The Morrigan is the pagan Celtic Goddess of war, death, and magic. Known as the Phantom Queen, she was a shapeshifter who often took the form of a raven or crow. – Unknown
I wonder what she would think
of all the black birds that have gathered to settle
on my neighbor’s house across the street
on this gray, blustery Sunday in September.
Are they the harbingers of some shadowy message,
carrying the fracture and mystery of their ancient mother
in their feathers, these pagan changelings of magic and prophecy,
who delight in the gathering of a menacing horde?
Or are they untrained, undisciplined civilian birds
living a thoughtless life, unaware of their heritage,
their schools swirling in black swaths across the sky
never considering how accidentally ominous they seem to us?
Perhaps they live ignorant of their own mystique,
not knowing why they feel an urge to sit on the house
of the next person to die, unintelligent and unbothered,
just living the life of birds.
I wondered this outside while taking the garbage cans out
walking cold concrete with no slippers as the wind
raised goosebumps on my forearms, waiting
to be delivered some message from an age long since past.
Hayley Stoddard lives in Colorado, and is currently pursuing a Bachelors degree. Before returning to school, she worked as a medical caregiver to disabled children and to the elderly. She began writing at a young age, and has been inspired by such writers as Billy Collins, John Keats, Emily Dickinson, William Wordsworth, Anne Lamott, Mary Oliver, and Leonard Cohen. Her work has been seen in Parley Publishing, Oberon, After the Pause, Eris+Eros, and Beyond Words Magazine.
Until recently, Audrey Colasanti has been a closet-poet, writing often but hesitant to submit her work for review. Under the encouragement and tutelage of poet, Danez Smith, Colasanti now has a much-anticipated manuscript – ‘green’ – to be published by The Black Spring Press Group/UK, 2021-22.
Colasanti has been shortlisted for the Anne Sexton Prize For Poetry and the Sandy Crimmons National Prize. She was also a semi-finalist for the 2020 Walt Whitman Award/Graywolf Press and long-listed for the Poetry Society 2020 National Poetry Competition. You can follow her at acolasanti.com
A generator, a travel stove; canned things, an old mattress, the single picture tucked into a drawer where you can’t look at it ever not even accidentally; you don’t need much. Four walls, floor and roof all meeting at right angles, no leaks. It takes less than a day to move in friendless and fill the place with necessities while silence teems inside you like fish. You tell yourself the smell of vinegar which haunts the place must be some quality of the earth.
At first you are busy, very busy, and work hard at this – your business. And you learn it’s not silence, these woods full of skeeters (the biters) and rustling things, a deer who keeps returning. On the third week you open your laptop, select every email just checking in, and delete. And close your account. You switch on the light. You switch it out. You stop shaving, you flip the mattress, you shovel the drive, and spread salt, and beat back branches and pull out weeds you cover seeds carefully you rake leaves, and then you do it all over again. (You think of him; you think of him.)
One day when tugging a reluctant carrot out of its bed, you think you hear the crickets rub their legs into a word. You haven’t slept well and tug restlessly at the fist-long beard, a bad habit, standing still with the carrot earth-warm in one hand while you look for the cricket who learned to speak like him. In your hand the carrot shrieks, held painfully by its roots. Apologize.
One day your bad hand seizes up and scatters salt everywhere. A rat travels diagonally across the room leaving feet behind, like a child’s hands in paint. You forget to sweep it up. In the evening the deer returns so you tell her about your day, the rat, and she watches you with eyes made of glass, she doesn’t care about your salt, your carrots, she’ll eat them anyway. In the dark you deliver dramatic readings of The Hungry Hungry Caterpillar and wait for someone to speak. The silence turns in on itself, snake-like. Eating your words. You sour.
(He crouches on the ceiling coloring outside of the lines. He listens to you.)
One day a hurricane comes and snaps trees to prove it can while you sit in the bulging dark with a tin of lukewarm beans. In absolute black you fumble with a match saying fuck, fucking fucker and it snaps like a tree in your hand the instant it strikes because then, then you see him – his shape in the darkness holding still. The crashing rain. His large, rain-filled eyes which watch while he sits with his knees in his chest fingers in mouth because he doesn’t like thunder, even after you told him it was just God farting. Even now you won’t look him in the eye. Water seeps in under the door. Briny. The soles of your feet are wet. And you know, you know he wants to crawl under your arm, into your lap, he wants you to stop the weather to prove you can. It’s terrifying. The storm passes and he’s gone.
But the crickets speak. The carrots shriek. The water stays. And sometimes, if you hold until your breath becomes a statue you see his shoulders hunched in the corner, like someone sent him there for crying.
Goodnight Mr. Moon. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. The Gruffalo and Where The Wild Things Are, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The librarian asks how many kids you have. The floor glistens.
He doesn’t like it when you drink, won’t even watch through the window so you try and save it only for nights when your hearts bursts into a bouquet of cockroaches and nothing else will drown them. Kicking bottles under the sink the next morning his eyes gleam reproachfully. Around your ankles, the water shifts. (The yelling. The smashing things and booze breath she yelling back, he in the next room stiff ceiling-staring awake.) You can’t remember.
That night you wake up and hear hissing gas, the stove flickering a blue ghost stretching out the tip of its tongue to lick the dish towel. You leap to turn it off and frowning return to bed, you’re losing it, have to be more careful. You fall asleep tasting salt. The water swells and submerges the mattress, you punch your sodden pillow and turn over. From the corner he sees, scowling.
You have four dreams in a row: at the beach you show him a jellyfish and he holds your head underwater until the bubbles stop streaming. While you fumble for a foothold on the rocks and find air instead, he lets the rope slip and the ground drives up into your skull and it cracks everywhere like a nursery rhyme, he wraps fishing line around your neck and pulls until your eyes flop out. He summons the blue ghost to the stove. You lie on the mattress, paralyzed.
And when you twist out of sleep like a fish yanking off a hook while you decompose your dinner, the water rises around your waist. He rocks in the corner watching belly swollen famished, nails or are they talons digging into bone his black eyes scared or angry or both you can’t tell, you can’t hold his hand. Not with talons. Not ever. Your skin puckered and remembering the machines wired into the circuitry of veins nothing could keep him alive you can’t remember you can’t remember his small and already stiffening body – the head which you held struggling with a razor shearing away the illegal hair because no one goddamnit not anyone was gonna call your son a sissy while eyes red knuckles puffy he sniffed. And held still. The water around your shoulders, there were good things. He shows you his pointed teeth his shaved stubble egg head and scores red lines down his spindly legs. There had to be good things. This head plastered in down pushed out of all that goop and screaming and yes you thought wow but mostly yuck…. How the days came after that, wrestling with diapers and bills and the way he screamed and you looked at her and she looked back hysterically, helplessly… (Climbing around your mouth press lips he can breathe underwater vinegar thing, you suck salt out of your teeth yank hair) In the yard where everyone performed their grief when you forgot your lines your cues and wandered around, ate twelve chicken wings and sucked the barbecue sauce off your fingers each time and then lost it all to the unyielding basin, this was a tragedy. Which was what everyone told you, your walking around smelling of puke and sadness in the suit you wore to your wedding and divorce and – so it had to be true. The tragedy.
Like a lid coming off a swift pop and then no house no him no horror. Only the trees, the salt trickling back into the earth, and you – pickled thing – alone in the fallen leaves.
And you remember his face…. a hot thing, his puppy fat cheeks and mouth filled with gaps, his eyes which were brown and ordinary and sometimes like a cow’s. The way you held his hand, his bitten nails, the blanket you drew to his chin and love you left on his forehead, your son. You say his name. His name and stand up.
You walk into the softening dark.
Remi Seamon is a student who spends her time split between Cambridge, England and Seattle, Washington. She received an honourable mention in the Foyle Young Poet of the Year award and her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Unlost, Clementine Unbound, Rat’s Ass Review and streetcake, among others. She considers her greatest inspiration to be her dog.
