2018 Story Comp Winning Stories

1st – Peace and Quiet

by Louise Wilford

It’s that hour of the evening when I habitually do my rounds.  The hospital is large, and I am responsible for several wards, but I don’t find it onerous.  In fact, I enjoy the peacefulness at this hour.  The place is very quiet.  All I can hear are the soft sounds of my own shoes against the linoleum, the low buzz of the strip lights in the corridors, the occasional movement of other staff whose routes intersect with mine. 

Sometimes there is the sizzle of a fly zapped by one of the FlyTazers  installed in every room – they emit a noise only flies can perceive, which attracts them, and then they’re zapped by the machine. Dead in an instant, their bodies simply harmless sterile dust in the tray beneath.  We used to have a problem with flies here, naturally – they sometimes slip in when visitors enter – but, these days, due to the FlyTazers, they’re no longer an issue.  This is just one example of the way we are constantly striving to become more efficient.

My favourite thing about working here is the peace and quiet.  There are very few windows, so little natural light, which is very restful.  And the patients are easy to look after.  We change their bedding every day, check the monitors for signs of life, examine them for signs of necrosis.  It helps that we all have anosmia.  Visitors to the hospital sometimes find the smells disturbing, despite our high levels of sanitation. All the floors and walls are scrubbed each day, the equipment sterilised, the laundry boiled.  I’m told that the strongest smell here is bleach, but of course I wouldn’t know.  Some visitors claim they can still smell the bodies, though – but fortunately we have very few visitors.

And of course, once they do start to putrify undeniably, we remove them to the Chapel Of Rest.

This place is one of the jewels in the crown of California’s health service. Those were the exact words our honoured superintendant at the time, Dr.Caldicott, used at the Inauguration Ceremony thirty years ago. She told us how the hospital had been funded by Abraham Van Gree, a Dutch billionaire working in Silicon Valley,  after his own personal experience of uncertain death.  He had been unfortunate enough to have been involved  in a car accident, and had, among his many injuries, suffered serious head trauma which left him in a comatose state.  He was deemed to be what the newspapers term ‘brain dead’, but he was in fact fully aware of the people around him – he could hear their conversations, but was utterly unable to move or communicate with them.  Fortunately, he regained consciousness before his life support could be switched off.  Abraham Van Gree had always feared being buried alive and his experience added greatly to his terror of this particular fate.  Humans have a long history of such anxieties.  Long ago, I’m told they used to fasten bells to the graves of the newly-buried so that, should the supposed corpse revive, they could ring the bell and be dug up before they expired of suffocation.

Advances in medicine have made the barrier between life and death increasingly unstable. 

Abraham Van Gree decided to build this hospital, the first of its kind for several centuries, a place where the newly dead could rest until their status was fully established.  Once they are dead beyond any shadow of a doubt, their bodies are removed for formal cremation.  But occasionally our machines will detect signs of life – they are highly sensitive, these machines, and they can perceive the faintest flutter of a heartbeat, the tiniest pulse of blood.  We have some wards full of patients in a Persistent Vegetative State who are kept alive in case they one day wake up, but those wards aren’t in my jurisdiction.  I am in charge of the wards of cadavers, those who have passed on to a better life in the world beyond.  I realise that I won’t ever go there myself – it is a place for humans, after they leave behind their corporeal frames.  But it is clear that once they shed their flesh, the invisible spirits of these humans slip away to a better existence.  I learned of this from a visitor once, long ago.  It seems a fitting finale for these men and women. Human life is so frail, so fraught with pain and fear.  Take poor Abraham Van Gree himself, with his terror of being buried alive!

And the hospital works very well.  We do sometimes have patients who reawaken.  There was one about twenty-five years ago, I remember, a young man who had fallen into an unresponsive state following a viral infection.  His life signs were undetectable but his family brought him here, just in case. And they were right to do so. He awoke on my shift, as I was doing my rounds, like I am now.  I was able to deal with him.  It is a privilege to be given such a responsibility, such an opportunity to fulfil our oath to prevent human suffering at all costs.

And of course, Dr Caldicott herself was the second supposedly dead human who revived on my watch.  Eight years ago this month!  I had been caring for her body for several hours, looking at her lined but still beautiful face, and thinking how wonderful for her it would be if she was now in the heaven of which I had heard.  What a miracle to be able to cast aside the mess of blood and bone in which humans dwell, and move on to a better place, with no heavy, ageing flesh to anchor you to earth.  If only androids could do the same – but sadly we are chained here in our stolid immortality.

So when Dr Caldicott opened her eyes that wondrous evening, I was there to help her.  I was there to fulfil her deepest dream and give her life again.  I was there to end her suffering.

