Alexis Silas

The Fairyland Flower Show

Lizzie’s parents had forgotten about magic.

She tried not to hold it against them. She understood that most people forgot magic as they aged, becoming more preoccupied with matters such as stock portfolios, mortgages, and lawn maintenance by the time they were grown-ups. It seemed to be the way of things.

 But then her twin sister Laura fell ill, and lapsed into a coma.

The doctors were mystified. After several months, they gave up on a diagnosis and decided that Laura would be most comfortable at home. Laura slept, like a princess in a fairy tale, if the princess were in a rented hospital bed surrounded by medical equipment. Their parents were losing hope, but Lizzie was only ten and had not yet learned how to give up. As medical science had failed to provide answers, Lizzie went into her back yard to look for fairies. Fairies were full of gossip. Perhaps she could catch one that would know what had happened to Laura.

Her first two captures turned out to be mere butterflies, but on her third try, Lizzie slammed her jam jar over a downtrodden pixie who’d paused inside a snapdragon for a hit of nectar.  

At first the pixie hadn’t wanted to talk, but she got pretty chatty the moment Lizzie lit a match and held it under the jar.

“All right, all right!” the pixie said. “The scuttlebutt is that your sister ate the cursed fruit of the Goblin King. A second taste would cure her, but he never sells to the same person twice. Now would it kill you to punch some air holes in this thing?”

“That depends,” said Lizzie. “Where can I find this fruit?”

“The Fairyland Flower Show. Dusk to dawn on Midsummer Night. The Goblin King attends every year; his fruit blossoms always win. The doorway opens on the crest of the big hill outside the village.”

Lizzie opened the jar, and the pixie flew off with an aggrieved “Hmphf!”  

Two weeks later, Lizzie waited on the hillside on Midsummer Night. When the last of the fireflies had dimmed, an archway appeared, dripping with wisteria blooms and Spanish moss.

A leprechaun stopped her at the entrance. His red beard reached just to Lizzie’s knee, but he spoke with authority: “Admission’s one copper.”

Lizzie only had a single silver coin, and she needed that for the Goblin King.

“I didn’t know there was an entry fee,” she said.

Her eyes widened as the leprechaun produced a sharp knife, but then he handed it to her. “There’s plenty on your head,” he said.

She cut a single curl from her copper-red hair. The man examined the lock with an appraising eye, and said, “That’ll do,” as he tucked it into his waistcoat pocket.

Lizzie stepped through the door, onto a verdant carpet of clover. Moonlight illuminated a network of booths the size of a city. Everywhere she looked, fantastical creatures displayed their unique fruits and flowers: elves arranged bowers made from blooming saplings, and giants tended beanstalks that stretched to the sky. There was even a vampire, beaming with pride next to a plant that bore a ribbon reading: “Best of Show: Carnivorous Division.”  

A gnome pedaled by on a red tricycle, towing a flatbed of begonias. When Lizzie asked about the Goblin King, he pointed her towards the center of the show.

She walked for hours. It was almost morning before she reached the Goblin King’s booth. Boughs of apple blossom decorated the roof, and baskets on the counter overflowed with berries. Goblins with wrinkled faces and hands gnarled as tree branches scrambled about, hawking wares.

Lizzie set her silver coin on the counter. “Give me all the fruit this coin will buy,” she said.

The Goblin King clapped his hands. “A customer!” he cried, with glee. “But surely you will try, before you buy? Sample our wares, forget your cares.”

Lizzie shook her head. “I only want to buy the fruit, not eat it,” she said.

“Try some, first. We have the ripest berries, the sweetest cherries.”

Again, Lizzie refused. “I’m only here to buy it.”

The other goblins began chanting, “Just a taste. What a waste, to show such haste!”

It was tempting. The peaches were velvety, the strawberries ripe. But…there was Laura, asleep at home. “No,” Lizzie said. “If you won’t sell it to me, then give me back my silver coin.”

The Goblin King’s face twisted in anger. “You’re up to some trick!” he cried. “Taste my fruit at once, if you want it so badly!”

Enraged, he threw a peach at her. 

The ripe peach exploded all over her shirt. Juice splattered her arms and her face, stinging her eyes. Lizzie kept her mouth clamped shut so that not even a drop of juice would enter. She brushed the pulp from her shirt, and her hands became sticky with the mess.

The other goblins turned on her, their arms full of ammunition. But as she prepared to be pelted, the sights and sounds around her began to fade. The angry faces melted away; the booths evaporated in the sunlight.

Dawn had come, and the Fairyland Flower Show was over for another year. Only a ring of toadstools was left to mark the place where it had been.      

“I failed,” she thought. “I didn’t get any of the fruit.”

Her hands, though, were sticky with peach juice.

When she arrived at home, her parents were huddled next to Laura’s bedside. Their eyes were dull and hopeless. They hadn’t seen Lizzie come in.

