There is No Grass in Rangihoua Bay – Heather McQuillan
On quiet city blocks, he prepares for war – C G Thompson
Before the Rain – Annette Edwards-Hill
O Dweller of Heights, here I must lie – Kiira Roshair
The Wonder of New Wings – Holly Wells
The family of Anastasia – Evie Jay
All Jack’s girls – Jan FitzGerald
You Are Not Alone – Catherine Clarke
Featherston – Stephen O’Connor
Stories from FlashBack Fiction Editors
Divisions – Anita Goveas
Sometimes, I Think About Mrs Grozny – Emily Devane
Vietnam #14 – Ingrid Jendrzejewski
Even to the edge of doom – Sharon Telfer
The Lady with the Ink – Damhnait Monaghan
These Worn Bodies – K.B. Carle
Spinning Jenny – Judi Walsh
Interview: Dame Fiona Kidman
Interview: FlashBack Fiction Editors
Book Interview: KM Elkes, All That Is Between Us
Book Interview: Sandra Arnold, Soul Etchings
Poetry: Vaughan Rapatahana at the 2019 International Festival, London
Book: James Norcliffe, Deadpan
Book: Eileen Merriman, Invisibly Breathing
Book: Heather McQuillan, Where Oceans Meet
Book: Tim Jones, Where We Land
The story Maisy always told
The strangers arrived at wolf light. Shouts and banging and then we saw them, men like Da, like me brothers, push-pulling a cart.
“It’s Rufus the Red,” one said to Da. “We got the king on there.” We laughed because how could and why would, and the man said, “They shot him out hunting, left him,” and Da pulled back the sacking from the hump on the cart and I saw cloth of all colours before I noticed the blood.
“Don’t be looking, Maisy,” Da said. “Make yersen useful,” and I was bid conjure a meal out of nuthin same as always, sent little Alfie off to get rabbits from the traps while I breathed life back into the fire, threw the roots and weeds we had in the pot and prayed the bread could be torn thin.
Some quiet time between full dark and morning I went to look at the body again. The heap covered in sack was laid on straw with goats and hens all round. But we didn’t have a maybe king stay every day so I lifted the sacking to look upon him. His hands were clean, his clothes fine. He’d bled hard and there was a metal smell. The men said he’d been shot in the chest, but they’d torn out the arrow.
I knew if he was the king, I should do something. So I got water, a soft bit of rag, wiped his face. The men who brought him said the nobles, all that lot, had just left him in the Forest to rot while they rushed off to swear allegiance to the new king. The men said the nobles hated him.
I looked at his face as I wiped. Older than you’d expect for someone with no wife, no child. But when was that a sin?
Da found me when the body was almost clean. “What you doing, Maisy”’ he asked but surely he could tell. “A maid looking on a king,” Da said. “Too late now for you or for him.”
Then the men came and hefted him back onto their cart. We never saw them again, nor had any other king come to visit. But I’ll always remember the smooth of the Red King’s skin against my fingers the night our straw embraced the bones and blood of him.
There is No Grass in Rangihoua Bay
This man of God seeks green pastures far greener than Australia’s dusty fields. With plans and the promise of a promised land he takes leave of the dust and deep verandahs of his Parramatta farm. He makes a break from roos that plunder pasture grass, spares his convict labourers a month or two of flogging and sets sail to make his arrival before the Christian Holy Day. He prays quiet waters bear his ship. The seas are rough all the way.
His ship, The Active, is stocked with horses, goats and sheep, prodigal Māori sons and laying hens. Of the shorthorn cattle, a Durham breed, there is on record one bull, two cows. The missionaries limit themselves to one wife each. Up on the deck, each is washed with salted spray. Their voyage lasts at sea for twenty-something suffering days.
The song of korimako and kokako ring, disrupted now by a salute of muskets and of ship’s cannon heralding The Active‘s late arrival and the dawn of Christmas Day. The voices of the birds are already dwindling away.
The Active anchor falls and with missionary zeal they spill onto the sands: the returning Māori in military garb bear gifted arms, the stern-faced men hold bibles to their chests, the women frocked in fine array. They make an impressive display.
The Active missionary sends men forth with sickles to seek fresh fodder for his beasts while he attends to the formalities; the exchange of gifts, a scarlet gown for Ruatara’s head wife. The flounced petticoat rushes her ankles like the sea foam of Rangihoua Bay. Her breasts, now cotton-covered, seem more risqué.
That’s when a horned devil makes a break. The Durham Bull has tired of the wait. He seeks out those greener pastures promised him and, finding none, he charges . Chaos reigns. Until The Active missionary, by climbing on his high horse, a taller pulpit than he’ll use again, allays their fears, creates wonder there in Rangihoua Bay. The Active cows stroll away.
About Heather McQuillan…
On quiet city blocks, he prepares for war
C G Thompson
The fireflies were not observing the blackout. Miniature lights flashed across the Patterson’s victory garden, oblivious to the newspaper notice that had publicized the drill. Waves of pretend enemy Heinkels will target the city’s rail yards Wednesday night.
Alone on a sidewalk, Gordon Baker studied a canopy of oak trees and almost believed he heard the German planes. An air-raid warden, he could identify the plane from front, side, bottom.
“War is everywhere – wherever there is air,” a recruitment film had said.
His eyes were adjusting to the dark, and he sidestepped puddles left by an early evening rain. Until the blackout ended, he’d patrol his block and the next. City residents had been instructed to stay indoors, with shades or blackout curtains drawn, porch lights off.
It was 9:30 p.m., Eastern War Time. Gordon knew everyone in his sector, where doctors and firemen lived, which homes displayed service banners with blue or gold stars. Mrs. Helen Nichols, widowed for ten years, had recently placed a gold star in her window for her only son, Bruce, a Marine killed at Corregidor.
Gordon paused in front of her wood-frame house, removed his helmet briefly.
Ahead, three fireflies flashed in tandem. As boys, Gordon and his older brother caught fireflies near the river by the old mill. They cupped their hands, watched their fingers light up like lanterns.
“The Wright Flyer,” Phillip joked one long-ago August before freeing the insect. He was fascinated with aviation.
Gordon passed by a hedge that served as a polite fence. The Talbots had two front-porch swings, usually populated by a group of children. Tonight the swings were silent. A tabby lounged on the steps, eyeing him.
