While leaving a party this person put on their houndstooth coat and looked down at their shoes (paused), but the metronome of partygoers kept time a couple scooted past but even bumping the shoegaze personified did not interrupt their ESP conversation with the houndstooth doormat but to be honest that blankness was probably the pattern on the doormat cancelled the coat and, space case, suddenly stuck in the magnetic repulsion, their mind was erased and the silence was more of a bubble where ESP is impossible and psychology itself is meaningless the cosmological equivalent of a mental singularity forming at the Lagrange Point inside a quasar and the wormhole that expelled them was either a laugh in the kitchen or the slush stain on the doormat’s houndstooth offering a sliver of detail to the un-narrativity and imagine if they had not come back then the party-thrower would have had to put a guitar pedal under the person’s toes and run patch cables to the bedrooms and turned up the amp, turned down the stereo, called clear
Always something that needs to be kept from someone, and so I stay quiet
Always a truth I would tell you that might feel like a lie
A room filled with enemies or ex-lovers, a boat on fire in the middle of the ocean, my house at the edge of the flood
Find the room where I kissed you for the first time
Find the stretch of highway where the children were murdered, were buried by their father
Look in all directions and call whatever you see America
I am just beyond the edge of it, waiting
vines, tangled with frost
no fear because you’re pretty sure it’s a dream, this silence, this late afternoon room with the shadows of trees climbing the walls, dust caught in sunlight, child facedown on the bed you sit at the foot of, your oldest son, crying softly, dying, which is a weight left unspoken, air thick with the taste of metal, of sweat, of the fear you thought was missing, and you can’t get warm enough and you have no words
you wake up lost in an empty house
sound of ragged breathing
beneath the slow drift of sunlit clouds
and the heavy buzz of bees and the slamming of doors
wait until the rain has passed
until the smothering heat has returned
and why would you spend every second of every day being christ and what will you prove by ridding your lawn of all weeds?
sit in the car on a wednesday afternoon, ask your wife if there’s anything she wants to tell you and then pretend to believe her answer
remind yourself that poems are only clues
vallejo is dead and the world still continues
pollock’s bones cannot be broken any more
it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep trying
(the tools of the trade are the head and the heart)
the plague years, but not without warning
the false king, who lies about everything while the assassin waits patiently, because history takes time
these shallow graves are endings, yes, but only of their own stories
you grow up in a dying town in a bankrupt state
you understand empty fields and the claustrophobia of hills pushing in from all directions
you understand the suicides who leave no notes, because words are their own form of failure
because actions mean nothing without resolution
if all that’s left at the end of each day is silence, then let us laugh to pass the time
if time is all we have to truly call our own, then let us gather as much as we can
let us forever burn down the palaces of fools
the other prayer
or darker rooms or distant laughter or maybe just the bitter hum that trails behind the neverending stream of desperate days
rainsoaked flag at half-mast in the courtyard on some grey monday afternoon
man says it needs to burn
says he wants to cast a shadow, maybe just make a fist or pull a trigger
ends up in a field of ghosts
believes in the lesser mercies
bare trees and empty wires against a dead twilight sky
says he’s sick of this town says he’s sick of this state but his hands are nailed to the life he’s made
holds his children hostage
paints white circles on a white canvas and calls it art
says it’s a portrait of christ or an effigy of his father and he says there’s never anything out here but time to waste
says let’s just pull the goddamn house apart board by board and call it good
John Sweet sends greetings from the rural wastelands of upstate NY. He is a firm believer in writing as catharsis, and in the continuous search for an unattainable and constantly evolving absolute truth. His latest poetry collections include A FLAG ON FIRE IS A SONG OF HOPE (2019 Scars Publications) and A DEAD MAN, EITHER WAY (2020 Kung Fu Treachery Press).
