Coyote

Fiction
James Butt


Photo credit: naathas/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Angie was on the sofa in the living room, on her side with her back to the TV. One of those reality wedding shows was on, the ones where the drama appeared natural enough. I put my work bag on the kitchen table and poured a glass of water.

“Any dinner?”

She didn’t respond. I didn’t expect her to. She rolled toward the TV, resting her right arm across the top of her waist as she reached for the remote. She probably thought these little gestures of hers prevented me from noticing her growing bump.

I rummaged in the pantry for a loaf of bread and filled a sauce pan half-ways with water before putting it on the stove. “I’m boiling some weenies. You want any?”

She shook her head no, and I went to the fridge. There was a casserole dish with sour cream and salsa dip on the middle shelf, covered with cellophane.

“We having nachos?”

“No,” she said. “That’s for Eileen and me. She’s coming over later and we’re doing some planning for the baby. You’re going over there to play poker with Ray tonight, remember?”

Eileen was a few months pregnant. She and Angie got together regularly now to discuss her baby. I’m not sure what things they discussed, in terms of Eileen’s baby plans. But it seemed to help Angie some. She’d been happier the last month or so. It meant I had to spend more time with Ray, because that’s who we hung out with now, Ray and Eileen. Tonight was poker, and he’d have his construction pals over to fill out the table.

I closed the fridge and put the pot of water in the sink. I threw the bread in the trash. “I got fired today.”

She glanced over briefly and I couldn’t read her face. I said nothing else and turned for the bathroom to get ready for poker night.

*

Ray and Eileen lived next door to me and Angie. We shared a fence in the back, and the path between us was beat down to a thin dirt trail. Ray had a new poker table set up in his garage. We usually played at the kitchen table, but now, with Eileen pregnant, she didn’t want smoke in the house.

Ray was a big guy. He looked exactly how a construction worker ought to, with a large shaved head and barrel chest. His construction pals looked the same as him, each had arms thicker than my legs.

They were already at the table. Ches and Paul, and a new guy I hadn’t seen before. He was younger than the rest, with a cap pulled tight over his head, and a thick, wiry beard hung down below his chin. All four of them were smoking cigarettes, something I rarely seen outside of poker night.

The garage door was open, and their beers dripped with condensation from the humid night. A few moths pecked at the light attached to the door opener above the table.

“Hey, Chuck,” Ray said.

My name isn’t Chuck. But I’d gotten sick the first time playing poker with Ray and his pals. They all called me Chuck now.

“This here’s Aiden. Hired him for that hotel contract we got a few months back,” Ray said.

I nodded and reached my hand across the table. Aiden passed me a beer from the fridge behind him. Ray started to deal. I looked at my cards. None of them made any sense so I folded. The hand played on without me, and I gazed around Ray’s garage. It was neat and organized, obsessively so, with a workbench along the far wall. There were painted outlines for all his tools on the pegboard above the workbench.

“I knew Angela back in high school,” Aiden said, “before she went away to college.”

“That so?”

“Small world, sometimes, seeing people like that from the past again.” He grinned and flashed teeth white as bone, bright against his dark beard.

“Yeah,” I said. My attention drifted to the middle of the pegboard to where a large machete hung vertically. The blade was close to two feet long, coated in black enamel that’d been chipped away in some spots.

“She was popular back then, being so pretty. Smart, too.”

“She still is,” I said, getting up from the table. I moved over to the pegboard. They continued to play the next hand.

“A lot of us fools went for her back in school. Asking her out or trying to get her to come out to a party. She wouldn’t have any of it, though.”

“Never seen this before, Ray. It’s a big blade,” I said.

Ray turned from the game to eye what I was on about. “Yeah, needed that for hunting last fall. Glad to have it, too. Saved my skin.”

“You serious?”

“Yeah. I went deep in the Highlands after the first snow. Tracked a buck for miles. He led me deeper than I’d been before. Big buck, a full seven pointer. Maybe close to 600 pounds. It took awhile, but he fell. Good thing he was close to the road.”

I glanced back to him. “Thought you said you were deep in the Highlands? No road out there deeper than one or two miles.”

“Well, I had to cut the road first,” he said and nodded toward the blade.

Ches and Paul and Aiden laughed behind me, but I didn’t get it. I leaned in close to the pegboard and could see old blood and fur caked to the edge of the blade. “What’d you use it on? That doesn’t look like deer hair.”

“Coyote,” Ray said. “They came at me while I was hauling my buck down to camp. Must’ve smelled blood where I quartered him and tied him to the sled. I heard their cries, but the sound bounced around the hills up there. I couldn’t get a good read on where they were.”

“That’s something else, Ray,” Ches said.

“Thing is with coyotes is they’re smart. They got intelligence enough to know when to be tricky. They used that so I couldn’t get a sense for them. I don’t usually see them in packs, but with the snow and my buck, I’d a hunch they’d be round in a pack. They answered howls back and forth, louder and closer for about an hour. But they used those hills. Smart, see.”

I had a recollection of this story from some time before.

“They have weakness, too, just like all animals,” Ray said. “They come at you from the front, for the throat. You get a chance to see them before they strike. And soon enough they showed themselves right in front of me.”

“Christ,” Paul said.

“No matter. They showed themselves, and I cut each one down in turn. I brought those hides home, too. A nice trophy to go with my seven points.”

I lingered at the blade a couple minutes more before taking my seat again. I stared over at Aiden, but he seemed less interested in me then. The next hand was dealt and I finished my beer. My cards made no sense so I folded, and the hand played without me.

*

I was home later than I’d liked. Eileen had left a couple hours before, and Angie had gone to bed. The TV was on in the bedroom, the blue glow visible between the floor and bottom of the door. When I entered she was on her side, facing the wall away from me. All the blankets had been stripped off the bed, and she lay there in an old tank top and a pair of my boxers. She wasn’t asleep. People asleep have a softness to them, like all the weight been squeezed out of them. Her body was too rigid for sleep.

I flicked off the TV and opened the window a bit wider. A night breeze came in, and a ceiling fan spun above our bed. I lay next to Angie. It took less than six years for me and Angie to fall out of love. I tried to think of what that meant, but my attention strayed to the twirling blades above.

If I stared at one blade at a time I could follow each unique rotation around the room. I watched them spin and tried to listen for the call of coyotes in the distance. I watched them and wondered who the father was. I watched them and wondered if it mattered.

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James Butt lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia. A graduate of Dalhousie University, his time is split between the excitement and spontaneous nature that is family life, and the crafting of short fiction based upon those experiences. Email: james.butt[at]eastlink.ca

Three poems

Poetry
Tiffany Washington


Photo credit: Sheila Sund/Flickr (CC-by)

Confession

Last Easter,
wedged between my brother (alcoholic)
and my mother-in-law (tyrant)
my grandmother decided to tell us a story—
to seek redemption in the retelling

Denouncing her past claims
that ink runs through our veins
(writing’s in the blood)
she admits Biology, not English
was her best subject

until the day
the young farm-girl version of my grandmother
maternally carried to school, a frog (extra credit)
“I didn’t know, I didn’t know,” she repeated

finally, my grandfather finished her words
concluding this story
between courses of the holiday meal

60 years later, her mind cemented
on that moment
(the scalpel and the still-beating heart)

 

Upon Remembering a College Trip to Ukraine

Babushka—hand over your face
do you worry about me now?
All American
All grown-up.
I do not make borscht like you

taught me—Saturday afternoons
for Sunday dinner.
Hot tea does not sit in a front
window-cooling as we pray.
My alphabet of tripled TTTs
and harsh straight lines lay
forgotten
folded between subway
schedules and sheet music.
I remember Katia
playing her accordion
while Ana banged the drum
and “little professor” practiced
English with us after every
performance.

