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 circus tent came down. Joseph the clown returned the poodle to its cage. Back in his caravan, he sat at the mirror. The show had been a success; the dog made every hoop. ‘Joey! Joey!’ People cheered. A success, until, amidst the laughter, he’d seen that boy in the front row: pulling a grimace. Joseph glared at the mirror, tore off his wig. But left his face on. As a schoolboy it had always been grimacing boys, grimacing girls. Soon the bearded lady would be coming over. She liked to after a show. Tonight he would let her have it his way.
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 ©