- Vol. 09
- Chapter 01
There is something in the woods, I tell my sister. I have told her every day for a fortnight. She won’t listen to me, because I am smaller than she, and I have lighter hair, which she believes to be unserious.
She never listened to me, even when we were close, when she taught me to hear things in the woods. This was years ago before she shot tall fast like the road they are building to ------. This was before she turned on her heel and leapt into tasks such as starched sheets and milk for the horrible cat, before she went industrious with a needle and sharp with a knife. Then, she took me across the meadow. Birches, alders, wild firs and a latticework of ferns parted before us. She scraped aside moss with her fingernails and pressed her ear to the ground. Listen, she said. I listened. I felt the prickle of some insect in my ear. I heard the rush of the earth. And my blood. I sat up and my sister was running her fingernails down the skin of her wrists. Raising gooseflesh. You see, she said. I don’t hear anything, I told her. She arranged her features into that face of hers. Of course you don’t, she said.
I tried to hear. I scrunched myself up like a handkerchief every time I passed outside the house. I drowsed against the ground, falling asleep in boredom and frustration. I wrapped my hands around a birch, as if I could throttle it.
And then, one day, I could hear it. It settled on me, a film of ice. I told her and she said, what? She had forgotten.
Now, I tell her again, there is something in the woods. It’s the noise from building the road, she says, but no, it is not, I hear it in winter too. She puts an embarrassed look on her face. Pru, she says. Come now. You’re nearly eleven.Read more >
— Do you think he saw us do it
— No I think he didn’t see us
— But he walked in while we were
— I don’t think he saw what we were doing
— But he can be so quiet and his feet are soft and sometimes I don’t notice him until he’s right beside me
— We saw him in the doorway he was just coming in the doorway
— He could have seen us from the doorway
Wrapping twine around the box to make it look how it did before and folding the paper and eating it.
— Where is he now
— I don’t know
— Do you think he’s listening
— Do you think he’s gone to tell
— If he had told they would have come for us by now
— Maybe he took his time
— Maybe he is enjoying himself
Tap the girl’s mouth to make sure she keeps quiet because he is there on the far side of the wall.Read more >
First the Pedersens, with their fat lazy tabby who took a full outraged minute to waddle across the garden and defend his food dish, and then the Lindbergs, where the perfectly poised pedigree was so highly strung she fled at the sight of an intruder. The best kibble at the Bergströms, if Madame Pretty Paws and her artful claws were safely out of sight; the most certain reward at Alma Ström’s neat little home, as long as you could be bothered to sit through the squeezing and heavy petting before she shared her can of sardines. Then onto the hospital, where sticking to the creamy outer walls of 20th century stone usually turned up a friendly visitor or two ready to throw a tidbit, some herring picked from a sandwich or a bit of cheese. And the best sun on the whole island, easy to track and travel throughout the day, places to stretch out and nap for hours without concern of shadow or cloud.
Worth taking any door left open, if nothing else to be sure there wasn’t any appetite still empty. There were mice somewhere in the church, deep down under the floor, their hay-ripened feral little scent rising through the cracks in the boards, the tiny scrabblings of their own errands. The nurses keeping respectful watch, the woman sobbing at the front by the altar. Worth taking the time to sit and wait, for the mice or the sun or the brief touch of attention. Right now the nurses were distracted and the woman was busy, her hands clasped up to her forehead, her eyes trained on stained glass, but maybe in a little while she’d grow tired and one hand would fall, an open palm just the right size to press a warm soft head into, fingers that would stroke the ears gently between, salt to be licked.
After William has swallowed his ale with the powder I’ve mixed in, and fallen, snoring on the straw-filled pillow, I creep from the bed and wrap my shawl around my shoulders.
I cut through the night like a blade, nose leading me, seeking Cecilia. The cat pads after me, occasionally twining its tail around my ankles.
My clogs tap against the cobblestones; the fog hangs low and panting around my face.
The moon winks brightly, slipping in and out from behind gray clouds, seeming, at times, to bear down on me. The marbled surface looks like a hard jewel, like I could reach out and pluck, put between my teeth and crush into icy splinters.
I walk past the yellow of the sulfur lights, past the faint noises of men dropping their mugs on the cedar planks of the tavern, past old women snoring, babies coughing, and creep to the edge of town.
I make it to the pumpkin path, thick, glossy vines and vegetal air, and there, in the moonlight, is Cecilia. Her pale face, her long fingers.
We face each other, take in the frosty night air, let it stream from our mouths. We drop our shawls, let our cloaks slither to the ground, shed our black dresses. I catch the pale globe of her breast; she looks as I lick my lips.
We crouch, legs spread wide, and smash the pumpkins with rocks; they split easily and with a wet sound. We eat and eat, laughing, howling; I feel fur growing from my groin, up my belly, sprouting from my nipples in needle-thin crystals; it ridges my back; claws up my throat.Read more >
The shadow of myself, falling away behind me as I squint at the sun. Imaginary friend, larger than real life, or smaller, depending on the time of day, the season. Distorting reality and soothing me into monochrome, a grounded silhouette; all is well with the world, it seems, when we are but diffused shapes, indistinct, dimensional and doing just fine.
I remember my daughter, a toddler, studying fluttering grey triangles on the concrete – shadows of bunting strung on a canal boat – as she tried to stamp on the flapping isosceles patches on the towpath, and I tried to explain by pointing at the low-lying sun, at our own shadows, the collaboration. How a shadow moves, ahead or following, always at your feet, constant at a time when little is, in a way.
From the windows of aeroplanes, shadows of clouds mottle the sunlit land, offering texture to the flatness below. I see the shadow of the jet I am in, passing across fields, crossing hedgerows, steady like the gnomon of a sundial casting time. Yet the scene also seems stilled from here, perhaps because everything is moving: me, the plane, the clouds, the shadows, the earth, the sun.
I’ve seen shadow cast by a full moon, too, even by the rich seam of the Milky Way one incandescent night. Yet while I look for shadow at times, the sliver of protection it can afford on one side of a burning street in, say, Xi’an or Khartoum, mostly I cross the road for the light, its heat, its glare, wanting to turn away and to leave the darkness behind.
They learned the value
of silence, preserving their words
for their own ears.
A mother. Her girl.
Standing in a quiet that
possesses the room, except
for the snap of flames
that live in the logs. A branch
that settles, and sparks, and
shifts in the iron grate.
Firelight deepens the inexact
shadows as sleep teases
a ginger cat. Its tail
replies to tiny bombs of sap.
And then, the moment is
stolen by a hard knock
on the door. Once, and again
... and again.
The cat gathers itself
closer to the woman and girl.
Even a cat knows that
there's safety in numbers.
Father tends to the flames in the yard, feeding it the last few unclean things – a jumper, batteries, his old brown loafers, a Bosch print discoloured by the sun. He is stained by the smoke, his white shirt soot-black, his green eyes all-pupil from the light. We stand and wait to be called.
Dishrags. Carpet-cleaner. Back-issues of The Guardian. The Uncleanness could be anything, he said to my sisters and I from his make-shift pulpit. That is its great trick. To make itself commonplace, to insist itself upon the memory so that it might spread like mildew.
Very few things are truly commonplace, he said, kneeling before the pillar of salt in our kitchen, Pussycat curled up beside him.
He told us stories of other villages down the way, where Uncleanness had gone unchecked. Cobblestones conspiring with each other in the night. Jam jars breaking themselves into stabbing points below the feet of little girls like us. Great floods of living cider, freed from their casks and foaming through backstreets in the shapes of wolves and bears and hairy black feet. Things revealing themselves for what they are. Unclean mothers and daughters unspooling like yarn, disappearing down living pipes into the great, fetid heart at the centre of everything.
Very few things are truly clean, he said, and we nodded like good daughters, only teasing him behind his back like mother had taught us.
But my littlest sister and I listened. We were clever.
the walls are a soft peach and tender
mauve alive with light. downy and
rustling. undulating like the long, thin branches
of the crack willow that hangs
by the river
our shadows are blue-green
ghosts that stand behind us
and we, too, are ghosts, starched white
and full of want
You are never completely aware of the shadow
You cast. You see it elongated on the grass
At the end of a walk. I am my own sundial.
Gnomic. Prim, high-minded and protective.
To try to catch your own profile is to miss it
Chasing a glimpse, as when she was a kitten
With a scrap of paper tied to a string.
Why do the words appear backwards?
Because the camera is disposed to let you see
Yourself as in a mirror and not as the world
Sees you and so the world must be reversed.
The optician swore she saw no resemblance.
Said she’d worked there thirteen years
And never found a pair of glasses she likes.
I look at your shadow to try and understand
My own. I’m like that, not like that, am I?
The cat belongs to neither of us, is looking
In the other direction, thinking of going.
The wind which persistently blew through the town eroded the sandstone façades. This corrosion had begun the moment the builders completed each property a century ago. Now, with many of the structures worn away and collapsing into heaps of timber and slate, most residents had left. Only four people remained, occupying a house which surrounding oak trees had helped to protect from the destructive blasts of air.
Of the occupants, two had not risen from their beds for more than a decade. The attic held one of the beds; the other lay three flights down on the ground floor.
A pair of live-in nurses tended to the supine patients. Occasionally, the nurses would pass in a hallway as they went about the work which kept their charges alive, but they never spoke or gave any sign of greeting. They continued walking with measured steps, twin-like in their uniforms of lilac dresses overlain with white tabards and aprons.