As I step quietly past the beds in Ward C52, listening to the familiar almost silent drone of the life detecting machines hooked up to the still patients in their newly-made beds, I feel a sense of satisfaction, the feedback loop that comes from knowing you have fulfilled your oath.  Eased human suffering.  And so, when I hear the sudden bleep of a machine behind me, only the third in thirty years, I turn slowly, calmly, and step towards the patient with a beatific smile on my face.

‘Peace,’ I say, in my sweetest voice, as the eyelids flutter open and I place my hand over the patient’s lips, and press my fingers with just the right amount of force to squeeze their nostrils shut.  And as they begin to twitch and struggle, I smile as I hold them still with my free arm and my body, embracing them until they finally lie still.  At peace.

2nd – The Spae Wife

by Julie-Ann Rowell

Janet was on the lip of the cliff tasting the air, how sweet the salt. The sky was brittle white, hardly shifted by the skirling wind. Yet she could tell, felt it in her marrow, how the sea was working itself up out there, conjuring storm. She turned her back on the thrashing waves, it was never still at the head, and hurried along the path to her croft, treading daisies.

In the doorway, a man.

‘Well, wifey, what d’ye say?’

She planted her feet, her hands on her hips as determined a stance as she could muster.

‘The dream is true. A testing storm is coming, Ben.’

‘You and your foretelling.’

‘I’m seldom wrong. You’re set on going then?’

His answer was to fetch his coat.

Nonetheless, she would go down to the quay with the wives to watch the boats. All watching with their bairns, who giggled and fretted. The women wrapped in their patterned shawls and whispering behind their hands, as Janet stepped out from amongst them, her toes gripping the edge of the harbour wall, calling down to her Benjamin.

‘Stop wheeskin’, Janet and go to your home.’ He strove to ignore her as he gathered rope.

One of the wives handled her aside.

‘What have you seen?’ she pressed. ‘Should my Harry be on that boat?’

‘There’s a storm.’

‘But the sky’s as clear as glass.’

‘It’s too late anyway, look they’re about it.’

Another wife, Rachael, intervened. ‘Janet, my Betty’s sick again, will you come by?’

‘I will.’

But fear stretched into the very tips of her fingers as the boat with her intended pushed away from the quay.

Janet tapped on the door of the croft, the one by the burn set apart from the others.

Rachael opened it and nodded. ‘On the bed.’

‘Bring me a cup.’

The young girl was a shocking white as if held underwater. Her eyes were an owl’s at dusk. Janet knelt beside the cot accepting a wooden beaker from the wifey. She took a flask from her pocket and filled the beaker holding it to the girl’s mouth; the girl coughed at the taste, black juice running down her chin. Janet began to murmur a song.

The wifey sat on a stool by the little peat fire. It bristled at her, as if resenting its job.

Janet sang on, her warm breath on the girl’s face. ‘Cease your worrying, child.’

‘You’re my saviour. Saint Janet I shall call ye,’ the girl smiled. ‘Will you stay?’

‘Until you’re asleep.’

The sky was darkening, the wind shooing the grass in the meadow. Janet pulled her shawl over her head. In a moment rain would lance the earth. There was no rain like island rain.

‘Hey, woman.’

Janet saw a man in black cross the path in front of her, his eyes tarnished coins.

‘Spell-maker.’

‘I don’t make spells.’

Though what was the use of argument? He grabbed her by the arm and hissed in her ear. ‘We all know what you are.’ She shook him off and continued on her way. ‘You’ll end up in the Marwick Hole!’

That made her shudder, the infamous dungeon, but he wouldn’t come after because the big man was afraid. It made her smile in spite of all that she did for folk and how she was treated. Unjust. She framed the word in her mouth and spat it at the hooded crow on the fencepost. ‘Unjust.’ But it wasn’t the creature’s fault. The stones spoke and the trees in the nape of the hill and the glistering loch where she washed her sleek mane of black hair. The clouds spoke in formations. The gale carried foreboding as well as seeds.

The man she had lain with wasn’t coming back. At the croft, she hunkered down as the wind rattled the door. Rain knuckled the shutters. Night became a drowning and she could not sleep for the sake of a boat rammed by waves and her man in the depths.

She unpeeled her eyes to the dawn. Outside it was calm with a milky sky, and somewhere a cow lowed. She filled a bucket at the burn and rinsed herself. The day moved forward like any day, only the men weren’t coming back, Ben, Harry and the rest. No one came to visit to see if she was in pieces, none of the wives whom she had tended, none of the children, least of all the men. No decent man would be seen with her. Benjamin had laughed at that for she was a comely girl. The prettiest on the islands he said and one day he would lead her down the aisle. The minister would be glad of it. The whole island would be grateful.

