June Cruelty

Held to the brink, the mouth gapes its film of saliva. There is no more than the gossamer gorge of all those Skittles, crackling up between the teeth. We let go of his neck to see what would happen next. We watched as he scaled the red brick walls. Shouts from a football match. The air aglow with cut grass, laughter, nesting birds. The coming summer.

He got stuck and they watched him for hours from the safety of concrete. They came back after class had finished; no teacher noticed his absence. He was shaking now; it was visible even though he kept his hands stuffed in his pockets. People were crying, Chicken, Chicken, but maybe it wasn’t a game anymore. I told ‘Manda I was going for a walk and she shrugged. She wants in with Liam and won’t leave his side.

Scaling the circumference of a field, the image of that mouth wouldn’t get out my mind. All those teeth! Who knew wee Neil had all those teeth! Pecking like that at the sweets! The stickiness dripping down his chin and all the rainbow colours spilling out, coagulating on the playground. I thought he was going to choke.

The shouts got louder, even though I was now two fields away from the school. Stepped in fucking cow pat. Stopped at a burn to wash my shoes, the patent ones with the gold heart buckle, my favourites. The highness of the shouting modulates, like the tracks we had to listen to in Music Theory to understand what they called octaves and  pitch shifts. Maybe you could say it was a scream. I glanced in the water and saw among the rocks and silt the slow spread of a jellyish blood. A sheep’s? The breeze blew and I opened my mouth for a yawn the shape of a semibreve. There was silence then, a pause.

/ Maria Sledmere

(fff prompts: iridescence, inconceivable)

Notes from Workshop 7: Poetry Corner

To ease us into POVEMBER we covered various forms of poetry this week. Here are some of the notes and creations from one of our groups (Maria, James, Heather). If anyone else has stuff to share that they came up with, please email it to gucreativewritingsociety@gmail.com — we look forward to reading it! x

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We brainstormed around a colour theme before individually writing haiku. 
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‘Ode to Donald’ featuring a corn candy windmill (Trump hates windmills, and corn candy is obviously quintessentially American). 
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Some scrappy first draft ‘free verse’ – Maria

The Sweetest Meats

When I was younger, my father took me to a sweets factory. He felt guilty, I suppose, for divorcing my mother and taking the house with him, the car too and all her belongings. Anyway, we had a good day. There was so much to see at this sweets factory. There were special machines which cut shapes into chocolate, people in funny hats pouring colourful juice into moulds, a room chockfull of strawberry laces. I don’t know if it was a storeroom or what, but you were allowed to go in and even touch the stringy candy. The stuff was strung from racks tied to the ceiling – long thin strands of it like spaghetti – and you could lie back down on piles of it which were heaped on the floor in messy bundles. There was a sign on the wall explaining how the room was meant to test the ‘elasticity’ of the laces, and there was a diagram which showed how they were made. I wasn’t interested in any of that. I just liked the colour and the waxy, sticky texture, the slightly sour fruitiness that filled my mouth, the endless scrapping with the other kids as we fought for the longest, thickest pieces.

My father would stand in the corner and watch me playing. I suppose it amused him to see me high on E numbers, racing around and swinging from strips of red candy. Maybe it was a power game too, since my mother would never let me near so much as a square of chocolate. I remember feeling wild in that room, tearing and snapping lace after lace, shoving the sugary goodness past my lips.

Sometimes I feel like that now. Wild, that is. In the abattoir where I work, picking and sorting pile after pile of animal carcasses, I sometimes get the same burst of primal excitement. Maybe it’s the sight of red that does it: that dull, fleshy red that signals the release of something. A spirit leaving the body, ten grams of sugar gushing through the bloodstream. I tie up, I measure; I slice and cut. It is not the same as ripping with my fingers, as bending and biting with my milk teeth. Still, there is something of a similar thrill, a need for tangibility.

