Kelly O’Brien

*

DNA

She remembers the sky was yellow as the sun set slow and low over suburbia. She sat at the kitchen table, the house growing dark around her, last bits of light filtering down through the hall from the glass-paned door. The tea on the table was cold.

Upstairs she could hear her brother moving through the rooms; the soft thumps of boxes on the floor, the low whine of wardrobes being opened and then closed indefinitely. She walked up the creaking stairs towards him. The carpet was a strange shade of brown, slightly bleached from the sun and patterned in a way that clung tightly to a time she had never lived in. It reminded her firmly that the house was most definitely not her own.

“How is it going in here?” she asked, reaching down to turn on the bedside lamp. He hadn’t noticed the darkness creeping in.

“Almost done.” He said, turning to look at her. In the yellow lamp-light she could see particles of dust floating through the air, years of dust her brother had raised by his stomping through the small upstairs of the small house.

She leaned against the door frame as he reached up to the top shelf of the press and pulled down a pile of towels. He dropped them onto the bed and held one up to the light.

“I think I can see you through this, it’s been washed that many times.”

She exhaled a laugh and reached out to feel the threadbare towel. “Bin?” she asked.

“Bin.” He agreed, dumping them into an already-full bin liner.

“Good luck getting that down the stairs.”

He grinned at her quick and bright and he was suddenly seventeen again. “What are you talking about? I’m a master.”

She shook her head and moved across the landing, checking the empty rooms. The smell was the same, slightly musty, like the windows were never really opened, and slightly sweet, like powdered make-up.

She opened the drawers of the dresser in the box room, making her way down towards the floor. In the last one she found a hairbrush she had used as a child. There were still hairs stuck between the thistles and she pulled one out, considering it. She wondered if she should feel something but all she felt was a strange sort of detachment from this piece of DNA that used to be a part of herself. She let the hair go and closed the drawer, walking into the next room and dropping the brush into the bin bag.

“Is that yours?” Her brother asked, glancing over at her.

“No. It’s nothing.”

He didn’t reply, picking up one of the full bin-bags so that she couldn’t see his face. “I’m going to start bringing these out to the car.”

She nodded, walking over to the window where the sun was dipping beneath the rooves of houses that stretched out row upon row. In the distance there was smoke rising up and drifting into the lowering dusk.

As a child she had played down the back of the garden, behind the tall foliage so she was hidden away, out of sight, out of mind. Granny would call them for dinner and they would run up the garden path, tumbling over one another like baby animals dying to be fed.

Time has strange ways of moving and in that movement she felt its waves rush all over her and she was neither here nor there, a child nor an adult but somewhere so inevitably in-between. This was not home anymore. In the evenings after dinner they would lie on the floor on front of the television until they were bleary-eyed and ready for bed. She felt bleary-eyed now as the top of the sky turned purple. She wondered where they all went, scattered like seeds in different parts, or like ashes. They had never been tied by blood and that’s what runs thickest of all, she thought, watching her brother on the street below, loading up the car. She ran her finger along the edge of the windowsill, picking up dust. That’s what used-to-be too. At least she wasn’t alone, feeling like she left her residue everywhere she went. It was a messy business.

When the car was packed they stood in the purple darkness. In the empty hallway she felt displaced, disconnected. She had been a child here. They had been children here. There were once heads on pillows and bare feet down the hallway and piles of laundry so high they would topple over onto the carpet and the folding would begin again. It didn’t seem as though it had ever happened, as though any of it was real. In the dark hall she could barely see the threshold between her and the kitchen, one room blended into the other.

“Ready?”, he asked her. He was still there, the single thing in her life that confirmed who she had once been, that her life had been anything other than what it was right now. She looked up at him, his face blurred in the darkness. “Yes.”

They closed the door, double-locking it for safe-keeping. In the car the back seats were loaded with bags but they stopped off at a dump, throwing them into the skip, where the old baggage looked like everyone else’s old baggage. When the car was empty, her brother pushed the seats back into place so it looked like nothing had ever been there and then they drove.

In the morning they were far away from the suburbs, out near the sea where she felt like she could breathe. It was early and her brother was in bed, the air still cool as the day dawned over the sand dunes. She stepped out onto the deck with two mugs of tea, handing one to Granny and sitting down beside her. The sky was yellow as the sun rose and she thought about what it meant to come home.

*

Biography

Kelly O’Brien is a third-year undergraduate in Trinity College Dublin and is studying English.

Marie Mac Sweeney

*

Rations.

Here’s that dream again.  I’m mounting those polished steps.  I’m skating along the refectory floor.  I eye the tables, food the nuns and boarders have left behind, entire slices of bread, an uneaten sausage, the gooey tops of hard boiled egg, oceans of cold toast.  Soon I am at the other end of the dining area, moving towards a glass panelled door into the school.  The arrangement is odd, our having to pass through the dining hall on the way from the cloakroom to our classrooms – but that’s how it is in this building that has grown, from one large old house into the renowned establishment known as St Nennoc’s Secondary School for Girls.  Nennoc was a virgin of course, and all the nuns embrace that particular abstinence, but they don’t go without their food.  You wouldn’t expect them to, would you?  The ache of an empty stomach!  Too much torment on top of all those other deprivations.