At mealtimes, the nurses took turns to use the kitchen. Here, they ate at a table covered with a linen cloth, a rare luxury in a dwelling of bare floorboards and functional brown furniture.
One evening, with the wind coursing round the oaks in its attempt to abrade the exterior of the town’s final home, the nurse in the kitchen heard a cry. She frowned, placed her spoon in her bowl of soup, and listened. A cat leapt on to the table and cried again.
The nurse sat upright; her shadow, silhouetted on the wall behind, became rigid. The cat, an intruder from goodness-knew-where, rubbed itself against the rim of the soup bowl and jumped on to the nurse’s lap.Read more >
What stirs, that mortar of the nurse -
above the grouting neatly lined
between such geometric maths,
well-ordered, neat, predictable -
there crushed, mashed, beaten, pulverised?
Now was it Matron’s reprimand,
a first encounter, bedside loss,
the drain of ten days straight on nights,
that houseman making other calls,
recurring, is vocation real?
But this must stay, half-light, behind
the wall of silence, shade on shade,
plunged pestle grind on basin steel.
Wring fingers, sob cloth, these must wait;
here study of the incomplete.
Is this an act of mercy primed,
starched tiles, dun tones, another shift,
an undercoat yet scratching flesh,
grey uniforms with ovoid face,
for such the roll in vestibule?
Hospital corners, pristine sheets,
commissioned art to paint the place,
plumped cat, feline of Middlesex,
generic tab, disinterest,
unlike art used as subterfuge.
It’s plain to see, but those who look,
intensive care behind the planes;
this too might might find a welcome home,
short journey from Fitzrovia.
Since The Kiss in the The Balcony Room, Superior has ordered Sarah and I sit away from the herd. Superior adamant to keep the majority of feminine figures pure.
"At least we can enjoy The Last Supper together," says Sarah.
Sarah, as always, looks on the bright side. Our feline companion, Judas, extends his claws when he sniffs Morality. Retracts his sharp nails and purrs when he detects love. Foes slithered and lured Judas with a succulent dish when he guarded The Balcony Room, but we understand Judas—The Temptation can be so great and overwhelming, unbearable.
Peach tones and shadow play dominate existence. My hand shakes on her fragile spine, freshly whipped. Will this be our last tangible experience? The Crucifixion awaits.
In titian blue aura of the night
burning chrysanthemum on both ends
I reflect on—
A story with no name
Narrative born with no name
A character that grows on you with no name
Nobody peeves for a name
No one provides a name
Neither a tale with a purr of sublimity
Nor a fable culminating in a name
A chronicle arising from a reticent plot
And ending in licks of anonymity
Cut from lattice of thought
A filament with no name
The life of quadrants obtains.
Substance and emptiness converse
Presence and absence alternate
Dutch daughter mixes and wonders
Danish dame doubles as maternal figure
And on the other side of the tiled divider
The house cat is inimitable in its floor views
While the domestic hound has yet even to show
Still able to remind all of the silence of the voices
Of the master and son replaced by bench with nob.
Upper. Lower. To one side. And the other.
Only shadows know to creep in and to recede.
were always waiting. Like a cat.
They would stand or sit quietly
watching, perhaps stirring a bowl
of porridge, waiting till
we men had finished
deliberating on something
important—it was always
before they would pass the dish
to the one who had requested
it. They were always waiting,
waiting for us men, glancing
askance at us to see whether
we were ready for them
to approach. We told them
from an early age that such
waiting was to their benefit,
that the quiet and the distance
allowed us to serve their needs,
which we couldn’t do if they
distracted us. So they waited.
And now, when we are ready
to beckon them approach,
only the cat remains.
Souls rain down on us, and do not twinkle like stars, but are dull and occasionally brittle or sometimes soggy, like crumbs.
We collect them, mostly. Sweep our cold palms across the tabletop, scoop scant handfuls into the chipped bowl. Eventually it will be full enough, but not today.
We gather them as Ma showed us. She said that they are all different despite appearances, that each is precious in its own way. So we are careful, use gentle movements, soft touches, honour them with small words whispered under our breath. Occasionally some fall to the floor where strays eat them or get them caught in their fur to be casually discarded when they hunt in the night. We try not to let that happen. When it does the welts across our arms ache in the memory of where Ma counted the lost in our raw skin.
But we do not cry, never cry. She taught us that. Even when our hunger makes us feel like we might bend over and snap right through the middle of our body, we do not let our face betray us. Only once did tears gather, their traitorous edges stinging, pulsing hot and red in our eyes, when our oafish fingers spilled crumbs straight from the bowl itself. Ma gripped our shoulders. “We do not cry over spilled milk and we will not bawl over these meagre souls,” she said, wiping our cheeks roughly with her shirt cuffs. And even as she wiped the tears, she added more lines onto our skin, and she taught us then that we honour them because of their function, not for anything that may have come before. Tears prickled again in our younger self, who thought that maybe there was something more, but they did not fall.
Now Ma is gone and it is just us, and we do our best to gather as many as we can, to be ready to pay our respects when the time comes. Because it still feels like some respect is due, however small, however habitual.
They eye him close,
lurking in shadow -
his shape looms
growing by candlelight.
They huddle closer,
using domestic chores
to distract a trilling fear
as he meanders closer, near.
Pestle and mortar
milling herbs finer,
to near extinction
as nervous anxiety climbs -
scaling the ceiling
like a pilot.
eyeing from corners.
The cat shuffles,
discomforted by his presence,
failing to wash, clean matted fur;
instead he sits,
as his owner stalks
marking his territory
in spidery cubby holes,
We are caught unawares,
hear a key turning, your return.
It casts a shadow on our time,
the afternoon light dimming to dusk.
For an hour or two we were home,
dusting out old memories, sweeping
objections through the front door,
grinding our hurts into a smooth paste.
No need for words; quiet gestures―
an arm softly against my back,
the repetitive embracing movement
of hands around a bowl, we smiled.
In the purring afternoon, a cat
synchronises breathing, feels our joy,
as we melt into each other,
mellowing. Rare moments of peace.
Your frame will not fit this picture.
We look at you askance, wanting
to deny your place in this family,
as you kick off dirty leather boots.
My shadow is that of a man, my ribs those of a boat,
the low bed is like that of my childhood, only wider.
The wall is full of candlelight, waxy ripples of pond,
and the cat, full and milky, shies from our resolution
– she thinks she knows, sees not my mushroom mind,
acidic, full of spores and layers and a showy softness.
You tease your spoon round and round, tense as wick,
and here, I rest a palm on your spine, take on your fire.
I know heat is no match for me, nor are flood or fog.
Let me take the weight, become a meeting of elements:
it is something to be good at, now I am big and old,
never to be artist or writer, never to run with the circus.
By morning, this world will be gone and it will be us,
and them, when they arrive, tiny and pink and yelling.
They have papered the wall in parchment
the color of old skin, but there are glints
light, of reddish hues in the pigment.
The cat sits patient, resigned, aloof
to our plight. There will be time
to yowl and howl
under a full moon
to silken glide
through wild fields and meadows.
But not for us.
They’ve varnished a dark wooden bar
measured to cut us in half, to mark
the forbidden, the marred, they
want shadowed and walled away.
Brick by tawny brick etched with the rigid glyph
of the fantasy of our sex—our griffin stain
of monthly burnished blood betrays us—the wall
rises from our knees to our thighs to our waist
pressed like dull moths on parchment dusty with dead voices
lest we fly on eagle wings to rake their flesh
with lioness fangs and raptor talons.
(Irish Language/Gaeilge followed by English )
Oícheanta socair, cloisimid
thú thar páirc 's claí
tá tú imithe i bhfad a chroí
's muidne inár scáile uaigní
cloisimid thú i ndéanaí an lae
cé chuige againne do ghlao?
Quiet nights, we hear you
call over field and ditch
though you are long gone love
we stand in your shadow
we hear you call at end of day
to whose heart do you call this way?
Baking in bed
Ought to be easiest
In the lemon light with the orange cat
Almond flour, polenta
Pinnies tied with a squeaky scratch
The claw catch on Tommy’s tongue
Grandpa will be getting home soon
Susan, is the oven hot enough?
Mind your mind dear,
Keep yourself nice
Little mouse waiting to come out, can you hear me?
Are your whiskers prickling?
Is your heartbeat throbbing through your ribs?
There, quiet with the darkness over,
With the underside of things and your
Breathing full of dust
Listen, til your ears feel like a muscle
Pulling up the bucket from the well
And your skin tensed like a drum
Taut, trembling for the stick
Here it comes, slicing through the air
The pain is easier than the fear
Trust me, little mouse
I'll tell you when to run
It was the year I kept my sister within my protective reach. The year that cold fruit tasted like nothing more than oblivion and nothingness, though it didn't stop us. In my sister's dreams, infants and those long gone came in her fever dreams, speaking to her in the smooth and cunning voices of the influential and misbegotten. By day, we'd talk about them, how it might be better to welcome rather than anger them. I would teach her to fold their wisdom into her life, like a guide to better living. Together on the couch, we were bathed in the blue cast of the television that droned on and on, as time drifted into a void. We allowed ourselves the stunning and beautiful nature of benign cluelessness. Our love of routine was not innocent, but kept the carrion birds at bay. The old cat, with perceived wisdom and narrowed eyes, kept watch over us. Licked a paw to rub over his withered ear, listened to our shallow breathing, the respirations of our distorted hopes and our incessant acuity. Our fragile bones were still growing that year, though they were tired, while something important passed between us, as if preparing us for a future beyond our youth that, despite all careful planning, we would never be able to understand.
