Daughter Lost | Scott Ragland

Scudding clouds dimmed the window light, rendering Mary’s notebook barely visible in the darkness, but she adhered to her duty and continued transcribing her father’s verses.

“You must not fail me in heeding my Muse,” he said, “before my other faculties abandon me as well.”

He sat in his usual chair, head bowed, sightless eyes lidded.

“Although uttered in language elevated beyond your comprehension, the words I relay represent the pinnacle of poetic endeavor, I assure you,” he said, “and will forever move men’s minds to contemplate God’s intentions for mankind.”

Mary dipped her pen into the inkwell.

“No doubt, father,” she said.

Her fingers cramped as she wrote his next dictation: Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.

And to serve in Hell?

She closed the notebook, silently as a Bible after prayer, and let her father’s words fall into darkness.


Scott Ragland has an MFA in Creative Writing (fiction) from UNC Greensboro in the U.S. Before taking a writing hiatus, he had several stories published, most notably in Writers’ Forum, Beloit Fiction Journal, and The Quarterly. More recently, his work has appeared in apt, The Conium Review, The Nottingham Review, Ambit, The Common (online), Fiction International, Cherry Tree, and CutBank (online), among others. He also has flashes forthcoming in Zizzle Literary and the minnesota review. He lives in the U.S. in Carrboro, N.C., with his wife, two dogs, and a cat. His three kids have left the nest.

Oleo Again (Naturally) | Laura Yash

During the war, I longed for butter. Not the paltry scraps they slid over to you in exchange for the wretched ration card, but mountains of it. Rivers. I wanted to bathe in butter, in the same manner than Cleopatra washed herself in virginal milk. To clog my pores with it. Become butter, as it were. I was so wearied by the hardships of battle, the indignities and privations and constant demand for sacrifice (I won’t let anyone say we on the Home Front didn’t suffer; one doesn’t need to sit in a tank to suffer). There was only one way to remedy the situation: I needed to live deliciously again. I needed the ambrosia, the manna of butter. But Amy – the girl I shared a bed with at the time, my lover if you prefer – didn’t understand. She got what she could, blessèd thing – but it was never enough. The problem, you see, is she would only use legitimate means.

“It’s not right,” she said, whenever I mentioned the black market. Her head could not be turned from Mrs Simm’s dreary, righteous little shop, not with promises of chocolate or new stockings or any one of my descriptions of the back alley’s bounties.

“I need it,” I told her, again and again. Writers, I explained, have delicate stomachs – to go with their delicate nerves – and their appetites need to sated. Not just that, but respected, as much as you would respect a diabetic’s insulin. Or a blind man’s cane.

She offered me her government-sanctioned share always, the dear, but it wasn’t enough. My craving only grew more insistent.

“Rapunzel’s father,” I said to her (wanting to use a reference she, poor pet, could understand) “risked it all for his wife. The woman wanted the witch’s greens and he got them for her, knowing if he was caught it could mean instant death. Or worse – transformation into a frog, or some other slithery thing.”

“He was caught,” Amy replied. “And they lost the little girl.”

Truth be told, I didn’t remember every detail of the story when I first cited it (what with all my schooling, I had moved quite beyond those childhood tales, as you can imagine), but I thought it was right to stand my ground.

“When he first stepped into the witch’s garden, he did not know what would happen: only that his pregnant wife was hungry, and he was willing to do whatever he could to help her.”

“But the witch took their daughter,” Amy insisted, “and she wouldn’t have, neither, if Rapunzel’s dad just bought his wife radishes from the shop, like any other bloody man would do.”

“Amy, I am pregnant, in my own way, with my work, and I need – ”

“Any fool knows you shouldn’t be messing around with witches. He was asking for trouble, and he got it.”

There was no point talking to her when she got into one of those moods. I’d try to reach her again, I thought, when she was in a more sensible frame of mind. So I graciously swept up my books and left her to grumble over fairy tales, all alone in that mouldy little living room.

She tried to placate me with margarine.

“It’s almost as good,” she said. She had slathered the tricksy stuff all over a slice of toast, ruining the bread underneath it.

Margarine. Mar-gar-ine. Marr my tongue with this forgery, I thought. Jar my taste buds with this fake filth. In-decent pretender to butter’s throne.

I’m not an unreasonable man: though I had little hope, I tried her yellow Judas. Attempted to show some Blitz Spirit and make do with muck. But I’m not some celestial creature – I’m flesh and blood, and I can only bear so much.

“Get me butter,” I told her, one wan November afternoon. “Or get out.”

The troops were out in Egypt, doing something or other – it was hard to keep up. What were they even fighting for, I wondered, when it had all gone to seed over here. When the krauts were bombing Canterbury and the milk ration had been cut to two and a half pints a week.

Amy didn’t even look at me. “I can’t do it, Bob,” she said. She was hunched over a pan frying a half or a quarter of an onion. Frying it in oleo, no doubt. “If you want it so much, you can get it.”

I wasn’t quite ready for that. “Should I grab your basket and put on your apron, too? Would you have me knit my own hat and make jam for the boys at the front in Cairo or wherever the bloody hell they are?”

“My brother’s one of them, Bob.”

“Then by all means, send him some biscuits or some woolen underpants. Just bring me butter.”

“I won’t go against the war effort.”

There was no going back after that: she wasn’t a woman any more. She had been transformèd into a Ministry of Food poster.

So she went, in the end, to dig for victory or to make ammunition or to be a nurse overseas or to tuck the children left behind by her gallant soldiers into bed each night. She was replaced, of course, by a Sarah, and then Sarah by Ruth, and Ruth by Gerty. There’s always a woman in my flat, some Jenny or another. So why linger on Amy?


Laura Yash was born on the fourth of July in Chicago (her mum went into labour at a parade). Patriotic birth aside, she moved to the UK aged three months, and is now a Londoner with a confusing accent. Recently, Laura has been spending some time writing flash fiction around the subject of margarine. She really believes in oleo’s thematic potential.

Just Talk | Charles Venable

Contains reference to racism, homophobia and slurs relating to both

The door closed in my face, and the paint peeling in the corners blurred through tears. My ears rang: shouting always got to me, slamming doors too. The brass handle and the wooden frame stopped vibrating, and the silence filled with cars rumbling past through pools of dim street light. A moth floundered into my cheek, and darted away. I wiped away the chalky scales, and my hand came away damp.

At the center of the door, the little glass peephole darkened: someone looking through, and just as quickly, the pale light returned. The door did not open; it did not even shake with the tell-tale pressure of a hand or shoulder touching wood.

Three concrete steps descended to the sidewalk, and I stood in the pool of the lamp light. A car appeared; light gleamed off black paint before disappearing into the night. I imagined them staring at me as they passed, wondering why the boy in a stained t-shirt and pajama pants cried on the street at midnight.

I followed the car; the shimmer of tail lights faded into the night, and I walked between the pools of light alone. Moths occasionally descended from their lamps to spiral around me before abandoning me as a lost cause. The smell of oil and asphalt rose in hot waves from the road. Even though night fell, the air was warm. Summer lingered in the city where concrete and glass and tar held the heat.

My path carried me down the road, past the old townhomes lining the street into the corners packed with pharmacies and bakeries and bars, but only the last was open, neon signs shining, inviting in the night amid the unwelcoming light of the street lamps. The smell of oil and gasoline waned among the stench of piss and vomit, and as I drew closer to the bar, where a half dozen drunks leaned against the building sipping beer from bottles, the sharp tang of alcohol joined the medley. In the shadow of the building, in the light of blue and green neons, it didn’t feel so hot. The only bugs here were black flies buzzing around puddles of vomit or spilled liquor.

One of the drunks saw me approach. He nudged his friend and pointed his bottle at me.

“Hey, you lost, kid?” He asked.

“He’s sleepwalking,” The other slurred, “Look at his yammies… jammies.”

They laughed, and I pushed past them into the bar. A bell chimed above the door, but the soft clink of metal was lost in the throb of bass and casual chatter. Above my head, more signs buzzed, and a few flies chased me inside, only to snap in a shower of sparks when they flew too close to a bug zapper hidden among the beer logos.

A few more drunks noticed me in my odd outfit, but they only pointed quietly: no comments like the assholes outside. I shoved my way through the crowd to the bar. The smell of piss and vomit gave way to sweat and sugary drinks. Even though smoking wasn’t allowed, cigarette and pot smoke curled in the air.