 

I should have eaten the food.  It was there, for the taking.  I’d need to be quick, of course, and covert, but I should have taken the food. The odd fact is that Sister Benedict organised the long-term loan of a cello for me.  That made it possible for me to remain a member of the school orchestra for five years.  I played Brahms, Mozart and Schubert, often on a groaning stomach, but no one ever offered me food.  Maybe I should have asked for the food. Why did I not plead for food for my empty belly and my struggling mind?

 

My dream trails after each morsel.  The kitchen.  There is a bin there, made of white enamel.  The discarded food crowds into it and remains until Adam comes.  It goes with him to the pig yard at the far side of town.  Those pigs grow fat on my uneaten food.  In my dream I am waving my arms about, beating them off for the last delicious morsel.  One animal rams me so hard I fall into their muck.  Sister Immaculata holds out a hand and pulls me out, but she is laughing. I smack her full on the face.

 

Brightness comes from a high slit in the wall. I try to understand the geometrical pattern before I realize it is composed of bars.  A man opens a door, jabs a slice of bread and a mug of watery tea towards me.  I am acutely aware of the famine in his brown eyes. There is only a blade’s width between his breath and mine.  I fiddle with my Child of Mary medal until he retreats, locking the door.
“How do you plead?”  The voice is stormy, accusatory.

“Hungry, sir.”

Light from a stained glass window spills across the judge’s flushed face.   I trace a jade green beam until it targets his nose.  He hisses with anger.

“You’re a thief, girl, is that not so?”  He is chewing gum.

I believe the whole truth should be told only in the last extremity.  We are not there yet.  “Only from a pig,” I explain.  “But not even from her ‘cos she upended me.”

His scorching voice sears the courtroom.

“I see. A pig.” And as an aside to Sister Immaculata who is sitting in the front row with seven companion sisters – “this ‘girl’ – he holds the word out as if on a pair of disinfected tongs – “this ‘girl’ is calling you a pig.”

My tummy is rumbling so much I cannot contradict him.  As I watch the judge toss the chewing gum around in his mouth I begin to salivate.  The sisters share some chocolate biscuits between them and I moan.  A woman at the back of the crowded court opens a wrapped sandwich and I shout out.  Soon I am in a holding cell.  It is brighter than the gaol, and a bit warmer.

 

That noise.  That boisterous chatter.  It filters towards me through a narrow pipe.  It is the jury.

“Sure, isn’t the poor child hungry?”  That sounds like an old lady.

“A cheeky hussy!  Did you hear the way she spoke to the judge?”  He is elderly, full of his own importance.  More bluster.  I hear crisp packets crinkle, the crisps collapse into mouthfuls of mushy fried potato.

“Look at this.  See here, look at this.”

A rustling newspaper.

“There’s a report here.   One in four children goes to school or to bed hungry.  See, it’s all here.”  His voice rises.  This one sounds young and eager to persuade.

“She assaulted a nun.”  Ponderous, judgemental.

“But she was hungry.”

“That was yesterday.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Yesterday.”

“You have to understand that the report was referring to ….”

There is a clumsy silence.  The restless breathing of twelve people surrounds me. They are older than I am and well nourished.

Soon the jury chairman declares his authority.   “I’d like to wind this one up soon,” he suggests.  “After all, it’s almost time for lunch.”  He sniggers.  Several voices agree.

“That report our young friend has mentioned – that is for today,” he continues.  “But the prisoner before us tried to steal food yesterday. I repeat yesterday. We have to judge her according to the date and facts of the case.  I say she is guilty.”

“And she assaulted a nun”.

“She was hungry.”

“She assaulted a nun.”

“She was planning to steal from the convent.”

“She could have asked for bread.”

“She was afraid to ask for bread.”  The young man brings his fist hard down on the table.  “And she shouldn’t have to ask. Her parents shouldn’t have to ask.  Her father works.  Her mother looks after four children.  Her family should have a wage adequate to their needs. They should be able to properly feed themselves.”

“An adequate wage,” echoes the old lady, but the other voices are draining away.  I want to shout back at all of them, but I’m still asleep.  I dream me a rasher of bacon and two slices of fried bread.    

*

Biography

Marie MacSweeney was born in Dublin of Kerry parents. She writes poetry and short stories, and also had two radio plays produced by RTE. Published in several journals and anthologies, she is a winner of many awards for her short stories and poems, including the Francis MacManus Short Story Award, The Bookwise Short Story Award, the Phizzfest Poetry Award, David Burland Award and the Kells Poetry Award. Two poetry chapbooks were published by Lapwing. These are ‘Mother Cecily’s Music Room’ (2005) and ‘Flying During the Hours of Darkness’ (2009). The latter also includes her translation of the great ‘grief poem’ Caoineadh Airt Úi Laoghaire. Marie has also published ‘Our Ordinary World and other Stories’ and ‘Letters from a Recalcitrant Woman’. An E-book, containing poems and stories, ‘Cooking for Galileo’ is her most recent offering. She has broadcast many radio scripts and written essays for the Historical & Archaeological journals of both Meath and Kerry. She lives in Drogheda by the Boyne.

