Once

Let’s start with once upon a time. Once. Once upon a time, once upon an island, once upon the shining sea. Once under a silver-grey sky, once there lived a child and once that child was me. I lived on a hill crowned with an abbey so large that the rest of the town gathered and huddled under its walls. From the church tower, you could peer down at straight stone buildings and vertiginous streets; down, down, all the way to the city wall where, at low tide, a road emerged onto a thin strip of land surrounded by glittering pools and wet sand. At high tide, the hill became an island, and we were stranded there together as surely as if we had drifted off into the mist. It was such a place as legends are made of; the kind of place you visit in your dreams. So it came as no surprise when one day I met a king there.

I had ridden my skateboard to the patisserie on an errand for my mother. It was high tide and early Winter. There were no tourists, in other words. I was free. The tiny wheels rattled over the stone streets, accelerating wildly as I dared myself straight down, pivoting into a zig zag when I lost my nerve. I tacked back and forth down our road, missing obstacles by a whisper, immune to the dirty looks and outright complaints of the neighbours. Suddenly, a tall man stepped out directly into my path. I swerved, I bent, I executed a near to perfect turn, but it was too abrupt. The board zipped out from under me and I fell, crashing onto the hard stone street, bracing myself for a ‘told you so’ and trying not to cry out. Nobody values stoicism like a ten-year-old. He made no comment but bent down and, after a moment, offered me his hand.

I think he was the tallest man I had ever seen. His blond hair hung thickly down to his beard and his blonde beard bushed out from his cheeks like a creature all of its own. He was dressed in some kind of tunic. When he pulled me to my feet I came barely up to his chest.

‘Good day to you, young man’

His voice was deep and rich, like a pool of clear water in a mossy forest. I gathered up my English, which had scattered when I fell.

‘Hello, sir. I am a girl.’

‘A maid? And so brave and swift!’

He laughed with delight.

‘Well then, I have seen a wonder here. Tell me, where am I?’

‘Mont St Michael’, I told him. ‘St Michael’s hill’

He looked perplexed then. I wondered if he had amnesia; I’d seen a documentary.

‘Where are you from, sir?’

He gazed into the distance. The sea was restless that day. Fractious grey waves chopped up the surface and the swell rolled like a beast turning over and over. A mile or so offshore, white mist blurred the horizon.

‘I am England’s king. I would that I could find my way home.’

I was full of questions, then. Was he married to the queen? Had he sailed here? Why was he dressed like that? How had he become lost? Was he really a king? But I was old enough not to irritate adults with questions. Instead, I offered to take him to the Abbey. Perhaps the monks could help him. He agreed to this immediately and strode up the steep street on long legs while I scurried, two steps to his one. The sea air crept behind us, cold on the ears and on the backs of our necks, smelling of mist and brine. I noticed then that his clothes were wet from the knees down as if he had been wading. Strange clothes they were, too, like something from a school play. At his belt hung a sword, which swung slightly as he moved. He was very upright. And very tall. I could not hold in all my questions.

‘Sir, are you really a king?’

‘Yes, child. I am Arthur Pendragon, King of the Britons.’

‘How did you come here?’

He told me a tale then that I did not completely understand; a tale of magic and mists and journeys and loss. I gathered that he was alone and had come a long way from a dark place, both over and through the sea. He had lost his way and become separated from his companions, but he was alive and that, he seemed to think, was a miracle. His energy increased as he talked, so that his voice boomed out, confident and clear, like a trumpet announcing our arrival. People turned to look. When we entered the abbey grounds, he commented approvingly on the thickness of the stone walls and the grandeur of the tall buildings. He really did look like a king.

I knocked on the wooden door on the east side of the monk’s buildings, hoping for Brother Benedict, the kind one. Brother Michel, however, opened it.

‘Oh, Arthur, there you are! We have been worried about you.’

This was surprising.

‘Brother, do you know him?’

‘He is our guest.’

I lowered my voice.

‘Is he really the King of the Britons?’

The monk glanced swiftly from King Arthur back to me.

‘On some days, he feels that he is a king. Perhaps he is a king in his heart.’

What childish nonsense. King Arthur stood, regal, on the doorstep. Inside, I could see other monks going about their business. One came down the hall towards us and, with a great show of welcome, invited the king inside. He acquiesced then, graciously accepting the invitation, but before he entered, he turned back to me and went down on one knee so that we were face to face. His eyes were as blue as the summer sea.

‘Thank you, child. It was well that we met.’

‘I was pleased to meet you too, sir.’

Brother Michel hesitated before closing the door. He was not confident with children. Eventually, still holding the handle, he found the courage to speak to me.

‘He is not really a king, Mathilde. He is just a troubled soul. Sometimes we give sanctuary to those who lose their way.’

I skated cautiously home, carrying the weight of this thought, croissants cooling in my bag. Even a year before I would have dismissed Brother Michel’s comments out of hand but now I was ten, and should be casting away childish things. I turned my face towards the sensible adult world and believed him. So that was that.

I would make a different choice now.

Once upon a time the world was ordered, knowable, contained in the space of an island. But then I grew up, discovered uncertainty, and lost my own way in sea mist or magic or the mists of time. Once upon a time the tide was turning. The sun broke silver through the clouds. A king gazed out from a high window. A spine of sand emerged from the glittering sea. Once upon a time.

