Retreat

Fiction
Jim Ray Daniels


Photo Credit: Bill Froberg/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

August. The beach stunk with warm algae slime. The green neon landscape of some alien, post-apocalyptic planet, not the serene artist’s retreat Steve had imagined when he bought the cottage eight months earlier.

The yellow blot of sun brightened the already-fluorescent algae. Steve pushed the rubber raft, Sea Cruiser 2000, into the water. The algae stirred slightly, staining the sides of the white raft, draping itself over the looped rope dragging behind. It clung to Steve’s pant legs as he pushed off and hopped in across from Amy. They rowed in circles around the small pond. It was not a lake. Not large enough to even have a name. It was called “The Lake” by the other cottage owners, whose own names Steve kept forgetting.

He and Amy had planned on heading back to Morgantown later that afternoon, or even the next day—school wouldn’t start for another two weeks—but Amy panicked when the car wouldn’t start. She’d wanted to drive out to Drover’s Tavern and Dry Goods Store to purchase a Sunday paper that wasn’t The Intelligencer, the local conservative rag that Steve used to start their fires.

He thought maybe she’d flooded the engine or drained the battery or both. She’d planned the newspaper as a surprise—sneaking out while he was asleep—only to have to shake him awake. “The car won’t start”: the four dreaded words that made the coffee bitter, and the pancakes dry, no matter how much syrup he forced on them. “The car won’t start,” she repeated on a loop, like a Bible verse repeated on the one station their old clock radio picked up, its bent antenna poking against the window screen.

“It’s too early to get help,” Steve said. “Let’s go out on the lake and calm down a little. Maybe it’ll start when we get back.”

“Oh, like magic?” Amy said, but she followed him down to shore, stepping in his footprints to avoid the goose shit. The wild dogs and the geese fought over noise rights. The geese seemed to be winning, based on the amount of shit, though at the moment they must have been encamped on one of the other small ponds in that small corner of southwestern Pennsylvania where West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania blended together. But it was like garlic mixed with salt and pepper—it all smelled like West Virginia, the strong tang and sting of hill country spilling over the back roads.

*

Steve grabbed the small blue plastic paddles and began rowing. He closed his eyes and imagined the tiny chlorine-filled backyard pools of his friends in suburban Detroit, where they swam in circles long enough to create a whirlpool, then jumped on a float, and drifted away the hot afternoon.

He’d—they’d—bought the place in October, the weekend of their first anniversary, the pond clear of algae, glistening in autumn stillness like the wet insides of an apple. The tree out front—Ted didn’t even know what kind—still bright with red and orange leaves, enormous and rippling in fresh wind over water. The money was his, and that was one of many secret grudges they held against each other.

In that glossy postcard moment, they hadn’t imagined raking those leaves. They’d overlooked the impressive array of equipment lining the slightly listing walls of Babe’s old wooden garage: the leaf spinner, the leaf claws, the weighted leaf-collection bags, the big rakes and the small. Babes. If there ever was a woman who did not match that nickname, it was Babes Harkness. How she acquired it, they never found out. Her real name was Henrietta, they learned when they signed the purchase papers. If only that had been the last of Babes.

She couldn’t give up the place, despite turning over the keys, cashing their check. She lived in Follansbee, a small industrial town on the Ohio River about twenty miles away. She seemed to show up every time they were there—who knew how often she drove by when they were not, her car on autopilot, or firmly trained, like Babes’ yappy little dog, to obey. Steve suspected she’d kept a set of keys and snooped around while they were back in Morgantown. He meant to change the locks, but he liked the smooth feel of the tarnished keys.

They were happy the cottage got no cell phone service, but like many things about the place, the positive turned negative, their quiet mornings disturbed without warning by Babes’ sporty little Mazda crunching up the gravel driveway. She always had a reason—something she forgot to tell them about the septic, the pipes, the electric.

*

And there she was, skidding into gravel on that hot Sunday morning. Steve kept rowing through algae toward the center of the pond. He strained to hum loud enough to drown out Babes’ arrival. Amy nudged him in the groin with her foot from where she sat in the tiny raft that seemed to have been designed for a person and a half, not two. “Babes,” she hissed.

“We’re busy,” he said. “Preoccupied. We don’t see her. Enjoying this lovely day on this beautiful lake so enormous that we are invisible out here.”

“It’s so tiny she can hear every word we say,” Amy said.

Babes was striding down the hill to the water’s edge where each year the Wellcroft Cottage Association dumped a load of dark brown sand and called it a beach. The geese shat on it like their private litter box.

Babes was waving a piece of paper in the air as if signaling them in some coded language. They could hear it rustling—the water magnified all sound. Steve’s sweat stuck against the thick rubber raft.

“Maybe she can give us a jump,” Amy said, both resigned and hopeful. She hadn’t completed a painting since they’d bought the place. He was worried. Was she beginning to think life with him was a bad idea, sinking into her own murky pond polluted by unknown or nonexistent contaminants?

“I found it, I found it,” Babes called out. Her voice, a blunt instrument, a dull persistent drill that punctured the calm of their raft. What bad news did was she clutching now? Steve reluctantly spun the Sea Cruiser, and the algae bunched up like sickly green frosting on a child’s Monster birthday cake as they headed back to shore. “Perhaps we need a Sea Cruiser three thousand,” he said. “That, and a map for buried treasure.”

*

They bought the place with money Steve got by cashing out his retirement fund in a frenzied manic moment of spontaneously combustible insanity right after he’d divorced his first wife, Keren, who’d discovered his affair with Amy, a new assistant professor. She was younger, cuter. Mentor and mentee, lover and lovee. Cliché and clichée. He was dyeing his hair and gobbling vitamin supplements and Viagra. Fresh start! New life! Amy had no money, no job, and a history of mental disorders, and Steve was paying alimony and child support—was he poison and she ivy, or vice versa? The vague stink of scandal hung over them, as if they’d bathed in that algae. They had no real friends, and her pills took away the imaginary friends. The Sea Cruiser 2000 of their lives had no reverse.

*

Babes held up the paper, a treasure map that showed the exact location of the buried septic tank. “You’ll need it someday,” she said in a voice reeking of made-for-TV wisdom. Steve grimaced, taking the wrinkled, yellowed piece of loose leaf smudged with old dirt, or maybe shit that had backed up from the tank—nothing to do but invite her in to explain the cryptic diagram. Amy grabbed his hand, as she always seemed to do in the gruff, menacing presence of Babes.

“It smells like bacon in here,” Babes said, licking her lips, swaggering into her old kitchen, letting the screen door whap against Amy’s hip behind her. Babes was used to being alone, but maybe she wasn’t so crazy about it.

Steve jumped as the door hit Amy.

“We had bacon and eggs for breakfast. They taste better out here in the country,” Amy said, discretely rubbing the jut of her hip. “Don’t you think?”

No one answered.

“By the way,” Steve said, “one of the burners on this stove doesn’t work. Do you know anything about that?”

“Oh, I never used more than one burner myself, so I couldn’t say… An old woman like me, by herself…”

If she was going to stick to them like grease congealed inside the oven, Steve was intent on getting her to fix all those little flaws you discover after moving in a new place. Or move in with a new someone.

Babes’ yappy dog yapped at the door.

“Squeaker loves it here,” she said for the thousandth time.

“Let him visit some of his old friends out there,” Steve said, gesturing vaguely with a swoop of his arm toward the “out there.”

“I’ll let him in,” Amy said, jumping up.

*

“My husband Al hated it here,” Babes said, slurping her cold coffee. She’d been rocking for hours on her old glider with the hard plastic cushions, Squeaker’s head across her lap on the screened-in porch.

“Tell us about Al,” Amy said, and Steve gave her a look. His strategy was silence to encourage departure, but Amy had been raised on manners—she listened to her elders, and that included Steve himself. The art department blamed the whole affair on Steve. They knew and liked Keren, a divorce lawyer who was well-known for her blunt, accurate assessments—a rarity in the odd, nuanced blood sport of academic politics. They liked Amy too.

Babes wore a wedding ring and had in the past made vague references to a husband, though the only cottage owner who had ever seen him was Brad, the quiet alcoholic who lived in the next cottage. He claimed that Al had come with her twenty years ago when she first bought the place, but she now had him tied up in the apartment back in Follansbee and was cashing his pension checks from Weirton Steel.

*

“I’ll tell you about Al. First, you tell me your story,” Babes said, turning to look directly at Amy. “Why do you two have different last names,” Babes asked. “You are married?”

Steve clenched his fist and shoved it forward to display the ring glistening with what he imagined was menace. He didn’t care about Al, and he wouldn’t tell her anything she could hold over them. The cottage was meant to be a refuge from the gossip and a peaceful place to paint. What made her so bold today? Was the map her last scrap to feed them?

“Oh, there’s no story,” Amy said. “We fell in love, got married, bought the cottage.”

“Yes, my place,” Babes said.

“And we owe you nothing,” Steve said. “All paid up. We paid our Association dues too… We paid all our dues.”

“My husband’s dead,” Babes said abruptly.

They skipped lunch, hoping to quicken her departure. Steve’s stomach growled. Babes raised the thin disconnected lines of her eyebrows, her short white hair shaking with the effort to disapprove.

“I know your story,” she said. “I don’t know your story, but I know it. I lived your story.” her bare wrist thudded down against the armrest. The Zen of Babes—Steve rolled his eyes. He twisted his ring.

*

“Is this map in inches or feet?” Steve asked, studying the crude lines and figures.

Babes waved her hand as if to swat an invisible fly. She’d validated her ticket and was now in her seat. “Oh, you can figure it out. Just start digging.” She barked an abrupt laugh. “I’ve been trying to figure out something myself. Steven, how old are you? Around my age? I’m sixty-two.”

Steve scratched at his long hair dyed a uniform black. Amy knew he dyed it now, though most people recognized it immediately as a dye job. She was helping him touch it up, which chilled him with vague foreshadowing—would she be his caretaker, undertaker?

“Oh, he’s much younger,” Amy said. “Just look at him!”

Steve was fifty. Amy was twenty-eight and wanted kids, and he’d agreed to try and have one with her. He’d had a daughter, Suzanne, with Keren. Five years younger than Amy, she barely spoke to him. She hadn’t come to the wedding. She told Steve that Amy wore too much make-up and talked baby talk.

*

The bubbling aerator purchased by the Association to (in theory) reduce the algae growth—kicked on, as it did each night. It sounded like the dying trickle of a waterfall. The Association had also illegally transported algae-eating fish across state lines and dumped them in the pond. Steve occasionally spotted enormous gold or white fish emerging through the slime, but they also had no impact on the algae. The algae would live forever, hibernating in winter only to emerge in full, terrible blossom in the spring. Steve had thrown out his back trying to rake it all in to shore earlier that summer while Brad next door swilled a six pack and chuckled, watching from his shaded porch. Steve imagined floating in his coffin down an algae-covered stream, and shuddered.

Babes had stopped gliding and had wedged herself into the corner cushions.

“Well, it’s getting late,” Amy said for the third time, louder, but still Babes did not respond. Steve had openly yawned at least twice. Babes emitted a low grunt, and he peered over to see if her eyes were still open.

“She’s snoring!” Amy whispered.

