‘Changes’ by Peggy Hammond

breezes stir. maple seeds,
miniature helicopters,
spin. oak catkins
twirl. spring
shakes itself,
brushes winter
off its shoulders.
voices and children’s
laughter float as sangria
sparkles in our glasses.
conversation quiets,
our minds still
linger months past,
when wishes were
fulfilled, when
ashes and prayers
mingled with snow
on a silent mountain.
when absence
took its place beside us.

Meet the Poet

Peggy Hammond’s poetry appears or is forthcoming in Two Thirds NorthCordellaSkylight 47Peeking CatThe Comstock ReviewRiver City PoetryAdelaide Literary MagazineCrosswinds Poetry JournalScissortail QuarterlyEunoia ReviewPangyrus Literary MagazineThe Sandy River Review, and elsewhere. Her chapbook The Fifth House Tilts is forthcoming in fall 2022 (Kelsay Books). She lives in the mountains of North Carolina, USA.

Slovakian Spring

with Raspberries on Her Fingers

by Miroslav Dávid

i think everybody would want her
and preferably if she were only theirs
nailed upside down
bleeding raspberries on the Marian cross 
from steel reinforcement

with raspberries on her fingers 
she won’t hurt anybody

 they’re from her garden 

that is like a poem 
and from all the healing herbs of true love and shots of rum

 so don’t you interfere, devil 
even if she’s bare to her soul
she’s going to be mine. 

Miroslav Dávid writing as Moddivari and River Salome: “with Raspberries on Fingers” (Elist Publishing, 2018)

Ripe

by Danica Hrnčiarová Šišláková

burlesque tones of silly wishes
reverberated in the trumpets of Jericho
forgiven is the one 
who wounded
the beast inside me that doesn’t grow

the battle is over
only silence now 
I peer into the poetry window
I’ve (hopefully) won the duel with pride
the other results – one all

The Ballad of the Pearl (to All Petrarcas)

by Vladimír Skalský

Like a scalpel stuck in the chest
a grain of sand hurts so much
it penetrated the oyster’s armour
only because 
In the moment of weakness
It was let close to the heart

There is nothing left
but to wrap the pain in beauty
to dull the pain with words
and, with the cut-up heart,
toll furiously
all the bells
of the lonely bedroom

I Stopped You

by Vladimír Skalský

I stopped you in the street
Maybe you would have been run over by a car
Maybe you would have met a great love
And your son might have destroyed the world
Or solved the nuclear waste problem
I held you up for three minutes
Surely another sperm would make it
Marilyn Monroe would have crooked legs
Kennedy’s assassin wouldn’t be born at all
Ten years from now, we’d land on Mars

I stopped you in the street
And that is how I changed the world

Meet the Poets

Miroslav Dávid is a Slovak poet, an award-winning lyricist who celebrated massive success with hits for Slovak rock and pop acts in the 80s. He is also a music manager and producer. So far, he has four poetry collections published: Rogalo, veľryba a Kristus Pán (2017: Trio Publishing, Bratislava), Detox (2017: Silvia Hodálová – VIUSS, Bratislava), s Malinami nastoknutými na Prstoch (2018: Vydavateľstvo Elist), Domino (2019: Vydavateľstvo Elist). He has also been awarded prestigious literary prices such Mobel Prize 2018, 2019 and 2020 respectively or Pars Poetry 2018. He has three children and two grandchildren. He is divorced.

Danica Hrnčiarová Šišláková, an award-winning poet and a software analyst, comes from Banská Bystrica (Slovakia) but is currently living in the Czech Republic. She started writing first poems when she  was about 8 years old. At the age of 13, she became a published poet: she published in the literary supplement of the magazine Nové slovo, with then the editor-in-chief Vojtech Mihálik and in the anthology Právo na píseň. After starting a family, she took a long hiatus from writing. After 2015, she returned to poetry again and ventured to read it publicly. Her poems appeared in many anthologies in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, as well as publication in the online magazine of the Association of World Writers (AWW). 

Vladimír Skalský was born on April 26, 1972 in Prešov, Slovakia, where he graduated from grammar school. Later, he earned a master’s degree in theoretical physics at the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics of Charles University in Prague. As well as running his own business, since 1992 he has held a number of public office positions and management positions in various media corporations. Since 1996, he has been the vice-chairman of the Slovak-Czech Club and deputy editor-in-chief of the magazine Slovenské dotyky (Slovak Touches), and from 2004 to 2013 he was the editor of the literary quarterly, the Czech-Slovak journal Zrkadlenie/Zrcadlení (Mirror/Zrcadlení). Since 2006 he has been the President of the World Association of Slovaks Abroad, and since 2009 he has been the Vice President of the Europeans in the World, based in Brussels. Since 2014 he has been the director of the Slovak House in Prague. He is a member (2004 – 2010 and from 2019 until now) and Vice-Chairman (2005 – 2008) of the Government Council for National Minorities of the Czech Republic. He has authored many books: the collections of poems To Silence (2000) and From Two Shores (2017) and the collection of essays Keywords: Prague, Slovakia, literature (2004). All in all, he appears as either an author, co-author or editor of about thirty books. He was co-editor of the three-volume anthology of Slovak literature abroad Between Two Houses (2008-2010) and co-editor of Čítanka moderní slov. literature for secondary schools (2003). His poems and essays have been translated into English, French, Czech, Chinese, Hungarian, Russian and Serbian.

