A Girl’s Guide to Being Buried Alive

You can listen to an audio file of this story here.


You will think it’s a trick of the light, at first, or that your bedclothes obscure your vision. It is not; they do not. Scrub your face all you like—the dark will not fall away from your eyes, but you will dislodge the shroud you don’t yet know is a shroud. Reach now, if you must, for that bedside candle. Knock your knuckles against rough wood. Withdraw your hand and try again.

It is very important to breathe. Slowly.

You may remember, as I did not, your brief tangle with illness, the wilting of your pink cheeks, the drying-thinning of your hair, the sudden fragility of your bones. One day you were young and hale and the next you were a pale, gaunt thing, hushed and whispered over. The doctors and your parents and your love were all quite sure you would die. Prepared themselves for the final closing of your dimming eyes.

Yes, be angry. It will help. It will burn clear through the panic.

They thought you a small and delicate thing, briefly coloring their worlds, like the summer butterflies you admired in the rose garden. They wept over you, rest assured. Your mother still weeps. Your love languishes, bemoans that he never took a lock of your hair. In a day or two, he may come and stand at your tomb, over your grave. Throw his body on the cold earth or stone. Curse the uncaring heavens.

No, you cannot wait that long. And what if he does not come? What if he does not hear your muffled cries?

It may occur to him to dig you up, as my love did me. Not out of any faint hope that you are still alive, that there was some mistake, although there was. He doesn’t do it for you at all. It’s for him. Oh, he’ll say he just wants some small token—that lock of hair or a scrap from your dress. Or else he only wants to say goodbye, to look at your face once more before the rot and the maggots take it. Some want more than tokens, more than words, more than tearful looks.

If you are sick in here, you will have to live with it, as long as you live. Swallow down the bile. Save your strength.

They were hasty when they put you in the earth; they often are when it’s quick, unexpected. Someone young. Your grandfather’s monument was finished long before he gasped his last. You have only your best dress, your simple wooden box, your long white sheet. The earth over your coffin has not settled. The mausoleum is locked, but they designed it against grave robbers, not escapees.

I’m not saying it will be easy. I assure you, it will not be. But you have a chance.

Your first impulse will be to scratch, tear at the wood with your delicate nails and peel up curlicues of fiber piece by piece. This will take far too long. The wood is cheap, but it’s also almost green. If it were rotten, maybe. No, you’ll take advantage of the hasty craftsmanship. You’ll kick and punch and thrash. Beat at the boards, loosen the bindings. This is no time to be dainty—the gentility of your last life has no place here. You are a woman embattled. Recall every tiny step you had to take instead of running. That ridiculous demure whisper—eyelids lowered—you exhaled, breathy, instead of shouting. Un-bottle the girl you were before you heard the word “unladylike” for the first time all those years ago.

There is no one here to offend. No breaches of courtesy. No injury of your reputation. Just you: under the earth, behind stone.

If you are lucky, you are above ground and your struggles will have tipped your coffin onto the floor, where it’s broken. You crawl out from the splintered boards, disheveled and panting. Your heartbeat is thrumming in your ears and, although you are cold, you are alive, blood rushing through you. If the undertaker doesn’t hear your cries, you will have to smash your way out, attacking the gated door. If you are clever, you might take the pin from your hair and pick the lock. Or else you grin, heady with your fury, and begin the barrage with urn or statuary, whatever’s handy.

Maybe, though, you are unlucky, like I was. Maybe the earth begins to shower through the cracks in your prison. Maybe you are panicking. It’s hard, but keep breathing, shallow, through your nose. Cover your mouth with your shroud. You have only this moment before you will need to dig, to climb. Take a breath in each pocket of air you find—they are precious. Do not stop. This is not the moment to quit, to fall victim to the frailness they taught you was lovely. This, this is lovelier, this struggle for the surface, your filthy fingers breaking through the topmost layer, that first deep clear breath of fresh air, cold and pure in your aching lungs.

Entombed or buried, drink deep this taste of freedom. It is yours and yours alone.

You have a choice now, of course. Maybe the undertaker will find you, flopped on the wet grass like a caught fish, collapsed on the steps of your family’s crypt. If you wait, there will be voices and blankets and hot tea with a little brandy to help you sleep. Your mother will weep on your hands and even your stoic father will look at you with wet-eyed affection and your brothers and sisters will wait on you for days. And your love, your love will never leave your side again. You could wait and it will happen.

Or—

Or, you could struggle to your feet, pull a workman’s coat from a nearby headstone, shrug it over your thin shoulders. Hands in the pockets, head down, you could walk away from all of it, newly made. Reborn.

And never look back.


Julia Patt has never met an abandoned bookstore she didn’t like. Her fiction has appeared in such publications as Phantom Drift, The Fiction Desk, and PANK. She lives in Maryland with her family and two cats.

The Imp of the Perverse

You can listen to an audio file of this poem here


He asked, “Why not take
that jewelry from your dead
mother’s safe deposit box?”
Now you have a lovely emerald.
Your siblings never found out.

 

He said your spouse wouldn’t
suspect a thing if you invited
that cute business associate
over to your hotel room. You
still smile to yourself about that one.

 

And when he told you
to send the fat cats a message,
you felt no anxiety pushing
a button in the voting booth
for someone who could start a war.

 

So when his confident voice says:
“Twenty stories, that’s not so far.
Don’t you know you’re immortal?”
Go ahead and have an adventure.
He’s never steered you wrong.


Chris Bullard’s chapbook Leviathan was published in 2016 by Finishing Line Press, and Kattywompus Press published High Pulp in the winter of 2016. His work has appeared in publications such as 32 Poems, Rattle, Pleiades, River Styx and Nimrod.

Madmen of a Harmless Nature

My friend the Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin had garnered a reputation for divining the truth in the most outre of crimes and yet he was most content in his current repose, velvet curtains drawn tight, slippered feet to the fire, nodding over a favored tome, drifting from our inner sanctum into some phantasmagoria within his mind. The adulation of the public was a nuisance to him, only the satisfaction of bringing his praeternatural acumen to bear upon some nefarious puzzle served as an inducement to action. Others had called him a diseased intelligence, but he was proud of his rare ability to intertwine ingenuity and intuition, and thread it through a rational analysis to discover the truth that eluded others.

That horrible orb that some call the Sun, but which Dupin and I referred to as the Agony Star, was at long last diving beneath the horizon, subjecting some other corner of the damned world to it’s Hellish emanations. We were free to roam the streets of Paris again. Dupin’s astral self settled back hard into his body, eliciting a long sigh. It had been raining that day, and so the fetid stench of the city enveloped us as we trod those glistening cobblestones. Everywhere we walked the eyes of the night were upon us. By day Dupin was the hero of Paris, a champion of justice in a cruel world. To the denizens of these lunar streets however, he was something different – a wraith haunting the back alleys. We would go everywhere and talk to no one. As we passed they would whisper amongst themselves, “is it truly him?” Little did they know that to Dupin they were much the same – temporal flickerings of other beings, perceived only at the very edges of his consciousness.

This evening had presented an uneventful promenade when, of a sudden, Dupin grasped at my breast to arrest me. He took his famous green-tinted spectacles between his fingers and moved them up and down the bridge of his nose, as if some small change in the angle might confirm or deny what he was seeing. He was staring down into a foreboding alley, and I feared that some awful thing might extrude itself from those inky depths. Worse than I had feared, Dupin stepped in, his feet trotting forward like a marionette inexpertly handled. I grabbed at his sleeve but he tossed my hand away. Working in a world of mental abstractions, Dupin, known for his unique perceptiveness, was often oblivious to the practical dangers of the world. It was times such as this that I felt the keen lack of martial leanings in our pairing. Indeed, should a situation ever come to fisticuffs or worse I was certain that we would be much the worse for it. That Dupin considered himself as separate from this world did not make him immune to it.

It was with these trepidacious thoughts that I followed him into this particular recess of Paris. Much to my relief the space was abandoned, but what then drew my friends particular interest? Finally, as we approached the terminus of the alley, I saw that which he had somehow seen from the avenue. Dupin and I delight in the lurid, the sordid, and the despicable. Such things were the very currency of our friendship, but what I read scrawled upon those forlorn bricks sickens me to this very day. Without a thought I made to wipe it away with my sleeve.

“Wait!” Dupin cried. “It must remain undisturbed.”

“This is too much!” I replied.

“This is an invitation to a game. Destroy it and we may miss the whole trick. There is so little of interest in Paris these days, let us not be so rash as to turn our noses up at this intrigue.”

“You say this is an invitation. Is it meant for you?”

“Most assuredly not, and the most enjoyable invitations are the ones that are misaddressed.”

“How did you discover it, then? I was at your elbow and would never had known it was there.”

“Man’s ability to observe is profound, and yet ultimately limited by our mortal frailties. An attentive man sees what is happening. An observant man looks for what is happening that has never happened before. In such a way is useful information derived.”

