In Paladin’s Field by RW Spryszak

'Enigma with a Blackbird'
Enigma with a Blackbird by Amy McCartney, 2018

It was a night of long music that wouldn’t stop. Repeating itself like a circuit in time with my feet. I should have gone down the well like I wanted to when I first saw it. Now, followed, the only thing left was to seem not to be the one they were looking for. Three men walking behind me. So what. I’m over here, they’re over there. My life. Their lives. I have nothing to do with them and try to project that in my body language.

“He’s good,” I heard one of them say as if he was just then inside my head.

“How far is he going to go?” A higher voice. The kind that always belongs to the skinny guy advocating the loudest to hang people the highest.

I didn’t need to hear the rest of the conversation. People passing by, people who just happen to be there, don’t do a commentary about the nonchalant manner in which someone is walking. I bolted into the woods to my left and right into the arms of two officers who were waiting for just such an opportunity.

The canvasback truck jangled over the pine cones, wobbling down the uneven terrain. They were all laughing and threw me in the back under the canvas. I scrambled to the back and wedged myself between the gumball machines and some broken mannequins, just in case anyone had the idea of following me in and starting a beating. But the only one who joined me carried a large hunting knife that flashed blue only once when some unknown light hit it, and he just smiled like a raccoon.

“You boys will never learn will you?” He stunk of onions. “Back to Paladin’s Field for you now.” He was happy. The prospect of returning to the compound filled him with Christmas joy. “I don’t know why you boys run so much. If I had the guarantee of being fed every day, had a place to sleep each and every night, I’d jump at the chance.”

I don’t know why I said, “then why don’t you take my place” from behind my knees.

He went quiet. He had to think about it. Mull it over. Process my words. Just the kind of guy they get to do this kind of work. Perfect, in fact. “I don’t know,” he finally said. “Don’t you have to do something, know somebody to get in?” His head was tilted like a dog. And these are our masters. “Or did you do something bad?”

“I was born in the city. I finished my schooling and here I was.”

“Because you knew someone?”

There was no point in answering. The truck jumbled along the bad road. Me beside the painted face of a naked plastic woman half my age. He didn’t wait long for an answer. In a few minutes, he forgot he’d asked one.

We reached the Field by morning unfed, half-awake, my legs as thick as paste. Only the braying of the hounds inside the fence and the truck gate slamming open broke my trance.

The men were lining in the yard. I knew what was to follow. I’d been caught before. Been brought back before. I already knew the speech I was going to get. The treatment I was about to receive.

After a shave and a shower I made a pot of coffee. I could hear the men marching outside my window. The morning cadence.

Fresh clothes. My good watch. Out the door to join them. Next time I’m going to jump down that well. The only reason I didn’t do it was because of the spiders. Not the idea of spiders but the look on their faces and the things I imagined them saying to one another once I broke into their hidden world. Staring at me with their diamond eyes. All knowing.

I passed the women chanting and praying in the coatroom and out my front door. My good shoes crunch the chipped gravel and a few of the men smiled in my direction. Mornings are neither a relief or fresh hope. They are only a bell you wake up to.

I caught the expression on Edward’s face. His eyes staring at me above a wicked grin visible all the way across the Assembly Yard. He was going to do something and he wanted me to do it with him. I read all this just from the squint of his eyes. We didn’t dare be obvious about it and had perfected subtle means of communication. Changing the color around our eyes like chameleons. A twitch at the cheekbones, a half-hearted wink. His lips were in a tight line, showing he was determined.

That face we all get. He believed he’d perfected the means of escape this time. I flicked my eyebrows. My response. Not me. I needed a shower and a hot bowl of soup tonight, my signal said. Need to lay low for a while. Let a few more days go by. And more days. And more days after that.

 

About the Author:

RW Spryszak’s recent work has appeared in A-Minor Magazine (Hong Kong) and Novelty (UK). He has been featured in small press magazines since the late 1980s and is the author of “Edju” published by Spuyten Duyvil (NY) in late 2018. He is Managing Editor at Thrice Publishing and has edited two anthologies in the “Surrealists and Outsiders” (2018 and 2019) Series.