All translations by Natalie Nera.

‘The Perfect Shade of Crimson’ by Frances Mulholland

“I think we can do a little better than that, can’t we, Mrs Hope?”

Stella’s knees crumbled underneath her and she clung to the railings so she wouldn’t fall. She wouldn’t let her physiotherapist see her fail, not again. 

“Have you been doing your exercises at home?”

“Yes,” panted Stella. “It’s hard to remember sometimes -“

“You can’t make excuses, you know.”

“Well maybe if I hadn’t just spent three months in a coma, I wouldn’t have so much trouble remembering!”

The physiotherapist averted her eyes, and Stella wondered when these people began to lose their sense of humanity. It had been the same when her father was dying of cancer. He’d lost his appetite, and Stella and her brother had been shocked to discover it was because the cancer was filling his insides, spreading like the roots of some cursed tree inside his torso. The doctor who’d rolled his eyes at their innocence and ignorance had forgotten that ordinary people didn’t know these things. 

Stella thought of her father’s legs, once so strong, withered and shrivelled. She pulled herself up, picked up her bag, and stormed out with all the dignity she could summon. 

The walk to the car park was excruciating. When the car had slammed into her six months ago, Stella had been thrown into the air and, upon landing, had fractured her skull, all the bones on the left side of her body, and punctured her left lung. 

She couldn’t even remember why she’d stepped out like that. She was usually so careful. 

Pulling out her car keys, she noticed a shabby-looking basket at the entrance to the car park, overflowing with the remnants of summer flowers. She didn’t know what kind they were, but she stopped to admire their fading red vibrancy. 

Stella took her phone out to snap a picture and saw she had a message from her husband. A jolt of revulsion rocked her stomach and she ignored it. Another thing she didn’t understand since the accident. 

Back in the warmth of her car, she saved the photograph of the flowers to an album entitled ‘Crimson’. Ever since she’d come out of the coma, she’d found herself obsessed with the colour. She knew she was looking for a particular shade – bright red, blue undertones, a hint of pink in there – but she didn’t know why. 

Stella and Mark hadn’t been planning to decorate, so it couldn’t be that. She’d already bought her clothes for their holiday in Tuscany, nobody’s birthday was coming up…

Stella swiped idly through the album of flowers, scarves, paintings she’d seen. On the radio, The Kills were playing. ‘The Search for Cherry Red.’ No, it wasn’t cherry red she wanted, either. She turned it off in irritation. 

Mark wasn’t sure that Stella should be going out so soon, but in five years, she’d never missed his firm’s Christmas party, and she didn’t intend to start now. As she dressed for the evening – a long, black, one-shouldered gown that cleverly concealed the worst of her injuries, she thought feverishly of all the different shades of red she would encounter that night. From Tony the MD’s terrible Santa suit to Rachel’s traditional outlandish Christmas manicure, she would be able to take her pick. She’d synced her phone to free up storage. Mark had smiled at how excited she was. Stella wondered how he’d react if he knew the real reason. 

It was the first time she’d seen any of Mark’s colleagues since the accident. Gavin and Manjeet jokingly wrapped some silver tinsel around her crutch, and Julie made a terrible fuss of her, ensuring she had plenty to drink. 

“Go easy, love,” Mark frowned. “Think of all those pain meds!”

“It’s my first night out in months, I can have a couple of drinks!” Stella replied. 

This was nice. This was normal. If Lynsey the hypochondriac was to be believed, Stella wasn’t even the worst off at that party. 

After almost half an hour of listening to the woman chunter on about her irritable bowel and her migraines and her recurrent tonsillitis and her piles and her ingrown toenails, Stella realised that Mark was no longer by her side. She strained to look for him, and managed to slip away when Lynsey latched onto a newcomer. 

This was familiar. This was unpleasant. Stella felt the revulsion she’d felt at seeing her husband or his name the last three months churning in her belly as she walked, and she knew that she’d walked exactly this way six months earlier, for the exact same purpose, only with no crutch to keep her steady.

Mark was half-hidden behind a pillar at the far end of the corridor. A woman was with him – tall, blonde, her hair flowing over her shoulders like the cheap champagne they were serving back in the party. Stella couldn’t move. She wanted to see it all, but then the woman saw her, and she and Stella’s husband broke apart. 

Stella fled. She had only been in the ladies’ toilets a few moments when the woman caught up with her. 

“Stella, it’s not what you think…”

She proceeded to rime off the rest of the cliches while Stella gripped the white enamel basin. She tried to focus on the expensive hand wash in the heavy, white, porcelain dispenser, the identical hand cream, the fabric of the footstool in the mirror behind her…

And then she noticed the woman’s lipstick. Bright red, with blue undertones, just a hint of pink. 

“…we didn’t mean for you to find out, and then when you caught us back at the summer party  – we both felt so bad, we felt like it was our fault you’d run out into the road like–”

The woman never managed to finish her sentence. Stella smashed the hand wash dispenser into the side of her head. Stella had a brain injury, she’d been plied with alcohol all night which had probably affected her medication, and her husband was cheating on her with the office tart. Hell, their affair had nearly killed her. No jury would possibly convict her. 