Babushka—do you still ride
in the side-car of the motorcycle
down dirt roads outside the city?
How many groceries can
you fit besides you on your travels?
That summer when Sara got sick,
we did not know she would leave
her husband after only 10 years.
American aspirin and antibiotics
saved our lives—years of immunities
stored to prevent
death that too quickly came
—brought in our suitcases and on our clothes
from an airport halfway around the world

Babushka—do they still Baptize
people in the brown river,
downstream from Chernobyl?
You would not let us swim there
on hot days, fearful cancer
would seep into our skin—
But Baptisms were protected
“By God,” you told us.
Safe in the salvation
of full immersion, not that Holy
water sprinkle in an air conditioned church.

Babushka—do you stand taller
now after Dr. David straightened
spines all afternoon, while I checked
charts with names and ages?
Are your arms strong enough
to hug me like the prodigal
daughter when I return to the
country of my almost home?

Babushka—hand over your face
I do not worry for you
All Ukrainian.
Always grown-up.

 

On an Aging Mother-in-Law

Before dinner you told us
about the internship so close to death—
a summer between wills and beneficiaries,
of the “no presents” rule to protect neglectful children.

And I thought of your mother,
in the front seat,
who already declined the invite
to share our home (just in case),
disapproval trumping loneliness.

But when she made that comment,
the one removing me from all familial obligation,
I stopped feeling sorry.
And I started to understand:
her one son’s yearly Mother’s Day amnesia,
and the other’s long distance job, never a moment to call.

What I do not understand:
your eagerness to love her
and my savage desire for her approval.

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Tiffany Washington is an 8th grade English teacher, mother of four, and sometimes poet. Her works have appeared in a number of print and on-line publications including Caduceus, Chantarelle’s Notebook, Artis Magazine and Long River Run. Email: tmwashington[at]yahoo.com

Vagina Bowl Making Workshop

Poetry
Salvatore Marici


Photo credit: bluebus/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Vagina Bowl Making Workshop

Photos of Tigerlily’s vagina guide
women’s fingers press,
curve beige clay,
cast intentions to the earth
cuddle in their hands.
Bear babies if they want.
Lubricate after menopause.

Like priests with chalices
I raise arms
hold vessels of life.
Hail to vaginas’ miracles,
women’s marvels.
Tilt, drink.

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Salvatore Marici’s poetry has appeared or forthcoming in Toasted Cheese, Spillway, Prairie Gold: An Anthology of the American Heartland, Of Burgers & Barrooms a Main Street Rag anthology and more. In 2010, Marici was the Midwest Writing Center Collins Poet-in-Residence. He has three books: Mortals, Nature and their Spirits (chapbook), Swish Swirl & Sniff, and Fermentations (all Ice Cube Press). Marici served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala and he is a civil servant retiree as an agronomist. He is learning to maneuver a 17-foot ten-inch kayak in mangroves and the Gulf. Email: redwineandgarlic[at]yahoo.com

Three Poems

Poetry
Marchell Dyon


Photo credit: Neil Moralee/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Black Women Sing Too Of Cages

We too howl against the rattle of time
We too rage our tattered wings against the bars
We see the length of years stretch before you
We see the gray math twinkling in
Only inches of sun

We too have spilled tears of rage
Until the tears that burned us cools our sweat
We know of thoughts of suicide, a rainbow engulfed
We live a life of high potential wasted

Yes!
We know the choices of no choice
We understand the self-pity and self-denial
We wish for the magic to rise out
From under despair

You tell us to wait with our chins up
You tell us you’ll be home soon
You tell us stories, and you spin your yarn
You ask us to hold on to air

We let you fill our heads with dreams
Still, we work
Alone we raise your children
We stand on blisters

Waiting… waiting… waiting…

In anger, you say women have it easy
You say girls don’t struggle, growing up isn’t hard
Remember now, whose left with the responsibility

When you decide to slang or pick up the gun
Try being women raising
Our children on a minimum wage

Try being blamed for everything as the day is long
Try having to explain your prison term to our son

 

A Black Woman’s Thunder Song

I am the red bird striking
The sky with lightning
My wings bellow like tornadoes

My words are powerful
My words can blow down your house
From my words there’s no shelter

That can prevent me entry
Boom, boom, boom,
I rock your complacency

Re-cord me
My words have a different meaning
Played backwards

My words are never at peace
There is always another war
Another march to rally for

Even if you pretend you don’t have ears
You hear me
You see me

I paint myself red
Even if you count to ten
The flash bomb of my words will blind your eyes

As thunder split the heavens
Rest assured my voice will make its mark
So, shut yourself in and pretend

With your heads in the clouds
Till the storm rolls and awake you
With the sounds

I will not sit silently at society’s
Fruitless table
I will shout my right to order

To make myself heard,
Never will my voice be disabled
Never will I be the dark girl seated but, in the corner,

My stride with lightning will light places
My electric footprints will fill the air
Like thunderstorms my voice leaves traces

My echoes you will remember
I was there and I shook the bars
I was a contender

 

Black Woman, Cool Down

When my anger flares
Is it my blood pressure you wish to ensnare?
See the ice defrost from my lips

See it hone my vocabulary to something sweet
I claim each new moment like a pearl
Found and dived for under an ocean of pain

I hold my breath, I swim
Through the muck like I have gills
I refresh myself by sheer will

I often smooth the conversation
With nothing more to say I leave the room
In the air is the scent of flowers

I remain cool for a few hours
Not that I’m always a hot head
Brimstone
A flint attitude of fire

I just like to sleep well
When I retire
Not that I have joined your point of view
Being that angry black woman all the time
Babe, I have better things to do

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Marchell Dyon is a poetry enthusiast. She enjoys reading poetry wherever she can find it. Once she was nominated for the Best of the Net prize for her poem “As I Stand by My Window Dreaming of Falling.” Her most recent publications are Toasted Cheese and Medusa’s Kitchen. She has taken many poetry workshops; her education and thirst to improve her craft have constantly developed, despite having both schizophrenia and bipolar disorders. She continues to live and write in Chicago. Email: marchelldyon[at]yahoo.com

Five Poems

Poetry
Richard Dinges, Jr.


Photo credit: 5chw4r7z/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Loss

What can you know
of a woman who
mourns a tooth pulled
to decay, her mind
already in slow
dissolve, her diaries
read in absentia
spread into tight
spidery webs, words
lost in all that white
space hidden beneath
black unreadable
ink, that what you
remember last
is her brief spoken
grief for a tooth.

 

Garage

This small enclave
wrapped in tin nailed
to dead trees’ souls
smells of oil, gas,
and sweat, where I
toil to repair
what no longer
works, where I scrape
fingernails, skin,
calloused palms on
cold hard iron,
wrap myself in
their mysteries,
bring them to life,
to roar and belch
smoke, an exhaust
cloud that drifts in
trees and dead leaves,
air too fresh to breathe
mixed into my
hard day’s reward.

