‘A Coffee Date With Death’ by Ian Canon

Coffee Date

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

“You’re late, Isaac.”

“You’re mistaken, Labe,” he said, raising a finger in the air as he sat down. “The Grim Reaper is never early—nor late. He always arrives just in time.”

Labe, the elder of the two, had a mangy red beard and eyes like fava beans. He curled his fingers around a cup of coffee, the steam somersaulting across his forehead. Isaac had a neat, close-cropped beard and rounded eye-glasses.

“You’re still late.”

“You really haven’t seen?”

“Seen what?”

“It’s all over the news. I was schlepping souls up off the street all afternoon! What a day, a night, a week, if it was a month!”

“Explain.”

“The stock market crashed. Kaput! Nobody has money. Nothing! Zilch! They’re jumping out of buildings left and right.” Isaac threw up his hands as if tossing imaginary paper bills in the air. “The roof to The Bank of New York had an hour wait just to jump. An hour!

“That’s just the way these humans are. Such fickle beings. So proud yet prone to despair. But you, Isaac,” he said, extending an accusatory index finger. “Always with the excuses. Always late. We had a meeting. One you called, I remind you. So souls can wait. God knows they have an eternity.”

“Labe! I couldn’t help it, I swear. You don’t understand the difficulties of someone in my position! The angel of death, the man with a giant, terrifying scimitar. These are not positive things, mind you. A thankless job, if ever there was—”

“Welcome to Monk’s! Coffee?” a young boy sidled up to the table.

“Please, please.” Isaac wiped the sweat from his glistening forehead.  “Oy. I’m famished.”

“Cream or Sugar?”

“Black, my boy, always black. I’m getting old, you know! Weight’s becoming a factor.”

“Black. Got it.” The waiter turned to Isaac. “And you, sir? Need anything else?”

“My coffee is still serving me quite well, thank you.”

“Let me know if you two need anything else,” the boy said. He disappeared behind a swivelling back kitchen door.

“Why do you do that, Isaac?”

“Do what?”

“My weight. My age. These things aren’t real.”

“I like to play the part. It’s fun. What’s it matter?”

“Ugh…” Labe said, shaking his head, waving Isaac away. “I guess it doesn’t.”

“Anyway, what were we on about.”

“Your, as you put it, thankless job.”

“That’s right. A thankless job. One you wouldn’t understand.”

“My appointment is every much as difficult as yours.” He furrowed his thick red brows. “Some might say it’s more difficult, even. Let’s look at the facts, shall we? The crude birth rate, per 1000 people, is 19.4, while the mortality rate is significantly less, sitting at just under 8 deaths per 1000 people.” He slurped his coffee, his mustache coming back damp. “I have to usher into existence twice the souls you usher out on a daily basis, and you’re trying to tell me about difficulty. You have much to learn, Isaac.”

He raised a finger in the air. “Still, still. You’re held up in high esteem for your actions. A hero! Whereas I’m hated, feared, and misunderstood! The humans praise the lord every time you perform your little miracle, while they curse my name. It’s the most thankless job! One that I’ve been doing forever!”

“We’ve both been at it forever. This is nothing new to you.”

“That’s why I called this meeting. I’m fed up!” He collapsed onto the table, still talking into his arms. “When does it end? When do we get a day off? When can I go on vacation? How long are we here for?”

“I’ve never considered the question before.” He stroked his beard. “I would imagine this is our lot for eternity, my old friend.”

“Eternity!” Isaac stuck his tongue out in a mock-gag. “Bupkes! But tell me, Labe, in your infinite wisdom, what was before eternity? What did you do before this? What is after this? These people have their death, their escape, and what do we have? Are we human? Are we something else?”

“I do not know.” He looked up at the ceiling as if the answer were written on a poorly dusted overhead light. “I’ve only known life. This life. That’s it.”

“But you must know more than me! Life by very definition preceded death. What was I before this… whatever this is!”

“These are questions I do not have an answer for, but they are excellent questions, nonetheless.”

“Who does, Labe?” He leaned in closer and whispered. “The humans? Can we ask them? Surely, before they come to life or shortly after they leave it, they must have something to say!”

“An interesting possibility. I do not see why not. Where shall we begin our line of questioning?”

Isaac’s eyes glowed at the possibility of answers. “The beginning,” he said. “And the end. A hospital.”

“Just 12 blocks east.”

“Let’s go! Souls, those weary travellers, are waiting to be ushered into existence!” Isaac stood up and hopped, from one foot to the other, like a school boy playing hopscotch, out of the cafe.

Labe stood in a stiff, almost robotic, motion, brushed himself off, and left a $5.00 bill on the table. Shortly after, the boy-waiter brought over a pot of coffee, shrugged at the empty seats, and pocketed the change.

Despite the bodies raining from the rooftops, blotting out the sun as they fell through the air, it was a beautiful summer day in New York.

“Have you ever attempted to talk to the unborn?” Isaac said, stepping over a body.

“No, Isaac. I never quite saw the point.”

“What are they like?”

“They’re not really like anything. They’re quiet, I suppose. They arrive, from God knows where, these frail winged babes, to be ushered into a body. It’s an unglamorous activity with nothing of note to report. Have you talked to the dearly departed?”

“Talked? No. Listened? Not if I can help it! The damn things don’t shut up. They yap about this and that and the other. Always yapping.” A homeless man leaned into Isaac and asked for spare change. Isaac, ignoring the man, continued. “Yap, yap, yap. I rarely get a word in.”

“What’s the process like when you pull them out of a body?”

“More often than not, they’re confused before they fly off to, as you said, God knows where. Probably the same place they came from.”

“Have you ever seen a dead soul after the ushering? Say, walking around the street amongst the living?”

“Hmmm. That’s a good question. No, I can’t say that I have. I guess they don’t come back, then. Isn’t that odd?”

“I suppose it is. Where do they go off to?”

“Up there, I imagine.” Issac gestured towards the sky.

Entering the hospital, they lost their elderly exterior and took on the appearance of two middle-aged doctors. They carried with them an air of ease, comfort, and respectability as they walked through the narrow corridors of the hospital and towards the maternity wing. With their new skins, no one doubted their position or purpose.

“Where are we going, Labe?”

“Just a little farther, Isaac. At the end of the hall, on the left, up here, there’s a woman a few minutes from birth. A soul will soon be entering her. It’ll make a perfect specimen to question.”

They walked into the room. A woman, legs high in sternums, was red-faced and panting. No one seemed to care or notice the doctors’ intrusion.

“So what happens now?” Isaac asked.

Labe put his finger to his lips. He turned his chin to the sky. A small, wingless cherub floated through the roof, head first, and held out his hands towards Labe. Labe grasped the soul’s hands and gently set him on the ground.

“We have some questions to ask you, child.”

The bodiless soul blinked into the void.

“Ask him where he comes from!” Isaac said, a few feet behind Labe.

Labe glowered at Isaac, annoyed by his impulsiveness, then turned back to the small translucent soul and asked, “My child. Where do you come from? What came before this? Do you remember anything?”

No one said anything for several minutes.

Issac leaped forward. “Well, what is it, human! Where do you come from?”

If there was any effect on the child from Isaac’s outburst, it was not visible on its outward appearance. It remained lifeless and without expression, except for the empty smile on its face.

Labe tried his hand again. “Do you understand my words, child? Do you know what it is I am saying? We must know where you come from.”

Blankness. No response.

Labe knelt down. “Do you have any memory of anything before this?” He stared into the child’s eyes, hoping something would disturb its stillness, but the boy simply looked through him.

Labe stood up and turned to Isaac. “Its small cherub lips would likely not part for anything, man or beast.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t believe it has the capability to communicate. This thing here is a blank slate. It has no memories, thoughts or desires. Before us is an empty soul, waiting to experience the life of a human and to feast on its many experiences. It waits to learn, to play, to love. As of now, it has no knowledge to give us because it has no knowledge.”

“Are you saying there is nothing to gain here?”

“Perhaps not. The soul prior to birth is as lost, if not more so than we are. It is only through life that it gains some knowledge.”

“Then perhaps we must question it after it has lived a full life. We must question the dead!”

“Indeed, Isaac. We must.”

Labe lifted the pre-born by the shoulders and laid him over the pregnant woman as if it were a clean bed sheet.

