I Remember the Bedroom by Cristina Discusar





i slept in every bed
the blue cover 
was my favourite
                         like the dark air
every time i woke up i was alone
                         and knew nothing
it was only my eyes that captured:
the backyard behind the block of flats
the window
the park in our neighbourhood
the health centre in the afternoon light
- as if they were polaroid snapshots
and i could not recall the cold, as if it never existed

several days ago, i sat on a bench and watched
two cranes, moving slowly as they were building a block of flats 
it looked like they would never finish 
I recorded it deep inside my mind

several days ago, i watched electric wires and trees
and didn’t blink

About the Author

Cristina Dicusar (07.08.1993) is a young, talented poet from Chisinau, The Republic of Moldova, who was already introduced to our readers in the autumn in our Translation Tuesday feature. She published her first poems in the „Clipa” magazine and in a poetry collection: „Casa Verde”/„The Green House”. Now she is writing her PhD with a thesis on contemporary Romanian poetry. She read at various literary clubs: The “Vlad Ioviță” Workshop (Chisinau, Republic of Moldova), “Tram 26” (Romania), “Mihail Ursachi” House of Culture (Romania), Bar Behind the Curtains (Czech Republic), Prague Writers’ Club (Czech Republic), Beseda Castle, Švrček Theater, (Slovakia) etc.  She is member of the “Vlad Ioviță” Creative Writing Workshop and of the “Republica” Cenacle. The featured poem is visually powerful and brings a different poetic view from a different corner of Europe. Translation by Cristina Discusar, Mircea Dan Duta and Natalie Nera.

Still Life with Fabrice Poussin

For our regular readers, Fabrice is like an old friend. We know him as a fantastic writer, poet and artist. Today, we can enjoy and admire his still life photography in our slide gallery, just the right dose for our times to remind ourselves of what ‘beautiful’ means and that our world really is beautiful.

About the Author

Fabrice Poussin is the Advisor for The Chimes, the Shorter University award-winning poetry and arts publication. His writing and photography have been published in print, including Kestrel, Symposium, La Pensee Universelle, Paris, and other art and literature magazine in the United States and abroad.

Visual Poems by Seth Crook








                                THE VISIBLE WORLD







                                I DISCOVERED
          
                                                                 THE EX T







                    






                                      THE INVISIBLE WORLD




                                       AT LAST

                                                  I FOUND

                                                             THE WAY  N
    


                     


























. 

About the Author

Seth Crook is transitioning into a seal, swims daily. His poems have appeared in such places as The Rialto, Magma, Envoi, The Interpreter’s House. And in recent anthologies such as Port (Dunlin), Green Fields (Maytree), Declarations (Scotland Street). His concrete/word-visual poems have recently appeared in Streetcake, Dreich, The Projectionist’s Playground,  and a forthcoming anthology celebrating Edwin Morgan.

Ink by Ross Turner

Ink

Herman’s fountain pen scored black trenches across coarse, grey paper. Thick ink trailed in slow lines to form letters, which joined into lingering words; he had been assured those words would take shape, become his memoirs, but, so far, they just looked like roads and paths. The page was another map – more unknown territory.

Halting, Herman crushed his palms into his eyes, blotting out his study: sodden dirt carpeted the uneven floor; mounded dust camouflaged regimented bookshelves; and picture-frame-debris littered the no-man’s-land that accounted for most of the room. To his left, sheaves of paper lined with roadways marked the years of old ground he had covered. When the lantern to his right sputtered and died, darkness overwhelmed the study.

He groaned, heaved himself up, limped into the living room, crunching glass underfoot and staggering over discarded tins. Apart from there being a settee instead of a desk, the rooms were identical. Lice-ridden bedsheets lay crumpled on soiled cushions, and Herman dove for the covers, oily hair obscuring his eyes as he sprawled down. He quaffed from an open bottle on the floor, emptying it before coming up for air, and embraced the stupor that seized him.