“What are we to do now?”

“I have committed the message to memory, an easy task, of course, since it would be difficult indeed to forget such a thing. We shall wait and see what happens.”

And so we did. I bought a handful of papers each day, hoping for a resolution to the travesty. It had made the front page, of course, on the first day. I was much chagrined to see that, in the rush to outdo each other for readers, only two of the papers had refrained from revealing the repugnant diatribe verbatim. Yet, in a city like Paris, the story quickly sank and disappeared beneath those ink-smeared pages.

“How could this have come to nothing?” I wondered aloud.

“We’ve not heard the last of it,” Dupin predicted.

At that very moment there was a pounding upon the door of our secluded maise in Faubourg St. Germain. I was not surprised to see that Dupin was not surprised. I threw back the great bolt securing the entrance, and it screeched in protest at the disturbance. Outside stood Monsieur G——-, Prefect of the Paris Police, as I had found him on a few occasions before. He pushed by me to confront Dupin, still ensconced in his club chair.

“This is a most serious business, M. Dupin,” he said, shaking his fist. “Another one of those horrible messages has been discovered, and more than a few people want me to arrest you.”

“Arrest Dupin?” I scoffed. “But why?”

“Who else could know these things? These blackest of secrets, buried deep under the pillars of Paris herself.”

“These messages are telling the truth then?” Dupin failed to hide a smile behind steepled fingers.

“It is not for me to say,” M. G——- replied.

“And yet you are here.”

“You were seen at the site of the first message, and before that no one had seen anything usual there. Worse yet you were nowhere to be seen when the second message appeared.”

“So both my presence and my absence are proof of my guilt?”

“Do not attempt to twist me around with your clever words, Monsieur. At the moment I am your only friend. I have known you to be a just, if strange, man who has seen justice done in the past. More so, while Parisian society knows you to have a depraved sense of humor, I know you to be a man of no especial modesty. Thus, while I concede these disgusting epigraphs might appeal to your macabre whimsy, you would never allow the infamy of their authorship to escape you, if indeed you could claim it.”

“This second message, what was it?”

M. G——— hemmed and stuttered before finally repeating it in hushed tones. If I thought the first message was the worst thing I had ever read, I was quite sure this message was the worst thing anyone had ever heard. Dupin chuckled and his gaze drifted off into our fireplace.

“I will be hard pressed to save you from a firing squad if that is your only reaction, M. Dupin.”

My friend rose and extracted a map of Paris from his bureau. Gesturing for us to follow he took the map to the dining room and spread it out upon the table. With a pencil he marked the spot of the first message, and inscribed it below. In consultation with the Prefect, he then marked the location of the second message and transcribed that as well.

“What is the meaning of this, M. Dupin?”

“The meaning remains obscure but the method comes into focus.” Measuring against his sleeve Dupin compared the existing points, and then proposed a new one. “Leave this place unobserved until well after midnight, then have your men examine it. Let me know of the results at once.”

“This is where the villain will strike next?”

“Most assuredly.”

“What of the messages?”

“It is a poor blackmailer who gives away his wares like this. I suspect the messages contain a kind of code, but I have not deciphered it yet. I shall give it my full attention, but I expect the third, fourth, and fifth messages will help greatly. The more information we have the easier it will be to see the pattern.”

“Mon Dieu, M. Dupin, you expect three more messages?”

“And in short order. The first was a call to action, I think, and time was allowed for it to disseminate to the interested parties. The endeavor will proceed in earnest now.”

The Prefect left and Dupin delved into his books now, disappearing into a crowd of Euclid, Pythagoras, and Archimedes. These fellows were later joined by Dee, Andreæ, and Alhazred. I tried to decipher his line of inquiry from the pages left open all about the place, but his thoughts were too eccentric for me to follow. Finally he sat back with a great look of satisfaction upon his face.

“Have you solved it?”

“The whole thing has happened within my mind already. It is now incumbent upon the material world to meet up with me.”

“If you can put a stop to some infamy is it not your moral duty to do so?”

“That which is taking place is only a crime in the sense of conventional morality.”

“That sounds as if it will be of little use as a defence if we end up in the docket.”

“There is an understanding between gentlemen of a certain sort, a memorandum of non-interference. For if we can not accommodate each other what hope of fulfillment do we have in this mundane world?”

The more my friend Dupin explained his reticence the more anxious my heart became. We took our supper at home, and sat playing at that infernal Oriental game Dupin so favored, biding our time until we heard of the results of the Prefect’s efforts. The first hateful fingers of dawn were probing the edges of the curtains by the time M. G——- returned.

“You are either an anarchist or a warlock, M. Dupin, and the Mayor little cares which.”

“I take it there was a new message.”

“It was the damndest thing, I was there myself to see it. Not a disreputable character on the street!”

“But the street was not vacant.”

“In proximity to the incident there was but one occupant, but it was M. L———, a respectable surgeon well known to me. Not to be indiscreet, but when the Emperor has some small malady, this is the physician he summons.”

“And yet, this was the only person seen, the only possible perpetrator?”

“I tell you it is impossible, men such as him do not scrawl things such as these in dark alleys in the dead of night.”

“What fresh missive do we have?”

The Prefect’s face turned grey, and with but two fingers he placed a file upon the table before Dupin, and then turned away before it was opened.

Dupin’s mouth turned up in a smile, and he added the message to his map.

“Can you tell me nothing, M. Dupin?”

“I could tell you everything, M. D——-, but I choose not to.”

The Prefect sputtered, “Why not?”

“There is a kind of justice at work here, a kind as good as any other in my estimation. Besides, my incarceration will but prove my innocence.”

“Your incarceration?” I said in disbelief.

“As M. D——- has indicated, it is inescapable that I must be considered a suspect in this most distasteful episode.”

“Only you could know these things, M. Dupin.”

“Only I could prise these black truths free, perhaps,” my friend conceded. “However, clearly these things are known to those involved.”

“It is treason to the Crown to even think so.”

“It is treason to analytics to think otherwise. I stand ready to surrender myself as an act of cooperation with the police.”

M. G——- looked to be as befuddled as I. At long last he rolled up the map and tucked it under his arm and escorted Dupin away. I was left alone in our parlor wondering what I was to do. Dupin left no notes, indeed I had never seen him personally put words to paper. I could recall the books he had submerged himself in but I had no means of divining what he had plundered from their depths. The next day I presented myself at the jailhouse but was turned away. M. G—— appeared briefly to scowl at me, and, between curses, to explain that Dupin sat smugly in his cell, refusing to divulge anything until after midnight two days hence.

“My plan was to starve him out,” the Prefect complained. “But this morning there was a silver tray in his cell, laden with the finest omelette from Le Grand Vefour, and fruit and champagne besides. None of my officers will admit to passing it through. It looks quite bad for your friend, I would not expect to see him walk free again.”

Thus, like the rest of Paris I was left with little recourse but to wait to see what would happen. I trusted Dupin’s assessment over that of M. G——, and yet sorrow began to ache in my heart. The next day the papers reported on a fourth message, emblazoning it in large type on the front of every paper. The very Empire now teetered on the edge of collapse, and as a nation we trembled before whatever final blow the fifth message might strike. I re-plotted the sites of the messages on a fresh map. Replicating Dupin’s method I connected them and then measured the angles and the length of each segment, thereby placing a fifth mark. Connecting those revealed a pentagon, but one that covered a not inconsiderable portion of the city. Turning back to Dupin’s books I searched for the meaning of the shape. It was quickly revealed to me that, in occult writing, pentagons are often embellished by connecting the points internally to form a star. Doing this to the map created a new, smaller, pentagon, but one that still encircled several blocks. I almost felt the breath of Dupin upon my ear as I had the sudden inspiration to repeat the procedure three more times. A tiny pentagon was now directly over a certain royal garden I was familiar with, although it pointed to some obscure section, far removed from the hedge mazes and flower beds I had frequented.

I was awoken on the fifth day by a pounding upon the front door. A surreptitious peep out the upper window of my bedchamber revealed the Prefect and a dozen other men. In a panic I threw on my clothes, retrieved my map from the table, and slipped out the old servant’s passage in the larder, just as the police had battered their way in the front. I heard them ransacking our maise as I slipped through the dirty forsaken crevices of the neighborhood. Once at a safe distance I took the first opportunity to return to the traditional thoroughfares of Paris. I stopped for a quick breakfast of croissant, nuts, and cheese to calm myself. Feeling much more civilized, I combed my hair and proceeded to the garden in question. Casually I paid the entrance fee and, in no particular hurry, wandered the grounds like any other visitor. I knew that I had until midnight, and my problem would in fact be whiling away the excess time, rather than making it up. I wandered the hedge maze until at last I found myself alone. With some small force I pressed myself back into the shrubbery and through, out into the wild grounds. While still imminently picturesque, they were not immaculately groomed like the area on display. Purposefully I strode into the trees opposite. I loaded my pockets with apples, pears, and nectarines, reluctantly admitting on some subconscious level that I was stealing from the Emperor’s orchard, and that alone would be enough to see me hang. Those were archaic laws, and would certainly never be enforced in modern day, I assured myself.

