A Hidden Spirit

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The children were always making wild claims for the magic of the garden.

“Look, we found fairies!” they gasp, brandishing handfuls of glitter that bounce of the sparks in their eyes. Feigning amusement at such games is one aspect of parenthood I don’t think I’ll ever perfect.

“I wish you wouldn’t come in with muddy boots on,” I hear myself echoing my mother, her voice querulous and knackered, coming from long ago; a dusk-lit kitchen, the smell of shepherd’s pie.

“But Daddy, fairies!”

Samantha is tugging on Tim’s arm so hard it’s difficult to tell if he’s enthusiastic or just wincing. I concede to the whole performance and find myself led up the path to the back of the garden, noting the places where serious weeding needs to be done. When was the last time I ventured in this far? Ever since Emma left there seemed no point to mowing the lawn; the children love the grass when it’s long. Sometimes, washing the dishes at the window I’ll watch them, pushing each other and laughing. Tim’ll come in like clockwork, ten minutes later, eyes streaming with hay-fever.

“Right kids what is it I’m supposed to be seeing?”

“Fairies, you big oaf.”

“Fairies, huh? What do fairies look like then?” Wearily, I crouch to their level, the old knees stiff from last night’s squash match (Michael swamped me with that backhand of his).

This time, Tim pipes up. “Lights. They’re lights.” It’s dusk and the garden is full of shadows. When they were tiny, I used to take them up here, hand in hand with the torch. We’d have a fire and tell ghost stories till Emma called us inside, pronouncing it too chilly to just sit. She wouldn’t even try the fire.

“What kind of lights?” It’s cold enough now. Summer almost over, the promise of autumn frost, school uniforms to iron…

“You have to take a picture.”

“Come on, Daddy’s getting tired now.” I straighten up.

“No really. You take a picture and then the photo shows them up. They’re ever so tiny.” Samantha with her matter-of-fact tone, a hallmark of Emma’s.

Tim scrambles up the ash tree and whips a polaroid camera out of the birdhouse. I marvel at the way he leaps down and lands like a cat on both feet.

“Where’d you get that?” They exchange a glance which I take as suspicious, significant.

“You have to be very still,” Samantha warns me. Obediently I stand there in the dusk, straining my eyes to see. Beyond the garden fence, beyond the slope and the rooftops and chimneys, Emma and I are up at the top of Kildoon Hill, a blanket stretched before us, her face bathed in violet starlight. Or maybe it was the town that was bathed, the way the bluish dusk mixed with all the flickers of those amber streetlamps. We’re eating sugared strawberries, because it’s summer and everything’s ahead of us.

“Daddy! You’re not paying attention!” Samantha snaps.

“OK OK I am now. I’m watching.” After a nod from his sister, Tim creeps forward. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be looking at. There’s a swarm of midges clustering around the nettles, whose ominous stalks are taller than Tim himself. Tim lunges forward at once and takes a snap. The flash floats briefly in the air, like a white glowstick spilt underwater, slowly melting away into nothing. The darkness rearranges. Jackdaws rustle in the leaves above us.

Excitedly, Tim shuffles over to me and holds out the polaroid while the picture develops.

“We saw something about this in a book,” Samantha explains, “how cameras can capture a hidden spirit. Who knew we had fairies right here, in our garden? It’s a remarkable discovery.”

The picture pulls out fully. Tim hands it to me and watches, nose dripping eagerly, while I examine it. There’s the sinuous shapes of the shrubbery, the black slant of the shed. Most of the image, however, is taken up by a cloud of tiny lights, pulsing in my shaky vision like silver orbs, millioning gleefully. I’m not sure if it disappoints me that the children are enraptured by a throng of glowing midges, caught momentarily as fairies in their camera flash. I think about what Emma would say, anxious about the questionable origins of the camera itself, about Samantha’s magpie-eye for shiny things out of reach in shops. Isn’t there a film about this, two girls faking photos of fairies in their garden? What are they trying to prove?

“Well?” The kids are impatient. I’m impatient too, waiting for my own reaction. Samantha rolls her eyes.

“Look, if you’re worried about the camera, it’s just a present from Mum.”

“Oh.” The force of this blow is surprising. I glance over at the midges, still humming away beside us, indifferent to the available flesh of our faces. Tim’s expression was devastating.

“You don’t care,” he whimpered. I tuck the polaroid photo in the breast-pocket of my shirt.

“Aw kids, of course I do.” I draw him towards me, folding him tight the way I’ve seen him hugging the neighbour’s dog, craving that sense of what I’d forgotten. His hair smells of grass and it needs a wash. Samantha looks bemused at our clumsy embrace. She’s pretending to play with the camera now, but I catch her eye without meaning to. There’s a spark there, a flash of something I know is mine. We both smile and I think she half believes me.