“We’ve got a head,” A doctor said, as they left the room.

Isaac and Labe walked through the corridors of the hospital until they came upon a small commotion of nurses and doctors.

“This should do nicely,” Isaac said.

They entered the room. There was a man on the operating table with his chest open, hooked up to a variety of machines, the ominous steady ring of a heart monitor, the 21st century calling of the dead and dying, still heavy in the air.

“Is he dead?” Labe asked. He had always been uncomfortable around the dead. He assumed this uneasiness was bestowed upon him, for his duties regarded the living, not the dead.

“A goner.”

Isaac pinched the skin of the man’s shoulders and lifted up a soul, vaguely outlined by the shape of the man it came from. He placed it on the ground and it, as if Isaac stepped on a hidden air pedal, began to inflate. Fully animated, it judged its surroundings with the wide eyes of terror.

“Where am I?”

“You’ve passed,” Isaac said.

“Passed? What do you mean?”

“You’re dead. You’ve died.”

The soul looked around again, seeing its former shell laying, stiff and still, on the operating table. “I… I… I’m dead?” He looked at the pale feet of his old body with disappointment.

“Dead as the day is long.”

“My God,” the man said, throwing his hands around, pacing the room. “My friends. My family.”

“They’ll be fine. What’s your name, soul?”

“B-brian. My name is Brian. Brian Thompson. When will I see my family again?”

Labe walked forward and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Be calm, gentle soul, your family will be fine.” Labe stepped back behind Isaac.

“We would like to ask you some questions,” Isaac said.

An unnatural stillness, cased in confusion, came over Brian. “You want to ask me questions?

“Yes,” Labe said.

“I have a few questions of my own.”

“If we answer yours,” Isaac said, “will you answer ours?”

“I guess.”

“Then go ahead.”

“First of all, who are you two? What are you?”

“I am Isaac. Some people call me the Grim Reaper, or Death, or the Angel of Death, or Michael, but I prefer simply Isaac.” Isaac looked back at Labe. “And my friend over there is my counterpart. People don’t call him anything. Most don’t know he exists. I take the souls out at death and he puts them in at birth. He goes by Labe.”

“Okay. Isaac and Labe. What happens now?”

“We were hoping you could tell us that.”

The soul’s face contorted, and he took a step back. “I don’t understand. Isn’t that your job? Aren’t you supposed to take me somewhere? What do you usually do with a soul?”

“We don’t do anything. My job is to pull the soul from its body and Labe’s is to place it in a body. Beyond that, we have no clue where you come from or go when you die.”

“And you want me to tell you where I’m supposed to go when I know nothing?”

Yes,” Labe said. “We’ve been here on earth for an eternity, and it appears we are stuck here for an eternity more. What we don’t know, and what we may never know, is what happens beyond death, and you lot seem to be free’d, upon death, from your earthly confinements.”

“Well,” the soul said, attempting to stroke his chin, but slipping through his bottom lip. “Let’s work this out together. What happens to a soul after you free it… Isaac, was it?”

“They’re usually out of their mind, or in shock, or overwhelmingly sad. They ask me questions, questions I can’t answer, then I tell them they’re free to go, to fly off into the sky, wherever they wish.”

“And you’ve never asked one where they planned to go?”

“Honestly? I’ve thought about it.”

“Why not?”

“I can’t really say. Something always stopped me, I guess. Besides, they always find their way, wherever they go.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve never seen a soul return to earth. I haven’t seen them on the streets, or in the supermarket, or at the bottom of a bottle of milk.

“Do you know where you’ll go?” Labe asked.

“I don’t have a damn clue. Where would you go, if you suddenly found yourself free?”

“I suppose I would look for answers,” Labe said.

“Where would you do that?”

“Everywhere,” Labe said. “The universe is unimaginably large.”

“Maybe that’s why you’ve never seen one return,” the soul said.

“Why?”

“There are no road maps out there. Once you’re gone, it’s like finding a spec of dust in an ocean of sand.”

“You believe them—those like you—to be lost? All of them?”

“Or maybe this state gives way too, sooner or later,” he said, examining his opaque exterior.

“Think so?” Isaac said.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned on earth, it’s that nothing is forever.”

“What’s it like?” Isaac asked.

“What?”

“That body. I’ve always meant to ask.”

“There’s a certain lightness to it.” Brian lifted a few centimetres off the ground. “But some things, physiologically, don’t make a whole lot of sense. I can feel, but I don’t have skin. I don’t have eyes, but I can see. I don’t have lungs or hold air, but something is producing a voice. My body has weight, but I’m floating here, seemingly unaware of gravity’s existence.”

Isaac smiled. “Maybe we were once human, you think?”

“Perhaps,” Labe said. “But I am not aware of any death of mine.”

“Did it hurt?” Isaac asked. “Do you remember it?”

“It hurt for a bit, but it was sudden. A heart attack, I think. I was watching my daughter’s school play—her head sticking through a hole in a tree—when I toppled over, digging my fingernails into my chest. Then I woke up here, whatever this is.”

“Whatever this is, indeed,” Labe said.

“So, have I been of any help?” Brian said.

“Absolutely none,” Isaac said. “But it’s sure been an interesting experiment.”

“This experiment has done nothing but double my questions.”

“Answers are a monkey’s paw—they always come with more questions.”

“Where to now?”

Brian looked up, hands on his hips, floating in the room like Peter Pan’s shadow. “Somewhere up there, I guess.”

“Don’t let us keep you,” Isaac said.

“Goodbye,” Labe said.

“So long my supernatural companions.” The soul floated into the ceiling, never to be seen again.

As they left the hospital, Isaac and Labe walked with their heads down and their voices quiet. They pondered the complex nature of the universe, so vast and untamed, a wild horse unbroken by man or ghost until they reached the Bank of New York. The ground was littered with bodies and blood ran down the sidewalk, emptying into a nearby drain.

“Looks like you have your work cut out for you, Isaac,” Labe said.

Isaac put a hand across his brow and looked up at the roof of the building. “Never a weekend, or a vacation, or a day off—an eternity of work—toiling for God knows why.” He pulled away from the roof and looked at Labe. “What difference does it make if I release the souls? Who would be the wiser if I took a month off?”

“It is our purpose for being, Isaac.”

“Maybe I don’t need a purpose. Have you ever thought of that? Maybe I just want to be free! Maybe I just want to wander the universe, a lost soul.”

And at that moment, a body came careening through the sky, splattering the being formerly known as death into a thousand pieces, like a bug on a windshield and Labe never saw Isaac again.

 


IAN CANON is the author of the novel It’s A Long Way Down (2018) and the poetry collection Before Oblivion (2017). He’ll be releasing his second novel What We Do On Weekends in 2020. His stories have been featured in The Sunlight Press, The Spadina Literary Review, Kyler Zeleny’s short story collection Found Polaroids, and he has been interviewed for Vue Magazine. He runs a small writing workshop in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada through which he mentors young writers and helps them advance their work through both traditional publishing and self-publishing. For more, visit thisisallcanon.com.

Copyright © 2019 by Ian Canon. All rights reserved.

‘The Accident’ by Ilona Martonfi

The Accident.jpg

Illustration by Andres Garzon

“A car hit my little sister,” I said to the nun in my broken English, my siblings and I attended St. Malachy School on Clanranald Avenue.

Halloween night 1955: a Volkswagen Beetle hit nine-year-old Erika on Decarie Boulevard, corner Monkland Avenue. Notre-Dame-de-Grâce borough.

One year earlier, we had immigrated to Montreal. War refugees from Budapest, a mother and a father, four daughters and one son. Ages seven to fourteen.

After school, I was scoring orange peels in father’s pastry shop when I saw my seven-year-old brother József. He ran into the store to tell my parents about the accident. I ran outside with father. We found my sister lying unconscious between two parked cars.

Apu, my father, picked up his child. Sobbing, he carried Erika into his shop and laid her down on the bare floor. A Magyar Cukrászda.Scuffed wide plank oak floors, between two glass counters that were filled with chocolates and fresh Hungarian cakes and pastries.

My sister lay with her eyes closed. Father crouched beside her on his knees, calling her name, “Erika. Erika.”

