love men mother short fiction women

A Mother Has All The Weapons She Needs

His father gave a rattling, final breath. Magnus reached out and drew down his father’s eyelids with a precise brush of his fingertips. He turned and looked at his younger brother, Peter who came over and put his hand on his brother’s shoulder. Magnus hid the flinch which came to him and ran his tongue over his lips.


‘I do not want the crown, Peter.’ he said.


Peter sighed and clasped his brother in his arms and wept with joy. Magnus accepted the gesture, looking past him to where his brother’s wife stood, false tears brimming in the corners of her narrow eyes. The kingdom would survive her, he thought and Peter was well-intended if effete. A harmless king was better than a cruel one, he decided. A cold wind blew the curtains, and Magnus held back the shudder which ran through him.


Magnus left the castle after watching his brother take the throne, with letters to prove his identity with enough gold to buy lands and cattle. He sought to live out his days in peace/


His brother had other ideas.




Peter gnawed on a turkey leg as he looked across his council of advisors. Katharine sat to his left, looked to her father and smiled at him, which was his cue to speak. Robert cleared his throat and looked at Peter.


‘Your highness, we should discuss the matter of your brother.’ he said.


Robert was a good father, and he listened to his daughter. He spoke her words with practiced care as Peter looked at him with a cautious glint in his eyes.


‘Magnus lives in the forest somewhere reading philosophy to pigs. He’s no threat.’ he said.


Katharine raised an eyebrow and Robert continued.


‘Aye, your highness, but even in his exile, he has his champions.’ he said.


Peter picked up a goblet and washed the meat down with a mouthful of sour wine as he shrugged his shoulders.


‘He’s no interest in the throne. He swore a vow before my father was cold.’ he said.


Robert looked to his daughter for guidance. She slipped her hand on his forearm and leaned into his space, gave a smile like a knife being dragged across a windpipe.


‘My father has your interests at heart, your highness. The people speak of Magnus with fondness.’ she said.


Peter turned his head and grimaced at his wife.


‘He doesn’t have to breathe their shit in as I do.’ he said.


Katharine smiled and kissed her husband on the cheek.


‘No, and his legend grows with each year which passes. Some say you forced him from the throne.’


He guffawed and a spray of saliva, flecked with shreds of meat flew from his mouth as Robert sat back in his chair.


‘He begged me to take it. Magnus knew what awaited him, and he gave it instead. Clever bastard.’ he said.


Katharine glanced at her husband with a quiet, pinched frustration which he ignored with a turn of his head. Robert cleared his throat.


‘Your highness, perhaps you could ask his intentions. I have men at your disposal.’ he said.


Katharine put her hand on her husband’s forearm.


‘You will not rest until you know, my king.’ she said.


Her voice was a gentle command as she leaned forwards and pressed against his upper arm. She caught his scent and grimaced.


‘See to his health.’ he said.


Robert had sent out his men before sunset. A map had been drawn for them, and were acting upon the orders of her queen herself who had addressed them in the stables, wrapped in a black coat with a goblet of wine in her hands.


‘Your highness.’ Robert said.




Magnus walked in from the dark with an armful of logs. Ibb stirred the pot with a wooden spoon as she blew a lock of hair out of her eyes. He smiled and set them down by the fire, before he came and put his arms around her, splayed his fingers over the round curve of her stomach.


‘You can’t keep your hands off my belly, Magnus. Should I be jealous?’ she said.


Her smile was impish and wild. Magnus rubbed his bearded cheek against her face and chuckled. She turned and kissed him on the cheek before she pushed him away and continued to stir the stew she was cooking. He sat down and poured himself a cup of beer as he watched her prepare their meal.


Magnus could afford servants but Ibb refused his money, but had asked for his attention and strength. A simple trade of services and goods which grew into something deeper. It had taken him by surprise, how she had shown no deference to him until beyond his understanding, she had taken him into her bed, and then, by her own admission, her heart.  She questioned why this did not shock him and instead, he pulled her close and pressed his face into her neck and inhaled her skin.


It was his answer, a good one, she told herself.


Magnus heard the clatter of hooves and got to his feet, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand as Ibb turned around. Her left hand went to her stomach and Magnus smiled at her.


‘Finish the cooking, I’ll see who this is.’ he said.


.She thought about Magnus and a warm burst of feeling overwhelmed her as she stirred the stew, thinking about feeding her man.




Magnus looked at the four men on horseback and narrowed his eyes. He saw one man reach for something on his hip and he darted backwards, opened his mouth to warn Ibb. The stone, plucked from the quarry outside Garden’s Hill, slammed into Magnus’s forehead and cracked his skull. He fell away with a shudder, eyes rolled back in his head as blood gushed from his nostrils as he collapsed inside the doorway.


The last thing he heard was Ibb calling his name.




One man drew his sword, a short, pitted piece of pig iron with years of use scarred into its surface as he looked at Ibb and sneered. Ibb stood there, legs apart as she glared at the soldier with cold, hard eyes before picking up the hatchet which sat by the fireplace. He laughed, a short mocking bark which betrayed a measure of caution as he called to the others.


She stepped forwards, flung the hatchet overhand and it thumped into his forehead with a dull, damp slap. Ibb took the sword from his hands and shoved him aside. She did not look at Magnus on the way past. She gripped the sword and turned it over in her hands as she charged out of the door. Her stomach ached, but she felt detached from herself as she stabbed the first man in the throat, tugging the blade to the right and bringing his windpipe with it in a moist knot of cartilage and blood. She stabbed upwards on the second blow, punching the sword through the other man’s jaw and then kicking him in the crotch as he fell down with the sword embedded in his jaw.


Ibb wrapped one arm around her stomach as she squatted to one side and rested her hand on the hilt of the sword.


‘If I pull the blade, you’ll bleed out. Tap once for yes, twice for no. Understand?’ she said.


His eyes bulged in their sockets and Ibb tapped the hilt with her index finger, which made him whimper. He tapped once and she sighed as she got to her feet. Ibb knew she was close to having this baby, and she considered how Magnus was not there to share it with her. Her eyes misted over with tears.


‘Did you come here on purpose?’


He tapped once.


She learned what he knew. When she was done, she twisted the blade and pulled it free as the soldier bled to death at her feet. Night had fallen and she looked at the surrounding bodies, including Magnus slumped in the doorway. A shadow had fallen across his broken face, which she took to be a small mercy from the gods as she staggered back into the house.


Ibb needed to keep her strength up.




She sold the cattle for a good price, took the money and disappeared. Magnus had fallen ill, she told people, too quick to be saved. Ibb told people it was something which ran in his family. She was going north, back to her people to have the baby there. People wished her well, but exchanged relieved looks when she was gone. She was a good woman, but something about her frightened them and her departure was cause for relief in the village.




Robert wiped his forehead with a handkerchief as he watched the hounds leap through the grass. He took up a horn and gestured to a servant who walked up and poured wine into it before stepping backwards with a bow. He took a long draught and wiped his lips with his fingers before he looked through the trees.


Robert wanted to kill something beautiful. He imagined it was his daughter, which was something he kept to himself, but as she grew more demanding, his imagination warped and grew fat on his resentment. He picked up the reins and ushered his horse forwards.


