Sunday, 26 June 2016

Coming up, Gasping for Air!

It's done, it's gone, the Flood is over for another year.

But, wasn't it good? Wasn't it?

The stories will, as ever, stay up here for you to read in the months and years to come. This journal has become something amazing with over 254,000 page views at the time of writing, and still most of National Flash-Fiction Day to go. Who knows, by the time the dust settles and you've made your ways through this issue, we may have topped the 300k mark. That is quite amazing, and we thank you for your support, your stories, and for reading all the wonderful words we post.

Thanks also to the amazing Editors: Annette, Sue, Cassandra, Caroline, Shirley and more, who do such sterling work here every time.

The Flood might be over, but the celebrations for National Flash-Fiction Day haven't quite finished.

In Dublin, on Sunday, there is the Flash Dash at Big Smoke. On Monday, Verbose will be flashing in Manchester. And on Tuesday, Paul McVeigh will be hosting a flash workshop in Belfast. (All details on the website.)

And, if you haven't quite had enough to read, there is always the new anthology, A Box of Stars Beneath the Bed, available in paperback and ebook.

But, for now, from the Flood, that's it.

Thank you and Good Night!

Calum Kerr
Editor and Director of NFFD

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Carry Him Safely by Laura Tickle

After the funeral, Dhuka gathers her clothes and goes outside. She throws her robes and dresses onto the floor. The embroidered sleeves, brightly coloured materials and beaded qabbehs are muted by a veil of fine sand.

Beyond the garden and the gate, she sees Manaal approaching. The woman is weighed down by her age and the tin bath in her arms. The hem of her smock is orange with dust. It sweeps the floor as she waddles heavily.

Dhuka does not help Manaal as she struggles to open the gate. Instead, she steps back and loosens the tap under the windowsill. It takes two hands to break the seal of rust, and Manaal drops the bath down just in time to catch the rush of water.

 ‘Like the ashes of his body. May the water carry him safely.’ Manaal says this with her eyes closed in prayer, as she throws black powder into the bath. The dye curlslike smoke as she lowers her hands into the water. She gathers the robes and submerges them one by one.

Dhuka weeps as the dye bleeds into the fabric’s pores, turning white and blue and green to black.

‘Your tears are good, Dhuka. Cry for your husband’, Manaal says this as she pulls the dresses from the water like bodies.

‘The sun will drink the dye away eventually. You would never know these were black once.’ She tugs at the breast of her own smock and leaves behind grey fingerprints. Dhuka cannot cry for the husband she did not love. For the husband who did not love her.

From inside the house, she watches her dresses flap on the line like caught shadows. Her first night alone is dark and silent, but she sleeps well knowing that her best robe, the red one with embroidered stars, is sewn safely in between the sheets.

Star-Crossed by Sonya Oldwin



He’s throwing another major tantrum – because of Lego. If I’m honest, I’ve had it. I duck to avoid a couple of bricks he’s thrown at the wall. 

‘What’s the problem now?’

‘The pieces. They don’t fit. They’re supposed to fit.’

I check the packaging.
‘No surprise. These were produced in late November while those were made in September. Everybody knows that Sagittarius and Virgo make a bad match.’

‘Oh, Marie, grow up. Astrology’s for teenagers.’

Says the man playing with children’s toys. 

I don’t know the manufacture dates of the pieces. But I know that he’s Virgo. 

And I’m Sagittarius. 

Streak! by David Cook


My brother Gus and I ripped off our clothes and raced each other down the road. We ran like the wind, dangly bits flapping freely, waving at the neighbours as we passed. Gus was just behind, desperate to win, but – yes! – I reached the finish line first. I’d won! I raised my arms in victory, giving Mrs Jones a good look at my winkie as she stepped off the bus. It was only then I realised that when dad had said to me and Gus that ‘You two have a competitive streak’, he hadn’t meant it as an instruction.

'No one Knows You Like Your Mother' by A Joseph Black

"Joyce isn't really a 'Burger King' type of person."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Well, I just wonder if perhaps you might have considered bringing her somewhere slightly more salubrious. When a young lady is taken out to dinner, she doesn't expect to be asked if she wants to 'go large for 30p extra'. That's all."

Martin hid his irritation behind his cappuccino. He had expected his mother's indefatigable attempts to pair him off would abate when he moved out of home and into his miniature city centre apartment. But in fact, if anything, activity had increased. 

Moira, Martin's mother, had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of friends from her golf club, her bridge nights, her charity work - all of whom, it seemed, had at least one single daughter of marriageable age (a concept Moira had stretched to breaking point, and beyond, on more than one occasion) who was bright, funny, pretty and available. In Martin's experience, few of these prospective paramours scored more than one out of four by this measure, and while being 'available' was certainly an advantage it was hardly a sole basis for a successful relationship.

"Joyce," Martin said, steering the conversation back on topic, "is an insufferable snob."

Moira snapped her kid leather gloves tighter onto her hands with surprising vigour, a gesture Martin knew indicated that she knew he was right.

"And your response to the fact that Joyce.....has standards was to bring her to a place that's full of hoodies, self-harming and smacking themselves with heroin in the toilets? I have no idea what I'm going to say to Jean when I see her again, I really don't."