 

 

 

Deirdre Sullivan

*

PINNIPED

Water’s not for drinking, it’s for living in. For living in. Land’s for being awkward. Mating, molting. Waiting till a coming threat has passed. It is, at best a temporary haven. Huddle on it like a gang of bears and then go back.

You don’t sense when he sees you.

You had always assumed that there was something in you, that would sense it. The dull throb in your blubber for a shark, the hub-bub in your gut when storms approach. The body nature gave you can sense danger. It always had. It always did before. But looking back, you don’t remember anything but snuggling in a pile. The warmth of necks, the soft gape of a stomach flat on stones. Unfurl from the blanket of your body. Stretch out foreign limbs, and miss your whiskers. How can something sense things without whiskers? And maybe that was your mistake.

It doesn’t have much weight. This thing you’re in. It doesn’t have the heft. It can’t survive. It’s cold and you climb back. Pull who you are back over you. But it was there. You stretched it. It was seen. And that’s enough.

They don’t do courtship displays, these things. They wait and steal the pieces of your body you slough off sometimes to stretch in sun. The water’s life. The land is just for mating, danger. Smelling. You do not need to smell things underwater. It’s salt and life and warmth and depth and blood. The tangy tastes make nostril breath redundant.

You dove that day, you emptied half your lungs to climb down deep inside the haven hearth of ocean. Your flattened heart was steady going home. The welcome dip of entering a place that you belong to, that belongs to you.

Of coming back.

You think of it sometimes. On cotton stuffed with feathers. Listening to breath and blinking eyes. You pant to calm you down. It’s all too much. The part of you that made you yours is hidden. Somewhere in the house, it’s folded up. It isn’t very big. You are a female, small and compact. Round. You miss your fins, the front ones and the back. What you have now is slower, more specific. He follows you, and eyes you as you move. He took you home. As though you were a shell, a fish, a bottle. He taught you to perform tricks and tasks. Social and personal. Your captor keeps you busy. Sometimes you show him teeth. He thinks you’re smiling.

Near-sighted in dim light, you did not see him. Fingers out to grab the meat of you. And that was the beginning. You didn’t know. You heard no tales of this beneath the ocean. Land’s another place away from Shore. The ones who disappear are eaten up. If you return, a welcome without question. This thing you know but you can’t find a way from here to there. To where you need to be. And it has been so long. Since you felt whole.

You call to them sometimes from in the kitchen. Your warble voice shapes proper ocean tongue. Not flaccid codes for things you do or want. He does not like your language and he quiets you with eyes and grunts and hands. Eyes fill ocean water in the night. It pools but it is not enough to claim you. You need more meat. You need it on your bones. To calm and soothe. To claim you, happy, home.

*

Biography

Deirdre Sullivan is a young adult writer. Her short story collection, Tangleweed and Brine (Fairytale retellings) will be released in September of this year, and her previous work has been shortlisted for the CBI award, the BGEIBA, and the EU prize for literature. Her short fiction has previously been published in Banshee, The Irish Times (online) and The Galway Review.

Colin Watts

*

Hoarfrost

I remember telling you I was getting set in my ways. ‘Too much of this,’ I said, ‘and not enough of that. We should go on a journey.’

‘I’ll follow you to the ends of the earth,’ you said. ‘I’ll follow in your footsteps as if you were famous.’

‘I am famous,’ I said, ‘but only among two or three people.’

‘That’s enough for me,’ you said.

‘I’ll look after you,’ I said.

‘Thank you,’ you said and we set off.

We headed north, using a compass that came free in a packet of cornflakes.

‘How will we know when we get there?’ I asked.

‘I’ll know,’ you said.

You wore your jungle hat and your flower festival wellies. I wore my survival kit. You looked like a garden in summer. I looked like one in winter.

By the time we got to the edge of the city it had started to snow.

‘Now I can follow properly in your footsteps,’ you said.

We came to a pinewood, with trees planted so close and rising so high and straight, that nothing grew between them. Normally you can hear birdsong and the wind whispering high up and far away. That day, all we could hear was our own footsteps, crunching on dead pine needles. It grew dark as we walked deeper into the wood and the snow piled up on the canopy above. We started to sing The Teddy Bears’ Picnic, but our voices leaked into the ground, so we sunk into silence. I wanted you to hold my hand, but the trees made us walk in single file.

Suddenly they were flashing by us, as if we were flying through the wood. Up in the canopy, ice-maidens were singing, though the birds stayed silent. Then we were outside, the wood flying off, shaking itself like a wet dog, showering us in a flurry of snow. We watched it disappear over the horizon, hurtling through a black and white rainbow, leaving in its wake a plume of scarlet smoke. The snow fell away, leaving us the wind, a meadow thick with hoarfrost, and low clouds hurtling by.

We were alone in the meadow, except for a massive pink sofa. I helped you up. The sofa was warm and dry.

‘If you look after me, you said, who’ll look after you?’