My mother stood by the counter, very still. I prayed the Our Father. The Hail Mary. Repeatedly, I said them. Then Erika threw up. It was dark red. I thought she would die. I prayed louder. To our relief, the red colour was from beets. Sliced cékla my eldest sister Erna had cooked.

On Decarie we rented an apartment across the street from the store. My sister Erna had sent her younger siblings with the alarm clock. “Tell mother to wind it so we will not be late for school.”

The driver of the car, who hit my sister, cried as hard as my father did. “I have four children and no car insurance,”he blurted out between uncontrollable sobs.

Józsefre calls, “Father wanted to cut the guy’s head off when he saw Erika vomiting red. ‘If she dies your head comes off!’he told the driver. She flew through the air and landed on the hood of a car. I was holding her hand. This guy came through the red light. All I remember, she was hit. She was on the wrong side. Both of us should have been hit. It happened in the dark. We all ate beets for supper.”

An ambulance took my sister to the Children’s Hospital. She came home the same night. She suffered a concussion and was dizzy for several days. Erika was allowed to sleep with my parents in their double bed. Missed many weeks of school.

“I don’t celebrate Halloween. Your sister had the accident,” mother said, many years later.

 


ILONA MARTONFI is an editor, poet, curator, advocate and activist. Author of four poetry books, the most recent Salt Bride (Inanna, 2019). Forthcoming, The Tempest (Inanna, 2021). Writes in journals, anthologies, and five chapbooks. Her poem “Dachau on a Rainy Day” was nominated for the 2018 Pushcart Prize. Artistic director of Visual Arts Centre Reading Series and Argo Bookshop Reading Series. QWF 2010 Community Award.

Copyright © 2019 by Ilona Martonfi. All rights reserved.

Poems by John Wiley

Devil’s Bargain

Devil’s bargains
are the only ones I know,
so put it to me.
Bad terms suit me –
I’m a bad bargainer.
You don’t know how bad.
You’ve been forcing hands a long time,
but you don’t have to force mine.
No need for the trapdoor
you’ve invited me to stand on.

Thank you for having me
to your office, but…
somehow we’ve ended up in mine.
Now you’re standing on the trap,
and underneath the trap’s
the Devil’s Bargain Basement.
Will I take your devil’s bargain, sir?
Of course –
I’m the Devil’s Bargainer.

 


Fictional Ghosts

Fictional ghosts
always want something.
Real ghosts don’t want anything you have.
They don’t want anything anyone has.
They don’t even know you’re there –
why would they?

You might as well be the ghost.
Because they don’t have anything for you either.

 


JOHN WILEY was a ballet dancer and began writing poetry when his knees gave out for good.  He lives in California and works in his wife’s audiology practice.  His work has appeared in Terror House Magazine, Detritus, and Outsider Poetry, among others.

Copyright © 2019 by John Wiley. All rights reserved.

‘Ghosts of South London’ by Catherine Watson

South London

Illustration by Andres Garzon

In my grandmother’s garden there was a stunted, knuckled tree near a ramshackle bomb shelter, a sheet of corrugated iron curved over a shallow hole. My grandmother lived in an Edwardian terrace house in a dull London suburb: the house had only four rooms, one front and one back on two floors.  My father was the oldest child and the oldest son – there were three children – and he was the one with the most responsibility and the deepest awareness of how much hope and happiness had been destroyed.  His burden of suffering was part of my childhood: it wasn’t the only way I knew him, but it did form the kernel of my understanding of un-rightable wrong.  Whatever cruelty, violence, fear or disappointment my father had known in his early years lay deep inside him and was never softened or set aside.

As we approached my grandmother’s house, a grimness settled on my father like a deadening blow.  He was someone who could shut off feeling in an instant; when he was really tense or anxious the side of his nose would twitch and the rims of his eyes would turn red.

My mother was scornful of my father’s family. She picked up pieces of family lore and turned them into humourless fun, like calling the house “7GR” – for 7 Guildford Road – which was how my grandfather headed his letters to my father. “7 GR, ugh!” she would say when a visit was planned, and we all knew it would be very unpleasant.  Her reasons were unexplained.

This is the story of what I learned about my father’s family at different ages and what my father’s family meant to me.

 

My father was an internal revenue inspector.  At the height of the Depression he studied by correspondence and sat the open civil service exams.  He passed second in the country, entering the British middle-middle class at a single stroke.  He left school at sixteen and had previously worked as a clerk.  Both my parents were from the same area of London, the northern part of Croydon, but my mother’s family was more stable than my father’s. They helped my father when he was struggling to escape poverty.  My parents married after my father completed two years’ probation with the civil service.

I was born in the spring of 1945, two weeks before the end of World War II in Europe.  (I am now seventy-four.)  I was born outside London as my father worked in Gloucester, about ninety-five miles to the west.  My family traveled up to London periodically to see both sets of grandparents, although I doubt we went often as almost no one had a car.  For me, as a young child, post-war London was an almost mythical land: escalators in the Underground tunneling deep into the earth, bomb sites filled with weeds and rubble, blown-out buildings standing stark against the sky.  In the neighbourhoods where my grandparents lived, houses were older and closer together; they let in less light.

My family moved back into London in 1950, when I was five-and-a-half.  After the move, we also lived in Croydon – in South Croydon, the other side of town.  My first complete memories are from around that time, possibly the year before; I have fragments of memory from a couple of years earlier.  My first memories are still split between those that have colour, movement, cheerfulness (from my everyday life) and those that are darker and stranger (memories of my grandparents, and especially my father’s childhood home).

We continued to visit my grandmother (my father’s mother) almost until she died in 1969.

______________________________________________________

I can recall my grandmother’s house almost exactly.  The front room, called the parlour, was kept for special occasions and I can remember going in there only to look.  There was an upright piano and a short, flat sofa with thin, sausage-shaped arms.  The sofa was upholstered in carpet-like material and the arms were secured at the ends with disks of carved wood.  In front of the window was a table with a large china pot.  The curtains were yellow net, machine-made.

Family visits took place in the back room – was it called the breakfast room?  I can’t remember now what my grandmother called it.  It was there that we sat at a long wooden table and ate bread and butter and small, hard-iced cakes bought at the local corner store.  My brother and I drank what the English call squash, meaning concentrated orangeade diluted with tap water, and the adults drank tea out of stained china cups.  There was a hanging gas lamp over the table lit from a tiny pilot light that flared when you pulled a string.

The kitchen was called the scullery.  This was a sort of annex and had a deep stone sink, a gas stove and a big cylindrical contraption used for laundry called a copper.  The outside lav was reached by a short path through the garden and had a flimsy door made out of wooden slats.

The only running water was in the kitchen.  There was no electric light because no one had had the money to put it in, not grandfather and not the landlord as there was rent control on smaller houses that had been rented for a long time.  My grandmother had lived there since 1915: she stayed partly because of poverty but also because she had an inherited blindness condition, retinitis pigmentosa, and could not live independently anywhere else.  The condition was progressive and, by the time I knew her, she could only distinguish light from dark.  She wore the round, white-framed dark glasses of the blind.

One person is missing from the picture I have of my grandmother’s house – my grandfather.  He didn’t die until I was seven and so must have been present at family teas, but I have no recollection of him there.  I have one clear image of him, probably taken from a photograph: he was stocky and had white hair.  I have another, indistinct memory of the one thick, raised boot he wore.  He had one normal boot, flat to the ground, and another which dragged slightly and made him hobble; this marked him as a veteran of World War I.

The survivors of WWI were still around at that time.  Some sold newspapers on the street.  They were crippled, abandoned men who sat vacantly in parks, resigned and faceless in the weak English sun.

My grandfather’s youngest brother, Uncle Harold, was of this type.  He wore the same boot as my grandfather and occasionally came to tea. My grandfather was more outgoing than my uncle, but his sociability had a disturbing edge.  Once, during a visit to our house, he said to my mother, “You’re looking pasty, Margaret,” and this upset her greatly. There was an aura about him that couldn’t be reconciled: he was neither normal nor abnormal, neither shunned nor accepted as a member of the group.

I don’t think anyone was upset when my grandfather died. Sometime afterwards, my mother told me, “Your grandfather died of prostate cancer,” but I wasn’t sure what that meant.

