The Distant One

I remember so little   of the many lives that I have lived.

The sea-wide echoes   stray in distance,

And return to the shore,   telling stories I have forgotten.

Were those my tales   that thrummed over the waves,

And reached the edges   of the otherworld?

Those plundered dreams,   like pebbles in the surf,

Have a smoother face   when seen anew,

And seem no longer   such a load to bear.

If in another land   a lone figure walks with purpose,

Let it be her   to whom the whispers speak,

For she is in the newer life,   and should I forget all,

The distant one will live,   and I will die gladly.

 

By Rachel Norris

Prompts: memory, distance

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The Man on the Shore

When the tide draws breath on a misty morning,
he sits on the shore and draws breath also,
hair pulled into the sky by soft wind groaning
through aching trees that defiantly grow,
hunched into the shifting sand, bare of leaves,
back bent like his is, the man in the shade,
his bones creaking as he sits and he grieves,
weeps for the daughter whose death he repaid,
screams for the son whose bones crumble like shells,
chokes on the fog that seeps from the sea,
hears distant murmurs as the water swells,
shouts his prayers at the horizon, a plea,
that is swallowed by a returning wave,
who crashes upon him and does not save.

By L. M.

Prompt(s): futility

Charlotte’s Letter

The vague, half-real shapes came down the mountainside, silhouetted against the dull shine of distant moonlight. Charlotte perceived their shadows with the awe she felt owed to her by the mysteries of this silent scene. ‘Twas just like the landscapes she had read about in novels. Looking up to the moon, she jutted her neck out to make her hair billow just so, in the imitation of the sirens whose images she had seen in picture book illustrations. Harry was always taking her to those peculiar bookshops which stocked all sorts of strange hardbacks, often with beautiful velvet covers and stories about dragons and wicked landlords and heroines who swooned under the glaring monstrosity of their captors.

The wind began to shriek as the night wore on, and Charlotte was beginning to lose all sensation in her toes.

“How long must I stand here?” she muttered in complaint. However, there was a way of taking the sting out of her waiting. Charlotte imagined what she would write about all this in a letter. It was important to render exactly the interplay between darkness and light; between the gleam of the snow-capped mountains and the dark spectres of endless cliff-faces, the leafless trees and husks of rock. The way her mind shifted in the expanse of darkness to the shimmering abyss offered by the white horizon, where clouds had settled under the spell of moonlit silver. The dim violet of the sky and its jewellery case of stars. The luxurious feel of the grass beneath her feet, the scent of heather and fresh flush of the cold on her face.

Still, the cold was really getting too much for her and so she decided to move on. She took dainty paces up the mountainside, where she had spotted signs of a little cavern. It would be perfectly fine to rest a night there; Harry was sure to come and pick her up in the morning. In fact, she even spotted a trace of amber light coming from a nook in the rocky ridge; and light bore the promise of hospitality.

All she was really supposed to do was wait, of course. She had trekked all the way through fields of ice and mist and snow and now her task was simply to wait. The love of her saviour would be strong and pure, and so forever in his arms she would be secure.

It wasn’t Harry that found her in the end, but a wandering poet who was savouring the glow of vertigo as he traipsed along the cliff edge, dangling in one hand a pen and the other his paper. Occasionally he burst into spontaneous overflows of powerful feeling, bearing his voice to the singing wind:

O martyr of mist and myriad spirit
how music mingles with the passion in it!
A chance encounter with these holy hills,
enough to ease the mind from all its ills!

He continued the verse with the surge of impassioned timbre, until suddenly he came upon a glint of light in the mountainside. Curious, he pocketed his pen and paper and scrambled up the rocky ledge to see better. He began to hear the hum of sweet sweet music; the hum that filled the thin air as if it were the ambient sounds of the mountains themselves. The poet could not help but fall into song:

Perhaps a maiden fair and bright
might come from dark and dreamy heights;
dressed in her gown of fairest white
will she succeed in fighting night?

He paused at the entrance to the cave to look back at the portion of mountainside that he had just climbed. All dropped wide and deep below him into a chasm of snowy fog and sinuous cloud. He felt a great gape in his stomach and struggled not to curse aloud.

