Month: March 2016

Marching into Blue Climes

The wagon lurched and leaned up the crooked road to the dry bluffs. There, on ground of splintered shale and rust-colored lichen, where bull thistle twisted between the cracks of the earth, lay the disused home of Wallace Whitton’s father. Wallace, atop the wagon with reins in hand, smiled at his son and motioned to the firepit-gray ocean, where he hoped the boy might wish to play. He tried to seem sincere in his enthusiasm, but gained no like response. The boy stared ahead and drummed his thin fingers in an intricate rhythm upon the wagon’s rails.

When they stopped before the home, Wallace kept his watery smile in place. Their former guest house had been more expansive than this, and in far better repair. He hoped his son couldn’t read his disappointment, but the boy had seen so much. How could he know one truth and not grasp another?

The son touched at his fingertips. Each looked as if it had been dipped into a rhubarb pandowdy.

Wallace caught the boy’s hands and held them tight. “You mustn’t.”

The boy watched the sky, its clouds smeared over an expanse as pale as memory.

“Do you hear?” Wallace asked.

The boy answered that he did.

“Our things are inside. Go and see.”

The boy climbed down from the wagon and made his way into the house. The dismal structure was all that remained of the Whitton fortune, enduring only because it had lain outside the field of battle. If only they had all been so blessed. Viridis, the former Savannah vineyard, had been smashed, stolen, and eaten by Grant and his Hessians. While the rumble of their march faded to the south, Wallace Whitton had knelt amongst the ruins and, with his own cultured hands, dug through the cinders of his past, the cooling ashes of his family’s legacy, to grasp Nettie’s unanswering fingers.

As Wallace hefted their last load of belongings to the ground, a plinked melody of single keys struck by a single finger sounded from the house’s corner room. The boy had found it. Wallace headed inside to bandage his boy’s fingers before they stained the ivory.

These Old Hands

Frances heard a shriek as she approached the cottage door. Joseph hovered outside the threshold, twisting his cap in his hands. “She’s bad, Frances. Says she can’t take the pain.”

The old woman gave him a dismissive wave. “Ah, she’ll be fine, lad. It’s nature’s way.”

“What should I do?” He was barely more than a boy, less than a year married. His face, normally nut brown from working in the fields all day, had a grey cast to it.

Frances shouldered past him, Margaret right behind her. “Just stay out of the way, boy, and let us work. I’ve never lost a baby nor a mama yet, and I don’t intend today to be my first.”

Inside the cottage was dark, air thick with the smells of smoke, sweat, and urine. Frances could dimly make out Essie’s form writhing on the small bed against the far wall. “Margaret, get the window open and put on water to boil,” she said, rummaging in her bag of supplies. The packets of powders and herbs went on the cottage’s rickety table; Margaret would know without being told how to mix them.

Frances carried the birthing stool and linen to the bedside. “Now then, young Essie, let’s have a look at you.”

Essie’s round face glistened, her cornsilk hair flattened against her scalp. “Oh, Frances, it hurts something terrible. I think something’s wrong.”

Frances pushed back the blanket and peered between Essie’s legs, pressing one hand against the swollen belly. “Nonsense, girl. Your mother said the same thing when she birthed you, and you were no trouble at all. We’ve time yet.”

While Margaret boiled water and brewed the herbs, Frances got Essie out of bed and on her feet. At first she resisted, but Frances eventually got her to walk a circle around the small room. When Essie’s next labor pains struck, the old woman helped her sink into a squatting position on the low birthing stool. “Margaret, hold her up.”

Margaret set aside the cup of brewed herbs and moved to support Essie’s lower back. She was a thin, fragile-looking girl, but Frances knew she was far stronger than she seemed, and holding up Essie’s limp weight posed no challenge. Frances eased down onto one knee, wincing at the stiffness in her bad hip. Pushing up Essie’s skirt, she leaned down to check her again.

At first glance, it appeared to be the start of a normal crowning. The lips of the vulva were stretched over a round, smooth surface, one a little bigger than a balled-up fist. Then Frances frowned and took a closer look. It was the right size to be the baby’s head, true, but it was too dark, too shiny. Even if Essie had been bleeding, it wouldn’t have stained the scalp that deep, gleaming black.

When Frances leaned up, Margaret’s sharp brown eyes were watching her. Breech? she mouthed from behind Essie. The midwife shook her head.

“Essie, bite down on this, now. I’ve got to reach in.” She passed Margaret a leather strap and smeared her fingers with goose grease from a small jar.

Essie tensed and let out a groan when Frances slipped her fingers past the mass. Frances felt around the sides of the object, pulse quickening with each moment that passed. The shape her fingers traced was a smooth ovoid. No limbs, no face, no bones. In place of soft, yielding flesh was a slick carapace or shell, hard as stone under Frances’ fingers. As she explored, there was a flutter, some tapping from within, a pulse or a kick.

“What is it? What’s wrong with him?” Essie’s voice came out shrill and garbled around the strip of leather.