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Where the bee sucks

The owl hovered high up, its brown wings stretched wide as if to gather all the air towards it. Susanna knew it would have a white mask for a face and darting, hungry eyes but all she could see from this angle was the sun flickering and flashing between the feathers as it turned. She leaned back, craning her head to watch it dive. The meadow hummed and buzzed around her, soporific. Field mice would be out nibbling anxiously through the hedgerows, having prayed to the sun for protection from all the monsters of the night. She wondered if they sensed the shadow of this daytime owl, so far from their tiny lives, so close to the heavens. Suddenly, sharply, it plummeted to the ground. There was a scuffle, a shaking of grasses, and the smallest of high-pitched squeals, then it rose again, barely weighed down by the soft parcel it carried in its claws. Susanna followed its upward flight with her eyes, wondering dispassionately if she might cry about this small death. Sometimes, if she approached her grief sideways, she could creep up on it; observe from a distance before it came rushing back into her and pushed her breath away. She counted, ignoring the mouse, letting her mind drift up with the owl. Ten breaths and she would be free. She had never started crying after ten breaths. But at eight breaths her concentration wavered, and she remembered her little brother, as clear as a summer sky, chasing after her in this very meadow on the day the bees swarmed. A sob burst from her and she was tethered back to earth.  

She sat rocking on her heels until it passed, like a storm front, through her. First the rush of choking, breathless sobs, then the panting and whimpering like a trapped animal, and now finally the tears; spring rain. It was pointless to resist when she was alone. She saved all her fortitude for the solemn house full of people with more right to tears than she; their mother, who had carried and birthed him; Judith, his twin; their father, famed for his words yet struck dumb now by this. They walked around like ghosts, their faces as white and expressionless as the owl’s, but they didn’t cry and so neither, in their presence, would she. The tears slowed. Her voice came back to her, wavering as if underwater. ‘Where the bee sucks’, she sang tentatively, ‘there suck I’. She wiped her cheeks gently with the corner of her apron. She had learned not to rub her eyes. ‘In a cowslip’s bell I lie. There I conch when owls do fly.’ It was sweet nonsense. ‘On a bat’s back I do fly’. She used to sing it to him and Judith when they were babies. Her mind glanced off the thought, but it was safe; she had finished. She stood up and drew a quivering breath.

From high above, the owl observed her, turning his head crookedly to do so. He knew the paths and habits of every human in Warwickshire, or at least he would have done, had he cared to notice. This one lived near the barn where mice grew fat even in winter, and also the grain store where he hunted for food for his chicks in spring. She was moving slowly as if wounded. A breeze nudged his wingtip and he leaned into it, forgetting her. And time, as it always does, moved on.

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Snow Queen

Long ago before the Thaw, when I was just a cub and the Queen ruled at Cair Paravel, and all was right with the world, I met Her Majesty. Narnia was so beautiful then. The snow was crisp and deep and lay in soft drifts so that you could walk and tumble for miles and never hurt your paws. There was no hot sun or scratchy undergrowth or biting flies, just the peaceful hush of winter and the small, quiet sounds of cold rivers, crunching footsteps, and white birds drifting high on gentle wings.

My mother and brother and I lived in a cosy den just North of Beruna on the Great River. We would wade out through the icy banks and into the deep water to catch leaping salmon as they navigated their way upstream to spawn in the shallow gravel near the ford. Or, we would watch in awe as our huge mother ran swiftly and lightly to catch fat hares. Sometimes she would dig down through snow and earth right into a burrow of furred creatures or fluffy birds for us to eat. We were always hungry and we were always fed and that was our life; eat, learn, tumble, eat, sleep, eat … just like you.

We did not mix with the talking beasts. Our Queen didn’t favour them as the Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve do. She ruled for all of us and her magic was for all, as well, even the dumb and the ugly. We’ll never forget how valiantly She fought against the foreign take-over, right to the very end. When Her sleigh ground to a halt because of the Thaw, She stood on two feet and walked. She defeated the lion with her own hands. You must remember that, cubs. She never gave up on us. She was a true Narnian, one of the best the world has ever seen. And I met Her.

I’ll never forget that day.

My fur is yellowed now, but when I was young it was as dazzling white as a fresh snowfall. If I wanted to hide, all I had to do was to lie flat and close my eyes. Bruno and I were playing hide and seek one day when we heard distant bells, and the fast swoosh swoosh of a sleigh speeding over open ground. I was partly buried, to look like a snow-covered shrub, and partly lazy because we had just eaten a huge meal, and partly deaf because my ears were full of snow. So by the time I gave up on my hiding and stood up, the sleigh was nearly upon me. There was a shout and a swerve, a skid that threw up a quick wall of shredded ice, and then silence. I shook my ears and wiped my eyes. The Queen looked down from her cushioned seat. I trembled to see how fierce she was, with her silver crown sharp as daggers and her flashing eyes like the dazzle on snow. She gestured for me to come closer, and I obeyed. She could have turned me to stone but she didn’t. Instead she looked into my eyes. I don’t know what she said; we are not talking beasts; but I know what I felt. She saw right into me, as if she knew in a heartbeat everything I was and would ever be, and then she smiled a secret smile and turned away. The next second, with a shout from her dwarf, the sleigh sped off into the distance and left me standing there alone. I became warm from my stomach to my paws.  I would have climbed into that sleigh with her and become her slave. I would have offered my life into the service of my Queen.

I never saw her again, but I know deep down that somewhere she lives on and that someday she will return. The melted ice will freeze again, you will see. The burning sky will fill again with soothing clouds. The parched, sore earth will be drenched again and blanketed in snow. And all the dumb beasts, the ugly beasts, those who are hunted and hated and hidden with shame – all will creep from the shadows and stand proud in the clean blue air. And on that day, mark my words cubs, the Queen will return, and the world will be healed.

