As a child, she swallowed clods of loam soil, followed by smooth pebbles. When left alone she could turn this matter into a garden. And so as she grew, so a softer place grew up inside her: a quiet haunt that had not made a way for words to enter, a world left unspoilt by such imperfect things. It was a place another might like to find, to hide, someone who would not tread on the unfurling tendrils, nor dig too close to the roots, or take stones where they didn’t belong. Someone who knew all about silence.
He hadn’t been king very long when the revolution began; it was just like his father to give him the things he wanted at the moment they meant nothing. It was night as he lay in the chambers of his concubine, who still called him Principe, out of affection. The mixture of fear and love in her eyes disarmed him. He’d predicted that the revolutionaries would come on bicycles, though it was unlikely, as the invention hadn’t yet come in to fashion with the people. He admired their revolution, the people’s spunk. He’d willingly champion their cause, if only he weren’t their king.
Down at the docks at dawn he’d mount his forklift to watch another ship come in. In the summer they’d arrive with the rising sun, seagulls flying overhead; and in the winter, with that heavy fog over everything, he loved to see the searchlights breaking through, the foghorns crying out. The other men arrived eventually, carrying their coffee flasks, lunch pails, and hangovers. So he’d crank up, go about it, loading and unloading, silently, like the rest of them, yet knowing that one day he’d be on one of those ships to Europe: Paris, Lisbon, Madrid, anywhere; and once there, then he’d be living.
Nobody Writes to the Fat Man
Holding a pair of darned socks and a hot water bottle, Albtraum stood outside the fat man’s room. The elf nudged the door open and peeked inside. By candle light, he saw his old friend, wearing nothing but his y-fronts, seated by the frosted window.
‘Leave everything on the bed, Albtraum.’
The elf placed the things down with deliberate slowness and then, light of foot, stepped just outside the door and watched as Santa continued to trace, on each of the frosted panes, the names of all the children, who no longer wrote him letters.
His sleigh alighted upon her roof. Despite the years, his descent down her chimney still sent butterflies up inside him. The rooms of the house, though changed, remained familiar. He placed his gloves on the bare marble mantelpiece, where once he’d have found a plate of gingerbread and a picture she’d drawn, her name written in crayon, always brick red, the letters becoming smaller over time.
Inside her room, she no longer needed a nightlight; instead a reading lamp shone above her, asleep, her cheek resting on an open book: her quivering eyelashes scratched at the pages. A pair of silk stockings hung from the bedpost.
She’d believed longer than anyone. But nothing lasted. He came closer, switched off the light, reached for her stockings.
Illustrations by Hannes Pasqualini
Sons of Sorrow
They rode into town at sundown, wild boys on black horses. Sorrow, on a white horse with no saddle, galloped ahead of them. It wasn’t enough that some called her a witch, others dared say that her sons were her lovers, too. Fathered by the devil all. In the saloon, they drank spirits, sang their songs; while the women locked their daughters up: girls who, stifled and broken-hearted, stripped off their bodices, and undressed. But the men, who could hold their drink with vigilance, stayed at the bar all night, until Sorrow and her sons rode back east at dawn.
The Bird Seller
Alfonso Dominguez Bécquer always wore a white suit with white shoes. The cages, too, he’d painted white. To the boys, who caught the birds, he didn’t pay much. Enough to keep them out of school. He sold doves, pigeons, canaries and lovebirds. But there was one bird he’d never sell. It was not a rare bird, but he watched over it like a hawk. He fed it the best seed, changed its water often and kept it in the shade. Nevertheless, every night the dream reoccurred: the small bird pecking out his eyes, blood all down his white suit.
A fly rested on the lamp nearby. Frank sat smoking; a deaf tap sent ash from his cigar falling like snow. Nobody was around. When a man has thoughts of tomorrow to contend with, a fly has no place being there. Breathing cigar air, he relaxed his hand, unfurled a fleshy palm. The fly edged across the lamp. Frank noticed the abundance of grey hairs entwined about his wrist watch; smoke fled from his nostrils. Time held, and the fly flew its erratic way nearby, where, closed in tight by soft flesh, death came so slow, it made no sense.
Grandmother gave Alice her first doll when she was four. The doll resembled her: the dark hair, brown eyes, and a complexion like porcelain. Cradling her doll, Alice sat on Grandmother’s lap to hear of the night the house burnt down. She was taken in her sleep, but escaping the officer’s grip she ran into the house to save them. Upstairs on a flaming bed sat the family of burning dolls. She could get no closer before the black glove grabbed her. But Grandmother swore that their once dark eyes shone like emeralds, and their little mouths cried out.
‘Were you there the day the sun got lost?’ she asked him. He said he wasn’t, hesitating because he didn’t really know if he was telling the truth. She might well have asked him if he’d been there the day the Berlin Wall came down or the day the music died. For all he knew he was and he wasn’t. She herself probably didn’t remember if she was or wasn’t there, but just to prove that she surely had been, she went on to describe how the sun that day was there and then, just like that, it wasn’t.
