Issue No. 7, Winter 2013

Red Cap
Hannah Stoppel

The flowers on the path to my front door were starting to wilt. The summer had been dry, and with everything else I hadn’t taken the time to water them the way I should have. I pulled three bags of groceries out of the trunk and toted them up the front steps. Lindsey, the babysitter, must have seen me through the window and she opened the door for me. Violet was still too young to be alone in the house, and my mother, who’d been living with us for five months, couldn’t move around enough to watch her anymore. Her breathing was getting more and more labored every day, and the sound of it frightened Violet so much that she didn’t like to stay in the same room with her.

Vi ran up to me as I dropped the bags of groceries on the kitchen counter.

“Mom, Grandma’s wheezing again.” She had just learned the word ‘wheezing’ and was using it at every opportunity. I scooped her up, though at seven years old, she was determined to be a big girl and squirmed to get away from me. I squeezed her until she wormed her way out of my arms and back to the floor.

“How long is she staying here?”

I knelt down so I could look her in the eyes, “Sweetheart, I told you, Grandma’s going to be staying with us for a long time, ok? She needs us to take care of her. So we have to be big girls for her, okay? Until—“ I trailed off, chewing the inside of my lip.

“Until when?” Vi whined.

I tried to keep my voice from catching in my throat, “Until—until she doesn’t need us anymore.”

“How long?” She was glaring at me suspiciously.

“I don’t know, Vi,” I snapped, “That’s enough.”

She stalked out of the room with all of her first-grade dignity and I leaned my forehead against my hands, massaging my temples. The groceries could wait for a minute. I poked my head into the living room. My mother was sitting on the couch. The television was on, but muted, and the shades were drawn. The flickering colors from the TV screen made it hard to make out her features in the dark, but I think she liked it better that way. In the last few weeks her face had collapsed dramatically, and there were dark patches on her skin. Tiny TV screens were reflected in her oxygen tubes.

“Hi, Mom,” I called, too cheerfully. She looked up and smiled.

“Hello, Holly.” I could hear the hiss and suck of her breath from the door. Her breathing was labored all of the time now, even when she was sitting down.

I turned and went back to the kitchen, methodically pulling everything that needed to be refrigerated out of the brown paper bags and putting it away. I opened the cupboards and stacked the cans of soup and tuna and beans on one shelf, boxes of cereal and macaroni on another. I left the bags on the counter and went to find Vi.

She was sitting cross-legged on her bed with her stuffed wolf, Andre.

“Come downstairs, sweetie. I want you to spend some time with Grandma before dinner.”

She ignored me, trotting Andre across her quilt.

“You know Grandma made that quilt for you, when you were a baby.”

She nodded, marching Andre up the pillow. I sat down at the edge of the bed.

“Just for a little while, before dinner? After dinner you can do whatever you want. This is really important to Mommy, okay?” I reached out and put my hand on her back, willing her to understand.

She finally looked at me, “Tell me a story first.”

“You’ll get a story at bedtime, just come downstairs now.”
“Please?”

“Vi—“

She stuck out her lip, and started to turn back to Andre on the pillow. I sighed and brushed my hair off of my forehead.

“Okay, okay. A short one.”

“A scary story.”

I thought for a minute.. My brain was full of images: the woods, the cottage, the wolf from my dreams. Ever since Mom had come to stay with us I had been having nightmares again.

“Fine. Once upon a time, when I was a little girl, my Granny lived deep in the woods. Every weekend my mother, your grandma, would bake bread and cookies and we would walk down the path, over the river and through the woods to bring them to her cottage. When I got older, sometimes Mom was too busy to take the walk, so she would just send me with a basket. I looked just like you, except I had this red hat that my mom made for me.

“One day, when I got to my grandmother’s house, there was no answer when I knocked. I went inside, and called for my grandmother, but there was still no answer.”

Violet was holding Andre in her lap, looking at me, waiting for the scary part.

“I crept through the house, feeling like I was intruding, even though I had been welcome in every room before. Finally I came to Granny’s bedroom at the end of the hall. There was a shape in the bed. It had yellow eyes and long, sharp teeth and grasping claws. It was looking right at me.”

Violet’s eyes were big now. I started to embellish the story, filling in the gaps in my memory.

“’Grandmother?’ I asked.

“’Yes, dear?’ said the figure in the bed.

“’What large eyes you have,’ I said.

“’The better to see you with, my dear,’ she answered.

“’What large ears you have.’

“’The better to hear you with, my dear.’

I leaned in close to Violet.

“I could see saliva dripping off of the pointy, pointy teeth, and I was sure that this wasn’t my grandmother. It was an enormous wolf. Stepping back, I said, ‘What large teeth you have.’

“’The better to eat you with, my darling,’ shouted the wolf, and he sprang out of the bed,” here I reached out and grabbed Vi, she screamed and giggled, “and he would have gobbled me right up, but I was too quick. I ran screaming out of the cottage.

“The sun was only beginning to set, but it was already dark under the trees, and the branches were twisting in the sky. I was so scared, that as I was running, I was sure that the trees were moving too, writhing in the sky, grabbing for me.

“I ran so fast, that I was nearly back to the main path before I realized that no one was chasing me. The woods were quiet except for the evening chirps of frogs and the crunch of my own footsteps. Finally Karl, you know, the man who lives at the edge of the woods, found me wandering around and took me home. I ran out of the house so fast that the red hat that your grandma knitted for me fell off. Karl found it later and brought it back.”

She looked at me with the kind of disdain only an eight-year-old can give and said, “That wasn’t a very good ending. You should have slain the evil wolf and rescued Granny!” She covered Andre’s ears when she said this, not wanting him to hear about anyone slaying a wolf.

I ruffled her hair and shrugged, “Maybe I should have. Now come downstairs.”

As we left the room, Vi tugged on my hand, “Mom, do you think if we went to the woods, we might see a real wolf? I think Andre would like to see a real wolf.”

I had already started to regret telling that story, but it had been in my head for weeks. I had thought maybe turning the dreams into a story for Violet might make them seem less frightening for me, but it wasn’t working.

I stopped her before we made it to the living room, “Violet, you know the woods are dangerous. You could get lost, or hurt. And remember, wolves aren’t all nice like Andre, some of them are mean and nasty, like the wolf in the story.”

“But maybe we could find one! It could be my friend, and Andre would like it. We tried to go when Lindsey was helping Grandma, but then she was calling for us.”

I grabbed her by the shoulders, giving her a little shake, “Vi, you have to promise me. You won’t go into the woods unless I’m with you, okay?”

I could hear anger and fear creeping into my voice, and I tried to calm myself down.

“Ouch,” she said.

“I’m sorry, Vi, I didn’t mean to shake you. But promise me, please. Don’t go into the woods unless I’m there.”

She stared at the floor.

“Vi?”

“I promise,” she mumbled.

In the living room, my mother was watching the news, but she switched it off when we came in. Violet pulled away from me and flopped into the armchair while I sat next to my mother on the couch.

“Vi, tell Grandma about school.”

I squeezed a few sentences out of Violet, watching my mom smile while her granddaughter talked. At first Vi was hesitant, but she had always been a talker, and she warmed up a bit as she went on.

“Tell me about your teacher.” My mother didn’t speak much anymore, she had to stop and take a breath every couple of words. When she spoke, Vi looked at her with big eyes for a moment before starting to tell her about Mrs. Stevens. My mother nodded along. I leaned back against the cushions, watching my daughter warm up to her grandmother.

“Mrs. Stevens loves animals. We have three class pets, an iguana, a hedgehog and a guinea pig.”

Mom smiled, “I always liked animals too. We always had a dog when Holly was growing up.”

Violet nodded. She was quiet for a second, then, “Mom says there’s wolves in the woods.”

My mother raised her eyebrows, “She said that, huh?”

“I want to see a real wolf, like Andre, but Mom made me promise—”

I interrupted, “Vi, go on and play, I’ll call you for dinner.”

I watched her leave the room and turned back to find my mother looking at me, that calm, but questioning mother-look that I had yet to master. I had been trying to get Vi to spend more than a few minutes with my mother for weeks, but this was the first time they had really connected.

“I’ve been having nightmares again,” I offered as an explaination, “Like when grandma died.”

She pushed the breath back out, lips pursed and drew in another one, “The wolf?” she asked, her voice faint and hoarse. I nodded. She covered my hand with her own. The skin was dry and cracked, and the nails had a bluish tint around them. The doctors called it cyanosis, a symptom of the emphysema.

She coughed, then said more clearly, “You should let her go to the woods, Holly. You loved them when you were little.”

“She doesn’t know them like I did; she might get lost. I’ll take her when I have time.”

“You mean when I’m gone,” Mom said dryly, “I’m sure Karl would take her.”

I nodded, my mind now on other things.

I ran my fingers over hers. The knuckles bulged in arthritic lumps, every part of her was aging faster than I had ever imagined. She rubbed my knee, slid her claw-like fingers back and forth over my jeans. The hands weren’t as curled as my grandmother’s had been, not yet, but every day she was getting closer and closer to the twisted creature that had slunk back into my dreams after nearly forty years.

“Mom, do you know what happened to that red hat? The one you made me?”

“I think I kept it somewhere,” she took a deep, rattling breath, “You used to wear it every day.” Another breath. “It might be in one of the boxes.” Breath. “In the basement.” Breath. “I held on to some of your things.”

She leaned over to put an arm around my shoulders, and I dropped my head to rest on hers.

* * * * *

After dinner I helped Mom to her bedroom. This was the first night that Violet didn’t hide behind my legs to say goodnight.

In Violet’s room I stopped reading after two chapters of Pippi Longstocking.

“One more!”

“It’s late Vi. I’m tired.”

“Just one! There’s no school tomorrow.”

I shook my head, tucked her in and went into my own room.

In my dream I was a little girl again, a few years older than Violet. I walked through the woods, over a wooden bridge that my grandfather had built across the river when my mother was a child. The trees were friendly and safe. I had grown up in these woods, after all, and in my young mind there was nothing there that could hurt me.

My grandmother’s house was in a clearing, deep in the forest, the path led to the clearing on one side, and a long, winding driveway on the other. When I reached the cottage, I couldn’t hear any movement inside. I knocked, but no one answered, so I pushed open the door and walked inside. I set my basket down in the kitchen. My grandmother had long refused to move closer to town, so that we could keep an eye on her, so my mother picked up her medications, and always sent homemade baked goods along with them.

“Granny?” The house was silent. Not a creak of the floorboards, or a breath of air disturbed the inside. It was too dark in the house, darker than it should have been in the middle of a clearing in the afternoon. As I walked down the hallway, it got longer and longer, fading down to my grandmother’s bedroom door at the end. I started to run. What if Granny was sick? Maybe she had fallen down, like my mother always worried she would. The faster I ran, the farther the door seemed to get. It was shrinking, like something from Alice in Wonderland. Then, suddenly it was there, I crashed into it, and my head spun. The handle was cold, and it stuck when I tried to turn it, creaking as I pushed the door open. I walked up to my grandmother’s bed, and there, instead of my Granny’s tired but happy smile, was the wolf, fangs bared. It leapt out of the bed and I ran, back down the endless hallway, out of my grandmother’s cottage. I ran through the woods as the trees tried to grab me, until I was falling, falling, falling though the clutching branches.

I lurched awake, feeling as though I had just hit my bed from several feet in the air.

