Grand Caverns by Robert Boucheron

In 1804, on a farm on the Shenandoah River a few miles from Harrisonburg, Virginia, a young man named Bernard Weyer thrust a spade into what he thought was a groundhog den. The earth collapsed into a much bigger hole, “a subterranean fairyland of unbelievable beauty,” according to Nancy B. Hess in The Heartland: Rockingham County. Two years later, “Weyers Cave” opened for tours, making it “the oldest continually operating show cave in the United States.”
Since 1806, the cave Weyer found has gone through several owners and changes of name, including “Grottoes of the Shenandoah.” Holly Stover bought the property in 1926 and changed the name to Grand Caverns. In 1973 the Department of the Interior declared the site a National Natural Landmark. The owner at the time was Gladys Kellow. In 1974 Miss Kellow gave the property to the Upper Valley Regional Park Authority, and in 2009 that body gave it to the Town of Grottoes. The land surface is laid out as a public park, where people can hike, bike, fish, play mini-golf, pitch horseshoes, run and stretch on an exercise trail, and swim in a concrete pool in the summer. The cave is open year-round.
The Shenandoah Valley has about ten such caves on private property. In the United States, the National Park Service owns and operates some big and spectacular caves, including Mammoth Cave in Kentucky and Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. Caverns exist in all but two states, and they number in the thousands. A few hundred are open to the public as small-scale business enterprises. Grand Caverns is uniquely municipal.
In December, the Grottoes Ruritan Club sponsors Caroling in the Caverns, where you can sing “Christmas carols in a venue like no other.” Grand Caverns is a Civil War historic site. Battles were fought nearby, and troops from both North and South camped in the cave. Many soldiers wrote their names and dates on the walls. They left things behind. These and other items such as lamps and a metal ladder, from over two hundred years of visits, are displayed in a large wooden building at the entrance to the cave. Here also are museum exhibits on the geological formation of the cave and its weird wildlife.
The Shenandoah Valley Railroad was completed in 1880. Trains increased traffic and boosted business. The railroad inspired a string of hotels along its route to welcome summer vacationers and invalids, for whom the valley air was touted as pure and restorative. These picturesque, rambling structures had porches, turrets, elaborate woodwork, and grand dining rooms. Built entirely of wood, most have burned to the ground, including one in the town of Grottoes, which had a brief boom in the 1880s. A few miles away, the Brandon Hotel was built in 1890 in Waynesboro, Virginia. Later equipped with sprinklers, it was known as Fairfax Hall, a secondary school for girls, and later still as a police training academy. The building was restored in 2000 as affordable apartments for senior citizens.
I visit Grand Caverns on a warm May afternoon. The Stone Lodge, built in 1926, is a large, two-story, rustic cottage of local gray limestone, half-timber, and stucco. The ground floor rooms, which may have been used for entertainment as they are rather grand, harbor a gift shop and ticket sales. Living quarters were upstairs, now unoccupied and used for storage.
The gift shop has no guide book, map, or pamphlet, and only one picture postcard. I buy a ticket for the guided tour. As I wait for it to start, I browse displays of T-shirts, stickers, children’s books on ecology, stuffed animals, and mineral samples from around the world. Outside again, I walk up a long ramp to the cave entrance, where I loiter in the museum. At last, about ten of us are summoned to a plain steel door painted white. Behind the door lies the geological marvel.
Our guide is B. J., a man about age sixty-five in a white polo shirt, hunting vest, and gray goatee. Like the rest of the staff of fifteen to twenty, he is a local resident. Like many hereabouts, he has an ancestor who fought in the Confederate Army. We walk single file through the cave on a path of crushed stone, or stand in a clump in an open gallery. B. J. rattles off scientific facts, historical data, and stories from memory. He comments on the veracity of the stories. He repeats comments made by previous visitors from around the world. He takes questions and parries smart remarks. You cannot get the better of B. J.
The tour of Grand Caverns takes up to ninety minutes. It follows a route that was widened in places with the help of dynamite. Steps are carved in the solid rock, and metal pipe handrails are attached to walls. In the nineteenth century, deposits of saltpeter (potassium nitrate) were mined for use in making gunpowder, as in other caves. Bat guano was mined for use as fertilizer, as it is rich in nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. To preserve the cave, visitors today are told to bring nothing in and take nothing out.
Strange shapes that took thousands of years to form can be broken easily. As in a museum, you must not touch. The oil from your fingers can stop the slow process of crystallization. And the ecosystem of a cave is delicate. Removing a single organism—a cricket, a ghostly fungus, a white crayfish—can alter the balance for years to come.