Three Poems by Batnadiv HaKarmi

Mothwings
Mothwings by Stela Brix

 

 

Marsupials

If only we were kangaroos. Expelled from the womb

to hop in a pouch

and hide in its dense darkness.

 

There we would listen to the shush-shush heartbeat

of a distant mother

until the sun breaks through.

 

Vespers (Sapphic stanzas)

There is no such thing as unconditional

love, my father says, so I do not believe

in it either, quailing under anger like

bricks about to plummet.

 

Eyes closed, turn your face to the water beating

over your back,  counting vertebra, coating

skin, warm lapping tongue making your boundaries

suddenly glisten.

 

Last light fading. Listen to birds sing down day,

croon the bruised sky better, as late rays finger

windows, and dusty residue is lit in

startling glory.

 

Finds of the Day 

Let me declare the gatherings of the day:

Sunlight pouring through the curtains; pink cap

on an ink bottle; walking down cracked gray

paths; daisies in bloom; bitter coffee; scraps

 

of memory: fried zucchini flowers,

Roman artichokes shaped like roses.

The waiting peace of the in-between hours

not-morning, not-noon, when the orange tree glows.

 

Phone arguments about money and halls

stale guilt; and what can’t be undone. Troubled

buzz. Hints of loss. Empty park, shadowed walls,

a swarm of ants with wings like soap bubbles.

 

My footfall beats, How do you make a poem?

Always, everywhere, they happen on their own.

 

 

About the Author:

Batnadiv HaKarmi is an American-born writer and painter living in Jerusalem. A graduate of the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar Ilan University, her work has been published in Poet Lore, Ilanot Review, Poetry International, MomEgg Review and Partial Answers. She is the recipient of the Andrea Moria Prize for Poetry, and was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize for Flash Fiction.

Modern Forces and the Meaningful Metaphor by Mark Antony Rossi

 

'Above us'
Above Us by Amy McCartney, 2019

There are those convinced the fundamentals of writing hasn’t changed in a thousand years. An ink well, a parchment, an idea and quiet time are the essential ingredients of the literary endeavor. I don’t agree. My generation is the first to live through societal shifts in technology, economy and family structure that dramatically altered the fabric of daily life. These radical changes are so profound as to befuddle our parents who are lost to offer good counsel. I live in a time where both parents work, computers are carried in your pocket and the average adult has already had five jobs less than ten years out of college. The stability of homesteading a job, a home, even a cell phone is nonexistent. Everything is temporary and nothing is secure. Freedom forces adaptations in artistic lives during uncertain times. If you cannot truly care you cannot truly create meaningful metaphors in a day of mechanical conformity.

This is the reason I resist the denial of social changes in writing content, style, and length. There is an impact that should be acknowledged by the establishment. But I am saddened and perplexed by many academic publications who continue to push literary structure straight from the venue of Woodstock. I am amazed by journals endorsing vague ramblings of raconteurs heavy on academic published credits and light on anything resembling a connection with a current audience. Why should we ignore the information overload that is the Internet? Social platforms are more than communication tools they are also called boards for opportunities and back channels for active writers. The collective sea change of the 21st century has shorted our attention spans while simultaneously lengthening our life spans. And the internalization of this upheaval is reconstituting the perceptive viewpoint to varying degrees.

I noticed it is difficult to write past 600 words for my flash fiction and creative nonfiction. I am not consciously attempting to be rebellious or trendy. In a digital age of IM, Snapchat and Twitter I internally feel the drive to be more concise. Yesterday brevity was a dirty word describing an artist seeking a short cut. Today it is par for the course. Political and marketing campaigns have influenced our thinking to accept sloganeering as critical commentary. But bumper stickers and beer taverns are the bloody last places to find solutions to problems. The modern writer stands a chance to make a difference in this volatile environment if he merely stands up for something true in his life. Because most are sitting in silence often immobilized by political correctness, moral infancy or social apathy.

I am mortified when considering this age of instant information and communication has not produced greater peace, less divorce, more sobriety. How it is possible people persist in believing the worst about each other? How can we maintain free societies in the foreseeable future if we continue to abuse our freedoms, our families, and our friends? We have lost faith in Government and Religion because we recognize they cannot “give” freedom and happiness. At best these entities can only permit the conditions for a better life to exist. We are tasked with the enormous responsibility of discovering for ourselves how to live. This may be the price of Liberty but it is also the promise of Art to open launching points into creative expression and personal growth.