As a young child, I believed his spirit lived in my grandmother’s bare, wasted garden.  I pictured him living underneath the rough iron roof of the bomb shelter, which I then believed was from his war.  I know now it was from the Second World War, the war my parents lived through and which my older brother had some memories of.  It was an Anderson shelter, assembled at home.

My brother had his own ideas about my grandfather’s last resting place.  After my grandfather died, my brother told me, “Grandpa’s buried under that tree,” meaning the tree in my grandmother’s garden.  My brother is called Robert.  He is almost three years older than I am and can’t have believed himself what he said.  (He would have been at least ten.)  I half-believed it, I think because there was a logic to it:  my grandfather never quite died, not for my parents and not for any of us.

I can’t remember ever seeing that tree in leaf; it was always bare, twisted, like the land you see around the trenches in WWI photos.  I remember Robert said, “If you plant trees upside down they grow with their roots in the air,” and I believed that too.  I knew he was referring specifically to that tree.

When I was eight or nine, I went through a religious phase – we said prayers and sang hymns at school – and I said to my father, “I think we should forgive Grandpa now that he’s dead.”  My mother came and told me my father was very upset I’d said that.  I knew I’d done something wrong.

At the time of our family visits, my father was secure.  He had been working in the civil service for more than a dozen years and had been married to my mother for almost as long.  He had two children of his own, whom he loved.  But I think he was frightened of his father.  My earliest memory of my father, and my first clear memory, is of him coming to pick up Robert and me at another house.  My mother was in the hospital, but coming home, and we’d been sent to stay with another family.  We’d got into some trouble with the other kids, but Robert and I hadn’t been punished because we were guests.  The two of us were waiting at the gate when my father appeared at the top of a slight rise.  I saw him before he saw us, and I remember he looked bereft and alone.  It was as if he’d forgotten all about us, forgotten he had anyone to care for, or who cared about him.  I knew then I was stronger and more self-confident than he was.  I was five.  He was forty-one.

By my late teens, and because I wanted to learn about my own history, I knew most of what I know now about my father’s family. My grandfather was a sergeant in World War I.  He volunteered at the beginning of the war.  He survived but with an untreated shrapnel wound that caused him to spend the year of 1918-19 as a prisoner of war in Russia.  After he got back and got fixed up, he couldn’t get a job anywhere and he didn’t lie down under life’s injustice. He vented his anger on my grandmother and my Aunt Helen, the youngest child and only girl.  He used to say to my father, “I can’t get you, so I’ll take it out on them,” and my father would flee the house.  I heard this from my mother, never from my father.

My father was born in 1909.  He was four years older than his younger brother, seven years older than his sister.  When my grandfather returned to the family, my father was ten, possibly older, making him a more difficult target for my grandfather’s aggression.  This my father understood.  I remember my mother telling me, à propos of nothing very much, “Your father believes he escaped because his father was away in the war.  By the time he came back, your father was big enough to fight back.  That’s why he left him alone.”

My father was the one successful child.  His younger brother worked as a supervisor-mechanic with the Outer London bus service – a steady job but nothing to be proud of in my parents’ view.  My father’s sister, my Aunt Helen, worked as a bank teller until her mid-thirties, when she was admitted for treatment in a psychiatric hospital.  I was six at the time, possibly just seven.  She was hospitalized for eight years and died of a codeine overdose about two years after her discharge.  I don’t think anyone knew if her death was a suicide.  I was sixteen.

My parents connected my aunt’s illness to my grandfather’s abusive treatment of her, but they could never talk openly about what my grandfather had done.  After my aunt died, my mother told me, “Auntie Helen used to sleep on the sofa in the sitting room,” and I knew my mother meant more than she said.  At another time, my mother told me, “Your father found her another place to stay.  She rented a room with another family, at nineteen, once she was working.  But it was too late for her.  She used to eat and eat and eat.”  When my mother spoke about my aunt, she almost always called her “Helen” in a tone of quiet distaste.  It was rarely “your aunt,” never “your father’s sister,” certainly not “my sister-in-law.” My father hardly talked about her at all.

It’s clear to me now that my father authorized my aunt’s hospitalization (although she was a voluntary patient).  After her discharge, my mother told me that my aunt had been arrested for shoplifting and psychiatric treatment was an alternative to being charged in court.  My mother added, “The police came to our door at six in the morning.”  My mother didn’t need to tell me that; I always knew that my aunt had done something irrevocable and bad.

After he retired, my father began to write his autobiography – his early life in fictional form.  He was a good writer and I learnt to write from him, from his letters; I learned to put on paper what was in my mind.  When he was younger, my father had written plays and some short stories, and the theme was always the same:  his uncertain sense of belonging in the middle-class world.  His novel was to be more personal and direct, staying close to his memories of childhood.  My mother typed up the first chapter and sent it to me in Canada.  I was by then married, which for my parents meant that I was a full adult.

The chapter was devastating in its honesty.  It describes how my father and his younger brother used to hang out in a park outside the family home – a place where they knew they would be safe.  The boys talk, they plan, they spot pretty girls, and it was all so unlike my father. My father read books.  He went to work every day in a suit.  He was the decision-maker; his word was usually final, and as far as I knew, he didn’t stray.  But there was something else I didn’t know about him, or hadn’t seen laid out in the clear light of day:  in the consciousness of the main character is an alien presence, a living force which threatens to destroy.

The young man’s father never appears in the novel, and he never acts nor speaks.  But when the young man thinks of returning home, he anticipates a clash over some pointless, nameless issue, and it is then that his father takes on flesh and blood in the young man’s mind.  Only the father knows the reason for the clash and assumes that he is in the right.  Seeing that he must fight, and not knowing why or to what end, the young man starts to shake uncontrollably.  He is humiliated in advance because he knows he is weak.

My father never finished his novel.  My mother said, “It’s therapy for him.”  In the chapter I read the young man calls his father “the old devil.”

Both of my parents died in 1987, my mother six months before my father.  They outlived my grandmother by less than twenty years.  My grandmother died at eighty-nine and lived in the same house until two years before her death.  My parents died in their seventies.

After my mother died, when my father was in the hospital, I stayed alone in my parents’ house.  I found old letters and papers scattered in almost every room. Two of the letters were from my grandmother and my aunt to my father, written following one of my grandfather’s violent attacks.  My father was then married to my mother and living away from home.  The letters were passionate, copious cris de coeur describing headaches, sickness, despair. The two women wrote as if my father was their only hope on earth.  My grandmother’s letter ended with remembrances to my mother, and then, “God bless her sweet face” – in an appeal to a still higher source of help.

There was another letter from my father to my grandmother announcing my birth.  His letter ended, “Here’s dibs for the week,” referring to the weekly money he sent to keep her afloat.

After my father died, I found fragments of his diary, scribbled pencil entries in a hard-cover notebook, written first on scrap paper and then transcribed.  “I had too much responsibility forced on me as a child,” my father wrote, as if his chances for happiness ended there.  Even his handwriting betrays him: cramped, spidery, f’s, h’s and l’s curled in the old-fashioned way, other letters faint and broken, the spaces too large between each word.  It’s the writing of a man who fears judgment at every turn.  My brother’s comment on my father’s private writings was that it was like seeing the other side of the moon.

__________________________________________________________

When my parents left out those old papers, what did they want me to find?  What had they been looking for?  I don’t think they were looking for any sort of justification for themselves or their lives. They wanted to bring back who they had been, what they’d lived for.  They wanted closeness to their past.  Three decades after their deaths, what am I looking for?  I think some sense of how much I am still like them, how far their lives are repeated in mine.

 


CATHERINE WATSON taught sociology for ten years in Montreal and outside Quebec and has worked as a survey interviewer in Montreal.  She has published poetry and prose in Montreal Serai.  She is presently a member of the McGill Community for Lifelong Learning.

Copyright © 2019 by Catherine Watson. All rights reserved.

‘Skyful of Roses’ by Anne Swannell

We are a human mass
surging up London’s Primrose Hill in the chilly dark.
Behind is, our ordinary lives, the narrow streets,
ahead, what seem like gigantic roses in the sky—
burgeoning petals curling and folding,
beckoning us with their beauty.