The clock read 1:09. I rolled over and tried to fall back asleep, but couldn’t. Finally I sat up and slid my feet into my slippers.

Cold air hit my face when I opened the door to the basement. When my mother had come to stay with us we had sold her little house. Most of her things, the ones she didn’t need on a regular basis, were in boxes. I waited for the light to flicker on before descending. I could feel the temperature drop as I went down the unfinished wooden steps. The concrete floor was dusty, and the air had the same dank smell it had had since we moved in. We usually avoided the basement, and the things down here had mostly been forgotten.

Mom’s boxes were piled against one of the walls. Underneath a couple of large boxes labeled things like ‘kitchenware’ and ‘winter clothing’ I found one that said ‘Holly’s things’ in my mother’s shaky printing. Inside were a few old toys, baby clothes, high school yearbooks, my graduation robes, and buried at the very bottom, beneath the robes, was my hat: a flopping thing somewhere between a beanie and a beret. It was bright red and smaller than I remembered. The knitting was almost felted inside from wear, and there were dark stains on the yarn in places. The wool was scratchy in my hand as I climbed back up the stairs. In the light from my bedside lamp, it seemed even dingier than it had down in the basement. I picked it up, turned it over and over in my hands. It had been one of my mother’s first forays into knitting, and the stitches were uneven and lumpy. I rubbed them between my fingers. When I pulled the hat over my head, it squeezed my temples, but it went on. It was strange to look in the mirror; I could see past the wrinkles and the flecks of grey in my hair, back to my nine-year-old self.

I set the hat on my nightstand and climbed back into bed.

* * * * *

The next morning I woke up from an unexpectedly dreamless sleep. I sat up and reached for the hat on my nightstand, but my fingers hit smooth wood instead of rough wool. The hat was gone. I knelt on the floor, wondering if I had knocked it down in my sleep; I searched under the nightstand and felt under the bed, but found nothing.

I frowned, trying to decide if my midnight trip to the basement could have been a particularly lucid dream. I dressed quickly; I had woken up late, and Violet, who was an early riser, was probably waiting for her Saturday pancakes.

Downstairs, I poked my head into the living room; my mother wasn’t up yet. I didn’t see Violet either, I checked the kitchen, and the dining room, thinking she might have gotten herself a bowl of cereal. I ran back up to her bedroom, though it would have been unusual for her to still be there at this time of morning. Neither she nor Andre was there, but she had pulled the bedcovers up in an attempt to make the room look neat. My heart was starting to beat faster. I opened the door to my mother’s room at the bottom of the stairs. I could see her shape in the bed, but no Violet. The bathroom door was open, the room empty.

I ran through the living room out the back door into the yard, but my daughter was nowhere to be seen. I thought about the missing hat. Had I mentioned the hat in my story? Yes, I thought. Maybe Vi had woken up in the night, had seen me coming out of the basement with the hat. She wouldn’t have gone to the woods, she had promised not to.

“Vi?” I yelled over and over.

I was out of the house before I knew what I was doing, sprinting down the road towards the edge of town. The spring air was crisp and chilly. It was more than a mile from our house to the edge of the woods. I passed my mother’s old house, the house where I had grown up. I hadn’t felt much selling it, but now there was a pang of loneliness as I looked at it.

As I ran, I looked back and forth scanning everything I could see for my daughter, for a red knit cap or a stuffed wolf.

At the end of the street, the road dead-ended near Karl’s house. He was nearly as old as my mother by then. I thought I caught a glimpse of him through the kitchen window as I hurried by, and thought about going in and asking for his help, but instead I ran straight into the woods.

It was sunny out, despite the cold, and the light came brightly through the trees, and glowed through the small spring leaves. Buds were just starting to burst open, and there were a few early spring beauties huddled under the trees. I peered up at the branches overhead, but they weren’t the grasping fingers from my dreams. Instead, the tiny new leaves made a kind of glow.

I stuck to the path, praying that Violet had too. The place where the main path forked wasn’t nearly as far as I remembered. I glanced down the fork that led to my Granny’s cottage. Had I mentioned it in the story? I didn’t think so. I took a few steps down the right fork, towards the cottage, but then turned and went left instead. I wasn’t sure I wanted to see the cottage.

I was walking quickly and soon I could hear the stream trickling along beside the path. I left the trail to follow the stream. There was a little pond further on that I had played at as a child. It was further than I expected before I heard the higher tinkling of a few tiny waterfalls above the sound of the stream itself. The pond was swollen with recent snowmelt and the ground was muddy. I looked around it for any sign of my daughter, but there was nothing.

I set off toward the path again and crossed it, following a tiny trickling branch of the stream. I came to a little dip in the land where a couple of large trees had fallen over, making the perfect jungle gym for an adventurous child. I scanned the area for any sign of a red cap.

“Vi?” I called. There was no answer.

I kept running through the woods, searching for landmarks and calling my daughter’s name until I came back to the fork in the path. This time, I took a deep breath and went down the branch that led to my grandmother’s cottage. I was slowing down, out of breath as I approached the clearing. I didn’t know if I had mentioned the fork in the road to Vi, but she could easily have found her way there.

Finally, the trees thinned and I stepped into the clearing. There was my grandmother’s cottage; like everything else in the woods, it seemed too small. In my dreams it often seemed like a sort of backwards fortress, designed not to keep danger out, but to keep me in with the wolf.

The building was worn looking, but not as decrepit as I was expecting. A few shingles had fallen off of the roof, but other than that, the cottage was much as it had been. The door was slightly ajar, and I hoped that that meant Vi had found the cottage and was somewhere inside. There was a layer of dust on the floor, but instead of being untouched, there were the marks of large work boots scuffed along the floors. I smiled at the image of Karl, reattaching the porch railing or raking the leaves, taking care of Granny’s house the same way that he had when she was alive.

“Vi?” I called, poking my head into the different rooms. With each door I opened, I hoped that I would see my daughter, sitting on the floor playing with Andre.

The hallway to my grandmother’s bedroom was short, I made it to the end in a few steps, and the door was right there, not sinking away from me along a lengthening hallway, as I half-expected it to. I slipped into the room. The bed sat in the corner under the window, covered in a handmade quilt that had been bleached so much by the sun that I could barely see that the squares were once different colors.

I ran my hand over the quilt, the fabric felt so thin that I was afraid the light pressure of my fingers would tear it. I tried to imagine what I saw on that day, what I saw in my dreams, but in my mind all I could see was my grandmother’s face. Her eyes were closed, sunken in masses of wrinkles, her formerly rosy cheeks were sallow. Her mouth was slightly open, revealing her coffee-stained teeth. One hand rested on the edge of the bed, her capable fingers arthritic and curled, the nails untrimmed for too long. There was no wolf in the bed.

I sat down on the bed. Violet wasn’t in the cottage, and I didn’t know where to look for her. The forest was huge, and so much of it was empty of paths. I leaned my forehead on my hands, feeling helpless. I couldn’t stop looking, but I didn’t know how to go about it. I could feel a few tears squeezing their way out of the corners of my eyes.

There were footsteps in the hall, the clomping of big boots.

“Holly?” called a voice I recognized.

Karl was standing in the doorway, holding Violet by the hand. She was holding Andre against her chest; her clothes were muddy and covered in leaves, and my red hat was on her head. I ran towards them. Violet buried her face in Karl’s pant leg.

“Are you all right, Vi?”

Karl answered for her, with a smile that deepened the wrinkles around his mouth and eyes, “She just took a little fall by the stream, she’s fine.”

I started to take Violet from him, but she wriggled to the floor, where she pulled the hat off of her head and hid it behind her back. She was looking at her feet, but I could see her lip shaking as she tried not to cry. I knelt down and put my arms around her; any anger that I had felt at her disappearance was dissipating.

“Vi, what were you thinking?” I was halfway between scolding and crying.

She squeezed her little arms around me, “I’m sorry, Mommy. I didn’t mean to break the promise.”

I squeezed her tighter, “I’m just glad you’re safe. You won’t do it again, right? I promise we can come back and explore together, okay?” I held her at arms length, taking in her muddy clothes. Blood was seeping through a tear in the knee of her jeans and there was a scrape on her cheek, but otherwise she didn’t look the worse for the wear. Andre was looking shabby, his fur caked with mud in places.

I smiled, “Did Andre like his trip to the woods?” She looked up at me, as if trying to gauge whether I was mad or not.

She beamed, “Yeah! But not the part where we fell in the mud. There were rocks.” She paused, and looked up at me accusingly, “And we didn’t see a single wolf.”

She looked as affronted as a first-grader can look when Karl and I burst out laughing. He was eyeing me knowingly, “Her too, huh?”

I took the red hat out of Violet’s hand and put it back on her head, “I guess so.” I took my daughter’s hand, “Hungry, Vi?” She nodded, “You bet!”

We turned and the three of us walked out of the cottage, letting the latch click firmly behind us.


Hannah Stoppel was raised in the forests of Northern Michigan and her connection to fairy tales was formed early. She is currently continuing to pursue that fascination as an MFA student at Pacific University and lives in Louisville, Kentucky. She lives with a journalist, a cat and a greyhound (who doesn’t look a bit like a wolf) and survives by making wigs (which sometimes do).

Issue No. 7, Winter 2013

Banana
Dawn Wilson

There once was a child born.  A little girl.  A darling, but small, child.  Destined for something, obviously.  Not everyone has a destiny from birth.

“Jaundice?”  A nurse trying not to sound alarmed.

“No…”  A doctor, intrigued.

The mother blushed as several healthcare workers gathered around the slowly emerging head and muttered things about the spectacular color, the protective coating, the sheen and brilliance and unexpected nature of the embryonic fluid—no, not fluid, almost plasticine—and would there be fully-formed limbs inside?

“Um, excuse me?” the mother asked.  This was her first child.

“Would you mind if we videotape this?” the doctor asked.  “I think it best.”

Mothers often squeak in alarm before they are fully aware of danger.  Danger in earnest is usually accompanied by a full-throated scream.  This mother squeaked at the request to video her inaugural birth.  She’d never had practice!

Men of science lack the skills necessary to recognize that their curiosity comes to others in a form that causes annoyance.  “It will be completely anonymous.  No one will ever know whose vulva this is.”

The mother screamed.

“Oh, come now, your baby isn’t very large,” the nurse said.

“I don’t like it when they scream,” the doctor said.  He removed his little green hat and headed for the door.  “Let me know when the baby pops out.”

“What would you like me to do?”

“Catch it.”

“What about the video?”

The mother screamed again.

“We’ll re-enact it.  I’ll be in the cafeteria, finding the proper stand-in for the baby.  I’ll be in the fresh fruit bowl if you need me.”

“What about the stand-in for the mother?” the nurse asked.

The mother screamed.

The doctor looked the nurse and said, “You’re female.  You’ve got the right parts.  Although, unfortunately, my stand-in for the baby will be necessarily smaller, it will make it easier on you to pass.  Won’t even have to staple it in.  But, damn, it’ll appear breach, banana-end first.  I’ll have to look for a suitable head.”  The doctor tried to slam the door, but it was pneumatic.  Damnable modern hospitals.

The birth progressed.  The baby popped out.  The nurse caught her, guessed at the sex, and burst into tears over the prospect of re-enacting a fruit birthing.

