Travelling With Ashes

Beaver’s Pick
Gwenda Major


Photo Credit: Enkhtuvshin/Flickr (CC-by)

When Bob dropped down dead as he was hoeing between the rows of leeks, the last thing on Ellen’s mind was the trip to Budapest. And yet here she was, sitting on the balcony of the Hotel Gellert with a cup of tea and looking down on the huge squat tourist boats gliding along the sparkling Danube below.

“Do you think Dad realised how noisy it would be when he booked this hotel?” Rebecca sipped her tea and sighed again as a long yellow tram squealed and creaked its way off the Freedom Bridge and on to the riverside rails. Rebecca had been doing a lot of sighing since she and her mother had arrived on Tuesday.

“I don’t know love—but it wouldn’t have bothered him anyway. You know how he loved to watch traffic. Just look—you can see trams, cars, buses, boats and bikes—and there’s even a metro entrance over there. He would have been in heaven.”

“Mum—that’s inappropriate” Rebecca chided, frowning. She’d also been doing a lot of frowning in the last few days.

“Sorry—just a turn of phrase.” Ellen did not want to get into a pointless argument about semantics with her daughter. There was enough tension in the air already. “Can I get you another cup of tea? And aren’t you glad I packed the travel kettle? Why is it they never have hospitality trays in the rooms?”

“No, thanks—the tea just doesn’t taste the same—I suppose it’s the water.”

Rebecca had always been hard to please, reflected Ellen. Even as a little girl. I don’t want that dress, I want this one. I don’t want gravy on my vegetables, just on the side. I don’t want to see a film, I want to go ice skating. Contrary by nature. Bob doted on her of course. Couldn’t do enough for her. And Rebecca had always known she could wind him around her little finger. Just a pout or a frown and she’d get her own way. Ellen had given up arguing with Bob about it after a while. Saw it was useless.

 

The sad thing was that Bob had always wanted to see Budapest. “One of the best public transport systems in Europe,” he’d said. And had then added in a tone of wonderment, “and eighty percent of the city was destroyed after the Second World War.”

The Hotel Gellert was his choice too. Naturally he wasn’t to know he would die from a sudden massive heart attack only two weeks before their departure date. Which was a blessing really. No one wants to dwell on their imminent mortality do they?

Ellen had initially thought that setting off only days after the funeral seemed a little hasty. Lacking in respect somehow, but Rebecca had persuaded her—“Dad would have hated the idea of wasting the flight and the hotel booking,” she said. And going together meant they could share memories of Dad, make it a sort of tribute to him. Ellen had her doubts on that score too but said nothing. But when she mentioned she was thinking of bringing some of Bob’s ashes with them, Rebecca reacted with horror.

“I thought you said he always wanted his ashes spread at Morecambe—on the sea?”

“Well yes he did—where his family spent their summer holidays. And I will—most of them. I just thought it would be a good idea to bring some with us, so that a small part of your dad will have made it to Budapest after all.” In actual fact Bob had never given any indication of where he wanted his ashes spread—he hadn’t quite reached that age where it seems sensible to consider such matters. Ellen had thought the little white lie might be helpful to Rebecca, give her a focus for her grief. She should have known better of course.

Ellen stuck to her guns this time but then Rebecca went and googled ‘travelling with ashes’ and discovered it was recommended to carry a copy of the death certificate as well as the cremation certificate, plus a statement from the crematorium confirming the ashes belonged only to the person named. As if you would mix them with someone else’s, Ellen thought. The advice went on to say it would also be a good idea to inform the airline and possibly even contact the embassy in your destination country. “So you can see it’s out of the question mother,” Rebecca concluded with a note of satisfaction.

“That’s ridiculous” Ellen had argued. “I’m only bringing a token amount, not the whole contents of the urn. Nobody will be any the wiser.” She was quite firm about it so there was nothing Rebecca could do—except sulk. Which she did and was still doing—on and off.

 

Ellen gazed across at Gellert Hill. She’d read that Saint Gerard had been thrown off from the top in a barrel in the eleventh century, poor man. And further down was the entrance to the caves that had been a chapel and then a field hospital for the Nazis. It seemed Budapest had been invaded by all and sundry over the centuries. So much misery and pain. No wonder a lot of the Hungarians looked glum. Not surprising after what they’d gone through.

Rebecca didn’t seem very interested in the history which was a shame. She seemed to have decided that her being there at all was an act of great sacrifice on her part and that she was only doing it for her father. Whereas Ellen suspected she hadn’t been able to resist the idea of a free holiday—especially after her split with Mark. Maybe I’m being uncharitable she thought—but I do wish she would stop finding fault with everything. Like the hotel for example—the exterior of the Gellert was unquestionably magnificent, rising in its Art Nouveau splendour above the banks of the Danube, but it couldn’t be denied that the rooms were very dated and on the edge of shabby.

“Just look at that bath, Mother,” Rebecca had declared, pointing at the brown water stain below the taps. “And that shower head isn’t fixed on the wall properly.” Within minutes of arriving she had started to make a list of all the defects: the chipped tiles around the toilet, the rough surface in the bath where the enamel had worn away, the threadbare areas of the carpet, the dreary curtains. “I’ll do a review on TripAdvisor when we get back,” she said with grim satisfaction.

“Faded grandeur,” Ellen attempted in the hotel’s defence. “I agree it could all do with an update but I like it.” She wandered around on her own on the first morning, taking in the marble pillars, the luminous stained glass on the stairs, the wrought iron work and wood panelling. It’s like stepping back in time, she thought.

For the first few days they did the tourist round—a tour of the city on an open-topped bus, a cruise on the Danube, a trip to Margaret Island in the river with its water fountains and parks and a funicular ride up to the Royal Palace and National Gallery. On each trip Rebecca would murmur, “Dad would have loved this” or “poor Dad, he’ll never see this now” with a sniff and a wistful look. But she refused to accompany her mother into the famous Gellert baths next to the hotel, saying it would be a breeding ground for bacteria, so Ellen found herself sitting alone in the hot outdoor pool watching the dappled sunlight dance on the water. Later on she padded down to the tiled splendour of the thermal pools. I feel like an ancient Roman, Ellen thought to herself as she stretched her legs luxuriously in the forty-degree water, smiling indulgently at the sly kissing cherubs above the tiled doorway.

 

On their fourth morning Ellen crept out of bed at six and dressed quickly and quietly in the bathroom. She thought about leaving a note for Rebecca but decided she’d be back before she was missed. She eased the door open carefully and walked softly down the wide corridor. There was nobody about. Rather than use the lift she tiptoed down the graceful staircase to the lobby where a sleepy receptionist nodded at her without curiosity. Outside Ellen paused for a moment, breathing in the fresh chill air with its hint of sulphur. A hazy mist floated over the metallic surface of the Danube. It was very quiet. Ellen crossed the road and started climbing the steep concrete steps that wound up Gellert Hill. After ten minutes she reached a spot where there was a view down over Freedom Bridge and right along the river towards the Chain Bridge and the Parliament buildings. Her heart was pounding with the effort of the climb but her mind was clear. Carefully she took out the little Tupperware box from her pocket and prised open the lid.

No one can ever know what goes on inside a relationship, Ellen thought, and she had no intention of trying to tell Rebecca now. She had her own image of her father and that was only right. Bob had not been a bad man but he had been a difficult man, a bully who lacked empathy and consideration, a man who had never made Ellen feel wanted or happy. Perhaps she had been wrong to stay with him all these years. She accepted she was partly to blame.

 

Ellen shook out the contents of the little box on to the grass that sloped down on the other side of the railings. The ashes descended in a powdery cascade and then lay in a silvery sheen on the dewy grass. “Goodbye Bob,” she murmured. Ever since the funeral Ellen had still half-expected to hear his car on the drive and his voice shouting, “I’m home.” But now she finally knew he was gone. The sense of relief was overwhelming. Ellen gently tapped out the last of the ashes—let the bad go with the good. And then, taking one last look at the view, she turned and made her way cautiously down the uneven steps back to the hotel.

“Where on earth have you been mother?” Rebecca’s voice was shrill. “I was worried sick. I was just on the point of phoning Reception to report you missing.”

“Don’t be silly, Rebecca. I wasn’t missing. I just thought I’d go and spread your father’s ashes quietly on my own. I didn’t think you’d mind—we can do the rest together at Morecambe when we get home.”

For once Rebecca seemed to have little to say. Sitting up in bed in her pyjamas she looked more vulnerable and much younger. “What were you thinking of mother?” she wailed.

Deliberately misunderstanding her daughter Ellen replied, “Well, actually I was thinking how nice it would be to do one of those river cruises. After we get home I might look into it for next year.”

pencil

Gwenda Major lives in the South Lakes area of the UK. Her passions are genealogy, gardening and graveyards. Gwenda’s stories have featured in numerous publications. She has written four novels and two novellas; three have been either longlisted or shortlisted for national competitions. Email: gwendamajor[at]hotmail.com

That Yellow Sun

Fiction
Jay Merill


Photo Credit: broterham/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

That yellow sun, so hot, so blinding. It blocked all thought though I could still hear the scream. I held my hand up over my eyes, trying to see things: the beach, that drifting sand, odd bits of dried-out wood, the sea with frills of foam. They seemed to fade to nothing. But the scream went on. At the time I didn’t realise it was coming from me.

Liane recalls these details and talks about them later at her new apartment just off the Fulham Road, sitting with friends over drinks. How it all had been, how she’d felt then, married to Franz. ‘What is love?’ she finds herself asking. Then she’ll give a shrug, the shrug saying probably you won’t know, nobody will. ‘Well, happiness then. What is happiness?’

‘I’d had that accident, cutting my foot badly. Blood was just oozing out onto the sand. Then you know, I’ve always wondered, maybe it wasn’t an accident. I could have done it on purpose, I was in that much of a state. But it’s all such a jumble. The glint of glass on the dune, the surge of red, also the pain. I was so angry with Franz and so desperate for him to love me. That much I did know, though I was confused about everything else. Maybe it was like this—I saw the shard of glass, my own naked foot, and thought, I’ll take the misery out on my own body, or, I’m going to punish Franz. Though I’m not saying it wasn’t an accident, it could very well have been.’