You can find more of John’s work here on Ink Pantry.
medias res smash cut in for punchline set-up never explained
deer and hound look startlingly similar splayed disemboweled by side of road
just leave cardboard stay in collar – puppeteer’s hand
assemblies should be fool proof… they had to add stickers
darting flame reflected appears to battle itself carnival glass
one windmill rests exhausted, lifeless out of breath, bushed
walls press in close quarters become trash compactor
in the stage directions, bolded: everything goes wrong!
old school squib discharges none of painted noise for him… real, loud, messy
morning dew fog over rolling plains car with hood up
roads closed ahead under construction recalculating rerouting
beside lavatory just grateful to be seated
rabbit tracks are diminutive – look hard
The prayer plant… Is flowering?! …The prayer plant is flowering!!
squirrel on high bar don’t tell him because has no wings is not flying
Jerome Berglund has many haiku, senryu and tanka exhibited and forthcoming online and in print, most recently in the Asahi Shimbun, Bear Creek Haiku, Bamboo Hut, Black and White Haiga, Blōō Outlier Journal, Bones, Bottle Rockets, Cold Moon Journal, Contemporary Haibun Online, Daily Haiga, Failed Haiku, Frogpond, Haiku Dialogue, Haiku Seed, Ink Pantry, Japan Society, Modern Haiku, Poetry Pea, Ribbons, Scarlet Dragonfly, Seashores, Time Haiku, Triya, Tsuri-dōrō, Under the Basho, Wales Haiku Journal, and the Zen Space.
You can find more of Jerome’s work here on Ink Pantry.
I’m on a half-lit street where feral cats chase rats from Norway
and a pawnshop window is hawking stuff I recognise
and sirens roar somewhere off stage
and alleys smell of piss and cheap whiskey
and I hear voices but don’t see faces
and the bar’s so dark there’s no seeing from the outside –
I feel at risk and I’m loving it.
He was more of an impediment than a teacher. A leech if you must know. Not a guide. And an expert only in helping himself to the contents of a fridge. Of course, in his own head, he was the master. But, in my kitchen, he was no more than a free-loading brother-in-law.
“But he has nowhere else to go,” my wife implored. “There is always Katmandu,” I replied. For someone so thin, he could eat like a hyena. For someone so hairy, I had to wonder why my blades went missing. And the constant presence of him sitting in the lotus position in the centre of our parlour was off-putting.
A coffee table would have been far more attuned to the rest of the furniture. “I am a parent of your mind and soul,” he told me. I prefer that my parents be older than I am.
He stayed with us for six months, by which time even my wife had had enough. He never offered to help with the bills. And he had long since transcended household chores. She advised him to move some place where his eastern wisdom would be more appreciated.
He liked to quote from the Upanishad, how the word “guru” is split into gu, meaning darkness, and ru, which dispels it. If only I were a guru myself. I could have dispelled him on the spot and how the darkness would have lifted.
I’m Corralled by an Uncle at a Family Gathering
The unfunny bounce off my ears. Sad jokes scatter across the ground like beer cans.
No uncle, I’m not embarrassed. Nor am I the snooty one in the family. I like a laugh as much as the next man… as long as that man is not my father’s brother.
I’ve heard folks say that comedy is tragedy plus time. Your tragedy still has years to run.
So it’s drizzling. It doesn’t bother me. The trees lap it up Why shouldn’t I? Warblers sing through it. Egrets shrug the droplets off in style. To the waxwings, it’s a bath that keeps on giving.
The weather can’t dampen mating season. For the male crane, courting season is short. Every dip of the neck is doubling important. The strut, the dance, the fanning of feathers, has consequences for all the cranes to come. Same for the female. She hunkers down in that low-key rainfall, to watch the show, succumb if the performance meets her approval.
Early spring is where life struggles forward and death falls back on wintry habits. March winds blow into April. Boughs dribble water into up-and-coming buds. My face is cold. My clothes are damp. Nothing here for comfort. But the spirit is appeased.
The Abandoned Lover
She’s terrified of wind yet there she is on her porch steps, trembling, shivering, as a blast of northern air whips against her body.
She’s afraid of water, yet she dresses all in white, walks out into the pond as mute as the swans.
Ice is even worse, It could crack at any time. But there she goes, barefoot, ignoring the danger signs, crossing the winter surface one chill at a time.
She’s fearful the snow will bury her but she waits beneath the overhanging ledge. Or that the hungry wolves will carry her off. Yet she walks slowly in the direction of their howls.
She doesn’t want to die. But it’s the weather of impending doom. And she’s a woman after her own heart. That’s where the culpability lies.
John Grey is an Australian poet, US resident, recently published in Sheepshead Review, Poetry Salzburg Review and Hollins Critic. Latest books, Leaves On Pages and Memory Outside The Head, and Guest of Myself are available through Amazon. Work upcoming in Ellipsis, Blueline and International Poetry Review.
You can find more of John’s work here on Ink Pantry.