Something stabbed into his neck and he winced. He brought his hand up as he struggled to swallow. Robert gasped as he stared into the woods, saw someone detach themselves from a copse of bushes as his limbs spasmed out of control. Robert’s tongue swelled up and slipped to the back of his throat as he fell out of the saddle. He died on his back, looking up at the sky and wondering what had happened.



Katharine wept as they carried her father’s coffin into the depths of the family tomb. She had needed his counsel, not for herself but for Peter. He had become insensible with drink and even ignored her complete refusal to allow him to return to the marital bed since Ethelred had been born. She still needed a poultice between her thighs each night and his distaste for the realities of women had him fleeing to his whores. Her blessing followed him.


They had been so close to victory. She had replaced the commanders and the courtiers with those loyal to her plans. An expansion of territory which would see the kingdom grow into a new era of prosperity. Peter had been useful but soon his madness would outweigh his use as an excuse for her authority. She wept with frustration, not grief but few would ask what brought a woman to tears, let alone a queen.


She returned to her chambers, Peter had gone to his whores and she stood before Ethelred’s basket, watched him and summoned the feeling of love she was supposed to experience. He was so wizened and soft, like a plucked chicken or a piglet and she wondered what it would be like to slip a knife into his stomach. It had cost her to bear him, and for what?


A son was a legacy, she told herself. His utility to her was affection, so she decided not to harm him. Instead, she reached out and pinched the inside of his thigh between her nails before she picked him up and soothed his febrile, hot cries of alarm and pain. Katharine wished her husband was so easy to control.




He laid on the cushions as she crawled across the bed towards him. He gestured for her to take off her veil but she shook her head.


‘I am not worthy to be looked upon, your highness.’ she said.

Peter narrowed his eyes. It was not Petal serving him tonight, and he was sure it was her turn to provide him with his small measure of comfort. Funerals made him drink, and drinking made him want to fuck someone. He knew his erection was inconstant and unreliable so he ushered her over with a sigh.


He felt the blade slide between his ribs and gasped with surprise. Her breath was warm and sweet against his cheek.


‘He was your brother.’ she said.


Peter turned his head and saw she had kept the veil in place.


‘Was?’ he said.


She drew back and twisted the blade, opening the wound further as she tugged it free and stuck the blade into the side of his throat underneath the windpipe.


‘As girls, they told us the best time to best a man was when his sword was sheathed but his dagger was out.’ she said.


Peter clutched at his throat, blood spurting through his fingers as his mouth hung open, tongue protruding as he gave rattling, sodden cries through his ruined throat.


She stood up and opened the window, tossed out the length of knotted rope she had left in the chamber and tied one end to the bed which Peter bled onto. Ibb turned and looked at him.


‘He never told me about you. I found out, was ready to walk away for the lie but he told me you had honoured his wishes and he was just a man again.’ she said.


Ibb tore the veil from her face and glared at the pallid corpse on the bed.


‘Now, your highness, you will honour mine.’ she said.


She climbed out, quiet as a whisper and was on her way to the palace before the guards came in and the whorehouse erupted into a vicious tornado of panic.




Katharine awoke to a small hand clamped over her mouth.


‘Don’t raise your voice.’


Katharine swivelled her eyes in the darkness. She feared for her son, but the voice, low and female, chuckled.


‘I’ve no desire to hurt the child. It’s your job, isn’t it?’ she said.


Katharine pushed against the hand but she took a hard blow to the temple which made her collapse back against the furs. She thought about biting her but a blade came to rest against the side of her throat. She froze in place, wondering if she could fight her way free.


‘I see you’ve got poultices on. Hard birth, was it?’ she said.


Katharine nodded as much as the blade would allow. The woman sighed.


‘My boy came out like shelling peas. He was a pleasure I would’ve shared with Magnus.’ she said.


‘He was supposed to be there with me. The first man I’d wanted a child with, and you had him taken from me.’ she said.


Katharine swallowed and waited for her to continue.


‘My son didn’t last a night. You took them from me, your highness. You‘re going to tell me why.’ she said.


Katharine exhaled as the woman’s hand came away.


‘Your brother was a threat to the king’ she said.


Katharine could not make out the details of the woman’s face, but she caught the shape of a grimace as she shook her head.


‘No, he was a threat to you. Magnus was a good man, he took care of me, and he had no interest in ruling over anyone but himself.’ she said.


Her fingers bit into Katharine’s jaw and the pain compelled her into stillness.


‘Your man was weak, so you played at being the man you needed. A weak, broken version of one, like your father was. Did you try to win my Magnus?’ she said.


Katharine’s heart raced in her chest as her stomach cramped with discomfort. She twisted away but the woman’s fingers squeezed her into holding still.


‘You sorry, empty coward.’ she said.


Katharine stared at the woman, her eyes adjusted to the gloom. There were soldiers outside, but they were too far to reach her.


‘I did what I thought was right.’ she said.


Katharine’s last thought was to deny the woman her suffering. She had learned how to deal with pain when she carried her son and with Peter dead, she would be a figurehead, nothing more. The woman stood back, sheathed her knife and raised her hands.


‘And where has it gotten you?’ she said.


Katharine tried to sit up but the woman’s hands were quick, and two sharp punches sent her into a pitching, total blackness studded with flashes of acute agony.




The last command she gave was to find her son. Diplomatic efforts were made to her neighbours but without her husband, and beset by rumours of her plans to wage war on them, made them unsympathetic to her grief. Kings died like flies. Mirabelle had sent a note of condolence but said a determined mother had all the weapons she needed to achieve her aims which Katherine took as a covert rejection and a mocking note.


She moved to the North Tower, attended to by a few servants as she sat each day, blank and mute, as the council of advisors took over the kingdom in her name. Ethelred would have been nine years old, and she walked over to the balcony and looked down at the courtyard. Its distance looked inviting and when she stood on the ledge, the wind buffeted her and she let it take her over.


There was a moment’s relief before the earth broke her in two. Her mind had been taken from her nine years ago and it was returned to her as her bones shattered and organs burst inside her.




Ibb walked over to the bank of the river. She watched him bait the hook with a lump of raw beef, his tongue protruding from the corner of his mouth as he stared at it, fingers moving with a glacial care. She watched him in an appreciative silence.


He lowered the rod and smiled at her.


‘I will catch us a Heaper, you’ll see.’ he said.


Ibb grinned and walked over, ruffled his dark hair and kissed him on the crown of his head.

;You will, my son, you will.’ she said.


He stood up, cast the hook into the water and watched it with a grim determination. Nine years old, and he could hunt and dress a deer, wield a knife and walk in silence. Ibb was a good teacher, but she missed having a man to guide him into manhood. She feared becoming like his mother, seeing him for what he could do for her over guiding him into maturity. Such fears made her eyes water, but they passed and as the afternoon sun hung high overhead, Ibb watched her son provide for them both with so much love in her heart she thought it might burst.


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To Never Feel Odd

The odd little habits
Seeds of the man I’d become,
Never questioned or mocked,
It never occurred to me,
If I was different
Because you would put a plaster
On my knee if I fell over,
Not worry about what I was reading
I know how much a woman
Gives up to be a mother
And the things you went through
To keep me safe
And even now
With children of my own,
You made it look easy,
But nothing can make up
For the love you have given me

fiction mother women

Lights In The Sky

Jenny parked the truck, unbuckled her seatbelt and looked out through the smeared windshield. She saw the empty child seat in the rearview mirror and wiped her eyes before the tears came. She opened the door and got out, breathing through her mouth to limit the stink as she walked around to the trunk and opened it.