Busy eyes cast for danger
or interference to the peace.
Space around us swells shadow,
morning haze nips us in
and each slips cool trails across
our position on guard
against walls, looking out
keeping those inside ignorant.
Ears know all, hold tongues,
swallow sensibility down
into stomach acid. Gurgling
knowledge becomes compost.
You know she has done it again. A sharp wince, cool slip, along your knuckled spine. You know it when she tugs on your hair. Keen fingers pinching clean at the nape. A cool slip among the folds of your apron. Hemp scratch, plummy linen. No doubt, no doubt at all, it is his favourite. Perfidious beast. Later he will come creeping and leap while you doze—just for a minute—never more. And he will scrape until he gets what he wants. It is always what they want. But this time you find it, the true seed of accusation, lurking in your broad pocket. The little skull, whole and delicate. This time a frog; golden twine wrapped neat and shimmering along the jaw. A cuff or collar unspooled.
She believes she can sink you, lay a path to the bed of the broad canal. Mud lapping. Wives jeering. Though she dares not think it true. It is only a game. Deathly fun. She dares not think the truth of you, under her bristle. She is not clever enough, for this. It is good, really, that she does not see. When you return the soul to soft mosses. Gnarled elms. She does not see as you see when you gaze into the puddle of sky and brackish hum. Those are not leaves swaying in the folding grey light. Not the stars ripped open in their great gash of the gateway. But the face other than yours, far on the other side, gazing back. Reaching through.
makes extra escape routes for busy girls
if you are reading or thinking the Hammershøi light will quietly tip the room
it will give you a window on the floor or a bright corridor
like a cat or a ghost it will be
like a cat or a ghost it will bide its time
when you find yourself deep in a curtained night
if the air looks like battle scenes and it makes sense to be quiet
look for the traces of Hammershøi light
lean down open the sash
Flames hunger for witch flesh,
feed on fear’s sacrifice,
thrown shadows tell us, already we are ghosts,
the blessing of fire is ours.
Hypocritical blaze stoked by hysteria,
A kindling of ignorance, fanned by the mob
virtue signalling to the nth degree
‘See how we suffer in our condemnation’,
shout voices ever louder,
at a safe distance of course
although some hold out their hands to the heat
to take the chill off
accept a glass of something, and ‘oh
I could do with a bite to eat,
the night air does give one an appetite.’
We listen to our neighbours
enjoying the show
in which we star, albeit briefly,
corpse candles, eco-friendly
And what does it matter
Except that we burn?
ms Luna has lost it yet again, at dusk
the flaky letter sepiated by heaviness
of steeping earl grey, at five, for two
this time, she says it fled with the wind
that whispered something about today
and threatened to jump off the ledge
only to let the veil of woe flutter briefly
before dissolving into the thickest air
someone wanted to call up the doctor
but they recalled the homely remedy
of loss being consoled by the mirror or
by the fleeting caress of shiny shards
that once had cut ms Luna too deep
only to be gauzed in gold by the nurse
while the maid swept away the tears
in throes of threes, when one comes
to think of anguish, of grief, of waiting
in separation overdue during the war
like a story: the daily pestling of hunger
witnessed by sisters who also reckon
the many ways in which silence creeps
into the keeping room like sympathy
drawn to flow into the silken horizon
ms Luna has lost it again, at nightfall
this time, she runs across the reeds
free, wild, quavering past an old song
while the eyes linger upon loose hair
echoing: time gave her distance when
all she ever needed was some love but
A shadow is watching, the shadow is watching,
the couple in parkas at the bus stop oblivious
to moving at 1 degree below, exploring their
passion for rumble strips together and apart,
dreaming of Beverly Hills renovations, balls of
light disguised as seals. And Charon the bus
driver smiles, shakes his head because what is
Friday night if not for the end of love and the
beginning of love and every death in-between,
a mindful leap to better living, a better you?
A better us. All the songs he’s heard before,
and still he can’t help but sing them under the
breath he doesn’t have, and that’s the lesson
isn’t it, a kiss is as good as a breath and inhale
inhale inhale the wonder of it, this, you, us.
Life leaks through
a closed window:
someone is playing piano,
and fragile voices fly
into a gunmetal sky.
We sip tea, numb,
slip down the back
of the settee, join
fluff and crumbs.
All colour has faded
except the russet
of the marmalade cat,
and we are stifled
by the musty flat,
waiting for winter
to crawl away,
longing for light spring rain
in the middle of the day.
it is not the deed that is difficult,
nor the planning of it, but the necessary
silence that follows and ensures
that every thread of the scheme will
tighten into a neat ball of goat twine.
has it yet? how much longer would
you say was needed? how many
hours does the colchicaceae measure?
if it can defeat a platoon of cows – and
the man is not quite as large. I say:
some time before dinner. or perhaps
overnight. it is not the pouring that costs,
nor the stirring, nor the addition of honey.
it is the careful arrangement of mouth,
eye, brow into a blank canvas: I had
no idea. I am just as surprised. should I
send for the doctor now? what would
you like to see? what do innocent girls
Before they came, life was different. We don’t remember exactly. It’s just there is a sense of something that was different. Of something that changed. It feels like something momentous. Or no, the opposite of that. It’s more of an absence, an emptiness. Something that now is so changed that it hasn’t even left the shadow of a memory of what it was. If I try to reach for it, even my awareness that there was once a difference seems to slip away. I try to reach for it in my waking moments, when I can still feel the imprint of my dreams. But no, I cannot remember.
She chatters on about it too much. I tell her to be cautious, but she has that carelessness all young girls have. Now that she is old enough to join my work team, it worries me more and more. Our jobs are important and valuable, but we are here to serve, not to tell imaginary stories. She claims to remember when she was young, and how it was different before they came, but I am not even sure she was alive then. I haven’t seen her in the news videos that get shown on the anniversary of their arrival. I have seen myself a few times. Obviously, not in my uniform, but in the tatty, muddled, random clothes we wore before they came. Life is so much better now. They brought us calm and organsiation and tidiness. This simplicity is so much better than all the disorder I seem to remember from before.
The videos certainly reveal chaos. They tend to have been taken at airports, but some are from wide open spaces. Just wherever there was room. And a camera to film it. It seems like all the women on Earth had gone to the landing sites and were gathered round their gleaming craft. Smiling, singing, waving banners of welcome, playing musical instruments…just whatever we could do to greet them. The cameras pan from the huge, celebrating crowds down to the faces of individual women. They sometimes play the one where I was, and I catch sight of my embarrassing messy hair and clothes. At least I am smiling and clapping their arrival. I must have known they were going to make things so much better.Read more >
The shadow falls, barely perceptible,
A curtain drawn, perhaps.
On the shrouded, domestic scene.
The monotone oil fails to obscure the submissive mood.
Aprons to protect from washing suds or the taint of sickness.
An institutional uniform,
To subsume fracture and desolation.
A habit perhaps, but neither hats nor veils worn.
Removed on this occasion.
Not nuns or maids
The mood here is determined.
The askance glance,
The tilt of the head,
Solace from the older to the younger child
Seeking succour from each other.
Paint understated, colour rarely variable
Mood distinctive despite the tones :
Bereft of mother and father.
The incipient meaning found.
Mother was always disappointed that I took after the Murphy side of the family. My father had been a burly feller, plain faced and ginger haired and I was a constant reminder of him. Fortunately my temperament was more like the Turners, stoical and hard-working, none of the easy come, easy go of my father's family who left us to get on with life as best we could after he left for the Americas with a girl on his arm, half his age and her belly already swollen.
My sister by contrast was a Turner through and through, slightly built, golden haired and pretty. No worries about finding her a decent man, mother said. She'd have her pick when she was old enough.
But of course, things are never that straightforward. If the living was hard for an abandoned woman with two young daughters, it was yet more difficult after a run of bad harvests, when even the most generous friends and family had nothing to spare. Hardly surprising that what weight she had fell from my mother's frame when the influenza struck; no wonder that she was one of the first laid to rest in the dark soil of the new churchyard.
So here we are, Elsie and I, just a couple more of the lads and lasses dependent on the charity of those rich businessmen, lauded by the city fathers for their generosity. There are a lot of us now, filling the poorhouses, working in the manufactories and on the railways for a meal a day, a roof over our heads and a few skinny coins in our pockets.
We're lucky, in comparison to some. The Turners were well spoken, well regarded. There's no history of drunkenness or violence and so long as the Murphy connection isn't mentioned, we get by. Even my resemblance to father isn't a problem - who's likely to give a dairymaid with my looks more than a passing glance?Read more >
Sweet we are
Butter cookie crumbles in your mouth
The sugar granules dare
Catch between your teeth
Force you to slow down
Feel each icicle slide along your ribs.
Strong we are
Whalebone stays for tissue-paper pattern
We cut ourselves a size smaller
Gathered flowers and silk to hold
Close to our hearts.
Storms we are
If you are thunder
We are tornados. Where you are hollow
Threats, we touch the soil
Blaze a trail; a gash torn by nail
Commemorate crimson and violet in
Canyon and landslide.