“The doctors said we need to be realistic,” she heard her mother say.

Lizzie sighed. Sometimes, you had to do all the heavy lifting yourself.

She’d resisted the urge to clean her hands during the walk home. She unfurled her sticky, juice-covered fingers, and stuck one of them into her sister’s mouth.

Her parents did not understand what she was doing, and probably never would. But that didn’t matter, because Laura opened her eyes and smiled.

*

Biography

Alexis Silas is an aspiring writer who copes with everything by enjoying copious amounts of hot, sugary beverages. Her favorite method of procrastination involves reading stories about anthropomorphized animals that wear waistcoats and tiny spectacles.

Claire Loader

Boundary Lines

Is it myth that the world lies thinner in parts, that boundary lines are not only made for cattle, hawthorn planted not just for its bloom?  The cat didn’t think so, braving the road to lick its gossamer edges, to see what lay there amidst the roots of spring.   I could have told her what rested beneath that tree, should have warned her not to venture beyond the wall.

“Oh god, where did you find her?”

“Just over the far side.” Matt had turned as he walked towards me, knew I’d look given half the chance.

“Please, just…”

“No, Dee.”

We buried her up the back corner, the small trowel almost snapping with the rock, our knuckles raw as we scraped and burrowed.  We sat then in the sun, cigarette clenched between dirty fingers, clothed in the drift of its smoke.

“I wish we’d put a fence up or something.”

“Dee, you can’t fence a cat.  This wasn’t your fault.  Lads do over a hundred on that road, no one is safe on that thing.”

“Margaret Higgins walks it.”

“Margaret Higgins has some direct link with God that we just don’t know about.  She’s putting full tenners on the collection plate I’m sure of it.”

There was a cockiness about Margaret alright, a hi-vis-less swagger that seemed to stare down each passing car.  Her head furrowed in concentration, I’m sure she never noticed what lay beyond the stone wall, never wondered about the tree, how odd it was to be left like that alone on the fence line. I had commented to a visiting neighbour once, how it sat so beautifully, as if each branch was hung with snow.

“That’s where they buried the children sure.  Tis an old lisheen.”

“I’m sorry, what?” 

The neighbour’s voice so matter of fact, as if that was the tree’s only purpose.  “The wee uns, the poor wee things, from the famine and the like.  Not baptised you see, had to be put somewhere.”

I thought about it now, methodically flicking the dirt from beneath each fingernail, each click like the thud of a midnight wagon hitting off the sodden fields.

“Do you think she was going to play with them?  That they called to her?”

“What?” Matt squinting at me in the dying evening rays.

“You know, the children.”

“Dee seriously, would you stop.”

“I’m sorry, it’s just the more stories I hear about this house the more I think we made the wrong decision moving out here.  I doubt even the whole of Galway has enough sage to clear this place.”

We hadn’t moved in two weeks and the stories began filtering through.  The old farmer bulldozing the ring fort on the hill above the house, as if the cows couldn’t just walk around it.  How he couldn’t find anyone to help him.  “Afraid the faeries would come after them sure, said nothing good would come of that kind of carry on.” 

I wasn’t sure when the forts became the home of the little people, when it was that souterrains went from a simple place to hide to the very gates of the underworld.  I didn’t think I believed in all that stuff either until they said the farmer was found dead in the field a few days later.  Heart attack they said, that or he’d angered the heritage Gods at least.

I looked up from my hands, watched the last of the light fall beneath the hill.

“I don’t know, maybe it’s just cos I’m feeling so crap about the cat, but do you not think it’s a tad unlucky our new house seems to fall directly between a bulldozed fairy fort and a children’s friggin graveyard?  That has to be some bad mojo, no?”   

He could see the tears beginning to well, the shake in my voice as I ran my fingers through my hair.   “Come on, a good sleep is all you need.”

“Yeah. Maybe you’re right.”

We woke the next morning to find the small mound empty.  Matt saying it must have been the fox, that we didn’t bury her deep enough.  I didn’t tell him where I thought she’d really gone.  That perhaps we didn’t need to buy so much sage after all.  The children would be appeased at least.

*

Biography

Claire Loader was born in New Zealand and spent several years in China before moving to County Galway.  Her work has appeared in various publications, including Crannóg, Dodging The Rain, The Bangor Literary Journal, The Cabinet of Heed and Crossways.

Andrew Boulton

Keeping

The lighthouse keeper was buried head first in the sand, so at first all Vince could see were his rough black boots.

It didn’t take Vince long to dig him out. The sand was wet, even this far from the shore and, in the way he had to as a boy, he soon found a shell that would work instead of a spade.

Vince held the tiny lighthouse keeper in his hand has he brushed away the stubborn sand. It was inexpertly carved from wood and even less expertly painted. But the yellow coat, faded to English mustard by the salt, and the chipped white beard made it clear enough what the figure was supposed to be.