Smoke hangs low like fog. CO’s mouth churns. Shrilling too loud. He’s just a kid. Face pockmarked more than the ground. Hero complex too. He’ll be dead inside a week. Any second now. They’ll start shelling again. That’s how they do it. Lull you into a false sense of security. You poke your head up, they blow it off. They’re dependable like that. Hunker down. Comfortable sludge. Subtle shift – weight off gangrenous foot. Head against the mud wall. Eyes closed. Whistling fades. Begin to hear voices again. The Officer moves on. Men cram together. ‘Sherman!’ George’s voice. ‘Sherman! You alright?’ Eyes open. Bombing resumes.

The changing sound awoke Herman, as explosions became knocking. He flashed, snapped upright on the settee, drew a vicious breath.

‘Grandpa?’

He let the air whistle out between his teeth. The ache in his foot helped confine his anger, while the stabbing behind his eyes told him night had come and gone.

‘It’s open, Jennifer.’

She opened the front door and crept inside, inched the three paces through to the living room, cradling Tupperware tubs filled with spaghetti Bolognese and packs of chocolate digestives balanced on top.

‘Grandpa,’ she said quietly, glancing around.

‘Jennifer.’

She held her arms out, trembling. ‘I brought you these.’

Herman took them, felt suddenly exposed, knowing he would not eat them. ‘You’re such a good girl. Your mother would be proud.’

Jennifer looked down.

‘Can I take you today, Grandpa?’

‘I don’t want to go.’

‘Please?’ Her shaking intensified. ‘I need to go.’

‘They don’t know me.’

‘You won’t give them a chance.’

Later, back in his study, Herman’s pen hovered, clenched in his fist, ready to strafe the blank page. Globs of ink bubbled downwards, advancing on the pen’s tip. They gathered in a black pendant drop, threatened to bomb the two-dimensional, monochrome landscape. Finally – BOMBS AWAY! – it blitzed the paper.

No screaming came across the sky, as the liquid shell plummeted and exploded silently – sound and splash absorbed into the wreckage, veining out through coarse fibres, spreading like thick black flames. Herman watched the ink claw across the page, flicked his wrist to lay down more fire, spattering his arc.

The desk was grooved, as if it were gristly, wrinkled skin. Splattered ink wormed into those hollows, seeped deep into flesh. Herman had dug at the grooves with his blackened fingernails, excavating them over time, so that the desk – the useable portion of it, at least – was a third its original size. Sitting there, in the filthy study of his tiny council house, he had burrowed through muscle and tendon, exposed the nerves beneath.

He thrust the tip of his pen into the paper, wrought its tines askew as he stabbed the desk’s wooden skeleton; ink gushed from the pen’s slit, drenching the page. He swore in German as he tried to stem the flow, laughed at the absurdity, and swore instead in English.

Once the situation was under control, he issued a fresh sheet of paper, commissioned his reserve fountain pen, and began to write without abandon:

Some lads faked their details for another shot at the medical. Especially if they hadn’t got in because of something like asthma. They were young and desperate to go. I wasn’t any different. But when I got there and gave my name, they weren’t interested in anything else. Not my address or family history or NI number. Bypassed my medical. Before I knew it I was approved. A week later I was in basic training. Six weeks later they told me I was a soldier. Then they told me I was a translator. Said my name in a harsh accent. I didn’t speak a lick of German. 0600 they had me in my 2’s in front of the OC. He’d fought in the 1st and had the silver to show for it. He wasn’t happy. He repeated my name lots of times and asked me why I’d requested to be a translator. I told him I hadn’t. I didn’t know anything about it. He told me I had three days to learn German. Managed to scrounge a German dictionary. We shipped out the next day.

M4 Sherman Tanks were cheap to produce, small and light enough for shipping and to utilise existing bridging equipment, and generally reliable – by military standards. Herman had been nicknamed Sherman for much the same reasons: he had joined minus the cost of a medical; was underweight; and was such a reliable translator he spoke almost no German.

His Officer resented him, knowing the company had landed a dud: an inept translator and, at best, an average soldier. Herman’s only redeeming quality – which his hierarchy begrudgingly recognised – was his relentless determination; consequently, though it was never really an option, he did not desert, and, through reading his dictionary and practicing on prisoners of war, could speak halting German inside of three months.