Stories we are
Beautiful survivors laid bare in
Ink and pigment. Honor us with words
Where we wept, we also sang.
The soft pink plaster made certain no one slouched against the walls, more than once. Stiff in starched cotton we stood or sat upright as we ate. The new girls had to be trained, someone like me would stand patiently holding a hand against a back. Denied conversation we stared attentively bored across the room.
Cats, like all true rebels wandered wherever they liked, brushing against the walls they would rub against us if we failed to take good care. Marked by pink ankle high stripes, the guilty would stand head bowed as they were chastised for their crimes.
By the time you left you learned to really hate cats.
The nightmare was to wake and find one curled asleep at your feet their route marked by pink paw prints across your sheets. Mrs Marshall with her military nature would stride through the dormitory waking the guilty with her stick. She never hit anyone but she prodded us like fresh meat.
You learned to really hate that stick.
On the last day you would be marched up the steps dressed in starched plain grey. The once filtered hubbub of the streets filled your ears and light blinded your eyes. Pushed out from the gates everyone staggered drunkenly. Across the road dressed in bright colours girls vaguely remembered from past years waited. As you blinked owlishly they linked their arms in yours and walked you down the road to a building they called The Safe House.
What can I tell you about The Safe House? Well, it lived up to its name. Here girls helped girls adjust to the world.
“What’s the time?” Mary whispers through unmoving lips, skilled as a ventriloquist.
My sodding hand is killing me, she thinks. Why on earth would you hold a spoon like this? Frederick Cayley Robinson, sounds like he must have been a posh boy, with a name like that. What was he thinking of when he painted those Acts of Mercy? Hope his subjects didn’t have to pose for long like this, more like Acts of Cruelty if they did.
Mary’s neck was stiff and on the verge of going into spasm, she had been sat, frozen, for the last, how long? She wasn’t sure
“Come on Meg, you can see the clock, what’s the time?” the unmoving lips ask again.
“Twenty past two,” the equally invisible reply.
Forty minutes to go she muses. Still, I suppose its better than being painted gold and standing in the rain for hours. No chance of being peed on by some mangey dog in here, and then she remembers the cat.
How do they keep the cat so still she wonders, and hopes it is still where it should be. Oh stuff it who cares. But she involuntarily ruminates on the matter of the static cat and finally concludes that ‘stuff it’ is probably the answer.
“Meg, what’s the time now?”
The here and now is brightly coloured, vibrant and real. But once the moment has passed, it not only starts to fade, it takes on a hue, much like an old photograph or a painting. A sepia quality creeps in, telling you that what you are remembering is now another place, another time and strangely not at all real; it is no more than a memory, with all the fallibility that that entails. Not only do the colours fade and blend together, so do the people. They are no longer independent actors: they are a scene, a singular entity; removing one person removes the others, destroys the scene. The picture only exists because everyone is together. They constitute a time when... when mother and daughter were waiting, looking, expecting, hoping, fearing... And is that how life is? We move from scene to scene and each one evaporates behind us.
I've lost the number of times I've glanced at the door while Stella gets the mug ready. Her softer hands are far more skilled than mine in preparing tea the way he likes it, so her making it this time hadn't been questioned at all. We just couldn't risk it. Besides, I still have the marks from the time I did it. Stella hadn't been around—she'd been fetching some garments—and I got so nervous with all the yelling and the footsteps in the hallway foreboding his nasty face on the door that I forgot to temper the milk properly. He wasn't pleased.
I still wonder if the aftermath of not having his tea at all would have been worse. I'll never know and I don't plan to find out. Stella didn't say much when she returned that day. She'd made mistakes in the past as well, though clearly not as dire. Without looking at me, she got me on my feet, sat me on a stool and cleaned my face, slowly humming to the tune our mother used to share with us. She kissed my cheeks, her lips turning red and bright in the candlelight, absorbing my pain while her cloth grazed my arms, reddening with the warm traces of my unfortunate mistake.
When I asked her if she'd ever suffered the same, she simply said the milk was important. Never forget the milk. Her voice, detached and impersonal, surprised me. She didn't seem like herself but then again, we haven't been ourselves for a long time, if at all. You can't when you're constantly worrying about getting the tea right and avoiding the stench of alcohol near your own breath, inwardly jumping at any touch of his fingers. We never mentioned the incident again, just as we never mentioned others. Until last night, when Stella took a small vial out of her pocket and placed it in my hands. She'd been out somewhere while I'd been washing the sheets. Tomorrow, she said. And here we are.Read more >
Seems the master’s the same
With the new mistress
She screams just as
The earlier one had
And the one before
How they had turned
Cold and pale, dotted
With crimsons marks and violets
Tell me, dear sister,
How long do we
Take cries for lullabies?
Dear sister, grind the root
That belonged to the woman
From the woods
Sprinkle some in his lentil soup
In his oat porridge in the morning
Shower some in his supper of chicken broth
Simmered on firewood
Worry not, the master
May only get drowsy and rest awhile
If there is such an event
That he doesn’t open his eyes
Let the new mistress
Cuddle our Ginger’s fur
I shall rub oriental turmeric
On her snow-like skin
You sing her your fairy songs
I will whisper something sweet
Two Mennonite daughters stand behind the low partition, separating dining room from kitchen. Father yells at Mother again for a lifetime of small infractions, as the orange tabby calmly looks the other way.
Eight-year-old Arleta is like the cat. She’s heard it all before. Every word, every backhand for porridge that dared cool before Father’s arrival. Part of the boring, everyday scenery. Hannah, 16, cannot look away. Not anymore.
“This bonnet makes my head itch,” Arleta says, absently stirring her porridge to keep it from turning to cement. “Eli says I should just take it off. Let my scalp breathe when I’m in the fields. No one will see anyway. What to you think?”
Hannah nods. “Uh huh.”
“Ahh, you’re not even listening,” Arleta says, tasting the sludge in her bowl, spitting it back.
Hannah turns. Smiles briefly at her little sister.
“Go clean up,” she says, “and meet me in the cow shed, by the workbench.”
“But I’m supposed to be out picking in the fields with Eli,” Arleta says.
Hannah places a hand on her little sister’s back. A gentle signal to move along.
“Not this morning,” Hannah says, “Maybe never again.”
Put your ears on the wall.
There's a vile element in the concrete,
A phantasm of the moors.
This scullery is built atop
what once was a necropolis
and they buried masses of all hues six feet under.
Surely, the children have played here
and even spotted a finger bone or two
near the tree.
hisses a curse,
'Deux Ex Machina'
or invokes a native sermon.
It thrills me
but grips like a vice
like how Master's eyes
lock with mine,
a tinge of forbidden desires
in the slow steps he takes
towards the kitchen door.
It was a nervous look over the shoulder.
The neck arched, soft fur stretched,
the spine curved like a goldfish
ready to get away. It was a nervous look
over the shoulder into the shadows
to a noise punching against tiled walls.
Claws dug into fallen dust, whiskers twitched,
damp nostrils searched for answers. It was
a nervous look over the shoulder. Soft paws
stiffened against gaps in wooden floorboards,
ears pointed up, the tail curled back home.
It was a nervous look over the shoulder,
the kind learned over eight lifetimes.
They are just shapes to me now, their dark forms stealing the warmth of the fire. My eyes can barely tolerate the light, but I am not ready for the blackness that pulls at my throat and fuddles my brain. How long have I been lying here? I shift slightly on the thin mattress. I am thirsty but I shall not ask for water.
Agnes is bent over, grinding the powder. Mary stands next to her, waiting. The silence is broken by footsteps. Mary raises her hand and the grinding stops. I prepare myself. If I do not speak now...
The kitchen door is pushed open and a figure moves out of the shadows. I hear the rustle of skirts on the flagstones. Agnes and Mary have become statues, their faces turned towards her. The faithless cat licks her sleek pelt.
'How is your patient, today?' the lady asks.
'Your father is sleeping now,' they chorus.
I open my mouth, but no sound comes.
'I do not wish to wake him. I shall come again in the morning.' She is gone.
It is time once again. Agnes pours water onto the powder. The firelight catches it as it tumbles from the jug. I scratch at their hands, turn away my head. It trickles down my throat, and the darkness comes.
why do we wait on their minds
and muscle, laced with such little imagination
their smooth cactus with phantom spines, that ego,
like a phallus shape in-construction, should be nice
to see it light up; once in a while.
but we keep waiting,
lick ourselves to completion, wear these robes like
invisibility cloaks, let me be shadow,
get by, if you won't let me be star-
get out unalarmed,
with all my marbles, and the dreams, oh
the dreams. let's not forget those whilst i feed the cat
and brush my kinks with hers,
the hairy entanglements like a metaphor to life
and all these compromises, bills and responsibilities.
how is happiness found
amidst such rubbish?
The earliest of morns,
sun shines in our eyes, so we look away,
She speaks to me in whispers,
whilst I search for a means to leave,
the smell of herbs as she grinds,
a smell once good, homely, now
spoilt by experience.
The door has us shut in,
though is nothing but a ghostly shield,
it will not hold, and we both know,
her back – rigid
my hand – shaking.
Morning has us broken,
I listen as she whispers plans
nothing good will come from –
but what options are we left with?
She grinds the herbs
with practiced motions,
as the rising sun
shines in our eyes and we look away,
I am told he has an interest in me
as a future wife, though we have not met.