Frances forced herself to meet Essie’s eyes. Poor girl, she thought. And it’s her first. “We can’t know till you’ve birthed,” she said, and could see that Essie was too scared to ask again.

The rest of the labor Frances handled like any other, instructing Margaret to rub Essie’s back when the pains came, applying salve to prevent tearing and blood loss. When the time came to push, Margaret moved to ready the linens. Frances watched her face, could see the shock pass over her features when she saw what was coming out. But then the girl steeled herself and looked away, busying herself with preparations. Frances took Essie’s hand in her own arthritic fingers, not allowing herself to wince no matter how hard the girl squeezed.

It came out smoothly, and Frances could see right away that Essie was in no danger. Margaret caught it as it slipped from between Essie’s legs, a perfectly even, black shape, like obsidian with the edges smoothed away. There was no cord, nothing attaching it to Essie’s body. Margaret’s hands trembled as they held it, her throat working as she swallowed convulsively.

“Why isn’t he crying?” Essie gasped. “Why isn’t he crying?”

She leaned forward and saw what she had delivered into the world, and the scream that ripped from her throat seemed to pierce Frances down to her bones.

Me and My Heart

I meet the man in a hotel outside of town. Room 304, just like he said. He’s there when I arrive, watching football on the television. “Shut the door,” he says, and I do.

He opens a briefcase and shows it to me: seven ounces of flesh suspended in liquid and plastic. “We good?” he says.

I reach into my purse and unfurl the bundle of money. Six hundred pounds, made up mostly of fives and tens, scraps of cash collected over the months, small enough to avoid drawing any attention.

We make the exchange, and the man walks towards the door.


He stops.

“I don’t know how to do it.” I hesitate. “Can you help?”

“It’ll cost more.”

“How much?”

“Another two hundred.”

“I don’t have that much.”

He sighs. “How much you got?”

The forty pounds left in my purse is for groceries, but I can worry about that later. I hold it out to him.

He takes it, opens his briefcase, and finds a bottle of clear liquid with a syringe. “You got a knife? Needle and thread?”


He passes me the bottle. “Use this before you begin. Rest’s up to you.”


When I get home, it’s ten o’clock. I should have an hour before my husband gets back. I work quickly, checking diagrams on the internet before injecting the liquid into my side, just above one of my bruises. I use a kitchen knife, sterilised in boiling water. It stings at first, but the injection takes most of the pain away. I slice and carve with the knife, using a mirror to guide my trembling fingers until I make the final cut. For a moment, my senses plummet and the room feels darker, smaller, like all the texture has been buffed off the edge of the world. I make the switch.

He could be home any minute. I stitch myself back together with needle and thread, and it’s only then that I realize I haven’t thought about what to do with my old heart. I bury it in the garden.

I wait for the thump of his footsteps on the staircase, the sound of him fumbling at his clothes and climbing into bed. The smell of his breath, stale alcohol and smoke, his fingers in my hair and on my body. But the door never opens.

In the morning I find him asleep on the sofa. There’s a beer can on the floor, and a pool of sticky liquid where the dregs have drained out. I clean it quickly before making breakfast, and when he wakes he’s in one of his good moods, so things are okay.

When he leaves for work, I examine the stitching. It’s already healed. The lines I drew with the knife have come back together, and my new heart beats underneath.

Things feel different now, like someone has turned the volume down by a couple of notches, like they’ve gone into the settings and fiddled with the contrast.

In the garden, a flower has grown on the spot where I buried my heart. There’s a single rose at its head, red like blood.

The rest of the week is okay. I keep to my normal routines, making sure the house is clean and dinner is on the table when he gets back from work. The days blur into each other, a steady grey.

One day he throws a plate at the wall. It takes ages to clean all the grease, but I know he doesn’t like his meat cooked that way so it’s my own fault, really. He apologises later.

In the evenings, while he sits on the sofa watching television, I bring him drinks but I keep the pace slow so he never goes beyond the dulling stage. He touches me in bed, but if there are any marks still left on my chest, his groping fingers don’t find them. On Friday he comes home with flowers and a bottle of my favourite wine. The weather is fine so we eat outside in the warm air. I try to enjoy the wine but it doesn’t taste of anything. While we sit there he says it reminds him of one of our earliest dates. I see the rose in the garden and I wonder.

On Saturday night he goes out with the guys. He kisses me when he leaves, but when he returns in the small hours he slams the door and I know it’s time. He swipes at me clumsily, but when he tries to grab my arm his sweaty fingers slip and I escape into the kitchen. I grab a knife with one hand, the cordless phone with the other. I tell him to leave.

He smiles stupidly and slurs his words. “Come on, baby, why all this?”

In my chest, my heart is steady. “If you come near me, I’ll use this knife, and if you don’t leave, I’ll call the police. I mean it.”

“You’re feisty tonight, eh?”

I begin to dial the number.