Looking at the map and the walls of the garden I pressed onward, deeper into the forest. After a brief patch of wilderness I was surprised to find evidence of civilization again. Old Roman paving stones protruded from the ground. Odd bits of statuary were intertwined with the bushes and brambles. Finally, ahead under a deep canopy of old trees I found a circle of columns around an ancient tomb, pocked with time and smooth with weather. To my untrained I could not decipher if the decorations on the large slab were Grecian or Egyptian, or perhaps the depiction of some other lost society entirely. It was cold to the touch and the stone lid far too heavy for me to move. I looked at my pocketwatch, despairing at the hours until midnight. My exhausted form was quite unused to being about at such a respectable hour, and so I found some nook just away from the clearing that was padded with moss and clover and I laid down in it, listening to the leaves rustle and the insects chirp. My eyes grew heavy and I let them slip closed, to rest them for a moment.

Then there was the sound of bodies tromping through the wood. I feared I must have been discovered, and again felt that hangman’s noose about my neck as I made to discard the fruit from my pockets. However, when I opened my eyes it was dark, with just a trickle of moonlight making its way down through the treetops. The sounds had kept on moving, the people oblivious to my presence.

I watched from the darkness as the men carried a shrouded figure upon a litre, one man at each corner like pallbearers, and the final leading the way with a lantern. They propped one side of the conveyance up against the tomb and moved the body over, so it lay directly on the stone table. The lantern bearer hung the light from the crenulated swirls of one of the columns, and then began a strange invocation. The men stepped around the body, unwrapping it as they went. At intervals the wrappings revealed some trinket, unrecognizable to me in the darkness, The man who uncovered it would hang it about his neck or wrist, or place it atop his head, as the item dictated. By the time the body was unwrapped they were each dressed like kings in a pantomime. The last item was a golden dagger, and it was revealed by the lantern bearer. He shouted some savage gibberish into the heavens as he raised it above his head. I thought it to be more theatrics but he plunged it down into the chest of the body. The chanting of the others continued unabated.

The lantern bearer sawed at the corpse, causing the thing to heave and jerk. At last he wrenched the chest open and then attacked the inside. The man’s hands and face, now drenched in blood, had disappeared into the blackness of night. Yet I still saw when he at last relented and then held something aloft – the heart of the deceased, I realized with a shock. For a moment I feared he might eat it, but instead he produced a cylinder from under his coat. He open it and slid the heart inside before resealing it. He then seemed to wave it towards the four cardinal directions before pressing the container to his lips and whispering something to it. He stepped back and the next man stepped forward. With his bare hands he fished about the gruesome cavity, finally holding aloft some veiny sac in victory. He produced his own jar and repeated the ceremony. This continued until all five men had claimed some repugnant prize.

They then paraded about the body in the opposite direction, wrapping it up again as they went. When it was once again enshrouded the lantern bearer retrieved his burden and opened a valve. Solemnly he poured the fuel out over the deceased, until the reserve appeared to be exhausted. The men all stepped back and the lantern was thrown, shattering upon the tomb and igniting, quickly flaring into an azure inferno. The strange party hurried away into the night and I was once again left alone to wonder in abject confusion. Unsure of the way in the dark I allowed myself to be mesmerized by the morbid pyre. When the last tendrils of flame had lapsed the lid of the tomb was clean, as if untouched. What strange rite was this, I thought, and how many bodies had been surrendered to the infinite upon these grounds? Most importantly, what did it have to do with the horrible messages written all around Paris?

The answer was to be revealed the following day when my friend came strolling in through our splintered door as if nothing was amiss. He plucked the gloves from his fingers and poured a generous brandy before settling into his chair.

“What was the truth of it?” I wondered.

“A simple case of revenge.”

“Simple? I saw them cleave the man’s guts free before immolation.”

“Did you really?” Dupin gazed proudly upon me. “You are one up on our friend the Prefect then. He had half the Paris Police encamped on the Rue B———.”

“The fifth point of the star?”

“Indeed, and a clever trick that was. At the hands on the clocktower turned they wound up a rope attached to a shuttered window across the street. Just as the clock struck midnight the rope yanked the shutters open, and upon the windowpanes behind was the final message painted. The room within was lit so that none present could miss it.”

“So it was set in advance?”

“The length of the rope will be conclusive, but I expect the trick was set several hour ahead of time. The perpetrator would want to be sure of getting away before any police arrived, but also certain his contraption would not be disturbed prematurely.”

“What was the final message?”

Dupin’s whole face was contorted in a smile. “I will say only that the Prefect shot the windows out immediately and made the men present swear a blood oath to secrecy.”

“Will it hold?”

“Of course not, but there are always these kind of rumors flying about. I expect no reaction at all from the Imperial family, thus ensuring it remains but one more whisper carried upon the breath of Paris.”

“So this man was killed for sharing these secrets?”

“To the contrary, this man shared these secrets because he was dying. There is a brief respite before death when an ailing man is untouchable by this mortal world. Most who find themselves there are already thinking of the next life. This man, instead, made one last strike from this life.”

“Why not simply send a statement to the papers?”

“This was not an expose meant for the masses, this was a game being played between kings. The departing man was invoking an ancient rite, he simply found a way to lash out at the same time. A man with but days to live can develop a certain strain of ingenuity. He tells his mundane secrets while invoking the divine. You see, the strange meter of the messages can be explained in that there is a simple cipher represented by the arrangement of the words. Convert those to numbers like this,” Dupin scribbled some figures on my map, “and then change those back to letters simply by counting and the meaning is apparent.”

Dupin had reduced the messages to a single, most surprising name.

“You must never tell M. D——-, or indeed anyone else. You are protected by certain understandings I have in place, but they are tenuous at best.”

The following day the Prefect announced that the case was closed as he had arrested a degenerate for the hateful, treasonous, sacrilegious writings. A besotted unfortunate who wandered the streets, overhearing just enough to make plausible, but entirely false, accusations, the Prefect declared. He was a danger to the very fabric of France, according to M G——-. We had seen the man often in our travels. He feed stray cats from the meagre scraps he scrounged and tipped his hat to light poles. He was one of us, a fellow wanderer of the night, just another of Paris’ madmen of a harmless nature.


Robert Perret is a writer, librarian and Sherlockian living on the Palouse. He has previously published “How Hope Learned the Trick” in NonBinary Review. More of his writing can be found via robertperret.com.

 

My Mother’s People

I was sick—sick unto death with that long agony; and when they at length unbound me, and I was permitted to sit, I felt that my senses were leaving me.

Reading in the backseat while my mother drove up the canyon always made me a little sick unto death, but I could not resist cracking that midnight-blue, luscious-thick, brand-new book that smelled so sweet and was all mine.

The cover was a painting of a tiny blond girl, white-gowned, curled in the corner of a blood-red chair, shelves of books looming above her. She held a dripping candle to illuminate the book she had chosen. In the night library, it was the only light. The child’s eyes were wide, astonished and blue.

I thought it was the most beautiful picture in the world.

Impia tortorum longos hic turba furores
Sanguinis innocui, non satiata, aluit.
Sospite nunc patria, fracto nunc funeris antro,
Mors ubi dira fuit vita salusque patent.

Tortorum. I was pretending to teach myself Latin from the workbooks my mother ordered me, because I loved words, and to keep up my reputation as a gifted child. But I did not need middle school Latin workbooks to pick that one word from the meaningless quatrain.

…all at once, there came a most deadly nausea over my spirit, and I felt every fibre in my frame thrill as if I had touched the wire of a galvanic battery.

My mother said her people had been tortured. I knew they were killed, but not tortured. How had they been tortured, I wanted to know, but could not ask. I knew I was evil, for wanting, for needing to know.

I confided my confusion in my fifth-grade teacher, and she said the moment where I needed to know how my mother’s people had been tortured was called morbid curiosity, and it was normal.

At home I pulled my OED from under my bed, and looked up morbid. Sick. Morbid meant sick. It was as I suspected, that I was evil and bad for feeling my mother’s people’s torture as my own. I began to think of myself as sick. Although somehow I knew my need had more heart than morbid curiosity. It was not the car wreck of strangers I was craning to see.

I knew I must stop thinking of torture. I saw the word printed where it was not, heard people speak it when they had not. I had to get a grip. But I could not. The more I tried the more virulent the twisted roller coaster in my stomach became. There had to be a way to stop this, but I did not know it, and again I blamed myself.