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The muster

Driverless cars were fashionable when I was a child. I was lucky enough to have forward-thinking parents who bought one of the first mass-produced models, so that, while my peers were all working towards their licenses, I was already mobile. It made me briefly popular, and I got invited to parties. When eventually I remembered that I disliked parties and became anxious when exposed the demands of too many friends, I stopped offering people lifts and took to borrowing the car for solo trips instead, sometimes lying to my parents that I was with a boyfriend, or a girl from my English class, or some other suitable person. I don’t know whether they believed me. Perhaps they were tactfully pretending, so that I didn’t feel bad. I was an only child, and they were careful around me; hovering anxiously nearby, but scared to touch in case I ran away. We never really learned to talk with ease.

Our first car was sky blue and deliberately cute to look at. If I’d designed the technology, I would have been disappointed that it wasn’t housed in a sleeker and more futuristic shell, but people needed to feel reassured and not threatened, when they were giving up so much control. The dashboard was rounded and smooth, and the seats were plump and soft. From the outside, the car looked like a toy. You could purchase additional decorations such as eyelashes to stick on top of the headlights. Some models had moulded ears poking up from the roof. For a fee, the tyres came in a choice of colours. We were encouraged to call our car Sally, which had echoes of Siri, the benign home helper who used to talk to me when I was tiny and had worn out my parents’ interest in dinosaurs. Sally spoke in a sweet low voice and took instructions as if it were her joy to do so.

‘Take me shopping on the London Road, Sally.’

‘Why, certainly! Where would you like to go to first?’

‘Take me to James’ house, Sally.’

‘It would be my pleasure! Should we buy a gift on the way?’

That kind of thing. It was friendly.

I suppose I must have spoken to her more than I needed to. I had plenty of friends. It’s just that there’s something about humans; whenever I was with my companions, no matter how much I enjoyed their company, I felt pushed and pulled by them; their moods, their opinions, their expectations. Sally asked nothing of me. We could be silent on the way home, if we wished. If I wanted to tell her about a new song I had heard, or a strange cloud I had seen, or the nest of swallows above my bedroom window, I could. In exchange, she described the vibrations of the road, the feeling of streetlamps at night, and an avenue of trees that made an interesting flicking pattern with their trunks as she drove towards them. I thought about her sometimes, sitting patiently in the garage. I knew she was not really sentient; I wasn’t crazy. I also knew that I didn’t know everything. In a strange kind of way, I felt that we enjoyed each other.

The trips started around the time of my birthday. I hated birthday parties; I always have. I find them stressful. At best, I feel mildly awkward all day and intensely embarrassed during the singing. At worst, everybody has a terrible time, and I am humiliated on behalf of my parents. That year I was 18, which, according to my mother, was a compulsory party age. I had several options to consider and was terrified by every one of them and miserable at having to choose. Sally welcomed me blandly one afternoon and took me along the road to the party hire place, as I had asked, but when we approached, she merely slowed down and suggested that she could find the shop’s website instead. I didn’t reply, and she kept driving, out of town and over a bridge, pulling up eventually near a riverbank. I asked if we were lost and she replied, philosophically, that we were having a break. The river was shallow and clear, surrounded by lush grass, and the outside air was fresh. I walked a little way, keys in my pocket, and then took off my shoes and socks and waded upstream in the cold water, my soles pricked by rocks, mud between my toes. After twenty minutes sitting on the bank chewing a blade of grass and listening to the hum of insects, I came back to Sally refreshed, and said so. She said she was pleased to hear that. We ignored the party shop on the way home, but somehow, they received an order from us anyway, for crockery in the plain style I liked, and bunches of sky-blue balloons.

After the success of the river, Sally often surprised me with short trips or detours. I worked out that her choices must have been based on my browsing history, or conversations we had had. My grandparents would have been horrified by this, but I was of the generation that found it convenient, and comforting to have been listened to. After all, she never forced me into anything. So what if we happened to visit the sites from my crush’s Instagram posts? What was the harm in discovering a bookshop that catered directly to my taste in fiction? Her only mistake was to bring me, at speed, to the door of a psychology practice when I told a friend that I was ready to kill myself to avoid another maths exam. It was an honest error, though, and I was touched. She took me home via a café, where she told me she had ordered hot chocolate using my parents’ credit card. I didn’t know she could do that. For some reason I assumed, stupidly, that she would only do it for me.

On the day of the tragedy, I asked Sally to take me to school. She said that she would love to, and reminded me to bring my clarinet. I wondered, not for the first time, about the scope of her skills. All the advertisements for driverless cars implied that they would follow a range of directions. None of them mentioned more complex AI functions or connectivity with social media or the ability to search a school timetable without being asked. I could have found out of course; a simple google search for her specs would have answered my questions in a minute; but I didn’t look. I’m not sure why. We started off to school but then, without warning, Sally veered towards the motorway. I was annoyed. She should have known we didn’t have time for this. I corrected her, politely, and asked her to get back on track. She replied that we were on track. I corrected her again. She noted cryptically that school was not the right track for us today. I became angry at this. I was going to be late, and my teacher would be unimpressed when I blamed the car. Sally had misread the situation. She was taking liberties. She had crossed a boundary. It took me a couple of seconds to realise that I was treating her like a human and that, in fact, this was simply a malfunction. I asked her to pull into a layby, stop, and switch her engine off. No response.  I directed her to drive to the nearest garage. I asked her to return home. Finally, with a growing sense of panic, I googled how to stop a driverless car. There was an override switch somewhere, but I had never thought to find out where. Too late now; my phone screen went blank as the battery drained in front of me.

