted our gaze quite naturally.
“I am no footstool Ben. That is simply part of a ritual, a ritual that is a condition of my staying here and one that has not been exercised in many dozens of moons.”
“That woman, Hula, did she levy this condition upon you?”
“It is a contentious issue, laced with intricacies. One that outsider would not fully comprehend.” Somehow, I remained unconvinced and elected to incentivize further elucidation with silence. “Shame is no concept for the Osage. Shame is a Christian philosophy, a burden designed to ensnare and drag a man down into a meek and petty life. You think yourself intelligent enough for unencumbered thought, so tell me; should the Greeks and the Romans feel shame for the many practices we would call sinful today?”

I realized Jack retained some astuteness. I had gifted him glimpses of my personal predilections and aversions. Glimpses that he had duly seized upon. Those subtle allusions and contrasts recalled my earlier musing on greatness and mundanity. He was playing to the gallery then, in a manner sufficiently sophisticated that most interrogators would have been misled and charmed into allegiance. But I am not most interrogators, I will not let him retreat behind an adopted culture. 

“Why does Hula loathe you so?” I asked. Jack twitched uncomfortably in response.
“She was promised to me once. She felt inclined towards another and persuaded her Father to withdraw the offer. I confess I did not take this news well. Have you tried to convince a little girl, rendered stupid by love, to see wisdom?  What an honor such a betrothal would be: a white man, a war hero, the “Spirit Bear”. Our children would have toured the world, Paris, London… away from these fucking mud huts and teepees… One evening, her father and I drank and lamented the passing of a good notion. As I left I thought fortune may favor bravery. I supposed that if I just kissed her, touched her… perhaps latent feelings could be invigorated.” He grimaced at the memory and rubbed his jaw. “He kindly relieved me of several teeth that night, the “other” I mentioned earlier. Some hero he is too if you ask me, sucker-punching a drunken man.”
“How old was she?” I asked, certain that Hula could not be many years older than myself.
“Twelve I think, eleven perhaps.”

I said nothing. The Jack I knew would never have attempted to seduce a girl so young. He sensed my distaste and attempted to justify himself. 

“I didn’t try to fuck her, if that’s what you’re thinking. I could wait for that much. But the daughter of the Chieftain… that would be a hell of a bride among these people.”
“By your own admission, you forced yourself on an eleven year old girl.”
“Oneness Ben… Sexuality is energy: an uncontrollable part of being. No one can control who they love, merely how. I was never a rapist Ben, always a decent man.”

I decided against the bitter retorts about actions and words. Jack’s punishments for those crimes were to live daily under Hula’s hatred and humiliation, and that seemed adequate enough.

I told him then of the rumors back home. That he is a man of near-folk hero status. I told him of the great victories he is alleged to have won, the beautiful women he is believed to have tamed and bedded, and of his supposed veneration among these people. He smiled at that, a flicker of that old capricious luster that I used to love. 

“Well, that is something” he said softly.

For the first time in our conversation I heard a tinge of pride enter his voice, as if content that in some reality he is better than in truth. I pitied him then, the “Spirit Bear”, and his sad delusions. I felt it perfectly possible that he cannot help but destroy himself.  That everything from his instant bonds with children, his inability to commit to women, a family or even society at large, are all facets of a flawed personality symptomatic of a kind of irresponsibility that finally bought him to this end.

I asked him if he would return with me.

“Are you saying I should?” He asked, instantly affronted.
“They call you the “Stinking Drunken White Man”” I countered, in what I hoped was a blithe and dismissive manner.

“They call me the “Spirit Bear”. It is a great honor to be called such by the Indians, for it relates to a very special animal. The Spirit Bear is real, a white bear sired inexplicably from colored parentage. The Indians link their existence to great spiritualism, to beautiful and mysteries that transcend rational explanation. They worship them Ben” he insisted. I conceded I knew nothing of their language and did not know the truth of either claim, but I do know between Jack and Father Calvert, who gained most from lies.
“You do stink though, and you are drunk… I am not implying this is not your home Uncle. I am suggesting however that these people do not love you. That if you could not supply them with whiskey they would have outcast you long ago.”

There was surprise in his smile, as if he had not anticipated that I would have been informed as to his true function in this society, but mostly I saw rueful sadness.

“Maybe they would. Maybe they will one day. Maybe on that day I will come and find you. But I have friends and allies here Ben. Do not concern yourself.”

Jack pulled himself slowly to his feet then. He offered the hospitality of the encampment for as long as I would like, reiterating Hula’s stipulation that residents contribute to earn their welcome. I declined politely and instead suggested that we would depart the instant Dupont and Steenwijck returned from their hunt.

Following his departure I remained inside to record this entry. 

The events of this journey have soured my expectations of life and sated my thirst for the truth. It will be some time before I will record another.


I found this journal in my Grandfather’s attic while de-cluttering. It belonged to the younger brother of my ancestor William Carson (great, great, great, great Grandfather) whose name is referenced multiple times throughout. The story interested me sufficiently to investigate the fate of its author, Benjamin Carson, as I have never encountered any of his descendants in my entire lifetime.

I requested information from the city archives in Topeka and learned that unfortunately Benjamin Carson did not survive the year. It would seem he returned safely enough from this venture, only to be shot dead in the streets of Topeka, in an incident reported August 12th 1878. His assailant was not listed, but records also showed a Mr. Lee Adams was tried and hung for murder just one week later. 


JAKE KENDALL is a Creative Writing graduate of Cardiff University currently based in his hometown of Oxford. His work can be found in the Cabinet of Heed, The Mechanic’s Institute Review, Idle Ink and Coffin Bell Journals, Burning House Press and Here Comes Everyone. He rambles into the void and self-promotes through @jakendallox

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Image via Commons Wikimedia


Infinite Rainbows – Dan Brotzel

People sometimes asked Rick if he travelled for his work. It was a question he kept meaning to tuck away for use at the next barbecue with the neighbours, when he always struggled to come up with new small-talk prompts that he hadn’t used at the previous barbecue.