We stand upon the brink of a precipice. We peer into the abyss—we grow sick and dizzy. Our first impulse is to shrink from the danger. Unaccountably we remain. By slow degrees our sickness and dizziness and horror become merged in a cloud of unnamable feeling. By gradations, still more imperceptible, this cloud assumes shape, as did the vapor from the bottle out of which arose the genius in the Arabian Nights. But out of this our cloud upon the precipice’s edge, there grows into palpability, a shape, far more terrible than any genius or any demon of a tale, and yet it is but a thought, although a fearful one, and one which chills the very marrow of our bones with the fierceness of the delight of its horror. It is merely the idea of what would be our sensations during the sweeping precipitancy of a fall from such a height. And this fall—this rushing annihilation—for the very reason that it involves that one most ghastly and loathsome of all the most ghastly and loathsome images of death and suffering which have ever presented themselves to our imagination—for this very cause do we now the most vividly desire it. And because our reason violently deters us from the brink, therefore do we the most impetuously approach it. There is no passion in nature so demoniacally impatient, as that of him who, shuddering upon the edge of a precipice, thus meditates a Plunge. To indulge, for a moment, in any attempt at thought, is to be inevitably lost; for reflection but urges us to forbear, and therefore it is, I say, that we cannot. If there be no friendly arm to check us, or if we fail in a sudden effort to prostrate ourselves backward from the abyss, we plunge, and are destroyed.

I knew if I could not pull my mind free from the precipice, something bad would happen. I would fall somehow, die somehow. Emotionally or mentally or spiritually. When I thought of my mother’s people’s torture, I could not move my body, and my classmates would ask me if I was ok. I did not answer them because I was not there. I was not drinking chocolate milk in the cafeteria of Nederland Elementary. I stood on a precipice, sick, dizzy, hypnotized, staring.

My classmates whispered about my strangeness. My teacher called me in to discuss my depression.

But couldn’t she see? I was not depressed at all. I was on fire, bad fire and good fire. It was spring, and the leaves of the aspens shivered sensually. The sky ached a glorious blue, the rocks were ancient and covered in beards of lichen. Death had stripped my nerves raw, now every caress of life shocked them into ecstasy.

I was alive. I was alive and I was so happy and I was so guilty. There was a good part of me, the child part, the wholesome part, and then there was the dark part. I wanted to remove my darkness but everything was intertwined.

I could not love except where Death
was mingling his with Beauty’s breath

The thoughts of my mother’s people in their torture could not stay in my slender body. I squirmed constantly, I whispered to myself. I paced on the playground to release the terrible energy, and at night I rocked back and forth on my child’s bed in the moonlight, that I might sleep.

Poe knew of the constant movement needed to lance thought. He knew that thought must be killed.

At first, I made an effort to shake off this nightmare of the soul. I walked vigorously—faster—still faster—at length I ran. I felt a maddening desire to shriek aloud. Every succeeding wave of thought overwhelmed me with new terror, for, alas! I well, too well understood that to think, in my situation, was to be lost.

But the torture could not be outrun, because it lived in my cells. Because I could not speak it, had no right to speak it, I had to let its caustic elements harden to glittering minerals inside me, for it was two of us alone in a sealed skull.

And by strange alchemy of brain
His pleasures always turn’d to pain—
His naïveté to wild desire—
His wit to love — his wine to fire—
And so, being young and dipt in folly
I fell in love with melancholy

I took no pride in my psychic survival, and regarded it as evil. As rapidly as I paced, now I wrote in school notebooks, alone, hiding from the classmates who now openly mocked and feared me. I wrote at night when I could not sleep. I built up a pure self, apart from the evil self who held a scalding ember against her heart and refused to let it go. And the ones who read what I wrote sensed the fire behind it, and mistook its light for beauty.

To me a painted paroquet
Hath been — a most familiar bird—
Taught me my alphabet to say—
To lisp my very earliest word
While in the wild-wood I did lie
A child—with a most knowing eye.


Samantha Stiers has published fiction, memoir, and poetry in magazines including Conjunctions, DIAGRAM, and Black Warrior Review. She was awarded the Frances Locke Memorial Prize in Poetry. She lives in Boulder, CO.

 

The Ravening

THE RAVEN : Copyright (c) 1845 By E. Poe <edgar@l33tp0ets.com>
Release 17 / Serial Number 821022

THE STUDY
You wake at your desk in the study, weak and weary. You must have dozed off there for a few moments. Pictures adorn every wall of your study. On the plinth above the massive door on the south wall is a bust of Pallas. Behind it is your secret stash of laudanum. The door itself is grand and stately; the kind of door you read about rich folks having. Through the small exterior windows, you see storm clouds roiling and the beginnings of a rain-storm.

A faint tapping can be heard at the door.

EXAMINE DESK

On the desk a forgotten volume of unknown lore, looking quaint and curious, is opened to a page about birds. A desk calendar shows it is in the month of “Bleak December,” which comes after the month of “Razor-burn November” in the new revised calendar. The desk contains a panoply of drawers containing pens, loose-leaf paper and the detritus of a writer’s life (including bottles of Whiskey and Absinthe.)

OPEN DOOR

You reach for the gilded handle of the large oaken door, but ennui engulfs you in a cloud of indecision. You shrug and sink back into your comfortable leather armchair to contemplate the dark void of despair which is your life.

DRINK LAUDANUM

What do you mean, the Laudanum behind the Bust of Pallas or the Laudanum hidden behind the Absinthe bottle in the desk drawer?

DRINK LAUDANUM BEHIND THE BUST OF PALLAS

*GULP* Yikes! That stuff is bitter! The self-rationalization of your addiction distracts you briefly, yet you still feel bland and bitter. After a few moments the pangs of life and loss pass you by.

OPEN DOOR

You reach for the gilded handle of the large oaken door, but melancholy envelops you.

DRINK LAUDANUM IN DESK

*GULP* Okay. The second bottle is MUCH nicer than the first.

Hey! Do you hear rapping? rapping at your chamber door?

OPEN DOOR

Your drunken hand manhandles the oaken door; outside you see a gathering storm, a dark garden and a forgettable river beyond. You see nothing that would have produced a rapping noise. (Perhaps it’s the neighbor kids playing a prank?)

GO SOUTH

DARK GARDEN
You are in the garden to the south of your abode. To the north is an open door leading to your chamber. To the south is a path leading to the less than memorable river. It is dark here. If you continue you are likely to be eaten by a Grue. A lamp sits on the ground nearby.

GET LAMP. TURN ON LAMP.

Got Lamp.
Lamp is now on.

GO SOUTH

PLUTONIAN SHORES
You have reached the plutonian shores of the River Lethe. Dare you wade in its surprisingly warm waters? To the north, a path leads to a garden shrouded in inky blackness. To the south you may wade in the perfumed river. A nearby sign alerts you that no lifeguard is on duty.

A tapping can be heard to the north.

GO SOUTH

NEPENTHE WATERS
Into the waters you daintily tip-toe. The perfumed waters of the River Lethe are rumored to relieve weary travellers of painful memories. Maybe it takes a while? You still remember tubercular Richmond and whats-her-name, your old girlfriend. Heck. What WAS her name!?

SAY “LENORE”

In the distance a bird can be heard.

GO NORTH

Plutonian Shores

GO NORTH

Dark Garden

GO NORTH

THE STUDY
A large black bird is here. (This is what happens when you leave the door open.) The bird is holding a note in its beak and is mumbling something that sounds like “EVER-SMORP.” (Perhaps the bird is from the north where all accents are queer and wondrous.)

TAKE NOTE. READ NOTE.

The bird is at first reluctant to give you the note. You eventually hit on the idea of tempting the bird with a shiny coin. The bird drops the note to grab coin and flies up to the bust of Pallas.

Addressed to you, the note is writ in the fine penmanship of respectable society, but much of it made unreadable with the stain of tears. What little you can make out is “…I miss you so; the months since your passing have been difficult… Love, Lenore”

YOU HAVE DIED OF TUBERCULOSIS.
Your score is 5 of 150 points which ranks you as “BULWER-LYTTON”
Do you want to try again? (Y/N)
Y

THE STUDY
You wake at your desk in the study, weak and weary. You must have dozed off there for a few moments. Pictures adorn every wall of your study. On the plinth above the massive door on the south wall is a bust of Pallas. Behind it is your secret stash of laudanum. The door itself is grand and stately; the kind of door you read about rich folks having. Through the small exterior windows, you see storm clouds roiling and the beginnings of a rain-storm.

DRINK LAUDANUM BEHIND THE BUST OF PALLAS

*GULP* Yikes! That stuff is bitter! The self-rationalization of your addiction distracts you briefly, yet you still feel bland and bitter. After a few moments the pangs of life and loss pass you by.


Meadhbh Hamrick is a human living in the more rural districts of downtown Seattle. Evidence indicates Meadhbh was born, attended college, was married and reproduced by budding; some
scientists still disagree.

