Liminal Preparations

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There are cracks where the light breaks down and all the darkness left is nougat for shadow. I devour all I have; which is just this small room, a cabin that sways all night and day. When the sad hours come I fold into a question mark, hoping for nothing but sleep. The sea will rock me to sleep. This is less being than breathing.

As the hours pass, the honey crystallises in the jar on the window. I am always in water and yet the memories are hard and congealed. A lump of obsidian brought back from disaster. Black glass, hardened felsic lava. It’s smooth and slick enough to lick, a sliver of very dark chocolate. Bittersweet howl of the elements.

Sunshine feeds me nothing. The moonlight on the decking is lovely. My skin is like frosting, covered in crystals, white and shining. Gulls come in from the west on the thrust of the wind and we hear in our sleep their shouting. I live in the thin space, the evening whisky, the wafer of salty obsidian. I dream of a firth where the seaweed clogs the gorge of the sea and all is a dark, gelatinous, bottle green. You could float and not drown and the world would have you like that, microbial.

These hexagons dripping with golden honey, these desolate soundscapes of gun-coloured grey. If I close my eyes, close my eyes…If I am adrift like this for long, the mariner I’m sure will come for me. He knows these waves, these tides, like I know my childhood streets. He is still in his own way alive; still fighting for that acrid day, the old promise of solid concrete. Until then, I must blow this skin into glass, glow molten for a dawn that may not arrive.

/Maria Sledmere

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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’)

An Orange in the Morning

If she stared out at the ocean long enough, she knew that God would drop more ink in; that the colour would flower out to a deep, lapis blue, gathering its darkness in the distant shadows, the lay of the horizon which was, to her at least, the end of the world.

It was easy to forget that she was being held prisoner, with the ocean so close, its ebb and sigh mingling with the sad, weeping birds, sounding like the croon of an oboe across the bay. Lyra had spent many days on the turret, crawling out from her tiny room in the fortress tower to stare out at the vastness of water, whatever the weather. In glittering sunshine, she felt immortal. In storms, she held her arms up to the crackling sky. The rain and wind sometimes buffeted her, soaked her hair, her face, her tunic. The guard warned her, but she would not heed him. He sneaked in oranges from the Eastern cargo ships, and she ate them greedily, kneeling on the high walls, oblivious to the drop into the ocean below.

“Your time will come soon,” the guard once said, watching her as she watched the ocean. He even leaned forward, touching her arm.

“Don’t,” Lyra said. She knew the gulls were watching; that they had their master to report back to, swooping back and forth with their beady eyes. The guard’s hand fell away, dropped like a bird shot from the sky.

He was her friend, in a sort of way. While he slept, she hid out in her room, biding the hours. In the darkness she clawed at the brick walls, feeling for their texture in the way that a child feels the skin of a leaf for the first time. She stopped going outside, hoping that the world would stop turning without her in it. Maybe she could stay in this limbo forever.

One day, an Admiral arrived at the fortress, wearing his royal blue and white suit. Lyra was reminded of her days at sea, the men she used to kiss like rough cut diamonds and the sweet dark mouthfuls of rum. The Admiral conversed with the guard and she heard war and betrayal and whore escape the snatching hiss of their whispers.

“Your time will come soon,” the guard said again that night, closing the door of her chamber. This time, it sounded like a warning. He slipped something into her cold hands.

Two strangers came for her, early that morning. She offered her wrists to them as they bound and dragged her down the spiral staircase, through dimly-lit corridors and out into the pale and waiting dawn. A crowd had assembled, swinging their banners and screaming. Torches were lit on either side of the gallows.

Lyra stood before them, tall and angelic in her white nightgown, soon to be spattered with crimson blood. A fragile shaft of milky light gleamed off the silver blade. Lyra felt for the orange in her pocket. She was glad that she had saved it.

