Aisling Lynch

Curio (An Excerpt) 

Fog.

It was a bit like Fog. Or at least, this is what she assumed. She had never actually seen fog. Joseph had described it to her before, once. He would often ‘accidentally’ reveal new words to her when she talked to him about her dreams.

“It’s a weather phenomenon. It’s very heavy and hangs quite low in the air, reducing visibility.”

“Like clouds falling from the sky?” she had chirped.

Joseph had sighed. ‘Sky’ and ‘Clouds’ were a few of the words he had let slip during their sessions. Strictly speaking, Pleasance wasn’t supposed to know about The Outworld. Her purpose lay beyond that, or so she was constantly told by the Wardens of the Sanctum. Pleasance had still longed to see a ‘Picture’ of the sky (another word harvested from Pleasance’s stubborn curiosity). But of course, pictures of anything from the Outworld were forbidden. The only pictures Pleasance had were the ones she saw while she slept, and they were always the same.

“Yes. Like clouds falling from the sky,” Joseph confirmed for her.

He always had a very strange look when he spoke of these things. Pleasance observed this on a day that she had probably overstepped her limit of questions.

She did so intentionally.

His eyes became almost long and seemed as though they did not look at anything. Sad, he looked very sad.

It was probably because he wasn’t supposed to answer her questions, but often did.

Or maybe he wanted to see pictures too. Life at the Sanctum was awfully dull.

In any case, what she saw right now was fog. Or at least that’s what it felt like. Could fog be a feeling like Happy or Hungry? She couldn’t really be sure if she was seeing this ‘fog’ because she knew for a fact that her eyes were closed.

“It is time to wake up, Pleasance.”

She had actually been awake for a while. She had learned to stay motionless if she wanted to stay awake during ‘sleeping hours’. If NaNa detected any movement that didn’t cohere with proper REM sleep she stuck you with a sedative. She was quite unapologetic about it too.

“It is time to wake up, Pleasance.” Pleasance continued her act, breathing evenly with her eyes closed. “It is time to wake up, Pleasance.”

In the beginning, she felt sorry for NaNa. The only things that made her real were the quarters she was ‘programmed’ to oversee. That was before the fifth time she had stuck 7 year old Pleasance with her arsenal of substances for refusing to go to sleep. She wasn’t so sympathetic after that.

“Programmed” she remembered Joseph explaining. “It means NaNa has… a pattern built into it so it can carry out tasks to help the department. Like making sure you eat your vegetables.” Pleasance had glared at the small pad on her cell wall that served as one of NaNa’s physical conduits. That strange mechanical arm of hers was always lurking somewhere too.

“Why doesn’t she have a face?” she had asked, Joseph had laughed at this, it was one of the few times she had seen him do so.

“It’s… She’s not human Pleasance. But she was designed by humans. Think of her as a kind of puzzle.”

Pleasance had done a variety of puzzles at the Sanctum. She rather enjoyed them.

“It’s time to wake up, Pleasance.”

However, NaNa was a significant exception. She remained still.

“Preparing to administer adrenaline dose…”

At this, Pleasance sat bolt upright, all smiles.

“Good morning NaNa! Are you feeling well?”

“My systems are operating at 97.4%.”

“What about the other 2.6%, are they feeling well?”

“Any complaints regarding my performance of duties should be logged with the Administrator’s Circle.” Pleasance shifted out of her small bed..

“That’s not what I meant. I asked are you feeling well?”

“Wellness implies the human sensation of feeling emotions. I cannot answer your question.”

“So you are not well?”

“I cannot answer your question”

“In that case I hope you feel better.”

“Feeling better implies the human sensation of feeling emotions. I cannot comply.”

“You are funny, NaNa.”

“Funny implies the human…” Pleasance mouthed NaNas response along with her as her closet revealed itself from the always seamless wall. She began to dress for therapy. This was her usual morning spar with NaNa, the real fun would start later.

Joseph had promised her a new puzzle today. And afterwards she would have questions he probably wouldn’t be allowed to answer.

*

Biography

Aisling Lynch is a Daydreaming 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.

Jennifer Nolan

The Forest 

The forest looked the same as always as Meredith approached it; monstrous and towering and far too green.

