The Fable Online
Issue 14 April 1, 2016
Sarah Kedar Editor-in-Chief
ÂŠ2015-2016, The Fable Online|Contributing Authors
Table of Contents Trade â€“ In by Charles Hayes ............................................................................................................................5 Lion Let Loose by Samantha Pilecki .......................................................................................................................7 New Topographies of London by Matt Thompson .......................................................................................................................10 Only One Shoebox by Charlotte Lee ........................................................................................................................... 24 The Interview by Bibi Hamblin ....................................................................................................................................26 Unfounded Identity by CB Droege ................................................................................................................................ 28
Trade - In by Charles Hayes Through shoes with cardboard soles that sport a clownish grin, my blackened toes flash like rotten teeth. Crows, spooked from the pizza box atop the trash, hurl their curses from the wires on high, to the concrete canyons of misty light. Chalk colored piles with dark swirls, like rippled custard, dot the box, and I wonder at the absence of odor, as I lift the lid. One piece is better than none, a find at last, and some fluff for a bowel that growls. Sitting on the curb, my breezy feet to face, I figure that I have had worse, and smack the pizza down. Time to nap, I scan the shadowed doors about and see my pick is occupied. A lumpy blanket squeezing hair, with weathered boots parked aside. Removing my flaps of shod I waft to the shadowed lee, do a trade and carry on. The crows are quite as sin.
Charles Hayes, a 2015 Pushcart Prize Nominee, is an American who lives part time in the Philippines and part time in Seattle with his wife. A product of the Appalachian Mountains, his writing has appeared in Ky Storyâ€™s Anthology Collection, Wilderness House Literary Review, The Fable Online, Unbroken Journal, CC&D Magazine, Random Sample Review, The Zodiac Review, eFiction Magazine, Saturday Night Reader, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, and others.
Lion Let Loose by Samanth Pilecki
If she was dead, she couldn’t be a bad mother. If she walked out, however, there would be all sorts of talk. Walking out wasn’t an option. Though she was ambivalent towards her children, she didn’t want them growing up to hear vicious whispers. The kind that fell quiet when you came near. So no, picking up and getting out wasn’t even a possibility, although, lately, it was all she ever thought about. With Big Joe, her husband, gone off overseas somewhere (and where, where, was the V-mail, these days? What could take so long?) and the harsh world of factory life, it was just too much, all of it. The gas rationing and all the desperate scrap collections, and the whipped frenzy for support support support…she knew others had it worse, yes, she knew she should be grateful for her two darling children and a home of her own in Hartford, but…she wasn’t. What a freak she was. What a heartless, ungrateful, unpatriotic freak. People were dying all the time. Why couldn’t she be one of them? It was best not to let anyone know. She couldn’t say anything about this –this despair, that’s what it was. Folks would say she was whining. Or crazy. So Edna barely existed. She smiled blandly when her sister Violet suggested a day out at the circus. She tried not think about the cost of five tickets –Violet, her little girl Elaine, Edna’s two own children, and herself. Edna found the circus wretched. The heat was unbearable, and Little Joe created a catastrophe when his hot dog, dripping with juice and ketchup, fell onto his best shirt. The crowd was too noisy. The animals sad. Elaine cried when they couldn’t see the sideshows. There was no money for that. Lunch alone was expensive enough. Edna looked forward to seeing Poor Weary Willie, the sad clown. She never did. # It started when the band abruptly changed the tune. “Stars and Stripes Forever” was a jarring transition from the suspenseful trills of the high wire act. The roustabouts, the clowns, the circus performers stopped, as if the music were a cue, and started showing
people to the exits. Across the way, blossoms of bright fire sprouted on the sidewall of the tent. “Is it part of the show?” Violet’s girl asked. The screams promptly answered her question. No, it was not part of the show. Folding chairs toppled. Popcorn flew. People tripped. Smoke grew thick and black. Edna looked around at the chaos and knew they would die. Why not? People were dying all the time. She told the children to pray. If they prayed to the baby Jesus, He would protect them. She lied, quite calmly. Screams whistled, as Edna imagined bombs might, through the stifling air, and the fire shrieked up up and up to the highest point of the Big Top itself. People pushed, punched, stampeded past. Lions roared, still in their cages. The heat, the crush of bodies around them – Violet was frantic, caught up in the pandemonium. She heaved Elaine into her arms and had Edna’s kids at her skirts, screaming at her sister that she was crazy, she was always crazy. Violet wasn’t going to lay down and die. And then they were off. Gone. Part of the crowd. Edna was fine with that. She was also suddenly fine with the sweat, the closeness, the dizziness of it all because it would soon be over. She knew smoke inhalation would kill her –it would put her to sleep. It would be fine, to go like that. Still, panicked people shoved and tugged her along towards the edge of the canvas circus tent. She felt suddenly tired –with everything. It was hard to breathe. What kept her upright was a fear of being trampled – she saw a man on crutches go down and heard a wet crunching. It sent willies down her spine. Too painful that way. A kid with a pocketknife slit the canvas and people tumbled out, to safety. Edna, one of them, choked on the air. How strange she hadn’t coughed while breathing the smoke – but now the fresh air did her in. Mysteries like that. Edna looked around her, the stumbling, the scattered fear and shouts apart from her already-removed self. She felt untethered, disoriented –she felt the possibility of a true escape close by, as though she was peering past an open cage door. She could become her own mystery too, right now. She liked this idea very much.