She slipped off her sketchers and put on the boots, tying the laces in a few attempts to compensate for her trembling fingers. The cargo pants were canvas, patterned in a mottled camouflage and the chambray long-sleeved shirt was already collecting the heat of the day. She kept the ball cap on, with her light-blonde hair tucked up underneath it and the orange-tinted glasses hung from a lanyard around her neck. She reached into the trunk and brought out the rifle.

She had brought the rifle from a gun show in the next state over. The owner had spoken of its pedigree with the same pride she showed in her children. She had paid cash for the rifle and two cases of ammunition. Twenty rounds of hand tooled.303 ammunition less the ten rounds she had fired at the range, punching holes in paper targets, committing the pull of the bolt to memory until her arm throbbed like a rotten tooth.

She slipped her backpack onto her shoulders before adjusting the straps until the pressure left the small of her back. She held the rifle with the strap over her shoulder.

Locking the car meant she was looking at the child seat again. Jenny swallowed and turned away as she tucked the keys into the front pocket of her pants. She held the rifle in both hands as she walked into the trees.

Dean had waxed lyrical about his childhood camping trips, and although Tommy preferred books and math problems, Dean saw it as an opportunity to make a man of his son. Jenny wanted to like the idea, but she saw the wounded light in Tommy’s eyes and tried to reassure him of how much fun it would be.

Jenny had gone to dinner with Louise, enjoying a drink with dinner and a cab ride home, giggling and singing to herself around the empty house before she realised how empty it was without them. She had sent him a text message before going upstairs to sleep. His last reply had been to reassure her Tommy was having a great time.


Jenny had been dealing with a domestic incident on the day Dean announced the plan. Rosa Trevor had surrendered to the slow build of pressure by stabbing Pete with a bread knife sixty times whilst he dozed off in the recliner, knuckles bloodied from where he had taken her up for not having dinner on the table. The blade had broken off in his skull, and Jenny thought about the blue guy from the movie they had watched the night before. Tommy loved the talking raccoon, but she had nursed her Chris Pratt crush in secret whilst Dean was in the garage, airing out the sleeping bags. The blade stuck out from the top of his head as he sat there, stinking and soft. She had not told him about it, which was why she had not fought Dean about his idea.

By the evening, she had used professional courtesy to contact the ranger station. It had taken her a tremendous effort to keep her voice even. The voice on the other end remained indifferent until she mentioned her job.

‘Sheriff Ronaldo, we’ll get someone out to find them.’

Jenny hadn’t been a sheriff then, just a mother. A wife too, but it was more of an afterthought after he lost his job at the manufacturing plant. The camping trip, in hindsight, was about Dean trying to claw some of his power back but those thoughts were unkind and inappropriate. She wanted them home.

The search had started small but after forty eight hours, the stretch of forest became home to the collective goodwill of the community and Jenny’s agonized patience.

Jenny gave up every doubt and flaw she had, hoping the candour might help find her family but against the mocking silence of their continued disappearance, it was all for nothing.

It was a year to the day.

Drinking got her through their birthdays and their anniversary. The lace teddy sat in the top drawer, too tight on her to wear for him along with the tablet she’d brought to help Tommy with his studies was still in the box.

Her boots were stiff and creaked as she strode through the woods. The air hummed like a loaded spider web as she looked around, recalling the steps taken to find her husband and son. She took in deep breaths to calm her nerves.

Anoise snaked through the trees and she lifted her head to gauge the direction and distance. A single wail, like someone disappointed by a discovery. She knew the sound all too well, having lived with it throughout her career. She paced in the direction, bringing the rifle to her shoulder and fighting the adrenaline coursing through her body.

She charged through the brush, ready to rack the bolt back but within her, the pragmatic armour of experience abraded by the wife and mother within. The bushes loomed over her but she pushed through.


The voice ripped through her like a blade. In the first year, she had refused to leave him, committing every breath to memory for fear of missing a moment of it. Jenny had spent so much time around death and disaster, she saw its shadow fall over everything. Not her Tommy, she vowed though.
Not Tommy.

His hair had grown out into tangles infested with dirt which fell to his thin, pale shoulders. His eyes peered out from underneath the ridge of fringe as he squatted in front of her. Tommy was a boy more disposed to tears than tantrums, but his lips drew back over his teeth. The gums were swollen and bleeding and he had lost one of his incisors.

Jenny saw the faded logo on the ragged remains of his t-shirt, the shield had flaked away to a stain, no different than the other marks on the cloth. His legs were smeared with dust, emaciated and tattooed with scratches.

Jenny shuddered and lowered the barrel. Her vision blurred as she took a step backwards but the child remained on his haunches, tilting his head to the left as he stared at her with open interest.

She wanted him to run to her, but the cop part of her brain screamed for her to treat this with care. The rifle was heavy, but she clung to it without raising it.

Tommy capered forwards, and Jenny sobbed at the nails, yellowed and curling over the tips of his fingers as they scraped the dirt ahead.

‘Where’s Daddy, Tommy?’

Tommy snorted and stopped.

‘He’s back there, Mommy. With the others.’

His voice had the rusted wheeze of disuse. Jenny strained to find the child within it.

She wondered why she had not put the rifle down, held him in her arms after too long apart. Within her chest, her heart was being pulled apart with rough fingers but she held firm.


Tommy snarled and looked back over his shoulder.

‘Yes, they’re sleeping. They said you would come.’

Jenny slung the rifle over her shoulder and knelt down so her eyes were level with him.

‘Baby, we need to find your dad and go home. It’s been a long time.’

It had been forever.

He sniffed the air as he came forwards. Jenny extended her arms and he rushed towards her. His face pressed against her neck and he sobbed, hot and tormented as she held onto him. Her hands went to the back of his head, her fingers starved for the fragile triumph of her son in her arms again.

She sobbed as she drew back, lifting a tangle of hair as she asked him to turn around.

It looked like an opal surrounded by a fringe of infected flesh oozing with pus. Jenny clamped her hand over her mouth as she staggered backwards, landing on her ass as Tommy stared at her.

‘Does Dad have those?’

Tommy’s eyes welled up with tears as he nodded. He looked down at his fingers and counted, mouthing the numbers until he ran out of fingers to count on.

Jenny pulled him close as she looked past him. Over the roar of her own heartbeat, she caught a humming sound like something massive powering up behind the trees. It made her fillings sing in her mouth and she felt a horrible pressure building in her sinuses as she dragged him away. He surrendered, going limp as his mouth spasmed at her neck like she was nursing him again.

They staggered away, but the humming grew and Tommy seized in her arms but she continued.

A rustling started in the trees, something large and forceful which moved the branches with ease. She fled with her son in her arms, shocked by how light he was. All those nights spent worrying about how chubby he was getting, and the horrible irony of it motivated her to move back to the truck. The humming rose in pitch, making her eardrums throb like an infected limb.

Tommy smelled different. The sweet milk smell had gone, replaced by something sour and metallic but she held onto him with everything she had.

She looked back, squinting her eyes against the column of white light which stabbed like a knife thrust upwards into the belly of the sky. A wave of heat and pressure pushed her forwards, but she clung onto her son and remained upright.

‘Dad’s coming, why aren’t you waiting?’ he said.

