The Concrete Warrior

The Concrete Warrior

He peels the stripping from an incense stick, with such precision as to suggest it’s been his life’s goal to discover what was hidden by sawdust paste and sandalwood slivers. It turns out to be a mere bamboo reed, ancient tool of inscription. There’s a sense of the inevitable here. What good would it do to now lick the coating? It tastes of terrible regrets. His concentration lacks thrift; thrives on the excessive.

You could cure depression, he argued in last semester’s essay, by drinking from city rivers. The amount of oestrogen in the water was warping school after school of fish; contraceptives left the body in women’s piss and slowly diluted their chemicals through the current. Not to mention the lithium deposits, the Prozac mass surreptitiously making sediment of riverbeds, embedding its serenity in sand particles, gemstones, fish eggs. Pesticides were supposed to remove residues, but inevitably contributed to further contamination. He drinks freely from the river, drinks like he’s making a statement. Back at the tower block, the others survive on stolen Lucozade, but he maintains a healthy faith in l’eau naturelle.

His skin, they often said, has that uncanny glow. Like it’s been purified with butane, the acne blasted away. Unnatural. Not sleeping, he wrote screeds about the lovely truth to be found in raiding bins. No other method could reveal the secrets of our governing corporations. The titles were varied and strange:

Haunted Monopolies: How Our Supermarkets Invoke the Waning of History
Circuits of Trolleys: What Your Shopping Basket Says about Fertility and Self-Governance
Euro Trash Girl: How Nightclubs are Hotting Up the Biosphere
Junk Hook: Washing Up Culture on the Brink of Extinction
Alice’s Mirror: Looking Back on Our Selves through the Broken Glass of Suburban Play-parks 

Perhaps there wasn’t a quick logic to his method but the tutors seemed to like it. Scholarships promised like the neon lights of a Vegas strip, but he managed to resist the allure. He wanted to remain digging deep in the dirt; could never see himself imprisoned, shimmering, in the ivory tower, crowned with the laurels of knowledge. He knew his work was utter sludge, the bullshit pulled straight from the earth and recycled with choice and sensitive words.

Morphine pulses through his sleepy veins, night and day. He snaps the stick in his mouth. There’s a new immediacy to his presence of being. Stay in the moment, he scribbles, it’s the only way to resist the messianic pull of the past as it threatens to sandblast every particle of your purified being. Switch off your smartphone, before it’s too late. Toss that transient saccharine pleasure away. Crunch the coke can to cut your mouth.

When the riots broke out, many youths came past the tower block on their passage of looting. The sky crackled with ersatz thunder, which he concocted himself from the safety of an 8th floor window, occasionally dropping M&Ms on the crazed kids below. Some of them relinquished their grip on the stolen televisions, the screens of which smashed on the concrete. Others waved their fists with invisible placards, making wild proclamations about the vengeance of the earth. By sundown, everyone feasted on pizza, leaving the cardboard boxes to grease the streets. He waited until their cries died down then left the building to pick up the mess. Single-handedly, he cleaned his street. Not out of pride, or civil duty; but a robotic sense of necessity.

The incense wafts through the 8th floor window. He assembles his collection of needles. There’s an archive of noise he hasn’t yet tapped, an ecstatic whole that would affirm itself in the choir of angry shouts. He feels their riots at night, remembers the orgiastic disarray of society as something he once needed but now didn’t. The tower block seems to rise, its roof of concrete block threatening the fiery tips of the sun. Eventually, he knew this would all be molten. The sun would fall. He’d bite off each piece of the candy necklace, marking the end of another day. The sugar would mix with the heroin in his veins and he’d feel the calm come over him, wave after wave; the residue waste of the river washing up, swirling its gurgles in his seashell ears, threatening the spillage of sewage, the sludge-work of words, the colliding extravagance of year after year. The leftovers, the children. The silt of the earth, rising and winning.

/ Maria Sledmere

(FFF prompts: underwater photo, riot)

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The Magpie and the Spider

- Micolo J. https://www.flickr.com/photos/robin1966
– Micolo J. https://www.flickr.com/photos/robin1966

Lucy had a secret. A secret she hadn’t told to her father or mother or even her best friends.