The bartender was a middle aged man who looked as young as me. His dark skin gave away to wispy curls around his chin and lips, but the top of his head was bald, and the lights reflected back at me. I could almost read the letters in the shine. Three skimpily dressed girls gaggled away from the bar, and I filled their space. The tender shifted over to me and squinted.

“Jake?” He asked, “The hell are you doing here so late? On a Tuesday?” His eyes shifted down to my pajamas, “Dressed like you rolled out of bed.” 

I sat down on the stool, “My dad kicked me out.”

He drew a bottle of my usual beer from beneath the bar, but before he popped the cap, I held up a hand and pointed over his shoulder to the hard liquor bottles lining the wall. Lights reflected in the brown liquid like they did in his head. He raised a brow.

“You sure, kid?”

I nodded.

He didn’t put the beer bottle back. Instead, he set it on the counter, within reach of my hand, and turned to pour me a shot glass full of silvery tequila. His hand rested on the coke nozzle questioningly. 

“Just the tequila.”

He shrugged and pushed the shot glass in front of me. The smell of liquor turned my stomach, but I downed the shot in one drink. It burned my throat, my lips, my tongue, and I coughed twice while he pulled the glass away; I motioned for another. This time, when his hand paused over the soda, I nodded. He added a bit of Sprite. It bubbled up, the sound of sizzling water loud enough to hear over the din of the bar.

I didn’t drink it, “Thanks, Frank.”

He nodded once, “What happened with your dad?”

“He was on my computer… found my, uh, history…”

Frank raised a brow, “Hell of a way to come out to your dad. What’d he say?”

“Shouted a lot. Kicked me out.”

As the memory of the night returned, I grabbed the glass and downed it. The bite of the tequila hid behind the tang of lemon-lime, but the burn remained. I didn’t cough this time. My fingers and toes tingled, numb. The bottle of light beer bled condensation; I wasn’t used to hard liquor. I pointed to it. Frank sighed and popped the cap. When he handed it off, I traded it for the shot glass. 

“Another?” He asked, “Slow down, kid.”

“Another,” I said, “Open a tab.”

“Did you try talking to him?” Frank asked. 

He filled another shot glass with tequila and sprite, but he didn’t push it towards me while I sipped the beer. It tasted like wheat, like someone shoved a loaf of bread inside the bottle and let it ferment for a few weeks before filling it with water. 

I frowned. The bottle was already empty. I set it down, stomach heavy with booze and beer, and I downed the next shot. Frank let out a breath.

“I tried,” I said. My tongue and lips tingled now too. It was nice. “He kept shouting. He slammed my bedroom door, and when I came out, he said he didn’t want to see me. He didn’t even know me.”

A dark finger stole the glass away before I asked for another. I stared at the empty bartop. Drops of condensation settled there. I took a breath, but my nose felt numb; there was no smell anymore. My head throbbed with each thrum of the bass and behind Frank’s head, I saw the speaker pulsing. The bottles quivered, ripples running through the liquor.

“You should try to talk to him again,” Frank said, his voice as deep as the rumble in my chest. My chest felt numb too.

“No,” I slurred. My tongue was heavy, “He told me to get out. He doesn’t want me.”

Frank’s lips flattened into a thin line, but he didn’t say anything. Across the bar, the bell clinked as the door opened. I glanced over, half-expecting to see my father coming into the bar, but through the shifting crowd, I only saw the two drunks from outside stumbling in with empty beer bottles.

They carved the same path through the crowd I had moments before… was it moments? I glanced down at the bar as Frank pushed another shot of bubbling tequila to me. I didn’t remember asking for it, nor did I remember how long I’d been here drinking. I couldn’t smell anything anymore, and the murmur of the crowd faded into the throbbing bass. The numbness spread to my belly, even the biting nausea of liquor on an empty stomach forgotten.

I sat alone at the counter with two empty stools on either side. Most gave me a wide berth with my mustard-stained t-shirt and wrinkled sweatpants, but the two men, too drunk to care, slid into the seats on either side of me. One placed his empty beer bottle on the counter; there was a crack in the base.

“Hit us with another round,” The man slurred.

Frank approached the bar again, his hand reaching for the bottle, but he paused, a bushy brow raised. His eyes flashed with frustration and anger. I sipped my shot, pretended not to listen.

“Cut you off an hour ago.”

“Was an hour ago,” The man said, “We’re sobered up now. Right?”

The other man cackled and bobbed his head an exaggerated nod. Frank glanced between them incredulously. 

A heavy hand settled on my shoulder. His chin speckled with spittle. I was glad I was too drunk to smell his breath; the hot air touching my cheeks felt rank. His eyes were distant and dull.

“No drunker than this fucker… hey, you jammies boy.”

“Yammies boy,” The other laughed.

“Didn’t answer us outside. Why you wearing jammies to the bar? You sleepwalking?”

“Sleepwalking,” The other laughed. 

They kept talking over me: insults and jibes and jokes never quite directed at me, but to each other, with me and caught in the middle. The numbness in my chest and stomach turned hot, and I felt anger welling up in me. It was the anger my father felt; I wanted to slam doors and shout. My cheeks flushed.

“Jammie boy’s blushing,” The man on my left said, “Think we embarrassed him.”

While they continued their jokes, my shoulders slumped, and I watched Frank bring two more beers to them, despite his better judgement. They were light beers, like the ones I drank, and as he popped the caps, a third joined them, shoved towards me. I scowled, but when I sipped my shot glass, I discovered it was empty. He slid the beer over with a sigh, and my hands curled around the glass, so tight the condensation and cold dug deeper than my numbed nerves and chilled bones.

“Anything else?” Frank asked.

“Why is jammies boy special?” 

“Family friend,” Frank said.

“Ew, who wants to be friends with a n—”

I swung my fist at him reflexively, all my anger boiling up. It was one thing to insult me. It was one thing for my dad to shout at me and call me gay and fag, but for this stranger to call Frank…

But the bottle of beer was still in my hand. It didn’t break when it cracked against his jaw, like in the movies; it stayed whole, a solid crack of glass on bone, and the man spun out of the stool onto the floor. Gasps rose from the patrons as they scattered, and I stood over him. He groaned on the floor; a nasty bruise bloomed on his cheek, but thankfully, no blood.

Something hit my back, and I tumbled forward, over the friend’s body. On my hands and knees on the floor, the other kicked over and over. A searing pain in my ribs pierced the numbness, and I collapsed, arms curling over my head like a child crying in the corner. He kicked again. Around me, patrons pointed and shouted. Frank rounded the bar, rushing over to me. I looked up at him, but when my arms left my head, the man’s foot took their place. A vicious kick to the temple blurred my vision. My head throbbed in tandem with the bass, and the neons turned black.

“Jake,” Frank’s voice sounded distant, “Jake, you okay…?”

When I woke, the throb of bass was replaced with the twang of acoustic guitars. A soft blues melody sang from the speakers. It settled on the empty floor of the bar, now devoid of drunks and dancers. Pools of spilled liquor pooled in low spots among the floorboards. I groaned and lifted my head.

The neons were turned off, and the overhead lights, dim fluorescents, like street lights, illuminated the bar in a dingy orange-yellow, the color of a bronze door knob that hasn’t been cleaned in years. 

I never realized how empty the bar was without people in it. There were only a few sparse tables pushed against the wall with vast, open spaces for dancing and walking and standing. The floorboards were worn thin in the high-traffic spots, and there was a strip of bare concrete in front of the bar where the stools grated against the floor. There, Frank wiped down the bartop. When he heard my groan, he turned. I was laid out in the bench of a booth in the corner by the bathroom.

He flipped the rag over his shoulder and walked over, “How are you feeling?”

My head pounded, and I missed the rumble of the bass to accompany me; it made it easier to pretend nothing was wrong. Among the soft notes of the blues, my head felt like it was stumbling along, trying to catch up. My ribs hurt too, and every other breath was chased by a sharp pain. My stomach flipped and turned: it was hard to tell where the bruises ended and the hangover began.

“I’m okay,” I said.

“Let me drive you home, kid.”

“My dad…”

“I told you,” Frank set the rag on the table. It stank of liquor and lemon-cleaner. “You need to talk to him proper. Sit him down. Talk to him.”

“What if he shouts?” I asked.

“Let him. Let him shout til he’s hoarse. And when he can’t shout no more, you talk to him. Make him hear you. You love your dad, don’t you? Don’t run away, Jake. You only got one father.”

When I didn’t respond, he reached for the rag again, lips curling in a frown, but I reached out and put my hand on his arm.