We slept for a time like cats, our limbs curled around each other. You purred in your sleep. When the light began to decay we knew we had to move on. My compass whirled as I held it out, then twisted my hand until it pointed me due north across the frozen meadow. You trod in the slightly famous footsteps I made in the hoarfrost. The compass gave off a steady incandescence, enough to guide us once the light had gone. To keep us going we plucked and ate the hoarfrost. It tasted of whatever we wanted it to. You had caviar and champagne; I had bacon sandwiches and tea. We never tired and never felt the cold.

After many days, or was it weeks? we found ourselves back at the sofa.

‘Do you think this is the ends of the earth?’ you asked.

‘This may be one of them,’ I said. ‘I’m sure there are many others. Up there.’ I pointed to the clouds. ‘Over there.’ I waved my arms across the meadow. ‘Back the way we came. You should know,’ I said. ‘You said you would know when we got there.’

I know,’ you said. ‘But I wanted to make sure you did too.’

I realised I didn’t believe you, and that was when you started to fade. I tried to hold you, but you became ever more insubstantial, my hands clutching at air.

‘Who will look after you now?’ you asked, as you flattened to the merest outline. Then there was nothing left of you but a whisper of champagne breath, condensing into ice fragments and carried away on the wind.

*

Biography

Colin is seventy three, married, with grown up children and has lived in Liverpool for many years. Publications include two poetry collections in print and short stories on-line and in magazines and anthologies. He’s had plays performed in and around Liverpool.

He cycles everywhere and cultivates a quarter of an allotment. He is a long-standing member of the Dead Good Poets Society and co-runs a regular Story Night at The Bluecoat Arts Centre in Liverpool.

Facebook: Colin Watts

Twitter: Colin Watts @FentimanW

Website: http://www.colinwatts.net

 

 

Erica Goodman

*

Letters to an unfinished, unsatisfying love

I still spend so much of my time thinking of how we could be together, imagining how our lives could meld into each other. I imagine coming home to you, to lie in bed beside you each night, and how we would get to know each other. I imagine bringing you across the ocean to my homeland, driving you around to see the still lakes and green pines, to sweat in the summer heat and play board games while drinking wine with my family. I imagine having you all to myself, all of your affection, and your attention.

I think about the beginnings of our own family and what our child would look like. A baby in a bear coat, tucked into a pram, as we take her on chilly walks through the park, near the wild and unpredictable sea. I think she would be a beautiful baby girl. And you would love her until your heart exploded. I would become second best, as she would be your new favourite. But that’s okay – because you were always a bit distant from me anyways. I would realize, painfully, that I never quite had you all to myself, that I yearned for a child only to be closer to you – and that it never quite works out that way.

Regardless, she would make me feel close to you, in a way that you and I alone could never do. I would keep her close as a way to hold on to you. I would give her everything I wanted, but couldn’t get, from you. I wanted a rock, a container, someone to hold me – physically and spiritually – in allowing me to express wholeheartedly, ME. Perhaps you have been doing just that the entire time. I have thrown so much at you – keeping secrets about my past, avoiding confronting you when I was upset, threatening suicide, panic attacks from overwhelming anxiety that I could not explain to you.  Am I expecting too much? Or am I entitled to more? Do I deserve more? Maybe the things that I want are what you can’t give me. Maybe the things that I want are not what I need. Whatever it is, you have undeniably helped me to grow.

I will contemplate over and over again what it is that I want and will still be unsure. In my head and in my heart, I have never been more confused. You won’t give me what I really crave – the affection, the attention. Yet I cannot get enough of you. This in between state of ours, our cycle of being close and then distant, pulling away and then coming together, is possibly what I relish in. I want to feel the passion, the pain of not being able to separate myself from you – but I want you to feel it too – and be in it with me. I want us to be together, as you yell at me how you love me, push me down to keep me from leaving. Make it difficult, make it messy. Let your emotions fight for me.

I don’t know if I’m ready for you. Ready to be settled, stable and easy, with you. Are we only holding on because it’s easy? Or because we can lie to each other and to ourselves and keep it easy? Each time you think we are in a good place, a happy place, I feel unhappy, ready to cause sabotage. I need your reassurance that you are happy with me. I need it constantly. I need it harshly. Remind me of my own self-worth. Stop your niceties and throw me in the gutter. Then pick me back up again and tell me that you love me. That you’ll always be there for me. And I will continue to sacrifice my life for you, believing that I am in the right place.

*

Biography

At heart, Erica is a traveller, a yogi and an artist without a medium. Her life isn’t defined by boundaries. That is, not by what work she does, or what country she lives in. She has always loved to write, and it draws itself to her when she needs deep expression. We don’t know where in the world she is now… a good chance not in Canada where she is from. Hopefully she is somewhere walking in Big Nature, practicing how to love in this world, and continuing her mission to express her discoveries to the rest of us.

Z.G. Tomaszewski

*

Northport, Michigan

We walked all day along the channel where a chain of ice islands bobbed and the lighthouse swayed in the side-winding snowfall, reeling in its line then casting again and again until finally its beam froze out on the horizon.

She asked what ground we were standing on—snowy ice or sand? How could I answer when the wind wasn’t in my favor? The lighthouse turned away, the dark blossoming.