*

Artists and professors, and they both had summers free. How productive they would be out here in the woods! Undisturbed in nature! Artists! Legitimate! Eccentric! Vindicated!

Around Detroit, many dreamed of having a “Place Up North” to drive to in the summer, joining the hordes snaking up I-75 each Friday afternoon and returning to the city each Sunday night in the same bumper to bumper to bumper.

Steve inherited that dream from his father, a factory rat at Ford’s who’d died of a heart attack at fifty-five, the father of six who had not saved a dime but had talked about retiring Up North for years until his untimely demise. Steve brought the dream to Morgantown. He bent and shaped and repurposed it into an artist’s retreat, intent on fulfilling it himself. He wasn’t waiting for retirement. Hell, he was going to be a father again. He was going to out-live the algae!

*

“I think she’s dead,” Steve said.

“Don’t even joke about that,” Amy said. She lit a cigarette. They loved to smoke together on the porch—they imagined it as a pause before creation, Art with a capital A, just waiting for them to rise and head inside to their separate studio spaces. Amy reached over and flicked her cigarette into an old glass ashtray Babes had left behind. They’d never seen her smoke, though perhaps Al did, and she’d been ready in case he came back. Was he really dead? Was she really dead, right now?

“No joke,” Steve said. “I’m ready to kill her myself.”

Amy eased quietly over to Babes and got up close to her face. The little dog raised its head and sniffed at her.

“Still breathing,” Amy whispered, steadying herself against the glider arm.

“Let’s go!” Amy said suddenly, motioning for Steve and scrambling quietly inside the cottage.

*

“Yes, leave,” she said. “Before she wakes up!” Amy was trembling. Steve grabbed her cool hands and held them. A sudden breeze blew through the screens. “We don’t need to pack,” she said.

“Our car won’t start, remember? We can’t just leave her here,” Steve said, numb and exhausted from the long afternoon, the quicksand of the treasure map. “Can we?” He had left many things behind, unresolved. His paint tubes lined up, an untouched canvas on a large easel in the cottage loft. His paintings had always been large, bold, and bright—the talk of Morgantown, he joked, but he understood his failure as an artist, and wondered whether Amy did yet, or how soon she would.

Amy snatched Babes’ keys out of her purse on the kitchen table. She seemed more alert and focused than she had in weeks, as if suddenly she was staring through pure, clear water. Steve dove in after her.

*

Outside, they maneuvered the cars in place, their Focus, her Mazda, then she quietly took over, lifting the groaning hoods and attaching the cables. As every step crunched over the gravel, he winced.

“Maybe we just give her the place back?” Amy whispered. They retreated to the separate cars. Steve was glad that he could barely see her face in the quickly falling dusk.

He started Babes’ car, Amy cranked their car. It took the juice from Babes’ Mazda and started right up.

Steve turned off the Mazda and crept back up to the house to return the keys. Squeaker was whining at the door, and he let her out. She raced straight toward the lake and sent the sleeping geese into a flurry of flapping and honking. Steve hurried back to the Focus. Amy reluctantly moved out of the driver’s seat. As they swung past of the cluster of cottages around the pond, the circle of bright algae glowed against the surrounding grass, against the clear, darkening sky, mocking the quiet that surrounded it.

“Is that the screen door slamming?” Amy asked. Steve knew the sound couldn’t carry that far, but he paused to listen, then pulled out onto the paved road.

*

On the dim-lit twisty country back roads toward the city, Steve made wide turns, crossing the yellow line against the lack of oncoming traffic. Sunday evening, and whoever lived out there was staying put.

“You’re good at this,” he said warily. “A clean getaway.”

He wanted to say something about how hard it was to let things go, but Amy’s entire face was out the passenger window, hair streaming back in like a shaggy dog’s, as if she could not suck in enough of the fresh dark air of motion. He tossed the map out the window.

“Did you really hear her breathing?” he asked.

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Jim Ray Daniels is the author of six collections of short fiction, including, most recently, The Perp Walk (Michigan State University Press, 2019). His fiction awards include a Michigan Notable Book prize, finalist for the Paterson Fiction Prize, and awards from the Midwest Book Awards, the Independent Booksellers Association, and the Foreword INDIE Book Awards. He is the Thomas S. Baker University Professor Emeritus at Carnegie Mellon University. Email: jd6s[at]andrew.cmu.edu

A Letter to Remember

Fiction
Aishani Biswas


Photo Credit: miqla3/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

15th September 1992

Dear Urooj,

You don’t know me and you don’t have to. But I figured, after all these months, I must stop being so naive—spending days and nights imagining you with me, having conversations with an invisible you holding my cold hands. When I close my eyes, you smile, calling me to join you in a dusky meadow. This is strange since I’ve never been to a meadow, having spent all my childhood in the city. I like to imagine they are a part of your memories, peacefully journeying with mine.

I will be honest, I hated you the first time I saw you. The electric blue dupatta around your head clashed with the beige uniform and even I, a fashion amateur, thought it looked awful. But that was not the only reason for my dislike and later hatred. My family, unfortunately, is strict. They do not understand love, especially if it has to do something with anyone outside the community. But don’t judge them yet because, at the time, I didn’t either. I was raised to be a pure, perfect child with a devotee soul. Unlike many who claim to change after they meet their lover, I didn’t. At least, not immediately. I silently followed my parents and their narrow-minded beliefs, even after watching you every day socialising with everyone irrespective of their religion and gender. I grew to hate you more. I could like you if I wanted to. I just didn’t choose that. I would watch you, and I confess, follow you on my grey bicycle.

My opinion of you changed the day your father slapped your left cheek twice and suggested you leave the house. I witnessed the whole thing unwrap before me. When he closed the door on you, you sat on the sideway. But you didn’t cry, not did you beg him to let you in. You just sat there. I sat down, too, waiting for the end. The more I watched you, my eyes searching every part of your body, from your mehndi-laden hands fiddling the end of your kameez to your bare feet shuffling against the hard stone pavement, I realised it. We are so similar. We don’t let our emotions rule us, and wait for the situation to care for it itself. And we are brave enough to do so, without unnecessarily interfering with life. I didn’t exactly feel sympathetic for you, just wanted to tell you that there is at least one person in the world who understands the uselessness of emotional outbursts. Nevertheless, the trick worked. Your mother finally arrived and took you inside. I stayed there till midnight, hoping to see you on the verandah. My wish remained a wish.

I fell sick the next day. My head felt as though it had burst open and my hands were heavy. Grandmother prayed endlessly to god. Nothing. The shaman inferred that I was possessed by the devil. My father locked me in my room, cursing and ordering my mother for another ritual. At first, I had nothing to say. I became restless and even though the heaviness of my hands was gone, my whole body ached—it was as though it was twisting itself. I was beginning to believe the shaman. By the end of the week, I didn’t anymore. I knew what was wrong with me. In fact, it was so obvious I punched myself for it. You must’ve figured it out now through my description, too. The important thing is, I couldn’t accept myself for it. It is a sin. One of the greatest. So I hit myself and purposely aggravated my parents so that they’d do it too. I felt that I deserved that. What would people say if they knew? They would call me a witch, a brat, and burn me alive, I’m sure you know. My purity was slowly fading away.

I cared.

I suppose I changed after that. Mother said I did. She caught me in my room, completely undressed, talking to myself. I had not forgotten to lock, she just had an extra key. She became worried about what the shaman had told since I gave no excuse for my shameful behaviour. I know I’m not insane or possessed by anyone. I just missed you. I wanted to feel you, so I imagined you in my room. It is desire, is it not? I want you. Your flawless dark skin glowing against the lamp. You would come, take my hand and take me… away. Anywhere. Where you and I would be together, happy. We would make love, without having to worry about others. The starlight on your face would brighten up and you would never have to fear anybody. This world exists, you know. Believe me, it does. They’re yet to be discovered. And I want to do it with you.

But my love, I’m getting married next month. They have arranged a perfect man for me, and they want me to serve him, just like any other wife. They want me to worship him and bear him male children. They say it is the only solution to my ‘illness.’ And I have nothing to do now except pack all my belongings for the future and expect the worst. I don’t want to marry him. I desire you. Your skin. When I stand on the verandah, I long to see you through my silent tears, coming to save me. I need you because you’re my life now. You’re my memory, and I wish I was yours too. But they still keep asking me what I want. I know what I want. I wish you did too. I wish you thought about me, yearned for me the same way I did. How will you? I have no identity for you. And it is better this way. I’ve memorised you.

Yours Sincerely.

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Aishani Biswas is a high school student from India. Her works have appeared at Tell Me Your Story, an online blog, “9 Stories by Under 18 Authors,” and selected for “TMYS Review September 2020.” Her works can be found at: Tell Me Your Story; Twist and Twain magazine. Email: aishanibiswasslg[at]gmail.com

Two Poems

Poetry
Carla Scarano D’Antonio


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

My Mother

Last night I dreamed of my mother,
her soft light touch on my face.
She said, I had some free time and came here.
I was melting in her tenderness
under the touch of her smooth old fingers,
her cheerful voice moved,
almost in tears.
Why did you come here?
What happened?
But she didn’t reply,
only her love surrounded me
as if it was the last time.
And I drank it
with dry lips.

 

Hospital Nights

I cannot say you weren’t there,
I have a clear memory you were present the whole night.
You are here,
all the nights after my three caesarean cuts.
You cuddle the new born babies—
(boy, girl, boy)
curled up and soft like kittens—
feed them with sugared water,
tuck them in the hospital cradle,
hold their tiny hands, stroke their upturned nose,
their faces are like apples.
You watch me, containing your excitement, slightly worried.
I doze, in and out of the anaesthetic
grip on sleep,
already recovering.
The babies are all right,
I am all right.
You were there, my mother,
you are here.

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Carla Scarano D’Antonio obtained her MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster University and has published her creative work in magazines and reviews. Her short collection Negotiating Caponata was published in July 2020. She was awarded a PhD on Margaret Atwood’s work at the University of Reading in April 2021. Email: scaranocarla62[at]gmail.com

The Dime by Mark Paxson

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Bill Lockwood


The Dime by Mark Paxson

Starting with Another Night in Bridgeport (King Midget Press, 2012), Mark Paxson has written five books and, as he says on his website, “somewhere around 50 short stories.” He identifies himself as an “indie writer,” one who is “writing and publishing stories the traditional publishing world doesn’t want to touch.” His latest novel, The Dime (King Midget Press, 2021), fits that description quite well with an unconventional situation, very real-life characters, and a number of intriguing plot twists that take you so often in the opposite direction of what a reader might be expecting in mainstream popular fiction. If for no other reason, his cleverness makes this book certainly worth reading.

Paxson also uses an intriguing device. He keeps shifting the viewpoint from which the story is told. Instead of just one narrator or protagonist, the reader is shifted from one character to another, seeing the developing story from pretty much all the points of view of those involved. Most often the viewpoint is that of one of the three main characters around which the story revolves. They are all very plain, normal, everyday people who in many ways could be seen as simply losers. It is a story of each trying to salvage a tragic life. In the end they all may or may not end up as heroes, all part of Paxson’s genius as well.