As her rival fell to the floor, Stella admired the flow of blood onto the pristine white tiles. The contrast settled the churning in Stella’s stomach as she settled into the feeling of a task completed. The woman’s blood was a deeper shade of crimson than the woman’s lipstick, but pleasing, nonetheless.  

Meet the Author

Frances Mulholland’s work has been published or is forthcoming in Poetry Salzburg Review, Brave Voices, Mslexia, and others. She lives in Northumberland.

‘Dysphoric Heart’ by Hiba Heba

Hailstones 
are cursed opals clunking
on our frozen landscapes. 
There are kittens 
in your backyard, swaddling
their mother’s congealed blood 
around themselves; 
returning her spasms
of sacrificial love.
Their death is a cake
lazily rising
in the oven heat.
The last rain of sweat 
scurries down
the hull of my clavicles. 

Meet the Poet

Hiba Heba is a Pakistan-based writer and poet. She earned her Bachelor of English literature and linguistics degree from Air University and is currently applying for scholarships abroad. Her poems have appeared in Daily Times, Terror House Magazine, Visual Verse, Feminist Voices Anthology: Volume II, OpenDoor Poetry Magazine, The Raconteur Review, The Wild Word, Ofi Press Magazine, New Feathers Anthology, Women’s Spiritual Poetry and Autumn Sky Poetry. She has a micro-chapbook, ‘Grief is a Firefly’, published by Origami Poems Project (October 2021). Hiba likes to experiment with unexpected imagery and extended metaphors in her poems.

‘A Primer for the Women who Might Date My Ex-boyfriend’ by Megha Nayar

 What he says:

What he means:

I love that you have a spine.

You’re super sexy when you take others head-on. Others.

Why should you be ashamed of your past? 

My own shenanigans were far racier, so yours are forgiven. 

Until I met you, I had no hope of finding love again.

Six women had already dumped my sorry ass. Who’d be optimistic?

My parents are nasty ol’ buggers for refusing to give me more money. 

My parents know all about my train-wrecking ways. They’ve wised up. 

My siblings are pampered asshats who’ve profited at my expense. 

My siblings, just like my friends, have stopped indulging my nonsense. 

My friends are entitled asshats who’ve profited at my expense. 

My friends, just like my siblings, have stopped indulging my nonsense. 

How I use the money you gave me is none of your business.

I smoked it away. Send me some ASAP. Don’t ask me why. 

I won’t grovel for money. I hate grovelling.

How dare you ask me to account for how I used up your money? 

I should never have taken your money. 

You lent me money only so you could manipulate me.

We’ll rent a place and move in together.

I can’t wait to have sex with you.

Wear a crop top when we meet next time.

I can’t wait to have sex with you.

I miss you so badly.

I can’t wait to have sex with you.

I don’t drink on weekdays. 

My vices have standards.

I have never blanked out from drinking. 

My vices have standards.

I have never hit anybody in a drunken state. 

My vices have standards.

If it’s gonna make me mad, don’t say it.

I’m not a fan of the truth.

Why must you always make me mad?

I’m not a fan of the truth.

See how mad you made me!

I’m not a fan of the truth.

I’m not in this for the angst.

Stop pointing out my flaws.

Accept me as I am, else I can’t.

Stop pointing out my flaws.

You’re breaking me all over again.

Stop pointing out my flaws.

I’m smarter than your ex-boyfriends.

You’re a slut.

You need to raise your standards. 

You’re a slut.

Go back to that bloody dating app.

You’re a slut.

You will never find another like me.

(No comments)

***

He is right about that last one, though.

About the Author

Megha Nayar was longlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2020 and the New Asian Writing Short Story Prize 2020. More recently, one of her stories was showcased at India’s prestigious Kala Ghoda Arts Festival 2021. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Trampset, Variety Pack, Versification, Out of Print, Rejection Letters, Coven Editions, Burnt Breakfast, Brown Sugar, Marias at Sampaguitas, Cauldron Anthology, Harpy Hybrid Review, Potato Soup Journal, Postscript Mag, Ayaskala Mag and The Daily Drunk Mag, among others. She tweets at @meghasnatter.

‘The Silence of my Hellcat’ by Jenny Robb

One night, tired of TV, men and life,
I will summon my inner cat.
In bed, the room won’t seem dark.
I’ll sleep lightly, disturbed by scratches 
in the skirting, rustling leaves.

Next morning, porridge won’t appeal. 
I’ll open a tin of sardines,
lick it clean of silver-flecked oil. 
In the mirror, my hazel eyes will green.

I’ll shop at dawn and dusk,
devour raw chicken and mackerel.
My coccyx will itch and a black tail tip 
twitch. I’ll cut holes in my clothes
and wear baggy coats.

I’ll fear water 
but no longer care
about encroaching seas.
Embracing my black fur pelt,
I’ll learn to let out darkness. 

I’ll avoid the barbed dicks of Toms
with agile twists and turns
and become my familiar, 
practise killing,
pounce from four legs.

Abandoning my house
I won’t know life is short.  
Will not speak of extinction.
Will not speak at all.  