Yes, I do actually, thought Rick. Last week I was in Doncaster and Reading. The week before it was Slough and Swindon. I’m also often in Glasgow, Bromley and Hull. Rick travelled to clients and prospects, criss-crossing the country to lead workshops and support on pitches, to attend tissue meetings and wash-ups and beauty parades and blamestorms. As a result of all this, he spent a lot of time in trains, and had come to some fixed conclusions about London stations.

He was dutifully tolerant of Victoria and its eternal building works, as one might be of an elderly mother, since it was the London station of his childhood. He was as stupidly charmed as any tourist by the faux village set-up of Marylebone. He was warily amused by Liverpool Street, with its City sass and vim, like a dad with a boisterous teenage daughter who is on the verge of eluding him forever. He was bored by Waterloo, wilfully under-impressed by the new Kings Cross, but quietly amorous of bohemian St Pancras, with her pianos and her clandestine continental connections. He was intrigued by Fenchurch Street, station of mystery, since he had never been there.

But Paddington, brash and expansive and unhelpful, oppressed him. With its perverse signposting, its absence of sightlines, its long walks between connections, its barriers at the wrong end of platforms – with its refusal, in short, to act like a proper station, Paddington could fuck right off.

At the cafe where he chose to wait for his train, queue-forming protocols had become ambiguous. A pair of bridge-and-tunnel types — two middle-aged women with silk scarves and floral luggage — stood at right angles to Rick by the counter. They had clearly got there first, but to the untrained eye it might have seemed as if they had already been served, or as if Rick was trying to get in ahead of them. One of the women flashed Rick a look of such scandalised hatred that he fell in love with her at once. He flashed back a smile of exaggerated obeisance — offering a comedy medieval mime to indicate his deference to her and her friend’s advanced queue status and nobly refraining from pointing out their eccentric positioning, which to his mind had caused all the trouble in the first place – and began plotting ways to kill them with kindness.

But no. He would not go there; he was stressed enough about the day’s workshop already.

He took a deep breath. It was easy to forget that there were people who travelled by rail for the fun of it. On inter-city trains in the daytime, after all, the world of work ruled supreme. People marked their table-top territories with the full panoply of laptops and headphones, expensive travel mugs and stationery porn. As Rick walked through the carriages, he saw people casually parsing Rosetta-stone spreadsheets, constructing lengthy passive-aggressive emails with highly politicised uses of cc-ing and bcc-ing, compiling turgid slidedecks in which the projected figures for the next Q are always somehow trending up.

And above all he heard them, braying and wheedling and bossplaining on their phones, as they dressed down junior team members, sold toasters by the thousand, discussed their chances of winning seven-figure contracts, and snarked at their agencies in heated conference calls. (‘Has Carrie actually signed off on this iteration, Jay? The user experience is about as far away from elegant simplicity as it could be, it really is.’) And they did it all with unselfconscious ostentation, Rick noted, often involving the whole carriage in their drama.

He was wearing a new shirt. Out of the packet, it transpired to be so blindingly white and starched and sharply creased as to appear the very opposite of smart — like crap fancy dress in fact. (He remembered randomly that he was still someone who didn’t know what ‘diffident’ meant.)

There was a lot riding on the workshop with today’s client, a leading global provider of something something investment solutions. They reportedly had a big budget, and an appetite to do lots more if today went well – but also, at the same time, a cheerful acceptance that if nothing got done for a very long time, that didn’t really matter either. They didn’t have a clue, as far as he could see, and they were utterly unaware that Rick didn’t have a clue. They should, in short, have been the ideal client.

Except that, rather than wallow in blissful ignorance, the client had been led to believe (not least by Rick, alas) that he and his company had the knowhow to lead them out of the wilderness. They kept deferring to his judgement, terrorising him with their childlike faith in his abilities. Rick had clearly talked far too good a game at the pitch, because here he was now, trapped in a room with a load of Senior Global Something Somethings, all of whom expected to be dazzled by the strategic brilliance of a man who had never understood what strategy actually meant.

Rick wondered, and not for the first time: Do other people really approach these meetings thinking, ‘I am a powerful agent of transformation!’ and ‘Today I will be mostly smashing it!’ and ‘Time to board the Change-Train, people!’ Rather than, say: ‘Do we have to do this?’ or ‘Can’t this all please go away?’ or ‘Would you mind counting me out?’ or ‘Wish I was dead’? (Asking for a friend.)

The warm-up hadn’t gone too badly, at least. Rick got everyone to go around and share a fact about themselves that no one else in the room knew. One woman had once shared a taxi with David Beckham, another was a secret crochet fan; the Head of Something Insights revealed that he had never tried Weetabix.

They were not long into the meeting proper before an unspoken consensus emerged that the pet phrase of the gathering would be ‘To your point.’ Every workshop has a pet phrase, Rick believed, and this one was good enough to add to his elite store of meeting staples. It was right up there with ‘What does everyone else think?’ and ‘Shall we take that one off line?’ and ‘That’s not a sentence I expected to hear today!’

Beginning your remarks with ‘to your point’ flattered the addressee that you thought their comment had been worth returning to and developing. It convinced the person who said it that they were a master of logic and joined-up thinking. And it flattered everyone by making it seem that the meeting was not actually just another cosmetic rehearsal of stale platitudes, but was instead a lively and creative symposium in which the powerful thoughts of great minds could be seen to develop and progress towards important, actionable conclusions.

But on top of all that, the very greatest thing about ‘to your point’ was that different people’s contributions didn’t need to connect together in any way at all:

‘I’m not sure if we know enough yet about who our clients are, or what their true pain points are.’

‘To your point… I really wish we’d stop using that teal colour for the background on our Twitter quote cards. I know it’s in the new brand palette, but it just looks a bit lurid to me.’