So Edna walked out. She walked past the ambulances arriving, past the cars in the parking lot, and kept walking. If she was dead, she couldnâ€™t be a bad mother.
Samatha Pilecki is your typical librarian who collects dead bugs and enjoys playing with her pet rats. Her work will be forthcoming in El Portal, WORK magazine, and Fickle Muses.
New Topographies of London by Matt Thompson
Welcome to London. Please be advised that this guide is intended for exploratory purposes only; any predicaments that you may find yourself embroiled in as a result of its use are the responsibility of the purchaser only. First, an overview. It is generally accepted that the London Street Atlas is long overdue for renewal, based as it is on erroneous, outmoded concepts: order, concision, cartographical accuracy etc. Designed in 1936 by the redoubtable Phyllis Pearsall, sorceress-in-chief of the Geographers' Aâ€“Z Map Company Limited, the constraining pedantry to be found within its covers has for too many years shuttled people around these avenues in regulated, inhibiting fashion, crushing the higher attributes of the human mind beneath the yoke of empiricism. Now it is time to look at the city anew. For within those abstruse diagrams of suburban hells and derelict business parks, among the snakes-and-ladders cityscape that mocks the eye and dulls the spirit, lies the verifiable London, the corporeal London. Follow, if you wish, the instructions held within this directory. But remember: the itinerary contained herein may well appear different to the paths you find yourself on once you begin your circuit of the city. Research is fallible; truth is a matter, sometimes, of the most efficacious choice between two contradictory viewpoints. The streets shift beneath our feet even as we tread them, and close adherence to the map is advised at all times. Start at the centre. A pall of soot hangs over the city; here there are counterpart districts, mirrored semblances of reality, winding lanes that disappear into dark havens of sorrow and mistrust. Cobbles stretch taut beneath the feet of condemned pack-horses, eaves strain and crack on the frontage of public houses, their denizens unknowing, uncaring. The roadways here are rough-hewn, the plazas untended. But something stirs. Nestled among courtyards and overhanging vaults, it lies in wait. The true start of your journey into the real London, the fount of the city's wealth, you may hear of it only in dark whispers, mention of it eliciting a perturbed silence. Know it by its name: the Stock Exchange.
# The Stock Exchange. Nameless, crestless, the building itself is unremarkable; there are a thousand just like it in that neighbourhood alone. Inside those plain walls, however, you will find the players of the Game. Participation is not, at this juncture, advised; although such guidance is often ignored, the ramifications can be costly. To gain entrance, you will first be obliged to attend one of the Tea Auction Houses that blight the area. There, the victorious acquisition of any barrel of leaf, whatever the price paid, will grant you possession of a chit bestowed by one of the disinterested auction masters. What you then do with your tea is your business; a swift resale is advised. Of all the occult mechanisms you may encounter on your travels, the reasoning behind the instigation of this particular course of action is among the most obscure. Its origin unknown, its purpose remains unclear; and remember: no-one asks. Upon entering, present your token to an agent of the Exchange at the front door. These pathetic figures are the failures, the losers of the Game. Privileges rescinded, they continue to haunt the premises, wraiths in thrall to their own hubris, a stark reminder that every player will, one day, join them. Access to the Trading Floor thus gained, you will hopefully speak to an operative of the Traders â€“ you will not know them; they must seek you out â€“ who will inform you of that particular dayâ€™s commodities. The identity of said stock is in constant flux. Derivatives, futures, non-fungible assets; the formulas of designation remain opaque, even (or especially) to those that devise them. It may be that you will be expected to sell at a loss. How you accomplish such a deed is not something that concerns the Traders, and it should not concern you for any longer than the time it takes to achieve. Conversely, you may be expected to acquire a certain amount of shares, thence to be squirrelled away in an offshore account of dubious provenance and forgotten. The identity of these vendibles is largely symbolic, or, it could be said, allegorical. Your fellow traffickers, heads bowed as they calculate their hermeneutic balance sheets, show no interest in any newcomers. Some have been playing the Game for decades, some for minutes. It makes no difference, for the patterns that rule the players generate themselves from the latent potential of the participants themselves. Ever-shifting, everrenewing, these mandalas of significance burrow their way inside the economic systems of the world, pulling humanity this way, pushing it that way, the meaning gradually unfurling its wings to reveal itself among the shadow bazaars of international trading
posts, arms fairs and gentlemenâ€™s clubs. At any moment, one can be expelled from the Game. Your transgressions will remain unidentified. No-one, least of all yourself, must ever know their true nature, for it is in mystery that the Traders accomplish their tasks. A story is told, on occasion, of one such aspirant. The man, new to the Game, demanded to know why he had been excluded from current and future participation. The target of his ire, a bent and broken woman who had, not an hour earlier, accepted his token with a dead-eyed nod, screeched in alarm as her assailant attempted to wrest his treasure back from her. She gave it to him, of course; it had no more worth by then than any other of the discarded scraps that lined the floor. She herself was ignorant of the target of his protestations. Once the man had been forcibly removed from the premises, she returned to her pestering of the boorish incumbents of the Exchange, alms bowl held before her, until she too was propelled streetwards by the overworked and underpaid security guard. The tale is also a warning: the secret at the heart of the Game must remain as such for the process to retain its authority. None can be superior to another; on the Trading Floor, all are equivalent. Thus, the wealth of the city is redistributed fairly, from each according to their dreams to each according to their desires. All fiscal channels lead to the Stock Exchange, and flow from it to the Mints, to strongboxes, to investors' meetings in shadowy boardrooms. The humour latent in these transactions becomes ever more apparent with each trade, a sardonic mockery aimed at the gold-leaf scrubbers that generally populate such places. Leave the Traders to their cabalistic abstruseness, for the joke always, without fail, ends up with the teller as the victim of the punchline. Sidle back through the door, doing your best not to meet the wary eye of the doorman and stumble into the wan light of day. The sights and sounds of London await you! As do the smells. A cloak of malodour lingers in the air, suspended on the breeze like a stork circling its nest. These streets have served their purpose. Depart elsewhere â€“ tourist traps beckon, eateries and hostelries draw you towards them, the coins vibrate in your pocket with magnetic power. Scrutinise your map if you must. Follow the arrowpoint avenues on the atlas that head north, towards the great arterial roads leading out of the city. It is there, among the traffic-clogged spokes of the great wheel that is London, that you can find the source of much of the city's secret knowledge: the Library. # The Library.