 

Friday Fish Fry

White paper plates,
styrofoam cups, dull
stainless steel forks
hold us together
across a multitude
of mouths. From food
queue to rows
of metal chairs
that fold open with
hollow finality, then
shoved against tables
hidden under white
cloths, we bend our heads
over mounds that steam
and shovel another
bite into our gaping
unsated appetites.

 

Trees’ Lives

Trees return in small hints of life,
dot gray skies at the end of each
twig, scatter into wind’s cold breath,
then settle again to calm growth.
Each compact bud contains a map
of the distant past, promises
of extraordinary bursts
into a verdant bright new life.

 

Windy

Wind is busy
wiping clean all
surfaces, dust from
leaves, gray from sky,
clouds, even those
that resemble
cotton stuffing
from plush toy bears,
images from
my eyes, printed
on memories
stuffed behind my
ears, where wind blows
what is left of my
hair in tiny
ripples of gray
around my head
wiped clean as the day
I drew my first
breath of this wind.

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Richard Dinges, Jr. has an MA in literary studies from University of Iowa, and no longer manages information systems at an insurance company. Home Planet News, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Westview, Pinyon, and Writers Bloc most recently accepted my poems for their publications. Email: rdinges[at]outlook.com

Five Poems

Poetry
Chris Abbate


Photo credit: darwin Bell/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Before You Were Here
For Beth

Dad points out the unicorn
in the empty lot along Jordan Lane.
He does this every Saturday night
on the way to my grandparents’ house.
Everyone pretends to see it except me.

When we arrive, Grandma pulls
our wrists into the kitchen,
a bowl of Chex mix and a deck of Bicycle cards
on the table, a Benson and Hedges
dangling between her lips.
Downstairs at Grandpa’s bar,
Ro pours air martinis for me and Steven.
She tops them off with invisible olives.
We toast and drink them down in one gulp.

When Dad calls for us, we stumble upstairs,
tripping over each other like we’re drunk.
He stands behind Mom,
his hands on her shoulders,
and announces we are having a baby.

Grandpa goes to the liquor cabinet
for a bottle of champagne.
His twelfth grandchild—
they are cheaper by the dozen, he says.
We feel Mom’s stomach for a bump.
Grandma calls into it,
promises to spoil you rotten.
Steven and Ro make a bet
about whether you’re a boy or girl.
They tell me I will have to burp you
and change your dirty diapers.

The moon follows our car
on the way home.
As we pass the lot again,
Dad asks if I can see the unicorn.
I tried to draw a picture of God once,
but drew a sunflower instead.
Now, I squint into the dark
and imagine you—
a shimmering body and legs,
a long head, nodding.

 

Drawing the Tree

The picture
she drew
of her childhood
was the maple
she climbed;
a respite
from the turmoil
on the ground—
the broken machines
of the day
and the father
who beat
a path
to the garage
searching
for the tools
to fix them.

He took the tree
down one day
without warning,
or explanation.
The earthen heart
of its upturned stump
and dismembered
limbs were strewn
across the yard
like dead soldiers.

As she aged,
the tree became
one more thing
she was deprived of;
an object
of her father’s
combustion.
How little
he knew about her;
all the climbing
she still had to do—
to look down
from above her house
wearing a crown
of leaves,
depths of sky
to fathom.

 

Invisible Roots

Let’s talk in marigolds, mother,
like the orange and yellow blooms
you planted along the stone wall back home
where I sat and posed
on my first day of grade school—
my crisp Oxford you ironed, and clip-on tie,
a White Owl cigar box of school supplies
in my lap, and Buster Browns on my feet.

You knew to capture the moment
before the school bus came—
standing over me in the driveway,
a halo of sun above your head
while I squinted in the light;
head cocked, legs crossed.

I wonder what you thought that day
in the mother’s clothes you wore.
Was it how to fill the fresh silence of a house?
Or finding a name for something you lost?

When the bus, as imminent as any bloom,
turned onto our street
and I stood up to leave
did you sense too,
the invisible roots between us
stretching thin through the lens?

 

Day Care Report
for Ella, December 21, 2013

You won’t remember crying at naptime yesterday,
or soaking your sleeves while washing your hands,
or how apple juice leaked from your bottle
and dripped into your boots.

When I sat at my desk this morning
and read your day care report
the sun peeked into my eyes
beneath the porch awning.

I have always anticipated daylight’s
rise from the ashes of December,
like ancient tombs in Ireland
whose entrances were positioned
so that light might pierce
their inner chamber
for a few fleeting minutes
each winter solstice.

What if all we have of a day
is the sunlight captured in stone?
The recounting of a day care report?
If so, I wish you ones
with no more weight
than you can bear—
with restful sleep,
a clean, dry shirt
and a well-sealed bottle—
knowing that tomorrow will be
a little longer,
a little brighter.

 

Station of the Cross

It was the closest I would ever get to Maggie,
the eighth-grade beauty playing Mary to my Jesus
in our school’s presentation of the fourth Station of the Cross:
a freeze frame of Jesus meeting his mother.

Maggie is kneeling before me in a sky blue robe
and white mantle, a look of compassion on her face,
which I would like to interpret as infatuation
rather than fabricated sympathy for my impending crucifixion.

During rehearsal, Sister Grace instructed me to rest my hand on her head.
But my palm wasn’t sweating then, or quivering like it is now,
because I can’t help but think that I am touching her
when I should be focused instead on saving humanity.

I wanted put down my cardboard cross and confess
to my classmates and their families my feelings for Maggie
despite how she regarded me that day no more than she did the day before.
I would have told them how I was beginning to appreciate Jesus more,

because love isn’t reciprocal, and saviors and boys are mostly misunderstood.
I was sacrificing a piece of my boyhood on that altar;
I had given myself over to an emotion I didn’t understand, and tomorrow
would have no choice but to pick up my cross, spread my arms, and die.

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Chris Abbate’s poems have appeared in Connecticut River Review, Chagrin River Review, and Comstock Review. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and a Best of the Net award. His first book of poetry, Talk About God, was published in 2017 by Main Street Rag. Chris resides in Holly Springs, NC. Email: chrisabbate[at]yahoo.com

Neighbours & Tourists by Ewa Mazierska

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


Neighbours & Tourists by Ewa Mazierska

Ewa Mazierska’s collection of short stories, Neighbours & Tourists (Adelaide Books, 2019) is an intriguing and soulful assortment of travel stories set across Europe and India, as well as a deep dive into the human condition. They vary from village stories told by a returning narrator to well-seasoned travelers who manage more than a glance at the secret world of the local populations they visit. The collection has a duality about it. It is also about home—of coming home. What it feels like to return after many years to discover the changes and sameness in childhood spaces. The beauty and disappointment of it all. Or the idea of creating home in transient spaces which is more than unpacking a suitcase and tucking it under a hotel bed. To create a home, one must venture out into society and bring it back piece by piece, brick by brick, building home in local experience and exposure to the people and customs of the new place until the new place begins to feel familiar. Mazierska defines this idea in the details of her stories.

The stories are arranged in two parts: Neighbours and Tourists. The beginning ones (Neighbours) read like a social commentary revealing much of the hierarchy of friendships and strangers in the narrator’s childhood village. The first story, “The Death of a Neighbor,” sets this idea into motion:

The deaths of the neighbours inevitably affected the hierarchy of those who remained; the further ones by virtue of being still around moved to the position of the close ones.