Back in the lighthouse, where Vince had been squatting since the last fight, the final fight, with his grandfather, he placed the small keeper by the window facing, as duty demanded, out to sea.

When Vince woke up, as usual with the dry burn of bad cider in his throat, he lit his first cigarette and swore his first swear of the day.

The paper of the cigarette clung dryly to his lip and his lighter distractedly puffed up the very last of its fuel.

But when Vince looked up to where he had left the lighthouse keeper it seemed bigger. Not much, but certainly larger. The uneven black buttons, only four from six surviving the weather, were now the size of a baby’s finger print.

Over the next few days, the lighthouse keeper seemed to grow a little more every night. But by now Vince was drinking even cheaper booze and smoking scavenged tobacco and had only been this long without a dose twice in his life.

By the following Monday, a week since he’d found it, the lighthouse keeper was as tall as Vince’s cracked phone. A week later, it was nearly the size of the whiskey bottles sharing the shelf.

But Vince, if not assured in withdrawal, was at least experienced in it, and he maintained the robust sense of logic an unravelling mind demands.

Yet, as Vince woke up each morning to find his skin painful and tight, he also woke up to a taller, fatter lighthouse keeper.

Until, on this morning, Vince opened his eyes to the unbroken ocean. He was not in his bed, he was standing on the window sill, unable to move or to cry out or even to reach for the tobacco he kept in the mitten his grandmother had knitted for him as a boy.

And behind him, in the very edge of Vince’s immovable gaze, he saw a great yellow shape piling Vince’s belongings into a bin bag.

*

Biography

Andrew Boulton is a Creative Advertising lecturer from Nottingham. He is new to the world of short story writing and lives with his wife, 3 year old daughter and a chubby cat.

Aisling Lynch

What Happened to Aoife

When the mist had finally drifted away, Aoife saw that she had wandered to the edge of the world. There was a sea and a sky beyond the cliffs where she stood. She wept at the sight of them, for she could not recall the last time she had seen anything. Finding herself alone upon basalt steps where the storms raged strongest, she built herself a small hut in a sheltered nook of the nearby cliffs. And there she stayed for many a year. Daily she gathered seaweed to boil and shellfish to cook. If you asked her how she came to be there, she would not be able to tell you for her voice had been quite lost. The mists have a way about them you see, if you spend too long shrouded in their folds they may take a tithe. Time and memory are their favorite foods, but they will take a voice if it is owed.

One morning, as usual, Aoife made her way along the shore line gathering what she could. Reams of caramel coloured sweet kelp and curly Carageen with its mint green tips soon filled her basket. She then stopped to rest on a stone. The wind was strong that day and she heard voices curve towards her as it blew. A child came skipping over the basalt, with her old grandmother waddling behind her. For a fleeting moment, something about the child and the grandmother struck her as familiar. The child sat and dangled her legs over the edge of a rock and waited for her nan to join her.  The little child had rosy cheeks and wind whipped curls that were dusky blonde. The old woman’s cheeks were wrinkled in a constant smile as her granddaughter chattered about this and that…

“Who made the Sun shine, nana?”

“Why, it was Lugh who made the Sun shine and the rain fall so we can have spuds for tea.”

“Who made the Sea, nana?”

“Why it was Lir who brewed the sea and gave it a name. He had a sad old life, did Lir.”

“Why was he sad, nana? Did he not have any spuds for tea?”

“Well hush your chattering and I’ll tell you why.”

The child hushed, her eyes rapt with awe as she waited for the story to begin. Nearby, Aoife called gently in her mind for the wind to blow stronger so that she too could hear the old woman’s words…

“King Lir had four beautiful children, just like you pet! A son Aodh, a daughter called Fionnula and twin boys, Fiachra and Conn. When their poor mother died King Lir married her sister so that his beloved children could still have a loving mother. But the sister was a witch you see, and she was a jealous thing! So convinced was she that Lir loved them more than her, she took them  to Lake Derravaragh and turned them into Swans. The spell would last for 900 years and could only be broken when the children heard the ringing of a church bell.” 

“That’s awful!” The child exclaimed, “What did Lir do?”

“Oh he searched for his children, my love. He almost gave up hope! But the witch had not been so clever. You see, she had forgotten to take away their voices! And so they found their father and told her what she had done.”

“What did he do next, nana?”

“There was naught he could do for his children, for they were not church folk, the old gods. And had no bells to ring. So the children remained swans.”

“And the witch, what happened to her nana?”

“Lir was so enraged by what she had done that he banished her to the mists. But don’t worry loveen, she was never seen again.”