At first, you may think yourself in the wrong place. The Library is manned by a bewhiskered old fellow whose name is, seemingly, known to none. An unprepossessing wooden enclosure perched on the kerb of the northbound lane of one such thoroughfare, diesel fumes choke the few patrons that flick desultorily through the withered goods on display. There, you will find a sad, stained collection of tomes indeed! Ripped covers, missing chapters, scraps of unwanted and forgotten metaphysical meanderings scrawled over their pages like the product of a madmanâ€™s final syphilitic ravings, the books scream: leave me here! Flee, lest you too become mired in this world of dour desperation. But fear not, traveller. Edge your way inside, beneath the plywood covers of the coop, squeezing your way past the shabby, raincoat-clad behemoths flipping nervously through the encrusted pages of pornographic magazines that line the rat-cage of the shelves, and you will find an even more forlorn emporium. This inner chamber exudes damp and madness. Infused with an odour of rotten beeswax, its shelves are sparsely populated by refutations of knowledge and empirical analysis, abandoned dissertations, dead cockroaches, vials of rat poison...From such grotesquerie, though, significance can emerge. One corner of the room is shaped in such a fashion as to deceive the eye. The oblique interstice of two walls reveals itself, on closer inspection, to be an ingress to a further vault, a tiny cavity within a miniature cubicle within a shrunken galleria: the Library, at last. Squeeze inside, reader. Here, a single shelf wobbles uneasily on rusted brackets. Perched on its uneven slope you will find a single volume, tossed carelessly down as if its discarder wished for nothing further than to be rid of it. The title of the book, magazine, academic paper or whatever it is you find there is irrelevant, its contents less pertinent still. It truly doesnâ€™t matter. It could be anything. What is important is that you take it, examine its contents and act on them in the most appropriate way you see fit. Many have been here before you. One researcher, on finding a single sheet of parchment on which had been scrawled a diatribe against the potential introduction of a fictitious 'Euclidean Tax', proceeded to march on Parliament in protest and was never heard from again. Another, an entomologist, discovered her own, long-discarded university thesis concerning the linguistic parallels between the beating of moth wings and the lecturing style of her doctoral mentor, a screed that had led to a temporary suspension from her Alma Mater. Becoming, in the months following, an etymologist and etiologist also, her withdrawal from the Library eventually caused her to live out her days in crepuscular servitude to ever more unfathomable theories regarding the connections
between linguistic causation and insect behaviour. And so on. The Library can thus be seen as a locus point for the verisimilitude of competing theories. Whether or not these doctrines can be proven experientially is immaterial; or, rather, falsifiable. Take your codex, your treatise, and depart. Before you leave, however, you have one more vital task to fulfil. Replenish the Library. Leave an offering behind. Either antiquarian encyclopaedias or stained marketing materials would suffice, as would a newspaper, or a cheap novel, or a technical manual regarding the chemical composites of lead-free paint. Place it on the shelf and squirm your way back outside, where the Librarian will acknowledge your withdrawal with no more than a sidelong glare, and his timid customers edge their bodies away from you, the latest conqueror of London. Many players of the Game have visited this biblioteque of dreams. What they find here remains the preserve of their memories, and so shall it be with you too. And remember: once remitted, your Library card is permanently revoked. You shall never return. This area of the city will forever elude you, a ghost town within the spectral metropolis whose streets you trudge along, eternally regretting the misuse of your knowledge. No mind. That is the ratiocination of the Library, and none shall ever change it. Better to move on, overhead electrical circuits pulling you eastward, along the courses of hidden subterranean rivers, past derelict townhouses and bramble-strewn parkland, resurgent shopping courts and renascent fairgrounds. The hum of electrons beats against the thrum of water underfoot, the resultant difference tone marking the way to the next stop on the circuit, the outskirts of the marshy wetlands that contain the fount of all life within the borders of London: the Reservoir. # The Reservoir. Fed by newly-channelled tributaries of these long-forgotten buried waterways, its entrance lies at the edge of one of the miniature swamps that dot this tract of faded greenery on the periphery of the city. The bolted iron door of a crumbling brick outhouse bars your way. Working the rusted padlock free should be the work of seconds. The door scrapes open halfway. Then, it is a simple matter to slip inside â€“ a svelte torso is recommended for this particular manoeuvre â€“ and descend the rotting iron stairway to
the secret world beneath. A damp, musty odour assails you as you clank your way downward. Settling over the air is a warm, ancient atmosphere of condensation and hothouse claustrophobia. Your footsteps echo away as you attain the bottom rung, and the vista before you is revealed in its entirety. Crystal-pure waters lap at the ledges of the Reservoir, stretching away into the far shadows. Subtle tremors cause miniature wavelets to scud across its surface, sending shimmers of luminescence over the tiled walls and ceiling. A roseate light radiates from somewhere, bathing the scene in a soft, welcoming glow. Now, you may wish to inspect those tiles closer. From a distance, they appear to show scenes from Greek antiquity – Gods, men, fabulous beasts, cavorting in a luxuriouslyappointed Heaven of eternal happiness and wonderment. But look. A methodical examination will disclose the true nature of this sunken spa, a revelation that may, if you let it, send you scrambling back to the dingy world above ground in horror. For the figures therein scream. Mouths agape, dread filming the blood-soaked curtains of their eyes, their terror draws the onlookers’ gaze into its wounded crevasse, sucking all hope from any soul unfortunate enough to cast their eye upon it. And these agonised cries can be heard, too, in the slap of the waves against the