The connection between Government and Art figures frequently in my writings to remind the reader of the potential power of practical change in writing. Bad governments historically target the artist first by closing theatres, banning songs, burning books and destroying paintings. We are targets because Art matter in the daily lives of average people. Art is the eternal archive holding the memories of millions preserved as a vital source to support culture and history and dignify the voice of the governed. The very act of committing word to paper is a solemn ceremony worthy of respect and deserving as a real starting point on how to improve the world one community at a time. Your art may save a life. It may save your life. God, guns, and government have yet to fix our ailing planet. Maybe a short story on how to stop being a maggot would be a good start. You have the power. Wake up and use it.

 

About the Author:

Mark Antony Rossi’s poetry, criticism, fiction, creative nonfiction and photography have appeared in The Antigonish Review, Anak Sastra, Bareback Magazine, Black Heart Review, Brain of Forgetting, Deep Water Literary Journal, Dirty Chai, Enclave, Expound, Farther Stars Than, Flash Fiction, Gravel, Indian Periodical, Japanophile, Journal of Microliterature, Kulchur Creative Journal, Mad Swirl, On The Rusk, Purple Patch, Scrivener Creative Review, Snapdragon, Syzygy Poetry Journal, The Rye Whiskey Review, The Sacrificial, Toad Suck Review, Transnational, Wild Quarterly and Yellow Chair Review. His poetry was nominated for the Best of the Net 2019 Award. He is the Editor in Chief, Ariel Chart

http://arielchart.blogspot.com

Not Coffee by Frances Holland

Queen of hearts
Queen of Hearts by Victoria Holt, 2017

 

An ex-wife is someone you can hate, but a dead wife is untouchable. Everything you ever did together is preserved in amber, mounted on the stage of your life for your friends and family to look at whenever they feel like it. That’s it, ladies and gentlemen, step right up! You don’t even have to buy a ticket! The greatest entertainment for human beings is picking over the bones of dead loved ones.

When their father died, his little sister went a bit crazy for a while. She would only talk to people in words or phrases their dad had used. Coming into a brightly-lit room, she would turn the light off and say, “It’s like Blackpool Illuminations in here!” When their mother bought a new dress and shoes for the funeral, she opened her eyes wide and cried out, “What do you think I am? MADE of money?”

Their grandmother had ticked her off for that one. It was almost funny watching a six year-old wag her finger at a septuagenarian and growl, “You’re not too big to go across my knee, young lady! Now get out that door and straighten your face unless you want your arse skelped!”

David had been mortified at the way his mother had sobbed, and had kept his head down all day. He was keeping his head down now. He spent his days under the covers, in the bed that still smelled of Her. His mother called round every day to check he hadn’t “done something silly”, and to bleach the benches. She talked to him about the extension she was having built and what food she’d put in his fridge, but he heard it all through a bubble.

*

‘At least it was quick.’

‘I’ll say it was quick, it took her bloody head off!’

‘Oh, for God’s sake, is there any need to be so flippant?’

‘I’m not, I’m just saying-‘

‘Well DON’T “just say”.’

‘He’s in a state.’

‘Wouldn’t you be?’

‘I saw him round the Co-op. He’d forgotten what he’d come in for.’

‘I do that all the time.’

‘Yes, but your wife hasn’t just died, has she?’

‘What had he gone in for?’

‘Does it matter?’

*

People kept telling him that they would have to “go for coffee”. He hated that expression. He hated coffee. An invitation to coffee wasn’t about you, and almost always never came to anything. They said it for themselves, not for you.

*

Take as much time as you need –

                       but don’t leave it too long, because we’ll have to pay a temp if you’re off for more than two weeks.

How are you really?

                       can I have the juicy details you haven’t told anyone else?

She won’t have felt a thing, you know.

                       apparently, Anne Boleyn‘s lips kept moving after her head was cut off.

Eternal rest give unto her, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon her. May she rest in peace, Amen.

                       sorry, I’m afraid that’s the best we can do.

Have you given any thought to when you might be back?

You can stick your bloody job.