At home, his wife and son Stewart were waiting for the local radio station to return. It had gone off the air so the enemy couldn’t use its signal to navigate. After dinner, Gordon had helped Agnes cover the radio dials with newspapers to keep light to a minimum. Stewart crawled
under a blanket to read by flashlight.
Gordon stopped at a curb, surveyed the empty street, the crescent moon above. He sniffed for dangerous gases, which could smell like shoe polish, garlic, green corn, or geraniums. A gas attack was something he’d trained for, training he hoped he’d never need.
At the O’Neal’s, where attic windows opened to the night breeze, three blue stars were in the window. He’d taught the youngest son, Bobby, to ride a bicycle when Bobby’s father was hospitalized for appendicitis. Bobby, now somewhere in the Indian Ocean. Gordon pictured the skinny boy of seven, bleeding when his front tire hit a tree stump but jumping up and calling, “I’m OK!”
He knew Bobby would show that same spirit in battle. His own son, Gordon Jr., a fighter pilot, was on a transport ship heading toward Europe. From there, where? The skies over Poland, France, Italy, Germany? President Roosevelt had said Allied planes would soon begin liberating
Fireflies continued their bursts of light, one at 5 o’clock. Gordon prided himself on his peripheral vision. Nevertheless he glanced in its direction, making sure no one had lit a cigarette. He was glad he didn’t smoke, hoped his son didn’t take up the habit overseas.
The cloud cover had dissipated, and in the blackout the stars seemed closer. He located Ursa Major, noted the bear’s feet and tail. He saw the W of Cassiopeia, the house-like form of Cepheus. The constellations protected the city, he imagined. Heinkels would be caught in their net.
His brother had taught him about the constellations, would appreciate this view. Phillip was studious, remembered everything he read.
“One day I’ll fly toward the stars,” he’d say.
The high school came into view at the top of a steep incline, its brick facade merging into the darkness. Two generations of Gordon’s family had enrolled there.
He crossed the street to the Duncan’s house. A ’38 Ford was in the drive. Dr. and Mrs. Duncan were members of the church where he served as a deacon. They’d donated their car’s bumpers to the war effort.
Next door, Gordon heard the Reed’s baby crying. Esther had given birth the month before, and she’d be doing everything she could to comfort the child. He decided not to knock. He stepped away from their gate, hearing his shoes squeak. A mosquito buzzed by his ear.
In the distance, the fire-station siren sounded three bursts of several seconds each, signaling the end of the blackout. Streetlights and porch lights came on, the Williams children called to one another, a dog barked, old Mr. Price ambled out into his yard and stretched.
“Evening,” Mr. Price said, lighting his pipe. “All quiet on the Western Front?”
Gordon was momentarily startled, then remembered the older man was forgetful.
“All quiet,” Gordon confirmed. He touched his helmet.
Phillip had died on the Western Front during the First World War. He was a volunteer with the Royal Flying Corps, was piloting a Sopwith Pup when he was shot down over France.
“I’ll be home before you’re old enough to go” were Phillip’s last words to him.
Gordon Jr. had followed his uncle into the air. “I’ll be all right, Dad,” he had said.
Gordon reached the boxwood shrubs that marked the brick walkway to his house. He and Agnes planted them shortly after they married. He saw a soft glow behind the living room curtains, knew the radio would be tuned to Les Brown’s Orchestra. Agnes would greet him with a cup of coffee, no sugar. Stewart would jump from his blanket, try to scare him.
Another firefly lit up, and he imagined catching it, watching his fingers become a lantern. The insects, the constellations, the crescent moon had done their work, lighting his way as best they could.
The light in the world would grow. The darkness would dim.
Before the Rain
I was sitting on my verandah watching the stilts wading through the murky water, the sun glinting off the ripples their legs made. Seagulls flew overhead calling in the thick air. In the haze from the heat, the island was a faint smudge in the distance. It was thirty degrees in the shade and only mid-morning. It had been hot for days and hadn’t rained since December.
The first thing I noticed was the silence, the sky suddenly empty and still, then the earth heaved itself upwards in front of me. I stood, but was bound with the uncertainty of which direction I should move. Another sharp jolt sent me staggering down the stairs. I heard a crash at the back of the house, a cascade of bricks, the chimney. I watched the edge of the water draw away from me, retreating towards the island.
When the shaking stopped it was no longer an island, with the water gone, it was a hill sitting in a ruined landscape. What was the estuary was now just mud. The wind was warm and constant and blew the stink of the thousands of fish that only two days ago swam in the brackish water, inside my house. They lay on the bed of the estuary, stranded and lifeless, rotting in the hot February sun.
In the evening, on the day of the earthquake, I took a net down to the water in the early evening when it was cooler. I scooped at the gasping fish, trying to move them into the shallow pools of water that remained. My shoulders ached with the weight of each netful of fish I moved but I kept going, until it was dark and the moon rose over the island. The last of the water that wasn’t claimed by the large cracks that opened in the ground was evaporating. I watched from my window as the water curled up towards the sky in spirals of steam.
I used to watch the old men being rowed out to the home on the island, sitting on the single plank in the boat, holding just a suitcase, their lifetime possessions. They spent their last months looking back at the mainland from the narrow windows. Fifteen of them were gone now too. Three short jolts and the home collapsed, leaving just a pile of red bricks, dust and twisted bed frames. Before it fell I would look across the water at night and see the home, each window a square of gold until lights out at 8pm sharp, then the building would dissolve into the night sky.
I’ve been waiting for my body to break down and my mind to follow, for the nurse to come to my door and hold my hand and walk me to the edge of the water. She’d steady me as I climbed into the row boat, I’d look back at the mainland as I was rowed to the island. I would leave nothing behind and take nothing with me. The cemetery was just a few minutes’ walk from the home, it would be my final resting place. With the water reclaimed by the land, they bussed out the remaining residents.
The day after the earthquake the ground was still ringing with aftershocks and I watched the lampshade swinging from the ceiling, I listened to the teacups clattering in the cupboard. Just afternoon noon, there was a short bang before the ground shook. While we stood separated by the pile of bricks that was my chimney, my neighbour told me they’d used dynamite to blast a hole in the island and made a mass grave in the old cemetery. She looked at the sky reddening over the western hills and said it would be many more days before it rained, then she went inside. I kicked at the dry red dust left by the bricks as I turned away from her.
