Harvest by Millie Guille

It was the first morning without cockerels. The sun fell into the kitchen and hit the geraniums above the sink. Their petals were almost dead, but Tasha had kept them. They brightened up the yellow walls. According to her mother, who had been in charge of buying the paint, the colour was meant to create warmth. Instead, it reminded Tasha of her Aunt Amina’s jaundice. She watched the dust drift into the pantry. It fell over the beetroot and settled on the skin of four, roughly plucked roosters. Their thin bodies might make a stew. She would tell Seb that a dog had eaten them. Tasha covered them with a newspaper and skimmed over the headlines. Nothing jumped out at her. Her mother refused to read them, refused even the radio. She smoked her pipe, trimmed the window boxes and spoke to her husband. He never had much to say on the matter.

A beetle clicked by the sink and Tasha watched it clamber into a bowl of grapes. It sat heavily within the bunch. She looked at her watch; Seb would be up soon. Her feet inched into a pair of worn leather sandals and she made her way into the garden. The hen house stood at the end of their property, and she noticed how the paint was peeling. She had only decorated it three months ago. The chickens were already outside and didn’t move when she entered the pen. Tasha felt as if she were interrupting a wake; after the incident with the cockerels, she didn’t blame them. They were young women, wondering where their men had gone. “You and me both,” she muttered as she closed the latch. Tasha recalled the date on the newspaper. It read April 7th 1996, but was a few days old. It was now the 10th. She noticed how the eggs were smaller. Her mother told her that during the war they had stopped laying altogether. She slipped them in her pocket and a warm nose brushed the backs of her legs. The culprit was Sergio, an elderly Tornjak who belonged to Mr Hadzic across the road. She had laughed when he told her that Sergio used to be a guard dog.

“Guard dogs are meant to be fierce” she had attested, stroking Sergio’s head.

“He was quite something in his youth.” Mr Hadzic smiled, as he walked back to his porch. “But then, we all were.”

As she brushed the white fur off her leg, she tried to imagine what Mr Hadzic had looked like as a younger man. Her mother told her that he was in his thirties, but he carried decades on his back. Brown hairs had become threaded with grey. He would have been a desirable man. She had learnt not to stare, but her son lacked that discretion.

“Where’s your eye?” Seb had asked him, when he came over to introduce himself. It was the day that they moved in with her mother.

Tasha turned away from the chickens, and remembered the answer her seven-year-old had received.

“The soldiers cut it out.”

Seb had nightmares for a week. She had slipped off her sandals at the kitchen door when she heard Mr Hadzic calling for Sergio. Tasha crossed the track barefoot and saw him in his garden. A bowl of gravy sat on the grass in front of him. In the light, she could see the gouges that stretched up his cheek. They were the colour of a fresh burn.

“He was watching the chickens again,” Tasha said when she reached him, keeping her feet away from the gravy. Sergio had a large splash zone.

Unsurprised, he nodded and patted the dog’s head. His face was pinched in the sun. “What was all that noise last night?” he asked. “It sounded like a goose being mugged.” He didn’t laugh, but raised his eye to hers. It was dark blue.

She moved closer, and avoided the gravy on the lawn. “Mum got pissed off with the cockerels. Apparently they were disturbing my father.” Tasha looked back at the house. Her mother’s curtains were still closed.

Mr Hadzic raised an eyebrow. “But your father—”

“I know,” Tasha interrupted. “But you’ve seen what she’s like.”

It was gone nine by the time she had cooked breakfast, and she scolded Seb for licking the plate. “Even Sergio has better manners than you,” she chastised, and ruffled his black hair. It was the same colour as hers, but that was all he had inherited. His round eyes were almond, and there was a gentle hook to his nose. He was the mirror image of his father.

“Some days, it is hard to look at him,” she had once told Mr Hadzic.

Tasha placed her mother’s breakfast in the fridge and looked at the kitchen. The wooden floor had been worn smooth by generations of children. She had moved in several months ago, after the siege ended. The air in the mountains was cleaner than in the city. Dull thuds came from the ceiling, and she knew her mother was straightening the bedsheets. Her father’s side was always pristine. Tasha had grabbed the car keys and put on a jacket by the time her mother came into the kitchen. Her hair had been scraped into a bun to hide the stained, yellow ends.

“Where are you off to?” her mother asked. Her white shirt was crisp, but her voice was darkened by tobacco. She sat at the table and put a hand on Tasha’s father. “And where’s breakfast?”

Tasha removed the plate from the fridge and carried it over. “We’re out of bread,” she replied, as she wiped a fork clean and handed it to her mother. The closest shop was three miles away, but the drive was pleasant. On a clear day, you could even make out the city. The sun had migrated further into the sky and cast shadows. She noticed the road sign. It was yellow and slightly bent, with thick, black letters. She knew what was on it without looking.

SARAJEVO – 60 Miles.

At the store, she paid for the loaf and bought an orange to eat in the car. She didn’t have enough change to buy her mother’s tobacco, but she bought a carnation for her father. Its pink head reminded Tasha of a clenched fist. Driving back, she didn’t stop to look at the view. There isn’t much left to look at anyway, she thought, remembering the bombardment. Her wedding ring caught the sun and threw cubes of light across the dashboard. It was on a chain around her neck. She reached for it and thumbed the plain, gold band. Tasha opened the window and could smell the fir trees which lined the track as she neared her house. She had always loved the mountains, but moved with Jakob to the city when they got married. One day she had asked him to get bread. He was swallowed by a bomb.

She pulled into her drive and saw Mr Hadzic cutting his hedge. Sergio was lying at his feet, covered in leaves. The kitchen door was unlocked and she walked inside, placing the bag on the worktop. Her mother was still at the table; a brown pipe twitched between her teeth. Half of her breakfast was untouched. With a grunt, she lifted herself from the chair.

“You and Mr Hadzic have spent a lot of time together recently,” her mother said, fixing her eyes upon her daughter. “You talked until gone eight the other night.” She paused. “Is there something going on between you two?”

Tasha’s hand tightened on the mug she had cleared off the table. “Jakob only died eight months ago.” She tried to control her voice. “How could you think I’m moving on?”

“I just thought—” her mother started, but her sentence was drowned out by the radio firing up, words spitting from its grill.

“Turn that off!” she shouted, and snatched at the radio in her daughter’s hands. Headlines flew distortedly through the house. Seb poked his head around the kitchen door.

“Hundreds of buildings have been destroyed in the capital…Refugee centres cannot cope with the demand for aid…The estimated death toll has risen to twenty thousand…”

The sound of broken china made Tasha turn off the news. Her mother went rigid and stared at the floor. A large pile of ash was clumped near the table. A small, black urn lay cracked upon its side. In the commotion, Seb had knocked over his grandfather’s ashes. He was too shocked to move. The silence felt heavier after the radio. It was a minute before anyone spoke.

“Everyone out,” her mother said quietly, her hand on her chest. “Now.”

Tasha walked out into the garden and sat on the old swing. She held her head in her hands. Her father had pushed her on it when she was a child. Before the war came. It had harvested everything, and she was left scratching for seeds.

A Light in the Window by David Klose

A week before I signed a 12-month lease with my fiancée on our soon-to-be-new old home with its small yard and its big deposit, my mother began to fall apart. She had called me and asked me how I was doing (How’s the dog? How’s Nicole?) but before I could answer, she asked me if I could come over and help her move some of her things out of storage. She asked me as if she were asking a waiter for another glass of water; without the slightest worry that I would say no.

At that moment my apartment was boxes upon boxes. It was a small one-bedroom that I had occupied for three years. I never knew how much stuff I owned until I dragged everything out of its drawers and closet space. There were old DVDs (when was the last time I even watched a DVD?) filed randomly in small purple shoe-like boxes I had bought from Ikea. There were books and shoes (a pair so old that they sported a brownish stain on the toes where I puked whiskey after my first night getting drunk as a teenager). Nicole, my fiancée, helped by taking a white trash bag and throwing away things she knew I didn’t want and I made it worse by going through those bags and taking some things out. I had a wooden box, about the size of two gallons of water, full of notebooks. The red notebooks were for screenplay ideas, green notebooks were for novel ideas, blue notebooks were for poems and the yellow notebooks were stories I had been told about my mother (either by her, or by my father). I hadn’t written in any of the notebooks (nor even bothered to read from any of them) since I first moved out on my own.

My car was just as messy as everything else in my life. I had boxes of Girl Scout cookies in the front passenger seat and the back seat was stuffed with white trash bags full of clothes I was going to donate to the thrift store. When I got to my mother’s, I realized something was wrong. On her left hand she only had her thumb and three fingers. Her index finger was missing. She said it had fallen off like a coat-button and she showed me where it had fallen; it was still on the kitchen floor. I looked at it and went to pick it up, but then it dissolved into something like sand. I grabbed a sandwich bag from the pantry and scooped the sand up with a loose letter from her pile of mail. Then I rolled my weight on the bag to get the air out.