Electric lights are provided throughout, the bulbs hidden from view. Stapled to the stone wall, a bundle of electrical cables runs alongside the path. The lighting of the better stone formations is colorful and theatrical, more razzle-dazzle than strictly educational. In the 1800s, visitors carried candles, pine torches, magnesium flares, and lanterns. Permanent lighting was first installed in 1889. Photographs are allowed.
If the modern tour requires no awkward scrambling or dangerous open flames, the cave is cold and damp. It maintains a constant temperature of fifty-four degrees Fahrenheit, and water drips more or less everywhere. If it drips on you, B. J. says, call it a “cave kiss.” The metal handrails are wet to the touch, and the path is slick where it crosses bare rock. The wet stone glistens and sparkles. Pools of still water reflect like mirrors.
The stone formations are mainly white calcite (calcium carbonate, or limestone). The way they form is analogous to freezing. Calcite dissolves easily, flows underground through cracks and porous layers, and precipitates where it meets open air. Stalactites resemble icicles, then. The sheet flows, rippling draperies, and complex shapes recall coats of ice left by a winter storm near a lake or the sea. The calcite may be colored by minerals. Here, iron oxide is the most common, producing yellow to orange shades. Red and purple occur. Green and blue, from copper compounds, are found in other caves.
The white formations look ghostly in the general blackness, and the fluid shapes look like monsters in a dream. They inhabit narrow passages and great voids eroded over eons by the underground streams. Countless side passages lead to the unknown. Chasms yawn at your feet. Vaults overhead show signs of collapse. Millions of years ago, layers of sedimentary rock were forced upward in a “hairpin buckle.” What you see from inside are sheets of bedrock turned on edge. This combination of lightless voids and writhing masses, with no horizontal or vertical lines, cut off from the world of normal sight and sound, is genuinely spooky. At one point, when we are deep in the cave, B. J. flips a switch, and all the lights go out. Darkness is total, panic is imminent, and everyone holds their breath to hear . . . absolutely nothing.
In the course of our tour, B. J. uses a red laser pen to point to certain sculptural formations. He tells us what they are called, and he apologizes for the hokey names. There are organ pipes, angel wings, and underworld themes—the Devil, Hades, and the River Styx. Dante’s Inferno is off to the side and bathed in red electric light. Some of the names are on target. One gallery contains a graceful Flying Bridge. A group of diminutive pinnacles in an alcove does look like a city diorama, or Little Manhattan.
The largest gallery is Cathedral Hall, 280 feet long and 70 feet high. It has the look and sound reverberation of a large church. No church services are recorded, but balls have been danced here since 1836, with live music. A free-standing stalagmite in the middle of the floor recalls a white marble statue of George Washington, wrapped in a cloak and larger than life.
The most peculiar feature is the “shield,” a disc of limestone a few feet in diameter that projects from a wall or hangs in space. Grand Caverns has hundreds of shields, more than any other cave. The shields hang at all angles and from each other. Scientists do not know how they formed. Shields are double, like a pair of plates or cymbals, with a thin void in the middle. One theory is that water under pressure sprayed from a crack, and waterborne calcite solidified before it could drip.
Florid examples of Late Gothic architecture, sprouting crockets and dripping with carved limestone ornament, resemble caves. Or caves resemble Late Gothic architecture. But we are apt to see things that aren’t there. Pareidolia is the clinical name for this “tendency to perceive a meaningful image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern.” Common examples are the shapes we assign to clouds, a face seen in a fogged window, and a message in tea leaves. In a vague stone flow, what you see depends on your cultural bias, as well as your angle of vision. An Irish harp? It helps to stand in the right spot.
When we emerge from Grand Caverns, B. J. tells us that in 2004 more cave galleries were discovered, greater in extent than those we had just visited. To preserve them, these undisturbed areas will remain “forever wild,” protected by federal law and closed to the public. A map of these galleries hangs near the exit, which returns you to the museum.
If you hanker for the good old days, Grand Caverns manages nearby Fountain Cave, which welcomes school groups and children at least twelve years old. The website calls Fountain Cave:
a former commercial cave that has not been open to the public for almost one hundred years! There are no lights inside the cavern . . . The tour lasts approximately two hours. You’ll get suited with helmets, headlights, knee pads and gloves. For a less adventurous experience, you can use the 1800s pathway. Or opt to have a true caving experience with opportunities for strenuous climbing & crawling.
If the true caving experience has no appeal, you can hear the Great Stalacpipe Organ at Luray Caverns, bask in the Grotto of the Gods at Shenandoah Caverns, or admire the anthodites (stone flowers) at Skyline Caverns. In the stifling heat of summer, what is more delicious than a cool cave? Water trickles through crystal gardens where flowers never wilt in the sun, and dreams endure, shielded from the pitiless light of day. Time slows to a stop. All is still, except for the beating of your own heart.