Early the next day the sky was still red and I could feel the possibility of rain in my old bones. I watched trucks and hearses make their way across the dried seabed, gently bumping their sad cargo over the broken landscape. I waited until the last vehicle had disappeared into the shadows of the island and I started the walk. The ground was uneven and I wore my boots. I kept my eyes on the dark weight of the island in the distance. Every now and then I looked down and a fish stared up at me, the eye white and cloudy.
The grave was on the other side of the island. The dock hung suspended above the mud and I took the short pathway up and over the top until I could see the row of coffins lined up on the edge of the hollow that’d been blown into the earth. I counted 54. The old men would be amongst them, each as light as a breath, enclosed in the heavy wood. They’d moved to the island to die, but not like this.
The navy chaplain stood on the edge of the grave, his robes billowed white against the sky which was now like ink with the weight of water. I stood back while he read from the service sheet. When he had read the last word, the coffins were lowered one by one into the hole. With the last coffin in the ground, the men walked away. The grave was left open, waiting for more bodies.
I waited, until a raindrop dampened the sleeve of my jacket and I watched it spread like blood. I heard the dull sound of heavier drops falling on the coffins sitting at the bottom of the hole. I walked home.
Note from the author: This story is based on the 1931 Hawkes Bay Earthquake during which the sea floor just off Hawke’s Bay was lifted more than 2.7 metres, and the Ahuriri Lagoon and tidal flats were drained.
O Dweller of Heights, here I must lie
With every death, I sink deeper into the charred earth that reaps rich cassava and gold for invaders, my back heavy with fallen souls and the burden of my belief that the moon breathed fire that night because the white man demanded your wrath, and became meek again when he kneeled in prayer. That our ancestors were shoots from your tree we each forgot but I, cacique, was first to wilt. Our lokono did see it and surrender, not knowing the sacrifice of a million Arawâks to come. The white man who threatened to eat the moon ate us instead.
About Kiira Roshair…
The Wonder of New Wings
At this moment above all others, I should be anchored to the air around me, but the pull of the past behind me is as strong as the pull of gravity beneath me.
I felt my wings long before anyone could see them, so learning to fly never seemed like learning. It was more like remembering. Lingering inside always stifled me, and the thought of leaving through the open windows would come from within my weeping. My parents’ house was never a confining place. It just wasn’t my home. I couldn’t marry George either until he understood that any kind of cage would kill me.
Now, my wings fail where only cloud-mists break the blue of sea and sky, but I do not weep here in the open air. Visions of George and of my family sing in flashes serene and wild like sudden starlight.
I shake myself back into the cockpit. I cannot cross that threshold, cannot become a phoenix made real, without trying once more.
“KHAQQ to Itasca,” I say. “We do not hear you on 3105. We must be on you, but we cannot see you. Gas is running low. We are on line 157/337.”
“KHAQQ to Itasca: We will repeat this message on 6210. Wait.”
Still no answer.
I am sorry, dear friend, I scrawl on a slip of paper, clip it to the fishing line above, and send it to Fred, who is strapped into his seat at the map table in the rear of the plane.
Seconds later, the return note zips into my hand. In his neat, unworried script are the words, Fly us home, Amelia.
I close my eyes, and my breaths come deep and slow. Home.
Prayers like frantic dreams overflow in fountains, but my grip on the yoke is steady and strong. We will not fall. We will dive deep, and out of depths, we will leap flaming.
We will not fear the wonder of new wings.
About Holly Wells…
The family of Anastasia
History – at least, a history – died on a Saturday afternoon, while cold rain was spattering the windows.
They were my grandma’s windows. My parents, my older sister Lisa and I were, temporarily, living at Grandma’s house. That Saturday, Lisa’s boyfriend Mark was to visit. Lisa had been fussing about this for days. I’d heard her hissing to Mum, “Don’t let Grandma tell those stupid anecdotes. And make her put those stupid things away.” What stupid anecdotes? What stupid things? Anyway, when Saturday rolled around, everything seemed in its usual place.
Lisa was bringing Mark over in the early afternoon. I felt quite nervous, I so wanted to make a good impression. At last, they arrived. Mark held an umbrella over their heads as they dashed through the rain. How romantic they looked, like a couple in a film.
Grandma darted forward, asking Mark to leave the umbrella in the porch. She asked politely – Grandma was always polite – but Lisa curled her lip, and Mark… well, his mouth was smiling, but his eyes weren’t.
After introductions, we settled in the lounge. The grown-ups talked away – had Mark been in Wellington long, what was he studying at university, Mark’s and Lisa’s career plans, their travel plans. I was too shy to say anything, but I helped pass round the nibbles we’d prepared. Then suddenly, conversation died. After a few moments, Mark got up, and began looking around the room. There was plenty to see; Grandma’s shelves were crowded with knickknacks. Lisa fidgeted. “Mark, more coffee?” she called.
Mark didn’t seem to hear. He picked up the tiny balalaika, and the colourful Matryoshka doll. Glancing at the rest of the ornaments, he grinned. “My goodness, someone likes Russian things,” he said. “Do you keep a bottle of vodka in the freezer?”
I didn’t understand his remark about vodka. But I was pleased he’d noticed the ornaments. Grandma was so proud of them. She now radiated pride as she said, “Yes, they are beautiful things. And they represent my history.”
“Oh?” said Mark, raising his eyebrows, and Grandma said, with a smile,” Yes. Anastasia. We are the family of Anastasia, last of the Romanovs.”
Lisa, now palpably agitated, cried, “Grandma, Mark doesn’t need to hear this.” But Mark seemed oblivious. “You’re Anastasia?” he said to Grandma. “But that would make you way over a hundred!”
Grandma laughed. “No, of course I’m not Anastasia! I said we are the family of Anastasia.” She paused for effect, dear Grandma. “Anastasia was my grandmother.”
Mark sat down again, his brow furrowed, and said,” I’m a bit puzzled. You see, I study history, and it says the Romanov family was massacred in 1918.”