“I don’t know what happened,” she said “I’ve never been healthier. I am eating a macrobiotic diet, have you heard of that? You only eat what’s naturally in season. I highly recommend it.”

She sat down at the kitchen table and crossed her legs and put her hands in her lap. She examined her left hand as if there was some huge wound or gash and blood was pouring out, but there was no blood at all. There wasn’t as much as a blemish.

“You need to call Benjamin at the Eastern Order. His number is on the fridge. You would love to talk to him, but he needs to know about this. Something isn’t right.”

“Who is he?” I asked, and put the Ziploc bag of her sand on the counter, next to a roll of paper towels.

“He is this great spiritual leader I met last year on a retreat into Flagstaff. He has been helping me with some issues and I think this is related. He wanted me to get rid of all my old spiritual teachings, especially anything I worked on with my therapist when I was still with your father,” she said and went to stand up, “that’s why I called you over. I need help getting boxes out of the shed.”

Before my parents divorced, back when I was still just their kid, there was always Christmas lights up on the house by the first of December. The trash was taken to the curb every Monday and Wednesday and the mail box was never overstuffed with magazines, unpaid bills and Value Coupon Books. We never ran out of toilet paper and there were always frozen meats in the freezer to be thawed out and grilled.

That’s when we went to the three-tiered church down the street and my father fell asleep during the sermons and my mother started to speak in tongues and flop up and down the stage like a fish out of water. When the pastor Richard Luth had said, in church-sponsored marriage counseling, that my father had not yet made peace with having to grow up in an orphanage (at least, that’s how my mother told it), my father started to stay home on Sundays. We’d go to church, my mother and I, and he’d be back home mowing down the grass and trimming the edges and when we’d come back he’d be sunburnt and smiling with little cuts where rocks had flown back and hit him across his legs and he’d smell of sweat.

Then she called him names and he’d only come home after drinks and he taught me songs that other kids my age had never heard. It was then that she changed the locks. The mail started to gather up, the yard became overgrown and wild, dinner was takeout or delivered, we skipped Christmas two years in a row and when I got sick my mother put oil bought from the church gift shop on my forehead. When that didn’t work and I became pale and dark-eyed, my mother dragged me up to the stage and I held my hands out while the pastor pounded the Holy Spirit into me and told me if I believed I’d be saved.

I walked out to the shed with my mother. There was just enough light left in the day to see.

“You see,” she said “everything has an energy. Everything is alive. If you beat a kid with a bat, that bat gets stained with a bit of that crime. It sticks around. Over time, as you hold that bat again and again, you’ll feel the urge to hit a kid again.”

I turned the light on in the shed and looked upon all the storage boxes, most of them translucent but shaded brown with dust.

“We go through life hanging to all these old things, these things we keep close out of habit, and these items can either be helping us up or bringing us down.”

“What do you want me to do? Take out all these boxes?” I asked, trying to count, without it being obvious, how many boxes there were. I figured close to fifteen.

“I want to bring out most of them. And I want to throw them in the fire.”

She went to start a fire in the backyard fire pit and I went inside to hide in the bathroom and called the local Urgent Care and spoke to a medical intern and told her everything that was happening. She took down my notes, said “hmm” and “interesting” and then asked me to hold. When she came back, she said the on-call doctor advises fresh liquids and plenty of rest. Have her only eat meals like soup or stew, nothing too difficult to chew. She can take ibuprofen if she starts to ache. If she hasn’t improved by Monday, call her regular attending physician and schedule an appointment.

“What about her finger?” I ask.

“Her finger?”

“Yes. The finger that fell off. It’s sand. Can we fix that?”

The woman on the line was quiet for a few moments, and I imagined she was either searching her head for something to say or looking at her nails. Then she said, “No, I don’t think so. I think the way she is now is the way she will be from now on.”

I flushed the toilet, turned on the faucet for a few seconds and then went back outside. She had started a fire and it was now officially late evening; the stars were showing and the neighbors all had lights in their windows.

My father was an orphan and never liked talking about it.

My mother grew up in an abusive home and was always telling me about it as I grew up. My father said she told me too much. She had run away when she was 15 and a half. She had worked at a hot dog stand where they specialized in double chili dogs (two hot dogs stacked on one another in one bun) and when she saved enough money, or saved what she thought would be enough money, she left home and slept outside in parks, in the back of trucks, at cheap hotels and with various people she met on the road until she found a steady job selling cleaning products door to door.

When I was growing up, after we stopped going to church and when I only saw my father on the weekend, my mother told me her parents worked for the Devil and they abused her and her brothers. She told me one memory she had of being woken up and carried down to the basement where men and women stood cloaked and hooded, with nothing but candlelight and an ominous “ohm” reverberating between their bodies. She said they would hold her down and use her in rituals, her and her brothers. She said they did rituals of pure evil, rituals that promised her and her offspring to the Devil for the next ten generations.

When I went up to my mother, I saw that her entire hand had fallen off and beneath her was another pile of sand. “Let’s go,” I said, motioning for us to go back inside.

“No,” she said, ” I want to stay by this fire.”

“Mother,” I said looking towards the pile of the sand, “you aren’t doing well.”

“I know how I am doing. I didn’t call you over here to baby me, I called you because I need your help with those boxes.”

I sighed and then brought her a chair. Then I got a mason jar and picked up as much of the sand as I could.

When she thought I had felt Christ enough as a child, she told me to stop trying. “No point in making a phone call,” she said “if you know the person on the other line isn’t going to pick up.” That’s when she began talking about the Universe, and told me not to answer the phone if it were Pastor Luth calling.

She told me about people’s energy, of currents of love and hate, and how we feed them with our emotions. “There is no sick,” she said “but only those who are feeding the wrong energy.”

That winter when I got pneumonia a modern-day shaman put his hand on my chest and pushed and mumbled something I couldn’t understand.

 

The following summer I stayed with my father and my mother travelled up North and lived in a small community of like-minded people in small cabins that I only ever saw through photos, but once she told me how she heard the one true voice of Mother Earth at night when she was wrapped up in something like linen and placed on the soil while everyone made a circle around her and beat on drums. That was long ago, I couldn’t tell you how long, but it was before my first kiss with Nicole Leisman, my now-fiancée, and right around the time when my mother wouldn’t let me see my father anymore.

I took out three boxes and placed them at her feet. She would open them with her only hand, sift through them and either tell me to put them back or to throw them into the fire. The first two, full of books and vials, were into the fire. The third, which was full of nothing but pine cones wrapped in newspaper, she told me to keep.

She had let me use a headlamp my father had bought her, back when they were married and went camping together. She said I was conceived on one of those trips, outside of the tent and under the stars.

I was in the shed, getting ready to bring out another box when Nicole called.

“Hey,” I said picking up.

“Hey, are you still with your Mom?” she asked.

“Yeah, I’m sorry it’s taking so long.” I said and looked back at my mother, who was sitting close to the fire, which was now quite large, with her back towards the night. “She wants me to clean out her shed, I guess there is an exterminator coming in the morning.”

“The exterminator needs you to clean out the shed?”

“I guess so. I don’t know how much longer it will take. A few more hours.”

“Do you want me to come over?”

“Maybe later. She isn’t feeling well.”

“Have you told her I am pregnant yet?”

“It hasn’t come up. No.”

“I don’t think it will be as bad as you think. She seems less intense than she was when you were growing up. You know, like when she told me I was the cause of your asthma.”

I laughed, and then said “I am going to go. But I will call you later.”

I brought out another six boxes (four to burn, two to keep) and then said, “Mother, have you had dinner yet? You should make something.”

“There’s no food in there,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“I threw it all out yesterday. It was tainted. I am getting new food next week through the Eastern Order.”

I looked in her cupboards and in the fridge, all of them empty except for stored pouches of her blood.

When I was older, I started working at S&F Grocery as a bagger and then was promoted to a grocery clerk, where I was responsible for stocking the canned food shelves and keeping the milk cooler full. I still lived with my Mother, but saw her intermittently. I spoke to my father on the phone and would, when I saved up enough money and bought my first car, drive up to see him. He lived up North, further than I’ve ever been before. He would ask after my mother, and I’d tell him of the new things she was doing: eating only raw meat, doing fire ceremonies in the living room (setting off the smoke alarm once), and storing her own blood in the freezer.

“Storing her own blood? Why on earth?”

“She says who we are is in our blood. If you get a blood transfusion, you are getting someone’s else essence.”

He laughed and then smiled. “I am not going to lie. I miss some of her. She was never boring.”

“I wish she was normal,” I said, “I can’t bring people over.”

He shook his head, “I am not sure you can be normal, when you start out like she did. I can imagine a lot of things but I can’t imagine her life before I knew her.”

“I know, Dad.”

“No, you don’t. Neither do I. Don’t you see? I met her brother once, before you were born. She found him through the internet in Oregon and we went to see him. He killed himself shortly after.”

“I never knew this,” I said.

“She tells you almost everything, but not everything.”