Liane talks a lot about that day, says she can still feel the prickly sweat of her body and the agony in her cut foot. Can even recall how the sand on which she lay had a ribbed surface embedded with curved lines of shells. Looking up suddenly she had watched as three grey birds went flying through the sky. Behind it all, her own agonised cries.

She shrugs, spreading her hands helplessly as she comes to that part of the story when she’d screamed alone on the burning slope of sand and Franz hadn’t come to her. Her eyes wince and darken as she lifts up her wineglass, replaces it, then picks it up again. Next she takes a piece of cheese from the central plate, then a biscuit or a wedge of bread. She chews a little, dabs at scattered crumbs, pours more wine from the bottle. Her eyes are everywhere. She looks at the wall, looks at the untidy pile of plates. From object to object she goes, her voice rising and falling.

‘It used to be so hard to swallow,’ Liane says. ‘But really, you know, that day was the start of things beginning to get better, even though there was worse to go through first. If that makes any sense.’

Outside it’s getting dark. The lights in the flats on the other side of the communal gardens are going off one by one. Her balcony door is still open. Breeze comes in, and it feels good. Liane sighs, leans back in her seat. As though to locate herself in the present she flicks her hand through her hair and smoothes one finger along the edge of the table. All solid, all in order. Good. She continues with her story:

‘These friends, Andy and Nina, were with us for the weekend. Franz and I were having a row which lasted the entire time. They were upset by us I think.’ And she laughs saying, ‘That was nothing, rows could last two weeks or more, or they’d subside and start up again, blowing in all different directions like the wind can up there in the Frisian Islands.’ She catches the side of her finger on her collar, the nail snags, she makes a face.

‘I crashed into the soft powdery dune and lay in a crumpled heap but with my bleeding foot sticking out straight. Blood gushed out and got absorbed in the sand. So dramatic. My blood, I thought. And the pain was terrible. Had I meant to do this to myself or just fallen on the glass? Part of my screaming was the terror at the not knowing. I so longed for Franz to come, but the row between us had been bad that whole day and he did not. In the end it was Andy and Nina who came back for me, just the two of them. Actually, I think that day was the crossroads. I turned away from Franz. I’d always been hanging on you see, waiting for things to get back to what they’d been at first, or move on to some new bright point, but this was the moment I let go of all hope. And you know something, I started to become stronger.’

Outside in the London street darkness settles. A few night sounds can be heard—the slam of a car door, occasional laughter, music here and there in snatches. There’s the soft zoom of a plane overhead, and the sudden swoosh of night wind. The late-talking hour.

Liane is an architect, when she’d married Franz she was just starting off. Franz had an import-export business. They’d met when Franz had come to London from Rotterdam and he’d moved in with her after only a few weeks. Then later, they’d bought a little house, a rundown sort of a place on one of the Frisian Islands where they’d first gone on holiday together. Terschelling. They had cycled through the pinewoods. Dreamlike echoes, bird cries. Liane remembers rambling through a wild marshy part of the island purplish pink with orchids. And they’d walked hand in hand, so necessary to keep on touching then. Just ahead of them, a tall spiky grassed bank in the shadow of which they had sex. Easy and happy. Liane says she’d felt blended in with nature. All this before the island had come to mean grief, because her marriage was grievous.

After the time of the cut foot Liane began to leave Franz by stages, trying out being separate in her mind before making the real ending happen. Franz noticed no changes, living to the full his blithe London existence. Liane’s first stage of leaving was going out herself whenever Franz went out. It got more frequent. Franz was never home. He went away for the weekend, most weekends. So Liane did too—not that he knew. Franz’s business was doing well. Now he had money he had flings, the two seemed to go together with him. Another stage in the leaving was giving up caring about his infidelities. She used to be in a torment and rage. Franz had told her, ‘But you’re my best girl.’ Liane repeats this odious phrase of his to friends in the late night recollections. She’d been desperate, and then she wasn’t any more. Franz was away on business quite a lot, going to Brussels and Rome. On one of her weekends away Liane had a one-night stand herself, later she began an affair. In this way she had started on her new life. At last she said to Franz they should have a trial separation, that she couldn’t bear things as they now were. How were they? Franz had raised his eyes as though asking this question. ‘You’re my best girl,’ he reminded her. Liane said she thought he should go to Terschelling and fix the house up when he wasn’t away on business. She agreed to go out to him every couple of months and they’d see how things went.

Liane in the bright kitchen of her new flat entertaining friends. They sit at the table sipping wine, chatting, later they loll around in the cushiony living area, addressing issues, enjoying the night. Liane says things like: ‘What is for real? What is fooling?’ What she keeps going over is Franz’s attempted suicide. She’ll never give up trying to understand that.

She says, ‘How could he have done that to himself? When he looked down at his arm, did he hate that arm?’ Liane uses her own arm as a model; taps at it, asks: ‘Did he say, Arm you’re not going to be any more, you’ll be dead?’ Her little performance gets her a laugh. She’s hardly expecting anyone to come up with an answer.

Terschelling. That yellow sun. Liane had gone up to the island for two weeks. Franz had renewed hopes. He’d given up his mistresses now he told her in a voice bold and emphatic. There was just this one tiresome woman who was hard to drop, one who hounded him. But there was really nothing in it, he just saw her now and again. Franz looked hopefully into the amber eyes of Liane. The greater his hope the more she had to disillusion him so the greater her coldness. The sex between them was distant in her case, desperate in his. The greater his renewed hope the more he was capable of blotting out her indifference, so the more she had to punish him with a show of apathy. Liane says she got some sort of pleasure out of the idea he loved her and couldn’t let go; that she was becoming addicted to his hopeless zeal. ‘Was I just craving retribution for the years when things were safe for him and when he hardly noticed me?’

Liane feels at ease in her Fulham Road flat, friends round, soft music on, balcony door left open all weathers. She’s been with clients all afternoon in her office at Mansion House. It’s good being part of the noise and rush of the centre when you know you’ve got your peaceful nook to come back to at the end of the day. Here, where it’s all quiet sociability, a place for night-chat, she works through the details of the past.

‘Out there in Terschelling it’s a different life experience, such a beautiful spot. There you can find another kind of happiness and I’ll tell you about that in a while. But what’s right for one time may not be right for the next. And I didn’t feel comfortable on the island after things fell apart with me and Franz and he went to stay in the house full time. Franz thought I was punishing him, and partly I suppose I was. Yet he didn’t seem to imagine what it would be like if we were to stay together. Strange he wasn’t able to foresee a life of despair, of bitter recrimination, when by now we could hardly bear to see one another do a simple thing like walking on the beach.

I always went carefully after that accident, skirting the dunes, stepping round sharp stones, blobs of scum, tangled seaweed. Everything. Franz was more casual, missing the bad bits naturally but yelling if he didn’t. It’s scary how much we annoyed one another with our different styles. I can see Franz walking moodily, kicking up foot-loads of sand, feeling, I’m sure, that this glitch in the relationship was all my fault. He said I mustn’t leave him. It hardened me. When we had sex those days it was tense because this was the way I reminded him that I had nothing left for him. I held back, refusing to be fluid. When I went away, back to London, he took to brooding, did drugs, slept during the daytime, refusing to accept it really was over between us. He spent so much emotional energy in the effort of hiding from the inevitable ending. We walked separately in a state of tension, tormented by pity and dislike. I remember wondering if there could be a resolution or whether we were doomed to go on like this forever.

I’d bought a beach ball, gaudy, red-and-blue-striped, a light air-filled ball. We threw it between us without enthusiasm, and it was always just out of reach, slipping to one side, falling. Was it the wind doing that? So light that ball, no substance to it, and there was this smell of soft perishable plastic.’

In the living room of the London apartment Liane lies back on her sofa, legs thrown over one of the arms. Friends recline on various chairs, the sky outside passing from pearl to grey to black.

Liane: ‘What is for real and what is only fooling? Even if Franz had said, Arm you’re gonna be dead, he mightn’t have really meant it. Most likely of course, he never thought about his arm at all or any other part of his body. But I was afraid, because even if he was only acting the part of being suicidal he still might have killed himself. He was in a bad state. You know, suppose he was acting all the time, and just meaning to punish me, or punish himself, then oops, the breath was gone, the arm inert, and it had happened. All over, meant or not. Drowned. Silky-salty water lapping round him, making the pink parts of his body look pinker, a swirl of loose sand shaly against his knees. Franz lying down in the water and saying he was going to kill himself. Out of malice, out of hate, out of anger, out of pain, out of terror, out of what? Well, for one thing, as if to say, You’d love me then, you’d be sorry. And you know something, a terrible part of me needed to know that he really was going to do it—that insecure, worst part that wanted to believe he couldn’t live without me.’ And Liane recognises there is still that in her which needs to know she really has been loved. As if this will make her into one of the lucky ones, a success story, no matter what.

‘He said his life was empty, that he was going to end it, but as for me, when I saw him lying there, helpless with resentment, I knew I would never love him again and also that I had to be strong, to get both of us past this terrible moment. The sad thing is, this threat of suicide was the last emotional experience between us, a great force which drove both of us, almost a bond, and maybe neither of us really did know whether it was genuine or a sham.

Franz said to me, ‘You don’t want me any more.’ He said, ‘You just want to destroy me. You don’t care what happens, do you?’ He said, ‘I’m going out into the sea, the North Sea, and I won’t be swimming! I’ll be drowning. Drowning! Then you’ll be satisfied.’ His face which had gone a dark beetrooty brown, looked frightening, unresponsive, sealed off from any possibility of hope. He took off all his clothes and left them on the sand in a careless heap and waded out. I called him back, called and called till my voice went hoarse.’