After lunch Rick began again with another mini warm-up. He got everyone to say whether they preferred Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, and to give reasons for their choice. All was going swimmingly till they got round to the Chief Something Officer, who insisted that she had never watched either and would rather talk about Mad Men Instead. Rick the mild-mannered socialist fumed. Honestly, he thought. It’s one rule for them and one for everyone else…

While Rick toiled with his meagre tools of war — his slides and his whiteboard markers and his blue-tacked flipchart sheets – he noticed that an entire aspirational lifestyle was popping up outside his client’s window. It was a Friday afternoon, and for some the weekend was beginning early. Bars spilled out onto terraces, and the balconies of loft-style apartments were suddenly full of loafing urbanites supping chilled prosecco as they gazed out over the children splashing with loud pleasure in the fountain of a bright new public square. The fountain boasted a sheer-flowing water feature whose metallic planes glinted infinite rainbows in the swoon and sheen of the afternoon’s unexpected sunburst. Paddling barefeet, a pair of young lovers kissed for the first time.

Around the square, slogans asked: ‘What are you thinking right now?’ and ‘What if you just took a moment?’ and ‘Isn’t life amazing?!’ A sign flashed up: ‘Giggle. Wonder. Breathe.’ In one corner, a police horse stood magnificently still, preening with proud muscularity as its officer brushed and stroked and sluiced it down. A small crowd of appreciative children and mums had gathered to enjoy this blessed moment.

Back in the room, the Post-It notes were wilting in the heat and dropping from the walls. Rick’s deck had got stuck on a slide which said only, ‘Strategy: Why → How’. It was a slide Rick had devised in a moment of insight many moons ago, but which now blinked back at him, blank and surly.

The sun beat into the room unpleasantly. Rick reflected that if he had set out to wear a scratchy, starchy shirt designed for the express purpose of showing up the starkest possible contrast between the non-sweaty and the now all-too-sweaty areas of his body, areas which of course spread out from under his arms but also now included a growing patch in his upper middle chest area plus, he could confidently surmise, a linear vertical stripe running down the centre of his back… well, this would have been that shirt.

No matter. One of the assembled clients – the Assistant Something Account Something – was now enjoying his sixth or seventh epiphany of the hour.

‘So I guess what you’re saying is that, essentially, in a sense, our strategy should, in a way, be, kind of, no-strategy?’ It was the young, eager one, the one who always tried too hard. He had got Rick out of several tight spots already that afternoon, because although he wouldn’t shut up and had no idea what he was saying, the rest of the group felt obliged to respect his input, even though the conversation had digressed and even regressed on several occasions thanks to him already.

‘To your point, that could be exactly what I’m saying,’ said Rick. Was he? He certainly liked the idea of the follow-up work from the workshop involving the development of a non-strategy. But just then his highly-attuned client sensors picked up a micro-grimace from a more senior stakeholder.

‘Or not?’ he added, hastily. ‘What does everyone think?’

It had turned into another classic flop-chart presentation*. But thankfully it was too late and too hot for anyone to care.

As he was making his way through the client’s security gate afterwards, Rick compiled a quick obituary of himself. He was a man who was born, assembled some garden furniture, and then — to your point – died.

In his bag, he still had the birthday card from his 45th. They were studiously low-key about birthdays in his office, and his had fallen on a weekend that year. He’d come in to find a card on his desk, and decided to see how long he could go without opening it. All day as it turned out; no one mentioned it at all. When eventually he did look, not long before home time, it was to discover that only three people had signed it. Out of spite, he deleted his comedy all-department thank-you email about how he was adjusting to hitting the big three-oh.

After a much-delayed journey home, during which he had to deal with three heated calls, a provocative text and six pointed emails from his boss, Rick arrived back in London to discover that Paddington was still there, gurning sarcastically at his crumpled suit and absurdly heavy laptop bag.

Next morning, at breakfast, he was taciturn and morose. His mind teetered helplessly on the hair-trigger of irritability. The children ignored him.

‘I don’t know why you bother to join us for these meals,’ said Lorna. ‘It’s obvious you’d rather be somewhere else.’

I can choose how to respond to this situation, thought Rick. It’s entirely within my power. I can be aggressive if I choose… Or I can be passive-aggressive.

He looked up, suddenly inspired. ‘Now that’s not a sentence I expected to hear today!’ he said. ‘What does everyone else think?’


* Flop-chart presentation: A presentation using pretty graphs and fancy animations to mask an absence of any real ideas or useful information.

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Image via Pixabay

At The Bottom – M L Noonan

This is what it feels like:

You are falling.

You’ve been falling for a long time down an ever-darkening hole. At first, your descent was a gentle downward drift, like floating, but now your speed calls to mind the words ‘terminal velocity.’

If someone were to ask why you’re falling, how you came to be here, you would only be able to say that you deserve it. The details are complicated, and fuzzy. All that matters at this moment is what’s coming.

This is what it feels like:

You’re a rustic, hand-thrown stoneware mug with a durable glaze, stained on the inside from years of coffee and tea, a few small chips along your rim, containing the sludgy remnants of yesterday morning’s coffee.

You are falling.

As you tumble through the air, you spill the bitter liquid over your sides. It splashes across the linoleum floor, sending drops flying onto two people standing nearby, staining their pants. One watches helplessly. The other will be oblivious until you land with a sharp crash. Later, both will fret over whether the spots will wash out while asking each other how this could have happened. You were so sturdy. You weren’t even close to the edge of the counter. It doesn’t make sense.

This is what it feels like:

You have time to think, I’m falling and I’m sorry.

You feel yourself emptying out, everything draining away to leave you hollow. You focus only on what’s coming, the inevitability of it, the necessity.

As the ground rises to meet you, fear arrives. Not the piercing terror of facing a grizzly bear in the wild, but the dull anxiety of walking into a dark, unfamiliar room. You brush this away and settle into a numb calm, become an open ocean beneath a heavy blanket of dead-still air. Acceptance.

In the final fraction of a second before impact comes a flash of relief mingled with a mournful yearning as vast and deep as the universe itself.

You shatter.

