Susan Prediger was born and raised in the USA, and has lived in Berlin, Germany, and, for the last 14 years, Galway, Ireland. Her award-winning photography has been exhibited by the Galway Arts Service, at the Botanical Gardens, and other venues around Ireland.
Short Story: Black Snow
– By Michael Crossan
Ruth breathed on her bedroom window. Scratched boo with a fingertip.
‘Keep us,’ she whispered, scanning the Jericho Centre’s gardens. Snow dusted the bare oak. Gravel paths led to the gate. Eastward, far streetlamps twinkled. A fairy troop, thought Ruth. To the north, amber lights on high bridge cables blinked in a dull sky.
Grace joined her at the window. Fidgeted with her zipper collar. ‘I had a bad dream.’
Ruth studied the bridge. Stark iron like a goliath mantis over the river. ‘Tell me.’
‘It was spooky.’ Arms folded, Grace rested her cheek on Ruth’s shoulder. ‘You were in hospital. I wanted to visit. A stairway led up to the building. I was stuck on the steps. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t move. People stared from the windows. They looked scared. Like they knew I could never reach them. Then I saw it was you and me. Every window. I woke crying.’
‘It creeped me.’
‘Poor babes.’ Ruth cuddled her friend. ‘Let’s go. While it’s quiet.’
A portal cabin at the gate, a bald watchman opened the door. ‘Jackets, ladies.’
‘Hat, mister’ said Grace.
‘My head is immune to the cold.’
‘Doubt it. Looks like mince,’ said Ruth.
‘We’re ok.’ Grace stamped a heel. ‘Booted up.’
‘Cars are buried in Kent,’ said the watchman. ‘Six foot drifts.’
‘Grandpa said a snowdrift is Satan’s cloak,’ said Grace.
The watchman pointed at a field. ‘There’s His pup.’ A fox bounded stubborn, robust fur deep in snow, a zigzag channel up a slope. ‘Vermin,’ he said, and shut the door.
Saturday nights, boy racers parked near the gate revving souped Fords. Funland cabs. Prize seats for hug famished girls. Tonight was Tuesday. The road was white and mute and barren. Ruth and Grace linked arms and headed toward the river.
‘Enjoy your shopping trip?’ asked Grace.
‘It was good to be out. Shops were mobbed. There were two Santas in John Lewis.’
‘How was aunt Flo?’
‘Did she invite you to Christmas dinner?’
‘No. Dad’s going. But aunt Flo said she has a surprise for me in the New Year.’
‘Maybe planning a party for your sixteenth.’
‘Do you know something I don’t?’
‘I had a party once,’ said Ruth, sniffing.
‘I was four or five. Cousins were there. I had balloons.’
‘Nutter doesn’t remember my birthdays. Not one.’
‘She’s sick. Schizophrenia is a disease. I think.’
‘She’s the disease.’
‘At least you met her.’
‘Wish I hadn’t.’ Grace blew into cupped hands. ‘I liked the thought of her.’
‘You needed to meet.’
‘She didn’t know me. Her own daughter. I don’t belong to anyone.’
Town centre, an empty car park, four juvenile boys, hooded in tracksuits, played hockey with a cola can. The girls passed and play stalled. A lank hoodie sat on a graffiti carved bench.
‘They’re from the home,’ he said.
‘Taking your fleas for a walk?’ bawled a beak face.
Ruth squeezed Grace and hurried. ‘Ignore him, babes.’
A chin scarred beanpole stalked them. ‘Brollies, crawlies. It might rain. You’ll get a wash.’ He high fived the beak.
‘Remember soap?’ Beak bent, choked in hilarity. ‘Muck necks.’
The girls jogged, slipping. ‘Inbreeds,’ shouted Grace, vapour breath, shiny hair wild in a gust.
Up a cobble lane they halted outside a kebab shop. Pungent aromas hurt thin bellies. Ruth foraged a cigarette from her zipper pocket. Flicked a Bic lighter. She inhaled; face flared orange, smoke drizzling thin from her nose.
‘Last one?’ asked Grace.
Ruth nodded. ‘Share it.’
They smoked in turns. Keen drags, passing the fag. Grace took a last pull and tossed the butt. ‘Wish we had money for a kebab,’ she said, stomping, December devouring worn soles.
‘A large donner.’ Ruth smacked her lips. ‘Tons of onions.’
‘Stop it, Ruth.’
A man exited the shop carrying a family meal box. Gloved and parka’d like an Inuit. He dragged his eyes and loped to a sleek four by four. The fat wheeled guzzler pulled away, Eskimo man, bloat with revulsion.
Steamy flue heat had thawed a clearing. Grace sat on the warm cobbles. ‘He’s a stink.’
‘Pigs arse shite.’ Ruth kicked the slush curb. ‘Fuck hole.’
‘Wonder if he has a daughter?’
‘I was a baby once,’ said Grace, hands cosy under her bum. ‘Funny that.’
