Through History, Changeling

CW: Mild horror, endangered children

 

I will write you back to life, draw you like mould from a drywall and paint over the cracks until no-one but us will be able to see the changes. Are you ready? Do you remember? I do, so let me remind you how it happened.

*

When the winter came we used to visit my grandmother’s house, a tiny stone cottage set in an absentee lord’s estate, somewhere in the north of the country. Speeding out from beneath the city’s high-rise estates in our rented car, I’d press my nose against the window, and feel condensation shiver over my face, and vapour settle across my skin.

The concrete forest closed in on all sides, cars jostled for supremacy on the roads, and then, so gradually you might hardly have noticed it start to happen, the buildings vanished and vast swathes of countryside unfurled themselves around us. I remember that the world seemed infinite in those moments; the sky, bright white and pregnant with snow, and the sun, a droplet of golden ice wreathed in mist, trembling on the tip of the distant horizon.

Those car journeys seemed to last forever. The countryside, crisp and silver with frost, was both timeless and interminable. By the time our tyres crunched over the manor’s gravel driveway, the windows of our car were so thoroughly shrouded with fog, that we could hardly see grandma’s house as it approached in the twilight gloom.

She couldn’t see us from within our frosted time capsule, either, but she was always there, waiting in the cold. A woman, so old to my childish eyes, that the very fact of her existence seemed to be a miracle. The smell she carried with her was gentle with lavender, sharp with citrus, and heavy with pipe smoke. A deep purple shawl covered her hunched shoulders like a cape, and the large square glasses she refused to have replaced, made her eyes appear too small for the drooping parchment jowls of her face.

I loved her, it was true, and in return for my love she showered me with stories, sweets, and independence - a child’s true dream. When my parents had unpacked the car, she’d bundle us into the belly of her slumbering home, where the wooden beams creaked, the fire roared its warmth, and the piercing wind shrieked the memory of long-ago tragedy through the eaves.

“So,” she’d say, her too-small eyes illuminated by firelight. “What new things have you learnt this year?”

And there I’d stand, the dutiful granddaughter bathed in candlelight, and recite for her the newness of my world.

“Caesar was stabbed in the back; Medusa’s eyes could turn a man into stone; the sky isn’t really blue even though it looks like it; PVA glue is like a second skin if you let it dry over your hands; I don’t think I believe in ghosts anymore,” and so on and so on, with all of the babbling pride of a child who’s finally been given the space in which to speak.

What was special about grandma was that she’d always wait for me to finish. Her paper-thin lips would turn upwards into a smile as I spoke, her fingers would tap delightedly against her threadbare chair, and she would nod sagely, with all of the wisdom bestowed upon the old by the eyes of the watching young. But this winter, this special season out of many, she flicked her finger up with unlikely alacrity, and held it a few inches away from my startled lips.

“What do you mean, you don’t think you believe in ghosts?” She asked seriously.

“Well,” I hesitated, my eyes darting towards the ceiling, above which my exhausted parents were already sleeping.

“Well?”

“Well, only babies believe in ghosts,” I said. “And anyway, I’m much too old for ghost stories now.”

A strange noise filled the room. A deep, gurgling, happy, wonderful sound, that bubbled up from within Grandma’s ancient throat, and bounced in diminishing echoes around the night-filled room. The sound of her laughter both thrilled and frightened me.

“Only babies believe in ghosts, eh?”

“That’s right,” I answered, my jaw firmly set. “I’m too old for ghost stories.”

All of a sudden, her face grew hard and serious, and she stared into the flames with an expression I’d never seen before.

“Well, maybe you’re right,” she said eventually. “Perhaps you are too old for ghost stories. But you can never be too old for myths.”

She leant towards me then, the deep folds of her skin submerged in shadows, and took my hand in hers.

“Do you know many myths?”

I nodded hurriedly.

“Of course!” I answered. “Medusa was a myth, and the minotaur, and Pegasus, and-”

“No no no,” she waved my tales away with a sweep of her arthritic hand. “Those are Greek myths; they have no power here. I’m talking about the stories from your own history. The ones you walk through every day. The ones you feel, every time a shiver creeps down your spine, and you’re not quite sure why. What about those, eh?”

I shook my head, my scalp prickling. My history? I didn’t know people like me or grandma had histories, let alone our own myths. Grandma’s chuckle came from deep inside her chest.

“Sit here with me,” she said, pointing to the cushion by the fire. “And I’ll tell you the strange tale, of this estate’s very own Changeling.”

*

The manor wasn’t always abandoned as it is now. When I was young, I travelled here as the wife of the gardener – your grandfather - and was set to work in the kitchens. Those were the days when a woman couldn’t earn her own living without the help of a husband, or a position arranged at a home like this one, and I was lucky enough to have both.

We arrived at the start of a glorious summer. There were garden parties and fêtes every week, with the lords and ladies dressed up in all their finery, playing fairground games, and sipping lemonade, cocktails, and champagne throughout the long hours of daylight. From my position at the sink, where I spent my days scrubbing the pots and pans, I could stare through the window at their peculiar little rituals and their expensive suits and dresses, and marvel to myself quietly.

The women seemed to me to be another breed of female entirely. They were so well powdered, perfumed, and pressed, that they hardly seemed to sweat in the heat. The beating sun was enough to scorch the tops of my arms, in those few moments it took me to carry the platters of food and decanters of drink to their tables, and yet they remained looking impossibly pristine and cool. To this day, I don’t know how they did it, but I suppose that’s just how the world is, sometimes.

Their men, of course, delighted in the passing of we kitchen maids in and out of the crowd. Many’s the time I had to scold one of the younger ones for his crude tongue, or slap the wandering fingers of a young upstart who sought to pinch what no man – aside from your dear grandfather – ought to be pinching. But it was merely the way of things back then, and Lord Dolsen was a better man than most. He and his lady wife, Isabelle, had given all their female staff the express permission to firmly rebuke anyone who tried to interfere with us - or with our duties.

And so that summer was a happy one, until, like most things that for one reason or another turn bad, it suddenly wasn’t anymore. The Lord and Lady Dolsen, you see, were good employers. Oh, they might have been born into silver spoons, fine china, and fancy clothes, but they never treated us as anything less than the people we were. Your mother, for instance, played alongside their little boy, Alastor, for a time, since they were about the same age when we arrived.

While I scrubbed and scoured the crocks at the kitchen window, I’d see the two of them playing havoc together in the garden, with another young local boy who’d been brought by his parents from the town. Your mother – my little Cate - blonde and pretty in her skirts; Alastor, with his head of dark, raven hair, which looked so strange against his pale white skin; and Connor, the little farmer’s boy, who was a couple of years older than the two of them, but had always been small for his age. He didn’t get on too well with the older kids, and Cate and Alastor were happy enough to let him join in with their games.

They had the best of times together that summer. Every evening, Cate would come tumbling in through the front door, carried by your grandfather, and kicking and squealing not to be washed. She’d have rips in her skirts and mud on her face, and she’d spend the whole of dinner telling us tales of fairies hiding in the woods down by the stream, and how Alastor and Connor had gone exploring, and had promised to bring her back one as proof.

“They’ve got green eyes, and they wear little crowns of twigs on their heads, and only the girls have wings. Alastor says he’s going to try and catch one of those, since they’re always flying just out of reach and making fun of us because we can’t fly-” and other such nonsense like that.

Well, she never did manage to bring us back a fairy, but whether or not they really existed didn’t seem to matter much. They existed in the minds of those three, thick as thieves as they were, and that made them real for the summer, at least. It seems a shame to tell of it now, but it was those damn fairy hunts that led to the whole sorry business, if you ask me.

You see, Lord Dolsen, though he was kind and fair to his staff, was also a man who didn’t hold much truck with nonsense. He didn’t believe in fairies, and he didn’t like the flights of fancy that tumbled from the mouths of those three babes, no matter how harmless their imaginings seemed to me. One day, towards the end of summer, I overheard an argument between him and his lady wife, as they passed beneath the window.

“Don’t you try to tell me all of this fairy stuff is harmless. I won’t have my son running around with the farmer’s boy, looking for things that don’t exist!”

“But it is harmless. They’re just exploring, can’t you see that? Why ruin the children’s fun?”

“I’m warning you, Isabelle. Alastor’s got some strange notions in his head already, and I won’t have you or anybody else encouraging him to believe in a world that isn’t real.”

“If you stop him from making friends now he’ll never forgive you. It’s nearly the end of summer, after all. All of these people will have gone back to their homes by this time next week, and you can talk to him calmly then. Can’t you let the boy play at his make-believe for now?”

It wasn’t that I was trying to eavesdrop, you understand. It’s just that Lord Dolsen was raging so awfully, and poor Isabelle, I didn’t like to move out of earshot just in case something untoward were to happen. You can understand that, can’t you? Well, whether you do or not, they lowered their voices after that, and the last I saw of Lord Dolsen in his right mind, he was storming across the garden and heading right towards the stream on the other side of the grounds.

Now, if it hadn’t been for Cate, I’d know as little as the rest of the serving staff about what happened next that day. But I’d heard how angry Lord Dolsen was, and I thought I had a pretty good idea of where that anger might lead. I didn’t want Cate to get caught in the cross-fire of a man like that, particularly when the crimson fog had descended as it had, so I dried my hands on my apron, and followed him across the lawn.