He will arrive today, taste the meal
I am preparing, seek an arrangement.
Mother weeps quietly by the fire
hides behind her apron.
Father strides the room in that puffed up
fashion of a deal-making opportunity.
I grind spices and herbs to coax grisly meat,
an attempt to convey pleasure
on the tongue. I keep silent thoughts
and blend into the wall.
My sister tells me he is rather old
this man who wants to wed me,
a man with ambition and wealth,
and I wonder what I have to offer.
I shall miss the simple life, this house,
Tabby Girl dancing round my feet.
Will I have to dance for this man?
He comes, my sister says. My heart stalls.
Anna ground the salt with the pestle, ready for Cook to crust the fish with later. Jonah said there would be thirty guests for supper. As the youngest maid, she was always given the simplest jobs. Beating carpets, feeding Miss Bella’s too-stout cat, emptying the chamber pots. But, before she fell ill, her mother had taught her well. Needlepoint, how to dress hair, and—her greatest accomplishment—reading and playing music. Anna’s own voice was meagre, but she had learned to accompany her mother’s rich contralto on the pianoforte that had formed part of her dowry, along with the cottage which had once housed her grandparents’ own staff.
Anna’s parents had never hidden from her the fact that her mother had married beneath her. Theirs was what was known as a love match, something which— despite the softness in her father’s face as he nursed his sick wife, and the extra work he did by candlelight when he thought they were asleep—Anna could not wish for herself.
“Are you going to stare at that salt until it blinds you?” said Eliza.
Anna placed the mortar on Cook’s table, and hurried upstairs to air the rooms now everybody was at breakfast.
She thrust her fingers under the levers of the sash window in Miss Bella’s room, heaving it upwards so that it rumbled like a train. The air was so fresh and the sun so bright that she couldn’t resist removing her hat and inserting her torso into the gap. She hung her head down so that the blood rushed to it, and she could feel the air on her scalp. As she opened her eyes, she saw Jonah grinning up at her. She pulled her head back inside, bashing the top of it on the window.
The brush bristled and flew from his palette
painting the cat white.
He pirouetted, flinging death's black shadow
on the empty wall, his smock billowing in
She grabbed her moment, sneaking away to meet
her backdoor breeches.
Hypnotised and seated, small one stirred and stirred
the rise from his batter that night.
Mouse shrugged and returned to his peephole
sniggering at the cat flaunting his new white coat.
Sisters stand, breakfast all but done, in emerging sun.
The cat gingerly turns away. Why so shocked, why
so stern. One sister knows but it will go no further.
Sand holds secrets in its grainy patterns, lines up
geometry like whispers that repeat and worry.
Sister has your back. Cat has turned but remains.
What they’ve seen is cause for concern, a moment
they thought you wouldn’t notice, but it is locked in,
cannot be unseen by sisters, cat, the coming day.
The shadows of such a thing are long, their grey
creeping locks out light, builds up the tiled wall
between them, and no one gets out unchanged.
'No, no! I saw him talking with the others.'
'You saw him?'
Rose laughed gently. 'Well how could you know what he was saying?'
'I-' Marguerite was briefly silenced by frustration. 'It was obvious!'
Rose looked down at her sister. She was used to these fantastical episodes and, in truth, rather enjoyed them. She couldn't understand why mother was so concerned. 'I wish I knew what he was saying! He's always a mystery to me …'
'Oh, you wouldn't! Believe me.' She lowered her tone. 'He's got a plan.'
Rose strained to hear her. 'A …?'
'What kind of plan?'
'Shush! Not so loud! He mustn't know we know. He gets around. That's the benefit of being small.'
'You're small …'
'Not that small.' Something in Rose's expression encouraged her to go on. 'But he also makes himself bigger sometimes. When he needs to. Haven't you noticed?'
'I've seen him eating a lot, if that's what you mean …'
Marguerite was unimpressed.Read more >
In memory of my prairie grandmother
The autumn sun, rising, caught us in its soft spell, and Miriam, pausing between mouthfuls of her breakfast porridge, clucked at her favourite hen, busy on the threshold. From upstairs, the murmurings of delight and declarations of love seemed to bounce down to us, before Papa did bounce in, eyes like sparkling stars, leading Mama into the kitchen, their faces wide shining moons.
Mama clasped her arm around Papa’s waist, and then sat down at the table. She looked at us with such joy – I remember it as if it were yesterday, though I’m now a granny several times over – and exclaimed, ‘We’ve a new one on the way! This morning I felt it move!’
Papa threw his head back and laughed his big hearty laugh. ‘To see you both, your eyes as big as egg yolks in the pan!’
Miriam opened her mouth, closed it, opened it again to ask, ‘A new baby?’
I was bashful, all of a sudden. I knew how it all came about, for how could I not, brought up on a farm as I was. I didn’t like to think of such things, not yet in my young life, but I moved to Mama and embraced her, wondering if she was fragile now.
‘That’s not quite a hug, my girl,’ Mama chirped. ‘Give us a good squeeze, here now.’ And she reached both arms around me and squeezed my breath away. My face felt red and hot, but when Miriam joined us in a hug, and then Papa held us all together, the tears now beginning to track down his cheeks, my embarrassment fell away in the excitement. Puss must have ambled over, as I felt her head rubbing roughly against my leg, heard her purring in shared contentment.Read more >
the shadow of the cat
is just as much a shadow
as your own
or the shadow of your loved one
the shadow of a doubt
casts itself upon the scene
where does light end
and the shadow begin
you pause in the interim
between light and shadow
where you can hear the silence
they call you old fashioned
but that is because
you stand outside of time
the cat nods off
into an Egyptian reverie
as in classic repose
you see the light and shadow merge
when you come to life
I will be waiting
I will feel your pain
and you will feel mine too
I walk barefoot through life.
Even on the coldest of days.
Especially on these.
My skin is so thin.
At times this is a bad combo,
other times it is life saving.
Bare feet thinly stepping over all that is.
All that is stepping all over.
I thrive in lost houses.
Empty, unlived in. Left behind.
There I find the soul of everything.
The filters on my photos
are your shoes
make us believe we live in full houses.
There you have it.
Grimalkin stopped talking
Leaped off the counter
Looked the other way
The kitchen door opened
The girls turned to look
In came the minister
Carrying a big black book
What are you mixing?
Young Annie, he asked
Tis merely a poultice
For my shoulder good sir
It’s nice to see you minister
Said Alice with grace
Smiling at the old man’s face
I’m just here to keep an eye
As your parents did ask
To make sure you’re safe
And come to no harm
We’re fine thank you minister
Both girls declared
The minister bowed and left
i am not
but all my
from now on.
i let go
thing as safely
No cracks. No distance between us.
We sagittate, elongate.
Mightier together, we are an arrowhead
of near-womanhood. Me, attuned to whispered
words and you, still believing in their good intent.
Though they hear only our childish voices,
and dismiss us in kind –
we are building barricades every day.
We tessellate. A finite number formed by your
eight years and my twelve. I waited for you
for four years now I will never let you out of my sight.
I do not go forth without my sister
though the small hand bell rings, plain,
a little more insistent each time
and impatient fingers tap oak panel.
They can wait though, for it is with you I am rooted.
Like the leaves of the calla, we succeed translucency,
veins like steel under dawn-warmed skin.
Together we are a monolith of shared blood.
Our flesh fused, we fit into a tight sequence
of resistance that is stronger than they know.
There is a starched thickness to me and you –
quick drawn, but shaded violet blue.
Watch them try to break our pattern of collateral kin.
Like trying to hammer concrete with silk.
Its blank face was always there, right in front
of my mother and me. No matter what we wore,
what words we spoke as one came home
and the other left. Neither of us had courage
enough to smear the emptiness with graffiti
or even paint a black-eyed daisy. We listened
to my father who commanded a respect
he earned and took for granted. Even our calls
on the phone bunked up against this slate,
the distant memory of her mother haunted
both of us with her statement she would return
after she died to devil with us. The only thing
I remember handing back over the wall
after I left home was my perfect daughter,
the girl who never seemed to see
any impediment at all.
Just another morning
of breakfast chores
knock, at the door
from a night of frustration
fishing nets, as empty
as when he left.
Wearily, he empties his pockets
dropping every coin he owns, clumsily
making a kitchen table, tap-dance
‘good morning, my loves’
he manages to whisper
while shivering and straining
to keep his smile, from dissipating.
Shuffling of feet, a chorus of relief
coins swiped, into forgiving aprons
warm water poured, lovingly
two more places, set
a handful of sardines, offered
to a beloved family pet
appeased enough, to turn and greet.
‘How did y’all sleep?
Sea, was dreadfully choppy
sorry, hardly anything was biting.’
In a square, the safest space is – where?
Why do we retreat to the edge of a picture
When we’re scared, or in doubt about…
Do our starched selves hide that disarray?
Would it help if we became our shadows,
disappeared our faces, merged with the
plaster on the wall, its roughness shaping
itself into our awkward, pointy questions?
Would you like that? Or would you want to
know what we have seen, or done, or not?
Would you simply nod politely, and then pass,
in the presence of other people’s monsters?
How do you sleep at night? Between your
frame of wood, among cushions rectangular,
and the four corners of your duvet? Toward
which edge do your dreams keep driving you?
Maybe what we should embrace is round things.
No corners, nothing and no one high or low, just
smoothness continuous, the curve of a spine un-
exposed, purring, comforting, warm, and fearless.