Sisters Lily and Sophie live in a house in the small town of Northville, New York. It had been their home until they and their parents were all involved in a tragic car accident that killed the parents and left the younger sister, Sophie, in a wheelchair. The sisters then lived an unhappy life under the rule of an aunt on the prairie in Nebraska until Lily became eighteen and gained guardianship of Sophie. They returned to the family home that had been held in a trust for them, a trust that neither was able to fully access until age 25. The story begins with Lily, now 20 and working in a five-and-dime store called by everyone simply “The Dime,” and Sophie, sixteen and in high school, locked in uneventful and unsatisfying lives. Enter Pete, recently arrived member of Sophie’s class, who is trying without success to fit into the small town teenage society. Feeling guilty that Sophie has “withered” in their life situation, Lily has a sudden idea when she catches Pete shoplifting a Yankees T-shirt. She makes him a deal. She won’t turn him in if he will ask her sister Sophie to the school dance. At this point, the story about a girl in a wheelchair and a guy who comes to meet her under duress could turn out to be quite sappy. But that is not the case at all. This story is off into its intricate twists and turns from there.

Paxson takes on many issues such as death, sadness, hopes, dreams, and love as the story progresses. He adds an element where he shows that these three lead characters do care for each other, and as a result the reader starts caring for them, too. Who is the strongest and who is the most vulnerable shifts just as Paxson shifts the point of view. He also throws in some flashback scenes shifting the time-frame as well. And there is also a strong positive element in that all the characters appear to be on a kind of journey toward healing. The character Lily expresses some real wisdom:

I learned in the weeks that followed that the actions you think will make a difference frequently don’t, while the ones that seemed insignificant in the moment can spread ripples far and wide. (134)

Shortly after she says that, Paxson throws the reader another plot twist and surprise. It is a very good read.

*

Mark Paxson is a semi-retired attorney living and relaxing in California. He has been published in Toasted Cheese, The First Line, and the Disappointed Housewife, among others. He also has published two collections of short stories, the novel One Night in Bridgeport (King Midget Press, 2012) and the novella, The Irrepairable Past (King Midget Press, 2019). He blogs at King Midget’s Ramblings. He can be reached at mpaxson55[at]gmail.com.

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Bill Lockwood is a retired social worker with a lifelong passion for writing and participation in community theater. He currently writes articles about the Arts and interesting people for The Shopper/Vermont Journal and covers local community theater for the Eagle Times of Claremont, NH. The Wild Rose Press has published five of his historical fiction novels: Buried Gold (2016), Megan of the Mists (2017), Ms. Anna (2018), The Monsignor’s Agents (2020), and Gare de Lyon (2021). His short stories “The Kids Won’t Leave” appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Two Hawks Quarterly, and “Pizza, Pizza” appeared in The Raven’s Perch April 28, 2021. Lockwood has written several reviews for Toasted Cheese.

Gare de Lyon by Bill Lockwood

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Anne Greenawalt


Gare de Lyon by Bill Lockwood

Gare de Lyon (Wild Rose Press, 2021) by Bill Lockwood describes the adventures of Mary O’Riley, an art student from Boston studying in Paris in the late 1930s. When her art school closes at the start of WWII, Mary, who changes her name to Marie to better fit her Parisian lifestyle, doesn’t want to go home yet, so she takes a job as a bakery assistant. There, she finds herself mixed into the French Résistance movement. While she’s helping a British RAF pilot find sanctuary in one of the French safe houses, the Gestapo raid her apartment, take her passport, and arrest her boss at the bakery, which leaves her stranded. The Résistance leaders ask her to escort the pilot, Freddy Winston, until they can take him home. Marie helps willingly even though no one seems motivated to help her get home safely, too.

Together, Marie and Freddy move from safe house to safe house, waiting for the next plan, but with each new move, the Résistance asks Marie to take greater and greater risks as they face new challenges in dodging the Gestapo, gendarme, and others who are not sympathetic to the Résistance.

Although the story follows the adventures of Marie and Freddy, Marie is clearly the star. She’s the one who works in several different bakeries, delivers messages, and assists the French Résistance, which she is able to do well because of her cleverness and strong French language skills. Through most of the story, Marie bares her burdens and responsibilities without complaint, rarely questioning what’s happening to her, and largely seems unconcerned by her lack of money and plan to return home.

Her calmness stems from an innocence about war and her status as an American in France. While delivering a message, one of the Résistance leaders says to her, “Your country has not yet entered the war. We are waiting. We need your help” to which she replies, “I don’t have any influence on that” (73). As the story progresses, she becomes better at advocating for herself and her right to go home:

I came to France as a student. The war took that away. I don’t belong here any longer. You just told me all I have done for you. I have risked my life frequently for a cause that I agree with, but a cause that is not really mine. (152)

Although she could be outspoken prior to this, it is a relief when she speaks up for herself.

On the other hand, Freddy doesn’t speak French and barely understands it, so he depends on Marie to translate and, at times, seems more like a whiny piece of luggage. He also makes unwelcome sexual passes as Marie—more because he thinks it’s expected of him than because he’s attracted to her. He complains about sleeping on the floor when Marie sleeps in a single bed, he asks her why they can’t hug, and he invites her to visit him at night. To this, Marie replies:

Like I told the boy when he made the pass at me and accused me of being like some kind of nun, I’m certainly not pure. I took plenty of chances when I was a student in Paris. I’ve had my fun. But now, I’m on the run. The last thing I need now is a pregnancy. I intend to sleep on my own. (68)

In addition to the vulgarities of war, she also protects herself from the vulgarities of men. I’m glad this is an adventure story and not a love story because there is no chemistry between them and I don’t respect Freddy’s behavior.

A few quirks in the writing, such as an overuse of “quickly” during the fast-paced scenes, took me out of the story a few times and made me wish some of the adverbs would be replaced with stronger descriptions, but overall, Lockwood deftly moves readers from scene to scene through a linear narrative at an appropriate pace.

This is an exciting, fast-paced story that fans of WWII fiction and stories with strong female protagonists will enjoy. Both Marie and Freddy agree they have been “lucky” (158) during their journey, but the author keeps readers guessing until the end whether the two heroes will ever make it home.

*

Bill Lockwood is a retired social worker with a lifelong passion for writing and participation in community theater. He currently writes articles about the Arts and interesting people for The Shopper/Vermont Journal and covers local community theater for the Eagle Times of Claremont, NH. The Wild Rose Press has published five of his historical fiction novels; Buried Gold (2016), Megan of the Mists (2017), Ms. Anna (2018), The Monsignor’s Agents (2020), and Gare de Lyon (2021). His short stories “The Kids Won’t Leave” appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Two Hawks Quarterly, and “Pizza, Pizza” appeared in The Raven’s Perch April 28, 2021. Lockwood has written several reviews for Toasted Cheese.

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Dr. Anne Greenawalt is a writer, competitive swimmer, trail adventurer, educator, and dog lover. She earned a doctorate in Adult Education from Penn State University and a master’s degree in Creative Writing: Prose from the University of East Anglia, and works as the training manager for a nonprofit that provides residential and clinical services for youths who have experienced trauma. Her latest work, The Shot (GreenMachine, 2021) was reviewed in September TC. She writes for WOW! Women on Writing, TrailSister.net, and StoryTerrace. Twitter: @Dr_Greenawalt

I, Menagerie by Garrett Ray Harriman

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


I, Menagerie: Poems by Garrett Ray Harriman

I had the pleasure of reading Garrett Ray Harriman’s recently published chapbook collection of poems, I, Menagerie (Finishing Line Press, 2021). The poems were full of wonder and filled with lovely and sometimes visceral images of animals—fur, feathers, and teeth curiously juxtaposed to biblical, classical, literary, and pop culture elements and political ideas that for this reader resonated well beyond the pages—a true menagerie of people and animals poems of varying structures and styles with an added splash of flash fiction. I was all-in after I read the dedication page which mentioned a childhood favorite of mine, Dr. Doolittle, the literary and legendary animal doctor from Hugh Lofting’s novel, The Story of Doctor Doolittle, whose greatest talent derived from his empathy for animals, which allowed him to communicate with them. A wonderful surprise! It set a mirthful tone for my reading beginning with “Sonnet with Owl” that speaks to the notion of birds as unlucky omens and “Elephant Ride, 1993” whose structure was a listing of fabulous descriptive prose filled with alliteration, punctuation, and so much more. It made me want to ride an elephant, too.

Each poem in Harriman’s chapbook of poems is unique in its subject, prose, elements, and design. No two are alike. It was delightful to turn the page and find something new and unexpected.

Long ago, I gave up the notion of trying to understand a poem for the idea of how it relates to me and my world. Indeed I’ve said more than once in the TC Candle-Ends column that I am a selfish reader. Yet, a curious reader, too. I see poems as literary puzzles full of evocation in their surfaces and provocation in their depths. When I come across both in a single poem, as I did with many of the poems in I, Menagerie, I found myself in a reader’s paradise of wonder and delight. Many of them spoke to me not only for their lovely metaphors and sparkling vocabulary, but also for the imagery and ideas they presented. “The Memory of Dogs” pulled me in immediately. The subject, of course, is dogs. For me, it paralleled a time when dogs were stolen from my childhood neighborhood, never to be seen again, a terrible time when pet dogs were taken and often repurposed into brutal back alley fighting beasts. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if the dog(s) in Harriman’s poem are a metaphor for something or perhaps even someone else. An allegory. For what?  Or whom?

they flayed and savaged
behind that fence, sister.
dogs cowered and thrashed there
gnawed hope marrow-thin.

ours too was shanghaied, another whelp
pitched like brigantine gold
into pits pooled with glass
tire rims and teeth, a month at sea
he made landfall at the base of our driveway.

you remember
how we couldn’t imagine (12)

I pondered and puzzled further, thinking perhaps the poem is related to the global political culture of borders and immigration. I noted vocabulary and phrases  and as the poem continued to describe this single personified animal and then addresses another, a sister, who was a witness…it made me wonder even more about what truth lies beneath the surface of the poet’s words. Who is this sister? Am I the sister? Are we the sister? And what happened behind that fence?

“Tiger in Pastel” was another poem that resonated long after I read it. It seems to be an elegy to the poet’s childhood home, which was once filled with his father’s art and a sort of quiet angst, as well. My guess was that this angst relates to the father’s past experiences in Vietnam. Perhaps the Vietnam War? The poet or speaker explores what he remembers from a new perspective as an adult looking backward.

My father worked in pastels for a handful of years,
his drawing pads the size me flipped wide onto

the dining table de-leafed except on holidays.

The cat he wrought lay in hedonic repose, its yellow
eyes fixed blearily to the right. One paw draped the other

in a gesture of the world-weary, the dismissive
and unenthused; its mane’s many folds coiled back

against its shoulders, a pile of talcum softness
beyond which it ceased to exist. Most of my father

was like that: finished before I got there, aloof to the
chagrin of my mother, taciturn about old friends (8)

There was a deep sadness and an interesting parallel between the father’s pastel tiger and the father, himself, which comes through. The speaker poignantly later honors his father with his own tiger, a different one that made me think of the short story, “Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu and of course, the famously, fierce fictional Bengal tiger from Kipling’s novel, The Jungle Book.