*

Six months went by and he lived off his savings. She’d been killed in their car, so he walked everywhere. He lost weight, and had to buy new clothes. The money for the new car sat in the bank.

*

Eight months after her death, he had to catch a train to London to attend the funeral of an uncle he’d never been close to. He paid extra for first-class, hoping for peace and quiet. But someone was threatening to kill themselves, and the passengers started to complain. They had more important things to do than hope a soul would stay anchored inside its host. David got off and vomited on the platform – yellow bile, and the complementary croissant that the passengers who were Worth More got. The prospective suicide was apparently averse to the sight of bodily fluids, and changed their mind.

A middle-aged woman asked David if he was alright.

‘My wife was killed in a car crash.’ Oh, that’s not what she meant, he thought.

‘Oh my goodness, I’m so sorry!’

He could feel the mist lifting. The woman was speaking to him and he could hear the shock in her voice clearly; he didn’t have the bubble around him anymore. No more conversations about extensions and what do you want for tea. When he got to London, he would buy a new suit for Uncle Donnie’s funeral.

‘It’s alright.’ He wiped his mouth with his sleeve. ‘She was leaving me for someone else at the time.’

*

He enjoyed the funeral. The service was short, the buffet was plentiful, he hadn’t been close enough to Donnie to feel terribly sad, and after all, the man had been ninety-seven. The phrase “good innings” was bandied about a lot at the club afterwards.

He didn’t know his London family very well, but they commiserated with him over his wife’s death, clapped him on the back and bought him whiskies.

‘ ‘Alf a lager when you’ve got a minute, darlin’!’

‘Two double rum and cokes over ‘ere, sweetheart!’

‘Packet of pork scratchings, love! And a smile wouldn’t go amiss!’

The barmaid was on her own, and she was getting more irate by the minute. David watched her through the warm glow of the three Irish whiskies he’d had. He’d never seen anyone so spectacularly ill-suited to the task of pulling pints and looking pleased to do so.

‘What are you doing? You can’t come behind here!’

David was behind the bar without quite knowing how he’d got there. He’d removed his jacket and rolled up his sleeves.

‘You’ll never get this lot served on your own; they’re three deep as it is.’

She narrowed her eyes, watching him serve the double rum and cokes to the man with a face like a plate of varnished corned beef. ‘Well…you seem to know what you’re doing.’

*

An hour later, most of the mourners were belting out songs of the Motherland. ‘The Fields of Athenry’ had been sung four times.

The barmaid, who was called Michelle, was flirting with David. It had come as a surprise to him, after months of seclusion, that he was worth flirting with.

Michelle casually mentioned that she had a day off coming up in three days’ time, if he was still around. Just in case. If he was at a loose end. If he fancied doing something.

‘Yeah,’ David lied as he tried to recall through the haze of whiskey what time his train home was the next day. ‘We could go for coffee or something.’

 

About the Author:

Frances Holland has been writing ever since she was five years old when she realised that putting an amusing caption on a drawing of her dad could get cheap laughs. Her inspirations include folklore and mythology, as well as the everyday lives of the people around her. She lives in Northumberland.

Aunt Stokesia’s Cave by Kenneth Pobo

Kles
A Cage by Victoria Holt. 2016

She says that the only place to live

is a cave.  Salamanders are better company

than people.  They listen

and keep busy.

Stalactites keep us humble,

point tips right at our heads.

 

Outside of the cave

we get proud.  We cause wars.

The sky is like a store,

always open, wanting us to pop in.

 

In a cave darkness can be complete,

scary too, but it covers you,

and it feels so good when its long

fingers rub your shoulders.

 

About the Author:

Kenneth Pobo has nine books published and twenty-one chapbooks.  His most recent book is Wingbuds from www.cyberwit.net, a press in India.  His work has appeared in: Brittle Star, Hawaii Review, Amsterdam Review, and elsewhere.

 

Introducing Shannon Elizabeth Gardner

Today, we present an artist from the USA. You cannot stop looking at her images although the subject matter is quite grim. Her work has inspired us to think of a prompt: transformation. We hope it also inspires you.