ceramic lip of the pool, the echoes that bounce from the wrought-iron staircase, the surge of the Reservoir’s lifegiving elixir exiting the cavern to merge with the water table, and thence into the throats and stomachs of the city’s uncomprehending inhabitants. Where did they come from, these damned, tortured souls? No-one knows. Maybe they were the Builders, the architects of both the city and their own downfall. Maybe they were seekers of indulgence, hoping to find eternal bliss in this sunken grotto of delusion. It matters little. The Reservoir is a filtration tank of poison, regurgitating London’s innermost nightmares and amplifying their essences back into the city’s nightly slumber. The trapped, tormented remnants of humanity that line the walls send their agonies as a gift, a remembrance of paths less travelled and doors that should have remained closed. Turn your eyes from them. Their fate is the fate of history, of the world beyond this one, a tenebrous realm of the dead. Life is for the living, or so they say; here, the deluge of the damned spills from the Reservoir into the water tanks and vacuum chambers of the overworld. It is time to leave. These mystic channels lead back to their parent courses, lost and
forgotten subsurface runnels that dampen the earth with hallucinations and unblinking truths. From the marshes you can, if you squint closely at your map, ascertain their configuration. Look for the legends and symbols that suggest a dried-out, abandoned creek bed. Follow them closely. The names may seem familiar: the Tyburn, the Walbrook, the Effra, the feeders of wells and spas that now lie, culverted or earthed in, surging below your feet as you head for the Thames and its noxious, condescending tyranny. Seek the wings of hummingbirds and the drone of wasps; these creatures, at least, sense the latent strength of the Lost Rivers and patrol their clandestine banks accordingly. Clouds of midges swoop around your head; welcome their bites, for the letting of blood may protect you as you creep back towards the heart of the city. Scuttle past the gates of the Fish Market, a bazaar of recherché sea creatures that opens for business but once a season. Dip your head upon sight of the Fashion Houses, inverse emporiums of the Old City clothing artisans, their ranges of hoopskirts and farthingales stifling their purchasers into paroxysms of near-asphyxiation. Bladesmiths, smelting forges searing the air; parish churches, their coterie of deacons, vicars, apostolic successors of mendacity; guilderers, bonesetters, xylographers: shun their entreaties, flee their malicious clutches, and stay your course – onward, to the stagnant waters of the Thames, and its rivulets within rivulets, its overloaded barges and floating saloons. There you will find, if you are fortunate indeed, the ever-reconstituting span of your next stop: the Shifting Bridge. # The Bridge. Marked on the map by a series of dots that somehow elude the efforts of the eye to pin them down, the Bridge is the only place where you can trust to cross the murky course in safety. The bridges you know – Blackfriars, Chelsea, the tautly-stretched elastic of the Millennium Bridge – seem, in diagrammatic form, like stitches crudely sewn onto the lips of a madman, his cries stifled within the drear waters beneath. Somewhere within them, though, a spectral presence reconstituting itself from the fog and grime that creeps along the riverbanks in unfurling coils of soft down, the Shifting Bridge can be seen. Now here, now there, it waxes and wanes with the bloodsmoke seasons of the moon, its encrusted support struts home to giant barnacles of the deeps, their feelers pointing feebly towards the invisible stars. Its rails of ornate, carved iron seem too low to prevent the inevitable suicides of the lost and disaffected that blight its ramparts. Blackened statues line the walkways, their marbled curves chipped and cracked, shadows of ill
portent cast down onto the surface of the water. Beneath, hidden cavities reflect a low boom back out into the subsurface world of silt and sunken vessels, beckoning vast sea creatures past the gunwales of Greenwich and into the clutches of the Bridge: whales, starfish, seahorses, all drawn to their doom. Occasionally one of these beasts of the ocean will escape for a while, desperately paddling the course of the river in a hopeless bid for freedom, before succumbing, eventually, to the inevitable. Their bones are kept in a secret museum; a rumour only, its existence or otherwise should not concern you. One may cross the Shifting Bridge at any time. But remember: the streets you walk on as you disembark may delineate unseen paths. Alleyways curve out of sight. Adrift, you plod in Dantean circles for eternity, forever seeking an exit that remains within you, although you will not know it. Conversely, you might find yourself slipping and sliding on the fabled streets of gold, knapsack on your shoulder, pockets stuffed with sovereigns. Wine merchants cringe at your feet, antique sellers beckon you into their heaving emporiums, prostitutes giggle coquettishly behind their fans. But beware! For this London, the city of eternal promise abjures the return of its guests. The Bridge shimmers, now incorporeal, its silhouette fading into the haze of the morning. Enjoy your wealth while you may, traveller, for the coming days will see it put to the test or the sword. Better to admire the Bridge from afar, turn from the murk of the Thames and head southward, along the throbbing veins of London that sweep you into their embrace, a breathless slipstream that deposits you, many miles later, onto a derelict, half-used high street. A generic parade of bookmakers and chicken shops eternally shuttered, black bin bags torn open on the street to reveal a toxic gunge of oily drippings and rotting fowl: there you will find your next port of call. Tucked between a payday lender and a vacant, boarded-up shopfront, purple and maroon lights flash from the gloom like the attractor lamps of a fishing boat, adrift on an ocean current. The door is wedged ajar, exuding a stale odour of aftershave and cider into the street. A series of cracks criss-crosses the glass frontage, drafting the geographies of a treasure map onto the softly-lit crystalline expanse, a Fata Morgana to lure unwary travellers into its clutches. The gleam from inside beckons you; ignore it at your peril! For it is here, in these insalubrious surroundings, that the next level of the Game may be played. Now you are entering the Casino. # The Casino.
