‘That Horse Is’ by Paul Brookes

(a response to Magritte’s “The Key of Dreams” “La Clef Des Songes” 1935 version)

the door, sometimes left ajar,
sometimes shuts out the gust.
has a lock you must find
the correct key to open.

That clock is

the wind. A wound up gust
whose hands move
at different speeds, mark
duration by their flow.

That jug is

the bird that all pass by.
If it contained milk they might
pour out a mouthful or two
before it flew away.

That suitcase is

the valise. It may be packed,
ready for the wind to be right,
for opening and riding away on the door,
emptying the bird to fly like a jug.

Meet the Poet

Paul Brookes‘ chapbooks include The Fabulous Invention Of Barnsley, (Dearne Community Arts, 1993). The Headpoke and Firewedding (Alien Buddha Press, 2017), A World Where and She Needs That Edge (Nixes Mate Press, 2017, 2018) and  Stubborn Sod, (Alien Buddha Press, 2019). He edits The Wombwell Rainbow Interviews.

‘Let Me Tell You What Nathan Needs’ by Anika Carpenter

Just try, for a moment, to imagine he wasn’t hallucinating, dehydrated, disoriented, half-drowned. Accept that what he said wasn’t crazy. Admit that just because you can still see his tattoos doesn’t mean that the sea didn’t take them. He fell into the water with a sacred heart pierced with arrows, octopus tentacles wound around his forearms, his daughter’s name intertwined with stars across his chest, and now, trust me, they’re gone. He watched the ink pulled from his skin and into the raging water, where it reached for the backs of halibut and groped hopelessly for waving seaweed before sinking into sand destined to become shot glasses.

He won’t benefit from recalling, reliving being dragged onto a lifeboat, rolled on the heart-black tongue of the ocean. No good will come of him picturing himself through the salt-stung eyes of the rescue crew  ̶  forlorn, useless in the shell of a sodden jumper whimpering, ‘She was right there, my girl, my Lena. She was the size of a blue whale. She swam right under my boat. She wanted me in the water, to swallow me up.’ 

Explain to me the benefit of him conjuring an image of himself wrapped in a foil blanket, not for warmth but to make him a hauled treasure, the latest gewgaw for this place’s dear psychiatrist. 

I saw Lena once too, miles from shore, dancing on a spume of water forty-foot high. Should I be sedated too?  

Lena and I used to play darts in the Ship and Anchor, watched by locals sipping beer, boots stuck limpet-tight to the spilt-sticky floor. They rolled their eyes at the saltwater seeping from her shoes and the lighthouse flashes she cast across their weathered faces. Every one of them claims to have seen her walking into the sea, ‘steady as if she were walking down the aisle, keeping going until her head was covered, not sending up so much as a bubble.’ 

Lena wasn’t swallowed by a whale, like the nurses here joke she was, oh I’ve heard them, no she’s swimming through cetacean arteries, carving poetry into blubber, humming to the churning of passing ships. 

There’s no movement in this hospital. The steadiness of the floors upsets Nathan’s stomach. The food, I believe, is tasteless. You know he smothers it with salt. The consumption of crystals suffused with the spirits of rays and angler fish will only make things worse.

If you want to see some improvement, signs of recovery, let me empty bags of wet sand onto the dayroom floor. Enough for him sink his sock-free feet into to soak up new imagery  ̶  ghost crabs skittering up his legs, and across his back, settling on his shoulder blades among sea-smoothed glass and the rose-like casts of lugworms. This will help. This will make sense.      

Meet the Author

Anika Carpenter is a writer, artist, tutor and sucrologist.

‘What the wireless operator wishes she’s never seen’ by Moira Garland

The name on the list of the drowned 
from the dark Atlantic burial ground:

James Ward. He’d worked on our farm,
a village man. Not a false alarm.

I can’t reveal this convoy’s been destroyed
until the sergeant says that it’s allowed.

The Wards, our neighbours who had cried 
with my mother when my brother died

in Egypt. Next day I’m home on leave
pausing     pausing      for their grief. 

At last the dark-blue boy 
pedals his bike to their door 

to hand over the telegram of death.
And I release my faithless breath.