In front of everyone, she bit into her orange, savouring the sour bright taste in her teeth. She imagined she was biting into the sun, feeling its heat spread through her as it sunk down into her mouth, down into the strong blue ocean, softly dissolving as she swallowed, feeling the juice go down like the world going down to the darkest depths of the sea, sinking, sinking…

She saw the light beyond the horizon, the glimpse of white, of starry light – and as the blade sunk deep she knew she was free.

–Maria Sledmere

(Flash Fiction February prompts: arm, prisoner, img_0019.jpg)

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)

West Coast

West Coast

I paced the beach a lot as a teenager,
supposing it was a way of being lost,
going lost, finding my lostness
in the sound of the waves, seagulls
in the eaves of a sky cast black
by fire and onyx.

There were shells stuck in my skin,
bits of them sharp and ridged as glass. Adolescence.
Bottles of Bacardi and Glens
in remnants of lovelorn summers—
each one dug deeper as I walked
and I felt the call of the sea
like a summons. Come back to me

—the waves were strange consolation.
I loved
the loneliness of the sea, its sense of otherness,
of distant worlds, blue and green.

Salt spray
in the faces of children;
sand dunes
where we gathered for drinking and smoking,
wasting time
in the dry ice of shared menthols.

You dig your heels deep
by the shoreline, where your feet sink soft
through the mulch of watery sand,
sinking as if to drift down,
to ease yourself out of matter.

I paced the beach a lot on weekday evenings,
while cars passed behind me, while
normal people went home.
I learned to love
the gulls that croaked on the rocks,
crying cormorants, gannets
and black-feathered auks—
I always longed to spot an albatross,
imagining its body swooping
out of the sea fog
like an omen.

I thought I had forgotten these shores,
the way it felt to know nothing
of what would come; great drawings
dissolved in the tidal pull—come with us.
I thought this world was lost;
I thought
I had lost it all.

by Maria S.

(prompt: seagull photo)

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

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

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

Depth

The twisted ribs of a cruise liner, clouding over with life. Creeping things with claws and tendrils jut from cracks in the hull, and the deep bears down on bodies, long lost to sun and breeze and laughter. Day and night are foreign whimpers.

The rumble of ancient depths- The loud void unfolds in every direction, hiding buried terrors and towering phantoms. A wail, a magnificent, droning wail, drifts through vast shadows, telling of a titan unseen. The abyss shakes as another howl sounds out over the metal corpse- Perhaps some private elegy for bones that sleep in sand and rust.

What were your prompts?: Recordings of whale-song

by Paul Inglis

A Serpent

This morning is bleak, but whether that’s a novel observation at all considering the fact it’s February is up to the reader. I’ve just lurched into a little cafe-chippy place for a bite to eat and a cup of something. The thing on the plate is breakfast in name only- It bears the texture of rubber gloves and smells like melted flip-flops. I decide I need to look at something other than that old misshapen lump, so I check out the street through the little window to my left. A dull fog, the kind of fog I like getting lost in, is snagging on the branches of trees across the road.

A fine bleak morning, then. The hangover might be ruining it a bit, but nothing short of buckshot will sort that. May as well make the best of it and go exploring.

Eventually the supreme beak of a serpent cuts the mist, painted in drab grey. The rest of it crouches in the white abyss, stretching off for what could be miles. Were I of more valiant composition, I’d have a go at it with a lance, but for the moment I’m just content to loiter on the pier. Some halo’d templar will show up soon enough to behead the thing anyways, no need to worry. Then again…

I decide to get out of there- The kind of man that runs about swinging swords with the intention of butchering giant creatures sounds like the kind of man that gets carried away and cuts down the next two or three or fifty bystanders by accident. As I leave I pass an old man fishing, and worry that the next one to bite might end up being the monster lurking further down in the fog. He flashes me a grin of mostly gums and shows off his earlier prize: A stumpy little mackerel, still twitching despite its broken neck. On second thought, he seems more than capable of dealing with the beast. After wishing him luck, I slip off into the rolling gloom, intent on wasting a few more hours.

What were your prompts?: Picture of a ship, breakfast

by Paul Inglis