When my father visits now, frail in old age, we talk about the news, about airy things like art and philosophy. He pretends not to notice my bloodstained aprons, drying in the living room, the books on butchery stacked in my kitchen. We never mention my mother, or what happened to her. After a few days, he leaves me with a feeling of deep dissatisfaction, an emptiness and longing for something unplaceable. I feel like an abandoned hatchling, picking at scraps of carrion in the undergrowth of some lonesome forest. No matter how I try, I can never get back to that memory, the snap and tweak of those sugar laces between my teeth, the feeling of sweet, fizzy joy.

I can only raise the cleaver, imagining the tug of muscle, sheaths of connective tissue clustering with fat cells and capillaries, becoming something solid and substantial, becoming meat. And that red stuff – dried, salted and cured – is all I can cling to, all the love I have for the world.

— Maria Sledmere

(Flash fiction February prompts: carrion, laces)

Electric Blue

 

Electric Blue

The bedroom swirls in plumes of dust. This is what she loves: spinning and lifting her skirt, eyes rolling back in mock ecstasy. Nobody has entered her room for a long time. The curtains have been drawn since April. In here, there was no summer.

The music skips, judders between trance and breakbeat. It is maddening, a trip of rhythm, of time signatures. She loves it. She spins and lifts her skirt. 4/4 drums and looping synths. Eyeshadow electric blue meeting the glow coming from the corner, by the bed. She will let no stranger into her bed. The glow is unnatural. The sheets are pristine, though everything else is trash. Broken crockery, smashed glass. She cuts her feet as she twirls and leaps, but feels nothing. She is waiting for the cry on the other side.

Blood spatters everywhere, quietly on the carpet.

She rises for her first laugh. Her makeup so blue, her lips drained translucent. This is her crazed performance. She is like the atoms dancing in space, aligning their beads into exquisite shapes. Her laughter is like the bending of glass, so close it might break. But still, she laughs. Eyes opening and closing, still she laughs. Her body the bending of glass.

Turns to the corner, the emanating glow. Unnatural. The light moves in flickers, as she does. She is like a sprite of glitched pixels. The music is fading, as she does.

A voice comes into focus. Sound waves expand and compress.

There is a screen, and she is dancing. She is dancing for the screen, casting her shadow on the sound beams of a hologram. She flickers. The screen spills out electric blue.

She blinks, she flickers.

–Maria Sledmere

(Flash Fiction February prompts: misaligned, breakthrough, Kate Bush- Running Up That Hill)

cherry melancholia

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Photo by Manuela Hoffman

cherry melancholia
Maria Sledmere

rain on the lawn; the greenness
dark and deep. a handful of shells
clotted in the mud with the blossoms,
the pink ones
from the cherry tree.

she walks out slowly,
snow petals swirling round her,
silent.

in the garden she will lie
where the grass is softest. she will lie
staring at the glass sky,
a sleepful of memory.

just love, the garden will say,
just love.
she forgot the place where he kissed her once—
it wasn’t here

but she returns anyway,
the grass feels sweet underneath her,
the air tastes golden, the first taste
of crab apples in autumn. love
set her going in spring, a silk cut
from a willow tree.

smoke rises in the distance
to the smell of cherry pie.
once he kissed her eyes, her cheeks;
he told her she was cinnamon.

in the garden now she is older,
older as the trees are, ring after ring
in each year, each reel of string
that she unwinds.

they come to bind
the sweet peas with twine.
bitter berries,
summer wine.

she is older
and the pie in her mouth now
is cloying; she is older
and the leaves are dying,
falling with the raindrops, the poor branches.

The garden speaks
now she is older, the rings round her eyes—
old pools of light, cherry pie,
speaking
of melancholia.