About the Author:

Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His short stories and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, Flash Nonfiction Food, Lowestoft Chronicle, Saturday Evening Post, and other magazines.

Farm Kittens by Elisabeth Kelly

That first time,
I found them,
a moving lump
behind the bales,
stuffed in a hole.

Sounds echoed
half cat, half dark
cupboards under stairs,

I ran.

Next time,
a week later,
you came with your
mouth in that I am two
years older way,

a mother cat,
ears flat back,
hissed so our
insides squirmed.

We didn’t look for them again

That time,
months later,
we saw them struggle
in the long grass behind
the dairy,

one kept falling,
a leg shorter,
a spine twisted.

At teatime,
words fell across the table,
inbred settled on my tongue
made my mouth
feel full.

About the Author:
Elisabeth Kelly is a mum and a teacher. She lives on a hill farm in the Scottish Borders with her young family and too many animals. She started writing poetry again in 2020 and will or has been published by Dreich Poetry Magazine, Eyeflash Poetry, Foxglove Journal, and Hedgehog Poetry Press in two anthologies. Her debut collection will be published by Hedgehog Poetry Press in 2021. She was shortlisted for the Anthony Cronin International Poetry Award 2020. She loves chocolate puddings and the change of seasons.

Inhabiting the Present by Mike Fox

Our garden, which was not wide or extensive, could be reached via either of two doors at the rear of my parents’ house. It is only now, thinking back, that it occurs to me the garden was several feet lower than the house itself. I realise this because in remembering it I visualise the succession of broad, fraying concrete steps that separated the garden from the house. These steps were set on either side of a brick protrusion that might once have been a scullery or kitchenette, although as far as I can recall it never achieved any obvious purpose. Tacked onto this were the remnants of a shed-like object, which I believe had originally been built to store coal. The actual garden, when you reached it, consisted of an uneven and weed-ridden lawn, with what might in other circumstances have been flower beds on either side, and a concrete path to the left beyond which, and margined by a high, plain fence, lay a small, muddy wilderness whereon my father might once have attempted to build a rockery.
Throughout the eighteen years I lived in my parents’ home none of this changed – somehow it would have been unthinkable to change it. Things were as they were, immune to aesthetic uplift or any other form of improvement. I have only to close my eyes to see everything I have described clearly.
The result of this, I realise, is a tendency to leave things as they are, benign inertia that leads me to accept my physical environment, with all its attendant factors, as they first manifest.
So it follows that the house in which I now live, low-roofed, single storey, just back from a plain beach looking out at the north sea, is much as I found it when I moved in, still subject to the various neglects of the previous owner, almost a remnant of someone else’s life.
My only neighbour is Annie. She lives two-hundred metres up the steep climb that leads to a small, unamiable village, from which neither of us have managed to gain acceptance. She knocked on my door shortly after I’d moved in to explain that she’d been in the habit of foraging the herbs that grew wild in my garden. She was holding some well-used pruning shears and a bucket.
‘Take whatever you want,’ I said. ‘I’ve just made a pot of tea if you fancy some.’
We sat in my small living room, with its rotting sash window and view down to the sea. Annie cast a severe glance along the row of paintings I’d just unpacked and which I’d leant against one of the unevenly plastered walls.
‘Did you do these?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Over time.’
‘Why so many self-portraits?’
‘Because they remind me who I am when I’m in danger of forgetting.’ It was something I’d said before – a joke with a certain amount of truth in it. Annie continued to frown at them then turned her scrutiny to me.
‘It’s so introspective. Wouldn’t it be more freeing to look beyond yourself?’
‘I paint other things too.’ I pointed to a stack of cardboard boxes. ‘I just haven’t got them out yet.’
She nodded in a way that suggested she was willing to suspend judgement.
‘I’m an artist too. Come up and have a look once you’ve sorted yourself out.’
Thus things began.
If I visit Annie in the morning I will find her in her shed, which is a miracle of tidiness and functionality. Inside it, she fashions organically shaped mirrors decorated with pieces of recycled glass, carves slender figurines from planks of driftwood, and writes the odd poem inspired by the seascape. She advertises her mirrors and carvings online and people buy them. Her poems get published in small, tastefully crafted journals.
‘You can’t live here and be passive,’ she explained, early on.
It would be clear to anyone that Annie is a creative person, orderly in her habits, and pro-active rather than passive. If I visit her in the afternoon I will find her in her strictly regulated garden, which somehow manages to both blend in and stand out from the coarse, encroaching vegetation that grows on the hill around her cottage.
‘People in big cities drift along – there’s no way that will work here,’ she felt the need to point out when I’d failed to complete my unpacking, perhaps six weeks after I’d moved in.
In fact, I have rarely lived in a big city. And the default habit of accepting any new circumstance in which I find myself has made me, in my opinion, a good adapter. Annie, I soon understood, is inclined to view this as a moral failing.
‘I worked in San Francisco for five years. I practised as a canine psychological interventionist. That was how I managed to buy this place outright.’ Annie says this matter-of-factly, although her fingers dance as she indicates the singular, bijou home she has conjured around her. ‘I specialised in anger management for terriers. There was quite a market at the time.’
‘Christ, Annie,’ I’m aware of the admiration in my voice. ‘However, do you go about doing something like that?’ To set oneself up as a Californian dog guru must require a staggering degree of personal organisation, I think.
‘Everywhere you go has a niche, you just have to work out what it is.’ Annie explains this kindly as if she has realised that even the most commonly accepted truism has somehow eluded me.
Our conversation makes me think, and when I go home I start a self-portrait. The version of me that begins to appear is my thirty-year-old self, a heavily-Fairisled warden in a llama sanctuary, holed up, not unhappily, in a croft on the far north coast of Scotland. I am bearded and my eyes seem wider apart than usual, either from exposure to the hypnotic gaze of the creatures I care for, or from hours spent mesmerised by the vastness of the North Atlantic.
‘You’re like a piece of human litmus.’