She knew a magpie that came to see her almost everyday. She had a special connection with this magpie. She would feed it scraps of bread or handfuls of seeds, and in return, every now and then, it would bring her little treasures. Sometimes it was just a paperclip or a pin, but Lucy’s magpie had also brought her marbles, tacky rhinestone bracelets, a plastic heart charm, a set of silver keys, a heavy metal screw, chain necklaces and once a solid gold wedding band. Such a magical time it had been when the magpie brought her that wedding band; he had dropped it in their hiding place behind the garden shed, where it glinted happily amidst the filth and compost. Scraping away the crumbling mud, Lucy had tried on the ring. It was beautiful and heavy, though somewhat too big for any of her fingers. She had not stowed it away in her special drawer along with all the other gifted trinkets, but rather wore it on a rope of string around her neck, hidden beneath her t-shirt. A few days later, she had heard her parents talking about an advertisement for a missing ring in the local newspaper, but Lucy had not said a word. The ring was hers and while she wore it she felt safe; she knew she had the luck of a magpie’s love.

The magpie had been coming to see Lucy for years. At first she thought it was just chance that this bird decided to reward her efforts at sneaking food from the kitchen, but she had entered into a psychic relationship with the creature. She swore to herself that she could read its thoughts. Really, the magpie wanted the same things as her. A secret, special friend. The magpie never came to the garden in a pair, unlike the other birds. He was always alone.

Even in these winter mornings, Lucy would get up early to wait in the garden for the magpie. She would leave piles of crushed-up crisps or cereal out on the tree stump at the back of the garden. A little chaffinch danced on the branches of her mother’s apple tree, tentatively shuffling its wings as if deciding whether or not to fly. Nasty, pecking blackbirds would often swarm upon the lawn, digging their sharp beaks in the dewy soil for worms. With the wedding band thumping against her chest, Lucy had to chase them away so that they would not eat her magpie’ s breakfast. For the magpie was truly her soulmate, and she would not let other birds pillage her precious offerings.

One evening Lucy was returning to her room from brushing her teeth when she saw on the wall above her bed a massive spider. It was obviously a remnant of the winter spiders, who occupied her parents’ house from September to March to find shelter from the cold. It was late at night – too late to wake her parents – and Lucy could not go to bed with such a thing in the room. It was a horrid blot upon the perfect cream of her bedroom walls; a blot that unfortunately was often moving. She watched with disgust as it extended its creeping legs, wiggling the black mark of its body. Sometimes, the legs lifted and bent and lifted again as if they were pincers. Lucy was really starting to feel quite sick.

It was too high up to catch in a jar, and there was no use throwing something at it because it would only fall straight down and bury itself in Lucy’s bed.

So she clambered onto her windowsill and pulled open the heavy window. The night smelt fresh and cool, almost like a summer night, though those were still far away. There were the usual suburban sounds, the glow of other windows; but nothing more, nothing more at all. Underneath her nightie Lucy stroked the ring for comfort, beginning to sing her favourite song. Her voice left the house slowly, the haunting melody travelling through the night like a fly struggling through thick black molasses. There was a thin moon watching her. It was the only thing in the universe that knew that Lucy was calling, calling out for her magpie familiar.

And it came. It landed on the dark grass and looked up at her with its flashing amber eye.

“There’s a spider in my room. A nasty wicked spider. You must kill it for me, Mr. Magpie.”

The bird screeched with its habitual rattling cackle. It tilted its head just so.

“Please Mr. Magpie,” Lucy called out. She held her arms out to the dark night and with this beckoning the magpie suddenly swooped up and flew right past her into her bedroom. Squawking loudly, it flapped about with an air of mania until Lucy switched the light on. She pointed to the slowly-moving spider on the wall.