I will lick and relish the taste of blood.

Meet the Poet

Jenny, from Liverpool, is published in both online and print magazines and poetry anthologies. 2021 publications include Dream Catcher, Prole, Ink Sweat and Tears, Orbis, The Dawntreader and The Lighthouse Journal. Her debut pamphlet, The Doll’s Hospital will be published by Yaffle Press soon. She tweets at @jirobb .

‘Slovakia and its Literary Landscape’ by Natalie Nera

‘Slovakia? Do you mean Slovenia? Aaah, Czechoslovakia!’

This statement reflects myriads of conversations I used to have during my time in Britain, whenever I mentioned that my sister-in-law was from Slovakia. No, it is not a country by the sea, and Czechoslovakia ceased to exist in 1993. And no, the Czech and Slovaks did not try to murder each other in the 90s – that was Yugoslavia. 

When it comes to literature, the situation is even worse. The Wikipedia entry on Slovak Literature ends with 1945, and the information you will find there is limited. Even an avid reader might struggle to name a single writer or poet. In short, Slovak literature is probably the most underrated literature in Central Europe – virtually unknown in the West, hiding in the mighty shadows cast by the Poles, and to some extent also its Czech neighbour.

And it is not just the proximity of its better-known neighbours. It is an image problem, which is not the fault of Slovakia or its authors. Historically, throughout the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, the Slovak language was considered to be ‘a dialect’ of the Czech language by many. It emerged as one of the pseudoscientific constructs based on nationalistic theories during that era, and took a long time to go away. Nonetheless, the idea of the Czechoslovak nation with its unique language helped to establish Czechoslovakia in 1918. The problem with the grammar books on the Czechoslovak language and all these theories was that nobody actually spoke it.

Naturally, it is easy to criticise this approach from the prism of the 21st century; however, this was also a political necessity. For two small nations in Central Europe, it was important to convince the powerful politicians in Britain, France and the USA during WWI that there was a medium-sized nation in the heart of Europe with its own language and culture, which deserved its independence and had the right to self-determination. 

The other issue is that when editors in English-speaking countries look East, they have no reference point with Slovakia. They know the impressive canon of Polish Nobel Prize laureates, such as Henryk Sienkiewicz, Czeslaw Milosz or Olga Tokarczuk; then they look to its smaller neighbour, and they can probably name Jaroslav Hasek, Bohumil Hrabal, Milan Kundera, and Miroslav Holub and Jaroslav Seifert in poetry, before they even start searching for new names. Can you recall any of the Slovak literati? No? 

It is time to change the narrative. This spring season, we will be celebrating Slovak authors. Rich tradition and musicality penetrate every word, every line. There are no small literatures. There are only literatures that deserve to be discovered.

‘The Broken Place’ by Mary Ann McGuigan

This story previously appeared in The Cortland Review in November 2015.

A black pick-up was parked haphazardly across three spaces in the store’s parking lot, the motor idling. The driver lingered at the wheel, very still, as if trying to gather himself. Dearnon, who’d been watching since the truck pulled in, put his newspaper down. The morning was cloudless, crisp, the kind of April day that can force a man to look up, to wonder about chances. He hadn’t had a customer all day, and he wished this one would either come in or leave already. The driver cut the engine but rested his arms across the top of the steering wheel, still not ready to get out. In the bed of the truck sat what appeared to be a huge telescope. Dearnon had never seen anything like it before. 

The driver’s door opened and the man stepped down. He was big, unsteady on his feet. He took small, heavy steps toward the entrance, as if uncertain whether the pavement would hold him. He wore a black shirt, black jeans, boots worn down from wandering. Thinning, strawberry blond hair was tied back in a ponytail. He opened the door of the shop without noticing Dearnon and looked toward the counter. Dearnon winced secretly at the paltry offerings: some stray beef jerkies in a display box, misshapen and gray; an empty rack meant for gum. The man’s shirt was darkened with sweat, even on this mild day. He made it to the counter, leaned his weight against it. Something was wrong.

“Can I help you, buddy?”

“Hope so.” He had a broad, friendly face, good looking. He placed his hands, palms down, on the counter. “In a bit of a fix.” He leaned forward heavily. Freckles mottled the white skin on the backs of his hands and his face was sickly pale. Dearnon worried he might be about to topple. The man tried to speak again but had trouble forming the words.  

“What’s up?” said Dearnon.

“Sweet.”

“What’s that?”

“Sweet. OJ?”

“Comin’ right up.”

Dearnon retreated to the back of the store, where he kept the drinks refrigerated. There was plenty of beer but only two bottles of orange juice left. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d placed a juice order. He took both bottles and headed back toward the counter, but there was no sign of the customer. He had a bad feeling about it, because he hadn’t heard the door so he was sure he hadn’t left. Hurrying to the front, he felt slightly out of breath. He was gaining weight. 

The big man had slid to the floor, sat leaning against the counter, knees up, head in his hands. 

“You okay, fella?” 

The man was barely able to raise his head. Dearnon opened the bottle of orange juice and leaned over him to offer it, but the man was too weak to hold the bottle so the storekeeper went down to the floor, braced the back of the man’s head in his hand and put the bottle to his lips. He took some in, although most of it dribbled onto his shirt. Dearnon pulled out a shirttail to wipe the man’s chin.