“Ah,” said Grandma excitedly, “but people always said that Anastasia survived. And she did. The bullets missed her. A peasant crept into the cellar. He found Anastasia was alive, and smuggled her away in his cart.”
Mark said,” Really? Could a peasant just enter an assassination site and take away a survivor?”
“Well, that’s what happened,” Grandma pushed on. “He got her to the nearest airport and onto a plane to America.”
Mark said, “What airport would that be? Were any international airports around then? I don’t think so. And planes were still pretty rare in 1918.”
Grandma looked flustered. “Well, he got her away. Perhaps to another country where someone had a plane she could take.”
“He trundled her to another country on a cart?” Mark said.
But Grandma was forging ahead. “She had jewels sewn into her dress. Once she reached America, she realised she’d have to go further afield to be really safe. So she sold her jewels, and bought a passage on a ship to New Zealand. And that,” she said, “was that.”
Mark looked thoughtful. “But she’d led a sheltered life, hadn’t she? What contacts would she have in America? What would she know about selling jewels? Or about arranging a passage on a ship? Could she even speak English?” No one said anything. “Did your grandmother call herself Anastasia?” Mark persisted.
“Well, of course not!” said Grandma. “Think of the risk! No, she called herself Alice Nichols.” She looked fondly at Mum. “I called my daughter Anna. I thought it was time.”
“Did Alice Nichols bring these things with her?” Mark asked, waving at the knickknacks.
“No,” said Grandma, flustered again. “She bought these here, as reminders of her real home. From op-shops and the like. My mother and my sisters and I bought some too. Well,” she said, standing up and looking around brightly, “does anyone want more tea or coffee?”
After Grandma left the room, we sat in silence. Then Lisa said, in a rush, “Mark, I’m so sorry, what must you think of this family, of course we all know that stuff’s rubbish…” – did we? I’d never thought so, if I’d thought of it at all – “…but she really believes it. I think she needs to believe it.”
“Now, hold on, Lisa,” Dad began, but Mark spoke over him. “Yes, it’s like religion, isn’t it? Some people just need their crutch. I keep telling myself, let people have their fictions, it’s probably harmless.”
I made myself speak up for Grandma. “Maybe Anastasia did escape.”
Mark’s look was so condescending, I cringed. “No,” he said. “They did DNA tests a few years ago on the Romanov remains. All the family died in the massacre. Irrefutable proof.”
We suddenly realised that Grandma, holding a tray of fresh teas and coffees, was standing in the doorway.
We didn’t talk any more about Anastasia. In fact, Grandma never mentioned her again, at least in my hearing. The day after Mark’s visit, she removed the Russian ornaments, saying, “I’m going to redecorate, it’s long overdue.” The redecoration didn’t eventuate. Soon Mum and Dad bought our new house, and they and I moved there. Lisa moved in with Mark. She left him a few years later. She never said why.
All Jack’s girls
Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddows, Mary Jane Kelly
Darkness presses down on me since Jack the Ripper’s been working Whitechapel. Other prostitutes call him Jack-o, as if he was just one of their pimps or a gentleman customer, but I’m having none of that malarky. No making light o’ that sick wretch.
I used to know “Polly,” his first, found here in Buck Row. The Morning Post gave her full name as Mary Ann Nichols. How does an uneducated girl like me get to read a newspaper, you might well ask. We get our gentleman customers to read the newspapers to us! We like to know what’s going on in the world. That’s how I found out about the other three – Annie, Liza, and Catherine. Finally the police put it together. When a prostitute’s murdered in East End, it don’t get a mention, but four murdered within the same mile, that’s big news, ain’t it?
Anyway, I first met Polly about three years ago, when we was sorting oakum, pulling apart ropes and stuff in the Whitechapel workhouse, and Mr John Williams, the Queen’s own surgeon, did an abortion on her. He’s got clinics all round London, but of course the likes of us don’t go to none of them. He comes here to the workhouse infirmary. Nice-looking gentleman, always wears a dark silk tie with some sort of red stone in the middle.
Polly told me once, after we got away from the workhouse, still working the streets mind, but more independent like with our own lodgings, that they were lovers and he took her to Paris. ’Course I thought it was just Polly dreaming the good life, like we did sometimes, being one of the lucky ones like the girls off the streets at Mr Charles Dickens’ place – Urania Cottage over in Shepherd’s Bush – sailing away with a new education and fine clothes, marrying and having families in a distant land. I didn’t believe her until she showed me the packet-boat tickets to Calais and gave me a soap dish from some Hôtel Continental.
Since Polly’s murder, the residents here been renting out window space to watch police investigations. If you ask me, it’ll be hard to tell blood from all the filth. You might wonder why no-one saw anything, but there’s only one gas lamp on every third corner, and no-one takes a blind bit of notice of clatter in the alleys at night, what with gin only a few pence a bottle and homeless people collecting dog turds for the tanneries.
It’s all low rent around here. Men sleeping in doss houses, leaning ’gainst ropes tied from wall to floor for tuppence, eighty to a room so I hear, since the murders. Women paying 4d a single bed, or sharing a single with a man in exchange for favours. Anything to get off these streets at night. Now folks are attacking anyone carrying a black bag! That’s the way the Ripper will be carrying his knives, so it’s said. And the bobbies will only walk down Dorset Street, where I live, in groups of four! And that, but rarely. Don’t feel like much protection to me, even if I’m just nicking out to buy hot eels from the barrowman.
I’ve been talking with a bobby who’s a regular o’ mine, tells me a thing or two, and he reckons Charlie Warren, that’s the Chief of Police, says whoever done this has knowledge of the human anatomy and just flings innards and bits around, cuts off tits and noses and such to make it look like a madman done it, but some of the girls’ wombs were cut out with “surgical precision,” his very words, and taken away – ’cept he was interrupted doing Eliza, so he did another, Catherine Eddowes, about half an hour later.
One night Polly and I was working the same street and she said something that’s haunting me now. The more I think about it, the more darkness presses me down in my bed. She said Mr Williams was desperate for his wife to have a child and was trying to find out why she couldn’t, and how to fix it, and she secretly thought he took an interest in helping prostitutes with their abortions because none of them knew what the doctor did while they was under the chloroform. He could do as many explorations as he liked. What’s another man, anyway? They was just so grateful not to have another mouth to feed.
