The Concrete Warrior

The Concrete Warrior

He peels the stripping from an incense stick, with such precision as to suggest it’s been his life’s goal to discover what was hidden by sawdust paste and sandalwood slivers. It turns out to be a mere bamboo reed, ancient tool of inscription. There’s a sense of the inevitable here. What good would it do to now lick the coating? It tastes of terrible regrets. His concentration lacks thrift; thrives on the excessive.

You could cure depression, he argued in last semester’s essay, by drinking from city rivers. The amount of oestrogen in the water was warping school after school of fish; contraceptives left the body in women’s piss and slowly diluted their chemicals through the current. Not to mention the lithium deposits, the Prozac mass surreptitiously making sediment of riverbeds, embedding its serenity in sand particles, gemstones, fish eggs. Pesticides were supposed to remove residues, but inevitably contributed to further contamination. He drinks freely from the river, drinks like he’s making a statement. Back at the tower block, the others survive on stolen Lucozade, but he maintains a healthy faith in l’eau naturelle.

His skin, they often said, has that uncanny glow. Like it’s been purified with butane, the acne blasted away. Unnatural. Not sleeping, he wrote screeds about the lovely truth to be found in raiding bins. No other method could reveal the secrets of our governing corporations. The titles were varied and strange:

Haunted Monopolies: How Our Supermarkets Invoke the Waning of History
Circuits of Trolleys: What Your Shopping Basket Says about Fertility and Self-Governance
Euro Trash Girl: How Nightclubs are Hotting Up the Biosphere
Junk Hook: Washing Up Culture on the Brink of Extinction
Alice’s Mirror: Looking Back on Our Selves through the Broken Glass of Suburban Play-parks 

Perhaps there wasn’t a quick logic to his method but the tutors seemed to like it. Scholarships promised like the neon lights of a Vegas strip, but he managed to resist the allure. He wanted to remain digging deep in the dirt; could never see himself imprisoned, shimmering, in the ivory tower, crowned with the laurels of knowledge. He knew his work was utter sludge, the bullshit pulled straight from the earth and recycled with choice and sensitive words.

Morphine pulses through his sleepy veins, night and day. He snaps the stick in his mouth. There’s a new immediacy to his presence of being. Stay in the moment, he scribbles, it’s the only way to resist the messianic pull of the past as it threatens to sandblast every particle of your purified being. Switch off your smartphone, before it’s too late. Toss that transient saccharine pleasure away. Crunch the coke can to cut your mouth.

When the riots broke out, many youths came past the tower block on their passage of looting. The sky crackled with ersatz thunder, which he concocted himself from the safety of an 8th floor window, occasionally dropping M&Ms on the crazed kids below. Some of them relinquished their grip on the stolen televisions, the screens of which smashed on the concrete. Others waved their fists with invisible placards, making wild proclamations about the vengeance of the earth. By sundown, everyone feasted on pizza, leaving the cardboard boxes to grease the streets. He waited until their cries died down then left the building to pick up the mess. Single-handedly, he cleaned his street. Not out of pride, or civil duty; but a robotic sense of necessity.

The incense wafts through the 8th floor window. He assembles his collection of needles. There’s an archive of noise he hasn’t yet tapped, an ecstatic whole that would affirm itself in the choir of angry shouts. He feels their riots at night, remembers the orgiastic disarray of society as something he once needed but now didn’t. The tower block seems to rise, its roof of concrete block threatening the fiery tips of the sun. Eventually, he knew this would all be molten. The sun would fall. He’d bite off each piece of the candy necklace, marking the end of another day. The sugar would mix with the heroin in his veins and he’d feel the calm come over him, wave after wave; the residue waste of the river washing up, swirling its gurgles in his seashell ears, threatening the spillage of sewage, the sludge-work of words, the colliding extravagance of year after year. The leftovers, the children. The silt of the earth, rising and winning.

/ Maria Sledmere

(FFF prompts: underwater photo, riot)

The Legend of Maurelle

They say that all that was left to recognise her was a strawberry birthmark on her wrist. 