 

Images left to right/top to bottom: Coffin Birth; Decay; Deprivation; driBdeR; Good night; Graveview; Incoming Message; Master of Decay; Sick Doctor; Smoker’s Breath

 

About the Artist:

Shannon Elizabeth Gardner is a graduate from the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point with a Bachelor’s in Studio Art and a Minor in Art History. Her interest in horror and the macabre came about while exploring nature and the paranormal. The work explores the natural and organic process of death, evoking empathy for decay. She believes that life is beautiful when left to fate, leaving art to chance assists the viewer to witness beauty hidden within imperfections. Her process imitates nature and discovers the earth’s imperfect beauty. The ethereal mood of her work reaches the extreme and addresses the taboo.

 

Silence by Mike Fox

Neuro_Mandala
Neuromandala by Stela Brix, 2018

Memories are an environment, don’t you think? And the longer you live the more that environment grows; like bindweed perhaps or, if you’re lucky, roses tangled round a trellis. Now I find that no new experience comes alone: each arrives enmeshed in things of the past.

 

I think of this as I walk along the river, the water silver and grey, ochre near the bank where it reflects the autumn foliage. A cluster of small craft float, moored together in midstream, still as an island. Mist lies on the water like silence, and I think of the day, the early summer afternoon, the very quiet, still moment, when Geraldine kissed me. For a few seconds I can even feel the press of her lips on my cheek.

*

It was the other girls who’d started it, although the boys soon joined in. Puberty was the problem – it’s easy to see that in hindsight. Previously she’d been as inconspicuous as the rest of us. She and I had sat next to each other right through junior school and on into seniors. We had borrowed each other’s pens, caught each other’s bugs, and shared whispered answers to tricky questions, so that often we gave the same wrong answer.

 

I didn’t recognise her sudden blossoming, I genuinely didn’t, although now that seems inexplicable. I did notice the small gifts that started appearing on her desk. And the way some of the other boys began to stumble with their words when they spoke to her. They, I suppose, were the shy ones. Others started to ply her with embryonic chat-up lines, while she reddened and shrank.

*

I could tell she didn’t like it. Her head dipped and her long dark hair began to fall forward like a plea for privacy. Before long she stopped putting her hand up to answer questions. She spent more and more break time in the library. I could feel her withdrawing, even from me. If our shoulders touched when we shared a text book she would start and retreat, and soon there was an unbreachable inch of space between us, never before needed or even thought about.

 

Everyone’s skin is permeable. I know that now. Perhaps hers was more than most. She just didn’t want to stand out, and suddenly, unavoidably, she did. I can still frame her face: the lustre in her hair, the particular blue of her eyes and the small extra crease beneath the lower lids, the simplicity of her mouth and the default gentleness of her expression.

*

‘Stuck up cow.’ That was the moment it broke out. Before it had just been an atmosphere. Cora MacDonald, standing over her, staring down, Geraldine with her head bowed, not wanting to be seen. Teenage accusations are often wrong, or at least misplaced, but they’re fertile nonetheless. From that point on Geraldine did not fit in, would never regain the chance to.

 

Cora MacDonald was loud and physically strong. She had her coterie. They quickly fell in behind her. It wasn’t subtle, but it had no need to be. That very rare thing, a pure unblemished beauty, wished only to be invisible. All that was needed was to call attention to it.

*

Inevitably the boys started too, joining the pack, their teasing blunt with spite. What they couldn’t possess they could at least take part in destroying. I tried to protest and got my lip split. Geraldine looked at me and, almost imperceptibly, shook her head. Anything I did could only make it worse.

 

So I sat beside her – that was my one option: a single witness, each of us in our own form of exile. I watched as her spirit drew in on itself, as the space around her contracted, as the sense of her nearness diminished.

*

It stopped abruptly – the day our form teacher announced that Geraldine would be leaving at the end of term. No reason was given. Perhaps, in the moment of victory, the hunter finds compassion for their victim. Or perhaps that final brittle conquest allows them to see just what it is they’ve done. There were even some clumsy attempts at reconciliation, although it was clear Geraldine didn’t want those either.

 

The imprint of her lips fades from my cheek, and my mind returns to that final day of term, the last time I saw her. I’d said goodbye and walked away, but then heard footsteps running after me. When I turned she was there. She reached up, the press of her closed mouth gentle and deliberate, and then, somehow, I found myself alone, and for a few moments the world around me was silent.