I’d later plan for my own Shere Kahan—the fabled third tattoo
on the right wrist, the creature rendered in origami

triangles, shorthand for Miss Earhart’s plucky quote:
“…the rest is nearly tenacity. The fears are paper tigers…” (8)

The Spider Poem Remembered” also resonated with me for its interesting structure. I read it several times, marveling at its complexity. The subject was a poem remembered by the speaker or someone else who is also talking to the speaker, which may or may not be the spider or the writer of the poem described. See what I mean? I wondered if there was a “real” poem that was being described. I thought about Emily Dickinson’s spider poem I read in college. I googled and found that there were many spider poems. I would never know if the poem was the author’s or a reference to another poem. An invitation to read it once more. Regardless, It was so perplexing that I spent much time taking it apart and putting it back together. I worked this poem like an algebra equation and found an appreciation for its form as well as several possible meanings. Time well spent.

The last poem I want to mention is “Vulnerable Species.” This poem was one of the “smartest” poems I’ve encountered. It begins with a current quote that yes, I had to google (again) in order to understand who the acronymed author referenced was: the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. From there, it pulled me in just like Dr. Doolittle did. Many of Harriman’s poems are laid on the page in interesting and artful formats. “Vulnerable Species” was one of them. Beginning with its Darwin-esque title, the poem explores human evolution and its cascading effect on planet Earth. Written in provocative and evocative language, it speaks to today’s politics of climate change and lays bare the effects of human consumption in science and biblical prose. Here’s a quick slice:

We are no victimless crime:
we are tidal,
tectonic,
the moon’s firm pull
frothing beggar at our feet,
hurriedly, so
hurriedly
carving the shapes
of this undoing (14)

I, Menagerie is a collection of curious and resonating poems filled with wonder, gorgeous prose, and creatures of all kinds. Harriman creates a fresh space as he takes a backward glance, blending memory and nostalgia with the natural world in a kaleidoscope of cosmic imagery that dazzles.

*

Garrett Ray Harriman is a writer and poet living in southwest Colorado. His work has appeared in Atlas Poetica, Toasted Cheese, Kestrel, and other publications. His poem, “Snake in the Grass,” was a semi-finalist in Naugatuck River Review’s 11th Narrative Poetry Contest guest judged by poet Lauren K. Alleyne. Twitter: @Inadversent

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Shelley Carpenter is TC’s Reviews Editor. Email: reviews[at]toasted-cheese.com

How Can We Live Without It?

Savage Science Fiction / Fantasy Contest ~ Third Place
Ian Bentwood


Photo Credit: wintersoul1/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Lisa was restless—again—and woke me up. I sighed deeply and tried to change position to get comfortable. The duvet had slipped off my shoulders and the night chill made me shiver. I reached down and felt around to find an edge of some part of the duvet to pull it back, not wanting to open my eyes or wake up fully. Eventually I found a corner and pulled it over my shoulder and moved slightly intending to go back to sleep.

“Jeff, are you asleep?”

“Yes,” I mumbled sleepily, thinking what a ridiculous question to ask, so deciding to give a nonsensical answer.

“I’m hungry again.”

I gave another deep sigh. My pregnant wife seemed to have regular bouts of starvation and they seemed to be getting more frequent as she neared the end of the third trimester.

I grunted in response. What could I say? I squinted at the digital clock: 3:37. Another deep sigh as I realised I was awake now and had maybe lost half-an-hour’s sleep. I rolled over to face towards her in the gloom. I could make out her silhouette and could see she was sitting up. The sheet had dropped and her heavily pregnant stomach was clearly visible. “What do you fancy at 3:37 in the morning, baby?” I tried to sound a bit more sympathetic than I felt. What was it going to be this time? Pickled onions? Chilli pepper? Chicken wings?

“Ice cream. I fancy some ice cream.”

“Great!” I heaved a sigh of relief. At least we had some of that. Going shopping at 3:37 to satisfy her particular pregnancy-oriented craving was one of my biggest fears.

“I bought some vanilla yesterday in anticipation. It’s in the freezer.”

I rolled over thinking that her problem could be self-solved without me needing to leave the cosy comfort under the duvet. The bed rocked and rolled like a mini-earthquake as she shifted her weight to the side to locate her slippers and then stood up to shuffle out of the bedroom into the living room. She turned on the light and the illumination exploded through the doorway forcing me to cover my eyes with my arm at the brightness overload and I rolled away from the door to minimise the dazzling effect of the bright light. I heard her padding around in the living room, then suddenly she screamed.

“What is it?” I reluctantly rolled back towards the door wondering what had happened. Another spider or cockroach had scared her, perhaps?

“It’s gone!”

“What’s gone? I am sure I put the ice cream in the middle freezer compartment. Maybe I didn’t—check all of them.” We had a fridge-freezer—the top half being a fridge, the bottom half a freezer with three separate compartments.

“No—the fridge has gone.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

Lisa was often forgetful and the ‘baby-brain’ effect had increased the frequency of her forgetting where she put things, but surely she hadn’t forgotten where the fridge was. “It’s in the far corner near Adam’s bedroom.” Our kitchen was too small to have the fridge actually in the kitchen, where it was really needed—a source of nuisance and something we promised to resolve when we moved after the second baby was born.

“I know where it was, but it’s not there now.” Lisa was getting exasperated.

Oh dear, I thought, I’d better go and help her find it before she got really emotional and upset with my lack of support. I threw the duvet back and sat up. Looking for my slippers I put them on and stood up and stretched. I glanced at the digital clock—3:45—another disturbed night—and walked into the living room where I blinked to adjust to the bright light and could see Lisa standing in the spot where the fridge had been yesterday—it definitely was not where it should have been.

“Oh.” I couldn’t think of anything meaningful to say, so I said it again. “Oh, you’re right, it’s not there,” I stated the obvious staring at the fridge-shaped gap in the corner of our living room.

Lisa turned to face me and gave me a reproachful look, which she reserved for special moments when I was acting like a child. “Help me look for it, then. Don’t just stand there looking like Adam.”

Our apartment wasn’t big—we had a large living room and a balcony, but otherwise there was only a small kitchen, toilet/bathroom, and two bedrooms.

“It’s two metres tall, sixty centimetres wide and sixty centimetres deep, and weighs fifty kilograms. It can’t have got far.” I tried to make a joke about it as I still wasn’t fully awake or appreciating the seriousness of the situation. “Anything else missing?” I looked around trying to remember what else we had and looking for any other obvious gaps, but couldn’t see any. It only took a few seconds to look in all the other rooms to confirm that the fridge had not mysteriously decided to move into one of the other rooms, for a change. I quietly opened Adam’s bedroom door, not wanting to wake up our three-year old, which would only complicate matters, but he was soundly asleep. I could hear him breathing softly. I quickly glanced around his room and confirmed that the fridge hadn’t decided to sneak into Adam’s room in the night, so where was it?

I returned to the living room. Lisa had subsided onto the sofa and was playing with her hair, looking confused. I checked the windows and they were all securely closed. It was too cold to leave them open at night, but I was concerned that maybe a burglar had broken one of them, but everything was unchanged, exactly as I remembered when I checked the previous evening, so how had the fridge been taken out of our apartment? I sat next to Lisa on the sofa and put my arm around her, and she laid her head on my shoulder.

“The windows and doors are all locked and closed. How on earth could anyone take the fridge and close the window or door behind them and leave no damage? I’m baffled.”

“I still want some ice cream,” she said in her little-girl voice.

“We can go to the ice centre in the morning and get some. Nothing much I can do now. Maybe I should call the police? Maybe the burglar is in the area if they act quickly.”

I picked up the phone, dialed the emergency number. After a couple of rings it was answered by a female voice.

“Which service do you require?”

“Police.”

“One moment, please.” A few clicks, then another ringing tone. A bored voice answered.

“Police. What is your name?”

“Jeff Hadstock.”

Then the usual detailed questions concerning address, phone number—all kinds of box-filling questions. Finally he asked a meaningful relevant question: “What is the crime you wish to report?”

“My fridge has been stolen. If you send someone quickly you might be able to catch the burglar.” My urgency didn’t affect the attitude of the bored voice on the end of the phone.

“How did they steal it?”

“I don’t know—that’s the strange thing—the windows and doors are all locked and undamaged. We don’t know how anyone could steal it without breaking in.”

“Are you sure you even had a fridge?”

“Of course, I know I had a fridge.”

“You can claim on your insurance if you’ve got proof of purchase. You’d be surprised how many people try to claim things they don’t even own were stolen. Just quote the crime number: 290821/34. They will refund you the full replacement cost of the fridge.”

“If you send somebody quickly, you might be able to catch the burglar. They can’t have gone far—it’s a large fridge-freezer.”

“I’m sorry, we have nobody to spare to chase fridge-burglars. They are busy pursuing murderers, drug-dealers and terrorists, etcetera. Call your insurance company and—”

I slammed the phone down. “That was an exercise in futility.” I turned to Lisa. “Let’s go back to bed. We’ll order a new fridge in the morning.”

Lisa got up and we walked slowly back to the bedroom, my arm around her shoulder.

“Our fridge magnet souvenirs from our holidays were stuck to the door. I guess we’ve lost them now.” She shrugged sadly as we turned off the light and got back into bed.

The next morning, breakfast was somewhat different from normal without the fridge. “I want my soggies,” Adam sat at the table tapping his bowl with the spoon staring miserably at the dry cereal. The milk had been in the fridge and his favourite breakfast meal—sugar-coated wheat shapes soaked in milk—was now not possible.

“I feel the same as Adam,” Lisa said miserably tapping her empty glass where her normal juice drink would have been, if the fridge hadn’t been stolen.

“Yes, I understand,” I stared at my cup of black coffee, which looked unappetising without the splash of milk, which was my regular morning beverage. “Let’s go to the corner cafe and have breakfast there.”

“Hooray,” said Lisa and Adam in unison, tapping the table with their spoons, looking like a couple of kids.

I unstrapped Adam from his high chair and he wrapped his arms round me for a big hug. “Soggies! Soggies!” he cheerfully sang as I helped him into his warm jacket and shoes. He waited expectantly by the door as Lisa and I got our coats and other things, anticipating the early-morning adventure—a trip to the corner cafe before nine in the morning was an unexpected bonus and he was excited about the change in routine.

There was a cold wind blowing the autumn leaves around as the sun struggled to brighten up the atmosphere through the greyness of the clouds as we strolled the few hundred metres down to the corner cafe. The bright lights shining out onto the gloomy street were an oasis of sunshine with the welcoming anticipation of our favourite breakfasts beckoning. I gave Adam a piggyback and I trotted like a horse, whinnying and neighing, making him scream with pleasure as he clung tightly to my back as if I was going to try and throw him off like he was breaking in a wild pony.

I pushed open the door to the corner cafe and headed for an empty table by the window. I glanced around the small room—around six–seven tables mostly filled with single people or couples talking quietly.

“What would you folks like, this morning?” The cheerful cafe-owner greeted us and handed us the plastic-coated menu. I took the menu, but knew it well enough to order without looking.

“Hi Greg. Three bowls of Wheaties with cold milk, two plates of egg, beans and mushrooms on toast, a cup of white coffee, mango juice, and a strawberry milkshake.” I smiled back at Adam who was happy at hearing his favourite drink being ordered.