“I’ll take the ride,” I said.

He didn’t smile; Frank rarely smiled. He dropped the rag and pointed his thumb towards the front door. I struggled to my feet, a sharp pain in my chest, a tangled knot in my stomach. I resisted the urge to vomit on his floor: more for him to clean. One step forward, then another, and I walked across the bar, leaning to-and-fro, until I reached the door. Frank followed, keys rattling in his hand.

The corner around the bar was dim without the neon beer signs. The only light came from the street lights, the fluorescents within, and the flicker of the lone ‘Closed’ sign: a deep crimson against the yellow, like the sidewalk was on fire. I waited in the flames while Frank got his car. When it pulled up to the curb, the engine rumbling, I pulled myself inside and settled into the seat. The cab stank of cigarettes; I never knew Frank smoked.

We drove the block back to my dad’s place in silence. Frank’s eyes flicked between the road and the mirrors, and sometimes, I felt he was checking on me, but I stared ahead, doing my best to keep the sloshing in my stomach from ending up on his dash. Maybe he knew; maybe he was ready to stop if I started puking up tequila and beer.

But it never came; it felt like nothing ever came up when I tried to get it out. Suddenly, the car paused in front of the narrow townhome my dad and I shared. I stared out the window: a moth fluttered past, bounced against the glass and disappeared into the night.

“Well?” Frank asked.

“Any tips?” I asked. 

A soft hiss followed by the smell of cigarette smoke. Frank rolled down his window and let warm night air carry the ash away. He watched it spiral into the night sky before turning to look at me.

“Don’t play games. Just speak your mind. He’ll appreciate that.”

My fingers curled around the door handle, and I nodded, “Thanks, Frank.”

“Let me know how it goes.”

I stepped out of the car, the smell of cigarettes replaced with the stink of oil and gasoline. Behind me, the window slid down. I glanced back and saw Frank leaning over the console.

“And don’t forget to pay your tab, kid.”

My lips curled into a small smile, but before I said anything, he shifted the car into gear and drove away. I watched his tail lights fade into the night, and when I was sure he was gone, I turned to face my dad’s house.

span style=”font-weight: 400;”>Three concrete steps ascended onto the landing, and I was face-to-face with the old door and its peeling paint again, for the second time tonight. I took a deep breath and knocked, a low thrum, like the throbbing in my head or the bass at the bar or the rumble of Frank’s car. A moment passed, and I thought my dad might be asleep. Then, at the center of the door, the little glass peephole darkened: someone looking through, and just as quickly, the pale light returned.

The sharp pain in my chest returned, and I swallowed back a mouthful of a bile. When I turned around, the door creaked open, and a hoarse voice called out to me.


Charles Venable is a storyteller from the Southeastern United States with a love of nature and a passion for writing. He believes stories and poems are about getting there, not being there, and he enjoys those tales that take their time getting to the point.

Beyond a Joke | Tim Dadswell

Will could not detect the slightest flicker of curiosity from the apothecary as he handed over a paper bag containing a vial.

Outside the shop, he thought how easy it would be. Easy to find a quiet place, remove the cap, down the contents in one gulp and wait for oblivion.

He raised his right hand and kissed the gold signet ring on his finger.

Walking on, he rejoined Jack under an oak tree on the village green.

“Did he have the right medicine, pa?” asked Jack.

“Yes son, I’ll be fine now.”

*

A month later, his shoulders sagging like a spent athlete, his eyes ringed by grey skin, Will sat on a low wall. Fifty yards away, two peacocks kept their distance. Mist lingered in the gaps between lines of elm trees.

Between sculpted shrubs and beds of spring flowers, Jack darted like a multi-coloured dynamo, tumbling and pulling faces.

Thin, gaunt, in drab, tattered clothes, Will studied Jack’s movements against the backdrop of a manor house’s verdant grounds, which stretched towards the horizon.

“Good, that’s funny,” said Will, “You have my gift, but with new tricks of your own.”

“I want to learn all your routines,” said Jack, with a broad smile and bright chestnut eyes.

“I know. And it must be soon. His Lordship’s charity won’t last forever. I no longer amuse, so you must keep us both. Now, come sit awhile.”

Jack sat beside him. “Pa, I can remember when you left. Ma warned I might never see you again, yet the money you sent us told me you’d return one day.”

“It was hard on us all, but the chance was rare, not to be refused. Lord knows, I had no other talent.”

“Tell me about life at court.” Jack’s voice was eager.

“At first, it was just as you’d imagine – jewellery, fine clothes, lavish banquets. When a prince leads a glorious, carefree life, his jester’s work is easy. I was a stray cat walking with a lion. I spoke the truth and he would take heed. But I was foolish to forget that princes become kings. Their enemies circle like buzzards. By his side, I faced the same darkness as he. My own words began to drip poison. I couldn’t have foreseen that the dangers would grow so great.”

“How did he die?”

“He grew weak and made many mistakes. Too high up the mountain he was, to see through the murk. When he discovered his daughters were not as he wished, his rage freed demons from their shackles.”

“Why did you leave?”

“A jester can also fall prey to demons, mark my words. I knew then I had to leave the royal household.”

“Kings may have you executed in a moment’s fancy.”

“True. Yet I wonder if I could’ve done more to prevent his death. Since he died, a phantom hound has been my constant companion. This ring is all I have left to remember our times together.” He kissed his gold ring.

Jack put his arm around his father’s shoulder. “Don’t say that, pa. The sadness will end.”

“You sound like your dear mother. I miss her every day.”

“So do I. I’m glad we can give each other solace.” He hugged his father. “But I shan’t call myself a jester until I make you laugh.”

Clouds of thistledown drifted across the gardens, as they rose and headed for the kitchen. There were chores to do. Whatever cook commanded.

*

After dining on scraps and leftovers, Will and Jack perched on gravestones in the nearby churchyard, eating apples. The air was warm and clear.

Twenty feet away, two bare-chested men were standing in a freshly dug grave, resting from their day’s labours.

A dishevelled vagrant shuffled up to the graveside. “Who’s to be buried ‘ere then?”

“You’d better beware it ain’t you!” snapped one of the men.

“I’m not so foolish. Tis bigger than most, is it for a lord?”

The men ignored him.

“Tis for the mayor, I’ll wager. I ‘eard he died last Sunday.” The vagrant became agitated. “Why don’t you answer? You’re no better than me!”

“Be gone, you mangy cur!”

The vagrant untied his string belt and dropped his trousers, displaying his behind.

The men voiced their disgust. One of them threw a clump of earth at his bare white skin.

“Bullseye!” cried Jack.

For the first time in months, Will laughed. So did Jack. They rocked back and forth.

*

That night, while Jack slept, Will took a stroll down to the river. He reclined on a grass bank and basked in the moonlight.

He was proud of his son. The boy was making progress yet still had much to learn. Only he had the power to teach him.

With a sigh, he sat up, took the vial from his pocket and removed the cap.

He poured the contents into the fast-flowing water.


Tim Dadswell is a retired civil servant living in Norfolk. He has had work published in and by Ink, Sweat & Tears and Cocktails with Miss Austen. He won second prize in a Brilliant Flash Fiction contest and was a runner-up in a Writers’ Forum flash fiction competition.

Twitter: @TimD_writer

Mines | Steve May

Contains reference to Naziism death and suicide

1945. 2000 German POWs were forced to clear 2 million land mines from Danish beaches. A little known footnote. Over half the Germans were killed and many more maimed in this toxic operation. The logic was, they put them there, so it was their job to clear them. The logic of war.

There were many atrocities on those beaches. They hated us, said the Danes, so we hate them. Par for the course; the logic of war. It seems that many teenagers, with no experience of bomb disposal, were drafted in to swell the numbers. Well, they were Germans after all; that was what mattered.

What went around comes round. All’s fair in war and love and there’s no love here; that’s par for the course. War logic.

But look at the hollow faces of these German teenagers; hear their infant cries, as they call for far away mothers. These boys. Are they Nazis now? Were they ever? And see the cold, unflinching gaze of the Danes; are they victims or aggressors, monsters or robots? Getting their own back. Righteous retribution. War logic. Two sides: same caps, same uniforms, the masks of war; only the colours changed, to set them apart.

Who dare stick their neck out to save a young life, when the slightest show of humanity’s a treasonable weakness? Let them starve; let them spew their guts out on the sharp sand; let them weaken by the day. And if they blow their brains out, there’s plenty more.