"It was Joyce who wanted to see that godawful foreign film, which meant we had an hour less to eat than I expected. Fast food was the only viable solution."

"Only viable solution!" Moira repeated with ill-disguised disdain. "What on Earth am I going to do with you, Martin?"

It was clearly a rhetorical question and Martin felt no obligation to offer a response.

"So I won't be taking Joyce out again," Martin said eventually.

"No, and I can't imagine why she would want you to," Moira replied, wiping scone crumbs from the corners of her mouth viciously with a napkin.

"In fact, you can stand down entirely from your position as self-appointed Matchmaker General."

"Ah, don't give up, Martin. She's out there somewhere, I'm sure she is. And I'll find her for you."

"I don't need you to find anyone, Mother. As a matter of fact I've found someone myself."

"Martin!" Moira almost screamed, so loud that the other patrons of The Silver Lounge coffee shop looked in their direction. "Well aren't you the dark horse! I had no idea. I'm delighted. Delighted! What does she work at? Where does she live? What about her father - does she come from a good family? Oh - her name! I haven't even asked you her name! What's she called, Martin?"

"Brian."

Mother Tongue by Alison Lock

The orange fell apart with a single push of the thumb; the segments, juicy and firm, their pungency piercing the air. She let the aroma envelop her in a sweet embrace. Even the cicadas in the long grass were music to her chambered ear.
How she had missed them on those cold silent nights when the snow had smothered her world. How she had yearned for the rhythmic clicks that rose to meet the stars with orchestral inclination.
It wasn’t her idea, or even her wish. Decisions like that were never made by children.
We are no longer a family,’ he’d declared. ‘It is time to go and you are coming with me.’
She opened her mouth to argue but only howls of pain emerged.
Of the journey, she remembers only the dark hull on a black sea, waking up to the sound of the ship’s horn echoing against the walls of a foreign harbour.
The new home was a place as harsh as the marram was razor sharp, as unforgiving as the barren dunes that were set like concrete in the constant freeze.
She always knew she would return but had never known how or when. Ushered into the corners of her mind, old memories pervaded her deepest dreams.
Now, she was back amongst the groves of olives, nuts, the vineyards. But she was unable to speak – her tongue’s memory was lost, swallowed by a language of juddering syllables, guttural utterances, sounds that petered.

Until one evening, oiled with rich wine, the old words began to rise from a place deep inside her. Released, little by little through the gateway of her throat, cradled for a moment on her palate, released in mellow chords; the words. 
She had arrived home.
Previously published in Deep Water Literary Review, 2014

Breathing Space by Joanna Campbell

The little dog is tethered in the sun. From a distance, she has a rough coat. But when I’m close enough to stroke her, inside the pool of her reflection on the slow-baked sand, she is soft.

You tell me not to touch. “Fleas, Simon,” you say.

I drag your case up the hill. So many clothes. All from the cheap shop so you can justify their number, their casual disposability. I hoped you would spend all week in your white swimming costume. But you want changes, multiple changes.

The room disappoints you. The humming fridge disturbs your sleep. The toilet gasps and gurgles. The ceiling fan struggles to stir air thicker than Brown Windsor soup.

“I can’t breathe,” you say.

The little dog cries all night.

You burn on the beach, so you stay in the room. You smother your skin with cream, but refuse to let me baste you. I buy you more lotion—"Too watery, too melon scented"—from the shabby shop. Down the hill, up the hill. You want stifado in a carton. Down to the jaded restaurant, up again. You want medicine to send you to sleep. I brought some along.

No one has changed the dog’s water.

You slam the blind shut, flimsy slats flinching like ice-lolly sticks on a string. I wait for further instructions—sparkling water, orange sweets, a book with hundreds of cheap, unchallenging pages—and begin the descent again.

Sky-blue crowns of churches, iced minarets, milk-white walls with peeling, thirsty doors and far below, the satin ribbon of the sea where the little dog strains on her leash, waiting for my hand to stroke her warm head.

You spend the week planning sweeping changes, to be implemented upon return. You will landscape our garden, open a bistro, learn to stuff an ox-heart. I make my plan within the resin-breath of cooling pine groves.

By the eve of departure day, a heap of redundant viscose cringes in the corner of the room, the hard case empty. I carry your bulky holdall this time and sit on the sand all night, to be certain of catching the dawn flight. I gave you the stronger medicine last night.

On the plane, the scenery below is less beautiful than the empty sky, the pure, unhindered sense of distance.
You are quiet. I am thankful.

At home, I open your holdall. The zipper was not fully closed. I left space for air. When I fold back the flap, you let out a shy, grateful yelp as I cup your warm, soft face in my hands.

'Liberties Taken' by Emmaleene Leahy



Water sloped against rushy banks. We swayed, floating in the boat. Just below the surface flitting minnows shimmered in moonlight. We lay in each other’s arms and watched the stars glinting. Carried away on the optimism of each other, we spun stories together, predictions of our happily ever after entwined in each ending. He was all mine that night.

