THE RED LINE www.overtheredline.com
THE RED LINE
Featuring Stories by Cyn Bermudez, Sofia Capel, Clare Chapple, Shannon English, Lee Hamblin, and Gary Ives.
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Editor’s Introduction……………………………………………….……………………………3 Aberration………………………………..………………………………………………………..4 Blindside………………………………………………………………………………………….10 Sisters of Macau..……………………………………………………………………………….16 A Sentence of Letters...………………………………………………………………………...19 A Winter’s Tale…………….……………………………………………………………………..23 Leaving Rapid City……………………………………………………………………………….31 The Judges………………………………………………………………………………………..35 The Judgement…………………………………………………………………………………..36
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THE RED LINE Hello! Reading at least four of these stories I am reminded of the Margaret Atwood quote which goes something like: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them; women are afraid that men will kill them”. In Sisters of Macau, Blindside, A Sentence of Letters, and Leaving Rapid City, women are most definitely in serious peril. Some of the women will be fine, some will not, and some we’ll have to wait and see. I won’t spoil the surprise now.
The stakes are slightly lower in A berration and A W inter’s Tale, although the stories are equally compelling. Both of these stories deal with the subject of escape using slightly fantastical means. In A berration the fantastical is there as a commentary on the real, where as in A W inter’s Tale the fantastical is the reality. This last story is a little reminiscent of Angela Carter’s feminist fairy tales. All in all, whether you like the sound of gunfire, political satire, dystopianism, love stories, happy and sad endings, there should be something to please everyone in the next thirty-or-so pages. As always we have to thank our Judge for this issue, Anita Dellaria, who’s take time out from her own magazine (Bird’s Thumb) to read and comment on the short-listed stories. If you’re one of our writers you can relax as, for the Escape issue, feedback was uniformly positive. We’re trying to line up some real nasty judges for our next few issues, otherwise people are going to start relaxing, and then where would we be? Which reminds me, we’ve named all of the themes for the rest of 2014. Still open we have Joy, in by the end of August, Sex which is in by the end of October, and The A lbum (stories inspired by music) which closes on New Year’s Eve. To help you guys out we’ve signed up for Submittable, so it will be easier now to get back to you with acceptances and rejections. I think that’s it. There might be a couple more announcements on our mailing list if you’ve signed up for that, and we’re still distributing submission opportunities on Twitter if that’s what you’re into. In the meantime, “Enjoy the stories!” Cheers, Josh, Stephen, and James 3
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By Cyn Bermudez Vera’s skin tightened under the pressure of fragmented mirror and glue. She attached each piece with meticulous precision until she covered every part of her body, from the crown of her head, to the peak of her big toe: forehead and chin, arms and legs, buttocks and stomach. The shards crackled when she moved, her skin shimmered with a patchwork of reflection. The tang and fetor of rotted cherries—like sweet meat— pierced her nose and tongue, sharper than the slivers of glass that adorned the rim of her mouth. She stared at her likeness in the antique mirror; she splintered like a matryoshka doll; her image fractured into infinite repetitions that swayed at every angle. When she finally stepped out into the bright mid-day sun, the light rays reflected off her skin into chaotic patterns, wobbling with each step. “How are you?” Vera said. She greeted from left to right the various townsfolk that littered the street. The last thing Vera wished to do was attract unwanted attention, but that was hard to do when routine was broken. “Nice day.” She kept her voice nonchalant, salutations brief. Heads turned toward her. The awful black dress, her shame, remained inconspicuous behind her mirrors. Vera hoped her eyes wouldn’t reveal the panic she held underneath. She walked steadily on the five-mile trek to the border, to her escape, to leave the little town of El Mismo before anyone saw her true colour. The nearby dog park bustled with dogs and their walkers. Emdee Gris was there with his hound, both looking long-nosed toward the merry-go-round. “Good day, Vera.” Emdee observed Vera with a sideways glance. “Is everything okay? I don’t recall our paths crossing here before.” Townsfolk of El Mismo walked the same path on the same streets in the same manner. They turned down the same corridors and alleyways; they made the same dips and twists with their gait. Every day was like the last. Doors and windows opened eight o’clock in the morning and shut at five o’clock in the evening. The husbands watered their lawns when the birds sang, painted the front yard fence a lime a green before lunch, fixed the same broken flap on their mailboxes one hour before the mail lady 4
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arrived. In the evening, the wives un-bagged their groceries promptly at four-thirty, served dinner at six, applied moisturizer to their faces at nine. And they all wore the same colours: reds for the ladies, blues for the gentlemen. Vera, too, had her own routine. She curled her hair when the sun rose on the horizon, the pink hues licking the plump white clouds. She toasted her bread to a perfect golden brown before the morning news aired. She fluffed the pillows at noon. But she had never walked past the dog park. Emdee waited for an answer. Vera’s mind darted from hour to hour of her day, from task to task. She flipped through various scenarios: A warbler’s nest fell from a tree and all the eggs cracked and the baby birds cried for their mother; a squirrel ate through her garden patch and the poor thing fainted after such a large meal and its belly hung to the ground making it impossible for the squirrel to move; an unusually large bee—enormous, the size of an elk—hovered by her door and the stinger was as large like a sword and it buzzed hungrily, ready to devour. “I’m out of tomatoes.” Vera spoke rapidly, her eyes darted everywhere but at Emdee. “Out of tomatoes?” Emdee’s head twisted up in confusion. “I miscounted.” Miscounting tomatoes. It sounded so preposterous. Vera left, leaving Emdee frozen in her wake. Vera could hear Emdee repeat her news over and over, as if his day had been broken and his mind incapable of proceeding after being interrupted. “Out of...” Emdee’s voice was fading away from Vera as she walked away from the dog park. She looked back one last time before turning the corner. A small crowd gathered around Emdee, who was repeating
„out of tomatoes‟ with fervour. “In here, mija,” said a squash old woman. Desperate to get off the street, Vera ran into the woman’s house. Smoke layered the room, a mixture of tobacco and burnt fish. She greeted an untidy mass of knitted throws and troll dolls. “Make yourself at home.” “Who are you?” Vera realized that she didn’t recognize the woman. “You don’t remember? I am Basurto,” the old woman said. The woman paused but Vera made no connection. “The widow. No one pays attention to an old woman, my holes and wrinkles easily hidden. That’s the key, mija. Show the people what they want to see. Which I see you’ve done quite well for yourself.” 5
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“Señora Basurto,” Vera said. “I remember now. El Mismo’s only widow.” “Formally, El Mismo’s only widow.” Vera’s life had changed in an instant. One day her husband was painting the front yard fence its usual lime green when the Earth shook. When the ground moved, part of the fence—a single board—flipped up. Vera’s husband tried to grab it, but he fell to the ground and the board plummeted through him. Had it been an act of nature? Or perhaps God? El Mismo didn’t have earthquakes. Floorboards shifted, walls
swayed, plants fell, dishes shattered. A gust of wind and dust raptured loose papers and ink. Black ink had spilled onto Vera’s red chiffon dress. The blot spread radially into an almost perfect circle. No one had noticed her husband’s absence. Only Vera. She did her tasks first and then her husband’s, careful to keep her unorthodox schedule changes in the privacy of her own home. But eventually, when the Couple’s Ball had arrived, the townsfolk wondered why Vera arrived alone. She had said her husband was sick or tired or not in the mood, and the seedlings of whispers and rumour started. And worse, the spot on her red dress had grown. She washed it vigorously with soap and water. Scrubbing till her fingers ached, until her cuticles ripped and dangled for their tips. But the spot grew until black ink covered the entire fabric. Vera’s dress no longer draped from her body its beautiful red but had become something dark, something without colour. Vera had mourned under the waterfall of black chiffon. She went about her daily routine avoiding her neighbours. Only small children saw her tears; they pointed at glimpses of Vera seen through opened windows, when Vera shifted past the cracked doors of her home. It had been enough to move Vera into action. She could not risk the townsfolk fully seeing her abnormality, her husbandless status, her black-colour clothing. Her only recourse was to leave El Mismo forever and join the Outside—where people lived dangerous, haphazard lives: They wore a multitude of colours or no colour at all; they ate all hours of the day and cleaned only sometimes; the men moisturized their faces and the women painted the fences. They were only rumours, of course, and the very thought had frightened Vera. She almost changed her mind. Staying wouldn’t be so bad, she had thought. “The mirrors aren’t enough,” Señora Basurto said. “You’ll need wings if you really want to leave this town.” She rummaged through a large chest, tossing out heavy coats made of wool and cotton. They land-
ed with a thump onto the wooden floorboards, dust billowing under their weight.
