June Cruelty

Held to the brink, the mouth gapes its film of saliva. There is no more than the gossamer gorge of all those Skittles, crackling up between the teeth. We let go of his neck to see what would happen next. We watched as he scaled the red brick walls. Shouts from a football match. The air aglow with cut grass, laughter, nesting birds. The coming summer.

He got stuck and they watched him for hours from the safety of concrete. They came back after class had finished; no teacher noticed his absence. He was shaking now; it was visible even though he kept his hands stuffed in his pockets. People were crying, Chicken, Chicken, but maybe it wasn’t a game anymore. I told ‘Manda I was going for a walk and she shrugged. She wants in with Liam and won’t leave his side.

Scaling the circumference of a field, the image of that mouth wouldn’t get out my mind. All those teeth! Who knew wee Neil had all those teeth! Pecking like that at the sweets! The stickiness dripping down his chin and all the rainbow colours spilling out, coagulating on the playground. I thought he was going to choke.

The shouts got louder, even though I was now two fields away from the school. Stepped in fucking cow pat. Stopped at a burn to wash my shoes, the patent ones with the gold heart buckle, my favourites. The highness of the shouting modulates, like the tracks we had to listen to in Music Theory to understand what they called octaves and  pitch shifts. Maybe you could say it was a scream. I glanced in the water and saw among the rocks and silt the slow spread of a jellyish blood. A sheep’s? The breeze blew and I opened my mouth for a yawn the shape of a semibreve. There was silence then, a pause.

/ Maria Sledmere

(fff prompts: iridescence, inconceivable)

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>)

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’)

Electric Blue

 

Electric Blue

The bedroom swirls in plumes of dust. This is what she loves: spinning and lifting her skirt, eyes rolling back in mock ecstasy. Nobody has entered her room for a long time. The curtains have been drawn since April. In here, there was no summer.

The music skips, judders between trance and breakbeat. It is maddening, a trip of rhythm, of time signatures. She loves it. She spins and lifts her skirt. 4/4 drums and looping synths. Eyeshadow electric blue meeting the glow coming from the corner, by the bed. She will let no stranger into her bed. The glow is unnatural. The sheets are pristine, though everything else is trash. Broken crockery, smashed glass. She cuts her feet as she twirls and leaps, but feels nothing. She is waiting for the cry on the other side.

Blood spatters everywhere, quietly on the carpet.

She rises for her first laugh. Her makeup so blue, her lips drained translucent. This is her crazed performance. She is like the atoms dancing in space, aligning their beads into exquisite shapes. Her laughter is like the bending of glass, so close it might break. But still, she laughs. Eyes opening and closing, still she laughs. Her body the bending of glass.

Turns to the corner, the emanating glow. Unnatural. The light moves in flickers, as she does. She is like a sprite of glitched pixels. The music is fading, as she does.

A voice comes into focus. Sound waves expand and compress.

There is a screen, and she is dancing. She is dancing for the screen, casting her shadow on the sound beams of a hologram. She flickers. The screen spills out electric blue.

She blinks, she flickers.

–Maria Sledmere

(Flash Fiction February prompts: misaligned, breakthrough, Kate Bush- Running Up That Hill)

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)

Crusoe’s Ghost

How strange to find myself here at last! Many months I have waited, through my dreams of turquoise shores to the pineapple sands and the shells that cut into your feet. In my sleep I opened myself like a clam to the possibilities. I would be anything – animal, even – to be here. And now I am.

What a wonder to be the only one, to own some place of my own. To have the luxury of knowing I cannot go back.

I do everything by the book. I erect my shelter, sow crops on the inland pastures, throw stones in the ocean and kill all the feral cats. I am never homesick; not for one minute.

Sometimes I find myself whispering, though what I say and to whom it cannot be said.

People do not appreciate the loveliness of loneliness until they have fully experienced it. There is an inexplicable beauty to be able to plot out one’s day, one’s hour, one’s life with absolute sovereignty. To reign free over every thought and feeling, to tread upon soil that can only be your own, with nobody to challenge it, nobody to challenge you at all. To have no worry of intrusion or offence; to have no worry of the soliciting of difference. I climb high for the coconuts and crack their skulls against the sandstone. Their pulpy juice is exquisite.