Twenty Pounds of Brown Sugar

I

When I was young, I desperately wanted red hair. Not highlights. Not kind of red. Fire engine red. Stop sign red. Anne of Green Gables red. I was already smart in a way that annoyed my classmates, living close to the maritime provinces with an elegant name that people constantly misspelled. My raven black tresses simply would not do. Two things kept me from asking my mom for a trip to the salon: the amount of chemicals she already applied to straighten out the kinks, and the fact that red wouldn’t really go with my chocolate complexion. I didn’t stop wanting Anne’s hair, though, even if I didn’t have a slate to smash over some boy’s head.

 

II

In my mid-twenties, I have somewhat adjusted to the shock of finding myself older than Anne. I watch Colleen Dewherst remind Megan Follows to keep her dress clear of the wheel as she leaves for the White Sands Hotel to give a recitation. I’m thinking ahead to The Highwayman and Josie Pye looking askance at Gilbert Blythe for giving Anne a standing ovation when I notice something that never really registered before. Anne announces, “I can’t go up on that stage, I can’t! They’ll be merciless if I fail!” and I am not surprised that I know exactly what Diana will say. What surprises me is how deeply I know the next phrase. “You have never failed at anything in your life, Anne Shirley,” sounds harmless enough, but I am both a perfectionist and someone who tends to take things literally. If Anne had never failed at anything, surely what Diana really meant was that Anne would never fail, that Anne was not allowed to fail. I had never known where my own fear of failure had come from but here it was, informed by a scene in one of my favorite movies. I rewind the tape so that the text of the script could fade in the background behind my own voice speaking the words I needed to hear: “I will love you whether you fail or not, Anne Shirley.”


tolonda-henderson-smallTolonda Henderson is a poet, a librarian, and a Harry Potter Scholar. Since 2011, she has been writing and performing from the perspective of a fat, queer, neurodivergent African-American woman. Her work has appeared in Freeze Ray Poetry, Yellow Chair Review, and Open Letters Monthly and her visit to Prince Edward Island in 2008 was a fulfillment of a childhood dream.

The New Girl

She crushed my heart.

It was pink, like the ones Ruby Gillis adored, the ones she requested from her many beaux. Once I counted myself among them.

But that had all been before I saw the new girl with red hair as glorious as carrots on a sunny afternoon.

I had been gone for about a year, taking care of Father’s cough in Alberta. The doctor said the mountain air would be good for him, so Mother packed up our trunks and covered the furniture with white linens and we headed west.

Before I left Avonlea I used to tease the girls and they had loved it. Loved me for it.

I had a special trick for each of them: pin Ruby’s long blond braid to the desk so she wouldn’t be able to move her head; call Diana Barry “crow” after her raven black hair; and wink at Josie Pye while she was advising Jane Andrews on how to properly wear a pinafore.

As a reward, each fell madly in love with me.

Ruby joined me at the Harvest Festival hayride; Diana made me cucumber sandwiches for a special Sunday School picnic; and Josie added me three times to her dance card at the Founder’s Day Dance.

My chums, Charlie Sloan, Fred Wright, and Moody Spurgeon McPherson, envied my talents with the women and tried to follow my example. Strangely, they didn’t have the same luck. When Charlie pulled on Ruby’s braid, she pushed him to the ground. When Moody “serenaded” Josie on his fiddle, she remarked that it reminded her of crows cawing. FredWright had slightly better luck when he complimented Diana on her raspberry cordial—she rewarded him with another glass. Encouraged, he asked for a third, which she gave to me instead because “I wasn’t so greedy.”

I must have whatever girls want. It is both a blessing and curse.

When I had left Avonlea Ruby wrote a letter sealed with her mother’s perfume, Diana baked my favorite, chocolate chip cookies, and Josie wept (when she thought no one was looking). They all said they would write and they all did, long letters about Avonlea, how school was not the same without me, how Charlie, Fred, and Moody couldn’t compare to me in looks or in intelligence, how they couldn’t wait for me to return.

Of course a fellow likes knowing he is admired. And it helped with the loneliness of being so far away. The mountain air was excellent for Father’s lungs and his health improved. He and I spent many afternoons discussing my plans for the future. Assisting mother made me wonder if I could be a good doctor and I confided to Father that I thought I might make a good one. Women liked my bedside manner after all. Father patted my arm and told me it was a worthy endeavor. However, he did advise that I would have to stop “dallying with the girls” if I was to succeed.

I honestly wasn’t sure that would be a problem. After almost a year being away, it was clear that my skills with girls didn’t translate out west, as those girls I did meet thought I was too much of an Island boy to take seriously. It was letters from the Island girls that reminded me that there was something to come home to.

***

It was Josie who first informed me about the new girl. “The old Cuthbert siblings had adopted the queerest soul you ever saw,” she wrote. “Some sort of mix up at the orphanage. They had requested a boy and the got her instead…And what’s more she’s from away!”

The “from away” made me take notice. Not only because Josie had written it in italics, but also because it was so unusual to have a new girl in school, and to have her from away. Not of the Island. I had known Ruby, Charlie and the rest of my school chums all my life, and our families went back generations. According to Josie the girl had “no family, no people or history.” It was like she was dropped onto the Island from the heavens.

I couldn’t wait to meet her.

When I returned to the Avonlea on the second day of school, all of the girls gathered around me like I was Odysseus returning from a long journey. They chattered all once about the new girl and how she had come to church that past week with flowers on her head. I was happy to play the role. After a year of the quiet and solitude of the mountains, it was soothing to be the centre of their admiration.

But the new girl and Diana stood apart, engaged in their own conversation, a conversation most likely about me. I shifted my trousers and concentrated on something Ruby was saying about the Harvest Festival.

“That’s the new girl.” Charlie informed me as we walked by them. “She and Diana are inseparable.”

I had once heard Diana tell Jane that she thought me “aw’fully handsome.” It meant that the new girl would have a good opinion of me, making her part of my admirers would be simple.

So when our eyes met and I saw the flecks of green in her hazel eyes, I winked. Her cheeks went as red as her hair and she pulled Diana away.

Good. I had made an impression.

In class Mr. Philips assigned mathematics equations and then helped Prissy Andrews with hers. He was always paying very close to Prissy and her sums. I did my classic, “pin Ruby’s braid routine,” so when she tried to stand up, she swung her hands around like a mermaid trying to swim against the tide and cried out.

Annoyed, Mr. Philips marched over and gave me a warning. Ruby pretended to be cross and told me I was a “dreadful, dreadful boy!” But I knew she was only teasing and by the afternoon she would be sweet on me again.

But throughout the whole ordeal the new girl never even glanced my way. Not once! My trick didn’t bring her any kind of amusement; she didn’t laugh along with others. Nothing. And it wasn’t like she was sitting far away from me. She was just in front to my right, so close I could reach out and touch her carrot-red hair.

This wouldn’t do. I had a reputation among the fellows of being talented with the girls. If I couldn’t get the new girl to like me, what hope would there be for any of them? No, I had to get the new girl to notice me. And right away.

I found a scrap piece of notebook paper, crumpled it up and tossed it at her. It whizzed by her and hit Josie in the head. She stood up to shout, but when she saw it was me, she closed her mouth, straightened her pinafore, and sat back down. Charlie, Fred, and Moody slapped me on the back.

“I don’t know how you do it, Gil,” Charlie said. “When I did that last year, Josie threw the paper back and it hit me in the head.”

I shrugged noncommittedly, but was secretly pleased that my trick had garnered some success, because as the paper had passed, the new girl’s long red braid did a quick flip behind her shoulder and she flashed her hazel eyes. So, of course, I took the opportunity to wink in her direction. Again she blushed!

I was making excellent progress this afternoon.

But when I looked across the aisle again the new girl had her cheek against the palm of her hand gazing out the window, the sun glinted off her hair, reminding me of Mother’s carrot stew.

This called for dramatic action. I decided that by giving her a special nickname, like calling Diana “crow,” the new girl would see how…how special she was. I didn’t even have to think about it, I knew exactly what her special pet name would be.

“Carrots,” I whispered.

She turned around. Diana, too. Encouraged I did it again.

“Carrots!”

When the new girl stood up she gave me another opportunity to gaze into her hazel, green specked eyes, but instead of faerie dust, I saw a summer storm.

“A— ”

THWACK!

With a strength of a thousand suns, the new girl threw down her slate upon my head. The room spun, stars sprung and the everything slanted. A large bump was forming on the top of my head and broken black pieces surrounding me on the floor. I rubbed the back of my head, and shook it to stop the room from moving. Philips put his hand on the new girl’s shoulder and asked her what happened.

Diana held her friend’s hand and squeezed, but the new girl wouldn’t speak. I needed to defend her. It was the chivalrous thing to do.

Holding myself steady, I stood up and said, “It was my fault, Mr. Philips. I-I was teasing her.”

Mr. Philips went into one of his rants about controlling one’s temper and made her stand in front of the blackboard where he wrote:

Ann Shirley has a very bad temper.