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“Señora Basurto,” Vera hesitated. “How did you become a widow?” “A Flood. A peculiar one, since we don’t have floods here in El Mismo. See how I sewed the first wing, mija, with a pink needle and a bronze stitch? Makes it nice and sturdy.” “But you’re here. You’ve stayed for so long without anybody noticing.” “My dress is old and worn, but it is still red. Don’t change the status quo and invisibility is quite simple. Here, you must hide the wings under this cloak.” She threw a large bundle at Vera.
“How can I possibly do that? The cloak is green!” The cloak’s scratchy wool snagged on Vera’s hanging cuticles. “And your dress is black.” Señora Basurto shrugged. “Both are neither here nor there.” “What if people notice?” “Of course they’ll notice, mija. Your colouring is all wrong. People are too involved with their own lives to notice right away, but give them time. Soon your black dress will be too obvious, even under your mir-
rors. That you do know. The colour of the dress and the cloak are one thing. Easy to ignore in the short term, and the mirrors certainly help. Genius idea, by the way. But wings, on the other hand, are something else entirely. People will notice the wings.” Vera knew the old woman was right. “Have you ever used a cloak?” She had worried her question was too forward. The old woman’s dress was red after all. “No. I am content here.” Señora Basurto showed Vera around her little home where she lived alone, no kin, no animals. Only pictures of cats embellished the walls. Newspapers stacked in large columns filled open spaces. Empty birdcages in every corner. “I think this will do.” She gave Vera a hand held mirror. Vera had understood Señora Basurto’s wisdom. She finished the cloak with pieces of mirrors glued to every inch of fabric. She finished the other wing and attached both with a harness on to her back. She turned to the woman with watery eyes. “Thank you, Señora Basurto, for you all your help.” “De nada, mija. Go out into the world. Find your freedom on the Outside.” Vera left with renewed courage, moving fast along the hills and valleys and leaving the track homes of El 7
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Mismo behind. The sun sat low in the sky; its red arms stretched far along the horizon. The boundary was fast approaching, and the hunger she neglected tugged at her. At the very edge of town was Diego’s pie shop: El Lobo Sangrado. Its blue neon sign blinked on in the nightfall. Vera salivated, her stomach grumbled. Just one piece, she told herself. “Lemon Drop Custard and Cheese, lay the graham crumbs on extra thick.” She tapped her fingers on the tiled counter top. The bright florescent lights ricocheted off Vera’s mirrors. “This is an unusual day for you, Vera.” Diego’s large quizzical eyes contorted. “Nothing unusual about today.” “Well, it’s not Sunday. And you always eat pie after your Sunday grocery shopping.” There were no more excuses. Maybe it was meeting Señora Basurto, the defiance of an old woman. Maybe it was Vera’s own defiance. She told the truth. “There was an earthquake and black ink spilled onto my dress and I tried to clean it but the ink grew and
now my whole dress is black and I knew I had to leave before anyone else noticed so that’s why I’m here. I just wanted one last piece of pie before I left for good. Oh and my husband died. Stray fence board.” There was a long pause. “You don’t have to lie, Vera.” He served Vera her pie. The tangy sweet of lemon curled Vera’s tongue. She shoved large bits of pie into her mouth, swallowing spoonfuls without chewing. “Slow down. Where is your husband?”
The six other patrons, two families of three, turned to her in curiosity: Pablo and Poncho and Piadora, Patricia and Prudencia and Pedro. She put her fork down and backed away from the plate slowly. “Thanks for the pie,” Vera said. Chatter and whispers bounced off the walls. Diego’s eyes sparked with revelation. “Your dress—it’s black!” Her mirrors shattered, the shards fell from her body. The cloak parted down the centre, revealing her black dress. Everyone gasped. Stunned, she stammered but no words comforted her. She could hear the women recoil in horror. She could see the men twist with disgust. She trembled. Her dry throat ached. Her body 8
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began to sweat: eyes dilated, heart pounded, knees wobbled. Cameras snapped and calls made. Vera remained motionless. Soon all of El Mismo surrounded Diegoâ€™s pie shop. Angry, disapproving eyes surrounded Vera. She wanted to run back to the comfort of her home, to hide behind her own walls. Vera ran out the door. She threw off her cloak. Her wings unfolded, spanning the length of El Mismo itself. The air lifted her up, forcing Vera to take flight; gravity pulled her down. The levers slipped from her fingers. She was unsure of how to work the wings that trimmed her back. The townsfolk closed in behind her. Finally, she pulled a short string and a chorus of chirps and pops flooded the air around her. Under the full moon, Vera took flight. She crossed the boundary to the Outside.
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By Lee Hamblin Jooby wound down the window. It was one of those crappy old-fashioned cars where you had to do it yourself. I’d had my foot pretty much to the floor ever since we left the city two days before. The sudden blast of winter air striking our faces relieved only a little of the stifling atmosphere that had been on a steady increase for the last few hours. Maybe the lousy excuse of a breakfast we ate at daybreak had something to do with it. I never much liked Jooby, but he was not the kind of guy you want to get on the wrong side of, so it paid to keep him sweet. He sucked his teeth, returned the window to shut and delved into his sheepskin coat pocket searching for another smoke. I had managed to quit smoking many years ago, repulsed by it now, hatred for the filth penetrating my clothes, my hair, burying deep into my lungs. Jooby didn’t care for others, not in that way, but if there was cash involved, his dogged loyalty and obedience could be completely counted on. That’s why I was sat next to him, driving a beat-up looking old Ford half way across the country. I needed him to keep watch. Sly muttered from the back that he badly needed to pee, so once we were clear of the next toll I pulled over into a lay-by and Jooby watched attentively as Sly took a few stiff-legged steps into the field before unzipping his pants. Sly wouldn’t be going anywhere. Not now. Not without her, but Jooby stuck to his assignment nonetheless. “Jesus,” snorted Jooby, “at least turn away from the ladies.” Sly grudgingly shuffled his feet a few degrees west, bemoaning the fact that he’d now peed on his boots. Jooby pulled his collar tight up around his neck and scanned the grizzly horizon, trying to pinpoint the source of the icy rush seeping into his bones, as though that would help. “Man this country is cold.” He said to no one in particular as he ushered the younger man back. I guessed another thirty minutes before the night fully set in, and with no headlights working on the Ford, I kept an eye out for somewhere safe to crash for the night. The unremarkable guesthouse five klicks down the highway seemed too good an opportunity to pass up. A couple of earth-splattered pick-ups sat in the yard and a dim light seeped out from the ground floor windows. A brighter light went on as soon as we pulled in and I thought of the poor soul having to sit there in the dark, waiting for a reason. No strange looks greeted my request for only one large room; the old man had seen it all before I guess, and some. I sign in under the first name that came to mind, ‘Blevins,’ and couldn’t even remember from where I knew it. The old man told us there was a place to grab a bite to eat, just 2 minutes further down the road, so whilst Jooby shepherded Sly and the girl upstairs, I got the supper. The meat-like patties and uber-salty potato puree were about as good as could be expected, all too greasy and bland as fuck, but since we’d been running on empty since early, there were no complaints. I gave Sly and the girl the bed, I took the sofa, and Jooby took a couple of his blue pills that allowed him to sit by the window all night, one unnecessary eye on Sly and the girl, the other keeping a beady watch out through a musty net curtain, tracking any passing vehicles 10
11 THE RED LINE www.overtheredline.com until their tail-lights disappeared behind the horizon. Stirred by the heady mixture of piercing sunlight, stewed coffee and high tar smokes assaulting my senses, I sat up. There was Jooby, exactly where I left him last night, only now his heavy-duty hands cradled a steaming mug and a cigarette butt smouldered amongst a pile now garnishing the room’s bare floorboards. My eyes were stinging, my throat bone-dry. I looked over to see the bed now empty, but Jooby raised his head a little towards the bathroom and I could hear water running, the first that they would have felt in a while, and if they were lucky, hot water too. I had dreamt of lemonade, homemade and ice-cool. Of swaying in the old hammock my father had tied between those two, century-old plane trees. Of pretty butterflies and laughter and summer’s forgiving sun. Of that harsh relentless winter and the snowy blizzards pricking my unguarded face. Of every one of the horses, frozen dead where they stood. And of the hollowed-out faces of my parents. Although the dining room housed six identical dark-wooded tables from a by-gone age, only one was set. A lady I assumed to be the old man’s wife served us scrambled eggs and crisped up bacon and our coffee cups were never empty. She rattled off unanswered questions with ease, seemingly unfazed by our muteness. I guess she didn’t get much company nowadays and was certain she’d just as easily fill in the blanks for herself anyhow. Even though their clothes were unchanged, Sly and the girl bore a welcome freshness about them. The girl looked just about as pretty as any I’d seen in an age with her little pigtails freshly braided. I could easily see why Sly fell for her. Jooby slamming down his empty cup brought me back to the moment, he’d noticed that I’d let myself slip for a minute, I reminded myself that we had a job to finish, to get paid, and to get out.