Jennifer is 25 years old and from outside of Philadelphia. She is a current student at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology in Chicago pursuing her doctorate in Clinical Psychology. Her work has appeared on The Esthetic Apostle and Haunted Waters Press. She enjoys reading at open mic nights, advocating for body positivity, and empowering her readers through her writing.
Miriam noticed it while she gardened. It was early in the morning, the best time of day to work outside. Still cool from the passing night while the sun crept its way up the sky, shining and chasing the morning away.
She saw it as she finally got a stubborn bit of pigweed uprooted. The flowering scent of dirt almost distracted her enough to miss it, but the movement out of the corner of her eye caught her attention. As she shook the excess dirt from the roots, she watched the beastie pick his way carefully through the radishes.
Miriam had had to shoo several feral cats away from the garden over the years. They tended to use the raised beds as litterboxes. She knew better than to grow catnip any longer as well, or they’d never go away. They’d learned that lesson the hard way, that first year.
This cat seemed to be looking for something. He paused here and there to sniff, but didn’t assume the position that would make Miriam need to chase him away. She stayed very still as he moved from the vegetable patch to the closest flower bed. As she watched, the cat seemed to find a sunny place that suited him. He circled three times and then went to sleep, nose tucked under his long tail.
Miriam studied the cat while he slept. It was large, especially for something that was probably feral. Its fur was a deep black that almost shone blue in the sunlight. There were patches missing where he’d evidently gotten into fights before and his left ear had a notch taken from it. He was handsome despite the wounds.
It flicked that same ear at her when she set the pigweed on the pile of other plants for compost, but didn’t seem to mind when she went back to her task. Miriam decided if it wasn’t bothered by her, and it wasn’t going to use her garden as a litterbox, she wouldn’t mind it finding a place to nap in her yard. Robert had always teased her, saying she was just as stubborn as the weeds when she wanted to be, but here she was, changing her ways for this cat. Wouldn’t Robert be proud?
The cat was still there the next morning when Miriam went out for her walk. He was sitting by the bottom step when she came out onto the porch. She smiled at the sight of him down there, like a little sentry. Maybe he’d been a housecat at some point and her not chasing him off was signal for him to stick around. Miriam hadn’t had company in long enough that she didn’t mind him visiting.
“Morning, sir,” she said to him as she took the steps.
The cat paused in his grooming to look at her. It didn’t run away as she got on its level, just went back to cleaning its paw.
Miriam felt a shock of fondness for the cat’s bravery. Most ferals wouldn’t come within two feet of her; they’d flee as soon as they caught sight of any human. This cat clearly wasn’t bothered by her presence at all.
She walked down the dirt road connecting her house to the paved road, and smiled. Hopefully, the cat would be waiting for her when she got back.
He was on her porch when she returned from her walk, sleeping in a patch of sunlight. Miriam was glad to see him, especially as she’d stopped halfway through her trip to visit with her nearest neighbor, Mr. Grace, to ask for some provisions.
Since Mrs. Grace had passed away, Mr. Grace had collected cats. People just kept dropping them off on her property, or so he said, and he couldn’t bring himself not to care for them. Miriam had stood patiently in the man’s sitting room under the scrutiny of six or seven mismatched cats while he collected some food for her guest.
“Better you take him than me,” Mr. Grace had said with a smile as he pressed a bag into Miriam’s hands. “One less mouth for me to feed.”
He’d said that, but Miriam didn’t think he’d have left him alone if the cat did show up at his house.
“A good day, don’t you think?” Miriam asked her new companion once she got up on the porch. He stretched out once, toes extending, before curling back up. “Exactly.”
Miriam went inside, depositing most of the bags on the kitchen table. The light on the answering machine was blinking red, so she pressed the play button while she put things away.
There was a pause in the message, then a deep sigh. “Hi, Mom. It’s me. Just calling to see how you’re doing. I know what you said last time we spoke, but I really don’t think it’s the best for you to be out there on your own, what with Dad being gone. I know you like that old house, but—”
With a small noise, Miriam pressed the delete button on the machine. She’d heard enough of the same arguments from him over the past two years since her husband had passed away. She didn’t need to hear more of it. Miriam would rather die in her house than move into a nursing home. She could take care of herself well enough. Her and Robert had always done well enough for themselves, and there was no reason why she couldn’t do just as well on her own.
She went back to the kitchen and got out a plate and shook the can of wet food onto it, nose scrunching at the stink. How cats could handle the smell of it was beyond her. She brought it outside and left the plate about a foot away from the cat. He didn’t twitch until she’d retreated behind the screen door.
Once she was safely away, Miriam watched while the cat sat up, nose twitching as he sniffed in the direction of the food. It was the same color as his fur, dark black. His eyes, though, she could see, were yellow. He sniffed at the plate for a while as if suspicious of her generosity, but eventually started eating.
“Be careful, though,” Mr. Grace had said. “Feed ‘em once and they won’t ever go away, y’know.”
Miriam watched the cat slowly eat his offering and smiled.
Once the sun started making its way down, Miriam went outside. She sank into the rocker on the porch with a sigh, looking out at the land in front of her house. The vegetable beds were close to harvest and the flowers were flourishing. She’d have to bring some over to Mrs. Grace, now she didn’t need so much. As thanks for the cat supplies, too. She smiled a bit when she saw the first yellow blooms of the evening primrose open now the sun was setting.
Their strong, sweet smell filled her nose. She’d planted them close to the house so they could be enjoyed during the evening as they sat and relaxed. The larger, white moonflowers would take a while longer to open their blossoms, but they always brightened her mood.
The night bugs and birds trilled their songs to one another, a symphony of call and response, while the other animals that woke up at dusk prepared themselves to either hunt or be hunted. It was a chorus Miriam had gotten used to over the years, more so since Robert had passed and she was left all alone. She closed her eyes and sat back in the rocker he’d made for her and let the sounds of the night flow over her.
Startled, Miriam looked down to her feet. The cat sat there, looking back up at her. Its yellow eyes seemed to glow in the porchlight. A small breeze picked up, setting the flowers to dancing and whispering amongst themselves.
“Hello,” she said to the cat. “A fine evening we’re having, aren’t we?”
The cat tilted its head as she talked to it. It made it seem like it was actually listening to her.
It meowed again and then surprised her by jumping up into her lap. Miriam kept her hands up as it kneaded at her legs. A rough, low purr started up and she smiled, delighted. She hadn’t expected him to warm up to her so soon. The cat settled down, eyes closed, and Miriam let herself relax as well, looking out into the yard as the moon started to rise and spread its soft glow.
They’d never had pets, since Robert was allergic to pet dander, but Miriam had always imagined having a small dog or cat that cuddled with her as she rested at the end of the day. The warm weight of the cat on her lap truly was lovely. If he could see her now, how he’d laugh, say she was a natural at it. Instead of the tough, bitter chew the thought would usually bring, Miriam examined it fondly. Maybe she really was gentling. Robert would be proud.
The cat didn’t seem interested in following her when Miriam went inside for the night, but he was waiting for her when she came back outside to start her daily list of chores the next morning.
It didn’t hesitate to eat when she brought out another can of food for it, and it followed her when she went out to the beds. Miriam reached out a hand for him to sniff. While he rubbed his cheek against her fingers, he didn’t seem very interested in being pet. He sat or lay next to her as she worked. He seemed as content as she was with the silent companionship.
After a few more days of eating meals together and working next to one another in the yard, the cat finally followed Miriam into the house. She’d driven to town to pick up bowls and food and a cat bed and a litterbox—just in case. The cat seemed aware of what was his immediately. He fit himself seamlessly into the fabric of her life, like he’d been there years instead of just a week. He eschewed the cat bed for a spot at her feet in her bed, but Miriam didn’t mind. The warm weight of him was a comfort during the long, often cold nights. They worked well together.