“There,” she whispered. The magpie seemed reluctant at first. It turned its head to gaze at Lucy. And how could any human being fathom what that strange bird was thinking; what lay behind the opaque brilliance of those amber eyes? But Lucy knew; Lucy knew her magpie would do whatever she asked. She watched as it raised its wings and soared into the wall, clutching the spider in its gnarled claws and crushing it into a tangled ball. Lucy watched with a kind of horrified delight as the magpie shrieked triumphantly, before swooping through the window again and out into the darkness, bearing the spider with it. Trying to stifle her laughter, she slammed down the window and admired the lovely canvas of her clean wall. Not a trace of death; not a trace of the spider. She climbed into bed and slept like a baby, oblivious to the distant rumbles of a gathering storm. In fact, only once did she drift from her slumber, seeing her window lit up with fiery lightning; but quickly she fell back to sleep again.

In the morning, Lucy awoke to mellow sheets of sunlight pouring through her window, and the sound of her mother knocking on the door.
“Come in.”
Her mother entered and handed Lucy a glass of milk.
“What was all that commotion in here last night?” she asked, her voice tinged with a hint of dread.
“Oh, what commotion? It must’ve been the storm,” Lucy said innocently. She drank the milk hungrily and wiped the traces of it from her lips.

Once she was dressed, Lucy headed into the garden to put the washing out for her mother. The storm had left behind a perfect day, with fair blue skies and the twinkle of birdsong and blush of hopeful crocuses. Spring would be coming soon. In her bare feet, Lucy stepped across the grass, which gleamed lushly with beads of rain and felt soft against her skin. The sun was warm on her cheeks as she pegged up the damp scraps of washing.

When she had finished, however, she noticed a scorched patch of grass and something dark at the back of the garden, by the shed. Perhaps the ground had been struck by lightning in last night’s storm. But as she crept closer, Lucy’s heart seized up like a frightened animal. Just there, lying on the grass beside the burnt patch, was her magpie. For the first time she noticed the fine jewelled beauty of its feathers: the blue, green and burnished red that gleamed in the sun like powdered sapphires. The glossiness of its black and white body, the marble jewel of its knowing eye. With shaking fingers, Lucy lifted back its wings, and alas it did not respond to her touch. She was certain it was dead; but that was all she knew. A bead of a tear escaped her shining eyes. Kneeling down, not caring now that the neighbours might see her, she took off the necklace with the wedding-band. Carefully, she placed it beside the magpie, and turned it gently over to face the sky. As she did so, a tiny spider crawled out from underneath its body, scarpering out over the scorched soil.

And there was nothing or nobody to hear Lucy’s frightened cry.

Prompts: spider, treasure

by Maria Rose Sledmere

The Preciousness of Water

A bright morning, something calling… though who knows what because for so long I’ve been alone, so long I’ve forgotten what it is to hear something – anything at all – that wasn’t my own two feet trudging upon soil. I was standing by the ocean’s edge, the sand etched in my toes, thinking how weak the sea looked; so still as if the moon had given up trying to pull it. It didn’t make the usual hush and shush that the sea is supposed to make. If it wasn’t for that distant pattering sound, I would think the accident had deafened me after all.

You get a kind of deja vu, standing here looking outwards with everything unfolding in the distance. Once these ashen lumps beneath my feet were tufts of grass and mounds of soft pink heather. There were sea-flowers and elegant sand dunes. Now the beach is blotched with the remains of fallout: blackish dust and fragments of rock that haven’t yet been swept away, like the tide’s lost its power to barter with the earth. The news told us that there could be more fallout to come, a shower of dark rain to fall in a few days or weeks or even months. That was before the screens flashed off and haven’t lit up again since. What I miss most are cigarettes and the smell of lemon shower-gel, the cry my baby made in its crib.