This is what it feels like:

You wake to find that someone has put your pieces back together. You feel every crack, the stiffness of the glue, the weakness of your structure. You’re whole, but you will never be the same.


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Image via Pixabay

Super Sensitive To Sound – Jim Bates

“Alan, help me,” Jeremy panicked, pleading with his eyes, beseeching. “I’m scared.”

I reached for my lover and held him before turning to Janet our hospice caregiver, “Could you please give us a moment.”

She, like me, knew the end was near. She nodded and quietly left the room, the bedroom Jeremy and I had shared for over thirty years. Even though he couldn’t hear me, I whispered in his ear, “I’ve got you, my love. You’re not alone.”

He squeezed me tightly, kissed my cheek and then closed his eyes, body relaxing. I could barely feel his faint heart beat, but it was there. He was still with me.

Jeremy used to be, in his words, “Super sensitive to sound.” When I first met him, he was wearing headphones and my immediate thought was that he was just some weirdo living in his own world, listening to baroque music or something. I was wrong.

“Here’s your package,” I said, handing him the large envelope, ready to run off to my next delivery. He removed the headphones and said, “What?”

I repeated myself, starting to get irritated. The courier service paid me to make deliveries, not waste my time trying to explain the obvious. “Your package?” I stated.

“Oh, yes, thank you. Thank you very much,” he said, politely. “I really appreciate it.” He smiled at me with bright white teeth. He had a thin build, close cropped beard and hair, piercing blue eyes. Physically, I was attracted to him right away. “I’ve been waiting for this.”

I was suddenly curious. “What is it?” It felt like a manuscript of some sort.

“It’s a rough draft of a novel.” He smiled shyly. “I’m an editor.”

I was intrigued. I loved books and reading. I was still in college, working on my PhD in literature and writing my thesis. We got to talking (courier quota be damned) and immediately hit it off. Six months later I moved in and we’ve been together ever since, nearly thirty years.

Now this.

I must have held him for an hour. Janet stopped in often to check on us. “Just stay with him, Alan. He needs you.” She didn’t have to ask twice.

The room was peaceful and quiet, far different from the world Jeremy was accustomed to living in. He heard everything exponentially; noises I took for granted drove him up the wall. He heard the refrigerator running at night even though it was in the kitchen and we were in bed upstairs. He heard normal sounds like traffic in the street or an airplane flying overhead ten times louder than normal people, and the noise gave him headaches. Bad ones. Nowadays he might have been called autistic. I don’t know about that, but I’ve always felt he was unique and quirky and I loved him all the more for it.

He wore the headphones to dampen noise and they worked well, but a few years ago we went on a picnic in the park near our home and I convinced him to take them off. “Just try it, Jeremy,” I said, “Give yourself a break. Listen to the world the way it really is.”

He cautiously removed them and listened. Birds were singing and children playing on a swing set were laughing. A boisterous pickup game of basketball was going on nearby. Even though I knew the noise was painful for him, I could tell he was entranced, mesmerized. After a few moments he grinned and spread his arms wide. “It all sounds beautiful.”

He started wearing his headphone less and less after that. Even though he still got headaches, he was determined to live life to the fullest. “To listen to the sounds of life,” was how he put it. By the time the tumor had riddled his brain he’d ditched them completely and was learning to live with his painful headaches. He never complained. He was incredibly brave. Now the tumor had robbed him of the ability to hear anything. The irony was almost too much to bear.

I felt him stir in my arms. I sat up and looked. His eyes were open so I massaged his shoulders, “How are you doing?”

He smiled. Now completely deaf, I could tell he was reading my lips. “I can’t hear you, but I’m doing all right. Hold me some more.”

I did.

Maybe we both drifted, lost in old memories, but suddenly he was gripping me tight. “Alan. Alan!” he called out. He had tears in his eyes.

I held on. Tight. “I love you,” I told him.

“What?” he asked, holding me close.

I yelled in his ear, “I. Love. You.”

“I love you, too,” he whispered.

We embraced with all the passion of our lifelong love for each other. In a little while his breathing slowed and his heart beat faded. Then, with one final exhale, he passed on.

When I felt him slip away I screamed, “No!” Then, again, “No!”

Thankfully, Janet gave me a few minutes before she came in and together we took care of what needed to be taken care of.

An hour later she left me alone one last time and I sat on the bed with Jeremy. Outside, in spite of my sorrow, I could hear the laughter of children playing and the melodic songs of birds singing, sounds in the last few years Jeremy had been listen to and learning appreciate for their own beauty.

Those sounds suddenly gave me an idea, one last joy we could share together. I went to the window, opened it wide and let the noisy world drift in, filling the room to overflowing. I went to the bed, sat down and took Jeremy’s hand, leaned in close and whispered, “How about if we listen to those sounds of life one more time? Just like we used to?”

And together we did. They sounded beautiful.


JIM BATES lives in a small town twenty miles west of Minneapolis, Minnesota. His stories have appeared in CafeLit, The Writers’ Cafe Magazine, A Million Ways, Cabinet of Heed, Paragraph Planet, Mused – The BellaOnline Literary Review, Nailpolish Stories, Ariel Chart, Potato Soup Journal, Literary Yard and The Drabble. You can also check out his blog to see more:

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Just A Bead – Pauline Duchesneau

A hollow white streak pierced the lone glassy obsidian sphere. Inspiration lagged, defying
limitless options. What purpose? What message? Or concept? Another time, in another mind, the
manifestation would appear. But now, the depth of the glossy black equaled the stagnated
innovation. No epiphany rescued. Absent craving tormented. Meaninglessness reigned. The void
expanded and enveloped, created nothing from more. Apathy thwarted as distinctly as the point
of the unthreaded needle without a goal.


PAULINE DUCHESNEAU’s writings of various sorts have appeared in Dime Show Review, Pilcrow & Dagger, Adelaide, Riggwelter, and Rosette Maleficarum, among others. Her first novel of magical realism seeks its final draft. Pauline heaps loads of thanks on her supportive wife and their ever patient beagle.