Memories bombarded him, assaulting Herman with vague mud- and blood-stained faces. German soldiers, barely men, he wrote. Weary. Wounded. Woeful. Too poetic – he did not hold with that nonsense. Just the facts. He stopped introducing himself: it raised too many questions he could not understand, let alone answer. He stumbled through interrogations with his Officer looming over his shoulder.

Once, he remembered, after a particularly fierce barrage, the POW’s were miserable; so was he, but he was not allowed to wear it so openly. With an ever-strengthening grasp of the language, he began his interrogation. It went well: he asked three questions without any mistakes, but the fourth was more complex. His Officer wanted to know the placement of German positions, what artillery they had, what armour. Herman tripped over some words, forgot others, replaced them with the wrong ones. The men’s filthy faces cracked, showed brilliant teeth. Herman’s Officer shot them, obliterated their smiles. Because he had asked for the wrong directions.

Hit the beach. Cold. Piss wet through. George had been trying to keep our spirits up. Always does. He’s a joker. But braver than the rest of us put together. Never scared. Never once thinks about jacking it in. Boats land, or beach. Whatever boats do. George leads the charge. FIX BAYONETS! Into sand and bombs and music and gunfire and bars and barricades and hammocks and wreckage and hula girls. Most of the guys vanish to play pool and chat up locals. I stick with George. Wingman him as he gets friendly with a blonde bombshell. Sand flying everywhere. They finish. She still can’t understand him. I only catch a few words. So we crawl to the next sand bar. Barmaid has drinks ready for us. Thatchers for me. Bloody Mary for George. We both understand her. She’s friendly too. But in a more practical way. George talks about giving up, going home. Gets animated. Screams about it. Spills his drink. Red and sticky all over his front. Barmaid throws him a strip of cloth. ‘Cheers!’ Face pale. Hands shaking. DAB DAB. He needs another. I put a quick second round down.

When Herman awoke, his duvet smelled of fresh lavender and was tucked up to his neck. Between the settee and the door, a three-foot ocean of bare, roiling linoleum poised in ambush. Beside him, his stores of bottle-ammunition were depleted.

‘Grandpa.’

‘Jennifer.’

She paced around the settee into view. ‘We’re leaving in fifteen minutes.’

Herman looked at his granddaughter, inspected her, for the first time in years. Her inky hair was thin, threaded with grey. The lines on her face were unnatural dugouts. How old was she even? Surely not that old? He could not remember. And she had camp bones: clavicles compressing her chest; hips squeezing her stomach; arms thickest at the wrist. Had she been plump when she was little, or was he imagining that? She had used to grin when she saw him.

He wondered how he looked. Worse, no doubt.

‘Fourteen minutes,’ she said, voice tired, like her mother’s had become.

Went to the vets meet this week. Jennifer made me. It was at that community centre again. Where they have all the AA and junkie and depressed meetings. She disappears for the hour, into one of the other rooms. I know she won’t go without me. And I know she needs it. I just can’t stand it. I say my name. That’s about it. The lad who runs it thinks we’re all heroes. That the less we say the worse the things we’ve done. Or probably the better he thinks. Maybe I should say more next time. Tell him a story. About George. About how he spilled that Mary. How I got the second round in but all the hula girls in the world couldn’t cheer him up. About how he’d always be the one that got there first. How he never thought about going home until the job was done. How I had to take his mind off the spilled drink. Ordered another round for a toast. Then I’d tell another story. About how drinking takes me back, but eventually takes me away. About shouting at Alice in German she didn’t understand. She didn’t need to. I’d burned my dictionary, but I made her understand just fine.

Smoke and ash spun through the air. Herman limped through from the desk to the settee, lighting sheaves of coarse, grey paper and firing them in mortar volleys. Instead of detonating, they made the air thick and hot, until Herman heaved and hacked.

But he had been almost wholly consumed by fire several times, in the wake of raining explosions. This was nothing in comparison. He knew he had time. He had written about it, like the trauma counsellor told him to, along with everything else. Now his words were fire and smoke; ashen paper fluttered down around him, and he swallowed each piece, consuming hot snatches of memory.