The quickest way between neighbouring villages was through these trees but everyone laboured instead on the long cobblestoned way around, picking over rain-slick stone on wet days and ignoring the dry shelter the trees offered.

In the late days of a hot summer, berries grew fat on the woodland bushes, ripening till they burst against the ground for the birds, untouched by human hands.  In the winter, the thick dry trunks offered a bounty of firewood to the little frozen town, but no-one would cross over into the thickets to take any despite their blue fingers and chattering teeth.

She had been terrified of these trees as a girl, staying far away with the rest of the children. You couldn’t look at the trees too long, the town elders said, because the forest would look back, and then it would find you and take you into the trees and you’d never come home.

Mother had said bad children were taken by the Forest. Children who didn’t say their prayers and were wilful and wild.

She stood on the border of the Forest now, wobbly on too-thin legs as she stared up at the trees.

Her nightgown was a blotched grey, stained and stinking of sweat under the yellowing armpits. It grazed the dew-wet grass as she idled by the old trunks, toes curling hesitantly against the wet grass.

She still felt heavy with the fever that had overrun her for the last two weeks, too-hot and too-cold and so so tired. Her hair stuck thin and greasy to her skull, skin nearly baggy on its own skeleton.

The forest loomed overhead, green and brown and speckled with life and it made her feel so small, as it always had.

She took a step into the forest.

Then another.

The baby stirred in her arms. He was as sweaty and weak as she was, flushed with fever and refusing to feed. Only three weeks born and he’d only the energy to fret and fuss quietly, mouth too dry to issue a cry that made any sound. Her heart ached for him.

Elder Morton said he’d be dead by dawn. That she should do the kind thing and wrap his little head in a soft feather-down till he passed, like she had to with the others that came before him.

The trees looked just like trees as she passed, mossy and dotted with mushrooms and birds’ nests. The normality of it all made her skin crawl, and she clutched the bundle tighter against her chest. There was no monster greater than the one your mind could conjure when left to its own devices.

A rustle from the left had her eyes darting like a frightened deer, half-expecting to see all the lost children from her childhood and from generations before, still young and wild, dancing barefoot to pagan songs.

  Instead a red-furred squirrel scuttled up the broad trunk of an ancient oak,  a nut clasped triumphantly in its cheek-pouch.

Meredith forced a breath that went in too cold and came out too warm, and continued deeper into the woods.

After an age of walking, the two travellers reached a clearing where Meredith bent, setting the little body down on a half-rotten tree stump. A caterpillar wriggled by, undeterred as the baby stirred at the sudden absence of his mother, tiny fingers twitching weakly for anything to hold.

 For a moment she reconsidered in a surge of panic. She should be in front of the hearth with her child, letting him pass peacefully. The thought of a forest-taken little boy eternally dancing barefoot among the trees had seemed like hope a few hours before, and now it felt like it was going to choke her.

What had she done? What if she was wrong? What if they found out she had done this?

Meredith had half-reached to him again before she steeled herself, and her hands curled into fists and dropped back to rest against her filthy nightgown. 

“This is my boy.” She said to no-one in particular, and the first time she said it nothing came out, so she licked her lips and forced herself to croak  it again. She sounded weak and reedy, and she hated it.

“Please be kind.”

Wiping her eyes, she straightened, took a deep breath and tottered away on unsteady legs.

The woods were quiet behind her.

*

Biography

Jennifer (Jen) Nolan is aspiring writer in her mid- 20’s. She hails from County Kildare, where she writes lots of fantasy-based nonsense while she studies Animal Care.

Anita Goveas

The Waltz of the Flowers 

   Whenever she told the story later, Kalini added in all things she should have noticed at the time.

   The first warning was tapping when she played her muse-music. It was louder during The Waltz of the Flowers than Ravi Shankar, but Tchaikovsky wasn’t for everyone. When the muse took her, and she jotted down images before they floated away, the tapping sounded like the beating of tiny wings. There would have to be thousands, and what would be that small and that active in Sussex in the autumn? The butterflies had gone, hummingbirds were absurd. It was possible that her enforced solitude in her hard-won cottage had caused her to imagine fairies. But her book deadline was encroaching and the hummingbirds and fairies had to be captured on the blank pages.  She considered mentioning it in the Hand and Flower, in case it meant problems with her new/old cottage, with the Victorian plumbing, or the Tudor beams or the possibly Renaissance wiring. But she hadn’t lived down the ‘Cosmopolitan Incident’ yet. Larry-the-landlord still said  there, so much better than that flowery muck” every time he handed over her glass of cider. Nine weeks later.