I have a herd of goats now, and a dog and a parrot, though they are not my companions. I keep them only because I am following the story. I do not speak and so the parrot learns no words, the dog obeys no orders and the goats do nothing but eat and sleep and secrete my milk. The whole island flourishes as the mother of my desires and yet still I owe her nothing but my company.

In the midday sun, I dig my toes into the sand and kill the little slimy things – the ones that crawl towards the shoreline, ugly and green.

I eat fleshy roots and summer berries, and from the tops of palms I watch the watery paradise that surrounds my island. All society has melted into the sweet sweet sea.

A year; two, three perhaps, have passed. I am no longer a name; I am no longer a human nor even an animal. I am the island itself.

This is perfect.

But everything changes one day. I wake from my goatskin sheets for my morning walk, and what do I see? I see a human footprint. A human footprint. And the terror bubbles up inside of me because I know that this footprint cannot belong to cannibals or savages or Spaniards, because that has already happened in the story. I try to erase the footprint with my boot, kicking sand over and over it, but it keeps reforming before me. And so I am no longer the whole; now I am a fractured reality, a host. For I realise this footprint can only be Crusoe’s ghost.

(Prompts: footprints photo, introvert, curiosity)

by Maria Rose Sledmere

Berry Picking

It was late August and the evenings were still long. The air in these years is fresh and pure, mottled only with the playfulness of imagination, a flickering light of primary colours; that melody, that lovely  paradox of possibility and infinite security. I’m not sure how old I am, maybe nine, maybe ten; maybe even seven. I think I have plaits in my hair: blonde messy plaits with grass and leaves caught in them, as if I were some kind of woodland creature. I run and spin around a lot, my breath always caught in the dizzying air. Me and my limbs like climbing trees. I reach for branches with my arms; my thin fingers cling to them with earthy nails.

My cousins are here and we’re playing a game. There’s an old rowan tree at the back of our garden, which sucks all the light in the morning then bounces it back towards afternoon. Since it’s nearly September, the tree is rich in an abundance of vivid red berries, gleaming like the eyes of so many children. But to our eyes, they are precious and lovely as rubies. We are pirates, plundering treasure. We are climbing the tree and picking them – every last one – and tossing them in a bucket we’ve found in the shed. I remember the shed so clearly. The shed smells sweetly of sawdust, and that rainy, swampy scent of wet grass that comes from the lawnmower. Sometimes we sit in there, in the stuffy warmth, amongst the buckets and spades and gardening tools, and swap made-up stories.

No time exists in these summer evenings; only the bubbles of our laughter and the slow-changing light. The way our skin glows pale and moonlike as it grows darker. The way our voices float upwards, swallowed by a sea of stars.

We’ve cleared most of the tree now; its branches are bare of berries – left only with green. A green that blurs at the edges, that makes our spirits shimmer. The four of us stand at the foot of the tree, admiring our handiwork. The bucket is almost full.

‘But I can still see some up there!’ someone says. We look up and there are several handfuls still clutching the branches at the top of the tree. We wonder who will be brave enough. The boys step back kicking their feet. I am the oldest; by nature, it will be me.

I climb with ease, with my young sweeping limbs. No looking down. No fear, no notion of falling. My vision is confined to the enticement of those scarlet fruits above me.

And soon I am there, waving my arms triumphantly. I pluck the berries and toss their clusters down to the ground. They fall fast in bloodied, godlike rain. From up here I can see the whole town: what seems like a thousand rooftops rendered magical in the purplish twilight. An atmosphere that pulls at my brain. A moon emerging from a murky horizon, the church steeple thin and eerie against a backdrop of silken clouds. It is all wonder, a view that somehow contains me in its pocket of time. I shake as I finally break away and climb back down.

My cousins hug me as I become the day’s heroine. A whole tree, stripped clean. A child’s harvest of earliest autumn.

My mother calls us inside, but we do not listen. The air is still warm, the light now sparkling with summery darkness. One of us goes to retrieve a potato masher, and we stand round our bucket, our cauldron, like little witches. We take turns to smash the overflow of berries, passing the masher round, watching the red drip and slush and seep as we crush vehemently. Are we making a potion, a poison? Performing mystical rites? Brewing our own bittersweet jam, with its distinct tartness that pierces the tongue and waters the eyes?

We are concocting a tonic for time: for the long hours that melt and fade as we grow and change and lose the clarity of innocence, of childish sight. We relish something tangible and bright.

by Maria Sledmere

Prompts: childhood, potion