“Manifestation,” she whispered.

We knew how it would be.

A zephyr flew in from the Arctic and swung its heavy shoulder blades our direction. What both of us wanted we didn’t allow: to hold one another on that northern shore. Instead, we tucked our hands deeper in our pockets and with whatever consolation angled in and rubbed elbows to cut the cold wind.

She left me to reach for a crow, swooping down to pick its windless body up and hold it, framed wingtip to wingtip across her chest.

I threw a stone into the Canadian Shield.

She said, “Its integrity remains.”

She rocked the crow’s shadow in her arms, I spun the camera around and focused its eye on the spell of light being emitted, tapped finger to snap and capture the shape of the next breath, but the lake hissed and nipped at my shoes.

The picture: blurry, half-bird, and my disappearing act.

*

Biography

Z.G. Tomaszewski works at the Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters and is a maintenance man, additionally he helps organize Lamp Light Music Festival. Tomaszewski is the author of All Things Dusk, winner of the International Poetry Prize, chosen by Li-Young Lee, and a forthcoming chapbook, Mineral Whisper (also poetry)New writing appears in Inverness Almanac, Briar Cliff Review, RHINO, The Cortland Review, diode, and Terrain.org, among others.

Enigma Tsiako

*
The Lust Chapter                             

Her lips resembled clay pots abandoned in the open furnace of scorching sun. Trails of salt lakes ran dry on her cheeks; ashing her face with tears long cried. Her back was bare as was every surface of her skin. Tracks covered her all over, marking cracks left every time they stretched her too thin. She was a sorry sight; so sorry that it required the skills of a seasoned diplomat to render an effective apology. But yet she appealed to me despite the pity of her state. It was her eyes; like pools of an oasis they beaconed hope. So slowly I approached to enquire about her plight, with the careful trepidation my mother warned me to exercise when approaching strangers or dirty infested bums. But she didn’t feel like a stranger to me, nor did I think of her as filthy. In fact with every step I took closer to her she felt like a long lost friend; like a distant cousin I have seen ages ago. ‘Hello, are you alright’ I asked her in a whisper, afraid that a loud voice will shatter her already fragile state. She looked up at me, opened her mouth in response but only a tiny croak came out. She seemed to choke on a bolus of Adam’s apple as a cough squeezed its way through the constriction to clear her throat. “Water, please! I’m parched” she begged.

This was the beginning of a life-long friendship as she told me her story. She was a beauty queen, a natural and her name was Jade. Jade because she was always a shade of green; full of life and colour. She was always bright and vibrant; they said she dined on rainbows and wined on the freshest springs. Her beauty brought her an abundance of love; or so she thought. Basking in the love bestowed on her she gave and gave of herself and all they did was take and take some more. Her colourful petals they plucked off and proved their love to maidens worldwide while she remained with no bloom. Her limbs they chopped off to keep warm while she remained barren in the cold and full of gloom. And while they were at it, they soiled her floors and trashed her streams. It seemed all the love had gone, and in the last chapter she served to quench their lust. They took what they needed from her and forgot about her needs. After they have sapped her of all her beauty and wealth they left her to crack; like clay pots abandoned in the open furnace of scorching sun. I held her close and promised to love her.  Yesterday I went to see her just like every day since we met; to give her a glass of water and be a good friend. I’m happy to say Jade is recovering; she is grinning again. A little love goes a long way, especially in the lust chapter.

*

Biography

Enigma Tsiako is a creative young writer and performing artist from Botswana, Southern Africa. She is a poet, comedian and stage actor with a passion for writing.

Enigma studied English literature briefly in secondary education and carried her love for word play to University of Botswana with the Writers Workshop. Her artistic pursuits have carried her from home to South Africa, Swaziland and the USA.

Margaret Zheng

*

Song Lines

I was in a daydream of my own following the long shadows home.  The veil of the night wrapped itself around my shoulders and I hurried to escape the unlit streets.  It was that time betwixt light and shade when the little light there was appeared not enough to dissipate the skulking shadows.

Curled up leaves were swept around my feet as I ventured whether to take the short cut around.  They were like music notes pirouetting and flipping themselves over and over.  I remembered what Mattie said when he was only 6,

“Is there an infinity of leaves, Mammy”.  “It looks that way” I would answer.

Mattie loved stones too – I remembered the way he would just suddenly veer up driveways so he could scoop them up from the verges, count them and touch their hollowed backs.

The crackling wind almost blew me into the barrelled house.   I closed the door shut and strands of music directed me to the corner of the sitting-room.  His school uniform made sure he blended in perfectly with the monochrome piano, his long glossy black hair falling into the music.  The lines of black with the gleaming white gave him a certain comfort.  There were no crossed lines, just straight ones like the upright lines of the numerals in his orange sum-copy.

Long tapered fingers stroked those keys, baited them, as his touch woke them from their sleep.  He was taking them out, bringing them with him as he ever so tenderly teased them out of the jowls of the piano.  They were slow at first, but he cajoled the melody forward until it rose, revberated against the walls of  silence  and climbed up into the air.