But the horror of this sensation paled in comparison to the horror that faced him over the ledge. The poet clambered to his feet and what he saw poured poison through his delicate veins. A maiden she was, yet dressed in navy, her once-coiled hair now loose and undone. And yet he could barely see what beauty she bore for the calamity around her: great pools of blood and blackened flesh that seeped and festered beneath her dress. Her golden hair was leeched with bloodied spots, and her limbs were twisted in curious knots. Most disturbing were the things that ate her: great hoards of fireflies, descending from the back of the cave with their thunderous buzz.  Their very wings were aflame with wicked glare. Through the blur of the poet’s tears, the whole swarm seemed an inferno sent from hell. The poet blinked and blinked and staggered back, so disturbed he was at this most vivid ravishing of beauty.

But he stumbled too far, and so toppled down the mountain, his final word a distorted roar.

T’was but a year or so later that poor Harry was hiking through the mountains, when he came across this enchanted cavern and found dear Charlotte’s letter. And what a marvel and masterpiece it would have been – the prize of every museum! – if Harry too had not succumbed to those ravenous fireflies. Yet still the letter sits inside this cave, the jewel kept safe by those sacred, flaming insects. Maybe some other Romantic one day will come to take it; or maybe nature will slowly reclaim its place and consume it.

Prompts: chiaroscuro, fireflies, vertigo

by Maria Rose Sledmere

Little Lamb

Little Lamb who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?

(William Blake, ‘The Lamb’).

A cloudless morning with the glint of spring and smell of distant woodsmoke. Graham was shifting hay for the horse, the strain in his back wrenching every time he bent and lifted the pitchfork. The horse kicked and snorted in the stable opposite, impatiently awaiting her new abode. Jasmine was a haughty one, a retired racehorse whose bulging muscle helped drag the old carts over the field when the trailer broke down – which, these days, it often did. Every now and then, Graham stopped his work to give Jasmine a Polo mint and a hearty pat on the flank.

“Makes me sad to see you upset,” he cooed to her, “I’ll be finished soon.” Jasmine sniffed.

This was the last spring that Graham would spend on the farm. He was fifty five years old and had lived there all his life. The thought of leaving pained him more than the crick in his spine.

The task was to clean up the land and the barns and sort everything before summer. The architect kept ‘popping round’ to inspect the grounds and survey the house, but aside from dishing out cups of tea, Graham and his family did their best to ignore him. It was unbearable to be reminded of what was soon to happen.

Graham’s wife, Marjorie, had pulled down all the old junk from the loft. There were books with mouldy pages, miniature soldiers, a typewriter they had sold for twenty pounds in a local jumble sale. One of the few things they had kept was a toy lamb. Its label was frayed and it had lost some of its fluff, but was still soft and awfully sweet, with bright little marble eyes. Marjorie had hand-washed it in the sink, gently scrubbing the attic’s must and muck from its fur. Watching her in the kitchen through the twinkling dust particles, Graham felt he had never loved his wife more. Thirty two years and nothing came between them.

Graham decided to give the lamb to his grandchild, Ella. She needed something to remind her of her roots. When his son Andrew had told him he was going for a job in the city, Graham had tried not to show his disappointment.

“It’ll be a good life, Dad,” Andrew had said as they looked out over the wheat fields, “with good pay and security. Times are changing.”

Yes, times were changing. There was no denying that now.

There was the ever-plunging price of dairy; the endless inspections; the cost of upgrading machinery. People leaving the village because rural life simply wasn’t feasible these days.

Once, Graham had held visions of his daughter inheriting Jasmine, galloping across the fields with her glossy copper hair streaming behind her like reeds underwater. There would be homemade jam and Sunday breakfasts, early mornings of pearly dawn, showing his children how to milk and lamb and clean the cows. But his son was a lawyer, and his daughter had died, years ago now. Her ashes were scattered out in the hills, where the wind-turbines went on endlessly spinning. Soon, when they were forced to leave all they had ever known, there would be nothing left of her memory.

It was getting towards twilight now, and Graham had set off to bring the animals in. The sky was darkening with amethyst clouds as the crescent moon revealed herself, tired and wan. He too had never felt so weary. The collie dog was on her best behaviour and soon the sheep were under shelter, but he was having some trouble with the cows. He stood upon the hill shouting as if he were calling to the elements themselves. He shook and howled; he knew he was losing it. Droplets of rain began to fall on his face, mingling with his tears. Growing ever more violent, the crying sky splashed down on the soil and filled the holes in his boots.