The seasons changed. A wind rose and whipped up a war of whispers, instilling fear about what was to be found in the distance. Leaves were torn from tormented trees and flung into a defeated frenzy. The waters we had floated on surged and slammed boats together.

Then there was her.

Her, who threw her head back in a fit of dramatic laughter. Her, who flicked her hair teasingly to attract his attention. Her, who distracted him from the tales we had told each other.

As the wind stripped the world, a hunger for him coiled in my stomach and growled with yearning. He drifted away. The distance impossible to judge in diminishing light.

I saved a sentence for him. I wove and rewove it, rehearsing again and again the news I would tell him. The world was laced with frost, when I finally glimpsed him. The air tinged a bluish hue. Our vapour breath, an indigo glow to disperse between us. I was unable to release the perfected sentence.

My news to be shared of the gift he gave me, became my secret. As spring awoke, I abandoned all that was familiar, to create my own distance, to protect the life unfurling inside me.

Waiting For An Invitation To Enlightenment by Ally Clark

I have no idea where it came from, and no idea what caused it. But here I am. Totally and absolutely dead flat. But this time it’s weird. It’s like a melancholic acceptance of there being no future. But no, it’s not even that. I’m actually quite enjoying the moment. I feel at peace with the world. I feel in touch with nature. Cliches. Mmm. It’s been a strange few days.

It started with a rush of physical illness. As if i’d had one too many drinks - which I hadn’t. I’d been on top of the world. Felt great. Really chipper in fact. Enjoying the simple pleasure of a walk in a foreign land. Pleasant temperature, the sight of sun trying to break through the clouds. Not a care.

Sure the restaurant was overly warm, but I don’t that could explain the sense of nausea that seemingly pushed the walls towards me. Boxing me in until I had to leave for some air.  Outside I steadied myself against a pillar, but found it did little to prevent the waves sloshing from one side of my head to the other.  By this time, the nausea had begun to gnaw at my mind, inducing paranoia and panic that caused my thoughts to race into a frenzied cycle of something fearsome but at the same time too foggy to recognise.

The nausea has lifted, but the fog remains.  How so?  I don’t get it.

I am an artist.  Art is my outlet, my therapy, my comfort blanket. But even that holds no appeal. All I want to do is lie down. And think. Not lie down and sleep. Lie down and think. About what I’m not sure. I don’t recognise it as the depression from which I ‘suffer’.  I don’t have any of the normal feelings of helplessness, hopelessness or worthlessness. More a complete depletion of mental energy.  As if I’ve exhausted all avenues of thought.  Like I’ve reached the end of a text book.  Or the end of an exam. Yes, that’s exactly it. Like I’ve reached the end of an exam. I’ve answered all the questions, checked and re-checked the answers and concluded there is nothing more I can do.  I did all the reading required. All the preparation and more. The curriculum has been my life for more years than I even realise myself.  It has become part of me. And so I should feel great, right?  A huge sense of relief.

But I don’t. I feel flat and empty.  Like I’ve crafted a key to the door, but it doesn’t open the lock.  And I want to open the lock.  I have to open the lock.

But what can I do?  Should I admit defeat and walk away?  Should I keep trying with the same key hoping that it eventually works?  Should I make another key? Or should I realise someone first needs to remove the key on the other side?

The Show-off by Seana Graham


Horrid Jack watches us through a knothole in the fence for awhile before
he climbs up to peer over it.
“What’re you doing?” he asks, as if that isn’t obvious.
“Go away,” I say.
“Can I play?”
“No.” That’s Sally, his sister.
“Why not?”
“Because you wouldn’t like it.” I say. Horrid Jack is only interested in
sports or games where you pretend to shoot people or blow things up. This
isn’t one of those kinds of games. “Go find someone else to play with.”
“There isn’t anybody else for miles!”
This isn’t true, but may as well be. If he can’t get in with us, he’ll
have to play alone. And Horrid Jack isn’t really the solitary type.
“We’re having a tea party. You could be the prince,” says Charlotte, my
sister, who loves him.
“Real tea? With cake?”
“No. Pretend.”
“What’s the point of that?” He’s on top of the fence now, balancing his
way along it. “Hey, look! I can reach that tree from here!” He hurls
himself at the limb of the giant oak in his yard and hoists himself up.
We watch for a moment and then go back to our game. After awhile we forget
all about him.
***
“Look at me!” Horrid Jack sings out from high, high above.
We look up just in time to see him leaping for the next branch.
In time, too, to see him miss it.
He plunges down to earth and disappears behind the fence between us. We
listen for it, dreading it, but the impact makes no sound in the soft
grass. Instead, it’s the silence that’s terrifying.
***
My mother takes Charlotte and me to the hospital to see him that night.
As we sit with Sally and his mom, Jack’s father comes rushing in, hurrying
over from work. I’m standing near enough to hear when the doctor tells him
Jack will mend.
 “I wouldn’t think there’s much likelihood of an athletic career, though.
I’m sorry. Your wife tells me that he was very keen.”
Normally, Jack’s dad hardly has two words to say about him. I didn’t know
he even noticed that Jack loves sports. It shocks me when he bursts into
tears.
***
When they do let us in to see Jack, I’m awed by the fact that on one side
of his body, his cast goes clear up to his waist. Charlotte and Sally and
I cover it with hearts and rainbows and elaborate calligraphy with the
markers we’ve brought. Even though he’s a small boy, it’s still a pretty
big surface to work on. Our artistic efforts are sure to be covered over
later by whatever images the boys at school favor—tanks, maybe, or
monsters. But tonight Jack’s not complaining. As he sits here a little
wanly in our midst, he just seems happy to have finally gotten our
attention.