By the gods, anger must have given wings to that man’s feet. By the time I’d hurried out of the house and started running towards the woods, there was no sign of him at all on the horizon. But still, I thought I knew better than him where Cate and those two boys had spent their days playing, so I hoisted up my skirts, and I ran right into the trees just as fast as my feet would carry me.

Well, mark my words, when you get into those woods, you can see quite clearly how three children might convince themselves of something as ridiculous as fairies. The moss grows thick and green there, and the great old oaks and birches crowd beneath sky, until you could almost believe that no world still exists above them. The smell of the undergrowth is strong under there, and even though it had been a blistering summer, the deeper I went beneath the boughs, the soggier the mud grew beneath my feet.

I heard the stream before I saw it, but not a sound of my Cate or of those two little boys reached my ears. I stumbled around in that shadowy green world for what felt like an eternity, and as soon as I reached the water I knew I’d taken too long. The flattened area on the banks, where they’d played for those long weeks, was deserted. All I could see were the little fairy traps they’d made, built of springy twigs, and weaved into miniscule cages that they’d filled with some of the treats they’d managed to scavenge from the adult’s tables.

As I knelt down to examine them more closely – not for signs of fairies, of course, but just out of curiosity - there came a great howling and crashing from the other side of the water, and out of the undergrowth on the opposite bank, ran Cate and Connor as though the devil himself were on their heels. Their little faces were rigid with fear, and when they saw me they waded straight into the water. Before I could even call out a warning, they’d crashed through their fairy traps, and stumbled to the ground at my side.

“He’s gone mad!” They shouted. “Lord Dolsen’s gone mad!”

“Calm yourselves, the both of you!” I said, although their terror had unsettled me a little, as well. “What has he done?”

But at that moment, another crash echoed from the other side of the stream, and both of them would have shot off through the woods, had I not already got hold of Cate’s squirming wrist.

As it was, only Connor fled out into the open, and just as he disappeared behind us, Lord Dolsen and little Alastor came flying into view. That poor boy. He was always so immaculately dressed; always wearing these miniature versions of his father’s black suits, ironed and pressed and without a speck on them. So, you can imagine, it was a frightful shock to see him there, bare chested and frightened, howling and running as if his very life depended on it. His father was right behind him, and as long as I’ve lived, I’ve never seen a man so consumed by rage.

“No son of mine!” He was screaming. “No son of mine!”

Before I could gather my nerves up again, Alastor had raced past me - bare chest and all - and Lord Dolsen was standing quietly on the bank opposite, his wild eyes staring unseeingly after his son.

I was glad to have the water between us when he turned his gaze on me and Cate, let me tell you. I’d never seen such madness poison the face of a man, not before and nor since. He didn’t say a word. He just trembled with his fury, and fixed me with a stare that meant I never, not until now, spoke a word to anyone about what I’d seen down by that stream. Not even to your grandfather.

Well, after he’d stormed off to God knows where, I marched Cate back to the cottage in absolute silence. By the time we made it home, dusk had settled over the lawns, and the lengthening shadows were creeping like ghosts across the grass. She’d snivelled all the while we’d walked, and held tight onto my hand even when I got her inside.

“Now,” I said, prising her hand away from mine. “You’re going to tell me everything that happened, right from the beginning.”

But the poor dear didn’t seem to know herself.

“We were just playing,” she said. “Connor and Alastor were in the bushes together, setting fairy traps, see, and I wasn’t allowed to go because the fairies can smell when a girl’s been around, so I was keeping watch so no fairies would slip past us and see what they were doing.”

A strange thought occurred to me.

“And then?”

“Then I heard this crashing and shouting, and before I could yell a warning to Al and Connor, Lord Dolsen stormed past me and, and-”

I couldn’t get much sense out of her after that. The shock had been a lot for her to take in, and in a short while I packed her off to bed, with promises that no-one would speak about it again, and that she wouldn’t get into any trouble. It turned out, after all, that those were promises I was able to keep.

Nobody ever did talk about what had happened down by the stream, but nothing was ever the same after that final day of summer. Lord Dolsen sent all of the lords and ladies away the very next day, and a fair few of the serving staff, as well. I often think he only kept me around in return for my silence, but no matter the reason, over the next few months, that madness I’d glimpsed on his face by the water spread through his mind like a sickness.

Alastor was kept under lock and key, chaperoned everywhere by his mother or the maids. If ever his child’s name was mentioned in Lord Dolsen’s presence, he’d fall into paroxysms so severe, that no-one could put an end to them for fear of getting hurt.

“He’s not my son!” He’d scream. “He’s a changeling! Give me back my son!”

And he’d barrel through the house looking for the missing child, turning over beds, pulling clothes out of wardrobes, and no amount of sensible words or persuasion could convince him that his frightened son was standing right in front of him, holding tightly onto his lady wife’s hand.

Well, they say that it’s the curse of the hate-filled to be followed by tragedy in return, and as summer turned into autumn, and the smell of wood-smoke and decay filled the air, Lord Dolsen’s anger continued unabated. Finally, as snow began to settle over the estate, his madness reached its inevitable conclusion. One night, when the rest of the house was asleep, he stole the boy from his bed, and carried him off into the woods.

No-one knows what happened next, but I have a feeling that I know better than most, having seen him that day down by the stream. I think that Lord Dolsen had planned to return the changeling to the fairies that night, and beg for his son in return. He took Alastor on the night of the winter solstice - a powerful time of the calendar if you believe in those sorts of things - and once he’d stolen him from his bed, I believe he carried him down to the stream. Heaven knows what that poor boy must have thought, dragged along by his father, who was raving mad by this point, and claiming him to be a curse of the fairy king. I’m sure he struggled. I’m sure he shouted for help. But what can a child do against the force of an adult so crazed?

I have half a notion that when they reached the stream, and no being other than himself and his boy appeared, Lord Dolsen truly lost his mind. One of the serving girls found the lord the next morning, half-naked on the banks of the stream, covered in mud, and shrieking curses into the air. There was no sign of Alastor, and to this day no-one knows what happened to the poor boy. Of course, a search was mounted, the police were called, but he was never found.

All I know, is that Lord Dolsen was carried off to the madhouse, still clinging to a stump of wood he’d torn from the forest floor. He seemed to believe that if he kept hold of it, his son would be returned and placed back into his arms. Poor Isabelle – Lady Dolsen, that is -  she packed up and moved on back to her parents for a time, I believe, and neither lord nor lady have returned here since. But she left a generous stipend for your grandfather and I to stay on, so we could lease the cottage and tend to the house in her absence. Between you and me, I think she did it partly because she hoped one of us would stumble across something here; something in the grounds that might explain what happened to Alastor that night.

Well, I’m sorry to say that I’ve been here fifty years now, and I’ve never turned up anything that could explain how that boy disappeared. But of course, plenty of myths and stories have blossomed around the tale. There are some who say the boy really was a changeling, and that the real Alastor was taken by the fairies to punish his father for his cruelty. Some say you can hear the sound of their music on nights when the frost draws in, and fewer people are there to disturb them. Others say that the spirit of the boy still sits by the water, lonely and forgotten, trying to tempt other children to join him there, and play forever down in the stream.

*

The fire had burned low in the hearth by the time grandma finished her tale, and a strange disquiet had settled over the room.

“What do you think happened to him, grandma? Do you think he’s still there? And the changeling, too?”

She smiled, her face softened by the glow of the fire’s embers.

“Me? I think that madness leaves a mark on a place, and cruelty even more so. It wouldn’t surprise me if the anger of that little boy, or the madness of his father, does still linger here, somewhere in the trees.”

“Do you really mean that?”

“Oh, yes. On winter nights, I’ve often seen the glow of firelight in the windows of the old manor, but no trace of a fire’s been there when I’ve gone to look.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“I don’t believe you,” I said, suddenly wary that the whole long story had been a lie.

“Oh, don’t you?” She said. “Well, what about this then?

“What about what?”

Her eyes narrowed playfully. She leaned in close, her face inches from mine, the smell of pipe smoke and lavender overwhelming.

“Sometimes, when the darkness seems deep although the moon is still full, a person could convince themselves they’ve seen lights moving in that forest, and strange people dancing between the trees.”

I shivered, and my face suddenly felt warm and flushed. The shrieking wind howled around the little house, and for the rest of the evening, I snuck glances towards the blackened windows, for any sign of the ghostly lights moving in the distance.

Later, when I’d laid my head down in the tiny attic room, and bundled the bedcovers up over my head, I dreamt that the changeling was at my window, and the ghost of the pale-skinned Alastor was sobbing under my bed.

*

The next day dawned bright and crisp. The fresh air whistling through the grey-lit house washed away my terrors of the night before, and with nothing ahead of me but time and the deserted grounds, I set out to uncover the mysteries of Changeling Manor. That morning, after breakfast, grandma helped me pack a small rucksack with a sandwich, chocolate, a notebook, pens, a torch, a length of rope, two plasters, and a strip of bandages – just in case. My feet crunched over powdered snow as I trudged out onto the lawns, and I felt the smile in grandma’s eyes follow me all the way to the treeline.