That winter we lost everything; the horses, the crops, every last drop of hope.
12 THE RED LINE www.overtheredline.com I left a generous hundred and fifty on the table as we took our leave, and before the Ford’s engine was warm, Jooby was asleep, his head hanging down at such an angle I knew would leave his neck stiff for days to come. Open country, open road, bare fields either side, some already ploughed, some simply resting or abandoned. Harshly pruned vines retreated against the cold and a distant black smoke eddied in the winter air. A solitary Pasa Fino, chestnut with white socks, cantered alongside us for a beautiful moment. The girl slept, Sly’s arm around her sylphlike waist, her head a perfect fit leant against his shoulder.
That winter we lost everything; the horses, the crops, every last drop of hope. Sure we’d had storms before, winds that tore the roof off and chilled the marrow in your bones, rains that didn’t know when to stop, rains that didn’t know when to start. We’d survived everything He’d thrown at us: diseases, thieves and predators. After that winter, ma and pa were spent. I had a lifetime ahead of me; but they could not see a future, not anymore. They chose their way out, He’d say the coward’s way, but He couldn’t see the emptiness that buried itself deep in their eyes. I’ve seen the same look since, back in the scorching desert, the echoing cacophony of screams and crying and gunfire, as mothers, scarved in iridescent colours run towards me with babes in arms, pleading tearfully in a foreign tongue, begging to spare the lives of their fathers, sons and brothers. Hell, don’t ask, even I don’t know why I was there. I just know I don’t ever want to see such things again. “Any chance of some music?” Languor had finally got the better of Sly, the lad either unimpressed or unfamiliar with the wonders of nature. I reached down and turned the dial to quiet, enough to let the sleepers sleep and for Sly to get a bit of aural stimulation. He was about twenty-one at a guess, and hidden beneath a black puffa jacket was the build of a middleweight; I imagine he could pack a mean punch too, but I could see that it wasn’t mindless aggression or violence that pumped through his veins; love or something else had shown him how to be better than that, unless he was wronged. And when as wronged as he was, when not even given a chance, then hell holds no fury like the headstrong, testosterone-fuelled young man caught up in the clutches of love. And with firearms ten-a-penny in the city if you knew where to look, which he did, only an inauspicious outcome beckoned. Sure, he wanted to go back and deal with it in the way he knew, how his long-dead father had taught him to be a man, but Jooby’s a pretty daunting barrier to get through, and once we were clear of the metropolis, I saw love begin to temper his anger. “How much farther?” as he yawned, obviously not taken by the insipid country-rock airing from the radio. His movement woke the girl and I could see in my reflector what they meant to each other as their eyes touched. They have a chance, I thought. “We’ll be there by dusk,” I said, refocusing on the empty road ahead. 12
13 THE RED LINE www.overtheredline.com Three days we’d been on the road. Three days tightly packed together, stuck with each other’s bad smells and maddening habits. I’d used Jooby on jobs a few times before, a couple of years ago. Most of the time I worked alone, just how I liked it. Tracking people down, locating runaways, catching out liars, cheats and thieves. Stuff me and my Glock could handle. Sure I could look after myself in a face-off, taking down guys twice my size. I was well programmed, the training was the only thing that had held me together after what had happened back home, but if I needed a backup, Jooby was my go-to man, dependable as a mule. It was the girl’s mother that had phoned me, waking me from as deep a sleep as I could ever wish to get nowadays. A voice so timid barely registered until I had shut off the T.V. Her accent was from somewhere else, somewhere further east and homogenised from living in this ever-shrinking but none-the-wiser world. But I know fear, in any dialect. “Please, can you meet me?” she repeated. “Please, I need your help.” Thirty minutes later when I walked into a crowded cafe, hers were the only eyes I could see; I’d seen the like before. Barely clinging on to hope. And as we sat at the counter with untouched coffee, she told me her story, she just fully unleashed, barely pausing for breath, as though every second lost was a second wasted. I’m not sure why she trusted me straight off the bat; maybe because I too was a woman, maybe because she could see that I could see her suffering, maybe just because I was a stranger. She told of the customs and traditions and honour of her birthland, of rituals and promises and respect, and of the beatings and discipline, of how her daughter loving this boy would not be tolerated and that lives would be lost, and if that meant her daughter’s along the way, then so be it. I didn’t want to hear all of this, hell, I didn’t need no back-story, but I guess I was just no good at being heartless, though it sure would’ve made my life easier if I was. I just wanted out of this madness, someone or something to come along and press a button that allowed me to start over again. She laid the envelope down, fifteen thousand written at the top, an address for the boy, one for the girl and a destination some four days away. She told me that he wouldn’t let her go so easily, that there will be pursuers, but at least if they got away, a chance awaited them. She slipped a gold band from her finger, wrapped it in a serviette and told me to give it to the girl, along with a carefully folded letter. She said that she too was leaving, somewhere else, and to promise the girl that she would make contact as soon as it was safe. I didn’t believe her words as much as she didn’t believe them herself. I took the envelope, she cupped my hands and buried misty black eyes deep into mine. She whispered a thank you. Within two hours I had located Jooby and used four hundred on the old Ford, whose ‘outward appearance belies its reliable heart,’ or so the forecourt spiel went, but I knew engines, and once I heard it purring I trusted it would get us where we needed to reach. I found the girl at Sly’s apartment; she had the fear of some God running through her, and it was only when I 13
14 THE RED LINE www.overtheredline.com produced the letter, and she recognised the hand that had written it that the edginess pacified. If Jooby had been with me, Sly might well have fired first and asked questions later, but all too late to save him from himself. Her amber, bird-like hands carefully unfolded the note, and visibly shaking she mouthed the words as she read it. Sly carefully set the rifle down, and from behind cradled her until still. I reach the house just as night draws in. From within the Ford, four pairs of eyes jump about, unsettled by the serenity outside. The house stands alone, I suppose we’re ten minutes outside of the city. No street lights, but I can make out five similar size buildings on the plot, all looking like they cost a pretty penny. The girl tells Sly that she has never been here before but that she remembers the Uncle from when she was a child. I pull up on the main road and we sit for a while in the soon-cold Ford with our shortened breath steaming up the windows. Finally I see a movement from within as a curtain is gingerly parted and I can make out a hairless head peering back in our direction. “Is that him?” I turn to the girl. She shrugs her shoulders and her face lets me know that she is unsure. But as soon as we are out of the car I can see his tentative smile and then quick retreat, and even before we have taken ten steps, the front door is opened and the man from the window is standing there, with his arm around the shoulders of a once beautiful lady and they are both smiling, illuminated by the sudden brightness emanating from the hallway. Ever vigilant, Jooby brings up the rear, carefully checking for sudden movements from the darkness, his work nearly done. Polite introductions are nervously made and I accept their invitation to share some tea. I reach in to my pocket for the two thousand I’d already siphoned from the cash, and hand it to Jooby, he doesn’t check it, just takes it, and quickly returns his hand to the warmth of his coat, gives me a nod, sucks his teeth, pulls up his collar to his ears, turns about, and is gone. Over minty flavoured tea the girl recounts the details of how her father had threatened their lives, of how she had to flee five days before, of how she knew his intent was true and that he would carry out his threats, of how Sly was going to kill him first but that I had arrived just in time, of how there was no sign that they had been followed on the journey, of how she will soon once again see her mother, of how thankful she was for their help and for their understanding, for saving their lives, for saving their love. Uncle tells them that they are safe here and that they haven’t yet heard from her mother but that he was sure she’d call tomorrow, he tells them that her father and he had not had contact for many, many years and for all he knew they were still living in their homeland. I am the only one now not smiling. I have nothing to celebrate. I feel an uncomfortable need to get the hell out of here, quickly. All of this happiness and relief suffocates me, tightens my throat and churns up my insides. I feel empty. But I know I still have to give her her mother’s ring even though I know it will bring an abrupt end to their euphoria. I’m toying with the idea of leaving it on the table on my way out for them to find later, maybe that would be for the best, the coward’s way. But then I can see her mother’s face and I know I owe her this final thing. I reach into my pocket and pull out the tissue wrapped wedding band. A thunderous pounding on the front door stops us all dead in our tracks, everybody’s eyes laser in on Uncle, hoping he has an answer. He looks as blank as the rest of us, 14
15 THE RED LINE www.overtheredline.com his balding pate suddenly glistening under the lights. And then all eyes are on me. A brief silence after the initial rap seems an age. Waiting. Silence. Hoping that our stillness will send them away. Another savage volley pounds on the door, my hand clenches its fist around the ring and my stomach screws itself up even tighter. My mind is somehow blank; my soldier’s instinct has deserted me. Two minutes more and I would have been away, gone, with enough cash to leave this shit behind, to find me a place, get me a horse, maybe reach some peace. The girl screams loudest as the blast tears a hole where the door handle used to be, Sly hides the girl behind himself, regretting leaving his rifle to languish back in the city. A boot thuds the door open. “You think I would allow you to get away with the disgrace you have brought upon my family name?” Her father takes an assured stride across the threshold into the room. From fifteen feet his rifle pinpoints Sly and the girl. He’s not a big man, but rage has increased his mass tenfold. “Foolish, foolish children,” he shakes his head and steadies his stance. “Time to join your mother.” I can see the girl, cowering behind her lover. A look now of resignation, holding him to her for the final time. A look telling me that if they are about to die then let one shot take them both. I’ve seen too many lives cut short, too many hopes destroyed in an instant, too many futures stolen by a bullet. I see his finger beginning to squeeze down on the trigger. I drop the ring and as I hurl myself across the room in front of them I am still reaching for my Glock as I hear the short, sharp crack and see a flurry of smoke and I crash to the floor. I feel nothing, but know that I have taken the full force of the blast, and as I fade away, I see him there, standing behind the girl’s father in the doorway, I make out that all-too-familiar sheepskin coat, collars pulled up to the ears, Jooby.
