Access by Mike Fox

Fiction
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Bridging by Stela Brix, 2018

She’s still trying to do the same things she has always done, it’s just that she can’t do them anymore. I look on. I know all her habits. When you live in the same house you share the habits of others no less than you share the same air, the same atmospheres, the ambient realities of domestic life.

I understand now. We need to view each other in a certain way. It reduces chaos. We learn what to expect and then are shaped by those expectations. But I have left. Today I return only as a visitor. I observe the same habits but they are no longer mine to share: they are no longer part of me.

*

It has taken the sight of our dog, our joint custody dog, scratching confusedly at the rug she uses for sleep, to make me realise I’m in exile from my immediate memories, from my immediate history, from the small items of existence that have formed my recent, and not so recent, identity.

She scratches, and circles. This has always been her ritual before settling. But previously there was focus, intent. The scratching, the circling, invoked a sense of comfort and security. It gave her satisfaction. At a certain point she would know she had created her own inviolable space for rest. Now I can see she is denied that certainty. Both her own habits and the habits of others are deserting her. In that respect we are similar.

*

I still have the key. I still have access. But it is access to something that only resembles what once was: a sameness that conceals irrevocable change.

Joint custody of a scruffy, much-loved fox terrier. Mollie is now my conduit to a former life, and she is old and struggling with the simple, embedded behaviours she has repeated many times a day over the last twelve years. Her body remembers them but is hardly able to carry them out. I visit her at agreed times. I watch her. I blame myself.

*

Loss, evidently, is no-one’s sole legacy. The abandoner is also the abandoned, by the simple daily reference points of life, the default behaviours, the fallbacks. Marriage grows into an eco-system, it absorbs the quirks and fallibilities of its participants then proceeds on the basis they dictate. It was never designed to endure in an attenuated form. You don’t know what leaving is until you’ve left.

We all want to be part of something – isn’t that true? We are what we are part of. When you leave a relationship you also leave the parts of you that belonged to it. Mollie was a big part of our marriage. Now she is the only link remaining. But, of course, I have left her too.

*

She settles. There is something resigned about the way she subsides into a curled position. The old lambswool fleece is both her bed and her camouflage. Apart from the patch of black on her flank and of tan on her muzzle, her fur blends perfectly. I would like to stroke her, but I don’t. I can see her fragility. I’m afraid to disturb it.

I wish she could talk. I wonder how many people who’ve found themselves in these circumstances have wished their pet could talk? Or more importantly listen: to the apologies, the explanations. Pathetically, I crave my dog’s absolution.

*

I get up and go to the kitchen. Everything in it was once made or fitted by me – we find so many ways to invest in the future, don’t we? I see a cupboard door is working loose and my immediate instinct is to repair it. Until recently that would have typified my role, my response to household dysfunction. We each had our ways of keeping things going.

I return to the living room. Mollie is sleeping. There is something in the rise and fall of her ribs that reminds me of those rare moments of tenderness and peace that could break through, even towards the end. Tiny episodes of hope, beguiling, misleading. I remember how that hope felt. It felt like quietness, but not the quietness I witness now. This is the quietness of absence, of soul flown elsewhere, of the void when conflict ends.

*

I’m thinking this, feeling it in every part of my body, when I hear a key turn in the lock. Instantly I feel like an intruder, although I’m here within the agreed times. I hear the door close, the tread of carpet-muted feet, and our neighbour, my ex-neighbour, Sara comes into the room.

‘Hi John,’ she says. She doesn’t seem surprised to see me – she has always looked in on Mollie while my wife and I were at work. She knows what has happened. She has been through a break-up herself. She gives me one of those smiles in which the corners of the mouth turn down, that somehow acknowledge that confusion and ambiguity must play their part in everyone’s world. Then her attention turns to Mollie and she goes over and kneels, very quietly, by her rug.

*

For a moment we both watch her sleeping form intently, and then, without being conscious of the intention, I find myself kneeling beside Sara. We say nothing, just witness what is before us: how each breath is a measure of life, how life, its duration, its meaning, is defined by its simple continuance. After a short time, I feel sure, our breathing has synchronised. We breathe together, as if doing so allows us to maintain something, to hold on to what pieces of life are still ours.

 

About the Author:

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

 

Camera Shy by Carl Scharwath

Fiction

 

Camera Shy Short Story

Camera Shy by Carl Scharwath, 2020, model Yasmin Acosta

The camera sat alone on top of the bar soaking in the liquid history of past confessions, as a photographer took his place on a rusting bar stool for the first time in many years. Late at night he was the only one to join this lonely party hosted by a simpering bartender. Before ordering his drink, the photographer witnessed the bottles in the mirror presenting themselves as a photo opportunity. The image was engulfed in a fluorescent light revealing imperfections and great subtle contrasts of colors.