“What happened when you met him?”

“Not much. He was a nice guy, honestly. A real nice guy. I never would have thought he was as troubled as he was. He smoked a lot—I mean a lot—and he was super skinny, but that could mean anything. At this point in our marriage, things were getting rough and I asked her brother how he dealt with the past. I didn’t want to get into details. I just wanted to see how I could help.”

“What did he say?”

“He said he had it pretty bad, but she had it worse. For some reason, she had it worse growing up. The things they would do. You see, a lot of people, me and your mom included, think maybe she just imagined a lot of these things, you know? A lot of the really crazy things, like the rituals and the sacrifices. Maybe she just had really abusive parents and she created these things to make sense of it. That’s what one of the doctors said. The doctor said it was common and that there were all these famous court cases about it. But talking to her brother—he didn’t confirm any details and I didn’t want him to—well, it made me feel alone and like I couldn’t do anything, no matter how hard I tried.”

He stopped and then said, “I shouldn’t be telling you this.”

 

All of the food stores were closed, so I went into my car and brought in a few boxes of Girl Scout cookies.

“It’s better than nothing,” I said and gave her a box.

She laughed and as she laughed, her bangs dissolved and trickled down her face.

We went inside and I took some tape and black Sharpie marker and wrote “left index finger” over the Ziploc bag and then “rest of left hand” on the mason jar.

“Thank you for helping me,” she said as she sat down on the couch. “Want to watch some TV?”

“I need to get going, Mother.”

“Before you go, I want you to take down Simon’s number.”

“Simon?”

“The man helping me. He is really amazing. He reads you.”

I sat down across from her and asked, “What’s that mean?”

Her eyes lit up, “Well, I sat across from him in his office. In this basic wooden chair and he asks you. ‘Do I have permission to access your past life?’ and you say yes and he looks back into your life and says ‘There is a box inside your soul that is locked. Can I unlock it?’ I said yes, and he said he saw my past life as a woman in Salem during the witch trials. Isn’t that something? I was convicted for sexually molesting little kids in the name of the Devil but I was innocent. He said he saw clearly that I was innocent.” She opened the Girl Scout cookie box and took a bit of a cookie and then said “ow” and put her fingers in her mouth.

“What else did he see?” I asked.

“Well,” she said, her fingers still in her mouth “I guess they tied me up and were burning me at the stake and they said if I confessed they would save me…” but before she could continue, she took her tooth out of her mouth and it instantly turned to sand. Then all of her teeth fell out and she coughed up the sand, like dry cereal. I rushed over and helped her.

“It was important to me,” she said, mumbling. Then she looked at me and said, “It’s important to me, that I was innocent. That I was innocent.”

“Mother,” I said, taking my phone out, “I am going to call Dad. He needs to know about this. He can help. I’ll be right back, okay? I’ll be right back.” Then I stood up, turned towards the kitchen and called him. It rang and rang but he didn’t answer. When it went to his voicemail, I hung up and called again. I held the phone in my hand, letting it ring and ring, as I walked back to the couch but she wasn’t talking anymore.

Her eyes were the next to go. They went like tears of sand dripping out of her sockets, down her high cheekbones and dribbling over the sides of her face. After that, she lost her tongue and could only moan. Then her throat went and her head was detached from her body. It was her chest that was the last to go. It went slowly, like sand castles being weathered away by the wind.

Afterwards, I gathered up all the sand. It took a dozen or so cups and two pans, which I sorted on the kitchen counter. I sat on a stool and poured out a little bit of sand. I made her into a pile, then pressed and molded her into a mound. Then I leveled it and made her into a line and cut into her diagonally. I used a credit card from my wallet to push her off the side and into my hand.

I took a tablespoon of sand and dropped her into a coffee mug and filled the mug up with water. I swirled the sand and water around until it became thick. Then I drank it, or tried to, but couldn’t help but gag and I spat her up into the sink and coughed and choked as I turned on the faucet and washed that part of her down the drain.

I packaged all the sand up and carried it outside. It was long into night now and I scattered her in her little patch of a garden. Then I went inside the garage, took out her blood and poured it over the sand. As I was pouring, I tripped and fell into the wet pile. I got blood all over my face and I wiped it on my sleeve. I had never been so out of breath, it was like I had run two miles in the time it takes to run one. My mother had, at one time, wanted to have been buried at the top of Machu Picchu, scattered into an ocean (preferably the Pacific), buried at the base of some great mountain, or in the Catholic cemetery her older brother had been buried in. I wiped my face again and finished pouring the rest of the blood over the garden.

When I got back to her house, I went inside, as if I had lived there all my life, and locked the door behind me. The Girl Scout cookies were still stacked on the dining room table and the neighborhood cat sat outside the back porch door, meowing. It would be a week later when, with my Dad, I began to package up all of her items and sort her things into two piles, that which we would keep and that which we would throw away, that I found a small vial, just slightly bigger than my palm, full of what looked like sand.

Born – Breathing – Bound by Jasmin Kirkbride

Some time after I had begun to read the human books, we had a tome come through that was the size of my palm and three pages long, with just two sentences written on each page. I asked Ma why it was so small.

It belonged to a baby, my love,” said Ma quietly, hugging me tighter and kissing the top of my head. “He was born too early and died before he could start breathing.”

But he still had a book?”

We all have books, right from the start. Sometimes, they’re just too small to see.”

Why is this baby so special?” I meant ‘why is his story being bound by you, Ma, and not the National Archives,’ but I couldn’t quite form the question. I think I must have been about nine.

All babies are special to someone. This baby’s parents loved it very much, even though it was so small, and they want to remember it well, so they got a dispensation. I suppose the Department doesn’t think it would matter if this little book went missing.” Ma sighed.

I read the baby book that night, amongst the scraps of leather under the table. Written as the child came out, a soft sigh of knowing as the end arrived. That such a little thing could feel so much. It was not as if the words in the book were stories of people’s lives, I finally understood, more that they contained within them the seed of that person’s truth.

When I returned the tome to my mother’s workbench, I approached her, all full and heavy with earnestness. “Even if the National Archives won’t miss it, this book does matter, doesn’t it?”

Yes, it does. Every book matters. Every book is a choice that must be made with respect and care.” I remember the ferocity in her voice even now, so many years after her death.

My mother was a binder. My father owned a crematorium. Despite this, I do not remember them arguing. I could have been pulled to and fro by their polar opposite occupations, but they never once put me in a position where I felt a side needed to – or should be – taken. I was raised on the fence, not to have convictions but to have curiosities.

Firmly believing in the worth of knowing a trade, Pa took me to work with him on Saturday mornings every week until I turned thirteen and became too obstinate to obey him anymore. With naïve indifference, I watched the bodies burn and the pages that blew out of them rise up, lifted on winds of fire before they dropped and caught in dark, ashy patches against the fevered embers.

Some stories were not meant to be read,” Pa would say, leaning on the long pole used to push the bodies back when heat drew their tendons taut. “Every person has a right to that. A right to remain private.”

Though at the time I assumed Ma could not agree with him, I never remember her openly disagreeing with him, either. At least not in my hearing. She did not work for the National Archives, as most binders did, but for private clients, those whose books had been bought for elite collections, university libraries or, on rare occasions, when a dispensation had been made by the state for a family to keep a deceased’s volume. The money was not regular, but it was enough when it came, and Ma’s skills were sufficiently renowned that someone always came knocking with a new commission before things got too desperate.

Between those cheques and the slim but steady income from the crematorium, we cobbled together our small life. We were not wealthy by any means, and we did not own a car or a television, but we had a moderately sized garden for me to run around in and food on the table. And we loved each other. That was all that mattered.

Many nights, having fed me dinner and leaving Pa’s in the oven to keep warm, Ma would take me out to her studio in the backyard and tuck me up on a spare mattress under the table as she worked. She would bid me go to sleep and sing to me, high plaintive tunes from the Steppes, which I assume she had learnt from her own mother. Her voice interrupted by the soft sounds of her needle squeezing thread through leather, the sharp shrift of the knife. I fell asleep to the scent of glue and pillow-soft patters of falling skin scraps.

Once I reached a certain age, perhaps at the point I could count to ten or recognize the alphabet, Ma would take me onto her lap before bedtime and read to me from the tomes she was working on.

Don’t tell your father, this will be our secret.” Secrets, not of other people’s lives, but of their souls.

My curiosity piqued and before long, I was reading to myself, tucked in my cot under the table. Small volumes at first, then larger ones. I would sneak them off the shelves when Ma wasn’t looking and by the time she bent under the table to check on me, I was already buried in the story, quite unable to be pried away. Ma would tut and sigh, but I suspect if she had really desired me not to read the human books, she would have kept me away from the studio entirely.

The books varied in size, shape and length. Most were rectangular or roughly square, but once in a while we would get a round or oval tome to handle. Ma would always show me these special books. Some were unusually large, hundreds of pages in length, though how so much spirit could fit into one person always confounded me. Others, like the baby book, were so small you felt the waste of opportunity just looking at their covers.