Maybe that’s the magic of the garden.

/ Maria Sledmere

(fff prompts: exposure, <photo>)

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24 Hours

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It was the summer of being totally numb. I woke up every morning with the sensation of being dragged down some strong gulf stream, warm and foggy and going nowhere.

I smoked cigarettes leaning over the harbour wall, watching the waves curl over the lisp of the sand, gathering in little billows. I worked a job at one of the out of town supermarkets, driving my car around in the day, stacking shelves at night. I worked from midnight till dawn, driving home as the birds sang and the junkies collapsed into their hellhole flats. I sort of enjoyed the boredom, the routine sense of drifting; the way the hours and days just dissolved away. I had a vague sense that something had to happen by the end of the summer, but never paid much attention to prospects of the future.

The doctor put me on these antidepressants, you see. I don’t know what they were supposed to be doing, but they made me very numb. I felt weightless, as if my skin wasn’t my own. There was an agitation, a twitchiness to my existence. I couldn’t help scratching, shivering. I worried the sores that rose in welts on my arms. Every time I tried to eat, I felt nauseous. Only the cigarettes helped.

I was getting through thirty a day, a pack and a half, that summer.

Then I met Oliver. I used to know him, years ago, at primary school. I was standing outside a club, watching the thin blue moon disappear into dark clouds, watching some sixteen-year-old kid throw up on the pavement across the road. Oliver came out of nowhere, wearing this flamboyant shirt, a shark-tooth necklace, his hair wiry and long. I don’t know how he recognised me; I barely recognised him. I wanted to melt into the wall.

But then we started talking about childhood. I guess it seemed like forever ago, this whole other world of messy innocence. The games we used to play, running over the fields, throwing clumps of hay at each other. Days out with the school, teasing one another over the contents of our packed lunches. We walked around town all night, waiting for the sun to come up, sitting shivering underneath a slide at the park, sharing a half bottle of vodka.

He gave me his number, refused the cigarettes I offered. Said we should talk again, but he had to go to work.

I never did text him. I went straight home, teeth chattering on the bus, then lay in bed all day, staring at the ceiling. I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about the person who used to run around those fields, laughing and shrieking, throwing wads of hay and falling back into the soft long grass. I smoked so much my room was a grey, tarry haze. At some point I must’ve slept.

I woke up and the world was brighter, clearer. The smoke was gone. I drove to work and the strip lights of the supermarket glowed in my brain, the colours of all the signs and products seeming ultra saturated, a pleasure to stare at. Everything felt so intense, so real. I guess I was feeling again. It was a joy to just touch things, finger the labels of tins and packets, brush my feet over the vinyl floor.

I’m not even sure I took down the right number. I never did text him.

It was a joy to stand over the bridge on my break, watching the cars pass on the dual carriageway, biting into something sweet, maybe a donut, maybe a piece of carrot cake. I didn’t think about falling over that bridge, about smoking a cigarette. I thought of Oliver, of the little girl asleep in the backseat, going nowhere through the night. Falling asleep on someone’s shoulder. That sense of safety. I don’t remember much else about how I felt, but I know that something had changed, even though in the end I didn’t text him.

I guess it was just that in those 24 hours, I’d forgotten to take my antidepressants. For once, it felt good to go nowhere.

— by Maria Sledmere

(Flash Fiction February prompts: ‘nowhere’)

The Volcano

The Titan is there, sleeping. Well, is sleeping the right word? It is dormant, perhaps, like a volcano, and it is equally able to explode and destroy a town, destroy an entire country.
But maybe it won’t. Maybe, like so many before it, it will simply fade, fade out of memory and out of history and it will be remembered merely in myth, in legend. It will fade into the earth and everyone will forget their fear and if they ever think of it, they will laugh at the legend and mock people who take it too seriously.

But for now, people travel for miles to leave offerings at the base of the mountain, to pray for their health and the health of their families and friends, to pray that their crops will grow and their hurts will be healed and their lives will be happy. They do not know if their prayers will be answered, they do not know whether the Titan hears them or appreciates their paltry gifts, but it is not worth the risk to stop.

So they bring their gifts and they say their prayers and they keep their doubts secret and they hope that the Titan won’t become a volcano to rain horror and devastation on their contented tiny lives.

— mk

(Flash fiction prompts: Titan, recollection)

No Surface All Feeling

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For so long he has stared into mirrors. The passing, fleeting kind: shop windows, car windows, the sunglassed eyes of strangers. What he sees will always follow and taunt him.

It is better when the rain falls and all is blurred and distorted.

“You need to get out your own head for awhile,” is what his flatmate said. It reminds him of his mother, all those years ago, scolding him for the time he spent alone in his room.

“There’s nothing attractive about a narcissist,” she’d chide, poking her head round his door, “you’ll never make friends if you stay like this.”