*

Perhaps that was her parting gift: silence. She knew it better than most. The river mist is damp on my hair and clothes, the ash path still as a cloister, and I can hear no sound from the water.

 

About the Author:

Mike Fox has co-authored a book and published many articles on the human repercussions of illness.  Now writing fiction, his stories have appeared in journals in Britain, Ireland, America, Australia and Singapore. His story Breath, published by Fictive Dream, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2019. His story Blurred Edges, published by Lunate Fiction, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2020. His story The Homing Instinct, first published by Confingo, was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). His story, The Violet Eye, is available from Nightjar Press as a limited-edition chapbook. www.polyscribe.co.uk or @polyscribe2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Madrugada by Clara Burghelea

Mojave
Mojave by Stela Brix, 2018

Pick out a piece of me- a kneecap, a brittle vein,

then a day of asking the way to undo spilled coffee,

warm yourself against things said late at night,

the underside of my chin, cold beer between your legs

a white moon, taut and urgent, no trick, no trial

just scratch the corners of your nails over my skin.

It is there where the dying begins, the goosebumps

over my ribs won’t whisper a thing the inside storm.

For now, play Yoio Cuesta softly, filling the room with

instances of us going bad, making good. Lay your fat lips,

jitterbugged with sharp-edged kisses, the voice, a saxophone

Sunday cleaning the air in between our bodies.

The insides of my wrists are ready. Let the ink flow.

 

About the Author:

Clara Burghelea is a Romanian-born poet with an MFA in Poetry from Adelphi University. Recipient of the Robert Muroff Poetry Award, her poems and translations appeared in Ambit, HeadStuff, Waxwing, The Cortland Review and elsewhere. Her collection The Flavor of The Other is scheduled for publication in 2020 with Dos Madres Press. She is the current Poetry Editor of The Blue Nib.

 

Miss Peverill by Alwyn Bathan

82311295_2490538614541544_2618370681078808576_n
Self-portrait by Ida Saudkova, c.a.1997

Miss Peverill was engineered from left-over hand grenades and fighter planes damaged in the Second World War. She had no need of a voice. She wore a tweed suit cut from the finest wire wool, scented of carbolic soap, mothballs and lilac talcum powder. Parents of new starters to the school dared not dally any longer than necessary to deliver their tender five-year-olds to her classroom.

When Michael Brown baulked at being left for the first time, Miss Peverill’s oxter became the weapon of choice. Non-compliant beginners were scooped up and crumpled unceremoniously into the deepest recess of her inner arm and chest, (Miss Peverill had no breasts, just a double string of pearls to clack against the little skulls on the way up). Their arms and legs flailing, they realised quickly that efforts to abscond were futile.

As long days elapsed, escape attempts tailed off, and rewards crept in; crayons appeared on tables in re-used biscuit tins, the milk crate brought in early to allow a few degrees of defrosting before poking a straw through the silver foil cap to the crystalline milky ice-pop below. Even a Friday afternoon Bring Your Favourite Toy from Home session was a cover for Miss Peverill to manually calculate individual attendance, multiplied by the fifty-six pupils in her class.

Her modus operandi was simple: comply or face humiliation.

The tariff of punishments was non-standardised and unique. It included but was not limited to;

-standing in the corridor to allow passing staff the opportunity for casual berating

-standing in a nominated corner of the room facing the walls; back right corner for coughing incidents, back left for scraping chair legs on the floor, front left for speaking when not spoken to, and front right for asking to go to the toilet,

-and, standing inside the grey metal waste paper bin next to her desk for even greater misdemeanours.

Gossip at the school gate had it that Miss Monforte, in the classroom next door, had a policy of keeping her wastepaper bin occupied: it was one child less to supervise.

On Friday 29th September 1961, Thomas Mitchell had nothing to bring to the Toys from Home session. He told William Moore, whose desk was one to the left in the rows and columns of the classroom grid, that there were no toys in his house, and that he preferred sticks. Sticks could be guns or knives or whips and he liked having choice, he said.