It’s a few days later and Annie is looking at the painting from behind my shoulder.
‘You’re someone who becomes your surroundings.’
Before Annie applied herself to the canine psyche she worked as a therapist with humans. She still seems keen to share her insights. I’m beginning to realise this is also her way of building friendship.
‘I could paint you,’ I suggest.
The following week Annie sits before me. I ask her to focus on the ukulele that hangs on the wall behind and above me. I look at her intently. She has pulled her tapering auburn pigtail forward across her left shoulder. There’s something about its thickness and rope-like quality that in itself speaks of vitality. It doesn’t surprise me that we can only work in fifteen-minute episodes because that’s as long as she can remain still.
‘It must be strange having had just the one childhood home.’ she says, maintaining her pose but lifting her eyebrows.
‘Not really.’ There’s a quality of zeal I’m trying to capture in her eyes. ‘Back then and round our way it was normal.’
She purses her lips and nods to the ukulele.
‘My mum and dad were always shunting us about. I’d been to five different schools by the time I was sixteen.’
It’s my turn to nod.
‘Lots of change,’ I say. ‘What about now?’
‘I went out looking for things when I was younger, but these days I prefer to be in one place. I’m settled here for the duration.’
‘For the rest of your life?’ Annie is one of those people who could be any age within a twenty-year span, but from the things she’s told me I guess she’s about forty, in which case, as I wasn’t thinking of going anywhere either, it looks like we’ll be around each other for a significant chunk of time.
‘Show me somewhere better,’ she says. ‘Can we stop for a cup of tea?’
I make tea but still observe her. Once I’ve started a portrait my subject continues to occupy my mind until it’s completed. This also goes for self-portraits.
Annie’s appearance, I think, is self-descriptive. Her sweater is evidently hand-knitted, her espadrilles home-made. Her physique is slender, and for a practical person, her hands are surprisingly delicate. But even in repose, she radiates energy and a conviction which seems to imply that, with the right effort, the immediate world can always be put in order.
‘How long have you been single?’ she asks. The question doesn’t surprise me: curiosity is an inevitable by-product of portrait painting.
‘Technically never.’ For some reason, at this moment, it occurs to me that Annie might be teasable. ‘I’ve always been several people in a single body.’
‘Very clever. When did you last have a partner then?’
‘Pretty much until I came here. We were together for nearly ten years.’
Annie considers this.
‘I would have thought you’d be someone to settle down for life.’
‘Part of me would have liked to.’
To my surprise, she ceases to probe. Instead, she puts down her mug and stretches.
‘I’m ready to start again.’
Annie resumes her seat. I peer and dab. I become increasingly aware of the candour that inhabits her features. With Annie, what you see is what you get, though there’s a lot to see and hence a lot to get.
‘You won’t need to sit any more after this,’ I tell her at the end of the session. ‘I’ll do some bits of finishing during the week and then it’s yours.’
‘What will I owe you?’ Her expression suggests she’s ready to haggle.
‘Nothing,’ I say. ‘I offered to do it.’
Annie stands, grips my shoulders and presses a kiss on my cheek. She looks at me, very intently.
‘I’m going to become your agent,’ she says.
Each morning Annie bathes in the sea. She continues to do this even when October mists lie thick across the shoreline. At a certain point, I start looking out for her return and begin a ritual of taking her a hot drink which I hold for her to sip as she towels herself. As I watch her I sometimes imagine a future in which things happen just as they do now.
‘You’ll notice the difference straight away.’
A still morning and Annie has come with a singing bowl and a cluster of sage. As she warned me, she is going to clear the energy in my house. She lights the sage with a match and sets it down on the stone hearth, then forms three fingers of her left hand into a tripod on which she balances the bowl. Next, she moves purposefully round each room striking the bowl with a turned hardwood mallet. She continues to do this for several minutes then opens the front and rear doors and all the windows. At this point, I feel as if something is flying out through the top of my head. Annie looks at me knowingly.
‘This is your house now,’ she explains. ‘You’ll find it shapes itself around you and you can begin to let things go.’
For the next several weeks I feel a disconcerting sense of absence in the simple domestic space I was beginning to call home.
Autumn shortens the days. One afternoon, when the sea is quiet and the weather overcast, something moves me to paint the garden of my childhood. It seems strange that I’ve never done this before. As I visualise it, it is as large as it would be to a ten-year-old, and still full of casual neglect. My parents’ dachshund runs down the path as if he is still alive. I am sitting on one of the broken steps trying to read a book I’m too young for. I look up from its pages and notice that to my right, against the fence and halfway down the lawn is a lilac tree, in full blossom. It sways in the light breeze. I clench my brow and scrutinise my memory. I could swear I have never seen a lilac tree there before.
I explain this to Annie.
‘It’s because you’re creative,’ she says. ‘Creative people are less likely to see what’s actually in front of them. Creativity is like a lens that distorts things.’
‘Perhaps I just took the tree for granted,’ I suggest, ‘like I never really registered that the garden was lower than the house, even when it was completely obvious.’
‘Memory can add things as well as take them away.’ Annie says this gently, and for a moment her face is transformed by kindness.
One moonless evening as I sit reading I notice an amber light flickering somewhere beyond the window of my living room. I get up and, looking down to the beach, see what might be a small pyre floating out on the tide. I go to my front door, open it, and stand just outside, silently. As my eyes grow accustomed to the mix of glare and darkness I realise the object is a figure, perhaps an effigy, ablaze upon a raft of branches. Then, in the nimbus of light it casts, I pick out Annie, standing upright and trancelike as it washes slowly away from the shore. For a moment I wonder if the figure has been formed from the reeds I have seen drying in her shed, then that thought melts as both figure and raft merge into a single conflagration, smouldering, hissing and crackling as it gradually dissolves into the sea. When eventually the last flames die, the night reverts to blackness, with the ebb and flow of the tide the only sound, and I tiptoe back indoors, leaving Annie to the cooling air, and whatever private moments she has chosen to set adrift, then extinguish.