Jenny kept running. If it was her husband there, then he would know where to find them.

She was afraid he would.







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Maternal Burden

She wore a silk jersey dress, patterned in diamonds of blue and white. Her hair was a blunt bob, cut in around the ears and the back of her neck. She had a slight overbite, which leavened her beauty, vulnerable and approachable, were it not for the fierce, bright light in her eyes. Coltish legs and a small, high bosom.

The date on the back of the photograph reads a single date.

11th November 1975.

She had gone out, nineteen years old, spending the money she worked all week to earn. Her priorities were to have a dance, a few drinks and a laugh.

Simple pleasures, strung together like christmas lights.

He held court at the bar, a tumbler of scotch in one hand, cigarette between the fingers of his left hand as he gestured for emphasis. His hair was thick and black, with long, simian sideburns, a spade jaw and a deep cleft in his chin. She stood in the doorway and their eyes met across the pub with the propulsive force of chemical reaction. He wore a paisley shirt with a wide collar, unbuttoned to the chest, showing the broad, furred expanse like a mating display.

His wink had a seismic impact upon her, a brutish authority leavened by the melodic, poignant burr of his voice. The anecdote continued and she joined her friends in their hurry for amusement.

They danced in a circle, stiff and embarrassed, fending off suitors with practiced humour but with a few drinks and some good music, they found themselves, liquid and alive. It was during Somebody To Love by Queen that he came over and introduced himself.

Billly MacDonell brought them a round of drinks. He regaled the group, ignoring her until she twisted and seethed with his wilful ignorance of her attraction. She touched his arm and he laughed it off, telling her she should not touch what she could not afford. His tone bordered on contempt but his eyes were a slow burn, offering her a test of her character and will.

She dared,

She willed. Billy slipped away from the dance floor, with her heart in his pocket. He slipped his arm around her, suffusing her in a sensation equal parts danger and comfort.

He was a good Catholic boy. She was on the pill.

I never asked the details. It was enough to know they collided, flesh, chemicals and lightning.

The family doctor confirmed it She imagined his delight, the scenario playing out a million times in her head as she rang him from the phone box, asked him to meet her at the cafe on the high street.

His face fell when she told him. She was privy to a rare sight.

Billy McNamara. Speechless.

His glib charm sought to assert itself and failed. He set his mug of tea on the table.

‘I’ll pay for ye to take care of it.’ he said.

The cold edge in his voice cut her deep. He tried to explain that it was just fun, he could not be a father but he could do the decent thing.

She looked away, eyes damp with unshed tears as her insides burned with regret.

‘So, that’s it? That’s all you have to say?’ she said.

Billy’s eyes twinkled and he went to take her hand but she snatched it away.

‘My sweet, can’t you please see the longer picture here?’ he said.

She thought about correcting him. A small riposte to the injury he had delivered. She touched her stomach for reassurance. Her act of courage had been to meet his eye, but there was more to bear, and she had a choice to make, there and then.

I have her eyes.

His chin.

Her courage.

His glib charm but it’s leavened by experience.

She chose me, despite all the doors it closed to her.

When I sat there, running my thumb over the silver blister packs of tablets, mustering the courage to just stop suffering, I remember that girl and her faith in me. I got up, wiped my eyes and flushed them down the toilet before I made a phone call.

‘Hi Mum.’

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Please Come Home, It’s Dark Here


The little things never go away.

They fade.

There is a relief in that, a cold, analgesic sensation that allows you to pretend that you can function.

But the universe breathes on it and it flares into life again.

Today I found one of his building block sets behind the couch. He had built a house for us we would someday live in. Sometimes it was in Florida, other times Baja or even the moon. He had built a garden for me out of green and blue bricks. There were grey, fat grubs of dust in the corners and I wiped them away with my fingers.

I wept for my baby boy.

My phone rang, but I ignored it, unable to do anything other than weep. When I got up and checked it, there was the envelope icon showing a voice mail.

I did not recognise the number.

I put it on speakerphone so I could pretend I wasn’t alone.

My son spoke.

‘Mommy. Please come home. It’s dark here. I’m cold.’

I put my hand over my mouth.

‘Baby, it’s Mommy.’ I said.

The message ended and I replayed it over and over. I could not imagine who would have done this. The cruelty of it, in how it used my grief to fuel a detached amusement at a well-executed prank.

It burned in my brain, a heated wire twisting through from one side to the other. I needed to know who had done this.


‘If it’s a prank call, go the police. You don’t need me to find out who did it.’

JJ worked in a Genius bar. In the evenings, he ran scams promising teenage girl panties to middle-aged men who gave him their credit card details. He had fitted the alarm system after Pete left, had a crush on me as large as Texas.

‘I need to know where it came from. I can’t go to the police.’

He sighed and took the number from me. I had the details in an hour.

The phone was a prepaid cell phone. The last call came in from a set of tract housing up in the hills, overspill from when the factories needed people more than machines. I put the address into my GPS. It fed the path back in a smooth, unhurried series of instructions that let my mind wander to where my grief was still raw and new.

Pete had hissed at me he would have his son whenever he wanted. Jimmy told me that all they did was sit there, whilst Pete made phone calls trying to cop or play games on his phone.

JJ had fitted the alarm system, but it did not make me feel any safer The gun had a comforting weight to it, eager to make good on its ugly, implicit promise. I used to sleep with it on the nights that the police would come to warn Pete off and I had to spend hours calming Jimmy down enough to sleep before school.

I had brought the gun with me.

The lights were out as I drove into the hills. The abandoned houses squatted like skeletal corpses with broken windows for eyes and doors kicked off their hinges. Scuffed, abandoned toys laid on the overgrown lawns, bleached from constant exposure to the sunlight. I stopped the car, slipped the gun into the pocket of my coat and got out.

My feelings had grown around the wounds, twisted and scarred into new forms. My pain, my joy could not tell one another apart anymore and I was here, with a gun but with no good reason other than to punish whoever had reached down my throat and yanked out my insides.

Someone would explain it or pay.

The house at the end. A weak light burned in the living room window. The door was ajar and from inside, I could smell something weak, sweet and warm, like the sweat of a diabetic.

‘Come in.’

The voice wavered, tight with pain and exhaustion.

My heart raced so fast that each beat rubbed up against the next. My lungs throbbed with each acid breath I took.

I held the gun and walked inside.


The air stank with a rotten sweetness that made me gag. In the living room, piles of yellowing phone books and newspapers. She sat in a high backed chair with a blanket wrapped around her. Her skin had the consistency of crepe paper doused with gasoline.

I looked at her with a mix of pity and revulsion.

‘How did you find me? How did you know?’

She got to her feet, hands gripping the arms of the chair with enough tension to force the bones and tendons into standing out against the skin. Her nails were yellowed and ragged, hung over the callused tips of her fingers. A woman who had worked with her hands and did so with pride. Now she was a ruin, living alone and reduced to insanity and amusement.

She was compressed, little more than five feet tall and when she looked up at me, her milky eyes wavered with discomfort.

‘Oh god, you can’t stay here. Please, you must go. I’m sorry.’

I gripped the gun in my hand, shaking my head as my teeth pressed together with my rage and my pain.

‘You’re sorry, you crazy fucking bitch. My son is dead, and you, what, think that’s funny?’

