Costly Solitude – a poem by John Hansen

Costly Solitude

A sound. Barely, but nonetheless.
Hushed. Quieted. Dampened.
Pufflets of soft, minuscule, crystallized wet
blanket the blankets it spread the eve before.
  
The world has a momentary peace
seeping deeper into my marrow.
Awoken now to the chance, “Ah, to breathe!”
Fresh, untainted air.
 
My existence is solid.
Much more so than these companions
that twist, twirl,
pivot and swirl,
up, round and then
dance. Gravity is bent on our descent.
 
This mind is way too loud –
Millions of six-pointed stars
crumple under the satisfying crunch
of intention.
 
Trance broken, back to the silence
of wisps that evanesce as I exhale.
I return inside
trading pure tranquility for warmth.

John Hansen received a BA in English from the University of Iowa and an MA in English Literature from Oklahoma State University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Summerset Review, Trouvaille Review, 50-Word Stories, One Sentence Poems, The Dillydoun Review, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Oddball Magazine, Eunoia Review, Litro Magazine, Drunk Monkeys, and elsewhere. He is English Faculty at Mohave Community College in Arizona. Read more at johnphansen.com.

Maud – a story by Sheila Kinsella

Maud

The stale odour of decay pervaded the warm air in the dayroom. Liz climbed a stepladder to secure the Christmas garland to a yellowing ceiling tile. The pin sunk in like a knife puncturing soft cheese. 

She had a fisheye view over rows of elderly residents swallowed up by enormous geriatric chairs. Their frail bodies lay in varying degrees of tilt as if the nurses arranged them according to some mysterious Feng Shui ritual.

Just beneath her, she watched Monica lean over an old lady, chatting away. How sweet, maybe she has an empathetic streak after all, Liz thought. Suddenly Monica’s hand darted down inside the woman’s handbag. Distracted, the woman didn’t notice. Within an instant a wad of banknotes was deftly stashed inside Monica’s trouser pocket. Liz took a sharp intake of breath and felt the ladder wobble.

 ‘Mind you don’t fall there,’ Monica said.

 ‘Stop!’ Liz replied. ‘Hold it still!’

 ‘Keep your mouth shut,’ Monica thrust four green fifty-pound notes at her. ‘Hide it.’

 ‘Monica! That’s stealing!’ Liz whispered and pushed the fistful back.

‘Quick! Before someone sees!’ Monica shoved the cash at Liz.

Liz shoved it down her bra. She felt a pang in her throat.

Liz endured Monica’s drilling glare as she folded the stepladder and stored it away. The moment was shattered when she heard a trickle – building to a constant flow of urine forming a pool on the floor. An acrid odour of human piss persisted. Liz glanced at the wet patch on the old man’s trousers. His bottom lip trembled.

‘Don’t worry, I’ll get help,’ she patted his arm.

‘Shit!’ Monica stamped her foot, ‘I can’t stand another minute in this place!’ 

Liz zig zagged her way through the armchairs, catching her rounded hips on their wings, to try and catch the attention of a carer. 

Christmas tradition dictated that a group of students help decorate the geriatric home that backed on to their college. This year, through lack of volunteers, Liz and Monica found themselves seconded to the task.

After securing an assistant, Liz slipped into the toilet. She locked the door and sat on the seat to check the money. Four green, not red, fifty-pound notes. Scottish banknotes: English ones are red. Her heart pounded; a lump formed in her throat. She recalled all those Sunday School stories about stealing. ‘Thou shalt not steal,’ the eighth commandment. It was wrong. She knew. But still. It was only two-hundred pounds. The old lady was so gaga that she wouldn’t notice it missing. But her soul would be damned – forever. Although, it was half a month’s rent. What the hell.

‘Liz?’ Monica’s voice interrupted her thoughts, ‘are you in here?’

She stuffed the notes in her pocket, ‘coming.’

Back in the dayroom, Monica scowled while she recced the room, ‘what took you so long? Counting it were you?’

‘What?’ Liz replied. ‘You gave me no choice.’

‘Give it back then.’

Silence.

Monica smirked.

Back in the dayroom, a commotion erupted. 

‘My cash!’  A woman screamed, ‘which one of you Sassenachs has taken it?’

An assistant rushed over to her, ‘Maud, calm down.’ 

‘Where’s my money?’ Maud yelled.

‘Maud, take it easy,’ the assistant placated her.

Liz and Monica eyeballed each other. Liz sensed her cheeks reddening.

‘Girls, girls! You can go now,’ the Matron approached them. ‘Come back at ten tomorrow to finish up.’