“I’m sorry,” he’d reply, staring at the floor, “I’ll try harder”. The trouble was, it wasn’t narcissism that kept him trapped inside himself – it was fear.

Always he was fighting the mirrors. What was it about their silvery, slippery surface that so taunted him? He hated to see himself, hated the way his cheeks bulged and his stomach poked out like a bag full of water. In the world outside, there was no way of avoiding his reflection. Just being around people was enough: their curious stares provided the chasm of mirrors into which he lost himself. Once, in a supermarket, a young woman pointed at his legs and whispered, loudly, to her mother:

“Gosh, look how skinny he is!”

But she knew nothing. How could she know how wrong she was?

He was only ever happy in the afterglow, the slump against the bathroom wall after puking in the toilet bowl. In the mirror his pallor was otherworldly, and for a moment he felt invincible, having cheated the weakness of his own body.

He drinks in the afternoon with or without his flatmate, watching the sun melt like a flaming ice cube, dripping down the cold blue back of a twilight sky. The alcohol is a solvent, in which sorrow and fear dissolve together. He could do anything when drunk: go dancing, write a song, kiss a girl, stay out all night long, running through the city streets. Instead, he doesn’t. He lies there, supine and unreal in his bladdered paralysis.

In the morning he wakes with a headful of nasty memories. He has to fish them out, one by one, like a child picking unwanted peas from their plate of dinner. He feels purer when he stands at the window. It is raining and the rain covers the streets with sheets of lucent alabaster; almost snowlike, the way it glows in lamplit puddles. The sky, these days, is far too white. He likes to stare into its abyss; seeing not himself cast back in the glass reflection, but a hundred other monsters, blinking their hungry eyes back at him. Feeling, feeling. He knows this is the life he must seek, the life so far that he has missed.

–Maria Sledmere

(Flash Fiction February prompts: rain, “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”–Friedrich Nietzsche)

 

The Muse

He was fleeting. He flitted. He never stayed still. He would appear on the subway and in the shop, in glimpses and lingering looks and every time he wore a different face. Scarved in december, hunched into his own coat with eyes you hoped were haunted. He had fallen out with his mother, or his brother was poorly or maybe he had lost his job. There was wine in your flat to soothe his sorrow but he is fleeting and had disappeared into the crawling beam of a headlamp. You see him in flashes in a nightclub, orange hair turning to flame under the strobe light and you know he is passionate. He would be quick to anger and quick to forgive, because quickness is in his nature. And when April comes, he is new like the spring, bearded and brunette and as gentle as dawn as he cycles past your bedroom. An artist, maybe, framed within your window panes for a fateful second before the film burns and he is gone, curling into the wind like ash. It is a soft summer evening and he has soft summer eyes, his hair golden and competing with the sun. His sleeve brushes against a bush in bloom and a flower sighs to the ground. You follow behind him and pick it from the path and pose it against the picture frame on your book shelf. But he is fleeting and winter bursts upon the city once more and the flower shrivels into the polaroid.

Prompt: ‘Fleeting’

By Louise McCue.

The Bluebell Cliffs

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The woods are very calm and still.

We used to come here at dusk, taking the car out after work, driving along the coast road. There were days when I could so easily give up my worries to nature. I thought I was a forest child; I thought at heart, like you, I was something free and wild.

As you walk, the sea is on your right, the woods on your left. The light comes down in gold cascades, catching the gold green filter of the leaves, casting dapples dancing on the path before you. In some memory it is June and the bluebells are out. They spread across the forest floor, tipped with pink and gold, swaying in the haze of a mystical dream. It is so easy to retreat into the trees, their sleepy sigh of imminent twilight. I took a picture of you once, with the bluebells behind you, the branches around you and a handful of leaves in your hair. So beautiful I could have left you there.

We always sat, out of breath, on our favourite bench overlooking the ocean. You used to joke, “this is where I want my ashes scattered,” and god how I thought you were so morbid! There were stories you told me, about the faeries that lived in the forest, that kept watch over the ocean, guarding sailors and smugglers from a terrible fate on the rocks.

“The cliffs here are deceiving,” is what you told me. You grew up here; you knew this place like the inside of your own mind. I wanted to explore every turn of the path, every flower and whorl of wood. I never had the chance. I’m still trying.

I am bitter about the irony – the cliffs are deceiving. So you should have known their depth, their statuesque peril. You, who knew everything.

But not the cloak of nettles and the drop beyond.

And who knows what you were doing, that autumn evening with conkers shining on the ground and the last of summer fading with you, like the daylight giving way to cold, sweet stars?

I walk here now and the sea is on my left, the trees on my right. I could count all the steps, the traces of all the times we came here before. Still I smell the wild garlic, the salt breeze lifting and cooling my skin. I sit on our bench and look out to the ocean, and who knows where you are, faerie that you are, flying to distant islands, silent and thin?