Although the boys’ proximity was alphabetical in nature, this was their only similarity. William’s blond hair was parted neatly down the centre of his whistle-clean scalp and Brylcreemed flat to either side of his head. The lenses in his tortoiseshell spectacles were clear and cleaned by his mother every morning, as were his shoes. His striped tank-top, knitted by grannie for him starting school, bore every colour of wool collected since his birth. William constantly pushed up the clean cotton handkerchief which resided inside the cuff of his starched and ironed shirt, first checking that Miss Peverill’s eyes were occupied elsewhere. He assured his mother every day it would not be needed, and it got in his way.

Thomas had an unfamiliarity with the bathtub, or the sink: his hygiene requirements were managed by spit on a tea-towel. His dark hair was matted and cut at irregular intervals using the scissor attachment of a Swiss army knife. Perched on top of his olive skin, it resembled the bird’s nest he stole from Leppy’s copse, similarly full of wildlife.  Sunburnt cheeks and nose and filthy fingernails evidenced his free-range existence; the lyrics to his life-song scribed in utero. He found little of interest in his school environment; the crayons were useless after invading every orifice he could access unobserved, milk made him sick, and he decorated the inside of the waste paper bin with curds and whey for three consecutive mornings before being allowed to drink water from the art sink tap. Neither could he sit still in his allocated place, Desk 3, Row 2. Thomas liked to swing his feet and stub his boots, laces flailing and clicking, against the legs of the desk and as he watched the dried mud clumps decorate the classroom floor while William looked anxiously on.

‘If you have brought nothing, then sitting quietly is what you must do, Thomas,’ Miss Peverill said, ‘perhaps that will help you remember next Friday.’ Replacing the reading glasses tethered by a golden snaking chain, she re-applied herself to the back pages of the green register grids which covered the surface of her desk.

The low hum of herd breathing resumed and was occasionally punctuated by odd shuffles of permitted movement as the children played, mainly solitarily, at their desks. Geoffrey White successfully assembled his Mr Potato Head, popping plastic arms and legs into the hollow brown tuberous body, adding glasses and moustache, and lifted it to show Raymond Tindale next to him. He nodded in appreciation, offering by return and with blue smudgy fingers, a page bearing R-A-Y printed from his John Bull rubber letters and ink pad. The Smith twins brought their Hoover Junior twin tub, and shared it on their desk, Christine turning the handle of the spinner painstakingly smoothly as Pauline lifted out the pretend-washing with her pretend-tong-fingers. They had forgiven Miss Peverill for last week when she had promised to bring a scoop of Daz washing powder from home to let them demonstrate to the boys how a washing machine worked. She then forgot. The contagion of crying that resulted, initially from the Smiths, which then spread through the remainder of the starters who were only just keeping control of their own separation anxiety, taught Miss Peverill an important lesson in teaching; that some promises were best not made in the first instance.

The gridded sheets of the register were turned over with care and attention at the front of the class accompanied by an occasional irritated glance over the black-rimmed spectacles.

Suddenly, the infant purr was ruptured by the clatter of wood upon wood.

The children jumped in their seats.

A lone desk lid, raised and dropped.

And again.

Fifty-five pairs of eyes swivelled to locate the noise whilst Thomas Mitchell elevated his chin and stared directly into the eyes of the woman seated at the big desk. He lifted the lid once more and held it momentarily, surveying the expressions of those around him before allowing it to fall freely from such a height it bounced on the empty desk framework.

William’s face drained of colour.

As the lid crashed against the frame once more, the eyes quickly relocated their gaze.

To Miss Peverill.

Then to Thomas.

And back to Miss Peverill.

Mouths opened. Bodies tensed.

‘Thomas Mitchell,’ she hissed, ‘take yourself off and stand at the front of the class. We no longer wish to see your disobedient face.’

‘I won’t,’ he said, jumping off his seat and brushing against William as he squeezed through the narrow gangway, the width of a puny five-year-old and Miss Peverill’s narrow hips.

William reached into his shirt sleeve and pulled out the crisp folded whiteness that usually returned home in a pristine state. He dabbed it against the corners of his eyes and his nose which were now starting to leak.

Making his way towards the teacher’s desk, Thomas stamped his feet hard on the tiled floor as he walked, releasing a trail of last-night’s muddy scrapings as he muttered under his breath,

‘and there’s nothing you can do to make me.’