At the threshold of the forest, I paused to look back at the grounds. Grandma’s cottage was dwarfed by the looming façade of the manor, and in the thickening snow flurries, I had the strangest impression that the old house was creeping closer to grandma’s home, like a predator stalking its prey.

Beneath the trees the world was sharp with ice. The bare oaks and trembling birches rose up like frozen sentries, their boughs bent low with snow, and their roots encased in frost. All the world was silver and white. As I walked still deeper between the creaking trunks, the anaemic sunlight flung itself over the snow and dazzled my squinting eyes, until it seemed that no matter where I looked, images followed me like spectres, and the same monochrome photograph imprinted itself across my vision.   

My feet slid and slipped beneath me as I made my way further into the colourless world. Above my head, the branches began to crowd together, until the air was no longer white with snow-light, but muted in tones of softest grey. Shadows leapt and mutated out of the corners of my eyes, and I strained my ears for the sound of the rushing stream.

For a long while there was nothing. The ground was treacherous and the going was slow. And then: a whisper. A breath. And an unmistakable roar. My breath began to rasp in my throat, and my muscles burned in the cold as I quickened my pace. The sound of running water pulled me like a magnet towards it, even as my head was filled with the clamour of Lord Dolsen’s screams, and the frightened eyes of his raven-haired child.

“Nearly there, nearly there,” I whispered into the air, my feet pounding over the hardened ground. What would I find down by the water?

My mind was full of pictures of fairy traps, of three children playing together one long ago summer, of green eyes and a crown made of twigs, and of a voice calling me to come to him and play. All of a sudden, the ground rose into a mound of steep-banked ice, and before I could slow down, my foot caught on a root hidden beneath the snow. For a singular moment, both of my feet went out from under me, and as I reached out for purchase with my arm, a sudden sharp pain glanced through my hand and I hit the forest floor with an echoing thud.

Blood fell in hot droplets onto the snow. I lay perfectly still on my back, staring up at a scrap of white sky, and feeling the trickle of heat drain from my palm and across the frost-bitten ground. Tentatively, I flexed first my fingers, then my toes, and by degrees became certain that nothing was broken. My head pounded where I’d hit it, and the thick ice on the branch I’d grabbed for had torn straight across my palm. Against the bright white of the snow, the redness of my blood seemed a wonder, but although the edges of the cut were jagged, it didn’t seem to be very deep.

“Don’t laugh!” I shouted. “It’s your fault anyway!”

My face burned with embarrassment, and I imagined the fairy king sitting high up in the trees, laughing at my clumsiness and vowing never to allow me sight nor sound of him. Muttering under my breath, I took the bandages out of my rucksack, and wound a cursory strip around my throbbing hand.

“I’m still going to find you!” I shouted. “Don’t you think I won’t!”

Carefully this time, and squirming to dislodge the flurry of snow from my back, I crawled on all fours over the bank of ice, and slid swiftly down the other side. Immediately, the sound of the stream faded into the distance, as though someone had clamped their gloved hands over my ears and muffled the world around me. I cast my gaze around for the source of the water flow, which had seemed so close only moments before, but it was no-where to be seen.

*

I walked for what felt like hours, deeper and deeper into the woods, until the creaking boughs closed in over my head, and the shadows lengthened across the ground. Dusk was fast approaching, and the cold had crept inside my jacket and trickled into my shoes. The day wasn’t fun anymore, and just as I promised myself that with my next step I’d turn back, it seemed as if the forest had heard me; because the very next moment, the stream from grandma’s story came rushing into view, and lit up my vision as though conjured from the air.

My heart leapt in my chest, as I recognised the flattened area at the water’s edge. The water there was crystal clear, and its mirrored surface seemed almost ethereal, as it sliced its way between the snow-white banks. I raced towards it, and stood stock still in the place where the traps had been, imagining my mother as a child weaving the sticks into cages, and Alastor and Connor searching the air for the flurry of beating wings.

Nothing still remained of those long-ago summer games, but a strange sensation of cold prickled at my scalp, and the forest suddenly seemed darker than it had before. What time was it? The crystalline waters caught the light of a deepening mauve sun, and the day seemed to be growing dimmer by the second. Blue-grey shadows leapt over the ground and slunk across the snow, and from the bank opposite, a shrill wind whipped over the pulsing tide. I cleared my throat, suddenly feeling ridiculous. I’d been walking for a whole day, and for what?

“I’m here!” I shouted into the trees.

My voice echoed back to me and the water ran on unabated.

“I came to find you!”

Silence. I stood at the water’s edge, and for a painful second, I couldn’t remember ever having felt more foolish or alone. Of course grandma’s story hadn’t been real! How could a child go missing and no-one ever find him? And how many people really believe in changelings and fairies? My face flushed with anger and I threw a rock into the stream in frustration. How stupid could I have been? The stone sank with a satisfying thunk, so I did it again, and again, and again, until-

-A breath of air pricked at my ears. I stopped in the middle of throwing the largest rock yet; my arm raised straight up towards the sky, and my fingers burning with cold. Music wafted towards me through the trees, almost too softly to be heard, but undeniably there. Slowly, I lowered my arm.

“Hello?” I asked quietly. “Is that you?”

I crouched down and placed the rock on the ground.

“I’m not here to hurt you,” I whispered. “I promise.”

The music grew louder. A haunting, eerie melody, neither flute nor strings, nor any instrument I could name, but somehow gentler and more beautiful than anything I’d heard before.

A dream-like feeling washed over me, and suddenly it didn’t seem so cold anymore. In fact, it was quite warm, and my hand didn’t hurt much, either. Adrenaline surged through my veins, and as the music continued to draw nearer, I felt joy pierce my soul like lightning. On the other side of the stream, somewhere deep beyond the trees, blue-white lights, like spectral fire, danced their way through the darkness.

The fairies.

“Wait!” I called. “Don’t leave me! I’m coming!”

The music was moving on, and the lights with it, pushing deeper into the woods and onwards without me. The thought of the music and the lights abandoning me to the darkness, split my chest with pain. Before I knew what I was doing, I’d waded out into the stream, and began splashing my way through the frigid water.

The current surged around me, tugging at my clothes and forcing me into its slipstream, but I kept my feet planted firmly on the shifting silt, and struggled to make it to the other side. My hands gripped the frozen earth tightly, my fingers scrabbling for purchase, and with strength pulled from somewhere I didn’t know I had, I hauled myself out onto the snow-carpeted ground, and lay there shivering and panting. The music was louder again, and this time accompanied by voices – oh, such voices! – and laughter rising from somewhere in the dark. A flash of movement blurred in the corner of my eye, and in the act of getting to my feet, I froze dead in my tracks.

There he was. A small boy, younger than me, his skin pale as the snow and his hair raven black, standing in the shadows and hiding between the trees. We looked at each other, and I realised too late that I was afraid.

Alastor.

The moment seemed to stretch on for an age. As the lights faded into the darkness, I felt the cold once again bite at my toes, and shivers wracked my body. Night had fallen swiftly, but still he didn’t move.

“I came to find you,” I said at last. “I came to find out what happened to you.”

For a second, nothing happened, and then, quicker than I thought possible, the little boy turned on his heel, and darted through the trees.

“Wait!”

My heart trembled and my feet followed him almost against my will. Low-hanging branches scratched at my face, the ice bit and tore at my shoes, and my chest burned with cold. Up ahead, I could see flashes of movement and patches of black against the ice-warped trees, but my footing was less sure than his, and no matter how much I urged my shivering body onward, my fingers began to cramp and my muscles seized and juddered to a halt.

Just as soon as he’d appeared, the little boy melted back into the darkness. I stamped my feet against the ground and wrapped my quivering arms around my waist. The music had stopped, the lights had dissolved into shadows, and the silence was absolute. Where was the stream? I cast around for it, my panic rising. In the impenetrable night, every tree, silver with frost and eerie with moonlight, looked the same, and no trace of running water reached my ears. I was lost.

Don’t panic.

Grandma, or my parents, would come and find me. I was sure of it. But it was cold, and the water weighing down my sodden clothes was already splintering into frost as I watched. In the darkness, shadows deformed the trees, and gave to their trunks malevolent faces that mutated and grinned at my fear. Wafts of spectral laughter drifted to me on the wind, and every snap of a twig, or thud of falling snow, made my heart start to hammer and my body grow cold.

Don’t panic.

I tried to think clearly. It was impossible to find my way back to grandma’s cottage now that I’d lost the stream, and stumbling around in the dark was too dangerous – I might fall and break my leg, or worse. It dawned on me with creeping horror, that the only thing left to do was to try and keep warm, and wait to be found.

He wasn’t real.

I just had to wait. That was all. Shivering, I slipped to the ground with my back against a tree trunk, and tucked my knees up to my chin. Splinters of ice chipped at my fingers, and the chill seemed to burrow into my skin.

“This is your fault!” I yelled. “I didn’t want to find you anyway!”

Silence. The wind blustered and then quieted.

I was alone.

*

Hours passed. The wind sliced through my frozen clothes and my cheeks stung in flurries of snow. The ringing in my ears as the cold sought its way inside, grew louder until I could hardly bare it. A wave of anger consumed me. Why did I have to come out here in the first place? Why did grandma have to tell me that stupid story? Why did the mad lord have to steal the little boy away anyway? Tears pricked at my eyes as the night stretched on interminably.