The child’s eyes grew wide as the story ended. Aoife’s brimmed with tears. Each word had fallen heavy on her as boulders in a rockslide. Each memory tumbled back into place. The old woman had spoken true. Except for this, she had not loved King Lir. Nobody knew about the long days spent alone in the great castle. How alien the children had seemed to Aoife. Though she had tried, Aoife never bore a child of her own. The Children of Lir would never be hers truly. Aoife had felt the loss of her sister as much as they had. She could never replace Eva as a mother. All she wanted was magic and freedom. But Lir was the King. And when the King wanted something, he got it. Hatred for him still boiled within her. 

She now recalled the King’s rage and the turbulent nights of her years in the mist. How suddenly they came upon her now. She would walk and stumble and dream of being feathered and tossed about in a raging storm. She would hear the poor children singing… and of course the church bell. That awful ringing. She had not been there when it rang first. And yet it rang for her now. The herald of the coming of saints and the death of the old world. The song of her guilt twisted her stomach into hard knots. It rang and rang. The toll of 900 long years and a crime she could not undo. She covered her ears and still it rang.

Before her eyes now she saw young Fionnuala. As the spectre came closer, her youthful skin darkened and her pretty blonde hair greyed and twisted.

“Are you alright, my dear?” Aoife blinked to find the old woman standing above her. Her kind face floating above like the sun, and eyes as blue as the water below them. She placed a pale hand on the woman’s cheek.

“Thank you.” she whispered with the shadow of her voice. And then she called to the wind one last time. As the last of her power left her body, she faded to dust that swirled upward into the sky. Her ashes raced flocks of white clouds overhead. That day, the child could have sworn she heard the singing of angels in the air. 

*

Biography

Aisling Lynch is a Daydream Enthusiast with a penchant for nonsense in all its forms. Sometimes it’s coherent enough to be written down, sometimes it’s better off left in her head.

Hannah McNiven

The Tales We Tell

There were faeries in the woods. Granny said so. But Isa did not believe her because she was eight-and-three-quarters and from the city of London. Isa was far too grow-up to believe in such country tales. The city taught you to be wary of anything that was not tangible; knowable. London was solid and reliable. Or so she thought. Planes and bombs had destroyed her home while Mummy took shelter in the Underground. Isa worried she would never see London again. She hoped she would. She was unsure how long she could stay with Granny. And her faeries.

Granny was silly like that. Always telling fibs and wild stories. Isa could only take so much before she had to escape. She roamed the farmyard, fields…and the woods. They were always empty. She made sure of it by yelling to frighten anyone else away. If there were faeries – even though there was no such thing – she did not want to meet them. However, she always felt she was being watched when she ventured under the green canopy. Yet it did not stop her. There was something comforting about the ancient trees that curled over her head, wrapping her in their verdant embrace; their twisted limbs bastions solidity and untapped knowledge.

She was more at home in the half-light of the forest than the bright glare of the whitewashed farmhouse. Sometimes she wanted to be alone. Isa liked to find a quiet spot where she could sit and sob her heart out; especially when she was homesick or missing Mummy. But even then, acutely wrapped up in her own unhappiness, she felt watched. And yet, still they never showed themselves to her. Until the day they did.

One moment she was alone and the next there were two creatures standing in front of her, dressed in dull green, hair tousled, woven with leaves and flowers. Small bows hung over their shoulders. They did not speak. They simply divested themselves of their weapons and sat beside her. The faeries knew grief. They knew loneliness too, living as they did in isolation. But the fae also understood the comfort derived from kinship. These fae were not the vengeful sprites or cruel tricksters of legend. They were kindness personified. And Isa needed kindness.

It was not that her grandmother was unkind. She was simply old and feeble; housebound when all Isa wanted was to escape her confines. The faeries helped her do that. They held her hands and ran the twisting pathways with her, scrambling under and jumping over fallen tree trunks, guiding her feet until hers were as swift as their own. She learnt to clear paths through the undergrowth with whippy switches, climb trees, how to suck bramble thorns from her fingers then pull them out with her teeth. Together, they constructed shelters from the rain and collected dry wood to build fires to keep each other warm. As they sat around the merrily dancing flames, they told stories; stories about where they came from, their families and childhoods. It was how they kept their pasts alive. The past was important since everyone’s future was so uncertain. No one was safe if the Jerries came; not even the fae. Though they were adept at camouflaging themselves, none were yet capable of performing the magic needed to make them truly invisible. There was not a single adult among their vast numbers to train them in the art of spellcasting. If it had not been for the skill with which they used their surroundings, Isa might have thought them ordinary children like herself.

When she was with the fae, Isa forgot about her own life. She forgot about Mummy’s tear-stained face at the train station as she was herded onto carriages with hundreds of other children all sporting labels around their necks on rude string. She did not remember how her suitcase had disintegrated in the heavy rain, the handle pulling out the top and spilling her most cherished possessions on the platform to be scuffed and stood on by inpatient feet. The memories of Mummy crying over a short letter signed by King George himself faded into obscurity. The trappings of the outside world diminished when she was cocooned in the strong, comforting arms of nature and the creatures that inhabited it.