A darkling child pesters us; he has rings
of snap-together neon for our necks.
Some of us give him a pound and receive
a sickly-green circlet that casts a luminous glow on skin.
As we climb, silent, shoulder to shoulder
we become—for those climbing behind us—
spidery silhouettes bent on some mission
we, like them, have always been plotting.

At the top, pink diamonds spray
from a monstrous pile of burning wood,
what seemed from down in the city a skyful of roses
is now clearly roaring flames, billowing smoke from
detritus: fences, storage crates, broken furniture.

But this is a fire that’s meant to be seen from a distance.
The safety police have cordoned it off so we can’t get close.
Nothing unites us or narrows the spaces between us.
Everyone stares at the distant inferno
with an odd combination of terror and longing.

Each of us turns, walks—alone—
down to the surging traffic,
the monitoring street lights,
the trains in their tunnels.
We are a human mass
surging up London’s Primrose Hill in the chilly dark.
Behind is, our ordinary lives, the narrow streets,
ahead, what seem like gigantic roses in the sky—
burgeoning petals curling and folding,
beckoning us with their beauty.

A darkling child pesters us; he has rings
of snap-together neon for our necks.
Some of us give him a pound and receive
a sickly-green circlet that casts a luminous glow on skin.
As we climb, silent, shoulder to shoulder
we become—for those climbing behind us—
spidery silhouettes bent on some mission
we, like them, have always been plotting.

At the top, pink diamonds spray
from a monstrous pile of burning wood,
what seemed from down in the city a skyful of roses
is now clearly roaring flames, billowing smoke from
detritus: fences, storage crates, broken furniture.

But this is a fire that’s meant to be seen from a distance.
The safety police have cordoned it off so we can’t get close.
Nothing unites us or narrows the spaces between us.
Everyone stares at the distant inferno
with an odd combination of terror and longing.

Each of us turns, walks—alone—
down to the surging traffic,
the monitoring street lights,
the trains in their tunnels.

 


ANNE SWANNELL‘s poems have most recently appeared in Coldnoon International Travel, Panorama Journal of Travel, and in anthologies from Leaf Press, Kind-of-a-Hurricane Press, Chuffed Buff Books, OWF Press, and Polar Expressions. Poems have appeared over the years in Anglo-Welsh Review, Americas Review, Poetry Canada Review, The Fiddlehead, Malahat Review, Grain,  Prairie Fire, Dandelion, Antigonish Review, and more recently in Literary Review of Canada, Prairie Fire and The Honest Ulsterman.  She has published four books of poetry, “Drawing Circles on the Water,” “Mall” (Rowan Books, Edmonton, 1991), “Shifting” (Ekstasis Editions, Victoria, 2008), and “Journey with an Autistic Child from Birth to Adulthood” (First Choice Books, 2019).  A fifth ms., called “Galloping Through Water” is currently seeking publication.

Copyright © 2019 by Anne Swannell. All rights reserved.

 

 

‘Miss Marigold’s Self-Portrait’ by Danielle Eyer

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Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

The summer I turned ten was filled with church bells and local choirs singing the town’s sorrows. The news blared from every television and radio –– they were investigating a death near my old house. A kid had died falling off a rocky cliff on the shores of Lake Erie, and the accident had awakened our small town. That night, police sirens screeched past our cottage. It took the entire fire department to retrieve his broken body by the rocks at the bottom. It had only been a dare. After the boy died, cliff jumping decreased in popularity.

I found Miss Marigold a year later on that same cliff. It was a day in early October, so it was too cold for swimming. The waves were too rough, and the clouds were too low. Miss Marigold sat facing the lake, her back against a boulder.

She was a colourful stain in a grayscale landscape. She looked like she had emerged from a mound of fabric swatches –– the textile equivalent of a scrapbook. Red and green ribbons in her hair, denim and suede patches to cover tears in her dress, a wide-brimmed yellow hat tied to her chin with twine. She balanced an oversized sketchbook on her knees and, trailed charcoal across the blank page in a sweeping motion.

I approached her from behind, half-hidden by the rocks. Her shoulders tensed when I stopped. I held my breath, stood still for a full minute. When I ventured upward again, she was back to sketching, her hat flopping in the wind.

She never acknowledged me, but I knew that she was aware of my presence. She waited for me. I waited for her. The sun waited for no one, and continued its slow descent behind the layers of clouds.

I closed my eyes for just a moment. When I opened them again, it was dark and she was gone.

I returned to the cliff the next day after school. Miss Marigold was back at her boulder with her sketchbook. Today she wore a red baseball cap and a skirt, layered like a wedding cake. A paint-splattered shawl was wrapped around her shoulders to keep warm.

I stopped a few feet before her and rolled up the collar of my turtleneck to keep out the wind.

“What are you drawing?” I asked.

She set down the piece of charcoal, her fingers smudged black. “It’s a self-portrait. Do you know what that is?”

I stepped forward to peer at the drawing. “That’s like, when you draw yourself, right?”

It was unfinished, but I recognized the image of a young lady’s profile, her small nose pointing upward, her eyes soft and shining, her lips full, smiling. It was only the start of a portrait, but it was radiant, even in black and white. I almost wished I could climb inside the picture just to be in the Beautiful Lady’s presence.

“So?” she asked. “Does it look like me?”

“I can’t tell with your hat on.”

She removed her hat. My initial reaction was to step back in horror, but my curiosity overcame my shock, and I inched forward to peer into her face.

Her murky eyes were wide-set. Her nose sank into her face. A deep scar ran from her hairline to her mouth. Her teeth were crooked and yellow, and her crayon-drawn lips were smeared across her face.

I grimaced. “That doesn’t look like you at all!”

She frowned at my words, her lips pressed together. Her eyes flared up as she glared at the image. She tore the page out of the book and crumpled it up, saying: “You’re right! Oh god, you’re right. She’s beautiful, she looks nothing like me!” She flung the crumpled paper over the side of the cliff.

“No, don’t!” I cried. I raced to the edge and watched it sink into the water. My eyes stung. Never again would I see those smiling eyes, the lady radiating on the page. “Why’d you do that? You didn’t have to throw it away.”

“Yes, I did.”

I softened when I heard her voice, high-pitched and near sobbing. She sunk her face into her hands. “I will never look like her,” she muttered. “Never.”

I stuck my hands into my jacket pockets and sat down, close but not too close. I saw the hurt I had caused, and needed to repair the damage I had done.

“You’re not ugly,” I said, and even as I said it I knew it wasn’t true. “Maybe you just need more drawing practice. My daddy says you can get good at anything with practice.”

Lifting her face from her hands, she asked, sniffling, “Really? You think so?”

I gulped and nodded. She smiled at my answer and wiped her face with some loose fabric on her sleeve.

Even now, I don’t remember if she ever introduced herself as Miss Marigold or if I baptized her myself. Her name came to me as I sat with her every day. It suited her, with her brightly coloured hats and clothing.

I’d come home from school every day and find her at that same boulder like a stray dog. I didn’t know where she came from. My classmates shrugged when I brought her up at school. Perhaps she never left, never stood up and stretched her legs. I sat with her as she sketched.

As the month wore on, the lady in the portrait grew clearer. Her delicate features sharpened as Miss Marigold added detail to her sketch: her curled eyelashes, the blush in her cheeks, her slightly upturned nose.

But just when the lady became real, Miss Marigold screamed and tore up the page, whimpering as if she were in physical pain.

It became a pattern. With every attempt, she grew more furious. The mere existence of the image hurt a deep part in her, and she wouldn’t keep quiet until it was destroyed.

The destruction of the image pained me. The lady’s existence, or perhaps her inexistence, haunted me. I woke up in a cold sweat from dreams in which she was burning, writhing in the flames. Her arms flailed like tree branches in the wind, reaching toward me. I watched helplessly.

Perhaps two weeks into this endeavor, whenever I felt one of Miss Marigold’s fits coming on, I would ripped the book from her hands before she could tear out the page. I stood up and held it behind me, stepping back. I thought that after a few seconds, she might calm down from her fit. She would see that she and the picture could coexist in peace.

Instead, Miss Marigold pulled at my hair and scratching at my face until I returned the sketchbook. I tried to push her away, but she was stronger than she looked. I stopped struggling when my chest began to hurt from the weight, and only then did she let me go. Once I had regained my breath, I found her a few feet away from the ledge, staring at the water below. I stayed back until she turned to me, smiling.