(prompts: eloquent, garden)

Corrosion

So long it had taken us to hike out here, even with the help of the guide who talked in soft, bubbly Turkish, and the sun beaming high in the sky despite the afternoon’s wearied position. Some of the locals call this place ‘Cotton Castle’, most likely due to the fluffy mineral formations caused by the crystallised carbonite which clusters upon the rock. My husband George and I had chosen Turkey because of the beauty of these natural springs, and the restorative promise that seemed to gurgle through the very turquoise of those lustrous, travel agent photographs.

The guide told us, switching to a lilted English, that the ground transported magical properties up through these waters. My husband is of course a sceptic of everything and he raised his eyebrows with such rudeness that I was forced to gush my enthusiasm. There were a handful of other couples here – mostly older folks – but also the odd young man or woman who had come like us to escape the tiring perils of modern life. While George stood with his arms folded looking out across the twining rivulets, I pulled off my shirt and let the hot sun glow through every nerve. The wonderful, life-giving sun. I recommend it to all. There is something indeed enchanting about the softness of the little wavelets as they ripple across the aqua baths, the tiny, tinkling sound they make as they purl in swirling whirlpools that pull against the chalky rock. A young man grinned at me unashamedly as I climbed with as much grace as I could muster into the hot springs. Steam gushed off my skin as I sank beneath the warm water, feeling the thick of it billow and shimmer around me. Light from the late sun shone on the glossy surface and I felt it reflect on my face in so many triangles of white. How good it felt to be warm, to be so refreshingly warm!

George glared at me, obviously disgruntled by my shameless entrance into the water. The guide seemed to sense this and whispered something in my husband’s ear that caused a lewd stare and then a grimace. These things are to be expected of men, I suppose. My response was to stare hungrily at the young man, to pick out the glitter of his eyes. It was then that George decided it was about time he clambered in, and there was an unpleasant splash as he did so. Thin streams of water trickled over the edges, dripping like molten silver down the terraces and glinting so prettily that it would blind you to watch for too long.

“I’ve never been so happy,” I murmur to George with a knowing smile.
“The water is too hot,” he said huffily, leaning back against the rock. We were silent.

I suddenly had the urge to be utterly submerged. Ignoring my husband’s protests, I plunged my whole self underwater: felt the hot surges rush by my cheeks and pull back my skin like gills. I pulled with my arms into a kind of butterfly stroke, forcing my body deeper below the surface. All was a potent, cobalt blue; the kind of blue you dream of in the sapphire-hued sleep of a winter’s evening. I blew bubbles and touched the bottom of the pool. The rock came away easily like gritted salt in my fingers; I clutched some tight in my fist and kicked up to the surface.

As I burst through the layer of perfect gossamer, I found myself up close to the young man. He said something in what might’ve been Spanish and laughed. I could not see my husband.

“How peaceful it is down there,” I found myself saying breathlessly. The Turkish sun was sizzling on my back and the water spilled off my hair in droplets that snatched the splintering light. My heart did a funny somersault as I found the man ran a finger down my wet cheek. I let go of the handful of silt and felt it drift slowly to the bottom of the pool. I watched the man as he took his finger from my cheek and put it in his mouth.
“Tastes like salt,” he said in crystal English. I remember being aware of the sheer precipice that hung below us: the millions of white icicles shining in sunlight; the infinite layering of cerulean pools and carbonite glazing; the steady susurration of trickling water and tinkling laughter. I felt myself dissolving in the pureness of this beauty, its centripetal pull towards a perfect present. I could not help but kiss him; could not help but let him ruffle his hands through my soaking hair. The moment was ours and we were part of that eternal flowing of water: the slow clustering of hydrogen and oxygen, the corrosion of soft rock over thousands of years.

It was only when I opened my eyes that I remembered my husband; felt his cold gaze like a cloud of dripping fog on the back of my neck. Of course, I never saw that man again.