“Maybe I better call Dr. Randall. He’s not far from here.”

The man shook his head. 

“Want to come take a seat in the back?” Dearnon slept most nights there these days, not bothering to go home. The dog was gone now too.

“In a minute,” the man said. He closed his eyes and let himself relax into Dearnon’s arms. This caught him off guard, and he didn’t like it. Thoughts of the baby forced their way in, that raw vulnerability of the desperately ill. He shut his eyes to escape them, tried to focus on whether he’d placed the beer order, what he was going to tell the bank about the overdue payments, anything that would shut out the pink blankets and the crystal blue eyes. He’d never wanted the baby, made that plain right away. He and Irene were good together, fun. And they were barely twenty-five. He didn’t want to have a child before he had a life. The store needed his attention full time if he was going to make it work. When Irene went ahead and had it anyway, he didn’t complain, but he didn’t understand, and he didn’t talk much anymore. Their life became a different place, and he didn’t know the language. All that mattered was the regimen of feeding and caring, except he didn’t care, not the way he was supposed to, not until she was almost two, when she got sick. 

He looked down at his customer’s face, but felt wrong about witnessing a thing like this, when a man’s body betrays him. He settled himself down with him against the counter, tried to relax, but he was getting worried, wondered if he should get up and call a doctor. Then the big man stirred, raised his head, able to sip more of the juice as Dearnon held it for him. “I took some insulin. It’ll kick in.”

“Diabetes?” Dearnon said.

The man nodded and they sat quiet for a few minutes. 

“You give all your customers this kind of service?”

“Not a problem.” Dearnon saw they were about the same age, the sad side of thirty. 

“Is there anyone I can call for you?”

“Not a soul.” Dearnon thought he heard the customer chuckle.

They listened to the trucks on the road that fenced the strip mall, relentless, making their way south. Dearnon couldn’t remember the last time he’d just sat with someone, not without some expectation involved, some unspoken obligation.

 “I’m Ed. Ed O’Brien,” said the customer, offering his hand.

“Marty Dearnon.” He shook his hand. The man wore no wedding ring, and Dearnon wondered if he too was on his own. 

“Is that a telescope in the truck?” 

“Yup. That’s Girlfriend.” He took the bottle from Dearnon’s hand, put it to his lips.

“You an astronomer or something?”

“Eclipse chaser. I was up in Montana. It was a beaut.”

“You seen a lot of em?”

“My share.”

“I guess you travel all over the place?” 

“Yeah, you have to get on the road. I got hooked back in 1990. That summer was the first one I paid any real attention to, but I didn’t see the total, wasn’t in the right place. So I started to make it my business to get to whatever place had the best view.” 

Dearnon chuckled. “I knew a guy once who visited every major league baseball field in the country.”

“I’ve got some unbelievable pictures. Saw one in Siberia, one in Bucharest. That was the best one.”

“Why? Clear shot?”

“That, yeah. And I got to watch it with a woman I cared about.” O’Brien lifted the bottle and Dearnon watched the rest of the liquid empty out. 

“Feelin’ better?”

O’Brien nodded. “I ought to be used to these spells by now.”

“Maybe the docs need to adjust your meds.” Dearnon’s uncle had been diabetic, and he had asked him once if he could watch the injection. “Next time,” he said. But the man was dead by then. 

“Let’s just say I don’t always stick with the program.”

Dearnon heard the rebellion in O’Brien’s voice, the unwillingness to play by the rules. It was a dangerous way to go, but he couldn’t fault him for it.

“Every time things go haywire, I wonder if it’s curtains,” said O’Brien. “But things always settle down.”  

“Where you headed now? Home?”

“Not yet.” He put the bottle down.

“Where is home anyway?”

“Good question,” said O’Brien, with a bit of a laugh. “New Jersey, not far from Princeton.”

“I been on that turnpike. After the army.”

“Well, don’t let that fool you. New Jersey’s a pretty place really.”

“Oh, I didn’t mean—”

“It’s okay. You own this place?” O’Brien looked at the shelves, and Dearnon wished he had a way to explain why they were mostly bare.

“The bank owns it really.”

“Still, it’s yours to run. That’s something.” His glance took the place in again. The lower shelves near where they sat held only a few boxes of Cheerios, one tipped on its side, and odd jars of relish and cans of peas. “Just open up?”

Dearnon grinned then, letting it in, the time that had passed already. “Eight years.” He looked around the store, wondering again if he should have bought those shelves at that auction when he had the chance. He had an urge to defend himself somehow, make it clear that things could have been different. Business had been good in the beginning. But a business like this takes time, energy. You have to want it. Before long all they wanted was a doctor who could tell them what was wrong. Dearnon said nothing, and O’Brien stopped the questions, as if he understood there would be no neat explanation for the state of things here, that the reasons were still too raw. 

“So where’s the next eclipse?”

“Japan.” 

“Is that woman going to watch it with you?’ O’Brien’s face changed, and Dearnon wished he could take back the question.  

“She’s not interested.” O’Brien took a deep breath, trying to sit up straighter, but it was a struggle. He looked out into the parking lot, as if frustrated, eager to move on. “Seems like things get pretty quiet here.”