The only place he seemed not to like was the cellar. Whenever she went down there for canned vegetables or preserves, he always stood at the head of the stairs, waiting for her to climb back up to him. He never wanted to go down with her. Maybe he didn’t want to feel trapped in an enclosed space. Miriam didn’t mind if he disliked the cellar. She would never force him somewhere he didn’t like.
Besides, she understood not wanting to go down there; the cellar was the one part of the house she herself disliked. It was dark and damp, the stairs leading down cramped and old. There was only one light for the whole place and Miriam always felt like she was suffocating when she was down there. Any reason to go to the basement as few times as possible was just fine for her, honestly. Robert had spent more time down there than she’d ever wanted to, tying up fishing lures, building furniture, and working on other such projects. She was happy enough leaving the cellar to his memory.
Other than that, living with the cat was easy.
“You probably need a name,” Miriam said one morning a few weeks after the cat moved in. They were both eating their respective breakfasts. The cat looked up at her, whiskers twitching as he licked his mouth. It always seemed as if he was truly listening to her when she talked to him. It was one of the things she liked best about him.
“You must already have one though, huh?” she continued, stirring homemade granola into her yogurt. The cut strawberries left streaks of red as she stirred, making her breakfast look like it had trails of blood in it. “It would be rude of me to give you another.”
When he’d decided she had nothing else to say, he went back to eating. Miriam did the same.
That night, she picked up the phone that had started ringing before her evening walk.
“Mom? Good, I’m glad I got you. You didn’t call back after the message I left.” Her son’s voice was accusing, annoyed. She could hear her grandson’s high, fluting voice in the background, asking what daddy was doing.
“I’ve been busy,” Miriam said. The cat doubled back from the front door and twined around her legs. He was obviously as impatient to leave as she was.
“Well.” A pause. “Have you thought any more about what I said?”
“I have no interest in going to a nursing home, James. You know that. I’m fine out here. I’m hale and sound of mind. There’s no reason to leave.”
Another one of those deep sighs. Miriam wondered where her son developed such a stressful personality. Certainly, not from her or Robert. “Mom. Please. It’s not a nursing home, it’s a retirement community. Plenty of older people choose to move to retirement communities. Leaving that aside, you’d be closer to us. To Benny. Don’t you want to be closer to your grandson?”
Miriam frowned. He wasn’t playing fair. “You could always bring him out this way. You were the one who chose to move so far.”
“Mom, I don’t want to go over that again. You’re out there in the middle of nowhere by yourself, all alone, living in that house full of memories of dad. That’s not healthy. You have to know that.”
The cat sat on his haunches and pawed at her leg, looking up at her with his head tilted. Miriam looked down into his bright yellow eyes and felt her annoyance settle. She’d found that the cat was good for her impatience.
“Thank you for your concern, James, but I’m happy here. I love this house, and I love the memories of your father. Please respect my decision.”
They were both quiet for a while, silence thick between them.
“Okay, Mom. I’ll call you later.”
Miriam set the phone back down in its cradle and set out the front door, cat trotting right at her side.
The scratching started a month after the cat arrived.
Miriam hadn’t really been paying attention at the time, but when she thought back on it, it was a month to the day.
The first time she heard it was when she was in bed, dozing off. The cat had started accompanying her on all her walks, and they’d gone further than usual that day, venturing to parts of the country she hadn’t been to since before Robert fell ill. She was the good sort of exhausted, slipping quickly into sleep.
She woke only when the cat started hissing. He was no longer in his place at her feet when she opened her eyes to see what was going on; he was standing on her chest, hissing at the wall above her head. He was heavy on top of her, far heavier than she’d expected. It was a little hard to breathe under the weight of him, and she was surprised him climbing onto her hadn’t woken her first. It was only after she’d pushed him off that she heard the scratching beneath his rumbling growls.
It was coming from in the wall behind her headboard. It sounded a little like something was crawling inside the wall, nails skittering along the supports, truth be told.
Miriam sat up and the cat moved to her side. His fur was puffed up, making him look bigger, scarier. Miriam was almost more afraid of him than whatever was in the wall. She’d never seen him look so angry in all the time he’d been at her house. Not even when another stray tom happened by.
“It’s okay,” she said softly. The scratching paused, then picked up again, faster. “It’s probably an opossum. They get in, sometimes. Through the crawlspace, then into the walls. It’s just trying to get back out again.”
As she tried to soothe the cat, the scratching moved. It went up the wall, then back to where her headboard was pressed. It went lengthwise around the room, then finally seemed to realize it had to go back down to escape. They listened as the scratching got quieter and quieter before disappearing altogether past the floorboards.
Once the noise was gone, Miriam risked reaching out to run her hand down the cat’s back. His fur was still bristled, but he stopped that awful growling at her touch.
“See?” she whispered to him. “It’s alright. Let’s go back to sleep.”
The cat didn’t seem to be soothed. Instead of going back to his usual spot by her feet, he curled up next to her on Robert’s empty pillow. She laid down and breathed in deep, taking in the musky smell of him.
Whatever was trapped in her walls couldn’t seem to find its way back out.
Miriam heard it scratching its way in and out of various rooms over the next few days. Unlike the previous times squirrels and other small animals had found their way in, the scratcher tended to follow her and whatever sounds she made throughout the house.
Each time the scratching started, the cat would puff up and growl, hissing and spitting at whatever spot the scratching stopped at. He followed it wherever it went, but never scratched back at the walls to try to get to whatever it was. Maybe the sound bothered him more than anything else.
It got to the point that Miriam had to call the only exterminator in town to come out and take a look. She’d feel bad if whatever it was died in the walls. Then it would create a God-awful stink she’d have to deal with. Hopefully, John would be able to remove the thing and help it get back to its own home.
John spent a while going through the cellar and crawlspace and attic, poking cameras and metal wires through the walls. Miriam followed him from room to room as he worked, curious despite herself.
“Well, I don’t know what to say,” John told her after two hours and no results. He took his hat off and rubbed at his bald head. “I can see claw marks, that’s for certain, though none I ever seen before. No critter’s there now, though. You sure you ain’t got more cats? Maybe some kittens?” He nodded at the cat sitting next to Miriam’s feet knowingly. Robert had been the one to deal with him, whenever they needed to bring him out. She’d forgotten how patronizing he could be when talking to womenfolk.
“Just the one,” she told him firmly. “What do the claw marks look like?”
He still had the monitor to the inspection camera in his hand, so he held it out for her. “Take a look for yourself.”
Miriam took the monitor. She’d watched him feed the camera and metal cable through an overhead light fixture in her bedroom. It must’ve been in place still because she could immediately decipher the small, cramped space between the ceiling and the attic floor.
John was right. There were long marks left by something everywhere the camera could see. They were jagged and deep, in rows of three. John reached over to the device in her hands and directed the camera to face the north wall.
Miriam screamed, dropping the monitor. Luckily, John had had one hand on it, so he was able to keep it from falling and breaking.
“What on Earth!” he shouted, looking down at the monitor. “What’s got you so spooked? See a dead ‘coon?”
“There, uh, there was something. A weird face, or something,” Miriam said. The cat leaned its weight against her leg and she could feel her heartbeat finally start to slow from the racing panic it’d been in. Frights like that weren’t good for her at her age.
John gave her a strange look. “Well, it’s not there now. Maybe a shadow played tricks on your eyes.” He tilted the display her way, showing that he was right. Where before she’d seen something, some dark and twisted thing with huge, dark eyes, there was nothing.
“Must’ve been,” she said weakly. She went out into the living room to wait for John to pack up, hand held lightly against her chest. The cat followed quickly behind.
“Let me know if it comes back,” John said at the front door. He had his bag in hand and his hat firmly back in place. “Or if it starts to stink. Then you’ll really know it’s died. I stopped up the hole you had in the crawlspace, though, so if it was somewhere else today, it won’t be coming back.”