And I have to have an abortion with Mr Williams next week. He said he can do it in the bedroom of the lodging house where I live, 13 Millers Court, better for me to rest up there as the infirmary is being used as a mortuary right now.
“Now Miss Mary Kelly,” sure as these words, he said, “your man Joe has scarpered and won’t be around to support you through a couple of days convalescing – but you’re only 25 and fit for your age – so I’ll do it absolutely free, and call in to see how you are afterwards. But I want your solemn promise not to tell anyone, as it’s not approved medical practice without a nurse in attendance and could ruin my reputation.” So I did promise. What else could I do?
And now these thoughts won’t go away. Mr Williams knew all the girls that was murdered, so they would happily go anywhere with him. A witness said he saw a man with a red stone on his tie with Catherine before she died, and I can’t help thinking how a surgeon’s knife is only 6” long – they’ve got the thing about knives all wrong, if you ask me – sharper than a razor, and easy hid in the breast pocket of a jacket!
But I’m only 25, and a prostitute. What do I know?
You Are Not Alone
On the night the pair of Laughing Owls destined for London Zoo escaped from Walter Buller’s aviary, a brisk southerly keened through Wellington’s precarious streets. The wind rattled through the houses perched on the hills and down the gullies until the door of the owls’ cage flew open. The birds had been procured for Buller by William Smith, who had smoked them out with burning tussock from limestone crevices near Timaru. By 1883, Laughing Owls were one of New Zealand’s rarest species and collectors would pay three guineas for each specimen, equivalent to several weeks’ wages for Smith, a gardener.
Buller’s son, Leo, who was responsible for moving the owls in their temporary cage to the family’s new residence on The Terrace, was distraught at the unfortunate accident. His father was away chasing after more Huia, and Leo feared the inevitable tongue-lashing on his return. He searched day and night for the fugitives, questioning the residents of the nearby hills.
“I’m looking for a pair of Laughing Owls, Sir.”
“Nowt to laugh about round here son,” was the most frequent retort.
A query of “Have you heard any strange noises at night, Ma’am?” ensured the door was quickly closed in his face. Sometimes he was able to elaborate on the owl’s call, “A loud hailing cry, akin to laughter in a descending scale,” only to receive puzzled looks and a shake of the head. “Perhaps, if I could imitate this bird’s call for you, Sir, you might recognise it.” He made a series of doleful shrieks that sounded more like insanity than mirth.
After several humiliating weeks, Leo obtained reports of a melancholy cry, possibly an owl, which traced the fugitives to Sir James Prendergast’s property in Bolton Street. After obtaining permission, Leo camped out in the grounds for the night hoping to hear their calls. The captive birds had emerged from their boxes at dusk. He remembered how they would swoop down on the pieces of mutton he tossed into their cage and gaze reflectively at the meat for a minute or so, before devouring it with a quick snap of the beak. Solemn as they were, they seemed to be inquisitive birds. If he made a whispering noise, they both turned and gazed steadfastly at him, remaining motionless as statues, until the whispering ceased.
At first, Leo patrolled under the trees, but as the night wore on he settled with his rug and flask near to the boundary with the Episcopalian Cemetery. He thought the dark, misty night would encourage the owls’ prey to take chances and the hunters to call to each other while on the wing. Leo hadn’t planned any further than locating the owls’ whereabouts. Twice the size of the more nimble Morepork, it might be enough just to sight their tawny brown plumage, white faces, and bright hazel eyes and leave the recapture to his father.
A mournful cry woke Leo with a shudder. He heard footsteps hurrying down the hill, then a peculiar kind of laugh and disembodied voice echoing after them, the words indistinct. Leo leapt to his feet, jumped over the fence into the graveyard, and scrambled down the gully towards the chapel and the laughter. A shadowy figure hobbled up the step, chuckling to himself, and sat down on the porch to light his pipe. Leo could see in the flare of the match that it was no apparition but the sexton, Thomas Robertson. A twig snapped under Leo’s foot as he stepped forward.
Robertson dropped his pipe with a clatter on the boards. “Holy Mother of God, you scared the daylights outa me, lad.”
“I’m terribly sorry, Sir, but I’m trying to establish the whereabouts of a pair of escaped owls. They might be in this area. Have you heard any strange sounds?”
“I hear most all kinds o’ noises among them graves, lad. Courting couples, drunks, and vagrants, mostly.” The old sexton bent down to retrieve his pipe. “I make sure they don’t come back here again for their unseemly goings-on,” he said, tapping the bowl of his pipe in his palm.
“H…How’s that, Sir?”
“I know my way round them graves blindfold. I can creep up pretty close, and I’ve learned how to throw my voice.” He demonstrated with a spectral “You are not alone,” that reverberated off the tombstones and sent a shiver up Leo’s spine. “That soon sends them on their way.” Robertson slapped his knee and gave an unearthly cackle, not unlike that of the lost Laughing Owls.
Years later, as Leo stood before the Buller Collection of dead birds in Lord Rothschild’s museum at Tring, his distress at losing the owls took on a deeper note of remorse. His father’s fury – he’d slammed his fist on the desk then swept all papers to the floor and let out such a roar that Leo had fled from the study – now seemed deplorable. There’d been a similar outburst when Rothschild refused to pay the agreed £1000 when the collection arrived missing several rarer specimens from the inventory.
Four years after the birds’ escape, when Laughing Owls were on the verge of extinction, his father had shipped what may have been the last live pair to the eccentric Rothschild to atone for any previous misunderstanding. His father certainly knew how to stroke those feathers in the right direction. Leo’s last flicker of hope for the owls’ slim chance of survival had been extinguished long ago — now their loud mocking cry lived on alone in his memories.
The pencil was short and the nib dulled, but he still did his best to carefully form the characters on the paper. The rain and wind outside carried the roaring of the trees to the barracks. He
looked up at the roof and quietly cursed as drips spattered his letter. Begrudgingly, he folded the paper, but as his thumb scored the crease under Naomi’s name, he hesitated and a wave of
longing washed through him. Closing his eyes, he thought of the narrative of his life without her and what he was missing. He couldn’t hear her footsteps or her laughter, couldn’t look into her eyes and feel her eyes looking back at him. He sighed, and placed the unfinished letter under his mattress. Alone with his thoughts, he tossed and turned on the bed, finally laying still until the wheedling voice of the captain floated across the barracks.