Maurelle was running through the woods. All was disintegration; all was the feeling that she had no choice. The spirits were upon her and she had no sense of what right she had to be. To be, to be; to be was nothing but the hum of the bees and the dull pain of a distant infinity.  There was only the voice of her father, thundering in her ear; the voice of her mother, small and far away. As she flew through the greenish gloom, she felt the years shed away. All was renewed; all was soon renewing.

All the creatures kissing in the rain and yes she’s heard that somewhere before. She’s kicked her shoes off, running bare feet and leaping over thick roots and clumps of nettles. There’s an energy she’s found from nowhere. A bramble lashes out and catches her, but the blood is only wine on her fire. She trails her finger over the jagged wound and brings it to her lips. It tastes metallic and rich. She looks around and there they are, all those creatures kissing in the rain. They are ghosts.

Lost now in darkness; not quite darkness but the kind of twilight stasis that falls upon a forest. Birds returning to nest with fragile song and somewhere above an eagle swooping but only its shadow touching the ground. Maurelle comes to a clearing, where the sense of space is startling. Look around again: crisps, fag packets, an empty bottle of whiskey. The earth sighs beneath her feet. She runs on, following the river and its silver trickle, ignoring the hot pounding of her heart. There is a place she longs for, she can smell it almost; and yet still she is lost, still just following the river.

Somebody or something calls her name, though it is more a distortion – a susurration – caught up in the gush of the river flowing. A foxglove ugly in crimson sings to her as she passes. It opens one eye and releases a bee.

Once upon a time she was starving; now she craves only cigarettes. The world churns out its rot and rubbish. She moves on, the smoke filling up in her head.

She comes upon rows of bluebells, purple blue and beautiful; so startling a sight that momentarily she stops. The sun pours molten gold through the silhouetted trees, bringing light to the swaying bluebells. So many of them, so serene they seemed. There was something hazy about them, a mystical quality. Maurelle wanted nothing more but to crawl up among them, fade back into the soil and become a child again, endlessly sleeping and wandering. As she trod carefully among them, they seemed to speak to her; only their voice was a sparkle of a whisper, and who could hear? Who could possibly hear them? The breeze was upon them, and that was all.

Something was shifting as the sun set in the west and a cloud of violet light came down from the canopy; a kind of filtered moonlight made strange by the sinuous shapes of plants and flowers. What are these trees here? Maurelle cannot recognise the trees here. They are not native trees, but perhaps imports from foreign lands. She rubs her fingers over their coarse trunks, feeling the etching patterns of bark and enjoying the solidity. A secret unfolds inside every leaf. She would come here again in another life. These are not the trees she thought would grow here.

She cannot read the carvings in their trunks nor the words they seem to be saying, saying in the quiet moan of the night-born wind. Saying incantations.

A distant roar strikes up in the distance. Maurelle grows closer.

Running again, her skin flakes off as she sees the trees swell up around her. She notices that one has the same shape as the birthmark on her wrist, a dull pink strawberry. It is a wounded tree, its branches shattered and black as if recently struck by lightning.

The roar is louder now, becoming a kind of glistering cry, prolonged by the spray of sharp sound echoing out along the darkening space. Maurelle runs as if something were chasing her, as if she were running towards the thing that was calling her –

Waterfall. It smashes its liquid silver in spattering torrents down to the clear bright pool which shimmers with moonlight. The spray is cool and splashes upon her face as she stands there, absorbing herself in the ambient shout of water hitting upon rock and water hitting upon water. But not for long could she stop. Maurelle plunged deep into that enticing pool, the icy water enveloping her entirely, sucking in her body. All above was white, melting opal. Pulses of it like sound waves and she felt it dark and deep in her brain. The water is hungry and clear and pulling, and she feels her body pressing down, down; feels the gorgeous descent of the rushing currents and the roar in her freezing ears. The world is wiped out and she is a silky fish. Her cries are little giggles upon the water’s surface, and who would know her but the trees that watch the verdant scene like thirsty voyeurs. Who would know her? She is but a spirit of the forest, a distant ripple of some other mystery.