She ran, remembered never to look back. On the other side of the woods, she saw the old Mill – just how she’d seen it drawn in her story book at home. The door had been forced off its hinges then propped up, barring the entrance. The door was too heavy for her to move, but she was small enough to crawl through the gap. Sunlight broke through the windows where boys had thrown stones. Finding the darkest corner, she crouched down and covered herself. She could hear them calling out her name, but she knew not to answer.
The Last Librarian
The library was abandoned. The librarians long dead. Yet the books remained impeccable upon their shelves. A hollow sound rippled from the volumes as Jane ran her finger along them. She had removed one, opened it to the middle page, when uneven footsteps shifted across the polished floors with the echo of a tiny, insistent cough. Jane replaced the book, and turned towards the way she’d come, but there, at the top of the winding staircase, stood a woman of indeterminable age with a feather duster, the scepter of her reign, gripped in her blue-veined hands. ‘They’re not for reading.’
The Sicilian Defence
Giuseppina was a relentless cook. Never had the pasta been anything but al dente. The boy sat in the big armchair in the darkened lounge at the same board, as if nothing had happened. He knew the old man’s opening game better than he knew his own. He played with the caution his adversary had not. His mother would look in on him once in a while, wiping her hands on her apron, before returning to the kitchen. She had used the same knife she now used to chop onions. A good wife knows the way to her man’s heart.
All afternoon I lay on the couch, staring at the picture on her wall: a ballerina sitting, lacing her shoe, a raised leg, a bended knee. Then her key turned in the lock. I pretended to be asleep, but she’d seen my dangling feet in socks. She put down her purse. In a while I followed her into the bedroom. The curtains were drawn and the room was dark, and cool. She removed her stockings, and everything else; her dress lay on the floor. Her pale body seemed the source of that coolness. ‘I’m tired,’ she said. ‘Let me sleep.’
The spaceman drifted farther out into space. The coiled silver tube that had attached him to the mothership, severed by his own hands, resembled an umbilical cord. Death crept gently in, and life seeped out. The spaceman came to look on the galaxy that was so infinitely vast, and yet about to crush him. He’d come as far as he could go – further than he had imagined – only to see that the stars were no closer to him now than they’d ever been on earth. Yet still, with everything that was his last, he reached out.
He awoke oddly famished. Then, on his way down to the corner café, he noticed they were all gone, vanished from the world. The very idea was absurd. He had not expected the solution offered by the Agency to be quite so final. He supposed that the mediators had altered his vision, removed or transformed them maybe, rendering them unrecognisable. But it was not long before he stopped wondering about them altogether. He was too busy collecting the fleshy rib bones he found everywhere: on the streets, in parks, and offices. Too preoccupied by his bizarre desire for the meat.
The jury was out. The newspapers had their front page. Tommy’s parents turned off the television; they’d seen enough. His mother, knitting another sweater for the hard months to come, stared red eyed at the framed photograph at her bedside: little Tommy with his curly locks, stark blue eyes and strange pouting lips, sat, dressed in a sailor suit, sword raised, on a rocking-horse; while his father, the good minister, gently rocked him back and forth with his foot, reading aloud from the book of Revelations: the opening of the second seal, the horse of red, a slayer of men.
He awoke in the middle of the night with the feeling that someone had just sat on the empty couch in his head. How he’d missed the tickle of those springs, collapsing then bouncing under the pressure of a soft behind. He lay back slowly down on his pillow, closed his eyes, and waited for the sweet warmth that soon would gather there. Gently, he began to hum when he felt a pair of legs come up to fill the remaining space: two feet nestling in at the opposite corner, and a rosy cheek, asleep upon the arm rest.
Illustrations by Hannes Pasqualini ©
The rain never let up. And all the while she could see him standing out on the street across from her apartment, looking up at her window, his blue umbrella always open but held so far back that the water got under his skin anyway. She fought the urge to shout down to him, to tell him to be sensible – to go home.
A part of her wanted to let him in, take off his wet clothes, run a hot bath, together maybe. But then she remembered the rain, and how much they were alike. He never did let up.
The Great War was firmer in his mind than the raised butter knife in his hand. He saw himself in the glint of the blade and hid it beneath a napkin. His daughter came in with tea on a wooden tray, printed with a depiction of a provincial French scene.
He walked forever before coming to a stone house just out of the woods. Stepping over a soldier’s boots, stuffed with lavender flowers, he went in – rifle on his back. There was a sad laughter coming from behind a closed door. And on the kitchen table, a glass of anisette on a wooden tray.
It was noon and the bar was closing for siesta. By the fountain, in the shade, his mandolin held against his chest, José stood waiting. The sun burned directly above as Mariana, the barista, stepped out into the deserted street. She walked across to the fountain and José began to play. He played her song; he played until his fingers bled. But as he played, the sun drifted, and so the shade departed, taking Mariana, without a glance, back to the other side of the street. Tomorrow the sun would burn again. Tomorrow José would be waiting.
illustrated by Hannes Pasqualini