Meet the Poet

Moira Garland’s publications include The North and Dreamcatcher and forthcoming in Stand, and Sarasvati. Recent anthology inclusions are The Brown Envelope Book (Culture Matters) and At Home in Our City (Leeds Poetry Festival 2021).  Winner: Leeds Peace Poetry prize 2016. Twitter/Instagram: @moiragauthor

‘Dreaming of Snow’ by William Thompson

All day the snow falls, dropping down in great white flakes that gather themselves into clinging crystalline shapes that vanish as they kiss the ground. The air is alive and thick with falling snow. He sits and watches the gathering whiteness. The snow falls and falls. It obliterates the green of pines and the brown of branches. He watches: the whiteness of the air; the whiteness of the ground. The whiteness of the whale? — summer days, reading Melville, far from now. The drift of snow at the edge of the yard is the breeching back of a white leviathan — exploding into the frozen air to swim this sea of snow.

Once, he opens the front door. The air smells clean and cold, the snow whispering as it jostles its way down, filling the air with clogging coldness. The light is already fading, but the brightness of the snow persists. He closes the door. He watches the rising level of whiteness. Soon he will drown, drown in snow and cold. It will rise to the level of the window, then it will bury the house — sooner or later, he will be entombed in snow. So he waits, watching  snowflakes clinging to the glass, forming patterns and frozen faces that peer in and take no account of the heat that for now still runs throbbing through his veins in a rhythmic pulse of denial.

Meet the Author

William Thompson’s essays and stories have appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, Zone 3, COG Magazine, and Firewords. His essay “My cowboy cousin” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2020, and won an honorable mention in the 2021 Tom Howard/John H. Reid Fiction & Essay Contest. He is totally blind and teaches children’s literature for MacEwan University in Edmonton, Canada. He considers coffee a food group, and he loves to walk and read, usually at the same time. 

‘Marriage Bed’ by Fiona McCulloch

This body no longer excites you
Who knows it keenly after so long
Navigating it all for your pleasure
Its trodden routes now too familiar
Overly predictable just rote rigmarole
Left stale broke in our marriage bed
Back-to-back where minds adrift
Bleakly inch ever closer to its edge

This mind no longer entices you,
Once daring now just tiresome.
Having drawn deeply from its well,
Wings tested long to soar freely
Into a boundless future reinvented
Spy an elixir of untasted encounters
Highs of novel escapades half hinted

This alliance no longer secures you
Spurred up suddenly by a flighty itch.
Online offers emotional connections
Thrills of clandestine communications
Draws you further into a maze of new,
Renders you lost to meanings past. 
Imprint of a phantom spouse swiped
Loaded persona bloated on this husk

Meet the Poet

With poems in Northwords Issue 3, Fiona McCulloch recently has poems in MIR Online, Lumpen: A Journal for Poor and Working-Class Writers, and Dreich.

‘The Dig’ by Jeanne Althouse

A Creative Essay

“See this piece of clay,” Mrs. Aarden said to the children on the Monday of Kindergarten art class, holding up a fist-sized mound of oily brown modeling clay. “Hiding inside is a dinosaur waiting to come out. You don’t even know what kind of dinosaur it is, but the clay knows.”

“Or it’s a snake,” said Indira, who had rolled her clay into three long curvy slices on the art table. She picked up one piece and waved it in the air, pretending to frighten Jake, who had pushed other boys away to sit next to her.

“Or a dragon,” said Jake, who wanted to show he was better at ideas than Indira.

“Or nothing,” said Lamar, who was angry because Jake took the seat next to Indira, and he did not see himself as ever good at art projects, and he was afraid to fail, and be embarrassed in front of others.

This is exactly how I feel every time I face a blank page. I think I’ll never be able to discover another story. But I kept these thoughts to myself. This was Mrs. Aarden’s class, and my job was volunteer aid.

Mrs. Aarden nodded, agreeing with the children. “When you start to excavate, uncover, chip away at it, mold it, sculpt it,” she said, her eyes dreamy, unfocused, as if she had turned inward, remembering her own dinosaurs, “you have some idea, but you never know what you will find, because it goes its own way, it meanders here or there, unexpectedly, or a piece falls off revealing a wing instead of a tail, or the top half refuses to be a mermaid, or the way it warmed in your hand determined from the beginning it was never going to be a stegosaurus, it was going to be an angel.”