–Maria Sledmere

(flash fiction February prompts: flower, desolate, “Of it’s own beauty is the mind diseased” – Lord Byron quote)

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)

The Turtle Dove

Out on the rocks. The seagulls were calling ceaselessly. It was the same each day, they screamed and screamed, but I wondered why…why did they screech so, when they were free?

I had a little turtle dove, I had raised it from a chick. It perched upon my hand, so light and fragile. Each morning, I would let her out through the open window of my little tower room, overlooking the sea. She would wheel and wheel away, further and further, until she was lost in the mist. Then I would come for my daily walk, meander across the rocks, perch at the edge of the outcrop of the bay. Warmer days I would bathe my feet in the stinging salt sea, colder ones I curled up in the bay, wrapped in shawls. I spent hours each day watching the tide move in and out in its tireless dance. Back and forth. Out and in. Just like me it spent each day the same. I could no sooner change my rhythm than the tide could – not until the boat came in.

When I returned to my bedroom, I always found my little turtle dove, perching on the windowsill. No matter how far she flew, she always returned. I thought, my love must come back too, like my turtle dove. He will find me again. But at the same time, each time I let her fly free I thought, this time…this time she will not come home.

That is why each time I stayed a little longer on the rocks. I waited a little longer, because I was afraid to return to an empty room. And because my eyes were so trained upon the horizon, I sometimes froze there like a figurehead. Come back to me, come back…I willed it, I willed it so hard, wished so hard with my eyes tight shut, some days I was sure some spell would awaken inside me and I would open my eyes to see his boat coming in to the bay, shining a light, the bell ringing; he waves at me, he is all brown and his hair is a little grey…

It is so cold now on the rocks. Today I stayed an hour and ten minutes. I can’t feel my feet, and it’s starting to drizzle. I climb the stairs of the tower, I climb and climb and I open the door, and there’s nothing on the windowsill, and the cage is empty, in fact there is no cage at all! Where is my cage! Where is my turtle dove! Where is my lover!

“Mrs Perdew,” says the nurse. “Come and sit down. It’s cold, I’ll put some more coal on the fire, and I’ll get a pan to warm the bed. You mustn’t wonder off like that. You must eat something Mrs Perdew. My word, Mrs Perdew, you’re quite pale…”

By RN
(Prompts: crave, rock, [painting of woman with bird])

The Last Titan

His great eyes looked out of the stone of the mountain, and they saw everything. Not just everything that was, but everything that ever had been.

He had seen the world when it was a barren place, a world of twisted rock and foaming seas, where ice clashed with fire, where the elements battled in unending enmity. He had fought, too. His battle scars were plain to see, his craggy face was scarred: ice flows, rain’s lashing, the hot, searing lava rushing across his flesh. But now he was old, and still. His ichor was growing dry, the veins now nothing more than veins of rock. Men came, they chiseled and tunneled, they tore ores from his belly and stole diamonds from his heart. They no longer feared his hails of boulders, no longer ran in terror, afraid that he would unfold his giant limbs and storm across their lands. They did not know that he watched them, that he could feel their hammers within himself.

The great titan looked out upon the world. All his fellows were gone, made one with the world. Still he waited. Still the eagles landed, made nests upon his rocky shoulders. His crown of snow was splendid in the sun, but none knew the majesty of his youth. He was growing into the mountain, growing mortal, soon to be dead and cold as stone. All he could do now was watch the world grow, watch the gods vanish one by one, and wait for the tides to rise, and dash him to pieces. Then he would be a titan no more: just another fallen king.
By RN
(Prompts: titan, recollection)

Forest

Forest

The trees are knotted
in the spot where the bluebells grow
in June.

Gnarling, their roots twist
into strange, exotic shapes—
Spirals and triangles, spikes
like barbed wire.

We used to sit here
as children. We knew the notch,
the dark hard eye,
the tender part which you cut
to get the sap out.

Everything here is a cycle;
there is no flow of time,
no regress or
degeneration.

In summer the frost fades
to forget-me-nots;
through the canopy, long
into the evening, light lingers
in splinters and sparkles.

So I return;
the trees seem to whistle.
You hear their singing, its softness
like pining. Walk with me.

The greenness changes with the seasons.
Now I look upon it,
these tufts of grass, these oak leaves
glow with yellow fire—
chocolate, chestnut, cinnabar.

I look upon the colour, my fingers
scratching the eye. Its hardness
comes apart like ice.

I stare into that black spot,
the cavernous passage laden with frost,
the eye like a moon.

In the copper of twilight I see you again:
grass in your hair,
bluebells in June.

by Maria S.

(Prompts: green-man.jpg, passage, degeneration)