Your mother gets you a cat because you’re eleven, just about the right time to learn to take care of something. The two goldfish you got catching plastic ducks at the fairground and flushed down the toilet two months later don’t count. Everyone knows fairground fish are trapped in plastic bags way too long; if anyone’s to blame, it’s her for letting you take them home.
Your mother gets you a cat because her coworker Annie’s big brown tabby keeps getting pregnant, and before giving kittens away to people she doesn’t like, she’d rather try once again with those who have already said no. Including your mother, who has already said no three times.
Your mother gets you a cat because you’re an only child, and perhaps everyone who says you need company has a point. So what if it’s not a baby brother? You were always the one asking for a pet.
Your mother gets you a cat because it gets boring in this house, where two people could live without crossing paths a whole day, but three used to feel like a crowd. Depends on who the third person is, she supposes. Her experience so far hasn’t been the best, she admits. A cat will take up a fraction of the space, won’t spend entire days parked in front of the TV, and won’t get into arguments when there’s not enough beer in the fridge. A cat will do just fine.
Your mother gets you a cat because you seem to understand the ground rules: not allowed on beds and leather sofas; no human food; neutered as soon as she's old enough. You promise you’ll fill bowls three times a day without fail, empty litter boxes, clean up vomit from stairs and carpets. When you say it, you believe every word. Your mother doesn’t, really, but she’d never let you or another living being down.Read more >
I told her I didn't love him
– so what if he died –
– so what if he suffered
from the herb overdose
knowing full well of his weak-immune.
Nobody would guess; not even she
whose eyes never miss a whisker
turning in the breeze; sharp-twitched
ears complementing her sightless
glare – nobody knows what she saw
– nobody could guess –
He made my world end,
I told her. I died everyday:
my body fragrant lily-of-the-valley;
his hands made my skin brown
but nobody would believe he ate
my stem like marrow leech
– it had to be done – so what
his skin browned darker than mine,
and fell off his flesh exposing veins;
but she saw me crush his life
by care entrusted onto me;
he enjoyed watching me in love
– so what the pretence I skilled,
Her plain life - in which everything remained confined to the colours of a restricted palette, clean, pure, simple - had just been splashed with vibrancy.
Like a beetroot stain on a white tablecloth, the moment would stay with her, the kind of mark that can’t be entirely washed out, even though the visitor was long gone.
Why had her sister come, after all this time? Their eyes had met, but they hadn’t spoken. She could only guess about the conversation with the elders. And then her sister was gone, driving away as quickly as she had arrived, just the dust lingering as it settled in her tracks.
It made her think about what could have been, if she hadn’t confirmed so dutifully in her early years.
Her sister had fought it, and fought hard, while she had accepted the word of her elders. Like an alley cat, Rachel had wriggled free and run for her life, breathing the cold sharp air of a world they had been taught was full of the devil’s work.
“She looked a bit like you, Mamma - but not really,” said Mary, beside her. Then the question that cut through to her dilemma, her pain: “Will she come back for the funeral?”
Not if she knows what’s best, she thought. Just stay away.
Unprepared for the child’s question she deflected, bringing Mary back to their task. “Finish up and take that through to the kitchen. We have a lot more to do before the sun sets.”
Half in shadow,
half in sunshine,
licks her paws,
scrubs her face,
plays her part by being
alert for errant mice
or wandering beetles.
Mother and Daughter
don’t notice her
batting at dust
floating in sunbeams.
They straighten aprons,
churn fake butter,
pickle wax beans,
later on TV.
Houseflies buzz around the room
landing on eyelids, stepping
out on naked arms and legs
making a beeline for open doors
& raised windows without screens.
The swarming pests accost sisters
pull clothes out of costume drawers
in the heat of the day, play dress-up,
don Amish prayer kapps, aprons, shawls
worn modesty, reeking of mold & mildew
a scent attracting & emboldening carrion lovers
that dive bomb earlobe & dare young hands
to roll paper swatters, swing, & hit them
with a decisive blow before its 1,000 eyes
noticed—annihilating mothers of maggots.
Labor Day signals summer’s end
months smacking of romance
now a distant past as October
hot spells suffocate, linger, radiate
heat like cast iron wood stoves.
Autumn bluebottle flies grow old,
drone erratically, circle human heads,
indoor cat boxes, & garbage cans,
well aware a chill awaits over
daylight’s edge, midnight’s other side.
This was a tricky commission. Not something that I would normally agree to, but when you are an only child and your father asks you to take on a project, then it is difficult to refuse. As a benevolent trustee of the workhouse, he had always taken his responsibilities seriously, and in our small town he was considered the perfect example of a fine upstanding mayor.
So it was that I found myself on the doorstep of the forbidding Victorian building, home to many women and children who had fallen on hard times.
The matron, stiffly informed me that Mr Robinson had been most specific in his orders: these two unfortunates were to be my models and I was to portray their likenesses in a suitable manner.
From the outset, it was awkward. I am used to forging a relationship with the subjects of my paintings and often find that they are happy to chat about their lives and loves, but these two appeared to be hesitant and distant. They stood stiffly, their starched aprons crackling if they moved.
I fell upon the idea of giving the youngest one something to do and asked her to go to the kitchen for a pestle and mortar, hoping that she would forget about me if her mind was occupied with a task. Her mother, as I assumed the older woman to be, however continued to gaze away from me, placing her hand protectively on the child’s back, while the child chattered on. It was a soulless room that we were given as a studio. The air still heavy with the smell of the lunchtime’s fish soup, the table was bare, there were no paintings on the wall and the pristine tablecloth showed no sign of any meal.Read more >
After “Three Little Maids From School” from Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Mikado”
Three little maids from Scone are we
Morag, Mairi and ginger me
hung around as a trio
when they skipped school,
when they skipped school.
They named me Gormlaithe a sin
for I am but a jumbo Tom
tied me up in yellow ribbon
dressed me in a tartan smock,
dressed me in a tartan smock.
They fed me chopped chicken prime
they fed me tuna from a tin
in fresh water off a spring
never in a salty brine,
never in a salty brine.
Stepped away Mairi off you go
two maids left – Morag and me
tickled my big fat tum
made me purr out loud,
made me purr out loud.
Three little maids who, all unwary
when painted by FCR illustrator
captured in his acts of mercy
three little maids from Scone,
three little maids from Scone.
See me present like ornamentation
My touch and care and grudges
Like sheen on linen they move, soft and without
Of course there was, or will be, some event. Pain no
My hands make light of what my eyes look for
They find the measure of things unthinkingly
Polish wood by touch
Braid the hours of day, beloved like blond tresses
Nothing in this life is spilt – it bends
Like the surface of milk
at the brink of a full bowl
I carry these keys in my pocket
I’ve folded the world axis in the pleats of my skirt
It is the in-between time,
the time when waiting
is the only thing to do.
A beige time:
all colour muted to fit my mood.
Standing beside me,
my protective arm
at her child’s back,
she is blithely grinding peppercorns,
pleased to play her part
in the preparation
of a celebration long awaited
with hopeful joy,
and anxious fear.
We imagine different futures,
in our separate present,
for the return.
He is coming back.
The pestle held loosely in my hands, sunset bathing the bakery
in golden pink hues. The cat wrinkled toward my father.
Time proved once again that families frozen in place were left
yelling for comfort, a generational curse. As I walked back
toward the barn, the hospital stays led me to cerulean illusions,
spices ground in my imagination to keep boredom at bay.
The usual explanation was to survive. Parents signal to each other
with arms twisted behind their backs to curdle the milk.
The two were distant tonight. Our next meal varied between
water & ancestral sickness uncured with chicken soup.
I put the blade away. The wall didn’t stop broken glass from
ricocheting toward my torso, a clean cut. Tomorrow was
our busiest night too. I stood in place. The feline’s flitting
complexion in the mirror jumped in my direction. My parents
smashed their verbal ingredients together. This time, I
was their whisk. Nothing held back from our ears: festering secrets,
like rabies dripping out of foaming mouths, settled suppression
thick with dust, suspended in air. Fresh memories imprinted on our bodies,
& screams only made my sister hold her doll tighter. Always,
they used fear, fermenting more ticking time bombs as their legacy.
This was a Gathering set for Light –
Infinity was invited
These Three: Two Daughters, the Hour of Six
One Cat, free, satellited
Five Cloths, in Circles
dressed the Table
(beige and brown, they rounded down
her Thoughts dark edged in sable.)
Flat Floorwoods found trueselves Four Feet –
the Dream, it sneaked sure in
The sideways Shadows of them before
now balanced upon fresh Skin
Then time it came to wrap this Night
in Seven long Sheets, remembered
the longest wait, Eight Futures maked
in bronz-ed shimmering Embers.
Ginger Tom liked the warmth in this room. He dried snow-speckled fur by the flickering heat and knew he was safe from dogs and rivals. It was a good room. But lately the growing young humans with their flailing limbs and stamping feet posed a different sort of danger. They barely noticed him as they charged around, never dropped fish scraps on the boards for him to pounce on now. Their incessant yowling at each other pierced his resting hours. He narrowed his eyes and flicked the tip of his tail as the tallest banged his way out of the room, letting a puff of frosty air take his place. Before the season turned, Ginger Tom would need to find a new refuge.
Mother comforted me
fingers danced upon my back
I only listen to her hands
her face is just a mask.