Days laboured to be real and were wretched. The loss of the fishing boat brought hardship. Janet tended to the wives less and less. The cough and the bellyache, the night terrors, the nosebleeds, had to be endured. There was no excess. Nothing could be creamed off. The villagers were bedraggled and scrawny, as the hares had been before they were all butchered. The fields were empty, the beaches scraped.

Weeks unwound and another storm brewed in the Firth. It unleashed itself on the land, spewed froth over spring fritillaries and scattered birds like wisps of paper. 

In the aftermath, Janet went through the village. Faces turned away, doors closed, bolts drawn. But he was there, the tall one with the black brow. He looked like he knew how to break bones.

You brought that storm. We’ve never had such a beast in spring.’

‘I did nothing,’ she spluttered.

‘We’re starving.’

She wondered if he had ever been kissed in love, his mouth was so cruel.

For a moment, she was frightened, and scurried from the sight of him, only to upbraid herself for her cowardice.

At the cove, she let the sea wash over her feet as she hunted for mussels among the rocks. There was nowhere to go from Westray, no family or friends on the other islands; she had to brazen it out.

It was true what he’d said, such a storm in spring was unusual, but summer would chase the storms away.

Early autumn another storm came ripping through the night. Janet hurried to the headland. A ship’s mast was rising through the waves, and falling. It must break up. Janet raced to sound the alarm. Men and women were already at the shoreline, yet none had taken to their boats.

‘We must help!’ she shook each of them, but they said nothing. This was an unfamiliar ship so they would not raise a hand. Their shrunken bellies told them to wait. Their eyes were iron. Soon winter would be upon them.

Janet crept away to the geo where Ben kept a skiff. She heaved the boat into the surf with the cradle of her shoulder and hauled herself inside, handling the oars with strength unknown to her, pulling against the rack of the water. Her lantern swayed crazily in the stern, somehow staying alight. She called to God to help her find her way. The sea in her eyes, in her hair. The gale deafening. The waves mountainous. Words came to her that she should guide the vessel with her little lantern towards Pierowall Bay where the water was better sheltered. She hoped they could see her as she swung the rowboat around and leaned into the oars, stretching her arms, her shoulders, until the effort became too much and she fell forward in tears. She glanced up through matted hair and to her amazement the ship was bearing down on her, and she drew herself tall and started to row again. Through sheer force of will she reached the shelter of the bay and the ship in turn was able to throw its anchor and guide ropes. The sailors hailed her over the side. ‘Praise be to the Lord,’ was all she could manage to say.

The morning arrived quietly, light rising around them, the sailors flung on the shore. The young Captain thanked her on his knees. His hair plastered to his scalp. ‘Thank the Lord God, not me,’ she told him.

At first the villagers did not come near, then they slowly relented and brought sheepskins and fresh water, their eyes cold as marble but their mouths smiling.

‘Did you see what she did?’ The captain stumbled amongst them. ‘This woman, Janet Forsyth, she brought us in. I thought we were all dead and our children fatherless.’

The men and women of the village nodded their heads, they knew all right, they had seen. She, too occupied with the events of the night, cared less. The vessel had been saved that was all that mattered.

Janet returned to her croft and lay down to sleep out the terror of it.

A pounding at the door: it was Rachael, her hair wild about her shoulders.

‘You must attend to my girl?’ she demanded through dry lips, her face livid from running.

Janet leaned against the doorframe, rent with weariness, but agreed. They started towards the village when two men came hurtling up the path and seized her, one of them her personal accuser. She knew him by his smell alone, of fusty abjection and animal blood.

‘What’s this?’ Janet shouted.

‘You must answer for your crimes,’ came the declaration.

‘What have I done?’

‘A woman saving a ship could only be witchcraft.’

‘Am I to be condemned for that?’

‘A court will decide,’ another of them muttered.

Rachael was huddled in despair, ‘but my girl!’

There was a sail boat waiting at Rapness pier. Janet was handled aboard and pushed down in the belly of it. Her enemy kept his foot on her back so she could not perform magic on them.

It was years since she had been in Kirkwall town. Folk were curious, stopping their business as she was led to the courthouse, amongst them a number of Naval men, who craned their necks, one in particular pushing people aside for a better view.

The room was cramped and ill-lit. Janet was thrust towards the bench where three men sat rigidly. They were as stone filled as the walls.

The evidence was offered. The tilting moment was her single-handed mission to save the merchant ship. None of the crew came forward to speak for her.

‘Our sentence is that Janet Forsyth is guilty of witchcraft and that she be burnt at the stake on the morrow.’

Janet sank to her knees and had to be helped up.

‘Let her be taken.’

She was dragged out into the street to be met by jeers. The Naval men had gone. The day was clouding over and drizzle wetted faces, made cobwebs of hair. They took her across the street into St Magnus Cathedral, the cold interior illuminated with lanterns hung by chains from the ceiling.