(Prompts: photograph of Pamukkale Travertine Terraces, Turkey; middle)

by Maria Rose Sledmere

Of Agony and Ambience

The carnival was alive with all the coruscations of otherworldly sounds and playful particles of light. A dreamer from another world might be at home here in the terrible pleasures of fiddle litanies, fortune tellers and candy floss spun like the silk of some fantastic spider. Dancers whirled and threw about their lovely muscles upon the stage while children laughed and sang and played. All was a picturesque festival and the village and its people seemed at their happiest.

But happy to those immune to the allure of the magic booth. The sign outside was written in Old English lettering, embossed with gold leaf, and it said that the enchanter inside could read people’s auras. The children were forbidden from entering the booth: to know one’s aura was considered bad luck, and indeed a responsibility too great to be shouldered by the young. Typically, the only people who sought the knowledge of the aura-reader were those faced by some personal crisis: illness, a death in the family, a forbidden or forlorn love, a secret and implacable desire, or perhaps problems with coaxing the harvest to ripe.

They had expected the aura-reader to be some gnarled old woman, possibly wearing a witch’s hat, but certainly with a cat draped on one shoulder and a shimmering shawl of sorts on the other. They had certainly not expected the fresh-faced young man who sat up crossed-legged looking at a dream-catcher on the ceiling, a string of pearls around his neck.

“Welcome,” he murmured as a way of greeting. The villages were to come in two at a time, and leave their donations in a small pot by the tent’s entrance. The soft clink of silver in the pot chimed with the twinkle of metal slivers clicking together on the ends of the dream-catcher. Carefully, a couple took their place upon the rug in front of the aura-reader. They were not married, but in fact brother and sister.

“What is it you seek?” The boy’s voice had the uncanny bristle of a man much older. Yet as he spoke, no wrinkles betrayed his age, nor were there frown-lines to ripple his forehead. His face was as smooth as the skin of a ripe apple.

“Well, we came here because you can read auras,” the man said nervously.

“That I can do.”

“Y-yes.” The smell of incense wafted up from a corner of the boot, filling their heads with the dreamy airiness of distant promises.

“But why do you wish me to read your aura?”

“It sounds exciting,” the woman piped in, pulling back a strand of her ashen hair.

“Perhaps it is.” The boy closed his eyes and hummed gently, the sound seeming to illuminate his translucent skin. The man fidgeted and the woman stared at the boy’s long butterfly lashes and wished she’d been blessed with such an asset.

They waited a good hour or so for the boy to speak again. Time was a wispy thing; a silk-sliver dangling upon the streams his dream-catcher. The boy seemed caught in a trance and it would be a sin to wake him. When he opened his eyes, he stared first at the man and then the woman. He sighed deeply. He closed his eyes, then opened them to look one by one at the couple again, his gaze meeting theirs’ in ephemeral recognition.

“One of you will die a most horrific death,” he said after a pause. They waited with bated breath for him to continue.

“I see it in the after-image. Black: little snivelling swirls of it. It catches at your eyes and ears and makes a fool of your lovely soul. Soon you’ll be deep in the ground, cold.” His slow, emphatic tone savoured every word he spoke.

“But which one of us are you referring to?” the man asked with some desperation. Ignoring this inquest, the boy spoke again. It was just then that the couple noticed the shining bead of light emanating from the centre of his forehead. They tried to ignore it, looking up at the dream catcher as his words filled the tight space.

“The other has a most wonderful aura…such a rich, potent red… you are alive with carnal desires, so urgent and so lusty that I would love myself to reach out and touch you…but it would break the spell. You will live long and powerful and have many children, it is certain. Your body gives spark to the vivacity of your spiritual flesh.” He beamed, but his gaze was directed at the space between the man and the woman: the dark velvet of the curtain behind them.

“So one of us will live pleasantly whilst the other shall die?”

“It is perhaps so, as the colours tell me.”

They looked at each other and sorrow filled their souls as they thought of how the sibling bond between them was bound to inevitably burst. The thought of this sadness kindled a flame of rage and frustration, and it was all they could do to prevent themselves ripping at the boy’s throat; for how dare he cast such wicked slander upon their family? How could it be fair that one should live while the other perish in a most unpleasant death? It seemed a knowledge beyond all reason.