“Business comes in spurts, I guess.” But it didn’t. It hardly came at all anymore. Some days he didn’t bother opening up. He had to sell the place, but he couldn’t seem to part with it. It had become his hideout. Customers were an intrusion. A year ago, he’d dismantled the bell that announced an entry.

O’Brien didn’t challenge him. 

“I’m thinking about selling.”

“Yeah, maybe a new location,” said O’Brien. “One of those little college towns, where you can get some run-off business.”

From where they were sitting, Dearnon could see the dust that had balled up under the lowest shelves, and he felt oddly embarrassed, as if it could still matter. When he first opened the place, he’d polished the wood floors on his knees. He was fanatical about offering special cheeses, breads you couldn’t find that easily. 

O’Brien gazed at the bottle in his hand, almost as if he expected to find some kind of answer in it. “It didn’t have to be this way,” he said, and for a crazy moment Dearnon wondered if the man was reading his mind.

He remembered the casseroles Irene left him in the fridge, how much that had angered him, as if feeding him made her any less gone. He left them out for the dog. “Yeah,” he told O’Brien. “I know what you mean,” but Dearnon never did figure out what he could have done differently, what would have been good enough, or even why he didn’t at least try to talk to her. He looked out through the glass of the front door into the parking lot. He could see the telescope in the truck, the huge metallic blue barrel reflecting the sunlight. He wondered what it would be like to be able to cart around the thing you needed most in the world. 

“So you gonna be there?” Dearnon said.

“Where? Japan?”

“Yeah.”

“Got nowhere else to be.”

“How long since you seen her?” Later, Dearnon wondered why he didn’t stop there, at a point where he would have understood nothing more about this man. Or about himself. 

“Two years,” said O’Brien.

Hardly enough time to forget what she smelled like. Dearnon didn’t need to know any more than that, because all endings were made of the same stuff. A silence too long. A bed too big. “Ever try to reach her?”

O’Brien looked at his watch. “Twenty minutes ago.”

“And?”

“She says it won’t work, not now.” Dearnon wondered if it was about his illness, but he waited for more, realizing he wanted a different answer, a different ending. A car pulled up outside, but then moved on, as if the driver saw she had arrived at the wrong place. Good, Dearnon thought. He didn’t want to get up.

“She had this odd thing she did.” Dearnon listened, not surprised that the things the man would remember would be the things he couldn’t make sense of. “After we had a fight, she’d call me to see if I got home okay. Every time. I completely forgot about that, till just recently.” Dearnon knew that letting shit like that back in wasn’t good. “I wasted all that time.” He understood then that O’Brien was probably very ill, and that he knew it. 

He opened the other bottle of juice, took a slug and passed it to O’Brien, who downed the rest and sat up straighter. “What do I owe you for these?”

Dearnon laughed. “On the house.” He sat up, but reluctantly. He didn’t want the man to leave. The last time he’d exchanged this many words with anyone he was explaining himself to a nurse from intensive care who wanted to see ID before she’d let him near his daughter. The child crying out for him made no difference to her. 

O’Brien got to his feet, still unsteady but better than before. He gathered his things and Dearnon was struck by how purposeful he seemed, checking his watch, asking how much time it was likely to take to get to Laramie. 

“Three hours, easy. You sure you don’t want to rest up, eat something?” But Dearnon could see the man was gone already, his mind on the road. 

O’Brien thanked him, said he’d be fine. He adjusted the straps of his heavy backpack, extended his hand. Dearnon shook it. There was no more to say. He watched him go out the door. A few steps before he reached the truck, he hesitated, and Dearnon thought he was going to turn around. But he kept going, opened the tailgate, searched for something. 

He wanted to call to him, but he stopped himself. He looked down at where they’d been sitting, let his thoughts go where they shouldn’t. He fought them off, concentrated instead on the stranger’s truck backing up, turning smoothly to protect its cargo, then moving with only the barest hesitation back onto the road. 

When there was no more to see, Dearnon locked the door, so he wouldn’t be disturbed. He walked to the back, moved the newspapers off his bunk and sat down, picked up the phone. The number came to him with no effort at all. The rings were insistent, shrill. He wished he could stifle the sounds, keep them from making so much out of this. The hello was small, tentative, as if she’d recognized the number. He didn’t speak, and she hung up.

He said the number aloud, as if testing it, and this time the sequence began playing tricks on him. Maybe that wasn’t the number. Maybe that wasn’t her.   

About the Author

Mary Ann McGuigan is a freelance editor, based in the USA. Her short stories—nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Sundress Publications’ Best of the Net—have appeared in The Sun, Image, North American Review, Prime Number, and other literary journals. PIECES,  her collection of short stories, was published in 2017. WHERE YOU BELONG, one of her YA novels, was a finalist for the National Book Award, and  she has served on the panel of judges for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. The New York Public Library, the Junior Library Guild, and the Paterson Prize rank her YA novels among the best books for teens. More at http://www.maryannmcguigan.com

Two Poems by Susan Castillo

Bloom Where You Are Planted

I made a garden by the sea,
northern Portugal.  Roses bloomed for me, 
shielded by stone walls 
from blasts of silver wind.  