Janet cried out to God in a voice that did not sound like her. The door to the dungeon was heaved open and she was pushed down the steps into the blackness of The Marwick Hole. The heavy iron-plated door thundered shut on her words: ‘I am innocent!’

Morn was a startling white as if the sky had been painted over. Anticipation rose in the town for the pyre was ready.

At the appointed time, the unforgiving door of The Marwick Hole was pulled open. They summoned their prisoner but were met with no response, so the first guard stomped down lifting his lantern to find nothing except mildewed walls.

Rachael woke suddenly and turned in her cot to find her daughter gone from her side. She scrambled out of bed to the blank morn. A figure stood on the horizon in a white nightgown. Rachael picked up her skirts and ran towards it.

‘Mother?’ the daughter said, her face solemn. ‘We should prepare. A storm will be here soon.’

3rd – Closer to the Edge

by Robert Kibble

“Come closer!” he shouted.  I knew it was the angle, but not being able to see clear ground between him and the edge gave me shivers.

“I don’t want to.  Why did you bring me here?  You know I don’t like heights.”

He stopped for a second and looked at me, before stepping backwards towards the edge.  I shrieked without thinking.  I hated that shriek – it sounded so weak.  He laughed.  Not the nice laugh we’d had on the waterslides on holiday, but an altogether different type of laugh.  A laugh I didn’t recognise.  I could still see into his eyes, even from this distance.  I couldn’t look away.

He took another step.  I tried to stifle my shriek, but it only half worked.  He laughed again, turned to the side and began running along the cliffs.

I ran after, following a safe distance away from the edge.  Further along was the lighthouse which they’d moved back from the edge years ago when it was in danger of being tipped over.  Amazing feat of engineering, even if the idea of being on that project would have been hell on earth for me.

He stopped, abruptly, and leaned, as if looking down to the rocks, the beach, the sea far below.  I could see none of them from my position, slightly down from the cliff edge, a good thirty or forty metres away from him.  That was close enough to an edge without barriers.  Even one with barriers, for that matter.  I hated when he leaned against railings, even on bridges.  Why risk it?

“Come on, scaredy-cat!” he shouted.

I shook my head, but took a couple of steps forward anyway.  I felt dizzy with the thought of a cliff, maybe with overhangs, a cliff which eroded over time.

He put his arms out and waved them, as if unstable, seeing my reaction.  I couldn’t help it.  I knew he was teasing, but an arm reached out as if I could, Inspector Gadget-style, grab him from this safe distance and pull him to safety.  As if I could drag him away forcefully.  As if I was strong.

He fell back.

Time stopped.

His arms flailed.

My muscles didn’t move.  I wasn’t breathing.  My stomach heaved.

His body fell backwards.

The wind, the world around, all disappeared into a tunnel of vision, focusing only on one point, the point of that man, falling.  Dying.  Gone.

And then, as if the play button had been pressed, he was sitting, nowhere near as close to the edge as he’d seemed, laughing at my expression.

I still couldn’t breathe.

I watched him laughing at me.  My legs started aching, as if they wanted to react.  My heart beat faster.  A primitive system within me pumped adrenalin that had nowhere to go.  My body was ready to fight a tiger, or run from a mammoth, or do something.  Not stand stock-still watching a fool I’d thought I’d been in love with acting like a bloody idiot by a cliff edge.  As I looked at him I felt… nothing.

People say that the way to stop being afraid of something is to do it once.  That once you’ve had a tarantula climbing on your hand, it breaks a fear of spiders.  They say that really understanding, up-close, what happens, makes you stop being afraid of it.  My father did that to me, once, when I was afraid of a tunnel slide.  He picked me up and threw me down it.  I screamed the whole way down.  I never forgave him for that, but I was never scared of the tunnel again.  Instead I was scared of him.

I walked towards the edge.  I walked towards him.  Another man who didn’t understand me.  Didn’t care about me.

He was still laughing.  Maybe my face still showed the terror it had had a few seconds before.  I didn’t know.  I didn’t care.  I was going towards the edge.

He got up and stopped laughing.  Maybe some empathy showing through?

“Oh, you should have seen your face,” he said.

No.  No empathy.  No understanding.  I stopped, wondering what he was going to do next.  Maybe come towards me, call an end to his idiocy and head back into town.  It was too late for that, though.  I was going to the edge.  I needed to look down.  Something in me was changing, breaking, re-forming into a new shape.  I would not be afraid of the cliffs again.  They would not have that power.

He stood up and walked along the edge.  I didn’t scream.

He looked back at me and waved an arm.  The same joke again?  Really?  I gave him no reaction.  I couldn’t believe what an idiot he’d been.  Or I’d been, for that matter.  My eyes were open.  My mind felt on another plane.  My heart raced, pumping oxygen round my body, pumping oxygen into my brain, my mind spinning with possibilities of a new world, a new life, a new perspective on everything.  Was this what people called epiphany?