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Ylem – Mehreen Ahmed

Her name was Andromeda. She swam on satin water. Lapped up in the silk, her mind was restive. Her thoughts were agile, but discrete and non-linear. Absorbed her musings, her dreams were clear. She swam in them, out of her depths, just as well, they kept coming back. Braided in and out, oscil-lating, and edgy, they chased her almost, inconsequentially. In a way her swim impeded, these half-formed thoughts, writ on water’s hem.

In the aftermath of the war, random bodies floated. Down by the stream which eucalyptus skin coated. Covered by stringy barks, pale faces were spotted. The enemy gloated; bodies were quite bloated. Marked with agony, of the swollen bodies, some eyes shut, peculiarly, some were still open. Her focus turned in a moment.

She sat next to her mother. They chatted in an oval room, mother and daughter. Her mother looked fresh and young, way back, a maiden. Andromeda was born much later.

She asked.”Where have you been all this time?”

“I had been out to a conference,” her mother replied.

“How did it all go?”

Her mother answered, “Very good. All was good.”

“Ah, but I missed you. I really did.”

Her mother smiled. Father entered the room. His handsome face was radiant, the atmosphere lightened. Mother rose to offer him her chair. But father took a stool, sturdy and bare. Father died nearly a decade, Andromeda thought, in retrospect. The room darkened. Over the water, bold and low, fluttered a lorikeet, a flying rainbow. It seemed it was going to gouge her eyes. But the sprightly bird frolicked, passed her elbow.

The neighbour, who like a father, died indeed. She went to his funeral with a wreath. Then he dropped by to meet her that night, this reverie, held her cheat tight. When she asked him,“Have you seen God?”

“No,” he replied. This, a silent place.Where am I? This present moment. Vast, and void, this light space, offers no air. Did I die? Am I really dead?”

“No, God then?” she asked.

“Where is He? He hasn’t come to meet me, yet,” said the respondent.

“Do you miss us?” she had asked.

Tears in her dreams, she felt surreal.

“Yes, I miss your aunty,” he answered, then he vaporised like a collapsed star.

A fusion of elements, hydrogen and helium, led to the birth of a cosmic star. The helium ran out. Star collapsed. He collapsed. She saw the neighbour, driving his car; through the suburbs of his choice, with his wife, whom he referred to, as aunty. The chemicals conferred. An accident oc-curred. He died. Of her dreams. Finite lives made of infinite gasses. Of the cosmos, of the elements, life perished. Andromeda contemplated, the stuff of life. This precious breath, did it not live outside the orbit of death? Helium, and hydrogen, oxygen, iron and zinc.

Mountain passes were rugged. She walked through the terrain. A storm picked up, she looked for a spot. She found a cave. In the dark shelter, she sat amidst litter. A lightening fell outside. That creepy light, opened her mind to shadows below. She was not alone; somebody there. In a flash, the shadow disappeared. She was out of her wits. She tried to sleep. Just when she saw some cave paintings. On the wall, they looked ancient. And they were, ancient. In a bit, she saw a little boy. A broken charcoal in his hand, he sketched stirring stories, like the fall of Troy. He lit a small fire.

Lights emanating from the fire helped, this sentient boy, to see better. He drew stick figures of many shapes and sizes: tall, short, men, women and children. It was almost dark, on the rugged wall, shape of the boy silhouetted in the moonlight. Floodlights in the dark cave, paintings of tall tales, some washed up partly in the rain. Segment of a story, like this painting of an alley, people walked through with missing hands or hair. Many even defaced, in the falling rain. Colours ran down the leaves of trees, and turned them into lighter shades of green. Pure paintings filled the dingy walls, and onto the floor, some scribbles crawled.

Gallows hung without much peruse. Kings devised a horrendous ruse. Spilled blood into the soil to infuse. Children sacrificed, for fertility of the soils, far better use. Heavy harvest at stake, people kept quiet, no one to refuse. Little boys to be taken, gods to be appeased. Telltale signs of ominous days. The King’s men marched, and dragged the boy away. Off to the gallows. Off with his head. The artist, little boy, broken into shreds. In white loincloth, wrapped around his waist, the boy’s gaping horror, clouded his face. His small hands trembled. She looked through a portal. Tears, and cries of the innocent sacrifice. No one took pity at the bloody altar. Wounds remained unaltered. Cosmic parameter, a stern factor.

Flashbacks played wistful memories, she lay on a beach a mere bystander. A silent witness to the many silken dreams, lovers entwined a beautiful beginning. Sunken sands, in waxed moonlight. Of the mandala, an ephemera, imperfect finale of the drama; done and redone until time had spoken, given up on the beach, a part of resurrection. In the hours all became sand, quintessentially minus-cule, and indestructible. In the heart of it, each wave flow, atom of H2O.

Over those swelling waves, she boarded a pirate ship. And saw a thousand vessels, a war imminent. On the horizon, a ship appeared like a phantom. A skeleton of a ship, spectacularly luminous, shone in the lantern. There was a gunshot fire. She was hit. Oh! It hurt! She was hurt. She felt the pain of the gunshot. But she lived. She saw ships pass by, while her own cruised towards the nearest beach; sea-gulls, scoured the skies. Sands, the most wondrous, where monks built palaces, and played Kings and Queens. Of a greater imagination, ruled by them, the three Moirae sisters. Monks made mandalas, painstakingly intricate, human history and destiny pleached. Giant pyramids erected with care, and the Taj-Mahal, The great Ozymandias. The King of Kings, his life sized statue pitched on the beach. Immortalised in the scroll, the statue awash, the mandala destroyed, flattened to the ground.

The hollow sand; into the sand, she buried her legs deep to the waist. A hybrid formed of part sand and part flesh. At its best, a mermaid tail; she lay half covered under the clay. High on her imagina-tion, her dreams displayed, decrepit old castles’, windows’ deep splays. Such was the beach, on the edge of which, the tireless seas creased. Where romantics rode unicorns, nomads wild horses, Homer, churned verses, now deplete.