Tears brimmed in the corners of her eyes and she shook her head. She brought her right hand up to hold the blanket closed around her. I caught the faint whiff of dried body fluids, the dry musk of shit and urine mixed with stale sweat and another scent, thin and high like rotten vegetable matter.

She had her phone in her left hand and offered it to me.

‘No, I don’t have a choice. I was in the garden, and I found this pod in the roots of the lavender.’

She gave a wet cough and shook her head, like she was trying to dislodge something that had gotten stuck there. I looked at the phone and then back at her.

‘No, you don’t get to just be crazy. How did you know his voice? My number.’

Tears streamed down her cheeks.
‘It’s like a terminal disk, on the bombardier beetle. It knows what to set out and when you tread on it, it’s got you.’

She gagged from deep in her gut and turned her head from me. She did not see the gun in my hand, or she was too deep into her psychosis to see it.

Perhaps we were more alike than we cared to admit.

‘I’m sorry. If I don’t do what it say, it hurts me.’

I went to speak, but she raised her chin. Her throat bulged like a bubble in a glass of milk, making a crackling, wet sound like hearing someone tear a roast chicken apart with their bare hands.

The phone fell from her hand as she bucked and thrashed in the agony of some hideous birth.

I pointed the gun and fired, screaming until the hammer clicked on an empty chamber.

She slumped forward as a spray of black, foul oil squirted against the wall behind her and I saw her shoulders moving. Something was forcing itself upwards from inside her, like taking off a coat a size too small.

Tentacles whipped upwards, tasting the air ahead of it before collapsing down back into the safety of the meat.

‘You should never have called.’ I said.

I had gasoline in the trunk, there were matches in the kitchen. I covered everything and lit it up when I was a safe distance.

Pete had driven him and Jimmy into the river. Knowing he had died cold and wet was something that would never go away but as I sat there, watching the house collapse and fold in on itself, I told myself that he would not be cold or dark anymore.

I whispered it to the flames, over and over.

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Black Eyed Angel, Smile With Me


My mother gave me an indirect, covert education. Our lessons were conducted in the wan light of country afternoon and the velveteen absence of light in her darkroom. Her photography bore the odd angles and blurred sun dogs of the enthusiastic amateur but she worked at it with a dogged focus that lent our lives an amiable chaos.

I was a quiet child, open to instruction and taking everything in with wide bright eyes that my mother stared into and declared luminous. I was trusted with handling the negatives, the tangible reversals of the fundamental.

Bleached, pure white.

Utter, relentless black.

We captured wilderness scenes, candid and unguarded moments which were fed into the darkroom and came out as photographs in the way that pigs went into abattoirs and came out as sausages. Her missteps were as fascinating as her triumphs but the lessons she passed to me were considered elitist and prosaic, a reality I had to go into state education to realise.

It was just the two of us. When her body started to prepare itself for the second and last living thing she would host, our roles were reversed. I cared for her, lifting and changing for me until she was an insensible abstract, a twitching nerve rooted in sweat and foulness.

She held me when I was helpless and I returned the favour. The funeral service was sparse and perfunctory as per her wishes. The idea that a single ceremony could put the loss of someone you loved into any context was like holding a shell to your ear and expecting to get wet.

I stayed on in the nest of my childhood, forever outside the eggshell and missing the kiss of mother’s beak.

The house was swollen with emotional resonance for me but it had been built on a considerable amount of debt. Sentiment and sympathy held no import over the demands of my mother’s creditors so I was forced to start the process of clearing and selling the house. It was akin to being a stand in for the cancer, killing her memories rather than her flesh.

Any decision considered adult held its own agony. The ache came to me from the past, a child’s anguish fitting wrong in my woman’s body.

I had to sort through her things. She had laden the house with photographs, oddments and scraps that pleased her eye. Feathers from birds including some massive black variations that I had always held to be fake but she would never answer.

I found her journal, a patchwork quilt of concerns, lists and tentative explorations of her craft and her feelings towards it. She was her own cheerleader in so many things because she had to be. The words blurred before my eyes but I continued to read. I had not known this woman, only the mother she became.

Her tone changed as her expertise grew, becoming more technical and impenetrable with each month that passed. Then one entry drew my eye for its lack of detail.

He landed at the bottom of the garden. He flew back before I could get the camera.

A chill prickled down my back and I read it again, tried to figure out what she meant.

A poem?
Code to avoid questions about her actions.

The next month’s worth of entries returned to the prosaic and technical.

He likes shortbread. Cries at the taste of tap water. He doesn’t speak English but I understand him perfectly.

A week later.

I can’t put down into words what his touch feels like. There is strength there, but he controls it. I know I shouldn’t. I don’t even know if he can.

The next entry was a drawing of a winged heart, done in HB pencil and shaded with red ink.

She did not mention him again. She began to talk about her body, the changes she was experiencing. It became as terse as her grasp of photography and the dates of the entries represented some interesting possibilities.

My intuition blazed into life. She would have photos of this man. I tried to stop flipping through the calendar in my head and actively looking for something would have helped me do it.

They were in a small album. Carefully pasted photographs and the negatives next to them. I tucked it under my arm with the journal and left the darkroom.

My life had never overlapped with anything uncanny or mysterious outside of the human heart or a good book.

The figure crouched, rendered indistinct by the bushes and shadows at the bottom of the garden aside from a pair of luminous eyes, open and soft like the cap of a mushroom. Black wings stretched out from his back that gleamed with oil, their dimensions softened by the night.

I put my hand to my mouth and the kitchen lights flickered. The album fell from my hands and I ran to the window. Night had fallen and the whole world was a darkroom now. I looked outside and wondered what might develop.

The windows rattled in their frames with the gust of wind that came. I opened the door with my heart thumping like I was running a marathon.

‘I know you’re there.’ I said.

I sounded frightened to my own ears but my nerves sharpened my senses and I saw him at the bottom of the garden, his wings tucked behind him.

‘Where.Is. Christina?’

His pronunciation was careful. Not someone speaking a language they lacked fluency in, but the care of someone whose voice was capable of great and terrible things.

He was taller than any man, with lean black limbs and a taut midsection. He carried a scent that combined leather, damp wool and incense. His face wore a perfect mask of surprise as he cocked his head and looked at me.

His lips curved into a smile, revealing perfect white teeth.

He bowed at the waist, the gleam of his bald head caught the moonlight like blood on glass. He looked up and his smile fell away.


His voice had become low, stretched out on the rack of grief.

I told him and when I had finished, he put his hand on my shoulder. It was difficult to breathe in his presence, the weight of faith made tangible pushed at me from every direction.

I reached out and put my arms around him. He held me with the detached care of a cowboy with a calf, a detached gentility that became more humane with each moment. He put his warm, dry lips to the top of my head and I closed my eyes.

When I opened them again, he was gazing at my face.

I had his eyes.

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Happy Flowers



Sonya had parked outside Happy Flowers Retirement Village with the air conditioning on full. The dimensions of the hire car had been designed to knock and bash her at every mile of the trip. Her knees and lower back throbbed with discomfort. In her head, she wrestled with the frustrations of duty, manifesting as a nervous, constant litany of tasks and accusations, all turned inwards.

Niamh had the kids. John-Paul had gone for a third stint in rehab. It was down to loyal, industrious Sonya to draw the short straw of the perpetually rigged game of ‘Who Sees Mom’. Their individual obligations did not deter their enthusiasm towards the last, pressing question left to their family.