Tears have come into Liane’s eyes, remembering. ‘He just kept on walking, as though he couldn’t hear me. I thought, he’s really going to do it. He didn’t falter though he must have been able to hear me calling. Didn’t even look back, you know, and the water out there was getting so deep. Not even when I called his name would he turn round.’ Liane’s hands start to shake with the memory. ‘I could not believe it. That Franz would do a thing like this. But on the other hand I had to put the idea it might just be a game out of my mind. It would have seemed too churlish not to have taken him seriously. Maybe that’s what he wanted, I don’t know.’

Liane takes a sip of her wine. ‘If it was a game it could have been a dangerous one, tempting an accident, flirting with it. People can die in a game if they’re crazy enough. To hell with intention.’

‘He’d chosen a stretch of water where the current was strong. If you were a cynic you could say he knew I knew that. One part of me hated him, for being out of control or being too controlled, whichever it was. The main thing was, I hated what was happening. He went out further and further and still I was shouting and still he never looked back and didn’t start swimming. And then I went in after him. I cried out, “Franz, you’re not to do this thing. I don’t want you to. I’m sorry.” Yes, I had to say things like that. I told him I loved him and I said I’d stay with him, that it wasn’t all over. I had to.’ She wipes sweat from her face.

‘And still he wouldn’t look back. He was much further out than I was. I was up to my neck, I couldn’t get out that far, you know I’m a poor swimmer. And I wasn’t sure if he could still hear me. I felt sick agony as though it was all over. Then, on the beach which seemed so far away now, I saw moving shapes. Silent and unreal, silver shadowed. Two moving shapes. With the agony inside me I waded back towards them shouting as loud as I could. And they heard me. It was two Australians, guys here on holiday. They swam across. By this time Franz had slipped down under the water. I couldn’t even see him. Whole minutes went by and I thought that was it. But the guys got him out. Thank God, they got him, and they hauled him back to the beach. He’d gone so white I thought he was dead anyway. But they lay him on the sand; pumped the water out of him. He just lay there completely still. He was ok though. Thank God for that.’

Very few lights are still on in the flats across the gardens, but now and again you can hear spurts of music, talking, coughing, as people pass close by. Once or twice there’s the quick burst of a car horn from the Fulham Road, discordant, high-toned, and now as it gets later, the wind shudders making the curtains puff out. There’s the rustle of leaves on a nearby tree, the occasional hum of a plane overhead. Shifting sounds settling us into night. Liane’s voice gets softer, goes back further.

‘I have an earlier memory of us. Me and Franz on holiday. I never wanted to leave this place. Before we bought the house, it was. We were stretched out at the base of this embankment in a band of shade. We lay where we were on spines and prickly tangles, not minding, postcoital, coming to. Finally we got up, arms still wrapped around one another because we couldn’t let go. It took us a while to climb to the top of the bank this way as we kept on toppling and having laughing fits. At last we made it and sank down out of breath. Pinkish haze of flowers all around us, that yellow sun. Below us the long line of the sea stretched grey-blue to the horizon, ending in mist. Terschelling, with its own kind of perfection, its power. Being there can absorb all the possible questions, can make you think of nothing. You have this sheer unburdened happiness, you feel quite free.’

pencilFiction by Jay Merill is published or forthcoming in 3 AM Magazine, Berfrois, Epiphany, Hobart, The Irish Literary Review, Per Contra and Prairie Schooner. She is a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee and the winner of the Salt Short Story Prize. Further work has appeared recently in Anomalous, Citron Review, Corium, Foliate Oak, The Galway Review, Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Literary Orphans, SmokeLong Quarterly, Spork, tNY, Wigleaf and other great publications. Jay lives in London UK and is Writer in Residence at Women in Publishing. She is the author of two short story collections published by Salt—God of the Pigeons and Astral Bodies—which were nominated for the Frank O’ Connor Award and Edge Hill Prize. Email: jaymerill[at]talktalk.net

Alcaics: on a hashtag

Beaver’s Pick
Judith Taylor


Photo Credit: baldeaglebluff/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Photo Credit: baldeaglebluff/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

What happened? Who knows? No one can read a mind
scroll back the thoughts like seismograph traces, see
just where the quake struck. We are left here
sifting the wreckage for scraps, for reasons

—some prop that gave way, broke under sudden shock,
brought down the whole house. Then we could make ourselves
safe, make our own house safe: the next quake
won’t pull us down, we’ll be ready for it.

It’s that we’re human. That’s what we do. We make
home, shelter; fire, hearth. Structures to keep us safe.
Crops, pasture, fields hacked out of dark woods;
calendars, numbers against the vast sky

that drifts above us. Patterns of when and why:
verse; music; carved stones. Pictures and glossaries.
Faith, hope and love. Just law and mercy.
Everything keeping us sure of our selves,

each other’s selves. So much we can only take
on trust, and walk as if we believe there’s ground
to bear our weight. We have a place here,
that’s what we say in the frightened, quiet time

we try so hard not ever to give ourselves.
We have a home; if not a place, a tribe.
Kith, kin. Or one heart somewhere for us.
Structures we build on a spinning planet

we need to tell each other we trust in still.
If one looks down, looks over the edge, we might
all fall. We need these explanations
—not why a house tumbled down, but why ours

still stands. That hashtag, something we need to hear:
depression lies, we tell ourselves. Something struck
this house or that; some monster drew this
person or that to their self-destruction.

Sounds like a glib line, telling you what you feel’s
false: silence once more slapped over what you know.
More, though, it’s our own mind we talk down,
begging it, almost, to give us good news

tell us we’re part of a world we think true,
can live in, can think we belong in.
We build the house still, tremulous as the ground is.
Stay, please, we say. Stay. Help us to keep it standing.

pencilJudith Taylor comes from Perthshire and now lives and works in Aberdeen, Scotland. Her poetry has appeared widely in magazines and she is the author of two pamphlet collections — Earthlight, (Koo Press, 2006), and Local Colour (Calder Wood Press, 2010). Her first full-length collection will be published by Red Squirrel Press in 2017. Email: j.taylor.09[at]btinternet.com

Baby’s Breaths

Beaver’s Pick
Greg Metcalf


Photo Credit: Ari Landworth/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

Photo Credit: Ari Landworth/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

Your baby is pulling down your shirt and exposing your bra strap. Maybe you’re used to his hand there, gripping, maybe the feel of his strength—is it a boy?—satisfies some primal need, proof of life. Do you watch him sleep and not just because you love him? How long do his pauses between breaths last before your eyes come wide open? We all pause between breaths when we’re content, when we’re happy. You haven’t, have you, since you had him? Wrapped tight with angst and loneliness. You’re lonely when another person is as close as could be, close and clutching, tugging at your clothes to get to skin. Lonely with your responsibility. All ease has been flushed from you and sleeps swaddled, oblivious except when he cries and that is on you. Are you jealous? Is that why you woke from that nightmare, rushed to where he slept, eyelids vibrating, scooped him up, woke him, squeezed him, and rocked him while both of you cried? Nothing will ever harm you, you promised, but this is just another thing you’ve committed yourself to for eighteen years and more: making promises, explicit and implied, that you don’t have the power to keep. He pinches the loose skin of your side against your bra strap, but you like the pain. The force in it. In a baby book, you read that infants have the strength, right from birth, to hold their weight with that grip. You attempt to ease your fears with this useless trivia; as if, if it comes to it, you could always dangle him from somewhere while you solve any problems that arise. From the time you were ten, you’d always wanted three: a boy, a girl, and then nature could decide, but now all you want is to have him to hold and feed, to listen to him continue breathing. Your husband is a sudden invader. You duck from the window at the sight of the mailman. The urge to love him is sometimes so powerful you can’t help contemplating the logistics of putting him back in. He’d have your heartbeat again, your oxygen, diffusing into him, and you wouldn’t have to worry about your baby breathing ever again.

pencilGreg Metcalf is the author of Flowers on Concrete, a novel, Hibernation, a YA thriller, and the memoir Letters Home: A WWII Pilot’s Letters to His Wife and Baby from the Pacific. He has three other completed novels, unpublished to date. His short fiction has appeared at Boston Literary Magazine and Metazen. He is a contributing author in Indiestructible. He blogs at My Free Sentences. Email: hershelaa[at]aol.com

Into the Dirt

Beaver’s Pick
Matthew Everett


Photo Credit: green kozi/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: green kozi/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

I pressed the camera to my face. The Wichita Mountains stood, old and sleeping, on the other side of the lake, smeared across the right half of the sky. The tops were white, even in August, and melted into patches of red and brown and green that slid down the slopes, into the silence of the lake. My other eye squinted as I pulled them into a place where I could see. They huddled in my camera, and I pressed the shutter.

Tiki was nearby, sniffing his way down a line of walnut trees by the road. He flitted from trunk to trunk, pausing, front paw dangling and nostrils pulsing, before trotting on to the next.

I wound the film and looked down at the window. Six pictures left.

I looked around. Little houses dotted the gravel drive, sleeping beneath wide, rustling trees. I started toward the lake, and a few roads over, I came to the docks that Holly and I used to swim under, when it was warm. We’d bubble up in one of the empty boat shelters and let our toes dangle in the water, and imagine that little fish were listening to our garbled voices talking. But none of them were empty today. I looked down the last road and hurried across.

The grass on the other side kissed my bare feet and ironed out the little gravel-shaped dimples on my soles. The dock groaned as I stepped out onto it, and the top of its wooden body was hot and dry and dusty. I turned right and walked toward water, weaving my way between the uneven nails that jutted up from the beams. At the end of the dock, I stopped.

A small boat, flat and aluminum, bobbed in the shade of the shelter arching over it. I put the camera to my face, but through the lens, it looked dull and colorless. I frowned.

Tiki had followed me and was lying down, panting and watching me. The shadow beneath the awning hugged me as I walked into it. I stepped into the boat, and it shifted under my feet. In the steering wheel was a small web, rocking and recently-fled. I bent down and saw a little brown spider huddled beneath the rim. His shoulders were hunched and angry, waiting with smiling eyes for my departure. I pulled my camera back to my face and took a picture.