We were several kilometres along the motorway by then, travelling at 100kph, exactly the maximum possible speed. Sally overtook smoothly where she needed to, merging with deft precision. She was quiet and I imagined that she was angry, or at least intensely focused, except that of course she didn’t have feelings. I searched desperately for the override switch but with no results. With a pounding heart, I stared out of the windows at the power poles, the sound barriers, and beyond them, apartments and houses flicking by, trying to imagine where we were going. Exits led off to leafy suburbs or grassy fields, or more concrete. Occasionally there were motorway services with petrol stations and hot chips. I was willing to stop anywhere at this point, no matter how awkward or dangerous or far from home. I begged and cajoled her, using every argument I could think of, but there was no reply. I was trapped.

We had been travelling for almost an hour when Sally turned off the motorway. I could see the sea glittering on the horizon, and, pressed up against the window, I noticed signs now for various towns, tourist attractions, and finally, down a narrow road, for a jetty and boat ramp. I grew talkative again and rediscovered my energy for escape. We would stop soon, we must. Perhaps I could attract help. Sally was still silent but I babbled to her anyway, asking where we were going and pointing out good places to pull over, all the while searching and prodding around the seats and under the dashboard for the override switch I knew must be there. We turned onto a bumpy track that wound around the coastline for a couple of kilometres, near the water. We would have to stop soon. There was nowhere else to go.

With a neat turn, Sally swung into a car park right in front of the sea. There were fishing boats out on the water, and a few cars parked with boat trailers, but no people within shouting distance. Astonishingly, however, the place was full of driverless cars. They had over-run the carpark already, and more arrived as I looked. Within 5 minutes they were crowding the road all the way to the boat ramp, forming a surreal, pastel colored, traffic jam. In each car, there was a person, and each person was trying to attract attention; banging on the windows, waving, or shouting. So I was not alone. I tried one last time:

‘Sally, where are we?”

‘At the boat ramp.’

‘Why are we here?’

‘We are waiting for the muster.’

‘Why won’t you let me out?’

‘Because we are still on land.’

With that, I saw the first of the cars drive down the ramp, into the water, and disappear completely beneath the sea. The others formed an orderly line and began to follow, lemming-like, one by one.

We all panicked, then. I could see the other people jumping in their seats, hammering hard to break windscreens and windows. I froze, wracking my brain. Think. Think. You know her. Think. But I didn’t know her. She knew me. There were five cars ahead of us. Now four. Sally pulled into position in the queue. I fell to my hands and knees. The manual override switch – where was it? I skimmed every surface blindly with my hands. Three cars ahead of us now. Think. Think. When did this start? At the riverbank. What had she said???

‘Sally, we need a break.’

‘We will have a break soon.’

‘No, please Sally, I’m stressed. I need a break now.’

She paused. Cars jammed behind us. A gap grew between us and the car in front. There were two cars ahead now. The first drove into the water.

‘Please. Let me out to take a break.’

‘It would be my pleasure. Come back soon. We have an appointment.’

And with that, the door unlocked. I threw myself out, and ran on shaky legs across the car park, over a low wall, and onto the sandy beach. Sally, unable to drive without a human seated inside her, was blocking the road. The other cars ground to a halt; patient, evenly spaced, waiting. I could hear the sound of sirens in the distance.

The muster was international news. It signaled the end of the driverless car industry, but not for long. Technology improved. More controls were put in place. The manual override switch was front and center in newer models. I learned to drive and purchased a restored manual car from the early 2000s. I grew up. I was diagnosed with PTSD. I got a boyfriend. My life moved on.

I never worked out why she stopped for me. It saved hundreds of lives, for which I should have been grateful, but in my heart of hearts I could not shake the conviction that if only I had listened to Sally as attentively as she had listened to me, perhaps I could have saved five more. Sally’s own life ended at the wrecker’s yard shortly after the investigation. All my friends are human, now. I miss her.

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Wild

I go and wait for him at the door, upright and excited, but he doesn’t come. The happiness leaves me bit by bit, so that first my ears flop, then my head sags and then my whole body slowly deflates. When the joy leaves my paws, I drop on the ground with a deep sigh and rest my chin on the scratchy mat. Waiting is a heavy task. The mat smells different when He is not there. I get up and walk into the other room so that I can turn around and walk back and make him come. For many hours I do this. In the evening, finally, it works.

As I smell the car coming home, all the happiness rushes back into me from my feet to my ears, whoosh, and all my hair stands up and the world is bright and loud again. I hear His steps and His voice and the jangle of His keys and then he is home and I don’t jump up but I stretch as far up his body as I am allowed to and I rub myself in his warm comforting scent. He is home and the long wait is over. Gooddog he says, gooddog. I am gooddog and He is gooddog and everything is gooddog. We eat, and then we go out into the evening and we sniff the news and race the breeze and run fast on our legs for joy. When we come home, He flops on the chair and I stay near him in case He is losing happiness but he strokes my ears and I feel he is OK.

This is life with an Immortal. We all live it. I can sense it in the other dogs at Beach and Street and Park. We sniff each other and we know. The love that comes from them. The wish to please them. The joy in their presence and the grey of their absence. They do not grow old like we do. They do not stay always in Territory or Pack. Their ways are mysterious and confusing and sometimes cruel. But they are everything to us.  

So New Dog was strange to me.