Sonya checked that the paperwork was all there, notarized and prepared by Niamh’s brother-in-law. Through a series of emails, late night phone calls and listless conversations interrupted by children, they had agreed that this was a smart move, a matter of pragmatism and realism. A clear application of the values instilled into them by their parents.

Dad would understand, they all said. He was no longer around to confirm or deny it, but they appropriated his memory in ways that Sonya did not recognise as being authentic. They attributed homespun wisdom lifted wholesale from television and fiction. She would not correct either of them, but would nod and wait for them to ask when she was going to go see her.

She collected herself, took a deep breath of the chilled air and stepped out of the car into the brutal heat of Orlando. She had parked as close as possible and dashed inside to the reception area.

Happy Flowers was arranged in layers, the pristine reception area being the outermost. It was decorated in soft pastel colours and solemn minor key melodies piped in as soft as a whisper. Sonya had been here enough to know that it was all bullshit.

The Happy Flowers here were plastic and hollow, like the promises made in the brochure. Sonya was still constrained enough by a need to be liked to force a shallow smile at the receptionist and gave her mother’s name.

The receptionist, a plump, coiffured paragon of efficiency swallowed at the mention of her name. She picked up the phone without breaking eye contact with Sonya.

‘Mr Hayes? Mrs Stewart’s daughter is here to see her.’

No one here asked which one. Mom would have filled them all in on who we were and how ungrateful we were.

The receptionist put the phone down and slipped her a smile like she had brought it out from a drawer.

‘Please take a seat. Mr Hayes will be out.’

Sonya struggled to hold onto the rising, twisting panic that had flared into life, symptoms of an old disease. She slammed her palms against the desk.

‘Where the fuck is my mom?’

The receptionist scowled and pointed a finger at her.

‘Hey, I’ve got a can of pepper spray right here, lady.’

The door opened and Mr Hayes stepped through. Sonya believed that if it had been something serious, then they would have called her, but she lost service plenty of times along the drive and should she check her phone? Right now?

‘Miss Stewart?’

Sonya looked up and smiled.

‘Just tell me where my mom is. Please.’

He wore a white shirt, rolled up to the elbows. There was a small wet mark on his tie, presumably from the lunch that had been interrupted by her arrival. It rewarded her with a small twist of pleasure that she had been something of an imposition to this man.

They should have called her.

Normally, she would have engaged in the listless pillow fight that coming here always became, but she was hot, tired and she couldn’t find her mom.

He sighed and asked the receptionist to pass him the flyer.

‘What does this mean?’

He grimaced before he told her. She had left of her own free will. Sonya imagined her chained up in a basement somewhere, eating from a dog’s bowl whilst kneeling on packed dirt floors. She looked at the flier, the man featured on it.

‘Isn’t that -?’

Mr Hayes gave an embarrassed chuckle and nodded.

‘Yes. they have their address on the back. One of them was working here, and they got talking.’

Sonya chuckled and shook her head. Her relief broke like the sunset after a hard day.

‘Wow. No wonder she’s gone. She took me to see those last two movies he did.’

Sonya remembered her manners, thanked him and strode out to the car.

Everything runs in a circle, she thought. Here I am, going to retrieve my wayward mother, the same way she had. Except she hadn’t, not really.

She got back into the car and pulled out, programming the address into the satellite navigation system.


The abandoned truck sat atop bald, deflated tyres that had sunk into the ground. Its sheen had been transformed into the same consistency as the dirt. It sat there like a broken guard dog, looking out through cracked, rheumy eyes as she stood by the car.

She looked down at her heels and wished she had worn sneakers or something with better support. She took out her phone and dialled the number from the flier.


A soft, happy voice. It reminded her of her brother and she winced at the depth of it. He could barely look after himself but it would have been something.

‘I would like to speak to Donna Stewart please. This is her daughter.’

A soft chuckle.

‘Erm, yeah sure.’

Sonya looked down the path, to where the house stood.

‘In fact, I’m stood by the rusted truck at the front, if I could come up and see her.’

Another chuckle.

‘Cool, ain’t it? Came with the house.’

Sonya ran her tongue over her teeth and closed her eyes, trying to stay calm. She could call the police, but that would make things worse. Police. Cults. Her and Mom in the middle of it.


Sonya opened her eyes.

‘Well, what?’

A long sigh and a smack of the lips.

‘Are you coming up or what?’

The call disconnected and Sonya saw the front door pushed open. She pulled her blouse from where it had stuck to her back and bristled for confrontation.

The most shocking thing about her mother was her expression.


She had combed out her white hair and wore a purple cotton dress that fell to her calves. Her feet were bare and as she came closer, Sonya saw the intricate patterns of henna snaking down her lean arms. Mom had always been beautiful to her, but she was seeing an entirely different woman here. She glowed with a vitality that Sonya envied.

Donna pulled her into a deep, enthusiastic embrace. She pulled back and planted a warm kiss on her cheek that made Sonya gasp with surprise.

‘It’s so good to see you.’

Sonya peered at her, trying to see if her pupils were dilated. She was effervescent to a degree that made her someone new to her own daughter.

‘Mom, Happy Flowers said you left.’

Donna laughed and nodded.

‘No, I got free, darling. You need to see this for yourself.’

Sonya had visions of a softer Jonestown, naked toddlers and root mash for every meal. Donna took her hands and Sonya remembered the paperwork she needed her to sign.

A surge of mischief arose in her, and she decided to follow where it was pulling her as much as her mother.

Everything inside was painted purple. It had faded to a pink blush where the sun hit the walls but Sonya laughed out loud at the ridiculous, glorious mess of it.

‘It’s so you know you’re entering into another reality.’

There were another three houses and a set of stables converted into beds and living spaces. It was all done in purple. The smell of pot and animal dung hung in the air, pleasant in a simple, primal way. Mom took her hand.

‘You have to meet him.’

Sonya looked around her, still coltish with concern.

‘Mom, this is like a cult or something. You can’t be in a cult.’

Donna shook her head, smiling with a benign forgiveness.

‘No, sweetie, I was in a cult. I spent decades training for something that I didn’t really want to be.’

Sonya let go of her hand.

‘You mean us?’

Donna came forward and put her hands on her shoulders.

‘You were the reason I stayed so long. But Sonya, I didn’t need to be put away after your father died, I needed to be set free.’

Sonya lowered her chin to her chest.

‘Mom – ‘



His voice was low and rich, it strolled across the air to her ears and made her look up from her pained recollection. He was bare chested, showing off his taut abdominals and broad shoulders, the curls of dark hair that collected on his pectoral muscles. His hair was long, thick and dark as a raven’s wing, held back from his face by a twist of rawhide. He wore faded blue jeans that slung low on his hips.

‘Hi.’ Sonya said.

‘I’m pleased to see you. Donna has told me a lot about you.’

His career had been, not as the leading man, but the vain, arrogant jock who would get his comeuppance through his own dumb masculinity and his inability to relate to women. It had been one role played across a number of films. She had heard that he had done theatre once, had driven all night to see him but her car had broken down.

This, though, was either his greatest role or how he had always been.

‘Oh god, should I apologise now?’ Sonya said.

He laughed and showed his teeth. He had a slight overbite but his lips were thick and full. She had imagined kissing them, and the memory returned to her with a force as insistent as gravity.

He shook his head and reached out, touched her upper arm and tilted his head to one side.