“Thanks, John,” she said with a small smile. She followed him out of the house and decided to spend the rest of the day in the garden getting her bearings back. There was another call from James before she went out, but Miriam decided to ignore it and let the machine answer him. She didn’t have it in her to argue with him just then. This was her home, and she’d stay in it as long as she could. That’s what they’d always planned, her and Robert. Nothing would change her mind, now.
Despite John’s assurances, the scratching started up again that night. Miriam sat up in bed immediately, looking at the wall opposite in quickly growing dread. The cat stood from his new place on Robert’s old pillow and growled.
Miriam put her hand on the cat’s back, soothing herself more than him. “It’s okay,” she told him. “It’s just a trapped animal.”
He didn’t say anything back, of course, but when he looked up at her, she had the feeling he was asking her who she was trying to convince.
She tried to smile at the cat, but she couldn’t help thinking about what she’d seen in the walls. A face, that was for sure, twisted and black, clumps of stringy hair, dark bruises, mottled grey skin and wide, black eyes. Time and imagination had filled in the details she hadn’t really seen, but she knew her eyes hadn’t been playing tricks on her. Her mind wasn’t addled, either. It had been frozen, staring back at her. Thinking about that thing being in her house was enough to make her shiver in fear.
“It’s just an animal,” she said again. Right after she finished the thought, a moan came from the wall where the scratching was. She bit her lip hard as her mouth snapped shut. “My god, what was that?”
The moan came again, long and low. It was stretched out, thin, like it was being pulled from deep inside something far away. It seemed to echo throughout the room, as if it was coming from everywhere at once.
“What the hell,” Miriam whispered. The cat let her pull him close. He was shuddering as badly as she was, but she couldn’t tell if it was from fear or rage. He was spitting with each hiss he let out.
The scratching got more insistent. Miriam could see bits of plaster raining down in clouds from the wall, like whatever it was, it was going to claw its way through to her.
“Go away!” she screamed, holding the cat close. “Leave us alone!”
The moaning and scratching stopped abruptly.
At the silence, the cat stopped spitting quite so furiously. His fur still stood on end, but he seemed to be listening for something.
“What the hell?” Miriam asked again. She let go of the cat to wipe at the sweat dripping down her face. Her frantic heartbeat was still pounding hard in her ears. “What was that?”
A sudden, loud crash made her jump. It sounded like something had pushed down one of the wooden racks in the basement. They were both silent for a few minutes, waiting to see if anything else would happen. There was nothing.
“I have to go check that, don’t I?” Miriam asked the cat weakly.
The cat looked up at her. His face plainly said she was being stupid and she should call the cops, but it would take them far too long to get out there. Miriam wasn’t going to cower in her room like a weak, old woman, helpless without a man to save her. This was her house, and she’d take care of whatever it was that was trying to frighten her, no matter how distorted it might look.
When she got off the bed, the cat jumped down as well. He brushed against her legs before leaving the room ahead of her. Miriam took comfort in the cat going with her. It might be ridiculous to feel braver because of a cat, but that’s where she was.
Another crash sounded. Maybe whatever was in the walls had found its way back out again. Miriam hesitated on the stairs to the ground floor. What if the thing with the twisted face had found its way out? The thought made her shiver.
The cat jumped off the last step. If she was going to be foolish enough to go look herself, there was no point dragging her feet.
Miriam set her jaw and made her way down the stairs. The cat led her through the living room and dining room, passed the blinking red light on the answering machine to the kitchen and the closed cellar door. She opened it as something glass shattered loudly.
There was a flashlight just inside the cellar door that Miriam kept for emergencies. She wasn’t sure if this was the sort of emergency she’d planned for, but she picked it up all the same. She turned it on and followed the beam of light down the stairs. As she made her way down, she looked back to see the cat pacing at the top step, fur still standing on end.
“You could come with me,” she hissed at him. He didn’t step paw on the wooden stair.
There weren’t any more crashes or smashing on the way down, but Miriam could hear something rustling, like whatever it was, it was moving back and forth across the floor. She swept the flashlight down the steps but there was nothing to see yet. She’d cleaned out the cellar after Robert had died, not wanting to let things get cluttered up in his absence.
Once she got down to the actual cellar, she could see what had happened. A few of the boards in the left-most wall had been smashed outward and one of the wooden shelving units had been knocked down. There were jars of preserves broken open on the floor. In the flashlight’s beam, the fruit looked like lumps of odd-colored flesh in soupy puddles. It looked like something had smeared its hands through it though, leaving patches of bare concrete behind.
Another one of those hair-raising moans started up. Miriam spun around, flashlight illuminating the corner opposite the stairs. She had to cover her mouth with her other hand to keep from screaming.
There was something in the cellar and it most definitely wasn’t some lost rodent.
It was shaped vaguely like a human, but its skin was grey, with dark, bruise-like patches all over, and it was too tall. Its hair hung off its scalp in mottled hunks and its limbs were too long. There was red dripping off its hands. Whatever it was, it was facing away from her; as she watched, its head jerked to the side and fell back, revealing the same gaunt, twisted face she’d seen before. It had long, jagged teeth in a dark, slack-jawed mouth. The moan was coming out of that mouth. Its black eyes fixed on Miriam.
“My god,” she said into her own hand. She felt frozen in place, fear weighing her down like lead weights. She wanted to run, but she couldn’t.
The thing’s mouth dropped open further and the moan turned into a loud, gasping noise, like it couldn’t breathe. It stepped away from the wall but it didn’t turn around. It moved backwards, head tilted back on its crooked neck, eyes fixed on her as it advanced.
Miriam stumbled back, cried out as she stepped on something sharp, as she skidded through something sticky and wet. She fell amongst the broken jars, just barely managed to keep hold of the flashlight as she went down. The beam arced along the ceiling but Miriam quickly focused it back on the thing.
It was closer, but it’d paused when she fell. As she watched, its nostrils flared and its breath rattled again in its throat. It was smelling her, sniffing out where she’d hurt herself. Fat globs of drool spilled from the corners of its mouth, sliding across its cheeks and forehead, into its lank hair.
Miriam let out a moan of her own as she tried to scramble away. She couldn’t get up, kept slipping in the spilled preserves and her own blood. The hot pain from her foot brought tears to her eyes.
The flashlight shook in her hand as she fought to distance herself from the thing. It kept moving closer, though. Slowly, steadily, arms bent at the elbow the wrong way, hands reaching back, fingers long and blotchy, still dripping.
Her back hit the opposite wall of the cellar and Miriam cursed.
“Go away!” she shouted at it, frustrated by the tears dripping down her cheeks. “Leave me alone!” She didn’t know what it was, but she knew it was going to hurt her, same as she knew she couldn’t get up and run away. Its twisted face looked…hungry.
There was an agonized scream from upstairs that made her flinch and then a blur of black that knocked the flashlight from her hand. Miriam shouted, scrambling to go after her only source of light. The scream turned into a low, horrible growl which twisted together with a high-pitched screech.
Miriam rolled onto her belly and grabbed the flashlight, ignored the glass scraping at her arms. She picked it up and aimed it to the place the thing had been. It wasn’t there.
She shone the light around, panicked, heart pounding all the way down to the tips of her fingers. The growl and screeches abruptly stopped and were replaced by a cracking, wet noise. She finally located the source.
It wasn’t the thing with the twisted face. That was slumped on the concrete floor, limbs splayed out. There was a gaping, red hole where its jaw and throat had been. Miriam focused on the black mass crouched next to the thing’s unmoving body, tried to ignore her breathing that was loud enough to echo throughout the cellar.
It was black, with bristling fur and long, claw-tipped fingers. Its face was pointed with rough rips in its skin that looked like scars. In its open mouth were crooked, jagged fangs. There were patches on its fur that looked wet. Its jaws snapped shut and it chewed what was in its mouth, filling the cellar with loud crunching. It looked up when she pulled in a gasping breath and she could see its eyes were wide and yellow.
Miriam felt another scream build up in her throat. It stopped short when the new monster tilted its head and let out a sound.
A low meow.
“Cat?” she breathed out.