Indeed, Mazierska’s first story told by a female narrator relates the intimate details of a nearly 1980s Polish village under martial law that only someone from that village could reveal and Mazierska does this in an interesting way. The story reads like gossip. Lots of telling. I could almost see the narrator sitting across the table from me, a cup of coffee and a cigarette smoldering as she revealed the “backwardness” of her village whispering the word “cancer” as the village villain as she goes on to describe local population and their death culture.

[D]ead people only live as long as they live in other people’s memory.

This first story really is the jumping-off point. Once immersed, it was difficult to stop reading as the stories are loosely linked like little houses on a lighted string. The reader travels house to house, following the first narrator as she pedals the reader on a private tour of her childhood village. The backdrop of the stories hints of the decrepitness and economic collateral damage from World War II, the Cold War, and the Berlin Wall. One story, “Too Smart,” was a tragedy about the downfall of a Polish family by a gangster marriage. Other stories related even more tragedies about more rural families, some from their own doings, which according to the narrator’s mother from the story “Disinheritance” was “worse than the Holocaust.”

After this story, I started to wonder if it was time to put the book down.These characters seemed real to me and their misfortunes depressing and painfully poignant. They reminded me of Anton Chekov’s stories. Mazierska created them so vividly that I did wonder where the intersection of fiction and truth met. Her writing was spot on and elegant. Then something happened. I turned the page. I read a few more lines and she had me. The next little house on Mazierska’s strand was “The Widow and Her Daughter.” It was pretty terrific. I am partial to women’s stories and this one in particular was surprising and striking. Mazierska set it up beautifully:  teacher who grew beautiful flowers and traveled beyond the village borders of her stereotype.

…the daughter was in her forties and she was still unmarried and lived with her mother. This was an uncommon position for women in our village, except that it befell female teachers more often than members of any other occupational groups, simply because teachers in Poland are mostly women, so they have few opportunities for office romance and live under pressure to behave modestly.

And she was anything but modest.

The second part of the collection shifts to the early 2000s and often to third person, beginning with the lopsided love story of Sarah and Thomas (“Homo Sacer and Her Lover”) who meet on several business trips in Budapest. One of them is a true romantic and the other a “‘homo sacer’: somebody who has only his physical life, zoe, rather than bio, which was a higher form of existence.”

Another story I liked very much was “Heaven for Prostitutes.” The narrator stops for directions and meets a cohort of colorful characters in a chance encounter. Here, Mazierska humanizes these characters, giving them dignity and a certain grace despite their professions.

‘Maybe childbirth is more painful than walking the night in
uncomfortable shoes, but at least no woman gives birth every night for 35 years[.]’

Other stories relate the prejudice often directed at the local populations by travelers, not contrived but still apparent. In “Carlos and Us,” another chance encounter opens a new world for a family who befriend a local man. The travelers romanticize him and come to realize that their new friend has a distaste for foreigners.

[W]e remain tourist attractions for each other: fake or at least decontextualised.

This theme appears again in other stories as the characters immerse themselves in the local cultures sometimes superficially, other times losing themselves completely in it. Mazierska’s writing is personal and profound, tracing and trespassing boundaries of time, space, and the human heart. She draws you in and keeps you to the end.

*

Ewa Mazierska is a historian of film and popular music who writes short stories in her spare time. Her work has been published in The Longshot Island, The Fiction Pool, Literally Stories, Away, The Bangalore Review, Shark Reef, Toasted Cheese, Opiate, Red Fez, Thimble, and Mystery Tribune among others.  She is also a Pushcart nominee and her work was shortlisted in several competitions including most recently the 2019 Eyelands Book Awards. Born in Poland, Mazierska currently resides in Lancashire, UK. Neighbours and Tourists is her first collection of short stories. Twitter: @EwaMazierska
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Shelley Carpenter is TC’s Reviews Editor. Email: reviews[at]toasted-cheese.com

Answers

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
DJ Tyrer


Photo Credit: Herry Lawford/Flickr (CC-by)

Twin beams of light thrust their way across sparkling, frost-rimed gravel as James swung the car off the road and onto the lengthy drive, revealing ranks of stark winter trees on either side.

James blinked sleep from his eyes. It had been a long journey, but it was nearly over; there was a nervous optimism alongside the tiredness he felt. Tonight, he hoped, he would have all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of his identity. Tonight, he would have answers.

Still, crawling up the drive, stones crunching beneath the car’s tyres, he felt a tremor of trepidation, as he recalled what Houghton had told him. What would he learn? Would he wish he’d stayed in ignorance?

No. No matter what he learnt, he had to know. He needed to know everything, to assemble all the pieces. No longer would he feel the shame of ignorance.

He remembered, as if it were yesterday, his cheeks burning with shame at school, his classmates’ laughter, when he showed his project on his ‘family tree’ with just his name on it, the exasperated tone of his teacher as she dismissed it.

“Not very good, now, is it, Jamie? More of an acorn than a tree.”

As if he were supposed to produce a family tree out of nothing!

James slammed his hand on the wheel with a grunt of anger.

Well, he would know.

Ahead of him, the black, unlit bulk of Lander House rose from the darkness. Had he know about the house then… he could imagine the other children’s envious faces. If only…

Growing up in what they called a ‘group home’, a small orphanage, effectively, James never had known a home of his own, never had a ‘forever family’, not even a foster one. Unwanted, ‘odd’, he’d slipped through the gaps, forgotten and ignored, without an identity.

Maybe he would have one now?

The drive swung around in front of the building, the headlight beams revealing that Lander House was constructed from a dark-red brick across which twined tenebrous vines of ivy. James parked before its main doors.

All the windows were black; no lights turned on at his arrival.

Slowly, he climbed out of his car and stood before the house, wondering if it held the answers Houghton had promised him.

*

Six months earlier, James had knocked hesitantly on the door to Houghton’s office.

All his life, James had assumed he’d been found on a doorstep, or dumped like trash in a bin, had never thought he would know who he really was. Had never thought he could find out.

Getting engaged had changed that.

“You should hire someone to research your past,” Jane had told him, brushing aside his protests. “Don’t talk about costs, darling, I can see it eating at you, no matter what you say.”

It was true. A wedding was as much about family as the two people getting married, driving home to him just how alone he was, no matter how welcoming Jane’s family were to him.

He’d taken her advice, bringing him to the man’s office. Christopher Houghton found people. His job was half-genealogist, half-private investigator, tracing beneficiaries of wills and missing persons.

“Come in, come in,” called a voice from the other side of the door.

He went inside and sat opposite the investigator.

“Hello, I’m James Eastleigh; I have an appointment.”

“Yes. How can I help you?”

“I was abandoned as a baby. I want to know who my parents were, where I came from.”

Houghton nodded. “What do you know of your birth?”

“Practically nothing. Once I was old enough to ask, all the carers in the group home would tell me was that I was named James after the local MP and Eastleigh after the hospital I was taken to. They couldn’t tell me who my parents were.”

“Unsurprising,” said Houghton. “That was often the case. Sometimes the care staff just wanted children to accept their lot and not ask questions. At other times, the parents may have requested anonymity. Of course, things are different now.”

James nodded, uncertain.