Greg made notes of our order and read it back to us. After I confirmed the order, he hesitated. “I’m afraid it’ll be a little slower than usual this morning. We were burgled last night and Sally had to pop round the cash-and-carry first thing to restock.”

“Oh, sorry to hear that.” My ears pricked up at the thought that we weren’t the only place in the neighbourhood that had been burgled. “What did they take?”

“That’s the funny thing,” Greg got a strange look on his face before continuing. “They only took my three fridges. Nothing else. Not even the £350 cash in the till I’d forgotten to take home with me last night. Just the fridges.”

I glanced at Lisa who was also listening intently.

“Don’t worry, folks, our normal service will be resumed shortly, just a little longer wait than usual. You’ll have your soggies very soon.” The last comment was addressed at Adam and he ruffled his hair causing Adam to giggle cheerfully and tap the table with his spoon.

Greg left to prepare our breakfast order, leaving Lisa and I to stare in surprise at one another.

“Looks like we were not the only victim of the fridge-burglar last night,” I said grimly before turning to entertain Adam until our order arrived.

Fifteen minutes later, our meal arrived and Adam cheerfully shouted out “Soggies! My soggies!” as the bowl of his favourite cereal was placed in front of him and he tucked in happily and noisily. Shortly after, we were all eating and chattering having forgotten the events of the previous night, when our reverie was disturbed by the insistent ringing of my phone. I put down my knife and fork, reached into my pocket and answered the phone—“number withheld” surprised me mildly as I looked down at the screen while answering it and held it to my ear.

“Hello?”

“Mr Jeff Hadstock?” The voice sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place it.

“Yes, how can I help you?”

“Mr Hadstock, this is Police Sergeant Lashkey. You rang at 3:47 this morning to report a fridge burglary and…“ He hesitated and swallowed before continuing. “…I’m sorry for treating you in a less than helpful manner at the time, but…”

He hesitated again so I felt I should say something, although it was tempting to criticise him for his attitude, but I felt more cheerful now as the sun appearing through the clouds and shining in the window brightened my mood.

“That’s okay, I understand how busy you are and after all, it’s only one fridge.”

“Thank you for being understanding. It’s just that since your call we have had numerous additional calls from all across the area near your apartment, all reporting just fridges and freezers having been stolen and all without any obvious signs of forced entry.”

I looked at Lisa who was watching me intently and raised my eyebrows to show her my surprise.

“I’d like to ask you a few more questions, if you have a moment?”

“Yes, sure.” I had another bite of toast while waiting for his next question.

“Thank you, Mr Hadstock. Was anything else stolen?”

“Not that we have noticed so far. Just the fridge-freezer.”

“Please describe it.”

So I gave him the details of its size, contents (as far as I could remember) and its make and model. Lisa interrupted me to remind me to mention the fridge magnets on the outside, so I added them to the list.

“How old is it?”

“Around eighteen months—in good condition.”

“When did you last remember seeing it?”

“We went to bed around 10:30pm yesterday and it was still there then, as far as I remember. I didn’t specifically check, but I think I would have noticed if it had not been there.”

“What time did you discover it was missing?”

“We woke at 3:37. I remember checking the clock. It was shortly after that that we noticed it was missing.”

“Did you hear anything?”

“No, nothing and all the windows and doors were locked and closed. Nothing damaged. How do you think it was stolen?”

“Thank you for the additional information. It matches all the other victims’ stories. Some time between one a.m. and three a.m., all the fridges and freezers were taken without any obvious signs of forced entry, broken windows or doors, and without anyone seeing or hearing anything. Do you have any CCTV or webcams in the room where the fridge had been located, which might have seen anything?”

“No, nothing. Have you any ideas at all how they were taken?”

“Is your wife pregnant, by any chance?”

I was stunned by the question out of the blue. “Yes, but why?”

“Oh, nothing to worry you, but all the other fridges and freezers were also taken from households where there was a pregnant woman living there.”

I looked up at Sally as she carried plates around the tables to the customers. Yes. She was clearly very pregnant as well. Maybe Sgt Lashkey had a point.

“And it was Hallowe’en last night—not that I am superstitious,” he added quickly.

“There were also a significant number of UFO sightings reported in the area. Also unusual. We will investigate further and let you know if there is any chance of getting your fridge back. Please contact me directly if anything else strange happens.” He gave me his contact details and I made a note on the phone’s notepad and then ended the call.

I looked at Lisa who has been bursting with curiosity as to the content of the conversation.

“They haven’t got a clue.” I shook my head. “Curiouser and curiouser.”

“It was also a full moon last night.” Lisa added. “The moon did look larger than usual.”

“Well, it’s my shift on the moon shuttle this afternoon, so I’ll get a close up view to see if there is anything unusual happening there.”

After breakfast, we walked back home more cheerfully. It was still very windy and we had to hold onto our hats to avoid having them blown away. Adam clung to me tightly as well to keep warm.

“Okay, I’d better head to the launch site. I need to take off in an hour. See you tomorrow.” I gave Lisa and Adam a kiss and headed out the door to my car.

Once I was at the shuttle launch site, the conversation was only about the disappearance of the fridge-freezers overnight, but I had to complete the pre-flight preparations and had no time to join in the chit-chat.

“3… 2…1… we have lift off.” The automatic launch sequence was completed and the huge engines automatically kicked into life, lifting the moon shuttle clear of the launch pad. I held onto the controls and could feel the familiar vibration through the joystick as the giant shuttle transporter rapidly accelerated into the grey sky. The g-force crushed me into the seat and I prepared for the sudden release as we left the Earth’s atmosphere and the acceleration would ease off.

“Space control, everything okay. We are clear of Earth’s gravity and heading to the moon. We will report in an hour when we enter moon orbit.”

“Roger that, Jeff. Have a safe trip.”

It was the usual uneventful trip, but I had always enjoyed the spectacular views of our blue planet—the only colourful sight on the trip—as it shrank behind me. The grey sphere of the moon approached in the windows, growing larger and larger as the shuttle quickly approached. I adjusted the controls and hit the boosters to slow the approach, changed the angle to head into moon orbit. The normal approach to the moon base was a single orbit of the moon, then onto final approach and hand over to Moonbase Control for the automatic landing. I sent a brief message to Earth’s Space Control to confirm that I had successfully entered moon orbit and was switching to Moonbase Control for landing.

I looked out of the window while orbiting the Moon at a height of only 500 metres. I scanned the barren surface. I was used to seeing nothing but dust and crater, but was stunned to see that there were piles and piles of what looked like the missing fridge-freezers. What had happened?

“Moonbase Control, this is Shuttle5. I am seeing hundreds of missing fridge-freezers on the surface.”

“Sorry, repeat your message?” They clearly did not believe me.

I repeated the bizarre comment.

“Take some photographs and report to Command Control on landing.”

“Roger, Moonbase. See you shortly.”

The view-screen had a recording facility, so I angled it towards the stacks of fridge-freezers and recorded the amazing sight.

After landing, I headed to Command Control with the video images on a memory stick.

“Hi, Jeff. What’s this nonsense about fridge-freezers? Show me your video.”

“Yes, sir, I know it sounds crazy, but the video will prove what I said.” I showed him the video and he was incredulous.

“Last night, the gravitational monitoring team reported an extreme and unprecedented jump in their readings. This coincided with a high point in sunspot activity and solar wind. I wonder if the combination could have caused a huge spike in magnetic attraction focused towards Earth, which somehow caused the fridge-freezers to be dragged to the moon? It seems unlikely, unless there was some additional attraction from Earth.”

“Well, sir, the homes all seemed to have pregnant women, perhaps that was an additional factor?”

He pondered for a moment. “Yes, of course. Pregnant women give off large amounts of additional magnetically-charged perspiration capable of magnifying magnetic energy, as well as increasing electromagnetic energy at a very specific frequency. I remember from university conducting research into magnetic discharges from pregnant women. That makes sense. The combination would have created a local bubble, and would have reacted with the coolant in the fridge-freezer—a very specific and unique magnetic bubble.”

“Well, sir, it’s that or witches on broomsticks as it was Hallowe’en last night.”

He was not amused. “Okay, you’ll need to lead a team to rescue these fridge-freezers and begin the process of returning them to Earth. I am sure their owners will want to be reunited with their belongings as soon as possible. This is now your top priority. For as long as it takes, I will direct all moon shuttles to collect these items and return them to Earth. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir. I suspect that my shuttle could take around 100 per trip. I will start immediately.”

I was late home, and Lisa and Adam were already asleep by the time I quietly opened the door and carried our fridge-freezer back to its normal place. I crept back into our bedroom and kissed Lisa on the cheek. She murmured slightly, turned and opened her eyes in surprise. Seeing it was me, she wrapped her arms around me and kissed me.

“Have you got my ice cream?”

“Yes, it’s in the freezer. Do you want some?”

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Ian Bentwood is a retired lawyer who has recently caught the writing bug from his author wife. Email: bubblyian[at]163.com

The Story I Have Not Told

Savage Science Fiction / Fantasy Contest ~ Second Place
Robin Hillard


Photo Credit: Marco Verch/Flickr (CC-by)

Dear MaryAnn,

I enjoyed our wander through the woodlands yesterday, as we filled our baskets with the herbs you are learning to use. You might find it hard to understand that I took even more pleasure walking through the village with you and taking a meal to those working in the fields.

Such ordinary scenes, you might think. A crowd of women standing around the well, chattering as they pulled up buckets of water, and laughing at a shared joke. We watched the children chasing ducks and that little boy with whose face was purpled by the handfuls of berries he stuffed into his mouth. Most of all I loved passing the cottages, with their cheerfully open doors and neat rows of summer vegetables.

You cannot imagine a time when crops rotted in the fields because there were not enough hands to harvest them, or paths so rarely used that they were smothered with weeds. When I remember how it was during those sad years I can only thank the Lord for our good fortune and pray for our continued health.

I was no older than you when the sickness came. It started slowly. A messenger from London brought a bolt of cloth to replenish our tailor’s stock. How could we know he brought the plague with it? He’d hardly been gone a day when our tailor showed signs of the disease. He was dead within a week, and another soon followed him to the grave. Then we lost our baker and his wife. There were more deaths, and the rector knew what to expect. He gathered us all in front of the church and talked about the plague. In a story that’s been retold so often it’s taken a life of its own, he told us how the sickness would spread from home to home. It would decimate a hundred parishes if it was not checked. I believe in centuries ahead people will come to see the circle of stones he had us set around the village, to keep ourselves inside and others away. The tale will become a legend, as our village is praised for containing the sickness and our rector becomes hero like Robin Hood or giant killing Jack.

There is another story, one that has never been told because I am the only person who knows it. It touches on things that are hard to believe and might leave me open to censure from the church. Christians are not supposed to traffic with the spirit world, and even in these wiser times the dangerously stupidly might talk about witchcraft. But the story should not be lost. I don’t have any children of my own, so I am writing it down for you, the girl my cousin named for two of my sisters. I’ll tell you what happened to me while the village was recovering from the plague and the pages can be passed down, through the generations of your family till one of them chooses to share it with the world.