When I climbed out of the boat, Tiki was standing next to me, looking down into the water. His reflection panted back at him, then broke apart as he leaned down to paw at a passing pair of fish. I clicked my tongue as I walked back up the dock, and he followed me, out into the sun.

At the road, I studied the walnut trees, the way their leaves grew out over the gravel. Houses ran in uneven rows in either direction. Ms. Beverley’s stood nearest to me. On her porch, a chair lay broken on its side, its body covered in a dry, brown mold. I looked up the road, and back down. The dust kicked up in the quiet wind, coating the roofs and the leaves of the walnut trees. Everything was dirt.

It was louder out back. Cicadas spoke across the trees with angry voices, and beyond the bend in the road, a lawnmower rolled in sharp, roaring circles across a dry stretch of grass. I walked toward a row of sunflowers that blinked and sprouted from the dirt behind her house.

 

“I wish you wouldn’t sit back there, Elma. Makes me feel like a damn chauffeur.”

“Watch your mouth,” said Grandma, “There’s a little sunflower in the car.” She ran a hand through the hair on the back of my head, which I didn’t think was quite as yellow as sunflowers.

“Just make sure she doesn’t spill any of that on my seats. I swear to God if she spills that again—”

“Why don’t you be quiet,” she snapped. “Let the girl enjoy her pickles.”

I pulled the camera from my pocket, found two days before, next to Christmas ornaments in her attic.

“Do you think it works?” I asked Grandma, who was still glaring at my father in the rearview mirror.

She tore her eyes away and smiled. “What, sweetheart?”

“Do you think it still works?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “Let’s see.” She pulled it from my hands and turned it over. She pointed at a window next to the lens and tapped her brittle nail against it. “Says here there are seven pictures left. You’ll have to finish the roll before we can find out.”

She handed it back to me. I set it on the seat next to me and shoved my hand back into the jar wedged between my legs. I pulled a pickle out and watched it slip from my hands onto the floorboards. My father turned around and saw it lying in a shallow puddle of itself. The truck braked hard.

“God dammit, Maggie,” he said as he unbuckled his seatbelt to swat at my face. “What did I just say?”

 

The sunflowers stared at me. They were just taller than me, and stood in two wide, shallow rows. Black pupils and bright yellow irises that watched me without blinking, like they’d forgotten who I was. I took a picture.

A white truck rolled into the edge of my vision, coming up the road that hugged the west edge of the lake. I clicked my tongue again at Tiki. “Let’s go.” He stood and raced after me, back toward the house.

The white truck was in the driveway when we arrived. A missing tailgate and empty bed. I walked around to the passenger’s side and the window was open. The dashboard was cracking and sun-bleached, and crumpled receipts and little paper straw wrappers lay scattered across the floorboard. Shadows from the branches hanging over the house fell in ripples across a dogeared Bible on the passenger’s seat. It was open to a page with words just big enough to read. I squinted and read the little letters at the top of the page. Proverbs 6:16. I took a picture.

Tiki watched me climb the stairs of the front porch, and paddled off in search of new shade. I pulled open the screen door and went inside.

My father’s voice filled the front room.

“Why don’t you let me do it? Let me take a look.”

“It’s not the accounting, Oliver.” The man was soft-spoken and stood in an apologetic way. His back was facing me. He was three or four steps from the door, and his hands slid into his pockets as he listened to my father’s resurging confusion.

“Well, what the hell is it then?” My father’s shoulders hunched as he spoke.

The man coughed and adjusted his tie. “It’s just that we don’t have any money.” A fist slid out from his pocket, and opened into an insistent palm.

My father scoffed. “I don’t remember the last time anything like this happened. Have people stopped coming? Stopped giving?”

“Well, attendance is down, but that’s only part of it. People just don’t have anything to give.”

My mother walked in from the bedroom beyond the kitchen. “Brother Bryan! I thought I heard someone talking in here!” She tore her eyes from the man and glanced at my father, then back at the man. “Please,” she said after a long moment, “sit a while! Can I get you anything? Coffee?”

“Hello, Laura. It’s good to see you. We missed you Sunday.”

My mother tilted her head to the side and laughed. “Oh, we went up to see some family in Fort Cobb,” she said. “Their youngest was getting baptized. Just a beautiful sermon.” She glanced at the time. After a moment, she added, “Nothing near as good as yours, though. Can I get you some coffee?”

“Thank you, but I’m not staying long.” His smile was gentle and warm, and I watched it float over toward my mother.

She looked at my father and his crossed arms. “Is everything all right?”

“I was just telling Oliver we might have to cancel the pageant next week.”

“Why’s that?” My mother’s voice lilted up.

“The church’s revenue is drying up. I know everyone looks forward to the bazaar and the kids’ choir recital, but all that costs money, and right now we don’t have much of it.” The man looked at his shoes.

I took a few steps forward, out from the hallway and into the living room. I spoke. “Are you going to cancel the choir recital, too?”

The man turned around and noticed me. “Hey, Maggie,” he said. “You’re so tall. You’ll be as big as your sister soon.” His eyes glinted and he forced his face back into a smile. “How are you?”

“Are you going to cancel the recital?” I repeated.

“Well,” he said, running a hand down his cheek that fell back to his side after a moment. It looked like he was holding invisible flowers. “We might have to.”

“Maggie, honey, why don’t you go in your room and play?” My mother was leaning past the man, eyebrows raised.

“It’s okay, Laura.” He squatted in front of me. “Yeah, we might have to cancel it.” He looked at one of my eyes, then the other. “But I think I speak for everyone when I say I hope that doesn’t happen.” He reached out to tuck a piece of my hair behind my ear.

“Really, Bryan, I’m sure if you just let me take a look—”

“I don’t think there’s anything to look at,” said the man, looking at my eyelashes, before standing and turning toward my father. “But if I hear anything else, I’ll give you a call. I just thought I’d tell you while I was in the area. I’m meeting Mae in a little while up in Lawton, though, so I’d better get going.”

My mother pushed herself from the side of the doorway she’d been leaning on. “Please let us know if there’s anything we can do.” She ran a hand across her forehead and then straightened her hair. Her mouth was open, and I saw her tongue lying just behind her crooked teeth. Her breaths seemed spaced out.

The man smiled. “Of course.” He turned to my father and extended his hand, which my father shook, forgetting to smile.“See you Sunday,” they said. My father watched him watch my mother.

The man buttoned his jacket and raise his hand into a still wave. “See you, Laura.” He turned toward the door, reaching for the handle. He pulled it open, and August started to seep in. He caught me staring at him. “Goodbye, Maggie,” he said, without blinking. He stepped out into the loneliness of the sun.

Almost before the door shut, my father spoke. “Jesus, Laura. You’ve got to be kidding me.”

My mother didn’t say anything. She picked up a pack of blue Pall Malls resting on the TV cabinet.

“I don’t know what your problem is,” said my father. “Every damn time he comes here, you’re a little schoolgirl, fawning over him.”

My mother walked to the couch and sat on the end farthest from the door. She pulled a cigarette from the pack, which she tossed on the coffee table, and picked up the orange lighter next to it. My father glared. She flicked the lighter three times and breathed in until the cigarette started to glow. She threw the lighter next to the pack.

“Go ahead, just ignore me.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I watched her tongue moving below her brain. As her cigarette hand emoted, her other hand crossed her body and hid under her right arm—her cigarette arm—which stood, crooked at the elbow. She was looking out the window.

“Oh, don’t start with your ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’ bullshit. Jesus, it’s like you’re in love with him.”

“He’s just a nice man, is all,” she said, blowing a thin stream of smoke from the corner of her mouth. Her left arm came out and brushed some hair off her forehead before returning to its hiding place. “Which is more than I can say for you.” She looked at him for the first time.

“You can’t get all starry-eyed every time he waltzes in here. Into my house. Jesus Christ.” His hands were shaking, and he was looking at her. “You can’t.”

My mother looked back out the window, at a place I couldn’t see, but I could see the lake in her eyes. Her fingers shifted as they felt the heat creeping toward them. Her hair was still, and she looked very small. I thought of the way she looked when she used to push Holly on the swings at the park, and the way her cigarette danced on the corner of her turned-down mouth, how slowly it burned. I wondered if we kept her from running away. I pointed my camera at her and took a picture.

My father looked at me. “Maggie, go to your room. I don’t know why you even use that damn thing. It’s just a disposable. Film’s all washed out by now. Probably doesn’t even have any.”

I went outside.

*

When I woke up, I lay in bed for a long while, looking at the ceiling and carving little moons in the back of my hand with my fingernails. A sponged pattern ran in semicircles toward the bedroom door, like waves against the beach. A white-blue light was pouring in from the telephone pole outside. I rolled on my side, then sat, half-up, on my elbow.

“Holly,” I said into the stillness of the room. “Are you awake?” Everything was quiet.

I slid my legs out of bed and walked to the window. A speck of light glinted off Tiki’s collar from the little wooden overhang where he slept. My hands felt empty. I went to the door and pulled it open, slow and careful, and slipped out into the hall.

Grandma’s room was to the right. I pressed an ear to the door and heard a muted snoring that grew as the door swung open. She was sleeping on her back, mouth loud and wide. Her dresser stood against an empty wall and reflected the blue window, scattering it across the floor like sand.

The top drawer creaked as I opened it, but she didn’t move. Inside, a little silver-colored box lay waiting for me, and it sparkled as I pulled it up and turned it over in my hands. Along the edges, engravings wound into each other like vines. I opened the lid, and saw dozens of little jewelries sleeping on top of each other, perfect and unwakeable. I sunk my fingers into them and felt them roll over and hold me.