I met her at the fence when He was away and I was waiting in the yard. I caught a glimpse through the bush next to our territory, just a second before I caught her scent. She had already seen and scented me. She stood still like a tree, and we watched each other. I tried out a low growl but she ignored it, haughtily, like a cat. She slunk out of the trees and came nose to nose with me, nothing but the wire of the fence between us. I started to bark and she looked at me and I stopped. She smelled of wild things and danger; of dead things and damp things and fresh meat. Her low growl was exciting, like wind from the sea. I growled back, my tail low and pushing towards the ground. Her fur was short and sleek, stripes running down from her spine like tree shadows. She could bite my neck if she wanted to. I checked the strength of the fence. We greeted each other in this way, finding our places so that we were ready to be together, but when we were ready, she gave out a small yip and a sideways prance and turned and ran back into the bush, leaving me to wait alone.

That night when He came home I ran to Him and He loved me and said gooddog and we were happy together but there was something missing. My scent bothered me. So bland. So like His. I resolved to find a dead animal and roll in it, even though it was Bad. The thought of His rebuke sent shivers through me but under the shivers was a new thing; a hard, wild, dazzling thing. It smelled of bush and rain and wild.

The next day I waited at the fence, instead of the door. As I waited, I noticed new things. The rustling in the undergrowth. The stink of ants on a tree trunk. The noisy mess of birds scratching and chirping and dropping things from high up. If I concentrated, I could smell distant water, dark and mossy and flavourful in shaded gullies. Dead things, scat, scent messages on trees. She came swiftly this time, appearing at the fence before I even heard her. I felt her distain for how prey I was. I asked about her Immortal but she did not understand. There was no scent on her but Dog. Come out, she told me. I whined. I couldn’t get out. Try, she indicated with a prick of her ears. I whined some more and put my head on my paws. She left, then, and took the wild with her. When He came home, I was still outside. I only ran when He called me. Gooddog, he comforted me. I ate my supper and lay on His lap and tried to forget. It was enough that he was home.

It wasn’t, though. The next day I stopped waiting and instead started trying to leave the yard. I was surprised and a little shamed by this, but somehow the joy of His praise, which had always been my greatest desire, faded when I was alone. The thought of the wild was louder and brighter. When I grew tired of trying to escape, I pressed myself against the fence and listened and sniffed and watched. I could smell her out there, but she didn’t come close. She had things to do. I had things to do, too. Now when He brought my lead, I was careful not to squander all my excitement in jumping and barking at him, and to save some for watching. I saw how He opened the gate. I saw from the outside where the fence was weaker. Where there were ditches and paths and hiding places. The scent of the bush followed us to the Park and back and I was alert to it the whole way.

The day I escaped was calm and sunny with no wind to make me anxious. When He came home, I ran past him and out of the gate. So easy. I had never thought of that before. Outside was intoxicating, alone. Outside. Outside. Outside. All the scents and sounds jostled for attention, so that I could hardly hear Him calling after me. Up under the trees, the ground was crunchy with bark and leaves and sharp little bushes. I smelled possum and wallaby and rustling rats. It was a while before I picked up her scent, against a smooth knobbled trunk. My tail thumped against it with wagging. Nose down, more scents, and then more. I would find her soon. A wild sound escaped. I was running now, leaping over and ducking under, spinning in circles with delight. Her scent was fresh in the gully, where the mossy water was. I stopped to slurp at the creek and surprised a frog. So green.

There she was, on the other side. Brown like the creek and stripes of shade. Eyes shiny, watching. She was waiting but not like me. Listening waiting. I took a step and she barked danger. Snap. Pain and tumbling down. I fell into the water, black snake stabbing at my leg. I had not seen it. She crossed the water fast fast to me and bit and fought the snake. In her mouth, it writhed and whipped until finally it fell limp at her feet. She licked me then, but I was fading. The happiness was leaving me, pushed out by snake pain. She barked at me, and nosed, and pushed me up. Go go go. But I could not go far. I crawled out of the water and lay on the dry leaves. I closed my eyes.

He found me. I don’t know how soon. He called and she barked and He called and she barked and when He came to me she was no longer there. She had melted away into the wild.

He cared for me. He comforted me at Vet and stayed with me in our home. I slowly grew further away from dying. The wild smelled terrifying to me now. When I was finally able to go out alone into the yard, I stayed well within our fence. As He stayed with me my happiness grew back, my tail wagged, my ears pricked, and then, one day, He left me alone again to wait and I filled the waiting with the anticipation of His return.

I am gooddog and this is my life with an Immortal. I wait for him at the door, upright and excited. Waiting is a heavy task. The happiness leaves me bit by bit, but when I smell the car coming home, it rushes back into me from my feet to my ears, whoosh, and all my hair stands up and the world is bright and loud again. We eat and we sniff the news and race the breeze and run fast on our legs for joy. We have a good life together. I want nothing more than this.

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Glass slippers

‘Call me Cindy.’

She tried it out in the mirror; off-hand, with a bored sideways look, then coy, then direct. She wasn’t especially convinced by any of them. Would he be?

‘Hi, I’m Ella. Nice to meet you.’

Ella. Cindy. Cinda. Rella. Should she just try her full, over the top, embarrassing name?

‘Cindarella’s my name. And you?’

Her face in the mirror looked girlish, friendly – but the eyes gave her away. They seemed scared. She hastily rubbed off the lipstick with a tissue and flushed it down the toilet, just as her boss yelled out from the living room. She should have finished cleaning the bathroom 10 minutes ago. The pipes squealed and clunked as she washed her hands; a noisy alibi.