“Have you applied for your birth certificate?”

“Yes, I did, and when I got it, both parents were missing from it. I believe I was dumped.” James sighed. “Is it even possible for you to help me?”

“Tough, Mr Eastleigh, but not impossible. Just because your birth certificate is blank doesn’t necessarily mean nobody knows who your parents were. The first thing I will do is request your records. If any of them are sealed, we will ask for them to be unsealed. It’s possible their names are in them, somewhere. If they aren’t, I will check newspaper archives for reports of your discovery, see if it points to your parents or if any other news stories offer us clues.”

“And, if that fails?”

“DNA comparison—we might find relatives on one of the databases out there—or, we can try a public appeal. Somebody out there knows who you are, Mr Eastleigh, and it may be that someone will recognise a family resemblance.

“Of course, it is possible, we may only find dead-ends, but I promise you, I will follow every possible avenue…”

*

Houghton had.

“Yes, you were a tough case, Mr Eastleigh. Or, perhaps I should say Mr Bostrom.”

“Bostrom? You know who I am?”

“Yes. Well, close. A DNA test will be necessary to confirm it, but I am certain of your identity.”

“That’s brilliant.”

“Only, it’s a little complicated. Indeed, yours is a peculiar case. A proper mystery.”

“Really?”

“Uh-huh. I had to dig—pull together disparate strands. But, I got there in the end. It all began with a call to the police from a Mrs Clarke.”

“I thought you said Bostrom.”

“She wasn’t your mother. She was your grandfather’s housekeeper.”

“Grandfather?”

“She worked for Andrew Bostrom of Lander House. Forty years ago, she called the police, saying her employer was behaving madly, threatening her. Then, the line cut off. The police arrived to find her dead and a baby crying in the nursery.”

“Me?”

“Yes. Recently born, unregistered. No sign of your mother, presumed to be Bostrom’s daughter, Cecilia, nor of Andrew Bostrom himself. Little was said in the papers, some vague talk of an ‘incident’ at Lander House, implied to involve an intruder. You were placed into the care of the local council and your grandfather reappeared in official documents a couple of years later, as if nothing had happened.”

Houghton shrugged. “He’s a rich man; probably paid somebody off to stop asking awkward questions and assume it was an intruder who killed Mrs Clarke. As for his daughter, nothing.” Another shrug. “That’s it.”

“You say he is a rich man—he’s still alive?”

“He would be about ninety, but there’s no record of a death. The taxes on Lander House are up-to-date. The obvious inference is that he still lives there.”

“Then, I guess I ought to go see him.”

Nodding, Houghton said, “If you want any more answers, James, Lander House is the place to look. That’s where it all began for you…”

*

There was an old-fashioned bell-pull beside the door of Lander House. James had only ever seen one in movies before. He pulled it and thought he heard a distant jingle from somewhere within the vast building.

No lights switched on. Nobody came.

As he waited, James hugged himself: The night was chilly and he only had on a light jacket. He hadn’t expected to be left standing on the doorstep like this.

He hammered the large brass knocker against the door.

Still no response.

He hammered again, shouted.

Nothing.

Was his grandfather really inside waiting for him? Perhaps he was dead. Or, maybe, he’d left long before. James wondered if he were wasting his time.

Should he come back? Would he find his answers if he did?

He had to get inside.

Using the light from his phone as a torch, James slowly circled the house, wary of tripping on something unseen in the night. Perhaps it was a relic of the days when the Welsh Marches were a wild, lawless place, but the building looked like a fortress with windows high up and both the front and kitchen doors thick and bound with iron.

“I guess grandpa didn’t like visitors.” James wished the muttered joke hadn’t sounded so weak in the darkness.

There was an old glasshouse, an orangery, maybe, at the rear of the building, built with an iron frame and thick panes of glass that had a milky texture and were grimed with years of dirt.

James considered trying to break in that way, but smashing the old glass seemed extreme and he doubted his grandfather would appreciate such destruction of his property.

There were outbuildings near the house and he was able to smash the lock off the door of one with half a brick. Inside, he found a ladder.

He dragged it over to the house and leant it against the wall, before climbing to an upstairs window. Through it, he could see a room that was empty except for a large, dark wood wardrobe.

James used the half-brick to break a pane, then reached in and unhooked the latch, opened the window, and slipped inside. He checked the wardrobe, but it was empty.

He paused beside the door and listened; the house was silent.

He exited the room. The hallway was in darkness and he felt a shiver that had nothing to do with the chill. The light of his phone made little impression upon the blackness and he felt as if it were pressing in upon him. He shouldn’t have come here…

He searched around and found a light-switch, flicked it. The hallway lit up and he winced at the sudden brightness. Illuminated, the hallway no longer seemed spooky and he gave a shaky laugh at his foolishness. A grown man shouldn’t fear the night!

Still, the light told him there was power, which meant the house wasn’t completely abandoned. Not that it meant anyone was home.

“Hello,” he called, but there was no answer, only silence.

He tossed the half-brick from one hand to the other as he considered which way to go; it didn’t seem to matter much.

Slowly, James made his way through the upper floors of the house, but it appeared to have been abandoned for years and many of the rooms were empty or contained furniture covered in dust sheets. There was a bedroom with a rather grand four-poster bed, but the blanket was dusty and he doubted his grandfather had slept in it for a long time.

Then, he found the nursery.

The room was large with a cot in the middle, ornate with legs like the trunks of trees that rose to support a shade decorated like a canopy of leaves. Art Deco-style branches were painted twisting across the walls of the room. James had never seen anything like it.

Was this where he’d slept as a child? Where the police had found him crying on that fateful night? Maybe he was being naive, but he’d expected to feel something, some frisson of familiarity, but he’d felt nothing within Lander House, not even here.

Could Houghton have been wrong?

James slapped the door as he exited the room.

It might have been where he was born, where he was found, but, if it were, there were no answers, nobody to tell him about himself.

If anything, the tantalising hint of an identity was worse than knowing nothing about himself.

He found the stairs down. The top of the stairs was where the police report the investigator had dug up said the body of Mrs Clarke had been found.

Looking down at the spot, James had to wonder what could have driven his grandfather to murder his housekeeper. He could imagine no reason. Had the man been insane?

Stairs creaked as he descended them.

James explored the ground floor. Still, there were no clues to his identity, not even in his grandfather’s office when he used the half-brick the smash the locks on the bureau and a desk drawer, nothing to tell him who his mother was, what had happened to her.

Was she dead as well? Had his grandfather killed her?

What mad family had he come from? Was he better off not knowing the truth?

James sat on the bottom step of the stairs and put his hands over his eyes and sobbed. He’d hoped for so much, like a fool. He should’ve known better, just accepted that he was a cipher, alone in the world.

Shaking his head, he stood. There was only the glasshouse at the rear of the house left to explore, and it wasn’t as if that held any secrets about him.

He stepped towards the front-door. At least, he could leave without having to clamber awkwardly down the ladder.

Pausing with his hand on the lock, he looked back. Had he heard a noise, or was it the echo of some memory nagging at him? For some reason, he felt the need to visit the orangery. Or, maybe it was just a compulsive need to complete his search.

James felt like a fool as he stood there, grasping the lock. He knew there was no reason for him to go back there. There was nobody in the house, nobody hiding back there, and it wasn’t as if his grandfather had left any paperwork amongst the ornamental shrubs, or whatever had been growing back there, doubtless long dead, if they were untended as the rest of the house.