He holds his hands up, smirking. “Okay, okay …”

When he’s out the door, I put it on the latch and speak through the gap. “I don’t want you to come back. Not ever. It’s over. I mean it.”

He laughs. “You can’t live without me, honey. You know that, and I know that. We love each other. We need each other.” He walks away. “I’ll see you soon,” he says.

When he’s out of view, I close the door.

He thinks it’s going to happen like all the other times. He’ll come back grovelling, tell me how much he loves me. That he’s sorry, that it will never happen again. And I’ll take him back.

He’s wrong.

This time the locksmith will be here in an hour. This time I’ll change my details at the bank. This time I’ll go to the courts, get one of those orders. And this time I won’t feel anything.

I Will Bring You Home

A thud of rock woke Sykeet, followed by a rattling of dislodged crystals against the woven walls of her hanging hut. There were no fire pots in her lower reach of the rookery. No light from the moons, either: a storm beat against the suspended village. Her wings twitched in the dark.

There was cursing, then a shriek of panic, “The fledglings!”

Sykeet darted from her hut like a harpoon, flying blind toward the crèche net. Her long wings beat the air, lifting her upward. Sleet hissed against rock, giving her only a minimal sense of location in the dark. More rocks thudded above. She heard the twangs of over-stretched ropes snapping.

She called shrilly to her daughter, “Kyree!”

There were voices in the dark: other mothers and the faint cries of fledglings. Then from above, a wild flapping of fabric and netting. She couldn’t see a thing.

The falling canopy hit her, a glancing blow that knocked loose feathers and sent her tumbling in the dark. She heard waves crashing against the rocky base of the spire below.

Sykeet caught air in her wings, regaining control. Still blind. The plummeting crèche net had fallen below her. She pulled her wings against her body and dove into what she hoped was open air.

“Kyree!” she called again.

The panicked brood, trapped in the net, screeched as they fell toward the sea.

Sykeet followed their cries. The net hadn’t snagged on the crystal-crusted spire. If she could catch it with the talons of her feet or wings, she might slow its fall.

But a gust from the storm blew her sideways, away from the screams. She beat air frantically, trying to get back.

There was a splash as net and brood plunged into the sea.


Cold sleet crusted her feathers, numbing muscles. Spray from the waves blew against her as she fought to stay above them, circling blindly and calling, trying to find her daughter.

Unable to see, she slammed into the spire. Pain shot through her. Dazed and disoriented, she grabbed hold, talons clutching crystals. Fragments cracked loose from the rock. She slipped closer to the waves. Sea spray filled her open beak as she turned toward the water. She choked and coughed.

Sykeet could only cling there, shivering from pain and cold, too numb to take flight. She listened for fledglings, hearing only the roar of wind. Waves pounded the rocky base below her. Her eyes stung from sleet and spray. When she tried to climb lower, more crystals broke off, nearly dropping her into the cold sea.

She folded her wings close against her to conserve heat, and pressed her head against the rock. The world had gone dark, taking the thing she cherished.

She shivered through the night, praying for some sign that her daughter had survived. She saw nothing, heard nothing.

But in the dark hours of early morning, she suddenly dreamt she was elsewhere. Sleet and spray still beat against her, but instead of the rocky spire, she felt she was pressed against something smooth. A net held her down.

Then the dream was gone, as quickly as it had come.

A Long Fall

Patricia gathered her savings and took the number 58 bus downtown.

She held the bag in her lap, watching the city pass by. Their neighborhood had gone from nice to terrible, from kids smoking under a streetlight to kids shooting each other over drugs. But she had never suggested they move, and neither had Samuel. The church needed them, and God knew, the neighborhood needed the church.

There was a car sitting in the driveway and it had been sitting there a long time. Her brother told her she should at least start it once a week, to keep it fresh, but Patricia had trouble finding the keys. And when she did, she saw the keyring, she saw the name on it.


He’d written it himself. One weekend the grandchildren were staying over and her granddaughter wrote her name on everything she thought was hers. Patricia had started to yell, until Samuel put a hand on her shoulder and asked for the pen.

“Good idea,” he said, winking at their granddaughter. He took the pen and wrote his name on the keyring. “That’s mine.” And he and his granddaughter had taken turns marking whatever they wanted, with the granddaughter’s wants far outnumbering Samuel’s.

He had his name on his toothbrush — he’d made sure to mark that, while their granddaughter had claimed Patricia’s toothbrush as her own. Samuel’s toothbrush stood in a holder beside Patricia’s. She hadn’t touched it since he fell.

The bus bounced. It was cheaper than driving. Faster too, if you were headed downtown. Her brother had warned her of the people who rode the bus. People only take public transportation in big cities, he’d told her, and Norfolk isn’t a big city. That’s what he’d said. She knew what he meant: the law-abiding only take the bus in places like New York, and Norfolk is no New York. It’s Norfolk, a city on life support by the grace of the military bases every which way you turn.

Her brother was full of opinions. Especially about this. The bus chimed. It slowed.

She got her bag ready.