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Sisters of Macau
By Sofia Capel The Men’s Republic of China, year 2250
I am Mei Kei, the offspring of a Hong Kong businessman and an accidentally fertile Beijing prostitute. But from dawn and onwards, I will be Kai-Yin, a farmer’s son. I have just cut off all my hair, and I’m wearing a shirt and a pair of trousers for the first time.
When I was born I was sent off to this farm in Jinxi where I was looked after by other mistake-girls, just a few years older than me. I started working at the age of three. Tomorrow is my 15 th birthday and the authorities will come and remove my ovaries and send me off to one of the brothels, where I will serve for the rest of my life.
I have until dawn to escape. How will I survive? Rumour has it that a resistance group of women are hiding away among the mountains of Macau. Kei-Li, one of the girls who raised me and gave me my Cantonese name, once told me her mother is part of that group. Four years ago the authorities came and took Kei-Li away. “They can try to keep me in a brothel,” she said the day before, “I will run away and find my mother in Macau.” Tomorrow I shall follow and, if my dragons are with me, be reunited with Kei-Li. To get there, I will have to travel as Kai-Yin – run, walk or hitchhike.
It is now 20:50. I have put the younger girls to bed and had my bowl of rice. I’m just waiting to put my plan into action. My master has gone to the local brothel. As soon as he left I sneaked in to his house and stole some of his clothes and a pair of scissors. He is usually back and in bed by midnight. At 06 we all wake up to the March of the V olunteers. It shoots out from the giant speakers located at every corner of the farmyard. Then it’s time for the girls to work. Master doesn’t work, but he will have to be up the same time as us tomorrow, because that is when the authorities come to collect me. By then I should be well on my way.
My legs twitch, I am eager to escape. It is like my body has been building up to this moment ever since Kei-Li told me about Macau. But if I’m indiscreet my master will catch me. I shiver at the thought. He wouldn’t hit me, he knows me too well. Since I was nine I have spent every day in his house, cleaned, cooked, washed, served. He lies on the sofa every day, watching history
17 THE RED LINE www.overtheredline.com programmes on the Blue Glass, letting his gaze slip on to me every so often as I run around, trying to finish the never-ending chores. His round eyes, colour: Prussian blue (created over 60 years ago when the Western look was still in fashion), pierces through my skull, so I have kept my head down for too many years now, my neck has gone stiff. Those eyes know how I care for the little girls on the farm. He has seen me feed them, wash them, comfort them everyday for most of my life. He knows just what to do to them in order to control me. He is a wealthy man, the kind that would afford to buy a son and a CareBot to teach the little man to be just like his father. Not a lot of men can afford to do that anymore. But he chooses the control over a group of mistake-girls before fatherhood.
Since I can’t risk running in to him I am waiting impatiently for his return and until he’s in a deep sleep. I will kiss the heads of my children, and leave the farm as quietly as possible. And then. Then I will run, for as long as I need to. I have never been allowed to go outside the farm. I am terrified, but this is something I must do. I don’t like the thought of it, but if it comes down to it, I might have to kill, so I will carry the scissors with me. I will have to do what ever it takes, because I refuse to be yet another one of the government’s whores.
Since President Yu came in power the babies are created to look just like him; short, chubby with dark hair, flat noses and narrow eyes. I, who was created the old and dirty way, am tall and skinny, which may work against me once I’m posing as a boy. The trousers, much too big for me, feel very funny. I get up and walk around a bit. I drag my fingers through my short hair. I pull my shoulders back and stretch my arm out to shake hands. Nǐhǎo. W ǒ shì Kai-Yin. It still doesn’t feel right, so I take a pair of socks and jam it down my underwear. I grab the bulb on my trousers. I’m a boy, strong and clever. I was made in a lab and bought by a wealthy farmer. Once I’m finished with school I will continue to University. Then I will be a successful businessman. Or an astronaut or maybe one day, president. How wonderful my life has been. And all the possibilities that are laid out before me. Maybe I will be a monk. I am only young, so there is no need to decide just yet.
When I look at the clock I see that it is already near midnight, but there are no signs of my master. I have no idea where he has gone, if he has any friends, if the brothels ever close or when he will return. What if, at this moment, he is with a non-neutered whore, thrusting and panting inside of her, giving her a baby? These things must happen every so often, or no women would exist outside the elite families. Maybe right now, my sister is conceived on a dirty mattress in Beijing. “Sister” is a word Kei-Li taught me a long time ago. I whisper it to myself I the dark. Time drags and all I can do is wait.
It is strange to think that in a few minutes I will be a woman. Kei-Li said there once used to be a word for “woman” that did not also mean “whore”, but I have no idea how it’s pronounced. Before the labs, all babies were made the dirty way, like me. Back 17
18 THE RED LINE www.overtheredline.com then mistake-girls were simply flushed down the toilet and the “couple” would try again and hope for a boy. It doesn’t matter right now, because my first days, maybe weeks and months, as a woman, will be lived as a boy. In time, if I get to Macau alive, I will know what it is like to live as a free citezen. To live side by side with other free women, to collect food in the day, and plant bombs during the night. If you kill the president, another one just like him will take his place. Then again, if you kill a rebel, another rebel will take her place and try to kill again. Once you’ve kill a hundred presidents, maybe one day, one with new prospects will replace them.
As time passes by without the sound of my master’s car rolling up next to the barrack I live in, my patience is tested. Had I known he would be late had I gone a long time ago. But should he catch me outside at this hour, dressed in his clothes… No, I will wait. Has something happened to him? Will he be upset to see that I have left? I am, after all, the closest he has to a wife.
The clock strikes 05:55. It is now or never. If my master tries to stop me I will cut him. As I open the door slowly I feel a tug at my trousers. It is little Mei-Mei. I don’t know for how long she has been awake, but she looks up at me through suppliant eyes that pray “Take me with you!” Mei-Mei is eight. I picture my master taking his anger out on her once he finds that I’m gone. “Sister,” she whispers. Where did she learn that word? Did she hear it from Kei-Li all those years ago? “Please,” she begs and a small tear is running down her cheek. Her little legs will never run as fast as I need them to. I hear the clock tick. 05:57. She’s holding on tighter to my trousers, but I push her away. She falls down on the floor, crying. I bend down and pick her up again, sweep the hair out of her face. “Listen to me,” I hiss and take out the pair of scissors from my pocket. “When master comes, aim for his stomach,” I whisper and give her my weapon. She cries and cries but I make her promise. I grab her cheeks and kiss her on the lips. Then I open the door and enter the morning. But it doesn’t smell of Camellias, but of smoke. I see a thick, dark stream of it rising over the villages in the distance where the brothels are located. Perhaps the revolution has already started, but I don’t have time to stop and ponder. As the sun rises over Jinxi I leave my prison and home. And over the sound of my shoes hitting the ground and over the sound of my heavy breath, fanfares fill the air.