Time’s most valued, gift offerings to gods, watched this once how their altars burnt? Stars burnt out. The sun burnt. This gleaming altar made out of gold; plush gold clouds, nestled the thrones. A toy boat marooned, on gold-plaited sheet, uncertain of directions, an aluminium plate; hot liquid gold, poured into the mould, this sea basin, replete to the brim. Gods’ own altar, never to erode, shimmering and sure, until pilgrims came home.

Andromeda swam, a big hand bagged a snake. There was a man though towards dawn. He told her this, expressed a wish that he wanted to leave, to be born again.

“Born again?” she asked.

“Yes, that is possible,” he said.

“Impossible. Because in order for you to remain what you’re, you need genes from both par-ents.”

“It is possible, though,” the man said.

“What about your wife?”

“What about her?”

“Does she have a say in any of this?” she asked.

“Probably not.”

The wife loomed. But she didn’t seem to mind. She heard his desire. So, she did not hinder.

On a fevered night, in one short month, the man left for a forest, of illuminated fireflies. The blue forest sparkled, a pathway was strewn, with sprinklings of fire ubiquitously flown. Around tall trees and slim short bushes, he walked alone through a lucid forest. A forest transformed into a conduit, this hermit of a man, roamed its bended unit. Reincarnation on his mind, soul in another body, stars in the sky, twinkled a smile.

Here she was, with this lady in white, appeared in her dream, that’s how it transpired. Some sy-ringes in her hand, wet lips in betel juices, glowing with health, she stood at her bed. Holding them out, those long syringes, she knocked into her some worldly senses.

“Your mother’s injections.”


The lady vanished. Her mother had run out of insulin and was on the brink of a disaster. The lady had come to tell her this, to ask her if, she could get her some insulin. Andromeda’s grand-mother, this dear lady, kind and Godly, rests now sadly. The silken waters blanketed her skin. Her swimming undeterred, held her by a spell. This undying chemical, once produced within her organ, the failing pancreas, now injected for survival.

“I’ve come to say goodbye,” it seemed he taunted. She looked at her brother, then understood his intent. Upon waking, she found to be true, that this saintly priest had passed away too. This dream-land, not entirely unreal, of sense perceptions, a world parallel. Sights sounds and smell, shaped up to be real, pain compounded a curious blend.

Disjointed thoughts came to pass. Mesmerising chimera seeped. Tantalising glimpse, of enormous replica, as shaded entity. Who’s to know, what’s with the truth, this wakeful life of actuality? A dream within a dream; doll within a doll, within a doll, the picture awry, always off limit. That cave painting in the rain, defaced people walked up the streets, the greens washed off. Waters dribbled over, of a partial reality, conceived by this artist in utter antipathy.

Such fragmented cognisance, manifold layered dream, alluded to allegory of the cave theme. Half a dream, a broken thought, the unfinished story, manifested to Plato’s shadow reality. This palpable existence, transcended truth, hinged on puppeteers beyond familiar scope. Answered with certitude, flung within the stars, lay a larger image, the fate of the universe. The long and short of it, dismantle the stars, dismantle Leda, a sense of foreboding descended Andromeda. For, “It is the stars, The stars alone, that govern our condition,” Shakespeare foretold


MEHREEN AHMED is an internationally acclaimed author. Her books, The Pacifist, is “Drunken Druid The Editors’ Choice for June 2018″, andJacaranda Blues,”The Best of Novels for 2017 – Family Novels of the Year” by Novel Writing Festival. Her flash fiction, “The Portrait” chosen to be broadcast by Immortal Works, Flash Fiction Friday, 2018. Bats Downunder, one of her short stories, selected by Cafelit editors for “The Best of CafeLit 8, 2019”.

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What I Loved About Barmouth in the Summer of 1986 – Steve Campbell

It wasn’t being woken before the clinking of milk bottles and getting crammed in, five abreast, across the back seat of our car as the smell of manure wafting in through the open windows, or the crawl behind an endless caravan of caravans, counting sheep to pass the time, it wasn’t the plastic shopping bag my brother filled with vomit that sloshed about in the foot well or the monotonous games of ‘I Spy’ and ‘Spot the Yellow Car’ that caused us to bicker and sulk instead of entertaining us, it wasn’t the wind-ravaged tent that we wrestled to erect, handed down from relatives who’d upgraded to a deluxe eight-berth caravan or the continuous Welsh driving rain, that somehow felt colder than English rain and found every hole there was to find in that tent, it wasn’t the missing bulbs of the tired illuminations that lined the promenade, or the cackling seagulls that dive-bombed us whenever we ate in the open air, it wasn’t the siren-blaring fruit machines that devoured every last penny I’d scraped together doing chores over the previous Winter, or the five out of seven days where the weather forced us to stay in the tent and play card games over and over and over again, it wasn’t the cows grazing in the neighbouring field that kept us awake at night with drunken moos, or clumps of sand that got everywhere and made applying suncream, changing clothes, showering and eating, crunchy, it wasn’t the rough pebbles that we had to clamber over, making monkey noises to reach the only square metre of unoccupied beach, or the dog turds we discovered buried a few inches beneath the sand’s surface. What I loved about Barmouth in the Summer of 1986 was that one Saturday afternoon, before we packed up to leave, where the smell of freshly cooked doughnuts dragged us into a shop and we came out with our lips coated in sugar and clutching oil-soaked paper bags brimming with fried batter, it was the afternoon where the clouds were nothing more than a whisp and couldn’t prevent the sun from browning our shoulders and raising freckles across our noses and, enmasse, everyone on the beach squeezed into swimsuits or rolled up trouser legs to feel the sea against their skin, it was the afternoon where the water was as clear and bright as any exotic location Judith Charmers visited, so much better than Tenerife or Florida or Devon or wherever my classmates would be bragging about when we returned to school in September, it was the afternoon of skimming stones until my shoulder aches and making a dam to stop the sea from coming in with a group of children I’d never met before, and would never see again, but that didn’t matter, it was the afternoon where I swam a little way out and lay on my back, waves lapping around me, and all I could see was blue because the sky had melted into the sea and it was impossible to tell where one ended and the other began, it was the afternoon floating close enough to the beach so that I could hear the shushing of waves but also being a million miles away, giggling to myself because I didn’t have the words to articulate how I was feeling, it was the afternoon that was over all too soon but one that I knew I’d come back to, decades later, reclining in a deckchair with a book in hand, I’d steal a glimpse over the pages between chapters and see my children splashing in the same sea, a few yards from the shore and a million miles away too.