‘I will leave you two alone. Will you stay for dinner?’

Sonya thought about the root mash and the naked toddlers. She hadn’t seen any of the latter, but this would make for a good story and allow her a chance to figure out what was going on with her mom. With herself, too.

Sonya nodded with enthusiasm.

He walked on, reached out and grasped Donna’s hand before grinning at her and carried on.

Donna took in a deep breath and took hold of her daughter’s hands again.

‘So, let’s do this.’


They sat in front of a fire. Donna had sat with her at dinner. A massive salad, heaped bowls of fragrant rice and curries of vibrant colours and odours. Everyone helped themselves, and Sonya glanced around, looking at everyone with an increasing sense of yearning. Later after everything had been cleared away, he had built a fire and people had brought out musical instruments. The singing and playing were ragged at first, but with enthusiasm came courage and soon Sonya was sat there, swathed in joyful noise as she watched her mom dance in front of the fire.

Sonya had asked if she could throw some trash on it, and no one had objected. She had rushed back to the car and got everything, tossing it in ragged handfuls, watching it feed the fire until the tongues of flame were fat and hungry.

The hand on her shoulder did not make her flinch. She had been hoping for it.

He passed her a joint and she took it between her shaking fingers. She inhaled, managed not to cough and exhaled it slowly as he sat next to her.

He leaned forward and she moved to meet him.



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A Return To The Fold

Haraathi knelt at the altar and lit a stick of incense before placing it in the holder and clasped her hands together. Jaganath was at the reception desk, checking in a road-weary family but he assured her that he would join her soon enough. She still practiced her faith with a zeal that he was faintly embarrassed by, but accepted as part of the everyday material of their marriage.

The motel had been sold to them back in the 60’s, Haraathi had agonised over the offer but Jaganath’s ambitions had allied with her deference and so they found themselves taking part in the American dream. Her agonies had started, after the fact when she was told that they were sold the place in preference to the worst case scenario, of a black family owning it. Haraathi had learned a blunt, ugly truth about life in the South. A black man could work the land, but there were vested interests who worked really hard to make sure they would never own it. Still, it was a chance to own something, and she gave into him, especially when he sold her on the idea of their unborn son being able to achieve things that were the province of the wealthy, and all for swallowing their pride and rolling their sleeves up to make the place a going concern.

The motel was a peeling, squat building, raised like a boil against the black soil. The pair of them worked endless hours, drunk with exhaustion until the ratio of insects to paying guests turned in their favour. Jaganath had agreed to swear off chewing betel and made good on every promise he made to her.

Elango was born in an American hospital on bleached white sheets whilst Jaganath was held in the blissful embrace of powerful anaesthetics and soft-spoken, focused doctors. She held him in her arms and vowed that he would never have to suffer the indignities that they had.

Like so many promises, it came too true.

He had taken from both of them. His father’s ambition and his mother’s intelligence had been apparent in him in the start. What tested her unconditional love of him laid in wait until adolescence when he embraced the politics of his country. Jaganath had been proud to vote Republican. Haraathi agonised over her small act of deception when she would cast her ballot in favour of humanist or liberal candidates. Such defeats were both comforting and upsetting to her, especially when Elango and his father would become boorish and ungracious at the results. By then, the motel was doing great business and Elango was headed for college, with grades that reflected their investment and his potential. She worried about whether he would get into drugs or reckless, casual sex, drop out and reinvent himself as a beatnik of some description.

He became the chair of the Young Republicans on campus, and his heritage was sold as a shining example of the ideals that the country, she observed, spoke to but seldom practiced. His letters carried the density of political speeches, seldom sharing the things that she wished to know. She worried whether he was eating enough or getting the required amount of sleep, his concern was the tide of liberal ideas that would undermine the fabric of the nation.

Jaganath’s pride stopped her from making her worries public. He threw himself into the business, taking over a second motel and a concern in a soul food restaurant that he passed management of, onto his second cousin Pav. She noted that her son’s ambitions had paternal precedent and threw herself into community work when time allowed. That, and devotion held her upright.

What finally did it, was not when Elango announced his candidacy. Jaganath had wept with joy. It was when he introduced Jacqueline, his fiancée and then dropped in casually that he was now going by the name Eric, that his tears of joy simply became joys. Haraathi did not react as she imagined she would. She once heard a quote when she attended (tolerated, really) her monthly book club where she had weathered naïve, vaguely insulting questions about life in India that stayed with her.

I think being a mother is the cruelest thing in the world

That night, she slept well for the first time in years. That her suspicions had been correct. She loved Elango, but she was not sure that she liked him. Now that he was Eric, she was free to admit that to herself.

He announced that he was going to resolve ‘the Hindu problem’ by converting to Christianity and that he hoped they wouldn’t say anything to any journalists, well that sent Jaganath into a deep, fitful depression. He went back on the betel for a while but Haraathi prayed and with a love that had seen them through back-breaking decades, got him on his feet again. With the muted, blank expressions of torture victims, they agreed to their son’s demands.

They watched the inauguration on television. Eric sacked an aide for not sending the invitation, but the three of them knew the truth.

Haraathi took in a deep breath and chanted to Hanuman for his guidance and deliverance. She felt a rush of certainty and a mischievous amusement that made her smile in a way that life in America had not delivered to her aside from brief, manic bursts, mostly when she was alone. By the time, Jaganath joined her to pray, she had concluded her business with Hanuman and they both observed devotions to milder, kinder gods.


No one knows who managed to hack into Eric’s phone and find the salacious sext messages, sent to the buxom intern. Nor was the matter of how it ended up in the email account of the journalist who had dated Jacqueline around the same time and still held the combination grudge cum candle for her but what did make the front page was enough. Haraathi understood politics and American politics in particular, enough to know that with the left wing, it was always money and with the right wing, it was sex.

Elango came home, and in the end, took over the second motel’s management. He would join his parents in devotions but it was always with a grim reluctance which Haraathi accepted as the price of his return to the fold.

After all, she loved her son from the first. Liking him, she accepted, might take a little while longer.


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Above Us, Only Sky.


Above the clouds, where the air is as pure as the sunlight, she floats with her arms by her sides, looking out at the sky around her. She can sense that her physical body waits on the earth beneath her, that this is a matter of perception, afforded her by virtue of an education at her mother’s knee.

She looked at the sky around her, endured the bone deep ache of being in the presence of beauty such as the world around her. Her soul trembled at what she had to do, but when she spoke, her voice rang out across the sky.

‘I am Esperanza, daughter of Dona Maria, I am curandera and I come to find something that has not been lost.’

Her voice echoed, but nothing moved or responded. A chill wind blew across her shoulders, wracking her with shivers. Was this the response? Mama had said that they would speak to her. Esperanza took that to mean a conversation, but this was a chil breeze.

She felt it then, a tugging sensation to her left, like a child pulling at the hem of mother’s skirt and she followed it.


She plummeted, too fast to scream and blacked out for a second with it’s terrible velocity.


Beneath her, the soft damp bed of moss laid damp against her cheek. She got up, wrapping her arms around herself as she looked out at a sea of trees, tall enough to pierce the low hanging clouds above her. So thick was the cloud that it made her strain to see the details. She shut her eyes, and listened.

The gentle trickle of running water, and she smiled to herself.

