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Blind Pigs

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Simon didn’t like to be alone with Grandma. He didn’t like the noises she emitted and was worried she might die on his watch and he wouldn’t know what to do. He might even be blamed. 

She liked to tell boring stories about when she was young and Simon was too polite to get up and leave like his sisters did. 

Simon’s family was at his aunt’s for Sunday lunch. Grandma lived with Aunt Julie and you could tell Simon’s aunt was unhappy about that – there were wrinkles around her mouth and staccatoed across her forehead. Simon thought that Aunt Julie’s body might be keeping a tally of all the boring stories Grandma told.

The aroma of the roast idling in the oven drifted in from the kitchen and sunlight slipped enticingly through the window. Simon was too slow getting off the couch when his sisters bounced from the room and, before he could stand up, Grandma had lassoed him with her opening sentence.

“Did I ever tell you about the time I was a coatroom attendant?” she asked. 

Her teeth weren’t in properly and Simon could hear them coming away from the gums and clacking every time she opened her mouth, it sounded like she was chewing taffy with damp velcro.

Simon knew his mother would be livid if she heard he had been rude to Grandma, so he sat back down and gazed out the window at his sisters running around the backyard.

“No Grandma,” he said, sitting on the edge of the cushion with his hands tucked beneath his thighs – as if he would catapult himself from the room as soon as Grandma finished her story.

“It was back in the ’20’s,” she said.

Wow, Simon thought, Grandma’s ancient.

While Grandma talked her teeth clacked and drool collected in white pockets at the corners of her mouth. Simon felt a compulsion to reach over and wipe her lips with the cuff of his shirt. He pushed himself all the way into the back of the couch.

“I was just a baby, barely into my twenties when I worked there,” Grandma gazed at the opposite wall, as if the movie of her past life was rolling across the paintwork. 

“It was a speakeasy. Do you know what one of those is Sam?”

“It’s Simon,” said Simon. “Yes, Grandma, I do. I think.” 

He frowned and looked at the same wall as the old woman, searching for pictures she might have conjured. 

“It was a type of bar wasn’t it? One in a secret place?”

Grandma chuckled.

“A secret place,” she said. “Yes, I suppose it was. Hidden away below street level of a sewing shop.”

Simon tried to imagine a bunch of people gathering on purpose in a basement.

“Blind pigs they called them, the speakeasies. I loved it. I got to meet so many people. Fancy ladies with sequins on their dresses and furs of such rich, deep colors,” Grandma smiled and closed her eyes. 

“I would bury my face deep in those furs,” she said. “And inhale their lovely musky smells and the ladies’ perfume,” she opened one of her eyes and glanced at Simon. 

“When they weren’t looking of course,” she added.

“I remember one night I got to work. It was pouring buckets outside. I was soaked and had to change in the tiny bathroom at the back of the shop. I was late going downstairs and there was a man standing over the shop owner. I thought he was sleeping.

“The man looked panicked when he saw me, like he was caught doing something bad. ‘He was unconscious when I found him,’ he told me.” Grandma shook her head.

“What happened to him?” asked Simon, now perched on the edge of the couch.

The laughter of his sisters drifted into the room. He heard the muffled voices of his aunt and his mother chatting easily in the kitchen. 

His father wandered into the living room. When he saw Simon sitting with Grandma, he raised his eyebrows.

“All right lad?” he said. “Don’t you wanna go outside?”

Simon recognized the lifeline his father was throwing, but he shook his head.

“Nah Dad, I’m fine. Grandma’s telling me a story,” he turned back to Grandma, whose cheeks had reddened slightly. 

She smiled. Simon noticed how much it lit up her face, even her eyes sparkled.

“Now, where was I?” she said

“The body on the floor,” nudged Simon. “The suspicious stranger.”


Out of My Depth

My nine year old daughter is an infinitely stronger swimmer than me, but when she was six we were at about the same level. 

During that summer we went to the lake with a friend and her three school-aged girls. 

We drove along narrow, winding roads beneath overarching trees. It was the middle of the work week and the weekend warriors were slogging away behind their desks. We would have the lake to ourselves.

A light breeze kissed the day as we unloaded the cars and dragged chairs and coolers and life jackets down to the edge of the water. I grasped my daughter’s hand as we crossed the deserted parking lot and took the opportunity to enforce a few rules.

“You can go in the water, but stay in the shallows,” I said.

“Okay Mummy,” my daughter said.

“You’ll need to wear a life jacket.”