“I hate you!” I screamed into the wind. “Do you hear that? I hate you!”

Almost instantly, a feeling of dread engulfed me, and at the whim of some primal instinct I scrambled to my feet, stricken with pain, and pressed my back against the tree.

I felt him before I saw him. The cold touch of his arm at my side sent spasms of terror to the depths of my soul. Before he could fix me with his deadened stare, I screwed my eyes up tight, and turned my face away. Panic rose in my chest, and my hands gripped the ice-blanketed bark so tightly that my fingers started to bleed.

“Look at me,” I heard him say, his voice strange and twisted in the wind. I shook my head.

“I don’t want to!” I answered. “Leave me alone!”

I felt him move still closer, his breath rotten, and colder than the air.

“Open, your eyes,” he hissed.

Inexorably, I felt my eyelids flicker, and the shadow of my future-self passed swiftly in front of my eyes, before fleeing away into the night without me. I stared into his face. I took in the pale coldness of his skin, the unnatural ridge of his monstrous jaw, and then, with a tremor of unbearable fear, I looked deeply into the glowing eyes of the manor’s furious changeling.

*

All I was left with was pain. Great waves of needle-driven agony burrowed deep beneath my skin and drenched my heart in horror. I felt my body, as though it was apart from me, drop to the ground and writhe against the ice. Strange images passed before my glazed eyes: shadows of people formed and broke within the driving snow; great wheels of silver-blue fire burst all around me; the white terror of the changeling’s eyes slipped in and out of my gaze; and the cacophonous screams of a long-dead lord, bored into my skull relentlessly. There was no escape. No him, no me, no history and no joy. I was simply lost.

I don’t know how long I stayed there, or how badly my soul was torn. All I know is that it felt like an eternity, before the horror began to retreat, and soft arms were pulling me up and away from the pain. Frightened voices shouted words I didn’t understand. In a haze of screaming that I thought might be my own, I was carried inside, and the heat from grandma’s fire scalded my face, and sent blood pulsing back to the tips of my frozen fingers.

*

The heat was worse at first than the cold. I screamed and begged to be taken back outside, to be placed into the snowdrift and left there to freeze. But my parents held me down against the floor, as grandma tucked more and more blankets around me, and I was moved ever closer to the agonising flames.

“It’s a fever,” I heard grandma saying. “If it doesn’t break soon I don’t know what we can do.”

I looked past her stricken face, my eyes rolling in their sockets, my body both hot and cold, and every inch of it aflame.

In my delirium, the fire roared like a leviathan. Its eyes were burning coals, and the fingers of flame reached out and lapped at the edges of my consciousness. Thick gasps of snow beat against the window, and the shards of ice were white with the glow of the changeling’s eyes. His fingers scratched relentlessly at the shuddering glass, and when the wind whistled through the eaves, I heard his incandescent screams.

“Stay still,” someone was saying. “Stay still, you’ll be ok.”

But the fever had all but consumed me, and as I lay there, watching the fire beat back his ice, nobody but me noticed the gap beneath the window, where his silver-blue darkness dripped steadily inside, and he crept into the cottage like a sickness.

*

I lay there for hours in my torment, and by the time the morning had finally broken, I knew that I’d been changed; that my old self had been taken and the changeling put in its place. The relief in my parents’ faces proved to me they didn’t know, but when grandma looked into my eyes, I understood that she could see. She, with all her history, had seen the mould inside my bones, and the gaping space within my chest, where my future should have been.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

A white woman with cropped auburn hair and dark eyes smiles into the camera, her head tilted slightly to one side against a patterned floral background.

A white woman with cropped auburn hair and dark eyes smiles into the camera, her head tilted slightly to one side against a patterned floral background.

LAURA ELLIOTT is a twenty-something disabled writer and journalist. Her short-fiction has been published by Strix Magazine, Rhythm and Bones Lit, and Vamp Cat Mag, and she hosts the monthly politics and disability podcast, Visibility Today. You can find her screaming into the void on Twitter at @TinyWriterLaura.

The First Lie

When my coworker asks, “How are you?”
I know she really means, “Hello.” Period.
It’s a greeting, not an opening
It’s not meant to be inquisitive
Though the question mark hangs there:
a crooked, crippled body, like mine

I wake up today, but just barely

I wake up every day feeling like gingerbread
Stiff, brittle, itching to run away from life
but determined to offer something sweet
Coffee softens these stone limbs enough
that I can crank myself out of bed
and into a river that licks its lips at me

I wake up today, but just barely

I swallow a circus of pills after struggling
with twist lids and the buttons of my shirt
My fingers feel dainty and helpless
but without the preciousness of both
I brush my teeth, waiting on the medicine
I drive to work, waiting on the medicine
I sit at my desk, waiting on the medicine
Everything aches, until it doesn’t anymore

I wake up today, but just barely

I want to tell her this, that against these odds,
I am here. I am still here. I am still here.
I don’t mean in this office building
I mean in this pain, trudging through all the
“Good Mornings” and “How are yous?”
Biting back a truth that tastes like aspirin

I wake up today, but just barely

If I told her this, she would pretend to care
then gobble me up like the fox in the story
I know this like I know the rain will come
I can feel the certainty in my bones
Instead, I say, “I am well.”
It is the first lie I tell myself today

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Black and white photo of a young woman with medium-length dark hair and glasses. She is in a stooped position alongside a large statue of a roaring lion. Her right hand is in the lion's mouth.

Black and white photo of a young woman with medium-length dark hair and glasses. She is in a stooped position alongside a large statue of a roaring lion. Her right hand is in the lion's mouth.

LANNIE STABILE, a Detroiter, often says while some write like a turtleneck sweater, she writes like a Hawaiian shirt. Works can be found, or are forthcoming, in The HelleboreKissing DynamiteCauldron Anthology, Likely Red Press, and more. She is penning a novel and chapbook and holds the position of Project Manager at Barren Magazine.

 Twitter handle: @LanniePenland 

Writer website: https://lanniepenland.weebly.com

Wraith

CW: Violence, death

 

You cut too hard on my throat muscles:
they divvy up, go loose and wobbling,
skitter until I become concerned
about ‘death by asphyxiation’.

When I was ten I didn’t know
that a body could be locked up tight—
rigid while every joint comes apart
in some short-lived
breeze.

The air goes sour

under serpentine weight.
Pressure increases: I’m condensed
into some pseudo precious
stone.

Imagine
if someone wore me
around their
throat.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

The author is stood against a pale background, with crisscrossing metal bars. They have shoulder-length purple ombre hair, and half their face is obscured by a sweeping fringe. One eye is visible from behind it. They are wearing dark purple lipstick.

The author is stood against a pale background, with crisscrossing metal bars. They have shoulder-length purple ombre hair, and half their face is obscured by a sweeping fringe. One eye is visible from behind it. They are wearing dark purple lipstick.

KERRIE C. BYRNE is an autistic, queer and nonbinary writer/cat lover living in Toronto, ON. Their other fiction and poetry can be found in The Temz Review, The Hart House Review, and The Specatorial, and they have been shortlisted for the Friends of the Merril Collection short fiction contest. The rest of the time, they can be found working on Augur Magazine as Publisher—or maybe reliving their glory days as an award-winning collegiate a cappella singer in their bathroom. Find them on Twitter as @kercoby!

gutters

CW: Self-harm

 

come collect memories
from the dirt-dust corners
and from all the days you swept under the clothes
flung across your bedroom floor.
come collect me
in the places you touched my body
red: collect the blood
rush blush, the bitten skin, the flood,
and the float.
come collect the shade of your eyes in the dim
afternoon light, the tune
of your hands along
this body and brain. i hold them all
on rib bone shelves. they rattle
when i walk too quick
towards something new and too
familiar, when i stand in the kitchen
with darkened window glass,
staring
at the image of god they say resides in my body.

there is no mourning for me;
me and my sleepless eyes, awake at four a.m.
with shaking hands:
soft mango blushed orange in the right,
knife sharpened slick in the other,
and i stare
at this god mirror girl in night's window, and i

breathe,
aching,
craving blood, and
i do not make
gutters
out of these
wrists.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

The femme author is seen from the shoulders up in front of a white background, wearing a tight black t shirt and a small silver crescent moon on a silver chain necklace. Light brown curly hair frames dark eyes and closed, vaguely smiling pink lips. Two freckles rest beside the mouth.

The femme author is seen from the shoulders up in front of a white background, wearing a tight black t shirt and a small silver crescent moon on a silver chain necklace. Light brown curly hair frames dark eyes and closed, vaguely smiling pink lips. Two freckles rest beside the mouth.

M. WILDER is a youth librarian and lifelong student, whose words may be found or forthcoming in Rogue Agent, thismuch, Cicada, Letters to a Young Poet, Desolate Country, The New York Times online, and more. An editor of Sprout Club Journal, M has also served on editorial staffs for New Letters and Elementia, and a handful of zines. M can be found on instagram at @hereistheend.

The Lucky Ones

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The lucky girls grow up into

monsters. We start young, running

over grass and mud and rocks, building

up the thick skin on our feet, our strong hides

growing up over our bodies. We learn Mine and

No, and we learn hunger and want. Our fingernails

grow into claws and we sharpen our teeth

into fangs and we let the hair grow wild

over our bodies.