Arise you who refuse to be slaves millions with but one heart March on! As the nation faces its greatest peril Forcefully expel your very last roar Arise! Arise! Arise! 18
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A Sentence of Letters
By Clare Chapple The car started first time this evening. I had really hoped it wouldn’t but that in itself would have given me a dilemma. What would happen if I weren’t there to meet him? He knows where I live. He’d come to me, I know he would. That was the reason, the only reason, that I ended up driving there tonight. I was scared of what would happen if I didn’t. The letter arrived a couple of days ago. I didn’t know it was from him until I opened it. The envelope had a different postmark and it wasn’t written on the standard issue paper he always uses: paper supplied at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. I always used to look forward to receiving the letters from him. They made me feel special and important. His spelling’s not great but I suppose that doesn’t matter. His writing is large and loopy. It fills the whole of the page from top to bottom, as if he is squeezing every last bit of value out of that free piece of scratchy recycled paper. He tells me that he loves me, that he misses me and then sometimes he’ll write something a bit naughtier, something that makes me go all tingly inside because I’m a bit frightened of it. It’s all so unknown. I do talk to men: I have to talk to them at work sometimes. I always think they’re looking at me strangely, as if I’m different from other women. I did think one of them liked me once but in the end he didn’t. He went off with the woman from the reception desk downstairs instead. I cried a lot that week. I still do sometimes. It wasn’t that I wanted him. It was just that it was the closest I’d come to having a real boyfriend. The first time ever that I thought there might be a real chance. When I had my birthday last year I decided it was time to do something about my situation. My life is passing me by. Every day is spent going to the same office, seeing the same people and then returning home: home to my parents’ house. I’m forty-five now. All my hopes of finding someone to hold me seem somehow old and faded. Forty-five and never been kissed, never been hugged, never…well, never done anything really. I don’t think I’d want that anyway, not to go with someone. No. My father’s dead now. My mother’s in a home, just down the road. It’s not far really. I visit her each week. I don’t think she’s pleased to see me. She’s angry, she says. She waited all those years for my father to die just so that she could go and have some fun, go on the exotic holidays she’d always wanted and get out and meet people. My father always said no: no to every invitation, every party, no to every idea my mother ever had. Eventually she stopped having the ideas and started waiting: waiting for the day when she would be free to do what she wanted and go where she wanted. But Father took too long to die and, by the time he had gone, her arthritis hurt too much to go anywhere, except angrily down the road, to the home. The house breathes a sigh of relief without them. It’s mine now. My place. My haven. It’s just me and my computer. We like it that way. I use chat rooms on the web. I can talk to people there. I can start a friendship without feeling self-conscious. I feel my cheeks reddening as I write but they can’t see it. They can’t see what I’m wearing or think it’s old fashioned or ‘frumpy’. That’s the word my mother uses. She says I look like her, dress like her and she’s eighty, not forty-five. I don’t know how else to dress. 19
20 THE RED LINE www.overtheredline.com This is how I’ve always looked. I’ve met a lot of men on the computer. It’s nice and relaxed and I don’t have to worry unless they ask to meet me. Then I go: just disappear. I don’t want them to see me. I just want to talk and for them to say those nice things about me like they sometimes do. Last year, I saw an advert on the web. It was an invitation to write to someone in prison. Some of the prisoners were seeking a pen-friend, or looking for a bit of companionship, or maybe something more. I remember my mother having a friend who had a relationship with someone in prison. He was jailed for years but his girlfriend wrote to him every week, knowing that whatever he had done was so bad that he would never come home. She said it was better that way. It was all on her terms. I thought that if I wrote to someone in prison, they might like it. I thought they might appreciate someone taking the time to write to them, to share their life, if only on paper. Maybe I might meet someone special, someone who could say those nice things and make me smile. It seemed a safer way of doing things than meeting people over the Internet. A prisoner wouldn’t want to meet, not if he was a long way away. I’m in control. He’s locked away. We started writing last summer. At first his letters were full of anger against the system, the frustration of being locked away. I could understand that feeling so I told him just that and he wrote some more. He said that time passed so slowly for him there. He spoke of his friends in the prison. He said they weren’t as lucky as him: they didn’t have someone special to write to. I have that letter right here now, tucked in my bag. It was the first letter that made my heart really skip. It made me feel all tingly again, like I did in the office. It made me smile. Later, many letters later, he told me what he’d done. He’d been put in prison for murdering his wife, he said, but it wasn’t him. He was innocent. He knew who it was though. He thought about that a lot. He asked if I believed he was innocent. I think I said yes. I don’t really remember, I just wanted the letters to go back to the way they were before, to the point where the anger had gone and he was talking about me. They did change again. Soon he was talking to me like we’d known each other forever. He’d say that he would walk in the prison yard sometimes and look up at the sky. He’d see the clouds floating overhead and he’d think about what was on the other side of that wall. I wonder if he was thinking about me, about how I could see that sky too: the exact same sky, except that I was free. One day a letter came that scared me for a bit. He wanted to phone me, he said. He wanted to hear my voice. He said he’d know then, whether I was the person he wanted to call his girlfriend. That letter made me happy but frightened. I so wanted that word to apply to me, to be a ‘girlfriend’, so I gave him the number of the phone box down the road and told him when to call. When the time came, I was standing there and I answered the phone. Being his girlfriend felt good. The letters were always nice after that and sometimes I’d let him call; not often because the calls were sometimes a bit different. He said things that made me feel a bit…well, a bit sick, I suppose. I didn’t really want to do what he was saying. He said we would be together one day and he would kiss me and hold me and we would live together. I don’t want anything like that. I could have been kissed, a long time ago maybe, but not now. It’s too late for that. I like words. Just words. That’s all I ever wanted. When that final letter came I was very frightened. What should I have done? I kept reading it and re-reading it like it 20
21 THE RED LINE www.overtheredline.com was some kind of a joke. He was being released, it said. He’d been let out at a special hearing they have to see if they’ve been good enough to come home. Home? He thinks this is home now. He thinks that here is where he’s welcome: at my parents’ bungalow where I have it just how I like it. He wants to live here, to sleep in my bed, to hold me and to be with me properly. But I liked it just how it was. I thought about ignoring it but he knows where I live. I can’t ‘log off’ from this relationship and disappear. The letter said to meet him. I had trouble working it out. The directions were very specific. I had to get my father’s old map out and I sat it on the seat next to me as I drove. He said he would wait by the side of the road. His friend would drop him off after driving him all the way from the prison. I was to be there at nine in the evening, the letter was quite firm about that. I didn’t even know what he looks like and I never drive at night. I was so scared but I went because I didn’t want to wait for him at home. He would have been angry and I don’t like the angry letters. It was cold when I left the house. I left early to allow lots of time to find the place and I drove slowly down the road, like I always do. The road was all twisty and turny and everyone else seemed to be driving too fast. Someone tooted me on their horn and then sped past. It made me jump. I kept hoping he wouldn’t be there when I got there, that the prison would have changed their mind. It’s not fair to do this to me. I chose to write to him because he was supposed to be in there for life. Life should mean life. He has his life and I have mine. I kept the light on in the car so that I could read the map but it made it harder to drive. The other headlights dazzled me as I drove and I struggled to focus. The lay-by came up suddenly and I only saw him at the last minute. I had to pass him and turn around, come back up the road and pull over. That made him angry, I know it did. He got in the car and looked at me. He didn’t look anything like I’d expected. He was all hairy and quite…old. He leant over to give me a kiss. My first ever kiss. It tasted of cigarettes. He seemed really cross then and told me to drive, to drive fast. We weren’t going home, he said, not yet. We were to go to a hotel and stay there, spend some time together. Get to know each other. He kept rubbing my leg and trying to hold my hand when I was driving. He told me the way to drive but all I could think was that I hadn’t packed a suitcase. He didn’t have anything with him either but he said that was none of my business. He shouted that bit and then said he was sorry but he was nervous about meeting me for the first time. I thought about the whole thing as we drove. I thought that I didn’t want to go to the hotel. I didn’t want to stay with him, especially not in the same room or the same bed. Never, ever. So I said that I would drop him off and go back home. I was very scared then. I didn’t feel like I was in control any more. He started shouting again and getting very angry. I tried not to listen. I tried to shut my ears like I do when my mother shouts at me. She says she doesn’t want me, never wanted me. I wish he were saying that. He’s saying that he does want me: he needs me to stay with him. He wants me to give him some money, to help him get started and then he stops shouting and rubs my leg again, says something about it having been a long time. And then his expression changes. I think that was when he made me stop the car, grabbed my arm and pulled me from the seat. He’s a big man, a strong man, and it hurt. He pushed and shoved and suddenly I was on the back seat and he was driving. He was driving my car.
22 THE RED LINE www.overtheredline.com I just sat on the back seat as quietly as I could. I didn’t say anything. That usually makes my mother stop shouting but it didn’t seem to work with him. He kept on talking, telling me what we were going to do when we got to the hotel. He said I’d made him promises in my letters but I never did. He said I owed him. And he said he knew where I lived. Then I heard the sirens. I turned my head and all I could see were the flashing blue lights behind us. He pressed the accelerator down so hard that I almost fell off the seat and suddenly we were racing, going so fast and all the horns were beeping at us. He drove and drove and the trees flashed by. I struggled to sit in my seat. The car kept moving left to right, right to left.