I waited until midnight
took it for a divine sign
then tip-toed to the kitchen
stealing herbs and spice and wine.
With careful steps and quiet
lit a candle, sat on the floor,
breathed the heavy scent of darkness
gently felt the skin he’d torn
I made my promise to the night
dripped blood from fingertip
poured my potion in the bottle
pressed the cork into the top.
And when he drinks his wine he’ll see
How deadly my sweetness can be.
The first sister gathers nests in her stomach;
the second scrapes dream feathers from her spine,;
the third hides in heavy curtained shadows.
A pot clanks, hot water expels its breath,
the room fills with the texture of earth,
a composition in shades of brown,
no barn owl questions,
no house cricket beats its drum.
Eight o'clock, a sketch of darkness,
sleep comes easily as if it is the silence after the battle
and then the husbands come home unhurt from war.
down in the scullery
where pots ooze yesterday’s stink
and the dried waste on unwashed crocks
paints a promise of the day to come,
she’s watching .
Bodice stiff with starch and trepidation
shrouds her in a hush of white
paler even than the film of milk in the jug,
as the stairs creak.
Of course it’s not for her,
it’s never her
though she’s the better one
Hand on the other’s back
presses out a warning
as the other turns her head.
then make the inevitable move
each step a glue trap,
edging towards the opening door
until they’re gone.
Want to know what happens next?
Well that’s the best bit!
Cats move between worlds in an instant. They know
the magic to slip between dimensions, or simply
from stealthy hunter to cosseted pet.
That warm bowl in your hands, sister,
is false comfort. There’s little to smile about
in this scrubbed-clean place; all I have to offer,
a cold, rough hand on your back, and these few words,
quick, before we are overhead: You must learn
to walk between worlds, to walk both bold
and sly; to demand distance, power, and affection;
to fight or flee when you fear; to pretend, when it counts,
to love. Having learned, you might slide
through the gaps that appear when shadows flicker in firelight,
and go free to live—if only sometimes—in another world;
to live—at least once, if not nine lives—
in that other world, where comforts are real.
one sister’s hand on the other
encouraging her as she stirs
the bottle on the side
the cat hidden hoping
for a chance to lick the bowl
in the hand of the girl
whose sister encourages her
as she stirs
who lays pale brush strokes
on the cat in the sun
(the quiet cat hidden
waiting and hoping)
captures a moment
when everything is gentle and kind
easy and simple
the cake burns
the cat jumps
the bottle falls
smashes on the floor
Read more >
I am usually the one who sees what humans cannot,
but today they are staring at something hidden from me.
The girls, in their stiff, near caps and aprons, still unblemished,
look wary; I proceed with my toilette in the sunshine
that brings out the tabby pattern of my golden fur.
The smaller girl stills her porridge spoon;
her sister places a protective arm around her.
What can they see that so commands their attention?
I cannot smell any intruder – dog, mouse, or beetle –
although I am aware of a new chink between the tiles
which I must investigate when I am ready to do so.
Meanwhile, I will glance at the spot where their gaze is fixed,
although I will not display any other sign of interest.
If it is a spider that they have spotted, I may deign
to approach and bat it gently with a paw
so that it skitters away and the girls give puppy-yelps.
Or I may not bother.
He’s here again, dirty nose on the pane,
Torn clothes and grime declaring his intent,
While Ma and Pa are out, and we remain.
I see his malice, that lad is hell bent.
If he comes in I’ll seize the broom again
And make that filthy thief truly repent.
He’s back again. I wonder if he’d play?
He looks like fun; I see him smile and wave.
I could fetch a stale rind, like yesterday,
And crusts that Ma had thought that she would save
To feed the pig. But now the sky’s so grey,
And he’s so grateful for the help I gave.
He’s back again: my boy. He knows it’s me,
Although I turn and will not look his way,
He still remembers how things used to be
When I slept on his bed, another day.
A found mouse, gifted, now gains me entry,
Milk by the fire, whilst he is turned away.
Maids at work,
They talk about the new mistress,
The devil in glowing skin,
She struts the house in fierce stilettos,
Like a model on a runway,
Singing the best of Louis Pavarotti,
Eccentric and fastidious,
Hell is let loose when her reflection
is not seen around,
All are set in motion as she moves along,
When she is awake,
Everyone is set on their toes,
No one idles away,
Nor is there any time for diversions,
When she is asleep,
All are calm and unruffled,
A woman of substance
on the wheels of opulence,
Diamonds and pearls
are her Achilles heel.
My sisters and I we had an cat that wouldn’t stop
My sisters and I were heading straight for the top
Born on the Wednesday in the bloom of spring
She was churlish and mizzen
But I nursed her and fed her till she took
And grew in the swell of the year
She had the run of the attics
A view of the city
The sun rose and set under her eye
And she under mine
We were cold but she was warm
She buoyed me and I her
Till she left out the window and over the rooftops
I miss her mewling
And I hear it still
Long since we parted and yet I am there
When the light is fading and we are all lit with promise
In the darkest dark
the coldest cold,
though cast aside,
and left for lost,
I snuck aboard—the boldest bold.
Through stormy storms
and treacherous tides
sailed round the Horn
at the shy girl’s knee
(though I was near, she couldn’t see).
In wind, rain, fog,
and sweltering sun,
sat guard at the helm
til the voyage was done.
All we needed was one hair from his head
stolen at dawn off his pillow as he slept,
before the golden sun rose and made all
clear. We smiled and put food out
on the table in front of his greedy mouth.
Hasten now, speak the words, the ones
Mother taught you, never to be voiced
unless you really need them. Say them now.
You must be sure you have each right,
we have only this one chance.
Already the lowering sun floods through
the open door and he will soon return.
Pound the pestle, use all your force to grind
the hair into dust, mix with strong enchantment –
that’s the way! You are your mother’s daughter.
Toss it into his face, he will be oblivious
until too late. What shape shall we choose
this time? I know you said you’d like another cat,
but one ginger tom under our feet is enough –
and anyway, Jethro seems content to live alone.
My second cousin’s wife was born into an Amish family
In the middle-of-nowhere Indiana
Surrounded by cornfields as far as the eye can see
The unmistakable architecture of Amish-built homes
White and wood, unshuttered windows, unadorned eaves
Dotting the fields with farm stands, outbuildings and barns
The antithesis of Rococo flair, nothing in excess, nothing ostentatious
When she was 16, her family pushed her out into the world
An Amish debutante on her Rumspringa, devoid of rules
Their faith was strong and, they presumed that hers was too
After carousing, “running around” in the world of heathens
They’d figured she’d return to the church (like most youngsters do)
To be baptised, married and settle down in a big white house of her own
Only that’s not what happened at all
While “dressing English” in jeans and tees, hair uncovered
Driving around in cars and meeting other teens, she met someone
She learned what it felt like to have a lover’s hot breath on her neck
To make out for hours as the sun set and the crickets began to chirp
She learned what she liked, what made her nipples stand erect
And what made her loins burn in a way she thought must be love
And then she learned that teenage boys will lie through their teeth
I. Am. So. Bored. Another one of these boring boring Sunday pot-luck lunches. Ma told me I could make myself useful. Great, I thought, hoping for a job with a bit of cred potential, like folding the napkins into dying swans. But oh no, I’m not that worthy so here I am whipping cream into stiff peaks. Say what? Like that’s gonna keep me entertained. My dying swan napkins would’ve kept everyone entertained. The cream de la cream of table decs. The chow at these things is always chronic - plates rammed with lava bread and an overload of sweet potatoes and lentils. Gross. I’m just as hungry when I finish as when I start. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind a bit of vegan now and again but give me stodge any day, between two halves of a sesame bun with mountains of Tommy K and a gherkin or two. A side of fries, natch.
Ma has that snarky look on her face again, a cross between the sucked lemon and the crap!-I’ve-stood-in-dog-crap look. It’s mega whenever Sarah Smithers is around. Pa behaves a bit fricked too. Shifts from foot to foot and can’t do the whole eye contact thing. Yo bro! I think the Pa-ster has a crush. Awesome sauce. To be honest I don’t get it coz in my humble opinion Ma Smithers is a bit of a minger. But Pa’s no Van Go oil painting either. We’ve been learning about him in school. Van Go, not Pa. Fancy being named after a tent. Weird or what.
I need to stop all this whipping malarkey now otherwise my arm will like so totally drop off. I’m defo gonna slink off home soon, chill out on my Frozen beanbag, plug into Ed or Jay-Z, and check out who’s trending on Insta and Tik Tok while I flick through this week’s Shout! Ma will dog-bag me some scraps later. As soon as folk start arriving, I’m gone, stiff peaks or no stiff peaks.Read more >
I find myself
comforting the child
easing the ‘empty’
that came with
fatherless days and nights
in a wood frame house
with a mother strong
yet weak with fear,
weary after battling
illnesses and the unexpected.
I find myself
watching the future
while keeping a close hand on
yesterdays that are
silent as a cat
yet present as
an apron of duty
and cap of humble
The flick of a ginger tail,
the creak of the hallway door, unoiled,
the sound of slippered feet on stone,
the whispered jump on the counter,
these things take mere seconds.
My sister and I calculate just how many steps
it takes for our mother’s sleepy, morning gait
to reach the handle to the kitchen.
It started with one spoonful of cream,
The brush of fur against my skirt’s apron
was his convincing thank you.