On the main road a church service had ended, congregation flooding the square. The girls fused in the flock, pink and lime zippers loud in a beige and brown spill.
‘Excuse me, lass.’ The old lady poked Ruth’s arm. ‘Have you seen my Malcolm?’ she asked, her eyes wet and glad.
‘I don’t know him.’
Pencilled eyebrows rose to her woollen hat. Plum cheeks puffed. ‘He’s an inspector.’
‘Sorry.’ Ruth shrugged. ‘Maybe he’s in the church.’
‘Don’t be a fruit. Malcolm hates church.’
‘Are you all right, Mrs?’ asked Grace. ‘Shall I get the priest?’
‘Mother.’ A neat man, coat and scarf, cut between the girls. ‘Can’t leave you for a second.’
‘She’s looking for Malcolm,’ said Ruth.
‘They’re angels, Malcolm.’
The man led his mother to a car. He turned and saluted the girls, a stiff middle finger.’
Elbows looped, they weaved out of the crowd. ‘Merry fucking Christmas,’ said Ruth.
‘His mum was nice.’
‘Pigs arse shite.’
Shivery, Grace nestled into Ruth. A road sign read half a mile to the dual carriageway. Traffic picked up. Cars, vans, trucks moaned past. Exhausts spewed black breath, rising sour and noxious in the dusk. On the embankment, Ruth squat and retched.
‘Holy pish.’ Grace spanked her spine. ‘You should have eaten something.’
Folded on her knees, Ruth vomited bile.
Grace massaged her neck. ‘Dump it up, babes.’
She heaved and puked a fizzy pool.
‘Chuck it out.’
Another sore retch, yellow slime strings swung from her mouth.
Ruth spat on the snow. ‘I’m done.’ She rested sucking and blowing.
‘Take your time.’
‘That was grotty.’
Grace touched her hair. ‘Feel better.’
‘Much.’ Ruth rose and sleeved her chin. ‘I nearly fainted.’
‘Maybe we should wait.’
‘It’s nothing to do with that. You were right. We should have had lunch.’
‘I couldn’t. I felt weird all day. Hungry now though.’
‘Me too. I’d kiss dog shit for a fish supper.’
‘Freak. You spew your guts, now you could eat a whale.’
‘Mental, isn’t it.’
Zippers shut at the throat; fisted pockets, they walked on, teary cold. Sleet hit and died. A crow squealed. They glanced at each other. Shied away. Fixed on the path. A mutual trance.
Close to the bridge a van slowed and parked on a bank. The girls saw a gloved hand adjust the side mirror. ‘Here we go.’ Ruth nudged and tugged. ‘Paedo patrol.’
The door window rolled down. ‘You hitching?’ asked a man, silver beard, glasses.
‘No thanks,’ said Grace.
‘Anywhere you want.’
‘We’re out for a walk on the bridge,’ said Ruth.
‘I can run you.’
‘It’s right there.’ Grace pointed, blueish face crunched.
‘I can run you.’
Arms locked, they mushed up the embankment, boots slippy sliding. Ruth glanced back. ‘Wonder if it has a daughter.’
Gritted stairs led to the bridge’s paved walkway. ‘Last one up is a fart.’ Grace ran the steps nimble as a foal. ‘I can taste the sea,’ she yelled.
A truck grumped past. Ruth wagged a red numb hand at her red numb ear. ‘What?’
‘The sea. Taste it.’
‘I love that.’
They dallied along the footpath. Leaned on the chest high railing. Below, broad waters lifted and fell and clapped. ‘Choppy isn’t it?’ Ruth gobbed a frothy blob. ‘It’s not the sea. It’s a river.’
‘Smells like shells.’
‘Maybe it is the sea.’ Ruth watched purple hills. ‘Grace.’
‘Do you really believe aunt Flo is planning a party?’
‘Probably sorted it weeks ago.’
‘Thanks, babes.’ Ruth climbed the rail.
Grace scrambled over and stood beside her, boots sunk in a snow shelved girder. Vehicles’ horns blared. The girls held hands and stared down at the syrupy blackness.
‘Do you think God is real?’ asked Grace, chilled and lost.
‘There’s a Devil. We know that.’
‘Pigs arse shite.’
They stepped off the bridge, into slappy icy air, and Ruth shouted, ‘So there must be a God.’
Michael Crossan was shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize 2011. And shortlisted for the Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award 2011. In January 2012, the Atlantic Wire published an interview piece about his Cormac McCarthy Twitter parody. His novel – Morningplace – is written. Three years work. The story combines naturalism – the way people talk and behave – and big unnatural, dehumanising situations. Think esoteric Twin Peaks. London editor, Gillian Stern, said Michael is her next big novelist. He is researching agents. Born in Scotland to Irish parents, he plans to settle in his forefathers Donegal and write a dozen novels. Check out Michael’s Blog and follow him on Twitter @MichaelCrossan
Ólafía Lárusdóttir was born and raised in Iceland. She is an Arctic Biologist. Her interest in photography first started when she lived in Venezuela. Turning Circle By The Old Fish Factory was taken in Skagaströnd, in north Iceland.