Brigadier Robert D’Alby of those famously Glorious Roscommon’s was a mighty fine, hench figure of a man. As an impeccable Sandhurst officer cadet it became crystal clear that D’Alby was hewn from exactly the right old-fashioned, ornamental stuff. Possessed of athleticism, but devoid of contagious narcissism; he employed RP to acclaim a martial style-of-life, minus today’s all-too-familiar, fanatical ‘boot-polish-up-the-kilt’ mentality. Unerring Apollonian devotion to tours of duty, irreproachable ethics & a Spartan indifference to physical discomfort, made D’Alby splendid soldierly material. Additionally, D’Alby’s tendency to remain celestially aloof (distanced from clamorous subordinates) enabled access to private thoughts beyond the woefully limited appreciation of rough-&-ready non-commissioned comrades. Uninventive fellow officers bored D’Alby too: their impossible drunken mess parties, latent homosexuality, imbecilic gambling & monomaniacal brutalism, interdicted him from honourably pursuing a deeper camaraderie. Above all, he abhorred their collective flat-Earth disregard for synthetic cubism, et seq. Still, such wilful textural blindness didn’t prevent (or detract) D’Alby from admiring Britannia’s venerated strength of character; nor could various mind-boggling patterns of crude, spiteful behaviour, intemperately disseminated amongst Blighty’s privately educated landowning ruling-classes, annul an intuitive esteem in which he held this ruthless creed- neither did that intrinsic nationalistic exceptionalism existentially flaunted over generations of folk deemed lower in rank, status, or quality, by English gents.
Well-cushioned by the UK parliament’s Armed Forces Pensions & Compensation Scheme, D’Alby remained fighting-fit at thirty-seven in the wake of this index-linked military retirement, plus subsequent induction into the ‘Guild of Ancient Mariners & Venerable Fishmongers’ (via an old boys’ network) which facilitated another lucrative career opportunity; a stint of reclusive commitment this time, further serving his class with insignia keeping his end up in a private sector lighthouse. Generously endowed & left to his own devices; a proud wickie, embellished with frilled epaulettes, he kept Bishop Rock Lighthouse shining bright & spotlessly clean. Recreationally, during an abundance of spare time D’Alby manufactured basic collectibles, inc. hand-woven cotton rugs- sundry novelty shaped candles, model warships (frequently embattled within bottles) & craftily assembled reactionary objets d’art to be sold as bric-à-brac for cash at mariners’ fêtes. Despite crackerjack diversions, piecemeal, his lonely life’s daily routine drifted surreally into an unplanned concatenation of doubtful occurrences (albeit his loyal service was made as comfortable as possible by portable paraffin heaters, frozen crabsticks, the BBC World Service’s It Sticks Out Half A Mile, & Scilly regional radio). In the fullness of time, Robert quietly monitored how natural power emitted from those loose & fecund bowels of Mother Earth reigned supreme- that is, put simply- the Everyman, nature’s sentient nonentity, merely floated upon her ethereal waves. Yet one who could curry Poseidon’s favour was blesséd indeed. So, weather permitting, Robbie irregularly attended an austere mariner’s guildhall, where a gracious & most proper art of ingratiation was taught in confidence to select scholars. There, inside Twisted Bobbins Sentinel Chambers, one could confidentially manipulate mystical gifts according to one’s breeding, wisdom & talent; ancillary occult factors being two tools of divine provocation (each empowered with prodigious energy) enabling a righteous seeker to beseech & become adorned with charmed privileges afforded to orthodox craftsmen. These were twofold: one pukka velvet wishing cap (immaculately derived from legendary Fortunatus), & the other a pair of elegant ivory lorgnettes, proffering all-sightedness.
Now, as amusing as this esoteric bourgeois scenario may appear, it was not entirely satisfying. Hence, influenced by the compelling literature of Aleister Crowley (on loan from Bobbins’ hypnotic Worshipful Master), Robert sat forlornly under a pointy puce cupola; staring disconsolately through tight fitting magical retinae at his unemployed, purple Hampton Wick. Hallucinatory masturbation just wasn’t working: hard-core, no-nonsense skulduggery was called for. So one day, this abstemious xenophobe- inasmuch as his wasp’s waist seldom played host to dodgy foreign foodstuffs- clipped his magnificently glossed monkey wrench moustache, smeared petroleum jelly around his unloved ring-hole before purposefully penning a charmingly succinct advertisement, all set to be tastefully displayed in the Lonely-Hearts section of City Limits, a cooperatively run alternative weekly listings magazine, ref: pubescent wantonness; an announcement he dispatched post-haste by the utmost economical means of a tax deductible supplies boat, which fortnightly ferried rations of baked beans marinated in orange tomato sauce. ‘Attention boys & girls! Any cute proletarian teenagers out there, hankering after pagan erotica in a lighthouse, should call D’Alby now. Admission is free!’