I made a garden up on Skye.
Crofter’s cottage. They’ll say a woman
came from the mist. She planted two giant trees.  
Sequoias. I was never one to think small.

I made a city garden by a black heath 
where plague victims were interred.
Cascades of yellow roses. 
Blood and bone are good for soil.

I made a garden in the Sussex countryside, 
cloaked the house in roses. Grew grapevines.
Filled it with children’s laughter,  
learned to live with darkness.

I made a London garden.  
Weeded out old sadness, threw out decay. 
Planted bold bursts of flowers,
draped walls in blooms and scent. 

Bloom where you are planted    
My mother used to say.

Braiding

In a distant Southern parlour.  
I comb Grandmother’s straight black hair.
People always said she might have Indian blood
Where did all these wrinkles come from

For goodness sake, I answer.   
You’re eighty!  It’s okay to have a few.

Now the light streams through the window
in the Sussex countryside.  My granddaughter
combs my hair.  It used to be 
dark gold, now is white. 

My granddaughter pats my shoulder.
You’re beautiful, she says.

About the Author

Susan Castillo Street is Harriet Beecher Stowe Professor Emerita, King’s College London.  She has published four collections of poems, The Candlewoman’s Trade, (2003), Abiding Chemistry,  (2015), The Gun-Runner’s Daughter, (2018) and Cloak (2020), as well as several scholarly books. She lived in Portugal for 25 years, and is now based in London and in the Sussex countryside, where she owns a vineyard.

‘The Body That Washed Ashore’ by Greg Forrester

Stealing precious moments together in the budding dawn, it was two young lovers who saw the body wash up on the sand. They thought little of it, believing it to be a log covered with seaweed, but as the morning arrived in full, a rumour that the lifeless body of a woman had been found on the beach had spread, and soon the entirety of the town had crowded along the promenade hoping to catch a glimpse of the woman from the sea. Access to the sand had been cordoned off by the authorities and all the gathered masses could see was a shape beneath a black sheet amongst the milling officers. Those on the sand were at a loss with what to do with the body. The town was small and the only doctor had drowned two years previously, so an open call was put out over the local radio stations and spread by word of mouth for anyone with sufficient anatomical knowledge of men or fish to make themselves known.

First to answer the call was a travelling medical student from Scandinavia who emptied his stomach upon seeing what lay beneath the sheet. Twice more eager strangers appeared in those early hours, and on each occasion they left ashamed, unsuccessful, and haunted by what they had seen. It was then that the authorities decided to move the body. They took it into the basement of the police station, to a forgotten room where an autopsy could be performed in private. Locking the door behind them as they returned to their investigations, they waited for a solution to appear.

Brooks arrived three days later. An amateur ichthyologist and professional con artist, he presented himself at the station in a freshly starched black suit and bowler hat while the day was still young.

‘I believe you’ve been waiting for me,’ he announced, proudly striding into the station. From his briefcase he produced papers asserting his medical qualifications, stealing them from sight before they crumbled under closer inspection. ‘Where is the body?’

A junior constable led him down to the basement. Unlocked the door. Paused. Then removed the sheet.

There it was, lying in front of him. The body that had washed ashore. Lifeless. Her eyes open. Her sclera full of the sea. A fish’s tail where her legs should be.

‘I see,’ Brooks muttered to himself. He then repeated himself for the benefit of the watching constable who had backed up against the wall. ‘You are very lucky that I have found my way here.’

Brooks began to scrutinise the body with the precision of an architect, his face so close to its sallow skin that his eyelashes ran across the dead flesh. A viscous, tear-like liquid coated the skin around its eyes, while the lips were still damp with seawater and the tongue was noticeably missing. A strange smell permeated from the skin, reminding Brooks of an Italian port. Tilting her head to rest as if sleeping against the stainless-steel table, he found small incisions along the neck and, recognising their structure, deduced that these were gills of some description. Using a pen produced from his jacket pocket he lifted a lamella.

‘Aren’t you going to…’ The constable’s voice stumbled, and instead, she pointed towards the lower half of the woman, to the fish tail. In truth, Brooks had been stealing glances at the tail since the sheet was lifted, but he was an expert in his profession, a professional with a role to play.

‘My dear. Clearly, there is something here with this poor soul that we would not expect. It does not take someone with my expertise to tell you that, you know this already. But first, we must ascertain if what at first view may appear normal – her face, her heart, and so on – we must know if these are as expected, or if…’ Brooks made a show of pausing, to think. ‘What if this piscine appendage is merely a misdirect, hiding an even bigger secret?’

It was close to midday, and the town had not forgotten about the mystery that had washed ashore three days previously. Curiosity had festered like a rotting infection, nursed by vivid dreams of a lady walking from the ocean, only to become a fish on land. Those who experienced these dreams woke unusually late the following day with the salty taste of the sea on their lips and found themselves unable to speak of anything other than the body which had been hidden away deep inside the station. So it was that crowds gathered and grew outside the station day by day, water-sellers, fire-breathers, card sharks, and fortune tellers plying their wares; pickpockets, silver-tongued politicians, young mothers, and aged beauties mingled with their prey. Amongst the crowd was a young troubadour whose eyes sought out the station door, watching anxiously for her lover.