About the Author:

Mike Fox’s stories have appeared in journals in Britain, Ireland, America, Australia and Singapore. His story Breath (Fictive Dream), and Blurred Edges (Lunate Fiction), gained Pushcart Prize nomination. His story The Homing Instinct (Confingo), was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). His story The Fun Police (Fictive Dream) was listed in Best British and Irish Flash Fiction (BIFFY50) 2019-2020. His story, The Violet Eye, was published by Nightjar Press as a limited-edition chapbook. or @polyscribe2

Three Poems by P. A. Morbid

This detritus of brick, forlorn
and crumbling buildings.
Somewhere, unseen among
the empty streets, roads
lumpy and cracked, the
ghost of industry hides.

Monday 17th of September 2018

Saltburn Station

Jackdaws rise
black against grey
their harsh cawing
beautiful in the rain.

Friday 29th of September 2017

Earthbound, the weight of your
expectations was always greater
than your ability to achieve them.

Sunday 6th of January 2019

About the Author:
p.a. morbid lives in Middlesbrough, runs The Black Light Engine Room Press & is a local historian.

Translation Tuesday: Three Poetic Voices in Romanian

Today we introduce three more talented poets from Romania and Moldova, three strong poetic voices from this part of Europe.

Andreea Apostu


things that I learned to do thoroughly
to cut my hair above my shoulders
to not show my back to other people
so that I can hide my birthmark
from the sun and cancer
to wear pants so that my knees stay out of sight
my birthmark has the shape of hokkaido
a brown and extreme sun which gives you a state
of wellbeing
and surprises you even now
like that ghirlandaio painting from a church you
entered by mistake
you could see the magi and baby jesus
only if you slid a coin
through a metal slot
and a spotlight showed you mary laughing

Translation: Andreea Apostu

Antonia Mihailescu

which birds sing to you
the temperature difference these nights the clock sets his own alarm
just in time he likes to wake me up with a cryptic chirp
birds with metallic hands//
Born in the urban jungle and(however much they may try) they cannot separate from the windows in which they bang every morning making//pouring his coffee on the microwave and to wake up his wife with the buzzing of the blender to yell at the idiots that don’t know how to use the turn signal to lay on the couch with a kilo beer//tell me which birds sing to you

Translation: Rareș Rotariu

Victoria Tatarin

He called around lunchtime
And told her
He would be home early that day
She knew he would be tired
So in no time, she cooked a modest supper
From everything she found in the fridge.
Some old ham,
Semi-dry dark bread
And vegetable broth
She wanted him to sense her blood
Like back then, their first time
Outside, there was a factory warehouse
The workers poured melted metal
From tanks into shapes
She was so young,
She could not cook
Nor could she make love properly
She could feel he would come
That night he slipped inside
Through the gap under the door.

Translation: Natalie Nera

About the Authors:

Andreea Apostu is a research assistant at the “G. Călinescu” Institute of Literary History and Theory of the Romanian Academy and has published numerous papers on literature, postimpressionist and avant-garde art in scientific journals and collective volumes. She has also published literary reviews in Revista de Povestiri, Bookaholic, Timpul, Infinitezimal and Le Grand Continent. She read poems at the literary club Institutul Max Blecher (The Max Blecher Institute) coordinated by Claudiu Komartin and has recently published in „Zoom France Roumanie” (a poem in French) and „Adevărul” (in Romanian).

ANTONIA MIHĂILESCU is a twenty-year-old student at University of Arts ”George Enescu” – Faculty of Theatre – Theater Directing Department. She is a member of House of Poetry Light of ink and
the organizer of Online Maraton of Poetry 2020 and SAD Festival 2020.

Victoria Tatarin is a poetess from the Republic of Moldova. She was born in 16.05.2002. She finished school this year. She started writing at Creative Writing club “Vlad Ioviță” and she was a participant at Reading club “Republica”. First time when she was published it was in anthology “Unsprezece”(eleven) in 2019. She was included in very important literature anthology “Poesis international” în 2020. Over publishing was in internet magazines like “Noise Poetry”, “Poeticstand”. In January 2020 she was a participant of literature marathon in Czech and Slovakia Republics(from the initiative of Mircea Dan Duță).

Andreea Apostu
Antonia Mihailescu

Nothing Left to Read by Mark Mayes

It was in a folk club just up from Kentish Town Tube. Ten minute walk. I was a lot younger and I bounded up that road, with a youthful spring, passing a jazz club that I would never visit. In my memory it was always either the middle of April or early autumn – times in the year that I feel most comfortable in.

A large old house, set back, and a place with a large collection of folk songs, and dances, and everything traditionally folk in nature, going back ages, into the mists of folk-lore, you would suppose. I never checked out the collection, but was glad it was there. I never looked at their library.

In a large room, which I think was in a basement, or possibly sub lower-ground, as not wholly beneath the ground, for there was a window, I remember, through which some greenery was visible – that’s where the folk club took place. Every Wednesday night, from 7pm until 11pm. And I went quite bit over a three years or so. Sometimes to the singers’ nights, mostly those, and other times when there were invited guests – semi, or actual pros on the folk circuit.

I preferred the singers’ nights for richness and variety – a singaround where anyone who wanted to offer a song or tune, or poem even, was more than welcome to. And sometimes I joined in, and gave a song, and sometimes I just listened. And I got on speaking terms with some folk there, and began to feel at home, and part of the scene.

I remember one man, in his late forties, slim, with a dodgy leg. He had a stick, but once he was sat, you wouldn’t know anything was up. He was somewhat northern, though where from exactly I have no idea – I don’t remember his name even. But he often sang a song, which on my first hearing, captivated me. It was Silver Coin – a song popular in the 70s, and by the folk group Hunter Muskett. I eventually would learn the song, and record a version of my own, and put it on Soundcloud. And that song has stayed with me, as a friend and comforter, ever since those folk club days, which were thirty years ago now – long before Soundcloud ever was a thing.