The doctor, meanwhile, sat on a counter in the cafeteria, attempting to attach a severed doll head to an unpeeled banana.  “Does anyone have a longer nail?”

*

The birthing membrane covering the child from neck to foot was a thick, fibrous, yellow skin.  For all intents and purposes, the child appeared to be a banana with a head.

“You shouldn’t name her ‘Banana’,” the father said reasonably.  “At least call her ‘Chiquita’ or something.”

The mother snorted.  “If I call her ‘Chiquita’ everyone will ask, ‘As in the banana?’  If I call her ‘Banana’ no one will dare enquire as to what is inside her fruity shell.  Besides, the doctor swears she’ll grow out of it.  ‘Chiquita’ would surely embarrass any kindergarten child.”

The birth certificate proclaimed the baby girl: Banana Coraline Peel.

*

The overly enthusiastic nurse asked, “Shall we peel her?”

The doctor declared, “Let’s send her to x-ray!”

They whisked her away to take pictures of her insides before making a decision about the peel.

The doctor was somewhat disappointed when he found that the child, grown swaddled inside a banana peel, was simply a child beneath the peel and not a mushy piece of fruit.  “Damnation,” he swore, “just a normal little girl.”  He held the x-ray up to the window to show the parents.  “See?  Stop crying.  She’s fine.  A medical anomaly, but fine.”

“I peeled a hermit crab once and it died,” the nurse said.  She flicked a nail at the tight peel around the baby’s neck.  “But it’s such a treat to help one out of the shell.  And such a temptation…”  She felt around for a seam.  “May I?”

*

With the nurse’s obsession with peeling the baby, and the doctor sneaking up at quiet moments to steal photographs of the baby “in her natural element,” the parents ensconced their little bundle into a baby carrier and slipped away into the night.

They didn’t get very far.

“I’m afraid I’m in a bit of pain,” the mother said, stoic, stiff-lipped, and refusing to faint in polite company.  “You should go on ahead without me.  Take little Banana.”

“How will you find us?”

“Leave a trail of breadcrumbs.”

“I haven’t any bread.”

She pulled a small loaf out of her robe pocket.  “Here you are, dear.”

“Where did you get that?”

“From my dinner tray.  I didn’t have time to eat.  The newspaper man was being a nuisance.”

The tragedy of the miracle birth came here: the breadcrumbs got eaten.

A hungry stork followed the father.

The father wove This Way and That to lose the newspapermen and Mayo Clinic experts and thrill seekers and curiositiers.  He ducked up alleys and down side streets.  He ducked up side streets and down alleys.  He hid behind garbage cans and plots of tulips.  He hid from neighbors and strangers and cats with glowing eyes.

The stork stayed a safe distance behind.  Nibbling.

Little Banana cooed and slept and pondered whatever great questions the newborn mind ponders.  When awake, she saw thousands of things she’d never seen before, and had no name for.  While sleeping, her mind replayed the adventures and created an image of her world.  For a baby sees everything for the first time and believes this is as the world should be.  Bundled not in a blanket but inside a banana.  With a father carrying her willy-nilly through streets and fields and furtively across the town lawn at midnight.

At last, several villages from the town he’d started in, he reached the end of a dirt street.  The sign read “The End.”  He believed it.

*

The village of The End was small, no more than fifty thatched-roof houses.  It had no hospital, just a town doctor and a midwife.  It had no supermarket, but a bakery, a butchery, and a vegetable stand.  Fruit was picked freely from the respective trees on which it grew.  Few of the villagers had ever seen a banana.

“What have you got there?” an elderly gentleman asked.  His voice was kind, like his blue eyes.

“Banana,” the father said.

The wide newborn eyes looked around.

“What a pretty little girl.”

“Yes, I think so, too.”

“Swaddled up tight.”

“No use catching cold.”

*

In town the mother panted down alleys and up side streets, the opposite her husband had done.  That Way and This instead of This Way and That.  She ached from the birth and rested often.  Then she panted down side streets and up alleys, again, the opposite of her husband.  Opposites are the most thorough way to lose a person, even unintentionally.  She hid in front of garbage cans and plots of tulips.  She hid with neighbors and strangers and cats with glowing eyes.  “Have you seen my Banana?” she asked them all.  But her husband had been skillful in his escape.

She finally gave up and took an apartment by her lonesome, where she stayed for three years.  She took out an ad in the paper asking about the whereabouts of her child and husband.  MWF seeks Banana.  She knitted decorative holders for flowerpots for three years, never a word of her family.  She knitted a broken heart and wouldn’t sew it back together.

*

Banana learned to crawl like an inchworm.  She rolled around the dirt floor of the little cottage in the town of The End.

Her mother sat melancholy in the city of How Sad.  Every night by the light of the moon, she raced through the streets, looking for breadcrumbs.  Once she followed a particularly messy eater for nigh on a mile, but at the end of the mile she made a new friend.  An old lady, smeared in jam, pockets full of crumbs, hair oddly reminiscent of feathers, all white and practically flying away even when she stood still, licking crumbs from her claw-like fingers.

“Why, hello,” said the mother shyly.

The old lady cackled.  “Why?  Hello?  Because, I suppose, this is not good-bye.”

“That’s lovely.  I have too many people I never said good-bye to, but they’re gone anyway.”

“Gone where?”

“Why hello?”  She stared up at the moon.  “Where good-bye?”

The old lady leaned in, smelling of honeybees and jelly and fresh toast.  “I made a mistake.  Once.  And now look at me.  That’s a secret.  I made a mistake.  Someone must have thought it was a pretty big mistake for a pretty big bird and took away my wings.  Would you like some tea?”

“Why, yes, that would be lovely.”

“Why?  Yes?”

“Because it’s not no.”

*

“I grow old just watching her,” the father said to one of the mustachioed long-johned overalled villagers.  “Look how she grows.”

“She’s still very small.”

“Yes, but she said ‘Mama’ the other day.”

The townsman said nothing.  Best not to bring up Sadnesses.  Everyone in The End knew babies came from women, and that there was one woman Mysteriously Missing.  No fools inhabited the town.  Just cautious, non-learned folk.  Though they said nothing, they wondered amongst themselves why it had taken three years for the little girl to say one word.  And then to choose the one which had never been spoken in her presence.

*

In the city, the mother cried herself to sleep.  She awoke to a tapping on her apartment window, though the apartment was on the third floor.  She climbed from bed and saw beyond the small balcony down to the street where her new friend threw pebbles at the French doors.  The old woman was covered with crumbs as normal.  In her hand, she held a basket of fruit, which was not normal.  Fruit didn’t leave crumbs, so the old woman rarely ate it.  Today she wasn’t eating it, just carrying it around.  “Why?  Where?” she squawked.  “Yes, hello there!  Hello, here!”

The mother put on her slippers and went below to examine the wicker basket.  “What have you got here?” she asked, full of sadness as usual.  She tried to smile.

The old woman smiled her nearly toothless grin.  “The question is, what haven’t I got here?”

“A banana,” the mother said easily.

“Ah ha!  Thank you!”  The old woman skipped off with her basket, la-la-la-ing a little tune.

*

The father woke up one morning to find Banana had started to peel.  The tight collar at her neck had sprung open like a daisy.  He scooped her up and ran out the door of the cottage, his nightcap flying, and down the dirt street to the temple where the elders could be found gathered before breakfast.

He panted and held his child.

The elders, three men and two women, looked up at him but said not a word.  They could discern the situation without help, and the wisdom of the ages usually told them to keep quiet.

“What do I do?” he asked, forgetting they knew nothing of the extremely odd circumstances surrounding his child’s birth.

“Mama?” Banana asked.

“It’s high time that child was betrothed,” one of the elders said.

The father went away, bowing to them as he backed out of the temple.  “Yes, yes!”

*

The mother, alone as usual, sat at a sidewalk café on the main street and watched for passing men with fruit carts.  She ordered a coffee, which was brought to her small round table, and she sat there holding it, trying to figure out which was warmer on her hands, the coffee, the sun, or joy.

Her arms longed for her baby.

The old woman came by, skipping merrily.

“Old woman,” the mother called.

The woman stopped and looked at the mother.  Her grin faded, her eyes grew sad and crinkled up with the ages of life.  “Poor dear,” she said.  “I never did find what I was looking for, now did I?  Lost my way!”

“Oh, that’s all right,” the mother said quietly.  “Will you join me?”

The woman sat at the other wrought-iron chair.  She sat uncomfortably straight, hands folded in her lap.  “What’s the plan?”

“No plan.”

“But you go out every night.”

“Just looking for something.”

“I understand.”  The old woman looked around furtively.  “That I do understand.”  She leaned across the table.  “When you’ve lost something important, you look and look and look.  And never find it.”  She slipped from the table.  “Write me a note, this time I won’t forget!”

The mother smiled and nearly laughed.  Her new friend ran down the street straight into traffic, crossed the boulevard, and ducked out of sight.

*

That night a newspaper, hand-inked on papyrus, fluttered through the half-open French door.  It listed weddings, funerals, and a single engagement notice.  A small village which still practiced arranged marriages.  The children’s names were Banana and Apple.

The mother bolted out of bed, clutching the papyrus to her chest.  She dashed about the room, took only as much as she could carry, and ran out into the night.

Breadcrumbs led the way down the street.  She wove this way and that.  She ducked up alleys and down side streets.  She ran down side streets and ducked up alleys.  She hid behind a garbage can and the crumbs stopped.

The mother sat there and cried.

In a yard across the street the old woman sat behind a tulip plot, a loaf of bread in hand.  “You’re out prowling again,” she noted.

The mother joined her behind the tulips.  “My life is but sorrow.”

“You just need to wait a little longer.”

“Wait?  All I’ve done is wait!”

“As soon as I’ve finished my bread, you’ll see.”

The mother shook her head.  “You don’t understand.  I have to get to The End!”

“I do understand.  For I’m the naughty stork who delivered your Banana.  I’m the naughty stork who was supposed to deliver your family to safety, but got hungry and created mischief instead.  I’m the naughty stork who’s spent three years in this form trying to fix what I messed up.  If you’ll be patient and let me finish crumbling this bread, you’ll see what I mean.”

They made their way slowly out of the city.  The old woman’s pockets were filled with bread.  Bread enough to make crumbs all the way from How Sad to The End.

As the dawn broke over The End, the old woman turned into a stork and flew away.  The mother was reunited with her daughter and husband, and the Banana peeled just that much more.

*

“Is there really a boy who’s grown up in an apple?” the mother asked after they’d spent three days in a family hug.

“No.  But there’s a little boy whose hair is green and thick and spiky and fibrous like a pineapple.”

“Is he a good boy?”

“I don’t know.”

“Is he really going to marry our Banana?”

“Someday.”

But Someday was a long way off.  First that little girl had to shed her peel, which she did, on her fifth birthday.  Then she had to learn to walk, rather than hop.  (She’d always been fastest in the gunnysack race, though.)

On her fifth birthday, the peel opened right up and out she popped.  She stretched her skinny legs and skinny arms.  She yawned and rolled off the down tick kept on the floor for her.  She rolled over to the breakfast table, as she had for many years, greeted her mother, hopped up onto her chair, and sat, as if she were a banana.  Her back a little curved, her feet clutched together.

“Morning, Mama,” Banana said.

The mother dropped to all fours beneath the breakfast table and counted ten little toes.  She cried happily.  “Looks like someone needs to learn how to walk!”

