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.

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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).

Vaida Varnagiene

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Biography

Vaida Varnagiene is a multidisciplinary artist based in Dublin (Ireland) originally from Klaipeda (Lithuania). After graduating from the Klaipeda’s Business and Technology College (BA Landscape design) and later, the University of Klaipeda (BA Landscape architecture of Town and Country Planning), Vaida has been working as a landscape designer and architect for over 10 years. She came to Ireland in 2007 where she shifted her focus to study a visual art in multiple artistic media. Vaida has completed BA (Honours) Fine art at DIT (Dublin Institute of Technology) in 2015.
She has exhibited in group shows in Ireland and international projects (Spain, Lithuania, Austria). Vaida received the Graphic Studio Dublin Graduate Award (2015) and is now a member of Graphic Studio Dublin.
Website: http://vaidavarnagiene.weebly.com/

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.

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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.

Rebecca Smith: Kick the Can and Rhododendron Perfume

First life lesson. When we were little we used to crush rhododendron flowers, add water and hey presto, rhody perfume. Roses worked better of course, but roses were precious. During the summer the gardens on the estate were open to the public so we would stand on a corner of the path and wait for the slow gait of old couples. They thought my brother and I were the sweetest things they had ever seen with our shorts, muddy white t-shirts and tiny perfume bottles. We sold them for a couple of pence, collecting the coins in an old jar. Mum laughed when we showed her our profits. But she said we couldn’t expand the business.  The flowers weren’t ours. Our shop floor didn’t belong to us. And, frankly, we were coercing people to buy. Running a business is tricky.

Second life lesson. A winding, hilly road circled the estate. One day Mum let me take my bike to visit my friend who lived at the farm at the bottom of the hill. I fled down the road like my wings had been unclipped, the wind cold on my legs. Then I saw the car coming. Terrified, I pulled my breaks on so hard my bike stopped dead and I somersaulted over the handle bars. My body skidded to a halt on the tarmac road, a few metres away from the bike. The car slowed and the driver wound its window down. My mum, always close by, heard the scream from the garden and was already half way down the road.  She carried me back to the house and called the doctor. I still have scars on my legs and my face. Always, always wear a helmet.

Life lesson number three. The rhododendron bushes that covered the gardens were old, gnarly and looked impenetrable from the outside, but once you’d pushed your way in, the most incredible caverns and dens opened up. We took ribbons and sparkly thread from Mum’s sewing box and decorated the thin arms of the bushes. We dragged in wooden stools, blankets, old tea pots, teddies, torches and flasks of hot chocolate. They were our discos. Our shops. Our kitchens. Our homes. Our place to be adults. Don’t leave food in an outside den. The mice will get it. Don’t use all of your Mums special sparkly thread that belonged to her Mum. It makes her a bit angry. And sad.  There is something magical about making someplace your own.

Lesson Four.  I remember every kind person who played a small part in my childhood. Mrs Brown, the primary school teacher whose hands were like tissue paper. We all loved her unquestioningly. She treated us with the greatest respect. Bert, the man who came to our door one night, hands dripping with blood, asking Dad to phone the fire brigade. His home, a caravan a few miles away, was burning. The fear in his voice and the pain in his hand didn’t stop him saying hiya kids to me and my brother, chasing away our fear of the dark night and the horrible acrid scent of burnt plastic. His blood stained the step, no matter how many times Mum scrubbed it.  Jonnie, the man who first stole my heart, who always asked me, how‘s your day going Missy and smiled so kindly.  Children remember adults. Always be kind. And perhaps don’t name a teddy after the man you have a crush on. Jonnie the gorilla. Mums aren’t stupid.

Life lesson number five. Everyone was the same. We met up when we felt like it and rode our bikes, fought with stick swords, imagined castles, princesses, played Kick the Can, 123, tig, chicken, swung on the tyre swings, swung on branches, fought, cried, fell over, got wet, got lost.  It didn’t matter which house you lived in (the big one, the lodge house, the farm, the stables), what your Dad did, what shoes you wore. They all got muddy.  But once, once, I was different. The girl from down the road said to me, I wish my mum was like yours.  We carried on walking underneath the trees. I didn’t ask why. By then, I knew. Mum didn’t shout when we fell over like her Mum did. She picked us up. She didn’t scream at our Dad. Or raise her hand to the dog. Or to us. She never told us to be one thing or another. She didn’t push us into a job, university, a degree in medicine. Or hold us back from travelling, or staying in the same place, or loving the wrong person. We were free to make our own mistakes. All mums should be like that.  That’s not so hard, is it?

Yesterday in the garden centre, there were two rhododendron bushes, one pink, one purple. I pushed them in the trolley to my car, the stretched skin of my bump touching the handle. I’ll plant them tomorrow, so my kids can crush up upside-down parasol flowers, add water, and sell rhody perfume on the school bus.