I heard him shout again, but this time I wasn’t listening to him.

He flailed his arms again, but I was looking past.

I saw him slip, but this time my heart didn’t skip a beat.  Skipping was done.

Idly, as if through a net curtain, I saw a piece of the cliff give way beneath him and his hands scrabble to grab hold, fingers digging into the soil to keep him from falling.

I stopped and stared at him.  Was he thinking, in that head, like I was?  Was he conscious, like I was?  Was he awakened, like I was?

He shouted at me.  “Give me a hand, quick!”

It wasn’t a panicked voice.  He ordered me, as he’d ordered me so many times before, but it was words.  Empty words, flowing through along with all the thoughts, sensations, feelings.  The wind hit my hair and whipped it round my face.  I could taste the salt in the air.  I could feel the give of the slightly-damp ground beneath my feet.  Slightly damp ground that wouldn’t hold grasping fingers for long.

“Aren’t you listening?  I need help here!  I’m serious!”

Now he was serious.  Now.  Wolves came to mind, and in my mind I saw them racing along this coast before mankind was here.  This coast was attached to France once, I’d read.  Only a few thousand years ago there was a rock wall separating the North Sea from the Atlantic.  One day that must have given way, flooding through, causing devastation.  What would that have been like to witness?

I looked down.  His face was angrier now.  He shouted “bitch!”, then “sorry”, then “please!”  Strange how small he looked, lying there.  I took another step, towards the edge, to look over.  My eyesight went dark for a second, as if a last vestage of my previous fear was trying to return, to conquer me once more, but it receded.  I watched a wave smash against a rock below.  I heard a shout beside me.  I watched a body hit the rocks.

I watched a wave crash into it, washing the colour away.  I suppose I should scream.

Highly Commended – Equinox.

by Marianne Whiting

Silent menace stalks the ground. She senses their approach but too late. A scream from outside, shrill with terror, warns of attack. A moment of frozen stillness. Then, when it sinks in, panic. Milk spills from an upturned bowl. Pots shatter, kicked aside as her people flee. Some scramble for prized possessions; a knife, a weaving batten a precious metal bowl. Most just grab their children and join the rush on the doorway. Only she doesn’t move. Nobody looks at her. She does not seek to catch their eye. She hears the splash as some try to escape in the boats.

She does not rise from her place by the fire in the largest of the round houses; her place of honour turned to shame. She puts down her spoon. Puts it back into the bowl of nettle stew. She closes her eyes the better to hear the sounds of her tribe’s destruction. It doesn’t last long. Then there is silence. It is broken when the bridge creaks under heavy feet. They fill the doorway, hesitate. They know her, fear her. They do not know that there is no longer anything to fear. Pride makes her straighten her back and open her eyes.

Warriors, afraid of that which they can not fight with spears and clubs. One, young, eager to earn his place in the ranks of men, takes a step forward. Another follows and, each encouraged by the other, they approach her side by side. Their fear, covered by a thin mask of courage, shows in their eyes. They pull her to her feet but their touch is reverential as they lead her outside. Torches, thrown by strong arms, paint blazing arches across the sky. Flames slide along the roof of the outermost house. The thatch belches smoke. She walks across the bridge. The bridge that was their defence leads only to violent death or capture. The men of her tribe lie in the glistening pools of their own blood. Their killers hack the heads from the mutilated bodies. She must not look away.

Behind her the round houses burn. The bridge smoulders. Soon only the stilts holding the platform above the water will be left. Left to rot and collapse into the lake.

Women and children stand together guarded by warriors. They are all silent. Not even the youngest of the children cries. Their eyes follow her. She feels their thoughts, feels them like arrows. You said we’d be safe here. You said it was a place blessed by the Goddess. You said…

They are right. She has led them to destruction. She looks at them for as long as she can stand it. Then she bows her head in submission. Yes, it was me, I am the one to blame. She does not think of forgiveness. Her guilt is too great.

*

They had walked many days, uncomplaining, waiting for her decision. The men hunted, women and children gathered what edibles they found along the way. They were few but they had hope. Hope because she told them the Goddess led them to this place. A place where the water was alive with fish, the reed-beds noisy with birds and lush grass waited for their cattle. She told them the Goddess had shown her the future; huts on stilts in the water, a stockade, fields waiting to be planted. It was a good place, they could make it a safe place. She had been so sure that’s what the Goddess meant.