As soon as Banana could walk, she could go to school.

“We can go back to the city!” the mother said.

“What for?” the father asked.

“Why hello?  Why yes?  Back to our families!  Our home.  Although we don’t have a home.  But we probably have friends.”

He shook his head.  “It’s been five years.  Why should we go back?  We have a home right here.”

“It has a dirt floor.”

“We have friends right here.”

“I don’t.”

“This is where we were meant to be.”

The mother snorted.  But it’s tough to move on with such a flimsy reason as We Could, so they stayed.  Fate and storks had a way of playing with the Peel family.

*

Banana started at the village school, which had four little boys and five little girls, all of different ages.  The little boy known as Apple had lost his green spiked hair on his fifth birthday, and now that he was six, he knew everything there was to know.

He cackled in front of the classroom, hands on his hips, master of everyone’s domain.

Banana entered shyly on her new legs.  She’d never played with the village children.  She could conduct philosophical conversations with the village elders on the subject of yak’s milk, and she could discuss the dangers of crocheting too-cute flowerpot holders for carnivorous flowers with her mother, but children were a different beast.

Apple tossed his head back.  He stood atop the teacher’s desk and laughed.

“When’s class start?” Banana asked.

Two of the bigger boys laughed at her.  They’d spent the early morning chasing the teacher around the one room, and finally tied him up beneath his own desk so he couldn’t be seen.  “Go home,” one of the boys said.

They didn’t learn much that year.  Quite often the teacher stayed home with a cold, or spent the day tied up in the forest.

“I don’t see the point of letting boys run the world,” Banana said one day.  She longed to curl up inside her peel, but it had rotted away in a box and become nothing more than a shrivel.  She sat on the box in the corner of the cabin and looked out the window.  She had an idea.  In her mind, the right way to live was by running up alleys and down side streets.  In her mind, she could hide behind tulips and she’d always be safe.  She knew what life should be.

“Mama,” Banana said when she was twelve, “we don’t seem to be learning anything.”

“That’s all right.  I never learned anything when I was your age,” said the mother.

Banana stamped her foot.  “It’s not all right,” she said indignantly.

“Everyone has a different way of living, girl, don’t worry.”

“It’s just not right.  Here or there or anywhere, people should learn horticulture, conjugation, synchronized swimming, star gazing, plaster working, watchmaking, cookie baking.  I should know how to tap a maple tree for syrup by now!  No one should be allowed to tie the teacher up in the forest and leave him for the bears.”

“No, I suppose you’re right.  But where I came from, we didn’t have bears.”

Banana was miffed.  “Tell me where you came from.”

It wasn’t long before Banana knew she hadn’t come from the same place her mother had.  Every day she went to school and tried to find out why she was there, and every day she came home disappointed.  There didn’t seem to be an answer.

“What do you want?” Apple asked one morning when she showed up at school.

“I want to learn to filet a fish, skitter a gibbet, and most of all, this year I want to learn semaphore.  That’s a type of communication, you know.”

He stood on the front step and towered over her.  Then he pushed her down.  “You don’t need to learn anything at all.  I learned stuff for a whole year, and I’m supposed to marry you, so stay down where you belong.”

Banana kicked him in the shin, returned home, packed up her parents, and they all moved back to How Sad.  Boys needed wake-up calls once in a while.

*

Banana bloomed in How Sad.  She took classes in stork training.  She managed rutabagas in the community garden.  She learned about apartment dwelling.  Her mother turned sheep into yarn and yarn into cupcakes and wore the pants in the family.  Banana’s father became village elder of the apartment building and wore his long nightshirt and his nightcap and dispensed wisdom on the rooftop, seeking a little bit of sun in a brick city.

One day Banana turned an entire flock of flamingos bright blue.  That was the day it got out to the city that she had been born as a banana, disappeared Mysteriously, and had a great destiny.  This girl would peel back the layers and rearrange their society until everything gleamed new and different and kinda scary.  Suddenly miracles were happening left and right.  The penitentiary lost all its crooks, and rumor had it they’d turned into giant fruits and vegetables, with Vitamin C and antioxidants.  A pre-school turned into a dark forest with a sunny meadow in the center, and all the children learned about the cultivation of edible fungi from the elders of The End, who were commissioned specially.

The elders of The End were the only ones in How Sad who kept their mouths shut about the miracles.  No psst-pssts or didyahears among the elders.  They had grown old watching Banana grow up and they knew that, although she was a vessel, she was also just a little girl.  The miracles were nothing but sweet little mysteries: the prisoners had been taken to a tropical island to pick coconuts and make pina coladas.  Their warden had grown up growing tasty juicy giant farm-fresh fruits and veg.  Back to his roots!  These weren’t miracles: these were mercies tempered with a little sleight of hand.  The pre-school had been razed in the middle of the night by a building company ashamed of the shoddy workmanship, convinced that children learned best free to roam, and free from the dangers of How Sad.  The builders planted fast-growing trees and smiled at their secret.  Banana’s father called the elders of The End to come teach, dispensing more than they could from a rocking chair staring at the clouds.  “Give it a try; what can you lose?” everyone asked each other.

The miracles continued.  Parking meters never ran out of change.  Flowers blossomed in every green space.  Windows washed themselves on the outside.  Lawns never grew over three-quarters of an inch.  Everything was either recycled or composted, and suddenly art sprouted in every non-green-space.  Hanging from the sides of buildings were chandeliers, flowers, and hippos made of old forks and tin cans.  Clothes were sewn into giant parachutes and circus tents.  See-through umbrellas lined sidewalks and protected people from passing pigeons.  Playgrounds made of tires and waste lumber sprouted in every backyard.  Butterflies and hummingbirds increased tenfold.  Electric eels were harnessed for power and became family pets.  And every day at a quarter till three, everyone gathered at the front stoops of their apartment buildings for story hour.

The town council passed a motion to change How Sad to That’s Neat.

The only people who weren’t happy were the little boys who had been left to fend for themselves in The End.  They foraged for squirrels and mushrooms, caught fish using spears, and grew long beards because there was no one there to say Don’t Do That.  And then, suddenly, they were happy, too.

Banana’s stork training went well.  There were no more mistakes.

*

Banana turned into a slender beauty, and on her twenty-first birthday, she stepped into a floor-length white gown.

Someone knocked on the front door of their apartment.  It wasn’t much of a Mystery who would be standing there.  “Why, hello.”

Apple answered the Why, dispensing the practicalities of the Hello.  “I don’t know what I’m doing here.”  He kicked at the welcome mat as if he’d be unwelcome.  “I guess ‘cause it was a village decree.  Not that I ever listened to the elders before, but somehow or other it might be time I become Old Enough.”  He was still an awkward youth, but How Sad—pardon: That’s Neat—would quickly break him of that.  “I guess we gotta get married.”  Someone had attacked him in an alley and shaved his beard clean off, polished his shoes, combed his hair, and set him free without a word.

“I don’t think so,” Banana said, “as I am a headstrong youth and you are not of my picking.”

“Then what’s with the white dress?”

“Because it’s not yellow.  When I’m green, I’m not ripe.  When I’m yellow, I am simply myself, but when I’m white, I’m a free spirit.  Today, I am free.  Not for purchase.  Not for hire.”

“Ain’tcha gonna marry me?”

“No.  But you can marry me.”

“Why would I do that?”

“Village decree.”

“But what would I get out of it?”

“I’ll think of something to do with you.”

They married that afternoon, Apple wrapped tightly in a synthetic banana peel to learn That Which He Couldn’t Possibly Understand, but which she hoped to teach him.  The village elders returned to The End and celebrated at their temple.  They’d managed to finally clear The End of all the weirdoes, the bananas, the apples, the teachers, the wandering parents, the wayward storks, and life could resume, peaceful and wise in its silence.


A graduate of Bath Spa University in England, Dawn Wilson has had the pleasure to dabble in kitsch, surrealism, and espièglerie. Her work can be found in Rabbit Catastrophe Review, Gone Lawn, Paper Darts Magazine, Metazen, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Drunk Monkeys, and Punchnel’s, among others, while the author herself can be found dismantling the kitchen for wearable items, or at nightdawn.wordpress.com. She is at work on a madcap novel.

Issue No. 7, Winter 2013

Sorrow Brings a Dancer
Douglas Sterling

Charlotte stood watch as the darkness gathered itself to her husband. His fingers uncurled, the light left his eyes, and his lungs gave up the last of their air. She drew the sheet to cover his face. It fell, a curtain separating her from everything familiar, leaving her huddled in the footlights at the front of the stage, naked and without a script. In an instant their time, their memories, their love—all of it had collapsed into nothing.

Charlotte mustered her courage and turned to face an audience made up of family and friends. Their eyes, glittery and wet, pricked at her heart. They offered to stay, but she declined their uncomfortable kindness.

“It won’t be long,” she said. “And I’d rather you not be here when he arrives.”

They nodded, they touched her face, her hands, and with tears and sad words they went off into the night. Charlotte was alone for the first time since the day she and Joseph had married. But she would not remain alone. Any moment now her dancer would arrive.

 

#

 

Charlotte was sorting through old photographs when her dancer drifted into the room. He was tall, thin, and wore a mantle the color of night. His footsteps were as silent as smoke, his breath was a heavy mist falling on the back of Charlotte’s neck.

“So you’ve come for me,” she said.

“Yes,” said the dancer.

He offered his hand to Charlotte and she accepted. His fingers closed over hers. She felt his poison course through her veins, numbing her and draining her world of its color.

 

#

 

At first Charlotte and the dark figure danced in her cottage around the empty dinner table. There was no music but her dancer was patient, counting off steps as steadily as a clock. Mourners came and went, filling her home with letters and flowers. They moved gingerly, avoiding the track of Charlotte’s waltz as she clung to the cloak of her partner.

Most of Charlotte’s visitors had spent time with a dancer already. It was a custom predating even the eldest. Those who had yet to take a dancer’s hand thought of themselves as fortunate, though even the youngest knew it was only a matter of time. They spoke to Charlotte but their words were boggy and distant, and though she understood them individually, they made no sense when collected. Instead they doddered about in her mind, aimless and without meaning.

 

#

 

“One, two, three. One, two, three.”

Charlotte and the dancer turned in small circles, following an invisible path around the freshly dug grave. She could not distinguish the mourners surrounding her; it was as if their faces were set behind soap-frosted windows.

“One, two, three. One, two, three.”

The pallbearers took their places. The priest recited words from a language no one could understand. Women dabbed at their eyes. Men cleared their throats. The attendants lowered her husband’s body into the ground, unwinding the ropes with great care as if the coffin held a colicky baby.

“One, two, three. One, two, three.”

Afterwards the mourners crowded into a sweltering chamber where they ate with solemn expressions. They spoke consoling words to one another through sugar-speckled lips. All the while Charlotte and her dancer went through their paces, gliding about at the center of the room.

“She was always my most graceful girl,” said her mother.

The priest nodded his head.

“I knew she would dance well,” he agreed.

 

#

 

Her mother had died of a wasting disease when Charlotte was still a child. Her father’s dance lasted several months. Once it was through he’d sat with Charlotte in her bedroom souring the air, his clothing drenched with perspiration. He tried to help her make sense of the ritual of the dancers.

“When we enter the world we bring a dancer with us,” he said. “They slip away like a shadow, going off into the woods. Our sorrow is their food. It brings them the same way a wound summons flies. Dancers are a gift made to heal the living of misery.”