“Okay Mummy.”

“Make sure you hold your breath if you go under water.”

“Okay Mummy.”

“Don’t go underwater.”

“Okay Mummy.”

I hadn’t seen my friend for some time, so we had a lot to catch up on. We chatted on the beach while the girls played in the water. My attention was split — a small part of me was attempting to be present and hear what my friend was saying and respond accordingly. The majority of me was gasping and silently screaming as my daughter splashed and edged ever closer to the deeper water where the big girls were swimming and, oh God help me, kayaking.

“She’s wearing a life jacket,” my friend reminded me.

“I know, but…” I looked out at the lake. The dark, deep, foreboding lake, reflecting the endless sky in its depths.

“She’s fine,” my friend laughed. How relaxed she was, kicked back in her chair, legs stretched out before her. 

My legs were bunched beneath me, ready to propel me up and out at the first sign of trouble.

“Okay,” I said. 

The day was perfect — the company of a good friend, the sound of the girls’ laughter, the sun on our skin and solitude. We ate lunch on blankets spread out on the sand.

I had a reprieve while my daughter ate her lunch and fooled around with the older girls in the beached kayaks.

But then came talk of swimming to the dock in the middle of the lake. My daughter looked at me. She had recently lost her two top front teeth and looked incredibly young and small.

“Mummy can I?”

“But it’s so far,” I said.

“It’s not that far,” she said.

“You can’t swim.”

“You have to let her go,” my friend said, “and she’s wearing a life jacket, she’ll be fine.”

So here we were at a crossroads. If I said ‘no’ I would have a disappointed six year old on my hands and if I said ‘yes’ I would be riddled with sweaty palms and a racing heart until she was safely back on dry land.

“How about I swim out with you?” I compromised.

I chose to ignore my friend’s snort of laughter and headed into the lake with the girls.

Within a few feet of the shore the lake bed dropped away and we were in deep water. The lake was cold and the water dark and the depths gave up nothing but the whispered suggestion of things living beneath the surface. 

I panicked and looked up to see my daughter swimming ahead, oblivious to the dangers lurking so close by. I turned back to the shore, as my friend – an experienced swimmer – swam out to the girls, just to allay my fears.

My daughter made it to the platform and she made it back to shore. I have a photo from that day of the girls standing on the dock, my daughter in the middle of them, arms raised.

It’s hard to tell as the photo was taken from the shore, but she’s grinning. 

Watching her rejoice on that dock, I understood that this was just one in a long line of accomplishments she would make without me. There might be others there to guide her and to reassure her along the way, but ultimately she would do it alone. And can do it alone. 

But I will always be here to cheer her on.


Burleigh House

Henry sat on his bed and wished that they could return to the city. His mother said that this was their chance for a fresh start. His father said the country would be good for all of them. Henry knew that his father meant it would be good for Henry.

It wasn’t that Henry didn’t like his new room or the big house in the country, it was just that he knew he would miss his old life. The new house was what his mother referred to as ‘gothic’ — a big rambling thing with spires and turrets and lots of dusty corners to explore. It was surrounded by woods that promised to be filled with adventures and foraging expeditions. But Henry had liked their house in the city. He liked the hidden spaces there and the treasure hunts he went on in the cellar and the attic. He liked the noise from the street — cars trundling past and newspaper boys calling at dawn and the jangle of the bells on the blacksmith’s horses’ reins as they trotted beneath his window. 

The new house stood all by itself at the end of a winding lane. There were no neighbors for miles and the quiet sagged like a heavy drape across the estate. Sure, there was the calling of the wood pigeons and the breeze nickering gently at the trees and he could hear his mother down below, calling directions to the moving men and his father clopping through the downstairs hall in his brogues. But beneath those sounds was a silence that threatened to pull him down into its emptiness. He would miss talking to Mrs. Atkins and Mr. Thomaston. He would especially miss playing for endless hours with Edward. His friends wouldn’t be coming to the big new house in the country — their place, they said, was at the townhouse. 

So Henry sat on his bed, kicking his feet against the portmanteau he was supposed to be unpacking and watched the dust motes spin lazily through the sun that spilled like treacle through the windows.

His friends were the reason his parents had uprooted and come all the way into the middle of nowhere. Henry loved Mrs. Atkins — she let him sit with her for entire afternoons and told him stories about ‘the good old days.’ Mr. Thomaston regaled him with tales of intrigue and scandal surrounding the families who lived in the house before. Henry liked the games that Edward taught him. But, try as he might, he couldn’t float above the floor or through the walls like Edward did. 