   The second sign was a murmur when she watched TV, almost like someone was repeating the dialogue. It was loudest during Gardener’s World, and non-existent during Question Time. But her closest neighbour was 500m away and Mr Post only listened to The Archers. This time, she called in Ethel-the-electrician, who drank two cups of strong black tea and stared at a samosa, then poked at the TV and talked about echoes in an old house and people from the city who might not be used to that. As a parting shot, she peered at the green shoots of crocus that were pushing their way up along the freshly scrubbed path, and said “they won’t last long, soil’s too acid. Most people don’t bother, tidier that way.”

   Kalini took her camera for a proper explore around Lower Seedscombe that weekend. She’d fallen in love four months before with the polished pump outside the grocers, the thatched roofs and the immaculate rows of window-boxes. Swathes of colour and almost total quiet, perfect writing atmosphere. Kalini hoped Ethel had meant she was growing the wrong type of flower, as she zoomed in on a tub of daffodils. The light glanced off a very green leaf, she poked at petals and pinched leaves. All the flowers were artifical. Not an insect to be seen or a bird to be heard, and not what she’d expected from the countryside.

   When golden sticky fluid started dripping down the walls, Kalini went by herself into the attic to investigate. As she opened the hatch, the buzzing boomed over her like a helicopter. She poked her head through, afraid the plumbing was about to explode, and wondering how she would explain that in the post-office. The floor and beams were coated in sticky white and yellow gunk, and the air was thick with stripy, fuzzy, possessive pollinators. She slammed the hatch shut, rested her head against the cool wooden surface for a few minutes, then edged the corner down. Still bee-infested.

  Kalini thought of all her acquaintances in the village and what they would do, breathed in slowly and fetched her stereo and Tchaikovsky CD and a sun-faded Encyclopedia Brittanica.

   “Right, ” she said, because the insects were listening and she had to start confidently. “There are 900 cells in a bee’s brain.” She had wanted to experience nature.

   The village got used to Kalini wandering around with a bee escort. Larry learnt to make beehives, Mr Post listened to Gardener’s Question Time, Ethel planted lavender. Kalini’s honey was sweet and moreish and won awards. And everywhere she went, the villager’s newly-planted flowers bloomed.

*

Biography

Anita Goveas is British-Asian, based in London, and fueled by strong coffee and paneer jalfrezi. She was first published in the 2016 London Short Story Prize anthology, most recently in Flashback Fiction, Mojave Heart review, The Brown Orient, formercactus and Spelk. She tweets erratically @coffeeandpaneer

David Hartley

Sample #1

Perhaps it would have been better, somehow, if this had been sample #142 or #96 or #305, something innocuous and meaningless but no, it was sample number one, the first, and he already wanted to taste it.

He’d tried blaming a few other things. Perhaps it had reached some telepathic tendrils into his mind at the point of death to make him look at it hungrily because, hey, it wasn’t dead, it was just lying microscopically still, waiting to be ingested so its parasitic foetal cells could awaken and attach to his stomach lining and grow inside his blood.

Or: this was an important scientific experiment that needed to happen now before endless committees talked themselves into a tangle, and the whole thing got entrenched with the bioethics lot and tied up in the finickity parameters of some drawn-out lab test in which he would almost certainly not be involved.

Or: he needed to step up and be the pioneer because there were millions starving back home, billions soon, and here on Europa there was a nearly endless supply of these nutritionally rich organisms whose alarming rate of reproduction and ease of capture meant they were almost begging to be used to save an ailing species of twelve billion superior mouths.   

But truth was, he just wanted to taste it.

He just wanted, more than anything, the experience of pressing the monochrome dough between his teeth, feeling the spread of its fizzing oil across his tongue while that sharp, salty, oaky aroma filled his mouth and coated his throat and washed him through. He’d seen the salivation of the others. They’d all thought it. But none had the guile, or the access.