Such a short time, no more than eight times had the moon reached its fullness since they built their home on the wooden platform to begin their new life. A fresh start in a place chosen by her. Her tribe had been grateful. They offered their most valuable possessions to the Goddess; a sword once used by victorious ancestors, a brooch of shiny gold, an axe-head. She had put these, the last of their valuables, into the water and the Goddess had accepted their gifts. They had been happy. She had led the ceremony, her voice strong and commanding. At the end, when she turned round and looked up, she saw men watching from the crest of the hill. It made no difference, the Goddess had led her and she was strong in that knowledge. She shook her staff at the strangers. They left. Nobody else had seen them and the tribe celebrated long into the night confident that their Goddess looked kindly on them.

She saw the men, or others of their tribe, again. They would stand silently watching, their weapons held in readiness. They always left when she turned to face them and wave her staff. They had recognised the power of that staff. Until now.

*

Guarded by two warriors, she walks behind the column of slaves that were her people, proud and free no more. She bites back the wail that threatens to split her chest open. She must preserve her dignity. It’s the only thing she has left. The only thing of value. Her staff, once so powerful, rests cold and useless in her hand.

This, her once hopeful people, had sought to escape the poverty of a tribe grown too large for its land. Her eldest son asked her advice and had made the decision. They were not many; her sons, her brothers, the men who had taken her daughters for mates, some of their brothers, all with their women and children. Surrounded by the stockade and the water they had felt safe. They believed the Goddess had welcomed them. They believed that because she had told them so. And she had been so sure.

From the column ahead of her a small child whines and is shushed by its mother. There is dignity in silence. At night she listens to the warriors take turns with her women. They are her daughters, the wives of her sons, her granddaughters. She does not cry. Nor do they.

The sun rises and sets three times on their long, bitter walk. The sight of cattle herded to grazing signals the end of their travel. People are cutting ripe corn, digging deep, black soil and gathering herbs. They all interrupt their work to look at the grey, tired group of women and children. When they spot her at the back of the column, the lone figure of an old woman clasping a metal staff with a snake’s head, they point and call out. She looks straight ahead.

The settlement that receives them sits in the shelter of a hill. It’s surrounded by a fence and there is an enclosure for animals. It all looks so normal. They come to a halt in front of the largest hut. People come running and stand gawping at them. The men who have driven them here like so many head of cattle, are greeted and given beakers to drink from. They talk and laugh as they eat and drink. Some warriors prepare to leave. They are rewarded for taking part in the raid. She watches as daughters and granddaughters are led away, one by one, received as payment for the killing of their fathers and husbands.

The remaining women and children are divided up between families and led away to their different houses. They are the spoils but she, alone, is the prize. A rope is put around her neck and she is fettered to a post inside a small hut and left. Only when she can no longer see daylight through the wattle that covers the doorway does she feel it is safe to give way to her grief.

From inside the hut she sees the sun rise and set many times. Each day a woman brings her food and water and allows her to push her waste out under the door. Her nails grow long, her hair is full of dust and her body itches from vermin. She watches the daily life in the settlement and marvels at its ordinariness. These, the killers of her men-folk, spoilers of her women, destroyers of her home, thieves of her cattle, are farmers going about their tasks the same as her own people did.

Hidden behind the wattle door she watches her family. The children grow used to their new home. Her eyes water when he sees a tall man pick up her grandson and place him on his shoulders. The child’s laughter is a dagger at her chest. She watches a granddaughter, just old enough to be called woman, sneak out at night to meet a young warrior. Their shadows melt together in the moonlight. Here in the enemy village the girl has found a place of safety. But she also sees others cling on to their misery as if their wretchedness would persuade the Goddess to bring them back to their old lives. And still nobody has tried to take her sacred staff from her. They think it has lost its power but they can’t be sure. So it is left with her, a bitter reminder of what she once was.

The people gather their harvest. The moon turns large and red. Carts are brought out and packed with food and drink.  She tries to prepare herself, stands up and moves her legs so she will not shuffle and stumble like a feeble old woman. It happens anyway.  Weak and trembling she leans on her staff as she is pulled by her fetters down to a lake. The ropes that bind her are cut, her rags removed and she is immersed in the cold, fresh water. Women wash her hair and her body with sweet herbs. They avoid looking at her face and they whisper a chant as they work but their hands are soft and it feels like kindness.

They dress her in a new linen shift and lift her on to a chariot bedecked with flowers and sheaves of corn. Two black oxen are yoked to the chariot. She cannot help a rush of pride, or is it relief, when she rides out through the gates. People surround her, singing and smiling. The oxen are led to a clearing in the forest. She presses the cool metal of her staff to her chest. It no longer holds power but it gives her comfort. Above her the trees wave bare branches in the breeze. Around her the people chant in praise of a goddess that is not hers. She knows what to expect when she is made to lie down on top of the flat rock.