So the Danes had the power and the Germans, without it, lay face down on land-mined sand, fumbling with clunky detonators; held their lives in shaking hands. Waiting for some sort of end.


Contextual Note

During the mine clearances of 1945, ex-prisoners of war were made to decommission land mines along the Atlantic Wall. Among them were teenagers who had been forcibly conscripted into service at the end of war.


Born in Coventry, Steve May worked extensively in the field of drama-in-education, including winning  an Edinburgh Fringe First with Wigan Young People’s Theatre and leading a Performing Arts Department at Sunderland College. He regularly performs his work around the NE of England and further afield. He has had poems and stories published in a number of magazines and anthologies, including The Writers’ Café, The Wellington Street Review, Gentian, Sonder, New Voices Anthology and Prole. He won the 2019 Shelter Poems for Home Competition, judged by John Hegley; was runner-up and also commended in the Prole 2019 Poetry Competition and shortlisted for the Anthony Cronin International Poetry Award 2019. He is a Poetry Society member.

He is on Twitter @s_may_uk

 

The Shapeshifting Hawthorn Tree | Chris Wright

First published in Issue 06 of Parenthesis (May 2019)

The Hawthorn Tree stands sentinel at the edge of the field; its crooked shape inked against a grey sky. It is the cusp of May and the bloom has frosted the branches as if its own declaration of the end of winter is tinged with melancholy and regret. I kiss the cold skin of the urn before giving her up to the earth.

To the world this is just a Hawthorn Tree but not to me.

It is a tree of many names. Sceach Gheal. The Peasant Tree. The Quick. The Commoner of the Wood. It has held its watch for hundreds of years, most of them marking nothing but itself. When my Grandfather’s ancestors made their way here from neighbouring shores it was given a purpose. It was to mark the boundary of Campbell land.

Three centuries later its services were required once again, to the delight of my Grandfather and dismay of my Grandmother, when it was used to mark the boundary of a new State. Grandfather was happy that his land had become the last bastion, the remnant of a receding Empire. Grandmother was distraught that it had to be that tree that wrenched worlds in two.

Locals suggested the margin run a metre below the most southern protruding root as no Irishman would put a boundary through the middle of a hawthorn tree, but the line came down with the stroke of a pen.

That tree didn’t belong to any of them, she would say. It was neither British nor Irish. She clung to the tales her own Grandmother told her; tales honed on cold and rocky land, in hunger and in pain. The Hawthorn tree belonged to the true natives; the Sidhe. It guarded the entrance to the Faerie realm and as such could never be touched for fear of incurring their wrath. Even in the coldest of winters when fire could be the barrier between life and death, none must be cut from the tree. Only windblown wood could be foraged and burned.

year on the eve of St Brigid’s Day we would cut strips of coloured cloth and take them out to the tree and tie them to the branches for Brigid to bless as she roamed. Grandfather would remain in his chair, unconcerned with Brigid, a topped off whiskey beside him, glasses resting on his ruffled forehead, eyes on the news with gasps and tuts and shakes of the head.

He often remained at a distance from such things, but I saw the want in his eye. It was her thing and she had the rights to it but he yearned for the connection she felt yet it remained unreachable. He had lost the ways of his forbearers and wouldn’t slight them by partaking in the ways of his new home. He had become a child of nowhere, unaccepted in his native land as well as the home his ancestors chose.

He passed that insecurity on to my father who referred to ‘that auld tree in the back field’, expressed as fact with empty words. When he’d had a drink he spoke differently, offering a story with a misty eye and his mother’s half smile; the same look that warmed her face as she wistfully decanted centuries old folklore to young ears in front of a peat stacked fire.

It was all things to him; a fort, a father, a friend. Its arms were strong when they held him yet they were weak the day they tried and failed to catch him, his head bumping on brittle, winter branches, elbow fractured on frozen ground. A few days of recovery and he was back on the tree, swinging and climbing and hanging the way a wee boy does, screaming, Are ye watching me, Ma? Ma?

Grandfather had looked upon that tree with reverence. It was a soldier at his post, a defender of his realm, the friend he lost in France. He was always safe in the sight of it, comforted by the knowledge that it would protect him.

He had overestimated its ability the night they came, for the tree had never seen the small, shiny lumps in their hands, nor cold eyes and thin lips, blazed through cotton.

A dozen snaps of metal and smoke and the peppery tang of sulphur in the air. Grandfather slumped over root, red leeching into the ground, the tree nourished, strengthened by his sacrifice.

After he died, my Grandmother told me, to allay my fears, that my Grandfather was a part of the tree. He watched over us in a way the old tree never could. I would sit out there for hours telling him about school and my parents and how my little brother was the bane of my life.

Years passed and all changed. The tree became less and less like the fading memories of my Grandfather and more like my Grandmother. I considered that maybe he had been turning into the tree for years and that night was his time to be given up to the earth. Soon it would be her turn as the cracks and ripples on the tree mirrored the wrinkles on her face, the knots of the branches just like her knuckles, swollen with fluid and time.

Yet there was hope when the soft bloom lit up the branches like her bright soul eased the years.

She held on to see me become the Mother before she became the tree.

When I talked to my own Mother about scattering my Grandmother’s ashes at the auld Hawthorn Tree she stared at me, brow furrowed and eyebrow raised. She knew nothing of its many lives. To her it was just a tree.

Now I stand on its roots, looking out to see what they all see. Dusty remains skitter at my feet in the warm, spring breeze.

I do not look at the tree for all I will see is me.


Chris Wright is from Bangor, Northern Ireland. His short fiction has featured in The Honest Ulsterman, The Cormorant, Parentheses International Literary Arts Journal, Brave Voices Magazine, The Bangor Literary Journal, and more. Recently, his work has been long-listed for Reflex Fiction’s International Flash Fiction Competition and has been performed at the Abbey Lane Theatre, the Tread Softly Festival in Sligo, the St Patrick’s Festival in Armagh, and on National Radio. This year Chris has also been selected to attend the Stinging Fly Summer School in Dublin and has been awarded the John Hewitt International Bursary.’

You can find him on Twitter at @_ChrisWrites

Beneath the Hawthorn | Alastair Brady

It was spring when I first laid eyes upon him in that way, this particular way, his oat blonde hair glowing in the sun like honey swept back in a neat wave, trimmed tightly down the gentle slope of his strong neck until it reached the crisp white of his collar. Those deep russet eyes, lowered at their outer corners, flicking between soft faces and lacy dresses; his pearly smile, those delicately carved features of David unbound by stone, had the village girls swarming like hopping finches.

I had seen James Everleigh like one sees a ghost since I was a boy, from the dusky framed window of the bakery at the centre of our village as he passed by. It was as though he was the subject of a painting I could only enter in my most fantastical dreams, subdued in waking life to mere observance. Some days looking up from the dough my father gave me, I half expected to see him clothed in white crowned with a halo, followed by some vast feathered wings, floating across the cobblestones in my windowed work of art. And all the while, I was begging for this portrait of a young man to step forth into my realm; perhaps if I was lucky, I would be offered a chance to be allowed inside the recesses of that frame which had trapped him for so long, to see him in the flesh.

And that lovely spring day was the first time I saw him outside the captivity of his own canvas. The lush sage walls around us, towering oaks speckling light upon the grass, blushes of peonies and hollyhocks, ivory washed tents and trays of silver, tiny china cups and dainty cakes, alabaster suits and stark white gloves: at long last, his painting had consumed me, made me a part of it. And from the moment his eyes locked with mine across the Earl’s garden, my life unfolded into an enchanting, dreamlike haze.

He perfumed the air with the fragrant scent of roses as though he carried some hidden bouquet; the raw freshness of an entire garden somehow embedded itself into his skin. And it was roses all the same which soon guarded us as we sat for hours amid the leafy sanctuary on a fountain, whose lily-padded water rippled in crisp rings while dappled sunbeams sprinkled us with bronze. His gentle voice was warm as day, tender and smiling, quite apart from the ostentatious prattling far beyond the foliage.

It was here when we fell in love.

Like the painter enraptured by the divine subject of his canvas, I fell deep into the depths of his eyes; swept away in the brush strokes of his hair; the earthly, delicate March palette that was James Everleigh. Feathery touches across my fingers linger still, the tap of his knee ebbing at my own, the way our heads drew closer as we laughed until I could feel the soft wisps of his locks brush mine. Steadily we grew quiet, allowing a silence to settle between us like that of a petal floating down.