Sometimes we were on our side of the road, sometimes on the other. I just wanted to be safe but it wasn’t safe at all. And then he turned the car very hard and it came off the road. We drove through the trees at the side of the road. I heard them scratching against the side of the car. I remember throwing myself down on the seat beside me and covering my head with my hands before there was this awful bang and we stopped. We stopped very quickly. Everyone knows what happened next. All these policemen helped me out. One even lifted me up and carried me to the road. They all spoke nicely. No one shouted but they all wanted to know the same thing: how did I help him escape? He wasn’t let out; he ran away. He came to see me. I don’t think writing to a prisoner was very safe after all. The policeman took me to the police station and he told me that I have to write down everything that happened to me. That’s fine. I like words. I hope they believe me. I never knew he was running away. I didn’t even want to pick him up. I don’t want to be a suspect or go to prison. I know what prison’s like. I’ve heard lots about it. It’s a place where everyone’s angry and the only thing you share with the outside world is a little piece of sky. And you can’t write often, just every now and then. So here it is. They called it my statement. Now I’ve finished I’ll give it to the policeman, the one who smiled at me. I like policemen. My mother always told me men were nothing but trouble. But even she always liked policemen so I think it’s all right.
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A Winter’s Tale
By Shannon English The snow lay thickly over the forest as the girl wove her way through the trees. The snow blanketed the world and deadened all the noises but for the occasional whump as one branch or another tired of its heavy white load and let it fall. There were no tracks on the ground – all the birds had long since fled to the
warmth of the south, and even the shaggy moose migrated. All that was left was the herders trying to eke a living out of their bleak homeland, their reindeer, and, of course, the wolves. Ana had been a summer child. She had been born in the single month where the sun rose for longer than it set each day, blessing the forest with its warmth, when everything was light and good. Her parents had feared for her from the start. It is said, in the forest, that a summer-born baby can never survive in the land of winter. Ana, a determined, tenacious scrap of humanity from the very beginning, had been trying to prove that saying wrong for twelve long years now. Though she would never tell anyone, for fear that they would judge her anew as summer’s child, Ana loved the summer. She loved the feel of grass beneath her bare feet, the feeling of being able to run for miles and not get cold, the freedom of movement allowed her when all her reindeer-skins were tucked away in the little hollow space beneath her bed. Ana loved the summer, but she always knew that it would never last. Like one of the little wildflowers that sometimes tried to blossom beneath the trees, summer in the north withered and died quickly.
Now, though, it was winter, and a deeper, harder winter Ana could not remember. The snow fell thicker and more often than ever before, and most nights huge snowstorms howled outside the little wooden hut that Ana and her family called home, mixing the noise of the wind with the songs of the wolves. Ana, thinking of home, quickened her pace, struggling on through the deep snow. She had to be home early today. It was her brother’s birthday. Born eight years after Ana, little Tobiar had clung to life for a few short, painful months before the winter snuffed out his life like a candle in a blizzard, taking the happiness and hopes of Ana’s parents with him. Before Tobiar had died, Ana could remember her mother smiling,
laughing even, telling stories of castles and dragons and summers that never ended as she rocked Tobiar in 23
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her arms. Her father would come home from hunting, sometimes with a catch, sometimes without, but he would always kiss little Tobiar gently on the forehead and swing Ana high into the air above his head, his deep laugh booming out. Now though, it was different. Ana’s mother was thinner each year than the one before, and her father’s catches were rarer and rarer – but not as rare as his laugh. Ana tried hard to be good for them, to make up in whatever tiny way she could for the death of their only son, but it was hard. She was just a girl, and a girl couldn’t learn to hunt. All forest girls were good for was learning to sew, to knit, to make warm woollen underclothes and thick reindeer-hide coats and boots, to cook, to clean, to light fires. Fire. Fire was the one thing that offered Ana some freedom from the hut, that encouraged her parents to loosen the invisible chain that bound her to home. Fire in the north is a valuable thing, rarer than gold and twice as precious, and Ana was allowed out into the forest only to fetch wood to feed the hungry flames. Though she had an axe with her, Ana had never chopped down a tree or a sapling. She admired the trees, the way their great slow hearts could keep on beating through the long ice-bound months. Who was she to destroy what even the winter could not? But today she had not found a dead tree to chop up, and it was growing late. Dusk was setting in as the feeble rays of the sun vanished beyond the horizon, removing the last of the little light it offered from the shadowy forest. Ana kept moving quickly, knowing that to stop in the snow is the worst thing that one can ever do, because to stop in the snow is to freeze and die. She knew that she should turn around and follow her footprints home again, that she should be there tonight to try and tug her parents’ minds away from Tobiar, but she couldn’t. She had no wood for them, and anyway…at night, the forest had a strange magic all its
own. The dark purples of the shadows, the way even the pristine white snow was turned dark by the night. And at night, the stars came out. Ana had always loved the stars. As a little child, she would wake at night and creep out the windowless little hut, into the snow outside, not caring if the cold hurt her bare feet. Her parents would find her there, hours later, in the clearing that served as their garden, knee deep in snow, blue with cold, gazing enraptured at the heavens above. She stopped that only when she heard a whispered conversation between her mother and a herder’s wife. “A summer child,” the herder-woman had hissed. “Heads lost in the clouds, summer children have. You mark my words, you’ll never get work nor anything good from that girl o’ yourn. You 24
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never do from them summer-dreamers.” Ana had vowed to be a good child, to work harder than anyone winter-born ever had, and ever since that day, when the stars woke her with their silent calling and silvery almost-songs, she had resolutely shut her eyes tight and stayed inside her dark, windowless room. Her heart beating hard, Ana slowly tilted her head back and looked up at the night sky. Little pinpricks of silver studded the black, tiny beacons of hope and wonder. Ana smiled without meaning to, and stretched out her hands to the sky, just as she had when she was younger. She noticed the thick reindeer-skin mittens on her hands, and pulled them off. How could you touch the stars if you couldn’t feel? She tugged off her jerkin, her thick woollen leggings, her boots, and stood there in her linen undershift, barefoot in the cold that took her breath away. She didn’t know how long she stood there, gazing up at the stars. It could have been minutes, or it could have been hours, but Ana stood very still, watching the heavens pass overhead. Then, very slowly, something drifted down from out of the sky. A tiny white snowflake settled gently on Ana’s cheek. Its touch woke her from her reverie, and she was suddenly conscious that she was very cold. She looked around her. Stormclouds were rolling in from the east, blotting out the stars one by one. The blizzard was coming! Ana stooped to reach for her mittens, her joints cracking after standing so still so long, but just as her fingertip touched the soft hide, a slow, haunting song wove its way skywards. Ana froze. The wolves. Another howl joined the first, then another, and another, the songs weaving together, flowing under and over one another. Caught up in its beauty despite herself, Ana listened. But then, at last, she thought of her parents. She sucked in a breath. What would they be thinking? It was common knowledge in the forest that anyone caught in a blizzard was as good as dead. How could Ana have been so selfish as to stand here for so long, lost in the stars? “A summer child’s foolishness,” she muttered furiously to herself. “You should know better!” Another howl, far closer this time. Ana looked up, and in the dark, straight ahead of her, glowed a pair of dark, dark red eyes, gleaming like a pair the rubies from her mother’s tales. Ana’s breathing hitched. W hen 25
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you see a wolf’s eye, it’s all you’ll see before you die. Forest knowledge, forest lore – what good was any of it to her now? She’d been too foolish to listen, and now she was going to die, torn apart by wolves in a horrible justification of the old wives’ tales. Ana thought again of her parents. They had already lost Tobiar, and been left only with her, a poor substitute. But if they lost her too, what would they do? Ana thought of her mother making the long, arduous journeys to find wood herself, her poor, weak mother. She thought of her father sitting by a dwindling fire, gazing sadly into the flames without even her to cheer him. No, Ana decided. No, she would not die. She took a slow step backwards. The snow crunched loudly beneath her poor, frozen feet. The wolf snarled loudly, and padded a single step forward, revealing itself in the starlight. Even though she knew it would try to kill her, Ana realised that it was beautiful. Soft grey fur with tints of silver like starlight, gleaming white fangs, powerfully lean muscles over the winter-wasted frame, and deep, shockingly intelligent eyes, blood-red and soulfully sad all at once, like the songs she had heard a moment ago. Another step backward. Another snarl, and again the wolf paced forwards. A growl from her right, and Ana slowly turned her head to see another wolf padding towards her from beneath the trees. Ana took a deep breath. One. Two. Three. On her third breath, Ana whipped around and sprinted away from the wolves, snatching up her reindeerskin coat as she did so, her feet kicking up snow behind her. In a volley of angry snarls and yelps, the wolves gave chase. They covered the ground far quicker than her, and it was only a second or two until