‘’Oh, yes. London. Now there’s a filthy big city chock-full of perverted deviants.’’ He thought fiendishly- inconspicuously revelling in tutto-anale imagery. On the surface both Robbie’s deportment & attitude conveyed a cultivated character, a noble esquire who coveted beauty & classical repose above all else. But beneath this calm exterior, D’Alby frantically required several hard-knuckled fist fucks. Assimilating contradictory hyper-religiosity & hormonal pressures resulted in self-adjudged guilt; his pallid superego took waxen umbrage, wanly scolding a Dionysian id for its clammy, impure ruminations: ‘’just lay back & think of Merry England!’’
D’Alby tentatively undressed in front of a full-length cheval mirror; perturbed, critically reviewing his aging reflection: an inner resentment grew uncontrollably dark. Most shocking were nauseating surly features that obnoxiously emerged without invitation; ugly, outlandish, bizarrely misshapen in every last ghastly detail. Each flaccid aspect called for slashing &/or expert mutilation. A self-defacing element imbued Robbie’s mind: ‘‘Oh, for a Black-&-Decker Workmate!’’ Robbie hated it. This damned chimera was alas no longer he; rather a mocking minacious curse.
As giant hailstones crashed around surrounding toughened glass, D’Alby laughed uproariously, artistically smearing arterial blood across his scarred gammon-pink nakedness. Having sliced off his inverted hairy nipples, & super glued them to his knees, he recklessly took a rusty cheese grater to the ship’s fringe benefit tomcat, whilst ejaculating over vivid adolescent memories (of his gang goosing by House Apostles ceremonially attired in uniform coats & cocked hats with ostrich plumes) during his assignment as a Charterhouse fag. Relaxed, he reflected upon infamous full moon initiation rituals he’d witnessed agog; rough sleeping orphan Stan Crabbs, a plausible cephalopod, came unstuck. A rootless persona non grata, Stan’s ovoidal working-class corporation was collected; drugged & bewitched by sinister decree. Manhandled by St Agnes’ sturdy yeomanry downstairs into Old Lanes’ spellbinding crayoned pentagram; forcefully shoved, Crabbs fell prostrate between scary cloven hooves- where he was instantaneously plagued by ankylosis & force-fed slough from millions of damned excrescences while his chafed tramp’s sphincter was invaded by vile swarms of chattering animalcules (besieging his cerebrum & infesting his congenitally stunted imagination with obscure forms of regimental Catholicism). Cruelly enough, metemsomatosis irretrievably undermined Crabbs’ innate processes of perception, rendering his alchemical substitute frenetic, barren, snarling & regardent (why such random, forsaken educationally subnormal vagabonds were solemnly condemned to suffer so, fuck only knows). ‘’And then all us nonpareils, chartered fishermen, aristocratic seafarers & the like, steamed the fat plebeian cunt & gouged out his oculi. He can’t see anything now.’’
Following an eccentric, two-month long collage of auto-erotic overload (resulting in the first instance of little more than a sore willy, & secondly, through the latter period, only dizziness, nausea, & an acute sense of futility born of self-mutilation), having received no expressions of interest, nor any letters of reply, Bob nonchalantly applied enchanted Fastskin Elites before decisively jumping overboard. Resplendent in top-of-the-range Speedos; determined to swim ashore & hard ride Shanks’s pony onto central London immediately, in full Picaresque personage, to get balls-deep into heavy-duty cottaging. He wondered what the precious all-seeing mincer would make of that. Beat off an all-penetrating stethoscope perhaps, or tickle an ever-swollen vulva? Because whatever it is, wherever it’s coming from, unequivocally one’s throbbing erogenous zones need a jolly good going over now & again, just to maintain a soupçon of sanity. Seen?