His body arched forward as he kept the sound going, it was a little fractured at first as it made its way past the murkiness of the clouds but then it was as if his torment was smoothed out straight as the folds of the night disappeared to reveal an expanse of sky.

The trees stood out more to hear, the sound mingled with the sweet trilling of the birds and his driven fingers stoked the sound until it became more sweeter still.

The inkiness of the night was smudged out and tiny gems of translucent light glistened and glinted as the nobleness of the music sprang from wells of feeling inside him.   The sound wove its way through these crystallised beads by a thin gossamer thread.    He caressed the keys so gently, they rose out of their white straitened bodices to lie in the lap of the half moon, robbing it of any potency it already possessed.  His whole body stretched out further, as he felt he was being lulled into a whimsical drowsiness.  It was only the stirrings of music  there and yet he felt cocooned in a soft filmy place away from any sense of noise or fear.

And almost unbeknownst to him the sound carried him along, wafting and waning until with a deepening flourish, he brought it right back to him.  He then felt it shying away as he teased it along the pathways, brought it down to the harbour, until the sound reached the strand, turned and began to fall away, adding to each wave of sound until it was barely there.

His touch was lighter now, trying to keep it all together, smoothening it, bringing  it to a whisper, his body leaning back, a lock of hair skew-ways, withdrawing, letting go as he channelled the music to an oft stillness.

Son, one rakish evening the clodhopper in me was dissolved into the weightlessness of clouds as you baited those ivories out to play and begot me a cloud-burst.

*

Biography

Margaret Zheng (nee Lynch) was born in County Cavan and draws on the wildness of the countryside there to inform her work.  She has been writing for the past 10 years.  Margaret belongs to a writer’s group in Dublin and is exploring the possibility of getting her first collection of poetry published. She often performs at different events across the city.

Stephen Hill: Anatomy of a Christmas

The wood, coal and firelighters required to make a glowing fire on a frost-bitten winter’s evening costs roughly €22.50.

The smell of pine from the tree, the twinkling fairy lights and the crackle of the firewood almost totally overwhelm the idle reflection on how long it will take to heave all of the decorations back into the attic in January. As a Christmas carol begins to play lovingly in the last act of ‘Home Alone’ and Macaulay Culkin waves innocently and childishly at the camera, it’s hard not to think of where he is now…

Still, I may never be able to convincingly convey into words the sense of world-enveloping joy I felt on the Christmas of 1995. I woke to discover Santa Claus had left me… brace yourself… a Super Nintendo. The sitting-room curtains were still pulled, making the room not as dark as night, but not as light as day. It was a golden glow, the Christmas twilight, that rare in-between. The way the carpet feels and the slightly stale but intoxicating smell of ash in the fireplace, they feed into my memory as well. The notion of family was a simple one, and back then, I never broke them down into individuals I happened to be related to.

All I knew in that moment was that I must have been pretty damn good that year. Everyone was smiling at how happy I was. My brother was getting excited, totally without restraint, and didn’t know whether we should play The Legend of Zelda or Mario Kart first.
The only problem I had, in my entire life at that point, was school. School was two whole weeks away, which may as well have been a year. I essentially had a lifetime before me to save pixelated princesses in Hyrule and drop banana skins in front of go-karts on Rainbow Road.

A similar event with minor differences occurs, nineteen years later.

The walk from my bedroom to the sitting room isn’t cold, but neither is it as warm as the bed I was in a moment ago. I smile warmly at my mother on the stairs, who asks excitedly if I can believe that it’s finally Christmas. I glance into the kitchen on my way down the stairs, thinking briefly of the smell of Christmas dinner that’ll soon fill the house (and whether we remembered to steep the peas the night before).

We stroll into the living room, my dad commenting “Hmmphf, lot of frost there” as he enters the room. The curtains are wide open and it takes a minute for my eyes to adjust to the light streaming in from the bay windows. I find myself thinking of the traditional kinder surprise we get every year. I briefly consider cheekily eating it before breakfast, as we always did, but decided I should probably pace myself… probably.
I never used to pace myself.

Over the years, I slowly became aware that every gift was a little ceremony, each opened in full view of the family so everyone could see the reaction, as opposed to just tearing away the paper and mentally assessing my newfound material goods.
This year, a chunky square box dominated the couch, traditionally my spot.

“Are you serious?!”  I cried with genuine disbelief, tearing the paper off the latest Nintendo console. I’d made a point of suggesting a game, maybe some movies, or even new clothes would be nice to have on Christmas morning. I’d planned on getting the Wii U, but I was going to wait until the January sales, when I figured it might be cheaper. It cost at least three hundred euro at this stage.
“Jesus… you really didn’t have to do this!”

Defensively, my sister and I start pulling out gifts from the tree to pass on, a symbolic expression of gratitude. I found myself thinking of my niece and nephew (four and three years old respectively), and how excited I hope they’ll be after I give them their gifts later that evening. As my parents open the gifts we got them, I sit there watching, mentally prepared. My parents have never, ever been ungrateful. Not once. Not even the year my Mum got that horrible foot massager. Yet I can still gauge their levels of surprise and excitement. I’m hoping for a good ‘wow!’ this year.