There is the Rio Abjao Rio, the river beneath the river. If you hear it, in the air, the spaces when you hear your true love’s voice, then you must follow it. She got to her feet and began to walk. Her steps were tentative, but she took a deep breath and carried on into the forest.

The noise of the water gained presence and volume as she drew nearer. The air was cool, damp in her nostrils and on her lips. She raked her hair away from her face, and wriggled her bare toes into the moss beneath her feet. She drew courage from herself, and kept moving.

Which was when she heard the roar, not of the river this time. She felt the thump of motion gathering pace as it came towards her, knocking back undergrowth and branches with no more care than you would walk through a column of smoke.

She looked into the bear’s eyes. The warmth of corn liquor, caramelised and liquid. Beautiful, and all the more so, for the grizzled ferocity of it’s expression. It roared and she put her hands up.


The bear reared back on it’s legs, blocked out the light with it’s size.

Which was when it began to chuckle.

Esperanza suffered fools all her life, but she had been unprepared for such mockery to arise in a place as pure as thought. Pure as sky.

‘You do not laugh at me without cause, spirit.’

It guffawed as it licked his left paw with his thick, pink tongue, watching her with an expression equal parts hunger and amusement. It thrilled her to be looked at in such a way, but frightened too.

‘No, it appears that I do not. What do you search for?’

She took a deep breath.

‘I come to surrender.’

The bear shook it’s head and lowered it’s eyes as it moved onto all fours.

‘To me, is it that simple?’

Her stomach grew hot and sour, the bear’s voice was gruff but smooth, burnished by endless experience and beneath it, a warmth like a good shot of tequila began to smoothe out her fears. She shook her head.

‘No, it is not. My mother taught me that.’

The bear looked around and grinned before returning it’s gaze to her.

‘And, what is that lesson? Humour a big old bear, would you.’

Esperanza closed her eyes, took a deep breath and spoke, not from memory but from heart.

‘A woman’s surrender is a gift, a demonstration of power and not defeat. We surrender to the cycles of life and death, the release of purest ecstacy and the duties of the flesh. To surrender such power is a gift and it is done not in the spirit of looking backwards.’

The bear padded over to her, sniffed and hummed deep in it’s throat, it’s massive chest reverberating the air around it with it’s vibration.

It licked along the line of her neck, the tongue was soft, but rough like a washcloth and it tickled her sending delighted shivers of sensation down her spine.

‘I accept, Esperanza.’

It lowered it’s shoulders to the ground then looked upwards at her.

‘What are you doing, Bear?’

‘I will take you to the rio abjao rio, Esperanza. I know the way.’

She walked around the bear, reaching forward to take purchase in the thick, brown fur on it’s back. She lifted her leg over, until she was astride. It’s heartbeat thumped like a drum and the hot engine of it’s breath moved her like the tides. It was frightening and exciting all at once.

The bear lifted it’s shoulders and turned it’s head.

‘Are you ready, Esperanza? I know that this frightens you, but the truth of a situation often does. ‘

She gripped the fur and smiled at the bear before her. Beneath her.

‘Then you must show me, Bear.’

It began to move, slow at fast but then faster.

It never quite matched the rapid pace of her heart though. Nothing was faster than that.


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The Burden of Law.


We had been in country for six months now, making friends was a thing of necessity and all of us in the unit had developed friendships in different layers. Imogen, who had dropped out of Stanford to be here was tight with Lorraine, who had been about to start beauty school before she got drafted, giggled like she was sucking down helium and liked to do our nails and hair when we were back at base. Olive had been on a scholarship to run track at LSU and she would work out with Patsy, who had been running her dad’s hardware store when he took ill, had resented handing it over to her younger brother, and took it out on the rudimentary weights and track they had ground and welded out of jungle dirt and brush. My BFF out here was Kelly, because of the fact that we had come from the same town and signed up together. It was that or get pregnant, get married to someone who would become an obese stranger to us over time and watch the years fly by. Safety is an illusion, and it just didn’t feel right to stand by and let other people stand a watch for our safety.

It’s strange what you believe, and your reasons for doing things. They weren’t lies as such, but we believed them at the time. Boot camp didn’t abuse us of that notion.

War did.

We dealt with it in different ways. Some of us retreated back to habits that engendered comfort, like Olive running track and Lorraine doing our hair.

Then there was Laura. Law, she shortened it to that and even spelt it that way, had it stencilled on her helmet with a skull and crossbones underneath. She was married, apparently, no kids, volunteered at the church in the small town where she had been born and lived before she got drafted.  No more than 5 feet tall, about a buck ten soaking wet but she had muscled through training. She was good at it.

Too good, but we never said that aloud. It was a feeling that could only be captured in the language of friendship’s whispers.

Law was the member of the unit who was appointed to kill children. It was not an official order, nothing written down or anything that would put a five star general in front of a sub committee but it was there.


It did not sit well with us, a callus against the skin of our souls, a cut that would heal if we could stop touching it. Law bore the burden quietly at first, but that changed.

It was the enthusiasm that she showed.

She started to take trophies. Fingers or ears because they kept better. No one else needed memories of their kills in country.

Once you’ve shot a grandmother in the face, it tends to stay with you. At least, I hoped it did. It reminds you that you’re still human. Still a woman.

So, when I tell you about how it ended, you have to understand that we were thinking about a lot of different things.

The village was supposed to have been cleared by the 101st

Law, by then, had settled on fingers, tied onto her bandolier of shotgun shells with neat loops of string, each one woven through one of the canvas pockets where each shell nestled, snug like a baby at a breast. Her bright red hair had been shaved down to stubble, bursts of cinnamon freckles against white skin that either burned or resisted the sun. Droopy-lidded brown cow eyes that saw everything with a quiet acceptance. She worked the pump action shotgun with surgical skill. Whatever she aimed for, she hit.

So when the little boy emerged, cheap Russian AK shaking in his arms, she was already in motion. Olive shouted but it was too late.

He flew backwards, at that range, his unformed, tan chest blew apart like a pound of meat dropped from a great height. Law had done it with no more expression than flitting a bug from her eyeline. We stood there, as Hillary, our lieutenant came over and touched Law on the shoulder, as though waking her from a pleasant dream.

‘What the fuck?’ I said.

Hillary raised her eyebrows and strode over to me. Her face had tightened into a harsh scowl, the same one she had probably used as a wedding planner to deal with an errant tent rental company error.

‘Sargeant, you do not get to question operating procedure. Stow that shit for base camp.’

Law knelt in front of the cooling corpse, looked around and giggled. It was a sound that stayed with me for as long as I lived. She already had the knife in her hand, ready to take a trophy.

The next sound was the shot.

It took her between the shoulder blades. Kelly lowered her rifle, then knelt down, placed it ground in front of her and knitted her fingers at the back of her head. She looked at me, tears budding in the corners of her eyes.

‘It had to be done, lieutenant. She can’t go home with that inside her.’

We retreated at the same pace we had arrived. Kelly was by my side, relieved of her rifle but not her duty. Hillary could have shot her there and then, but there would have been enough paperwork with Law already.

When the MPs came and took her, she smiled at me. I could not bear the weight of it and as she waved at me, she had the same expression as Law, but it was overlaid with the patina of friendship. I never saw her again, but when I went home, resuming my bachelors degree, I thought of her often.

I thought of Law too, but those were done by the time that I awoke. I would wash the sheets and shower a little longer than normal.