STEVE CAMPBELL has work published in places such as Spelk, Fictive Dream, MoonPark Review, Molotov Cocktail and Flashback Fiction. He’s Managing Editor of Ellipsis Zine and is trying to write a novel. You can follow him via twitter @standondog and his website,

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A Girl’s Guide to Frog Gigging – Mary-Jane Holmes

Arielle dripped duckweed into the yard, a cowl of nutria round her neck strung up by their angry orange teeth. She’d pulled them from traps sunk along a stretch of marsh she had no right to be in keeping her body low in the water so old Larnaudie, spit-polishing ball bearings by the landings couldn’t get a whiff of her and set to. Every so often, a frog mistook her skirt ballooning across the bubbling algae, for a lily pad and she scooped it up, thudding its head against the alder roots that held the river bank and stuffing it into her knickers, for she knew that snaring water rat was one thing but there was no forgiveness for frog gigging these days.

‘Give me that twine’ her mother said, taking the marlin spike from her mouth, setting it down on the halved cognac barrel that her father had used as a makeshift work bench before he’d left ‘to make his fortune’. Arielle unhitched her brace of vermin, pulled the nylon cord out from under the limp bodies and handed it over. Her mother licked the ends and twisted the splice into the lengths of the skep she was working. It would be the fourth she’d made, the others swinging from the paltry coppice beside the pig huts and the bees yet to colonise any of them. Arielle flinched at the fervour of this fruitless industry when there was so much more to be done; how were they to pay next month’s rent? She was young but she sensed this was a type of craziness deeper veined than Thierry Begoux barking at the few automobiles that growled through the village, or Mathilde the seamstress sewing nightdresses for her kitty.

‘Your brother can practise on those’ her mother said to Arielle’s catch, re-arming her mouth with cow horn ready to de-pith and strop the bramble suckers for the binding. Arielle gathered the wet shag of pelt by the tails and crossed the yard for the house, kicking at the tufty mole-hills sprouting in the lean spring sun. The warmth was welcome, the winter had been raw and with her mother too dafty to oversee the planting, the brassicas and onion sets Arielle had sowed, had rooted shallow, only to curdle in the first hoarfrosts. They’d lived the latter end of the season on pickled cucumbers from the summer harvest, saving the softer conserves – the syrup blanched persimmons and duck fritons for Mother who had stopped eating but Arielle made her suck them through hollowed oat grass.

Her brother Felix was in the larder sharpening knives on the whetstone for his new job at the abattoir, his face churned pink with effort. When Arielle picked up the pretty pearled handle of a tripe knife, he snatched it from her and ran its serrated edge across the downy cut of her jaw. Arielle did not move. She knew that to do so would only flame her brother’s frustration that Mother’s old knives were past honing and that he had to work in the abattoir. She listened to the dull blade scissor at her skin, a sound like crepitating straw. Felix stopped when he saw the coypu and Arielle bolted to the attic stairs shouting back that Mother had said to flush them out good before hanging them.

In the attic, she lay on her mattress tracing the welts rising on her cheek. She closed her eyes and thought of her father who had never sent word, had never sent the money he promised and wished there was someone to help her, knowing she would have to coop the chickens and pull Mother from her canes and baskets before the dew fell. It was then something slipped warm against her abdomen. Reaching under her skirt she pulled out a frog. She held it up by its webby hands and it did not struggle, just hung there, its pale throat pumping. ‘What a wise thing you are’ she said and kissed it, and kissed it knowing for the first time that flush of hope madness brings, and the frog blinked, her eyes as glistery as shining armour.


MARY-JANE HOLMES has won amongst others: the 2018 Mslexia Flash Fiction Competition, 2017 Bridport Poetry Prize and the Dromineer Fiction Prize. She has been published in places such as Best Small Fictions 2016 and 2018, the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Prole, and The Lonely Crowd. She is Chief Editor of Fish Publishing, Ireland.

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Heterochromia in Charlie’s Living Room – Michael Bloor

On his way to the airport for his early morning flight, Charlie felt shrivelled and cowed. The previous evening, a meeting at the university had been cancelled and so he’d arrived home early, only to find Huw Pryce-White at his ease in an armchair with a whisky glass in his hand. Charlie’s wife, Felicity, had explained (a little too quickly) that Huw had popped round to borrow a book, and she’d poured him a drink while she searched for it.

There had been a pause. Pryce-White, his famous, battered, leather jacket unbuttoned, had simply stretched out in the chair, smiled, raised his glass and winked. The wink was disconcerting, since Pryce-White had one green eye and one brown eye. Closing one eye wrought a complete change in his physiognomy. A number of past female students had allegedly found themselves fascinated by those piercing, dissimilar eyes, to be released only when they were hooded.

Charlie, initially nonplussed, then worked his way through an unpleasant train of thought, carriage by carriage. ‘What was the book?’

Pryce-White had remained silent, still smiling. Felicity supplied an answer: ‘Er, Louis MacNeice’s autobiography…’

Another pause. Charlie muttered, ‘It’s in the bookcase in the spare bedroom – I’ll get it.’

As he climbed the stairs, he recalled a poignant passage from the book. MacNeice, on first arriving at boarding school as a child, had not gone to the toilet for two days, because he was too embarrassed to ask for directions. Charlie knew how that child had felt. After Pryce-White left, Charlie had failed to ask Felicity for directions.