Evan Hayexists in Britain & rather than follow spurious leaders- over the years he’s intermittently found it therapeutic to write out various thoughts, feelings & ideas as short stories to be examined, considered, & interpreted by clinical practitioners who may be able to offer him professional psychological assistance.
You can find more of Evan’s work here on Ink Pantry.
There is something about this song, there is some thing about this song sung live in Berlin, there is something about this song sung live to an audience who maybe weren’t alive to hear the beginning & yet they all still remember how the foretelling went. There is
something about this song sung along to by an audience who may not even be old enough to see when what was foretold came to pass. There is something about this song written in Berlin, that was performed there a year later, that may have remained just another pop
song until it was Live Aided into prominence. That, two years after that concert, was performed on a stage backed up to the Berlin Wall so that the audience on both sides could hear it & then, two more years on, remembered the song as they attacked the Wall & brought it tumbling down.
& some years after that, back in Berlin, Bowie is brought to tears when he realises the audience he is performing in front of is made up in equal parts of those, the seen & un- seen, who sang along with him from both sides of the wall & who added a new chorus, “the wall must fall.”
Mark Young was born in Aotearoa, New Zealand, but now lives in a small town in North Queensland in Australia. His most recent book is the downloadable pdf, XXXX CENTONES, available from Sandy Press.
You can find more of Mark’s work here on Ink Pantry.
The Red Line clitters and clatters and clutters along from Howard Avenue with its genuinely frightening demeanour and dark dangerous corners.
The train clumps along through Rogers Park to the Loop and then to the terminus at 95th Street,
A different world entirely from the one you enter at Howard
If you know anything about Chicago.
The train is a mechanical beast rocking back and forth
Flinging passengers willy-nilly in existential patterns.
It’s December in all its Christmassy glory,
And the others and I are wrapped up in our Chicago-y fleeced winter coats that bulk us up and turn us into shapeless pathetic blobs.
As the Red Line rattles southward,
All us human beings including me stare at nothing,
Avoid all dangerous murderous explosive incendiary eye contact.
Staring blankly, emptily, staring at nothing, their and my faces as seemingly empty as the vast ocean.
They and I stare at nothing.
They and I think nothing.
They and I stare aggressively impassive.
I am sitting while others younger than I stand because in their eyes I am Methusaleh—ancient, tired, glancing boredly at my watch that says 9:13 PM.
The raucous clattering of the train worms into my ears and wipes them clean,
Attacks my senses and destroys them.
A young woman enters at Belmont and grasps a strap in front of me.
Her blue jeans sparkle with silver beads that wind like sacred snakes up and down her legs.
She hangs onto the strap and joins the others and me in staring at the edges of the universe, seeing the origins of life, the remnants of the Big Bang.
She wears a black mask, but above the mask, her eyes strike glimpses of something beyond.
Accidentally (or not?) her booted toes touch the toes of my clunky antediluvian shoes that I bought ages ago at Dr. Waxberg’s Walk Shoppe on Dempster Street with its infinite miles of strip malls and fast-food nirvanas.
The toes of her boots barely touch the toes of my old Dr. Waxberg specials, worn through so many hundreds of miles,
And send a bolt of electricity that storms through my ancient sunken body and leaves me
Christopher Johnson is a writer based in the Chicago area. He’s done a lot of different stuff in his life. He’s been a merchant seaman, a high school English teacher, a corporate communications writer, a textbook editor, an educational consultant, and a free-lance writer. He’s published short stories, articles, and essays in The Progressive, Snowy Egret, Earth Island Journal, Chicago Wilderness, American Forests, Chicago Life, Across the Margin, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Blue Lake Review, The Literary Yard, Scarlet Leaf Review, Spillwords Press, Fiction on the Web, Sweet Tree Review, and other journals and magazines.
You can find more of Christopher’s work here on Ink Pantry.
There was once a farmer who ploughed a field of dust. Each day as he raked and hoed, the dust billowed all around him until he was the colour of dust, his face, his hands, his clothes.
At night his house was filled with dust. Dust covered his table, the cupboards, the floor. Even his bed was dry with dust. Each morning as he woke, all he had dreamt was dust, fields of dust and hills of dust, barns stacked high with nothing but dust. Then he rose and shook the dust from his pillow, from his sheets, from the curtain which covered the window to block out the dusty sun.