A loud purr replaced the sound of chewing.
As she watched, the huge shape twisted and curled in on itself, shrinking. There were several pops, like joints being realigned. At the end of it, the cat sat on the basement floor. He hopped over the corpse and went to Miriam, climbing into her lap and purring.
Miriam hesitated for a moment, then put her hand on the cat’s head. It only shook a little as she pet him.
“Good cat,” she said weakly. She continued to pet him as he kneaded at her uninjured leg, purr getting louder. Miriam wasn’t alone—she’d forgotten that. She hadn’t been alone for a while, now, no matter what anyone thought.
A.Poythress has been published at The Rumpus, Thresholds UK, The Lit Pub, Asymmetry Fiction, The New Southern Fugitives, and won honorable mention in both the 2021 Fractured Literature Ghost Flash Fiction Contest and 2020 The Ghost Story’s Turn the Screw Flash Fiction Competition. They primarily write surreal horror and fantasy focused on women and queer-identified people. They have an MFA in fiction from Columbia College and are enrolled in Oklahoma State University’s PhD program for English and creative writing.
John Sullivan was an ACTF Playwriting finalist, received the ‘Jack Kerouac Literary Prize,’ the ‘Writers Voice: New Voices of the West’ Award, AZ Arts Fellowships (Poetry & Playwriting), an Artists Studio Center Fellowship, WESTAF Fellowship; he was also a featured playwright at Denver’s Changing Scene Summer Playfest, an Eco-Arts Fellow with Earth Matters On Stage, Artistic Director of Theater Degree Zero, and directed the Augusto Boal / Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) wing at Seattle Public Theater. He uses TO with communities to promote dialogue on environmental justice with environmental health scientists. His work has been published in a variety of print and online venues. Weasel Press (Manvel TX) published his first book, “Bye-Bye No Fly Zone,” in December 2019. “When Story Stops, the Leak Begins” came out from Unsolicited Press (Portland OR) in April 2020.
O peaceful fish-pecked face of flesh, O breaker of the surface glasses, cosmonaut of liquid space your time is passed and beauty faded.
Parceled parted lips expose eroded gums, loosened aquarium-stone teeth, the hovering tentacles of a split tongue waving and the threaded softness of a seaweed stump.
Your palette’s wrinkled, full of holes, particles of water dust, fish scales, endless salivation of the earth that crests and troughs where once was air.
O Grecian, former glorious nose! O pantheon of golden hairs now grey! O complexion, once crimson, now blue!
Your spidery fissures of purple blood stagnant, void of the life flow and empty as eyeholes once envied by gods and by man, but mostly by you.
Simon A. Thalmann is a writer and photographer from Kalamazoo, Michigan. His work has appeared widely in print and online, including in the Garfield Lake Review, Gargoyle, Spillway, Verbicide Magazine, Weird Tales and others. He is the author of several books of poetry and fiction, including the award-winning “Blaze Goes to College” children’s book series published by Kellogg Community College. Thalmann has work forthcoming in Ember Chasm Review, and his chapbook, “Pretty Haunted Meadow,” was published this year by the Kalamazoo Friends of Poetry as a winner of their 2020 Celery City Chapbook Contest.
and rotting. Sitting back hoping for nature’s healing touch
seems far too passive – always too passive.
I’m going to throw the bulk of my skull away
and disposing of all above the molars
sliding blades of salvation back
beyond the roll of my tongue,
sucking away at the steel
like a mango.
My fat face will slice away easily enough –
but the hard work will come
in the gristle
and the brainstem
and the bone
but with steady hand, I’ll make it through
with my bottom jaw and tongue still intact,
I’ll become the ambitious lover
my wife has always wanted,
bringing pleasure to her
like never before
the bridge of my nose
and my unsure eyes
and crooked top teeth
no longer halting me
Free from its bondage, my tongue unfurling
into my wife, like an egg-sucking serpent.
Writhing upwards, towards the soft core
licking her bladder bag
lapping her blood
Dan McLeod works as a copywriter and barista in Melbourne, Australia. His short story Plunging Silver was published in the 2017 Newcastle Short Story Anthology. He has contributed articles and reviews for several Australian music websites, and cites Pedro Juan Gutierrez, John Fante and Karl Hyde as influences.
As I stepped from the back door of the number 10 bus, my feet hit the pavement with a lightness and optimism that I had not felt in a long while. It had been raining all morning and even the dreariness of the day did nothing to undermine my certainty. This would be it. Something clenched inside my gut and I knew: this would be it.
As the bus closed its doors and carried on without me, I turned from the main road and looked up a winding side street. The autumn trees hung over a narrow, asphalt road that rose in the middle, bulbous with age.
I checked the directions I had logged in my phone. The house I was looking for was several blocks down and I found it before long, hiding behind a row of hedges. It was on a twisted road surrounded by other lots seemingly untouched by the rest of the city: immune to the new generations that drifted through. I stared at this place, with its sharp peaks appearing above the hedges, and tried to guess its age. 1920s, maybe. Perhaps older. I wondered then if it had been updated at all inside or if my future would include old fuse boxes and whining radiators.
Do not mistake me; these would be welcome problems. I have grown quite accustomed to flaws both architectural and habitational. A roof and four walls, by now, will suffice. Anything more would be luxury.
Needless to say, I have seen many potential houses these last few months. I have seen many apartments, many basement suites, many laneway houses. I have viewed them alone, met only by a single, uninterested landlord; I have attended in crowds—great, gaping crowds—and been forced to put in a bid for fewer than four hundred square feet.
A preferable circumstance would be that I never have to move at all. Just three weeks ago, I was in a smallish condominium, wedged between two other residential floors, overhanging the office of a dentist, when my landlord advised us that he wished to renovate the space. His elderly mother was moving in. Or so he claimed. This was neither the first time this has happened to me nor the second. Rather, four times it has happened in three years. I have grown both used to the hunt and weary of it.
As I stepped around the hedges, the house came into view. Half of it was red brick, with slim, peaked windows. Although the yard was neatly manicured, the flower beds were sparse, and the grass greyish brown in patches, as if simultaneously sun-bleached yet smothered by shadow.
When I knocked on the door, the lady of the house answered almost immediately. As I stepped inside, I found that the habitation and inhabitant could not appear more different. Where the lady was small and wide-eyed, with trim, polished clothes that suggested modernity and class, the house was deep and cluttered. A twisted staircase lay to my right, while the drawing room stretched off to the left. The furniture was something even my grandmother would have found old-fashioned and the walls still bore the original oak paneling.
Craning my neck, I peered up the stairs with curiosity. Almost immediately, the landlady’s hand clapped around my shoulders and—unused to being touched—I jumped. Steering me sharply away from the stairs, she led me then down a wide hall lined with somber paintings, through a clean, orderly kitchen, and out into the backyard. As she led me across the deck, I saw, set at the back of the property, nestled snugly before a row of arbutus trees, a small guest house.
It was covered in painted plaster, with morning glory trailing up one side. Two windows flanked a door and a chimney stuck out of the pitched roof making it look like every drawing I’d ever made of a house when I was little. I would have guessed it to be older than the main house, but how much older, I couldn’t tell.
I stared at this guest house for several moments before I noticed that the landlady was staring at me with an expectant grin. As she led me inside the guest house, I cannot say why but I glanced briefly over my shoulder, casting a look back at the main house.
Upstairs, in one of the bedrooms, I thought I saw a curtain waver. It was as if someone had just been there, watching us.
I moved in the next day. My roommate dropped me off not long after seven in the morning with all of my things. Although this now-former roommate and I made half-hearted plans to get together real soon, I knew even then that I would never see her again. We had been amiable, but not particularly close.
The inside of the empty guest house was cold but warmed up quickly after I adjusted the thermostat. An old building with a few welcome modern touches, it was one large room that filled quickly even with the few pieces of furniture I could still call my own. My possessions had dwindled to a bed, a loveseat, my grandmother’s old dining table, three Rubbermaid tubs, and two substantial suitcases. The rest vanished piecemeal over the previous several years, given away or sold on Craigslist. I had long grown wary of acquiring more.