My subconscious is like that piece of clay, a fist-sized mound in my gut, waiting to be exposed, wanting out, wanting excavation, but holding its secrets.  I become a child, looking at it, facing its complexities. And how I feel on that day, at that moment, might prevent the dig, like a sudden storm interferes with the uncovering of the ancient treasures at the archaeological site.

There’s a perfect example. That metaphor—it meandered, from molding clay to searching for dinosaur bones in the ground. First it was an art project, now it’s a dig. I try to stay open to inconsistencies, synergies, connections. I go on with the digging.

 Morning is the best time for me to excavate. Every morning my body re-sets, after it sleeps and heals, like the sun, every morning, rises. With the colors of pink, red, flame orange, and with her clouds dipping their edges into the palette of blue-green sky- paint, the blinding bright sliver of round light slides up from the horizon behind the shape of trees. As the sun star holds me in her “great hands of light,” I hear the poet Mary Oliver singing.

On waking I am the new person I have become. I turn to the empty page, looking inside me, waiting for it to reveal.

Warning. Like staring directly at the sun hurts the eyes, it can hurt to look directly at the subconscious. Or another way of saying it, if I’m not slightly uncomfortable about it, or embarrassed to show the neighbors, or find myself not being honest, not telling the whole story, or not saying what I really got out of it, or what I really stole, or harmed, or meant to harm, or not saying who I loved and why, or not facing that I too once slapped my child, if I’m not being brutally honest, well, it’s bound to be a morning of a bowl-gray sky, with no sunrise, with no variety, ultimately, blank. Eyes down. Pen still.

The dig finds no artifacts at the expected location.

On good mornings, the best mornings, the words land on the page running. Sounds leap off their consonants in song.  Vowels kiss each other with expectation, like first lovers. Fresh images release their emotional juice slowly, like each sweet ripe red Cara Cara in the breakfast juicer releases its complex flavors of raspberry, cherry, rose.  The story comes alive so strongly, I can smell the flavor of it coming off the page.

But, alas, it’s half-baked. Or half-dug. Or not even half.

On thinking about it, all day, as I go about my business, filing out the tax form, or calling the plumber, or walking in the park, I realize I only have the first layer. These people on the page, they need names. My main character—is she a Mary, or Jasmine, or Rosa, or Leah, or Dolores, or LaDonna? Her name speaks of her ethnicity, her religion, her features, her hair, her eyes, her breasts, even the pink bottoms of her black feet, if her white lover likes to caress them.

What about her work? Is she trapped in a meaningless job answering phones on a complaint line? Does she deliver for the post office? Does she research coral reefs? What about her history?  Is she an immigrant? Was her great-great grandmother a slave? Is she adopted? What does she carry when she leaves the house; does she have a huge bag full of makeup, Kleenex, hand sanitizer, lip gloss, aspirin, a flashlight, a quirky old fondu pot she found at the antique store? Or does she leave with only her house key and phone tucked into her yoga pant pocket? Does she suffer micro-aggressions against women in silence or does she speak up every time? What is it about her that cries out to be told?

This is the day-work. It’s gathering the tools, the shovel, a trowel, the rake, a delicate brush. It’s looking for the soft ground, or the odd mound, the thing that won’t let go, that begs to be discovered, to be let out, to be explained. The day work is also reading, reading for joy, and reading like a writer, to learn craft. On this day I read “Hamnet” by Maggie O’Farrell. Her voice stays with me. She writes about the unexpected death of a beloved son. “Never for a moment forget they may be gone, snatched from you, in the blink of an eye, borne away from you like thistledown.”

When ready to sleep, I turn my mind once again to the dig, to the story, to the characters, to the Muse. I ask her to help me access the mystery. Then I close my eyes, hearing borne away from you like thistledown, and I let go.