My lashes fell by the gentle puff of warmth against my cheek; the last thing captured before that moment was nothing but the profound brilliance of a young man and the glow of his enamored face surrounded by a garden which remains to me so vast and enigmatic, I could only think to close my eyes to feel what I simply could not describe. There, far from the village party, I felt the tranquil lips of James Everleigh against mine. And never again was I to forget them.

*

Days later, I learned the flowery scent anchored to his clothes pursued him from the flower shop at which he was employed. I visited him there, and James came to visit me, quite to my mystified wonder as he deviated from his usual window-framed path and entered the bakery. I felt a sense of privilege to be in his midst. Soon, it was just about every day.

We would often take long walks down the rivering white road, columned with trees woven above our heads to the lake not far from the village. Cascading each other in magnificent splashes of water radiant against the summer sun, we would swim for hours in the water within the arborary refuge, between the banks overflowing with green, the canopies teeming with birdsong. With the water gently lapping at our smooth, glistening chests with so little space between us, our curious hands would explore the other’s skin as if in the dark, breath wavering, captivated by the sheer presence of one another. And presiding above this haven was a tremendous hawthorn, under whose braided trunk James and I sat against, gazing up at the great, verdant branches meandering towards the sky. Here, I would nestle myself under his arm so he could lay kisses to my cheek. Other times we read aloud from books, imagining what it would be like to have a place of our own; even once or twice I wove him a crown of the fresh white blossoms.

This tree became a place of solace for us both, far away from the inescapable confines of provincial society, blind to the threats of ignominy. Here nature forced no such commandments, asked nothing of us, provided shelter from the outside world with God the only witness to my worship of the saint whom I deemed most worthy of my devotion. From the leaves drawn in light, to the dimples in the soft white fabric of James’s shirt, nature itself was magnified the way I picture it would appear before one dies; this amplification to all the details of existence.

Sometimes, I would say, “James, what will happen? As we grow old, how shall we live? Will I be forced to leave you?” for the thought worried me greatly.

And James would always say, “This world brought us together, and it shall not tear us apart. But if it does, I promise I will follow you and in every life, I will love you, again and again, until the world will let me call you mine.” And he would place a kiss upon my temple, the roses instilled within his skin intoxicating me, subduing all uncertainty.

Then the war came.

*

I remember the world fragmented piece by piece, falling away like brittle and rusted leaves. I felt I clung to James harder then, while slate grey suits turned to rough khaki wool as the beast of war lured young men marked by tall tales to its claws; flashy scales and hell-red eyes, an inferno erupting seven levels down. Flags flapped on every corner, paste stuck the horrid words to every stone and day by day, we watched them all march blind away. James and I vowed at our hawthorn never to join, my slender form encircled by his embrace shrouded by the old tree, vainly hoping nature might keep the beast at bay

It did not.

*

That November, we were whisked away in carriages packed full of village boys barely outside their schools or their mother’s arms, faces deepened from laughter as incessant as the engine roaring down the tracks. Under a bag I held James’s hand, the passengers all too careless to see as I watched our village shrink further and further behind me.

Then came the camp, the sergeants so severe, driving their lessons deep within our brains, screaming on while the bayonets plunged deep within the burlap, the stultifying marches wearing down the soles of my cumbersome army boots. Our bodies ached each night they grew stronger and leaner. Even the hand of James with which my fingers were intertwined, bridged across the space between our beds at night, felt calloused and rough. And though his body grew hard and sinewy, his mild eyes persisted in their compassion. One could always recognise the kindness still laden in his smile no matter how much of that ardent youth was stripped from us during those habitual, dreary days.

It wasn’t long until those jagged pewter waves embossed with foam thrashed against the sides of the vessel slicing through the sea, England now a distant memory lost somewhere in the phantasmal fog beyond the rails.

And despite knowing of our destination – James was so beautiful then –  the way his hair whipped errantly about his face turned towards the bow, the iron sky billowing behind his finely traced, fair silhouette.

As the water gave way to sand, the land dipped to drab fields and tiny stone cottages peppered across the countryside. James and I rocked and swayed with the other boys venturing down the uneven road in the back of the ragged little military motorcar on our way to a camp not far behind the frontlines. It was there when I saw for the first time the devastation ravaging the landscape, torn asunder from the craters impaled into the flesh of the earth, the trees like spindly, black veins jutting up through the mud devoid of all life; my stomach became twisted as another portion of my reality, painted in the works of James and our time in the village in a dizzy spell of green and burning white, succumbed to disillusion. It felt as though my nightmares had bled from my mind, having crept along the barren terrain and consumed all in its path.

No amount of our singing and comradery could account for the horror we could feel rising like the tide, growing closer each night. Not even the bare, knotted tree James and I found ourselves under from time to time could offer the same sort of security as our mighty hawthorn skirting the edge of the corrugated lake, its naked arms powerless to the rain which would pour down upon us. In a feverish yet sweet attempt to recompose familiarity, James and I wrote each other letters which we read aloud to the boys sometimes, saying they were from girls back home. Those nights were always enjoyable around the fire, the men hooting and whistling after we finished, telling us how lucky those girls were to have us.

How different would it be, we wondered, holding each other’s gaze through the whipping flames, if they knew the writers of such things sat across from one another? How happy for us would they be then?

Suddenly, a rhythmic stampede of feet. A long streak of khaki, dotted by ashen, metal olive. To the ears of birds there came songs never heard in this part of nature, untouched by the hands of man and were now echoing down the sombre road like the melody of ghosts.

Oh how my memory muddied like the maze of trenches we lined, backs to the sludgy walls, James’s clammy hand gripping mine all out in the open, bits of dirt already freckled on his cheeks, his pitch brown eyes boring into my own. He said not a word, but I could tell what he was thinking for he squeezed my hand once, then twice. I clenched my jaw, spit becoming thick, my throat made tight as if by a stone. Our helmets softly pinged together in these few beats of stillness.

Then came the solitary whistle, piercing the air with a fearsome shrillness. And in one swift movement, we were clambering up the ladders to the hellacious sounds of rapping guns scything down our lines, the singing shells bulleting through the air and striking down against the black earth in monstrous blows of fiery smoke.

But my ears rang terribly as if I were underwater, drowning in soil and the grey, heavy fumes lurking along the desolate stretch of mud. With my weapon raised, I found nowhere to shoot, the strange fog having engulfed the battlefield and beside me, boys dropped liked flies with a spray of crimson. Everything seemed… slow… and languid, sounds and shouts all muddled together in one eerie, capricious roar. And as I dragged my face to look at James beside me, I saw he was yelling, about what, I didn’t know. Taking his rifle in one hand, he trudged towards me, grabbing clumsily at my side during which I dropped my gun, helplessly trying to make sense of his words.

He yanked up the bag at my side, fumbling for the buttons. Only then, as my eyelids pulled back in horror was I finally able to make sense of one dreaded word.

Gas.

James crumpled to the ground like a ragdoll, his blood splattering against my discoloured webbing, and I lurched for him, one hand still clutching my tube helmet now sticking to my palm, the other frantically grasping for my love writhing in the mud. I could see the hole in his hand, the wound in his leg, caught in the tail end of machine gun fire. His name escaped in one sharp cry before I too was ripping the mask from his own bag as I began to cough and hack, my eyes growing blurry, my head spinning from fear, his hands still weakly struggling to fit the cloth over my head, and my hands trying to do the same for him. And suddenly, all at once, I collapsed, fainted, shadows beginning to swirl around us.

And a mantling silence consumed me.

*

I remember waking up to darkness, feeling my eyes open, something soft against my hands and my head. Gradually sounds came back; the gentle voices of women, the murmurs of men. But the blackness sent me into a fit of terror and I began to shout out, shrieking first for James, floundering atop the cushioned surface, until a hand caught my own.

“Victor!” it said breathlessly. It squeezed my hand once, then twice.

“James,” I mumbled, my voice breaking.

Carefully, I took hold of his arm, my feet just grazing the cold, stone floor, and wrapped my heavy arms around him, felt the heat of his chest and his warm breath.

I knew I was alive then, for I could feel hot tears pouring out of my eyes and smearing under whatever cloth was wrapped across my face, the thump of his heart drumming firmly against my ear.

*

Days later, the two of us were discharged from the hospital all the way back to England, hands guiding me this way and that, but I always knew James was near for I knew his own touch against the small of my back. Of course my family was happy to hear I was home, safe and sound, though blinded. My sight never did return. It was recommended I stay with my aunt, my uncle having died in the Boer War, and was told she would take good care of me. But I wanted nothing more than James.