Each night when his work was done, he sat down to eat a bowl of food. But the food was dry. It looked like dust. It tasted of dust. Beside him on the table lay a wooden flute, and when he had finished his meal, the farmer would blow the dust away and then he would sit and play. The tune was fresh and clear, sweet as water running. And the farmer would smile and gaze through the window stained with dust as if he was remembering.
But next morning he returned to the field again. The field of dust, the field where nothing grew. And he would set to ploughing and raking and hoeing and the dust would rise around him all over again.
Then one day he saw the shadow of a traveller approaching through the dust. A stranger in a long grey coat who stopped to ask the way. The farmer pointed on along the road and the traveller thanked him and was about to take his leave. But then he paused.
“Tell me, what do you grow here?” he asked.
“Nothing,” said the farmer. “Nothing grows here at all. Every year I plough the dust, I rake it and I hoe. And then I plant the seeds. But nothing ever grows. Nothing at all.”
The traveller shook his head and put his hand into his pocket. From the very depths of the lining he brought one red seed.
“I can give you this,” he said. “And I promise you it will grow. It will yield the finest crop that you have ever seen.”
“Yes, yes,” said the farmer, about to grab the seed, but the traveller closed his hand.
“Wait,” he said. “First you must give me something in return.”
“Anything,” said the farmer. “Anything at all.”
The traveller scratched his chin.
“This seed is precious to me,” he said. “So you must give me something that is precious to you in return. What can you give me?”
The farmer spread his hands in despair.
“I am only a poor farmer. My crops fail year after year. All I have is the clothes that I stand in.”
The traveller gazed at him with piercing eyes.
“Nothing at all?” He put his hand back in his pocket. “Then I will keep the seed.”
The traveller was about to make his way down the road when the farmer stopped him.
“Wait!” he said. “There is something.”
The traveller turned.
“Tell me more.”
“I have a flute…” The farmer’s words came tumbling out. “I have a flute, it sounds so clear, sweet as the wind in springtime.”
“This flute I would like to see,” said the traveller.
And so the farmer took the traveller to his house and there he showed him the flute. Then the traveller smiled and gave him the seed, tucked the flute into his bag and soon was on his way.
Next day the farmer dug a hole in the ground right in the very middle of his field, just as the traveller had told him. And then he planted the bright red seed. Covered it over with dry grey dust and sprinkled it with what little water he had. And then he waited. He waited and he waited, day after day in the dust and the sun. But nothing happened. Nothing happened at all. At night he would sit and eat his meal which tasted of dust and slept in his sheets which felt like dust and dreamt of his flute which sounded so clear, sweet as the wind in springtime. The flute which he could play no more.
Next day and next he returned to the field, but still nothing had happened. Nothing happened at all. All was grey dust, just as before. But then one day, a shoot. A tiny green shoot peeking up from the ground. The farmer was overjoyed. He rushed to his house to fetch water and when he returned the shoot had grown even more. When he saw this, the farmer danced all about the tender shoot and sang the song he once played on his flute so that the air blew sweet and cool.
Day by day the shoot grew and grew until it was a firm green stem, and then a bud sprouted at its top. One morning the farmer left his house and tramped across the field until there in the middle he saw that the bud had become a flower, the brightest flower he had ever seen! The farmer sprinkled water on its petals that glowed so red and golden. He watched as the sun rose higher in the sky and spread its rays across the field of flat grey dust. But at the moment when the sun struck the petals of the flower, to the farmer’s astonishment it burst into flames. He tried to douse them with the last of the water in his can, but to no avail. The flames licked higher, brighter and hotter so that the farmer had to move away.
And then from the centre of the fire stepped a woman. The most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She wore a robe the colour of flame, red and golden as the flower’s petals, though the flower lay burnt and blackened now on the flat grey dust as the woman followed the farmer all the way back to his house.
They sat together at his table and the farmer asked the woman many questions, but each time she answered only with a smile, and spoke slowly in a language of another land that he did not understand. And then she sang to him, humming the tune that he had played on his harp, the tune he sang to the flower. And the woman laughed, and the farmer laughed too and every day they worked together to clean the house and tend the fields, though some nights the farmer wished he still had his flute so that he could play for her.
But then he shook his head and remembered that if the traveller had not taken the flute, then he would not have the seed. And without the seed there would have been no flower and without the flower the woman would never be here at all.
And if the woman had not been here, the seeds which they planted in the fields would never have begun to grow. For grow they did. They grew to give fine crops of corn which the farmer took to sell in the market. Every night when he returned, a sumptuous supper was set on the table and the house which once had been grey with dust now stood sparkling and clean.