While this is happening, I hear a loud rumble from my phone upstairs, one of many well-wishers whose messages I will return throughout the day. Again, I notice that barely present chill in the air.

Later, as the sausages and eggs fry in the pan, I decide to put on some traditional Christmas music: Dustin the Turkey’s rendition of ‘Christmas Tree’.
Dragging me right back to my childhood, I feel goose bumps rising on my arms. I loved that song as a kid. I put it on repeat, to see how long it will take my parents to notice.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see my sister staring at her kinder surprise, turning it over thoughtfully. I glance over at her and I can see she is having the same childish thoughts I had in the living room. We always had a small piece of chocolate before breakfast, even just a small piece. A tiny pebble suddenly makes its presence known, sticking into the sole of my foot inside my slipper. Not uncomfortable, but certainly present.
My sister looks at me as I stand on one leg, digging it out to the sounds of Dustin’s North Dublin twang. I can feel her willing me to slip and fall over as the smell of crisp sausages tickles my nostrils.

Upstairs, my phone lights up as I receive another text message:
“Merry Christmas!!! Have a great day xx”
I get around to reading it about nine hours later. We’re all in the waiting room of the hospital, where my brother is being kept.
We nearly skidded off the road ourselves, driving all the way out here.

*

Biography

Stephen Hill is a writer living in Dublin. He writes and edits articles online for web-site Bone-idle, contributes to underground zine The Runt and occasionally writes a barbed comment on the Twitter. He aims to get published someday, with his own line of Young Adult horror novellas (a la  Goosebumps).

Lucie Kavanagh: Day of the Dead

In the first moments of darkness, they lit the fire and the older women got up to dance  the steady rhythm to Cailleach and her faerie choir who would bring winter with a tap of a hammer and a cold breath to the hard ground.  Shivering slightly in the damp cold, Brigid watched the faces of the other girls.  They had talked about this night for so long and as they all turned sixteen in the same season, this was their first Samhain celebration. Two young girls beside her peeled apples, their faces quiet and intent on the task.  As they threw peelings over their shoulders, Brigid’s mother came over and put her hand on their shoulders, explaining quietly how this was not a night to look towards the future.  This was the night of the other world.
“Imbolc is a time for looking to the future,” she said quietly, “that’s the time for the young.  And in Beltane, the fires show us what we need to learn from the past.  Lughnasa shows us to look to the earth and live in the present.  Samhain is about going beyond that…into the air we breathe.  Tonight is about looking into your very soul and taking all the love you’ve ever felt with you.”

Brigid turned away.  All year, she had waited for this night and now that it was here, she felt no different. Cliodhna’s presence was as far away as ever.  She had imagined that maybe she would look into the flames and see something of her friend’s face that, to her distress, she was starting to forget. The trouble was that everything held a memory.  The coastline where they had all grown up; Cliodhna’s mother, with her hidden resentful glances at the children who had survived and grown up while her daughter remained forever the laughing girl-child who played in front of them and recited sacred words on the hilltop in her white dress.

Everyone had memories of their departed friends and sometimes she could see how it seemed to help them to relive past times, but it didn’t help her.  Hearing someone mention her name hurt with an intensity that was worse than physical pain.  Some nights, Brigid sat by the dying firelight, reliving each of her sixteen years and trying to take Cliodhna’s presence out of them.  That’s what she wanted to do tonight.  Unlike the rest of them, she had no wish to send messages to anyone in the spirit world.  All she wanted was to remove Cliodhna’s very essence from her, to live a life where she would move forward, free of her memories.

After a while, they all fell silent, each woman sitting apart with her own thoughts as they watched the moonlight drift across the shadows, finally falling to rest in the centre of their circle.  The shamaness, Deirdre, got up and scattered a handful of ash around them.  In a low hum, she murmured the words that would protect them from evil spirits.  Brigid remembered how frightening this part of the ceremony always sounded when as children, she and Cliodhna sat outside at the bottom of the hill, trying to see what was going on.  Once, it seemed to them that the mist could form itself into spirits that rose from the firelight to encircle the group sitting around it.  The women always returned the following evening, safe and sound, but quiet and reflective almost as if fearful that a return to normal daytime activities would interrupt their insights from the previous night.

Of course, last year, it hadn’t happened at all.  When the celebration should have been taking place, they sheltered in a small cave along the sea front, listening to the tide coming in and out.  How long they had been there for, Brigid could no longer remember.  Her memories of those days were still hazy and she preferred it that way.  They crept out, one by one, when it became clear that the ships were leaving and the last of the warriors had left.  Bodies littered the small coast and pyres were prepared even for the men they had managed to kill.  Brigid had taken no notice of any of it.  She sat all night by Cliodhna’s pyre, not hearing the chanted words, not noticing anyone else beside her and hardly aware of the terrible cold and the rain crashing down on top of them.  Still, the fires burned on and the tide came in and by the time it was out again, there wasn’t a trace of anything that had happened there.  Only the shouting and screams raged on inside her mind with the cracks of their hastily prepared weapons.  It was the first and last time they had not been prepared for anything like that.  Since then, they had all spent days preparing weapons, planning what each of them would do the next time, using their knowledge of the course of the tide, anything but reflect on what they had lost.