Then a dozen flashes of orange dashed away from him, flared in the doorway, swirled back up against gravity. They drew together into a burning face, lips moving, but the shrilling was still too loud.

Once again, the remembered sound became knocking, but Herman had barricaded the door. He heard his granddaughter’s voice, calling him from outside. She did not sound tired now. She sounded desperate – like her mother had sounded when she was a girl, when he had finished a bottle and was making her understand.

Herman closed his eyes and leant back. But the wall of mud was not there.

He fell.

When he opened his eyes, flickers of orange still danced, bright against the dull, off-white ceiling. The pain in his back and head anchored him to the floor, and he relaxed into their crushing hold.

Then the burning face again. No longer in the doorway, but hovering over him. His heart and stomach thrashed against his ribs, unable to flee. If he could have let them go, he would.

‘Dad,’ the face said.

He glared at the ceiling.

‘Dad! Fucks sake!’

He blinked. The burning faded, and the face became an older version of Jennifer.

‘Alice?’

‘Surprised you recognise me.’

He remembered her tired voice – a battlefield of pity, sadness, and disappointment – the way Jennifer’s had sounded; it was different now.

Angry. Eyes like knives.

‘Alice, I–’

She held up her hand. ‘Not interested.’

‘Where’s–’

‘Jenny? Your granddaughter?’ She grimaced, eyes stabbing him. ‘Dead, Dad. She killed herself.’

‘Wha–’

‘I found her in the bathroom. Like one of your war stories.’

‘Alice…’

‘Your fucking war stories.’

‘Alice, I–’

‘Fuck you.’

She stepped over Herman, traced into the kitchen. Drawer, RATTLE, SLAM. Retraced, laid something about the size and weight of a pen on his chest. The knife felt cold, even through his shirt. He kept his eyes fixed on the ceiling, so he did not have to watch his daughter leave.

I’m a new man. Reformed. My daughter loves me. Visits me every week. Jennifer’s fine, of course. Alice was just trying to scare me into action. One of those interventions. Jennifer still brings over spaghetti and biscuits. Always trying to fatten me up. And I eat the lot. I help at the vets meet now too. Try to get more to come. I’m like a walking advertisement. Tell them all about George. They come along and we all laugh and they get better as well. Finished my memoirs too. Got myself a publisher. Tells me I’m one determined son of a bitch. Soon people will be able to read all about my life. Like a map into my memories. See what things were really like. I can give all the royalties to Jennifer. She’ll probably say no. She’ll say they’re mine. I earned them. I deserve them. She’ll want me to get what I deserve. She’s such a good girl. Her mother would be proud. Maybe I’ll keep writing. Keep drawing more maps. Keep blotting the pages with words like roads and paths. Ink is thicker than everything.

About the Author

Ross Turner was born in 1992, in the West Midlands, and studies Creative and Critical Writing at the University of Gloucestershire. He writes short fiction, works privately as a tutor, writer and editor, has been in the Royal Air Force Reserves since 2014, and has been published in a number of print and online journals.

Father as a Young Man by Christine Fowler





Twenty-five a good age
young and strong.
Proud family man
providing for your 
wife so sweet,
your first-born son
and your smallest child
your daughter.
Then jobs are lost
economies crash
and Jarrow marchers
walk the long cold road
with hungry faces
and desperate hearts;
where only a cold welcome awaits.
And so no longer proud
picking sea coal
with it's spitting warmth.
A half penny here,
a penny there when sold.
A loaf of bread and margarine
now the fare that's set upon the table.
Both parents denying their empty bellies
as they push the bread towards the
children dear.
The little one, hot and limp,
they rush to the hospital
no half-crown for the GP.
The father visited 
and peeled one grape
she loved her daddy
and so, she ate.
Next day the telephone box visited,
his return ashen faced.
My little girl;
my little girl has gone.
As tears roll down the face
of that once handsome and proud,
young man.