I wondered if Mr. Phillips had spelled her name wrong on purpose or if he didn’t remember that she had specifically told him during roll call that she spelled her name with an “e.” She was definitely an Anne with an “e.”

I watched her at the board and wondered if she would ever look at me again.

After school, Anne grabbed her books and Diana’s arm, and pushed past me to the main road. I ignored Josie and Ruby and ran after them, practically stumbling on a tree trunk in my haste to catch up.

“Gil, what are you doing?” Charlie called behind me. “She’s just a girl.”

I finally caught up to them, standing in front of Anne and Diana, who were holding hands, so they were forced to stop.

“Anne … I—I’m so sorry I made fun of your hair,” I said. “Honestly I am. Don’t be mad for keeps now.”

She refused to even acknowledge I had said anything.

 

Please look at me again I implored. If she could see how truly sorry I was, she would have to forgive me.

“Gilbert, she’s quite upset,” Diana said. “Maybe try again tomorrow?”

I stuck my hands in my pockets and mumbled something incomprehensible as I watched them walk down through the woods.

Anne didn’t even look back.

As the months went on, Anne acted as if I didn’t exist. None of the things that worked before brought me the same joy; not pinning Ruby’s braid or walking Josie home. As a show of loyalty to her bosom friend, Diana had even stopped speaking to me.

When I asked Anne during the school’s Halloween costume party if her short hair was her way of winning the costume contest, she clenched her fists and then told Diana she needed to get more punch. I didn’t even get a chance to tell Anne how I had admired the way it caressed the back of her neck.

When, during the Christmas Concert, Anne gave the most splendid recitation of “Lady of Shallot,” and I led the standing ovation, I overheard her tell Diana that my way of clapping was “undignified.” And, when we both got the highest grade in English, I stuck out my hand in a form of congratulations, and she pushed past me.

Anne shone. But not for me.

“Might as well face it, Gil,” Charlie said. “This is one girl who you can’t get. It will leave room for the rest of us.”

In early February, I overheard Ruby tell Josie that she couldn’t wait to see what the boys would be doing on Valentine’s Day to show their affection. In previous years she had excepted many handmade and store bought cards and candies from every boy in our class, including me.

Charlie informed me, “I plan to give every girl in class a Valentine because at least one will like me.”

For once I didn’t want all of the girls to like me, I just wanted one.

After school I hurried over to town before any of my school friends could discover where I went. This was something that needed to be done on my own. Besides my reputation was at risk.

In Mr. Andrews’ General Store, I found the nicest piece of candy, a pink heart with the words, “You are sweet.”

you-are-sweet

It was perfect. It was pink and girls love pink. It also had the perfect balance between sweetness and sincerity. It was also a pun and I suspected that being a wordsmith, Anne appreciated a good pun.

I wrapped the candy in a tissue and waited all morning for the perfect time to present my gift to my Valentine. Ruby was thrilled with the card Charlie bought for her and said he could take her to the Sunday School picnic the following weekend; Diana was amused by Fred’s attempt at a homemade Valentine’s card and said he could walk her home from school; Josie showed off the Valentine she received from a boyfriend in Charlottetown. I had to wonder who he was as we had never heard of him before.

But Anne…Anne was kind as she received Charlie’s card with grace, and was even nice to Moody, who fiddled her a tune he had “written just for her.” I couldn’t do it when others, like Josie, would see. I had a reputation to uphold after all.

I held my fragile heart in my sweaty palms, soaking the tissue paper it was wrapped in. I waited until Mr. Philips was busy helping Prissy with her mathematics and gingerly leaned over my desk so that I was inches away from Anne’s sleeve, but I couldn’t reach.

I casually stood and sauntered past her, slipping the heart under the curve of her arm, turned around and sat down back at my desk, pretending to be very interested in my sums.

Burying my head down under my hand, I glanced between the triangle in the crook of my arm and watched her rise and search around the room to solve the mystery of the sweet pink heart.

I gathered my nerve, raised my head and gave her what I knew was my most charming grin. And, for the briefest of moments, her hazel-green speckled eyes flickered on me. She would see me now.

Anne took the pink heart between her fingertips and dropped it, cracked it with the heel of her boot, grinding it into a fresh powder, crushing my heart.

I smiled. At least I had gotten her to look at me again. It was a start.


melanie-fishbane-small

Melanie J. Fishbane’s YA novel Maud: A Novel Based on the Teen Life of L. M. Montgomery will be released in May 2017. Her essay “My Pen Shall Heal, Not Hurt” is included in L. M. Montgomery’s Rainbow Valleys: The Ontario Years 1911-1942.

 

The Ants

I’d never had any aunties so when Mum told me we had three aunties hiding out in Canada I felt like I’d just won the Avery scholarship. After I gave three cheers, I asked, “How come ya never told us we had three aunties on the other side of the world?”

“I didn’t know myself,” said Mum. “Gramps lost track of his sisters after the war.”

“Do they live on Prince Edward Island? Do ya reckon they know Anne Shirley?”

As usual Mum pretended not to hear my questions. She put her head down and concentrated on stirring the brown goo in the saucepan (smelt like turnips—yuck).

“How can ya lose three sisters?” asked my sister Josie.

Mum heard that question. She tapped the spoon on the side of the saucepan then laid it down on the bench. “You girls’ve had it so easy. You wouldn’t understand. During the war everything was turned upside down. Families were split up—everyone just went wherever they could survive. Gramps came here and his three sisters ended up in Canada … they’ve only just tracked him down after all these years.”

“I wish Gramps’d gone to Canada too,” I said. “Then I could’ve grown up on Prince Edward Island and been bosom friends with Anne of Green Gables.”

Mum laughed. “Then I would’ve grown up in Canada and Dad would’ve been here and you two wouldn’t exist.” She picked up the spoon and turned back to the stove.

“In your case that wouldn’t be a loss,” Josie said in a voice soft enough that Mum couldn’t hear. I stuck out my tongue, wishing I could lose my sister. Maybe I should ask Gramps for some tips.

*   *   *

Gramps hadn’t seen his sisters in over forty years—longer than Mum and Dad had been alive—but when those three sisters hopped out of the taxi and launched themselves at him, Gramps looked about as happy to see them as I’d be if I ran into Josie after forty minutes. He stood on the front lawn, arms glued to his sides like a soldier, as one by one the sisters wrestled him into a hug.

“So good to see yer after all this time!”

“Me long lost brother!”

“Even handsomer than I remember.”

Gramps didn’t say anything, just stood pulsing his hands into his thighs, his face glowing like he was sunburnt.

I’d never met anyone from Canada before and I’d assumed my aunts would look like the picture on the cover of Anne of Green Gables, but rather than long red braids, their hair was grey and cut short just like Gran’s. Not having red hair meant they were able to wear pink, the most bewitching colour in the world. All three of them wore pink t-shirts emblazoned with a silver love heart.

Gran, Mum, Dad, Josie and I stood in a row waiting our turn as the sisters exclaimed over Gramps. After forever my new aunts released Gramps and began kissing and exclaiming their way down the line of my family. They got to me last.

“Oh, Sarah, ain’t yer a sweetie!” My Aunt Mary (or “Ant Mary” as she called herself) pinched my cheek then threw her arms around me. While Gran and Gramps always smelt of Palmolive soap, Ant Mary smelt like apples. I took a big breath, sucking in her sweetness. “How old are yer now, sweetie? What grade are yer in at school? What classes do yer like?” Ant Mary fired questions at me, leaving no room for answers.

When Ant Mary finally let me go, the second ant, Ant Flo, grabbed me right away, nearly knocking Anne of Green Gables out from under my arm. “Y’are such a doll!” For some reason she was crying, plump tears cascading down her cheeks. “I’m so happy to meet yer at last,” she sobbed. She held me so tight she squeezed out all my breath and when she let me go I was panting like when I surfaced after swimming underwater for the whole length of the pool. I didn’t even have a chance to recover before the third ant, Ant Dodo, snatched me up in her arms. Ant Dodo was the youngest sister so, like me, she always got left to last. “Oh, me littlest grandniece. What a cutie!” Ant Dodo had a mountain of a nose like Gramps and it jabbed into my cheek as she clasped me.

After the ants had finished hugging us all ten times each, we went inside for a cup of tea. Gran put out a plate of homemade fruitcake, even though I’d told her that our Canadian guests would be expecting cherry pie. Still, fruitcake was better than going hungry, so I reached out to grab a piece but Mum slapped my hand away. “You know you’re not allowed to eat that. You’re fat enough as it is.”

Ant Dodo chuckled then picked up the plate and held it out to me. “Here yer go, sweetie. Don’t listen to yer Mom, y’are real beautiful just the way y’are.”

“Ain’t she just,” agreed Ant Mary and Ant Flo, their heads going up and down in unison.

I took two pieces of cake, one in each hand, and grinned over at Mum, but she was studying the carpet.

“Do ya live on Prince Edward Island?” I asked.

