Now that you’ve had a couple of days to appreciate the wonderful contents of issue 100’s poetry section, it’s time to move on to a set of short stories spanning the brief, the surreal, the deep and the beautiful. Most of them are quite brief, but they fit a lot into quite a small space.- Stuart
My Father’s in My Fingers– Bethan Townsend
I’ve always wanted a baby grand piano, though not for personal use. It should be blacker than the blackest black imaginable, with extra black for luck or another whimsical notion. When I got one, there was only really one thing left to do.
I met Beethoven on Bold Street but he wasn’t really up for Costa, wanted to see the city and I couldn’t argue. I offered a half-hearted (though informative) guided tour in exchange for piano lessons, for my father and his fingers.
I wanted 80 days and 80 nights (to avoid the stereotypical 40) and I wanted them to swap consciousnesses. He was to give my Dad his hands, through any means necessary and give up Moonlight Sonata, that’ll show ‘em.
The Moonlight Sonata reminds me Earthworm Jim, floating through caves on a speckly TV screen. It’s considered a masterpiece by many, including Beethoven himself. No complacency there Lud’ lad. They sat at my piano (blacker than black) and Beethoven spent 48 days playing repeatedly, my dad, he pretended to watch…more concerned with the surgeon slipping in and out of the room.
I knew the guy well, the surgeon I mean. He went to my high school, said he was fat ‘cause he went vegetarian, ate too much cheese and then gave up vegetarianism on this basis. We had a water fight in Billinge and he promised me another, I swapped this promise for an intricate operation.
Beethoven says his genius is in his mind, we believe it’s in his fingers. I believe it’s in his fingers, my dad covets the Gibson Les Paul promised to him; on the condition of the Moonlight Sonata.
Did I mention I can already play it? At twice the speed of Beethoven, which isn’t a talent, speed is my downfall and ruins most masterpieces, everything happens to quickly and the pleasure is lost. My Moonlight Sonata is impinged by too many Es and too much speed, don’t tell dad though.
On the 49th day my surgeon agrees stops slipping away and slips into his greens. We shoot them with tranquiliser darts (for kicks) and lay them down in what used to be my toilet but is now in fact an operating theatre. Not so much room.
I don’t like the buzz of ‘the what might be a saw’ as the hands are swapped and sewn up. 31 days left to learn. Although if learning is required, I believe his genius is in his mind.
Beethoven is complete following me down Ranelagh Street. I prance about like the perfect tour guide, the Yellow Duckmarine gets a look in and Beethoven actually squeals.
– Ich bin verzückt
I cough knowingly and force him down the steps to the Beatles Tour, where a wannabe-camp (don’t ask me why) acquaintance of mine works. I do like the Beatles, in small doses, mainly of Maggie Mae (the version off Acoustic Submarine). We have to go home, squeezing through the flurry of tracksuits and trolleys, as everyone round here (regardless of age) has one of those tartan things.
The Moonlight Sonata fills my spaceless flat my father’s fingers are healed. The Les Paul is flung in the corner and Beethoven is at a loss. He can’t play it anymore and all he wants is his own Gibson Les Paul.
– You can have a Les Paul if you learn to play my Moonlight Sonata, to my satisfaction.
My father’s smirking, Beethoven is clichéd, aghast.
Pyro-Magic– Bethan Townsend
He’ll never set the world on fire. They won’t let him. When we first met flames danced in his eyes but they’ve been extinguished. He promised me the world for a fire lighter and I obliged for a kiss from his singed lips.
We were on fire. Pyro-magical instances combine us as his jet black hair and skin smells of melting flesh. It’s completely not arousing but I know I’m turned on, staring into the flickering ignition in of his amber eyes.
He hated me as much as I loved him. Touching him made him wail, scream and hiss, like a wood fire. Yet he still came back. He was flammable, inflammable and beautiful.
He trapped me, burnt me.
Bethan Townsend is 21 and lives in North West England. She cites her favourite poets as Allen Ginsberg and Dylan Thomas and loves cats, gin, and all things Irish. She occasionally rants and poeticises at http://plasticrosaries.blogspot.com and has been published by Read This Magazine, Ink, Sweat and Tears, Conversation Quarterly and various other lovely people. Forthcoming publications in The Glasgow Review and FRiGG Magazine.
Mother was supposed to be raised a vegetarian, but gave up at the age of four. Something about the animals at the zoo excited her to the point where she wanted to consume them. The chickens, the pigs, the cows: they weren’t cute. They were food.
We never had stuffed animals lying around the house. She looked at me as the cure to her mess of mistakes, as all she could have been, so now I’m a vegetarian, born and raised.
I’ve never tasted meat. Some say it’s a loss, some praise me. They don’t know it wasn’t my choice, a predetermined quality, a duty. It’s a realm I’ve never stepped foot in, not being able to laugh at the mysterious texture of the sloppy joes at lunchtime, or play dinosaurs with my chicken fingers.
I was eleven the last time we went to visit my father’s grave, and my mother was on edge. We drove down the Eastern coast for about six hours, during which the only thing I wanted to do was stick my feet out the window.
“Keep your feet in the car,” she said.