'A Mermaid’s Purse Is Also Called A Devil’s Pocketbook' by April Bradley



Clara measures time by tide. The intervals of the spring tide along the shore impose a metronomic order upon her worry. She huddles upon the strand with her knees drawn up against her swelling breasts and gazes at the wrack floating in the channel of tidewater. She listens for a heartbeat she cannot hear. An October squall rakes off the Sound, adorning her with spindrift, feeding her salt. Soon, it will rain, and she must leave to prepare dinner for her husband and their glittering company—glittering company is the most tiresome kind.

There is no more time, so she gives way to despair and hope, secreting this fragile thing away. She rises and stumbles on a Mermaid’s Purse laying in the receding wash. The translucent pillow of the egg case startles her. She races for the parking lot as the storm quickens. She is soaked through, frigid, and as she drives home, she fears the wetness between her legs is blood and loss.


Published in Hermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal, Issue 6, January 2015

Contraband by Paul Beckman


The nightmare man arrives again while I'm still awake. Guard bangs on my cell door and I heft myself out of my bed and waddle my obese body in a fat man's walk over to the metal sink hanging off the wall. He unlocks the door and enters. I no longer have the temptation to look and see him; but I wait for him to smack me in the butt with his night stick and then I drop my underwear and lean over the sink—legs spread—hands intertwined—head resting on my arms.
I hear the snap of his rubber glove left on from his other cell visits and try not to tighten up. He probes my anus deep and rough, looking for something he thinks I'm hiding there. He finishes my humiliation and I remain in position while he tosses my cell trying to find the drugs that someone ratted me out for. He flips my mattress—shines his high intensity flash around, rustles through my desk drawer, knocks over my books and checks inside my shoes and clothing.
Guard whacks the back of my leg and I stand up and turn around facing him but staring down at his shoes—never lifting my head or eyes. He speaks and it's the same as always—"Where is it?  This can end." I remain rigid and silent, head down, shorts around my ankles. I feel the sting of the nightstick on my arm even before he swings it and then I turn and re-assume the sink position. I've learned the moves well.
The nightmare ends, not with the relocking of the cell, but with the sound of his heavy boots walking down the hallway towards his next humiliation. I push myself upright and then bend down and pull up my underwear.
Back in my bed I reach under my overhang, my "mud flap" and feel my “high” scotch taped deep up in the folds of my skin. I slowly pry it open while I'm facing the wall. I reach into the brown powder with my thumb and snort what I extract with my nail. I do it again for the other nostril and then quickly re-tape before it hits me hard—good and hard, and I fall back into what passes for sleep.
Previously published in Molotov Cocktail

Rocks by GJ Hart

My death mother and death father are very different to my life mother and life father. I hope I don't come to resent them because of this.

They meet me outside the shopping centre and tell me my clothes are inappropriate. They hand me a carrier bag and tell me to change in the public toilet.

It feels odd to have parents again, certainly parents that appear barely old enough to vote. But they seem confident and accomplished and I am happy to relinquish my liberty to them.

They lead me to their car and I get in. The car is small and fun and smells of wet canvas and lawnmower oil. On the seat next to me is a laminated brochure. On Its front page, an ink drawing of a large house on a small rock.

As they drive me away, my death mother turns and tells me where we are going. I don't listen. I look down at the booklet. I recognise the rock. It is shaped like ginger root and calved from cliffs I climbed one summer in Devon. I remember deck chairs at the river's edge, its banks pocked with burrows stuffed with equations chittering like auks.

I see my life mother and life father smoking and saturated in yellows. They hand me a tomato sprinkled with sea salt and I eat it whole.

I don't wait for my death mother to stop talking. I pull out my notebook and wave it in her face. I can prove everything I say.

I tell my death mother, I don't feel well. My death father becomes angry. Everything I need is waiting, he says. I feel better and I wonder how Cooper is and whether his leg is better.

Cooper made anything bearable until one day, whilst chasing rabbits, he was side swipped by an Austin 7. I found him covered in blood, his leg wound up like a hand crank.

They took him away and told me he'd be fine. He must be by now. I imagine him stretched out over cobbles by the kitchen door.

We arrive and I'm led inside. I meet other death mothers and death fathers. They wear round-necks and faux fur lapels and jump with hello's.

On a table beneath a bay window, I notice a wire cake stand holding three sponges. The bottom one is divided into five unequal portions. Although not hungry, I cram the fifth slice into to my mouth.

As I chew, I scan the cliff edge. I think I see him, running fast, tail high. I shout 'Cooper' and shower the glass with cream. The room falls silent.