“Why didn’t you ever get married, Cousin Meg?” you asked me yesterday. “You must have been a very pretty girl.”

The question made me smile. I was not bad looking, though I say so myself, but there were few villagers left after the plague and no young men.

You wonder why I never moved away? That only shows how little you know of those hard years. No parish would welcome a lass from our village, any more than they would come to visit us.

The rest of the county were grateful to our village. The plague could have spread like a fire through the neighbouring parishes, but because we isolated ourselves after the first deaths, the sickness stayed inside the circle of stones.

The Earl sent parcels of food from his estate, and others were willing to trade if they could leave their goods under the biggest rock and collect coins from the hole our stonemason chipped out of its side. Coins soaked overnight in vinegar.

But they were frightened of us.

I remember walking down the path, the same path that we used today, a full season after the last death, and I did not see another soul.

A couple of sheep straggled across through a hole in the hedge.We’d managed to shear their coats ready for the summer, but Dad burnt the wool. We’d made a very poor job of clipping the beasts, but even so we might have got some money for the wool, had anybody been willing to buy cloth-stuff from us. It would be close to another Christmas before we could trade at the market or outsiders be willing to work on our land.

I had to wipe my eyes when I passed the Joyces’ cottage. The garden was smothered in a prickly bramble that even blocked the front door. The cottage had been empty for over a year, the family nothing but names scratched on a rock in the woods behind the village.

Sarah Joyce had been my closest friend. There was no secret we didn’t share, not even when William walked her down by the stream and they had their first kiss. She told me about it at school the next day, and I’d been determined not to be left behind. That Sunday, on my way home from church, I lingered under a large oak, pretending to watch the birds. Thomas Slater had been at the service. The tree wasn’t exactly on his way home, but I knew he could see me and, as I expected, he turned aside. After a few words we walked together arm-in-arm along the very path Sarah and William had used.

Thomas was one of the first to die in the plague. He was buried before our stonemason died so although he was buried in a field, he had a proper headstone with the letters professionally carved. In the following months I lost five sisters, a brother, mother, grandmother, and aunt. Nobody was allowed to touch the plague-dead bodies, the surviving family tied ropes around their legs and dragged them to holes away from the cottages. No ceremonial funeral for my family, their only memorials were their names scratched on the rocks, but for the rest of his life Dad kept fresh flowers beside each one.

Our house once held twelve people, but after the sickness there were only three, myself, Dad, and little Tom.

As you read this, MaryAnn, you’ll understand how desperately I missed my grandmother. We had not been close while she was alive. My little sister, Ann, was her pet and followed her everywhere. Ann was fascinated by herbs and the various elixirs and diffusions our grandmother made from them. Had she lived she would have followed our grandmother as the village’s wisest woman. But our grandmother, like all the old people, died, and her knowledge died with her.

The plague disappeared with the first snow, and when we realised the dying had stopped, we said a grateful prayer. With so few people left to manage the land, I knew it would be hard to survive but I did not realise how much we would miss my grandmother. Until the night Jacob Carpenter came with his little boy.

I was clearing away the last of our meal when there was a loud banging on the door. It was Jacob with Johnny in his arms. Jacob had lost his wife and had to raise the child by himself. Naturally he doted the little boy. Johnny was boiling hot and coughing so hard I terrified his heart would burst.

He thrust the child into my arms.

I knew why Jacob had come. This cottage was where Jessie Burton used to live, where more than one baby grew into a bonny adult because of her skill. Where Jacob believed his son would be healed. But I am not my grandmother. I’ve never felt so helpless in my life.

I took the child. What else could I do?

His father collapsed onto the bench. “Thank God,” he said, as I bathed the boy’s face. “Thank the good Lord that you’re home.”

His gratitude burned in my ears. I felt as useful as one of my father’s sheep.

If one of the Burton girls was meant to survive, why couldn’t it be Ann? She spent so much time with our grandmother she might have been able help the child.

Dad pressed a mug of ale into Jacob’s hand, assuring him the boy would be all right.

Johnny was coughing fit to tear his chest in half.

I said a prayer myself, every bit as fervent as Jacob’s—but only in my heart. I did not want my words to frighten him. “Please God, help me. Tell me what to do.” With so many people suffering, how could God be expected to hear one young woman’s prayer?

I felt a pressure on my arm and something gently turning me to the cupboard. To the shelf of carefully labelled remedies. There was some dried stuff in a jar labelled: “For the Cough.” How did Grandmother use it?

The dried some-kind-of-leaf had to be a tea. The kettle was on the stove, and the fire, surprisingly, was hot enough to bring it to the boil. How much of the stuff should I use? If the tea was not strong enough, it would not stop the coughing, but some of plants my grandmother dried could be poisonous if used to lavishly. Too strong a tea be as bad for the child as a coughing fit.

I pulled down a mug and spoon and said another prayer. “Please don’t let me make him worse.” Something was holding my hand, guiding it the way Mum used to do, when I was five and making my first shaky “A” on a slate. I let my hand pick up the spoon, and drop leaves into the mug once, twice. My hand reached for the kettle. It poured water into the mug, but before I could take the drink to Johnny, I felt myself turned around again to face the cupboard. There was honey on the shelf.

When I was younger, and my chest was torn apart with coughing, my grandmother would make me a drink that smelled like this. I could remember the sweet taste. She told me that the bees were wise and their honey, together with her herbs, would fight the evil thing in my chest. I said another prayer, truly grateful for whatever spirit the Lord had sent to help me. I stirred honey into the tea.

I carried the sweet tea to the boy and held the mug to his lips. He was coughing so hard he could hardly drink, but he managed to swallow a little. Then a little more. Was there a space between his coughing? Or was I dreaming. I said another prayer.

I prayed for wisdom, for knowledge, but most of all for whatever power had guided my hands to stay with me.

I sat with Johnny all night. Dad went to bed. There was nothing he could do and in the morning, he would be struggling to save our corn.

I sent Jacob Carpenter to fetch more wood for the stove. Anything to get him out of the room. His watching eyes made me remember that I did not have my grandmother’s skill. I made another mug of her healing tea. Again, the gentle pressure on my hand told me I was doing the right thing.

“The worst is over now.”

Was that a voice in my head? I had prayed so hard and feared so much that I did not know what was happening in the real world. Johnny was sleeping at last, and I sat watching his chest rise gently with each breath.

I should have been happy. Especially in the morning when Mr Carpenter pressed my hand and blessed me.

“You have saved my little boy. Thank the Lord that you are here.”

That did not make me feel good. Nor did Dad’s words when he came for breakfast. “We are blessed to have you with us Megs,” he said.

Some blessing. Why, oh why, hadn’t I clung to my grandmother? Watched her collecting plants, learned how she prepared them for her remedies?

I was not the only woman still living in the village but, because of my grandmother’s reputation, I would be the first to be called when there was trouble.

“You need to rest, Megs.” Dad said. “We can’t have you getting ill.”

Rest! When all I could think of was Johnny and the other children in the village. And Jacob Carpenter, who thought I could fill my grandmother’s shoes.

Like any young woman, I could bake a loaf of bread, brew ale and make a meal, I had learned that much from my mother, but most of the time I preferred looking after the cows or working off my energy by digging in the vegetable patch. There would be plenty of time later to later to learn the more advanced housewifely arts.

There had not been plenty of time, or a houseful of women to share the work. I did not have a grandmother to tell me how to protect our precious children from the inevitable ills of childhood, or to nurse their parents through the misfortunes of an ordinary life.

There was so much knowledge I did not have, and I felt the lack like a gaping hole in my heart. I went to bed, but I could not sleep.

I shut my eyes and tried to imagine the future. There had been no cure for the plague, but now the plague was gone, and we still had to face the ordinary misfortunes of life. There would be more coughs and fevers, headaches, and toothaches. There would be accidents, cuts, and broken bones. Before plague, our meals were often interrupted by neighbours calling for my grandmother. In the normal way of things, when my grandmother left us, my mother would take her place, and after her there would be my sister Ann to take on the duties of a wise woman.

My grandmother was gone, my mother and cleverest sister were both dead. That left me to carry a burden made heavy by my ignorance.

“Help me,” I whispered into my pillow. Did I hear a rustling, as if a wind was moving the drapes? Could I feel a hand on my forehead?

Sarah and I used to scare ourselves with stories of ghosts. We would sit close to the fire on a winter’s night and talk about the dead rising to visit the village. The spirits we conjured never meant well. But that morning, when I felt a presence in the room, I prayed for it to be the spirit of my grandmother. I begged her to leave the afterlife and be my guide in the living world.

“Grandmother?” I whispered. “Jessie Burton, are you there?”

Was it my mind, shaping the rustling into words? The soothing “yes child.”

When I left my bed, the afternoon sun chased that hope away. I felt even more alone than I had in the days after my last sister’s death. I checked the cupboard shelves, reading my grandmother’s writing on the labels of each jar as I tried to remember what she did with them.

I moved into the garden, looking at the bushes: rosemary, lavender, thyme, and sage. I pulled the leaves of different mints and rubbed them for their scent. Could I remember the powers of each herb?

I picked a little from each bush and laid it on the bench. I studied the jars on the shelf, comparing each to the leaf. These were not dangerous herbs, if I knew which to use, I could at least turn them into teas, which would be better than nothing.

But there were other plants. When my grandmother went into the woods with Ann, they came back with baskets of strange leaves and twigs which they boiled or soaked in vinegar or wine.

As I bent over the bench I felt a presence again, like a hand on my shoulder. Had the spirit of my grandmother left her afterlife to hover over her least skilled grandchild. Did she sympathise with my distress?

“Help me,” I whispered, only half believing.

I was interrupted by a scream that had me rushing down the path. The Gillis cottage! Margaret Gillis had never been the same since the plague took both her boys. Dad had dragged her out of the stream when she tried to join them.

She was shrieking. I got closer. She was rushing down the path. Her sleeve had caught alight. There was smoke pouring out of her front door. I grabbed her and rolled her on the ground. Into the mud to smother the flame.

There was nothing I could do about the cottage. It would have to burn. What about the woman? I had put out the flame on her sleeve, but her arm was badly burned. What would my grandmother do?

“Help me,” I whispered as I took Margaret in my arms and stumbled home.

Something had taken my hands before, this time I felt a presence in my mind. It guided me to the pump. Cold water. Keep cold water on the burn. Then it directed me to an ointment in a large jar in the cupboard. I smeared ointment on Margaret’s arm and wrapped it in a cloth. I made a soothing tea from leaves in another jar and after giving it to Margaret put her in my bed. Her bandages would have to be changed through the day, with more ointment, while the tea would keep her dozing while she healed.

I did not know what was in the ointment, or that sleep-making tea.

Had it been my grandmother guiding me?

“Yes, child,” from the voice in my head. “I’m with you for a little while, a spirit among the living. I must use our time well.

I had to replenish the shelves with remedies from made from the herbs in our garden and collected from the woods. As I held each plant, I opened my mind to my grandmother’s knowledge and tried to prepare her remedies. I did not know how long I’d have her spirit guiding me, so I dare not take time to rest. At the end of the seventh day bunches of herbs were hanging by their stalks, others were steeping in oil or wine, and I knew how to finish the remedies and when to use them. I needed to sleep, and understood that when I woke up, my grandmother’s spirit would have gone back to the afterlife. I would be by myself again and there would be difficult days ahead but Jessie Burton’s house would be there to serve the villagers.