Once that first transformation is complete, we

mature. We learn to disguise ourselves as

princesses, to paint our faces

into something trustworthy, to

rip out our fur and soften our claws

with Blossom Pink 063. We build up our

packs, matrilineal sisterhoods sharing secrets,

looking out for each other like no one looked out

for us before.

We hunt in groups, taking out our

predators before they can recognize us, defending ourselves

with teeth and nails and secret tricks

that have no names. We feed on the

hunters and the woodsmen and the princes

who would ensnare us, who would

make us soft and vulnerable. We are not for them,

we are for ourselves, and we return to our caves,

and our sisters comb out our hair and tear off our masks

and revel in our ferocity.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

The photo shows the author from the chest up. She is standing in front of a grey wall at a three-quarter angle to the camera. Auburn bangs peek out from under a yellow knit hat, and she wears green tortoiseshell glasses. She has white skin, blue eyes, and her dark red lips are in a closed-mouth smile.

The photo shows the author from the chest up. She is standing in front of a grey wall at a three-quarter angle to the camera. Auburn bangs peek out from under a yellow knit hat, and she wears green tortoiseshell glasses. She has white skin, blue eyes, and her dark red lips are in a closed-mouth smile.

KAT RIDDELL is a writer and librarian currently based in South Dakota. She shares an apartment with an unfathomable mass of houseplants, an assortment of bones, and a truly overwhelming stash of craft supplies. She likes petting dogs, long walks in cemeteries, and lawns filled with dandelions. You can find her online at katriddellwrites.blogspot.com.

Capes

CW: Ableism

 

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes

—Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”

It’s Tuesday night, and I wait for the phone to ring.  Wait to hear
your voice across the wires, strong or weak, joyful or frustrated
or hurting; to know that you’re still alive in this world where
crip lives aren’t valued, where our deaths might be debated as
an ethics point—but you, I, we have meaning anyway. Show up
for our living flinty and gritty and determined, show up on the line
with each other, to hold space, affirm the value of each other’s
existence, the persistence and beauty of our ticking bodies, the
nutty toughness of our minds.  You don’t bullshit that you’re fine,
you tell me about despair, yours, and I tell you mine:

the still-tender, raw, unspun silk of pain, before I have made,
before I could make, sense of any of it, held out in my cupped
palms to you.  You separate each strand, slowly, carefully,
hold it with precision, preciousness, ask normalising questions,
listen to my answers with soft attention, nodding like a sunflower,
help soothe the rawness and shame, till the sharp ache is gone.
I try to do the same for you: fumble through the fibres of your
pain, unpick the snags, ask easing questions, hold you with love.
This healing magic is ancient, but always miraculous, hard-won.
Meanwhile the world goes on,

with its tired rotes of oppression and stereotypes and margins.
We know it sees us only as a fraction of who we are.  We know
it chops off our femininity, our clever heads, articulate tongues,
nimble skills, wide hearts, our avid interest in sex.  It paints us
as dolls, pre-pubescent, without agency, pity-arousing, to be
arranged at will by those with power.  And they do try to, feign-
ing concern and citing policies or directives, their hands supposedly
tied as they deny you respite care, a new wheelchair, the right to
hook up and disconnect your own I.V., effective treatment for pain.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

nourish you, are part of the joy they couldn’t take from you.  You
practice witchcraft, wear fairy masks, put purple gossamer wings
on the back of your power chair.  You talk sex toys and the details
of fucking-while-disabled with me anytime.  You are nobody’s
spinster aunt, nobody’s patient Clara.  You’re a femme powerhouse,
fierce, charming, tenacious, lawyerly, a force of nature in scrapes
with hospital staff, nursing agencies, billing departments—even with
a BP of 70/45.  You are indomitable, and you get shit done.  I want
to be just like you when I grow up.  Watch out: our superhero capes
are moving across the landscapes.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

A drawing of a pale-skinned person, wearing a purple hoodie with a multi-gender symbol on it and the hood up, dark blue jeans, and light blue shoes. They are standing against a white background, with their hands in the pockets of their jeans. Their facial expression is maybe quizzical, maybe sullen. They are wearing round glasses, and a bit of dark curly hair peeks out from under the purple hood.

A drawing of a pale-skinned person, wearing a purple hoodie with a multi-gender symbol on it and the hood up, dark blue jeans, and light blue shoes. They are standing against a white background, with their hands in the pockets of their jeans. Their facial expression is maybe quizzical, maybe sullen. They are wearing round glasses, and a bit of dark curly hair peeks out from under the purple hood.

Kamila Rina is an autistic, mad, and physically disabled immigrant Jewish non-binary bisexual poet, a sexuality, gender, and disability educator, and a survivor of long-term violence.  They enjoy talking about being present in one’s body and fomenting the revolution.  They like trees, books, chocolate, and people and plants that smell good.  Kamila has previously been published in Room magazine, Breath & Shadow, Sinister Wisdom, Monstering, and We Have Come Far, and has produced a chapbook titled Multitasking with Feelings.  Find them at KamilaRina.com.

Access Intimacy

CW: Sexual assault

 

Try not to be ashamed as you flinch and tremble
under her warm hands.  Think of the stories
you haven’t told yet.  Tension grips fierce.
Ask her what she thinks as your hands shake

—Eli Clare, “How to Talk to a New Lover about Cerebral Palsy”

How to talk to a new lover about PTSD.  About chronic
pain.  About dissociation.  About thoracic outlet syndrome.
About MCS.  How to talk to a new lover about injured hips,
weak wrists, nerves entrapped at the elbow, arms that can’t be held
above your head, the need for floor lamps, not ceiling fixtures,
for scentless sheets, lube, and sex toys.  How to not dissemble
about the dour difficulties of having sex: the ache and
nerve-grind of repetitive motion, the cunt scars that burn when you
get wet, the parent ze might, at the wrong moment, resemble.
Try not to be ashamed as you flinch and tremble

through the explanations.  Through the fear, like a spreading
stain, that all this makes you broken, unfit, leftovers
that someone will settle for.  Through the fury that all
you expect is being settled for.  You’ll try being a hermit
for a while, forgoing the explaining, the apologies for

your brokenness, even the asking.  You’ll hide out 4 storeys
above the pavement, reading, dreaming, watching spectacular
sunrises.  Until you find a tender romance-friendship,
unexpectedly, over sharing poems like morning glories
under her warm hands.  Think of the stories

you’ll tell years from now, about how brave and broken
you both were then, and how you talked, anyway, about
bodies, sex, brokenness, dissociation, how you wrote your own
dictionary.  Your glad risking makes a blueprint; you will do this
again and again.  Next times you’ll talk disability, sex, bodies,
access, brokenness, dissociation, flashbacks, the whole pierc-
ingly glorious mess.  You’ll feel seen, contained, as you speak
of violence, then sex, in such detail, that shame is washed out
and only soft attention remains.  Every day you’ll spill fears
you haven’t told yet. Tension grips fierce

still, when something important, beautiful, twisted, fragile,
needs telling, needs making yourself vulnerable as a hedgehog
showing its belly—but then eases because love and
kindness are the order of your days now, and your every
loved one speaks disability theory, and this crip queendom
is your touchstone, makes you joyful in your ach-
ing body, where your skin, your muscles, your joints, your
lungs, your tachycardic heart, can show themselves,
where you learn to speak your body’s truths without heartbreak.
So.  Ask her what she thinks as your hands shake.

*‘Access intimacy’ is a concept named and described by Mia Mingus (https://leavingevidence.wordpress.com/2011/05/05/access-intimacy-the-missing-link/).

 

ABOUT the author

A drawing of a pale-skinned person, wearing a purple hoodie with a multi-gender symbol on it and the hood up, dark blue jeans, and light blue shoes. They are standing against a white background, with their hands in the pockets of their jeans. Their facial expression is maybe quizzical, maybe sullen. They are wearing round glasses, and a bit of dark curly hair peeks out from under the purple hood.

A drawing of a pale-skinned person, wearing a purple hoodie with a multi-gender symbol on it and the hood up, dark blue jeans, and light blue shoes. They are standing against a white background, with their hands in the pockets of their jeans. Their facial expression is maybe quizzical, maybe sullen. They are wearing round glasses, and a bit of dark curly hair peeks out from under the purple hood.

Kamila Rina is an autistic, mad, and physically disabled immigrant Jewish non-binary bisexual poet, a sexuality, gender, and disability educator, and a survivor of long-term violence.  They enjoy talking about being present in one’s body and fomenting the revolution.  They like trees, books, chocolate, and people and plants that smell good.  Kamila has previously been published in Room magazine, Breath & Shadow, Sinister Wisdom, Monstering, and We Have Come Far, and has produced a chapbook titled Multitasking with Feelings.  Find them at KamilaRina.com.

tired girl howls, act three

CW: Addiction, sexual assault

 
tired girl.png
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

The femme author is seen from the shoulders up in front of a white background, wearing a tight black t-shirt and a small silver crescent moon on a silver chain necklace. Light brown curly hair frames dark eyes and closed, vaguely smiling pink lips. Two freckles rest beside the mouth.