About the Author:

Christine Fowler has always written a poem to process major events, but only began seriously writing and performing poetry in 2019. Starting in her sixties means she come to poetry with a lot of life experience, which is reflected in her poetry. She has had poems published in the Gentian Journal (Issues 6 & 7) an anthology, and has several poems accepted and in the process of publication. Her poems are illustrated on her website https://www.christinefowlerpoetry.com

Introducing Four Czech Poets

Not only about the Presence
by Adam Borzič


Since Berlin you want to write a poem so simple,
That you repeat for a hundred times words like banality, presence, black currant…
You read your notes in your mobile; its display is somewhat scarred, 
Which now seems to me fitting. You read in them you cannot turn back time. There is nowhere to return it.  So the sadness of the past is forever only an echo, 
Falling through a large sieve like a noodle, while the ladle still hangs
On the wall, and the sky is grey and the stairs look they lead to hell,
But they don‘t. So you open the door, the defeat of the meaning disappears,
Only a chest with tulips on top remain.   

You thought of poetic scenes,
And they are your new nightmares, your love poems
For more and more men and one woman, topical only for the polyamory, 
But you won’t confess it publicly, so you suffer from nightmares,
That fall on the professor’s bald head 
Several days after his radio programme was cancelled,
Which is also your fault, and on top of that, he has to introduce you. . 
Through a strange eye of a while, climbs an insect’s futility and all that love
It feels to be threatened with the polite interest
Of the audience, say in Berlin... 

At night you whisper to yourself: 
They kept coming to me
And the doors got opened
And the door got closed
And they kept asking: 
What do you want? What do you want? 

And their voices sounded like thunder in the larder,
Like a spike in the wet sand. 

The wind of nervousness is luckily asleep. It’s November. 
Berlin kept October to itself together with the beautiful Tereza
And beautiful Jan, together with the beautiful black man at the reception, 
Who, aged fifty, married a Czech man who hates his countrymen. 
Now at last November. A month of simplicity. As well as a month of joy.  
Far behind are left poetic scenes, orphaned like a lighthouse on an island
In the middle of the North Sea. The chairs are empty, tables by the wall, 
Toilets sparkle with cleanliness. Standstill. 
So you are happy about a repaired tap in the kitchen, 
Several outstanding poems I have read today, 
Interviews with Olga and Ivan. And naturally,
walking. Sometimes modest, other times self-confident, 
ever so often meek like wrinkles on Ivan’s face, 
ever so often magical like the night full of yellow tobacco leaves
on the pavement, and nautical apples,
which you stole in your dream. 
And then you laughed about it.  
PRAGUE...TO BE CONTINUED
by Aleš Kauer

Prague. 
The old whore, bored and willing
to walk along each generation all over again. 
I am like Prague begging for a photo, 
like a foreigner pleading for love,
like a tourist believing in virtual values. 
I am exploding tenderness and misguided imagination. 
I sweeten the bitter dregs with two sugar cubes from the nearby street. 
On the window – a spider of yesterday’s explosion. 
Slavia. 
You fall asleep with an i-Pod in your hand. 
With pleasure, enjoyment and neurosis within my reach. 
With assurance there is another 
chamber full of light.

The shining pause between two lives. 
I want to be your confidence, 
I want to be your talent with the real inner complexity, 
with the spectrum of cynical,     

caustically witty and snap observations. 
I want to be your address in the yellow Moleskin, 
your artefact and adrenalin.

Wink at me so I am sure you know what I am talking about!

We touch our anxieties like razor blades. 
Unshaven strayed people on the polar maps. 
Yet, in all that lived-in melancholy 
is so much truth, ugliness, humour, beauty,
there is only one answer in existence… 
To go out and live!