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Biography

Rebecca Smith was brought up in the middle of nowhere in Cumbria and now lives in Central Scotland blending suburbia with urban necessities and country air.

She studied English and Media at Stirling University and then produced live radio for 10 years, almost purely living off adrenaline. She currently works in Radio Drama in Glasgow.

She is being mentored by Kirsty Logan after she was selected as part of the Womentoring Project.

She has stories published in various magazines (Freak Circus, Northwords Now, [Untitled])

She has one son, a silver-grey cat and penchant for biscuits.

Deirdre Moran: Something To Give Courage

Something to Give Courage

I dreamt of chopping it down. Every night the same dream, but in the morning I always changed my mind. Now I’m glad I didn’t. It remains there to remind me that losing courage isn’t a failing. I need to believe that now. I’m fighting the same battle but not as bravely.

He planted that rose bush when he was still strong. He had been feeling unwell but nobody had taken much notice. We thought he was just getting older, and being the man he was, finding it difficult to adjust. He was always strong and vital, so alive. He’d had an ordinary life but had appreciated the small things so much that none of the other stuff had mattered to him. It was a wonder to see him take a tiny seed and use it to create a whole new world. He imagined the plants had lives as complex as our own. He would talk to them, chid them, encourage them and refuse to give up on them.

I remember seeing the rose grow stronger and him grow weaker. Through my innocent eyes I thought it was stealing his strength. I thought they had somehow become connected in a way they never should have been and now they were both battling to survive, and the scales were tipping against him. Maybe he didn’t realise that he had given too much of himself to the plant and now it was too late.

I haven’t told anyone yet. I don’t know how I will. All my life people have told me their stories. I have listened to so many stories from so many people. Happy ones, funny ones, but mostly sad. My husband has always said that my face tells people that I like sad stories. Maybe I do, but today I have a sad story of my own and I want someone to listen to me but I can’t decide who.

My sister has been having a rough time lately. I tried to tell her yesterday but it just didn’t happen. Tim is being an ass again. She told me she can’t take any more, but she always does. I suppose she still loves him and that’s the real problem. I listened and after she thanked me but I didn’t say anything. She has enough on her plate and she can’t help me.

My mother is so worried about her that she has forgotten me. Maybe I should have married Tim. Because she is so anxious my father can only talk about how concerned he is about her. And I worry about them both. I know I should tell my husband but I don’t want to make him as sad as I am.

I found myself dreaming about that rose tree again last night and I decided to visit it. There will be nobody there who knows me anymore but I need one last look. I owe it to me and him. The place is empty; the man who owns this place now is not tied to it like he was. I pull in across the road and get out.

The rose bush is still here thankfully. I haven’t seen it in so many years I was afraid that it would be gone or worse – that it wouldn’t be what it was supposed to be. I start to think of the last time we came here as a family. We were dressed in our good clothes. My mother sat in the passenger seat, silent, she didn’t really look like my mother that day. When we got there it wasn’t the same. It had already changed. There were people everywhere. Some lady with too much make-up was sitting in his chair. Another man was drinking from his cup. It was too much. I ran and found myself searching for the safety of the back garden. I couldn’t bear to go out front because the rose was there.

I crouched under the oak tree. He told me he had sowed it as a child but I had never believed him. It was so big it surely had to be older than him. Maybe he was older than I thought or the tree wasn’t really that big at all. It still looks the same as it did that day. I decided that I wanted to sow one but then I remembered he was gone and I wouldn’t be able to do it without him.

After a while my mother found me. I don’t think she was looking for me, she had come to the tree to find peace under its branches just as I had. She didn’t say anything. She sat down beside me and put her arm around me. After a while I asked her if he had really sown the tree. She smiled a half smile and nodded. I was afraid to ask her if the rose bush had killed him.

As I walk back to my car I pick up a stray acorn. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with it yet. Maybe I’ll sow it. I suppose that rose must have given him some hope. Hope that when he was gone there would be a little part of him left behind. Something to give courage.

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Biography

Deirdre Moran is based in Kildare and loves exploring the freedom and challenges of flash fiction. She has had work published in Silver Apples, Boyne Berries, Wordlegs, Number Eleven and Flash Flood. She was awarded third place in the Allingham Arts Festival Flash Fiction Competition in 2014.

Máiréad Casey: Bad Bitches Like Us

Gran says I have a knacker name. So when I go to her house she calls me “Beth” instead of Beyonce. “She’s never going to have a proper job with a name like that. You’ve cursed the poor thing to be a ne’er-do-well, all because you like some half-clothed singer on the TV” she says to Mammy. The Beyonce I’m named after is a strong, independent woman and who runs a world of business and I think she might also be Queen of America. Mammy says not to listen when Gran says mean things because I can still be Dr Beyonce Ryan, veterinarian, if I want to. Or Chief Engineer Beyonce Ryan, or Make-Up Artist Beyonce Ryan if I choose to be. Or just Beyonce Ryan, lovely person altogether. All good Beyonces.