‘You look like you could use a drink or two,’ the bartender said in a cliché greeting.

Somehow, he was able to read the photographer who seemed occupied in the scene ready to unfold that evening.

‘Yes, most definitely, please make it a Martini.’ The photographer’s face took on the aura of a man with a story that needed to be told to anyone who would listen. As the bartender turned to mix the liquid therapy, the photographer surveyed his surroundings. In the corner sitting alone was a beautiful dark-haired woman. He hesitated. He had done this in the past, approaching a beautiful woman with his  camera as a prop. A crutch of an excuse to start a conversation and telling her she  looked like a model, which even he thought was creepy but every once in a while, the line  worked and he found a new muse for his art.

The drink was placed on the bar with a question from the bartender, ‘I guess you are a photographer? I saw you take a picture of the bottles behind the bar.’

‘Yes, but not for long, there have been strange things happening to my photos,’ the

photographer said.

The bartender leaned forward on the bar thinking of all the stories he had been told, but this one had drawn him in. ‘Strange things? Now you have my attention.’

The photographer took a deep sip, looked around at the woman again and began, ‘As a photographer old buildings always amazed me. The colors, the patina and the history were intriguing.  I often thought of the people who once lived or worked in these abandoned places and how they came to be what they are today, empty forgotten decrepit structures.’

The bartender unsure if he should interrupt asked, ‘This doesn’t sound strange to me, I can see how you can find beauty where others may not.’

‘My friend you have great insight, however let me tell you what has been happening. I first started to notice something strange after I took the photos and visited the buildings again. They had transformed within months after the photos.  Either the buildings were destroyed, and a new structure replaced them, or they were razed, and a weeded empty lot remained. I know this does not seem strange in itself but the events happened so quickly.’

The bartender had this look when you know someone is ready to say something prophetic or funny. Smiling he said, ‘You can take a picture of my house then I will simply wait for a better newer home to replace it right?”

‘Right you are brother, that would be something and I wish my photos could do that for you.’ The photographer looked impatient and continued, ‘My dear friend who helped me with modeling recently passed at the young age of fifty-four She was the one who originally got me interested in photography and I have missed her every day since her death.’

The bartender began to look around for any other customers who might need help as a way to ease himself out of this conversation. He had heard many alcohol-induced stories and this one was the strangest, so he answered, ‘I am so sorry for your loss and I understand how you think you might have been at fault just because you took her picture, but you know that is not the case, right?’

‘I want to agree with you but there was another girl.’

The bartender was stunned and in a weird way felt like not knowing what to say when someone knocks on your bathroom door.

‘Did she die as well?’

‘Yes, just recently so no more models in my photography ever. I also just want to give up this art as it has cursed me and all I have touched. I will never use this camera again.’ With that declaration the mournful photographer and his past memories would probably be too much to overcome. Was it an admonition that some dark force had overcome either his camera or him?

The camera on the bar was looked at for the last time. The final photo of those bottles in the speculum held a surprise. With the angle of the shot, the photographer noticed a mistake and his face was in the photo from the mirror reflection. This final photo held an ominous future for him. Horrified and looking down, anxiety overcame him. His own image from the camera of doom seemed to be mocking him. Would his future now be forever changed by this apparatus?  His obsession that somehow, he was responsible for the death of others had haunted him, had clouded his thoughts and turned back on him in his subconscious beliefs.

‘Are you ok?’ the bartender asked.

In a rush the photographer slapped a 20-dollar bill on the bar and as he quickly got up and said, ‘Thank you for listening to me, I do not feel well and have to go.’ As he was leaving, he heard, ‘Hold on, you forgot your camera.’

 

About the Author:

Carl Scharwath, has appeared globally with 150+ journals selecting his poetry, short stories, interviews, essays, plays or art photography (His photography was featured on the cover of 6 literary journals.) Two poetry books ‘Journey To Become Forgotten’ (Kind of a Hurricane Press).and ‘Abandoned’ (ScarsTv) have been published. His first photography book was recently published by Praxis. Carl is the art editor for Minute Magazine, a dedicated runner and 2nd degree black- belt in Taekwondo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Old Books by Robert Boucheron

Fiction
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New Life by Ida Saudkova, ca 1997

Old Books

While clearing the house to move, Nora Devereux found some cardboard boxes in the attic. Sealed with tape and covered with dust, the boxes were marked “Old Books.” Did her ex-husband carry them up there, or one of the children? Ten years or more had passed, enough for someone to claim their property.