“Well,” she said with a contented sigh. “Let’s try again, shall we?”

My parents wouldn’t allow me to go out when it rained. “Your Miss Marigold will survive one day without you,” Mom would say.

I wondered if she sketched then, too. I’d ask my parents if she could come inside from the rain, but they laughed and told me not to be silly.

The day after a bad storm, I found her by the waves. I noticed that her picture was a smudged, watery mess. The pages of her sketchbook were wrinkled and deformed. But Miss Marigold only smiled and continued sketching.

I don’t know why I kept returning. Perhaps it was because I wished to see the Beautiful Lady again. I was drawn to her. At school, at home, in bed, I felt a string tugging on my heart. She called to me. So I returned, day after day, just to see her portrait be torn apart or crumpled or soaked in the lake.

The pain that came with her destruction only increased. I knew what would happen if I tried to stop Miss Marigold from destroying it, but something within me still made me want to try. The Lady stared at me through the paper. She called to me, begged me to save her. I cried at night, wishing that I could.

Snow began to fall. We went to the city for the holidays to visit family, and those two weeks I spent away from the Lady were spent in pure agony. I grew irritated at my cousins and snapped at family members. I spent most of my time in any empty room I could find, lying on my back and staring at the ceiling. Only then could I attempt to visualize the Beautiful Lady. Still, it wasn’t enough. Her image liked to slip away from me just as I began to get comfortable.

When I returned from the city, I rushed back to Miss Marigold’s side and sat by her as she put the finishing touches on the picture.

I knew what was coming. I knew that in just a few moments, Miss Marigold would lose her calm and wouldn’t regain it until she had destroyed the Lady.

It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that Miss Marigold got to choose whether her artwork lived or died, whether she existed or didn’t. I wanted to decide, I wanted the Lady to be mine. That’s what she’d say in my dreams.

I’m yours, she’d call as she folded in on herself in the flames. I belong to you. Why would you let a stranger do this to me?

“She’s pretty.”

“Yes,” she frowned. “She is, isn’t she?” Her lips twitched. “Too pretty.”

Her body recoiled like a spring preparing to be released. But before it happened, I grabbed the sketchbook from her lap.

“No!” I screamed, sprinting away from her.

“Give it back!”

“Stop it, it’s mine!”

She ran after me, but I tripped on a loose stone and fell onto the rocks. Sharp pain shot up my leg, and my palms tingled when they hit the ground. The sketchbook slid on the icy floor toward the edge of the cliff. The world froze. If the Lady fell over the edge, into the water, it would all be over. But it stopped a few inches from the side, and I jumped up and raced toward it, Miss Marigold a few steps ahead of me.

She stopped at the edge and leaned down to pick it up. Pick it up or push it over. She seemed to catch fire before my eyes, her skirts billowing about her in reds and oranges, a blazing sun silhouetted on a grey sky. In the back of my brain I thought, water.

I slammed into her thin body. Her weight dragged her over the edge.

I didn’t hear her screaming. I didn’t hear her bones crack on the rocks or her body hit the lake below.

Instead, I picked up the sketchbook, and gazed at the Beautiful Lady. She was nearly finished, but a few curls at her shoulders were only outlined, not filled in with charcoal. I didn’t trust myself to complete it. It was enough.

I kicked the charcoal over the edge and tossed her yellow hat away like a frisbee. The rock ledge was just as I had found it that first day in October. Only this time, Miss Marigold had been traded for her artwork.

“Where did you get that?” my parents asked later that evening.

“Miss Marigold gave it to me.”

“Aren’t you getting a bit old for that imaginary friend stuff, Sweetie?”

“Don’t worry, Mom. I’m done with Miss Marigold, now.”

I hung the picture in my room, and the lady watched over me at night. Outside, tree branches tapped on my bedroom window. The rest of the world was quiet.

 


DANIELLE EYER is an emerging writer and playwright based in Montreal, with a fondness for musical theatre, big cities, and typewriters, although she’s never used one and doubts she would enjoy it. Roman Payne said that “all forms of madness, bizarre habits, awkwardness in society, general clumsiness, are justified in the person who creates good art.” Luckily, Danielle benefits from every one of these.

Copyright © 2018 by Danielle Eyer. All rights reserved.

‘A Sense of Dread’ by Mark Towse

2

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

Tom has been waking up the last few days with a sense of dread. Always very anxious, but recently experiencing severe bouts of panic, Tom’s heartburn has been almost unbearable. Today is no exception—Tom feels that this impending feeling of dread will manifest itself in some shape or form, and it’s making him even more anxious than ever.

He leaves the bed and pulls the covers back over his wife, telling her he is going to make a drink. He leans over, turns off the alarm clock and heads down to the kitchen to grind some coffee beans. He grabs the pestle and mortar from the cupboard, deciding that he needs to alleviate some stress, and starts grinding the coffee with an unnecessary ferocity. Most of the coffee spills over onto the floor, so he gives up, unable to cope with the prospect of picking it out from the already dirty tiles. He sighs, grabs the teabags and shouts, “I’ve made a small mess, but don’t worry! I’ll clean it up.”

The pots are piled high, so he rinses two dirty cups and fills them with water once the kettle boils. He begins to dip the bag into the first one, but it bursts, so he empties both cups in the kitchen sink and then bends down to spoon the powdered coffee into the filter.

He starts to sob.

Eventually, he gathers himself, pours the coffee and takes the cups with him through to the hallway and up the dimly lit stairs, towards the bedroom. He stops halfway up to look at the picture of him and Judith on the wall, their wedding day, and a snapshot of history when everything was okay—before the accident. He studied the photo as he had done many times—her skin like porcelain and a smile that just drew him in from the moment he saw her. She had Chrysanthemums in her hair. On the day itself, he thought they were daisies until Judith had laughed and corrected him. His own face too was one of genuine happiness; after all, he had just landed the love of his life, and nothing could stop him.

Christ, I love you, Judith.

As he reaches the top of the stairs, he tries to elbow away an annoying bluebottle fly that is buzzing around his head, causing him to spill some of the coffee as he trips over the damned vacuum once again. Tom rushes to the bathroom, puts the coffee on the edge of the tub and grabs a towel from the rack to wipe himself down. He sighs, leans over and turns both taps, watching her as the water rushes in, filling the tub. When it’s half full, Tom turns off the water and heads into the bedroom to help his wife out of bed. She’s heavier than usual, but Tom doesn’t comment. He knows it will only get him in trouble.

Tom carries Judith into the bathroom and helps lower her in the bath. He asks if the temperature is okay, not bothering to wait for a response as he lights some scented candles and pours in some bubble bath—the lavender one she likes. The colour contrasts nicely against her pale skin.

His mobile phone begins to ring, and immediately his pulse quickens. He knows it’s his boss—he didn’t go in last week and ignored the e-mails. Questions were being asked, and it would only be a matter of time before they found out. It had started small, a little bit at a time from a couple of clients, but a few bad bets and he started to get careless. Once a gambler!

He lets it go to voicemail.

Tom checks his reflection in the bathroom mirror and even through the steam, he can make out his sallow skin that frames the large dark circles under his eyes. He has seen better days. His mostly grey hair is matted and unwashed, and he hasn’t shaved for nearly a week. He contemplates showering, but the thought of the required effort distresses him, and so he splashes some water on his face instead and swallows some toothpaste straight from the tube. His wife recently told him that toothpaste causes cancer. He had laughed at this, pinched his nose and asked for a kiss. Tom enjoyed the times they fooled around like that.

He walks through to their bedroom, lifts up his dressing gown and, for the next few minutes, masturbates furiously—a habit he has picked up over the last few days. Once he’s done, he goes back downstairs with his coffee, being careful not to trip over the vacuum. He puts some bread in the toaster and opens the fridge to find he has no margarine left. In fact, there is nothing spreadable at all. He sits and waits for the toast to pop up. Eventually, it does, and even though he prepared himself for the pop, it still startles him, and he estimates his heart rate increases by at least ten beats per minute. He takes the toast and places it on the cleanest plate he can find from the dirty stack of pots, but when he reaches for his coffee, the toast slides from his plate onto the kitchen floor.