The more time she spent with them, the more Isa became one of the herd. She learnt to move the way they did, to weave herself in to the fabric of the world around her. Eventually, she was given her own bow (though none of them carried arrows). On another occasion – and with great ceremony – they presented her with the green tunic worn by all fae. She had earned her place among their ranks. Isa had never felt such a sense of belonging as she did amidst the faeries. And yet she was not one of them. She never could be. Because at the end of every evening, she had to return home. Even though she felt it was not her true home (the woods were her home now) she always had to return to her grandmother. Equally, as she turned to leave, the fae sank back into the undergrowth and were swallowed by the shadows. The had a home too; a home that Isa only ever saw from the outside. She never went inside. Only true faeries could enter through its large oak front door. She had a mummy to go home to. No matter how she dressed or how well she could hide amongst the trees, Isa would never be true fae.

Yet no matter how she spent her day, what adventures she joined, what skills she learnt or fun she had, she could not share her knowledge of the faeries with anyone. They were her secret. When she went home to Granny’s every evening and the old lady asked her where she had been, Isa’s answer was always the same.

‘With the children from the orphanage.’   

*

Biography

Hannah McNiven is an Irish writer who was long-listed for the Colm Tóibín International Short Story Award 2017 and short-listed for the same award in 2018. She is also screenwriter of the winning short film chosen by the Wexford Film Fund 2019 entitled The Lady on the Hill.

David O’Donoghue

Responsible Citizenship in Ultramodern Democracies

“I just don’t know whether I can make time for-”

My sentence was interrupted as the car gave a jolt and my stomach dropped out before it righted itself. I pumped the brakes and came to a complete stop after running over the pothole and in the stationary car I looked across to you and I knew from the look in your eyes that you had felt it too. You tried to hastily put on some normalcy after a second, to pretend it was nothing unusual, but I saw the way your little white fingers trembled as your refastened the brooch on your dress. You felt the difference. It wasn’t a jagged  ka-thunk of the normal worn away casualties of little country roads. This was smooth and jarring at the same time like a stranger’s fingers brushing down your spine.

“I better check the car” I suggested with a dry mouth. You only nodded in agreement, knowing the car would be fine and that it was ourselves we should be concerned with. Something felt knocked loose and scratched between my pounding heart and the roll cage of  my ribs as I exited the car.

For a while I didn’t look at it too directly, unfocusing my eyes and giving the whole scene the soft unreality of those low-budget films you loved to watch with resolute wives and handsome husbands and pastel prairies. I focused on its edges at first but even its outline gave me a sense of the impossible. The opening in the earth was so level and uniform and for a moment I imagined a big red-cheeked giant taking an ice cream scoop to the asphalt. My eyes crawled from the lip of the pothole toward its centre where I could discern no end, the hole falling off endlessly into a black vanishing point.  I thought I heard a sourceless squelching sound. It reminded me of when you used to mash bananas in a cup for the baby. I tried to walk back to the car but I couldn’t help turning it into a little jog.

I opened the car door and for a moment I could see the strained fear in your eyes and so I began to hum:

If it’s jagged and irregular, you’re just fine, if it’s perfect and smooth please drop us a line…”

You smiled then, disappearing for a moment into a memory that couldn’t be too far away from my own. The teacher wheeling the television into the classroom, all the faces lighting up at the thought of missing the spelling test, and the local Garda explaining to you the importance of reporting these smooth fissures in the road, pleading with you to remind your parent of guardian of these vital issues. Did your Garda look as quietly frightened as mine? What did the driving instructor look like when they handed you the spirit level and told you to never drive without it? Did your mother write the emergency contact number of the Department of Parainfrastructure on your skin before you took that long drive down the coast? With the same green biro as mine?

I dialled the number and tried to convince myself that the rolling in my stomach was giddy excitement and not something else. I tried to project myself into the local in a fortnight, when this would just be a funny story to raise a few eyebrows and illicit a few laughs. The fantasy was broken by a voice that picked up before I could even hear a single ring.

“You are advised to wait in your vehicle. If you must observe the technician do so only through a reflective surface”.

I tried to detail my exact location, pragmatism blurting in the face of sheer panic, but I looked down at my phone to see I had been hung up on. I turned to fill the silence between us.

“Do you remember the cartoons they used to show us? Did they show them to ye? With the little turtle that would go in his shell and jump down into the pot-”

A flash of lights in the rear view. They bloomed closer and closer behind us. Although the vehicle was far away I cracked the window and gestured with a hand for them to pass as if by making one, small and quotidian interaction with another human I could keep myself sane. But the van didn’t intend to pass. It was concerned with what was behind us. The man stepped out in workman’s clothes and a coveralls unusual in that they were immaculate. He retrieved a large burlap sack from the back of the van and thrust  gloved fingers inside. The window made a loud whine as I rolled it down further but he didn’t look up. I fumbled with the mirror and angled it down in time to see him pulling dark-red goo from the bag and packing it into the pothole. He smoothed the meat-slurry with his hands intently until he was satisfied. Rigidly and without words he re-entered his van, made an illegal turn, and left us alone on the country road.