If some of her books were mixed in, Nora hadn’t missed them. She didn’t have time to open the boxes and sort through them. And boxes like ships might carry stowaways. She dreaded a poignant reminder of the past—an old photo, a letter, a child’s art project.

Nora telephoned a dealer listed online. She tried to sound sweet and desperate. Mr. Lumbar sounded old and tired.

“I’ll take the boxes off your hands, sight unseen, sell what I can and dispose of the rest.”

Nora wondered what “dispose of” meant. The county landfill or a charitable cause? To be rid of them was the main thing. A panel van arrived, blank and windowless. Like his voice, Mr. Lumbar was gray and overweight. Medically unfit to lift and carry, he paid Nora a small amount in cash, while an athletic young assistant whisked the boxes downstairs. The van drove away to an undisclosed location, and she got on with decluttering.

After the move, in the course of her daily walk, Nora passed a shop for old books. A sign in the window read:

Rare, Leather-Bound, Collectible

Buy and Sell, Appraisal on the Spot

Irregular Hours or By Appointment

Could the shop belong to the same dealer? The shop was hidden away from the bustle of Main Street, far from the boutiques on Mulberry Lane. Near the former railroad depot, it looked much like the deserted ticket office. A dim electric light was on, and the door was unlocked.

“Hello!” Nora called to the empty space. “Mr. Lumbar?”

No answer. The owner might be deep in the maze of shelves, unable to hear, or busy in some remote corner, unaware of the outside world. Libraries and bookstores have that effect. Like a jungle of print, they suck you in and make you forget the passage of time and daily life. To work there day after day might lead to madness. How do librarians keep their grip on reality?

Nora scanned the titles nearest her. Virginiana, Civil War, and Genealogy were popular subjects hereabouts. How was the shop laid out? Was there a section on Literature? She began to explore. Travel, Geography, and Current Events were woefully out of date. Cooking, Gardening, and Home Improvement were no longer relevant. Biography consisted of former celebrities and forgotten politicians.

The books were filled with marks and notes, which Nora considered vandalism. Musty smells, water stains, and cracked spines were endemic. Some books led a hard life, while others suffered from neglect. Pressed in their pages she found receipts, index cards, lists, notes, flyers, and brochures. Leaves, flowers, and insects turned up, squashed flat and dried, reduced to two dimensions, like engravings of their former state.

The narrow aisles were blocked with piles of books on the floor and cardboard boxes. Open at the top, the boxes were full of more books. Nora had to bend awkwardly in the tight space and scrabble. Treasure might lie hidden among the trash. Or it might stare you in the face.

After an unknown length of time, brief or the best part of an afternoon, Nora picked out a title that looked familiar. Had she read this book years ago? The opening paragraph was fresh, yet the story was one she already knew. A girl comes of age, defies convention, and achieves a personal triumph. Had Nora retained the gist, or was the story common? In all of literature there are only a few plots, some spoilsport critic said. Nora flipped ahead, read another paragraph, and had the same sensation, a mix of relish and predictability. She turned to the fly leaf and was startled.

Her own name was written there, or rather her maiden name, Nora Cheadle. The penmanship was formal and careful, a schoolgirl’s hand. Looseness and fluidity came with experience. The name summoned a previous existence, the way some people claim to be reincarnated. Some people are so downtrodden they have to invent an ancestor, or make the glamorous past their own. All that aside, in this life was it possible to travel beyond yourself, to become another person?

Nora decided to buy the book. Or buy it back, or redeem what had slipped away by mistake. Maybe she would chat with the dealer, explain what happened, and share a laugh. She could tell him how happy she was in the apartment.

She worked her way back to the street door, where a battered wooden desk crouched among the tall shelves. No one sat at the desk. During the whole elastic period of browsing and book-gazing, she had met not a living soul in the shop. She looked for a bell to ring, a button to press, some means of attracting attention. Was there an honor system, instructions for what do in the absence of personnel?

Nora grew impatient. The book was already hers, she reasoned. She could simply walk out. It did not count as shoplifting. If challenged, she could point to her name. But her credit cards and driver’s license bore her married name, Devereux. An indignant Mr. Lumbar might huff and puff and ask with exquisite scorn, “Who are you really?”

The situation was getting more absurd by the minute. Why linger? Nora dropped the book in her bag, composed a face of innocence, and regained the street.

 

About the Author:

Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His stories and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, Saturday Evening Post, and online magazines.