The careworn entrance foyer, dotted with defective, obsolete one-armed jacks, leads through to the sparsely inhabited and ill-maintained gambling floor, itself populated by a mix of shabbily-dressed addicts, fallen-on-hard-times showboaters and silent, sullen croupiers. David Niven twirling his way among the nightspots of Monte Carlo it is not. Jewel-encrusted, cigarette holder-brandishing women are thin on the ground, to say the least. But fear not! For within these walls, the hermetic Game within a Game is played only by the chosen few, eternal adepts of its glissando, zigzag manoeuvrings. Those that play are usually unaware, at first, of their participation. It might be a covert glance from one of their opposites in a round of whist, giving them a faint inkling that all is not as it seems; a particular angle taken by a roulette ball as our unsuspecting victim calls out a Grand Voisins du Zéro, the clackclackclack of the wheel matching the drumming fingers of the croupier beat for beat; the cut and shuffle of a dealer before you are dealt a made hand; any of these might be the sign, the unsayable word that tells you: now, you are a Player. At the tables, the Casino’s inhabitants slump, their glassy eyes intent on the sleight of the croupier’s deft fingers dealing the baccarat hands into their unwilling clutches. Accumulations of gaming chips splay their way across the baize, the dealer’s Shoe drawing them towards it as a compass needle is drawn to a magnetic centre, the cut-card revealing its void to them in a cackle of ill delight. Pockets turned out, shirts torn from backs; these lost souls seem like the addicts you will find anywhere: crack dens, hostelries, brothels, the myriad venues wherein one can damn oneself to the inferno. But look closer. The croupier’s rake drags the chips across the baize. The losers accede to the House, bereft of assets, and the true Game begins. The roulette wheel turns, the scrape of the ball echoes from the ceiling. All eyes are on it. Finally, it rattles into a pocket: Slot 22. Slot 37. Slot 1. The numbers are an irrelevance. The meaning of the Game resides in the nature of the forfeit, the gambler’s arc of hope, desperation, despair; the House always wins. In the end. The significance of the loser’s actions may appear obscure to the casual observer. Indeed, they will more than likely be unknown to the Player. Puppets of the Game itself, they perform their habitual actions with the predicted intertwining of elation and anguish, ceremonial roles distinguishable from those of their gambling brethren merely by virtue of their lack of agency. A conversation within the Casino was overheard thus:
- We are afraid we cannot accept any more bets from you tonight, sir. - Will this be acceptable as collateral? - A snap of flesh echoes into the silence - ...That will be fine, sir. He is there still, a speculator of reverie, his deposit never to be recovered. The management will tell you the man is happier that way, and indeed, he is. The Game rewards its members, both rookie and seasoned professional alike, with the true tapestry of their desire. They tell of one, a habitual visitor to the premises, who departed one night into the freezing depths of the early hours, having befallen a run of bad luck so profound even the neighbouring tables halted their hands the better to gawp at his misfortune. From there, he strolled towards the outskirts of the city, following the curves of trunk roads and side streets towards the south west. Eventually, he turned eastwards, skirting the outermost limits of the city and arcing back around towards his starting point. From there, all trace of him was lost. Some say he walks there still, paying off his debts in the manner of his own choosing, transcribing the borders of London in eternal damnation, mute, his actions a mystery even to himself. For such is the payday of the Casino. A vortex of stasis within the maelstrom of the city, the Game continues; occult, orphic, the ante eternally raised, the conquest eternally deferred. Sidle away, beneath the hateful glances of your fellow Players and crowds of unknowing bystanders, and know that you are now one of the few. Your actions from here onwards are no more than a chink in the pyramid of your debt. The management can call you back at any time, for the next round of the Game, the tournament of the damned administered by tricksters, hustlers, imposters... Now your map leads you back towards the centre. Its pages begin to coalesce into reason, do they not? True understanding, that chimera, remains elusive, yet your step is jaunty, your lips whistle a tune you once heard, somewhere...Past the gaols that line the edges of scrubland, the souls within ignorant of the true meaning of their crimes. The turnkeys, lords of incarceration, are the real prisoners; within the cells great forces bend and swell, the inmates meditate in preparation for their next bout of freedom. Skirt the centre and its eternal pall of smog. Head along boulevards fringed by tall hedges, their stalks trimmed to fantastical forms: typewriters, asteroids, ladders...Behind
those barriers lie print shops, artisans; the curlicues they design draw the viewer into hypnotic reveries, potential fonts for the next issue of the Street Atlas. Lead on, reader: on a quiet side street to the west of the city, in a row of townhouses whose neat facades suggest a warm, comforting interior, you can find the next stop on the map: the Brothel. # The Brothel. What lurks in the hearts of men that they should come to a place such as this? At home, their wives fret by the windows, their children cry for their absent fathers, lost to the fog of debauchery in the darklings of suburbia, divested of dignity and vigour. Their cravings are those of the dog, the earwig, the sea-sponge: seed the species, hurl the harvest grains to the wind and watch them fall where they may. A sudden gust sweeps their discharge towards the city centre, along the contours of the map, blossoming in the alleyways and promenades among which they wander, unknowing. They seek a receptacle, a vessel for their rapacious lust. But in this place? The front door leads into a tiled hallway, its panelled walls hung with pennants and portraits, the parlours leading from it deep with crimson and ochre drapes. Ceiling friezes display the cavortings of winged cherubs and grinning demons. A sharp odour fills the air: perfume, maybe, or imported