So, he slipped the scalpel from his sleeve, angled his body to block the cameras, and sliced out a decent chunk from the thirteenth petri dish of Sample #1. It was the part he’d identified, in his head, as the flank. The morsel and the scalpel went back into his sleeve as he lowered the thirteenth petri into permanent cold storage.

Later, as he cooked it, he thought he saw, just for half a second, the meat twitch into life. He grinned at himself. He chuckled, he whistled, he shook his head, for it must’ve been the spit of the oil, the kick of the flame, a trick of the eye.

*

Biography

David Hartley writes strange stories about strange things for strange people. His work has appeared in Ambit, Black Static, and Structo, and he is currently studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at The University of Manchester.

Claire Loader

Undercurrents

We met at the Tip Head, where we always went, out to the rocks that stretched like hands into the sea, huge chunks of hard earth that screamed defiance at the ocean.  The dark swirling waters crashed against its base as we made our way cautiously around the small beacon, sitting then in our usual spot, back to the town, surrounded by the waves.   It felt like we were on the edge of the world out on those rocks, even though we knew we were simply looking at Australia, out there somewhere past the horizon, staring back at us with her heat and her yellow sand beaches. 

I pulled a joint from my pocket, my hand searching in the other for the lighter I hoped I’d put there.  I lit the twisted end and huddled back into my hoodie, our legs touching briefly as we sought a pretence of warmth. 

It was a pity Shane was gay, I thought, remembering back to that awkward scene in high school – a mixture of too many beers, of too much denial.

“Shane, we have known each other forever, why are we not together?  You know I love you.”

“Meg”.  There had been a long pause, as if his tone was trying desperately to tell me before he did. “You know I’m gay.”

Maybe I had known, but that didn’t stop me from lying back on the bed and nearly choking in my own snot and tears.

I took a long drag as I watched the tops of the waves peak and trough, their white heads disappearing into the deep undercurrent below.  “So, I was listening to a podcast the other day.  About how language is literally the foundation to our reality.”

Shane’s hand suddenly appeared in front of me, his fingers coaxing the joint from mine. “What do you mean?”

 “Like, this idea that our world is limited to the words we use.  That words are like code, like on the Matrix, you know?  All that green shit running down on the screen.  That what we experience is the result of some sort of binary code.  Literally mind before matter. ”

Shane laughed.  “So, you’re saying that not only am I stuck in this shitty little town, I’m stuck inside my own shitty vocabulary now is it?”

I started giggling as the smoke swirled and danced around us, mixing with the sea spray and my own giddiness with it. “But Shane spoke English good, no?”

We laughed into the roar of the water, the stones slowly curling in to embrace us.

“Well, we could be optimistic too, ya know.  Maybe it means we have the power to rewrite things.”

“What, you turn into a hot guy and we escape this town on Gandalf’s pony, is it?”

I punched him, swiping the remainder of the joint, chuckling into its tiny blaze.  “Or you just be less of a dick.  Can’t be too hard to write that code, can it?”

He punched me back and laughed.  Our shoulders leaning softly against each other as we both sat in our own thoughts.   My body drifting into the same miasmic rhythms of the water before us, as words lost their meaning and my mind floated out to sea.

*

Biography

Claire Loader was born in New Zealand and spent several years in China before moving to County Galway, Ireland, where she now lives with her family.  A photographer and writer, she was a recent finalist in the Women Speak poetry competition and blogs at www.allthefallingstones.com. Her work has appeared in various publications, including Crannóg, Dodging The Rain, Tales From The Forest and Pendora.

 

N.K. Woods

Limited Vocabulary 

The unpredictability of fate saw me factor punctures, toilet breaks and tantrums into our journey time to the airport, so we arrive far too early – but better to sit in the car for an hour than risk being late. Whispering, we decide to park for a while in the lay-by opposite the runway. Minutes pass in silence, but the relentless parade of planes is hypnotic to watch and I savour the calm, knowing that it won’t last much longer. I glance back, between our seats, to check on Anna. She needs to wake soon so we can tackle the post-nap whimpers in privacy, but the coming day will be long and I can’t bring myself to disturb her peace.