After the dance, Charlotte’s father never spoke about her mother again. Her presence faded from the house like a wisp of smoke from an extinguished candle. Charlotte could not picture her mother’s face anymore, but she would never forget the sight of her father drifting around the yard, dancing with his nightmarish attendant.

 

#

 

Charlotte and her dancer continued together through sleepless nights and listless days. All her bodily concerns faded–she existed only to dance. A gray cast stretched over the sky making the sun a hazy circle of copper. Nightfall brought boiling clouds of black that swallowed the moon and all her blinking children.

Charlotte mustered the nerve to address her shadowy partner. She hoped that conversation would hasten the passage of time.

“What did you do before this?” asked Charlotte.

“I sang,” said her dancer.

“You sang?”

“Yes. I sat by a lake of poison in the woods. My song was a lure to bring the creatures out of hiding. They would drink and grow weary. Their falling sated my hunger. It fed me while I waited for you to call.”

“So you enjoy watching things die?”

“There is no joy,” said the dancer. “Rot does not rejoice. Decay does not celebrate.”

“You’re an abysmal creature,” said Charlotte.

“In a sense,” said the dancer.

 

#

 

Charlotte and the dancer moved through places she’d been many times–places which now felt unfamiliar. The marketplace was obscured in a thick blanket of fog. They sailed down the center of the street. They ignored the vendors and their wares. Autumn’s leaves fell without fanfare, clumping themselves together to rot in dejected heaps of umber. When Charlotte danced past strangers out for a stroll in the cool of evening, they would hurry their pace and move past her. When she danced past acquaintances they would step quickly, pretending not to see her.

 

#

 

Charlotte moved with her dancer like a figurehead at the prow of an unyielding vessel. She tried to warm herself with reminiscence.

“I was a child the first time I looked in Joseph’s eyes. He leapt into my path and handed me a flower. I was flabbergasted. I asked who he was and he fled down the lane. He’d risked his life to steal the flower. He’d gone into the field we’d all been warned of, the field with the great white ox.”

“Impetuous,” said the dancer. “You must not have known.”

“I must not have known what?”

“That you were starting a fire. That it would bring smoke. If you knew this dance would follow, would you have done the same? Would you have taken the flower?”

His questions were like claws gouging their way through Charlotte’s chest.

“What does it matter to you?”

“If you wish,” said the dancer. “I can make the pain go away.”

“And how do you propose to do that?” asked Charlotte.

“I could put my finger to your head. My touch would douse the ember. You would forget. You would heal.”

“I would forget Joseph?”

“Yes,” said the dancer. “This sacrifice would sate us both. You could go on. I could go on. Our dance would be over.”

She scowled into the empty hood. “You’re a cancer. You can’t understand. If I did that I’d be hollow and cold. I’d be the same as you.”

The dancer was silent.

“Well, I refuse, you wicked devil. I’d sooner dance with you until the sun turns black. I’d sooner dance with you until I die.”

“As you wish,” said the dancer, and he whirled back, sweeping her up like a leaf in the midst of a maelstrom.

 

#

 

By the third winter her posture had loosened and her feet moved without the call of her mind. An unending spiral of dance steps trailed Charlotte and her partner through the snow. The dancer drew her through covered bridges set over trickling rivers and beneath bare, twisting trees. She no longer noticed the iciness of the hand pressed against her back. She no longer searched for a face beneath the dancer’s cowl of shadow.

A blotch appeared on the horizon. It grew until it became a pair of great black mares towing a carriage. Charlotte’s sister leaned from a window and called to her, waving a pink bit of silk.

“Charlotte, dear? Hasn’t it been long enough?”

Charlotte tried to speak to her sister, but her words stuck in her throat. She could only address the dancer.

“They want you back,” said the dancer.

“At what cost?” asked Charlotte.

“Your memories are a millstone,” said the dancer. “They are a small price to pay.”

“Charlotte?” called her sister.

Charlotte ignored her sister and clung to the dancer.

 

#

 

Seasons came and went, siphoning away Charlotte’s spirit and leaving her hollow and pale. Now, whenever her heels met the earth, she felt needles push up through her legs. Her head tilted sideways even when she thought it was straight. Her vision had grown as dim as the dusk.

“I need to rest,” said Charlotte.

“Are you ready for my touch?”

Charlotte shook her head. The dancer floated back, a mass of billowing black, guiding her deeper into the mist-covered moor.

That night Charlotte wondered aloud as she danced. She thought of the other dancers she’d seen. Some kept their partners twirling for many months, others a handful of years, but never had she witnessed a dance as long as her own.

She set her head against his shoulder and wept. She recalled the last time she’d had her head against Joseph’s shoulder on their fifth anniversary–their last anniversary.

“I couldn’t give Joseph a child. I asked him if he regretted choosing me. I’d ended his name, ended his house. Do you know what he said, dancer?”

The dancer was silent.

“He touched my forehead and said, ‘This is all the eternity I require.'”

“But your mind holds only an echo,” said the dancer, “Your husband no longer exists. Why surrender life for a sentimental remembrance?”

Charlotte gripped the nightmare and danced with all her might.

 

#

 

The last of Charlotte’s strength had trickled away. Her eyelids grew heavy like petals covered with dew. Often her head would loll, she would slip into dreams, but even there she was with her hooded partner, endlessly dancing in a pitch black void. When she woke it was to the nightmare of her dancer’s vacant cowl.

She had no energy left to keep pace. He was propping her up now, dragging her along as though a child dancing with an empty dress. Charlotte lifted her face from his shoulder and saw another pair slowly twirling, coming nearer and nearer through the mist. The second dancer wore a black flowing gown and pulled a masculine figure along behind her. She couldn’t be sure that they were real, or if they were only a fantasy concocted by delirium.

“Who are they?” she asked.

“Another dancer. Another stubborn fool.”

It felt better not to be alone. She gave herself over to a vision where the man was her Joseph, imagining him out here dancing all this time, waiting for her. She tried to will her dancer closer, tried to steal a glance at the man’s face.

Without warning, the other dancer lifted her arms to the sky. She let her partner drop. He disappeared completely, tumbling out of sight, and free of her tether, she drifted up into the sky.

“What’s happened?” asked Charlotte.

The dancer did not reply.

Charlotte watched as the freed dancer grew small like a balloon loosed from the wrist of a child. It was then that she noticed the angular slant of the ground–she was dancing atop a craggy, mist-covered mountain.

“Is that what happens when we are too strong for your bribes? Are you devoured into the sky?”

“Yes,” said the dancer.

“How many of us have there been?” she persisted. “How many of us have refused your bargain?”

“Look down,” said the dancer.

Charlotte could see through the dancer’s cloak. Parts of it were gossamer–as thin as cobwebs. She could see the tips of her toes bumping over unsteady ground. The earth was carpeted with bones. Among them were staring skulls with rent open jaws and broken ribcages tattered with torn shreds of cloth. Charlotte quailed. For the very first time, since the night the dance began, she was afraid.

“It is time,” said the dancer. “You’ve outlasted me, Charlotte.”

His hand unclenched from hers and with a flourish he released her. Bowing, he drifted backward until the wind caught his thinning robes and lifted him into the sky. Charlotte tumbled down the mountain, her body limp and unresponsive, kicking up chalky clouds of dust as she went. She slammed against a desiccated heap. Straining, she attempted to right herself, but her body was through taking orders. She collapsed, searching the heavens for her dancer. Her vision blurred. The gloom gathered. Somewhere near her came a hollow knocking, a scraping and scratching. She imagined waves of rats rushing up, covering her, thousands of pairs of tiny bucked teeth greedily nibbling her flesh, leaving her to crumble among a field of fallen strangers.

Instead there was the sound of someone wheezing, struggling toward her, pulling their body over the hummock of bones.

“Who’s there?” asked Charlotte.

A broken silhouette dragged itself from the mist. His face was lined with wrinkles and patchy wisps of white stuck out from under a lopsided derby. As he came closer Charlotte could see a pale fire–one she hadn’t seen for years–flickering in his eyes.

“Is that you?” asked Charlotte. “Joseph?”

“My lady,” said the old man. But the voice was not the same as the one she remembered.

“I’m sorry. I thought you were someone else.” Charlotte reddened.

“I’m sorry that I’m not someone else,” said the old man.

“It isn’t your fault,” she said, studying her pitiful companion. “My eyes can’t do their job anymore. They ought to have retired a long time ago.”

He dragged himself a bit closer.

“Would you mind if I joined you? It would be nice to have some company after all these years.”

It was strange to converse with someone other than her dancer. She’d grown unused to consideration.

“How long did you dance for?” she asked.

“Far too long,” he said. “Besides, my fiend hadn’t any grace. She was too busy negotiating. She kept stepping on my toes.”

Charlotte laughed and was surprised to hear how creaky her throat had grown. It sounded like the rocking horse she’d had as a child.

“So,” she asked, “did you refuse your dancer also?”

“Of course,” said the old man. He lifted his chin and straightened his tie. “She wanted me to pay for amnesia.” The old man’s chin was wobbling. His bony fingers were curled into fists.

With all her strength, Charlotte pushed herself up and onto her feet, balancing awkwardly on the bleached remains of her fellow insurgents.

“This may seem a strange request,” said Charlotte, bowing. “But would you like to dance?”

She offered the stranger her hand.


Douglas Sterling is an associate member of the SFWA, and a member of the Codex Writers’ Group. His work has appeared at Daily Science Fiction, Fiction On The Web, [untitled], Isotropic Fiction, The Story Shack, The Hidden Chapter, The Speculative Edge, The Rusty Nail and others.

Issue No. 7, Winter 2013

In Country
Chloe N. Clark

Something happened that we don’t talk about. Then we moved to the country. I had never lived in the country, always a city girl for all of my life. It was an old farmhouse surrounded by cornfields. Jason loved it at first sight. Three stories and filled with beckoning windows, the kind of house you might see in very old pictures from a time before everything had to match up. It was about ten miles away from a little town. I didn’t think I would be able to a find job there and Jason said that he would commute back and forth from the house and the city where he taught law. The city was only forty-five minutes away but that seemed like an impossible distance. I had been so used to going out to get a hot cup of tea at my favorite café or to go out to see a film or just being able to walk out my door and actually see an endlessly hopeful stream of people. It all had seemed so full of life before.

My sister helped us move in. She loved the house as soon as she saw it. She had always loved old houses; she said that she had dreams of retiring to a place just like ours. I stared at her when she said it. I wanted to say something biting, some bitter remark because she had the city still and all I had were endless fields. But I didn’t. I held my tongue between my teeth until I tasted the coppery salt of my blood. She said we should get some chickens or maybe a goat. I hoped she was joking. I hoped Jason didn’t take her up on it. I’ve never been good with animals. Although, we do have the dog, Liam. He’s really Jason’s dog. Jason got him as a protector for me. But, now, I was the one walking him.

A guard dog to keep me safe when we lived in the city. Safe from what, I had asked. And now I wondered that question even more: what had the dog really kept me safe from?

Jason decided not to go back to work for a few days. He wanted us to settle in first. Jason worked on the campus in a building made of glass. His office had always been one of my favorite places all filled with light. I used to visit him, bring him his lunch, and talk to his secretary. Her name was Elsa and she always smiled at me as if seeing me was the best part of her day. He took three days off. Three days. His boss was very understanding and said that this was A-Okay. A-OK.