As an only child with little extra-curricular gusto, I was able to read the human books that came through our house ravenously and with little or no interruption. Beyond the occasional nag to get on with schoolwork, I was primarily left to my own devices. I had few friends, and those I did have tended to be imaginary, drawn from the human books or perhaps the novels I sometimes consumed between my mother’s commissions.

In retrospect, I think Pa must have known about my reading from quite early on – perhaps my mother had warned him in order to stay his fury at my interrupting other people’s privacy so – but he never talked to me about it. Bit by bit, my reading simply seeped into our daily routine. Human books were left around the house in various states of being bound or read, but they were quickly scurried away by all three of us if any visitors came, in case the neighbours took to gossiping more than they already did.

It came as no surprise to either of my parents, then, when I chose to study Anthropology at university, specializing in human books. The course I chose took me far from home, to a Nordic country with an open enough mind to cover the interesting facets of the topic. They were one of the first countries to re-legalise human books after they were initially discovered and the country that offered the most familial dispensations for keeping books out of the National Archives.

My course leader was a deep-thinking bohemian intellectual, who turned up to lectures wearing ripped jeans and whose office was decorated with mindfulness-motivational posters. A bumper-sticker bearing the slogan “Visualise whirled peas” took pride of place across his collaged briefcase. He taught us everything about human books, not just the party line. He discussed their discovery by E. Kresselmann, the ensuing outbreak of existential horror that so many books had already been lost. He taught us about the countries where having your book ritualistically burned out of you while you were still alive was a punishment for criminals, and others where women were deemed unfit to bear books and had them forcibly cut out at puberty. Our class winced as one at these stories. Such a violation was absolute.

Less clear-cut, I learned, were the ethics of our own governments, and their obligatory National Archives. We visited the closest archive on a study trip early in the course. Miles of bookshelves, weighed down by millions of dusting old lives nobody cared to read any longer. In that grim silence, I finally understood why my mother refused to work for the government.

My lecturer was even more rebellious. Opt out was nominally the right of the individual, he told us, but the judgments heaped upon those who decided to be cremated were enough to socially ostracise them.

Cremation is a private choice, but once word gets out, once it spreads around, those who have chosen it often find themselves the last on the list to parties. Privacy isn’t seen as a preference anymore, it’s seen as something picked by those who have secrets to hide.”

I began to realize that perhaps my own innate oddness was not the only reason the kids at school chose to pull my pigtails, that maybe it was some prejudice drip-fed down from their parents about my father’s occupation. Never before had it occurred to me to ask Pa about his clientele. How he had come to own the crematorium had never come up in conversation, nor how people sought his services.

The right to privacy should be a human right, as much as keeping your own book intact in your body while you’re alive,” my instructor finished. It did little to answer my questions.

Not long after this, Ma died, quite suddenly, from an aneurism. She fell in her study one bright November morning and never stood up again. I attended her funeral with coughed tears, clasping my father’s arm to hold him upright. He clung to her book, skin still loose at the edges where a binder had yet to trim it, and cried like a child. I could not remember ever having seen him cry before.

Back at university, my studies suffered. I could not think about a human book without feeling the absolute loss of my mother. Most people when they grieve can go and read their loved one’s story in the archives, gain a sense of them, feel their warmth and person right there with them. That is the magic of reading, to feel someone else’s presence even when they are not with you. Yet for me that was not possible. Ma was kept in the archives of another country and, not for the first time, I regretted my decision to leave my hometown. It felt like she was simply falling out of my grasp. I went mad, tossing in bed until the early hours, trying to bottle the memory of her voice and keep it somewhere sacred in my mind where I would never forget it.

It would be true to say that Heida saved me from a very long dark road. We met at the sort of university gathering where the wine is plenty and the canapés non-existent. In amongst the slurs of our colleagues, I discovered her to be charming and intelligent. She sparred with me about the ethics of editing, the subtlety of a good bind, compared notes on her readings from the university’s library – of course she had read Kresselmann’s book, everyone had – but had I been down to the third basement stacks and examined the recovered tomes from the Pompeii victims?

After being booted out of a series of pubs until even the late-closing student bar lost patience with us, we tugged on our layers against the cold outside.

There’s a story to this scarf,” she told me, with a smile I couldn’t interpret.

Is there?” I grinned back stupidly. “It reminds me of a Rupert Bear scarf.” It was a line I had once heard one of my high school’s most prolifically promiscuous girls use to great effect. I could have slapped myself for using it now: it seemed so childish. An intellectual failure of that degree could only be a sign of how much I liked her. Alas, we were interrupted by a friend of hers, asking if they could crash on her sofa.

It would be some weeks and a couple of accidental corridor meetings before I had the courage to ask Heida out for a coffee, and months more before I finally found out about the story of the scarf. I may as well have declared my love for her then and there. She was amazed that I remembered a detail so small.

In the end the story of the scarf was quite innocuous – it turned out, she had just been trying to find a reason to keep talking to me – but during the time I didn’t know it, the story tore at me. All Heida’s stories tore at me. I was insatiable in my appetite to know about her. I wanted to climb inside her mind and wander around, to feel and understand all that she had experienced.

Heida felt differently. On the surface she was warm and bright. She introduced me to the Nordic winter, taught me how to skate and ski. We went sledding, drank numberless mugs of hot coffee, held hands through fleece-lined mittens. She taught me not just how to survive the cold and my grief, but how to enjoy survival. We talked about everything in the world around us and much of what we felt within, but there were places Heida wouldn’t let me go. Parts of her mind were closed off to me, and when I asked to read her book she said no.

It is not that I do not want to share with you,” she said, “and I don’t have anything to hide. But some things aren’t necessary to know.”

Aren’t necessary to know. That’s how she put it. It was the first time the contents of a human book I had wanted to read had been withheld and I didn’t understand. I wanted to fit Heida into all of my first kisses and loves, to rewrite my life up to that point to include her in it. I was so utterly in love with her I could hardly contain it. Yet, for all her professions that she loved me too, I couldn’t help but feel if she really loved me she would want to share everything with me, just as I did with her.

My father sighed at me and told me it wasn’t always so simple. “I never read your mother’s book, you know. She was so open about it, but I never wanted to. She needed to have her own life.”

This is different,” I said. “It’s like she’s hiding something.”

So what if she is? People hide all sorts of things – good and bad. My sister would hide her report cards from our parents because she was worried about showing me up,” he laughed. “More fool her, I showed myself up in the end!”

You don’t understand.”

No? Well think on this: why do I do what I do? Why do I destroy human books for a living? Well, I’ll tell you. It’s not because I don’t believe that sharing books can’t be a beautiful thing, or because I want to help people cover up uncomfortable truths. It’s because I believe that every person has the right to be private, and to pass from this world without comment if that is what they want. I believe in the choice of being able to do that.

I often wonder if, in discovering the books, we lost something. Trust – or something that looks like trust. Why do you need proof that the person you love is the person you love?”

Because I do!”

But you will find that out anyway, given time. What’s the rush?”

He was right. It took years, but I did learn about Heida in the end. I learned that some nights she couldn’t sleep and she’d stay up reading until the small hours. I learned that she was afraid of people thinking she was a bad person even though she was almost incapable of hurting a soul. I learned that when we argued she had to make things up before we went to bed. I learned that she cried at other people’s weddings and laughed at our own. When we adopted Mikka, I learned that she was more patient that I could ever hope to be.

And I learned all these things at the moments I was supposed to. We bloomed to each other softly across life, and when we came to the end, she said I could keep her book when she died, so long as I was the only one to read it. Only me. I sat with it on my lap, in our garden full of autumn leaves, and I read page after page. By that time, I was not surprised by the depth of her depression.

Because, of course, the book contained only poems upon poems about the rain.

When I finished reading, I closed the book, stroking the uncut leather around the edges. I thought of my own story, which I had read on my back so painstakingly in the bathroom mirror aged eleven. The tale of a little girl whose house is filled with beautiful people and it is not until somebody else walks in that she realizes they are all imaginary. It is not a tale I would readily share with just anybody. By the time Heida finally took me up on the offer to read it, she understood how to hold my story. How to hold me.

My father was right, we have lost something to the books, but it is not just trust, it is time as well. You cannot walk into a shop and immediately expect to be let into the back room – and when you are let in, you cannot presume to instantly understand what you see.

Now my own time has come and I am lucky enough to have warning. I have given Mikka instructions on what is to be done with me and, to fulfill on my promise, with Heida’s book.

Together,” I told him. “In the same coffin.”

I cannot burn a bound book!”

It is not bound. I never had it bound. It’s just a story, fresh and uncut. There’s a loophole in the law.”

It’s a flimsy loophole.”

Nobody will come looking for an unbound book, I promise.”

And your book?”

I have a dispensation for cremation.”

May I read it before it burns?”