And so my wish was granted. My family purchased a tiny cottage near the lake for the both of us—minus the innumerable visits from my mother and sister—the almighty hawthorn just visible from the front door, or so James described to me. He described everything to me, from our home to trees, while seasons passed us by. The trickling of rain beading down the windows; the colours of flowers he would bring home from the shop, that scent of roses following him again. And as I grew older, he described more things to me. How London changed, how the world was changing, and how it was remembering the boys who never returned home. But I knew of the things he wasn’t describing to me, too. About the people who stared at me and those like me, marked by the consequences of war, with antipathy as I walked blindly through city streets. About people bloodthirsty for revenge against those who stole their sons… and about the tears in his eyes when we would lay in bed at night, saddened I could no longer see the gorgeousness of life. But with a strangled smile, trying to see the light in all, I would always tell him the world seemed all the more beautiful with him to describe it to me, how love felt all the more powerful when one could not see, for the most profound things in life can only be experienced when closing one’s eyes.

And one spring evening, just before the sun was set, James and I decided to have a walk to our hawthorn tree, as we did less those days in my later age. So I took up my cane in one hand, my other in his, and we walked down that rivering white road columned with trees woven above our heads.

And upon reaching the tree, he helped guide me down to the plush grass beneath those twisting braches now blooming with the fresh white blossoms. I leaned my head against his shoulder so he could press a kiss to my temple.

As I closed my eyes, I wept at the image of his handsome face in my memory, still surrounded by the garden, the one whose light speckled face laughed with me among the roses, whose face I always remembered the same way. The one whose face never changed, the one who never grew old. Whose body I was forced to leave an ocean away.

And as my frail, quivering fingers traveled down his body, tracing over his words from all those years ago embedded deep within the stone set between the aged roots of the old hawthorn winding through the grass, I could feel his soft lips fade from my skin.

“I promise too,” I whispered.

And a mantling silence consumed me.

 


Alastair F. Brady is an aspiring illustrator and writer of early 20th century fiction for adolescents and adults and has had numerous recognitions for his moving and imaginative pieces of art and literature. Alastair is currently working on a full length novel as well as illustrated young adults’ books. He is also a WWI re-enactor and freelance photographer.

He can be found on Instagram at @alastaircreates.

Wind Chill | Rosey Lee

“Chef, the guests at Table 5 asked if you would stop by,” the hostess said.

Free was the hottest new restaurant in Atlanta, and Chef Maymie was used to guests requesting special time with her. Her innovative approach to the chef-driven dining experience was unexpected in Atlanta, and people couldn’t get enough of it or her creations. Diners interacted directly with her and the kitchen staff instead of waiters, but there was always one table too impatient to wait for her to come by at the end of the meal. She appreciated the excitement around her largely plant-based take on Southern favorites, so she took entitled guests in stride.

“Okay, tell them I’ll be there in a few minutes,” Chef Maymie said. She finished her check-ins with the line chefs and headed to the dining room, grabbing a massive basket of fresh cornbread muffins to distribute in place of the assigned commis chef.

The restaurant was filled to capacity, and the energy was palpable in the 125-seat dining room. The kitchen door flung open, and a group of local culinary students burst into applause as Chef Maymie approached their table with the muffins. She tried to quiet them, but the rest of the room joined in. She made a mental note to send the students an amuse-bouche assortment.

“Mr. Butler? Ms. O’Hara-Butler?” Chef Maymie asked, approaching Table 5. For the first time since she opened the restaurant, Chef Maymie felt out of place. She reminded herself that she and her therapist had prepared for this moment. She followed her therapist’s advice and spoke to her fear. “I have overcome. God is with me. It’s healthy to hold others accountable for their actions. There is strength in forgiveness,” Chef Maymie thought.

“Yes, lovely to see you! It’s been so long,” Ms. O’Hara-Butler said, hugging Chef Maymie as Mr. Butler shook his head. Chef Maymie paused and then eased away.

“Scarlett, honey, calm down,” Mr. Butler said to his wife. “Chef Maymie, she’s been looking forward to seeing you all week. No one took care of our daughter like you. Cat had lots of babysitters over the years, but you were our favorite.”

“I’m not sure I remember being your favorite, but that’s okay. Things turned out pretty well for me in the end,” Chef Maymie said.

“Yes, we’re so proud of you!” Ms. O’Hara-Butler boasted. “And the restaurant is gorgeous. When I read about the grand opening in the newspaper, I knew we had to come see you and try your famous cornbread muffins. By the way, I love the way you’re spelling your name these days. You’ve really reinvented yourself.”

“I didn’t reinvent myself. I’m still the same person I always was. My name is still spelled M-a-m-i-e on legal documents. I added the y for everyday use because I got tired of being called Mammy. You know, the kind of Freudian slip that has no place in the twenty-first century,” Chef Maymie said coolly.

Ms. O’Hara-Butler recoiled. “Oh Maymie, I apologized for that. I didn’t mean anything by it. We loved you like family,” she said.

“Actually, you never apologized,” Chef Maymie said. The situation had haunted her for years, and she felt empowered speaking up for herself now.

“I am sorry. Please forgive me,” Ms. O’Hara-Butler said.

“Thank you,” Chef Maymie said. As she turned to signal for one of the commis chefs to finish passing out the muffins,  she saw someone familiar exiting the restroom. “Is that Cat? She’s all grown up.”

Ten years had passed. Chef Maymie hadn’t seen Cat since the day Ms. O’Hara-Butler had called her Mammy. It had been the worst time to quit her babysitting job in the palatial mansion in Buckhead, one of the wealthiest communities in the country. She was just about to finish her master’s degree in food science and start culinary school. She really needed the money.

“Maymie! ” Cat squealed, running toward her.

They held each other in a long, rocking hug, their customary greeting when Chef Maymie picked up Cat each day from kindergarten.

“This is the most excited Cat has been all week,” Ms. O’Hara-Butler said. “She doesn’t talk to us much anymore. You know how teens can be.” Cat rolled her eyes at her mother and slid into the booth. “We’ve been trying to get reservations forever,” Ms. O’Hara-Butler continued. “I even left several messages, but I figured you didn’t get them.”

“No, I received them, but you know how chefs can be,” Chef Maymie said, winking at Cat.

“I had the hardest time believing you were a chef because you told me during your interview that you couldn’t cook,” Ms. O’Hara-Butler said.

“I never said that I didn’t know how to cook. When I said ‘I can’t cook,’ I meant that I had no plans to do it as part of my babysitting job. You wouldn’t even pay me minimum wage. But I slipped Cat a few of my homemade treats every now and then,” Chef Maymie said.

“See, Mom, I told you!” Cat hissed at her mother. Cat pivoted toward Chef Maymie. “I told her I remembered eating a cornbread muffin like the one pictured in the newspaper article about you, but she didn’t believe me. She thought I was just trying to make her jealous.”

“Chef, they need you in the kitchen,” interrupted the commis chef as he relieved Chef Maymie of the basket of muffins.

“Okay. I’ll be right there,” Chef Maymie said. She turned to her guests. “I’ve gotta run. I hope y’all enjoy your meals. But, Ms. O’Hara-Butler, I have to know, did it work?”

“Huh?” Ms. O’Hara-Butler asked.

“Did it make you jealous that you’d never tasted any of my food?” Chef Maymie asked.

“It did.” Ms. O’Hara-Butler sighed, her cheeks reddening.

Chef Maymie smiled and walked away. “Bless her heart,” she said under her breath.

 


Rosey Lee is a New Orleans, Louisiana native who lives in Atlanta, Georgia. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Necessary Fiction, Bending Genres, Barren Magazine, Turnpike Magazine, and elsewhere. Her flash fiction chapbook, Beautiful, Complicated Family, will be released in late 2019. Follow her at roseyleebooks.com and @roseyleebooks on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Race Home | Angelica M. Ramos-Santa

Hung on the sky blue walls of a backwoods art gallery, a picture of a woman calls out to me. She stood at a “colored” bus stop in Manhattan surrounded by women the same stature. Her head was turned toward the right and her forehead was creased with worry. Her fingers gripped the straps of the purse that hung from her right shoulder, a vice. Her hair was slicked back, not a curl out of place and the collar of her shirt looked so stiff and starched I could almost smell the box of detergent through the glass.

My eyes were drawn to hers and the thin lines between her eyebrows which, would be invisible to those who don’t understand her struggle. I could hear her screaming inside from the solemn look in her eye. I wished, in that moment, I could jump into the frame, back to the sixties, to tell her that the future holds no worries, but that would be a lie.