The floors creaked in the house at night when no one was on them. Jason said all old houses do this, that they settle down at night. I didn’t like listening to them. Jason said I shouldn’t look for work right away. I told him that a job would be good for me; it would take my mind onto other things. But he said I should wait and settle in. I wondered about all that settling in; it was unsettling to me.

Jason went back to work and I was all alone in the house with only the dog and the floorboards to keep me company. I tried not to listen to the sounds that surrounded me. All that quiet seemed so unreal. I was used to the hum of cars and the distinctly beautiful wails of sirens; they were always on their way to rescue someone somewhere.

The first day, my friend Celia came to drop off a housewarming gift. It was a plant, yet another thing that I was expected to take care of. Hadn’t anyone learned that I wasn’t good at taking care of things? Celia talked about her business. She ran a flower shop and business was slow. Apparently no one was falling in love (and I remembered how Jason would always get me flowers when we went out for the entire first year that we were dating. Then it was flowers on special occasions. Then it was never flowers.) or getting married (Celia had been my Maid of Honor and she wore a yellow dress. I joked that she looked like a ray of sunshine and we had laughed. I had been so giddy that day that everything seemed like the funniest thing in the world) or having babies (those tiny hands and feet). She didn’t say that no one was dying although that is always another reason for flowers. Celia took her tea with milk but no sugar. That is the way that she always takes it. She stirred it nervously with her spoon. Counter-clockwise.

Jason was home by seven and we ate pasta. He wound the noodles around the tines of his fork so slowly. It had never irritated me before but it seemed like he was always eating in slow motion. He didn’t talk about work, client confidentiality and all that. He always said this just like he picked it up from TV law shows. I never said, but you only teach law. That night the screaming woke me up. It was a yell halfway between a shriek and laughter.

Jason said that it was just coyotes hunting down prey. I had never heard such a sound. In the city there were no wild animals. But this was the country and there are coyotes in the country.

In the morning Jason went back to work. He left before I woke up and there wasn’t even a note like the ones he used to write me (no I love you no I’ll miss you). I took Liam for a walk. Liam is a silly name for a dog— it’s a person’s name—but Jason named him. We walked along the edge of the cornfield. The corn leaves swayed slightly like they were trembling. It was almost imperceptible, but I knew that it was there. I don’t think that I dropped the leash, I must have loosened my grip, and Liam must have pulled away. I couldn’t see him. I called out. I called out for him. No one answered. He must have run into the cornfield. I thought that I should follow him, but I didn’t want to follow him. I didn’t want to go in there after him. Stand still and it makes you a target, but I’ve never known when to run.

I was about to call out again and then Liam burst out of all those endless rows of corn. He was wagging his tail and in his mouth was a bone. A big bone with bits of flesh still on it hanging off in tattered strips like ripped cloth. I thought that it must have been from a deer. It must. I grabbed his leash, grabbed it, and pulled him towards home, hoping that he would just drop that thing. Finally he did. But there was still a line of red around his lips. A trace of what had happened. It was like a scar really, some hint of something terrible from the past.

I didn’t walk him again, not until Jason got home and I made him bury that bone. He said it was just a deer bone and dogs will be dogs. I shouldn’t make such a big deal out of something so little. That’s what he told me. That’s what he always told me. I had even expected him to say it when it happened. But all he said was we’ll be okay. A-Okay. A-OK.

The coyotes were out again that night. I couldn’t sleep between the creaking and the shrieking. Jason slept like a log. He never stirred.

Jason said I should plant a garden. He said it will be fun. He said we would go into town and get gardening supplies on his first day off. I said it was okay. I said that I wouldn’t be a good gardener. He said that I was being silly. I would be a great gardener.

He went to work and I was left all alone in that house, again. I was going to make a stew. I chopped the vegetables and the clicking of the knife against the cutting board was rhythmic and soothing. I stared out the kitchen window at the cornfield. At the stalks moving in the breeze. She seemed to come out of nowhere.

A woman in a red sundress. She had long black hair and she was turned away from me. She walked into the cornfield. I ran out and yelled to her. What was she doing here? I saw a flash of red in the field. I should have followed her. I know that’s what she wanted. But, I couldn’t go in there.

I told Jason about her. He said she must be one of our neighbors. Maybe the daughter of the man who farms the fields.

The coyotes screamed louder that night and the floor wouldn’t stop settling.

Jason left in the morning and said that he wouldn’t be home until later. He said that he had to work late. There were all of these students asking questions and all of these things that he just had to do. So he wouldn’t be back until late. He had been going to stay late that day, too. I had packed him a lunch. I went to campus. I was going to surprise him. Surprise, I was surprised. He wouldn’t be home until late, he repeated to me, slowly as if I didn’t get it. I got it, not until after dark. He told me that I should call my sister if I needed anything.

I spent the day inside except for Liam’s walks. I held his leash so tight that my hands began to ache.

She came again at dusk. I saw her and this time she waited at the cornfield. I came outside. I yelled hello. I wanted her to turn and face me. I so needed to see her face in that moment. She didn’t turn. She just stepped into the field. I went into the field after her. I wanted to know her name. What has been named can’t frighten. What has been named can’t make me want to scream. Names can be carved so easily into stone alongside numbers and when you do the math all you can say is: how can that be? It’s so short. She was just ahead of me and then she was gone, but I saw the red flashing. It reminded me of something: of flashing red lights blinking out signals I could never comprehend. I began to run. The corn was scratching at me. I felt it cut my skin and the blood leave my body in a trickle. I don’t know where I was. It all looked the same. Then she was in front of me. She was kneeling on the ground with her hair draped around her face. In front of her was the body of a deer. It was so small. Just a baby really. Maybe almost a yearling. It was bloody and dead. Oh. She turned to face me, finally. Her eyes were green and her face was so long, and her snout was covered in blood and she began to grin with those sharp, sharp teeth. The better to have eaten me up with. And I was running. And the corn stalks were ripping at me. The cuts were deeper. The blood flowed faster.

I got to the house and I locked the door. I was in the kitchen with the knife and on the floor curled up against the wall. I thought that she mustn’t find a way in. She mustn’t.

The coyotes began to howl. Each voice rising up to join the next. Please I thought please. This wasn’t the first time I thought such things. That tiny hand I held and pleaded with.

Liam began to join in with his barking and shrieking. Then I heard it: the door knob was rattling. I kept thinking that no, she mustn’t. No.  The door opened. I crouched down. They can’t see you when you can’t see them. That’s what my mother told me when I was scared of monsters as a child. Just shut your eyes and I shut them. But my mother lied. I felt it getting closer. I had the knife at least. She came towards me. Her long claws clicking on the tile and I stabbed out. She shrieked and snarled and screamed. Claws and teeth. But I kept stabbing until she was just a bloody mess in my arms. Liam ran into the room and he was barking and growling at me. But it was okay, A-OK, I kept us safe. I protected us. This time I saved us both.

I moved again. I moved to a nice house with no windows. My sister comes to visit me but doesn’t speak. They say that Jason won’t be visiting me. It’s okay that he stays in the house. He loved that house at first sight. But, I prefer the city to the country. There are no fields here and everything is quiet in my room.


Chloe N. Clark is a current MFA candidate in Creative Writing & Environment. She loves magicians, corgis, and also cookies. Her work has appeared in such places as Fogged Clarity, Prick of the Spindle, and Rosebud. Follow her on Twitter @PintsNCupcakes

Issue No. 7, Winter 2013

The Halfway House
Maureen Eldred  

Ominous black clouds ringed the high peaks as the jeep climbed the steep, rain slicked road. Rain turned to snow. The windshield wipers struggled to keep up with the rapidly falling flakes. Slippery conditions on route # 86 had resulted in a wreck some miles back forcing Alec Blake to take a detour. As pavement turned to dirt on the narrow, winding road, he realized he was lost.

Having spent many childhood Christmases in the Adirondacks, Alec hadn’t thought it necessary to bring a map. He just had to remain on #86 to Saranac Lake and then continue a short distance to Lake Placid where he had made reservations at the lodge. The detour on back roads was confusing. He should have reached Saranac Lake by now. Glancing at the fuel gauge he saw that the needle was hovering below the quarter mark. They were deep inside the tall pine forest, with no gas stations and no signs of civilization. His mind shouted at him to turn around, but the road was too narrow.

He risked a glance at seven year old Sara, asleep in the passenger seat. Her lips were curved in a contented smile. She was excited about spending Christmas in the north. Having lived in Florida with her mother for most of her life, this would be her first white Christmas. An overseas correspondent, Alec had spent few Christmases at home. His long absences had cost him his marriage. He had missed out on much of Sara’s childhood. This year would be different. They would be together, just the two of them, at the mountain lodge where he had spent so many happy times with his parents. He would no longer be a stranger to his daughter.

He had planned carefully. Hidden among the suitcases were presents including the tea set Sara had asked for.  A small artificial tree, pre-lit and decorated, was ready to be put up in their room. Alec had even remembered to bring stocking stuffers.

The falling, drifting snow swirled around the jeep, hiding the road from view. Alec slowed to a crawl. Their situation was getting desperate. It was Christmas Eve. Right about now his ex-wife and her family would be sitting down to dinner. Sara’s cousins would be there. Sara would have been there too if it hadn’t been for him.

“It’s so pretty!” Sara exclaimed upon awakening. “Is it true, Daddy, that no snowflake is alike?”

“So they say,” Alec replied.

“Can we make a snowman at the lodge?”

“When we get to the lodge we’ll make the biggest snowman anyone has ever seen.”

“It will be fun, won’t it?”

“Yes,” he replied, swallowing a lump in his throat.

“What’s that?” she asked pointing to a dark shape on the road a few feet ahead of them.

Alec hit the brake causing the jeep to fishtail. The deer leaped to safety as the jeep

went airborne. Trees flashed before them. There was a loud crash. Branches poked through the windshield. Alec was impaled by a jagged piece of metal that had been part of the door. The engine was still running. One headlight remained unbroken. .From the light shining through the broken glass he could make out Sara slumped against the seat. “Sara? Sara, are you okay?” There was no reply. Pulling himself free, he reached for her, feeling for a pulse. She was alive! “Sara?” She moaned and opened her eyes.

“Where are we, Daddy? “

“We’re in the woods, honey. We had an accident.”

“I remember now. Rudolph!” Sara struggled with her seatbelt.

“Don’t move, honey until we’re sure you aren’t hurt.”

“I’m not hurt, Daddy, just cold.”

Now Alec was aware of the frigid air rushing into the jeep from the broken window. He gathered Sara in his arms using his body heat to keep her warm.  Just as he was thinking things couldn’t get worse the engine died, and then the battery, leaving them in the cold and dark.

He must have slept for when he opened his eyes the storm was over; the night had cleared, and a full moon was rising over the mountaintops. Sara moaned softly, and then sat up.

“Listen, Daddy! Can you hear it? Sleigh bells!” She must be hallucinating, he thought with alarm. Suddenly he heard them too, a steady jingling coming nearer, and with it the sound of singing.

“Come on, Sara! We’ve got to get to the road. Together they scrambled up the rocks just as two pinpricks of light topped the hill.