Once his initial inspection was complete, Brooks excused himself from the station in search of ingredients for a tonic he told the officers would be needed to complete the autopsy, though first he procured enough coin to cover his supposed costs. He wasn’t long out the station before the crowds swarmed around him. What is it? Where did it come from? Should we be afraid? Can I count on your endorsement? Brooks shook these questions off with a reassuring smile, stopping long enough to bask in the heat of the fire-breathers as he moved among the bodies. Free of the crowd, he straightened his bowler hat and secluded himself inside a dark, windowless pub and found a drinking companion who would enable his vices in exchange for strange tales.

While waiting still for her lover to emerge from the station, the troubled troubadour heard a quiet song carried on the wind. It was a tune that belonged to no one, a whispering lament which forced her into action. It demanded to be discovered. Entranced, she abandoned her wait for her lover and began a pilgrimage in the direction of the song, towards the beach on which the body washed ashore.

Brooks returned to the station with ingredients squirreled away inside the pockets of his suit jacket: bellis perennis, to purge; peony and snapdragon, to relax; anise and garlic; spirits of salt. These he mixed together above a naked flame until they produced a viscous liquid coated with an amber-like membrane. In the borrowed beaker the tonic bubbled, like sea foam, like a rabid animal, a noxious scent rising above the glass. The scent of thirst and abandon, of being lost at sea, of washing ashore. But when he returned to the basement ready to administer the tonic, he found the room empty. There was no sign of the body which had laid there on the stainless-steel table, only the silhouette of a woman left behind in the dust, and a pathway of water leading out of the basement.

‘Where is the body?’ Brooks called into the mass of the station, but this too, he found empty. Finding a nearby flask, he emptied his tonic into the container, pocketed it, and then followed the trail of water out into the town. It was deserted. Where what felt like only moments prior, he had struggled through curious, self-serving bodies to get back to the station, but now all that remained were the legacies they would leave behind: propaganda pamphlets, scorched pavement, unwanted futures. Still he followed the water, through secluded streets and abandoned alleyways.

Eventually he arrived at the same beach on which the body had been discovered, three days prior.  on that morning, the entire town crowded along the promenade looking out towards the sea. Brooks slid through the masses like a hunter, emerging onto the sand to see three silhouettes there on the crest of the sea. One of these figures he recognised immediately as the subject of his improved autopsy, but on either side of the woman, supporting her, dragging her towards the water, were two figures he couldn’t make out. One of them appeared to have an instrument of some sort, a lute or small guitar, strapped to their back.

‘Stop,’ Brooks cried, doing his best to run through the rising tide and sinking sand in his freshly starched suit and bowler hat, but he knew it would be to no avail. Helpless, he could do nothing but watch as the waves enveloped the shapes. 

Three disappeared under the water, and two bodies washed ashore.

‘She just wanted to be free,’ said the troubadour, struggling for breath. The lute which had been strapped to her back was now missing, but she seemed not to notice. At her side, hand in hand, stood the junior constable who had been charged with guarding the body. Brooks stared hard at her, betrayed, but she refused to meet his eye. The flask containing the now-redundant tonic he had prepared for the autopsy hung limp in his hand.

Soon the crowds dispersed. Days went by without incident and any remnants of those salt-tasting dreams which had haunted the residents faded. Three days Brooks drowned his sorrows in the windowless pub, paying his bill with unbelievable stories – of a creature from the sea, part woman, part fish. Once the alcohol had thoroughly distilled his disappointment, Brooks placed this bowler hat proudly back atop his head and strode out of town, briefcase in hand.

On his way out of town he took the waterfront road, walking for the first time unimpeded along the promenade. It made him happy to see the beach deserted. Perhaps those young lovers would no longer need to hide their romance, he thought to himself, removing his shoes as he strode out onto the sand. In front of him was an endless world of blue. He walked into the rising suds of the tide, the water lapping at the bottom of his trousers. It was peaceful.

Brooks stayed there long enough to feel the tide rise and recede and watch the day fade away around him. It was then, in that greying façade, that he walked further towards the sea. Checking that the beach and the promenade behind her still deserted, he placed his briefcase down in the sinking, still-damp sand and clicked it open. There inside were his fraudulent medical papers, the flask containing the unused autopsy solution, and the bag of coins he had procured from the officers still full. He felt something wash ashore close by but didn’t look up. Instead, he ran his fingers along a glass jar hidden in his briefcase. There inside the jar was a human tongue, grey and decaying.

‘This makes six,’ Brooks said, directing his voice out into the ocean. Beside him rested the troubadour’s lute. ‘One more, and your payment is complete.’

Brooks shouldered the lute and turned his back on the water – and his accomplice, hidden beneath its surface – and made his way along the waterfront road to the next town.

About the Author

Greg Forrester (he/him) is an award-winning writer based in the North East of England. He is a current PhD candidate at the University of Sunderland, writing about magical realism and northern identity, and was Highly Commended for the Sid Chaplin Award in 2021. He is Managing Director of Bandit Fiction, a not-for-profit digital publishing company, and has been previously published by Fairlight Books and TL;DR Press. You can follow him at @GregForrester4 on Twitter, @forrester4 on Instagram, and find out more about him at his website, www.gregforrester.com