perro callejero 
by Tim Postovit

avenida as long as the arm of your mother
when she placed an ice-cold towel
on your forehead sweaty with fever 

the café is as small as your soul 
when a street dog scared you for the first time
because you understood you would follow him 

the man’s teeth crack the grains of sand
from the sandals of Mary Magdalene

who, in the act of reconciliation, hands you a neon clavicle bone
so you can sell it at the market –  easily  
like boiled sweet corn 
like sheep cheese 

and for the money you make, you buy 
a ticket home
by Josef Straka

swirling pressure
intractable words, repeated over and over
a little corner at the boat’s bar
there is nowhere to sail off
not even inside you
with all the barricades – on and on churning something
going out – somewhere to the upper deck
and watch the last ray of the fading day
with a certain trace of additional hope and hope-lessness
and then you really abandon the boat
the reverberating sound of lock chambers
what with what and against what
and what in unclear circumstances
and what completely explicitly, what acutely
unbidden questions when sinking
perhaps not, the other un-said negatives!

All translations by Natalie Nera

About the Authors

Adam Borzič (born in 1978) is a poet, mental health therapist , translator as well as editor-in-chief of the prominent literary bi-weekly Tvar. He is the author of five poetry collections. In 2014 he was nominated for the Magnesia Litera literary award. His poems have been translated into Polish, English, Romanian, Croatian, Serbian, Russian, Slovenian and Portuguese.

Aleš Kauer (born in 1974) is a Czech poet, artist and activist who tries to highlight the issues of gay writers and poets. He has five collections under his belt and is also a founder of an artistic collective Iglau Ingenau as well as the Adolescent publishing house in Šumperk

Tim Postovit (b. in 1996) is a poet and translator from Russian. He studies philology at the Charles University in Prague. His first collection Magistrála (published by Pointa) came out in 2019. He is currently working on his second book. Moreover, he frequently performs in the genre of slam poetry. In 2019, he became a champion of the Czech Republic in duo slam. He teaches Czech as a second language. He lives in Prague.

Josef Straka (born in 1972), originally worked as an academic researcher in psychology for the Institute of Psychology. At present he organises literary readings in the City Library in Prague. He is an author of several critically acclaimed collections. His poems have been translated into Polish, Serbian, German, Spanish, Portuguese, English and Dutch.

.

What We See by Sarah Leavesley

We see everything, and nothing, at least, nothing we’ve not seen before. Drunken antics are what we’ve traded over the fifteen years during and since college. This time is no different, until we look back later and hindsight creates the signs.

It’s 1am and Harry has a saw in his hands, hacking at his toilet door. Trapped inside, Tom is jangling the handle. Outside, we’re laughing, a red-wine-stroke-pale-lager-flavoured laughter that sometimes catches on our teeth as the saw catches on wood when Harry slides it down the frame, ‘like a credit card’, until it catches on the lock, which still won’t open.

‘Hurry up, won’t you!’ Tom’s voice has risen in pitch.

‘Ok, ok,’ Harry mutters, turning to us with a look of mimed exasperation. We chuckle louder.

Now Harry’s wife, Sofia, and Tom’s partner, Caro, crowd into the hall with the others to see what’s going on, why Harry’s got a saw, and what’s with all the laughter, the lock-jangling and the closed door. Someone tries the handle again, and brute-forces it open.

Tom emerges, red-faced and sheepish. Of course, it’s Sofia that places a hand on his shoulder, then eases him gently towards another drink to help smooth panic’s jagged edge.

We get through the rest of the evening with crossed legs and toilet humour.

In the morning, we’ve all got sore heads, but smile when we remember Tom’s wooden face appearing from behind the wooden door. He claims that, no, he was laughing or grinning, while Caro says shocked. We tease him about the fifteen minutes trapped inside, jangling. No one pays attention then to the expression on Harry’s face. Or notices Sofia’s hand under the table, stroking Tom’s thigh.

When we sober up, finally, Tom trips on the blade still lying on the floor. Tired-eyed but sparking, Sofia joshes: ‘You’d have to have sawn it to believe it…’ Glancing at each other, Caro and Harry don’t laugh.

We remember this months later when news of Harry and Sofia’s divorce filters through and Cara and Tom split up. Sofia and Tom decline their invitations to the next reunion, while Harry tells us he’s picking up Caro on his way.
            Though fairly sure it’s safe, we double check the toilet locks for sabotage, then spend the evening quietly watching each other, extra sharp to every gaze and gesture. Most of the wine stays unopened. Bottles of Bud Light remain still chilling in the fridge, a sheen of slippery ice forming across the surface. We clutch our partners’ hands tighter. This reunion will be our last.