The bus will drop her off last when the sky is darker than her skin. Men of all colors will sit outside bars lining the street corners as motown’s sweet music softly drifted in the wind. Drunkenness knows no division. She can smell the alcohol on their breath even from her distance. They will hoot and holler at her as she would begin her five block walk home, alone. She has to ignore the drunken compliments and the nasty things, hoping that she will be able to just make it home without having to pull out her knife. What good is a knife most days, anyway, when the men are twice her size and hunt in packs like coyotes? She could have stared up at the night sky once or twice, making eye contact with the moon.

“You know,” she would whisper to it, “You only shine because the rest of the sky is dark.”

The rest of her walk home would be silent, staring straight ahead. She’d see people walking about. Single men. Young couples without chaperones. She won’t look at any of them. She won’t want any trouble. She just had to make it home in time to feed her babies and her husband.

Just three blocks away from home, a man will call out to her. She will keep walking with her head down. He would keep hollering. His voice will boom, like it was getting closer, so she would bolt away, in her short chunky heels and skirt, wishing she was closer to home.

“Hey!”

She’ll freeze, tired and out of breath.

“Lady!”

“Look,” she’ll wheeze out, panting, “ I don’t want no trouble. If you want money, I don’t have any. If you want anything else, I have nothing to give you. Nothing, you hear? Now, you leave me alone. I’ve told you the truth, I have nothing.”

“Okay, Ma’am but…I was just looking for directions to the bus stop.”

Her breathing will calm as she points in the direction she came from, “Sorry, boy. It’s a few blocks that way, on the corner between two bars. Once you smell beer, you’re there. Can’t miss it.”

Standing in the gallery, I picture her walking that last block or two home, rushing through the door, her purse dropping to the ground with a new unimportance. Hugging her babies tightly, she would breathe in the scent of their skin and the smell of detergent on their clothes. Her son would shyly tell her that he stained his good shirt and for a moment she wouldn’t care because she came home to all of her children there.

Having a black or tan child is dangerous and yet, relief would wash over her the same way it will wash over me, one day. My kids will be a mixture of both. She prayed back then the way I will, years from now, for their safety. We pray they get the chance to live without fear. We pray that our sons don’t lose their lives on street corners holding up a pack of candy or a cell phone to prove their innocence. We pray that our children will be able to speak the language of their people freely without hearing, “This is America, speak English.”

We pray that our daughters can safely walk the streets alone and not be preyed upon for the clothes that she wears or the color of her skin being the fantasy of a cruel fetish. We pray that the world will love our children the way we do, the way we will one day, even if they are all pepper but no salt or pepper and spices stirred together. We pray that a social construct is no longer a reason to take children from mothers and mothers from children. We pray that the police won’t show up to family barbecues and leave with our fathers in handcuffs. We pray that one day mankind will also mean womankind and be color kind. We pray, I tell you. That’s all we have left to do.

 


Angelica M. Ramos-Santa is an undergraduate student at Susquehanna University, majoring in writing. As a Hispanic female writer, she dreams of going onward to grad-school to teach and inspire the next generation writers. She believes that everyone has the right to dream big.

Off-Script | Angelo Lorenzo

The mirror did not lie about my age. With only eleven minutes to prepare, I dabbed my face with the sponge of the foundation, then smacked my lips after I applied lipstick. Although my hairline had reached the top of my head, I managed to cover the lines in my skin that traced the corners of my eyes. I’ve always believed these lines had deepened because of laughter and smiles for the benefit of my viewers.

I picked up the script from my dresser table and read the questions I had to ask. This would be the first time that I’d see him after a long time, and I didn’t know this thought could give me shivers despite being fully clothed in my suit and trousers in the dressing room. Speaking my lines out loud took a while, but this had become my routine every night so I wouldn’t stutter in front of the camera. We’ve always been shot live, and the script was crucial to keep things in order.

I barely noticed the time as I kept shrugging the memories that gradually came back as my temples throbbed. But three knocks on the door suggested Ramona checking in on me. I opened it and saw our production manager standing outside.

“Five minutes before show time, Sir,” she said, raising and opening her palm to gesture the number with her fingers.

I nodded and sighed. “I’ll be there.”

With one more glance in the mirror, I buttoned my suit. The sleeves had loosened as my arms had thinned. What would he think of me? I asked myself. But I knew that question was not important.

I went to the studio where the program will be broadcast live. From the backstage, I emerged to the stage where two couches were situated on the center. Between them stood a table no higher than the knees of any guest sitting over the couch. On the stage’s backdrop, the LCD screen attached to the wall played the opening title. Overhead, lights shone. Beneath the stage, rows of seats were occupied by tonight’s audience – folks that waited in line outside the studio’s building since this afternoon. On the stage’s edge stood the cameras and the teleprompter.

I heard faint cheers, but the staff assigned to signal the audience’s reactions calmed them down. The live broadcast did not start yet, but viewers at home could already see the opening title playing in their screens.

Before I sat on the couch, Ramona darted towards me to pin the lapel on my collar. “Is he here?” I asked, knowing that the microphone was not yet turned on.

“Yup. But Frenchie is still doing the necessary preparations for him.” She patted my shoulders as I straightened my suit. “I bet she’s still savoring her time with him.” She chuckled.

“I wouldn’t wonder why.”

In all the years that Ramona had managed production, this routine never tired both of us. From small talks about what the guest was doing before the show started, to asking about what could be done differently every night to increase ratings, these random topics helped with the nerves.

The upbeat music of the opening title blared throughout the studio before the voice over spoke. “Find out the latest celebrity news straight from the source!” the cheerful male voice intoned. I remembered hearing it being recorded for the first time by one of Ramona’s acquaintances in the entertainment industry. That man went on to voice trailers for the network’s film production company.

I looked behind us and saw the opening title playing a clip of Miss Universe 2015 Pia Wurtzbach in a blue sparkling dress sitting over the couch where she stated that she’d never forget Cagayan de Oro as her hometown despite being based in New York City for her year of reign.

“You’ll do great just like old times,” Ramona said as she adjusted my tie. “You even made a beauty queen laugh. I heard your guest tonight has dated her once.”

I shook my head. “I can’t confirm that unless I ask him. How old is old anyway?”

The screen shifted to a scene that showed filmmaker Brillante Mendoza, with his trimmed moustache sitting on the same couch where Pia had sat. It was in 2016 when I interviewed him about his film that made it to the Cannes Film Festival.

“From inquiries about pop culture trends to political revelations!” the voice over continued.

The screen shifted to a clip where former President Rodrigo Duterte waved his hand to silence my question. “How would you feel if you were a father to a minor who’s been shot dead on the streets because he was mistaken as a drug user in your Anti-Drug Campaign that encouraged extra-judicial killings?” I remembered asking him that question.

The former president scoffed. “I can make more sons.”

The next day, that statement made the headlines.

“What do you mean how old?” Ramona asked.

I sighed. “I’ll be a senior citizen in fifteen years.”

It was meant as a joke, but Ramona did not laugh. “Then there’ll be fifteen more seasons of…” The voice over uttered the name at the same time, “…Call it a Night with Jim Jimenez.”

As Ramona scurried back to the backstage, I sat over my couch, and crossed my legs. The lights shone brighter and the audience cheered and applauded after the staff’s signal.

“Good evening, Philippines, and let’s call it a night!” I said my usual introduction. The audience cheered and the opening music ended. Then came the usual spiel about today’s events and the most recent triumph of our guest who had arrived in the country after attending a prestigious awards ceremony last week.

“Now we all know Shane Santisteban has started out as a matinee idol in showbiz. For over a decade, he has starred in various teleseryes and movies.” I shifted in my seat, leaned forward, and brought my elbows over my knees. “But it wasn’t until he got the role of an activist in a critically acclaimed film by Filipino-Canadian filmmaker Farrah Fedora that he has hit his biggest break yet. He finds himself in Hollywood and…” I coughed.

I cleared my throat in a second. My eyes shifted to the teleprompter’s monitor in which the lines in the script glowed in green letters. “I’m sorry about that.” I mumbled, almost to myself. Mistakes rarely happened, and it took guts to avoid another one tonight.

I continued, “…his most recent achievement is not only the box office success the film entitled, “Freedom’s March” has generated, but also the Oscar he now has in his sleeve. What a feat!” I spread my arms and stood from the couch. The audience cheered as the staff raised their hands to signal the cue. “He is the first Filipino to win the Oscar in the best actor in a leading role category. Here with us tonight, everybody, is Mr. Shane Santisteban!”