Prompts: strawberry, waterfall

by Maria Rose Sledmere

Corrosion

So long it had taken us to hike out here, even with the help of the guide who talked in soft, bubbly Turkish, and the sun beaming high in the sky despite the afternoon’s wearied position. Some of the locals call this place ‘Cotton Castle’, most likely due to the fluffy mineral formations caused by the crystallised carbonite which clusters upon the rock. My husband George and I had chosen Turkey because of the beauty of these natural springs, and the restorative promise that seemed to gurgle through the very turquoise of those lustrous, travel agent photographs.

The guide told us, switching to a lilted English, that the ground transported magical properties up through these waters. My husband is of course a sceptic of everything and he raised his eyebrows with such rudeness that I was forced to gush my enthusiasm. There were a handful of other couples here – mostly older folks – but also the odd young man or woman who had come like us to escape the tiring perils of modern life. While George stood with his arms folded looking out across the twining rivulets, I pulled off my shirt and let the hot sun glow through every nerve. The wonderful, life-giving sun. I recommend it to all. There is something indeed enchanting about the softness of the little wavelets as they ripple across the aqua baths, the tiny, tinkling sound they make as they purl in swirling whirlpools that pull against the chalky rock. A young man grinned at me unashamedly as I climbed with as much grace as I could muster into the hot springs. Steam gushed off my skin as I sank beneath the warm water, feeling the thick of it billow and shimmer around me. Light from the late sun shone on the glossy surface and I felt it reflect on my face in so many triangles of white. How good it felt to be warm, to be so refreshingly warm!

George glared at me, obviously disgruntled by my shameless entrance into the water. The guide seemed to sense this and whispered something in my husband’s ear that caused a lewd stare and then a grimace. These things are to be expected of men, I suppose. My response was to stare hungrily at the young man, to pick out the glitter of his eyes. It was then that George decided it was about time he clambered in, and there was an unpleasant splash as he did so. Thin streams of water trickled over the edges, dripping like molten silver down the terraces and glinting so prettily that it would blind you to watch for too long.

“I’ve never been so happy,” I murmur to George with a knowing smile.
“The water is too hot,” he said huffily, leaning back against the rock. We were silent.

I suddenly had the urge to be utterly submerged. Ignoring my husband’s protests, I plunged my whole self underwater: felt the hot surges rush by my cheeks and pull back my skin like gills. I pulled with my arms into a kind of butterfly stroke, forcing my body deeper below the surface. All was a potent, cobalt blue; the kind of blue you dream of in the sapphire-hued sleep of a winter’s evening. I blew bubbles and touched the bottom of the pool. The rock came away easily like gritted salt in my fingers; I clutched some tight in my fist and kicked up to the surface.

As I burst through the layer of perfect gossamer, I found myself up close to the young man. He said something in what might’ve been Spanish and laughed. I could not see my husband.

“How peaceful it is down there,” I found myself saying breathlessly. The Turkish sun was sizzling on my back and the water spilled off my hair in droplets that snatched the splintering light. My heart did a funny somersault as I found the man ran a finger down my wet cheek. I let go of the handful of silt and felt it drift slowly to the bottom of the pool. I watched the man as he took his finger from my cheek and put it in his mouth.
“Tastes like salt,” he said in crystal English. I remember being aware of the sheer precipice that hung below us: the millions of white icicles shining in sunlight; the infinite layering of cerulean pools and carbonite glazing; the steady susurration of trickling water and tinkling laughter. I felt myself dissolving in the pureness of this beauty, its centripetal pull towards a perfect present. I could not help but kiss him; could not help but let him ruffle his hands through my soaking hair. The moment was ours and we were part of that eternal flowing of water: the slow clustering of hydrogen and oxygen, the corrosion of soft rock over thousands of years.

It was only when I opened my eyes that I remembered my husband; felt his cold gaze like a cloud of dripping fog on the back of my neck. Of course, I never saw that man again.

