The Median Days

IMG_3417

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’)

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)

cherry melancholia

2442503363_f78d1a37e7_z
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)

The Death of Spring

Each spring she came as sure as the rain, the cold sunshine and the sweet aromas of cut grass and new flowers blossoming on fruit trees.

There was something otherworldly about the girl – no one in the town knew her name, or, if they did, they called her ‘the Daffodil Girl’ nonetheless. And that was fitting enough, for each year, on the first day of spring, she would come floating through the dirty streets, bringing with her the vernal breeze and all the freshness and irrepressible life of the country, with a splendid mound of bright yellow daffodils bundled in a wicker basket, and balanced on her hip. Her wind-tangled tawny curls were pinned and twined and braided around her head with the same wilderness that she carried in her step, in the keen, roaming gaze of her dark doe eyes. Her dress was out of place in the town – she wore no starched lace or whalebone, no constricting silk squeezed her swaying waist and there were no intricate arrangements of buttons or beads. She was like a milkmaid of a lost age, as though she had wandered from a glorious alpine painting, somehow, into this hard and smoky English town.

The burst of yellow as she wound through the streets, the subtle scent of fine pollen the colour of sunshine, it turned the head of every fine lady, every stiff gentleman and gabbling fishwife, every merchant, beggar and drunk. And one man amongst them all was particularly drawn to her. For him, the entire season had but one purpose, one value: he could watch the Daffodil Girl in her strange, slow progress, her pilgrimage of spring, and let her soft shape and sweet scent, the mild hum of ancient songs, sooth the turmoil in his soul.

This morning, the first of march, he had woken late. He punished himself, positively flagellated himself for the error. He had not slept a full night, he felt, for many a year. Yet it was no excuse.

Disheveled and out of sorts, he left the room without his stick, half tumbling down the decaying staircase of the boarding house and limping up the street as fast as his tortured frame would carry him. Passersby muttered their judgements, scowling at the frightful sight of the crippled lunatic lurching along the cobbles, asking themselves and each other why such a creature could ever have need to hurry. Who could be waiting for a wretch like him?

He persevered, even as his whole left side began to ache, to scream for rest. And then, as he crested the top of the hill, he saw her – a spot of sunshine in his bleak world of winter. The sight gave him a second wind. He clutched his thigh, defying the pain, and ran. He had not run for seven years, not since the days he has laughed at death as bullets tore the air and mud and pitch flew up around his nimble feet like showers of confetti…

The yellow bloom grew closer and closer, until he could see the white flash of her stockings above the sturdy boots, the mud and dust on the fringe of her skirts, the infant daffodil she had wound into her hair…

“Miss!” He cried, but his voice was a thin rasp, a shriek of rusted metal on stone. “Miss!”

She turned, and he saw fear on her freckled face. The shock, the disgust was heartbreaking in the eyes of this angel. Surely that face could show nothing but heavenly benevolence, infinite, divine calm…

“Miss, please!” He gasped, reaching out to her, stumbling like a drunkard, clutching blindly. His hand closed around the handle of her basket.

“Leave off me!” She cried, her cheeks flushed with anger and fear. “Help! Won’t someone help me?”

“No, miss, no, wait!”

She tore away from him, running, skipping like a dryad in flight. He half thought she would vanish, explode into a shower of golden petals and float away on the rising wind. The thought struck him with an all-consuming fear, and he made a last attempt to seize the girl, to hold her close and tell her that she, she was his saviour!

She turned, her eyes wide, and fell, flying backwards, away from him forever. It seemed she would fall into the ground and into hell itself. There was a deafening roar, hooves and voices. A huge black horse thundered toward them…the black horse and black chariot that haunted his dreams! Doom! Doom!

Silence, screams. The crowd of the street parted; women sobbed, men shouted their useless outrage, taking off hats and shuffling feet. Someone with sense called for a doctor.

There she lay: white, broken. Her hair was splayed around her like a glorious pagan crown, her hand lay gently on her waist. And all around were yellow daffodils, scattered like funeral flowers, like tiny mourners falling at her feet, heads bent with heavy grief.

The crowd cried tragedy, but it was more than a tragedy for him. It was the death of spring, the sun turned to cold stone. It was his apocalypse.

by Rachel Norris

prompts: daffodil, desire, apocalypse

Strayed

We had no idea you could go out this far into the forest. I hadn’t intended for us to be out so long; I thought we’d just wander in for a bit, then we’d head back to the village for Southern Comfort and Lemonades in the pub. But now I’ve lost track of how long we’ve been in here – and how to get out.

The forest seems to be changing as we travel through, our hands touching through woollen gloves. It’s only late September but already the trees here have a starved, skeletal appearance. So different from the lush copper and green of the horse chestnuts, the firs and pines we saw earlier. Where before we walked on a trove of fir cones, conkers and acorns, now we trudge through a frosty undergrowth of dead leaves, where only a few spindly mushrooms dare to peek through the tangle of mulch and bracken. There’s not a flower in sight. It’s growing noticeably colder, and a thick blueish mist is gathering round the trees.

I jump as Larissa snaps a branch underfoot.

A crow caws luxuriously from a nest that hands from a fragile canopy. I watch its black shadow sweep between the floating leaves.

“Where are we going?” Larissa asks, her voice a welcome relief from the forest’s eerie soundscape.