“Because they’ll fly off your skinny little legs and I’m not going to turn around to help you look for them.” Her intractable gaze was nervous and careful on the road.
When we got to the grave all she could do was pace and talk about her mother, who lay underground six hours back in the other direction. I lay on the grass under the gravestone and six feet above my father, wondering what it was that he ate last. Was it a popsicle, a carrot stick, a pita?
“Do you know that my mother was dainty and long, just like you?”
Mother had said he loved the winter. Maybe it was soup.
“She had a number of wrap dresses she left for me.”
Cheese and wine? The idea of him always seemed so regal. Maybe caviar.
“They don’t fit me. When you develop some hips you can have them.”
Steak. It must have a been a great big steak, cooked by mother, and me in the highchair, I must have been eating beans and peas.
“Those dresses weren’t made for meat-eaters anyway.”
On my birthdays I got to choose which restaurant we would go to. And every year on my birthday we would go to the Vegetastic Basket. Mother would put up a big stink, more to be funny than contradictory. It was the one time of year she would eat a meatless salad. It was the one time of year I found myself amongst allies.
When I imagined myself ordering a hamburger, I would mess up and ask for a humanburger, a Sally Rosenfield burger, as if I weren’t cut out for it. And sometimes when I saw mother furiously cutting into a piece of chewy beef, I imagined that she was eating Sally Rosenfield, and that I was eating her garden.
Once, when my mother was cooking dinner, I came close to eating meat. The doorbell rang, and after she left the room, she came back to find me hunched over the open oven, gripping the steaming hot piece of chicken with my hands and leading it into my mouth. It wasn’t a well thought out plan. It was a spontaneous act of rebellion. The chicken never made it to my mouth; when mother sees something she wants she fights for it. So the half-cooked breast flew across the floor, scudding like a gun she had just smacked out of my throbbing and scorched hands.
“Don’t do that,” she said. “Don’t be ungrateful.”
But I wasn’t ungrateful, not at the time. At the time I was nothing more than curious. It wasn’t the glisten of the viscous thing sitting there raw on the plate beforehand, nor had the smell seeping from the oven lured me in. It was the law of it. But I kept my mouth shut, as I was supposed to have done in the first place.
“You have something special going for you, Lucy,” she said. “But your failure to realize it disappoints me.”
And that was my pressure: a sad widowed mother only saddened by the fact that she was never a vegetarian, never had the bone structure of a frail old woman, who was resentful of her daughter for not being thankful of the delicate body she had passed onto her. Instead, mother was robust, big bursting hips and plentiful breasts.
I wanted to tell her of my resentment, of how my friend’s mothers smelled like detergent or plants or summertime rain showers, but mine smelled like chicken. And so what if she was large and so what if I were small. I wanted to tell her that I never wished to be prettier, or smarter, I just wished I could eat meat like everyone else. But she was distressed and uncollected, a pot pie gouged in the center. And I was shaking, a thin vine of carrot root tousled by the wind.
For the longest time mother would complain about her body. Later she would just curse it when it seemed to get in the way. Then she would look at me, and I would look down at myself, and she would shake her head, often times en route to the refrigerator.
She once told me that I would have more options with the body she gave me: more boyfriends to choose from, easier interactions with authorities, and a greater leeway into what I’m passionate about. She said when you’re not skinny your passions come second to your goals. She said skinny girls don’t have goals because they’re already closer to perfect.
“I have lots of goals,” I said, full of vitality. “I want to paint and I want to help animals.”
“No, those are passions, Lucy,” she said. “Don’t humor me.”
I was blonde and thin and thus popular in high school, but I felt more at ease with the art kids. In the studio I found others like me, except they had made the choice themselves. Some told me that bacon was overrated, and that chicken was blander than tofu. One friend explained that her vegetarianism was spawned out of an incident involving a cheeseburger; uncannily, in a moment when her teeth cut through the patty, she heard a distant and somber moo of a cow. I laughed when I heard these anecdotes. Suddenly the meat-eaters weren’t the fortunate ones; they were the victims.
I was in college when my mother got sick. She never divulged the illness that led to her death, though it was related to meat-eating, I either gathered or decided. I opted not to probe or do the research because I felt that would be insensitive. The process of waiting to lose her was easier thinking her the victim. I took time off from school to be with her.
“Lucy,” she said earnestly, the C lingering with a buzz. It was just another day in the hospital, about four weeks into her stay, and I was beginning to feel the wait intolerable. She took her fork and jabbed it into her meatloaf. “I want you to have a bite,” she said.
I looked at it with a distinct urge to laugh: that wasn’t food. It was a mound of insides ground up and smashed together with salt and pepper and celery. It was grainy and mud-colored, the surface disarrayed with lumps of fat. The laugh got stuck in my throat, thwarting a surge in my stomach.
“I’m not going to do that,” I said.
She sighed the most purposeful sigh I’ve ever heard, her hands resting on her diminutive lap.
She was frail now, haggard and bony. “I knew you wouldn’t,” she said. “Because I taught you better than that.”
I didn’t say anything, only sat with my fist at my mouth.