(Prompts: photograph of Pamukkale Travertine Terraces, Turkey; middle)

by Maria Rose Sledmere

Days Long Gone

When Jacintha was still quite young, J.C would take her walks along the shores of the Camus. One brisk day when Jacintha was throwing stones into the choppy waters of the sound of Sleat, she found a strange stone. Pretty soon she realised it wasn’t a stone at all.
‘J.C.! J.C.!’ she shouted excitedly. ‘LOOK!’ J.C. took the yellowy object from her daughter.
‘Well well.’ she said, examining the object. ‘What have we here?’
‘I think it’s a piece of amber.’ The eight year old said. J.C. felt the object.
‘Hmm …’ she said. ‘I think you’re right.’ The object was scuffed and worn by being immersed in the sea but still very hard.
‘We’ll take it home and polish it. There may be something inside.
‘You mean like a dinosaur?’ Jacintha said excitedly.
‘I don’t think you could QUITE get a dinosaur in there.’ J.C. smiled, ruffling Jacintha’s hair. She put the piece of amber into her pocket.

They walked along the old path and back to the level crossing at the pier. As they arrived the 1535 ‘Company’ was rattling over the crossing, the gates closed against the road. ‘Billy the Fish’ was driving the Class 37 as it rattled past. He waved at them as he flew past with a train of alumina hoppers in tow. They watched the last wagon vanish through the little single platform station and disappear through the cutting and across the machair. Flo came out of the little hut and opened the gates. She exchanged greetings with them as they walked across the tracks and into the house which was the second from the crossing.
‘Round the back and get your boots off.’ J.C. said and opened the door that led to the rear of the large house she shared with her partner. She put the kettle on and took her jacket off. Before she made a pot of tea, she threw another couple of peats on the fire.
Will you polish my piece of amber, J.C.?’ Jacintha asked excitedly.
‘Later.’ J.C. smiled. ‘Let’s get warmed up first.’
J.C. poured boiling water onto the china teapot.
‘Let’s see what comestibles Sian has left lying around.’ She said, beginning a prowl through the cupboard for something to assuage the hunger that a brisk walk in the cold had generated. She found a tin of freshly baked rock buns and, handing one to Jacintha, she took two for herself. She poured two mugs of steaming hot tea and they sat by the fire.
‘Don’t forget my bit of amber.’ Jacintha said
‘Hey, It’ll still be there when we finish our tea,’ J.C. said with a smile.

Later they went out to the boat house where J.C. polished the little object.
‘LOOK!’ Jacintha said excitedly. ‘There IS something in it.’ J.C. looked through a magnifying glass.
‘Some kinda creepy crawly.’
‘Is it a terry dac-till?’
‘I wouldn’t think so; a pterodactyl would fill this boathouse. It’s some sort of fly. Looks like a big bluebottle only it’s green.’
‘Do you think it’s alive?’
‘Again, I wouldn’t imagine so. It’s been in there for umpteen million years.’
‘Oh well, maybe not.’
‘There you are.’ J.C. handed the amber to Jacintha.
‘I’m going to take it to school tomorrow for show and tell.’ She said proudly.

Prompts: underwater, amber

by Jane Jones

Whale Fall

This place is a deep black cacophony; you hear the noises, some noises, not all the noises, and you feel the pressure ripple pulling under you. We’ve been swimming for so long to prepare for this. 5000 calories a day and five hours at the pool: butterflying, twisting, diving. But that was all under bright lights and floor-tiles, and blue and red lines to guide you along. Your whole life a series of intervals.

I started all this when I was very young. My father wanted me to be an Olympic swimmer, but the point of all my swimming wasn’t to win medals or have the best muscles in my class; the point was to enter another world. You reach the bottom of a pool and the light above you is another sun, the gurgling swirls of current reach out from your limbs and this is what it is to be alive; to be alien, to be brilliant.

Down here, the ocean is a dull roar. The university paid for all of it: the travel costs, training, equipment. The transition is easy, leaving land behind you. When you pull on your wetsuit, you morph into another being. I was hoping for whales; everyone is always hoping for whales in America. Maybe it’s just their taste for scale, or maybe it’s the Moby Dick factor.