 Once outside, Liz and Monica parted company. As Liz walked back to her house share, she passed a homeless person crouched inside a doorway. The woman shook a tatty paper cup. Liz shook her head and continued on. Two of her housemates had returned home for Christmas already and the other one spent most of her time at the boyfriend’s. Liz was home alone. 

She emptied her pockets out on to the table: lip balm, housekeys, tissues, inhaler and the scrunched up fifty-pound notes.  She felt a knot growing in her chest. Just above her sternum. A winding, whirling tangle, like an expanding ball of elastic bands being wound one on top of the other. 

The fridge was empty bar an out-of-date egg, a piece of mouldy cheese and half a carton of milk. A tin of baked beans stood forlornly in the kitchen cupboard. Supper. 

Liz sat on the motheaten sofa, sucking lukewarm beans off a fork. Slurp. Slurp. She flicked through the tv channels, searching for a mind-numbing soap to qualm her angst, settling finally upon a re-run of a sitcom about six friends.

Later in bed, she tossed and turned, her thoughts wandered in all directions, like small children let loose in a theme park. Why did she acquiesce and become complicit in Monica’s act? Was she afraid of Monica or of conflict in general? Once a people pleaser, always one, that’s what Mother would say. She got up and poured herself a glass of milk; the sell by date was yesterday – what’s a day? On the street outside she saw a fox meander between the houses, sniffing at dustbins. Suddenly it stopped and stared up at her, holding its gaze, until spooked, she looked away. 

The bank notes lay on the table where she’d left them. Burning a hole in the wood. Etching a sin on her brain. Liz sighed, grabbed a blanket and got back into bed.

For hours she lay awake listening to the heating pipes muttering along the walls. Niggling thoughts ran through her head like mice scuttling across an attic floor. Vulnerable, that’s what Maud was, and Monica took full advantage. Cruel Monica. Complicit Liz.

Next morning, her weary face reflected back at her from the speckled bathroom mirror. Ochre coloured hammocks nestled under her eyes. A matted, tousled mop of curly hair protruded and flopped down at random angles like a cartoon villain. Liz brushed her teeth and spat the foamy bubbles into the sink. The burden of guilt was too heavy; she was going to give the money back.

Liz texted Monica:

‘Put the money back where you found it.’

Her smartphone beeped with the reply.

‘No.’

‘I’m giving mine back,’ she typed.

‘WARNING – don’t!’

Just before ten, Liz entered the day room. When Monica arrived, Liz was taking cardboard boxes of Christmas decorations out of the storeroom. Monica pinched the skin on her arm hard. 

‘Ouch!’ Liz yelped.

‘You’ll get more than that if you squeal,’ Monica sneered.

They carried the box into the dayroom. Enveloped in an invalid chair, an old lady sang to herself. A man counted the windowpanes with his finger. Liz scanned the room in vain for Maud. 

A bare, fake Christmas tree stood in the corner. Monica cursed as she untangled the Christmas tree lights. Liz laid out strands of silver tinsel in rows, ready to go. Together, they snaked the lamps in and out of the branches before threading the tinsel in-between.  Liz rummaged in the box for glass ornaments and started to hang them on the tree. 

The tree finished, Liz fingered the banknotes in her pocket and looked around the dayroom for Maud. She tried to recall where Maud’s chair was positioned yesterday. Then she remembered the garland she had pinned to the ceiling. From one corner of the room to the other, her eyes followed the gaudy paper garland overhanging the residents; when they reached the pin, she glanced down at the chair. Her heart skipped a beat. It was empty. 

‘Stop gawping and give me power,’ Monica handed Liz the plug.

Liz plugged it into the socket. A chorus of oohs chimed throughout the room. She smiled at their faded wrinkled faces crumpling with joy.

The tea-lady offered Liz and Monica a drink. One glance at the worn, no-spill, green baby mugs was enough to convince the girls to politely refuse. She pressed a plate of Custard Creams upon them without waiting for an answer. Liz rushed after her and touched her arm lightly.

‘Excuse me. Where’s Maud?’

‘She passed away during the night love,’ the tea-lady replied before giving a mug to an elderly man. ‘There you go chuck.’ She turned back to Liz. ‘No family. Sad, isn’t it?’ She sighed. ‘Mind, she was ninety-eight. A good innings.’ The tea-lady looked at Liz, ‘You’ve done a grand job with that tree. You can ask Matron if you want, about Maud I mean.’

‘Thanks,’ Liz’s eyes welled up on her way back to the tree. 