He wants to cry again but refrains as he bends over and collects it from the dirty floor and gives it a quick shake. He takes a bite and chews solemnly, washing it down with a swig of his coffee. He stops to pull some hair from his teeth, no doubt gathered from the floor and then pours the remainder of the coffee down the sink.

Tom looks down at his overhanging belly and suddenly feels the impulse to go for a run. He considers it very seriously for a few seconds before deciding it would be quite an upheaval, so he switches on the television instead. He flicks through the various channels until he finds a nature documentary. Settling into his chair, he begins to pick at his immature beard and pulls out a huge dark hair with the follicle still attached. Tom chews off the follicle and begins to think he is losing his mind.

On TV, the deer is running for its life, closely followed by the jaguar that is hungry for its dinner. Tom changes the channel quickly, suddenly contemplating how savage existence is.  He convinces himself that if reincarnation is real, he would no doubt come back as a deer. Or worse, he’d come back as himself.

In his melancholy state, he finds himself wandering back to the early years, before marriage and back when he and his wife told each other everything. Judith said she once ate a worm when she was nine, and that was pretty much the worst thing she had done. He confessed to her about a few things from his not so clean past, including his previous gambling problem and how he had kicked it well before they met. It was true, at least in the way you can ever really kick an addiction.

Tom snaps out if it just in time to see the jaguar bring the deer down.

He shouts upstairs, “I’m just going for a lie-down love. Let me know if the water gets cold.”

No reply, but that’s standard when Judith bathes. She hates to ruin the experience with chatter and normally scolds him if he tries to talk to her before she’s out the bath. He lies down on the couch—eyes closed but his mind is wide open, and the bad thoughts come. He pulls more hair out and realizes there is zero chance he will be able to get any sleep, so he gets off the couch, does one press up, and walks back to the kitchen to put the kettle back on.

Someone knocks at the door.

Tom runs back into the living room and ducks behind the couch, as though the knocker has x-ray vision.

“Tom!”

His breathing increases rapidly, he is very conscious of it, and he is sure they will hear it.

“Tom! It’s Irene from the apartment next door. Are you okay?”

She knocks again, and Tom tries to squeeze into an even smaller shape. Irene shouts through the door, “Tom, I’m coming back with a key. I haven’t seen you or Judith for a few days. I’m worried.”

There is some relief that it’s only Irene, but he doesn’t want the nosy old bag coming back. He curses Judith for giving her a key and estimates that it’s been nearly a year since they went away and left it with her. They still hadn’t got it back.

He straightens up and shouts from behind the couch “Irene, it’s all good. I’m not decent though, and Judith has gone to stay at her sister’s for a while.”

“Oh… okay. Did you take your garbage out by the way?”

When he hears her footsteps moving away, he gets up, moves back in the kitchen and makes two teas with unwashed cups: one for his wife and one for himself. He takes them up to the bathroom and places them on the edge of the bath, next to the cup he made earlier.

“Have some tea darling. You look cold—this will warm you up,” he says.

He smiles at her before disrobing and stepping into the water, “Room for one more?”

As Tom squeezes in on the opposite side of Judith, being careful not to disturb her, there is a loud knock on the door—one with a sense of urgency.

“Tom, are you in there?” a male voice shouts.

He takes a gulp of tea and swills it around his mouth.

He had considered calling it in as an accident when it happened. That’s why he put a dead bulb in the landing area and moved the vacuum to the top of the stairs — tripping over it three times since. In a way, it was an accident. He tried to convince himself of that anyway.

“I think we are going to need more scented candles,” Tom says as he leans over and kisses his wife on the forehead.

The thought of living without her, though, was too much to bear. Not to mention the additional lies and deceit that would be required.

She died for nothing.

Work are onto him now anyway—the emails from his boss and the voicemails asking to see him urgently. He feels like the deer from the nature documentary.

It was a dead cert!

There’s another loud knock at the door, “Tom!”

Tom stands up and reaches across to the cabinet to retrieve the small brown packet and then sits back down on the edge of the bathtub.

He didn’t mean for her to fall down the stairs—he was only trying to stop her from calling the police. He had grabbed the arm of her nightgown, and when she yanked it away, she lost her balance and tumbled all the way down. She moaned for a while—an awful wail that has stayed with him over the last few days. He won’t miss that.

“Tom!”

He just wanted to unload, share the burden—work through it before it got out of control. If they came up with a plan, they could probably find a way to put the money back before anyone noticed and then he could get help again. Going to prison wasn’t an option—he wasn’t cut out for that.

He should have known. Judith was always so black and white.

She is now, he thought.

“I love you, Judith,” he says as he empties the packet into his cup before taking a large gulp of tea.

 


MARK TOWSE has only been writing short stories for two months now, but his passion and enthusiasm are unparalleled, and this has recently resulted in his first paid piece in the publication Books N Pieces along with imminent publication in four other prestigious magazines. Mark currently works in sales and is ready to sell his soul to the devil for a full-time career as an author. He resides in Melbourne, Australia with his wife and two children.

Copyright © 2018 by Mark Towse. All rights reserved.

‘Under My Bed’ by Greg Santos

I keep my umbilical cord in a box.
Nobody knows of its existence but me.

Every night I take it out of its snug home,
recite prayers to it before sleeping.

I’m not sad but I cannot stop crying.
It sings me lullabies to soothe my colicky brain.

It twitches at the sound of my voice,
sometimes curves into a crimson smile.

 


GREG SANTOS is the author of Blackbirds (Eyewear Publishing, 2018), Rabbit Punch! (DC Books, 2014), and The Emperor’s Sofa (DC Books, 2010). He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. He regularly works with at-risk communities and teaches at the Thomas More Institute. He is the poetry editor of carte blanche and lives in Montreal with his wife and two children.

Copyright © 2018 by Greg Santos. All rights reserved.

‘Moosgraben’ by Ilona Martonfi

This is the classroom that doesn’t have
windows, doors, or time: movie days

all those who hear a knock on the door
it is the night moon. She comes in to turn down
the cot and place candy on your pillow.
And this moon is blue. Pigtailed nine year old.
You have a conversation with her

all those taking a walk by the Moosgraben creek
eery harbinger, Ilka

bare walls of your room. Gessoed canvases.
All those who look upon field and sky and
gnarled houses and refugee children,
sea of lime giving way to burnt flesh,
red brick, bomb craters. A bunker

long and narrow, not bigger than a dirt cellar,
a cold water tap, wood stove,
cotton curtains, oak table and chairs.
All those not losing the feeling of being underground
evenings lit by fireflies
six black-shawled nuns
cloister on Sudetenstraße

there are shelves up to the stucco ceiling
boxes and boxes festooned with
collage: photographs,
excised words, letters.
All those suns still high over chalk mountains,
the more times it is told. You disappear.
All those who talk about it

surrounded by scree, dogs barking,
the distance between present and past

by turns, you see the birch trees
purple lilacs and the plums. Sedges and grasses.
Shallow marshes.
Black and white films
whirring reels. In the silence
teacher touching you.

 


ILONA MARTONFI is the author of three poetry books, Blue Poppy (Coracle Press, 2009), Black Grass (Broken Rules Press, 2012) and The Snow Kimono (Inanna Publications, 2015). Forthcoming, Salt Bride (Inanna, 2019). The Tempest (Inanna 2020). Founder and Artistic Director of The Yellow Door and Visual Arts Centre Readings. QWF 2010 Community Award.

Copyright © 2018 by Ilona Martonfi. All rights reserved.

‘An Annual Affair’ by Désiré Betty

1

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

In the small town of Hamnia, a healthy baby girl named Melissa was born to proud parents, Mr. and Mrs. Denver Campus.  She would be their only child. Their life together was anything but ideal, yet Melissa managed to bring joy to a loveless marriage.

Denver, a handsome and successful man in his mid-thirties, had recently been promoted to Vice-President of a new and progressive IT Company called Viral X.  Despite his arrogance, he was well-liked by his co-workers. His wife Taborra was an unattractive, stay at home mom that was at least thirty pounds overweight.  As an adolescent, she suffered from severe acne, which had left her with facial scars that contributed to her low self-esteem. She was a loving soul that lacked self-respect; allowing herself to be treated disrespectfully by others, especially her husband.  Denver used to find her humbleness endearing, but over the years became annoyed by her lack of intrigue for excitement and new adventures. Taborra never had many friends and when she resigned from her career as a construction manager to become a stay at home mother, her world became very small.  Denver distanced himself and lost all respect for his wife; seeking adventure outside of their marriage. Many often wondered why a man of his standing would marry such a lack-luster woman, as he was clearly unhappy.