I was thinking about all these things when the noises grew louder. At first it sounded like the distant beginnings of rain, but then there was a clattery thumpiness to it and a rhythm you don’t get with rain drops. I waited and waited, hoping this wasn’t to be another explosion, though half wondering what it would be like to see that shattering of mushroom-cloud that first bloomed in America. A secret part of me longed for the shock, the cataclysm. I watched a storm breaking against the bay; handfuls of seconds being snatched from the world. The pounding got louder and louder and the ground was vibrating and I was about to turn round when the wind whipped past me with the force of so many bodies and there they all were: a band of wild horses torn from nowhere, galloping fast towards the water. It was all I could do to catch my breath, staggering backwards. They were magnificent creatures, all chestnutty-coloured and shining in the whiteish light. I hadn’t seen such beauty in so long. The horizon seemed almost to open to them, its silky jaws of melty yellow parting as they splashed into the ocean with their powerful legs. I couldn’t help but run closer to them; I ran and ran till I was touching the sea with my bare feet, knowing the water was full of radiation but still not stopping, not stopping till I was closer to those horses. One of them neighed like a wolf howling to the moon, and it shook its head dramatically like a proud actress. I was thinking how strange it was and wishing someone else was there to see it with me. I stood still watching the last of the horses bound deep into the ocean; they kept running through the delicate waves as easy as scissors ripping silk; they kept running till even their heads had dipped underwater. I wondered if horses could swim, but then I remembered that these days there’s no point doubting anything. It all could happen. All of it; anything. Maybe they had gills, and maybe there were other horses with wings. The water gathered in pools around my feet and already I was feeling the tingling.

You can see all the dead fish and crabs and other slimy things being tossed about underwater like any old rubbish. I leant down to pick up a starfish which was fossilised in a coating of ash. If you pull their limbs off, they grow back. I held it in my hand, the ash flaking off of it, a thing so precarious. Looking down, you could see the dull yellow glow coming from odd areas of the sea bed. I sighed and threw the starfish into the distance, watching it spin away like a frisbee. It made me feel a little freer.

I stood there with the radiated water churning its forgotten neutrons and fishy detritus and plastic litter; stood there until I felt the very sand below my feet begin to sink. As usual, the day would not come as it should. The storm’s aftermath of dark grey clouds bloomed in the distance and already I could smell the pungency of all their nothingness. The whole horizon was a plume of flowery mist.

I closed my eyes and remembered the time the baby and I were on this beach, making sandcastles out of soft bright sand and in the warm sun eating strawberries. I opened my eyes to blink. A veil of ash still covered the sky, cloaking the world with unnatural mortality. I closed them again, to stop the sting.

And now when I close my eyes, I think of the horses. I cry and cry, thinking of those horses; though water is too precious to waste, a memory of some ocean that’s light years away.

(Prompts: photograph of horses, mortality, fall-out)

by Maria Rose Sledmere

Azure and the Revelations

They christened her Azure, because like the deep blue of the sea her little blue eyes were a wealth of hope and happiness. She was raised in humble circumstances, with the lovely nourishing of nature – of rivers and fells and forests for company – and with the firm instructions of her mother. But when Azure turned thirteen, her mother died quite suddenly of a nervous condition that the doctor would not explain.

Azure had no sense of what to do with herself. Without her mother’s guidance, she did not know who or what she was and how. Her father was no help, and retreated into his books. A nursemaid from the village fed her after school and helped her with her homework, but other than that, Azure was a lonely thing, adrift in a world uncertain.

She found friendliness in the valleys and hills around her father’s cottage. While he withdrew to private study, Azure played in the wide green world that was suddenly open to her without her mother’s restrictions. She would hang upside down from a yew tree, listening to the linnet singing. She would dangle her feet in the clear mountain streams, where the water rushes past with the coldness of ice. She would take off on a Sunday afternoon and climb the summit of some new peak, finding solace by a lake where she watched little fish circling in stream after stream. In a rainstorm Azure would find shelter under the bowers of her favourite trees, nestling in with the flowers and ferns and leaves. She learned which berries to eat, which mushrooms to pick and where the faeries lived.

When she thought of her mother, Azure would not weep anymore; she would fly down some mountainside until the thoughts rushed from her head and she was more alive than ever she could be.

But Azure’s name bore a prophecy, and the world would not stay her own forever. When she was fifteen the war broke out and all the city children were being sent to live in the country. Azure offered to train as a nurse but her father would not allow it, and even when he was drafted and she had only her grandma to answer to, she was still forbidden. They insisted that she get an education. It’s what your mother would have wanted. Still, she had little time for books or figures; all Azure wanted to do was feel the dew on her skin and the pleasant caress of the wind. Whenever she sat with her homework, idle at her father’s desk, she felt unfaithful to nature.