The three ants looked at each other and started giggling. “No, sweetie,” said Ant Mary. “We live in Toronto. That’s a big city, just like Melbourne.”

I reached for another piece of cake. “Have ya ever been to Prince Edward Island?”

“That’s enough of your silly questions, Sarah,” said Dad. Then he turned to the ants and asked them what they got to eat on the plane and whether they’d been able to sleep and what time it was now back in Toronto.

After we’d finished afternoon tea, the ants rummaged around in their ginormous suitcases and pulled out presents for all of us, even though it wasn’t Christmas or anyone’s birthday. Ant Mary handed me a box wrapped in gold paper with a silver bow on top. I’d never received anything so beautiful. I held the present in my hands, just gazing at it, not wanting to spoil the gift by unwrapping it.

“It’s ace!” I said. “Thanks heaps.”

“Go ahead, sweetie,” laughed Ant Mary. “Open it up.”

I turned the box over and slid my finger along the seam, trying to prise off the sticky tape without damaging the gold paper—it’d come in handy for my art project. Beneath the beautiful wrapping paper was a beautiful box and inside the beautiful box was a beautiful necklace in the shape of a beautiful butterfly. The beautiful necklace had a beautiful shiny stone in one corner and a beautiful letter “S” engraved right in the middle.

“S for Sarah,” said Ant Mary.

“S for sweetie,” said Ant Dodo.

“S for special,” said Ant Flo.

“S for stupid,” muttered Josie. I jabbed my elbow into her ribs. Why couldn’t I have a nice sister? It wasn’t fair—Gramps had three. Maybe if I’d grown up in Canada I’d be surrounded by kindred spirits and bosom friends.

Dad snatched the box out of my hands, holding it up to the light and squinting. “Is that a real diamond?” He traced a finger over my butterfly. Ant Mary nodded.

“There was no need,” said Dad. “You shouldn’t spoil them.”

“But I’m meeting me grandnieces for the first time. I want ‘em to know how much I love ‘em.” She smiled at Mum—two rows of straight white teeth. “Y’are lucky to have such beautiful daughters. Yer must be so proud.”

“Of course.” Mum’s teeth were gritted behind her grin. She glanced over at me, her smile drooping. “Don’t be rude, Sarah. Thank your Aunty Mary for the generous present.”

“Thanks so much!” I hooked the butterfly around my neck. “It’s ace! It’s unreal! It’s the most beautiful present I’ve ever gotten … much nicer than the diary Gran gave me last Christmas that had every Friday and Saturday missing … and the jumper Mum got me at the op shop for my birthday and …”

The ants looked at each other and burst into laughter so loud the whole room seemed to shake. “Grandkids are a gift from God, ain’t they,” Ant Flo said to Gran, “Yer grandkids are so special. Yer must be proud.”

Gran was examining the same bit of carpet that had captivated Mum a few moments earlier. I leaned over to have a real good squiz, but I couldn’t see anything wrong with the carpet. It was standing perfectly upright, still holding the shadow of Gran’s hoover.

Usually when we visited Gran and Gramps, we all sat around drinking tea and listening to the clock on the mantelpiece going tick tock, tick tock for about an hour until at last Mum said it was time to go home, but the ants didn’t seem interested in listening to the clock and the clock’s tick tocking was drowned out by their chatter and laughter. They spoke in exclamation marks with their hands dancing in front of them. And usually they all spoke at the same time.

At one point I looked over and saw Gramps covering his ears with his hands. A little later I noticed him pull himself out of his chair and sidle towards the door. Then, in a rare gap between an exclamation and a giggle, I heard the faint sound of his piano out in the garage.

The ants were busy telling a story about this “sweet, lovely, fabulous” guy they’d met on the plane. “He was coming to Ors—tralia to buy a dog …” said Ant Mary.

“A dog to work on his farm,” said Ant Dodo. “Apparently there’s this special type of dog in Ors—tralia …”

“He showed us photos,” said Ant Flo. “That dog sure was a cutie …”

“Gorgeous!”

“Real beautiful!”

All of a sudden, Ant Mary looked around. “Where’s Matthew?”

“He’s playin’ piano out the back,” I said.

“Oh?” The three ants fell silent and we could hear the distant tones of the Moonlight Sonata.

“I play piano too,” I said. “I had an exam and I got …”

Dad’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t boast, Sarah.”

“Oh sweetie, that’s fabulous,” said Ant Dodo. “I bet yer Dad’s real proud of yer.” She clasped her hands in front of her chest and tilted towards me.

“I can recite poetry too.” I sprang to my feet. “I know ever so many pieces of poetry off by heart. Would ya like to hear The Lady of Shallot or Bingen of the Rhine?”

“The Lady of Shallot,” said Ant Mary.

“Bingen of the Rhine,” said Ant Dodo.

“Neither,” said Dad, Mum and Josie all at the same time.

Ant Mary and Ant Dodo looked at each other with smiles as big as Prince Edward Island across their faces. “Why don’t we hear both.”

Dad, Mum and Josie gathered up all the plates and headed into the kitchen to do the washing up.

*   *   *

I’d always dreamed of having an aunty and suddenly I had three. All three of them were kindred spirits, but my favourite was Dodo. She noticed the book I carried around with me and said, “I read that book too when I was a little girl. Which bit are yer up to?”

“I’ve already read it four times,” I said. “I borrowed it again so I could learn all about Canada, ready for ya visit. I’ve gotta take it back to the library by Friday or I’ll get a fine and Mum’ll kill me.”

Ant Dodo’s laughter was like wind passing through poplars. “I’m sure she wouldn’t do that.” Clearly she didn’t know my mum very well yet. She tapped her finger on the book’s cover. “What’s yer favourite bit?”

“The part where Anne walks along the ridgepole.” I stuck out my arms and took a few careful toe to heel tightrope steps to demonstrate. “I tried to walk along our ridgepole but Dad grabbed me before I got halfway up the ladder … Walloped me with his belt.”

Ant Dodo laughed again. “I’m sure yer Dad wouldn’t do that.”

Obviously everyone in Canada was much nicer than they were in Australia because my Dad would most certainly do that and I had the welts on my backside to prove it. I was just about to pull down my pants to show her when Dad poked his head around the door. “Get a move on, Sarah, we’re goin’ home.” He glanced at the book which Ant Dodo now had open in her hands. “Don’t forget ya book. Mum’ll kill ya if ya get another library fine.”

The reason we had to go home so early—before I even had the chance to find out about Ant Dodo’s favourite bit of Anne of Green Gables—was because Dad’s team were playing and he wanted to watch the game. Dad loved football and if he ever missed a game he’d be grumpy for about a week afterwards. Dad had wanted sons rather than daughters so he had someone to kick a footy with, which was why he was so disappointed that Josie and I had both turned out to be girls.

Yes, I was an unwanted girl, just like Anne Shirley. Dad said that when I was born he was so sure I was going to be a boy, they didn’t have a girl’s name picked out. They only had a boy’s name and it wasn’t a nice, romantic name like Gilbert. No, they were going to call me Paul. Paul! Then I arrived and Mum decided to call me Sarah, on the spot, without even thinking about it. Like Anne, I kept having to remind everyone to stick the last letter on my name, otherwise they’d call me Sara which was nowhere near as distinguished as Sarah.

I often reminded Dad that girls could play football too, but he always said don’t be ridiculous and if I wanted to do sport I could enroll in ballet. I reckon if I had’ve come from an orphanage rather than out of Mum’s tummy, Dad would’ve sent me back for sure and got the boy he wanted.

Josie’s favourite ant was Ant Mary. Before she retired Ant Mary was a hairdresser, so Josie sat on the floor between Mary’s knees and Mary whipped her hair into fancy styles, braids and buns and French rolls. Josie liked Ant Mary so much that she even started talking like her, dragging all her words out to twice as long as they should be and flicking her tongue up behind her front teeth so her Rs rolled on forever. She started calling me Sarah sweetie, just like the ants did, even though I knew Josie thought I was about as sweet as Vegemite.

*   *   *

The ants only stayed a week—they all said they’d love to stay longer, but they had their own families back in Canada and they needed to get home. On their last day they took Josie and me shopping for farewell gifts.

When we got to the shopping centre, which the ants and Josie in her new accent called the mall, Ant Flo threw her arms open wide. “Yer can buy anythin’ yer like, sweeties.”

“We want to leave yer a real special gift so yer don’t go forgettin’ us,” said Ant Dodo.

“I’ll never forget ya!” I sniffled into the sleeve of my jumper. Gramps might have forgotten about his sisters for forty years but, even though I’d only known them for a week, they were in my heart forever, right next to Anne of Green Gables.

First we went to the bookshop so I could buy my very own copy of Anne of Green Gables. (I didn’t tell Ant Dodo that I’d returned the book to the library two days late and still had the indent of Mum’s wooden spoon on my bum.)