*      *      *

Boarding the Aberdeen-Heathrow shuttle, Charlie was shrivelled once more to find the adjoining seat already taken by a very large, bearded gentleman. But in the event, he proved an entertaining companion – Gunnar, a Norwegian oilman – who had just been dispatched by his drilling company to a place in Africa called ‘Libreville.’

‘What do you know about Libreville?’ Charlie had asked.

‘Don’t know a damned thing.’ Gunnar laughed and signalled for a tonic water and a complementary packet of peanuts. He topped up the tonic water with a whisky miniature from his side pocket.

‘If I were in your shoes, I don’t think I’d like not knowing. Unknown prospects.’

Gunnar shrugged: ‘I imagine there will be someone there to meet me – there usually is.’ He fanned some boarding passes: there would be two more flights to board after he arrived at Heathrow. ‘Maybe I’ll find out something by the time I arrive.’ He laughed again.

‘Does this kind of thing happen to you a lot?’

‘Every once in a while. Before I was in Aberdeen, I was in Azerbaijan. I’d never heard of that place either.’

‘What was Azerbaijan like?’

‘Don’t really know. I was in one of those places… er, “gated community.” Everybody there was in the oil business too. Fancy a whisky?’

‘It’s a bit early for me… but, why not?’

Gunnar produced another miniature from his side pocket, poured half into his tonic water and the other half into Charlie’s plastic teacup. Charlie had never tasted whisky in tea before. He reckoned it was a good combo.

Gunnar asked what Charlie would be doing in London. He was told about the dreary academic journal and its dreary editorial board meeting. There was a pause. ‘If I may say so, Charlie, you seem a little gloomy.’

Charlie stared into the now-empty teacup. ‘Gloomy?? Gunnar, I feel like a man on a beach watching the ebb tide and knowing it will never return.’

More whisky appeared, a half-bottle this time. And Gunnar listened to the story of Huw Pryce-White sitting in Charlie’s armchair. ‘Hmm. Hoo Priss-Vite, you say? A curious name: hyphenated, perhaps? Is he Scottish?’

‘He likes to pretend he’s Welsh, likes to play the hell-raising Celtic Bard, but he’s actually from a place called Blundellsands, outside Liverpool.’

‘Heh. You would like to do him harm, I think?’

‘Dead right, pal.’

‘Heh, heh. I was born in the Lofoten Islands, in the far north of Norway – a fishing community. You know how superstitious are fishermen. My grandfather, he knew many spells, many charms. Also, secret signs – staves – that can be drawn or carved to bring luck. Or bad luck.’ Gunnar paused to top up Charlie’s cup and murmured confidentially, ‘You simply hide the stave among a person’s belongings.’

It was a tough call. Charlie took another swig, thought about it, and then asked politely about Gunnar’s granny.

The moment passed (apparently, Lofoten Island women were bad luck anywhere near a fishing boat. No spells or staves, but she cooked a mean fish soup). The conversation moved onto the disappearance of the Scottish herring fleet. But a seed had been sown.

*      *      *

Two days later Charlie, through his open office door, watched Pryce-White wander along the corridor, into the staff toilets. Charlie snuck quickly into the vacant adjoining office and stole Pryce-White’s famous, battered, leather jacket. That night, he burned the fucker in his backyard.


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

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Disasters – Jared Pearce

When the storm kills your cat,
or the cold kills your mother,
or the heat kills your father,
and we could go on to the end,
then it’s easy to see nature

coming alive. But most of the time
we scurry around each other,
leap from another’s shadow,
keep our ears twitched for any
crunch on the pine needles

because it’s people crashing
cars, burning tires, casting bullets,
razing sunflowers. We know
the real deal when we see it.



JARED PEARCE’s collection, The Annotated Murder of One, was released from Aubade last year ( His poems have recently been or will soon be shared in Xavier Review, Blue Mountain Review, THAT, Adelaide, and The Aurorean. Link and upcoming events are featured here:

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Tessa – Emily Livingstone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*      *      *

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

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

*      *      *

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

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

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

*      *      *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Beauty is pain,” I tell Mackenzie.

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

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

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

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

*      *      *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I pick her up.

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

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

I close the door and lock it.

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

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

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

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

*      *      *

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

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

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

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

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

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

It doesn’t matter.

We are together now.

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

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

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


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Image via Pixabay

In Which a Tinker Courts Constable Arlene – Michael Grant Smith

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

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

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

“So, how are you, sir?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I know, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

welcome dusters

no public toilet

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

“I can make your problems disappear, officer!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir, it is my swore duty.”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Image via Pixabay

Parallel Lines – Tina M Edwards

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Image via Pixabay

Banshee – Claire Loader

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

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

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

“Yes, Ma.”

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

“I’m sorry, Ma.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Ms Kavanagh! Eyes on your paper please!”

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

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

“You alright, Ma?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Those little Halloran shits again.”

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

“What the…”

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

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

“I, no, um… maybe?”

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

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


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

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Image via Pixabay

The Layover (Bellies On The Breeze) – Stephen Mead

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

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

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

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


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

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Image via Pixabay

Flamenco Tat – Chloe Balcomb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Dad? Is that you?’


Cabinet Of Heed Contents Link 24

Image via Pixabay

Magical Objects – Caroljean Gavin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Excuse me,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wiped a tear with my sleeve.

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

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

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

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

“Hear, Hear,” applauded the First Aunt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Surely…” started the First Aunt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“There’s love here,” I shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Their best was pretty shitty.”

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

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

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

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


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

Cabinet Of Heed Contents Link 24

Image via Pixabay

The Trouble With Larry – Mark Czanik

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

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

The two women laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘You can judge a town by its toilets.’

‘You can.’

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

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

The two women laughed again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘It did,’ said Dorcas.

‘So where’s this cat now?’

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


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

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A Cello Story – Heather Sager

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

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

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

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

Over the years I got such wonderful postcards.


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

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Image via Pixabay

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