Monica spoke through gritted teeth, ‘what did you want with her?’

‘Maud died,’ Liz said.

‘Maud who?’

‘The woman you stole from,’ Liz replied. ‘You don’t even remember her name!’

Monica shrugged, ‘no witness then.’

Liz shuddered at her callousness. 

It snowed during Liz’s walk home. The knot in her chest hardened; and tears trickled over her plump cheeks. The path was icy underfoot. She took pin steps to avoid stumbling. She felt the folded notes of her ill-gotten gains scorching a hole in her pocket. Liz dragged her leaden feet past the shops. Suddenly a person stepped out of a doorway; gloveless hands thrust a paper cup at her. Liz slipped the neat bundle inside the receptacle and heaved a sigh of relief. 

‘Here’s mud in your eye Maud,’ she said to the puzzled recipient.

Belgium based writer Sheila Kinsella’s short stories draw inspiration from her Irish upbringing. An avid watcher of people’s behaviour, and blessed with abundant natural curiosity, Sheila lures the reader into a shrewdly observed world via imagery and comedy. 

Sheila graduated with an MA in Creative Writing (Distance Learning) from Lancaster University in the United Kingdom in 2017.

Wonderful Counselor – a poem by Matthew J. Andrews

Wonderful Counselor

(after Scott Erickson)


Each session is the same:
the cushion buckles under my weight,
bricks crumble out of my mouth,
the room clouds with dust.

And you sit and listen, 
nodding like a bird, lips
pursed in silent song, your soft
cursive soaring across a page.

When I am done, you lean in close,
the wind of your breath in my hair,
and ask me once again: have you 
thought any more about flying?
 

Matthew J. Andrews is a private investigator and writer whose poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Orange Blossom Review, Funicular Magazine, and EcoTheo Review, among others. His debut chapbook, I Close My Eyes and I Almost Remember, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. He can be contacted at matthewjandrews.com

Terminal Shores – a poem by Lindi Perry

Terminal Shores


Airplanes will get you closer to God, 
but it is not the proximity to heaven
by way of height, columnar clouds are not the gate.
Instead, a collective suppression of panic rises,
admission to a trembling sky,
and the veil of my ordinary disbelief thins.
An acceptance emerges, the faith of strangers
partaking of one fate none can influence.

How many sacraments have I witnessed?
Leaving home on the redeye
over city lights that end abruptly
in dark marshes
the certain shores of our great, terminal lake.

Saline, the reflections,
salty words fill silent mouths,
turbulent thoughts echo.
We take turns gripping the arm rest--
our tithe to each other--
til we find a gentle level
and sigh one breath:
greater than ourselves.

Lindi Perry has written poems off and on since her college days, where she won some local awards and then got cold feet before she could publish. She’s braver now, and sending these little personal revelations out into the world.

Soft Address to the Bottleneck: in Stillpoint (Cranial Sacral Session) Two – a poem by Koss





Koss is a queer writer and artist with an MFA from SAIC. She has work in or forthcoming in Diode Poetry, Cincinnati Review, Hobart, North Dakota Review, Chiron Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, Bending Genres, Anti-Heroin Chic, and many others. Her hybrid book, One for Sorrow, is due out in 2021. She also has work in Best Small Fictions 2020 and Kissing Dynamite’s Punk Anthology. Keep up with Koss on Twitter @Koss51209969 and Instagram @koss_singular. Her website is http://koss-works.com.

Sorted – a poem by Wayne-Daniel Berard

Sorted


We know the magic is
there just down the alley
just through the platform 
we’ve sensed it all along
and we know it’s dark
and dangerous not just
disney and pixar as
well as simply glorious
we touch our scars
the one birth gave us
and the ones you did
and count ourselves
lucky to sense the mystery
though we don’t fool
ourselves no letter’s coming
no Anglia flying to our rescue
still the soundtrack underscores
each day in our heads and
we’d rather this small
magic from this maddeningly
close distance than to join
the rest of you in eating
death


Wayne-Daniel Berard, PhD, is an educator, poet, writer, shaman, and sage. He publishes broadly in poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. His latest published full-length works are in poetry, The Realm of Blessing, with Unsolicited Press, in mystery fiction, Noa(h) and the Bark, and in short fiction The Lives and Spiritual Time of C.I. Abramovich, both with Alien Buddha Press. He is the co-founding editor of Soul-Lit, an online journal of spiritual poetry (www.soul-lit.com). Wayne-Daniel lives in Mansfield, MA with his wife, The Lovely Christine. 