I pulled each piece out and laid it on the dresser top in neat, even lines. I scanned the rows and looked for something delicate and beautiful. I didn’t really know what I wanted, but I took a pair of green and bronze earrings—thin brown chains suspending tiny emeralds that smelled like trees and old metal. I dropped them in my pocket and filled the box up and lowered it back into place. The drawer shut with a soft thud, and I looked at the bed.

Her shadow stood beside her on the wall, holding her in her stillness. After a moment, I went closer, into her shadow, and saw her upper lip crooked into a sort of satisfaction, floating through an unthinking contentment. I could see that she was somewhere else, or almost there, far away from me and Holly and the lake. Far away from her daughter’s cigarette arms, in a place where she didn’t have to worry about hearts that weren’t her own.

I went outside.

The moon was bright and empty. I turned left, then left again, toward the back of the house. Across the yard, I saw the sunflowers shivering, unaware but together in the openness. Their eyes looked up, soaking in the substitute beauty of the moon. I walked toward the woods, toward the little house where Tiki slept. He stood as I got closer, and shook his fur in tight, rapid circles. “Hey, Tiki,” I whispered. He trotted toward me and nuzzled against my leg. I clicked my tongue against the roof of my mouth, and he followed, sniffing the air as he floated into wakefulness. I watched him blink, several times, slower each than the last. He shook his fur and his collar again.

We went toward Ms. Beverly’s and past it, and walked until the woods were all we could hear. We came to a creek, and I looked back at the way we’d come. Tiki was in front of me. He heard that the leaves weren’t crunching anymore, and stopped to look at me. The moon was coming in harder now, high and bright.

Tiki walked over and sniffed at the cypress tree between us. I looked at my feet and bent down and pushed my fingers into the dirt. It was warm. I pulled up a handful and pressed it to my face and it smelled like rain.

I set the dirt beside me, and started to pull up more handfuls. My shadow held the growing pile until there was a deep hole in the ground, and I heard the earrings stirring in my pocket. They blinked at me as I pulled them out into the openness, fast at first, then slower. The moon came through the tree branches, and fell in broken stripes across the earrings. After a few moments, I tilted my hand and watched them fall, down my palm and across my fingertips, into the earth.

Alone and crumpled up, they looked happy. I scooped some dirt into my hands and poured it on top of them. The heel of my palms pressed the dirt into itself, until it felt firm.

Tiki whined at the darkness. He blinked at me as I stood. We walked with our shadows back toward the house.

*

Impatient rain woke me up.

I turned on my side and saw Holly crouching on the dresser, her hands gripping an imaginary rifle pointed at my face.

“Bang! You’re dead.” She giggled and jumped down. “Bang bang bang.”

“Hi,” I said, wiping my eyes.

“Hi,” she said. “Wanna play?” She tossed the gun aside and walked toward the boxes of Barbies that lined the shelf by the window. She started on the end and went down the line, enumerating, without waiting for my response. “This one’s Holiday Barbie, and this one’s Groovy Barbie, and this one’s Crystal Barbie.” She didn’t pause. I watched her walking down the shelf, pointing her short fingers at each one with a passing obsession. “…and this one’s Loving You Barbie.” She stared at the last one for a long while, smiling, and didn’t look at me. Still smiling, she took a deep breath and held it. She did that a lot, when we were waiting in the checkout at Taft’s or sitting in the car after church, but I never asked her why.

“How do you play with them if you never take them out of the box?”

“Well, I don’t want to break them!” she said, exhaling and tearing her gaze from the dolls. She smiled. “When they’re in the boxes, they’re safe.” Her voice, which was always a little louder than it should have been, was sunny, and sounded like our mother’s. It was young, too, and I looked at the dust that had settled on top of the boxes.

From the living room came a loud and sudden slamming. I heard my father’s footsteps pounding toward the bedroom beyond the kitchen, before returning to the living room. “Where is she?”

“I don’t know.” Grandma’s voice was small next to his.

“You’re lying to me. She doesn’t work today and her car is gone. Where is she?”

“I told you, I don’t know.”

“What did she say when she left?”

“I don’t remember.”

I opened the door and saw Grandma standing, facing him but unmoving. My father yelled more, faster and louder, but I couldn’t understand him. Grandma walked into the kitchen and pulled the phone off the hook. “I’m calling the police,” she said. Her hair was white like the moon.

“You do that. I’ll find her myself.” The front door slammed behind my father. I heard an engine pull out onto the road and speed off.

I went back into my room, where Holly was looking at her boxes and holding her breath. I imagined my mother in someone’s living room. I imagined her smoking, and I saw her tongue dropping her cigarette and her mouth kissing a shadow. I could see the house catching fire and burning for a long time.

The front door slammed again, and I heard Grandma’s car starting up. The gravel cracked under well-worn tires as she backed out and left.

I went into the front room. The rain was louder there, and the house was empty. I went to the kitchen window and looked out into the backyard. The air was thick with rain. My throat felt like hard, like empty mud. I couldn’t see Tiki.

Holly came into the room, skipping, small and unaware. “Maggie, is there any milk?” She stopped in the doorway.

I turned toward her and walked to the fridge. I pulled open the door and peered inside. “No,” I said, “But Momma said she was going to get some more tomorrow.”

The heavy door clanged shut, and the pictures on the fridge fluttered as she nodded and disappeared back into our room, limbs bouncing at her side as she went.

When she was gone, I went back to the window and looked into the rain. I squinted, but I couldn’t see Tiki. I went to the windows in the living room and saw mud streaked out into the road in opposite directions. My camera was lying on the TV cabinet next to my mother’s cigarettes, and I picked it up. There were two pictures left.

I cracked the door open and put my hand in the rain. It was hot. I put my camera in my pocket and walked out into it.

The rain was falling heavy on my shoulders, and the world smelled like trees. I walked to the place where Tiki was sleeping. He didn’t hear me coming, so I said his name once, then again, louder. His tail beat against the dirt and woke him up. He stood and stretched and walked, warm and tired, toward me. We walked farther from the house and turned right, into the trees.

We were loud as we went, stepping through the wet, heavy leaves. Two pictures left. A clearing went past us and dissolved into denser trees. Tiki led the way, and I lost sight of him as he dipped out of view beyond a clump of forest. But I found him, waiting for me near a redbud branch on the ground. It was split by lightning and lay half-clinging to the rest of itself. Tiki hopped across the branch, toward another tree a few yards past it.

I took a necklace and put it here, in May. A turquoise necklace with three little cornstalks on the back of the pendant. Holly used to tell Grandma that it was her favorite, and I put it in the ground, here. I was walking home, but I stopped and went back and dug it up to look at it again. I could remember watching the clumps of dirt fall fast and quiet as my fingers ran down it. I remembered bringing it close to my face, feeling the chain kissing my cheek. It was cold and felt like the moon. I wanted to hold it forever.

In the rain, the tree looked the way I remembered it, except for the branch. I wound my camera and took a picture.

My clothes were sticking to my body now, and I wiped a river of hair clinging to my forehead. My mouth opened to breathe the wet air.

I looked around. Tiki had gone.

I walked toward the redbud, and it stretched up beyond a place that I could see. I looked at the branch. White wood ran, dead, from the trunk into the dirt. I went closer and looked at the ground. A few months. Where was it? I pushed my fingers into my head but I couldn’t remember. Where was it?

The dirt looked at me and didn’t blink, and I started digging. I didn’t know where I was supposed to start. My hands plunged into the ground like the ocean on my ceiling. All there was was nothing, and my hands were wet. Brown-red clung to the underside of my fingernails. Everything smelled like rain.

I stood and walked toward the way that Tiki had gone, up a hill that was steep and wet. I wanted to go home now. I yelled his name, but he didn’t come. I clicked my tongue. All I could hear was the rain. “Tiki?” I yelled.

I ran up the hill. The woods disappeared and turned into wet asphalt that stretched left and right. Wide, shallow yellow lines ran along it. The grass panted beneath my bare feet. “Tiki?”

I saw him in the rainy road, tail up like a flag behind his bouncing body.

I clicked my tongue and yelled his name.

A pair of headlights came rolling through the tree-lined bend, followed close behind by a rain-flecked car, fast and dark and metal. Tiki smelled the pavement. I screamed. The car shook as it went over him, and his fur and his head spun in fast, loose circles.

I ran. Blood poured from a seam in his skull. His breaths were distant and panicked, and his eyes were draining into a place that I couldn’t see. I started to cry.

I tried to remember how he looked when he was little, the night we first found him. The way he looked when we took him inside and when we gave him a bath and when my mother said he could sleep with me if my father didn’t find out. But it wasn’t there. I felt his face falling out of my head. I couldn’t remember, and everything was rain. I looked at him. His blood was running clear against the road.

He couldn’t breathe anymore. I bent down to touch his face. It was wet and hot and I was crying more. I wiped my face and took a picture.

pencilMatthew Everett is a Kentucky native and first-time author that currently resides in Alabama. His unpublished work can be found on his blog.

Enormity

Beaver’s Pick
Rori Leigh Hoatlin


In Open Fields of Wildflowers - Lupine and Daisies IMG_2123
Photo Credit: John Britt

It surprised us when our Advanced Biology teacher, Mr. Reef, told us, “Millions of years ago glaciers cut through Hudsonville, Michigan. Everything, covered by water. Over time the glaciers melted into lakes, then those lakes trickled down to streams, and those streams sank into the earth creating the well-watered dirt we call muck.”

This surprised us. We attended Unity Christian High School and this was the first time I ever heard an adult say the world we lived in was millions of years old. We’d been taught to fight these sort of proclamations—how old the earth. We were taught to quote Genesis. One week, one literal week, was all it took for God because he could do anything. We must have been caught off guard. We didn’t expect this statement to come from our science teacher. He wasn’t looking for a fight. He didn’t ask us how old we thought world was. He gave us the facts.

This had been an impromptu field trip. The fifteen of us shuffled out of the classroom and boarded one of the six buses our school owned. We rode down Oak and Van Buren streets, past the fairgrounds and over the railroad tracks.