After a few moments I got out of the car, hands sweaty with curiosity. I caught a flicker of your hand gesturing for me to stop but you gave up once I’d taken a few paces. The hole was gone and I only caught a brief glimpse of the pink flesh at its centre before that too was closed over with pristine tarmac with a wet, sucking sound. I got back into the car and I drove. I filled the gap between us with a turn of the dial on the radio. At the top of the junction a local election poster swung on a broken cable tie from a telephone pole. ‘Vote Number 1’ above a portly middle-aged man I dimly recognised and below his cheap suit, in the county colours: ‘KEEP THEM FED’.

*

Biography

David O’Donoghue is an Irish author, journalist and activist currently resident in Limerick City. His fiction has been published in The Singularity, Sci-Phi Journal, The Runt, Flight Writing and Tales From The Forest. He won the 2015 Kerry’s Eye creative writing competition and was shortlisted for the 2015 Hot Press Creative Writing Award and the 2016 Penguin Ireland Short Story Award. His short story “Beautiful Along the Break” made the Top 6 Shortlist in the 2016 Aeon Literary Award. 

Lynda Cowles

The Wise Woman

A wise woman isn’t born wise. Her wisdom comes from making mistakes.

Clara’s mistake was loving a goat farmer with a clot hidden in his skull. When he fell, so did she.

She stopped brushing her teeth.

Her hair grew wild and matted.

She moved into the goat shed and scattered acorns from her pockets – one for every day they were together.

A forest of oaks grew around her, thickening and hardening as year wound on year wound on year, like yarn on a spindle.

She let the youth fall from her body. At some point, she misplaced her name. There was no need for it without anyone else to say it. In town, some called her the Wise Woman; to everyone else she was a witch.

Sometimes, someone – usually a girl – would brave the gloom of the forest: pick her way nervously between the ridged trunks of the ancient oaks, clutching a single unbroken streamer of apple peel and a lock of hair that wasn’t her own.

They always came seeking love.

The wise woman was old now, older than she had any right to be. She opened the door naked and bald and toothless, startling the girl who still had her hair, her teeth, her heart.

A name.

The wise woman, in her wisdom, was the only one who could see the danger the girl was in. How innocent she was, how foolish.

She welcomed her in. Removed her heavy cloak. Took the peel and lock of hair and threw them in the fire. It was only then the girl noticed three jars in the corner: one containing teeth; one stuffed with hair; and one holding a heart.

She bolted like a doe into the dark night; cloakless, hopeless, loveless, no wiser than before. Not seeing, in the leafy gloom, the scarred bark of a hundred oaks, a heart cut out of every one.

*

Biography

Lynda Cowles is a writer of best-selling murder mystery dinner party games and award-winning Full Motion Video games, as well as a book about how to keep tarot cards happy. 

Konstantina Sozou-Kyrkou

The Heart

It’s been over an hour now but the heart is still warm, despite the cold of the night. Sure as hell it’s palpitating in his grasp. He keeps it at arm’s length, doesn’t want to stain his clothes. It’s still bleeding, the smell heavy, like a nail dug in moist earth. He cups both hands around it to avoid dropping it.

The moon is swallowed up by the canopy of tall trees and as though he’s blindfolded, he trips over a rock. He stumbles and falls on all fours. The heart jolts away, eaten up by darkness. On his knees, he scrambles to some bushes, parts the stubborn, thorny branches, scratching the skin of his hands, scrabbles about the frozen soil, fingers nicked, arms sprawled, eyes stretched.

‘Oh, My God!’ He says. ‘My wife will be furious if I lose the heart.’ She was resolute. Bringing her the heart would be the proof positive of his unconditional love to her. That’s all she craved.

He’s lost all hope when a tiny voice comes from behind a rock.

‘Are you hurt, Yannis?’ He springs to his feet and darts there. He takes a firm grip of the heart again. Definitely pumping, fast now, in and out, sighing and moaning like a deflating birthday balloon.

‘I’m fine, Mother,’ Yiannis tells the heart, clenched in his hands. That’s typical of Mother. Always worrying about things that are none of her business; a scarf he’d forgotten to wear, a sandwich he hadn’t eaten at school, a scabby knee, a wife she never wished for her son.

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Biography

Konstantina Sozou-Kyrkou lives in Athens, Greece and writes in both English and Greek. She has studied Literature and holds an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University. Her stories have been published online and in print in several literary magazines and anthologies, some of which have won in competition in Greece and abroad.

 

 

 

Sandra Arnold

Lord of the Dance

Clutching her list, Liberty pushed open the library door and skidded across the floor to a startled young man behind a mahogany desk. She waved her list and asked where she should look.  He pointed to the top floor where people were drifting among the shelves. There was no obvious way up, so she asked, “How do I get there?”