Anyway, we were five days into the expedition and still no whales.

Just the vast blue darkness.

Sometimes, though, when you get to a certain depth, you can hear something. Well, it’s not hearing exactly; it’s hard to put into words – more of a feeling, something passing through you, like that shiver you get when someone walks on your grave. Each trip we always take the same amount of oxygen, but there are parts of the ocean where time slows and you are down there for longer – everything drags around you, and even the movements of the glittering shoals of fish seem different, prolonged.

As I flex and pulse my body, I imagine all the echolalia around me. I have listened to the whale sounds on countless documentaries. They are like the susurrations of wind or the bleeping of glitched computers; there is terror in the beauty of those long, hollow tones. Or perhaps they are more like songs, or melancholy moans. You think of all you are missing, out here in the blackness without friend or family, your body lost to the whims of the sea. I swear I can feel it, the sonar rising up inside of me, vibrations pressing my brain.

That’s when I made it, the Grand Discovery.

They called it a Whale Fall. My supervisor suggested we name it after me, as a reward, but an American scientist got there first. The name makes you think of tragedy and sadness; of the massive carcass, once elegant, crashing down through torrent and wave to land forever at the bottom of the ocean. Americans have a thing for tragedy, especially grand tragedy.

I knew it was a whale immediately, because it had no teeth. Its skeleton seemed to go on forever.

But it was no mere skeleton; it was a malignant village, a cancerous community. Unnaturally-coloured crabs crawled in and out of its spinal discs, and swarms of luminescent worms and anemones coated its yellow-crusted surface. Nature’s most brutal carnival was slowly eating up the once dignified bones. I swam cautiously right round it to get a better look. There were a few minutes where I lost contact with the other divers, forgot they even existed. I was part of the ecosystem, my eyes aglow with the rotting carcass and its bright detritus. You could not tell what was once skin or flesh or sinew; all was a composite of ragged weeds and stringy feelers and unknowable, slimy things. I was truly at the bottom of the world. As I stared at this terrible marvel, history itself seemed as perishable as this animal’s soul. I saw the whole Earth being eaten up by these nasty, many-legged worms – these disasters of ecology. As I watched them gorge on the skeleton, I saw that they were consuming the future itself. Eating out every second and minute, never growing full. Life and death shuddered before my eyes and I felt my brain swell in its skull.

At the ceremony they told me I had risked my life to investigate this miracle of nature; that I had held on to the end of my oxygen tank, brought back from the brink. I would be rewarded for my efforts, they said, a bright career ahead of me.

But did they not know what became of me? For I too was a skeleton, then; a new ecosystem unfolding as I rotted at the bottom of the ocean.

(Prompts: whale sounds video, terror, reward)

by Maria Rose Sledmere

Amber Memories

Coll raced eagerly towards the foamy water’s edge, his tattered tennis shoes leaving chaotic tracks in the grainy sand like contrails blasted from a jet engine. He flicked auburn strands out of his keen eyes, devouring the landscape in front of him; shrewdly scanning for a flash of pale orange, a golden glint. Gulls swooped in swift silver circles in the blossoming rays of the early morning sun, their dull shrieks echoing against the vast undulating expanse of water. As Coll watched the waves began to thaw; pallid icy crests morphed into slick ribbons of royal blue as beams of warm light broke lazily through a supple blanket of misty cloud. The boy inhaled contentedly, tangy brine clinging to his taste buds and cleansing confused webs of dreams and dust from his groggy mind.

His father had been a fisherman: a master of the waves and all that they held. It had been in his tanned, weathered palm that the boy had first laid eyes upon one of the golden fragments, smoothed through the eons, which the water occasionally offered to the shore. That particular evening his father had sat with him, two figures shrouded in warm woody smoke from the crumbling stone fireplace, and shared with him the secrets of time.