But one day when the farmer came home, the woman was lying in the bed. There was no supper on the table and dust had already gathered on the shelves and across the floor.
Each day the woman grew more listless, her tired face pale against the bright red and gold of her robe. Even though the crops in the fields still grew higher, the farmer was sad. The woman no longer smiled at him, they no longer laughed together and she did not sing the song to the tune he had once played on his flute.
One morning he left her lying in bed and went down to the field to tend the crop. He hoed a little, picking out stones, but his heart was not in his task. He straightened his back and peered down the road. In the distance he saw a shadow, a figure coming closer. Not many passed this way and so the farmer waited to see who it was.
It was the traveller.
The farmer greeted him.
“I see you still have the flute,” he said, for it was sticking out from the traveller’s bag.
The traveller hauled it out.
“I still have the flute,” he nodded, “but it is useless now. The wood is cracked and no notes will come. I could never learn even one tune. But I see your fields have yielded a great crop. My seed has done its work!”
The farmer agreed. “The seed has brought me all that I wished for.”
“Then why look so sad?” the traveller exclaimed.
The farmer paused.
“I wish I had the flute again. It is no good to you, now that it is cracked. Let me take it back.”
The traveller looked at the flute and considered.
“I will give you the flute if you return the woman to me.”
The farmer dropped his hoe in surprise.
“How do you know of the woman?”
“It was I who gave you the seed, remember? And the seed has done its work…”
The farmer scratched his chin and looked at the flute, looked at his crops, then looked at the flute again.
“The woman is sick,” he said at last. “She cannot sing.”
“You should have told me,” the traveller cried. “Take me to her straight away.”
The traveller followed the farmer across the field all the way back to the house. There the woman lay in bed. She scarce raised her head when they walked in. The traveller took her hand and began to talk to her in the language the farmer did not understand. She tried to smile, but as the traveller stared into her eyes, her hands turned to fine grey dust and then her face and soon her body too.
The traveller shook his head and walked away, leaving the broken flute lying on the table. As soon as he stepped through the door, the crops in the fields all withered and died and soon the soil returned to dust.
The house filled with dust. Dust covered the tables, the cupboards, the floor. Each night the farmer slept in a bed of dust, though he knew that once the dust had been woman, had been flame, had been flower, had been seed. But now all was gone and the dust had returned and the farmer sat each day in his flat grey fields and coaxed the tune from his broken flute that once he had sung with the woman he would always remember. The woman he could never forget.
Jazz apples had caught Steve out more than once and ruined his act. Described as an exciting fusion between a Royal Gala and a Braeburn, the look of them always made him nervous. Steady up until this point, they constantly wrong-footed him and sent his logic into overload. They might be great for snacking on but they were not great for Steve’s purpose. Steve was beginning to regret that he had added them into his act. Compared to other more traditional apples, the Jazz ones were a relatively recent phenomenon. The original cross had been done in 1985 on some trees at Hawkes Bay, New Zealand and the apples had launched commercially in 2004. Coming from down under they had up-ended his logic and disturbed his equilibrium.
For days after they came into his hands he had studied their colour as a means of identification: flushes of red and maroon over shades of green, yellow and orange. It was quite a colour range to remember.
All in all, there were now 20 different varieties of apple that he had committed to memory but the more he increased the number, the more difficult it was becoming to hold them all in his head. At the local village fête, some people liked to recite the alphabet backwards at speed, but Steve was the only one who could guess at the name of a row of 20 apples by sight alone that had been placed in a certain order by a third party beforehand. He had managed this feat for several years now and was beginning to gain a reputation for his extraordinary skill but since he had introduced the Jazz apple, his luck had begun to run out. The Jazz was the joker in the pack.
He took it so seriously that he practiced for weeks before the event. Each day, his son Billy would arrange the apples in a different order and listen while his father reeled off the names, names that conjured up the fires of autumn and harvest. Sometimes Billy would act the fool and tease his father by placing a rogue apple in the pack, a rare one like the foxwhelp, a bittersharp cider apple, one of the oldest, from Gloucestershire. Steve would agonise over its identity and, finally giving in or getting it wrong, would sigh with relief when Billy told him that it was only meant as a joke and did not consist of the usual run that he was trying to remember in his head.