To make matters worse, the city children were leaps and bounds ahead of her. They knew long division and the capital cities of Europe; they could recite Shakespeare by heart and list monarchs and dates from history. In class with them, Azure felt nothing but the awareness of her failure.

One day, however, it was snowing and the school was closed. All the children had turned up in their hats and scarves and now were lost and shivering in the desolate playground. It was hours before the adults would come to pick them up. It was Azure that had the Revelation.

“You think you know everything,” she told them, “but there are things you haven’t seen.” She took the troupe of children across the village and out into the fields. The snow was falling thick and slow around them, blinking bits of ice in their eyes. Their cheeks grew rosy as they chased after their leader, who knew the contours of the ground like the back of her hand. They danced across great puddles of ice, raced down hillsides, linked arms and sang an elegy to a dying eagle. They buried its beautiful body with snow. The war and the cold were forgotten as the children crouched in the forest and listened to the stirring crickets, the squirrels rustling in the undergrowth. The animals always knew how to take shelter.

It was a sad thought to know it was soon home-time. Home, but not really home. Together, they followed Azure across the white plains of farmland back to the village.

At the school, the parents were full of rage. They wanted someone – some dirty country scoundrel – to blame. But when they saw the happiness on the children’s faces, all was forgiven. They took their children’s hands, and as they looked up to the bright blue sky, they too saw the new world that they already lived in.

(Prompts: azure blue, fidelity, prophecy)

by Maria Rose Sledmere

Embers

The charred woods pulse like bruised cheeks. Blackened husks limp into sight, standing in some barren parody of life, cracked and shriveled. The old giants are ashes, and all the leaves have burned away.

I stand amid the ruins, troubled by the smell of scorched flesh. Walking heedless of embers at my feet, I go in search of the dead creature. The thrill of morbid curiosity- And yet I worry that I am walking towards horror, that I rouse ghosts with each step. I tread trails left by others, other lives and other deaths.

And over there, huddled by the fallen trunk of a former oak, I find her. Crusted over with black silt, some ashen wreck- A deer, probably. The poor beast is hunched in agony visible even now, and what looks to be a fawn lies crumpled below its mother’s body. I don’t linger long.

As I’m leaving, my boot knocks a clump of splinters, and underneath are flowers, partly singed but holding on. Stupid, obnoxious flowers, shooting up from the wastes as if their only purpose was to jar with the carnage, arriving like sodden drunkards to a dwindling party. I think this may be the first time I’ve ever admired a plant.

I considered picking them, but decided against it. Better to let them grow in peace, cradled by smouldering soil.

(Prompts: Shakespeare, Ecology, Technology)

By Paul Inglis

Lonely Man

The daffodils grow on the western side of the lake, by the place where the ducks shelter beneath the arching branches of the ash trees in stormy weather. They are the brightest yellow that anyone has seen, and shiver like they have conscious lives when the frost awakens in the middle of April. Sometimes, it feels like it, too, when one watches them from the window across the path from the lake, and sees them move throughout the day as the sun moves across the sky, ambling, rambling, stumbling.

There is a face that sometimes appears in that window, a face of a kind-looking calm old man. His bright blue eyes sparkle like stars as they watch the ducks eating the large stale crusts that the public leave out for them. They snap at them, take them into the water, soak them, and swallow them. The man watches still, smiling softly at them as they move, wishing he could join them, desiring with all his heart, but it was impossible. For he is too old now, and the time has passed since he could walk outside.

The ducks still swim on the western side of the lake, despite the fact that the eastern side has become thick with sewage. There was a project, a number of years ago, to clear it, spawned by brief enthusiasm by ecological-conscious people of the outside world. But it was a fad, it faded past, and now the sewage increases. It will one day swallow the entire lake and bring about the apocalypse to end all apocalypses. Thick black will devour transparent blue, and each duck will die without hope. For there is none. And the old man will watch, sad and lonely, unable to do anything, but be lonely. No one can go into his house, he cannot come out. Though it is his desire.

Those are daffodils that shine once a year. This is his desire that will never come true. And that will be the apocalypse to end all ducks.

by Ailsa C. Williamson
What were your prompts?: daffodils, desire, apocalpyse