You know the rest of the story, MaryAnn. When you were growing up the plague was but a sad memory. Life returned to our village, the children grew and had families of their own. As people lost their fear of us, I was able to move around the county and I took every opportunity to gather knowledge and practise the skills my grandmother gave me.

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Email: Robin.hillard[at]outlook.com

The Broken Heartstone

Savage Science Fiction / Fantasy Contest ~ First Place
Cara Brezina


Photo Credit: James St. John/Flickr (CC-by)

Princess Morwenna rode her unicorn across the lush grassy plains at a gentle canter as she embarked on her quest to obtain a new Heartstone for the Orb of Marais. Earlier that afternoon, a cataclysmic bolt from the ether had damaged the magical crystal powering the light that blessed the people of Marais with good health and fortune. If it were not repaired without delay, chaos and misery would descend on the kingdom.

She guided her steed into a deep valley that marked the edge of the Hayim Hills. Her destination lay deep in the rolling expanse. A generation earlier, gnomes had mined the depths. They’d vanished into the unknown, leaving behind their tunnels and underground conveyances. One of the tunnels contained cut slabs of the same type of crystal as the Heartstone.

“Princess Morwenna? Where are you?”

The voice of her trusted retainer, Julio, came from the magic mirror tucked into her belt. She raised the little looking glass up to her face and saw him regarding her anxiously.

“We’ve just entered the hills,” she replied.

“Let me know when you’ve reached the relief depot.”

The surface of the mirror swirled and returned to showing only her reflection. She tucked it away.

The trip to the Hayim Mines was too long to be completed without respite. She needed to stop and allow the unicorn to feed and rest before continuing onward to the mine entrance. Survival supplies were stored in the relief depot in the foothills. Much time had passed since anyone from Marais Castle had frequented the station, however, and Julio had fretted over whether she’d be able to locate it.

They need not have worried. Before long, Morwenna rounded a bend and espied a red crystal atop a rough low building constructed from the surrounding rocks. She slowed the unicorn to a walk and circled the station. The crystal should have been illuminated, but it had evidently been struck down by the same magic that had incapacitated the Orb of Marais. Morwenna brought out her magic mirror again.

“Julio, I’ve arrived at the relief depot, but I’m unable to get inside.”

“The spell on the door must be affected by the bolt from the ether,” her retainer muttered. “Try using your magic mirror to counteract the ward on the latch.”

Morwenna dismounted and approached the vertical rock that most resembled a door and held the magic mirror close to the grain of the stone. To her surprise, the mirror almost immediately displayed a cheerful swirl of color that ended with a tinkling sound of descending harp strings being plucked.

The door opened.

“I’m in,” she told Julio.

“Great. Find some sustenance for your steed and make haste for the mines. Darkness approaches.”

He ended the exchange before she had a chance to ask about conditions at Marais Castle. For the first time in her memory, they had been forced to close the drawbridge that linked the Castle to the surrounding community. She could only imagine the panic that must have ensued among the peasants.

She located bags of grain by following the smell of molasses and oats. Her unicorn ate hungrily and showed no unwillingness to continue the journey.

The Hayim Mines were at the end of a well-traveled though overgrown road. They arrived at the entrance to the tunnels without the unicorn ever slowing its pace. Without allowing herself a moment of hesitation, Morwenna pulled the lever in front of the wooden door. It slid open, revealing a compartment large enough to hold a dozen workers. Morwenna stepped inside and pulled the corresponding inner lever to close the door.

The air inside the car smelled sterile and sharp. She inhaled deeply as the elevator began its descent. The OrionCo Mining conglomerate had ceased operations on the planet of Marais over two decades ago after determining that the mineral reserves weren’t worth exploiting. The inhabitants of the planet’s sole settlement had continued to monitor the infrastructure of the mines, and Julio had assured Morwenna that the generators and conveyance system had recently been tested.

Neither of the mentioned the coronal mass ejection that had occurred earlier in the day or the damage it could have wreaked on the mine’s systems. The situation was desperate, and she had to take the risk.

She reached for the com device at her belt with a gloved hand. The temperatures on Marais required that humans swaddle up thoroughly when outside, and every centimeter of her skin was covered.

“Julio, are you there? I’m descending.”

Julio’s strained face appeared on the screen behind the convex face plate of his LX-3 helmet. As chief engineer of the utility station, he’d been assigned one of the handful of suits in the stockroom that protected against the effects of weira gas. Morwenna would have been given one as well for her mission to the mines, but the suits were incompatible with design of the skimmer that she’d flown for the journey.

“No setbacks so far?”

“Equipment’s functional and no indication of damage. Any progress at your end? Is the power grid still down?”

Julio grimaced.

“There’s no hope of fixing it with the weira gas affecting everyone. Right now I’m just trying to maintain vital operations until we get the beacon activated again. We need that crystal. The auxiliary power systems can’t keep the heat running for long, and after that—”

“You can count on me,” Morwenna assured him.

“Thank you, Princess Morwenna.”

He flashed a hint of a grin, ending the transmission before she could remonstrate with him.

The elevator came to a gentle stop and the door opened automatically. She stepped forward, and motion sensor lights turned on to illuminate the tunnel before her. She brought up the map of the mines on her com although it was unnecessary. As head mechanical engineer of the Marais utility station, she’d memorized the network of tunnels long ago in case of emergency.

The tunnels and chambers were scattered with equipment and pieces of cut crystal left behind by OrionCo. She paused when she passed a robotic dolly in a niche in the corridor. She couldn’t remember the precise dimensions of the cut crystal she was retrieving. She activated the dolly and instructed it to follow behind her, just in case she needed it.

In the aftermath of the company’s departure, the utility station team had salvaged and stored a sampling of the best pieces of crystal. Morwenna set her steps toward the storage cache, located in a chamber deep underground that required taking another elevator ride as well as a trip in a single tram car that remained on the track. She heaved a sigh of relief every time the equipment functioned reliably.

Under other circumstances, entering the storage chamber would have been exciting. The walls were lined with huge slabs of crystal in a dozen shades, ranging from nearly transparent to inky dark indigo. Morwenna immediately turned her attention to the three pale yellow samples set aside in an alcove. They were each nearly as large as her torso, and she felt relieved that she’d thought to bring along the dolly.

This particular type was a photonic crystal that had unexpectedly saved the sanity of the early settlers of Marais. After the planet was discovered, data analysis sent back from robotic probes and rovers had indicated that Marais possessed nearly an ideal habitat for human beings. Upon landing, though, the first explorers began experiencing bizarre hallucinations soon after being exposed to the planet’s atmosphere. The culprit was found to be a hitherto unknown organic gas in the atmosphere.

Weira gas nearly thwarted settlement on Marais, but a pair of amateur prospectors devised a solution through pure chance. As they tested the properties of some of the crystals they hewed out of cliff faces, they discovered a particular crystal that interrupted the wavelength of the solar ultraviolet light that catalyzed the creation of weira gas in the atmosphere.

The modern day settlement on Marais was protected by a beacon that amplified the properties of the crystal, preventing local formation of weira gas. Scientific analysis had indicated that the crystalline structure of the compound was highly stable.

Nobody had anticipated the direct hit from a CME that devastated the infrastructure of Marais and damaged the crystal. Celia, a materials scientist at the utility station, had conjectured that the eruption had disrupted its magnetic properties.

Fortunately, potential replacements were available. Unfortunately, they were located 80 kilometers away from the utility station, and all of the vehicles that shielded pilots from the effects of weira gas had been damaged. Therefore, Morwenna had made the journey in an aged and unreliable skimmer.

Two of the crystals were labeled as superior candidates for a replacement beacon, and Morwenna bent at the knees to pick up the first and place it on the dolly. After settling it into place, she lifted the second and positioned it next to the first. She secured them in place with a strap.

She took a couple steps forward and waited for the dolly to follow her lead. As it began to move, she heard a percussive crack from the bed of the dolly. She raced around to inspect the cargo.

One of the crystals had fallen against the other. Examining it closely, she realized that its base was slightly rounded. It had probably rocked outward when the dolly started moving, then rebounded inward after being restrained by the strap.

Morwenna observed a fresh crack near the top of the other crystal.

She felt sick with guilt over her negligence, but she couldn’t fix anything. She found a survival blanket hung on a wall and tore out a wide strip. She undid the straps, tucking the padding between the two crystals before securing the load once again.

After she’d made her way back to the entrance, she contacted Julio before opening the door to the outside.

“I’ve got the crystals. I should be back in less than two hours. I’ll have to stop at the fuel depot again midway through,” she told him.

She cut through his exclamations of relief, her stomach roiling at the prospect that neither crystal would be found suitable because of her own carelessness. She wasn’t going to tell Julio about the damaged crystal yet. He was already dealing with a host of crises.

Humans under the hallucinogenic effects of the weira gas could still function adequately for basic survival. Morwenna could operate her skimmer even though she believed she was riding a unicorn. But the town residents and the staff at the utility station wouldn’t be competent enough to work together to fix the damage wreaked by the CME.

She hit the “open” button on the illuminated wall panel. For a moment, she regarded the red and black silhouette of the skimmer. A moment later, a unicorn stood in its place.

*

When she neared to the outskirts of the town, Princess Morwenna immediately observed that the peasants were unusually restive. The Castle was located a short distance away from where the townsfolk lived and worked. If the magic workings performed by the Castle sorcerers sparked a catastrophe, the people of Marais would not be directly harmed.

Morwenna was unsurprised that the peasants had been disturbed by the effects of the bolt from the ether. But many of them had ventured outside their own environs and were congregating around the moat that surrounded the Castle. It would be inconvenient if the Castle sorcerers and nobility were required to repel an invasion.

She guided her unicorn around the moat to the back wall of the castle, disregarding the peasants who shouted and pointed at her approach. With a mighty leap, the unicorn cleared the moat and landed on solid ground on the other side. Morwenna retrieved the crystals from the saddlebags and left her steed in the hands of a lackey.

Her courtiers greeted her with enthusiasm that faded only slightly when she made the admission of her personal negligence. They paid more attention to the crystals. Celia, a sorceress skilled in transmutation, directed her apprentices to place them on the workbench.

“First, we must assess the integrity of these potential Heartstones,” she declared. She bathed each in the light of an amulet that could detect the impurities and inconsistencies beneath the surface. The results were displayed on a large magic mirror, and Celia scowled at the mystical designs in dissatisfaction.

“Neither is perfect,” she said. “But the former Heartstone possessed flaws, as well. The question is, which is more likely to be effective, taking into consideration the unique traits of each? We need to choose quickly. I don’t have the luxury of time to perform a formal divination.”

“Perhaps it would be safer to work with the crystal that we know is undamaged,” Julio suggested, with a glance of apology directed toward Morwenna.

Celia nodded a grudging assent.

“The genie’s waiting for it.”

The apprentices placed the crystal in the vault where the genie would pare down the crystal with a blade crafted out of light that would burn away the vision of any human who dared view it directly. While the crystal was being processed, Julio contacted Yuri, the mayor of the town.