The young man jerked his head towards a wooden ramp then turned back to the red leather ledger he was writing in.

“Isn’t that a bit austere?” she persisted, watching a group of people struggling then repeatedly sliding to the bottom.

He peered over the top of his glasses and blinked at the ramp. “The problem is, of course, lack of funds.”

Liberty saw a famous novelist in jeans scale the ramp and as he neared the end a dozen arms reached out to pull him onto the top floor, clapping him on the back and congratulating him. Liberty took a deep breath and began the climb up the slope, clinging to the handrail at the side. She got halfway without much difficulty until the ramp rose so steeply it was almost vertical.

“How am I supposed to get up that?” she asked.

The people who’d completed the climb were absorbed in reading titles on the shelves and seemed not to hear her. A couple of pairs of hands from below shoved her up an inch or two. A voice called, “We’ll push and when you get to the top you can return the favour.”

“It’ll take forever,” she called over her shoulder and slid to the bottom again. At the end of the corridor she found a door, pushed it open and walked through a connecting set of offices, all cluttered from floor to ceiling with books and papers and empty boxes. In the fourth office an outraged librarian looked up from her knitting and stared at Liberty. “You’ve got a liberty!” she hissed.

“I know,” agreed Liberty.

Kindly remove yourself from these premises and climb the ramp like everyone else,” ordered the librarian.

“I’m not everyone else and it isn’t the right route for me, so I’m looking for an alternative.”

The librarian adjusted her pink angora cardigan which she had knitted in only three weeks following her promotion as assistant to the deputy assistant. “This is very trying,” she sniffed. “If everyone did this we’d get no work done.” She got to her feet. “Follow me.”

Through the door, down a dim passage to the foot of a spiral metal staircase. The librarian folded her arms over her pink angora bosom. “You do realise we close in ten minutes? Are you sure you can find what you want in the time available?”

Liberty nodded, thanked her politely for her trouble and climbed the stairs. On the second floor she went straight to the catalogue cabinet and searched through the cards until she found the books she wanted, jotting down their classification numbers. Slipping between the tightly packed shelves she ran her finger along the spines of the books, pulling out six, one after the other as she identified them. She needed one more. A bell clanged. Liberty scanned the top shelves, then the middle ones and then began on the bottom row. People hurried past her and down the spiral stairs. The book she wanted was the last one on the bottom shelf. She pulled it out and tucked it under her arm with the others.

Silence.

The top floor was deserted. Banging and clanking on the second floor and ground floor, and then silence. Liberty realised she was the only one left in the building. She hurried over to the check-out desk and stamped the books herself and then over to the spiral stairway which was blocked by a locked iron gate. She ran over to the ramp and found a heavy grill over it. She peered over the railing to the ground floor and considered jumping. Then she saw a trapdoor flapping in the opposite wall.

Opening the trapdoor she could see a chute. “What fun!” she shouted, squeezing through and whizzing down to the bottom. She landed on the pavement where several librarians were waiting at the bus stop to go home. Some of them smiled at her, others inhaled sharply through pinched nostrils. Pink cardigan polished her glasses and muttered, “The nerve of people who don’t know their place.”

But Liberty didn’t care. She had  her books. She strode along the pavement holding them close to her nose, smelling the musty dusty scent of old lives and dreaming of the treat ahead when she would read the night away.

She was almost home when she passed a theatre where a poetry reading was being held according to the poster plastered over the wall by the ticket office. She searched in her bag for her purse. She had just enough money, so she bought a ticket and entered the small crowded auditorium where the usher showed her to a seat near the back. The lights dimmed and the performance began. A young woman read from the lectern then invited the audience to respond to her verse.  Before anyone could comment a man in the front row started singing in  deep baritone voice: “Dance, dance, wherever you may be, I am the Lord of the Dance, said he and I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be and I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.”

The man stood up and faced the audience. Liberty recognised him as the famous novelist she’d seen at the top of the ramp. The spotlight shifted from the young poet, leaving her in shadow, and illuminated the  famous novelist. He spread his arms on either side of him like wings. The audience began clapping and cheering. Liberty gathered up her books and under cover of darkness she pushed her way past the rows of knees to the exit.

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Biography

Sandra Arnold lives in New Zealand. Her work appears in numerous journals and anthologies, most recently in Bonsai: Best Small Stories from Aotearoa New Zealand (Canterbury University Press, NZ, 2018), The DrabbleBlue Five NotebookX-Ray Literary Magazine and Fewer than 500.  She is the author of five books, her new novel Ash (Mākaro Press, NZ)  and her first flash fiction collection Soul Etchings (Retreat West Books, UK) forthcoming in 2019. She is a guest editor for Meniscus: Literary Journal of  the Australasian Association of Writing programs.

  www.sandraarnold.co.nz

Kristy Kerruish

Waiting for Hippo

Derick Bannantyne had spent his life waiting for a hippo. The fact that there used to be a hippo at Chester Zoo is not surprising in itself but that Bannantyne waited for it is. It makes perfect sense if I tell you that Derrick Bannantyne was a taxidermist, a frustrated one, but a taxidermist by profession all the same.