‘You did great, getting her into that dress,’ says Simon, softly. ‘I was ready to give in and let her wear leggings. But she looks perfect, not that it matters. I mean…’ His voice trails off but I don’t press him to continue. Instead I take his hand in mine and hold it tight, only letting go when Anna finally stirs.   

‘Si?’ Her small voice is doubtful, verging on scared, and we both twist around. She frowns at Simon’s suit – the unfamiliar outfit that transforms him from uncle to stranger.

‘Hey, sweetheart,’ he says.

When recognition replaces drowsiness and her frown fades, I gently rub her arm. ‘Wow – that was some nap. My turn now.’ I pretend to yawn and fake a noisy snore.

There’s a pause when the mood could go either way, but then she giggles. ‘I’m hungry.’

That’s one problem I can solve. ‘Me too! So, we have crackers, bananas and raisins.’

‘Hate bananas.’ A frown accompanies the statement but she doesn’t hesitate before adding, ‘I’ll give them to Daddy.’

The words shoot from her mouth like flares, and I look to Simon for help.

‘Anna, remember what Mum said before she left?’ He speaks very slowly, as if his throat is sore, but his eyes never leave her face. ‘Last night, she told you about it again when she rang to say goodnight. Remember – she’s bringing Dad home?’

A plane taxiing along the runway is more interesting than us and she ignores the question. Further delicate probing fails to elicit any reaction, although she’s been told everything – in simple terms.

I stare at Simon, unsure whether to spell things out or leave that job for his sister. 

‘What’s that?’ squeals Anna. She kicks the back of my seat while squirming for a better view.

The burst of excitement is startling, but we follow her eye-line and see movement on the grassy strip beyond the wire fence.

‘Hares,’ replies Simon, ‘like superhero rabbits. They love this place.’

She watches them, and we watch her. She makes up stories about them, and we listen. These empty minutes could be filled with something more substantial than raisins and nonsense talk, but that’s how we pass the time.

And then Simon starts the engine, shaking his head expressively as we fall in with the traffic.

We travel in silence but at a red light Anna mumbles to herself. On the second attempt she speaks with more confidence. ‘Cat.’

I expect to see a stray animal outside, but quickly realise she’s sounding out the slogan on the van beside us. ‘Well done. Longer than cat though.’ I spell out catering and explain what it means.

It doesn’t take long to reach the main airport junction, where another red light makes us wait to turn left. The first word on the signpost pointing down the side road is cargo, so when she says car, I repeat the process – spell and explain.

Then my eyes begin to swim; I clamp them shut, blocking out the next word on the board.

‘Mor,’ she says, enjoying her new game. The fragment is repeated when I fail to play along, and a wobble enters her voice. ‘You have to finish it!’

Simon answers for me, but only when the signpost is no longer visible. His tone is flat and low as he works through the letters, but mortuary is a hard word to spell at any age.

*

Biography

N.K. Woods lives in Kildare and has recently completed a Masters in Creative Writing.

Colin Watts

Last Things, Lost Things

My dearest Carol,

How are the old bones? Creaking and groaning like mine, no doubt. Skeletons in an empty cupboard, eh? How odd that we revere those of our ancestors as though they still lived; how we preserve the fossilised remains of dinosaurs and mammoths as precious relics. Remember how excited we were at getting hold of that that final hoard of tusk and horn, the way it fell almost unbidden into our hands. How ironic then for us to lock it away in trust for the grandchildren we didn’t have; not knowing, as we do now, that we never would.

I remember so clearly the day our Last Things Project began? I’m sure you do, too. What great shots we both were, even at the beginning. Like our first kiss, bagging those red kites was magical, though the flesh, as I’m sure you recall, was a little stringy. Not at all like your sweet lips, call me sentimental if you will! Ah, but those nests of rare humming-bird fledglings we served on the Project’s tenth anniversary. Each one wrapped in its own little feather coat; so tender, so sweet. How poignant for each of our guests to be sucking the marrow from one of the most beautiful creatures ever to grace God’s earth. Such moving tributes. Such gratitude for nature’s bounty. Oh those yesterdays, when nature still had bounty left to give; when her miracles seemed boundless and endless; when we still had faith in a divine being who would step in and save us from ourselves before we reached the tipping point.