A Plant Grows in Concrete by Yash Seyedbagheri

Fiction
Suburbia

Suburbia by Stela Brix, 2018

A plant lies on concrete. I pick it up. Leaves are withdrawn, hiding from the sky. As if growth is too much to ask.

I don’t blame it.

I should take this home. Even if Mother finds plants saddening now. Too cheerful, too vibrant, she says.

Nancy, my big sister, hated leaving things behind. She saved the smallest articles, except herself. Plants, coins, so much.

Psychiatrists prescribed attitudes. Activities.

The world demanded excess. Take care of your brother, become a wife, subordinate dreams of creating art.

I will not let the plant wilt. I’ll keep it in the brightest spaces. I’ll keep it in the living room where Nancy used to teach me to dance. On the back patio. I never told Nancy I loved her, never told the psychiatrists to take a hike. But how I love this little plant.

Live, I whisper. Live.

 

About the Author:

Yash Seyedbagheri is a graduate of Colorado State University’s MFA program in fiction. His story, “Soon,” was nominated for a Pushcart.  Yash’s stories are forthcoming or have been published in Café Lit, Mad Swirl, 50 Word Stories, and Ariel Chart, among others.

Everything Was Wild by William Falo

Fiction
Hand

Your Hand by Victoria Holt, 2016

 

 

                        Romania when everything was wild

I stopped at the edge of the woods and every part of me said to turn around, but I slipped into the graveyard and placed flowers on Violeta’s grave. I collapsed on it and guilt washed over me. My empty hand shook when something touched it. “Violeta,” I called out, but it was only a leaf.

I calmed myself down and stared at my hand. The same one that let go before she ran into the street at the same time a drunk driver drove his car down the narrow street. I needed to get back to the woods. The woods provide me the escape and peace I needed. There were no children to haunt me, no one to blame me, and no reason to think about starting a new life. Nothing could hurt me there and I could linger forever in a numb state.

I gripped the knife I always carried. It felt reassuring when it caused my hand to bleed. The blood dripped on to the path and I saw a bear’s tracks and followed them deeper into the woods. Bears were common in the Carpathian Mountains, but it was always better to be behind one than surprised by an attack.

I heard a girl’s voice. Maybe I was losing my mind. I knew it would come to this; I would go crazy before any physical aliment did me in.

The voice again. With no plan, I followed it sure it was not real.  In a clearing, a girl about twelve years old was holding a gun, the bear stood at the edge of the clearing pacing back and forth accessing the situation and in a chair, a man slept. Something was wrong.

The bear saw the girl and then me. I was closer, so it took the easy target and lumbered toward me. My knife looked small, but I didn’t back up. I never do. I had nothing to lose. The bear grunted, and I saw that part of an arrow stuck out of its side. A hunter hit it once, the bear was in pain making it deadly. It came closer.

“Run away,” I yelled at the girl, but she stood in place.

The bear lumbered toward me and raised his paw to swing a fatal blow just as a sharp sound filled my ears and something hit the tree behind me. Pieces of bark rained down on me. The bear ran back into the woods.

“You could have killed me?” I yelled at her. I glanced at the man on the chair. He didn’t move. When I looked closer, I saw that part of the man’s face was white. I then knew he was dead.

I needed to get out of here, but the girl kept the gun pointed at me. Did she aim for the bear or me?

“You shot at me?”

She didn’t answer. The presence of the dead man made the whole campsite look like a scene out of a horror movie.

I walked closer. “I’m Elena. What’s your name?’

“Ana.” She lowered the gun an inch.

“Him?” I pointed at the dead man.

“My father.”

“Okay.” I wanted to leave. I could run, she probably would miss if she shot at me.

“He’s just sleeping.”

“Forever.” Bluntness is a flaw of mine.

“No.” She lowered the gun some more.

I backed up. She noticed. “Why are you in the woods?”

“I’m looking for my missing daughter.” I lied.

“I can help you?”

“No.” I’m not a good person.

I didn’t want to deal with any of this. I resorted to lies. “Maybe, you can help me look for my daughter.” I lied. It was easier the more you did it. “We’ll come back for your father.” I stopped.

“I’m not stupid. I know he’s dead.” Ana began sobbing.

“What happened?”

“He spied on his neighbors and they found out.”

I got chills. He had been one of THEM, Securitate, the secret police. They were feared once, but now some people sought out anyone who spied for them to take out their revenge.

Ana wiped her eyes, but a few tears still made it down her cheeks. They fell onto the ground before she could speak. “They beat him up really bad. We hid here, but he died.”

“Where’s your mother?”