About the Author

Sarah Leavesley is a fiction writer, poet, journalist and photographer, with flash published by journals including Jellyfish Review, Litro, Spelk, Ellipsis, Fictive Dream and Bending Genres.

The First Verse Set Her in Motion by Kate Garrett

She was caught by a hook in the dark 
of nightclub corridors: arms in lace
gloves, the sticky lager ledges where 
she’d rest elbows and listen as they all 
watched and mirrored poses. 

Eight years on she walks Wednesday 
nights through a demoted mining 
town, ear buds reducing the world
to this song, the sky, a clear plan forms
to get on with her life. She’s restless

under buckets of coal and locked 
back doors with thrown-away keys,
the books she never wanted to read. 
Time moves on from angry boys 
setting fire to the bottom of gardens,

enraging the faeries, digging graves
for their youth. Each of these is part 
of her – the beer stains, the coalhouse
door – but missing pieces call from new
streets, waiting to be rearranged.

About the Author

Kate Garrett’s writing is widely published – most recently or forthcoming in Dreich, Frost Zone ZineRiggwelter, and The Spectre Review. Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize, and her latest pamphlet, A View from the Phantasmagoria, was published in September 2020. Born and raised in rural southern Ohio, Kate moved to the UK in 1999, where she still lives on the Welsh border with her husband, five children, and a sleepy cat. Visit her website www.kategarrettwrites.co.uk or Instagram @thefolklorefaery.

The Death Zone by William Falo

                                   

I climbed through the death zone of Mount Everest and noticed the frozen bodies in the summit’s shadow. I passed them on the way up but focused on the summit I didn’t look at them. I was the slowest climber, the last to leave the summit. I stayed there for a long time waiting for a ghost from my past to appear. It never materialized. The haunting presence of the dead caught my eye on the descent, I glanced at one body and it appeared to move. “That had to be the wind or I’m suffering from mountain sickness,” I said aloud. I walked closer. The woman’s skin appeared smooth and milky white. She resembled a porcelain doll.
           

I touched her face and she flinched. I fell backward. “My God, she’s still alive.” The woman blinked and whispered in a foreign language.
            “I don’t understand. Can you speak English?
            “Don’t leave me,” she said.
            “I won’t,” I looked up at the summit. It looked farther away every minute I lingered here.
           I used my radio. “Alex, there’s a woman here who’s alive, but in bad shape.”
           The radio crackled. “Can she walk?”
            “No.”
            “What country is she from?”
            “Does that matter?” I fumbled with the radio. My hand started going numb since I took my glove off.

Alex didn’t answer, but after a few minutes, the radio clicked on.  “Your teammates are already at the camp. They are not in good enough shape to go back up the mountain.

I shouldn’t have lingered at the summit, but after my brother died, I quit college and stayed at home until I saw a show about Everest. He was a mountain climber and he dreamed of reaching the summit of Everest. He planned everything then COVID struck and the mountain was closed for climbers. It crushed him. He drank a lot and stayed out late at night walking around the town then a drunk driver hit him. It was a hit and run. He died alone in the street. I climbed Everest in his place. I could complete his dream and find peace. People said I wouldn’t find him there, that he was gone forever, but I needed to find some way to feel closer to him. After months of training, I made it to the summit. I didn’t find him there.
            “Can anyone come up and help me get her down?”
           “I’m checking if anyone has the strength left to do it. You’re the last climber coming down.”

The fallen climber moaned.

“What’s your name?”

 “Jelena.”

“I’m Chloe.”

She tried to sit up, but she was too weak.

“Where are your teammates?” I asked.

 “They had summit fever. They were so happy at reaching the summit they forgot about me when I fell behind.” A tear formed in Jelena’s eye as she said, “I climbed the six highest mountains in six different continents; this was the last one for all seven.” She struggled to show me a crumpled picture of her on Mount Kilimanjaro. “I would have been a hero in my village in Serbia.”
           I put my hand on hers.
            “I didn’t think anyone would ever stop.” She looked at me. “But you did.”