When Mammy goes to work to build computers, I get dropped off at Gran’s house and it’s all fine except for me pretending to be called “Beth”. I can play from the Christmas trees at the end of her drive to the fields the at the back of her house with the wire. I know the wire is on because I can hear the steady click of the current. One time, Gran had to put on the drier so she turned off the ‘lectric wire and that’s when Bailey and I made a run for it and Gran couldn’t find us at all until after lunch. Now the wire clicks all the time.

Best of all here is Bailey. Bailey is Gran’s big black Rottweiler. “But really, I’m yours” Bailey tells me. “An old woman like me needs protection, sure what good would little fart of a dog like a pug do if a robber came in, eh Beth?”

“Stuff and nonsense,” Bailey says beside her, “I’m here to protect you, Beyonce.” Gran says that Bailey and I get on so good because Bailey is a girl dog or a b-i-t-c-h. When Bailey speaks to me though she’s never bitchy. She used to sound all posh like Nanny Plum in Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom but now she sounds strong and wise and ready for adventure like Garnet from the Steven Universe. She sounds like he knows a thing or two about what’s what.

Bailey barks loud when my evil cousin Aoife comes to visit. “She’s coming Beyonce! Rarrf! Run! Hide in the trees!” Gran says Bailey hates the big alloy wheels on Aoife’s mammy’s car. Aoife pushed me once into the nettle patch because I didn’t care that she was going to see One Direction. I stung everywhere even on my eyes and it was so sore and I couldn’t sit down on any of Gran’s furniture because of the calamine lotion. And I did care.

I jump into the low branches of one of the Christmas trees and climb up a bit. Bailey keeps watch from below. When the car pulls in, Bailey stops barking and runs over to Aoife and gets petted and licks her biscuity fingers because she’s checking her out like a super-smart secret-spy. Go Bailey, go! Dogs mouths I heard are really clean so she’s also probably making sure that I don’t get any of her germs. Make sure you get her face too, Bailey! Good girl.

Now she’s coming over. I activate my invisibility bracelet even though no one can see any one in these dark trees. I’m invisible. I’m invisible. I’m invisible. “What are you doing up in that tree, Beth?” I can hear Aoife’s voice through her blue braces. “You look like a feckin’ ejit.”

“Only Gran is supposed to call me Beth, Aoife!” She tricked me into giving away my hiding place. Aoife doesn’t have a pretend name at Gran’s because there are no famous people already named Aoife. I take off my invisibility bracelet and jump down. Gran is probably going to make cucumber and wild red salmon sandwiches for Aoife and her mammy soon anyway.

“And after sandwiches, we can go slay the dragon on the stone wall,” Bailey reminds me. “You know that tired old dog isn’t actually talking to you. You’re just doing the voice yourself” Aoife says with her nose all scrunched up and small, like a mouse’s. “Screw you!” Bailey growls and I tell her that she mustn’t swear because that’s beneath us. We must tell Aoife to mind her business, instead.

Gran is standing at the top of the porch steps, watching us. Bailey has to stay outside because Aoife’s mammy doesn’t want him coming over and getting her nice pants all slobber. The whole world changes when Aoife and her mammy come over and I hate it. “Don’t sulk, Beth,” Gran says.

Sometimes I imagine Bailey turning into a big, powerful wolf and blowing Gran’s house down with all of them inside.

I imagine the doorbell ringing and Gran answering the door and it’s Bailey but she’s a big strong wolf again and she opens her mouth wide and eats Gran all up and then it’s just me and Bailey on the lawn for a while. Then after another while she spits her out again and they don’t need to cut Bailey’s belly open.

When Gran comes out she’s learned her lesson, “Come back inside Beyonce, your tea is getting cold.” She has her apron on so that means there might be hot fresh scones.

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Biography

Máiréad Casey is a Pushcart Prize-nominated writer who has previously been published in Silver Apples, The Runt, Stanzas, The Flexible Persona and Icarus. She likes fairy tales, horror films, woodland critters, and daydreaming about tattoos without actually deciding on one.

Clodagh O’Connor: Derelict

‘Just get out and don’t come back until tea-time.’ Emer and Anne didn’t stop to be asked twice. They knew they were lucky to get out at all, after their last escapade. Turning up two hours late for tea had not been appreciated by any of their parents. It seemed the ban imposed on going “out the fields” was now lifted. The girls fled for the front door. Half way there, however, Emer spun around and took the stairs two at a time, while Anne waited in stomach-twisting fear in case her mother would remember the punishment and call them both back. Emer reappeared, clutching her white-banded watch, a present from her grandmother. ‘So we know what time it is,’ she explained, slipping it into her pocket as they exited to freedom. The chief joy of visiting Emer’s place was roaming the long fields with their blackberried pathways tracing down to the river.