It really was a sleigh pulled by two massive Clydesdales. The light was provided by a pair of lanterns suspended on either side of a long, boxlike sled with four rows of seats and a high perch for the driver. The sled was filled with carolers bundled in heavy furs. Catching sight of Alec and Sara, the driver sawed on the reins, bringing his team to a plunging halt. “You folks need a ride?”

“We’ve been in an accident,” Alec explained. “We need help.”

“Climb in. The inn is just ahead.”

Alec lifted Sara into the arms of a matronly woman, who quickly wrapped her in a buffalo robe. Hands reached out to help him onto a seat behind her. The driver clucked to his horses and they were off with a merry tinkling of bells.

“Is there a hospital nearby?” Alec asked the man beside him.

“Afraid not, mister.”

“Alec Blake,” Alec said holding out his hand. “And that is my daughter, Sara.”

“Jack Merriweather,” the other replied, shaking hands.

“A phone then, there must be a phone?”

“There are no phone lines.” Meriweather paused. “No need to worry; your little girl is going to be just fine.” Alec gazed at Sara’s blonde head resting against the woman’s shoulder. He hoped the man was right.

What kind of Inn had no phone? Alec wondered.

A bright light lit up the night sky ahead. The light emanated from a half-log, half stone building with a verandah across the front and many gables jutting from a steep roof. A woman was waiting, lantern in hand, by the front door.  A wooden sign above her head informed travelers that this was the Wayfarer’s Inn established in 1910. The woman wrapped her long coat closely about her and went to greet her guests. She introduced herself as their hostess Abigail Robinson.

“Come in out of the cold! Sam has hot mulled cider for everyone!” Alec stopped beside his hostess.

“My daughter and I aren’t guests; we were in an accident just down the road. The jeep is totaled. I’ve been told there isn’t any phone here.”

“No phone,” Mrs. Robinson agreed, “but we’ve plenty of food and a warm fire.”

“You have quite a crowd. Are there any rooms?” he asked doubtfully.

Mrs. Robinson smiled.

“There is always room at the inn.” She took him by the hand. “Your little girl needs warmth. Come and sit by the fire.”

A log crackled in a mammoth stone fireplace at the end of a cavernous room. The other passengers had already removed their heavy coats and hats and were seated in chairs and sofas facing the blaze. It wasn’t until Alec was sitting with Sara on his lap that he noticed the women nearby were wearing knee-length, low waisted dresses of silk or velvet straight out of the 1920s. Looking around he saw that most of the guests wore dated, but formal attire.

Sara drank the cup of hot, spiced cider given to her by their host, before sliding down from her father’s lap.

“I want to look at the tree.”

Alec watched her cross the room toward a tall spruce standing before a bay window.  The tree was draped with cranberry and popcorn garlands. Gingerbread men and paper stars were placed throughout the dark foliage. A few delicate blown glass ornaments twinkled in the light from tiny candles attached to the branches. Sara was joined at the tree by a little boy in a sailor suit complete with cap, and a little girl in a blue velvet dress, her feet encased in patent leather Mary Janes.

A lady with bobbed, platinum blonde hair tapped Alec’s shoulder. “Is that your little girl with Johnny and Fran?” Alec said that she was. “Those two are mine. I am Gracie Watkins; call me ‘Gracie.’ May I sit down?”

“Please do. My name is Alec Blake. ‘Alec.’” They shook hands.

“I feel a little out of place; everyone here seems formally attired and in costume, but you see we weren’t supposed to be here; I got lost trying to get to Lake Placid, and then we had the accident.”

“You mustn’t feel out of place, Alec. You are in exactly the right place,” Gracie told him.

They were interrupted just then by Sara who arrived with Johnny and Fran in tow.

“Daddy, Johnny says that Santa always comes just after dinner. He says he asked Santa for a cowboy outfit just like the one Tom Mix wears.” She frowned. “I don’t know who he is but Johnny says he’s in all the movies!” Johnny grinned and nodded. “Fran wants a doll. This is going to be the best Christmas ever!”

Alec looked at her smiling face with dismay. The tea set she had wanted was still in the jeep and probably smashed to pieces. He searched desperately for something to say, but was saved from replying by his hosts’ announcing dinner was served. He followed the happy, laughing guests into the dining room, Sara skipping ahead.

Like the lounge, the dining room had a large, stone fireplace at one end. A Victorian sideboard laden with fruits, cheese, and pastries stood against one wall opposite a table with a huge punch bowl. Another Christmas tree with gingham bows stood in a corner by the hearth.  A long table with a snowy lace cloth and fine china occupied the middle of the room. There were cards with a guest’s name written on them by each plate.

Here you are,” Gracie said, indicating a place setting for Alec and one for Sara. Alec was staring puzzled at his name done with painstaking calligraphy when their host tapped his glass. The assembly bowed their heads.

“Thank you oh Lord for these thy gifts…”

The chorus of “amens” that followed was the signal for Mrs. Robinson and her helpers to bring in the food. There were “oohs!” and “aahs!” as a large turkey with all the trimmings was placed before their host. Heaping bowls of stuffing, salads, breads, squash, potatoes, and a tureen filled with rich, dark gravy were passed around. Sam put a generous portion of turkey on each plate while Mrs. Robinson filled each glass with hot cider or ale. Once she was seated, her husband raised his glass.

“Here’s a toast to good food, and good company!”’

“Here! Here!” shouted the guests.

“Listen, Daddy! I think I hear Santa!” Listening, Alec could hear someone moving around in the lounge.

Alec glanced uneasily at Sara. The happy glow on her face nearly broke his heart. He couldn’t bear to see her disappointed when the others received their presents. “Sara…”

“Is everyone ready for dessert?” Abby Robinson asked with a twinkle in her eye. The guests burst into loud applause.

“What do you suppose it will be?” asked a bewhiskered gentleman whispering in Sara’s ear.

Sara grinned and shook her head.

A door opened and two maids carried in an enormous cake shaped like a snowman and decorated with frosted sprigs of holly. Sam cut the cake. The two maids filled cups with tea, coffee and hot chocolate. Looking around at the merry, laughing guests, Alec wished they would linger at the table and not return to the lounge. How was he ever going to explain the lack of presents to his little girl?

“It’s time!” Sam announced.

Gracie took Johnny and Fran by the hands.  “Let’s see what Santa brought you!”

“Come on, Sara!” Fran cried, seizing her hand. Alec followed reluctantly.

The children rushed to open presents piled high beneath the tree while the adults looked on. Alec watched Fran claim her doll, and Johnny, his cowboy outfit complete with toy gun. One little boy unwrapped a set of Lincoln logs and another received a mechanical bank. Sara stood watching just outside the mountain of gifts. He walked over to her and knelt to put his arms around her.

“Here is yours, Sara!” Fran cried.

“No. It must belong to another Sara,” Alec said.

“There’s only one Sara here,” Mrs. Robinson pointed out. “Here you are, honey.”

The present was wrapped in shiny gold paper just like the paper Alec had used. It couldn’t possibly be—but it was; a tea set identical to the one he had purchased. Sara held up a tiny china teacup with delicate blue flowers. “It’s just what I wanted!” she cried to the delight of her audience. Brushing tears from his eyes, Alec whispered a heartfelt thanks.  He looked up to see his host standing beside him.

“How?”

“Doesn’t matter, does it?” Sam asked. “Your little Sara is enjoying herself.”

“Let’s have some carols, Mrs. Parker!” one of the men shouted, and the matronly lady that had held Sara on the sled sat down at a pump organ.

“Here we come a wassailing among the leaves so green…”

Alec sat down in a chair beside his host to watch the children play with their toys.

“How do you manage out here in the wilderness? How do these people get to know about you?”

“The inn was built as a halfway house between the railroad station and the great camps farther up the mountain. Most of these folks are regulars, summer guests at the camps who have stayed here before. The camps are inaccessible in the winter so they come here instead.” Sam paused. “These days we sometimes get a different kind of guest.” He gave Alec a meaningful look.

“I don’t understand.”

“Look around,” Sam advised.

Now as he studied the guests he realized there were a few in modern clothes. An old couple holding hands were wearing sweat suits with embroidered Santas on the shirts. Two of the children running about the room wore jeans and sweaters with The Little Mermaid and Simba from The Lion King printed on them. An elderly woman and a young man in a World War II uniform sat in a corner by the fire. The man had his arm around the woman’s shoulders. The look they were giving one another was not that of mother and son.

“He’s been waiting a long time. She arrived today on the early train,” Sam said following his gaze. “Some see our light and decide to rest awhile before moving on. Some wait for their loved ones.” Suddenly, Alec knew.

“I’m having so much fun, Daddy!” Sara exclaimed as they climbed the narrow stairs behind Mrs. Robinson. “I can’t wait to tell Mom!”

“There,” said Mrs. Robinson placing a candle on the bed stand. “There is a chamber pot under the bed and a pitcher of water to wash up. You should be warm enough; there are plenty of quilts. There is a bell on the stand if you need anything. Good night.”

The room was cozy with a four poster bed and a trundle bed beside it taking up much of the space. Moonlight formed a silver pool below the dormer window. Crossing over to it, Alec looked down at a yard sparkling with new fallen snow. He lifted the window to take in the scent of pine and wood smoke. For a moment he thought he heard his mother’s voice whispering in the wind: “Merry Christmas, Alec!” He turned away to sit beside Sara who was lying in the trundle bed, with quilts up to her chin.

“Warm enough?”

“Snug as a bug in a rug,” she said, grinning. He stroked her curly blonde hair. He wanted to speak—to tell her, but the words would not come. He stayed beside her, holding her hand in his until she slept.

 

“God bless the master of this house and all that are within…”

“It sounds like a Christmas carol,” the nurse suggested. “She’s been singing it off and on throughout the night.”

Linda Blake bent low, listening as the child in the hospital bed continued to sing.

“Sara?”

The blue eyes opened.

“Mommy?”

“I’m here, darling.”

“Are we at the Inn?”

“No, Sara. We are in the hospital. You and Dad were in a car accident.”

“Oh, yes! Daddy had to stop so we wouldn’t hit Rudolph.”

“There must’ve been a deer in the road,” the nurse interpreted. “There are a lot of them in the mountains.”

“That’s right,” Sara agreed. “We went off the road. It was so cold, Mommy, but then a sled full of people arrived and took us to the inn so we weren’t cold anymore, and we had a wonderful time!”

The nurse looked at Linda and shook her head.

“We had turkey and stuffing and cake for dessert, and afterwards Santa left presents under the tree. He brought me a tea set; the one in the catalogue. Fran got a doll and Johnny got a cowboy outfit. Fran and I played house. Johnny pretended to be someone called Tom Mix. Afterwards, Mrs. Parker played the organ and everyone sang.”

“Sara, honey, I think you must’ve been dreaming,” Linda said.

“No! It was real. Ask Daddy!”

“Sara, your daddy was hurt badly when the jeep hit the tree. It was a long time before you were found. Remember how cold it was?”

“Yes, but we got warm by the fire.”

“There was no fire, Sara. Your father did all he could to keep you warm. He loved you very much.”

“Where is Daddy?”

“He didn’t make it, honey. “

“That’s wrong! He’s at the Inn. We’ve got to go there, Mommy!”

“There is no Inn, Sara. Daddy was with you in the jeep when the rescue squad came.”

“No!”

“She’s getting agitated, poor child!” the nurse said. “I’ll have the doctor give her a sedative.”