Remember that year we made our pilgrimage to California. Weren’t we the lucky ones to find the oldest known surviving Redwood? It’s that one, I said, and that one it was, confirmed by the official counting of the rings. I say luck, but intuition distilled from the experience of a lifetime might be nearer to the truth. Too bad that special auger recommended by top arboriculturists should have become irrevocably wedged, only a few seconds before it would have been withdrawn and our hopes realised or dashed. A thousand dollars-worth of equipment; we couldn’t just leave it there, could we?

Though each of our expeditions has given us the privilege of communing intimately with a different one of God’s creations, for me it was that final Scandinavian trip that was the culmination of our Project. A true triple whammy, I’m sure you’ll agree. Firstly, the trip north from Oslo in that tiny jet, draining our life’s savings for those last precious drops of aviation fuel, from what was left of the aptly named black gold market, along with our hunting permits. And then to be able to put out of their misery one of the last herds of reindeer, their lives poisoned by the parasites that were thriving in the warming air. It was an act of kindness in my opinion, though I couldn’t stop the old hunting instinct rising up, sitting targets though the desperate creatures were. And I can’t help thinking that those last few Sami herders, ravaged by poverty, disease and alcohol, might have wanted us to deal with them in the same humane way we dealt with their ravaged herds. And then to return to our wooden eco-hut and stand there, hand in hand, among the last humans on earth to glimpse the Aurora Borealis, only hours before the permacloud rolled in and hid it permanently from sight. A triple whammy indeed! Now, we can do nothing more than to pray to the God who has abandoned us for its miraculous return. As the storm clouds gather pace, we can only be thankful to have been able to purchase such wonderful memories of Mother Nature’s bounty.

My dear, this may well be the last time I am able to get in touch. I would love to be with you at the end, but given how little time we have left, I think we must give thanks to glorious lives well-lived and lay our Project well and truly to rest.

 

I miss you so much.

Your ever-loving Phil.

 

*

Biography

Colin is seventy five, 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.colin-watts-poetry.com/

Clodagh O’Connor

Trading Tales

How ugly he was, his oddly split tail hanging down from the rock where he sat, his soft dark hair lifting in the wind, strange bumps on his face.  The lure of his song was too strong to resist though, she had to answer it with her own. She swam closer to the shore, letting their combined sounds wash over her. He saw her and beckoned her closer. Fearful, but curious, she swung up beside him and he gazed at her with wonder.  Her seaweed hair hung around a flat-featured face, her tail curled under her and she met his stare directly.

“So the stories are true”, he said. “Are there other mer-folk like you?”

“Dive with me and see them”, she replied, leaping into the water. He followed her without hesitation and together they descended. Long before they reached her kingdom the man turned and swam to the surface. She followed and held him afloat as he fought to regain breath.

“It is too far for me”, he explained, when he could speak once more, “Will you not come to my palace?”

“I cannot move upon land as you can”, she said “but I will return to this rock to meet you tomorrow and we will share stories of our kingdoms.”

For many weeks they shared their stories. They grew accustomed to each other and no longer thought the other strange or ugly. Their sadness grew stronger at each parting, until one day the mermaid said, “I will find a way to come to your world”.

She left him then, diving into the depths where the sea-witch lived.  The deep sea was cold and dark, but the mermaid could see faintly glowing pearls lighting the way to the caves she sought. The witch smiled to see her approach.

“What is it that you desire, my child?”

“To walk among the earthbound, to be with my love.”

“Why leave your home, my dear, when your prince could come here? I wish to meet him. Put this over his head and he will breathe under the water as we do.”

The mermaid took the round object in her hands in wonder. She hesitated then and asked, “What do you require for payment?” The witch replied, “I would see this prince of yours, bring him here when you find him.”

The mermaid immediately swam back to the rocks, but the prince was not there. For many days she haunted the shore, singing sadly at the place where they met, but no answering music came to her. In despair, she returned to the sea-witch and asked for a spell to bring the prince to the shore.

“You want to see him, dearie? Just look into my scrying pool.”