“She’s dead too.” She wiped her eyes then lowered the gun all the way.

I hesitated to ask how afraid of the answer. Everyone knew sadness here.

“Am I a bad person like my father?” Ana asked.

“No, you’re not. Don’t ever think that.” But what I planned to do made me a bad person.

Ana dropped the gun and before I could change my mind, she was at my side.

When we reached the town, I led her to the police station. We passed a church with a tall bell tower that loomed over the town. Four gargoyles sat on top of it and stared out in every direction. It looked like they could jump down at any minute and reign terror on the town. They sent chills through me. When the church bell clanged, both of us let out a scream and hurried inside the station, a policewoman sat Ana down and stared at me, I motioned toward the bathroom but walked straight out the door. I stopped outside and looked back, Ana looked in my direction, I saw the tears on her cheek glistening under the bright lights. I froze, then took a deep breath and walked toward the woods.

Part of me wanted to help her, I did, but I couldn’t. In the woods, I couldn’t sleep, everything seemed too quiet like nature was mad at me. I was mad at me.

I wanted to forget, I really did, but every time I looked at my hand, I saw a tiny hand letting go of it. No therapy or medicine will erase the memory or ease the pain. I once held an ax above my hand ready to cut it off, but I couldn’t even do it. I wanted to disappear and never see a child and to never feel that pain again. Ana changed all that. She made me feel things that I avoided. My heart could be broken, that was a pain I never wanted to feel again, but I worried about what would happen to her. She was all alone. I needed to get away, go deeper into the woods or even to the mountains and disappear forever or I would do something dangerous like going back for her.

A low bark broke the silence. I froze and watched as a red fox strolled by and fell over. I pulled my knife out, but it wasn’t here to attack. I looked closer and saw its leg was caught in some kind of trap. The rusty thing didn’t close all the way, but at any minute, it could slam shut and cut off the fox’s paw.

I slowly approached, it let me. With the back of my knife, I pried it open, and the fox sprung free. I watched with tears in my eyes. Shortly afterward, I saw two sets of small eyes join it in the distance. They faded into the darkness. How did it know to come to me for help? Somehow, I thought Violeta led it here. Big tears ran down my cheeks and I struggled to fall asleep, but I was unable to get rid of the image of Ana crying.

 

****

 

A week later, I looked at the walls inside Orphanage Number Three and was surprised by the lack of color. Inside, they led me to a room door where I could watch Ana from a window without interrupting the others. It was lunchtime. She sat alone and didn’t touch her food.

“Why is she alone?”

“She prefers it. We tried to help her.”

I heard smaller children in another room. I struggled to breathe and turned to leave.

“By the way, she wants to talk to you. She always asks for the tough woman who found her.”

Before I could run out, the door opened.

Ana reached out for me and I let her hug me.

“I’m ready.”

“For what?”

“To help find your daughter. The one that is missing.”

I stepped backward. “I.” I turned away. My mouth opened, but no words came out. Ana remained quiet waiting for an answer and I cleared my throat before telling the truth. “I know where she is, she’s buried in the cemetery.”

“What? Since when?”

“When she was small, I let go of her hand and she was hit by a car.” I hid my eyes with my trembling hands.

“You lied to get me here.” She stormed around the room. “I’m sorry about your daughter, but.” She stopped and banged on the door. “Let me out.”

“Ana, I’m sorry.”

The door opened and banged shut leaving me alone in the empty room.. My hand shook as the memories of Violeta came back.

I ran to the woods like I always did. It was always my escape. I couldn’t hurt anyone or be hurt there. Near my shelter, I saw a small body. One of the fox’s kits died. It was crazy to think the mother brought it here hoping I could save it. I couldn’t. Maybe I couldn’t save Violeta either, but there was still hope for Ana.

I returned to the orphanage and the same worker let me in. In the small room, I told Ana to get her stuff. I was ready to fight anyone who tried to stop me. She came out with just one small bag and a smile. I held out my knife as we walked right out the door. Nobody tried to stop us. They didn’t dare.  In normal times this wouldn’t have worked, but these weren’t normal times. In fact, everything was wild.

When we walked away, I looked down and saw that Ana grasped my hand. I made sure I wouldn’t let it go.