There was no point to it, but he let go of the lock and began to walk towards the rear of the house. He felt as nervous as he had when he first stepped out into the dark hallway upstairs. Ridiculous.

He could almost taste the damp air on his tongue as he entered the glasshouse. The orangery was full of plants. Clearly, there were automated sprinklers keeping it watered.

There was no sign of a light-switch, forcing him to proceed by the light of his phone, pushing past shrubs that had overflowed their pots. Before the place was abandoned to go wild, he could imagine it had been quite beautiful, probably his grandfather’s pride. But now, it was a mess.

At the centre of the glasshouse, where the roof peaked, there was a single tall tree that towered over everything else that grew in it, so tall that it pressed against the glass ceiling and bent to one side.

James approached it and shone his light over its dark, wavy leaves.

At about head height, he could see a single fruit, the shape of a rugby ball and a little larger. It seemed to shudder where it hung.

“What the—?”

He went closer, studied it. There was something moving within the fruit, pressing against the membranous skin.

He leant towards it.

Something pressed through the skin, defining features—something like a face peering out at him. James recoiled and swore.

Yes, it was definitely like a face. He couldn’t believe it.

Mould—yes, that was it. He’d read about mould spores making people hallucinate and this place was damp and bound to be full of them.

Only, he knew it wasn’t mould, knew that what he was seeing was real. Real and yet quite impossible.

He reached out to it, touched the slick, waxy skin. It pulsed beneath his fingertips.

A split appeared in the skin of the fruit and spread, so that it practically burst open. Inside the fruit he could see the tiny form of a newborn child, covered in slimy pulp, like blood. Its tiny arms reached out towards him.

James stared, unable to quite believe what he was seeing, yet unable to look away, to dismiss it. He felt as if he were about to vomit.

He was going mad! He was going mad!

The more he looked at it, the more he was reminded of a photo in his file of himself as a baby. It was like looking at himself as a child.

A torrent of thoughts flooded through his mind as he understood the meaning of what he was seeing, why people had always found him odd, why nobody had wanted to adopt him, why even Jane had said he wasn’t like other men she’d dated as she looked at him sideways.

Had he had the DNA test Houghton had suggested, what would he have found?

What the hell had his grandfather been doing here?

He stumbled back and looked around.

“My family tree,” he laughed, tears in his eyes. He’d always wanted to know where he came from and, now, he knew—and, wished he didn’t.

Spotting a hatchet, James seized it and struck at the child in the fruit, burying the blade deep in it. The child wailed in pain and James screamed, wishing he could silence the sound as he struck it again and again, obliterating it into a pulpy mess.

Then, he began to hack at the tree.

But, it wasn’t enough. It was too large.

He ran back into the house, to the kitchen and threw open every cupboard until he found lighter fuel and kitchen oil. Pausing only to turn on the gas from the cooker, he ran back out to the glasshouse and threw the fuel and oil over the tree, before lighting if, sending a coruscating sheet of flame up its trunk.

James stood, watching the flames engulf the tree, which seemed to shiver as it burnt. Flames spread to nearby vegetation, despite the dampness. Above him, the glass ceiling cracked from the heat, then shattered and began to rain down about him like a fall of snow.

He couldn’t return to Jane, not now, not knowing the truth about himself, where he came from. He just prayed his grandfather was dead, unable to continue the mad course he’d taken.

James watched the tree burn, the heat painful against his skin.

The scent of gas reached his nostrils.

It had begun here and it would end here.

He was ready when the end came.

pencil

DJ Tyrer is the person behind Atlantean Publishing and has been widely published in anthologies and magazines around the world, such as Chilling Horror Short Stories (Flame Tree), What Dwells Below (Sirens Call), and EOM: Equal Opportunity Madness (Otter Libris), and issues of Sirens Call, Hinnom Magazine, ParABnormal, Ravenwood Quarterly, and Weirdbook, and in addition, has a novella available in paperback and on the Kindle, The Yellow House (Dunhams Manor) and a comic horror e-novelette, A Trip to the Middle of the World, available from Alban Lake through Infinite Realms Bookstore. Email: djtyrer[at]hotmail.co.uk

The Silver Wrens

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Alex Grey


Photo Credit: Sarah Horrigan/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

The ancient yew tree stood in the Fraser family graveyard. Dense, dark leaves absorbed the weak winter sunlight, making gewgaws of its red berries and silver wren pendants. Family legend said that the tree had watched over the clan for a thousand years. The dead lay tranquil in its shade. The living prospered, the clan’s assets expanding as surely as the great yew’s girth.

*

Felicity stormed out of the house three weeks after her birthday, slamming the door hard enough to shatter the glass. She heard her mother cry out, but Felicity’s anger could not be soothed with words. She needed to run. She didn’t know how she could ever look her mother in the face again—her mother, yes, her actual mother, her real flesh and blood mother.

“I adopted you when you were a baby.”

Her mother had been telling her this lie since Felicity had been old enough to understand the concept.

“Where are my real mummy and daddy?” Felicity had asked when she was three years old.

“I’m your mummy now.”

“What about daddy?”

“My husband died a long time ago. You were only a baby when he left us.”

Sometimes, when her imagination was alight in the darkness before sleep, Felicity remembered a sly, handsome face with a clever smile, reading her stories in a melodic golden voice.

“He didn’t have time to read to you. Your mind is just playing tricks.”

Once she started school, Felicity’s curiosity about her real parents grew. Every year on her birthday, she asked her adoptive mother about her real parents.

“I found you under the mulberry bush.”

“You were abandoned on my doorstep.”

“They left you in a shelter, they didn’t leave their names.”

“They died in a car accident, there’s no one left to find.”

Felicity might have wondered why her adoptive mother changed the story every year. But she had no time to wonder about anything; she spent her childhood energy adapting to moving home every few years, learning her way round new cities, finding new friends and settling into new schools.

“Why do we have to move again?”

“Because it’s better to be a bird on the wing than a tree stuck in the earth.” Felicity had seen her mother clench her hands, heard her muttered monologue. “Roots in the earth, going where they don’t belong, grabbing what isn’t theirs.”

So they’d moved, always living in characterless concrete tower blocks. Felicity never got to play in a park. Her mother made strange warding gestures every time they passed a tree. Her childhood had been filled with hard greyness.

It’s too easy for you, thought Felicity, you’re not an orphan. She became determined to leave home as soon as she was old enough and start laying down roots of her own. Her mother had told her that she was adopted, that there were no ties of kinship between them—Felicity didn’t owe her anything.

On her eighteenth birthday, Felicity excitedly tore open the DNA test kit she’d bought. On impulse, she had bought one for her mother too, not that her secretive mother would have agreed to take part. Felicity had obtained saliva from her mother’s toothbrush and hoped that it would work.

Felicity ran blindly on the rough pavements, stumbling as she recalled opening the test results that had arrived that morning. She’d opened hers first. Her ancestors were Scottish Celts, going back for generations with very little genetic variation. The results included a map which showed the familial matches they’d found on their database. The stars that marked her family’s location looked like a new and wonderful constellation. Her relatives were scattered all over the world, but one relative was very close to where she lived now and then there was a cluster in the far north of Scotland.