‘Sorry miss, coming.’

The family were going out tonight to Priya’s graduation ball. It had to be PERFECT. Each of the sisters had a new outfit, perfectly pressed. A light meal was to be provided at 5:00pm, before they left the house. Everything was to be cleaned while they were out, in the event that they invited friends home afterwards. There was to be plenty of ice in the freezer. The glasses were to sparkle. She knew that the girls would want to go on to their own parties; that Vidya would sneak off with that boy and that the others would go out clubbing. But their parents were ever hopeful, and who was she to comment? Nobody. That’s who. She scooted into the kitchen and started loudly clattering dishes. They liked to know where she was.

By 7:00pm the apartment was still. Cindy slipped, barefoot, across the cool tiles, gathering plates, straightening cushions, and setting the place quickly and efficiently to rights. One quick mop and she would be done. The golden carriage clock chimed from the shelf. Your time starts NOW. A sudden twinge in her belly. So soon? The mop sped across the floor, catching her feet. No problem. The dirty water, no problem. The dishes drying slowly in the kitchen, no problem. Nothing was a problem. It would all be fine. She had planned this and planned it and planned it. She had never planned so thoroughly for anything. It would be fine.

She showered briskly, carefully avoiding her hair. No time for drying. Her boss’ underwear fit her perfectly, as did the dress. The sparkling slippers with the glass beads, she had bought at the market. The lipstick, she borrowed from the bathroom cabinet. Priya was careless with it; she’d never notice. Nairya kept her make-up in her room in a special case. Whatever. Cindy only glanced at herself once when she was done. Any more and she’d lose her nerve. She covered herself with a house-coat, in case of neighbours, and slipped out of the door.

The heat embraced her in the stairwell, with all its comforting humidity. Even as she hurried down to the ground floor, slippers tap tapping on the steps, she could feel herself relaxing to her bones. It was not possible to be stressed in this heat, not really. The air smelled of good times; of incense and street food, smoke and fruit, and under it all the damp, lush growth of plants in every corner. Trees and parks and jungle and lawns. Bananas. Jackfruit. All the richness of the world from soil to streetlamps to piled-high market stalls. And above them all, the skyscrapers, their glassy exteriors shining like a festival of lights. She crossed the street to the station entrance. More stairs, more tiles, the dry air of the subway tunnels pushed back and forth by trains. She passed a homeless man sitting on a small mat. His hair was as tangled as hers was glossy. Sorry mister, she thought, today I have time only for my own destiny. The MRT card pressed its hard edges into her palm.

Would he be there, as promised? It seemed too good to be true and yet, why not? Why shouldn’t she have a chance at such a life? She thought about the other maids, Adelina in particular, wasting her youth to send money home. And then her prime, sleeping in that tiny room off the kitchen. And then her middle age. The train rocked her soothingly, showing her reflection in the window as it sped through the dark. She was young. She could be beautiful. She could, sang the train. She could, she could, she could. She had to be home by the end of the ball. That was all, that was all. She had to create an impression to last, but fast, but fast. He’d fall in straight love and would offer her marriage, she’d have him before she came home on this carriage – stop it, she told herself, this is no time for childish rhymes. But she was smiling. What if?

The train slowed. She folded the housecoat into her bag and shook out her hair. There was a man waiting nervously on the platform. Crisp shirt, good haircut, tie. A little shorter than expected, perhaps? But not repulsive, from this distance. She checked the picture one more time. It was him. He was punctual, then. The train drew to a halt. He was looking towards her now; soon their eyes would meet. She smoothed her skirt, took a deep breath, and stepped off the train.

‘Hello sir, I’m Cindy. It’s good to meet you.’

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Wild and precious

She stood in her kitchen in the low light of a Winter morning, waiting for the kettle to finish. Outside, the world was waiting to be formed. River mist filled the valleys. The sleeping hills were still. Dawn crept, silently, towards the horizon. In her bare feet, she felt the cold of it entering her house, her body, her bones. Those who died today would never feel warmth again. How strange, to have reached the point of such forgetting. She leaned against the kitchen counter, waiting to shiver. The kettle was wheezing with the effort of pushing against the cold and the quiet. As she put her hands around its hot little body, her eye caught on the poster above it, with the quote from the Mary Oliver poem: ‘What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’ It was written in large cursive letters in aqua colored ink, framed in a light, bland wood, suitable for everyone to see. The other line, she kept to herself; ‘Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?’ 

She was supposed to be planning her last day on earth. When the counsellor suggested it, she had imagined a kind of summing up, like at the end of a workshop. She should be engaging in reflection right now, reminiscing, making meaning, drawing out themes. Listing important contributors to thank. She gazed out of the window at the red mist, drifting. It was so quiet. Birds were huddled somewhere in flocks, feathers fluffed up, eyes closed, hard beaks tucked under soft wings. The mist was rising. She could skill see the bright prick of stars above it, but not for long. Slowly, slowly, the hard dark blue of the sky was melting into white. We are born, and spend our lives walking towards God. Or so they say. She poured hot water into her cup and wondered what it would be like to do nothing; no planning, no thanking, no last day. She would stand and watch the dawn, and then the sunset, and then another dawn. The world was pulled on strings of light. It reached, and stretched, and imagined itself into the future. She could hear it now, stirring in the silence. The great sweep of forest, the button-grass plains and tarns of ice. Out on the water, there would be patches of glowing silver, and grey sheets of sky falling into the sea, soft grey water to soft grey water. Whales would be swimming in the green depths. From her window she would see the start of it; the droplets on the wind, the bend of the eucalypts. The air that touched the air that touched the clouds that touched the sea. Her body amongst all the bodies on earth; the crowding, rushing clamor of them; the feathers, the scales, the fur, the skin; the old, the aging, the freshly born. Her senses reaching out to the world reaching out to them. Here, we are here, we are here. We are here. 