Following his death, Coll had taken to combing the intricacies of the coastline ever more frequently in search of amber. On the occasional days he came across a shining nugget nestled in the soft viridescent caress of an arm of seaweed, or buried half forgotten in the soupy sand, he felt as though he were reclaiming a small piece of his father. The amber contained a molten oblivion of long lost mysteries, nourishment for gluttons of the past; a lense to previous worlds. The boy reasoned that he too should be able to immortalise memories of the man he had adored in such a way: his collection of the ochre gems served as souvenirs of times gone by, proof that memories need not be eternally buried. For he too would die one day, and he feared that his recollections would wither with him.

The sun had risen fully now and melted away the last wisps of moisture so that the sky stretched an uninterrupted azure. Coll had neared the end of the beach and began to pick his way carefully over jagged limpet-spotted rocks, climbing round an outcrop that jutted over the serene waters below. Here the rock pools were thick and close together, full of animation. He crouched and watched tiny fish flit between cracks in the rock, to which clung a motley collection of coloured anemones swaying eerily in a non-existent breeze. He had always wanted a fish tank, to possess his own tiny marine world, but his mother had refused. She didn’t like the sea.

Examining the smooth line of the horizon the boy contemplated the memories he was so desperate to maintain the vitality of. He remembered the first time that his father had taken him out on the ocean in a small wooden boat and cast a line into the swell, illustrating to Coll how to delve for the living treasures of the deep. Each time he was successful the boy made him cast the fish back into the water, unable to watch them turn limp and lifeless in front of his young eyes. Turning back to the rocks he caught a flash of the colour he had trained himself so ardently to hunt for, the only one in his mind worth noticing: forget the blues and the greens and the greys.

In a glassy pool right on the boundary of rock and sea, there lay a small chunk of golden amber winking up at the boy. Slim fingers dived into the salty coolness and snatched it up. He held it up to the sunlight, examining its smooth golden contours; evidence of a time long past but not forgotten. He would not forget either.

What were your prompts?: evidence, underwater, amber

by Annie Milburn

Case #78

Brooks took a deep inhale, drawing his thick steady hand away from his gruff lips. The smoke clouded around his face shrouding his pensive stare. He watched the divers crawl from the bank of the river dragging with them the limp white remnants of a young woman. The girl was barely clothed but for clumps of glitter and sequins hiding her modesty. Her long hair (most of which was undoubtedly synthetic) was matted across her face almost conceal the heavy purple blotches. She had one pink heel on her right foot, the left was bare but for the chipped polish and the daisy chain tattoo, the rigor mortis had set her toes in an awkward curl. Arnold approached tentatively with his hands logged uneasily in his pockets.
“Not got the stomach for this kid?” Brooks tossed the butt of his cigarette to the ground mashing it in to the sodden ground beneath his feet.
“First person….well.. body I’ve seen.” Arnold ran his tongue along the back of his teeth, they still retained the faint taste of his own vomit.
“Corpse.” Brooks grunted as he approached the sprawling form with its limbs warped strangely as if clinging to the ground. He knelt down pulling back the hair. Arnold gasped feeling the sudden resurge of bile in his throat. The girl’s eyes were open but the water has caused them to swell giving her a hauntingly powerful stare. The left side of her face was entirely purple and black and decorate with a large gash that ran the length of her skull.
“Ah recognise this girl,” Brooks muttered.
Arnold nodded attentively but refused to break his position.
“Dancer in the Golden Swan a few miles from here. The boys had her in a few weeks ago, apparently one of the punters got a bit handsy so she punched him,” Brooks smirked to himself. “Scumbag dropped the charges though. Her names Amber,” he said rising and turning to face Arnold.
“Well at least her stage name is in any case.” Brooks slid his hand in to the inner pocket of his jacket and withdrew a fresh cigarette.
“What was her real name?” Arnold asked shakily, his eyes fixed on the battered girl’s delicate thin lips.
“Not much difference anymore,” Brooks shrugged. “Get her bagged up. She’s evidence now.”

Prompt: underwater, evidence, amber

by Hayley Rutherford

The Bad Sister

She washed up along the riverbank just as the sun was setting. Amber light flooded the forest and the water of the stream was like molten bronze, the white spray, as it tumbled over rocks and fallen branches, rendered in brilliant gold.