THE END

Commended – The Real Fake News

by Paul Barnett

I remember I became very depressed at the time; as if I were collapsing from the inside. Of course I was not aware of this until much later. When your life is a daily struggle for survival there’s no room for self-reflection, not when you’re starving and afraid. In the end you have no choice but to go past pain into something else.

My elderly neighbour, Alexi Orlov gave me strength to keep going. He was an inspiration to a great many others back then, though he would have been the first to deny it.  What concerned him was the truth, no matter what the personal cost, and for that he paid most dearly. 

The snow swirled and the sky was the colour of turned meat in a butcher’s window the day they released Alexi from his third term of imprisonment; a cold blast lifted off the nearby river. I waited with Iosif, one of Alexi’s oldest friends. Others would have been there but for the Party’s faithful; their spies were everywhere, taking names, and watching. They stoked fear on a daily basis.

              Finally, a small door opened in the corner of the large wooden gates and outstepped a shrunken version of the Alexi we both knew and loved. My breath clutched in my chest.   He appeared as frail as a bubble, his skin a ghostly colour.  But when he neared he gave a cracked, defiant smile and said, ‘imagine if I wrote something they really didn’t like.’

I choked back tears as Alexi and Iosif embraced.

 ‘And the beautiful Misha too,’ Alexi said, turning to me, ‘you really shouldn’t have come my dear.’

            ‘Is it a crime now to help a neighbour?’

            ‘Don’t give them ideas,’ he whispered theatrically.

            In spite of his haggard appearance Alexi was still recognisable.  The smiles of affection he engendered as we took the trolleybus home were humbling to me. 

            ‘Perhaps, you should stay with me on the ground floor, Alexi.’ I said when we reached the apartment block where we both lived, convinced that the three flights of stairs up to his flat would rob him of what was left of his strength.

            ‘No, no my dear, I’ll be fine,’ Alexi said, patting my arm, ‘besides I think your young man would have something to say about that, don’t you?’

            I looked away; ashamed.

             With considerable effort we reached Alexi’s front door just as he became convulsed by fits of coughing; spitting blood into a rag, forcing him to take immediately to his bed.

             Iosif set a fire in the hearth while I prepared a little vegetable broth. When Alexi had recovered I spoon fed him as he sat, propped up by a bank of pillows, surrounded by candles mashed into saucers.   It wasn’t long before he started asking questions. We told him of the latest audacities of the President, a man who had seized power with promises of making the country great again. We soon realised it was more of the same for a precious few at the top while the rest of us were left scavenging in the dirt for the pickings. Alexi was part of that special band that refused to be silenced about the injustice.  I saw something noble in his courage and was infatuated.

            I didn’t like leaving him that first night. Dying alone is a personal dread of my own, but Alexi only shooed us away with a smile and wave of his hand.

            ‘Go, go,’ he said, ‘give an old man a little peace. I will be fine. There is fight in me yet.’

             Iosif walked me back down the stairs, in silence. He said goodbye at my door with a shake of his head as if everything had a poorly scripted inevitability about it. I watched him make his way across the square, collar pulled up against the now driving snow.  A white canvass was stretched under the yellow glare of streetlights.             

 I took a deep breath before opening the door to my one room apartment and was immediately met with Demetri’s disapproving glare.  Sat near the window, he’d been drinking; his mood obvious. A home as small as ours, has no hiding places.

            ‘Don’t lecture me Demetri,’ I said, ‘I’m too tired to fight; you’ll only wake Anna.’

            Demetri, nodded insincerely and in a measured voice said, ‘good that you think about Anna, Misha. Will you think of her still when they rip her from your arms, because they most certainly will, you know.’ 

            ‘You’re being overly dramatic.’

            Ignoring him I started to undress next to the bed when Demetri said in a forced whisper, ‘I could beat you; some husbands would, you know.’

            I carried on folding my clothes, without turning to face him and said, ‘then, I would love you less than I already do.’

            In the morning, before I went to work I took a little porridge up to Alexi. He pretended to be asleep so I placed it by his bedside for when he awoke.

            Before the new regime had taken power I had notions of a doctorate in chemistry but then

they had other ideas for my talents. Instead they put me to work cleaning the offices of the Ministry of

Transportation, which in itself was a joke as the people were not permitted to travel freely.  At least I

had work and for that I was grateful.  Everywhere you looked there were faces of hunger and want.

            My supervisor, a detestable Armenian by the name of Hrat was a part-time pimp and one-time pig farmer.  He had prospered as a member of the Party faithful; proving that scum always finds a way to float.  The brothel he ran was in the basement of the Ministry of Transportation and therefore, effectively state sponsored. Corruption had become the currency of the day.

             ‘I hear the cripple is home,’ Hirat said, as I mopped the floor in large sweeping arches. His gold tooth flashed and his breath smelt of whisky and herring. ‘They say he does not have long, and I’d say that is true for all dissidents wouldn’t you, Misha?’