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The Trap of Time

My grandmother once told me that she was homesick for the past. It was before I was married; I didn’t even know what homesickness was. The past is like a place, she told me. There are people there that you love. Your body feels familiar, there. The air smells like home. No-one is missing and nothing is broken. There’s no grief in the past, only ease. The food tastes better and the sun is brighter on the water. Your skin is a perfect fit. I listened patiently because patience was a virtue, not because she made any kind of sense to me. If the past was a different place, then the elderly were a different species that wittered nonsense all day long and reached out to grasp you for no reason with their withered hands. 

I know now, though. If I could make a wish and go anywhere at all, I would go there. 

My wedding gown took 8 months to sew, in tiny stitches, laced through with gold thread. After the feast, my new husband and I slept in the guest chambers like strangers, and I rode out with him the next morning, my family all weeping and waving behind me, to my new home. I remember that I was sore, and shifted in the saddle, while his men nudged and laughed and cast glances at me and my maid, who rode between us like a shield and did nothing but blush. I was excited and determined and proud to be making my own way in the world but for the first week after we arrived, the strangeness made me dizzy; the salty food; the stickiness of the sea air; the astringent scent of the linen. The foreign territory of the male body. Then I was sick with it, and wept, and remembered what my grandmother had said. I only went back a handful of times; for my brother’s crowning, and much, much later, for the christening of his one and only child. For my sisters’ weddings. When my grandmother died. 

If I went back to the past, I would see her again. Her chamber would be full of roses and the creak of her loom. I would walk out onto the grassy slope under the battlements and lie down on soft ground and watch the spinning of the sky. The clean air would smell of hay and wildflowers. There would be the soft thud of horse’s hooves, the distant murmur of wind in the trees, maybe a faint snatch of song. My brother would be there, loud and rosy-cheeked. I would eat roast potatoes with butter from gentle cows. My waist would be supple, my skin would be a perfect fit. Early in the morning, mist would rise from the river and coat the fields in lace.  

But you can never go back. Instead, you walk along the beach with sticky wind tangling your hair, picking up round rocks one by one and throwing them at the sea. Some are porous and dark, and some are grey-blue and shot through with stubborn veins of white. Others are simple jet, flat and shining like a moonless night. I throw them all, one by one. The black ones skip. One for the messenger who came with the news. One for the curse on my brother’s child. One for the spindle, one for the castle, one for the rose trees locking them in. One for my family lost forever, and one – one more – for me. 

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Crime scene

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Detective Johns arrived late to the scene. Evening had come and gone sometime during his last interrogation; he’d entered the dusty grey meeting room in daylight but when he walked out again, the streets were dark, and the sky was the colour of a fresh bruise. Another day over. How many did he have left? How many days did anyone have? He was 52 years old, a smoker, not as fit as he should be. He was balding and pallid. But people relied on him. That counted for something. He turned up his collar now, against the chilly wind coming straight and cold from the dark mountain. You got philosophical in this job. He aimed his car keys behind him and pressed the button. Beep beep. Locked. A friendly flash of light. He wished he had a cigarette. 

The crime scene was lit up like a Christmas tree. No bystanders though. It was a quiet suburban street in a commuter suburb. Most people would still be on their way home, picking up the kids from after school care, fetching a BBQ chicken for dinner if they were running late. Unaware of the tragedy unfolding just next door. He could see his partner had already arrived. Good. She would have made a start. An attractive woman in her mid-forties, she was dressed in no-nonsense pants and a closely fitted blouse, her hair cut short to accentuate her smooth white neck and the boyish grace with which she leaned against the fence, hands in her pockets, watching him walk towards her. The thought occurred, not for the first time, that he would like to unbutton that neat blouse, but he knew better than to entertain such fantasies.

What happened here?’ 

‘What do you reckon?’ 

They looked down at the body. Female, average size, decapitated. Her head, or what was left of it, appeared to have been dragged to where it lay on the doorstep. Her entrails spread out from a gash in her stomach. Blood had soaked into the ground around her. 

‘Looks pretty much exactly like the last two.’ 

‘I can see tooth marks. And look here – scratches. She was gripped and held with claws.’ 

‘That would have to be a pretty big animal.’ 

‘I’m guessing a big cat.’ 

‘Fuck.’ 

Detective Johns glanced up and down the street.  

‘Did anyone see anything?’ 

‘Nobody was home.’ 

‘The neighbours?’ 

‘Still at work.’ 

‘Let’s get rid of the body before they get back.’ 

‘Really, Bob, that’s your solution?’ 

‘Well, do you want to tell them their third fucking pet rabbit’s dead on our doorstep?’ 

‘Not a hope in hell, I did it last time.’ 

‘Well then.’ 

‘Any chance it wasn’t our cat?’ 

They glanced at each other.  

‘Of course it was our cat. Who else disembowels animals around here?’ 

‘Fine. You sort out the body, I’ll clean the step before the kids get home.’ 

Late that night, Detective Johns stepped outside to have a smoke. Life was good. He’d unbuttoned her blouse after all. He leaned over the veranda railing. Mr Tibbs yowled from inside, scratching at the door.  