spices, or the musk of bodies. Here, those aspirant strivers to the pinnacles of manhood may find the culmination of their cravings a far cry from what they imagined. In place of the longed-for repository for their seed, a human toy to be played with as the child rattles the bars of its cot, a different object of desire can be bought â€“ for the right price, naturally. You will be led to a darkened room. The only furniture is a chair, unpadded, carvings of sea serpents and trawlers writhing across the seat back. On it sits a man. Not a young man, not an ancient, wizened elder. Rather, he is ageless, the skin on his face both somehow lined and smooth. He regards you with a cryptic gaze. On his gaunt frame hangs an elegantly-tailored suit, made of gabardine. A silken handkerchief peeks out from his breast pocket, jewel-embedded cufflinks encompass his skeletal wrists like the funeral attire of a Pharaoh. His bearing suggests ruination. For minutes, his lips remain sealed as you stand before him. Remember: you have paid for this. This is your whore, your concubine, your portal to ecstasy. Be patient. Soon enough, he speaks. The words that trip from his mouth sear your heart as if they
were the dismissal of a lover; not in the same way, though, for these words hold many meanings. For what he has to tell you is this: your true desire. And what that secret is must remain a clandestine tryst between you and him. To speak of it would be to speak of the void within you, the religious emptiness that charts the borderlands of your soul â€“ should such be the definition for you of the quintessence that lurks in the deeps of your being. Your harlot will dismiss you with a glance. Go, and know that you have changed. The city, its boroughs laid out on the page as if a random selection of lines and curves, has begun to take on its true shape. Now, as you creep from the bordello, shrinking from the gaze of your fellow citizens as if their true, awful shape has been irreversibly revealed, the stained atlas you pull from your pocket reveals the animus, the quiddity of London. Its buildings and streets seem solid, gaseous no more, the fug of incomprehension lifting from your mind like fog from the Thames. And there are monstrous houses; intolerable abodes, mirror effigies that harbour the void. Vast pillars sit among them, spearing the sky; the towers emit a steady stream of suicides to the cobbles below: splat, splat, splat. Do not mourn them; instead, you may walk now with head held high. The sights of London call your name: first, the city asylum, madmen and children tearing the hair from their scalps within, womenfolk cackling through the iron bars at their misfortune. The doors are thrown open, the insane spew their way out to prostrate themselves in the dust and grime, dragging each other to the sewers, and thence to the sea. On to the Medical Museum, shelves of foetal aberrations bursting forth from their glass jars, ethanol cascading to the tiles, the deceased walking in death as they were unable to in life. Sports and mutants link arms, marching proudly to their demise at the hands of a baying mob. Those that survive head west, to the reservoir and eternal repose, the humours of their blood a tonic for the veins of the city. We will live inside their dreams as the parasite breathes the reveries of its host. Ancient duelling grounds, tram circles, slurry-strewn fish docks: they whip past you, the street atlas flung from your fingers now, the true topography revealed as the scales fall from your eyes. A new Saul, led to Damascus-by-the-Thames by his disciples, onward like the wind to the final destination on your route. In a veiled quarter of the city, you will find it: the Square. #
The Square. At the very centre of London, deep, deep within a warren of curving streets, limestone cottages twisted on their foundations and housing none but ghosts, you may find the paving stones open out into a clandestine rotunda. Windowless walls loom over the abandoned benches that flank the edges of the space. No-one who works within the surrounding premises has any idea it is even there, and neither would they care. They have greater things on their minds: where their next meal is coming from, for example. How they can ever return to the land of their birth, for another. Spiralling cut-throughs to nowhere, unknown to even the greatest of couriers, lead from here into the shadows. Stained with the urine of a thousand vagrants, coated in the droppings of a million pigeons, the Square has existed as long as the city has, in one form or another. Call it a lodestone, a heartbeat, a sieve for each thought, each desire, each act of love or violence that occurs outside its boundaries. Every emotion that boils above or beneath the surface of London's streets ends up in this place, catalogued, filtered, and hurled back out to the arteries of the city. In that place, slumped as if hope had never even visited him, the figure of a man sits quietly on his own. Even the insects shun him. Even the air itself seems reluctant to enter his lungs, his chest rising and falling like factory bellows, like the bell-pulls of a cathedral. Cast your gaze on him at your own discretion, for his very existence may drag you into his doomed world, a metropolis of the damned from which there may be no escape. And I, a soul as lost as the ones that surrounded me, found myself there, my head drooping onto a bench, fingers numb with cold and shock. Around me, the Square held its secrets with the diligence of a librarian, a bureaucrat. A lone sparrow pecked at a desultory scattering of breadcrumbs, stale offcuts thrown, who knew how many years earlier, by who knows who. A sweet wrapper danced a tango past me across the flagstones, a soft drinks can lay flattened as if gravity had multiplied a thousand-fold for an instant, a free newspaper fluttered in the breeze, likenesses of footballers and minor celebrities whipping across my field of vision and away. All I had lost came to me then. Family, friends, lovers; money, investments, household accoutrements; health, happiness: all gone, all dead. I riffled through my atlas, its torn, stained pages transcribing the weary passage I had taken to come to this place. Now its street courses seemed futile, an exercise in mere vanity on my part. Trading floors, bookmakers, clip joints, bordellos, their names etched into the paper, inked onto the inside of my skin like a tattoo.