I stared at these pieces in place and admired how well they looked. The floor was stone; I would have to get a rug to warm it. Perhaps there was a thrift store close by, I thought. Likely not, I corrected myself. Not in this part of town. I would need too some pictures to hang on the stone walls. I supposed I could always tear the nice photographs from magazines, the way I used to do when I was in high school.
With so few things to unpack, I had reached a state of livable when a knock came at the door. The landlady asked how I was settling in and invited me over for tea that afternoon. Some people from around the neighborhood were coming by, she explained and perhaps it would be a good way to meet some of the neighbors.
The idea should have sounded lovely but the moment she left, I wondered who these people might be and how long they had lived there. How many of them were now millionaires because of the luck of real estate?
But I needed to appear accommodating. I needed to appear friendly and amenable and willing to rise to the landlady’s demands. The alternative was homelessness.
So, at three o’clock, I put on the least-wrinkled blouse I had and crossed the backyard, rose up the wooden steps, and knocked politely on the backdoor. The landlady said not a word of greeting yet ushered me inside. A small crowd, I soon discovered, had gathered in the drawing room.
This was not a tea party.
A man standing at the front of the room was ranting that someone was going to come take away their yards, whilst all those other furious, white faces around him nodded in agreement. He carried on about a developer having plans to put condo blocks up along the old rail lines. What will this mean for traffic, he implored? And what about the character of the neighborhood? They had already started a petition.
The not-a-tea party was over by five, as all the neighbors—most of them retirees—went off in search of their dinners. I dutifully helped the landlady clean up the stray tea cups and water glasses, before finally excusing myself.
That night, as I lay in bed, the wind howled through the arbutus trees, rattling the single pane windows. For a long while, I lay abed, staring up at the dark ceiling. The first night in a new place is never easy. So many new sounds and new shadows. One might never know what to expect.
I am not sure when it might have happened, but at some point, I had indeed fallen asleep, because suddenly I was awake. My eyes flashed open as I felt my chest beating. My skin tingled with a burst of adrenaline and I pulled myself upright.
I looked around the dark room. Nothing appeared amiss. So, what had awoken me? I held my breath. I listened. It was far too silent; the wind had stopped.
But then I heard it: a gentle chugging noise. A train. It was just a train and it was in the distance, perhaps a mile off. But I could hear it so clearly: the chugging of the engine, the clacking of the wheels.
And the sound was growing louder. The train drew closer. The windows began to rattle again, beating the steady rhythm of an engine. Louder they rattled, and soon more violently. Suddenly, the train whistle sounded sharply and I jumped. I could feel the sound in my chest, it was so close. It could not have been more than a few yards away.
I could not hold back my curiosity any longer. Whipping back the blankets, I leapt from the bed. As I ran outside, I could still hear the train, louder still. The whistle sounded again and it realized it came from behind the arbutus trees.
As I stepped through the row of trees, treading carefully, I found a wire fence, bound tightly in a mess of morning glory and marking the edge of the property. I was about to give up my investigations when I discovered that a small segment of the wire fence had been pared away. There was enough room for someone to fit through.
On the other side of the fence—lit dimly by the waning moon—there lay a rail line. Two long rows of steel, there were, crossed over with rotting wooden boards and resting upon a raised bed of gravel. The tracks were rusted and overgrown. Weeds covered the steel with unbreakable knots.
Despite what I thought I had heard, it was clear that a train had not passed this way in years.
By the morning light, it seemed so silly that I had been scared. As I stepped out of the guest house, a wind caught the arbutus trees, shaking dead leaves to the ground. It was a cold day but pleasant enough for October.
I assured myself that I had imagined the sound. Surely, there was another rail line nearby; the sound simply travelled well. It was a rational enough explanation and I found this comforting. A skeptic, my ex once labelled me, with a roll of the eyes. Resolved, I hitched my purse up on my shoulder and turned towards the main house.
What I saw nearly make me scream. Instead, I just stood there, dumbfounded and flushed as I stared at the figure standing on the deck.
He was three paces from the door I knew went into the kitchen and he was in his pajamas. They were striped, cotton pajamas one might once have bought from Sears and they very much seemed appropriate for a man like him. He looked to be nearing ninety, with the sagging, ruddy complexion Waspish men develop as they age. But for a moment, it was almost as if I’d seen a little boy.
“You heard it,” he said in a voice narrow enough to slip through cracks, “Didn’t you?”
Suddenly, the backdoor slammed open. The landlady tutted when she found the man. After giving me the once over, she must have noticed that this meeting had unnerved me, because she winced apologetically. With a few hurried explanations—he wasn’t well; I should ignore him—she ushered the man back into the house.
I resolved to push the incident from my mind as I focused on work. Nearly six months I had been in this office and I still had yet to fully understand the culture of the place. Perhaps I simply wasn’t used to the dressed-down atmosphere of the west coast. Co-workers drifted up and down the corridors in their asymmetrical haircuts and I could not help but feel as there was a thin veil of understanding that separated me from them. I did not fit in.
As such, the weight of the work day was heavy on me when I slunk home again towards the bus stop. The crowd that had gathered there was unsettlingly large. I approached the periphery and listened to the whispers that had begun to circulate. “Accident up West Boulevard,” was one. “They’re diverting up 16th,” came another.
The wind tossed wet leaves from the trees and the sky was beginning to darken. I had been too distracted this morning and had not worn the right jacket. No bother, I told myself. The blocks are long but a warm bath awaited me at the end of them.
I turned down the road and began to walk.
After several blocks the rain began and I refused to let it discourage me. I flipped up my collar to the wind and carried on. So absorbed I had been in my thoughts that I had not noticed how empty the roads were. Surely, this apparent accident had caught up cars, trucks, and buses alike; it had left the city quieter than I doubted I had ever heard it.
Up ahead, cutting at a disjointed angle across the road was the thin track of the disused rail line—the same line that ran beyond the arbutus trees behind the guest house. My pulse quickened as I approached it. I told myself I was being foolish—that this was a old train track, nothing more. It was just another sentence in the story of this city. It was nothing to fear.
As I stepped over it, careful not to slip on the wet maple leaves that clung to the slick iron, I glanced lengthwise down the tracks; they disappeared into a tunnel of twisted trees. The burnished arbutus bark peeled away like a snake shedding its skin.
I quickly looked away. Before taking another step, I noticed, set in from the sidewalk, some three feet from the rail line, was a large rectangle sign, with happy colours and bubbly fonts.
Despite its determined optimism, it had weathered both time and the rain poorly. The corners of the plastic placard had begun to peel and the plywood was beginning to bloat. I skimmed the text. It was the City’s notification of a development proposal for the rail line. It included purpose-built rental housing.
There was graffiti across the sign as well. Words like NO DEVELOPMENT and SAVE THE ARBUTUS were scrawled in ballpoint pens and indelible markers. It called to mind the sorts of things that used to grace posters and propaganda on a university campus, but with a distinctly different tone. The sense of rebellion here was neither spirited nor impulsive. This vandalism was the child of strategy.
If one required further proof of that, there was a flyer affixed to the edge of the sign. It had been shellacked to the plastic placard but was beginning to erode away beneath the rain. The flyer was plain and white and functioned as a call to arms, it seemed, inviting people to join the neighbourhood committee. The bottom of the flyer, where presumably strips of paper with contact information once hung, had been torn away.
The flyer noted—both underlined and bolded, quite pointedly—that the neighbourhood committee was for homeowner’s only.
My mood was thus not improved by the time I slipped through the side gate and back towards the guest house. As I stopped at the door to the guest house, I looked back, wondering if I might see the man from this morning. In the deepening twilight, I could tell that the house itself was dark. No lights were on inside. No lights, that is, expect for one upstairs, glowing in the window where yesterday I had seen the curtains move.