The femme author is seen from the shoulders up in front of a white background, wearing a tight black t-shirt and a small silver crescent moon on a silver chain necklace. Light brown curly hair frames dark eyes and closed, vaguely smiling pink lips. Two freckles rest beside the mouth.

M. WILDER is a youth librarian and lifelong student, whose words may be found or forthcoming in Rogue Agent, thismuch, Cicada, Letters to a Young Poet, Desolate Country, The New York Times online, and more. An editor of Sprout Club Journal, M has also served on editorial staffs for New Letters and Elementia, and a handful of zines. M can be found on instagram at @hereistheend.

ANATOMICAL DEFINITIONS OF A BROKEN BODY

CW: Body horror

 
anatomical def.png
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Black and white photograph of a smiling woman in front of a brick wall .

Black and white photograph of a smiling woman in front of a brick wall .

JENNA NEECE is an Oklahoma native. She has a bachelor’s degree in English and is working on her MFA in Poetry Writing at Oklahoma State University. She works as a GTA for Oklahoma State University English Department, is an Editorial Assistant for the Cimarron Review, and teaches Freshman Composition at OSU. When Jenna isn’t working, reading, or writing, she loves spending time with her friends, family, and miniature dachshund, Winston. Recently, Jenna’s poetry has been published in Rising Phoenix Review, Quail Bell Magazine, Eunoia Review, and she has work forthcoming from Collective Unrest.

Thirst

CW: Hospitalization, sexual assault

 

Last she heard, someone would be coming for her any minute. To her. She waits beautifully, thinks of what she’ll say when they arrive. Every pair of footsteps reminds her of hope she promised not to feel, but the prayer in her breath betrays her again. Heart skitter of longing as the curtain sways with the momentum of passersby. Mouth so dry every vessel in her body pulls at her, begging for relief.

There is a sink opposite the bed in this three curtained room drawing her in. Mouth so dry she can taste herself, can taste him. Mind skids to a halt, suppressing the feelings trying to surface. Held under, like a beach ball trying to float. She leaves her body to keep it down, mind poised above. Patient. Corners of the tongue feel sharp as knives, edges softening as she licks her lips. The small gesture brings her back into the room.

This thirst keeps her here, breathing. Mind cycling again and again, ball turning over under her weight. A body parched and cracked as dry earth, surrounded by murky water. Taste surfacing, becoming too much. Finds herself nowhere. Tongue sharp, lick, brought back. Repeat.

Footsteps, fade.

In the cloth room next door it sounds as if a woman is screaming with a hand over her mouth, grunting. Heart rate rise, reminder evokes a gag. Back to the ceiling with her.

This girl next door has animal noises stuck in her throat, tries to speak but cannot be understood. She learns through muffled conversation that the girl’s name is Tatiana. Hears the nervous laughter of her mother, trying to lighten her daughter’s heavy heart. True worry in her voice, spliced with guilt. The daughter is failing to thrive. Failing to talk, to eat.

She has lost 20 pounds this week, skinny wrist bone girl. Her mother asks all the wrong questions, has all the wrong answers for her little girl. Gives these answers years too late, should have seen the danger coming. Words fall awkwardly from her mouth trying to soothe but rest on the surface, unable to address the heart of her. She should be in bed stroking her daughter’s hair, holding her close.

Words go nowhere.

Mouth so dry. It has been hours since the promise of care. Thinks of the intake nurse, of how it didn’t even register as pain, still hasn’t. Numb. How her body is always a scale, tipping. “Rate your pain from 1-10.”

She can feel how swollen her body is, but cannot feel the break in the bones. Only her thirsty throat. Tries to ignore the damp heavy feeling flooding her every place else. Swamp of womb infiltrates the nervous system, spreading faster than thought. Where the body came from, what the body deserves. Sinking. She was told she can’t drink anything until the exam has been complete. “We don’t want you to drain any evidence down.”

How quickly the body becomes evidence, how quickly what it carries. She wants to spit what is not hers out before it is absorbed into her bloodstream, becomes a part of her. She asked for an example of what a 10 is. Nurse looked at her impatiently: “I just have to put something down.”

She gives them a 3, wonders what weight this carries. Wonders if this slowed the process down. How much weight does each hurt carry? Last summer she broke her wrist and knows this hurts less though it is damaging her up more. Knows the numbness has to weigh more than the broken ankle and scratches she carries now. She’s had to give so many numbers in this life of chronic pain. What does each hurt weigh and at what cost? Does 5 mean balance? Thirst bigger than the pain, it cannot be measured. Pain is the only anchor to her body, it keeps her sane.

Footsteps, and pass. Damp, recede.

She lies down on the cold checkered floor. Prays for the pain to become too much to bear. Waits to notice herself. Prays to lose herself like the girl next door, lose self lose name lose voice. For only laughter to be left. She waits to be dropped back down into her body. To be carried by her bloodstream, for the memory to be washed away. It is 2 am and no one has come. Dull thud at the base of her skull. No one is coming. Don’t think of where you have been. She tries to forget being forgotten.

She hears laughter from the room beside her and laughs back. She wants to be a part of something. Pleasure registers now, pleasure of being right. She knew no one would come and they didn’t. Twisted satisfaction, pride standing tall. The nurses tired quickly of her company, dark reminder of cruelty that she is. How predictable. How predictable the hope she would for once be proved wrong. Proved worthy.

They insert a feeding tube to help the wasting girl. Taking child, taking throat, taking voice. The only thing left of her; her mother, her body, brain, heart. Her throat issues softer sounds, almost purring now. Her mother strokes her hair, “That’s right. That’s right.” As if anything about this is right. As if it is right that her muted voice implies consent.

Tatiana, all she is lacking. Named bipolar at age 13 after being beaten, named brain dead at 16 after driving drunk. Girl is an empty box. Girl is screaming, tuck and thrust. Girl wants no more, left with only resistance. “Hush now, calm back down,” her mother commands her, suggesting she was once less trouble. This girl a gift, girl left, girl leaving.

She keeps hearing things she shouldn’t be hearing. She is pretending she is not there.

“The nurse should be in with you in a minute.” But they’ve said this before. No comment to her body on the dirty ground, no pause to see if the words have been understood. Bones so dry they must be bleached white by now. Opens mouth to let out the tightness in her throat, only rust remains. Squeaky piping. No animal left in her. There are many pathways to this place, she knows. Pain is only one of them.

The hospital ceiling dances in patterns when she looks at it for long enough. Ragdoll on the floor, cold as ice. This place a doorless cage, extended pause. She is the scream caught in the muted girl, the dance in the paralyzed. She is a lack of sound, cold as tile. The girl next door so explicitly her inverse they could be two sides of the same tarnished coin.

She picks at the white wristband on her arm, feels trapped by it. She could get up and leave, she could place her bare feet on the floor beneath her and walk out. Laying here, she is not convinced the world could catch her if she falls. There is nowhere to go, and yet she is sinking. She imagines her body as a weed, growing between the cracks. Parched. The thirsty plant emits a sound so high in pitch the human ear cannot hear it. She wonders now if the same is true for a body, if there are ears to hear this silent scream. Or perhaps something deeper than the eardrum. A rumble in the chest of things, felt in the sternum of every one that passes her by.

The nurse comes in at last and asks unthinkable things of her. Clippings of hair and nails, swabbing every entry place. Every opening, the boundary which is not, between the world and her skin; the boundary she feels nowhere. Skin, the vaguest barrier.

The longer she doesn’t speak the more weight lies on what she will say. Voice box dry and splintering, she stays silent.

It is 4 am when all is said and done. She is discharged to go home.  She is offered water and refuses it. Thirst becomes a small price for herself.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

A black and white photo of the author against a pale background. She is wearing a white t-shirt with dark horizontal stripes. She has long dark hair, and is looking off to the side.

A black and white photo of the author against a pale background. She is wearing a white t-shirt with dark horizontal stripes. She has long dark hair, and is looking off to the side.

Cosi Nayovitz is a writer, massage therapist and trauma sensitive yoga instructor based in North Carolina. She has a degree in literature and serves as Flash Fiction Editor at Hematopoiesis Press

The Medical Model Enters the Scene

CW: Ableism

 

I’m naming this disease before other

people jump on my bandwagon. Welcome

to Diagnosisland. My fault here: sure,

let’s say it’s compartmentalization

of the heart-brain. Can someone please shrink

me, fix me, my harlot ways. Like one man

in one lobe, you in another. The pink

of me divided. Brains, I mean. On scans

this shit doesn’t show up. Do I love like

a psychopath (and other questions I

haven’t asked my doctor)? Do I kiss like

your dream girl, because I try. Yes, that guy

from Brooklyn bought me nice pizza, but who’s

keeping track? I’m yours, I’m his. It’s lose-lose.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

A white woman with reddish hair and thick black eyeliner looks at the camera. She is wearing a black and white pattern top and light blue earrings.

A white woman with reddish hair and thick black eyeliner looks at the camera. She is wearing a black and white pattern top and light blue earrings.

CADE LEEBRON lives in Columbus, OH. She holds an MFA from The Ohio State University, where she served as an editor at The Journal. Her work has appeared in The Boiler, American Literary Review, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She exists online at www.mslifeisbestlife.com, and on Twitter, @CadeyLadey.