As the sky darkened over my head, I dropped the book to the cobbles, the impact loosening the cover to where it finally detached itself from the spine and spun away into the silence of the Square. On the title page ran the legend: Cartographer: Phyllis Pearsall. The first drops of rain began to spatter down. Soon, I was sat in the midst of a downpour, the grime of London streaking my face and saturating my precious tome, turning its diagrams of ruin to an indeterminate pulp. My geographies, my hierographies lost like a dam swept away in a flooded river, twigs and straws sucked into the rills of a storm drain, all memory of its existence soon forgotten. The rain eased up a touch, enough for me to see that no more than the outskirts of the city had been destroyed within its pages. I took this as a portent, a prognostication, a sign of a coming change in the weather. Rising to my feet, I thrust the map deep into my pocket, shook the drops from my collar and shuffled away, into the sheets of water that now cascaded from the sky again, onto the thoroughfares that would lead me from this place and far, far away, out to where the bridges span cool streamlets, the tree-lined avenues beckon me onward, the ring roads contain no more than the dreams and desires of their incumbents. Taxicabs and limousines screeched their brakes and hooted their horns, hurling unheard abuse at this mapmaker of the occult, a topographer of reality whose cartography board now sat empty, exhausted, his pencils blunted for the final time. Stormclouds darkened the horizon, and the deluge tumbled down.
Matt Thompson is a writer of oddball fantastical fiction who currently lives and works in London. After releasing many records over the course of a 20-year-plus musical career, he is now focusing on writing instead: short stories, flash fiction, comics scripts, poetry and the occasional novel. His fiction has been published at Bewildering Stories and Entropy Squared, among others.
Only One Shoebox by Charlotte Lee
The light didn't come on when Ben flipped up the switch inside the doorway. He sighed in irritation and made for the window on the far side of the mothball smelling gloom. Tiny strips of light peeked through the curtains, giving just enough light for him to be able to navigate without killing himself. Probably. He cursed as his toe collided with an ottoman hiding between the shadowy figures of the coffee table and settee, and paused to rub the offended digit. Ridiculous! Why would Grandma cram this tiny room with so much darned furniture? Limping, he got to the window without further incident and whipped the curtains wide, blinking against the bright sunshine. No matter how hard he tugged, he couldn’t get the window to break its painted shackles. He’d have to make do without fresh air. Ben turned back to the tiny parlour, ignoring the sad, faded wallpaper flowers. Dust collected in drifts around old-fashioned picture frames, the figures within obscured by neglect. Much like his grandmother had been, he thought. His brothers and cousins had left him to finish the job here, too anxious to return to their own corners of the globe to give Grandma another thought after the funeral. Nowhere to start but at the beginning, he supposed. Drawer after drawer he emptied, sorting most of it into the garbage box. Twice he had to open new ones, there was just so much junk. Pictures, endless picture albums. Copies of report cards, dance recital programmes, hockey and soccer game schedules, school play photos in the local newspaper, and on and on. Junk. All stuff no one cared about, all stuff that didn’t matter. He debated whether any of the picture frames were worth keeping, two looked like tarnished silver. He tossed the pictures out of those and set the frames into the sale box. The dozens of figurines he wrapped carefully in holey dishcloths, ratty hand towels with embroidery threads hanging loose, and bath towels worn through in spots. He’d get those appraised, after all, some had been around from long before his first memories of his grandmother. The dog-eared books went into a donation box. He’d leave those in the lobby for the other residents. One book he decided to keep for his own grandchildren; Grandma had taught him to read it. Ancient folded maps cluttered with ‘I was here’ stickers also went
into the trash box. He worked steadily through the day, breaking when it got dark to eat a hearty meal out with his wife and drop off the junk boxes at the dump. Later he returned with candle lamps and kept on. Her clothing and dishes all went into donation boxes. There was nothing here any of them would want, she’d given all her valuable silver to his aunt decades ago. Finally at the end, there was only one shoebox to keep. He’d call someone to take away the shabby furniture, and the other boxes he’d drop off where they’d do the most good. By Friday, it would be as if Grandma had never been here.
Charlotte Lee lives in British Columbia, Canada and has been writing for fun since her teen years. She is a retired accountant with two grown children who have inherited her love of storytelling. Her first published story, ‘Malleta’s Song’ appeared in the December 2015 issue of The Fable Online.