“We are fortunate to be here in this paradise while our comrades die throughout the Pacific – eh, Nakamura?”
His brow furrowed and he didn’t reply.
“We don’t want our loved ones to worry about a cut from a potato peeler, do we?”
He shifted in the bed, turning away from the voice, but the murmuring continued, this time low and hurried.
“Those letters are treason. Get rid of them or face the consequences.”
He kept his stubborn silence, closed his eyes and listened to the rise and fall of the wind matching his own quickened breathing, as the night bore down on him.
Later the next day, it had stopped raining for the first time in a long time. As if in celebration, a large rat scurried from beneath a bed, cutting diagonally across the barracks and into the latrine. Yamamoto, the chief warrant officer bounded to the latrine door and flung it open to search for the rat, but it had gone. The captain grew impatient and shouted for him to return, spraying spittle on the two petty officers beside him. Nakamura, sitting cross legged watched on, and lowered his gaze as a quiet settled over the men.
“I’m ashamed of what we have become here.” The bespectacled captain said, looking slowly at each of the twelve ragged men sitting in a circle around him. “Yamamoto, you have energy to chase vermin, but won’t take arms against an enemy.”
“The weight of your treason makes you all unpleasant.” The captain bellowed. From the collar of his shirt, the veins on his thick neck expanded and constricted. “We have the burden of grieving families.”
Nakamura wetted his lips as the captain then gestured at a wood box placed in the center of the group.
“Take a paper out of the box. Keep it folded in your hand until everyone has had a turn.”
Everyone looked at each other nervously, flicking their eyes between them. Yamamoto lithely stood up, walked to the box, bent down and picked out a folded paper. He bowed slightly to the captain and went back to his place.
The minutes seemed interminable to Nakamura as each of his comrades took a paper until only one was left. He rose slowly and came forward, feeling the eyes of the captain boring through
him, and picked the last paper. He held it tightly in his fist and returned to his space in the circle.
One by one, as the slips were opened, Nakamura felt the moisture in his mouth drying off which forced him to swallow hard, making his eyes bulge. There was a long pause, then gasps of relief around the group as each man held their paper, thrust out in front of their grinning faces. Angrily, his fingers grabbed at the edge of his, unfolded it and plunged it forward into the circle,
revealing the roughly scrawled black dot.
Nakamura walked out of the barracks, his gaze focused to a range of mountains that painted the horizon a streak of dark violet. He sucked in short breathes and looked around the compound. All the non-combatant prisoners stood grouped together outside the camp kitchen, the military prisoners at the opposite end, and the captain with his officers, smiling insidiously, watching Nakamura carefully from the barracks. He felt surrounded. He fingered the knife in his pocket.
The captain had spent time making sure the edge was sharp enough for two swift deadly cuts. Next to the knife in his pocket, the letter rustled.
The captain perhaps sensing his indecision walked over and stood facing him, both hands in his pockets, but his chin thrusting towards Nakamura’s chest.
“I had a nightmare last night, Nakamura.”
The captain’s eyes narrowed and not waiting for a response continued. “A huge angel fell from the heavens into the apex of a national temple. He’d folded his wings but was trapped. Of course he could open his wings, but then the old wooden building would collapse.” He smiled, his lips slowly curling. “If the angel didn’t open his wings then he would die of starvation. So the question, Nakamura, if to be free, would you destroy everything around you?”
“And if you don’t, you die.” Nakamura replied.
The captain continued to smile as he turned and walked briskly away.
The watery sun nudged through the clouds and shed a light over the scene. It gleamed on the two-meter high barb-wired fence and seemed to illuminate the big paddock beyond with the grove of willow trees and a creek tumbling into the distance. Nakamura closed his eyes and Naomi emerged with her familiar half smile. She looked just the same. Not a day changed. The air was chilly, but looking directly at the captain, Nakamura threw off his jacket, and the cold air fell on his bare arms. He had made his decision, and even though he saw his tormentor’s eyes flash, in his chest a greater glow seemed to emanate. He breathed deeply, and then deeper and deeper, fanning the warmth.
Stories from FlashBack Fiction Editors
They say the sewer that runs underneath this Prison was once a river, the Fleet, that rolled its way down the Thames on to the infinite sea. I’d like to say the whispers of that lost water give me the ideas for my Proposal, but it only confirms to me that Men don’t know how to make the best use of Nature. It’s these restricted ceilings that inspire me, with us all stealing our small piece below it, dividing up what we can. Keeping to our small part of precious Earth.
If anyone wants to know how Men misuse Nature, I could testify. I would not have landed here otherwise, in this Debtors’ punishment because I dared to speak up against the Earl of Oxford. They accuse me of not understanding when they lose my investments. They cannot be trusted to divide up the Heavens, they always yearn to acquire too much.
The notion of the Longitude prize is good enough, if the board of Commissioners have the imagination to see it through, and can recognise Genius and Flair. Travelling the Oceans is a necessity now, and Scores of dead sailors call for better measurement. If the Royal Astronomer can keep his head out of the stars, and my Lord High Admiral can keep his head on dry land, of which I have yet to see Proof. £20,000 is a sum guaranteed to turn any Man’s head, which is why they need a Woman.
My father brought me up know my own mind, and in York I was minded sufficiently. We had the coin and the connections for me to be comfortable. It is only on moving to London have I learnt Women step on treacherous ground, and should test the tools to navigate our way.
These invisible lines that encircle our Earth are like the untouched strings of a lute. We should be ashamed that after almost 1750 years of Our Lord, we do not know how to pluck them. The Mathematical Sphere is merely another instrument to learn, if we can but tune ourselves to the music. There are no anchors in the sky, the way we rely on the sun, the moon and the planets for Latitude, but we can make our own guides.
I am a Reasonable creature, and reason is what is needed. We can divide the Celestial Spheres, as we do the Terrestrial, and teach those who would be sailors these Divisions as if it were another language, as we should teach Mathematics and Music. And we could make our own anchors to mark these Divisions, a fleet of buoys to reflect the fleets of stars that already steer us.
I assure all those who require it that at this time of writing, I Jane Squire am of sound mind and body. I leave these ideas and what money I may acquire from them as my gifts to you all, that they may bob with the tides of time until they reach those who can listen to them with Sympathy.