In the dream a scent comes to me. The scent of White Linen, my mother’s perfume. She’s been dead for ten years, but I see her face clearly. I visit her last home, the retirement room with her four-poster bed, a family heirloom, in the corner. She wears her blue velvet opera dress ready to go out. She reaches out for me to hold her hand, as she walks to the door, to steady her, but, oddly, I refuse. I remember the feeling of her warm hand in mine, her middle finger bent from Dupuytren’s syndrome. In the dream I refuse to take her hand and she falls.

They say dreams come in service of health. I recognize a warning from the feeling of shame I have on waking. I have unfinished business with my mother.

I read on the internet: “When digging or excavating in your yard, a potential hazard may exist because your utilities may have underground equipment installed relatively close to the surface.”

There should be a warning. “When digging or excavating in your subconscious, you may discover conflict, pain, suffering, a moment of shame that undoes you for days.”

In the morning, I write. I find my way into the story through the scent. White Linen. As I dig deeper, I uncover the moment, the moment of conflict on which the story turns. The character, Spenser (“dispenser of provisions”), has unfinished business with her mother, Faith (“fully anticipating it to happen”).

Shoveling. Digging into the dark hole. Every day, another layer.

I begin to see pieces of the treasure: the themes, what their story is about, where it wants to go. The treasure is visible, but it is full of dirt, grime, or hard clay from years in the soil. It begs for cleaning, for a power-wash with humility, gratitude, awe.

What happens next? Does Faith die? Is she snatched away from Spenser in the blink of an eye, like Hamnet was borne away from his parents? I am consumed with finding out, in the zone, oblivious to the tax form, forgetting lunch, breathing inside the story.

More shoveling. Returning to work. Showing up. Persevering. Another layer. Excitement builds.

The next day, more is revealed. Faith does die, leaving Spenser broken, full of regrets, unable to forgive herself. I feel tears coming as I write the words, words that seem to come from somewhere else. The sadness overwhelms me. This guilt will haunt Spenser for years. I search for the words that will deliver this daughter’s need for peace in that important last sentence. I write what I think is the end.

But it is not the end. 

My drafts, of which there are many, need a huge amount of editing. The story will evolve through this work, the deepening knowledge and respect for each character, the reading aloud of every word, the considering of active verbs, of varied sentence structure, of order of paragraphs, punctuation.

That evening, while listening to a favorite recording of Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma, I cook my mother’s Chili. The aroma of her Chili wraps around me, holding me in my mother’s warm embrace. I hear her voice reminding me not to forget to add a dash of sugar, her secret ingredient.

 In the morning, I look at the story again. I find another small treasure, lurking there at the bottom of the whole (interesting that word choice: “hole” or “whole”); it’s ready to be dusted off with the delicate brush. As she cooks dinner, Spenser hears her mother’s voice, reminding her to add the pinch of brown sugar.

In Mrs. Aarden’s art class, on the next day, she asked the children to find a seat next to someone new, someone they did not sit next to yesterday. She suggested that Lamar sit next to Indira, making them a good example of what she meant. She said that moving to a different place, looking at things from a different angle, doing something unexpected, something new, perhaps slightly scary, can help them uncover their dinosaur and let him out.

Lamar sits next to Indira; he wears a big smile.

When the story is the best I can write, I give it to my writing group, or to a writer-friend, to someone who did not sit next to it for ages, to someone who can look at it from a different perspective, to someone I trust who can tell me if I found my dinosaur—or a dragon, or a snake—or an angel in a blue velvet opera dress with my mother’s eyes.

Note to Readers

“The Dig” is an essay on creativity which tells how one writer digs into her subconscious mind to access the muse.

“Sing in me, muse, and through me tell the story…”

Homer, The Odyssey

Meet the Author

Stories by Jeanne Althouse have appeared in numerous literary journals including Gravel, The Examined Life, Birdland Journal, Penman Review, Inkwell and The Plentitudes Journal.  Her story, “Goran Holds his Breath” was nominated by Shenandoah for the Pushcart Prize. A collection of her flash fiction, “Boys in the Bank,” was published by Red Bird Chapbooks. She writes each morning, watching the sun rise, hoping to capture the light in words.

‘The Stone Men of Newcastle’ by Daniel Hinds

‘A certain faultless, matchless, deathless line,
Curving consummate.’ 