I looked out the window and surveyed my hometown, a flat place with the exception of a two-mile ridge of oak and maple trees to the west, a place made of muck fields—waterlogged mud that the Dutch were persistent enough to till. A place of celery, onions, and corn, wet all year long, but green in the spring. Purple and yellow wildflowers grew at the edge of the vegetable fields. Even on sunny days, the air smelled like a wet forest floor.

I tried to picture what it looked like “millions” of years ago. I imagined the land underwater. I imagined rivers cutting banks, foliage growing and dying. I reconstructed the enormity of the blue-and-white glacier, imagined that it covered the lowland. Wolverines roamed the tundra and howled at the black sky. But then again, there was probably nothing, just silence and ice.

At the time, I saw this trip as an escape from school. A moment when he taught us factoids about the earth, about our home. But it would have taken years for me to find out this information if he hadn’t given it to me. I wish I could return to that moment, poke myself in the ribs, and demand that I recognize its importance.

Would that version of me see?

Time opens up before me, a cavern of impossibly stretched space. We believed God made the earth in seven days. But Mr. Reef didn’t waver, he didn’t say God’s time might be different from our own and maybe seven days for God was millions of years to us. We knew what our arguments were and he knew them too. It was more important that we learn something new rather than regurgitate the same old lines we’d been fed. He needed to remind us that the world we lived in was older and filled with more complexity than we could fathom. He knew that at seventeen, we felt large. We were going to graduate and be a part of the world—he needed to remind that we felt grandiose, but in fact, we were very small.

pencilRori Leigh Hoatlin is a Teaching Fellow of English composition and literature at Georgia College and a Summer 2013 Teaching Consultant at The Lake Michigan Writing Project in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Her work has previously appeared in Young Scholars in Writing, Prick of the Spindle, and is forthcoming in Steel Toe Review, Superstition Review, and Tampa Review Online. Email: hoatlinr[at]gmail.com

Relief

Beaver’s Pick
M.J. Walsh


DSC_1384
Photo Credit: Doug Butchy

We’re going to the beach, finally. A few days ago we tried, too hot. Yesterday we tried, thunderstorms. Today things have cooled down considerably and we’ll have to wear clothes over our swimsuits but it’s sunny and clear and we’ve got lots of sunscreen and extra towels to cover our freezing bodies when we emerge from the frigid north Atlantic.

So we’re going to the beach, finally! If I can ever find my sunglasses and lip balm. The weight on my head is reassuring; now show yourself, lip balm—my longest-running addiction, and last obstacle. Pockets? No. Beach bag? No. Bathrobe! Wait, let me run upstairs and check the bathrobe pockets! Jackpot! All set, let’s go. We need to get there early to get a primo spot, a circle with a radius of at least ten feet.

Good god, it’s stifling in the car. Perhaps we should keep the windows rolled up and sweat it out all the way to the beach, dump our stuff at the center of our perfect beach circle, and dive straight in to the ocean, like Norwegians, just emerged from a sauna. We’ll blink the salt from our eyes and splash around until our fingers prune or our ankles get numb then wander up to deal with our accoutrements, dripping.

We’ll have to find some hefty rocks to hold down the corners of each blanket. We’ll have to dry off and put on sunblock. We’ll have to try not to fall asleep after our second beer in the sun. Are the bathhouse and lunch bar open this early in the season? It is June after all, and if they can charge for parking, they can at least provide sustenance for the people who are forking it out. They do a decent coffee, for a beach, if memory serves.

First we have to get there. Not many people on the road today. It looks like smooth sailing for us. The roads are cracked and bruised from the fourteen-year-long winter we’ve endured. Some of the side streets are riddled with veins of newly-caulked pavement sealant. The smell of the tar mixes with flowers and pollen and freshly-cut grass, soon to be replaced with the smell of salt and sunscreen, the grit of the sand in our hair and the glare of the seagull, lusting after our potato chips.

We’re going to the beach, finally.

pencilM.J. Walsh is from Boston, MA. She works at a university library by day and writes by night. Email: ivivivivi[at]gmail.com

Callas the Great

Beaver’s Pick
Rupprecht Mayer


Royal Opera House Covent Garden---La Bohéme
Photo Credit: Andrea Puggioni

Yes, Callas. And she was great! You never got to see her live, on stage. And recordings from that time are so rare. Back in the day, singers used to sing for flesh and blood people, not just for recordings. Or CDs, whatever they’re called now. But those few live recordings that exist, they really capture the atmosphere. The space, the audience. You really feel the dialogue between the artist and her audience. We adored her, we followed her. Everywhere. Milan’s La Scala, in 1955; then in 1959, in Edinburgh. We were there! Walter and I, I mean. My late husband, you knew him? Of course you knew him. You’ve heard him; you’d recognize his voice. No, he never sang himself. But in Lisbon, during La Traviata, 1958, if I’m not mistaken, the coughing during the “E strano” aria? That was him. Maybe you weren’t paying attention. I can understand that. But in this immortal Tosca recording from 1965, in Paris, you definitely heard him. By that time his coughing had become so distinctive, almost a kind of barking. Unmistakable! I listen to these records over and over again. Callas, di Stefano. And my beloved Walter’s coughing! Soon afterwards I had to take him to Davos. The lungs. He never came back.

Today’s recordings? No comparison. So sterile. Nothing but studio. And you know what? Now they’re beginning to delete the sounds of the audience from those old recordings. They simply run them through computers, they say. The other day, my niece gave me a CD as a present, with the famous concert at Covent Garden, 1965. You know. That was just before Davos. I waited to hear my dear Walter’s five coughs in the “Caro nome” aria. But they were gone! Deleted! You can’t do this to an audience. What a lack of piety. My poor Walter. Great as Callas was, but I can do without stuff like that!

pencil

Rupprecht Mayer was born 1946 near Salzburg. After some 20 years living and working in Taiwan, Beijing, and Shanghai, he recently resettled in Bavaria. He translates Chinese literature and writes short prose and poetry in German and English. Publications: English versions appeared in Atticus, Bicycle Review, Frostwriting, Hobart, Mikrokosmos/Mojo, NAP, Nano Fiction, Ninth Letter, Orange Quarterly, Postcard Shorts, Prick of the Spindle, Radius, Whole Beast Rag (forthcoming) and Washington Square Review. For more of his work, see his website. Email: rupprecht_mayer[at]hotmail.com

Winds

Beaver’s Pick
Robert Herzog


sail away
Photo Credit: •• FedericoLukkini ••

He lies on the slightly damp lounge chair, on a towel, to insulate himself from the moisture. He is wearing a white linen shirt and tan linen pants, which are near phosphorescent under the three-quarter Caribbean moon. He is pleased by the contrast between his dark hands and the light linen, evocative of luxury and lust. His cigar, an overrated Cuban, is drafting poorly and the ash is uneven. He struggles with the steady twenty-knot easterly, pushing just-lit matches against the unburned edge and taking excessively deep puffs to compensate for the shoddy draw, which annoys him. He considers masturbating under the moonlight, spitting into the sand. He stares past his sneakers at the breaking surf. He looks up sharply.

“I don’t know,” he says. The words sneak between the sounds of the wind and the surf and linger around his head, even as the smoke dissipates.

*

They had left the house early that morning, propelled by the fine sheen of sweat that arose despite the light flow from the overhead fan. They were staying in the house of an acquaintance, Hank Tenance, someone he’d recently done a deal with. He’d paid Hank a lot of money for his business, perhaps more than was necessary. But he’d admired the unabashed way the older man pursued his interests, admired Hank’s collection of large bright abstract canvases of young artists whose names he didn’t know, and he wasn’t as sharp in the contract terms as he might have been.

He shrugged it off: at worst he’d made an indiscernible amount less for the institutions he invested for. A part of him wished he had been invited to use the house as an artist-in-residence, for writing or drawing, as others evidently were, but then he was neither artist nor writer, just had memories, shadows of aspirations, and he was intrigued by the idea of having a patron. Even a mentor would have been nice, but he was too articulate to proffer the seduction of doubt, to arouse in others the prospect of gratification through dispensing guidance under the guise of affection, and it was way past that day.

The island was small, a half-hour to its raw circumference. The house was on a point that separated the calm Caribbean Sea from the turbulent Atlantic. At all hours the ocean surf pounded against the seawall, an old cracked slab of concrete that reminded him of ancient buttresses, castle walls in Morocco, the days of grand undertakings with limited technology. He liked that the damp heat awakened them early, forcing a more natural rhythm with the sun and by association other elements. At home they had to leave the air conditioner fan on year-round to drown the street noises. He felt energized by the repeated crash of the surf, sounding much larger than it actually was.

So he got up unusually early, although even then Sarah was already awake, already another book half read, some obscure Spanish mystery about a missing Vermeer, which he might find interesting, or one of those horse mysteries, a thousand-and-one ways to slip them poison, which he would not. She was an intent and consistent reader, even more so down here. He was always amazed at the number of pages she consumed. He read as well—his suitcase weighed sixty-four pounds due largely to books—but not as early, not as faithfully. The heaviest was an oversized British tome about kitchen renovations, which he thought they could look at together, but hadn’t. He reverted to science fiction, once his favorite, but it was hard to find new themes.

“Ready?” said Sarah. She looked up from the couch.

Even at this hour she slathered on forty-five-plus sunblock. Her legs were still terrific, he thought, and in the dark evenings by the bar the wrinkles disappeared and he could see the structural beauty of her earlier days. He’d go without sunscreen for twenty or thirty minutes, then put on fifteen, working to take a tan back to New York. He liked the color on his face, thought it made him look better, lowered the contrast to the dark spots that had appeared, when he couldn’t remember, but he didn’t like them, used some kind of lotion his dermatologist recommended, acid and oil, but it seemed to just spread them out, less intense but still there, under his close mirror scrutiny. But even more he liked a tan belly, to see the leathery color rise above the line of his swimsuit, a color of warmth and affluence to bolster him through the dark winter months, a color he could inspect with pleasure in a morning shower or evening bath.