The mermaid’s gills contracted as she caught sight of her beloved dancing with an earthbound princess. He was holding her close as they spun gracefully around a great hall. He had never held her in such an embrace. The witch watched her changing expressions with glee, but simply said, “Your love will be on the shore tonight. Remember to bring him to me.”

She heard his song as soon as she surfaced by the rocks. She swam to him and presented the witch’s gift. He slipped it over his head and together they dived deep. A great sense of unease came over the prince as they approached the sea-witch’s cave, it was only then that he discovered he could neither speak nor hear.

The witch stood over the mermaid and forced her to look once more into the scrying pool. “See how your love gazes deep into the eyes of that princess, how can he love you with your flat face and sharp teeth? He will not leave the beauties of his land for the roughness of the sea.”

The mermaid was swayed by the witch’s words; accepting gifts from such a creature put her under her power. The witch pressed her advantage and handed a small trident to her. “One stab through the heart,” the malicious creature whispered, “and he will be yours forever.”

The prince held out his hands as she approached him, seeing the weapon, but trusting his love. The mermaid gazed deep into his eyes, raised the trident high and slashed twice. Gashes opened in both sides of his throat, the mermaid ripped the covering from his head. As his legs transformed into a sleek tail, he took his first breath as one of her kind.

*

Biography

Clodagh O’Connor has been an aspiring writer since age 8, but only really starting to scribble now (in her 50s). She also writes haiku, has two sons and one husband, is interested in telecoms, likes maths and makes origami boxes.

 

Sheena Power

A Glass Coffin

Black as ebony, white as snow. That was me. I’m turning grey now. My skin is pale as ever except where liver spots cluster, mottling my hands. I am turning into an old toad. And no kiss can make me a princess again. I was Snow White, I was those three things: black hair, white skin, red mouth. And that, I see now, was all I was.

The Queen at least had her witchcraft – she had an interest. In the evenings I waste candles going through her books. Odd snatches catch me – to thwart an adulterer, break an acorn in two and hide half under each party’s pillow, and so long as ’tis so, the lovers never can meet – but I was never schooled to concentrate. I find it hard going, to turn myself into a scholar.

If I were clever, I would not envy my lady-in-waiting so much. Olivia is gold, like morning sunlight. Her skin glows with rose-petal youth. When she joins me at the mirror, I look away. I try to care more about books than beauty, and I wonder how I would feel if I had her heart cut out.

It is the famed mirror, yes. The Queen did not care for mirrors when first she came here. I think my father admired that, but the courtiers talked. It is said you can trap a witch in a mirror, and there were whispers that the new Queen avoided them from fear. So my father gave her this one, knowing its magical properties would intrigue her. I don’t believe he knew its real power. He loved her, after all.

My prince, the king, looks put out at breakfast. “I found an acorn in my bed,” he snaps at his man as they enter the room. “Have we squirrels for chambermaids?”

He sits, and then I do, Olivia drawing out my chair. His eyes focus above my head, and he smiles. In the mirror opposite, she blooms more lovely than ever. Perhaps, perhaps a kiss could restore me to beauty. Were kisses to be had.

For all that she was a murderer, the Queen wrote an elegant hand. To enter her diary is to enter her mind, and oh, what a marvellous mind it was. Filled with herb-lore and alchemy and astronomy, peopled with philosophers and poets and travellers. I dally there, as in a wondrous country.

What caused my step-mother to turn from the grandeur of her magic to the paltriness of envy? Her dreams shrank, over the years – I see this, in her later journals. A soul as large as the night sky, curled up like burnt paper. And what ate away at my step-mother, has kept me meek and biddable. We were both, in our way, captured by the thought that we were nothing but pretty reflections in a glass.

“His Royal Highness awaits your Majesty.”

“I… will dine in my private quarters.” She asks if I am unwell. I shrug, not caring what reason she gives. I find as his love falls away from me, my own dissipates like vapour. I see him clearly now. The door closes. I resume my reading.

In the margins are scribbled spells. To become beautiful; to become invisible. These opposites jolt me, and I pause to decipher them. To become invisible, destroy the m… maiden? No. The mirror.

I lay down the journal. There is the tail of an idea, sly and elusive, almost such that thinking on it will scare it away. Instead, I feel.