I shook my head. No, my book was for myself and my wife. It is not for my son to bear as well. Mikka cannot surpass us if he is constantly trying to understand the world as we saw it. He should be given the space to shape himself. Heida and I were a lovely story, a pair of books that could have been bound as one, as if written by the same hand. But it was our story. For us. Our lives were full and beautiful – and flawed and heavy. The world does not need the weight of our tomes. The National Archives might wish to preserve every moment but I can think of nothing worse, dragging around that burden of humanity.

I have been taught all my life that immortality should be sought, that my story deserves to be burned indelibly into the collective human brain. But what if the opposite is true: what if the greatest gift we can offer our species is to touch it barely at all, feather-light? At the end of our days, we have the right to hand on only the most important lessons we have learned and take the rest into silence. We have the right to be forgotten entirely, if that is what we desire, and leave history to pick up the crumbs.

There is nothing dark in being forgotten. It is a lightness, and it is my choice. I choose to burn away. To leave a clean, bright slate for those who follow.

Lobster by Emily Iannuzzelli

The first morning without Lobster is glorious, at first. After months buried beneath barking, Sunday sounds like itself again. I sleep. Then, instead of continued silence, instead of barking, I hear frantic cries, like self-propelled missiles. Stupid neighborhood kids.

Loooooobster!” they call between bubble gum and breaths. “Oh Loooobster!”

It’s Sunday, for Christsake,” I grumble. I pad downstairs and slip my bare feet into my rubber boots. I can’t tell if they’re wet or just cold but I don’t bother with socks either way. I thump outside to finish raking the sea of leaves before the last scheduled pickup of the season.

Lobster!” a kid yells from his bike. He stops himself on my leaf pile, sending up a spray of leaves. Like he’s in a movie.

Come here to make a mess of my yard, kid?”

Actually, I’m helping the Auldridges look for Lobster.” He unfolds a grainy photocopy so I can see the inch-high dog, a stab of red, barking against the gray background.

I know what she looks like,” I gruff. “I see that damn dog barking her head off every morning.”

His practiced petition continues, “She went missing last night in the storm. Have you seen her?”

Nope. Haven’t heard her either,” I say. “And I hope, for her sake, she stays lost.” I cock my rake back like a rifle and laugh. He doesn’t get the joke. Maybe he doesn’t think it is a joke.

My leaf pile leaks as he pulls his bike away, he’s appalled. I guess he believes the stories about me: that I used half a bag of lime to decompose the headless deer that appeared in the yard; that I mix broken glass with the squirrel feed. Lies about the truth – that’s what those stories are, just part of the canon of myths sung by the neighborhood chorus, words lying flat beside the depth of my life.

I walk into the street to gather my leaves, clean up his mess, finally enjoying some real silence when my rake pulls against something heavy.

Jesus!” A stiff reddish curl juts out from the leaves. Like a rusty fishhook. Or a comma. Like a bent paw. I look around. Nobody else out. I look at it again. Maybe it’s a moldy pinecone. Or a dead squirrel. A red tail. A dead squirrel’s red tail. That’s it. I tap on it with the rake.

It’s pretty stiff for a tail.

Tapping on it releases the audible thump from out a memory I’d long forgotten. I guess I didn’t forget it, really, just hadn’t thought about it in a long time. I kind of hear the thump across the street. And then the fingers, once again, began scratching the inside of my stomach, awakening excitement. And unlike this red curl, which I recognize, but can’t quite follow under the dark cover of leaves, the thump and the excitement remember themselves to me from under the deep cover of time. I see the heavy canvas sack, thrown from a passing memory, it comes back to me without any work at all. I’m 10 again. Me and Ricky Caselle are riding our bikes – just like this kid, only no helmets – and a mail truck throttles around us, testing our balance. Then, it doesn’t even hardly stop at the sign, just pulls hard to the right and disappears around the trees. Only, right before it rides out of view, the back door comes unlatched and this huge canvas sack flips out. I swear it happens in slow motion. I see every inch of its rotation before it just gently thumps in a big leaf pile, sending up dust. Like we’re in a movie.

We stop our bikes and stare at each other, me and Ricky, both awakened by those fingers of excitement. Ricky wants to open it right away. He drops his bike, and runs, yelling behind him something about “a million bucks.”

Wait wait,” I yell chasing after him. “It was a mail truck, Ricky.” I catch him, I’m faster, and I get there first.

We look around. Nobody else out. We pull it up onto the sidewalk. “Are you sure it was a mail truck?” he asks.

Yeah, I’m positive.” I say.

Well what if it was a fake one, like some bank robbers painted a truck to look like a mail truck for cover?” he says. I nod, maybe he has a point.

Let’s open it.” Ricky is literally jumping. Part of me wants to open it right there too, but we decide to open it at my house, under the cover of my front porch, just in case it isn’t mail.

He pushes and I drag. It’s heavy, so it doesn’t happen all just like that. We take a couple breaks, running our hands over the lumpy parts. Ricky kicks the bag by accident and hears something crinkle.

Maybe it’s a boatload of candy!” I say. After I say it, some of the fingers stop scratching inside my stomach.

We finally get it up onto my porch. My mom comes out to see what we’ve found. She watches us open it. I let Ricky do it. Right before he pulls it open, all the fingers come back, clawing my insides apart. Please don’t be mail, I pray.

It’s letters,” he says.

Let me see,” I say and I look inside at the sea of white and words. Like snow a couple days after it’s fallen – broken here and there by brown corners.

Mom laughs, “What’d you expect? A million dollars?” She touches the back of my hot head.

Well, there’s gotta be some cash or a lottery ticket in here or something, right, Leo? Maybe we’re still rich, after all!”

That’s when my mom wraps her hand around the unpuckered opening, puckering it again, closing it with finality. 

That would be a felony, boys,” she says, gently, but without the depth of understanding.

And here, this heap of leaves at my feet is no different than the mail sack. But I’m different, and I’m not opening it this time. I look over at the Auldridges’ empty yard, then down at the leaf pile. They seem so unconnected: isolated banalities of neighborhood life. And they are. I suppress an approaching wave of awareness. They are unrelated: the dog and my leaf pile. They are. I’ve made up my mind.

I reel in my rake, covering the unasked question, just hoping not to scrape open anything else. My mother’s words speak again: That would be a felony, boys. I don't want to think about it too much. I hear the leaf collection truck coming up the hill anyways.

Looooobster,” the kids yell. Their voices begin to disappear into the overpowering roar of the truck’s vacuum.

Eh, let ‘em yell, I tell myself. Let ‘em drag their mailbag home. They’ll find out soon enough. They’ll give up eventually.

Prose Editor Vacancy – Apply by 18th October

Cadaverine Magazine is looking for a creative, committed individual with an ear for great storytelling and an eye for delicious prose to join their team as Prose Editor.  

Cadaverine is a non-profit online magazine that specialises in promoting the work of emerging writers under the age of 30 from all over the world. We believe in showcasing contemporary, innovative and original new writing from the next generation of literary talent.   Initially supported by Arts Council England, we offer support, a platform and a voice for young writers.

The role of the Prose Editor is to read and evaluate prose (short story) submissions, select suitable content for publication and manage the formatting and upload of this content to the website. We are looking for someone with a passion for short stories, the motivation and enthusiasm to provide regular feedback to submitters, and someone with a keen eye for quality in writing; moreover, with the ability to detect and encourage this in young and emerging writers, and to provide constructive criticism and feedback to where appropriate. 

Cadaverine Prose Editor Volunteer Job Description

All roles with The Cadaverine are voluntary and participants are expected to use their own resources to fulfil their role. You will be joining a team of talented volunteers spread all over the country.

To apply for the position please send a CV, including a writing biography (if applicable) and covering letter, to Lenni Sanders at thecadaverine@hotmail.com with the subject line APPLICATION FOR PROSE EDITOR by the 18th October. Your application should point to a knowledge of and ability to edit prose. 

Lake Fearglass by Mark O’Donoghue

I’m standing almost in the centre of the lawn and staring out over the big fields to where the sky ends there in the distance. The sun is barely awake and nosing out from behind a blanket of fat clouds. It’s one of those days I hate, one of those days that doesn’t know what sort of day it wants to be. The grass still glitters from the morning rain and drops of water stick to the petals of mammy’s flowers. My dog Sandy asleep near a blackberry bush whose fruit you can’t eat yet. It’s not nice to be outside by yourself. No, it makes you feel watched. It makes you feel sort of horrible inside. Bushes and trees from way across the field become scary strangers in black coats. The skinny tree in the corner of the lawn is trying its best to stop shivering. An army of rooks are sitting on the telephone wires laughing at me. I tuck my too-big t-shirt into my jeans and run quickly inside. In the dining room I find mammy sitting and drinking tea in her mouse-grey jumper and light blue jeans. I can hear Daddy in back kitchen smoking his roll-up cigarettes, coughing now and then so we know he’s still there. I will try and get out of this swimming lesson business.