Guilt washed over me as the thought of leaving kept coming to me. I looked at the dead bodies scattered around us then saw that Jelena’s eyes closed, I feared she joined them. I wanted to keep her talking, so I asked, “Do you have any family?”
             “I have a son.” She blinked back tears. “I should have stayed home with him.”
            “I’ll make sure you get back to him.” The camp got farther away. “We survived COVID, we can get through this.”
            It didn’t help.

“I should have stayed home,” Jelena said. “I wish I could go back in time; I would stay with my son.”

My radio crackled. “Chloe, this is Alex. The Sherpas are helping climbers down to the lower camps. You’re the last person coming down. It will take a long time to reach you.”
            Jelena coughed so hard I saw blood on her mask. I noticed that her oxygen bottle was almost empty.
           Snow flurries floated down as ominous-looking storm clouds formed nearby. My head throbbed so I turned up my oxygen. Then the camp called.
            “Chloe, there’s a storm coming, you must leave now. It looks terrible.”
            “She’s still alive,” I yelled.
             “You can’t save her.”
           I clicked the radio off and put my glove on, I couldn’t feel my fingers anymore. The snow intensified as I huddled next to Jelena.
            The radio crackled with warnings about the approaching storm.
            “Please go,” Jelena said. I didn’t want to tell her it was already too late. I would encounter the storm on the way down. It was impossible to make it through a storm.

She tried to reach out to me, but she gasped for air.

I noticed her oxygen bottle was empty. I put my mask on her.

The radio crackled. “Chloe. You must leave now.”  The snow blew sideways. My hand was too cold to work on the radio, so I didn’t bother to answer.
            “Please take your oxygen back.” Jelena tried to remove the mask.

“No,” I pushed her hand away.

 She blinked back tears. “Chloe, please save yourself.”
            “I have to stay. My brother was killed by a drunk driver. He died alone on a desolate road.” I wiped my eyes. “I can’t leave you.”
             “I’m sorry,” Jelena said. Snow accumulated around us. I realized we were alone now. Jelena’s eyes were closed as I huddled next to her.
             “I think I’m in heaven because I see an angel,” she said.
            “No, it’s only me.” I moved closer to her. “If I die, leave my body here. I feel closer to my brother here and closer to heaven itself.”
            Jelena tried to grasp my hand. “If I die, dream a little dream of me. Picture me with my son, not like this.” I thought she was crying, but frost covered the mask.

 “I won’t let you die,” I said, but my heart broke in pieces. I closed my eyes as my hand went numb. Darkness spread across the mountain bringing deadly temperatures. I angled my body to block the snow from covering her. The snow buried me and I knew that if I fell asleep, I might never wake up again. Before long, my eyes closed until my frostbitten hand tingled, and warmth spread through my body. I looked up and my brother smiled at me, and held my hand. I then saw a bright light and I never felt more alive.

                                                            ###

But I wasn’t alive. I floated above my dead body; as peace overcame me. It was like all the worries in my life dissipated at the same time. My brother was by my side.  

I saw the Sherpas place Jelena on a stretcher. One of her eyelids fluttered. She was alive in the Death Zone. The snow let up and streams of the morning sun streaked through the nearby cloud-covered mountains meaning we stayed on the mountain all night. It was a miracle she survived the night.

 “Chloe?” Jelena mumbled. A Sherpa I recognized from the base camp shook his head.

 “She saved my life.” Jelena sobbed as they carried her down the mountain. My body was left in the Death Zone, but I was no longer there. I looked around and saw amazing views that I never noticed on the way up. I looked at the peak of Everest, then I looked down at Jelena and into her opened green eyes, and realized she would be with her son again. Relief washed over me as I saw my brother waiting for me and I reached heights higher than the summit of Everest.

About the Author

William Falo studied Environmental Science at Stockton University. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The UK journal Superlative, The Raconteur Review, Train River’s first fiction anthology, and other literary journals.