I am taken away and led up a narrow stair case. Behind me, my death mother and death father argue quietly. I turn and tell them about the sponge cake. My death father bears his teeth and I continue to climb.

My bedroom is small and functional. My death mother and death father sit examining blister packs and breaking chocolate against the bed.

I move to the window. I look past cliffs, to the cornfields east of Winters Point. I see Cooper panting hard, his jaws frowning with rabbit.

I smell four stroke and hear the door closing quietly behind me.

'In the Spotlight' by Fiona Kyle

When the lights go off, everything changes. The chatter of the audience dulls to a hum then silence. The feeling of anticipation hangs heavy in the air.

The first actor walks confidently across the stage and the audience starts to relax. Backstage, I try not to let my nerves show. I sit still as my make up is applied and concentrate on breathing in and breathing out, once then twice then again and again.

As my time comes closer, I stand in the wings, listening out for my cue. My body teems with adrenaline, desperate to turn and run. But I don’t. My feet carry me on stage step by step until I see the glare of the lights. I open my mouth and start to speak. For a split second which feels like a year, the sound of my own voice distracts me and I can’t remember what to do next. Then I am flying, carried away by the performance, transported. I am not a plain Yorkshire schoolgirl, I am a Siamese princess. When I talk, people listen, when I sing, people smile. The gloomy moors retreat and I smell the exotic spices and fragrant jasmine of old Siam. I can feel the sunshine on my face.

The scenes come and go, the scenery shifts and changes, actors walk on and walk off, songs are sung, characters laugh, love and die. Then, in the blink of an eye, the curtain drops to a roar from the audience.

The lights dazzle us as we bask in the applause. The dead have come back to life, the lost ones found. We join hands, the company a band of brothers, bow and smile. My cheeks ache and I think my heart will burst with the sheer joy of being a part of this.

Then the curtain falls, the lights go off, and I am Sarah again. It’s late, I’m tired and I haven’t done my maths homework.

I rub off the make-up with a baby wipe and chuck it in the bin. My silk dress is hung on a rail for tomorrow night and swapped for my jeans and jumper.

I slink out of the stage door, smaller and alone.

The Building by T O Davis


"Seriously? You expect me to go in there?"
“If you want to join our club,” Chad said.
I turned back toward the old Jones’s residence. It was more a tool shed than residence. They had owned the property on Clifton Street for what seemed like eons. Now it was a vacant lot surrounded by red clay hills, kudzu and factories, and even the factories were now empty. I nudged my toes into the red mud, felt it squish and give against my foot; there was honeysuckle in the air, and I savored it for as long as I could.
“You going or are you yellow?” Josephine asked.
I picked up a dirt clod and flung it at Josephine. Her freckled face went white before she ducked. The clod sailed past her and exploded in a patch of tall grass. A fly buzzed, and I thought I could see its wings move one by one.
I took a step closer to the rusted, metal shed. There were no windows, so I would get no sneak peaks. The sun glinted off the tin roof burning my tired eyes. The wind rattled hot and fast stirring up dust and old leaves. I looked back and it seemed like miles were between us, as though the earth had opened up and deliberately separated us. I turned back to the building. Its grey door moved back and forth as if it were breathing; waiting for me to open its door and swallow me like all the others. I reached up, my sweaty, dirt-caked hand shaking, knowing this was all superstition but hoping I was somehow stretching through time, and also hoping, as my arm touched the door, I would feel a smaller hand reach in and grab hold of mine. 

Water Like A Stone by Fiona J Mackintosh



There’s never any actual snow at Christmas, not round here. Sleigh bells, reindeer, the bloody Snowman on the telly, it’s all just propaganda for this one dismal day.

I’m invited to daughter’s house as per. A good kid, but her posh friends witter on about wine and talk in special voices to me, like they’re on stage. I want to say you’ll be old too one day, you know. 

On the way to the bus stop, I nip into the Paki shop for some smokes. You’re not supposed to call it that anymore, but old habits die hard. The young fella says, “Happy Christmas, mate” as he hands over my change, and I want to ask him, “Is it all as meaningless to you as it is to me?” But no voice comes out.

The cold outside’s a punch in the chest. There’s a crushed lager can in the dead leaf pile in the bus shelter. No one’s about, all indoors with their Yule logs and tinsel. It’s like a piece of plywood over a broken window, this day. The real world’ll still be there when the sherry wears off. 

The driver’s wearing a Santa hat. I doze, head against the window, almost miss my stop. Get off, still groggy, and light up a ciggie, that delicious surge of warmth in my lungs. The slag-heaps, I call them. Strangely beautiful on the x-ray, like wings. Coal-black frosted with scatterings of white. Not good news of course, no surprise there. 

Sitting on daughter’s garden wall, fighting to catch my breath before knocking, I see a dusting on the pavement, flakes swarming round the streetlights like midges, settling on my sleeve. Well, call me a liar, but there’s a first time for everything. And there’s also a last.

'The Discovery' by Bart Van Goethem



Bha-aal studied the substance that encapsulated him up to his chest. It was bluish, almost transparent. He couldn't move freely in it, like when he walked the earth. The substance created a resistance for his limbs, but not an unpleasant one. In fact, he felt good in it, refreshed. This surprised him, because in his experience, things you didn't know usually got you killed.