Finally the cows were inside and Graham was trudging back towards the farmhouse, soaked to the skin. Just then, he saw a familiar car pull up in the drive. It was his son’s immaculate BMW, now apparently streaked with a line of mud. Graham heard the doors slam shut and the sound of voices. It was Ella, singing! Even with the cold rain dripping down his neck, the simple melody filled him with warmth. He rushed inside to join them.

“Bloody bushes caught the side of my car, you need to get them cut back Dad.” It was the first thing Andrew said to him. This time, however, Graham ignored his whiny voice.

“What’s the point when we’re leaving so soon?” He sighed.

They all sat down for Marjorie’s best steak pie, but when she looked at her plate, Ella protested that she’d become a vegetarian. Surprised but with a smile, Marjorie rustled up some pasta and ruffled the girl’s ginger hair as she served it to her.

“It’s just wrong to hurt animals,” Ella explained as she tucked into her dinner. And as Graham lifted a forkful of pie to his lips, he paused. He thought of the sorrow of market day, the poor beasts he’d had to sell because they were getting next to nothing for their milk. He thought of the chickens killed for their dinners, and the people that came in trailers to take away the lambs.

“You know, that reminds me of something.” Decisively, he put down his knife and fork and pushed away his plate. He left the room and Andrew and Marjorie exchanged confused glances, though nothing would keep them from their food.

A few moments later, Graham returned with the cuddly lamb. Something Ella had said struck a chord in his memory.

“I’ve got a little present for you,” he knelt by his granddaughter’s chair as he handed it to her, “I think you should have it, more than anyone else in the world.” Ella looked at him with shining eyes as she took the lamb and pressed its softness to her pink cheeks.

“Oh she’s lovely!”

“Lovely indeed,” Graham agreed. The toy had, of course, belonged to his own daughter. It was the missing piece; the only thing they could take away when they had to leave. And in Ella’s hands, Graham knew she would live on in the sweet innocence that had so suddenly been stolen from her.

Jasmine, now, would only live on as long as her legs weren’t lame, and the other animals would probably be taken away. The land might be tainted with steel and concrete. But at least Graham could leave behind the cruelties he now recognised. He could pass on the tiny piece of spirit that would never leave these hills. The spirit of sunlight and sadness, freedom and laughter; the spirit of his daughter.

(Prompts: rain, pitchfork)

by Maria Rose Sledmere

The Deserters

They found themselves lying on baked ground that, upon closer inspection, turned out to be grit and sand. Their bodies throbbed with thirst and only a rasping sound escaped their throats. They were like lost children, stumbling in the light of a new horizon. Sam and Tina had no idea how they had got here. They had just…woken up.

Only a moment ago, they were asleep in their bed with the chilly wind rattling the walls. Messages flashing on their phone, gloriously ignored. Now they were here in this unimaginable space, the feverish heat clawing at their bodies. There was nothing here; only endless, yellow desert and a sky so pale it seemed to become the ground they stood on.

What’s more, Sam and Tina were naked, utterly naked, and already their skin was starting to peel from the sun’s glare.

“How the hell-?” Sam croaked, shielding his eyes.

“This is hell.” Tina kicked a stone and looked up to the sun. She was angry, that was all. She didn’t think this would happen.

They began to exist in this torrid landscape, their bodies slowly crisping, shedding flakes of skin like snakes, living off the charred bodies of lizards who had dried up in the random desert fires which occasionally flared up in the afternoon sun. They ate the lizards’ eggs too, cracking the shells with their scaly knuckles and trying not to gag as they swallowed the runny contents. They got used to it, though they could never feel at home. Everything they did felt like an intrusion, like they were stomping over holy ground. This was a place stripped pure of everything, and only the lizards and snakes and scorpions remained; the hard, scabrous creatures left upon a parched planet.

Their bodies shrank and withered and so did their brains. Soon they had no memory of who they were or what their lives had been like before this dream. All thoughts were of survival. Sometimes, Tina wondered what she had done, but the thought soon slipped away. The bare heat cleansed them of their confusion.

They walked along endless dunes under the relentless sun; they walked until they knew death would be there at last, clutching at them. For they were hungry for an ending; to death they would be hospitable.