‘My Mam says we’re “glued together at the hip”,’ Anne offered, pushing her hip bones against Emer’s and looking down, doubtfully. ‘I’m not sure I’d like that.’ Emer just shrugged, ‘Mammies,’ she said, dismissing adult pronouncements as irrelevant. ‘Let’s go over the bridge.’ Anne glanced up at the hill, and slowed her step. She knew, as did Emer, that over the river was technically out of bounds. Temptation overrode caution. She accepted Emer’s outstretched hand and heaved herself over the gate that secured the disused bridge. ‘Let’s go,’ they chorused together and laughed. They used the few remaining bridge struts to jump gaps, ignoring the drop to the river below. Once over, they exchanged conspiratorial glances and started up the short but steep hill. As the ground levelled out they paused to admire the view of the river from above and to exult in their daring.

They went further in this day than they ever had before.  Emer held court with a discussion on how to survive in the wild. ‘Beech nuts,’ she declared, ‘and blackberries, of course.’ ‘Would you kill a rabbit?’ asked Anne, ‘I don’t think I could, even supposing I could trap one.’

The woods were thick with undergrowth and conversation lulled as the two struggled with their progress. ‘Hsst,’ Emer whispered, ‘See, through there.’  A small cupid peeped at them from a clearing, his bow no longer in evidence, beside him a rectangular, leaf-strewn pool from a forgotten era. ‘Wow,’ breathed Anne, ‘It’s like the Secret Garden.’ ‘Come on. Let’s go see,’ Emer strode forward with Anne following slowly, afraid to disturb the ghosts of the pool. They sat in companionable silence on a stone seat near the moss covered cupid. ‘You couldn’t drink that water, though,’ – Anne’s thoughts had reverted to their earlier conversation. ‘Course not.’ said Emer, slightly scornfully, ‘You’d have to collect rainwater or find a stream. Running water, that’s the thing.’ ‘I’ve got some sweets left.’ Anne gave her friend a softened, sticky toffee and another silence ensued as the last of the supplies were sucked to nothing.

Anne closed her eyes against the warm sunlight that dappled through the trees. Birdsong and bee-buzzing filled her ears. She could tell there was a blackbird nearby and she strained to catch other songs to identify.  Emer explored the surrounding woods. Suddenly the ground under her foot gave way and she fell awkwardly with a gasp of surprise. Her entire left leg was hidden by the hole she had stepped into. She eased herself out and stepped more carefully, realising that the ground was pockmarked with similar holes, hidden by years of autumn leaves.

A sudden crack made her swing around. She could make out a distant figure. She crept back to the pool. Grabbing Anne’s arm urgently, she whispered, ‘There’s someone there.’ Anne’s eyes followed her pointing finger and saw a man coming nearer to them. ‘Is that a stick?’ she whispered. ‘Maybe it’s a gun,’ Emer suggested. ‘Let’s get out of here before he sees us.’

The girls moved off, making for the safety of the bridge and the other side of the river. A shout rose behind them, ‘What are you doing here? Trespassers!’ Crashing noises came to them through the heavy undergrowth and they ran in panic. Behind them a louder crash caused them to glance back over their shoulders. The man had fallen and was having some difficulty in rising again, though he still shouted loudly at them. His angry face was visible now and he was waving the stick fiercely in their direction. They turned and fled in terror, reaching the gateway to the bridge and ran across its raggedly spaced slats. On the opposite bank they paused, safe on home territory.

‘Not a word to Mam or anyone.’ Emer said as firmly as she could, when her gasps had subsided. ‘Course not.’ agreed Anne. They’d never be let out again if they blabbed.

He shouted until the dryness in his throat caused his voice to crack, but it was no use. He had frightened away the only other occupants of these gardens – that was his responsibility as caretaker. Each time he tried to drag his leg upwards pain caused his eyes to blur and his stomach to heave. He rested for a time, trying to calm his racing mind. Cold seeped into his bones and sleep overtook him, when he awoke it was dark and a soft rain was falling. No one was in sight and no one was likely to appear. That was why the deserted lodge of these gardens had seemed ideal when things had become unpleasant at the hospital. His body was already weakened by a week of living with little food.  He heaved himself forward once more but pain drove shocks through his enfeebled body and blackness descended. Underneath his prone form a small white watch slowed and marked the date of his passing. The small cupid still smiled his stone smile as the man decayed into the ruins of the old estate.

*

Biography

Clodagh O’Connor has been an aspiring writer since age 8, though she is only really getting around to a few scribbles now (at age 51). She also write haiku, has 2 sons and one husband, works in telecoms, likes maths and makes origami boxes.