I feel the weight of beauty, weighing more the more it slips from me. But even in youth, it felt a kind of carapace, defining my limits – a transparent coffin. I was black hair, and white skin, and no more. And no, the mischief was not done by others thinking me so – it was done when I figured beauty as the sum of myself.

When I explore the world in her books, I feel… excited, happy. I see this only now, in hindsight, because when I am immersed there I do not notice how I feel – I am transparent to myself. I become invisible. Instead of seeing myself, I see the world. And it fills me with curious heady pleasure.

To be invisible to others is a charm beyond my powers – at least, it is they who decide whether or not to see me. But to be invisible to oneself. There is a thought. Is this the spell I have been seeking?

*

Biography

Sheena Power is an illustrator from Dublin. Her work ranges from dragons on the cover of JRR Tolkien: the Forest & the City, to Christmas cards for scientists. Although she draws for a living, her real love is writing. Her stories Aurelia Aurita and On the Matter of Dublin’s Gargoyle Population were published in Tales From The ForestA Cloak As Red As Blood was published in Enchanted Magazine, and Queen was shortlisted for the 2015 Allingham Award and subsequently published in Boyne Berries.

Elizabeth Gibson

Noelle

The ice is so hard and cold and the arena spins around and around, so white and shiny and yet so technicolour: turquoise and pink, cyan and red, artificial and unloving in a way she should be used to but never will be. They tell her that her name means birth, call her Natalia or Natasha. They shift around her, eyes trained and hungry, watching jump after jump, spin after spin and they say, you could be Russian. You are good enough. You will go somewhere. Where? Who knows. But somewhere.

We’re going to a new town in November, Maman says. Avignon. What? Doesn’t Papa live there now? Does he? I don’t know. Anyway, don’t worry, angel, they have a rink. You will get your practice. You will still be a superstar, my darling.

She laughs sadly. She flicks a tendril of hair from her eyes and it falls straight back. She slumps over the packing as if she has given up. The world seems to be getting darker. The rink doesn’t even look light or white any more. Black spots dance before Noelle’s eyes and blinking doesn’t make them go away.

The water is so bright and blue. The Rhône, they call it. It is like a sapphire. It feels like winter here. In the city it never did, especially not when Noelle was standing on a field of ice. It felt like she existed outside of the world, in a strange, loud, flashy season that never changed. Here she walks into silence as thick as wind. She crouches by the tall grass, sees fish darting and birds hopping on the bank that falls away from her feet. The trees are brown and gold and orange – earthy colours. Or earthly. She’d forgotten they could be real. She breathes out. She settles under the famous, broken bridge, legs crossed. She is chilly. There is no one there. She stays.

It is in December that he arrives: a tall goat-like thing, scraggly and smug. He is not malevolent, she can tell. He doesn’t talk much. He just tells her it is getting colder.

Five days a week the new rink swirls around her and blurs her senses. She lands more jumps than ever before and they cheer. New them. Same noise. Same eyes. Same loss of anything that matters. More darkness. More and more and more.

Winter creeps on and the Rhône freezes. She slips to the bank every night after practice. Under the bridge she curls, knees tucked under her chin. The ice on the river glimmers silver and gold in the late sun. He is there, and he dances around her, his long green scarf clinging to him like a vine as he smirks at her skates and sings softly, hypnotically. Words from some other place and time.

“Go on. Go on. I want to see you.

Go on. It will hold.”

Right. Axel. Good. Land. Hand in the air, don’t touch the ice. It stings, so cold like the edge of a can. Sharp. Head up. Arms out, now spin, gracious. Yes. One leg up, good, now loop, now flip. Excellent. Keep going. Hear your heart crying out, feel your blood washing inside your face in a way it never has, feel the momentum, the motion, the pulse, as you go round and round, round and round, everything building and burning as if preparing for the moment

when it all will stop.

*

Biography

Elizabeth Gibson was announced as a New North Poet at the 2017 Northern Writers’ Awards. Her writing has appeared in CakeThe Cardiff Review, The CompassCreative ReviewInk, Sweat & Tears, Litro and The Poetry Shed. She edits Foxglove Journal and the Word Life section of Now Then Manchester, tweets @Grizonneand blogs at http://elizabethgibsonwriter.blogspot.co.uk.