And so mania sizzled through their veins as they crawled from the tent, and once again faced the bright darkness, the fairy lights and lively music, the people and their bodies bumping and dancing and spinning.

“We must lose ourselves,” the man said. “It is the only way.” The sister swore to him that she agreed and so they took themselves off into the woods, stopping by at a seedy-looking stall to pick up the necessary paraphernalia. The needle would be sharp and sweet, as such things are destined always to be.

When they were found, dead, the next day, their bodies were swollen with staggering amounts of morphine. Black pocks marked their skin and already hoards of ants and maggots had begun feasting upon the cloth of their bodies. When the boy was called upon to witness them, he buried his head in his hands in a strained display of emotion.

“What a gorgeous aura – such passion and anguish! – and did they not know that an aura is but transience?”

So under the cherry glacé of a summer’s dawn the boy wept until all the sins crawled out of his soul like impatient worms; until he was a crumple upon the undergrowth, his aura black as a midnight sky or the ore of darkest coal. The ooze and cloud came out of every pore until his body joined his soul – so shrivelled and sad and old.

(Prompts: manic, paraphernalia, booth)

by Maria Rose Sledmere

Grapes

A bowl of grapes sits on the windowsill. Forgotten for days, a layer of dust clusters on the waxy skins of the grapes. Once, the skins were iridescent, their purple a pure Cadbury sheen, bunched behind plastic in the supermarket. A colour, indeed, that seemed a little unnatural.

Once, they had been swollen and fat grapes, ripe for the plucking. Grown, the label said, in the south of France, by a man named Giuseppe. Their colour was rich enough to drool over; the kind of colour that feels sickly in your mouth, too vivid for your vision.

Now the grapes had collapsed a little, their skins shrivelled like a blister popped by a pin. You could imagine the cellophane surface of those grapes: sinking, the juice inside slowly moulding. A clammy wine flavour caught in your throat. Earthy, somehow; but still so acid sweet, leaving that languid aftertaste.

They caught the sunlight that spilled in shafts through the kitchen window. Late February and the light was still winter white, making the grapes gleam a little. From a distance, if you saw the world in impressionist brushstrokes, they could be a collection of amethysts – dull, unpolished crystals. There was the black shadow between them that semi-precious gemstones have, a kind of darker, other self, that took the edge off their luminescence.

How lovely they are, somebody thinks as they enter the kitchen. How lovely and sad, these grapes that we have all forgotten about. These grapes that would quench nobody’s thirst or hunger. Their musk left a cloying, fruity aroma in the air, like red wine left out in the heat uncorked. In a way, they were disgusting. And yet there was a purity to them, a rot or sombreness personified in their fleshly pulp. It was, perhaps, the trueness of their purple.

by Maria Sledmere

Purple

There was a cloying scent of incense and tobacco. A luxurious scent, yes, but stale and choking. Everything in the room was the height of luxury: expensive damask wallpaper with stately floral blooms in deep powder purple and violet velour. Crisp satin sheets on the bed; crumpling and folding like tulip petals, a slippery, coarse texture, whispering at every touch from grasping hands and sliding ankles.

On the dresser a mound of discarded jewellery. Amethyst and garnet sparkling dark. A platter of ripe fruit sat upon a low table; plums, grapes, clusters of purple berries with a gossamer veil of downy white on the surface, the gleaming flesh peeking coyly from beneath in the play of candlelight. The fruit was becoming too ripe, almost. Oversweet and oversoft, too giving. No crispness, no tartness or bite. Too easy.

She handed me a glass of wine so dark it was black in its depths, with a damson light within its heart that morphed and shifted like a low-burning flame.

She pulled the lilac lace further down her wrist, covered the nebula of burst veins, like smeared fingerprints in purple ink.

by Rachel Norris