And yet every time they thought it would happen some miracle saved them. One day they stumbled upon a clump of strange roses with spiked, shrub-like clusters underneath them. The pinkness of these flowers was almost too much for Sam and Tina: how luxurious it seemed against the acrid sand and sky that seemed to blend together. They scrabbled at the ground and soon they found a pool of water from which they could drink. It tasted of memory.

Sated, they lay back to wait for the cool relief of evening.

You might think Sam and Tina were dreaming they were Adam and Eve, atoning for some worry or other in their dreams. You might think somebody was writing about them, forcing them into a repenting situation, painting the scene of their fate. You might think this desert some symbolic landscape, a projection of psychological space. Probably, you would be wrong.

They are destined to wander forever. For they are not some relic of original Man. They were the people who stole all they could from each other, who burned and burned in their brutal desires until they were both starved, any trace of sentiment stripped from their skeletons. It is a harsh thing to wake up beside the same person every day and wish you were dying. But it is a harsher thing to wander forever with this person, to feed off what bare necessities the world will leave when your mind is gone and there is nothing but your mortal body to fill the time. To fill the final space, to spread out your life among the sweepings and leavings of the blind and forsaken. To be the selfish ones, the deserting.

Prompts: space, lizard

by Maria Rose Sledmere

Lonesome Elements

The wind screamed a hollow song, spectral wailings engaging with a non-existent audience: the few souls that subsisted on the tiny island remained locked behind dilapidated storm shutters chewed away by time. Great swathes of desiccated grass sliced the landscape, blades bowed in a bid to remain unnoticed in the onyx shadows that dripped from sheer iron cliff faces eternalised with expressions of subdued defeat. Heavy clouds choked the sky with a gunmetal glare persistently smothering the wan rays of a despondent, jaundiced sun.

Regardless of how vehemently the wind howled, there was never a reply. The blank countenances of the cliffs became contemptuous in their reflection of the sound, forcing the gale to continually indulge in no other aural pleasure than that of its own voice. Ivory windmills stood high on the hillside. Their mechanical branches revolved steadily with quiet resolve; acknowledging the command of the air but like all else refusing to respond, consuming its lonesome shrieks for the benefit of the silent eyes that sat, waiting, in their small stone cottages.

(Prompts: stereotype map – God knows, maybe some sheep)

by Annie Milburn

Brechan’s Kettle

In the dark days, the days at the nadir of despair there is sometimes the urge to up sticks and run. Sometimes never to return, most times imply to regain one’s equilibrium. Thus when the year had turned and the black dog of February was upon her, she simply up and off to where she knew not.
The romance had been short and not quite sweet. Downright sour a the close. The scars were deep and the taste bitter. she had to get out, get anywhere.
She had never been to Jura. She had never had any reason to go to Jura. She once heard that Jura had the highest concentration of venomous snakes in the world. even higher than the Amazonian rain forest. She wondered if that was true, it seemed unlikely.
The cottage was at the north end of the island. It seemed the very place to be alone for a few weeks until the dark clouds passed and she could once  more join the human race. When she arrived all was still. She walked to the crest of a hill where she could look over the sea to a little island whose name she knew not.
For a while, all was still. then she perceived a motion in the waters between Jura and the unknown island. Gentle at first, then increasing. She thought that some sea monster would appear at any moment but no physical presence was to be seen. the waters began to swirl and roar she became alarmed. A huge whirlpool had appeared between the two islands. When the fear passed and she was certain that she wasn’t about to be devoured, she marvelled at the sight and sound. Until today, she had never heard of Corryvrechan, Brechan’s kettle.

by Jane Helen Jones
What were your prompts?: Whirlpool, cottage, romance.

To a Father

 A river flows lazily through a spring meadow. The flowers flaunt a palette of vibrant colours. I walk at the rivers side, following the current. I’m not alone, a man walks with me. A dog plods along further away, plunging in and out of the fluttering water. The man tells a joke and we laugh together. I play with the dog, I fall, accidentally, into the river. I founder, I can’t breathe. The man shouts, I try to hear. He pulls me out, he holds me in his arms.

A lake is frozen over, snow falls slowly to the ground. It builds a shroud of white and blankness. A woman shouts, I refuse to hear. She comes to me, she stands beside me. We gaze out at the lake together, a thousand unspoken words exchanged. I cry in her arms.

by Scott Dallas
What were your prompts?: Snow, clandestine, Armour