Ana felt the hot breath of the lead wolf scorching her neck. Without thinking, she hurled the coat over her shoulder. A soft thump as it found its target, a yelp of pain as the suddenly blind wolf went down. The snarls faded behind her as its fellows stopped to worry at this unfamiliar object. Her heart pounding in her ears, Ana kept running. She was looking for her tracks, her footprints, the trail she had left. It would lead her home. But the snow was falling thickly now. Soon it would obscure the prints, and she would be lost in the forest. Time passed. Ana knew only the muted thudding of her numb feet in the snow, the frantic chasing of her own footprints before they were lost forever. The wolves did not follow her, though she didn’t dare stop 26
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running. She was racing the storm as much as the wolves now. Finally, finally, she staggered into her home clearing. The snow made the air around her white; she couldn’t see the way to the hut properly. “Mother!” she called. “Father! Father!” She listened hard for an answering call, but heard nothing. Fighting against the wind, clutching her blueblack fingers to herself, Ana staggered forwards. She crossed the clearing four or five times before her searching hands hit the familiar wooden walls of her hut. Sobbing with relief, Ana followed the curve of the wall around to the door. Her cries were cut off abruptly when she reached it. The door gaped open, snow flying into the pitch-dark room within. Ana’s breath came faster. Never leave the door open, never never never. Every forest child knew that. And worse, where was the light of the fire? Her parents would die before they let the fire go out. As the thought occurred to her, fear gripped Ana’s belly with iron-hard claws. Her parents would die before they let the fire go out. “M-Mother?” Ana’s teeth were chattering so badly that she could barely speak. “Father?” She stepped hesitantly inside, the splinters of the wooden floor for once unfelt by her frozen feet. She looked around, her eyes slowly adjusting to the dark, snow stinging the backs of her legs as it blew in from outside. Ana could see the dim shape of her mother’s chair by the fireplace. Her mother should be there, sewing or cooking…she was always there. But where was she now? With a sickening wrench, Ana saw the answer to her question. A dark stain on the floor, leading from the chair to the door. It was black in the darkness, but in the daylight, Ana knew that it would be red. Pawprints of the same red were all over the room. Wolves. Ana looked down at her feet, and sucked in a horrified breath when she saw the red trail passing underneath her soles. She jumped away from the tainted ground, away from her mother’s blood, but her feet landed in something cold and wet that squished beneath them. Half-screaming, half-sobbing, Ana backed away from the headless, half-eaten mess that had once been her father, his axe still clutched in its single remaining hand. She could see it as though it were happening again before her, her summer-child imagination mercilessly unfolding the events for her. “Where is Ana?” they would have asked each other, worry in their voices. 27
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They would have heard a scratching at the door. Exchanging glances, they both would have known that to open a door at night in the winter was suicide. But for Ana, they would have done. For Ana, they would have ignored the warnings of the old tales and thrown the door wide. Then the wolves would have poured in, felling her father and not even bothering to eat all of him, dragging her screaming mother away to die while the howling wind extinguished their fire. Ana realised she was lying on the floor. How had she got there? Shakily, she pulled herself onto her hands and knees and crawled across the room to what was left of her father. She would die here beside him, covered in her mother’s blood. In a way, they would all have died together. But when she got closer, when she saw the teethmarks in the flesh, when she saw that her father, her father, that strong, vital man, was only raw and bloody meat, just like the animals he killed – Ana was noisily sick, retching and retching until there was nothing left. Sobbing with shame, she dragged herself away from him. She had killed him, she had killed her mother, she had even desecrated her father’s corpse.
Ana went to her room, the place that had once been her prison but now was the only place left in all the world. Shaking, sobbing, tears frozen on her cheeks, Ana crawled into the little hollow space beneath her bed and curled up in as tiny a ball as she could among the wolfskins and the bear fur and the reindeer hide. She would die here, and then maybe she would see her parents and Tobiar again, if they could forgive her for what she’d done to them, if she didn’t freeze in some awful hell forever for her wickedness. A long, low howling began, and Ana moaned aloud, terrified despite her acceptance of death. Wasn’t freezing a painful enough way to go? Why did she have to be torn apart too? The click of claws on the wooden floor, the snuffing of an animal tracking its prey, the hot breath of the wolf on the back of her neck. Ana sobbed again, waiting to feel the fangs close on her leg, to be dragged out to die like her mother had been, but no pain came. Am I too frozen to feel it? Ana wondered, and then, what if I am already dead? Maybe the wolves have already killed me and I just haven’t realised it yet. But still there was no pain, and still the hot breath came on the back of her neck. Slowly, Ana turned over,
and saw those familiar sad red eyes. The wolf looked at her for a long moment, and then slowly backed
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away, never breaking their eye contact. Slowly, unsure of what she was doing, Ana crawled out from beneath the bed. The wolf looked at her, and then turned and padded away. Ana followed it. It went out into the main living space, padding through her mother’s blood as though it were nothing, not even sparing her headless father a glance. At the door, it paused and looked back over one shoulder to make sure she was following it, and then it vanished into the night. Ana slunk after it, still on all fours, a couple of furs still draped over her. The snow was cold beneath her hands and feet, but not as cold as it had been. The wind had dropped, and when she looked up she could see the stars again. A low huff called her attention back to the earth, and she looked down to see her wolf stood waiting for her. Slowly, she went towards it. Another low huff, and suddenly all around her red eyes gleamed in the night, like rubies and stars and dreams. If Ana were a winter child, she would have thought with the clear, hard knowledge of the forest people that the wolf had lured her out here to toy with her, to share the kill with the rest of its pack, because, as all winter children are born knowing, wolves are intrinsically evil, and love nothing more than to torture their vic-
tims. But Ana was not a winter child, and she had no fear. She met her wolf’s red eyes, and saw in them the truth. In his eyes she saw the passing of seasons, of long, cold winters spent fighting to survive, but also of short, bright summers spent in play and joy, not in fear and preparation like the humans. Ana saw the wolf pups, born every summer, never in winter, playing and jumping. Ana saw darkness and sorrow, packmates lost to the snow, but she saw joy and starlight and songs too, both ends of the extreme. In his eyes she saw that life brings happiness as well as pain, life as well as death. Her own eyes wide, she nodded. At some unspoken signal, all the wolves pressed silently forward. Her wolf reached out, his jaws opening, and she thought that this was it, that now he would kill her, and she was just realising how odd it was that she didn’t mind, when his teeth closed silently on the fur that still lay over her back and tugged it more securely onto her shoulder. It was a wolf pelt, she realised. A wolf pelt. The wolves’ breath was scorching hot, burning her frozen skin, thawing her out again. It hurt, but it was a…a good pain, of a kind Ana had never felt before. It was like a fire, burning her, peeling away layers of
her skin. The pelt on her back seemed to bristle with a life of its own, pressing closer and closer to her own skin until she could barely tell which was which anymore. 29
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The wolves pressed closer, closer, and had anyone been watching, the girl would have been completely lost to view. You might have thought they were eating her, the way they all swarmed around her, but for the deafening silence of it all. Time passed. The sun crept closer to the horizon, and with the first rays of light came the shouts of men, herders come to search for the hunter and his family. One wolf, at the edge of the pack, raised its head and gave a low yip of warning. Silently, moving as one, the pack flowed away from the clearing, smooth as water, a silver grey river vanishing amongst the trees. When the herders reached the clearing, they found the body of the hunter, and that of his wife a short way off amongst the trees. The years-old skeleton of a toddler had even been dragged out of its shallow grave and chewed apart. But the daughter’s body, the summer child? Nothing was ever found of her, only a linen shift left abandoned on the ground – and what an odd patch of ground! The snow all around was trampled with hundreds of pawprints, but on this one little circle of earth, the snow was melted, as though it had been burned away, and there instead were a few tiny wildflowers, growing quietly in a patch of grass. Grass, in winter, when all grass should be dead! The herder’s wives gossiped for months about it, about the queerness of summer’s children and about that one in particular, but even when they stopped gossiping, even when the snow covered the wildflowers up again, the wolves still ran among the trees, in winter and in summer, flowing like water, like starlight incarnate, singing their songs to the sky up above. No summer child can survive in the land of winter. The forest people know this, and they pass on their knowledge to their children. But the wolves know something that the herders do not, and this they teach to their pups: wolves can live where humans can merely survive, feeling the joy of summer without fearing
winter’s coming. Wolf pups are born in summer, and they live through the winter too, every day bringing new joy just as much as it might bring hunger and pain.