Bannantyne had been employed by the Liverpool Civic Museum twenty years before I went to work there. He spent his years sitting in an airless, subterranean office surrounded by large freezers and several long-dead animals, all of which he was re-stuffing while the public could watch him work through a small window. Socially the museum was fairly restricted. Bannantyne would meet people in the lift and engage in light-hearted banter and, on occasion, join the Egyptologists for coffee and cakes. Of all his colleagues he was drawn to them the most, undoubtedly because they, like him, had an interest in the moribund. In addition to Egyptologists, Bannantyne liked young women and all of us were at some point subjected to his slightly unsettling remarks which were invariably in bad taste. We felt sorry for Bannantyne, he had little to recommend him and as he was always accompanied by a clewing odour of chemical preservatives – few sought him out. Other than that I know very little about him and less about the elderly hippo in Chester zoo.

I don’t know when Bannantyne had first laid eyes on the unfortunate hippo or when the idea came to him. I always imagine he had an epiphany but it might have occurred to him gradually, at first as whim and then as a consuming ambition. However it happened, Bannantyne started to make preparations for the arrival of the deceased hippo. I suppose that he had originally expected the hippo would pass away within the year. It was old and probably senile but it would stuff well.

There was a brief interlude during his preparations when a guinea pig called Pigsie arrived in his office. Tom, an Egyptologist who worked down the corridor,  had been given his daughter’s guinea pig to look after while she went away with her mother for a week’ s holiday. Sadly, Tom was not up to the job and the poor creature perished. Tom decided that the best thing to do was to deliver Pigsie to Bannentyne, more as an act of compassion for Bannantyne than any real desire to see it stuffed. The job was done adequately and with great relish but the end result was disturbing: Bannantyne had mounted Pigsie on a plinth, not in its usual round, contented position but in frozen animation, neck extended, two feet in mid-air. Needless to say Tom’s daughter was horrified when, on coming home, she found Pigsie stuffed and mounted in mid-leap on her mantelpiece. Despite the contention, Pigsie was the nearest Bannantyne had been to the touch of warm flesh and it seemed to heighten his expectation about the hippo. The hippo however, blessed apparently by longevity or merely a desire not to be immortalised leaping – continued stubbornly to live.

I’m not too certain why anyone would voluntarily become a taxidermist. It has never been the ambition of any child that I have ever met and certainly, one assumes, anyone who wishes to spend their lives stuffing animals with straw or sawdust, or whatever they use nowadays, must have a sinister side to their character. I’m not saying that Bannatyne was sinister, don’t imagine some white-coated man with bloodstained hands and Frankenstein laugh. In truth he was rather unmemorable and prone to bouts of depression. These became more acute with every month the hippo continued to flourish.

Eventually Bannantyne was driven to extreme measures – and he increasingly engaged his colleagues in discussions about the best way to dispatch a large mammal. No one really took him seriously – being cooped up in such a strange office surrounded by corpses would drive any man to such incoherent babbling. At the very point that Bannantyne decided on administering strychnine an Egyptologist took the bull by the horns – or the hippo by the ears –  and rang the zoo to warn the zookeeper about the impending attempt on the hippo’s life.

When Bannantyne arrived at the zoo, clutching his bottle of strychnine, several zookeepers followed him at a distance. I always imagine them armed with pitchforks but perhaps this would have been a little melodramatic. Bannantyne, contrary to expectations, paused a while and looked at the hippo, half submerged, as it chewed listlessly on a frond of vegetation and, after several minutes, he turned and walked away. I am told that Bannatyne handed in his notice to the museum the same day.

It was always a bit of a mystery but Tom, who had Pigsie sitting on his office bookshelf beside his ushabtis and steles, had a theory. Apparently Bannantyne realised, as he gazed at the hippo, that it was happy and content whilst he had never been. People gazed on it in much the same way as they gazed in on him in his claustrophobic office. It would have been cruel to kill the hippo. Bannantyne was the one who had been pickled and preserved, he had died from the inside out –   years before.

I suppose that conversation with Tom helped me to hand in my notice and walk away from the museum in just the same way Bannantyne had done. I had never been happy there. I had been waiting for a hippo too, not literally like Bannantyne but metaphorically. It is easy to wait for hippos but infinitely better to realise the futility of it – before it is too late.                                         

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Biography

Kristy Kerruish is from Edinburgh and currently living in Europe. She writes fiction and poetry and has had work published in online and printed magazines, books and literary annuals