Guessing the names of 20 varieties of apple might seem like a feat to you or me but when you consider that there are over 2,500 different varieties in the UK alone, a spoilsport would say that it was no big deal.
When the time came, Steve was ready for the challenge. The local grocer placed each apple in its proper place and in an order that Steve did not know about. In front of each apple there was a number and all Steve had to do was to call out the name of the apple and hope that he had got it right.
No. 1 gave him no trouble at all. It was one of his favourite varieties and so he was used to seeing it every day in the fruit bowl on the kitchen table. It was a fruit packed full of juice that delivered a lot of sweetness. Its blush and its stripe was at once familiar to him. It was one of the first “bi-coloured” varieties, a characteristic now regarded as essential for sales purposes. ‘It’s a Braeburn’ he said. There was a round of polite applause.
No. 2 was a Pink Lady. Steve always referred to Pink Ladies as his blushing beauties. They were one of the first to blossom and the last to be harvested. All those hours of glorious daylight in the sunniest of places gave them a wonderful patina.
No. 3 had a stripy red skin that made him think Royal Gala.
No. 4 was a Worcester Permain, named after its place of origin.
No. 5 was causing him problems. If he couldn’t guess one immediately, he was allowed to come back to it later so he moved on quickly to No. 6. The shiny, orange-red skin with its golden background made him think it was a Kanzi or ‘hidden treasure’ in Swahili. He wasn’t entirely sure about this but he said it anyway and waited anxiously for the grocer’ response. Steve breathed a sigh of relief when he heard the word CORRECT.
He went back to No. 5 but was still unsure about it and so he passed on to No. 7. It was a striking red so he said very confidently that it was a Junami. He was doing well but there was no room for complacency. It got easier as he progressed because none of the apples he had already identified came round a second time which in turn narrowed the list of those still to come.
No. 8 was of medium size, orange-red in colour deepening to bright red and mottled with carmine over a deep yellow background. To Steve, it was easy-peasy, it could only be a Cox’s Orange Pippin. CORRECT! A round of applause followed. The adjudicator then asked the crowd to be quiet while Steve thought long and hard about the next one.
Behind him, the gymkhana was in full swing at the village fete. Further away to his right there were cake stalls, cream teas, raffles and tables brimming with home-grown vegetables. There were plenty of other competitions going on. Some children were trying to guess the number of sweets in a jar, one little girl was trying to guess the name of a doll while another one kept asking her mother if she could have a cuddly toy. It was easy for Steve to get distracted but he kept his focus all the time on the apples. By now he had guessed Discovery, Rubens and Red Prince. For some anxious moments he’d been unsure about the Kingston Black but it turned out that he had been right about that one too.
Morris dancers were dancing round the maypole. People were queueing up for the tombola. The place was getting busier and Steve was finding that his powers of concentration were beginning to wane. The audience noticed that he was taking longer to reach his verdicts on the apples lying in front of him. Sixteen down and four to go. So far so good. It would all come right in the end.
No 17 was easy. It was one that even an amateur would know at first sight, a distinctive apple with a light brown skin, dull sheen and cream freckles. Without hesitation Steve said that it was an Egremont Russet. CORRECT! Another round of excited applause.
Other distractions weighed in from time to time: some children were playing skittles while others were having a go at pinning the donkey’s tail. Every so often there was the sound of a can ‘popping off’ at ‘tin can alley’. Punters were flinging beanbags at a row of coconuts, and children hurling wellies as far as their strength could throw them.
It was time to get this apple business over and done with. No. 18 was a cinch. Its green waxy sheen was a giveaway. It was a Bramley – ideal for cooking up a culinary storm. On to No. 19. This one, by some process of careful deduction only known to Steve, was an Evelina. Everything now rested on No. 20. Steve suddenly realised that the Joker had so far not made an appearance. This, he concluded must be it. With a sense of relief and not undisguised excitement, he declared it to be a Jazz apple. CORRECT.
That just about wrapped it all up until the next time.
Neil Leadbeateris an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His publications include Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014), Sleeve Notes (Editura Pim, Iaşi, Romania, 2016) Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017), Penn Fields (Littoral Press, 2019), and ‘Reading Between the Lines’ (Littoral Press, 2020). His work has been translated into several languages including Dutch, French, Romanian, Spanish and Swedish.
You can find more of Neil’s work here on Ink Pantry.