Arthur O’Shaughnessy, The Line of Beauty

I cast a stone into a pool;
These lines are the ripples that curve

The lines of beauty that draw the shape 
Of dead and lingering men.

The mundane and unmoving ghosts
Of a commuter’s careless glance.

Every man a new stone block
In our old castle, holding in his last death grip

His own exceptionalism.

Our daily walk’s bulwark to stem the slow
Erosion of the past’s last bastions.

Unruined Ozymandiases, buried in tides of flesh,
Not sand – the remorseful gods of a living city.

Stone blocks blocked from worship by buses
And bypassers and self-centred screenglow;

The rainstorm of crowds and modernity.
With every watery libation you grow less. 

Is this the afterlife you would have chosen?
Yourselves, your own Purgatorial mountains. 

You are the stone and unexploded shells
Of some vast dark ocean.

I see you. From your stone eyes see me,
And one day I too will wear the mask of clay.

Clay was our first flesh; let us return to it.

Meet the Poet

Daniel Hinds lives in Newcastle. He won the Poetry Society’s Timothy Corsellis Young Critics Prize. His poetry was commended in the National Centre for Writing’s UEA New Forms Award and has been published, or is forthcoming, in The London MagazineThe New EuropeanWild CourtStandSouthwordPoetry Salzburg ReviewBlackbox ManifoldThe Honest UlstermanPerverseFinished Creatures, and elsewhere. He was commissioned by New Creatives, a talent development scheme supported by Arts Council England and BBC Arts and delivered by Tyneside Cinema, to produce an audio piece based on his poetic sequence The Stone Men of Newcastle. Twitter: @DanielGHinds  

Mum (A Phenomenal Woman) by Nikola Veselá

I want to thank you for your brightest smile 
that showed me
how you sacrificed your dreams
so that I can pursue mine.
I want to apologize for calling you pretty
before calling you brave or smart
because your mind
is the most beautiful piece of art.

A Note from the Editor

I often use creative writing in my English Language classes to improve my students’ understanding and feel for the language. Needless to say, they always rise to the challenge, but every now and again, you encounter a rare talent that leaves you speechless. Nikola Veselá is such a talent. She wrote this poem last year when she was only 14.

We had planned to share this piece to wish women around the world Happy International Women’s Day and Happy Mother’s Day. Now, just a country away, Ukraine is being torn apart by war. Women and girls are being impacted. Teenagers the same age as Nikola. Women the same age as you, as your sister, mother, niece, daughter…

If you can, it would be wonderful if you could donate to the United Nations Population Fund, which is particularly focused on helping endangered women and girls in Ukraine. You can find out more (and donate!) here.

Meet the Poet

Nikola Veselá is a student at Pražské humanitní gymnázium in Prague. She is an avid reader, and her specialist subject is Jane Austen.

‘Passing’ by Nick Young

Marla folded the last of the towels and slipped them inside a large plastic shopping bag she kept for her trips to the laundromat.  She was happy to be leaving.  The building, squat, gray cinderblock, was poorly lit, with constant noise from the machines and the smell of accumulated lint and fabric softener.  Inside her car, Marla sat with her eyes closed for a moment, relishing the quiet.  She really did hate the place.  She looked up at the sign with half its neon winking on and off.  The Suds-a-teria.  What kind of stupid name was that, anyway?  

On her way home, Marla stopped at  the Dollar Bonanza for a couple of frozen beef pot pies and a two-liter bottle of cola.  She bought the store brand.  It was thirty cents cheaper than Coke or Pepsi.  And there was a deal on the pot pies — buy one, second one for half price.  

“And a pack of Tareytons,” Marla told the cashier. “Toss in a book of matches, too.”

“Don’t give them out anymore,” the bored teenager with pink hair and lime green nail polish replied.

“No more matches?”

“Management says it’s too expensive.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Marla said disgustedly,  gathering her change and groceries.  

“Sorry for the inconvenience,” mumbled the girl.

“It’s hard to believe they’re that damned cheap,” Marla fumed,  getting back into her car and switching on the radio.  As she pulled out of the parking lot onto North Auburn Avenue, a song by Blondie started playing, so she turned it up began to sing along:

“The tide is high but I’m holdin’ on.”