 

About the Author:

Alwyn Bathan was a teacher for 39 years before deciding to return to formal learning through the MA in Creative Writing at Newcastle University where she graduated with distinction. She works for Unicef UK, promoting children’s rights in education settings. She is keen on social justice and work-life balance, not necessarily in that order!

She won the Evesham Festival of Words Short Story Competition 2019. She has also recently finished writing her first novel. Alwyn enjoys the gym, walking her dog and being life-long learner.

Don’t Go to Denver by Melissa Grunow

Mothwings
Mothwings by Stela Brix, 2018

In the dark, my hand was shadowed against the angel wings on his back. Some time ago ink-filled needles had ripped apart his body and taken on images and symbols with unexplained meanings, words without definitions. His skin, light and smooth, was an access point into the world within him. It was twisted, complicated, uninviting. I wanted all of it and nothing to do with it at the same time.

His tattoo crawled across my hand and danced with the shadows, consuming my palm.  His exposed neck waited, while he laid there facing away from me. I had attacked him while his soul was raw, his heart vulnerable. I had told him the truth about us, about him. And he didn’t like it.

“I’ll never completely trust you. You’ll never respect me in the way that I deserve. And we’ll always come back to that,” I had said just moments earlier.

Silence. “So what do we do?” he finally asked.

“I suppose we have two options.” I didn’t sound like myself. I was always asking the questions; he always had the solutions. He could see things that I couldn’t. But in the dark, something had shifted, and I was the one with the voice. “We can compromise, and that’s what makes us, well, us. Or this ends it.”

We hadn’t even defined it yet. Our worlds had collided together suddenly, physically, a sloppy attempt to fill gaps in ourselves left by others: his by a lover who left him because he could never be something he wasn’t, mine by an attacker who left me with a black eye and a persistent fear of parking lots. We found solace in how we mutually exist in the world. As the days passed, though, it became strikingly evident that how we react to and engage with others was so notably different. We didn’t know if we could survive it.

“This can’t last forever,” I had told him a week earlier during a late-night phone call. “This will change. We will change.”

We argued about love. He ran his hand over the Emily Dickinson quote tattooed on his chest, “That love is all there is, is all we know of Love,” and said, “Love is a promise that I will hurt you less than anyone else.” He turned over, looked through the dark and right through me.

I didn’t believe it. I didn’t believe in love, either, but I did understand loyalty. What I did not understand was why he would still go to Denver in the morning. Why he would pursue love with another, even if just for the weekend? Especially when I had just come home, whatever “home” was, to be with him.

I’ll be a wreck, I had told him. You already are, he had said. We had spent the past two hours talking about it. Being reasonable, fair, giving each other the chance to complete our thoughts.

“Don’t go to Denver,” I pleaded. My suitcase was sitting, still packed, at the foot of the bed. His empty suitcase was waiting next to the closet. There was still time for him to change his mind.

It doesn’t have anything to do with you, he said. I can’t accept that, I said. I’m not asking you to, he said. You can’t just use me, I said. I’m doing this because I want to be used, he said.

Round and round and round we went until I bit into his shoulder, and the talking stopped. A train blew its whistle outside the open window; a gentle fall breeze crept into the room, settling over the bodies of two lovers causing just one to shiver.

 

About the Author:

Melissa Grunow is the author of I DON’T BELONG HERE: ESSAYS (New Meridian Arts Press, 2018), finalist in the 2019 Independent Author Network Book of the Year Award and 2019 Best Indie Book from Shelf Unbound, and REALIZING RIVER CITY: A MEMOIR (Tumbleweed Books, 2016) which won the 2018 Book Excellence Award in Memoir, the 2017 Silver Medal in Nonfiction-Memoir from Readers’ Favorite International Book Contest, and Second Place-Nonfiction in the 2016 Independent Author Network Book of the Year Awards. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, The Nervous Breakdown, Two Hawks Quarterly, New Plains Review, and Blue Lyra Review, among many others. Her essays have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net and listed in the Best American Essays notables 2016 and 2018. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction with distinction from National University. She is an assistant professor of English at Illinois Central College. Visit her website at http://www.melissagrunow.com for more information.