 

 

About the Author:

William Falo lives in the USA . He studied wildlife in college and was a volunteer fireman. His work has appeared in Vamp Cat Magazine, Fictive Dream, Litro Magazine, Vaughan Street Doubles, and other literary journals. He was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He can be found on Twitter @williamfalo and on Instagram @writerwilliamfalo 

All Ends by Eduard Schmidt-Zorner

Fiction
Amy McCartney- Reflection

Reflection by Amy McCartney, 2019

Severe pain in his leg woke Claude Beauchêne. Most of his nights were sleepless and when he found a few hours of sleep he dreamt of entrenchments, foxholes, gun emplacements, and underground bunkers. In his nightmares, he heard the cries of wounded soldiers, the noise of the weapons, the impacts of the firing of projectiles by the opposing troops.

He had been wounded in Bir Hakeim, an oasis in the Libyan desert, during the Battle of Gazala. When the weather was about to change, his leg injury reminded him of the last battle under Lieutenant Colonel Prince Dimitri Amilakhvari. He had, and still, adored this man of Russian-Georgian origin, this iconic figure of the Legion.

The night was over, the morning penetrated through the half-closed blind.

He looked over to his cupboard, on which was displayed his Képi blanc, the white cap, the cap of the members of the Foreign Legion.

His small apartment in a three-story house, built before the first world war, was very modest, with Spartan amenities, and resembled more the room he had lived in as a legionary. There was a cupboard, a bed, a chair, a table and a sideboard with a few utensils hanging from the wall.

Behind the door hung his old uniform jacket with the medals and decorations of various battles and military operations, and his belt with the combat knife.

He was not accustomed to a different environment, to a cosy house, wife, children, garden, flower pots, dog, all the paraphernalia of bourgeois life. He would not have found such a life comfortable or desirable. All his life consisted of barracks, army drills, shooting, barking orders, the burning sun, his comrades.

The Legion was his family. Legio Patria Nostra, The Legion is our Fatherland, the motto of the Légion étrangère, which was tattooed on his right forearm. He never had married. From time to time he visited Justine, a woman from La Réunion. A woman with brown skin, long black hair, and a Rubenesque figure.

He limped to the small pantry to pull out a tin of coffee and put the kettle on a small table cooker on the sideboard. His lifestyle was simple, monotonous, but he felt happy and content. Until recently, when the German army invaded France and established its headquarters in his town, Angers, southwest of Paris. They did the same in many towns in Vichy France, the occupied area.

He poured the hot water over the coffee powder, added two lumps of sugar, opened the blind and looked out of the window, over to the castle on the opposite side of the river Maine. This old castle with its round proud towers symbolised power and resistance and was housing the “Apocalypse Tapestry”. Claude thought with a bitter smile that apocalypse had reached their town, their lives.

There was a damp spot in the corner of the room, the roof had been leaking for months. The few roofers of the town had died in the war or had been deported.

He remembered the observation he made yesterday.

He had forgotten it after his walk through the town after he had lunch in a small bistro in Rue Chaperonnière near the Saint Maurice Cathedral, where he met casually (or better to say conspiratorially) with his friends and former comrades. They had formed a secret group of the Résistance. Claude hated the Germans, he fought for France, for the independence of his country from foreign powers.

He was happy, and proud, that he had killed a few Germans in the battle of Gazala, members of the troops led by Field Marshal Rommel. He was proud of it and it did him good when the memories came back. It even relieved the pain in his leg.

He remembered, when he had walked up a side street, had rested for a moment to give his leg time to cope with the uphill walk, that he saw from the corner of his eye, a pale face at a window in the second floor of a building, which had a crêperie in the ground floor. The appearance resembled more a ghost than a human being. The pale face moved back when Claude stopped and looked up to the window.

He knew the owner of the shop, where he frequently bought croissants au chocolat. The owner sympathized with the Résistance, was not an active member but a source of information which was exchanged when he collected his croissants and no eavesdropper was near to listen to their short, whispered conversation.

Since the Germans invaded, soldiers, officers and officials were seen everywhere. A paralysing tension was present in the town. The Gestapo raided houses during the night; people, especially Jews, were rounded up. The previous week eight hundred and fifty-three Jews from Angers were sent to Auschwitz. Sixty Resistance fighters were shot in Belle-Beille outside Angers.

Distrust, fear, anxiety, a suffocating feeling lay like lead on Angers. Claude preferred to stay at home, and to keep a low profile, and to restrict his walks outside the curfews to a minimum.

He knew that the second floor of the building with the crêperie, which was used as a store, was damaged by rainwater and had been repaired and refurbished in a makeshift manner and had been vacant since.

The following day, when he collected his croissants and a baguette, he asked the crêperie owner, Monsieur Brouillard, a small thick man with a knobbly nose: “I saw somebody at the window of the former storerooms”.