The Interview by Bibi Hamblin
Interview of Lord Montague Hardacre conducted by Miss Millicent Sheridan for The Westminster Gazette
By invitation of the government. No, my money has nothing to do with it. Indeed, it is an honour. No, I’m used to danger. I thrive on it. Danger is my middle name don’t you know! Oh, these scratch marks? They’re nothing, my dear. Comes with the territory. Curses? Oh, don’t be so silly. I don’t believe in such nonsense young lady. That’s a whole heap of mumbo-jumbo. The tombs under the pyramids are meant to be opened and the artifacts shared with the world. My team and I are always at the ready with our trowels. What unfortunate incident? I don’t know what you’re talking about Miss. The third? No, hang on, Mr. Warrington is our fourth Ph.D. student to join the team. The other three? No, no, no. You’ve got that wrong, my dear. They haven’t disappeared ‘off the face of the earth.’ No, they’re off somewhere else, satisfying their thirst for the unexplored and undiscovered. All my students love this life. I couldn’t possibly comment about money being paid to the families of those ‘missing,’ as you put it, Miss Sheridan. I suggest you talk to our accountant about that. My sole purpose is to lead the expeditions, not be bothered by trivialities. What about Mr. Henderson? I am not that American’s keeper. Of course. He is an integral part of the team. I didn’t mean to make it sound like that. You seem to take pleasure in twisting my words. Yes, yes dear, next question. Must you continue with this haranguing? If you must know, I saw the fellow only last night. We had a whiskey to celebrate the discovery. Yes, of course, he was pleased. What a silly question. It’s been a dream of his since he
was a young child in rural Texas to come to Europe in search of adventure. He fell in love with all things Egyptian at The British Museum. I beg your pardon, what coughing? As I said, young lady. The man’s entitled to stay in bed if he wants to. It’s not every day the pyramid and tomb of the cat king Felina is found. Yes, it is true. The figure did have the face of a cat. Yes, yes, the body of a human. What of it? No, I certainly did not hear the meowing of cats late into the night. What whiskers dear? For God’s sake, somebody get me a mirror. No, no I’m perfectly fine to carry on my dear. The cough? Oh, it’s nothing. The inhaling of ancient dust, that’s all. No, it doesn’t sound like a cat coughing up a furball. How very dare you.
Bibi Hamblin is a certified workshop leader in the Amherst Writers and Artists Method. A Londoner, she can be found adding and subtracting words to create short stories, flash fiction and her first novel for children. Her work appears in the Blue Harvest Circle anthology, A Winter’s Romance and with Zeroflash, Visual Verse, and Sick Lit Magazine.
Unfounded Identity by CB Droege
"Blast!" The dragon shouted in frustration. His tail made a sweep of his laboratory, destroying several sensitive apparatuses against one wall. "What?! What?" The ax urged. "Ugh..." The dragon began, turning to the place where the axe was held fast in a vice above a workbench. He sighed. "This isn't the spell I meant to do at all!" "It's okay, buddy." the ax said in a soft voice, "Let's talk through it." The dragon narrowed his eyes at the Ax, and a short blast of steam erupted from his nostrils. "Well," the dragon started with some hesitation, "I was casting an enchantment of terror-poison upon the most valued weapon of my slain enemy." "Yes. Yes." the ax said in the same soft voice, though a bit more good-humored. "It was to be given to an enthralled young woman, who would use it to slaughter the late knight's loved ones." "Right. Following so far." "So," The dragon glanced around the room at the broken and useless artifacts and tools, "I was mid- enchantment when I sneezed and lost track of where I was." He lay his chin on the floor of the chamber and covered his eyes with a massive forelimb. "Uh huh." "I tried to pick up where I left off," the dragon said, and sighed another great bellow of steam from beneath his claws. "but I must have missed something." "Why, what happened?" The Dragon lifted a sharp digit and peered at the Ax with one great, yellow eye. "Instead of becoming cursed with the power of infinite terror-poison, you started talking to me." "Oh..." the Ax's voice lost some of its sprightliness. The Dragon stood once more, glancing around the chamber. His eyes settled on a matted bed of straw in one corner. "And I'm not sure what happened to my enthralled urchin. Was she consumed in the spell? Did she escape?" he asked as if talking only to
himself, but then he turned back to the Ax. "She should have been trapped here... emotionally." "I never saw her." The dragon sat contemplating the artifact for a long moment. One claw tapping against the stone of the floor, adding the numerous gouges and scratches on every surface of the laboratory "Can you move about on your own?" He asked, bringing his face close to the Ax. "Like, float around and chop things up without a hand to guide me?" "Yes." "Let me try." A few moments passed in silent stillness. The dragon's eyes narrowed once again. "So, 'no' then..." The dragon said with a huff. "I guess not." "You are useless, and I've lost my thrall anyhow." The dragon began to turn away. "I can still be of use!" The Ax's voice held a note of desperation. The dragon turned back, putting one great eye very close to the Ax in its mount. "You'll what? Jabber my enemies to death?" "Maybe?" Without another word, the Dragon picked the ax out of the vice between two claws and tossed it out the window. It landed in the snow, blade-first, forty meters down, mere steps away from a young woman who had recently overcome a strong compulsion spell, and was trying to be silent. "Well, hello!" The ax said, "I believe we have some work to do!"
CB Droege is a fantasy author and poet living in Munich. Recently his fiction has appeared in RapUnsEl and Other Stories, and a selection of his poetry appeared in the Drawn to Marvel anthology. His first novel, Zeta Disconnect was released in 2013. He recently edited Dangerous to Go Alone! An Anthology of Gamer Poetry. Learn more at manawaker.com