He searched for sunglasses, tied his sneakers, put on a linen shirt that let him feel the breezes, picked up and put down his watch, then put it on, filled a water bottle, found a bandana he stuffed in his pocket, went to the fridge, poured and drank half a glass of orange juice, jammed some dried apricots in his other pocket. Sarah had turned several pages.

“You bet,” he said.

He untied the rope that Monita, the housekeeper, used to keep the metal front doors together. He had struggled trying to shut them tightly their first evening, thinking about bugs, until Sarah had pointed out that the wonderful dark polished wooden window louvers that so effectively managed the breeze had no screens, and they’d both laughed.

Once out back, they headed in the direction of a great white house they’d spotted when they sailed in. They couldn’t get very close, the path was marked “private” in strong black hand-printed letters on a white cross at the bottom of the hill on which the house perched, but it looked grand, one of the enclaves of the rich and richer they occasionally glimpsed peeking above the hilltop shrubs.

“I love the breeze we get all the time where we’re staying,” he said.

“And the noise of the waves.” She took hold of his arm.

“It’s nice it’s so simple,” he said. Just the front deck, an open living area and two bedrooms. The one they were in had sliding glass doors that they tried closing to keep out the biting bugs, but then they lost the air currents blowing through and got too hot, so he regulated the opening through the night. He looked up the hill. “Would be great to have something like this.”

“I’d rather rent, not have the hassles,” Sarah said.

She tried to get him to pick up after himself more, clean some dishes, but the effort had become greater than the results. With renting, at least whatever mess accumulated in the week could be left behind.

She started walking, and said, “Monita told me Hank had to redo the whole terrace, raise it and the walls, because of water coming in over the seawall.”

As a child he had dreamed of owning homes all over the world, places he could come to that would be his, his things in them, always ready.

“Yeah, it’s great this way,” he said. He looked up at the high white house, imagined its views, whitewashed rooms with four-posters veiled in mosquito netting graceful in perfect shafts of afternoon sunlight. Of course, there was the maintenance.

He caught up to Sarah, and they walked briskly, taking advantage of the lesser heat of morning. He wanted to explore every set of battered stone steps that went up into a hill or promontory, and she went along. They stopped at a hammock set up on the Atlantic side, and he lay down across it, inviting her to tuck in next to him, which she did, although not fully comfortably. They swung for a while, looking out towards distant islands softened by haze, listening to the waves breaking beneath their vision. He closed his eyes, lulled by the rhythm of the waves and the hammock rocking, and, as he often did, watching the waves curl against the cracked concrete slab or lying on the beach feeling the sun on his face, he wandered in his mind, drifted among memories, engaged in an inner dialogue trying to understand, call up willful intent, implant suggestions to pursue greater purpose. He bought other people’s ideas, in the guise of companies, and resold them, piggybacking a margin on market inefficiencies. Making money for pension funds, striving for quarter points. Seeking to aggregate many small things into significance.

“Okay, I’m done, let’s go.” Sarah stood up, shaking him back. From wondering, again, how to get beyond the same deals the same way, other people’s ideas reaping huge rewards. He rose slowly, taking her hand.

When they returned, Monita had already arrived, cut up some papaya which she had put on the table under little net tents.

“We’re going for a swim, Monita, then we’ll have breakfast, okay?” he told her. Sarah and Monita had talked a lot the last few days, while he stared out at the sea, about Monita’s nine children and what they were up to, about being a mother and earning money and schools and her morning workers’ boat ride and how often she was at the house and when the Tenances were coming. He had asked if she could get some lobsters to cook for that night, but noted she had more of the small red fish they had eaten yesterday.

“Yes please. Them’s red hine,” she said. “Yesterday was red snapper.”

He asked about the lobster. Tonight, he reminded, was their last dinner before leaving.

“Yes, please, boats couldn’t go out yesterday, the storm,” she said. “I be lucky to get these, they sell mostly all to the hotel.”

“Well, it’s great we got these,” said Sarah. “That sauce you made yesterday was amazing. You’re an incredible cook.”

He thought Sarah was overdoing it, but Monita beamed, her broad face opening up, a lower front tooth gone, the rolls of her body, like so many island women, tumbling with her own laughter. This morning she wore a dress, a black-and-white print.

“Sure, something to look forward to when we come back,” he said, and Monita laughed some more.

They walked down to the hotel beach, postcard perfect, to go for a swim. Sarah was uncomfortable about taking a couple of the hotel lounge chairs, since they weren’t guests, but he reassured her, again, that the owner of the house had said it was fine, and they’d eaten dinner in the hotel restaurant their first night, and would set up a credit account, and it was fine.

The surf here was just a few inches high; it lapped briefly and quietly on the shore. The water seemed cool just for an instant, then was in equilibrium with their bodies. He didn’t like snorkeling, didn’t like his head underwater, and with just his goggles he had to keep moving, so he rarely saw any of the fabled fish people talked about. He said he didn’t care.

They talked, standing in the water, mostly variations on “Nice, really nice.” They walked back to where they had put their towels under one of the palms that sprung from the sand. Nobody was near them.

“Boy, people are weird,” he said. “On the other side of the jetty, there’s no breeze, all they’d have to do is walk fifty yards this direction and they wouldn’t bake in the still air, and they just sit there. I don’t get it.”

“They settle in, that’s all,” she said.

“Just get up, a few feet, a little effort.”

“Not everybody looks for the best angle all the time, Martin.” If she started talking about finding contentment and peace, she was afraid she wouldn’t stop.

“Acceptance isn’t a virtue if you— it’s just taking a few steps, for the whole afternoon.” He grabbed his towel.

They read, then walked over to the hotel reception to give them a credit card imprint. His broker had joked that the markets went up every time he went away, so this time he bought some S&P indexed securities. He tried to avoid the New York Times fax the resorts now provided with breakfast, but Sarah had no such aversion, and over her shoulder he saw that the market had barely moved. The phone line for the credit card was down, as it had been the day before. He made an effort to smile and say no problem, he’d come back later.

They returned to the house, ate the papaya and scrambled eggs Monita prepared at his request. She had changed into a faded T-shirt and green shorts that swaddled her large body like the Michelin tire logo.

He looked around the house, at the large paintings and open terrace and window louvers polished to a high sheen and bookshelves filled with hardbacks, and it occurred to him that the older man had gotten the better of him in the deal.

“Let’s go back to the hotel beach,” he said. Living on the edge, raking it in, not as an institution, but as a person. Big bright abstruse canvases on all his walls—how could you tell what they were worth? Martin had had ideas, understood big markets.

 

Sarah remembered the enthusiasm of their early days, talking all the time about creative projects, new services, inventions, it helped her overcome her dismay learning that he worked in finance. Somewhere, Sarah often thought, they’d left that energy behind, and hadn’t found its replacement. She wasn’t unhappy, indeed was more than content, with children now grown and off, the apartment bigger with that absence, her only pang was his, when he emphasized his sense of failure, his longing, and worse, when he did nothing about it. She could feel the hurt, but bounded by his inertia could find no place for action. And her contentment disturbed him, but she couldn’t find a salve for his self-inflicted wound. It was just a matter of timing, he’d said, starting something new. But days become years when you’re not counting them, and the years left can seem like days when you do.

 

“Do you think it’s okay?” Sarah said. “I mean the credit card hasn’t cleared yet, they might not like it.”

“These are the islands, it’s no big deal.”

“Still, it’s so nice here, I don’t mind staying.”

“We can’t swim here, we’ll have to walk over anyway.”

“I’m just not so sure. It is marked private.”

“You weren’t always like this, you know.” He tried to laugh, to stop before roaming through the dangers of shared history. “I swear, if we were on the Titanic, and one of those lifeboats went by half-filled, I’d say, ‘Let’s jump in!’ and you’d say, ‘I’m not so sure, they must know what they’re doing.’ Let’s just go.”

Forty-five minutes later, after he had stuffed his backpack with a second bathing suit—no chafing later from a wet suit—and books and lotions and water bottle and goggles and T-shirt and a little chocolate and some of the fresh coconut pieces Monita had cut from one he found lying near the house, though she had thought it would be too dry—he drank all the milk inside the coconut, past when he had lost the taste for it—they walked to the beach. At the last minute Sarah put down one book and packed another.

They swam; he lay in the sun. He noticed that further out and to the right of where they swam the surf broke early and hard. His head tickled; he scratched it and felt bumps where his receded hairline had let in too much sun; he put lotion on everywhere, but still forgot that spot. He brushed the sand off his back, picked up the towel and shook it, then carefully lay on it. Sarah sat under the palm tree shade and read. The reflections of the sun and the pink flecks of coral in the sand swirled like a glossy seashell in the fine porcelain of her skin.

 

The pages turned, so quickly they barely got scuffed. She skipped what didn’t interest her, read to her own standards, had no patience for clutter and fill. She looked over at Martin and smiled under her broad straw hat. She wanted to massage away his fussing, tell him it was all right, but she hesitated and lost the moment.

 

He thought he felt sand bugs in his itches, and after a while he went to get a lime daiquiri at the bar, the drink recommended by Lennox, the bartender. He’d be happy with an early afternoon buzz, to eat lunch at the bar, but Monita prepared lunch and Sarah would insist they eat that. He asked about the break he had noticed earlier.

“That’s over the reef, you want to be careful, swimming there,” Lennox said, cutting the limes. “Get stuck in that, it cut you bad.”

“It’s got a nice break on it, though,” he flicked his wrist. “Think you could ride over it, in a Hobie Cat?”

“That be a tricky ride, man, you don’t want to spill. But be a fun trip.” With a flourish he put the daiquiri on the counter.

Martin held the cool moisture of the glass against his palm, downed his drink, brought back a pair to where Sarah was lying. She read, and he looked out over the water, but the slight curl of the low breaking waves wasn’t interesting, none of the enveloping sound and dashing spray of the oceanside surf.