Spurred perhaps by my irritation with the eroding flyer—perhaps by curiosity—a plan quickly formed in my mind. I had no idea how soon the landlady would return. Hurriedly, I let myself in the guest house. Dropping my bag to floor, I did not stop to change from my work clothes. I immediately went to the kitchenette and rummaged through the drawer until I found the measuring cups.
They were molded tin and had been my mother’s. The first one my hand found was the three-quarter cup and grabbed it and hurried from the guest house and across the yard.
I climbed the stairs to the back deck, the wooden slats slick with rain. Before I could lose my nerve, I knocked on the door. As the knock echoed through the house, I held my breath, waiting to hear the sound of footsteps. I glanced down at the measuring cup.
Silly thing, I imagined I would say if the landlady answered, in all the hassle of moving, I forgot to buy sugar!
A long time passed by and I heard no footsteps. The house was dark. No sounds came from within. I knocked again. I waited.
No footsteps. No movement at all. The house was empty. Dead and empty.
I cannot quite say what made me do it, but I reached for the door knob. I expected it to be locked, but no—it swung open easily. The hinges creaked slightly but nothing was askew.
It felt like an invitation. My heart pounding, I stepped into the house. Despite the fact that I had been through here before—twice even—the house looked much different in the darkness. As I crept along the corridor towards the staircase, the shadows crept with me.
“Hello?” I called out, voice wavering. I cleared my throat and tried again: “Hello?”
Suddenly, as if in response, I heard a thud from up the stairs. And then again. It came from the second floor—a foot hitting the floor and then another, as if climbing decidedly out of bed.
My eyes shot forwards towards the end of the hall—the foot of the stairs—but then I heard a voice. It came from right behind me.
I spun around. The old man was stood there, staring placidly. If he had come downstairs, I would have seen him.
“I’m… I’m… sorry, for letting myself in. The door was unlocked. I just wanted to borrow a cup of sugar.”
He stared at me for a while in consideration before replying. “We’ve never kept sugar in the house.”
“Oh.” I was not sure what else to say. He stood between me and the back door. Afraid to look at him, I let my eyes drift around the walls of the corridor. The black and white photographs that graced the walls seemed to shine in the darkness—images of a family across the generations.
“This is a Sears Catalog house, you know,” he said. “One of the early ones. Built in 1912. Same year the Titanic sank.”
“Oh?” I repeated dumbly.
“Never knew you used to be able to order houses out of a catalog, did you?”
“No,” I admitted, “I didn’t.”
“This house cost my father less than two thousand dollars. He worked for the rail company. The train station itself used to be only a few doors down. It was bulldozed when they built that big mansion. I doubt you even remember that.”
“I didn’t grow up here,” I said, as in in apology.
“You’re not the first,” he said quietly. A pall set about his face rendering him rather boyish. “When I was little boy we had a tenant. A telegrapher. A young bachelor from back east. The rail company owed him some housing and didn’t have anywhere else, so my father agreed to put him up.”
As the old man’s eyes glistened, I tried to picture a young man, coming into a new city, bright and full of optimism, but not knowing anyone—alone in that cold, squat home. He must have felt so much as I did.
“Kept mostly to himself.” A frown touched his eyebrows, wrinkling with the memory. Perhaps it was regret. Perhaps shame. “Mother always thought there was something off—”
A rattling noise interrupted him—a key in a lock. The front door.
Any nuance that remained in the old man’s expression fell away, leaving only terror. “You need to leave. Now.” He stepped aside as I slipped back down the hall and through the kitchen. My heart pounding, I sprinted across the backyard, nearly slipping in the wet grass.
I threw open the front door of the guest house and leapt inside, dead-bolting the door behind me. The rain coated my burning cheeks as I stepped towards the window and looked back up towards the house.
The light that had been on upstairs was now out.
Sometime near three o’clock in the morning I awoke suddenly. My hair clung to my neck, wet with perspiration. Whatever strange tangents had just been dreams were gone. So close they had been so close only moments ago, but now nothing remained except the dark shadows of the guest house.
Then I heard it, off in the distance. The train whistle.
No, I pleaded with the darkness, Not again.
I clenched shut my eyes against the noise as it grew louder and louder, just as it had the night before. Time stretched out, seconds feeling like hours as I could feel the train approaching. As the train drew closer and closer, the windows rattling, suddenly I heard a sharp and distinct tapping noise, like two pieces of metal striking each other.
The tapping continued in an irregular pattern. I wondered for a moment if a branch was caught in the gutter. Yet, as I listened closely to determine the source, the tapping noise shifted. It was as if each tap echoed off a different part of the house.
Louder and louder the tapping grew, closer and closer. No pattern could I lay upon the tapping until I heard a sharp and distinct TAP TAP TAP—right in my own ear. It was was as if the metal struck against itself right above me. TAAAAP. TAAAAP. TAAAAP. I held my breath. TAP TAP TAP.
This pattern repeated. TAP TAP TAP. TAAAAP. TAAAAP. TAAAAP. TAP TAP TAP.
I knew this pattern.
This was an SOS.
Immediately, I threw back the covers and leapt from the bed. I turned to the window and pulled back the drapes to look at the house. I am not sure if I expected perhaps a single light on upstairs, but to my surprise, the entire house was alight. But I could see no one inside.
Stuffing my stocking feet into my boots, I pulled my coat over myself and hurried up towards the house. As I moved across the yard, towards the sidegate, I could see red and blue lights flashing from the street beyond. But all was strangely silent.
The gate groaned as I opened it and my pulse began to race. Something was terribly wrong. Adrenaline began to course through me as I rushed into the front yard.
An ambulance was backed into the driveway. The backdoors were open and one paramedic was loading a stretcher inside. The second paramedic was at the front steps, speaking to the landlady. His face looked grave as she nodded solemnly at him. With a tip of his hat, he stepped off the stoop and joined his colleague.
The stretcher bore a long, black bag and I watched it vanish behind the closing ambulance doors. Without even so much as a glance in my direction, the two paramedics climbed back in, turned off the flashing lights, and drove away.
I had no idea what to do. I stood rooted to the spot, afraid to take a step towards the landlady, afraid to return to the guest house. Her face set into a hardened stare, lips pressed tightly together, the landlady stepped down from the front stoop and crossed the yard to meet me. She looked at me, eyes flashing, and pulled something from her bathrobe pocket. She held it out to show me. “He had this in his hand.”
The measuring cup.
Perhaps she registered my recognition, perhaps not, but she stuffed the cup back in her bathrobe pocket and turned on her heels. Without looking back, she returned to the house and slammed the front door closed behind her. The lights inside flicked off, leaving the house in darkness.
My heart was pounding as I returned to the guest house, nowhere else to go and desperate to lock myself away. I wanted to run but feared she may be watching.
But once I was back inside the guest house—door dead-bolted—I ran to the kitchenette and threw open the drawers. There, in the jumbled mess I had left it earlier that day, were the rest of the tin measuring cups. I scooped them all up into my arms. Panic tore at the walls of my mind. I felt an urge—an imperative. You must hide them. My frenzied gaze whipped around the stone walls and wooden floors that would creak when I walked over them.
Beneath the floorboards. The thought appeared suddenly and I was unsure where it may have come from. Dropping to my knees, I inspected the floorboards. Was there a loose one somewhere I could easily pull up? But across the kitchen, the floors were smooth, the nails driven in deep.
But in the corner, in front of my dresser, I recalled an uneven patch of floor—so uneven, in fact, that I had put a thrift store rug over it to avoid tripping. As I kicked away the rug, I peered down and spotted the short end of the floorboard, poking up a quarter inch from those around it. Digging in with my fingernail, I was relieved to find the floorboard easily lifted away, revealing a tiny hiding space.
I reeled back, gasping. There, in the darkened crevice was what appeared to be a pair of wire cutters. They were unlike what one would find in a contemporary hardware store; with no rubber handle, they were forged steel spotted with rust.