‘Hi Tommy,’ says mammy, and she smiles at me so big that I can see her rotty back teeth. ‘How are you darling?’

‘I don’t want to go,’ I say.

‘Not again Tommy,’ she says. ‘Look. Sarah will be here soon and we can’t drop out now. Besides, you’ll love it. It’ll be fun.’ 

‘I don’t want to go,’ I say again. ‘Claire will be there.’

Mammy stares at me real confused-like.

‘Clare? Sarah’s friend? Why..What’s wrong with..? You’re not afraid of a little–’

‘I just don’t want to go.’

I feel my eyes getting wet with anger. My lip wobbles to try and stop the tears coming but they come anyway. Mammy becomes all sad and sorry then and starts rubbing my ears and hair.

‘Look, don’t worry,’ she says very soft-like. ‘You’ll love it. As soon as you get there you’ll love it.’

‘But why do I have to learn to swim anyway?’ I ask her, my crying changing to a soft sniffling.
For answer mammy puts her longs thin hands on my back and pulls me in close to her, standing me between her legs. I try to pull away but she doesn’t let me. I’m trapped between her pointy knees and elbows so that I have to give in to the hug. She moves in so close that her face is enormous and her perfume smells not nice.

 ‘Well,’ she says. ‘What if you fell into water? What if you fell into the canal in town, for example?  The one Daddy used to take you to at weekends. What if you just fell in there and there wasn’t a soul around to help you. Well, you’d drown wouldn’t you? You wouldn’t be able to swim and you’d drown. And me and Daddy and Sandy would be awfully upset, because we’re very fond of you, Tom. But,’- she smiles and kisses my nose here- ‘if you could swim, well, you could swim to safety. I wouldn’t have to worry about you.’

A long quiet follows.

‘I won’t go near any canal,’ I tell her. ‘I’ll stay away from canals from now on.’

The grip of her knees and elbows loosens but I don’t pull away. She leans back a little and makes a face like she’s trying to see me from far away. Then she does something I absolutely hate. She untucks my t-shirt, without even asking me, and pulls it down over my jeans.

 ‘Now,’ she says. ‘Now you look much cooler. We better wash your face before Sarah gets here.’

When Sarah arrives I’m waiting in the sitting room. I’m sat in front of the telly though there’s really nothing on except some boring stuff for older children. Next thing I know mammy and Sarah are talking in the hallway. Sarah is all giddy from telling her about a brand new swimsuit she bought in Longford that morning and mammy is answering to her story in a really friendly and happy way. My heart starts thumping like mad as their footsteps come to the door and their voices become louder. Sarah comes to my house a lot and she always makes me a bit frightened. She is a bit strange that Sarah. Nice, but strange. Before I have time to feel ready to see her she bursts in the door and waves at me.

‘Hello Tommy,’ she says and I say hello as well.

Like not knowing yet what to do with all her excitement Sarah sort of dances and jumps about by the doorway for a little while. A crazy smile made up of more gum than tooth is spread across her face. Silvery sandals decorate her bare feet and sloped to one side of her yellow hair is a pretty red ribbon. Her cabbage-green dress makes nice swooshing sounds as she moves. She then takes a place next to me on the couch and without any warning whatsoever gives me a massive hug.

‘I missed you Tommy,’ she says.

Sarah is very friendly. She’s almost too friendly, always hugging you and the like.  She’s fairly strong too so I have to work very hard to wriggle out of her arms. I can hear her warm giggling at my ear and I can smell something like biscuits on her breath. After I escape she’s panting like mad and she brushes a wild hair from her eyes. Soon enough she’s up out of her seat again like she really wants to go off somewhere but isn’t sure where, her mad eyes watching everything at once. She wanders about the room for a while before getting interested in the squares of sun which fall from the window onto the shiny wood floor. It looks like she’s playing a game of hopscotch or something there.

‘Are you excited about swimming?’ I ask her.

My voice sounds a bit croaky-like from my earlier crying.

‘I can’t wait,’ she says, ‘I love swimming. I went swimming in England before and it was absolutely magnificent.’

Sarah’s always saying magnificent. She learned it somewhere and she loves saying it because it’s such a fancy big word.

All of a sudden she looks at me in weird way and makes her nose all wrinkly.

‘What’s wrong with your face?’ she says.

I don’t know what she’s on about.

‘What?’ I say.

‘Your face,’ she says, pointing and giggling. ‘It’s all red.’

I know then that she is only talking about how my face looks all weird after crying. Sarah is the type of girl who doesn’t cry very often.

Just then mammy calls at us from the hall that it’s times to go. But I know that with mammy there are always many different times to go before it’s really time to go. She always has to put on makeup or look for her keys or something like that first. Sarah is already out the sitting room door but it takes me a long time to get up to follow her. When I finally get up and follow I bump into Daddy in the hall. With his sleeves rolled up Daddy’s arms are big and strong as Superman’s. He does that thing where he pretends to punch me but not in real nasty way, just in a sort of jokey and friendly way. I laugh even though I’m not really in the mood for laughing.

‘Are you going swimming Tommy? You’ll have a mighty time,’ he says when the laughing stops. His breath is all like horrible smoke.

‘I feel sick,’ I tell him.

‘Oh, and where are you sick Tom?’ he asks.

Now the trouble with this question is that you never really know exactly where you are sick. And you especially don’t know when you are not really sick at all.

‘In my neck,’ I try.

‘You’ll have a great time,’ says Daddy to me in a kind of tired and annoyed voice. Mammy and Sarah appear from nowhere. Everything is ready. Now it’s really time to go. Outside the day is a bit better. It’s like some clouds disappeared when Sarah arrived.

*
The way to the lake is a long twisty road that seems to go on forever but I don’t mind that too much. I’d rather we drive on forever and never get to the lesson. I do get bored after a while, though. The trouble is that there’s not much to look at outside the window- just fields, trees, more road, road signs, the odd cow, things hardly worth looking at. It makes my eyes bored and sleepy to look out over the flat and empty fields so instead I look at the phone wire that travels with us. The wire is trying to rise to the sky but is time and time again nailed down again and again by big black logs. I have to say bye to the telephone wire because mammy turns onto a bumpy country road with hedges and tall trees on both sides. The car rattles and gasps at the change. After what seems like hours and hours later we get to the lake and drive up next to the rest of the cars which are all parked a bit wonky-like along the grassy footpath. As we get of the car I’m already missing the nice hum-hum sound of the engine. I can hear people making noises somewhere but the lake is nowhere to be seen. There is nothing to either side of us but thick trees and fields. Mammy leads the way. Up ahead of us there is are a bunch of people all dressed like summer in straw hats, t-shirts, and shorts. Sarah is twisting her neck in all directions and on her tippy-toes trying to catch a look at the invisible lake but it’s me who sees it first. It’s between the trees, all glittery-like in the sun.

There’s a short path cut through a dark forest to the lake. Mammy tells us to be careful going down because it’s a bit steep. She and Sarah hold hands and I walk a bit ahead, our feet making crackly noises on the dry leaves and twigs. The sun pours through the tree tops above and makes pictures of light and darkness on the ground. I can hear the noises of people ahead of us. It makes me slow down a little and let mammy and Sarah catch up. When we make our way out of the forest I am almost blinded by the white light of the sky and the sparkling lake below. Everyone is gathered on a large area of grass in front of the lake. In the middle of this grass there are two twin trees stood a few steps apart, shivering a little, ignoring each other. There’s something wrong with this lake. It’s silly that there’s so much grass here. It’s not like at the beach where everything is sand. This is like a pretend-beach. People are all spread out on towels and blankets like it’s hotter than it is. Some mammies are rubbing sunblock on children who won’t keep still for them. Everywhere there are excited voices filling the air. I see many children but none of them are in my class at school. Not even Claire is here yet. They are all strangers.

To my right the trees bend all the way around to a thick forest on the far side of the lake. Not too far away there is an old-looking fisherman’s boat rotting away to nothing. It’s a bit hidden by long water-grass and looks like it’s stuck in some kind of strange sticky mud. Its light blue paint is all peeling off and there are nettles growing up through its ripped-apart bottom. Sticking out in the water in the shape of an ‘L’ is a slimy looking concrete thingy like a footpath, or maybe a bridge. But it’s silly to call it a bridge if it doesn’t even cross the whole lake. A footpath I’ll say. At the very end of this footpath there are a few older children, two boys and two girls, with tall bodies playing. I don’t know what they are doing but it looks like they are tickling each other or something like that. That must be it because they are laughing very loud. I think I see one boy whispering to one girl too, while the other two keep playing their tickling game. What are they whispering about I wonder. I bet they are full of secrets. Then all four of them jump into the water with huge splashes. They look like they are having a great time but I’m a bit frightened watching them. They shouldn’t be messing about on the water footpath like that and they are all out way too far. I don’t want to watch at them anymore.

