The Median Days

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On days like today, I watch the rain drops. I remember when I was a kid and I could watch the rain drops all day. They would fall onto the cold white slabs of marble, some splashing back, trickling away.

Bad things are happening to the country, the continent, the globe. My brother says the sun won’t set anymore; the universe does not sleep. Things are turning differently. The universe drifts in-between two chunks of time, big and fat as planets. A new arrangement of seasons: winter tans aglow as shining chestnuts; summer snow as ominous as the bats that once filled our chimney, until father bought the shotgun. There were the blackest howls. The world drifts, never settling. Two fat planets. I don’t understand it.

Even still the rain drops fall. There was a song I used to play on the piano, slow with the intricate left hand melody. It built gradually, lilting and trilling on the higher notes. My right pinkie would pick the sharp like the best sour cherry from a paper bag. I imagine those notes floating on out into an empty room, the vast acoustics of some cathedral. Maybe my parents married here; maybe I will find myself buried, one day, here…

The summer snow is soft and yellow in the lamplight. I watch the shadows grow from the ash trees, still flowering, though barren of their red berries. I miss the rain drops.

Will they return?

I miss the slow rush of sugar in my blood, the afternoons lost to chip van candy. The man would hold his hand out just so, uncurl his fingers to take the coins. Strawberry chews that caught in your teeth, your gums. I slipped them between my lips all through maths and science, indifferent to the numbers being drawn on the blackboard. I suppose I should have learnt more.

But you can’t do much when the world changes. You watch the sky shift in colour, ebb between baby blue and flossy pink, phosphorylate. The cells of my body swell with the sugar. My throat closes up, stuffed. The thin lines around my eyes tighten.

Times like this, all you can do is watch the rain drops. They were letting bombs off on the news, watching them streak in flames through the air. The woman in the suit was laughing, laughing like she’d never before seen anything funny. In her laughter I try to pick out piano notes. Funny how they mix with the trills, though you can never really hear them properly. I could never tell my Bs from my Es, As from my Gs, minors from majors. I was as tone deaf as the last dead flower they folded into the ground.

I watch the rain drops, the summer snow. The world will end in seven days; there will be another time, another universe. I could spew a lifetime of sugar. Still, the white slabs of marble glow. Someone will come for me, alone on the plaza.

by Maria Sledmere

(Flash Fiction February prompts: liminal, journey, Aphex Twin’s ‘Avril 14th’)

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)

 

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)

Fire

“Wake up! Wake up! Fire! Fire!”
“Fire? Where?”
“The library. Hurry, brother!”
“Brother Jérôme, wake the abbot! Brother Jacques, take some of the brothers and rescue the books! The rest of you, follow me!”
Chaos. A fire in the middle of the night. Someone must have forgotten to blow out the candle after the evening Bible studies. This will be investigated later. Right now they have a more serious problem. The wooden roof of the library is ablaze. It has not rained for five weeks. The buildings of the monastery and their surroundings are dry as bone. The water level in the well has dropped drastically.
“Fire!”
The red flames lighten the black sky as the monks form a chain to hand on the buckets of water.
“Save the books!” Among many others, the nearly finished set of liturgical books that the monks decorate with colourful miniature and that the abbot wants to give the archbishop of Avignon for the anniversary of his consecration is inside the burning building. The Brothers Jacques and Jean-Baptist as well as four novices ran into the library and return with their arms full of scrolls and leather-bound books.
“Fire!”
The first bucket filled with water is handed to Brother Ambroise who is standing the closest to the fire. Another bucket. And another.
The abbot is awake. He takes an empty bucket and joins the chain.
“The fire has spread to the stables!” somebody shouts.
“May the Lord have mercy with our souls!” an old monk mutters under his breath.
Where should they go next? The chain resolves. Men are running in different directions. The goats trapped inside the stable bleat in terror. Brother Jérôme trips over a pitchfork. Is this night ever going to end?
Suddenly, something falls from the sky. It is drop of water. The monks look up in grateful anticipation. Only a few seconds later the rain rushes down.

Rut Neuschäfer
What were your prompts?: picture of a book, rain, pitchfork

Requiem

It rained heavily when he finally finished. A gust of chilly wind swept through the archway the moment he lifted the quill of the parchment, leaving the last drop of ink on the page.

He straightened up from his crouched position, joints and muscles protesting loudly. The last page lay in front of him, with colourful, swirling patterns and vines encircling the black letters. He had been so intent on his job that his hand cramped and nearly refused to relinquish the quill. Gingerly he moved it away from the precious page and used his other hand to pry it loose and place the quill back in its holder. Massaging the hand gently, he took a moment to squint at the page and check it for errors. Lamps burned on the wall despite it being mid-day, the thick and heavy clouds brought on such a gloom that they all needed the extra light. Now the promised rain poured down outside, the garden barely visible through the curtain of water behind the archway. The garden was reflected clearly in his work, the leaves spreading out around the text like a living thing. The ink was still wet in places.

He was not sure how long he had been working, but his head was starting to hurt as he began to move his body. His fingers ached and as he started to focus the rest of his body decided to tell him sore it was. They had all been working on this piece for months, so many details and words; but now the last page was done. Even though his joints were burning it was worth it for this moment. He started to tidy up and move his utensils away while brother Matthew loitered nearby. That in itself was an unusual sight, the brothers did usually not have time to loiter anywhere. As he stood up brother Matthew approached and together, in silence, they worked until Matthew slowly and reverently picked up the page. The scriptorium grew silent as it was carried between the benches. The page was no finer than any of the others he knew, but the moment that the final pieces were completed never ceased to feel special.

Almost as quickly as it had begun, the rain outside stopped. He picked up his staff and moved out into the garden to take a short stroll to awaken his limbs and his mind again. The clouds were still dark and heavy above, but the air was filled with the sweet scent of summer flowers and rain on grass. He followed his usual, well-worn path through the garden, beyond the gate and up the sloping hill towards the grove. The trees grew close together with their leaves and flowers in full mid-summer glory. It was quiet. The birds hiding from the rain had not yet returned to their stage and every leaf, bush and tree was saturated with the water. It was a palace of green that muffled all worldly thoughts and enveloped him in peace as he walked. The weather had made the day start gloomy and quiet, but now it had acquired a new character: cleansing.

As the path took him around the grove and back to the top of the hill again – ready to return – he realised just how deep his meditation and jubilation had been. He should have heard them: heard the voices, heard the screams. Unknown riders on unknown horses swarmed the monastery like black ants. Specks of brown clothes gave evidence of brothers he knew down below, but they moved aimlessly, trapped between the black-clad men while flecks of white spiralled in the air.

The bonfires grew high.

It had rained heavily when he finished. When the quill left that last drop of ink. He could see it now, the drop rolling of the tip and nestling on the page: the dark letters and slender leaves still wet. Now they burned.

Nina Lindmark-Lie
What were your prompts: Picture of manuscript, Rain

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