About the Decorations

CW: Sexual assault, violence

 

In the city of frost and wine we buy because it has a first name, we’ve found our way to the warehouse version of the famous bakery. Nothing is as golden as we’ve been led to believe. We take our croissants to-go in thin, brown paper pockets and head back to stony academia, satisfied by our success in almost finding something we’ve been told is authentic. This weekend, we means four of us, here for the kind of conference that lives in small rooms in a building on the edge of academia. In these rooms, we listen to amplified voices tell us that we are free to move about as we need.

Mine is the only body of our four to have openly tried out refusal, to have decided not to conform to ability. We came here together in a small but sturdy car and in that racing vehicle we joked that if the car crashed, if we became buried in the surrounding blizzard, our own city would be almost devoid of bodies or brains who think about this foreign concept, disability. In the city of frost and wine, our host comes home after midnight and asks if we’d like some gin. She has a beautiful woman on her arm and they look down at us, sitting in a circle on the floor. None of us like gin. We hold up our empty cups anyway.

*

Under a bridge in a rainstorm in my city, I am contemplating apocalypse love. The man holding my hand is new to me but not to the world, which is almost a joke about his age. Other humans are younger and shiny but I like them less; their brains are less beautiful, more hollow and stuck on the wrong words, bodies that careen predictably into plot lines that play out into nothing. I like the way this man tells me stories I haven’t heard before.

The water in the river is high and there’s an abandoned backpack on the wall we lean on, my dress is soaked and heavy. We wait it out until we can’t anymore, I’ll be late to my dinner. I take my wrung-out hair back into the pouring water, the heavy air. It’s not beautiful, at his place the dryer will be too slow and my dress will slip back onto my body still full of rain. My contacts get rained out of my eyes and my hair is tangled. He has a first name like a bottle of wine slipping out of my price range, he has eyes like unphysical love, like the ducks struggling their way upstream only to be blown back past us, water and air ruining all their big plans.

In some distant and dismal future, he and I will carry my mother’s kayak to her green car and slide the yellow body onto the roof, tilting it and struggling until one vehicle caps another, knifing itself into the air at an angle I will always see as unlikely, untenable. When I call it a body I mean it is open and hollow enough to hold our two breathing bodies inside it in our nation’s longest unnavigable river. When I call the future dismal I mean the rest of you, the bodies that fill the space other bodies might need to move. The boat hasn’t climbed the car yet, it is an imagined life, glinting up at me from my newly-decorated left hand. Last summer I fell into this river twice, and the water was barely chest-deep, the suffocating algae a reminder that we can live even in the most submerged circumstances.

*

Once when I was a child in a different and dismal city known for its thriving banks, a teacher told my parents that she thought my brain must be slower than others, I was too fond of sitting on the couch and not making friends. Later at a conference in a cold city known for its frost and expensive coffee I will consider my slowed brain a point of disability pride, of proof that I must get it more deeply, in a way that some of my compatriots here in this small section of academia don’t. Of course my brain didn’t slow in the way my teacher thought it might, of course this a drawn-out story compressed and dragged into a straight line when in fact it meandered across the world: through twisting neurons and rays of ineffective sunshine and glasses of unhelpful milk, never quite delivering their promised vitamin D—apparently my body couldn’t process what was right inside of it. One day a long time ago I learned the body needs that kind of vitamin to avoid turning self-digging, sclerotic.

The teacher’s husband was relocated to Guam and she went along, to a place filled with snakes and known for its low altitude. I retained my brain cells for the moment, my bored and frosty attitude, my friends from couch-bound days, one of them a model, the other leading an eponymous indie band. The snakes in Guam were eventually poisoned by dead mice stuffed with Tylenol. I get stuck on this, an empty body, a vehicle, a vulnerability pushing reptile bodies out of trees and into the streets, where they maybe gasped one last slithering glittering snake breath into distant sky.

*

Sometimes I do get angry about the ways bodies with their various vulnerabilities are used by others, mostly men, to make a point. I feel bad because I use snakes and mice but men use women and girls, I’m angry about the girl shot by her father because he was mad about his divorce. I know her name, it is Claire, but her last name could also be a man’s first name, it was her father’s last name too, he killed her anyway. There is nothing I can say for the girl locked in a room at a frat party who climbed out because she was afraid, she fell and shattered her pelvis along with almost every bone in her body, but the news mostly talked about her pelvis. What else is a woman good for? She is a container, a friction of fabric or a body against a body, one small body climbing out of another. I saw that frat house every day for four years and never saw the future of her body knifing through air into bushes.

But once I did pick up a tiny girl from under those same bushes where she was lying alone, she wore a child’s boot around her neck as some jewelry decoration, I picked her up and I carried her until I couldn’t anymore, and then she held my hand like it was a mitten, and she couldn’t find me the letters to tell me her name, must have been the wine or maybe just her brain cells. When I say tiny I also do mean she was an adult, I also do mean she was big enough to make carrying her small body a difficult task, she came up to my chest, she made me feel like I was suffocating. And I’m mad about a different girl whose name remains a mystery to me, her stepfather raped her and killed her once she became pregnant, her brain worked in such a way that nobody believed her when she said whatever words she could push out of her mouth.

I’m mad about the hollow bodies and the violences and the way nobody braids your hair when you’re alive but they do your makeup when you’re dead and on display within a casket, a hollow body, a vehicle knifing itself into a sky and then the ground and whatever comes after. I make a point of believing nothing. I make a point of inscribing rage onto each body exploration, something about singing the body disabled and too electric, each boat cutting through water needs to also be a violence, this is the closest we can ever come to authenticity or something like it, something golden, and do you see it, and do you see it.

*

When I was young I used to stand onstage and spell words from my magic brain, the letters coming to my little lips from my camera lens eyes, my vocabulary photographic and telescopic. When I was small and only chest-deep in some liquid metaphysical understanding my brain was still fast and full, there was no apparent need to think about vitamins.

Later and later and later I make jokes about love as disease, affliction, dating as something necessitating a medical model of understanding. People think I mean my own complicity not because it lives in the words but because their own brains have tricked them into it, this strange idea that violence and promiscuity are diagnosable diseases of the female body. It lives nowhere in the definition, though at another conference in a small academic room the panel facilitator says she finds it odd that there’s nothing about women in the definition of hysteria and yet it is often a concept associated with women.

I want to say it’s right there in the word, hysteria and uterus have the same roots, words grow like leaves hanging from branches until like snake bodies they plummet earthward and hit our understanding, my eyes are telescoping but I close my lips and smile in a way that perhaps suggests shared confusion, or just anger, refusal to allow a violence to remain unrecorded, uncommented upon. There is solitude and crusade and self-righteousness inside me, of course, but don’t forget that in academia there are always some compatriots to keep my angry brain in golden company.

*

I don’t know what to tell you when you think a body like mine is the kind that enacts violence other than yes, sometimes, but mostly not. All kinds of bodies can buy guns in our nation which is known for its guns and mass shootings, sometimes my own body wants to as well, given the not-so-distant but very dismal future. My lovely newly-acquired man like a bodyguard says that someday he’ll take me out of the unending rain to a firing range and teach me how to defend myself. But no, mostly it is the disabled body that falls victim, it does not victimize. That’s the statistics talking, that’s not my little bright mouth speaking for just my brain. The brain is flawed, yes, but surely numbers can tell truths that words can’t quite get at, neither can neurons, not bodies, there is of course the water of unknowing that surrounds us, but only up to our breastbones, and our heads remain dry, and our mouths are full of our own saliva, and then we struggle our way back onto our kayaks, our bodies encased in other more durable bodies, and we steer toward land.

*

My doctor is a man with neatly coiffed hair who, for all I know, lives in a brightly lit office. His office is in a city known for its nicely-seasoned crustaceans, which I buy for lunch at a bar with a first name after I see him and have time to kill. He tells me about the unhelpfulness of milk or sunshine and the help that can be brought to my slowed brain and hole-ridden body with a colorful variety of pills, vitamins and medications. They get stuck throat-deep inside my body and I drink endless water to flush them down, which I hear can drown you if you do it very diligently, for hours and hours. After I see him I always invent time to kill. Otherwise I just end up crying in the car with my parents back to the house in the town by the shallow river; there is only so much saltwater a moving vehicle can bear.

After I see him I sometimes go out seeking ink to be skin-embedded, because what other decoration could be more permanent in the body known for its dissolve. He disapproves of the ink like he disapproves when he decides I might be seeking medication. I do find this funny or frustrating or violent depending on my mood—because of course he is the one who seems to be seeking my medication, and am I taking it, and am I calling for refills as frequently as I should be, and do I let them stick me and take my blood as often as he’d like. He asks the questions and does not like my answers. He calls me by my first name and I demur, pretending I’ve never heard of his. He pokes me with safety pins which doesn’t seem to be the right word for the way he uses them: sharpness, perception of pain. What is safe in that kind of space, and can I move about it as I need? Maybe he is ability and I am the refusal.

He tells me not to drink too much alcohol and of course I hold out my empty cup anyway, and the rain fills it, and the snakes try to eat the ducks but they dive under, bodies paddling desperately away from or into the coming apocalypse, the golden fault line opening up underneath, swallowing us all like we are only friendly frost and wine.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

A white woman with reddish hair and thick black eyeliner looks at the camera. She is wearing a black and white pattern top and light blue earrings.

