by Dawn L. Hollis
The song was like the sea or the sun – something indomitable, irresistible. It had been foretold from ages hence, was muttered of in every archive, wrapped into every crumbling scroll, graven into the corner of every inscribed stone. It was feared and desired and dreamed of.
Erik heard it first, of all his family. They were seated around the table, gaming and laughing, and he was leaning forward, biting his lip with the agonised anticipation of the card in his hand that might just win. It was playing faintly even then, and he glanced over at the sound-deck to see if it had accidentally been turned on, but no lights flashed. His brother shook his head as if irritated by a fly, and suddenly the cards in Erik’s hand were just useless slips of cardboard. He rose, and left the table, and his brother’s chair scraped as it did the same. Their mother mouthed words of protest, but he could not hear them above the swelling song, and even as she remonstrated her eyes, too, glazed over as it scratched its way to the back of her mind.
They left the house, and walked and walked, the crowd growing and growing, converging on a single point. Never had a thousand, a million people all moving together been so silent. What good could talking be when the song filled the deepest nooks of their ears?
And then they arrived, at the moment that had been fated for millennia, and Erik felt as cheated as if his brother had stacked the deck for their weekly game. They had come so far and so mindlessly for mere silliness. They all shuffled their feet, the prophecies run out. They were nothing but a herd of dumb fools.
by Kirsty Higginson
He finally came to visit.
Smiling, Eleanor eagerly took his hand. This was the moment she had been waiting for, and a moment that would now sit within her memories forever.
Slowly, he led her down the wide, spacious hallway, and she clung to him, as they envisioned precious memories of the past. Spinning together, enveloped in nothing but love, they waltzed their way out into the fresh open air of eternity.
The waltz, a timeless classic. Her arms wrapped tightly around him, never wanting to let go of the man’s broad yet ageing shoulders ever again, fearing that if he slipped from her grasp he would disappear just like before, and life would become bland and the ticking clock so overtly loud. Life without her gentleman friend had only ever proved to be a disappointment.
Gracefully, they moved along, their feet tapping lightly on the hard marbled floor. Swirling together effortlessly they moved in unison, like they had never been apart. The notes of a piano played in time to the dance of the slow fruitless steps, although in reality, if there was such a thing now, the dancing was playing out in a silence that was deafening to all who were watching her glide away.
It was time.
She was ready.
Her perfection was mourned as she slipped silently into the unconscious world, and saw her husband once again.
The hospital machine beeped, and middle age cried into hankies and moist wet tissues. But she was finally where she wanted to be.
The Outskirts of Everything
by Alex Ruczaj
When we first heard it we didn’t know what it was.
‘What’s that?’ we said. ‘The wind in the trees? Birdsong?’
The elders warned us not to listen. ‘It sounds like trouble, danger, an enemy perhaps?’ But the more we listened we knew that it had to be a friend, only a friend could make us feel that way.
We began to sense it pulling us. A great need awoke in us. Our days and nights were spent waiting to hear it. We began to feel there was nothing left for us here – the place that had always been our home, felt different. We felt on the outskirts of everything, of all possibility. We were too far away, distant from life itself.
We began to speak of leaving. Some didn’t want to go, they were frightened. There were long discussions into the night. One morning, we were all so tired of talking, of arguing, we wondered had we been better off before? But then we heard it drifting towards us, something new – the notes clearer somehow, a higher pitch, a slower melody – so haunting, so beautiful, a sound that breached our great hearts, made us cry with yearning. We pleaded, ‘Let us go, let us see what this is and we’ll come back. We promise, we’ll come back for you.’
‘Go,’ they said. We could see they felt it too, dark eyes brimming.
We follow it, across the plains, through forests, and over mountains. Sometimes we are so close we can feel every note in our bodies, fizzing and crackling in our blood. It fills us with memories, makes us miss home, makes us think of their faces as they watched us leave. But we can’t go back, we need it more than ever now.
Far in the future, I am an empty vector singing on the street corners of Green and DeLacy for you, keeping true to the pitter-pattering feet that come across the silent pavement towards and then away from me. You had said it was only one-hundred-and-fifty minutes that lay between us; but as I divide each second by every mile by every footstep by every quarter note in these two songs repeated back & forth, I begin to feel the distance palpably, my mouth dry from conjuring your bewitched image.
For how long have you haunted me? I say to the lamppost whose light looms above me. And then I see you, vivid & flawless again. Like torpedoes torn across my mind have brought you back to life.