He tried talking about his friends, but his mother just cried and told him not to speak of them. The children at school ran and hid, or teased whenever he told them. They said they didn’t exist, that Henry was making them up. Jenny, the girl who kept house for Henry’s family refused to come with them to the country. She said she had had quite enough of Master Henry’s shenanigans and she would have nothing to do with his ghost stories. 

So Henry sat in his new room and peered glumly into the portmanteau at his toys and clothes and books he had to find places for. It was just a big suitcase, but his mother insisted on calling it a portmanteau. She liked to use big words for things – apparitions, psychological fantasies, sanatorium. But she called Henry’s new doctor a ‘special doctor,’ when Henry knew the real name was psychiatrist. He didn’t know why he was the one who had to see the ‘special doctor,’ he was perfectly fine. It was everyone else who was acting strange and insisting they couldn’t see people who were clearly there. 

Henry sighed. He was going to be lonely here at the new house, there would be tutors and nannies, but no-one interesting or fun. 

Henry heard the stairs creak and jumped up from the bed thinking it must be his mother come to check on him. He rummaged through the portmanteau, looking busy so his mother wouldn’t scold him.

The door opened, but it wasn’t his mother who came in. A man dressed in black, his hair and beard peppered with grey, stood in the doorway. His face was pale and the irises of his eyes were so blue they were almost white. He smiled.

“Hello young man. Welcome to Burleigh House.”

Henry wasn’t going to be lonely after all.


Home

Sonja goes about her morning routine as usual. She wakes up with the sun, then heats water over the stove, drinks her tea and watches as rain begins to fall. She imagines each drop as a cocoon filled with poison, soaking into the soil and slowly killing the town.

Her husband had thought her a fool for coming back here, to live in the shadow of Chernobyl’s great disaster. But this is her home and has been since she was a small child. It will be her home when she finally comes to the end of her journey. 

After the explosion at the nuclear plant the townspeople had been evacuated to an area that reminded her of a refugee camp. Sadness and terror had soaked into the very bones of the place and Sonja, always an empath, could feel the fear of the people who had lived and lost their lives in the most painful of ways. She woke shaking and whimpering from nightmares of cannibalism and packed her suitcase soon after to begin the long trek home.

“You are a fool,” Sergei had told her, but she had left anyway.

“But what will I do?” he had cried.

“Find somewhere for us,” she had called back, without once turning her head. 

She remembered the story from the bible of the woman who had looked back. She didn’t want to turn into a pillar of salt. You can never look back once you make the decision to leave.

“I will write you,” he said. “I will send for you.”

That was the last she had heard from Sergei.

For months she had checked the mailboxes out by the fence. Every day she would look inside the cold mouth of her mailbox and every day it would be empty.

The months turned into years and soon she only checked every other day, then once a week. Now she can’t remember the last time she checked and she can’t remember Sergei’s face or the sound of his voice calling to her in sadness.

Sonja pulls on her coat and takes a bucket of scraps from the garden. She has been saving the bones from her soup and the vegetables that molder and rot at the bottom of the pile and the scrapped rinds of cheeses she makes from the old goat’s milk.

She walks along the road, and greets her neighbors by name. There are very few of them now, she remembers when she was a girl and the streets were alive with people, going about their business. Scurrying like ants. Now it’s a ghost town, but she would rather be here than anywhere else.

“The patrols are slow this morning Sonja,” calls Andrea. “But watch yourself.”

Sonja smiles and nods.

The fence marking the boundary to the exclusion zone is tall and impassable in most places, but Sonja crawls through a hole that lies behind a stand of dead trees. 

The bare branches reach toward the sky. They will never reach heaven, they are frozen in purgatory. This is what the blast has done to them. Sonja fears the same fate awaits her.

She scampers across the rubble and waits, crouching beside a wall. 

The first dog comes around the corner, belly to the ground. Others soon follow.

“Hello little ones, how are we today? Hmmm?” Sonja reaches into her bucket and places some of the food on the ground. 

The first dog sniffs at it, then drags a bone a few feet away. The other dogs come forward and bolt food as their tails wag. 

Sonja sits on the ground, scratching the dogs’ heads and rubbing tummies when they allow her.

The sky is darkening and the rain is coming down heavier now, so Sonja takes her empty bucket and crosses back to the fence. She hears an approaching engine and ducks behind a wall. The patrol car passes slowly, the guards looking out from their post, their heads turning as they search the perimeter.