He cupped the substance in his hands. How strange. Like nothing is there, but still it is there. Then he turned around to his tribe, standing on the shore. Bha-aal lifted his hands in the air, showing this new, exciting thing he discovered. The members of his tribe nodded and grunted approvingly. And then it happened: Bha-aal closed his hands and the substance splashed his face. Confused he stared at his palms. The substance was gone. Again he cupped his hands and filled the space with the nothingness. Again he closed his hands and again the substance escaped his grasp. He looked back at his tribe, who were shaking their heads in disbelief.

Now Bha-aal just stood there. The substance was all around him, as far as he could see. Should he take a few steps forward? He had already come this far. What could go wrong? In a bold move, Bha-aal didn't walk, but instead he plunged his head in the substance, eyes wide open. It was the most amazing thing he had ever seen. Scaly, colourful creatures were gliding past him, green plants covered a sandy bottom. Bha-aal was so amazed he forgot to breathe. And when he finally did, the substance filled his mouth, shooting down his windpipe, choking his lungs. Bha-aal emerged from the substance, coughing violently. He stumbled backwards, falling into it again. His instincts kicked in and as soon as he reemerged, he raced to the shore. In panic, his tribe took a few steps back, not sure whether to help Bha-aal or not touch him at all. He gestured he'd be fine. Then he decided to try again tomorrow, but with Na-Nuhl. Though he didn't tell him yet.

(published on a writer group’s blog: The Angry Hourglass)

Even A Ferryman by Nan Wigington

I put up with the dead. Even when they came empty handed and expected to get across.

Look, I'd say, Hell has its economy. I work. I get paid. An obol, please. Or a piece of your liver, a sliver of your heart. But the dead can be so needy. Who wanted their wailing? I began poling for almost nothing – a leg to gnaw, a golden locket, a feather for my hat, twice a diamond, once a pince-nez.

I suppose it was the war of shapes and stars that did me in. Hermes felt the strain. The first load he brought in a great iron box with iron wheels. So heavy, he could only walk and pull it by its long, silvery tongue. Each step sunk him deeper into the sand. A man with wings brought so low. Huffing and puffing. I stood on my wherry in the reeds and scratched my beard.

When Hermes opened the door, such a stench – bitter almonds, a liquefaction of despair. They all had eyes like hollow furnaces, dark and blazing with hunger and thirst. All wore yellow stars. They had nothing to give me, not even complaints.

Hermes stood, wiped his brow, and shook his head. Without a word, he trudged back up the hill. Then he brought more. Thousands more. Sometimes the shapes they wore changed. Sometimes the colors. Never had I seen misery wear so many suits.

There were generals. They'd hide in the masses, but I could see the flesh on their faces, hear the click of epaulets. Sometimes I'd knock them back to shore. Sometimes I'd let them board, steer left instead of right, not to Lethe, but to the marsh where the five rivers meet. There I would abandon them. Such a wide circle of filth they would have to swim, heads barely above water, mosquitoes at their cheeks, birds at their lips.

It was when Hermes began to bring only the parts of the dead – their gold teeth, their wedding rings, once a bucket full of ashes – that I knew I had to quit. Even a ferryman gets tired. Enough was enough. I stuck my pole in my wherry and walked away.

I look different now. I've cut my beard. My hair is long enough to hide my ears, but is never unkempt. It took one hundred years of water, but the muck has fallen from my skin. I dress in jeans, a good work shirt, neatly pressed. I never thought I'd wear shoes, but my feet feel best in solid work boots.

I live in a place called Nevada. It's the perfect temperature. I drive a panel truck. The side reads, “Charlie Shores, Getting the job done wherever, however, no matter how big or small.” I dig graves. I visit casinos, put an obol in the slots, and get a few obols back.  

Flight Path by Mandy Huggins

Beyond the pier I watch two men as they repaint the end wall of the new apartment block a startling orange. 

    ‘It’s the geese,’  explains a voice behind me. ‘The block has been built in their established flight path. On a dull day, or in the half-light of dusk, the geese think the grey wall is sky, and they fly into it.’

    I know that it’s you without turning round. 

    I have replayed that winter evening a hundred times. A goose had landed on the bridge, stunned after clipping a streetlight. As the skein flew on down the river, it staggered, bewildered, caged in by railings and relentless traffic. It had no runway.

    You walked towards me and our eyes met. Without a word you took off your coat and threw it over the bird. We lifted it swiftly to the top of the railing, held it steady for only a moment, and then stood back. As it took off, its wings and underbelly were up-lit by the street lamps, aglimmer against the darkening sky. We smiled, suddenly a little awkward, and mumbled a few words before walking on. 

    Our flight paths momentarily crossed, our wing tips almost touched, but we did not collide. And since then I have thought of you often; my bird man. I have carried your voice in my head.

    And when I turn I can see you have thought about me too. This time we will collide; even if to crash and burn.