The job I wanted to do wasn’t going well, in fact it wasn’t going at all. And love was a foreign game to me then, and I was mired in dark regret and a sense of the permanently lovelorn. I thought I’d never get out of that hole. But the folk club was some consolation, and whenever this man played Silver Coin, some chip of ice in me melted, and I felt love might come again, if I was open and patient enough, and ready for it. And it did. It did.

The man sang this song with a kind of astounding ease, as though it were not singing but a necessary way of talking in melody. You didn’t think how well he was doing it because you were so inside the person’s experience in the song itself, how those lines yearned and found the object of their yearning.

It would be hard to choose a line that I love best, and the only thing to do is go listen to it, anywhere you can find it, but the line that haunts me and pulls me in afresh each time, and into the larger romance of it, is: But when I read what her eyes said, I knew there was nothing left to read.

And with the man singing this song, his guitar so plangent, on those April or September evenings, as I nursed a half a bitter, or orange juice and lemonade, there was a quality of listening as he played the melodic fills between the verses, ghosting the melody and tantalising us with gentleness, a quality of listening that I’ve rarely experienced in a group setting. The song was not being repeated merely (it being one of his go-to numbers), rather always growing in nuance, in heart, in memory. 

About the Author:

Mark writes mostly stories, poems, and songs. He enjoys reading a wide range of things, both fiction and non-fiction. He likes old sit-coms, old TV plays, and is trying to keep fit with the help of his trusty pedometer. 

Speed Dating and the Perfect Holiday Snap by Oz Hardwick

Feeling inspired? Building relationships with people is fundamental, and it’s all about conflict and light. In Rio, really good-looking people have the personality of fish; in Thailand, people are blurred and carry lots of equipment; and in the slums of India, waterproof people cast cool shadows underwater. Even in Yorkshire, there are witch-doctors who say hello and invite you to dance among them. Setting is everything. A market or a beach can provide a beautiful background, though a football half-encased in rainbows can be perfect if you avoid standing too far away.  In either case, don’t go for the obvious effect, but if there’s a queue, join it, and always be ready to submerge yourself in the dangerous moment. Are you happy now?

About the Author:

Oz Hardwick is a poet, photographer, occasional musician, and accidental academic. His chapbook Learning to Have Lost (Canberra: IPSI, 2018) won the 2019 Rubery International Book Award for poetry, and his most recent publication is the prose poetry sequence Wolf Planet (Clevedon: Hedgehog, 2020). Oz is Professor of English at Leeds Trinity University, where he leads the postgraduate Creative Writing programmes. He remains broadly optimistic, in spite of it all.

Blindness by Daniel Schulz

Love. That singular point in the universe that is you, all alone in the world, surrounded by people passing by, your life in the figures of others. I remember these figures passing me by, the people in school, the people on the street, the constant loneliness at home with my family, and that I had nowhere else to go, but into my heart and my mind. This was the room I locked myself into. Love was enchantment from that singular point of view. Love was that January, I delivered a letter of love so to speak, a love letter. She had told me that she lived “down there”, pointing at the corner of the street. That January I almost broke my neck slipping on the steps, Saturday at four o’clock in the morning. The things we do for love. – She never gave me an answer to that letter, though, because she did not live in that house. By “down there”, I eventually found out, she meant around the corner, at the literal end of that street, not the house at which I had delivered the letter, strange as that may sound. I sighed, but did not say anything, when I found out. I was in love with her for no reason.

I was in love with her for no reason, because, in my view, there was no reason for anything in the first place. Love simply was the material from which movies were made, images of speechless intimacy, which, cut into sequence by an editor, simply occurred, spontaneously. In a world where there was no reason for anything really that spark lit me up and let my heart beat faster. It made me feel alive again in a world in which I had survived my own abortion. And since I had survived my own abortion, my mother only thought it proper that I do my choirs. She never really loved me anyway, but was in denial of it, because, as a mother, it was her duty to love me, a social obligation, a household choir. I wanted to get away from all that. I wanted to get far away from her, but when I opened the door and went outside the world hit me like a brick wall of singular rejection, because I did not fit in. There is no reason for any of it really. But when I saw Sara, I thought that, perhaps, I had finally found someone out there like me.

Singularly sarcastic, dressed in black with a studded collar around her neck, Sara had no high expectations of the future. The management sucked. There was too much control in society. There was too little communication. We never spoke on the school yard, only when we sat next to each other in class. She once passed a note to me in history: “I have ‘dirty’ written on my thong. Smells like a teen spirit?” The teacher caught me laughing. But I never knew, if Sara really liked me, because the only time we ever talked was in the afternoon on the way back home or on evenings at the local pub, where all of us aged and under-aged goth and punk teens in this town hung out, forsaken by our parents and the world for seeing how forsaken they were.

The only time we ever talked was when she was not hanging out with her clique on the school yard or when I joined her band of friends at the pub. Was this a form of rejection or was there a possibility of being caught up in a conversation with her? One evening, Lina, a loose friend of mine, contacted me, saying it was urgent, that she had run into trouble with a guy she had broken up with and needed protection. Getting up from my chair and heading out, it took some time for Sara to realize that I was trying to say goodbye. She was focused on another conversation.