They ate a lunch of small red fish, took a nap, thought about making love but felt constrained, Monita didn’t leave till four to take the workers’ boat back to her island. They walked back to the beach, waded into the water, then lay down, Sarah in a chaise under the palm tree, Martin on his towel, putting thirty on his face and fifteen on his body. At least there weren’t too many people on the beach. He was a bit fried—it had not been an easy year—and they were here because he couldn’t afford the thousand-dollar-a-night freight on Mustique. When he felt the sun’s heat push past the sunblock, he got up.

“I think I’ll go over, see if I can rent a Hobie Cat from the hotel, okay? he said.

She nodded.

“Want to come? Two can fit, like we used to.” He slapped his stomach.

“No, I’m happy right here. Have fun, pooch. Be careful, it’s a while since we’ve done any sailing.”

“Sailing is easy, thanks.”

 

She remembered their first sail together. He said he’d crewed with friends, and she’d done the same and more on her father’s twelve meter. They discovered love in close quarters, the kind that would last. They nearly capsized in a sudden squall that came up on their backs sailing out of St. John, when he hadn’t attached the jib stay and it ballooned over their heads bigger than the sky. He ran forward along the main boom, getting knocked, but lowering the jib into the water so that they could laugh about it. She got ill reading the maps, so she steered while he set courses, pondering over compass readings and sightings, which got them around just fine. She was ready to sail out to the Baths on Virgin Gorda, but he said they’d been there before and he would rather see new places.

 

He walked to reception, where they finally had gotten through with his credit card, and arranged for a boat. He started to rig it himself, but got caught up with the sheets, and the beach staff guy helped him.

He luffed close to the shore, but once past the lee line of the point the steady wind carried him along. His first turns were rough, his small boat sailing had been in centerboard monohulls. But the way the boat whipped on top of the water, its quick turns and easy jibes, was joyous, and he soon ventured further out into the channel, taking long tacks and quick downwind runs. Remembering how quickly it got dark, he decided to head back to the hotel beach while the sun was still high. He rode a broad reach with the sun in his face, eyes closed, feeling the wind. He realized he was steering towards the outer reef.

“Be a fun trip, man.”

He made out the whitecaps breaking, could see the dark below the surface in the troughs between the waves.

I could make it over, he thought. Be close, but I could do it.

He imagined catching one of the waves in the cat, rising up, surfing over the reef and riding the break, high and fast. The timing would be key, quick turns, keep up enough speed to set in just in front of a crest and just behind the reef. He tacked back and forth, looking at the break, at the slim surface over the reef in between the waves, rock and coral jutting through. The wind picked up, the height of the waves grew larger as he approached the reef line.

 

Sarah cribbed page four-twenty-seven and looked past the beach, searching for the tiny white triangle whose shape she had noted earlier. For an instant it felt as if her heart divided and a portion fled over the water, searching. For an instant she wanted only to ride with him, with her will and all her heart. But she grew weary now, and her heart reunited back on the beach lying under the shade of the palm that jutted sharply out of the sand. She picked up the book, but felt no compulsion to finish; endings rarely satisfied her.

 

He tacked, tacked again. He remembered trying to row a raft in whitewater a couple of years ago, when the boatman said, “Want to give it a try?” He broke an oar. Sarah quickly unstrapped the spare before they got to the next rapids. He zigzagged, hard right and left, trying to judge the frequency of the waves, not easy because they ran across each other coming off the channel as well as over the shallow reef. The boat fluttered under his hand, pummeled sideways by the conflicting intersection of the wave fronts. He came off, lost the breeze, the sail flapped searching for traction, he pushed the sail with his hand to catch some wind and make way, went up and turned around. He just had to find the measure, the technique, it was only a matter of timing. His thoughts raced past ascents not made, chances not taken. Cut across diagonally, ride one crest, drop into the trough just in front of the reef, get picked up by the next crest, surf across. The exhilaration of surging over. The danger was turning too soon or too close, he could shoot into the reef in a trough.

“Get stuck in that, it cut you bad, man.”

He imagined the raking sound against the hulls, falling into it, the explanations, the hotel beach staff having to bail him out, listening to his explanations without smirking, his legs cut, sitting while someone bandaged them, discussing infection, Sarah’s questions. Her understanding. On vacation.

He rode over a crest, fast, faster than he’d gone all day, dropped in, watched the wave break high over the reef, and loud, louder than the roll of stones tossed at the ocean’s edge, rumbling through the hulls, he stared at the sharp points of the reef as they emerged behind the wave, the rumbling louder, cascade of stonesound and breaking white water, higher than his head, too loud, too high, too sharp, too close, he cut out, rode sideways back into the wind and across the wave front, away from the reef and towards the hotel shore. He turned to look, thinking, knowing, if he’d kept his speed up he could have made it. Fuck it, he thought, it’s just an afternoon sail on a vacation.

 

“How was the sailing?” Sarah asked. Fun, he told her. They were cradling cool daiquiris in the hotel bar.

“From the way you were heading, I almost thought you were going to surf over the reef,” she said. “That would have been neat.”

“Over the reef? No, they said, the bartender, not a good idea. And not my boat. You know.”

 

In the evening, after dinner, more of the red fish, in the fine familiar broth of saffron and spices, and after picking through bones while swatting at bugs had driven them into the bedroom and Sarah had read and fallen asleep, he went out onto the deck. He lay down on a chaise longue, but quickly felt the damp through the linen shirt, its long sleeves slightly short from too many washings, and pants he had put on to keep the bugs off. He got up, went to get a cigar, matches, a snipper, and a towel, and put on his sneakers, so as not to endure the damp sand curdling under his feet. He draped the towel on the chaise, lay on top of it. He remembered that the last Hoya robusto he had smoked hadn’t burned well, too much effort to pull and an uneven edge, so much for the magic of real Cubans, but he didn’t feel like getting up to find something different.

He heard the crashing waves and thought of their first trip to the Caribbean, just a few months after he and Sarah had met, in the pre-children state of love and poverty that allowed for taxis, restaurants and vacation. They flew to Virgin Gorda to camp out at the Baths. Camping, he realized, almost as if it were a new idea. Sleeping in bags open to the stars. When it drizzled, from clouds they could see approaching under the bright moon, they simply tucked away the bags, sat it out, poking the fire, listening to the drops sizzle, laughing. When they’d told the coal-black customs officer at the airport they were sleeping out, he looked at them oddly, especially blonde good-looking American Sarah, as if debating if he should let them on the island. They hitched a ride and set up an easy camp, putting it away each morning after swimming to walk up a sandy windswept road lined with shrubs feeling like he was in a Conrad novel, to a thatched roof bar where they drank gin and tonics and he read Portnoy’s Complaint and laughed so loudly he must have sold a dozen copies, until the big boats left the beach and they walked back.

The Baths were a collection of house-sized rocks tossed on top of each other, forming pools and stone hallways over the sand. They wandered through the maze with no determination to get out, sank into the soft sand bottoms of quiet calm ponds shrouded by the great boulders. They started climbing, barefooted, just in their bathing suits. Sarah scrambled to the top of one of the rocks, over the ocean, shaking her long blonde hair off her face. He followed her halfway up until he slid on the slight moss nurtured by the spray. He would have stopped there, but Sarah was waving to him, shouting, barely discernible over the wind and breaking water, “C’mon up, the view’s fantastic.” I see plenty from here, he thought, then inched his way, thinking again if only he did more pull-ups he’d be better at this, scraping his knees by hugging the rock too close.

Near the top, he heard her yell and turned to see her long lithe body in its one-piece black bathing suit knife by him into the water straight and true. He pulled himself over, and looked around. It was beautiful, different, seeing the expanse of great rocks tumbled with a force beyond imagining, the beach melding into the tropical greens, the pure shades of water indicating and belying depth. He tried to enjoy it but the thought of getting down dominated. Only one way, thanks to Sarah. He stood at the edge, trying to will his sight to the level of his feet, six feet lower in reality, and jumped feet first splashing his arms hard as he could to prevent his head from going under, failing for a moment, hearing different sounds, closed in, and then he was up and gulping air and Sarah was next to him, hugging him, her laughter blending with the sounds of the waves and the wind.

They swam ashore and he played in the sand, jumped around dunes and rocks until she was too tired to follow and they lay feeling the sun and sand, the tingle of last night’s lovemaking parading with the anticipation of the night to come. Swimming, no shower afterward, sleeping on the beach and laughing and rolling up their bags when it rained. Sitting by the fire, stoned, the warm breeze all around him, he’d felt wise, like he understood things.

*

Was I ever really like that? he wonders, as he cups his hands to light a match, trying to get his cigar to burn evenly in the wind.
pencil

Robert M. Herzog is a writer and entrepreneur in New York City, living, not fully understanding how he got there, at the intersection of creativity and business. You can read more of his fiction and poems, see his short film, and encounter his raves and rants at thezog.com. Email: herzog212[at]gmail.com

Concrete Love

Beaver’s Pick
Marchell Dyon Jefferson


I love NY & the Hand I'm Holding
Photo Credit: Jason L. Parks

I laugh at words. My mouth is open all the time. As I pass streets, not swell with petals, below a hazy city sun. When my face isn’t press to yours, I see a carnival of oil slick traffic kaleidoscopes. My vision blurs between bakery smells and armpit avenues that make my nose flare; on a very public bus, we get stares. A fat woman with her eyes dares us to stop what we’re doing, but like everyone else; she stares only long enough then leaves us alone. What a pair we are; a likely Romeo and Juliet and not like them at all. Our ebony faces defiant, making out in back seats. We are, all rev up in each tango taste, till saliva, melts away the tongue.

pencil

Marchell Dyon is from Chicago, IL. She has taken various poetry workshops; she is eternally addicted to audio books. She is currently working on her first chapbook. Her work has appeared in Ouroboros Review, West Ward Quarterly, Lily Review, and Corner Club Press. Email: marchelldyon[at]yahoo.com