Yeah, by my fingernails.

At thirty-seven, Marla Sloan’s life had shrunk in on itself, curling and contracting until its lines demarcated very little beyond the city limits of Emmitsburg, Illinois, population 1,100.  Divorced for two years, she had an on again-off again boyfriend,  a job at a local plant stamping out parts for small engines, and she had her mother.  It wasn’t disappointment that she felt.  Her dreams had never really exceeded her grasp.  Rather, it was resignation, no different than many of her girlfriends.

In the driveway of the tiny two-bedroom frame house she shared with her mother, Marla took her groceries and bag of laundry, slid out of the car and nudged the door closed with her hip.  A light rain had just begun falling, so she hurried up the front porch steps and into the house.

“‘Bout time, where have ya been?” called a shrill voice from across the living room.

“And a very good evening to you, too, Lois.”

“You’re late.”  Lois Sloan, at the age of sixty-six, was the picture of a woman who had stopped caring years before and let herself go.  She was obese, her legs swollen and barely useful.  Her face was round and severe, framed by stringy yellowed-gray hair.  Her rheumy blue eyes, too small for her face, were puffy with fat.  She was reclining on the sofa, the TV blasting at top volume.  The coffee table next to the couch was cluttered with an array of prescription bottles, inhalers and a half-filled ashtray.

“I had to finish the clothes and stop at the store.”

“You bring me my cigarettes?”

“Yes, Lois.”

“And what about pot pies?”

“Yes, Lois,” her voice rising above the din.  “I got your pot pies.  If you’ll give me two seconds, I’ll put them in the oven.”

“Good, because I am star-ving,” Lois replied, taking the fresh pack of cigarettes from her daughter.  Marla eyed the blaring television with annoyance, picked up the remote and turned it down.

“Any reason you’ve got to have this up so loud half the county can hear it? Your hearing aids are on the table again.  Why aren’t they in your ears?”

“I don’t like them,” Lois said peevishly. “They feel like little bugs crawling around in there.”

“Oh, for God’s sake.”.

“Just take care of them pot pies.”  Marla rolled her eyes and walked away.

An hour later, she had her mother’s dinner ready, both of the pot pies and a large glass of cola on a wooden tray that she placed on her mother’s lap.  

“You forgot the Worcestershire sauce,” Lois complained, stubbing out a cigarette.

“Alright, sorry,” Marla said, restrieving a bottle from the refrigerator.  Dousing the pies was one of the peculiarities of her mother’s eating habits.  So after vigorously shaking out a puddle of the sauce, Lois took up her fork  and went to work.  She noticed that her daughter had changed into fresh clothes, let her hair down and added makeup.

“You ain’t having supper with me?” she asked between bites.

“Not tonight.  Jerry and I are going to grab a drink.”

“Thought you two were done.”  Marla sighed.

“No.  Just another lull in the action.”

“Well, I hope you won’t be late.  I may need help with an enema later.”

“I’ll be counting the minutes.”

Marla Sloan was an attractive woman.  The years had  not erased the best features of her angular face and smooth olive skin.  She prided herself on still being able to squeeze into size four jeans.  And her long chestnut hair had yet to show any grey.  Since the breakup of her marriage, she had dated sporadically, settling into what passed for a relationship with Jerry Dyer, who lived just outside Emmitsburg and delivered for FedEx.  He was forty, a good-looking man just beginning to sport the first signs of middle age.  The two had met on a blind date set up by one of Marla’s friends from the parts plant.  

They shared divorce in common, and for the most part they got along well.  They weren’t partiers,  preferring carry-out pizza and watching old movies to the bar scene.  The sex wasn’t always great, but it was good enough.  Jerry wanted a deeper commitment, but Marla wasn’t able to go there, and not because her heart wouldn’t let her.

“I can tell she was giving you a hard time again, wasn’t she?” he said as he and Marla nursed beers at Town’s Pub.

“No different today than any other, really, except I was tired.  A long week, you know?”

“Tell me about it.  Brownie was busting my chops over a couple of late deliveries.  Came pretty near to telling him to go fuck himself.”  They drank in silence for a long moment before Jerry began with some hesitancy.  “I’ve never asked, and you’ve never said how your mom ended like she has.”