He had threatened her, she told me. He had poked a dog’s eye out with a stick. She did not want to be alone anymore. She did not want to go back home. She did not feel safe in her apartment. She only felt safe with us. I stood there, while Kurt went into the shop. Lina was shaken and sick of what had occurred, of this guy that had started stalking her. Kurt came out with three beers, one for each, as we sat there on the street and stared out into the night. Who does such a thing to someone he supposedly loves? Who physically threatens a person, who says she does not want to see him anymore? What kind of a person does not understand that ‘No’ means ‘No’?  – “I’m through with that fucking psychopath.”, she said, finding some resolution in her words, thoughts turned into speech turned into action. – “Do you know where he lives?”, Kurt asked and outlined a plan, involving another friend of his, someone who could help him help her. I stared out into the empty street, feeling alone in all this, realizing that no one else but us was here. Did Sara even care about me?

She ignored me at school. She ignored me in class. It was the same as always, the same routine as the past five months since January, as I realized that night with Lina. And so I finally decided to write Sara another letter. Maybe I was projecting my love onto her like a screen. Maybe I was peddling a dream, riding by her place every day on my bike. Every movement that I made sparked up the dynamo of love, my yearning. But my crush on her was crushing me. I needed to know, if there was a chance… I remember the day I visited her house, when without an explanation she told me that she had already been taken, when she had told me that he was the hunter and she was the hunted and he had finally taken her as his prey. I remember that day, because I did not know what that meant, to be someone else’s prey. – “Now he has me.”, she said, wrapping her arms around her legs. But what did that mean? She had asked me, if I could wait outside for a moment, when she opened the door. She did not want me in her house.

That is how it ended that day. She would not clarify anything else, so when I arrived back home, I stared at the wall of my room, which answered me with as much silence as Sara had answered my letter. She had said her piece and yet said nothing at all with her words. Who in this world, after all, would let someone else treat them like cattle? It did not add up. So I continued staring at the wall, as if it were able to reciprocate my feelings, but the tapestry remained blank. There was nothing else to do. Lina was still staying with Kurt, still waiting for his friend to come back from Berlin next week, a big and muscular man, a boxer. He had a simple plan to solve her problem. He wanted to intimidate Lina’s stalker. It made me wonder, how she was doing, until I finally realized that Sara would probably never return my feelings.

It was my mind that comprehended it, but my heart that was slow to understand, so I crafted a letter one third and final time, romantic and thankful for everything she given me (nothing), a goodbye letter so to speak, giving emphasis on what she meant to me (everything). Love, for me, was no stock exchange. It was a gift to receive and give. Nothing you could ask for in return. As impossible as it might be for a person like me to be loved, it is not impossible for me to love. At least that was what I felt that day. It was a Saturday in July, when I dropped that last letter at her doorstep, four O’clock in the morning. I wanted to leave some kind gesture, an appreciation of the beautiful person that she was, the beautiful person I sketched pictures of in class, when I thought she was not looking. And so I put a rose next to the envelope that I had left for her. This was my farewell.

Kurt told me that they were going to kick down his door. They were on their way now. The door rang. I opened. There was a woman in front of me with two large men behind her and the scent of roses surrounding her, Sara. She told me that her boyfriend had gotten jealous, because of the letter that I had left and that it had to stop, unless… she looked to her left side then to her right side, citing two muscular arguments standing behind her. She smelled of roses. She smelled as if she had plucked the flower that I had left her, squeezed and crushed its petals, and distilled perfume from it to wear on this specific day. – “It was a farewell letter.” I explained, just when she was about to speak. There was an expression of surprise upon her face, but also an expression of deep and calm relief. She nodded and, without a word, turned around, her two best friends following on her heels. Watching her leave, I could not help but wonder, what effect the visit Kurt was paying Lina’s ex would have on her situation.

Why Sara never told me in plain and simple words that she had no interest in me, remains an enigma. ‘No’ after all means ‘No.’ All that I know is that we graduated from this incident and went out our separate ways.

Two years later, a former schoolmate informed me that Kurt, who had helped Lina get rid of her ex-boyfriend, was stalking his girlfriend now. He was unable to bear that she had left him and could not accept that she had been very clear and blunt about the fact that she did not want to see him anymore. He wrote her an infinite number of letters, called her over and over again, tried to contact her at every turn, and frequently rang both at her door and the door of her boyfriend, who told me all of this. He entered the house, when the door opened, without asking. Instead of asking, he simply barged into the house not only with his physical body, but with all the pains and sorrows he carried inside his heart, as if he was the center of the world and all the world revolved around him, because he, of all people, had been forsaken. It almost was, as if he needed someone else to love him, in order for him to love himself. Pitiful. Ugly. Haunting. Who was this man he was telling me about? I did not recognize him. Funny, how, looking out the window, I, for one moment, caught a reflection of myself.

About the Author:

Daniel Schulz is a German-American writer and blue collar worker. 2015 he directed his play Humanity Incorporated for the 100° Festival at the Hebbel am Ufer in Berlin. 2016 he published a short story collection titled Schrei. In 2017, he undertook the inventory of the Kathy Acker Reading Room, i.e. the personal library of Kathy Acker at the University of Cologne, which he has curated since. In 2019 he co-organized the Kathy Acker in Seattle Symposium for the Goethe Institute and co-edited Gender Forum’s special edition “Kathy Acker: Portrait of an Eye/I”. His works have been published in Der Federkiel, Luftruinen, Die Novelle, The Transnational, Mirage #5, and the German anthology Tin Soldier. Forthcoming: Kathy Acker in Seattle.