“To the end,” I tell her. We keep walking in our perfect silence. Our footsteps rustle the undergrowth like taffeta, like feathers.

“Where are we going?” she asks again, her voice echoing in the hollowness of the forest. I don’t reply. I relish the crunch of mud and rock beneath my feet, the crumbling of solid matter mirroring our loss of time.

Soon we stumble upon what appears to be an abandoned railway line. Moss and strange, unfamiliar weeds sprout up between the tracks. The body of  a dead sparrow lies stark and abject amidst bits of litter: beer bottles, fag packets, empty bags of crisps. It’s like we’ve stumbled upon a spot for teenage gatherings, from long ago, a well-loved no-space of some generation’s past. Mould creeps up through the planks of wood, eats into the greenish plastic, the soft rotten cardboard. There is a smell of earthiness, of dejection; it’s not entirely unpleasant. Larissa looks at me, utterly confused.

“Trains used to pass through here,” I say.  The shadow of a breeze slips between us. She rolls her eyes at me. All seems completely lifeless, darkened. We can’t see where the train track comes from, where it goes to, because the indigo mist cloaks it in vague glow.

“What are we going to do? We’re lost,” Larissa worries, adding again as if this time telling the forest, “we’re lost…” I pull her close, feel her warm breath sharp and scared on my neck. Looking over her shoulder, I see a flash of colour amidst the brownish landscape, the metallic tracks, the tobacco-coloured earth. A violet has somehow sprouted out of the lifeless ground, its purplish blue emanating strength amidst decay. My eyes are drawn to it, absorbed in its focus. As I part from Larissa, a warm zephyr quivers through the leaves, like the light wind left in the wake of a train. Smiling, I say to Larissa:

“We’re not lost. We just have to follow the track, to wherever.” My voice sinks and melts into the fleshless air, becomes part of the forest’s breath.

by Maria Sledmere

prompts: photo of railway track in forest, lost

Disappear

I listen to the fire crackle, spitting bits of spark and stick on the carpet. It’s toasty warm here, with the cat lying languid and the smell of soup wafting from the stove. I am safe, as the walls embrace me with the spirit of home. Yet I still fear the abyss, this endlessness of being alone.

***

There is a cottage out in the wilderness, where she lives and sleeps in solitude, where sometimes she disappears. Folk from the villages say she does things, has powers in her hands. They wonder where she goes. Sometimes she’s sighted like a shadow slipping through trees. The children sneak with clandestine excitement into the forest, watching her pick mushrooms in the gloam. They wonder how a person’s hair could be that peculiar colour, that strange shade of violet that catches the starlight. As they wander home for tea, they swap stories about her mystery.

 ***

If only she knew what lies beneath my floor, what dark wonders wait in store for her. She would love me less, then.

***

I have known these walls for a lifetime; more than a lifetime, a generation of twisted roots reaching back to gnarled old ancestors. Grandma and the things she smoked, the accidental fire and the rebuild. Father’s callused hands. The knotted sorrows of the worn-out land. No-one left, now.

***

She lights fires for warmth. She does not know how I absorb her thoughts.

***

There hasn’t been a sighting for over a week. The children have found other games to play: they chase each other through trees, tripping over roots, letting their laughter mingle with the bird-cries, the buzzing of bees.

***

A canvas of coruscating light covers the autumned canopy. Something wonderful is alive in the fading beauty, the softly falling leaves. The children are falling in love; a million kisses pressed on wind-flushed cheeks. They have forgotten her, forgotten the way her shadow disturbed the silence, disturbed matter.

***

I heard a mouse beneath the floorboards; or what I thought was a mouse, or something else…a whirring, insistent sound. Its presence became a blackness that scratched at my mind; I had a sense of an ending, of some kind of doom.

***

Something happened a millennia ago, when fairies inhabited the woods, when spirits and goddesses fought over the sweetness of the land. A power was released in the mis-direction of a spell, a rupture was cast upon the soil. In the blood of slaughtered sprites, the earth opened, churning and whirling with its angry flesh exposed to the night. And what was beneath had been covered by centuries of charms, of careful woodwork and strong command.

***

Months passed: winter stole the forest’s colour, froze every dew drop into glass. Everything gleamed white and pure and sad; all nature was untouched as the villagers hibernated in their cottages, far off across the fields. It was April before a soul set foot through the forest glade. A young man, seeking out the loveliest of roses for his sweetheart, dared to venture through the woods. The soil sprang beneath his feet, new and clean and speckled with the buds of spring.

***

He walked in circles for seven miles before he found his roses. Beside a sleeping cat lay a bunch of white ones, already picked, holy like a new-born child. At his presence, the cat’s tail sprung up, his green eyes glaring at the man. He stepped back, for what he saw struck him with terror: it was not the cat, but what lay behind it. A small whirlpool, sucking gradually fragments of stick and seed and stone from the forest floor, chucking up bits of ice from within. As he looked closer, fear glowing in his breast, he saw that through the whirlpool rippled streams of red. It seemed as if the whirlpool hissed at his presence, and his heart quivered in horror as he saw bloodied flecks spray from the water upon the roses. As if the water was lashing out a warning. The roses’ pale glory was stained before him. He knelt among the undergrowth, before the cat, and wept. He realised, then: the children of the forest had abandoned their mother.

 by Maria Sledmere

prompts: whirlpool, cottage, romance