Two years later, on a beautiful sunny day in July, the birds were chirping and the light breeze was blissful.  The Campus’ left with their beloved daughter, to attend the annual Viral X company picnic. They reached their destination just before noon and made their way to where the employees and their families were gathered.  Denver was greeted by his pal and colleague, Steve Adams, a genuine guy. Taborra had become accustomed to accompanying Denver to events, only to not be introduced and abandoned the entire night. The first time this happened, Taborra continued to stand by Denver, introducing herself as his wife and trying to interact, but quickly noticed that he would shut down any of her conversation starters and solely talk business to exclude her.  Within minutes, others would join the group conversation and Taborra would be left to fend for herself.

She was often accused of being an overprotective mother that devoted all of her attention to her daughter.  She instinctively refused to leave her side in fear that something bad would happen to her in her absence. While other mothers sunbathed on the beach and their husbands tended to their children, Taborra built sand castles with her daughter.  When Melissa tired of that activity, she made her way towards the beach. Taborra followed behind, cautiously introducing her to the water. She never left Melissa out of her sight, not even to socialize with other people. Unbeknownst to her, she was nicknamed, ‘the weirdo’ by the other employees and their spouses, simply because her priorities were different.  Her insecurities prevented her from confidently mingling with the other women, allowing her shyness to often be mistaken for mental instability due to her excessive introversion.

An hour later, Melissa fell asleep in her mother’s arms.  Taborra laid her down to sleep in her playpen, situated in the shade, away from the incessant chatter and loud music.  She planned to take this time to relax, but to her dismay, she realized that Denver neglected to bring her straw bag with the book she intended to read.  She spotted her husband walking along the beach with his secretary, andfrantically tried to get his attention, but to no avail; he was clearly preoccupied.

This led Taborra to act completely out of character. She did something that still haunts her to this day.  A young woman she had noticed earlier was walking her way, and Taborra assumed her to be an employee of Viral X.  Taborra politely intercepted her, “Excuse me? I wouldn’t normally ask this of a total stranger, but I am getting rather restless now that my daughter has settled down for a nap.  I was wondering if you would be willing to watch her while I run over to my car to retrieve my book.” The personable stranger did not hesitate to accommodate her request.

As Taborra thanked her and walked away, she felt a chill run down her spine.  Her gut told her to go back, but she ignored it. She felt obligated to go through with her initial request because she feared the gossip that would ensue should she change her mind.

***

The woman eyed Melissa in the crib and a surge of hatred rushed through her.  Never in her wildest dreams had she suspected Denver, the man she had spent countless evenings with while eating Chinese food and drinking cheap wine, to have a wife, yet alone a child.

She looked down at the infant with disgust, and felt something come over her.  Hatred resonated through her and she quickly reached down, grabbed the teddy bear, and smothered the child with it.  It was quick, and the child fell still without a sound. The woman placed the teddy bear back the way she had found it, smiling to herself as she took in the child’s soft, sleeping face.  Then, she slipped away before allowing herself to feel an ounce of remorse.

***

Taborra hurried, her heart beating faster as she failed to shake the fear triggered in the pit of her stomach.  She kept thinking that her daughter was in danger, but had no concrete reasoning behind her indescribable fear.  She hoped that she was simply overreacting. She made it to her car, quickly retrieved her book and raced back, all while allowing her mind to wander through the possibility that her daughter would not be present when she returned.  With tears in her eyes, she ran madly through the crowd. Denver spotted her in the distance and he instinctively made a mad dash after her.

As he got closer to his wife, he shouted, “Taborra, Taborra stop!” demanding her to come to a halt.  It did not stop her, in fact, she sped up. He had never seen her run so fast.

Out of breath, she finally reached their daughter’s playpen, still asleep in the same position she had left her.  The young woman was nowhere to be found.. At that moment, Taborra’s intuition led her to believe that the kind stranger was more than just a stranger.  It was not out of character for Denver to attract the admiration of a female employee. Nevertheless, it was rather irresponsible of her to leave after gladly accepting to watch her child.  Taborra swore she would never leave her precious daughter with a stranger ever again.

Denver’s cheeks turned pink from embarrassment and Taborra could tell he wanted to scream at her, but was restraining himself so as not to draw more unwanted attention.  She had demonstrated such erratic behavior in front of his friends and colleagues. She could not bring herself to tell him the truth. Instead of explaining the situation, she allowed him to believe she was crazy.  All was well, their daughter was fast asleep.

Denver sat down by the playpen, put his head in his palms and let out a long, frustrated sigh.  Taborra sat beside him and rubbed his back, but he instinctively moved away from her touch. She apologized for her behavior.  She explained that she had experienced a terrible premonition that had not come true. He snapped and said, “You’re ridiculous.  What is wrong with you?”

Taborra just stared blankly at him as tears filled her eyes.  She got up and walked towards the playpen as her daughter always seemed to alleviate any tension.  She noticed that Melissa remained undisturbed despite all the commotion. She softly touched her daughter’s face and it was then she noticed that Melissa was not breathing.  “Oh my God! Denver!” she screamed.

Denver looked at Taborra with such discontent while shaking his head in disbelief as he retorted, “Holy shit!  What now?”

She picked up her daughter’s lifeless body in her arms and screamed, “Something is wrong.  She isn’t breathing!”

Denver jumped up and took Melissa from her arms.  He cried, “My baby! What happened? What did you do?”

He attempted CPR and told Taborra to call an ambulance.  As her hands shook uncontrollably, she dialed as fast as she could.  Minutes, felt like hours, before an ambulance arrived. Melissa was pronounced dead at the scene.

Denver screamed and fell to his knees.  He could not look Taborra in the eyes. He despised her with every ounce of his being.  The hatred he already felt towards her was now tenfold. He wanted to hurt her, his eyes wide and raging, but she was already dead to him.  Taborra did not mention the woman as she was in too deep and feared speaking one more word during this calamitous moment.

An autopsy was conducted and determined that Melissa had been asphyxiated.  Despite being the doting mother she was, her unstable behavior witnessed at the party and previous work engagements easily led her to be the only suspect.  This was not the first time that her love for her daughter proved to be too intense. Denver often confided in his secretary about how he worried about his wife’s unhealthy attachment to their daughter.  She could easily testify to solidify Denver’s position on the matter. There was no further investigation, and without any support from her husband or witnesses, Taborra was found guilty.

It was an unfortunate reality for Taborra, as Denver had long lost his admiration and respect for his wife; desecrating her true love and care for their daughter into a vile representation of her unfortunate demise.  A judge sentenced her to life in prison, with no chance of parole. Melissa’s death had sucked the remaining life out of Taborra. She did not possess the energy to defend herself, and silently accepted her fate, as she knew that no one would believe her.  She held herself responsible. The mystery woman at the beach had disappeared into thin air. Given all her self-doubt, she believed the accounts that maybe she was the crazy one and that the woman was in fact a figment of her imagination.

Denver was at the lowest point of his life.  He was relieved to see his wife put away for the devastation that she had caused, but incredibly broken by the loss of his precious daughter.  For Stella, his mistress, her eerie fairytale had come true. She stood by her lover throughout this difficult time; consoling him, despite being the cause of his endless misery.  

Denver would never know the truth about that fateful day or his merciless mistress.  Stella had won, she had solidified her spot as his one and only.

 


DÉSIRÉ BETTY is a Mississauga, Ontario based artist that began her innovative journey at an early age.  Her passion for the arts, led her to pursue a career in Architecture; broadening her quest for constant creativity from the canvas to the built environment.  Although content in her profession, there is nothing more fulfilling than creating art, in all its forms.  In 2009, she vowed to complement her architecturally based career with her artistic pursuits. Désiré has since exhibited in several solo and group shows, had her art and poetry published in several magazines and sold pieces to art enthusiasts around the world.

Copyright © 2018 by Désiré Betty. All rights reserved.