Her body moved remarkably elegantly, twisting and turning as if she were in the throes of a fitful sleep, nothing more. Weeds and dead leaves were tangled in her golden hair, and her skin was grey-white. Her eyes, glassy, staring up at the heavens, seeing far, far beyond the sunset and the sky streaked carnation red with black clouds…out there, beyond where no one on this earth could see even in dreams and visions…

Though there was a lone figure, following her slow progress, hidden by the trees, waiting for a chance, a passing group of hunters found her first. A group of green lads from the town, trussed up in leathers, with their prey strapped to their backs, and strapping smiles on their ruddy cheeks, at first they had thought themselves lucky; they had stumbled on a maid, bathing in the stream – it was not such a rare sight, on a midsummer evening, after a scorched day such as this. It was only when a crow came to settle on her shoulder, and worry at her open eyes, that the boys grew alarmed.

After much deliberation amongst themselves, it was decided that they ought to bring her to the nearest village, and the sheriff there could deal with the matter properly. The two oldest, largest boys carried her between them. Though they were still a little addled with ale, a very sober silence came upon them during this walk. No one uttered more than a sigh, or a shudder as the evening chill descended on the woods.

It was midnight by the time they arrived. The sheriff was roused, and soon after a crowd emerged, and the empty market square was lit by many hands carrying candles, lanterns, torches. The girl’s pale body was surrounded by a flickering glow, and a low murmur of anguished voices.

“She’s not from here.” An old spinster said, making the sign of the cross. Relief was in her voice.
“Perhaps she was washing clothes in the river and slipped?” Another offered.
“She looks well bred, perhaps she was a noble girl, a runaway…”
“Running away from her marriage, perhaps?”
“Or a terrible crime! Perhaps she killed her child!”
“Now, now, let’s not condemn her – she might have been murdered.”
“Oh, God forbid! Drowned! The poor creature…”
“But how shall we find out who she belongs to?”
“Enough!” The sheriff boomed. “Go back to your beds, the lot of you. This will be dealt with – she’ll be gone by tomorrow and given a Christian burial. If her family can be found, that’ll be a blessing. But regardless, she’ll not be left out to rot in this heat, so you can all sleep with a clear conscience.”

The crowd grudgingly dispersed, save for a lone figure, who had slipped into the village on the tail of the group of hunters. She was hooded, but beneath, a braid of corn-yellow hair was hidden. The sheriff would not leave the body unattended, she knew. There was no chance of getting back the necklace now, the one containing the lock of jet black hair – her lover’s hair. No doubt the river water had washed it of all its wonderful scent…

She shed a quiet tear, not for her dead twin, nor even for the lost locket, but for the fact that her own life was over now. For, if all went to plan, it would be ‘her’ that they buried tomorrow. While ‘she’ would return to ‘her’ loyal husband, in tears, to tell the news of the bad sister’s death…

(prompts: evidence, underwater, amber)

by Rachel Norris

The Illuminations

(fragments from a story)

The people in the village say that amber is best gathered after a storm. You must wait until the waves have calmed and the clouds have cleared the sky. On the island, there isn’t much for us to make money from. There is the coffee and the rum and the plants they trample to make cocaine. The men that arrive from boats once a month at dawn: you see them pull up in the Western Cove and the villagers rush to meet them, their faces hidden with scarves. You can take tourists into the Fairy Caves and maybe they will tip you a handful of silver; or maybe they will steal your soul, down in the dark pool where stalactites drip, every plop echoing on the rock. The Caves are very deep, and no-one will hear your screams.

Mother told me to wait till I was eighteen, and then, she said, I could find a tourist to take me back to the mainland. There will be work there, she said. I can’t do much, but I can paint and draw. I can draw the veins of my wrist, the radiant innards of a jellyfish. I stole my pencils from school and I make paint from the island’s secret spoils: red shellac of insects, green of spirulina, blue of iron oxide, chipped from the walls of a cave. I long to make cobalt, cerulean, ultramarine: the pigments of the sky and sea; crumbled to dust, smoothed to a sheen.