To Plant a Lupine at Twilight in the Company of the Earthworm – a poem by Ruth Chad

To Plant a Lupine at Twilight in the Company of the Earthworm

a Georgic poem
 

I

Dig
down
into the dark

naked hands
embedded

let your fingers
make the hole

wide and full,
give berth

to roots; let them
wind and spread

a tangle
of hair lined ropes—


II

Lumbricina—slime and moisture,
slither smoothly on their belly

rough with setae
that bristle,
protect, move them—

Do not interrupt their rounds.


III

Gently, firmly envelop
the tender seedlings of Lupinus
which you have brought
to this moment

micro-bonnets folded,
clusters of purple velvet—

Sweep in the earth.

Wait with the patience of the trees
for full flowering—

You have planted immortality.

Ruth Chad is a psychologist who lives and works in the Boston area. Her poems have appeared in the Aurorean, Bagels with the Bards, Connection, Psychoanalytic Couple and Family Institute of New England, Constellations, Ibbetson Street, Montreal Poems, Muddy River Poetry Review, Lily Poetry Review and several others. Her chapbook, The Sound of Angels was published by Cervena Barva Press in 2017.

Wisdom of the Owl – a poem by Huw Gwynn-Jones

Wisdom of the Owl

If I could tell you what the wise owl
knows it would hardly make much 
of a book – a poem perhaps, with words 
that sound something like this:

Friend, I’m an owl, my world 
is simple – I live in the scorch 
and inundation of seasons.
I breed, I fledge, I fly.

We owls root in the patience
of old trees and their saplings,
we stretch our wings to a
featherless moon and dine 
on the scurry of little things.

My wisdom? Well, that’s simple too,
stuff of the earth which can’t
be learned by verse or epithet;
sentience of the half-hidden,
the space between the trees.

And I would rather crane 
and twist my head three sixty
than wring the world’s neck 
with the blindsight folly of your kind.

I’m an owl my good fellow,
and a wit.  Who are you?

Huw Gwynn-Jones comes from a line of prize-winning poets in the Welsh bardic tradition, but until his recent retirement to Orkney, had never written a line himself.  He now writes to find a different way of hearing the world, and has poems published by Eunoia Review, One Hand Clapping and Dreich Magazine.

Learning Late – a poem by Russell Rowland

Learning Late

Why, love is easy, you discover
after a lifetime blocking that route
with boulders and trunks of trees:
simply remove debris you put there
yourself, and the road is level,
straight to the horizon.

Bless us, it is better to learn
just before the sun sets what day it is,
than not at all.  Impious old
Uncle Charles took Jesus as Savior
mere minutes before he died.
Pastor was very happy.

Knowledge of what a sparrow means
by singing earns you no interest,
so acquire it only when you’re ready.
Something the young don’t realize:
late learnings lack years to harden
into dogma, the way arteries harden.

Mistakes make good students—
and that school is always in session.
It isn’t necessary that you graduate:
even the teachers are still learning.

Some say the greatest lessons await 
after Pastor throws dirt on the coffin.
How about that for learning late.

Seven-time Pushcart Prize nominee Russell Rowland writes from New Hampshire’s Lakes Region, where he has judged high-school Poetry Out Loud competitions. Recent work appears in Poem, The Main Street Rag, and U.S. 1 Worksheets.  His latest poetry book, Wooden Nutmegs, is available from Encircle Publications.

The Invocation – a story by Mathew Block

The Invocation

The man pulled the car over and parked. He had spent the day—the last several days, actually—in Saskatoon. On Thursday he had flown in from Toronto to plan his mother’s funeral. Now it was late Saturday, and he was sitting outside an old country church hours away from the city.

He hadn’t thought about his mother much in recent years. In fact, it had been about a decade since he’d last seen her. Oh, he had made sure she was well looked after: the home had very positive reviews. But her dementia was too much for him. One day—after years of visiting this crazy old woman who looked like, but wasn’t, his mother—he simply stopped.

It wasn’t a deliberate decision, exactly. He just never got around to booking the next ticket. By the time he realized it had been more than a year since he last saw her, he figured it was better this way. He moved on.

Her death caught him off guard as a result. He had said goodbye a long time ago. But being back in Saskatchewan, making arrangements for the funeral… That was different. It brought back memories he had long ago buried.

The funeral, such as it was, had taken place that morning in Saskatoon. It was a small affair—no pastor, no hint of anything religious. Few people knew his mother in recent years, and even fewer bothered to attend. In all, the event took forty-five minutes.

That left the man with time to spare, as his return flight wasn’t until the next afternoon. But he was restless. There was something he needed to do. Somewhere he needed to be. He couldn’t sit still, kept fidgeting with his keys.