“Can you ever forgive me?” she asked. “I only wanted you to shine. My mother wanted me to shine.” She then talked down to the meat. “In many ways I did, and in many ways I didn’t. I don’t want you to feel like you let me down, Lucy. You make me so happy.”
I wondered how many mothers gazed lovingly upon their child for refusing to fall under the pressure of the almighty steak. I wondered how many mothers lay at their deathbed, thinking not of how they would do it all over again, but gleaming at their second chance, live in dainty flesh.
“You make me so happy, Lucy,” she repeated, “and I only pray that I make you happy.”
And I wanted to say that she did, but I only looked down at myself, at my body, and felt the corners of my mouth curve upward.
Night Voices– Lindsea Kemp
The voices in the street were loud, as if the dark houses and smooth pavement served as some sort of echo chamber. Laughter. It was brief but jarring as a car door slammed and they walked down to the beach access. There were other noises, whispered voices and forgetting-to-whisper voices…nothing clear or with any kind of message. But the tone sounded young and the laughter was alive.
One in the morning, I lay in bed after hearing a car park in front of my house. I heard the laughter and the voices and the slam and the footsteps. Then darkness collapsed on itself once again and streetlights lit up swaying palm trees for no one. It was silent.
I recognized the voices easily. Not that I knew the specific owners of the voices, but it was more that I knew the answers to the questions that the voices posed. Why were the people walking down the street? Why were they laughing? What were they feeling?
I knew because there have been moments when my voice was released and the sound waves bounced and danced against still houses. The car doors had slammed and we had walked down the empty street laughing at nothing. The wind blew softly and I remember noticing the plumeria tree was filled with more flowers than usual. The sky was clear.
It’s a heady feeling when the rest of the world is asleep, and the street is empty save for us. Walking to my apartment we used to watch the light at the distant intersection turn red, green, yellow, then red again. Once the hush falls and the monkeys in the zoo send their last cries throughout the park, the ocean is loud enough to hear.
And then there’s the final stumble and giggle when the final destination is reached. Home, with sandy feet or smoke and sweat drenched body, I used to listen to the memory-dense space in the whisper hours, limbs spread out on a sheet-covered air mattress.
The distorted street voices I understand clearly. Each outburst of night laughter I know the source. Those people, the only ones awake in the entire world, I recognize. I can pretend to be asleep and not make a noise or turn a light on, if only they promise to do the same for me.
Gently Down the Stream–Jude Dillon
She lay back in the bow of the rowboat staring over at the shoreline. She definitely had an aura about her. I could sense a contentment when she closed her eyes. So still in the bow she could have been asleep, she spoke in the hush between my oar strokes. Yet it was not the language of the tongue.
-You okay? I asked her and she nodded and smiled.
-It’s so beautiful out here, she said. How are you?
-I’m waking up.
-Well, let me know if you get bored. I’ll take over.
-Sure you will, I said.
She smiled at the shore. I’m happy, she said, then turned to me without smiling. Can you feel it?
-Like we’re breaking some law out here, she went on. This adventure….escapes me.
-Escape, I said.
-This feeling… She was insistent. We’re floating along on it, moving away…
-A bit scary, I said, after a pause.
-Well, she said. We don’t know where it will end. For a moment her face lost its brightness and her voice that languid quality that so reassured me. It was as if a cloud was passing over head.
-Let it happen, I guess, she went on. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. She turned her face back to the rocky shoreline.
-Where are we now? She asked me.
-Where ever, I said, breathing out the last word, sharply, pushing my arms out and forward with the oars, moving into the next stroke.
-Well, she said. Let’s keep going.
It was quiet on the water, except for the regular dipping rhythm of the oars, which I had really stopped hearing as you stop listening after awhile to your own breathing.
-Is there anyone else? She grinned at me.
-No, that would get in the way, I said. Throw off the balance.
The shoreline was a rocky meandering line. Scaly looking granite and crumbling shale blurred into pinkish grey. Even from this distance, I could hear the lake surf lapping quietly against the rocky ledge.
Pine trees clung together on the bluffs and further back, wider, leafier trees stood apart from each other and led away into the woods. A thousand different paths were possible there. It was very enticing to imagine a cabin at the end of one of those paths and in the evening finding your way home by the smell of wood smoke.
I felt a surge of energy. A light breeze came over us from across the lake. It was getting on in the afternoon. The wind began playing gently with the tree tops by the shore. It was like watching someone’s hair being rustled by an affectionate hand. One of my oars flipped up too quickly landing a spray of water up to the bow.
-Jesus! What!, she said.
-Oh were you sleeping? I laughed.
-All this time? She asked. I remember shoving off, but …You should have talked to me and kept me awake.
She sat up in the bow to stare at the rocky shore, the colour detail in the trees fading out now and their shape changing rapidly to silhouette.
-This doesn’t look familiar, she said.
The detail in her face was lost now in the falling shadows. The sound of her voice drew her closer and calmed me.
-Where are we? She said and her words leapt to me across the darkness.
I bent forward towards her for a deeper stroke of my oars.
-Almost there, I said.
Jude Dillon is a poet and writer/photographer living in Calgary Alberta Canada.