Sarah is looking around for Claire in all the happy faces. Her shriek of joy when she spots her sounds horrible to my ears. Claire is with her mother and she’s dressed in these denim shorts and a purple t-shirt. Her long and curly hair falls real pretty about her cheeks. Sarah and I go over to talk to her even though I don’t really want to. I smile at Claire but she doesn’t even smile back. Claire thinks she’s a real princess all sugar-and-spice-like. Once I had to sit at a table at school with her and a few other girls. I was minding my business colouring pictures when she and a couple of her friends said that I was wrong to colour my sun in orange. She said in a really mean way that the sun is yellow and should only be coloured yellow. She said to colour it in orange was a very stupid thing to do. That was a very mean and nasty thing to say. The other girls were mean too but Claire was by far the meanest. I only coloured it orange because you can hardly see yellow on the page. I don’t like Claire. I don’t like her because she’s mean and because she has the face of a cat.

Mammy calls me and Sarah to get ready for the lesson and Claire goes off to her mother too. There are no changing rooms so we all have to get changed outside on the grass. With shaky hands I begin to undress myself. It takes a very long time for me to get ready because I don’t like showing myself to all those watching eyes. I have just yanked one runner off when I notice that Sarah is already down to her yellow suit. She looks skinnier in her swimsuit and different from her normal-day self. She looks even more of a girl or something. In a whispery and kind of annoyed voice mammy tells me to ‘hurry up a bit Tommy or you’ll miss your lesson.’ She says this like it would be an awful thing to happen but to me it doesn’t sound like such a bad thing at all. Still the way she said it makes me a bit sad. Why is she being so hard with me all of a sudden? Maybe mammy is not herself here. Maybe everything is different and strange at Lake Fearglass. I check the sky to see if it’s not falling down on us. It’s okay. It’s not falling down.

When everyone’s ready we’re hurried down the very edge of the lake where the grass meets the water.You’d swear the lake was going to go away somewhere, the way they’re hurrying us. There we meet the teacher who tell us her name is Maureen. I see the water moving like it’s alive and tiny little insects skipping across the top like it’s nothing. Up close you can see that the water is not blue but brown. Brown is the colour of mud. That can’t be right. I bet if I coloured water brown Claire would say it was a stupid thing to do.

I’m shivering from not wearing any t-shirt or jeans and I don’t know what to do with my hands. I want to put them in my pockets but I have no pockets in my swimming togs so I’m left scratching my belly monkey-like. Claire’s swimsuit is kind of rainbow-coloured and makes me think of my bag of marbles back home.  There is another girl talking to Sarah and Claire. A red-haired girl with invisible eyebrows and large freckles, she’s dressed in a light-blue swimsuit with these frilly bits at the waist. Other than that there is only one other girl. She is a very little and very frightened looking girl with black hair and mousy ears and she is wearing a large white t-shirt over her swimsuit. There are a few other boys too and they have big strong bodies with shiny shoulders, not like mine all skeleton-thin with ribs showing. They are more real than I am. I look out over the lake to the far woods. I wonder if I can escape to those forests. No, actually I wouldn’t like that. It’s dark and cold in those forests. It’s scary.

Maureen is fiddling with a serious-looking silver whistle that hangs around her big neck. I don’t know how old she is. Very old probably, maybe even twenty. She is a very tall woman with big legs and shoulders. Her face is friendly enough but when she smiles at us her teeth are yellow and mean-looking. She’s wearing a black swimming suit and a silly-looking red swimming cap that looks too small for her head. She must have already been in the water because she is breathing real heavy-like and she is already all wetted. She blows her whistle. ‘Are we ready kids? Let’s go!’ she says in very happy kind of voice. Maureen leads the way into the lake, her big legs pushing against the water.

 

*
So I take my first step in the waters of Lake Fearglass. I feel the water cold on my feet when I walk in but the sand at the bottom is warm and way softer than I thought it would be. Only it’s not like that awful wet beach sand where you felt you were sinking. It’s soft but steady and I know I won’t sink in it. It’s a bit slimy too but not in a bad way. It’s even kind of nice in its sliminess, so nice that I curl my toes. I walk out a little until my feet are completely covered and the water is kissing my ankles. Some of the children are gone well ahead but it doesn’t matter because others are still close by. Sarah and Claire are holding hands not far ahead. I kind of want to go out a little bit farther so I take a few more steps. I like it! With each step I am a bit less scared and a bit less upset. I even take my hands away from my belly and chest and stand up a bit straighter. Those are my own legs that are making the sand beneath rise in a muddy cloud around my shins and that’s my own team of rings spreading all kindly around me and welcoming me into the world of water, and my giant feet which I can no longer see that are making these tiny fish dash away in fear. It is very odd not seeing the ground you’re walking on and not even seeing your feet. It makes me sort of dizzy-like. The feeling you might fall makes me reach out my hands to grab hold of something that isn’t there.

The ones who are farther out are testing the water with their hands and faces and some of them are even splashing each other. I won’t do any of that stuff just yet. I’m happy where I am just for now. I look around to mammy. I was so happy I almost forgot about her. I can just about make out her smiling face out as she gives me a great big thumbs up. Behind me to my left is the same girl who looked so frightened at the grass only she looks happy now. We smile at each other, just, I suppose, to show that we are both sharing the same water and that both of us are having a great time. With a horrible scream of a whistle the teacher calls us out farther. That’s the trouble. You might be having a fine time in the water but there’s always someone wants you to go out a bit farther. We are put in a circle after that and the teacher tells us what she wants us to do, which is to sit down in the water. She shows us what sitting in the water is by gently lowering her huge body until she is flooded right up to her belly. Simple! Nearly everyone copies her but I don’t. I don’t want to sit in the water just yet.

‘Excellent!’ says the teacher to all the sitters.  ‘Come on now Tommy, aren’t you going to sit in the water?’ she says then.

That’s me she’s talking to so my heart starts thumping. I should sit in the water but I don’t want to for some reason. But I have to do as I’m told. Why? I just do. I bend my knees a little so that the water wets the seat of my shorts and then I stand back up. At this all the others start laughing. Even the teacher gives a smile, just to show she’s no stick-in-the-mud either.

‘Ok, Tom,’ she says ‘Don’t be afraid. Just trust the water and you’ll get it eventually.’

Next thing we have to do is to put our heads in the water. Teacher shows us first and then everyone else follows. The other girl who looked frightened at the grass does it. The girl with invisible eyebrows does it. The real boys with the shiny shoulders do it. Sarah and Claire go down together, holding hands. Everyone does it except for me. Teacher checks on them all one-by-one giving them praise. She comes to me last, my heart thumping and my mouth tasting of sick. She’s going to call my name out again and everyone will be watching at me.

‘Tommy, why don’t you put your head in the water? It won’t hurt you know’ she says, real nice-like.
My mouth opens but doesn’t say anything.

‘He’s scared,’ says nasty Claire. ‘He’s a scaredy-cat.’ That joke gets a big laugh from everyone. It’s a nasty and loud laughter, like they are only laughing to make me feel horrible. The next thing I know some of them trying to help me to get me to put my head in the water. This really friendly boy who tells me his name is Paul is over to me first.

‘You just go like this,’ says friendly Paul, and he throws himself under with a mighty splash.

I want to tell him that I know what I’m supposed to do but that I can’t do it, only my mouth is not working for some reason. Sarah is next to try to help. Sarah is nice. She didn’t laugh when the others laughed. She comes close to me and speaks to me in a very quiet voice, like she wants no one but me to hear her.

‘You see you just have to get in the water.’

Now she grabs hold of my arm. Her hands are soft. This sets nasty Claire off. She starts singing about me and Sarah up a tree kissing each other and being in love, making the others laugh. I pull myself free of her Sarah’s arm.

‘I know,’ I say, in a sort of nasty way. Sarah walks back to her place in the circle looking sad. The teacher is over to me now with that horrible smile on her mouth.

‘Just try once more Tommy,’ she says. ‘Just don’t think about it. Just close your eyes and throw your head under. And you’ll see how easy it is.’

She then puts her hand on my shoulder like this might help me in some way. I answer through a small nod that I’ll try it once more. I bend my head down and I can see myself in the brown water rising up to meet me. Close your eyes that what the teacher said. I close them and see nothing but black. I move slowly and I feel the teachers hand on my back, pushing me gently down. But no, no! Water up the nose is horrible it turns out. It burns like mad and my eyes fill up with water. The others only laugh their heads off.

 

*
No one else tries to get me to join in the fun after that. I stay in my place in the circle while the lesson goes on without me. They are playing some new game now in which they have to lie back in the teacher’s arms at the top of the water. Sarah is doing it first. Her legs and arms are spread out so that she looks like bit like a snow-angel. Her eyes are closed from happiness and her lips are smiling real dreamy-like at the sky.  Then the teacher has her put her feet together and kick at the water so that sprinkles fly in the air. If the teacher lets go of her she’ll fall right through the water. I don’t want to look at the lesson anymore so I turn my eyes to the nearest part of the slimy footpath instead. It’s not too nice to look at either. You can’t see the bottom of the green-spotted wall and the water over there looks a special kind of dark and scary.