 

Paul Bentley looked up at the sky. Night came early in the mountains and clouds were rolling in. It was Christmas Eve and his wife was on her knees, brushing snow away from the remains of a stone fireplace. Paul didn’t know what she hoped to find. He wondered if she knew herself. A snowflake brushed his cheek.

“We should go now, Sara. It’s a long hike back to the truck.”

“Just a little longer!”

Paul sighed. Ever since Sara had found the article about the Wayfarer’s Inn on a local Adirondack history site she was determined to see it for herself. The article had a map drawn in 1915 with the location of the Inn and the great camps beyond. It also stated that the Inn had been destroyed on December 24th, 1927. The date had not deterred Sara who was still convinced that she and her father had been there on Christmas Eve some seventy years later.

More snow was falling. “Come on, honey! We’ve got to go!”

It was all pointless, he thought, and then Sara suddenly cried out. Her eyes shining with excitement, she climbed over the ruined wall to where he was standing and held out the object clutched in her hand. It was a pottery shard with blue flowers painted on it.

“A piece of china?” he asked, puzzled.

“It is part of a tea cup,” Sara explained; “my tea cup!” She was silent a moment, her head cocked toward the overgrown path. “Listen! Can you hear them?”

“Hear what?”

“Sleigh bells!”


Maureen Eldred lives on a small farm along the Canadian border in Northern New York. She has an Associate degree in Horse husbandry from S.U.N.Y. Morrisville and has completed a correspondence course on writing short stories from the Writer’s Digest School. She is an amateur artist and competes in local art shows. She enjoys gardening and playing her antique reed organ.

About the Contributors

"Preludes and Nocturnes #1" -- Stella Rothe
Preludes and Nocturnes #1
Stella Isis Rothe

Sheikha A. is a writer currently based in Pakistan who is also a recent first place winner of the Poetry Sans Frontier competition and a regular contributor to the eFiction India Magazine. She has been published in several online journals such as Red Fez, Open Road Review and American Diversity Report amongst others. Her works talk about her life’s experiences and reflections on the turmoil between what was and could have been, and what is and could be. This state of constant inertia of the mind trapped in imagining the unreal as real is what produces her written word.

Drew Barnes is a budding artist that has started to fully bloom very recently. She thinks of colors and patterns that she would like to surround herself with, and then puts them all together. She is drawn to ethereal and mystical things. She tries to create honest beauty.

Beau Boudreaux teaches English in Continuing Studies at Tulane University in New Orleans. His first book collection of poetry, RUNNING RED, RUNNING REDDER, was published in the spring of 2012 by Cherry Grove Collections. He has published poetry in journals including Antioch Review and Cream City Review, also in anthologies along with The Southern Poetry Anthology.

Chloe N. Clark is a current MFA candidate in Creative Writing & Environment. She loves magicians, corgis, and also cookies. Her work has appeared in such places as Fogged Clarity, Prick of the Spindle, and Rosebud. Follow her on Twitter @PintsNCupcakes

David R. Cravens received his undergraduate degree in philosophy at the University of Missouri and his master’s degree in English literature from Southeast Missouri State University. He was the recipient of the 2008 Saint Petersburg Review Prize in Poetry, the 2011 Bedford Poetry Prize, and was a finalist for Ohio State University’s The Journal William Allen Creative Nonfiction Contest. His work has also appeared in Ontologica: A Journal of Art and Thought, EarthSpeak Magazine, The Houston Literary Review, Albatross Poetry Journal, The Monarch Review, The Interpreter’s House, Willows Wept Review, The New Writer Magazine, The Penmen Review, Poetic Diversity, Red River Review, Liturgical Credo, The Fat City Review, and is forthcoming in Mirror Dance, Fickle Muses, and War, Literature & the Arts. He teaches composition and literature at Mineral Area College.

Barbara Crooker’s previous publications are: The Valparaiso Poetry Review, South Carolina Review, Tar River Review, The Hollins Critic, The Green Mountains Review, The Denver Quarterly, The Bedford Introduction to Literature, and Garrison Keiller’s Good Poems for Hard Times and Good Poems American Places, plus her work has been read twenty times on his Writer’s Almanac. She has been fortunate to receive poetry writing fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Her books are Radiance, winner of the Word Press First Book Award (2005) and finalist for the 2006 Paterson Poetry Prize; Line Dance (Word Press, 2008), winner of the 2009 Paterson Award for Literary Excellence; More (C&R Press, 2010); and Gold (The Poeima Poetry Series, Cascade Books, 2013).

Sadie Ducet’s poetry appears in places like The Progressive, Literary Mama, Midwestern Gothic and Off the Coast, although she never does. Her work is curated by fellow Wisconsin poet Sarah Busse, co-editor of Verse Wisconsin and one of two Poets Laureate of Madison.

Maureen Eldred lives on a small farm along the Canadian border in Northern New York. She has an Associate degree in Horse husbandry from S.U.N.Y. Morrisville and has completed a correspondence course on writing short stories from the Writer’s Digest School. She is an amateur artist and competes in local art shows. She enjoys gardening and playing her antique reed organ.

Anita Felicelli’s writing has previously appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, Blackbird, Prick of the Spindle, India Currents, Publishing Perspectives and elsewhere.

Jeannine Hall Gailey recently served as the Poet Laureate of Redmond, Washington, and the author of three books of poetry: Becoming the Villainess (Steel Toe Books, 2006), She Returns to the Floating World (Kitsune Books, 2011) and her latest, Unexplained Fevers, from New Binary Press. Her work has been featured on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac, Verse Daily, and in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. Her poems have appeared in journals such as The Iowa Review, American Poetry Review, and Prairie Schooner. She volunteers as an editorial consultant for Crab Creek Review and currently teaches part-time at the MFA program at National University. Her web site is www.webbish6.com.

Corinne Gaston is an undergraduate university student who lives in a cooperative house that boasts four personable but histrionic cats and a small garden that never runs out of Swiss chard. Between being gifted dead birds, reading Octavia Butler, dumpster diving, and worrying about the next inevitable L.A. earthquake, she sometimes goes home to Pennsylvania where she finds snakes and tiny waterfalls in the woods. Her work has recently appeared in Bone Orchard Poetry and Camel Saloon.

Jennifer Givhan was a 2010 Pen Rosenthal Emerging Voices Fellow, as well as a 2011 St. Lawrence Book Award finalist and a 2012 Vernice Quebodeaux Pathways Prize finalist for her poetry collection, and she is a fellowship recipient in the low-residency MFA program at Warren Wilson College. Her poetry and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in over fifty journals, including Prairie Schooner, DASH Journal (where her poem won first prize), Indiana Review (where her poem was a finalist for the 2013 poetry prize), Contrary, Rattle, and The Los Angeles Review. She teaches composition at Western New Mexico University.

Amber Dawn Hollinger’s work has appeared or is forthcoming with Rose Red Review, Foliate Oak, The Voices Project, Eternal Haunted Summer, Dead Flowers, Emerge Literary Journal, Burial Day Books, Embodied Effigies, The Soul Pitt, and others. Amber is working on new short stories and CNF pieces, and her poetic CNF chapbook “The Storyteller’s Sister” is forthcoming from ELJ Publications (2014).

Jennifer Lynn Krohn was born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico where she currently lives with her husband. She earned her MFA from the University of New Mexico, and she currently teaches English at Central New Mexico Community College and Santa Fe University of Art and Design. Jennifer has published work in The Saranac Review, Río Grande Review, RED OCHRE LiT, Prick of the Spindle, In the Garden of the Crow, Versus Literary Journal, and Gingerbread Literary Magazine.

Samantha Memi lives in London. Her stories can be found at http://samanthamemi.weebly.com/

Sarah Rakel Orton is thirty-one years old and a graduate of the University of Utah’s MFA fiction program (2008). Her thesis, Black as Blood, Red as Apples, was a collection of retold fairy tales. Her work has appeared in The Harrow, Mytholog, Prick of the Spindle, and
The Summerset Review. In January 2010, The Sun Magazine published her short story “Scars and Scales.”

strong>Olivia Pourzia is a scientist by day, a writer always, and can definitely stop writing fairy tales any time she wants.

Stella Isis Rothe is a 26 year old writer and photographer from Metro Detroit. Her work has appeared in BAC Street Journal, Pink Panther Magazine, Witch’s Almanac, Ceremony, Nain Rouge, and Rose Red Review, among others. This spring, Rothe’s work was a finalist in Camera Obscura‘s photography contest. Her art and photography has been on exhibit in area galleries, and she is currently working on “Unexpected Grace,” a magic realism novella.

The photography in this submission come from two series in progress: “Preludes & Noctures” (model Christopher Oberto, with permission) and “Visions of Shalott” (model Lydia Hagen, with permission).

Douglas Sterling is an associate member of the SFWA, and a member of the Codex Writers’ Group. His work has appeared at Daily Science Fiction, Fiction On The Web, [untitled], Isotropic Fiction, The Story Shack, The Hidden Chapter, The Speculative Edge, The Rusty Nail and others.

Kristin Stoner has been an instructor of English at the college level for the past ten years. She received her MA in Literature and Creative Writing from Iowa State University and in 2008 graduated from Antioch University LA with her MFA in poetry. Some of her recent publications include Natural Bridge and Review Americana.

Hannah Stoppel was raised in the forests of Northern Michigan and her connection to fairy tales was formed early. She is currently continuing to pursue that fascination as an MFA student at Pacific University and lives in Louisville, Kentucky. She lives with a journalist, a cat and a greyhound (who doesn’t look a bit like a wolf) and survives by making wigs (which sometimes do).

Alexandra van de Kamp lives in Stony Brook, NY, with her husband and teaches at Stony Brook University. She has been previously published in journals such as: Court Green, Washington Square, River Styx, Meridian, Lake Effect, Arsenic Lobster, The Denver Quarterly, The Connecticut Review, 32Poems and Sentence. Work is forthcoming in The Cincinnati Review. Her poetry has been featured on VerseDaily, and her first full-length collection of poems, The Park of Upside-Down Chairs, was published by CW Books (WordTech Press, 2010). Her most recent chapbook, Dear Jean Seberg (2011), won the 2010 Burnside Review Chapbook Contest. A collaborative prose poem called With was published by Firewheel Editions in 2013 and a new chapbook is forthcoming from Red Glass Books. You may see more of her poetry and prose at her website: alexandravandekamp.blogspot.com.

A graduate of Bath Spa University in England, Dawn Wilson has had the pleasure to dabble in kitsch, surrealism, and espièglerie. Her work can be found in Rabbit Catastrophe Review, Gone Lawn, Paper Darts Magazine, Metazen, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Drunk Monkeys, and Punchnel’s, among others, while the author herself can be found dismantling the kitchen for wearable items, or at nightdawn.wordpress.com. She is at work on a madcap novel.

Laura Madeline Wiseman has a doctorate from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where she teaches English and creative writing. She is the author of seven collections of poetry, including Sprung (San Francisco Bay Press, 2012) and Unclose the Door (Gold Quoin Press, 2012). She is also the editor of Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). Her writings have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Margie, Rose Red Review, Arts & Letters, Poet Lore, and Feminist Studies. She has received awards from the Academy of American Poets and Mari Sandoz/Prairie Schooner, and grants from the Center for the Great Plains Studies and the Wurlitzer Foundation. lauramadelinewiseman.com