“You mean being such a bitch?” Marla said with a smirk.  “Well, I guess it’s an old story, really.  She grew up here in Emmitsburg.  Not much to say about her early years  — she was an only child.  Decent parents, though I have no real memory of either one of them.  When she got a little older, in junior high I guess, she started singing in the chorus and that got her started dreaming.  Big dreams,  moving to Chicago and becoming a singer with a big band.  From what people who were around then say, she had real talent, a good voice and good looks to match.  But she never got the chance to leave .  When she was a senior, she started seeing this older guy, and no sooner had she graduated than she got pregnant with my brother.   So the big city and stardom went out the window.  She got a job in the old air compressor factory when it was here, and she settled with her husband.  Two years after John was born I came along.  A year  after that, the old man took off for parts unknown, and Lois was really stuck.  She had two raise two kids by herself — she never remarried — and life just ground her down.  A few years ago her health problems really started getting bad.  And so here we are.  A happy tale, isn’t it?”

“But why does she have to beat up on you?  I mean, you’re the one taking care of her.”

“Which means I’m the one who’s around.  Who else is she going to take it out on?”  

“What about your brother?”

“John?” Marla replied derisively. “He could care less.  Hasn’t spoken to her in years.  When she had her heart attack a year-and-a-half ago, I  called him.  He lives in Louisiana.  Works on an oil rig out in the Gulf.  Anyway, he asked why I was bothering him and told me he didn’t want to know any more about her.   Ever..

“Jesus, his own mother.”

“Well, yeah, his own mother, but she wasn’t much of one when he was a kid.  He was older.  He was the one she blamed for destroying her dreams, so he was in the bullseye, you know?”  Jerry reached across the table and took Marla’s hands in his, gently rubbing her knuckles.

“Look,” he said gently, “you could really use a break.  Why don’t we get something to eat and go back to my place, watch a movie?”  He winked at her. “Maybe you could stay late, and we could fool around.”  She smiled, but it quickly faded.

“I’d like to, Jerry, I really would, but I can’t tonight.”  She looked away for a moment.  “She may need my help later.  I don’t have to go into the gory details, but she’s got something going on with her digestive system.  ‘Nuff said.”  Now it was Jerry’s turn to seek out a deep corner of the bar with his eyes.  “I know it frustrates you,” Marla went on softly, squeezing his hands.  “I get that, but I’m all she’s got now.  I can’t turn my back no matter how much bitchiness she throws at me.  So let’s get some supper, and I’ll take a rain check on the rest.”

By the time Marla returned home it was a little after nine and the light rain had moved on.  As she reached the door, her annoyance returned immediately at the sound of the television going full blast.

“What did I say about the TV, Lois?” Marla shouted as she stepped inside.  Her mother, sitting in the same spot as when she left, said nothing, did not move.  Marla sensed something wasn’t right and quickly crossed to the sofa.  She seized the remote and shut the TV off.  “Lois?  Are you okay?”  But Marla knew her mother was in  trouble. She wasn’t moving, her eyes were glassy and the right side of her face drooped.   Marla called  9-1-1.

The EMT”s confirmed her suspicion:  Lois had had a stroke.  At the town’s hospital, the emergency room doctor ran a battery of tests then ordered a special medical helicopter flight to the nearest trauma center in Springfield.  It was an hour’s drive, so as soon as the chopper left, so did Marla.  By the time she arrived,  the ER team had evaluated Lois and moved her into the intensive care unit.  The news was not good.

“Your mother has had a massive stroke,” the examining neurologist told Marla.  “The next few hours are critical.  By morning, we should have a clearer picture of where this is going.”  

There was nothing to do but wait, so Marla  took the most comfortable chair she could find in the visitor’s lounge, curled up and dozed through the long night.

In the morning, nothing had changed.  The doctor treating Lois wasn’t due for another hour, enough time for Marla to get caffeine from the hospital cafeteria and try to clear her head.  She returned to the ICU lounge, sat and sipped her coffee.

This is it.  She is going to die.  She’s not coming out of this.  How am I supposed to feel?  Overwhelmed with grief?  Regret?  Guilt?