A white woman with reddish hair and thick black eyeliner looks at the camera. She is wearing a black and white pattern top and light blue earrings.

CADE LEEBRON lives in Columbus, OH. She holds an MFA from The Ohio State University, where she served as an editor at The Journal. Her work has appeared in The Boiler, American Literary Review, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She exists online at www.mslifeisbestlife.com, and on Twitter, @CadeyLadey 

All the Muses I've Been

What a terrible, messy thing to be given a heart.

You walk along, maybe humming, maybe wandering and wondering - then -

a sudden red mass, thrust into your palms: its sodden weight dripping

with thumps, an unrelenting reminder of its hereness, its belonging

to someone who liked your smile, who even heard you read a poem on mute,

their pulsing drowning out the words to focus on the curving

of your lips, let their mind wander without wonder.

 

To be a muse is to be decided for. To be posed, to still your body

if not your whispering instincts: that you should have been asked,

that “subject” is a verb and not a noun, there’s a crack

in the pedestal and you didn’t struggle

out of your mother to be an ornament in someone else’s story.

 

So soft the alarm bells clink, like toasting glasses.

Soft because they have been sanded down like your edges

and called love, they have been painted over like your mouth and called love,

they have stretched blank canvas across your name, as if your ancestors never fought

to pass it onto you, as if you sprung from sea foam,

from a holy skull, a handmade reward for that wayward beast beating

its escape route from its cage of bone.

 

You, of course, say nothing. Use your best manners, glow when you’re told,

carry whatever names and attributes they give you. You try not to look

at the bloody lump in your hands. It confirms what you know:

a gaze that can behold and not see makes a monster as easy as a maiden.

Every love story is a witch hunt on its best behavior.

 

///

 

Old habits don't have to be your own

old habits to die hard.

 

I render myself at a distance. Board up the cracks

where a personality might wriggle through.

 

Let me try again: once I had black hair.

Once I was a man, empty and incapable

of love. Lies made laurel by

their weaving into ode, song, promise.

 

Sometimes I lie. Sometimes I fart

in my sleep. I sleep alone. I like that.

Sometimes I feel my body's edges,

nosebridge to knuckles to knees,

make flesh the reminder

that however indefinitely imagined,

I am bounded in skin.

 

Sometimes I recite the facts of myself:

my birthday, my allergies, the mole

on my back. Each certainty a pin

through everything named

up for debate, for declaration

by any pen-wielder in eyeshot.  

 

When I shake the pretty off

I become the one the wisemen

warned you of in whispers.

 

///

 

The whole of me is sharp,

silver and slowly turning

outward, dancing spiderwebs

through the display-glass.

 

 

About the author 

AKheadshot.jpg

ALISON KRONSTADT (they/them and she/her) is a writer, youth worker, and anti-partner abuse advocate currently living in Boston / on stolen Wampanoag land. Their work is featured or forthcoming in The Breakwater Review, FreezeRay, Cosmonauts Avenue, and HEArt Online Journal, among others. Find her on twitter @flalymagee. 

Part III - Stress // Arousal

CW: PTSD

 
part iii.png
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

AKheadshot.jpg

ALISON KRONSTADT (they/them and she/her) is a writer, youth worker, and anti-partner abuse advocate currently living in Boston / on stolen Wampanoag land. Their work is featured or forthcoming in The Breakwater Review, FreezeRay, Cosmonauts Avenue, and HEArt Online Journal, among others. Find her on twitter @flalymagee. 

Bred in Captivity

CW: Violence

 
bred in captivity.png
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

AKheadshot.jpg

ALSION KRONSTADT (they/them and she/her) is a writer, youth worker, and anti-partner abuse advocate currently living in Boston / on stolen Wampanoag land. Their work is featured or forthcoming in The Breakwater Review, FreezeRay, Cosmonauts Avenue, and HEArt Online Journal, among others. Find her on twitter @flalymagee. 

On Reading Thoreau

CW: Violence

 

Midtrail the carcass of a rabbit

half-hidden on the side. Death is

disconcerting in natural camouflage—

all the blood’s seeped into the moss

and the needles stir with the light

stench of rot. There’s an invisible

bird and it won’t stop singing.

Upward - the pull of blue sky      the top

of the hill framed in yellow leaves.

I walk on, trailing the bell-like tune.

In the shooting yesterday the police walked

away leaving the dead and the wounded

glinting in the thick silence of the sun. O,

heady burning mirages. How warm can September get

in these parts of the land? Hours

passed and then the street was

bustling with people who watched

where they stepped.

I get out of the forest before it closes on me.

The afternoon sprawls on the fields, reddening

at the fringes. I look back to see the bird

appear out of the bushes. It’s quiet  

here on the hill, a chill running through the bone,

the dull pain of a dilating soul. White bird

on singed foliage. And I wonder how much it takes

to aim and      flick the switch or pull the trigger,

face untwitching. How sweet the blade. Is that inside

all of us? The urge to rip apart      the bird

flew up to a higher branch and left

me with my own madness

of invulnerability.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Close-up of AK's face in front of flowers and a building. They're white, femme-ish-presenting, with dark brown hair. They're looking to their left and slightly smiling.

Close-up of AK's face in front of flowers and a building. They're white, femme-ish-presenting, with dark brown hair. They're looking to their left and slightly smiling.

AK Afferez is a queer writer currently living in France. They’d like to have you think they spend their days sipping wine and scribbling in notebooks at a fashionable café, but they are most likely trying to either survive grad school, write a book, or parent a cat with a God complex. They work for Winter Tangerine & Vagabond City, and they blog for Ploughshares. Favorite small talk topics include the apocalypse, tarot, and lesbian history. They tweet @akafferez.

Little Lies

CW: Sexual assault, rape

 
little lies.png
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

BEI JIE SI is a poet and artist in Austin, Texas. Jie Si has competed as part of the UT Spitshine CUPSI team from 2015-2017 and coached the 2018 team. She is Co-President of the only poetry organization on UT's campus (Spitshine Poetry) where she led workshops and organizes open mics. She was a 2017 Write Bloody Contest finalist, a Pink Door fellow, a poetry reader for Bat City Review, a Writing Advisor for Barrio Writers, and has been published or is forthcoming in Vinyl, Nat. Brut, Bird's Thumb, Kweli Journal, and Muzzle Magazine. She spends her time writing, studying, drawing, singing, and eating.

Skirts, From Above

CW: Sexual abuse, violence

 

I.
A lift and a  fall
   out  of place / I  am having unbearable  difficulty

in being a Poet

Who holds the crown while I wait? The first god
   of mine: a beast 
              with impeccable taste

              his hand on my neck affirming
              that  there was enough

                        of us 
to mean something

II.
In order to make yourself comfortable
you are allowed to do whatever is needed
even murder, thieve and rape
Be our guest, welcome in
We have been anticipating your arrival
full of dreadful excitement 
We have made the beds and set the table
and prepared our bodies   so well

III.
For    the poem
           I would make any sacrifice 

For you:      I would sacrifice
               the poem

IV.
                 Father: fuel and fire

             He has given me nothing
             other than my beautiful
             madness

V.
   Twirl! The bells sound
   I spin spin am dancing
      but not a dancer 

              of course: a spectacle

          brilliant, unprofessional

VI.
Don’t you love 
   who I  become          don’t you 

  become, love

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Black and white photograph of Aditi in front of white background.

Black and white photograph of Aditi in front of white background.

ADITI NAGRATH is a poet, art therapist, and part-time monster based out of New Delhi, India. She believes that the only way out is through. All of her poems are dedicated to you.

Human Heart, or Else

the animal harsh wild unforgiving
its ache an instinct a must-have-been-
real thing cannot deny its loud loudness
or hunger the wrong mouth in the right
place makes for a great story the right
mouth in the wrong place makes for
an even better one the wrong mouth
in the wrong place makes for only the
two of us suspended in an intolerable
narrative inside whose body we swim
gracelessly blind with suffering
but at least our hearts are held hands
held hours held in horribly fantastic
unhuman ways the speaking is not
easy but at least the dance is
entirely effortless

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Black and white photograph of Aditi in front of white background.

Black and white photograph of Aditi in front of white background.

ADITI NAGRATH is a poet, art therapist, and part-time monster based out of New Delhi, India. She believes that the only way out is through. All of her poems are dedicated to you.

Colossal Light

Truth be told, the endless spark

of pain that jolts me awake each

morning is as indispensable

as the morning itself: sharp blade

of blue, through the trees

the most intricate commandments.

Days are long; the months bring

with them a repetitive grief. I tire

but keep interest in our routine–

the ants of September, memory

of violence, anticipatory anxiety

full flush. In the sun, it is difficult

to believe that summer is gone.

What is this now? this drawn-

out sigh, the curtains meeting

shyly at the window. As lovers

once we were wild but this year

we find our hands writing

small, tame letters that motion

towards the sky but never

speak the name of love.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Black and white photograph of Aditi in front of white background.

Black and white photograph of Aditi in front of white background.

ADITI NAGRATH is a poet, art therapist, and part-time monster based out of New Delhi, India. She believes that the only way out is through. All of her poems are dedicated to you.