            I had schooled myself not to react to his taunts.  

            ‘Remember,’ he said as he walked away, ‘there will always be a place for you here, Misha – here or in the basement.’

            I felt a wave of revulsion. He made me wonder about the life,  he and his kind lived inside, one devoid of moral decency and principals, one that was self-serving and filled with prejudice; bastards, every one of them.

            In the weeks that followed some of Alexi’s friends would visit; the no longer published authors and artists who could no longer exhibit their work.    Although he spent most of his days dozing Alexi would animate in their company. Sometimes he would ask them to read to him from the only available national newspaper, The Daily Fox.

             ‘Why; you know how angry that propagandist rag makes you,’ his friends would say.

            ‘So when you leave I can use it to wipe my ass,’ Alexi would chuckle. ‘If the Party tells you its news, then you know it is only fake news.’

            When word got out that I was nursing Alexi, I was ushered to the front of food lines.   Butchers and grocers made a point of slipping me extra provisions, beyond my ration entitlement.  But the more I cared for Alexi the more Demetri’s mood darkened and his drinking increased.  Once he forbade me from leaving the apartment; standing between me and the door.

            ‘You cannot fight fate,’ he said in a forced whisper, with Anna playing on the floor near us. 

            ‘That doesn’t mean I have to embrace it, like you,’ I hissed.

            We were locked in a levelling look before I said, ‘you more than anyone should know what is happening here, Demetri.  What happened to you?’

            I pushed passed and made my way up the stairs when he called, ‘I accepted my responsibilities and so should you, Misha.’

             I thought Demetri and Alexi alike in one respect; they never gave way to self-pity.  But whereas Alexi, still had fight Demetri had simply adjusted his soul to the prevailing conditions and a part of me hated him for that.

            ‘What would you have me do Misha; form a one man barricade?’ Demetri would say when we fought.

            He hadn’t always been so compliant. When we met, as students he had just finished a degree in politics and was toying with a career in journalism. Then the regime started labelling all news outlets as fake, maligning the profession at any opportunity. Demetri went to work in the packing sheds of a nearby fish factory without so much as a dissenting word.

               The more I cared for Alexi the more Demetri withdrew until we passed one another like ghosts in our single room apartment and at night our bed was as cold as the tundra.      

            Then, one evening after work I called on Alexi, only to find him collapsed on the floor gasping for air. I was too weak and drained to lift him on my own and in a blind panic I ran down the three flights of stairs to fetch Demetri. Thankfully, he reacted without rancour but Alexi’s condition had worsened in the short time I’d been away. It was clear he didn’t have long. I looked to Demetri; his face flickered with shock as if in that instance he’d realised the cost of complacency

            We struggled to get Alexi back on the bed; his breath made a horrible rasping sound.  With his last ounce of strength he grabbed a hold of Demetri’s arm and whispered something to him.   Then he gave a curt nod as if something had been understood between them. He smiled, and was no more…

            The air tightened in the room until a guttural howl erupted from deep within me and I sobbed with the injustice of everything; my head resting on Alexi’s dead hand.  Demetri came over to my side and put his hand on my shoulder.

            ‘Go home Misha; take care of Anna,’ he said gently. ‘I will do what needs to be done here.’

            I was too overcome with grief and exhaustion to do anything more.

            From my own apartment, an hour or so later, I watched, blankly as the night began to slowly opaque outside.  It was then that the first candles appeared in the square. Pretty soon, there was a carpet of little twinkling lights in open and gentle defiance of the Party and out of respect of Alexi. I was mesmerised by the scene and how quickly the word had spread when a tapping at the door sent me into blind panic

            ‘Who is it?’ I said, rocking Anna gently in my arms.

            ‘It’s me Misha, quickly open up.’

            When I opened the door, Demetri blundered in, weighed down with some of Alexi’s belongings; books, papers and his old typewriter

            ‘I could not let this fall into their hands,’ he said.  ‘He has things here that will embarrass the Party and need to heard.’

            It was clear  that Demetri had arrived at a new understanding but I was too weary and taken with grief to ask questions.  I slowly undressed for bed.  Demetri sat at the table, adjusting the position of candles on the table so that he might sort through the boxes of papers.

             I drowsily asked, ‘what did Alexi whisper to you before he passed?’

            Demetri sat back, his outbreath misting into the room and said,            ‘it was the strangest thing; he told me that the fight for truth must carry on.’

             Demetri’ shrugged as if he was not even aware that  the baton had been passed to him. He leant into the table once more and set about writing up Alexi’s notes with fervour. My sweet, long-awaited lullaby was his soft tap, tap, taping on Alexi’s old upright typewriter