“Yer can get somethin’ else as well, sweetie,” said Ant Dodo. “What about this?” She held up a box which had all six Anne books in it.

I threw my arms around her. “You’re the sweetest, kindest, loveliest ants in all the world.”

Next it was Josie’s turn. She dragged us to the jewelry store where she tried on four pairs of earrings and because she couldn’t decide which she liked best (“They’re all so cool!”) Ant Mary bought her all four pairs. Ant Dodo came over to the corner where I was squatting, reading one my new books. “Yer sure we can’t buy yer somethin’ else, sweetie?”

“No thanks.” I stuck my nose back in my book. “Just red hair like Anne of Green Gables.”

Ant Dodo cackled like a chook. “Oh sweetie, y’are such a card!”

Josie was leaning on the counter watching Ant Mary counting out fifty dollar notes. She snuck a glance back at me and stuck up her middle finger, her lips silently moving in the all-too-familiar shape of the word “Stupid”. Then she turned and grinned up at Ant Mary. “Can we go to Sportsgirl now? It’s so neato.”

“Of course, sweetie.”

In Sportsgirl I sat cross-legged under a rack of t-shirts reading while Josie tried on practically everything in the whole store. After about two hours, Josie swept back the t-shirts hanging above me and kicked me in the shin. “What d’ya think?” She was wearing a red skirt so short I could see the tartan of her undies and the top she had on was only half a top, sitting an inch above her bellybutton. She turned a circle in front of me. “Cool, hey Sarah sweetie.”

“Mum and Dad’ll kill ya if ya leave the house wearin’ that.”

Ant Flo came over, her shoes going clip clop on the tiles. “Don’t yer look like an angel! Let’s buy it!” She smiled down at me. “Yer sure yer don’t want anythin’ else, sweetie?”

“Do ya reckon they have anything with puffed sleeves?” I asked. Josie rolled her eyes.

Ant Flo went over and spoke to the sales assistant. I couldn’t hear what she said, but the sale assistant’s voice was so loud I think everyone in the whole shop could hear. “Puffed sleeves? Na, you’d be lucky to get anything with sleeves at this season. What about a boob tube?”

When we got back to Gran’s, Dad took one look at Josie and shouted, “What the hell are ya wearin’?” His eyebrows arched to fill the bald spot at the top of his forehead.

“Don’t she look fabulous,” said Ant Mary.

“Just like a model,” said Ant Dodo.

“Yer must be so proud of her,” said Ant Flo.

Josie smirked and did a lap of the lounge room, her bum wiggling side to side. Dad tucked the newspaper under his arm and disappeared outside.

After tea, we all stood in the driveway waiting for the taxi that would take the ants to the airport. The ants, Josie and me were all in tears. Gran, Mum and Dad stood off to the side with their arms folded over their chests and Gramps stood even further away, over by the roses, looking at his toes.

Ant Mary flung one arm around me and one arm around Josie. “Oh sweeties, we’re going to miss yer so much.”

“Can’t we come with yer,” pleaded Josie.

Ant Mary shook her head, laughter tumbling out with her tears. “Oh sweetie, I wish yer could. But yer can come visit.”

“Yeah, come visit,” said Ant Flo.

Ant Dodo combed her fingers through my hair. “I’ll take yer to Prince Edward Island. I’ve heard it’s the prettiest place in the world.” I buried my face in her skirt, wondering how much a ticket to Canada cost. If I managed to stay out of mischief and did the dishes and made my bed every day, I got two dollars a week pocket money. Maybe I could save up.

The taxi pulled into the driveway and Dad loaded the ant’s suitcases into the boot while the ants began another round of teary hugging. One last hug then they all piled into the backseat, rolling down the windows and reaching out to clasp our hands, Josie on one side, me on the other.

“Bye sweeties … We’ll miss y’all so much … We love yer, sweeties.”

I ran alongside the taxi, clinging to Ant Dodo’s hand, but the car sped up and I lost my grip and my ants disappeared over the hill.

“What a relief.” Dad stamped his foot down right in the middle of a line of ants scurrying along the footpath. Then he glared over at Josie who had her hands over her face, boo-hooing. “Get inside and get some clothes on.”

“I’ll wear what I want!” Josie pulled her hands away from her face and jerked a finger up at Dad.

“How dare you!” Dad’s face was beetroot. “Just you wait, young lady …” But Josie didn’t wait, she’d already vanished into the house, slamming the front door behind her.

I sat hunched on the front lawn sobbing into my knees. “What are you bawling about?” Mum jabbed me with her shoe. “All that spoiling’s made you soft.”

“I’m not soft,” I blubbered. “I’m sad. What if Gramps loses his sisters again and I never get to see them …” I wiped my nose along my forearm, leaving a glistening trail of sadness. “I wanna go to Canada, where everyone’s sweet as Anne of Green Gables.”


louise-hopewell-smallLouise Hopewell is an Australian writer and public policy researcher. Back in Melbourne, Louise has led community laughter groups in raucous merriment for over five years. Louise has published poetry, as well as short fiction, and regularly performs her original songs. Her work has been published in Seizure, EastLit, FH: A journal of English senryu and Chamber poets anthology: Shots from the chamber

Anne / Ann

When you call Anne Ann, her other self comes rushing back.

Ann, who remembers every loneliness, every cruelty, unvarnished. Ann, who cannot get a funny ache in her heart when she sees the Lake of Shining Waters.

Ann is even thinner than Anne. Anne hates her own thinness only because it reminds her of Ann in her yellowish gray wincey from the orphan asylum.

Ann has only one thing Anne envies—cascades of lush black hair.

When you renounce the sorrow you renounce the beauty.

Anne does not have sorrows, only tragical romances, endured in diaphanous white gowns of the imagination by someone named Cordelia.

Ann has sorrows, and they have destroyed her scope for imagination. Ann is stuck in reality, which is an orphan asylum with no trees. Being unwanted is a pain in her stomach, sour milk and hard bread.

Anne has a kind heart, so she carries Ann with her. Anne shows Ann the Lake of Shining Waters, shelters her under the White Way of Delight. Ann remains numb. Anne is patient. She will carry Ann curled inside her.

Anne is the moon, full and luminous. Ann is the night sky, absent of mother’s milk. Ann is quartz that is sharp and cold and clear.

The quartz pricks at Anne’s consciousness. It hurts her and, in pain, she feels.

Anne has no skin. Blood eye heart pressed against the world.

The Lake of Shining Waters purifies her. The White Way of Delight protects her.


samantha-stiers-smallSamantha Stiers has published fiction, poetry, and memoir in Conjunctions, DIAGRAM, Black Warrior Review, and many other magazines. She is the recipient of the Frances Locke Memorial Poetry Prize. She lives in Boulder, Colorado, where she is a student and enjoys the visual expressive arts, including painting, needle-felting, and dollmaking. 

A Night in a Wild Cherry Tree

Anne spent the night in the wild cherry tree. She decided as dusk was falling that the Cuthberts of Green Gables must have been delayed and believed firmly that they would arrive for her in time for breakfast the following morning. Hoisting the carpet bag—just so—over her head, she hooked the fragile handle over a broken branch, then clambered up among the ash-grey limbs of the tree.

It was like a cloud of snow, although decidedly more perfumed—she found herself sneezing once or twice as night fell. On one occasion, the sound startled a boy who had been walking under the tree, hurrying along his way home. The boy had stopped and turned with such alarm on his face that Anne had been forced to cover her mouth and stifle her laughter as he ran in fear from the spot, perhaps imagining some ghost or ghoul was watching him from the dark branches.

The carpet bag made a serviceable pillow, as she had discovered on the train, but situating herself comfortably in the sloping boughs of the cherry tree was another matter. She had just begun to fall asleep, despite the discomfort—it had, after all, been a very long day full of excitement and longing— when she lost her balance and spent a dizzying moment clutching a thin branch, looking out at the darkness below. Fear sank into her stomach in that moment as her imagination filled the void below with hungry things, just waiting for a little girl like herself to fall into their open jaws. Although she felt she must cry, she worried her tears might only attract the beasts in greater numbers. In that moment, Anne allowed a worry she had been suppressing since she had arrived to make its voice heard; what if the Cuthberts did not come for her at all?

But as she regained her balance and these thoughts began to overwhelm her, the clouds suddenly shifted and a shaft of moonlight fell through the dome of white petals. Her fears were dispelled and her bed was just as she had thought it would be; peaceful, radiant—like sleeping in a fairy’s palace. Anne closed her eyes, breathing in the honey-scented air of the cherry blossoms and bracing herself against the trunk to avoid another tumble, she fell asleep and dreamed of Green Gables.


lauren-harwyn-smallLauren Harwyn received her BA in creative writing with honors from Mills College, Oakland, California and attended Scottish Universities’ International Summer School for creative writing. She has been published by Dear Damsels, Witty Bitches and Northern Light and won Soliloquies Anthology’s flash fiction contest.  www.laurenharwyn.com