Claude did not expect a direct answer. Especially at those times, lips were tightly sealed. Brouillard said nothing, his face impassive. He just shrugged his shoulders.

When he left the crêperie, he lit a Gauloise, and walked slowly back to his abode humming the melody of the Le Boudin, the slow march of the Legion. At the corner of the street, he turned slightly and looked back. Again, a pale face was visible for seconds at the window over the crêperie.

The town looked neglected, abandoned, the occupation had disturbed habits, things people are accustomed to. The waste bins had not been emptied, crows pulled rubbish from the bins, a smell of decay crept down the pavements, the dry grass of the backyards was populated by stray cats, their owners dead or imprisoned.

A woman in a worn dress with woollen socks offered a few flowers, which looked as if somebody had lost them. He passed by a shop with newspapers on display. The newspapers had nothing to report, anyhow nothing which came near to the truth or was raising hope. Claude bought a pack of cigarettes and matches and passed the concierge without saying a word. Missed conversations wound along the walls of the staircase. He knew that she was an informer. One had to deal with her one day.

During another sleepless night, his thoughts circulated around his observation. He assumed that Brouillard was hiding somebody. For a hiding person to look out of the window and to attract attention was life-threatening for both the person who gave shelter and the person who was hiding in the building. Concentration camp and death was the consequence. He had to warn Brouillard if he had not already copped on himself after he intimated to him what he saw. There was the possibility that he was not the only person who might have noticed.

He did not leave the house the next day, as the town was full of military patrols. He could see it from his window. Houses were searched. People arrested. The French police supported the German officials. He saw with horror the black leather coats and black slouch hats of the Gestapo with their briefcases. The bureaucrats of death.

The following day had the silence of a graveyard. He bent out of the window. No squad vehicles, no soldiers. He finished his coffee and ate a biscuit, put on his clothes, went down the staircase, gave the concierge a wave of the hand when he passed by her room with the big glass window near the exit.

When he walked up the street, leading to the side street where the crêperie was and turned around the corner, he recoiled in horror.

In front of the crêperie stood the black limousine of the Gestapo and he saw at this moment that Brouillard was pushed into the car and behind him a small, pale, thin boy. He looked into the big black eyes of the boy, which were full of sadness and fear, and he saw Jacques Lafouge, the adjudant chef of the Gendarmerie Nationale.

He abhorred this servile monster, a willing servant of the German occupants. He turned back and shortly before he reached the house he lived in, he bumped into a member of the resistance, informed him in short words about the incidence and the man said to him: “You know what you have to do.”

He knew.

In the evening, shortly after sunset, when the concierge had finished her duty and he heard the radio from her apartment, he sneaked out of the door. One hour was left before curfew began. He knew the pub where Jacques Lafouge had his drink after work. He knew his routine. He was a stickler. A pernickety state servant.

He waited opposite in a porchway, hiding in the shadow of a pillar. He knew that Lafouge would take this way to return home. A cat rushed by. He had not long to wait. Lafouge staggered out of the pub, crossed the road and entered the passageway and passed Claude Beauchêne, who stepped out of the shadow and followed Lafouge at a short distance.

Instinctively, and due to his police training Lafouge was aware that he was being followed, stopped, turned and in this moment, Claude stabbed the combat knife into his heart. He knew from his training between which ribs he had to thrust the knife.

Lafouge collapsed, and Beauchêne continued his way, made a detour and returned home.

Shortly before he reached the door of the house, he imagined seeing a white figure with a pale face waving from the other side of the road. The face dissolved in the mist of the falling night.

Police sirens could be heard in the distance. Claude Beauchêne flung his knife into the river.

He felt good. Even the pain in the leg had gone.

 

About the Author:

Eduard Schmidt-Zorner is a translator and writer of poetry, haibun, haiku and short stories. He writes haibun, tanka, haiku and poetry in four languages: English, French, Spanish and German and holds workshops on Japanese and Chinese style poetry and prose.Member of four writer groups in Ireland and lives in County Kerry, Ireland, for more than 25 years and is a proud Irish citizen, born in Germany. Published in 72 anthologies, literary journals and broadsheets in UK, Ireland, Canada and USA.

 

How I Miss Jadatti’s Kiss by Alwyn Bathan

Fiction
Red_in_the_Morning

Red in the Morning by Stela Brix, 2018

My beautiful Jadatti, white hair poking from her hijab, cooking mamounia for us all. Mama and Papa were still with us then, the whole family together. Her face was wise, wrinkles hewn from watching her country at war.  She would hug me close and tell me that all would be well. She’d fill up my beautiful blue bowl.

And I could believe that all would be well.