She did not have to struggle with the answers; they were clear, and she felt no shame.  

When the neurologist arrived, his evaluation was what Marla had been expecting:  there was no brainwave activity, no hope for recovery.  There was only one thing left to do.  Marla had power of attorney, so she instructed that her mother be removed from life support, and within an hour it was over.

Lois’ body was transported back to Emmitsburg, and Marla made the arrangements at Wannamaker’s Funeral Home.   Her mother would be cremated on Tuesday, with a brief service at the funeral home on Wednesday.

Marla went back to work at the start of the week.  She didn’t tell any of her co-workers Lois had died.  She asked her boss for Wednesday off and rquested that he keep the reason to himself.    Jerry was very sympathetic and did his best to be supportive.  He told Marla he would take the day of the funeral off.  She told him it wasn’t necessary.  She didn’t bother to call her brother.

Wednesday morning was bright and cloudless, pleasantly warm for early May.  Marla was at Wannamaker’s promptly at ten o’clock.  She was the only one who came.  There was no minister; neither Lois nor Marla had any religious inclinations.  So, with Lois’ ashes in a plain cedar box with a single lily in a cut-glass vase on a table by his side, Fred Wannamaker read a few words from a three-by-five csrd designed to soothe those who grieved, had there been any in the room. 

Within a few minutes it was done.  Marla thanked Fred, who seemed abashed by the bland pieties he had uttered.  He smiled wanly as he handed the urn to Marla and told her how much he appreciated being entrusted with the care of her mother’s remains..  She knew he was just trying to be nice so she refrained from reminding him that because his was the only funeral home in town, there was nowhere else to go.

So that was that.  Lois had been given a proper sendoff,  such as it was.  She had made no provision for her death — no cemetery plot, no headstone.  It wasn’t a subject she would even discuss, though Marla had tried a time of two..

Back home, Marla carried the urn  inside the house.  She glanced around, noting how quiet it was in the absence of the blaring television and how the smell of stale cigarettes and the sickly sweet-sour odor of her ailing, overweight mother had begun to dissipate.   She drew a deep breath, walked down the hallway to what had been  Lois’ bedroom.  There was a small closet.  She opened it, lifted the urn onto an overhead shelf, shut the door and walked out.

Meet the Author

Nick Young is a retired award-winning CBS News Correspondent.  His writing has appeared in the San Antonio Review, Samjoko Magazine, Short Story Town, Danse Macabre Magazine, Pigeon Review, CafeLit Magazine, the Green Silk Journal, Typeslash Review, The Potato Soup Journal, 50-Word Stories, Sein und Werden, Of Rust and Glass, Little Death Lit, Flyover Magazine,, Sandpiper, Fiery Scribe Review, The Chamber  Magazine and Vols. I and II of the Writer Shed Stories anthologies.

‘Living Ink’ by Sarah James

I come round from my faint less than half-way
through the moment being marked into my skin.
The tattooist yawns and passes me a glass of water;
my younger sister squeezes my hand and steadies me
with her calmness, as she did during my long labour.

Bicycle falls scar my knees but that c-section
was my first scalpel and stitching. My sister’s braced
me through the worst cuts, even a forked lifeline
on my palm from a red wine bottle that smashed
on Gran’s stone floor when I was still a toddler.

Although I’m older, she’s lived far more than me,
is armed with a small collection of inked charms.
The tattooist revs up his machine again, scrapes pain into
(and out of?) my left shoulder bared to the sharp
100-watt light and hot room, tightening around us.

I’ve asked for a tawny owl on a moonlit branch
fleshed with green leaves – wisdom, flight and hope
that hasn’t rotted or broken away from the tree.
Wings that haven’t lost their wide span
or feathered grace, but can, in a single heartbeat,

reach across the ocean now between us.

Meet the Poet

Sarah James is a prize-winning poet, fiction writer, journalist and photographer. Winner of the Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine 2020 and CP Aware Award Prize for Poetry 2021, her collection Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic is forthcoming in 2022. Website: http://www.sarah-james.co.uk. She also runs V. Press, publishing poetry and flash fiction.