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Leaving Rapid City
On the last day of school Sally Conner and Bridgett Knuteson were in the tiny dark alcove that led
down to the boiler room. They were kissing when two jocks, footballers, heading down to the boiler room for a smoke, discovered them. Within an hour it was all over the school and someone had even written “Lesbo” large in black magic marker onto Bridgett’s new tan Ford Ranger, her rancher father’s graduation present. Sally skipped graduation ceremonies and supposed that Bridgett had as well, but did not know since Bridgett had not returned to school and would not answer her phone. Although they had known and liked one another all semester she and Bridgett had only just realized a stronger mutual attraction the week before. Standing in the lunch line Bridgett had gently brushed against
Sally then smiled in that way. The two had spent the last week of high school between final exams and senior assemblies, apprehensive, cautiously probing one another for those cloaked signs of affection. At the graduation practice Bridgett had slipped a note into Sally’s hand. “I want to kiss you.” Sally’s heart raced as she whispered in Bridgett’s ear to meet at the alcove. Now this. Sally and her mother had moved back to Rapid City from Pierre at Christmas time. Mae, her mother, had received a letter from the South Dakota State Attorney General’s office notifying her of Sally’s father’s release date from the State Penitentiary at Sioux Falls. “Last place that sonofabitch will look for us is Rapid City. That’s where he got busted and he knows them cops still got it in for his sorry ass. But let’s play it safe, baby, if any of your friends ask, tell ‘em we’re movin’ back up to Billings. Billings, Sally, you got that? You understand, doncha, baby?” So she had entered Central High in Rapid City for her last semester of high school. How many public schools did that make? Nine, ten? Yankton, Rapid City, Fargo, Billings, Pierre, now back in Rapid City, fuck. It had always been her dad running from the law, or running from some dealer he’d burned,
then she and her mom running from him until at last he’d drawn six years for breaking a cop’s jaw and pos-
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session. Good riddance. Outing at Central High was the pits, fortunate only in that it was the very end of her senior year. Real feelings for Bridgette had come on suddenly with her yearning for something more, something undefined, desire of unknown dimension. Bridgett, lovely soft-spoken, was very popular on her own merit, not just because her family’s ranch was one of the largest in the state. A relationship, especially this kind? Then there was the excitement of the passion. Their few moments touching had been electrifying. Before, such passion had been perceived only through fiction, novels and movies, portrayals and unlikely ever to descend upon anyone in wind blown, freezing cold shit hole Rapid City with too many asshole cowboys and drunken Indians, misogynists, racists with medieval views of women, education, and culture. And the women, hard-scrabble, beaten down by the vicissitudes of machismo, brutal winters, and living in a place where for hundreds of miles high culture was shit kicker bars, bowling alleys and movie houses showing nothing but films with explosions and car chases. Before Bridgette Knuteson she had firmly resigned to escape the Dakotas just as soon as she could after graduation. And now she even fantasized getting off the train with Bridgette in Chicago or New York and even London. The hurt from the outing was less from the shame engendered by gossip, than from Bridgette’s retreat. Sally’s memory was, however, fully fraught with goodbyes and furtive night time exits as her mother and she skipped this town or that. Only two good friends had survived this nomadic existence, Billy Pelltier and her Uncle Fen. Fen, her mother’s younger, smarter brother and a true Bohemian had a genuine love for his only niece and he doted on her when he was around. Years earlier freshly discharged from the Navy he had come to live for a while with his sister. Sally had attached herself to her happy go lucky uncle who had no problem allowing his thirteen year old niece to drive his Volkswagon, smoke cigarettes and say “shit, goddamit, and fuck it.” Billy Pelltier and she had become close friends in Pierre. An outsider like Sally the two ninth graders had met when Mae had rented their trailer from Billy’s grandmother who lived next door. No father had ever claimed Billy whose mother had fled to earn her fortune on her back up north in the oil fields, leaving the boy with his grandmother supported by social security and meager rental from three shabby trailers on the sad side of town. Because she could beat him arm wrestling when they were fourteen he’d
called her Grip.
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And the women, hardscrabble, beaten down by the vicissitudes of machismo, brutal winters, and living in a place where for hundreds of miles high culture was shit kicker bars, bowling alleys and movie houses showing nothing but films with explosions and car chases.
When the gossip hit Mae’s ears she had pitched a fit. “Goddammit Sally, what in the hell’s the matter with you, girl. Ain’t boys good enough for ya? Huh? You gotta munch carpet? Is that it? Where in God’s name did that come from I wanna know. Your people may not be perfect by a long shot but we ain’t never had no queers or dykes. Never. Jesus H. Christ, girl, where you think you are? Sally this ain’t San Francisco or Paris, France. No,no, no, you’re livin’ on Brokeback Mountain. You best straighten up and fly right, girl.” She said nothing, but went into a brooding silence. She tried calling Bridgette once again. She was crying later when she dialed Billy’s number “ Billy I gotta get outta this shit hole. Would you please ask your grandma if I can stay with you for a while.” “Hey wassamatter, Grip? You in trouble or somethin’?” “Just go ask her right now, Billy. Lemme explain when I get there.” “Hold on a minute, Grip. Yeah, Grandma says you can stay a week but not any longer. Get your ass down here outta whatever storm yer in, Grip.” 33
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“Okay, there’s a mornin’ Greyhound to Sioux Falls and Vermillion. I’ll get off at Vermillion and hitch a ride to Yankton.” “Fuck that, Grip. Find out what time the bus gets to Vermillion and I’ll be waiting.” From her top dresser drawer she took out the sock that held the $85.50, some of it babysitting money, some of it the $50 Uncle Fen had sent her for her 18th birthday. Fen was earning big money now down in Nebraska repairing combines; he’d lend her money. If not somehow she would find work, probably waiting tables in Sioux Falls or maybe even Minneapolis, and when she had enough she was heading for New York. From the kitchen she heard Mae yell at her. “ I’m goin’ to work now. You best think over what I’m tellin’ you, Sally. You don’t straighten up your act you’re askin’ for trouble. Big trouble, girl, this is Rapid City. You hear me?” “Yes ma, I hear you.” And fuck you too. I will be so glad to be outta this dump. She dialed Bridgette’s number. This time she waited for the answering machine. ”Bridgette, this is goodbye, hon. I wish…. Oh well, best of luck, girl. I’m leaving Rapid City for good on the early morning bus. I do wish…Fuck it. Goodbye, girl.” The next morning two hours before daylight, with the small valise in hand she quietly closed the front door as her mother’s snores sounded from her bedroom. She walked to the Greyhound Bus stop. There in the dark on one of the outside benches she sad down to await the bus. Two Double K ranch hands, had been waiting for her. With his arm closed in around her neck, Axel Beane held her tightly with his hand over her mouth. When Charley Ten Feet had finished cutting her hair roughly, he dropped
the shears, and with his Buck knife sliced off the lobe of her left ear.
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The woman in the picture to your left is Anita Dellaria, who is one of the founders and editors of Chicago-based literary magazine, Bird's Thumb. Bird's Thumb is an online literary journal dedicated to the discovery and publication of emerging writers, publishes original fiction, essays, and poetry. The editors especially appreciate arresting language and strong story and delight in being the first (or nearly the first) publication credit for many fine writers. To read Bird's Thumb go to: http:// birdsthumb.org/. You can also find out a little bit more about her, and why she started the magazine, in this interview that she held with Chicago Now in October of last year: http://www.chicagonow.com/chicago-literati/2013/10/birds-thumb-co-founder-anita-dellaria-inconversation-with-abby-sheaffer/
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Winning piece: â€œAberrationâ€? by Cyn Bermudez "Abberration" From the opening line of this story, the reader is captured by the protagonist's desire to escape the ordered life of El Mismo. A missing husband, mirrors and wings, a wise widow, and a mastery in the ways of showing people what they want to see, this story blends the real and the fantastic and creates a tone of controlled suspense. "Blindside" Betrayal on multiple levels plays out in this story of a rescue mission. Although the ending comes as a surprise, it's the surprise of recognition. A well-crafted story. "Sisters of Macau" Our fifteen year old narrator must disguise herself as a boy to avoid a life as a sex worker. The first person narration is direct and compelling as she must work against the clock to successfully escape this fate. "A Sentence of Letters" There's something immediately ominous that plays against the tender vulnerability of the narrator as she seeks love in quite the wrong place. As the letters relentlessly arrive, the suspense thickens and there is barely any room to breathe--until the end when we can sigh in relief. "Winter's Tale" This piece presents us with Ana, an emboldened girl-child, who in the celebrated tradition of the female folktale archetype, must overcome the obstacle of her gender. The setting becomes its own character: the season of winter threatens to swallow up Ana, yet captivates her as well. Amidst fantastical elements, the imagery is beautifully sustained. A lovely tale. "Rapid City" A young woman suffocates in her narrow-minded town--one of many in which she's resided, as her father evades the police. Her stifled existence is deftly rendered as Sally discovers love in another girl, but which can never be consummated. This is a heart-wrenching story of loss and near-triumph, but we're reminded that happy endings are not real endings.
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THE END OF THE LINE
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