Felicity took out her adoptive mother’s results. At first, she thought she’d got the papers mixed up. But no, the results were almost identical. In that moment Felicity knew that the woman who had claimed to be her adoptive mother was her biological mother.

They’d had a colossal argument when Felicity confronted her mother.

“You stupid girl! All these years I’ve protected you, hidden you. All my efforts undone in a moment.”

Her mother waved at the map.

“See these stars? This is their way of finding the people who dared to leave. Now we have to fly again. Why couldn’t you just let it lie? Why wasn’t my love enough for you?”

“Lies aren’t love!” Felicity had yelled. “What sort of mother pretends not to be a mother? What sort of twisted life is that?”

“I had to. You don’t understand the danger. Give me five minutes to explain, but then we have to get away. You need to pack some things. Quickly!”

“I’m not listening. Everything you say is a lie; you’ve lied so much you don’t even know how to tell the truth anymore.”

Felicity rewound their argument over and over as she ran. She lost track of time, but suddenly became aware of the chill air cooling her sweaty body. She looked around. There was an inviting coffee shop on the corner.

As she sipped her hot chocolate, the flickering film reel of their argument coalesced into a single tangible image—her mother’s face, full of love and terror, reaching out to her. She sat there for an hour, hoping the steamy warmth of the cafe would thaw her icy confusion. Eventually, Felicity realised that whatever came next, she would have to go home first, gather her things and move on, either with or without her mother.

Felicity hadn’t appreciated how far she’d run until she stepped out of the coffee shop and realised where she was. She recalled her mother’s fear and almost called an Uber to take her home, but she preferred to walk, using the time to clear her head.

She saw the reflections of the actinic blue lights from around the block. As she turned towards her home, she saw an ambulance and a police car. The front door was open. Just beyond, her mother lay unmoving as a paramedic shouted “Clear!” Her mother’s body jumped as the defibrillator discharged. She saw the paramedic check her mother’s vital signs, then shake his head. She heard him call time of death, a knell that drowned out the police officer’s voice, asking her if she knew the deceased. As they led her inside, Felicity glimpsed, in the distance, a strangely familiar face, a good-looking man with a clever smile. She blinked, but when she looked again, he was gone.

Although the police quizzed her for many hours about the broken door and the argument with her mother, they could find no evidence of foul play. The inquest recorded death by natural causes, a heart attack, probably brought on by the stress of the conflict with her daughter. Felicity hated the pity on the coroner’s face.

Felicity inherited a comfortable amount of money. Her mother’s will was clear, especially about being cremated rather than buried. The solicitors managed the paperwork efficiently and impersonally, though Felicity had to sign for one envelope, a letter from her mother.

Dear Felicity

I hope that when you read this letter we will both have enjoyed long and happy lives. I hope that you have made your own family and are surrounded by my grandchildren. If you are young, then it means they have found me. I beg you to flee, use the money to travel, get away, find a new identity. Families are what you make rather than what you inherit, never forget that.

xxx Mummy

Felicity fingered the pendant that had accompanied the letter. The exquisite silver disk showed a perfectly sculpted wren, every detail chased into the metal with delicate skill. She could feel the individual feathers with her fingertips, metal cold but somehow alive to her touch. There was a curious golden chain attached to the pendant, too small to be a necklace. Felicity turned her mother’s letter over. There was no explanation.

Although her mother had urged her to use her inheritance to travel far away, Felicity had only one destination in mind. The clustered galaxy of stars on her DNA map drew her to Scotland.

*

It was Christmas Eve when Felicity arrived in Aberdeen airport. The wild and robust landscape was a world away from her cloistered urban childhood.

It had taken a few weeks to follow up on the DNA test results, but she was relieved when her relatives had enthusiastically agreed to meet her. They’d invited her to join them for Christmas. A cousin had picked her up from the airport, loading the two suitcases that held all her possessions into the back of his truck and driving her to their ancestral home.

She held on to the bag which contained her mother’s ashes—her new uncle had asked her to bring them, suggesting they could be laid to rest in the family graveyard. He’d also asked her to bring the silver wren, telling her it was a precious heirloom.

Felicity was astonished when her cousin parked the car in front of a castle. There was no other word for it, though it was no fairy-tale confection of turrets. This building had stood firm against war and weather for a thousand years and looked set to endure for thousands more. The grand hall was palatial, but Felicity couldn’t see beyond the throng of her extended family as she was greeted and hugged exuberantly. She wept as a deep feeling of belonging filled a space in her soul that she never knew existed. Her uncle shooed the flock of cousins away and asked a servant to show her to her room. The tartan-draped walls were cosy and comforting; the roar of the fire in the hearth lulled her to sleep.

Christmas day passed in a whirl of feasting and song. Felicity delighted in her family’s lively energy. Her uncle had fiery red hair and was clearly the king of the castle. Her many aunts bore a striking resemblance to her late mother. She seemed to have a legion of cousins, some already working on the next generation with babies due the following spring. They swept aside her apologies, accepting, without rancour, her explanation that her mother had kept them a secret. She felt embarrassed when the family gathered to open the gifts lavishly piled under the Christmas tree. She had prepared a few thoughtful tokens for them, but was overwhelmed when her uncle handed her a carved wooden box. She removed the silk and velvet wrapping and found a newly minted silver wren, identical to her mother’s.

“The wren is an ancient family emblem gifted to just one daughter in each generation. We thought the family had lost the wrens forever when your mother disappeared. To have you back amongst us is a gift beyond your comprehension.”

Felicity stuttered a reply. It was hard to perceive herself as a gift when her family had heaped such unearned generosity on her.

She woke early on Boxing Day. Her uncle had invited her to the family graveyard at dawn. He said that she could be part of an important family ceremony and she could lay her mother’s ashes to rest. He asked her to bring both silver wrens.

The castle was silent as she walked down to the breakfast room. It was still dark, so she knew she wasn’t late, yet the horde of cousins was nowhere to be seen. The housekeeper served her strong tea and bitter salted porridge, smiling at her protests. There would be a raw wind at the churchyard; she would need this traditional fuel to keep her warm. As the first light blushed the crystal dark sky, the housekeeper ushered her toward the nearby churchyard.

A low granite wall surrounded the cemetery, the natural stone glowing as the sun’s rays shimmered across them. Felicity walked in through the iron gates and threaded her way between the gravestones towards a dark shape in the centre of the graveyard. The ancient yew’s dark green leaves absorbed the rising sunlight, providing a stark contrast to the reflected luminosity of the bright red berries and the silver wren pendants hanging from its branches. Felicity was enchanted by the tree’s beauty as the sun’s radiance filled the graveyard with colour.

A hand grasped her shoulder.

“This is a moment that I have dreamt of since your mother took you from me.”

A honeyed voice wrapped the words around her. She turned, knowing that she would see a man with a sly, handsome face and a clever smile.

“Daddy?”

“Do you remember me?” His voice was melodic and soothing.

“You used to read me stories. Sometimes I couldn’t remember your face, but I would know your voice anywhere.”

He smiled, pleased that she had recognised him.

“Where is everyone?” Felicity asked, looking around the empty graveyard.

“They stayed in the castle, out of respect for me, and this divine moment.”

They stood for a while and then her father snapped his fingers. The sound echoed jarringly among the gravestones.

“Come, this ceremony must be completed before the sun is fully risen. Are you ready, little wren?”