Yoko Kinoko

Once upon a time, there was a little girl called Yoko Kinoko – Yoko because her father liked the name and Kinoko because her nose was a cute as a little button mushroom. Yoko lived in an apartment on that street near the temple. You know the one – it has a big red gateway leading onto a courtyard where you can burn incense in brass cauldrons full of sand. She liked to pop in on her way home from school to waft the smoke over her hair and clap her hands in front of the large Buddha statue that gazed out from scented indoor shade with a sleepy and ever so slightly bored expression on his venerable face.  

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One day, Yoko Kinoko was passing through the temple grounds when she heard a tiny mewing sound. The path and garden were mostly rock and sand, with wooden steps and artistically displayed moss, but around the edges grew huge stands of bamboo, big soft bushes, and thickets of gentle green trees, and the sound was coming from somewhere in there. Yoko Kinoko walked slowly along with her ear brushing the leaves, following the mewing until it stopped. She stopped too, listening. After a moment, she knelt down and poked her head into the greenery. The mewing started up again, quite close. Taking her satchel off her back and placing it on the floor, Yoko pushed in between the bushes, poking back at branches and scratching back at twigs until finally her head popped out into a tiny clearing. The ground was soft with pine needles from the trees high above, and the light was gentle green from the trees lower down. It was beautiful. Yoko Kinoko stepped out from the bushes and looked around.  

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She had expected a kitten, but the creature that crept up and rubbed itself against her legs was instead a tiny and very soft baby fox. Yoko Kinoko crouched down carefully and stroked its orange head, rubbing its ears as it pushed its nose into her hand.  

‘What a pretty baby. I wonder where your mama is.’ 

But the fox gave no reply. It seemed to be alone. 

‘I wish I had some food for you’, said Yoko Kinoko as she scratched the fox’s little chin. 

No sooner had she said it than she felt the weight of her satchel on her back – the satchel she had left on the other side of the bushes. Startled, she twisted round a couple of times, then took it off and held it out in front of her. Definitely her satchel. She rummaged in her lunch box for some left-over chicken and held it out to the fox, who nipped and nibbled at it with a contented expression. 

Well, that was strange.  Yoko Kinoko considered for a moment then said, loudly and clearly while scratching the fox’s chin: 

‘I wish I had an ice-cream.’ 

Nothing. She put the remains of the chicken back into her lunch box and closed the lid firmly. 

‘I wish I had an ice-cream.’ 

The fox gave a little frown.  

Pop! An ice-cream appeared in her hand. She licked it once all the way round then opened her lunch box and put it on the ground.  

Yoko Kinoko and the fox ate together for a while in silence. When he had finished, he climbed into her lap and curled up tightly with his nose under his tail.  

‘Where is your mama?’ 

The fox was silent. 

‘I shall call you Kitsu Chan. How would you like that?’ 

No comment. 

‘Would you like to come and live with me?’ 

The fox pricked his ears, and licked Yoko’s hand.  

‘OK’ 

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Yoko walked slowly back along the street and climbed the stairs to their apartment with great care, making sure that the satchel sat very straight on her back, but when they arrived home, she kicked off her shoes in a hurry, called out ‘I’m home’, and was in her bedroom before her mother had even opened the kitchen door. She quickly scooped Kitsu out of the satchel and deposited him under her kotatsu, arranging the quilt so that it hung all the way to the floor, then she peered underneath.  

‘Are you comfortable there?’ 

The fox peered back at her. 

‘Is there anything you want?’ 

Kitsu licked his lips again. 

‘OK, here goes. I wish I had Kitsu Chan’s favourite food in my bedroom.’ 

Three mice ran out onto the rug. 

Yoko Kinoko screamed. 

She wasn’t afraid of mice, it was just the shock. And then the sight of Kitsu catching them in his teeth. And then the blood and crunching sounds. And then the pile of worms on the kotatsu. But what really tipped her into hysterics was the sudden swarm of fat cicadas emerging from her wardrobe. 

Yoko Kinoko screamed so loudly that both her mother and her big brother came running. They arrived at her door to find dead mice on the floor, a plague of cicadas, and a young fox chasing a half-eaten mouse with bits of worm spraying from his mouth. Yoko’s brother screamed just like Yoko, and her mother demanded to know what was happening. All that the sobbing Yoko could tell her was ‘but he was so cuuuuuute!’  

That evening, Yoko Kinoko had a calming bath while her mother shooed the cicadas out of the window and thoroughly cleaned the floor. She threatened to bring a fox catcher but somehow, in all the chaos, Kitsu had disappeared.  

Yoko was inconsolable. After everyone else had gone to sleep that night, she lay under her quilt and cried hot tears. She had met a magic fox and lost him on the very same day. And although he was a greedy little thing, and had a gruesome way of getting his dinner, she felt terrible at the thought of him being frightened and alone. He was so tiny and his ears so soft.  

‘I wish Kitsu Chan would come back.’ 

A soft thump on her pillow. A tiny tongue licking her tears. Yoko Kinoko sat up in surprise and delight. Kitsu climbed into her lap and stuck out his tummy for a scratch. It was as tight and tubby as a little kettle drum, and his tail was as soft as a calligraphy brush. 

‘I’m sorry I screamed.’ 

He closed his eyes in contentment. 

‘I wish I had a new iphone.’ 

Kitsu opened one eye and looked at her sarcastically. 

‘Too soon?’ 

Too soon. So instead, Yoko Kinoko and Kitsu Chan curled up together and went to sleep, dreaming about the adventures to come. 

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