Curious, I picked them up and marvelled at how neatly they fit into my hand. There was something strangely comfortable about them. I recalled suddenly the wire fence behind the row of arbutus trees. Someone had pared it away. But how long ago?
As I returned the wire cutters to the hiding space, I set the measuring cups on top, the metal tapping against metal. The sound sent a chill through me and I quickly replaced the floorboard and pulled the rug back into place. My entire body was shaking with adrenaline as I climbed back into bed. I had not even remembered to take off my jacket.
The next day passed in agony as I blinked against the light of day. The lack of sleep brought havoc upon the working day. Too much longer of this, I thought, and I would likely lose my job.
As the bus drifted down West Boulevard, I pulled the cord for my stop and as the bus slowed, it passed over the train tracks. I was gazing out the window, watching for the development sign with crude curiosity. To my surprise, two City workers were at the sign and appeared to be dismantling it.
They had succeeded; the development had been halted. When I arrived back, lights were on at the main house. Shadows moved within. Fellow members of the neighbourhood committee, I knew, come to celebrate.
As I returned to the guest house, I turned on the lights and gazed around the inside of the tiny building. I dropped my purse where I stood.
I was just so… tired. I had been tired for months. Perhaps years. I wanted to go home—wherever that may be—and sleep for days. This city had defeated me. I fell backwards onto the bed and lay there, staring up at the ceiling.
I could not fight it any longer; I was almost ready to let the darkness take me.
At some point I must have let my eyes flutter closed because I opened them again and—although I had left the lights on inside—it was dark without. As I peered at the clock, I startled to see that it was approaching three in the morning. I had slept for nearly eight hours.
I rose from bed to change into my pajamas and turn out the lights. I removed my jacket and tossed it aside with a thud. I peeled off my socks one at a time and left them scattered on the floor. I pulled my sweater over my head and dropped it near the socks. I stepped barefoot towards my dresser and bent down to the drawer.
Just as I was reaching for the drawer, I realized my feet were cold against the floorboards. There was no rug beneath my feet.
There was no rug over the loose floorboard.
Frantic, I searched around and under the bed, pushing aside dirty clothes and old magazines. I stopped, on my knees at the edge of the bed—just like how Mother used to make me pray—and tried to remember. Had I moved the rug at all? Did I throw it in the wash and forget?
As I forced my mind through the possibilities, my chest heaved with panic. I simply could not recall doing anything with the rug and I could not bring myself to look beneath the floorboard. My forehead was slick with sweat as I pressed it against the bedsheets. I closed my eyes and forced myself to breathe slowly. I wanted to weep.
The night is quiet and peaceful, I told myself. The odd car passed down West Boulevard and the sound was soothing; it was normal. This is all over.
I took a breath. It will soon be over.
TAP. TAP. TAP.
I froze. The sound was distinct in a way it had never been before.
TAAAAP. TAAAAP. TAAAAP.
I could hear it—the metal on metal. A clear and concise tapping.
TAP. TAP. TAP.
It was coming from one spot.
I lifted my head from the bed and looked up. All the lights were still on.
It began again. TAP. TAP. TAP.
I knew precisely where it is coming from. The kitchenette.
TAAAAP. TAAAAP. TAAAAP.
I pulled myself onto shaky feet and looked into the kitchenette. Dirty dishes were still in the sink from days before but the counter was clear. The counter was clear, that is, except for Mother’s measuring cups. They sat, laid out in a neat row, from largest to smallest, including the three-quarter cup i had never got back from the landlady. I stared at them in disbelief.
They had been my mother’s; I knew this so resolutely, yet I had not had them before this. I found them in the kitchenette drawer when I moved in.
The smallest tin cup on the end slid quickly to the side, hitting the next one, three times in quick succession: TAP. TAP. TAP.
I wanted to scream but the air strangled itself in my throat, I only fell backwards onto the bed. The words wire cutters flew through my mind and I scrambled sideways onto the floor. Fingernails digging desperately, I pulled up the floorboard. The hiding space was empty. The wire cutters were gone.
TAAAAP. TAAAAP. TAAAAP.
I scrambled across the floor. I heard it again, all around me, like before: TAP TAP TAP. The pattern repeated over and over and over again, winding its way up and up—louder and louder!
It screeched, too much for me to bear—TAP TAP TAP! TAAAAP! TAAAAP! TAAAAP! TAP TAP TAP! I clapped my hands over my ears but it did nothing to drown out the noise. I screamed against it: “Go away! Go away!”
Suddenly, the tapping stopped.
For half a heart-beat I heard nothing, just a whining silence and a ringing in my ears. With my eyes closed, I merely listened. I couldn’t even hear the cars on West Boulevard. I couldn’t hear anything. Except whispering.
Someone was whispering yet I could not tell if they were close or far. Was someone whispering in the corner, or speaking outside, at a distance? “Hello?” I croaked. “Is it… you?”
But the whispers did not stop. I cried and they continued in wordless babbles. They only stopped when the sound of the train came. The ground rumbled as if that great mechanical beast thundered down the tracks. The walls of the guest house shook. As I heard its whistle cry out, I knew that the train was passing by, just there, beyond the row of arbutus trees.
The silent held for a heartbeat and then the whispering began again. I tiptoed up towards the window and, as I gently pulled back the curtain, a shallow pool of light spills into the guest house. Across the yard, a light was on at the house.
Several lights were on.
There were people in the kitchen, silhouetted in the light. Dozens of them. Had they been there all this time? Were these the whispers? Voices at three in the morning, echoing through the yard? I threw open the curtain and watched them.
Their silhouettes wavered like sunlight through trees. I try to look for faces, but I cannot see them. The light caught their clothes and I could make out neat sweaters and windsor knots, but the faces were blank, expressionless slates.
I needed to leave.
I picked up my jacket from where I left it, discarded on the floor. I pulled it back on and stepped outside.
I stepped out into the yard just as the back door to the house opened. And out the neighbors came, spilling across the deck and into the yard.
Terrified, I stumbled backwards. My bare foot slipped on the grass and I fell roughly to the ground. I landed on something hard. As I winced in pain, I rolled over. Whatever it was was in my jacket pocket.
The wire cutters.
The train sounded again—so loud I could feel the vibrations in my chest. It was as if the train itself was all around me; I felt the sound of the train just as I felt the purest bolt struck through to my heart.
I staggered to my feet. Wire cutters in hand, I ran for the train tracks. One of the arbutus branches whipped me in the face. I tasted blood, but I didn’t care. I found the wire fence but—as expected—there was no way through. I was wise to bring the wire cutters. The arbutus trees were shaking all around me, but I saw nothing. I only heard my ears ringing, ringing with the endless violence of the train whistle.
As I stumbled out onto the train tracks, my bare feet slipped on the metal rails, toes snagging on weeds. The sound of the train was so deafening, I heard nothing anymore: I could only feel it. My entire body vibrated in the darkness, a deep, deep rumbling. I could not hear the others from the house; I could not see them.
As the whistle wailed, the phantom brakes screeched and through the darkness before me came a blinding flash of white.
Ashleigh Rajala is an award-winning writer whose work has been published in numerous journals and anthologies, including Room, Redwing, Quarter Castle, and Crab Fat. She lives and works in the Vancouver area with her husband and an extraordinarily fluffy cat.
& cradle that childlike, pure part of you & plant it
in the new skin your memories made in me,
water it with my own eyes so you’d never
cry & I’d make us into different people
altogether. We’d be so loved, so disgustingly
lousy with love, we’d be boring; each Christmas
filled with family who only touch to hug;
our lives, so abundant & blessed, absolutely
no one would write about us.
Amanda Woodard is a freelance poet, essayist and ghostwriter, and an MFA candidate at Antioch University. She studied Social Science and Journalism at the University of North Texas and attended writing workshops at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference and Writing Workshops Dallas. Her work has been performed in Oral Fixation and published in Ten Spurs, eris & eros and Cathexis Northwest Press.