Sonja is soaked by the time she reaches home. She passes the mailboxes and realizes she hasn’t looked inside in over a month. There’s an envelope inside, the scrawled handwriting on the front is her long lost husband’s. 

She holds the envelope to her lips and closes her eyes. She cannot recall Sergei’s face or his voice. Instead she sees the dogs. She sees the houses and buildings and faces of her friends. She sees the glorious toxic sunsets. She hopes she will die here.

The Fuselage

Tabitha had heard rumors about a diner in the middle of the forest.

She spoke a smattering of Portuguese, but the dialect in the town was difficult to understand. The locals laughed when she asked them to show her the way to the restaurant in the jungle. 

A young woman, toting a large backpack and wearing a yellow t-shirt with ‘Eat and Greet’ written across the chest, approached her as she struggled to ask directions of a stall holder.

“You American?” she asked.

“Yes,” Tabitha said, relieved to hear an English accent. “Can you show me the way to the airplane diner?”

“The cooking lady?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll take you,” she held out her hand and Tabitha frowned down at it.

“I don’t,” she began. “Ah, okay.”

She reached into her pocket and counted out ten Reals, the woman’s hand stayed outstretched. Tabitha sighed and added another ten. The woman smiled.

“I’m Georgie,” she said and bounced away toward the outskirts of the town. Tabitha followed.

They reached the forest and Georgie used a machete to cut a trail through the undergrowth.

The day took on a greenish hue and Tabitha glanced up towards the canopy, feeling a sudden claustrophobia beneath the immense trees.

Her shirt stuck to her body. She slapped her arms and face every few seconds at the insects buzzing around her. 

The trees were alive with the croaking of frogs and the calling of birds. 

“Do you know the cooking lady?” Georgie asked. 

Tabitha struggled to keep up.

“Well, no,” she said. “I’ve heard about her. And her restaurant. Although no-one seems to have ever been. I’ve been thinking it must just be a rumor. An urban legend.” 

“And her plane?”

“Yes. Do you think we could take a break?”

“We’re not far now,” Georgie glanced over her shoulder at Tabitha and smiled.

“So you’ve been there? It’s real?”

“Oh yes,” Georgie said.

Tabitha daydreamed about swimming pools and waiters bringing her drinks with tiny umbrellas shading them.

“She crashed it, you know? There were a dozen passengers and they just left her.” There was an edge to Georgie’s tone, an accusation bubbling just beneath the words.

“She had a baby,” she continued. “And they left her there.”

“How did she get out?”

“It took her a while. She was starving and close to death and the baby, poor thing, it barely survived,” Georgie turned to face Tabitha. “She made it to a village. The same village the other passengers had found. She gathered as much food as she could and trekked back to the plane.”

“And then opened a restaurant?” Tabitha was incredulous. She felt she was missing something.

“That came later,” Georgie said. “There was some kind of convention in Rio that the passengers had been going to. A chefs’ convention or cooking or something,” Georgie’s voice trailed off.

A large, colorful bird flew above them, its call an alarm issuing a warning to all that would listen.

“She found all kinds of equipment in the hold. Perfect for cooking the most delicious, gourmet meals you could ever dream of.”

“I imagine it must be difficult to get supplies so far into the jungle,” Tabitha said.

“Oh, not as difficult as you’d think,” Georgie said. 

They had come to a clearing. In the middle was the wreckage of an airplane. The cockpit was buried nose deep in the trees and the wings were nowhere to be seen, but the rest of the aircraft was miraculously intact. 

A large, hand-painted sign leaned against the plane, it read ‘The Fuselage.’ Flames leaped out of two metal drums placed closely together and a large grill sat over the top.

A woman stepped down from the plane. She was wearing a long, black apron and aviator goggles. She carried a cast-iron skillet to the grill. 

When she saw the two women approaching she gave a big, welcoming smile.

Tabitha relaxed. She had started to think that Georgie was leading her on a wild-goose chase.

“Georgie,” the woman called, waving the women over. 

Georgie gave the same smile and strode towards the woman, arms outstretched.

“Mom,” she called. 

Tabitha froze. Georgie turned to her and Tabitha couldn’t help but glance at the machete she was carrying.

“I didn’t think you’d be back so soon,” said the ‘cooking lady.’

“Yeah, well, just one this time. Hope you’re not too hungry.”

Tabitha wondered how fast she could run back through the trees.

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