The Locksmiths Are My Friends by Dave Cullern

We tip toe our affections
over fields
of pre-planned rules,
our designations
set in secret
around our feet

we sing
words of love
into unshared ballads
on dusty tapes
locked away
in childhood closets
amongst the 
pink and blue toys
that reduced
our world
to shadows

the flowing river,
hidden inside,
whose waters are washed
in undiagnosed paths
as the ever changing currents
travel free
to the hearts
of those with whom
we were meant to be

we wash up on the shore
with bruised flesh,
throbbing with truth,
filled with the voice
we'd never
allowed ourselves
to hear
as it whispers,
“be true above all else”
into our ear

About the Author:
Dave Cullern is a poet based in Hastings, UK. He is a doting cat mother, the vocalist of the band Haest and runs the coffee company, Sham City Roasters. His debut poetry collection, 'Fuck Ballads #1 Modern Extremes' is available now. @fuckballads

And During the Evening, Some Things of No Little Significance Became Apparent by Jason Jackson

I’m upstairs in Ben’s room counting the old plastic stars stuck to the ceiling when the phone rings. It’s past midnight, but not as late as it could’ve been, and when Ben speaks he doesn’t sound too drunk.

            ‘Hey, Dad. You’re still awake?’

            ‘Watching TV.’

            ‘Any chance of a lift?’

            ‘Just tell me where you are.’ This is a dad-shaped hole, and I slot into it, no square-pegging.

            ‘I’ve got someone with me,’ says Ben. ‘A girl.’

            I stop on the stairs, thinking of when Ben was born, how I worried his chin was too small, that he had no eyebrows. I think of standing in the hospital carpark, chaining menthol cigarettes, exhaling smoky paranoia.

‘No problem,’ I say. ‘We’ll give her a lift home too.’


It’s been raining — the roads slippery and beautiful like wet skin — and I’m driving over the bridge, thinking about the man who jumped last week. His photograph was in the paper: a thin face, eyes like a startled horse. He was, he said, happy to have a future, that he was a different man entirely to the one who jumped, that he was sorry.

            There’s a song on the radio about the end of the world, and I’m tapping the steering-wheel, singing along. The Saturday-night-Sunday-morning streets are full of people, couples joined together like paper dolls, bullish men in t-shirts with tattooed necks. I try to remember being seventeen, but it’s like I’ve been forty-three my whole life, a permanent state of exhaustion, uncertainty and the need to buy multipacks of coat-hangers from supermarkets.

            I turn into Dean Street, and there’s Ben, leaning against the wall of the club, hands in his pockets, a girl standing next to him holding a pair of red shoes, one in each hand. She’s in black jeans, a yellow t-shirt; Ben’s in a suit like he’s mourning a distant relative, like he’s serious about a whole lot of things.

            Ben holds up a hand. The girl smiles, points at the car, and I see that although she’s drunk, she’s almost certainly not drunk enough for me to have to carry her up to her parents’ front door wearing a sad and sorry expression. I finally understand that there is a benevolent God who loves me, and I pull into the curb.


‘So,’ I say into the rear-view mirror. ‘You don’t like taxis, Caitlin?’ The car smells of wine and cigarettes. Caitlin’s resting her head on Ben’s shoulder, his hand is on her thigh, and I’m thinking: This is my son, who is able now, somehow, to place his hand nonchalantly on the denimed leg of a beautiful girl.

            ‘Taxi drivers drive too fast,’ she says. ‘You know how in video games, when a fatal crash is an inconvenience at best?’ Her voice is high and a little desperate, like a red balloon drifting up into a blue sky.

            ‘Tell him about the star-sign thing,’ says Ben. ‘The serial killers.’

            She sits up straight, says, ‘Oh, everyone knows about that already.’

I see that the words on her T-shirt say ‘Heroes not heroin,’ and that it’s too big for her, like it’s her dad’s. ‘I don’t know a thing about serial killers,’ I say. ‘Or star-signs.’

            ‘This is totally true, right, Dad?’ says Ben. ‘But you won’t believe it. I know you won’t.’

‘Try me,’ I say, and I smile into the mirror like a chat-show host, like a fat uncle at a wedding.

‘Okay,’ says Caitlin. ‘What would you say if I told you the top twenty-five serial killers of all time had the same four star-signs?’ She cocks her head like a curious ostrich. ‘What on earth would you say to that?’

I laugh at her mock-gravitas, this girl in a yellow T-shirt with my son’s hand on her thigh; I laugh at the strangeness of living, of star signs, of violent death and coincidence.

In the back seat, Caitlin is counting on her fingers one-by-one: ‘Sagittarius. Virgo. Gemini. Pisces,’ she says. ‘There’s no arguing with the facts.’ She leans her head back onto Ben’s shoulder, and he smiles down at her, lifts his hand from her thigh, smooths her hair out of her face. Her eyes are closed tight, like a mole’s. Like a child, pretending.

‘Isn’t that ridiculous?’ says Ben.

‘Ridiculous,’ I say, smiling, because it really is.

We’re driving over the bridge. I want to turn to them, tell them there’s nothing other than dumb luck in this world that can save any of us, but I don’t say anything, I just drive, wondering how it’s possible that the stars on a kid’s bedroom ceiling can be even more beautiful than the real thing.

About the Author:

Jason Jackson’s prize-winning fiction appears regularly in print and online, most recently at Fractured Lit, Craft Literary and the charity anthology You Are Not Alone. Jason’s story Mess of Love was placed 3rd in the 2020 Retreat West Short Story Competition and his flash In my dream I see my son features in Best Microfictions 2020. His prose/photography piece The Unit is published by A3 Press. Follow Jason on Twitter @jj_fiction