The next morning, you are the ruptured calm, the phantom force that throws my coffee cup from my hand. You are the abrupt ending to the song playing on the stereo. The one that existed so long in a crescendo, even when it ended the echo remained, without sound waves, on a loop in my head.
I am frantic in the afternoon picking flowers to impress you. Standing in line at the grocery store, I see your favorite gum flavor, the magazines whose headlines you pretended not to read, even the clerk who often rang us up late at night.
On the train, finally after all this time, on my way to you, I consider perhaps this immovable hex is self-imposed. Perhaps my heart will only break for as long as I let it…
The cemetery lawn is green, fresh-cut, even calming. And this picture I have of you is more beautiful than I remember.
by David Novak
Junot sets up his chair where he likes it best. At the edge of the world, looking in.
It squeaks as he sits down, gripes every time he shifts about his bony frame. His chair complains often these days. But as Junot knows, it has every right to do so. It’s been with him all these years, after all. Has traveled everywhere he’s traveled. It’s been his stage and his observatory, from which he has immersed himself in life’s melody.
For everything his chair has done, for everywhere it’s been, it has every reason to make a little noise.
As do most things, Junot gently reminds himself. He places his trombone over his shoulder. Its dents and dimples warp the reflection of the sky above and create their own rendition of the heavens. Junot has learned that most things have something important to contribute to the melody. A new rhythm. Or a pitch. Or sometimes, just a single note. No matter how tiny, no matter how seemingly insignificant, there is always something.
And it is always essential.
The slide extends. A soft thunder pours from the instrument. The horizon begins to shift. It approaches him. The melody continues.
The problem, he has found, is that most living creatures fail to listen. Their minds are too preoccupied. They’re too busy thinking of themselves. Of what they’ll say next. They miss what they’re supposed to hear.
But this evening holds hope. This evening, the horizon slowly takes the form of a herd of cows. Junot smiles and continues to play as they encircle him. He enjoys cows. They’re always friendly. Always willing to stand there silently and listen, letting the melody permeate through their beings.
When he finishes, the cows moo softly.
The chair squeaks beneath him.
He listens to them all.
Her father touched her cheek fondly and slipped the silver chain over her head. Dangling from the tiny links was a whistle. He pointed at it and said: ‘You’ll know what to do?’ She didn’t but nodded anyway.
The next time she saw him, he was on display at the local Funeral Directors, lying on his back in a satin lined coffin.
‘Dinner’s ready. Wash your hands and set the table.’
She returned to the kitchen and noticed the back door was open. ‘Tommy,’ she said, poking her head into the garden. ‘The …’ Her words froze in her throat. Parked at the bottom of the garden was a black jeep and being carried towards the open boot by a huge man in oil stained overalls, was her son.
For the first time she felt alone, alone and vulnerable. And it terrified her.
Her hand reached automatically for her throat and felt the whistle her father had given her. You’ll know what to do? And at that moment, she did. She ripped the whistle from her throat, closed her eyes and blew until she thought she was going to pass out.
When she opened them again, she was sitting on the garden path with her son kneeling beside her, asking if she was okay.
She scrambled to her feet. ‘Is he gone? Where is he?’
‘Where’s who, mum?’
She scanned the street but there was no sign of the black jeep or the man in the stained overalls. And Tommy didn’t look as though he’d been crying either.
She touched her throat and wasn’t surprised to find it bare.
‘Come on,’ she said, relieved. ‘Let’s eat.’
The Hardest Word
I cast a stone to the middle of the lake. It lands far from the centre, but the entry is smooth; it hardly makes a splash. It might be worth a six, even a seven out of ten. My eyes follow the waves. A lone water boatman stays dead still until the surface softens; then scuttles away on all-too-spindly legs, seeking the lush, apple-green reeds of safety. Strings of toad spawn adorn the perimeter, a Morse code of dots, threaded like jewels on a spider’s silk. How many will survive the spring? I wonder.
And who gets to decide? Of course I already know the answer.
“Alex,” Elizabeth is calling from the cottage. She wanted me away as she prepared lunch. I could have sat quietly at the big oak table, ignorantly flicking through the pile of magazines discarded by previous guests, but she said my presence in the kitchen makes her uncomfortable. She used the word nervous. “Go, go,” she said, ushering, no, sweeping me away with her arms, “get some air.” Fresh air is a good thing so they say, and something I’ve not been used to lately.
She calls again, “Alex, lunch is ready,” her voice, though louder, retains all of its meekness.
“Coming,” I whisper, hearing a deep sigh that can only be mine.