I responded to need with my need to give.
Our full bowls of oatmeal
became cut in half,
using half as much milk,
a willing sacrifice.
“We have too many mouths to feed,”
“Our cupboards barely filled,
my hands are empty.”
By 11 a.m. my stomach rumbles,
singing in harmony with my sister’s
We know the half-moon patience
of wanting less.
Life is all too housebound – all accidie.
The pestle grinds against my irritation,
This underservant hogs the conversation
And I sense that cat is hiding something from me.
I know, too, that I’ve let it come to this.
Flinging off the cap and the needy apron,
I should just quit – such thoughts are not uncommon.
He couldn’t stop me. Not even with a raise.
That cat is hiding something. This I know.
Perhaps she’s found the rumoured passageway.
Perhaps, abandoning my duteous tray,
I could tail her one day, along said narrow
Corridor and out to taste the carefree air.
I must find that cat. It could be anywhere.
you know you’ve been there too long
when you start looking like part of the furniture
a moveable pew
move something –
furniture’s meant to be moved
something forgotten in English
more the playful kind
with a colourful swirl
how about toys?
or move toys on
easier said than done
you could make a start
throwing a box
cracking a smile
I watch over her as she mixes
secret herbs in pestle and mortar
silence important and a clear table
no distractions as she whispers
the words handed down
they try to spy
creep like church mice
seeking ancient riches
for what she makes
is more than gold
we are sure grandmother
watches every move
for the cat who sits on guard
is descendant of grandmother’s
bowl cradled in her hands
from attempts to break the spell
and twin approaches fail
we have all angles covered
and our looks can kill
I was able to hide it from my sister, but the cat knows my secret. My little sister didn't notice the golden hair clip that laid waiting for me in the grass by the lake where we do our washing. I washed the laundry with vigor that day, waiting for a private moment to investigate my found treasure.
The elders say it's a sin to be greedy; to want something no one else has or something we don't truly need. I grabbed the sparkling object from the grass without hesitation; with a greedy hand and a sinful heart. But now the cat knows. He silently watched me as I hid out behind the hay stack, placing the hair clip in my hair; first on the left side, then on the right. My sin is equal on all sides. I didn't take note of him until I turned around ready to head indoors.
He'll tell my ma and pa. I know that horrid cat will tell them somehow, not with words, but maybe a turn of his head, a pointing of his paw, a meow that seems unusual. I know he will. Didn't he tell my secret the first time the blood came upon me? Didn't he circle around my ankles over and over again and meowed so loud mama left her sewing to come over and see? Didn't he continue on until mama started questioning me until I told her about my bleeding? Why must our world be so colorless and plain? Why is it a sin to want something pretty that belongs to me alone? I must control my glances. I can't allow my sister to suspect that the cat knows my secret and is willing to tell.
We were easy to capture
at the side of the picture;
the side disregarded.
I brushed over the truth
as I hushed her back.
I brushed over the truth.
Words unspoken in an empty place.
He didn’t care;
we knew our place.
We were easy to capture.
I brushed over the truth
as I hushed her back.
Words unspoken protected his lie.
Our side was lost in an empty space
he knew our place.
He left us, framed us.
Pushed to one side,
we were easy to capture.
I don’t want the cat to eat this mouse,
dear sister please don’t tell the house.
It’s in this bowl, poor soul,
frightened and shaking, making
my small hands tremble
while you watch the crowd assemble.
I know we will leave this Sunday morn
after fearing each night and each dawn.
We’re dressed alike though not the same,
We’re escaping this cat and mouse game.
The three of them always ate together. It was allowed. The big one was late every time, the other two waited.
I knew she was going to be late. Inspecting from high up on the toilet block roof, I could see her. Down there at the fence with that boy again.
I don’t like trouble.
I leapt down and slowly crouched forward, through my entry in the kitchen door towards the dining bench.
Got into position with them, now there were three of us and we waited. I think it was working, nobody noticed that it was me instead.
I kept as still as can be, my tail tucked in, eyes squeezed and ears forward. Feeling frightened.
There was going to be trouble.
Then the big one came rushing in. Face flushed, hair all bushy, the hat falling off.
I shot off into the kitchen and jumped in that small box in the corner.
I helped, but still there was trouble.
They waited for me to perform that trick:
the one that made the elder pilgrims green
with envy – and rage red. The willow sticks
they beat me with left lines as rough and thick
as ropes holding revival tents that keened
for those who were lost, broken, bent or deemed
unfit to sit on benches with our troupe.
High above red dirt, in loose shirt and jeans,
I floated between straight beams and coiled loops.
Scarlet signatures lifted from my skin
like wisps of dew from steaming morning ground.
Far below, the whole show jeered, scoffed and whooped.
The fools! My eyes burnt hot as gudgeon pins.
I raised the roof and I brought the house down.
Elsa and Gretl waited in the kitchen, just as Mother had asked them to. The tea they’d prepared for supper had boiled dry; an unpleasant smell lingered in the air because of it. The bread and cheese that should’ve gone with it lay forgotten on the table. When a rat had jumped up to snatch whatever he could, they’d been too absentminded to notice. Despite all that they’d been told they should do when the time came, they couldn’t. They stared at the door to the bedroom, hypnotised by the muffled screams and soothing whispers that came from the other side of it.
“What do you think?” blonde Gretl whispered to her chestnut-haired older sister. “Will this one live?”
Elsa didn’t know what to say. Seventeen babies had been carried and birthed by Mother. Of those only two had managed to breathe on their own: herself and Gretl. Elsa wanted to have hope, to say that there was a chance. But unlike Gretl, Elsa was pragmatic and logical. She had ceased to hope for the little brother they all needed to secure the family name, a long time ago. All she fervently prayed, as she had prayed for the last five births, was that the child wouldn’t take Mother with it to Heaven.
Gretl, Elsa’s junior by two years, wasn’t stupid. She knew what the heavy silence meant. Still, she pretended that she didn’t. She sat by the table, knitting away on an almost ready baby cap. The socks were already finished and lay folded in the blanket they had prepared for the newborn, next to a clean linen dress. “It’s a bother that he’s early,” she said, “I hope I’ll finish before he’s out.”
You will, thought Elsa to herself. Just as you have the other times, you’ll finish on time, sweet sister. The burial clothes will be ready.Read more >
They don’t always notice, but I am there. I listen to their silences. Right now, their silence is a sad one; it’s sad because they know their mother is going to die. They know because they saw me lying on her bed, lying on her belly, on top of the duvet. Quite rightly, they thought it must be a sign: The cat’s always shunned her. She’s never tolerated the cat.
What they didn’t stop to wonder was, how did I know? It’s no secret, I’ll tell you, though you won’t understand: I knew by her silence, the way she stopped sighing and fussing, the way she stopped fluttering and twitching. Even more than a silence: a stillness, a calm.
So I sat with her, and my silence said to hers: I am here. I hear you. And she was glad for me then. Her young ones, they love her, but they don’t know how to listen to silence. Their kind rarely do: they’re too restless, they flutter like birds, they twitch like mice. They spend most of their time living in noise.
There were times she had me right there in the noise, crying and hissing and bellyaching: when she drowned my kittens, when she chased me from the kitchen with her broom. But in the end, it all comes down to this. In the end, all that matters is the sharing of silence.
Her young ones, too, will need me soon, when she’s gone, when the silence changes again. Not at first, no: first comes the noise, the anger, the keening and wailing and tearing of hair. But then, when they quieten, when they’re empty of tears, or perhaps still sobbing softly, they’ll want me then. And I’ll go and sit with them then, and though they won’t know, though they might think it’s my warmth, or my purring, or the softness of my fur, what will comfort them is having someone listen to their silence, saying to it, silently: I am here. I hear you.
I got here first. I can hear the cat purring. It purrs because it's not hungry anymore. They feed him cream and, sometimes, some of the fish left over. I can't see it but I know it must have already licked its paws in gentle contentment. It will eventually curl up in a secluded sunny spot and fall asleep to the distant sound of our voices. By the time we have all sat quietly and ready for reading, it will be in the midst of some dream where it chases a wild bird. In the dream the bird might elude the cat, but the cat will be delighted by the thrill of the chase. It will then stretch its back and paws as it wakes up, turn on its front and sit up. For a fleeting moment the cat might look up towards the warm light that comforted him in his sleep; it does not know anything about the Sun.
I got here first. I can hear the other children rushing through the dining room door towards their seats. I am very hungry. The nurse places her kind hand on my back.
As autumn dies and winter falls
Our shadows darken on the walls
In this last glimmer of the light
We hear the shuffling of the night
There is a tap upon the door
We will not answer anymore
We cannot stay
We cannot go
We’ll leave no traces on the snow
But sit at table, near the fire
And wait for spring
Thrust from the mire
Now shut that door.
Shadows follow us
lurking, ever present
sometimes takes a light
to see, but always there,
a grey mist, mimicking
our every move, like
the stealth of a cat
prowling a mouse,
a mother and daughter
waiting, patiently for what might come next.
Shadows are our friends,
even in the dark of a moonless
night our constant companions,
impossible to shake, they
have purpose and intention,
feeling our wisdom and
our pain, knowing our
future and our past,
aroused in our present.
Behold the shadows
of your life, honor their form,
revel in their patience,
do not abandon them,
or they’ll wander through
life, shapeless and alone.