At last he made a decision: he would spend his remaining hours in the province driving out to see his childhood home one last time.

Only, when he got there the house was gone. Of course it was gone, he thought. It had probably been demolished thirty years ago after his mother moved to the city. Stupid. Hours wasted. He should have realized.

He meant then to go back to the city. A few minutes later, when he reached the crossroads, he knew he should turn left—that was the direction of the highway. Instead, he turned right. Now here he was, parked at the corner of two gravel roads in the middle of nowhere, staring out at the church of his youth. 

He tried to think. Why had he come here? Some shadow of a memory seemed to be playing at the corner of his mind, some… Thing… that if he could just retrieve he knew would make sense of everything.

He waved his hand to dispel the thought, like brushing aside a fly.

He examined the church from his window more clinically now. He was looking for… what, exactly? A chance to reconnect with his family roots? He snorted. Church had been his father’s thing, not his mother’s. After his father died, they just stopped going. He had been in his teens. What could he possibly be looking for here?

The man got out of the car and walked across the grass towards the church. It showed its age: the exterior, once gleaming white, was coated with years of dirt. The cross on top of the small bell tower was slightly askew. The sign read “Holy Cross Lutheran,” and indicated the years the congregation had opened and closed.

So the church is dead too, he thought—long dead. He wasn’t surprised. It had been a tiny congregation when he had lived here decades earlier. It wouldn’t have taken much for them to pack it in.

Still, he thought, it isn’t completely abandoned. He could see that the grass had been mowed fairly recently. Someone was still watching over the place. Maybe people still used the church once in a while for community events. Maybe weddings.

He decided to try the door. The wood was swollen at the bottom, but it came open after a firm tug. He stepped inside.

It was exactly as he remembered it. The altar, the pulpit, the baptismal font, the pews… they were all there. An open Bible lay on the lectern. Candlesticks still stood on the altar.  Tucked away in the front left was the old pump organ he’d tortured more than once as a child. And over the whole scene a large crucifix loomed, brutal and demanding, sunlight from the window behind bathing it in fire.

He glanced to the left as he entered the sanctuary and was surprised to see the back wall still held several frames, most of them crooked. His baptism and confirmation photos must be among them. He turned away.

The furnishings were all as he remembered them, but the sanctuary had nevertheless aged. A fine coat of dust covered everything, and an unpleasant musty smell permeated the room. A large dark stain—presumably the result of a leaky roof—took up a good portion of the aisle floor. The wood creaked beneath his feet.

He took a seat in the fourth pew on the right without considering what he was doing. It had been the family pew. It seemed appropriate somehow. Then, he waited.

He waited ten minutes. Twenty. The sun outside began to set, and the light passing through the dirty windows cast a golden haze over everything. Thirty minutes passed. He felt anew the sense that he was forgetting something; somewhere in the back of his mind a dim recollection was struggling to form. A shadow from the cross began to spread across the floor.

He sighed. What was he doing here? What was he expecting? “A sign?” He asked it aloud, mockingly, and the sound of his own voice startled him. He hadn’t realized how quiet the church had been.

The sun sank lower, and the cruciform shadow grew.

He sat in silence a minute more, and then shook his head. Whatever he was searching for, he decided, it was not here. The man rose and began his way to the door.

Suddenly there was a crash behind him, and he spun around. One of the candlesticks had fallen from the altar and was now rolling slowly across the floor.

The man gasped and glanced wildly around. Blood rushed to his ears. His heart pounded.

The candlestick came to a stop. The man stood perfectly still, listening, waiting…

Nothing.

He swallowed. “Damn mice,” he muttered at last.

He glanced nervously at his watch, then at the door. He licked his lips. He had to go. Yes, he had to go now. It was still several hours’ drive back to Saskatoon. He should leave.

He looked back towards the altar. The shadow from the cross was stretching towards him with surprising rapidity.

He took a small step back. The shadow advanced. Several more steps. The shadow kept pace. His breath came quicker.

He reached the entryway and his hand darted for the knob. He pushed but the door stuck at the base. Suddenly the shadow rushed him, enveloping his feet, and the man panicked. He flung himself at the door. It gave way and he tumbled onto the grass outside.

He ran to his car. He left the church. He did not look back.

Mathew Block is editor of The Canadian Lutheran magazine and communications manager for the International Lutheran Council. His writing has been featured in a variety of publications, both sacred and secular, including First ThingsThe National PostConverge MagazineThe Mythic Circle, and more.