The crowd erupted as I stood. From the side of the stage, the same entrance from where I had passed through earlier, Shane took gallant steps in his black long-sleeved polo, fitted jeans, and leather shoes. Minus the cape and mask, he looked like Zorro taking a break from doing justice. His teeth shone as he smiled and his stubble glazed his cheeks and chin. Tall and broad chested, age treated him better.

In his hand was the golden miniature statue of a bald man standing. His Oscar trophy glimmered beneath the lights as he presented it to the audience and the camera. His gallant stride led him to the center of the stage where he stopped to see me. I offered my hand, but he wrapped me in his arms instead. I tasted the mint of his perfume through my nose.

I didn’t let my surprise get the best of me especially when we were airing live. So after he placed the statue on the table, we sat across from each other. The audience’s cheers and applause gradually ceased.

“Welcome to the show, Shane,” I said.

“Thank you for having me, Jim,” he responded, crossing his legs. To the audience, he addressed: “I can’t believe I’m finally here with Jim Jimenez!”

“Finally,” I snickered, not taking his response too seriously. I began asking him the initial questions in the script, which were manifested by the teleprompter’s screen. I’ve familiarized most of them, but I had to look at the monitor sometimes to make sure. Who did you call first after you received your award? What were your thoughts before Julia Roberts announced your name from the envelope? When did the producers inform you that you got the role after your audition? Where were you when you knew about it? How did you prepare for the role?

Shane uttered his answers too lightly with casual shrugs, brief pauses and occasional chuckles. “I did call my mother backstage after my speech. But she saw the Oscars live. In fact, she may be watching your program now.” He waved to the camera. “Oh, I thought that Tom Hanks was gonna win, but my expectations failed me.” He seemed honest as he looked at me and winked. “I was taping for a commercial when the producers informed me. I was in Manila and my manager spilled the good news after she received their e-mail.”

To the last of the initial questions, he made a lengthy pause. He arched his back and leaned against the couch’s backside. “Well, it’s a challenge to play the role of an activist in the Martial Law era,” he said. “I read history books, interviewed survivors of Marcos’ regime, and tried walking across EDSA before principal photography took place.”

“So that’s what got the tabloids and blogs on social media raving!” I said. “Many thought what went on in your mind walking all by yourself under the heat of the sun.”

He guffawed and the audience echoed. “That was me preparing, but activists during the People Power Revolution must have experienced worse discomforts. Farrah’s historical biopic did magnify the Filipino spirit of courage to achieve democracy during an authoritarian regime.”

Shane had changed so much since I last met him. His perpetual smile marked his confidence and his cheerful mood made me comfortable despite the shivers I got earlier. All the while, I nodded, clapped, and sometimes finished off his sentences when there was a word he couldn’t remember. Perhaps, he couldn’t remember anymore what happened long ago.

“So, what’s next for you?” I asked another question.

Shane gazed at the audience, and the lights from the ceiling gleamed over his eyes. His smile faded gradually as if he found himself in deep thought. He faced me and leaned forward.

Then he reached for my hand over the couch’s armrest.

“I wish to start over,” he said.

I pulled my hand away from his, turned to the camera, and said, “We’ll be back after the break.”

“What? The show only has thirty minutes to air and it’s commercial-free!” I heard Ramona speaking through the entrance that led to the backstage. I couldn’t blame anyone for my decision. But if Shane wanted to bring things back, I couldn’t afford to expose what we had on live television. It’s not that I wasn’t open about my identity; it’s just that I couldn’t forget what he did many years ago.  

In the hallway backstage, Shane attempted to follow me just as he did after I walked hastily from the set. “You can act as you wish in your film projects, Shane, but not in my show.”

He held my shoulder and pulled me to face him. “Jim, what else can I do?”

“Stop with the publicities!” I gritted my teeth. No one was in the hallway save for us, and I tried to keep my voice down before anyone could have an inkling about our conversation. Regardless, the staff must have been aware what was going on as he was following me. But everyone was busy running the program and technicalities despite the commercials going on.

“Isn’t this fame already enough for you? Why bother to attract attention in my show?” I went on.

“It’s not attention that I want, Jim, it’s—”

“Why now, Shane?” I took a step forward. “After all these years? Do you think you can just easily step your way in my life again to bring back what you lost? Do you think it was easy for me to agree with the producers’ decision to have you tonight? We’re no longer in college, Shane, and this isn’t Cagayan de Oro, so whatever we had before is gone. You lost it the moment you denied your true identity and denied us in your interview with Boy Abunda years ago. All for the sake of your image… “ Boy Abunda was the Perez Hilton of the Philippines before he retired.

I pointed at him and he stepped back. “Now look where it got you — an Oscar to your sleeve and millions of dollars in your bank account. Perhaps a mansion in Beverly Hills is the next step? Congratulations!”

He reached for my hand again. “I don’t… I don’t need all of that. I am trying to set things right again… with you…”

Years ago, an English major and a Journalism student met in a stage production of Francisco Baltazar’s Florante at Laura. Many lauded the tale as the Filipino version of Romeo and Juliet, but it did inspire another love story that ended in tragedy. That English major was an aspiring actor who became an understudy to the role of Florante. During the premiere, the lead actor had a flu and the understudy took his place. After the play, the Journalism student interviewed him for the college paper, and even if he didn’t ask for his number among his questions, the understudy gave it by his choice. Eventually, meet-ups turned to dates turned to a semester’s worth of relationship before life after graduation tore them apart. The English major moved to Manila to pursue acting, starred in minor roles that led to major ones, and led to a breakthrough in Hollywood after auditioning for a monumental film that depicted a triump in Filipino history. The Journalism major, however, stayed in Cagayan de Oro City and worked as a reporter for a network, before pitching an idea about a commercial-free late-night talk show to producers in the same network whose main headquarters are located in the Philippines’ capital. Many years later, they reunited in the show.

So much for remembering the past, I thought, but you can’t help remembering when the situation requires you to.

“Don’t play with me, Shane,” I said.

He stepped back and sighed deeply, looking to the floor.

“It’s been over for years. We’re grown-ups now and we’ve made our choices.”

He lifted his face and his eyes filled with tears. “I wasn’t the one who broke contact. I tried reaching you, but you never responded. You blocked me on Facebook, you never replied to my e-mails and texts, and you never answered my calls.”

“Then you must have thought about that before denying us and denying yourself to the public,” I said, my voice breaking. “You could have been the voice of our community, Shane. People like us needed to know that there was at least someone winning out there, making other people see us in a new light. You have the talent and the influence, yet you chose to hide yourself.”

“Yet if I revealed me, I wouldn’t reach this far.”

“Then is all this more important to you than being true?”

He took a few steps toward me, and he reached for my hands. I didn’t shrug him off this time. His shoulders shook with his sobs.

“It’s never going to be enough,” he said. “All this… Jim, are you even happy?”

“What does it look like to you?”

“Excuse me, Sir!” Ramona appeared and called from the end of the hallway. “Three minutes before the show returns.”

She must have heard us. But the hell I cared. This was the first time I saw Shane in tears. There was no script for this moment. But I had to remind myself that he was a great actor.

Three minutes later, we were in the couch again. The Oscar statue was no longer standing on the table. The crew must have taken it and will return it to him after our interview. With the night getting late, I had to explain to the producers tomorrow why the show ended much later than it should.

The lights brightened and the music played back. The audience cheered and clapped. This time, however, I could see many of them standing from their seats.

“And we’re back!” I said. I faced Shane who now sat with both his hands clasped together and his lips pursed. He looked more uneasy than he had been earlier, as if his confidence had just evaporated by the warmth of the glaring lights. I felt bad about myself for confronting him like that. I shouldn’t have made him regret about his decision years ago. If he was not comfortable exposing his true self then, this could probably be the time to start over. Wasn’t that what he said before the break?

“So, Shane…”

He looked at me, and his eyes no longer shone.

I looked at the teleprompter and read the next question. I looked back at him and I knew that this moment wouldn’t happen again.

“Shall we continue from where we left off?”

I knew that question was not in the script, but I asked it anyway.

 


Angelo Lorenzo is a writer based in Cagayan de Oro City, Philippines. He writes about the arts and culture scene in his hometown, and contributes articles to local newspapers and national media organizations such as Rappler. Currently, he is taking his Master’s Degree in Literature at Xavier University – Ateneo de Cagayan