Time goes by. I can’t move my feet at all. They are stuck in the mud. Will I ever be out of this awful lake? I feel cold from not moving so I’m sort of hugging myself. It’s odd how I’m still here but not really a part of the lesson anymore, how the others don’t see me anymore. Maybe I’m gone invisible or something, or at least turning invisible. Maybe it’s nice to be invisible if it means water doesn’t get up your nose. I can hardly even hear all their voices and shrieks of fun anymore. Like from another world altogether a quiet voice somewhere behind says my name: ‘Tommy.’ I think I imagine it at first but then I hear it again. It’s mammy’s voice. It gets clearer and clearer so that it’s right behind me and I feel her long thin hand on my shoulder. Now her face is in front of me. Mammy’s face. Nice mammy. Why is mammy’s face in the water?

‘Are you okay, love?’ she asks.

 I don’t feel like answering though. What I sort of feel like doing is crying, but not now when everyone is there watching.

‘We’re going to go back in now okay?’ says mammy. Her voice is a bit shaky, like she might be a bit upset.
‘Come on, Tom,’ she says, and she tries to get me to follow. But my feet still won’t move. They might never move again.

‘Tommy, let’s go, okay?’

She reaches her hand out to me just like Superman might do for someone in danger. I take it though I’m confused about what’s happening. Why is mammy here? Why are we on our way out of the lake? Why does it feel like I’m not walking but flying over the water? I can hear some mean laughter behind me but I won’t look back to see if it’s at me or not. It doesn’t matter anyway. Only when we are back at the grass do I notice that mammy had no swimming suit on at all. She had her jeans rolled up as far as she could around her legs but they still got a bit wet. My shorts are heavy with water and sticking to my leg. But my body is mostly dry because I didn’t really swim at all. When they walk on the grass again my feet are starting to be normal again. Mammy sits me down on the towel and capes a towel around my shoulders. My cheeks and lips are all cold and shivering and I can’t stop my teeth knocking together. It’s kind of a nice feeling though. It’s funny too. Me and mammy both laugh at how I can’t make them stop going knock knock knock! I’ll just sit here with mammy for a little bit on the towel, hugging my knees in close to myself. I can still taste the sweet and slimy water in my nose and mouth.

It’s not so difficult to change back into my normal clothes. I let mammy hold the towel at my hip as I strip off the damp and heavy togs and dry myself. Except for my jeans I have different clothes to put on after my lesson. It’s nice to put on warm and dry underpants. Then I put on my jeans and mammy closes my belt with a clinking sound. My blue t-shirt with a picture of Scooby-Doo on the belly is next. I’m happy to see mammy brought my nice warm hoody because it’s getting cold and I’m still a bit shivery from the lesson. The hoody is very cool and it feels very nice and warm on my skin. Daddy said this hoody made me look like a new man when he first saw me wearing it. With everything I put on I feel realer and cooler. I put my socks and nice runners on I’m completely real again.

Because Sarah is still having a fine time in the water there’s not much for me and mammy to do but wait for the lesson to finish. To eat up some time we walk down to the edge of the lake and the two of us are holding hands. We even walk out a little on the water footpath and it’s not scary anymore. It feels nice for my feet in my dry socks and runners to get off the bumpy grass and walk on the smooth footpath. I can see the whole lesson from here and I want them to see me walking on the footpath, high above them, and in my cool hoody as well. But they don’t see me because they are having too much fun, jumping around and splashing each other and letting the water run all over them. More people are in there now. Some parents are even in the water and playing with their children. There in the shallows there is a daddy and a little child, a much littler child than me or anyone in the lesson, just paddling about. The child is holding his daddy’s hand and walking real clumsy-like. His face couldn’t be happier.

 

The Foodie by Eve Stepney

It is my birthday and I am sitting across a table from a man I do not love. There must have been love once because there is a square-cut tribute to it sinking a fissure into the tumescent meat of my finger. It feels like smooth teeth, or like I am dying.

Tom is the kind of man who calls himself a foodie full stop. You know: Foodie. Nerd. Gin Lover. Full stop. Full stop. He eats at an amazingly slow pace, placing his knife and fork down after every third bite in order to compose a thoughtful polemic on each individual flavour. Every bite requires a comma. Our life is a series of punctuation marks.

I eat quickly, and all at once; I am all business. Mealtimes are not church; I don’t need to molest each ingredient behind the confessional. Try listening to Bach or the Stones or whatever, note by note, and tell me how good it sounds. Tom says things like London has such a boner for American junk food at the moment don’t you think which makes my guts pulse wickedly, wet and fearful for a life I can see but can’t yet touch.

My cousin says that it is not possible for lasting love to exist between two people with such different eating habits. I don’t know what I think.

We are eating at a restaurant in North London which is expensive but also hip, which is probably how Tom would himself like to be described. Tom is fifteen years older than me, and so fifteen years richer. The bill will be on him, of course, but I’ll pay for it in other ways. Not sex, exactly, though there will be some of that dry-lipped congress later. He is a man whose actions are engineered to generate emotional debt. Gratitude gets him hard, like small girlish tits and MDMA.

He smiles at our waiter in a cinematic, Hollywood way that he has learned from Matthew Mcconaughey. It’s placating, faux-benevolent; selected to demonstrate that whilst he is glamorous and entrepreneurial, he is also a man of the people, a down-to-earth nice guy. Maybe that’s why he’s so terrible at making me come. Earth is no place for the celestial shriek of an orgasm.

“I think we’ll have a bottle of the Castilian sparkling wine, thanks”.

I can see that he’s pleased with this. He knows that you can only call Champagne 'Champagne' if it’s from Champagne. He doesn’t want me to see that he’s pleased; he knows that this sort of move only works when its nonchalant, which is something that he has literally never been. He places two fists squarely on the table; they look like folded up hearts. I want to pierce their plump flesh with a fork like sausage and season the tiny wounded vales left behind.

We drink the wine and toast my advancing age. Its fizz is passive aggressive; it suggests Gatsby-ish jocularity, 22-year olds padding across wet grass barefoot, that sort of thing, and I know that it makes Tom feel 40, which is exactly one year more than he is. At 24, I am close enough to winking Daisy Buchanan to make him feel even worse and Tom is the kind of man who thinks it is his right to be made to feel good about himself. So it’s clear then. There will be a fight tonight.

I take a piece of bread from the basket, compressing it between my fingernails like hot play-doh, taking care to ruin it with too much butter. Tom says no thank you without actually saying it because a curated gut like this cannot accept unworthy victuals and I should know that, shouldn’t I. He has a remarkable way of not eating the bread that somehow makes more of a fuss than my eating of it.

We both order the steak; his theatrically blue, mine unfashionably well-done because if I had the taste for raw muscle I would not be marrying somebody with biceps like limp cow pats. I would be marrying a fruity god with arms like ripe nectarines.

“They massage the cows for over five hours, you know, to make it taste like this. That’s why it’s so expensive.”

This is an appalling turn of events. Tom and I have eaten Wagyu beef together six times during the course of our relationship. I could realistically write a semi-detailed pamphlet on this pampered cut of beef based on the facts I have learned over four years. A thrill of disbelief that feels close to delight slinks up my neck.

I can feel it fizzing; the desire to start the fight that’s coming, to drop a smooth grenade into the placid ache of this life that I have somehow participated in the creation of yet do not want. But I don’t have the words for all these things I do not want so I swallow a veined lump of gristle and smile.

And so life goes.

Dessert arrives, a pristine slice of of gelatinous yellow. He mmmms repulsively like he’s swallowed Rihanna. I tell him about Sarah, my flatmate; the fight we had over a chicken carcass that I left in the kitchen for three days. As punishment, she left it on my bed, slick with grease, while I was away for the weekend. A fuck you via poultry, resulting in a fabulous screaming match. I ham it up in the way he likes, emphasising its sitcom silliness; he likes me ridiculous.

“You girls” he says, indulgently. The subtext is what-are-ya-like and I’ve heard its silky familiarity in a thousand different ways before. It is supposed to communicate that he has an understanding of me that others don’t, when really he knows the splinters inside me about as well as our waiter Darren. I am marrying somebody who cannot see me. I consider the butter knife, silver-shining on its canopy of white.

He pauses.

Don’t talk about the chicken, please don’t talk about the fucking chicken. Tell me that I’m an inconsiderate little cunt, which I am 99% of the time, explain how you’re scared that you’re old and past it, which I know that you are, and that you don’t understand the point of Snapchat and how that makes you feel like you’re stepping further and further away from who you were when you were young and cool. Describe in coldly precise detail how you’re going to slide two fingers into the parts of me that ache for something that you’ll never be able to give me or even better, shut up and dip your fingers into your precious fucking sparkling wine and slowly slide them into my mouth, you terrible, terrible arsehole.

“Chicken. Nice. Did you let it rest for a bit?”

We get the bill. And so life goes.