“We’re going to be transporting the new Heartstone to the Tower of Light shortly,” Julio told him. “How are conditions in the town?”

Yuri hesitated and grimaced involuntarily.

“The peasants are confused and restless,” he finally said. “I recommend that you guard the Heartstone closely when you bring it to the Tower. I don’t believe that anyone would deliberately sabotage the work, but they may hamper your progress through misguided actions.”

“The crystal’s purification is complete,” Celia announced from across the room. The apprentices opened the door of the vault. The crystals jagged edges had been rounded down into curves, transforming it into an enormous luminous yellow egg. The apprentices carried it back to the workbench, and Celia assessed it with her amulet again.

“Well?” Julio finally asked.

Celia slowly shook her head.

“There’s a significant flaw near the center. There’s a chance that it might be partially effective, but I’d rather take the time to process the second crystal now rather than install this one only to find that its magic is inadequate for our needs.”

Morwenna restrained herself from wailing aloud in guilt and frustration. The fate of Marais hinged on the purity of the stone she’d damaged.

Julio consulted with the Steward of the Castle about the logistics of transporting the Heartstone to the Tower of Light. The Tower’s site had been chosen so that the Orb would provide protection to both the town and Castle. It was located at the edges of town, and the main road out of the Castle led directly to the Tower entrance.

At the moment, that road was thronged with peasants.

“Coming out!” one of the apprentices announced. The pair lugged the second stone out of the vault for Celia’s inspection. Everyone watched anxiously as she examined it with her amulet.

“I don’t observe any critical imperfections,” she finally said. “The recent crack runs on a diagonal, and it did not extend into the interior of the stone. We’ll test this one first.”

Morwenna felt herself blush at the mention of the new damage, although nobody looked her way.

“We’ll transport both stones, nonetheless,” Julio decided. “Convey them to the unicorn.”

Peasants crowded the road across from the drawbridge, and Morwenna feared that they would rush the Castle as soon as the bridge was dropped into place. Pages shouting “Make way, make way!” and brandishing flags managed to clear an opening for the procession surrounding the unicorn. Morwenna slowly guided her steed forward, and the courtiers of the Castle surrounded her in tight formation. The disarray of the peasants helped prevent delay during the short trip. Some of them attempted to halt confront the members of the court, while others joined the courtiers as escorts of the Heartstone.

When they reached the Tower, Julio stepped forward to undo the wards that sealed the entrance. The throng of peasants had grown during the trip, and Morwenna felt battered by the congestion and cacophony.

She leaped to her feet, standing on the hindquarters of her patient steed.

“People of Marais!” she shouted. “As your Princess, I am dedicated to reversing this calamity that has brought distress to us all. I ask for your confidence as—”

She lost her balance as the unicorn shifted position, but the people around her had erupted into cheering. The entrance to the Tower stood open, and the unicorn had moved in response to the lackeys removing the pair of heartstones from the saddlebags.

“Hurry, Morwenna,” Julio said over his shoulder as he began ascending the 287 steps to the top of the tower.

Morwenna rushed up, quickly passing Julio, and she reached the great globe that made up the Orb of Marais. Maintenance of the Orb was one of the tasks of the Princess of Marais, and she quickly disassembled the pegs and pins that held the top segments into place. By the time the others entered the chamber, she had unfastened the brackets holding the original Heartstone into place.

It didn’t look any different from the last time she’d examined it. Morwenna directed the lackeys to remove the old Heartstone, and Celia and her apprentices positioned the new crystal in the cradle. Morwenna secured the brackets and replaced the segments of the outer shell. The final step was flipping the switch that connected the flow of magic throughout the Orb.

Nothing happened.

“When will it start working?” one of the lackeys asked.

Morwenna opened her mouth but found herself at a loss for an answer. She glanced toward Julio.

His appearance seemed to flicker as she looked at him. She saw him clad in his familiar chartreuse and peacock doublet, but then he was replaced by a bulky figure swaddled entirely in gleaming white material topped by a panel of opaque curved glass. The two versions of Julio toggled back and forth several times, until the spaceman won out.

“I think it’s working,” Julio said.

The utility station staff stared around in dumbstruck bewilderment as their individual versions of reality faded and they returned solidly to the control room of the Marais Beacon. A few people started crying. Celia hugged Yuri, and the lackeys ran to the windows to look down toward the ground.

“Well done, Princess Morwenna,” Julio remarked. Morwenna sagged back onto the railing and dissolved into laughter of relief and embarrassment.

“You could have had it worse,” Julio told her in a low voice. “Celia thought that she on vacation at an exclusive resort hotel.”

“I’m glad to be back,” Morwenna said. “Believe me, you’ll never have to worry about me trying to establish a monarchy on Marais.”

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Cara Brezina is a freelance writer who lives in Chicago. Email: borealisblue[at]gmail.com

The Muse

Fiction
Andrea Stephenson


Photo Credit: Valeria Mezzano/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

She has created me so many times that I don’t know who I am without her.

‘I’ll call you Claudette,’ she announces on the day we meet.

I am standing, naked and posed, waiting for her to pick up the brush. I should be annoyed at her arrogance, instead I tremble with the shock of exposure. She couldn’t know that I have no name, yet she knows enough to christen me. As if she was with me from the very beginning.

That first day I stretch into my new name. My skin feels loose, my limbs lengthened. I have to reach out to find the limits of my body. There is a blush on my olive skin that I have not seen before. Maggie doesn’t talk to me. Her intensity at first makes me cower, until I settle into her gaze. There is a tiny gash in her forehead where she frowns. Her eyes slit in concentration. Her mouth is always in motion: chewing her bottom lip, gurning as she considers the canvas, sucking on the end of a brush.

When I break and stretch, she sits in an old red leather wing chair, watching. I roll my shoulders, stretch out my legs, arch my back. Usually, I would put on a robe, but Claudette likes the weight of the artist’s stare. I strut around her studio naked, studying the paintings on the walls. She doesn’t ask me if I like them.

I don’t tell her my real name and she doesn’t think to ask, until it’s too late to matter.

*

They found me on the platform of a railway station, tucked in a corner beside the ticket machines. I was in an old baby carrier, wrapped in a threadbare blanket. There was a worn cloth rabbit clutched in my fist. I was found by a conductor finishing his shift. I didn’t cry for days.

I made the national news. They appealed for a mother, someone who might need medical treatment herself. But nobody came forward and nobody was found. My first baby photo is a black-and-white newspaper print of the conductor holding me. He is beaming for the camera.

Before that photo there is nothing but blurred lights and the thunder of trains passing.

*

Maggie creates me. I wouldn’t exist were it not for her. I am used to costumes and props. I have been painted as many characters. My face is one of those unremarkable faces, ready to become anyone the artist wants it to be. But Claudette is no tabula rasa. It is as though she has been there all along, squatting in a neglected part of my body, waiting to be drawn out.

Posing for Maggie, I become loose and languorous. Opened up. She paints every part of me, brush plump with paint, lingering over each area of the canvas. I watch the narrowing of her eyes, the flush of her cheeks, and try to guess which part of me she is bringing to life. She is putting me together piece by piece. Bone, flesh, skin. I hear the scratch of bristles on canvas. Each brush-stroke like a caress. It’s unbearable.

After a dozen sittings we collapse onto paint-stained sheets. She smells of oil and sweat and turpentine. The bed holds the scent of my perfume from all the times I’ve posed on it. When she whispers my name, she whispers Claudette.

I never go home again.

*

My parents didn’t tell me until I was sixteen. I had failed just about every exam and was about to make my meagre mark on the world. They chose that moment, not only to tell me I was adopted, but to tell me I was a foundling without a history. They showed me the blanks on my birth certificate that usually contained names. It felt like a punishment for everything I hadn’t done right.

No matter how many times my feet took me there, the railway station held no clues to who I was. If my mother named me, she kept that name to herself. I would never know her name, or the name of my father, or any of the people I came from. Before the railway station there was nothing.

I tracked down the conductor. Tom Ramsay was his name. He was retired and invited me to his home for tea, which his wife brought in on old-fashioned china. I made him describe everything in minute detail. He did it gladly, like a proud parent. He produced the photo and made me a copy. Sometimes, when I was particularly lonely, I went back to visit him. Each time I had him describe that night—until he passed away and another link to my beginning was broken.

*

In me, Maggie finds something she has been struggling with. Her brush strokes become assertive; they make shapes they hadn’t made before. Through me, she tells the story she wants to tell. She becomes hungry for information about me, but there is only before her and after her. I gloss over what came before.

It’s easy to become Claudette, to settle into a way of being with Maggie. I am her model, her assistant, her wife. When we are hungry, she sells me, for just a few pounds at first. When she becomes successful, it is our success. I look after the house and her. I entertain her friends at parties and am suitably enigmatic at her exhibitions. They can find no information on my past so I am the mysterious Claudette who has somehow brought out the genius in Maggie. They seek my opinion on her work and discuss my influence on it.

She has sold me a hundred times over. Now, I go for thousands. Even so, I will always remain here. The walls are always covered in me.

*

When I saw the gaps on my birth certificate, everything made sense. It explained why I never felt comfortable in my life, why I struggled to pin down an identity. I belonged nowhere, because I would never know where I belonged.

I went to a support group for a while. Some foundlings were philosophical about their lack of baggage, others never got over the hole inside.

My adoptive parents took the time to choose me, to name me, to raise me. Perhaps the knowledge should have pushed me towards them, but instead it pushed me away.

*

Maggie dies a legend. I inherit everything, including the responsibility for the estate. There are tributes and retrospectives. I am no longer Claudette, I am ‘the muse’. They talk endlessly about my face and my body and how she has portrayed them until I am no longer sure what I am. I began life with no records, but since Maggie, my every move has been documented and analysed.

I see my faces staring down at me, from every wall. They are propped on the floor and stacked on tables. I watch them watching me. I sit in the wing chair in which Maggie once sat and I hear them whisper among themselves. What did you do but pose? they ask. What value do you have except in paint? They will still be selling her paintings of me when I am long forgotten.

I find myself wondering who Claudette really is and why I was so eager to become her.

*

I could sell the paintings and be rich a dozen times over. But as I feed the first portrait into the flames, a tiny spark of my energy returns. I watch unmoved as the fire melts and blackens paint and canvas, until every last one is consumed.

The critics will hate me for destroying works they could have pored over for posterity, but I don’t care. The empty walls fill me with energy. I dance around the studio. Now that the paintings are gone, there is light and memory. I remember how we really were, Maggie and I. Our lives were about more than her painting me.

I was a child with no past who found a future. I was a woman with no name who found an identity. She has created me so many times that I don’t know who I am without her. Yet. But I have destroyed a hundred versions of myself and I will find me in the spaces left behind.

pencil

Andrea Stephenson is a writer and libraries manager from the north east of England, where she lives with her wife and a Border Terrier. Her stories have been published in Popshot and Firewords magazines and in the Aesthetica Creative Writing Annual. She is inspired by nature, the coastline and the turn of the seasons and she writes about creativity, magic and nature at Harvesting Hecate. She is currently seeking an agent for two speculative fiction novels for adults. Email: beltane27[at]yahoo.co.uk