'Honour Maid' by JACQUELINE PYE

It’s the village festival in St Anselm, and young hearts are fluttering. The girls are hopeful but their admirers fear the worst.
The lord always chooses the Honour Maid, relishing the rights it brings him. He is fair of face and of means; many girls would pay the price for the Honour. But sometimes that price is higher than just one night in his bed.
Matilde is vomiting weeks after being crowned. With the freedom of all the village fare on offer, she takes little yet grows ever larger.
Two months before her time, the pains become vile, and the poor baby boy is stillborn from her young-teen body. Her parents weep, perhaps more for loss of the lord’s financial support than for Matilde who has years for childbearing. He has been generous to his Maids in the past.
According to custom, the carpenter gouges a hole in the trunk of an oak. The part-formed babe is wrapped in white linen and sealed in the tree while the preacher intones: St Anselm, take this infant in your name, to nourish the tree in its growth. Matilde is weak and leans on her father’s arm as the villagers drift away.
She does not recover well. She wanders through the night-time wood in her grubby shift, barefoot, listening for the cries of her son and sometimes, just sometimes, she hears them.


A longer version of this story was published online as one of the winners in a 1001 Words competition.

Meanderson by Beret Olsen


Marty Anderson didn’t exist for me during the first weeks of Philosophy 101. He was not yet “Meanderson,” so dubbed after his first exploration of my mountainous regions. He was just one of twenty-nine other students in the room. Wedged in my desk chair, I doodled in the margins of my notes, thinking not of Aristotle or Kant but of the kind of person I had been in high school:defined. Now my map splayed outward, endlessly, to include any road, any destination.
But as October’s fiery breath enflamed the maples, I noticed the lanky one sitting catty-corner from me. Once I did, he appeared magically wherever I went. He was there in my periphery in the dining hall, in the walkways, always on the threshold of my consciousness. Was his proximity on purpose? I wondered, suddenly and excruciatingly hopeful.
The effect of his small details accumulated into a sort of harmonic tremor within me—his slightly parted lips, the angle of his jaw, the way his bookless arm swung with his loping stride.
In the depths of the library--near the geography section--I looked up and caught his gaze. Cheeks flushing, I held it for a few seconds, to see what he would do. His eyes lingered, then surveyed the people between us.
Pulse racing, I dropped my pencil and walked into the dimly-lit stacks. I pulled a book randomly from the shelves, thumbing through the musty volume as he crept closer. He read aloud over my shoulder, quietly.
“…The term “bottomland” refers to low-lying alluvial land near a river…”
“Alluvial?” I said, a little unevenly. “What does that even mean?”
But I knew already, and thoughts of flood plains only exacerbated my physical state.
After that, we would meet and whisper amongst the atlases and books on societal collapse. Checking furtively for eyewitnesses, we fell into wordless wandering, while I fought half-heartedly to keep his hands out of the lowlands. Sometimes.
It was perfect.
***
Then--just like that--it was over.
I could no longer catch his eye.
He changed seats, came late, left first. He studied elsewhere; ate at different times.
And when I opened my dormitory door to see him across the hall, murmuring in someone else’s ear, I closed the door again and wept as quietly as possible.
How unfair that his world and mine must overlap, when his happy carelessness, his impulsive wandering was such a painful, choking lump to swallow. Dinner would not, could not fit. I skipped meals and classes and even days, and when I emerged--half raw, half numb--my world had narrowed to a dark tunnel of misery.
***
But even then, I had had so many options. It was only my vision that had funneled and frozen.
Now, now that it is so difficult to move, to find my reading glasses, to remember to take my medications--now I see.
Every direction but Marty had been wide open still. I chose my tiny sad way.

Crocodile Friend by Agnes Marton


3 March, 2015

It took me 243 days to tame Frédi.
He has always been mesmerized by my voice. I tell him tales and lullabies while we swim. He keeps asking for more.
Sometimes he splashes, slaps his tail back and forth, breaks whatever he reaches. I’m teaching him how to shape the trunks. It becomes his way to tell me stories. He uses his teeth too for piercing and holding onto the flesh of trees. Then he carries these torsos, proud.


18 September, 2015

Tuesday: pot-roast pheasant with chorizo, butter beans and parsley, figs with honey-orange mascarpone. Wednesday: whistling with dolphins. Again his message: “you made my day.” Is it the best part, or figuring out the next treat? Something I can’t afford so I wouldn’t choose for myself but if it’s for his sake, I don’t mind breaking piggy-banks. Something unheard of, against your boring ‘How to keep your reptile.’ Even better when the surprise is handmade, I fold booklets and scrawl my spells in. It works, those words keep away enemies and rain. I’m a magician, aren’t I, and my crocodile smiles.


2 February, 2016

 Now I’m called Croco, celeb shows have me. My pals grumble, I keep blubbering about Frédi. How jealous of them. They bore themselves to death, and I’m alive.

That’s what Frédi says too, his life before we met seems to be blurred, sleep-swimming. Tepid mud. He hadn’t even had a name.

He eyes me with honeymoon-pupils, but this swoon doesn’t get tired, we don’t touch. Not for taboos or for the strangeness of his heavy beauty. What we share is sacred, who would jeopardize it? I only pet his snout to get goosebumps.