Sometimes, I Think About Mrs Grozny
Mrs Grozny lands like some exotic spacecraft in the winter of 1985. She orbits our music stands in spangly tights that wrinkle around her ankles and poke through the toes of her gold leather sandals, which we assume she must’ve borrowed from a charity shop, then shoved in a suitcase without any make-up or a hairbrush or thought for anything else that might lift her dull complexion and wisp-thin hair. We joke – while sucking the sherbet from papery flying saucers during the break – that she must be some sort of robot because her arms move up and down and across for all the world like they might fall off. And because of the way her glasses slip down her nose and she has to push them up at regular intervals, her immovable face stretched tight like an elastic band, like the sickly pale faces of those bendy gymnasts, the ones with the hair pulled into buns and the ribcages on show, whose bodies don’t seem to grow up. We whisper, too, about how she got here – did she come in one of those shuttles? – while she taps on the lectern for silence, her voice a far-away thing that talks of crOTZCHets and qUAYYvers, the words sounding weird, like she’s squeezing them out through a telephone line and we cannot quite hear and nor can she. Our minds keep going back to the footage on the news: the lines of uniformed men with fur hats: there, every night, in the snow, marching across the square that looks more white than Red, the camera panning across their frost-fixed faces. We wonder – or maybe it’s just me doing this bit of wondering – if one of them is Mr Grozny, and if so, does she miss him and was he the one who bought her those tights as a farewell gift? And we try to forget about the men we know, our fathers’ friends, their frown-lines deep as the coal they used to mine. And as we saw away on our violins making sounds that surely come from the very bowels of Hell, her face remains impressively straight. What could she be thinking? Probably this: they promised me space, a glittering new world! They smuggled me out at great expense and yet, here I am – at home in this old mining town, ha! – trying to teach chILLdren who have no EAR for the mYUUsik and who whisper, whisper, whISSSper all the time. Is that why she packs up her tights in the spring, leaving us to play under a sky now emptied of shimmer, as if a comet passed us by – its once-bright trail implausible, now, in the faded grey?
It’s his nineteenth birthday. He’s out in the sunshine with the guys, making a tape to send home. He waves a pretend cigar at the portable cassette recorder, imitates Jimmy Durante’s signature rasp: “Okay folks! Let’s hear dah music!” It’s then the first rocket strikes.
No one thinks to turn off the recorder. It catches them all as they burst out laughing, then catches them laughing some more as the second rocket strikes, then the third, then the fourth, then more. It catches them laughing at themselves, at the war, at the rockets that will bury some them if not this time, then next. They laugh at Jimmy Durante and fake cigars and the absence of birthday cake and the absurdity of it all.
The tape cuts off before they run for cover, while they are still laughing. Laughing, because what else is there to do in a war that no one understands, where the very rockets have perfect comic timing.
About Ingrid Jendrzejewski…
Even to the edge of doom
Strangers come two days before market with ladders and faces sharp as axes. One bids my Margaret cover her golden hair for shame. But his eyes slide over her like fat on a skillet and my belly clenches.
That night Robin creaks from our bed. When he slips back, his beard specked with dew and his feet nursing my calf for warmth, I do not ask where he has been.
They leave the church door wide while they go about their work. They rejoice in what they do. The town square rings to the sound of their breaking in mocking echo of the Christmas bells that herald our salvation.
Margaret and I carry our heavy baskets home through the churchyard. It is midsummer but the ground cracks under our feet. Frosted with heaven overnight, the way glisters red and yellow and richest blue. They have swept away the greatest pieces but Margaret plucks a shard the breadth of my palm from the grass. I hide it in my kerchief. The church windows gape over us, broken-mouthed. The imps grin from the gutters.
By Sunday, they are done. Swifter by far to pull down than to build.
To step into our church was to step into Noah’s rainbow. Now it sits white as bone.
The lime is not yet dry. Our familiar angels – O, the fire of their flaming wings – fade through the thickening mist of the wash. The saints watch, eyeless, faces blasted as though all the winds of time had blown at once. Thomas, James, Catherine, Margaret, Anne, for whom we named our babes, those that grew and those we buried. Peter Glazier will come and set new windows of clear glass, they say. Until then, sparrows clatter and gossip in the high beams.
The priest waits, not beside the stone altar but behind a wooden table. He has the look of a goodwife, in his plain surplice, aproned and ready to spoon out broth. The great silver cross and candlesticks that were our pride are missing.
My elder daughter’s husband rises in his black coat. Since he turned to the new religion all joy is gone from my Catherine’s face as if he had taken a hammer to the pane of her and struck it through. The priest steps to one side. It is my son-in-law who speaks. Those who know where the silver has been taken, it is their duty before the king, before the Lord, to declare it. The priest stares over our heads to the West door, to where our Doom was painted. Last Sunday, the crowd of the blessed climbed up to heaven and the wicked tumbled down to hell. This Sunday, the wall is blank.
No voice answers but the sparrows. I do not look at my husband. We fold our hands and lower our eyes. More than saints may lose their heads.
Monday noon, I take cheese and apples and go to my husband where he cuts saplings. I have not done so since the children were small.
The light dapples green and gold. The coppice rushes soft with full leaves and the wings of birds. In the deep hush of the wood, Robin unwraps the treasure so we may see the shine of it one last time. I have not held it before. The silver weighs heavier than I had thought. I touch my lips to the cross, feel the precious metal warm beneath them, then swaddle it well in the oiled cloths and lay it in the chest. Robin nails down the lid.
We dig the pit together. We have chosen a fine old tree to mark the place. We know it by the names we carved when we were courting. It is heavy labour. Afterwards, we unlace and dry the sweat from our skin in the sweet air. The trees arch over us when we kneel. The taste of each other’s flesh is salt like good bread. I count the years of us together in the rings of our bodies, the lines around his eyes where he has smiled, the white webs that spider my belly. Afterwards, we whisper that the young king is not strong. We will wait. We will stand fast and grow steady, as the wood has stood.
I walk home with my husband’s kisses fresh upon me. My son-in-law struts by my door in his crow’s coat and I bend my head, in the proper manner.