Using the sliver of light, I can see the darkened outline of the door. The watery shaft of whiteness squeezing beneath gives maybe five percent illumination. Edie would be proud of me working out five percent. I hated percentages. And the word, illumination.

‘It’s a top notch one,’ she’d say.

But five percent is enough. Squeezing my eyelids almost together, the rectangular shape of the window is just visible. Curtains, big and heavy, nailed across it. Red, blood red, curtains with tassels around the edge, and a pattern. The tassels are starting to come apart, some threads hang lower than others. The smell that lingers in the fabric, that aroma of fried kubbeh and kabsah, it was our happy food.  It transports me back to my shack in camp, to the white tarpaulin ceilings with red Safe for Children logos flapping up in the hot, dusty wind. When the direction changed, deflated by the gusts, the tarpaulins would press down on us. It sounded so scary that sudden crack, and the flicking movement would make us all laugh out loud. Moments of those long days when I could forget I was alone.

I ache for the wind to press down on me now.

Voices echoing outside my room cause my stomach to heave. Quiet talk in low tones. They laugh sometimes, spit and cuss, complain the price is too high.

I cannot recall how my laugh sounds, how to make that noise.

It has been silenced by the unwelcome learning.

The scraping of dirty stubble against my cheek leaves my skin hot and red and raw. What a man weighs, heavy against my body, squeezing out the life I have left. The smell of them – hair tainted with cigarette smoke, with grease, with engine oil.

Kisses forged through moustached mouths, blackened teeth, tobacco-tasting tongues. The grunting heave as they squirm. Low voices full of syllables and sounds from worlds I have not known.

They never say my name.

Their noises remind me of those nights in camp. Different languages swirling around in the wind, odd words making sense. Amena used to remind me of how I’d arrived at camp. My feet bled on the walk. Dust created red crusts inside my sandals. A sharpened pencil still clutched in my hand.  She told me how her family would want her to get to Europe, finish her education.

‘It is all I can do to make them proud, now they are gone,’ she’d say.

Together with Edie, she was my new family.

They must’ve overheard her chatter about going to school in England.

‘We can fast track you,’ they’d promised. ‘Our friends will sort your papers and places in good schools, find your families. Come.’

Edie’s words haunt me still. Warning we should trust only the aid workers. We’d giggled when we first met her. Our new carer, she said. She made us sound precious with that word, safeguarding.

Alone on this filthy bed I wonder did Edie look for us, report us missing next day when we didn’t turn up for her kabsah? When our shack was silent and empty?

When the bowl arrives at the end of each day, the door opens just enough to slide the food across the floor. The five percent light is turned back on. Then, the click of the lock. I sweep my hand over the cool tiled floor to locate the bowl. It’s never the kubbeh they cook for themselves. As I eat, the darkness is my friend. Today’s semolina is as tasteless as yesterday’s and it encrusts the rim, but still takes me back to Jadatti’s mamounia.

Served in my blue glazed bowl, topped with cinnamon and pistachio nuts. Its sweetness lingering in my mouth, to be followed by a kiss, a rain of kisses, as she’d tell me that I would become our country’s next president, or maybe a pilot or an architect.

 

About the Author:

Alwyn was a teacher for 39 years before deciding to return to formal learning through the MA in Creative Writing at Newcastle University. She works for Unicef UK, promoting children’s rights in education settings. She is a keen on social justice and work-life balance, not necessarily in that order! Alwyn enjoys the gym, walking her dog and being life-long learner. She won the Evesham Festival of Words Short Story Competition 2019. 

 

In Paladin’s Field by RW Spryszak

Fiction
'Enigma with a Blackbird'

Enigma with a Blackbird by Amy McCartney, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Because you knew someone?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

About the Author:

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

Not Coffee by Frances Holland

Fiction
Queen of hearts

Queen of Hearts by Victoria Holt, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

*

‘At least it was quick.’

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

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

‘I’m not, I’m just saying-‘

‘Well DON’T “just say”.’

‘He’s in a state.’

‘Wouldn’t you be?’

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

‘I do that all the time.’

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

‘What had he gone in for?’

‘Does it matter?’

*

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

*

Take as much time as you need –

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

How are you really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can stick your bloody job.

*

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

*

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

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

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

‘Oh my goodness, I’m so sorry!’

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

 

About the Author:

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

Silence by Mike Fox

Fiction
Neuro_Mandala

Neuromandala by Stela Brix, 2018

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

 

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

*

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

 

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

*

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

 

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

*

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

 

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

*

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

 

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

*

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

 

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

*

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

 

About the Author:

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