14 March, 2016

I check the shore to see his latest torsos. They are replaced by figurines of dancing squirrels, pony-tailed girls playing hopscotch. Their surface is smooth and pale as if machine-planed, no traces of bites. He lectures me how to express emotions, and I nod, whatever. I tease him : “The future belongs to those who sculpt their dreams.” He eats it and repeats it.


7 May, 2016

 Three crocodiles passed us. I waved to invite them for dinner. Frédi looked away. I could hardly escape.

I tell him it was fun. It wasn’t.

He smiles when I serve his treats, but he thunders his molars, not a single word.

 

17 June, 2016

I rarely go to the shore. Yesterday I happened to hang around the jetty when I caught sight of his tunnel-sad face. No, not a tunnel bot a bottomless barrel. I felt as if he swallowed me, and I swallowed him with my eyes.

As soon as I got closer, he showed his back, his armour. He was humming “Old MacDonald had a farm, E-I-E-I-O.” The sky was the colour of a worn table-cloth. I couldn’t get that damn song out of my head for weeks.

'The Women of Troy' by Jane Roberts



When rosy-fingered Dawn dances over the rocky outcrops, the women of Troy are washing the undergarments and tunics of the Trojan soldiers in the river. They cleanse war from the wool fibres with practised fingers.

The women of Troy are given pathetic epithets by the Great Poet in his epic. Weeping and wailing, the women of Troy wash. Wretched wailing and weeping. Still the women of Troy wash the undergarments and tunics of the soldiers in the river.

Up in the palace there is weeping and wailing. Queen Hecuba. Cassandra. Andromache. The Woman of Troy – lovely-haired Helen – who is not from Troy, yet will define this city for eternity. None of these women have yet washed the undergarments and tunics of the men who fight this war. These women will be heard crying from the lofty battlements of Troy, beseeching both gods and enemy to spare their kith and kin. Down below, where the misfired pleas fall leaden onto the ever-death-hungry, blood-libated earth, the women of Troy are washing the undergarments and tunics of the soldiers in the river.

The god-like men of Troy let the city fall to the ground. The royal beauties are sorted in the Greek camps, most dispatched to the ships. The Greeks fight over these spoils of war like frenzied hounds picking at scraps of flesh on the mangy carcass of a once prized horse.

Now the unnamed women of Troy are washing the undergarments and tunics of the Greek soldiers in the river, wailing and wondering: wondering if they would fare better at war than their menfolk; wondering why they are still washing and are not sent to the ships – as the blood and fragmented soil of their patriarchy escapes the river, weeping out into the wine-red sea.

Postcard by Kate Mahony

“She’s not dead, you know,” a voice beside me says.
The woman sharing the park bench in Kensington Palace Gardens has been observing me write on the back of a postcard.
Years have passed since that immeasurable worldwide torrent of grief. Even so less than fifteen minutes ago, I’d found myself unable to walk past that famous face on a display of vintage cards at a Bayswater Road stall.
“Diana’s not dead.”  The woman shifts on her thighs and re-settles herself on the bench, a faint unidentifiable smell exuding from her dirty grey overcoat.
Really, I can’t help myself when it comes to Diana. You have had to be around in her time to understand the mesmerising effect she had on people. “Oh?”
“She wasn’t in that coffin.”
“Oh?’ Despite myself, I am intrigued. The woman eyes me steadily, holding me fast with her gaze.
“No. She’s in a mental institution.” The tone is matter of fact. “Under lock and key.  They’ve kept it from everyone.” She gives me time to consider this, turning her attention to a man in a dark suit eating a cream doughnut, a blob of cream falling onto his blue and red striped tie as he hurries past.
Plastic bags rustle. “She had brain damage. They didn’t want people to see her like that. It was another woman’s body.”
Freed from her gaze, I shake my head. “But how -?”
“Military Intelligence. MI5 can do anything. She could’ve been a prostitute, a tramp, a runaway. Or-” She gives a furtive glance at a girl sunbathing, her black skirt pushed up to expose white floppy thighs, black stilettos with red soles discarded on the grass beside her. “A secretary at Whitehall . A lot of them go missing. They did her up to look like Diana.”
On the postcard, the princess peeps up winsomely from beneath her eye-lashes.  
“Except they missed her ear-ring.”
“Really?” She has got me now. “An ear-ring? I remember reading something about an ear-ring.” I have said this with indecent eagerness.
“Charles noticed. He said, ‘Diana wouldn’t have liked that.’”
I remember that comment, but - “Where was it?” I ask more quickly than I intend to.
“Somebody had forgotten to take it out. That’s M15 for you.” The woman sighs. “She hates it there.”
“So how do you - ?”
“Know? I know a nurse that works there. Sworn to secrecy.” Another movement on the bench, another waft of something rank. “They’ll never let her out.  Diana. They need her dead.”
I check the time on my cell phone. I’m meeting a friend who lives in London . I can’t be late.
“Are you going to have that sandwich?” She points to my untouched half of a Pret A Manger sandwich still in its plastic carton.  
 “Would you like it?”
“I could eat it, I suppose.” She turns away as if she couldn’t care.
As I move away, I see another woman is waiting to take my place.