Margaret has washed the glass she saved and placed it on the kitchen sill. The eye of the angel winks in the catching sun.
The Lady with the Ink
The keeping of diaries is forbidden, so Nora writes in secret while the candle hurls shadows on the canvas tent. Tonight, she remembers the boy on the stretcher who stuttered an apology for his blood-stained uniform. ‘Soldier’s badge of honour,’ Nora had lied, gratified by the smile that punctured his pain.
To distract him, as she washed and dressed his jagged wounds, Nora chatted about her dog Daisy and asked about his home. When she returned from emptying the basin, he was dead. The keeping of diaries is forbidden, so Nora writes in secret, lest we forget.
These Worn Bodies
Dry leaves save the fire suckling on branches stained with pine sap from dying. Coalley takes an ax to one of Mistress Whitaker’s good chairs and feeds the pieces to the flame, careful the fire doesn’t choke. She used to love the smell of burning pine and maple until her Daddy was sent down the road to chop lumber for a neighbor who claimed the wood was too wet to burn.
Behind closed eyes, Coalley only sees the body of her Daddy swinging from barren branches, toes tipping over dried, curling leaves.
She keeps a bit of her Daddy and Mama in the pocket of her apron tied around the layers of clothes she wears to keep the winter chill from finding her skin. Strips of cloth from her parents’ clothes wrap around rocks the Whitakers won’t miss. Coalley rubs her thumb over the tattered remains of her Daddy, joining Mistress Whitaker outside on the porch for—what she keeps in her mind—the last time.
The Big House could burn behind her and Mistress Whitaker’s eyes would never leave the black iron gate wrapping around Good’Night plantation. She insists the house remain warm for when “they” return, the word dying a little more in Mistress Whitaker’s throat with each passing day. The women keep watch over the men in gray uniforms beyond the gate, wrinkled and hunched, covered in bloodied bandages with tongues too caught up in what they’ve seen to speak. Coalley has never seen so many men missing so much of themselves. However, none of these worn bodies belongs to Master Whitaker, the two Whitaker boys, or Coalley’s husband, Solomon, even the ones dangling from wooden carts.
Still, Mistress Whitaker has Coalley search them all.
Slaves used to drift in the opposite direction in the early days, careful to avoid the soldiers. Some carried tattered clothes. Others clung to silver spoons, pocket watches, or other objects dead men won’t miss but might help the living when scrounging for food later on. Mistress Whitaker spits on the porch planks—their white paint peeling—every time something glistens in the hands of a slave.
Though those objects do look good in the hands of freemen.
Coalley thinks on her own stash wrapped in one of the Whitaker boy’s sheets tucked in the roots of a tree just beyond the gate. Every morning, before Mistress Whitaker stirs, she walks to her stash to make sure it’s there, touches the bits of silverware polished by her Mama, empty picture frames, pins, and other things the soldiers deemed too useless to take during one of their raids. She moves these stolen pieces a little further every day. With every sunrise, Coalley takes another step farther from Good’Night until her heart stills enough for her body to keep going.
“Have Hadley start dinner,” and Coalley’s thoughts return to Mistress Whitaker, a small woman who whistles when she talks caused by a gap in her teeth she used to shield with a fan no matter the season, until a soldier ripped it away from her.
“Hadley’s gone, Miss.”
“Then get Sarah.”
“Also gone,” the tip of Coalley’s tongue is pricking the roof of her mouth by the time she realizes the tone she’s let slip. Hazel eyes that turn gold when the light hits them right stare up at her with such force, Coalley takes a step back and lowers her head.
“You watch how you speak to me, Girl.”
“Yes Mistress,” Coalley caresses her Mama’s bit of cloth in her apron pocket.
“Set them right.”
Most times, Mistress Whitaker’s words sound like the end of a thought, though Coalley remembers the woman’s been known to carry on conversations with the air or her reflection.
“I should—” Coalley swallows the rest. Hadley ran off with the first black man she saw walking. Sarah not too far behind with a baby on her hip. Coalley thought about joining them but didn’t want to leave the rocks of her parents behind. After grabbing them, Hadley and Sarah were nowhere to be found and, even in a crowd, Coalley couldn’t bring herself to step off Whitaker land without papers.
There’s a smile itching at Mistress Whitaker’s lips as she rises from her seat. She’s spent so many days sitting, Coalley forgets they stand eye-to-eye with each other.
The two women spend some time in the quiet, Coalley grasping her parents. Mistress Whitaker biting and curling her lips.
“He’ll be on.” Coalley wants to believe these words as they echo in her bones. She bites back the other words she wants to say, how Mistress Whitaker never said her husband’s name until now. Instead, Coalley allows the force of her anger to move her down the steps. The rocks of her Mama and Daddy curl next to one another, playfully patting against Coalley’s leg.
“Get back here.”
Good’Night plantation swallowed up more lives than Coalley knows, discarded more people than she can hold in her heart—including her mama—caged and carried off without time for a goodbye.
She has one hand on the black iron gate. The other gripped by Mistress Whitaker. Coalley looks back at the panting woman, brown hair with strands of gray clinging to her red face cracked with wrinkles borrowed by a woman beyond her years. Hazel eyes, now brown like Coalley’s, trembling with veins creeping in. They remind Coalley of the lashes swelling on her back. She can feel their bones collide every time Mistress Whitaker tugs at her fingers. She thinks on how Solomon kissed the hand Mistress Whitaker holds, whispering about freedom in the dark before sneaking away to find a blue uniform.
Coalley likes the idea of her Solomon waiting for her somewhere in blue.
She tears her hand away. Listens to the iron gate wail as it swings open. Coalley steps through, grabs her bundle, and gazes at how her feet fill the footsteps of all who’ve made it this far.
Previously published at Blue Five Notebook
Sometimes I imagine – that this is the jungle – that these are wooden parrots screeching – that those are metal crocodiles snapping – and I imagine I am a brave explorer – slashing on with my knife – keeping my wits and kit about me – keeping on forward though my arms are pricking – and my legs are numbing – and when I want to sleep – I imagine it’s the whipping vines that yank me back – and not the strapping – so I take another breath – it keeps me going – but at the same time – leads me to stopping – all that particulate – like the soft jungle steam rising – glistening like the shilling pocketed – forfeited – for each cough.