“We mustn’t carry around with us what they’ve done,” Brigid’s mother said.

She and some of the others wanted little to do with the making of weapons and strongly opposed any sort of revenge attack.  Brigid and the younger girls spent time planning as quietly as they could the advantages of surprise, their knowledge of medicine and healing which also gave them insights into injuring and killing.  The spring celebration of Imbolc was the key to their future, her mother had said, and their future now was all about taking lives in return for those who were lost forever.

Brigid jumped slightly, realising she had lost track of what was going on.  There were fresh tears on her cheeks and as she hastily wiped them away, one of the older women reached over to take her hand, whispering to her that the spirits needed to see her grief, that the loss she mourned for was a part of the love she had felt and it was that love that would save her.  She’d heard it before, many times, she’d heard all of their lies.  She got to her feet and approached Deirdre who chanted louder now, holding her arms high above the growing flames.  The women beside her echoed the words in quiet voices.

“Brigid, sit down!”

Ignoring them, she moved to stand beside Deirdre, staring deep into the flames and whispering her request so that only the shamaness could hear her.

“You would have no future without the love you felt for Cliodhna,” Deirdre said, staring straight ahead of her.
“I don’t care.”

Deirdre grasped her shoulders to turn her, looking deep into her eyes.

“You don’t understand me.  There would be no future for you or Cliodhna”

Brigid twisted away, an old familiar pain burning away behind her eyes.

“She’s dead,” she shouted, “none of this means anything!  They’re all gone!”

Deirdre knelt in front of her, holding her wrists tightly so that she couldn’t move.

“What would you say to her” she asked loudly, “if she were here now?”  Even as she spoke, the wind seemed to pick up and the air grew colder.  The low chanting beside them was deafening.

“She’s not here,” Brigid cried, “I’d tell her to leave me alone, I’d tell her…”  Her voice trailed away and she turned her head, trying to escape Deirdre’s gaze.

“What would you tell her?”

Brigid found herself slipping from Deirdre’s tight grip, her legs giving way and her vision go out of focus.

“I’d tell her I’m sorry,” she whispered.

In that instant, the flames seemed to rise and instead of reacting to her words, the women stood, holding hands to strengthen their circle and shouted the sacred words into the wind.  The smell of the herbs became so overpowering that Brigid felt dizzy.  The scene around her grew darker but she was just about able to make out the figure of Cliodhna’s mother stepping forward and throwing a sparkling object onto the fire.  It was Cliodhna’s ring; put on her finger at birth, identical to Brigid’s.  For a moment, the flash of gold dazzled her, then the voices grew quieter, fading away to silence and darkness.

She opened her eyes and found herself outside the circle.  A voice called to her and she stood up shakily.

Cliodhna stood under a towering evergreen tree she had never seen before.  She wore the dress which contained even the scrap of material that Brigid had cut from it before they lit the pyres that night.  She was whole and beautiful, uninjured, her smile just as bright as the glimpses of her Brigid had dreamed about for so long.  A light mist surrounded her.

“I’m sorry.” Brigid realised she was crying and tried to stop herself.

“I’m so sorry I couldn’t save you,”

Later, she would remember saying these words with a strange wonder. She saw, almost dispassionately the image of the bearded warrior with his sword high over her head. She watched the instant which seemed to last forever, of Cliodhna throwing herself across her, taking the blow without a thought. Many of them had died that night, many of them had almost died because they’d all been prepared to die for each other.

“I wish it’d been me.”

Suddenly it didn’t seem strange that Cliodhna was there at all.  It was almost as if this moment could have happened anytime, as if maybe she was there all along.  Cliodhna walked towards her and as she did, other memories, far beyond last year, filled Brigid’s mind; childhood games, singing together on the hillside, watching birds in the woods and splashing each other in the sea.  As she thought of them, her mind felt quieter for a long time and her body relaxed deeper into the grass without the pain she’d grown so familiar with.  Cliodhna had always been the only one she could ever talk to about her deepest fears and she told her now.

“I don’t want to forget you.”

In the final instant before waking and finding herself back in the circle of her family, Cliodhna sat beside her and they held each other in a tight embrace. As they pulled apart, her smile was one that Brigid would never truly forget.

She would see it in future battles as they fought alongside each other. She would see it in other countries when they met, as friends once again, three times as sisters, six times as lovers and once, as mother and daughter.  Over the years, she would see that expression many times and each time, there would be a strange feeling in the back of her mind, something she should remember, some feeling that this scene had happened before.

Slowly, she opened her eyes and felt the gentle hands of the women help her to her feet and rub her forehead with a soothing balm. Deirdre came over, took the scrap of material from her hand and placed it reverently on to the flames.

“They are always with us,” she said quietly to Brigid, who nodded, taking a deep breath.

A cloudy mist accompanied them all the way down the hill, but the path ahead was dry and filled with early morning sunlight.

*

Biography

Lucie Kavanagh lives in Co Mayo in the west of Ireland with an array of pets and plants. She works as a social care worker, though she is currently on sick leave and learning to find her writing voice which has been silent for a while.