Felicity nodded, but she had no idea of what to expect.

Her father pointed at the abundance of tiny red berries adorning the yew.

“These are not strictly berries, they are arils. The seeds sit at the bottom of tiny cups of sweetness. The fruit keeps the birds alive in winter. We must offer a gift to the tree in exchange for its bounty.”

He gestured for her to hang the two wren pendants from the branches. The golden chains looped perfectly around the fine-needled branches. The silver birds settled smoothly, blending harmoniously with the green leaves and the red arils. Felicity felt a strange flutter in her chest, the birds looked so peaceful on their perches, but her mother had never wanted this. She felt a sudden urge to grab the wrens and fly away, but then she flushed with fear at the thought of losing her cherished new family.

Her father looked at her curiously, then turned to thank the tree as he picked a handful of arils.

“Now we must share this fruit—this ritual binds us to the family tree. Let the fruit dissolve in your mouth then swallow. Do not chew the seeds inside the arils as they are poisonous when broken.”

Felicity hesitated, but couldn’t resist her father’s invitation to join the family. She saw him place a handful of arils in his own mouth and swallow them with relish. She put a few arils in her mouth. Their sweet flavour was delectable, but the flesh dissolved into a sticky slime that was difficult to swallow. She resisted the urge to chew the seeds, and was grateful when her father offered her his hip flask.

“This is mead, made from our own honey. It will help to wash that down.”

The sweet drink melded deliciously with the fruit, though the spirit burned her throat as she swallowed.

“There, we have completed the first part of the ceremony, now we must welcome you home.”

He gestured at a small hole that had been dug nearby.

“Return your mother’s ashes to the family tree where she belongs.”

Felicity knelt and poured the ashes into the ground, her heartbeat loud and urgent in her chest. She supposed that the emotion of meeting her family, of saying goodbye to her mother, was finally catching up with her. She lifted her hands to wipe away the tears that were blurring her vision, but her eyes were dry. Her arms trembled, overcome with weakness.

She looked up, surprised to find that she was now lying beneath the tree. The silver wrens sparkled in the branches above her. She felt strangely warm and comfortable as her father knelt to cradle her head.

“Rest. The yew seeds that salted your porridge this morning will soon do their work. You will not suffer, I am sure of that. I did not let your mother suffer. We were distant cousins and childhood friends. We married young and I loved her, even though she was marked as the wren. We could have had a long life together; the tree is patient. But she tried to escape her fate and forced the family’s hand.”

Felicity looked at her father’s clever face. She felt cosseted by his mesmerising voice, even as her mind wrestled with his words. She did not understand what he was saying, could they have had a life together, been a family? Her body was weighed down with sadness and regret.

He continued, stroking her hair gently.

“This tree has safeguarded our family for a thousand years. As it thrives, so do we. As we nurture it, so it cares for us. All it asks is a sacrifice, a wren on the feast of St Stephen, one in each generation to bind the family to the tree. Your grandfather chose your mother to be the wren, but she was afraid that I would choose you in the next generation. Her love for you transcended her love for our family. However, she was the wren of her generation, there could be no other. I knew that we would find her one day.”

Felicity felt her father lift her unresisting body. Her heart was fluttering frantically now, like a captured bird. The family tree blurred into shimmers of silver, red, and green, festive tinsel colours. He lowered her gently into the shallow grave that had been hidden behind the yew’s vast trunk.

“We had not chosen the wren for your generation. In the olden days, we could rely on pestilence and plague to choose the sacrifice, but now we have to be more direct. It is a difficult decision, though the wrens can choose to live up to fifty years before the tree demands their lives. We were about to choose your generation’s wren when you turned up, a stranger to us. Your arrival was a blessing. Now we can let you go before we have time to love you and suffer the pain of your loss.”

He stayed with her as her heart faltered and stopped. Felicity’s cousins emerged from behind the gravestones and covered her body with earth.

Back at the castle, the family celebrated the sacrifice that would bring them prosperity for another generation. Felicity’s possessions were burned—no one would come looking for her.

In the graveyard, the yew’s fine, questing roots covered Felicity’s body with its downy filaments, binding her, bone, joint and socket, to the family, forever.

pencil

After a lifetime of writing technical non-fiction, Alex Grey is fulfilling her dream of writing poems and stories that engage the reader’s emotions. Her ingredients for contentment are narrowboating, greyhounds, singing and chocolate—it’s a sweet life. A number of her poems and short stories have been published in the horror ezine Siren’s Call. One of her comic poems is also available via a worldwide network of public fiction dispensers managed by French publisher, Short Edition. Of her horror writing, Alex’ best friend says ‘For someone so lovely, you’re very twisted! Email: sue[at]collavoce.co.uk

Island

Beaver’s Pick
Jerri Jerreat


Photo Credit: robmadeo/Flickr (CC-by)

When you live on an island, you need to practice Buddha-like views on life.

The ferry will be on time, but you will arrive seconds too late. The ferry will be an hour late, and you will be racing to the market with fresh eggs and your sauces tucked all around you.

Om.

The garden will thrive and you will bake gorgeous quiches and exquisite salads to sell at the university. Or there will be heat wave after heat wave and the well will dry up. Or rabbits will eat all the leaves of organic beets and heritage carrots. A thunderstorm will beat your tomatoes into bursting; rows of squash leaves might turn white with mold.

Om.

Your partner will be a great support to you, both reading aloud from farming books at Toronto cafés for a year beforehand, excited for this challenge you truly believe in. He will learn about sheep, and care for thirty—plus twenty chickens—and you will laugh together over silly sheep stories. You will take classes in spinning, weaving and dyeing wool, then hang it up like art around your open kitchen/living area in the fixer-upper cabin that you purchased from the last farmer who failed.

Or your partner will begin to curse the sheep and kick them, tell you the chickens are your job now, and complain the wifi is never working and how the hell did you talk him into living god-knows-where with no f—ing Internet?

Om.

When you live on an island you must learn to breathe. Slowly, deeply. Five slow breaths in, five to exhale, pause. Repeat.

You will learn to drive a standard on a twenty-year-old truck, and to rebuild a chicken pen after foxes made away with all the chickens except the only one who won’t lay. You will learn to hand dig a post hole, put in a post, shovel cement around it, and breathe. You will stretch chicken wire around your large garden, then around your chicken pen. (Also along the broken fence where the sheep keep disappearing and which your partner will not repair.) He will no longer cook joyfully with you, experimenting; will come to think in terms of gendered work, which was not The Deal. You will work at learning to enjoy running a farm alone as part of your own personal journey to completeness.

Om.

 

When you live on an island you will read library books on truck engines in the second year and tinker with the ornery steering problem, though it’s likely a power fluid leak. If your partner has difficulty turning when he makes his fast Friday night trip to the city, claiming he has business in the city and will just crash on his old friend’s couch, again—and the truck can’t make that ninety-degree turn to the ferry at high speed, well he—

—should have practiced his Buddha-like views of life.

Om.

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Jerri Jerreat‘s fiction has appeared in Feminine Collective, The New Quarterly, The Yale Review Online, The Penmen Review, and The Dalhousie Review among others, and was featured in anthologies published by World Weaver Press and Edge Publishers. Her play was a finalist at the Newmarket National Play Festival in 2019. Email: jjerreat[at]gmail.com