There must be people elsewhere who dream as I do; who see the same colours cast across their sleeping brains. I will leave one day and see. Mother says with luck I will sell my paintings.

***

A day in the blistering fire of July, and Stephen takes me down to the shore – just as the sun is setting. The humidity is a million insects sucking your every pore. Stephen’s touch is misted, dewy; not clammy exactly. When I kiss him he tastes like coconuts, and his eyes glitter the way a bead of oil glitters on your skin. I tell him that soon I will be going far away, and he laughs and says there is a storm coming. I will take off my clothes and run down into the water. We will go, he says, into the Fairy Caves and take shelter till it’s over. Over the mountains behind us a spark of God crackles and there is the grumble of thunder. The sun is melting, melting like a solvent of gold ore, pouring its lifeblood across the sky. I cannot take my eyes off it. I will go there, I whisper to Stephen. The lightning forks and hisses steam upon the ocean, distant and brilliant. He grabs my hand. Colours are running everywhere, but I am not afraid.

We pass the night in the Fairy Caves, our bodies quivering to the sound of the sea hurling up against the sand and stone. Water pours in through the catacombs and the air is thick and dark like treacle. When we are in here we could be anywhere. The candle wax leaves a trail across my bare chest, and every whisper resounds along the walls. If you look up, you see the illuminations that gave the Caves their name. The villagers say they are fairies, but I know the real name for them. You say it with a softness of the tongue: phosphorescence. The lights shift from green to white to blue and you close your eyes and still you see them, shimmering. This flicker, Stephen says, is what it’s like to live in the city. I don’t believe him.

***

In the morning I slip underwater and escape to the fresh cool sky, alone. A new world has settled over the ocean, and the island is born again. I am breathing the same air as the swaying palms exhale.

On the beach I walk along the seaweed and shingle tossed up by the storm. I find a piece of amber, rippled with gold and orange and smoothed by the sands of time. Inside a little insect hangs: trapped, staring out at me with all the knowledge of its eternity. But I will not sell this amber; I fling it back into the water. It doesn’t make a splash, just dissolves into nowhere. I know that one day, too, I will go there. Still and silent and sylvan: I will keep this vision.

(Prompts: amber, underwater)

by Maria Rose Sledmere

Atlantis

Sitting atop the bookcase, the child swung his legs, battering the volumes beneath the heels of his hob-nail boots. His small hands clutched around the edge of his seat, knuckles white with the hold, and on his face was a bright beam of joy. A gentle but shaggy mane of bright blonde hair fell around his shoulders, framing that round, adorable face that mother’s would fall to their knees to caress. To stroke those smooth, pale cheeks would be the highlight of a lifetime, the purpose and the climax, a pinnacle of destiny that one could only dream to achieve in their deepest realms of sleep-time.

The girl studying could have touched them any time – but her interest was never there. She could have reached out with one finger and poked the rose-tinted flesh, but she did not care to. Instead, her eyes were solely concerned with the book before her, with its pages of information and speculation, her hand absent-mindedly tracing over the picture of the underwater tower.

Broken pillars and a half-worn staircase lay around it, whilst fish swam in circles and coral grew up along one side; a picture of ruins, but ruins in the sea. Ruins lost to time, of which no one had a photograph for evidence, only stories and whispers of old pearl-divers and star-struck fishermen.

“What can you see, Cass?” the little boy asked, knocking a book from its place on the shelf. In a shudder, and a thump, it fell to the ground, landing unmercifully on its spine.

Cass, the girl, winced, but her eyes did not stray from the illustration before her.

“I can see Atlantis,” she said, “I can see towers and mermen, and lovers and seekers, and wonders and a city and a dog running through the streets, and a lock of hair, and a tiny fly caught piece of amber caught in a petrified tree, fallen down, sunken for centuries, then dug up by the excavators as they search for Atlantis.”

“What sort of fly is it, Cass?” he asked.

“It is a wasp,” she said, “An underwater wasp, and it is well.”

(Promps: underwater, evidence, amber)

by Ailsa C. Williamson