I turn round to see her disappearing into darkness. I consider trimming daffodils from the fringe of the lake, but decide against it, leaving them there, just as nature intended, just as she would prefer.
The table is set for celebration. Strains of piano music, Debussy, I think – but music is more her field than mine – tempers any need to speak. As we sit, I tell her that I still love her. She smiles, not yet ready to believe me.
The Good Guys
-Gingiva, followed by Buchnera? Am I seeing things? They’ve been gone so long I thought they’d never come back. But I must gather my energy and rally the others. We might still have a chance now. Not only have we been decimated by famine, but ruthless toxic invaders, the kind that give us all a bad name, have appeared in bands, on a colonising campaign. We might finally be able to push them back soon if, according to the signs, supplies are on the way.
-Everyone, wake up! Follow the saliva! Achromo and Clostido, resurrect as many of your families as you can, and rouse them to replicate as normal. We’re back in the ring! Look, there’s another drop, and the gland responding with acid, restoring us to our element. Surely something more substantial is to follow? Smithii and Sarcina, are you still with us? If you can use the last bit of strength left in you, resources are coming and you’ll be cloning again in no time.
-Hurrah! Drag yourselves over here! It’s ice-cream, I think. Or yoghurt. We won’t look a gift-horse in the mouth. Feel that? They’re moving her. They must have restarted her brain. Lucky shave! The intruders are devouring her flesh with gusto. They’d have had their fill at our expense too, only she’s recovered from her coma.
-Come on everyone! Yersinia and Peptoco, how lovely to see you both again! I thought you were both goners too, but you made it. And wasn’t it worth your while? Here comes something more substantial. Is it mashed chicken? Delicious! We’ll soon be revived, fit to oust the foreign flora that have no mercy for us or her. They carry cancer, disease, and death, but we’re the good guys, cooperating with her body. Eat, friends, and thrive!
Til the Cows Come Home
It’s always been quiet out here on the prairie, but there were a few folk around from time ta time. Always counted on havin’ at least one visitor a week stoppin’ by for my Mamie’s sweet lemonade and blueberry pie after church, but since they dropped that nuke three weeks ago, nuthin’. It’s silent as a tomb.
I ain’t had the courage ta go wanderin’ about ta see if I got neighbors anymore. After my Mamie took sick with the radiation poisonin’ and I had ta bury her under the blue grama, I ain’t had much desire ta do nuthin’. Fifty-three years together, gone, just like that. Even my cattle up and left me. Gawd knows if they survived. All I know is I did and I ain’t got no clue why, just, I’m here is all.
I ain’t got much ta do with my cattle gone, and gawd knows I’m afraid to tend my garden. ʼfraid of stirring up radiation dust, but I’m thinkin’ I’m gonna have ta if I wanna keep eatin’, but who knows if that food growin’ is safe ta eat? I been drinkin’ the water, so that’s prolly just as bad, but maybe it don’t matter none; maybe I don’t wanna keep goin’. What’s there ta live for?
It’s too damned quiet listening to the grasses rustlin’; it’s eerie, so I been takin’ my rusty trombone outside with me. I sit and play most of the day since there ain’t no telly or radio no more. I don’t play well, but it’s sumthin’ ta do, and I’m gonna play til the cows come home, or I fall over dead. Either way, it makes no mind ta me, it’s just a matter of time I spose. Though, it’d be nice ta have company while I wait.
The cantilever muscles of Rok’s neck are clenched in concentration.
He hits the length of copper piping with a hammer. His aim is precise, and I trust him. I have to. If he doesn’t get it right, we’ll be blown into the middle of next September by the force of the explosion. Bam. Bam. Bam. He curls the end of the pipe bomb over and flattens it. Then he asks if I have money for fireworks.
– We need more gunpowder.
– I haven’t got much. But I’ll get some. I’ll get whatever I can.
I am breathless when I get back from Patel’s, two packets of bangers in my pocket. I wish I’d had enough for cigs, but Rok doesn’t smoke, so that’s that.
Now we’re blowing onto our gloves because it’s so much colder up in the hills. Rok plays with little curls of fire like he’s a snake charmer. Then he runs to join me.
The bang echoes into the folds of the valley. In its dying reverberation, there is another thunderous boom, almost subsonic, but I can feel it in my belly. There’s only a little light from the summit road and half a moon, but I see them coming at the same time as he does.
Rok screams and I run towards the trees as fast as I have ever run in my life and at the same time there’s a tune going through my head round and round again and again and again and if only the dark shapes that are animals could hear it too.
At Rok’s funeral I say nothing. But the tune goes round and round in my head. It never stops.