Short Story: Petrol Horizons
– By Lane Ashfeldt
You drive into the village, make a right by the church, and you come to the beach. No one is swimming. The beach is the end of the road. You drive along it to the turning circle where the fish factory used to be, and you circle back again on the same road.
Ahead of you is the one shop and the bank that doubles as a post office. You pull up at the petrol station. Here is where you work. You keep the older folks’ cars ticking over, and you sell sweets, soft drinks, and cigarettes to schoolchildren whose lives are just like yours used to be a few years ago.
The children who come by the petrol station are never alone. They walk in small groups to school and home again, always surrounded by friends. When they reach school they pull off their boots and leave them in the cloakroom to dry along with the herds of other shoes and boots, then pad around the corridors in knitted socks, as comfy as if still at home. Many walk further to school than the short way you drive every day from your parents’ house to the petrol station, but you never walk it, not even in high summer. It’s safer to drive, easier to pull a car round you than it is to pull on a coat and gloves. In the car you can just press play, and the music surrounds you and keeps you warm.
The village is not far off the Arctic Circle and it can snow here even in May, although nothing like the snow in winter. Then it’s so cold your face hurts, so dark that if it blizzards as you switch off the petrol station lights all sense of direction goes, everything shrinks to dark points of ice that needle your face. Once you were so lost you fell into the sea while trying to find your car. That night the water was colder than snow, although scientifically you know that’s impossible. The sea was not properly frozen, only caked in a layer of ice that crunched as your foot sank into the inky liquid below. Lucky for you it was only knee deep.
Some winter mornings – but this happens less often now than it did when you were a child – you wake to that special thick silence that comes when the town is awash with snowdrifts. On those mornings you don’t open the petrol station. It doesn’t matter. Nobody is going far, those days. You and your uncle take out the diggers and work to clear the town of drifts. This might take one day or three, all depends on the whim of the skies. Until you’re done, people hole up indoors and eat dried food, waiting for the freeze to end. Waiting for the light that can seem as if it will never return. Your brother disappeared one of those dark hushed nights, any clue that might have led to him blanketed in pure fresh snow. The police have a word for this, you heard them say it when they stood outside your house. ‘Snowdrop’. They saw you watching, and they hushed and turned away. But the word echoed silently.
Snowdrop. A body hidden under fresh snow. And the killer chose their snowstorm well. It was months before they found your brother. Twelve weeks, three days and three nights. Short days and long nights that stretched pointlessly, each like the last. All that time your mother stayed in her bedroom alone. Neighbours brought hot meals for the family and sat with her. My son, you heard her cry out to them, when is my son coming home? No one had an answer. You were her son too, but she never spoke about you.
You examined old family photos, convinced she had always loved him more than you, ever since he was born. Just one photograph showed all seven of you together, in height order. Your mother stood next to him; he was the only child taller than her. So alike. Blond, happy, smiling at your father who took the picture. In the next photo he and your mother were singing. They often sang together. Old songs, from the island long ago. Campfire songs.
The church was crowded out for the service, and part of you wondered if the killer had chosen the wrong son: he could so easily have taken one who would have been missed less. One who was less alive. He could have taken you.
Your father was quiet as always, and strong. A month after the funeral he cleared your brother’s bedroom and began to sleep there. You found your brother’s hi-fi and record collection in the garage, and his guitar. One day you put on a record in a half-hearted effort to teach yourself to play. After maybe an hour, your mother stormed out of her bedroom and raked the needle hard across the record, scratching a deep line in the vinyl. You stared at her. Then she hugged you to her and shook with tears. Afterwards she began to cook dinners again for you and the other children. This made you think of how, in winter when there are just a few hours of slanted sunlight to see by, a fishermen will make do with moonlight to get some fishing done. Yes your mother cooked hot meals for you and your siblings, yes she cleaned the house, but you never again heard her sing.
Winter is long and dark, that’s true. Each time it comes and sits on the mountains, it seems as if it will never leave. But when finally the sun swings up over the mountains and melts the snow, everything burns brighter and for two or three months the whole village lives twice as much. Lawns outside bright-painted houses are crowded with bicycles, boats and trampolines. Children bounce skywards in slow motion, freed for once of their heavy coats, wearing fleeces or hand-knitted jumpers. And everyone has things to do – summer feasts to sing at, hills to climb, fish they must hang out to dry.
You sell a lot of petrol those months. Sweets, too. And high-energy drinks. People nod and greet you by name yet you seldom find two words to say back. Locked out of their sped-up world, you take their money and watch them leave.
The hours of your shift pass slowly. You wonder sometimes – rarely now, but still it happens – if the polite neighbour you just served was the one who killed your brother. How they met. Were they friends, or not? It never came out in the end who killed him and the police put the death down to a passing stranger, but you don’t believe this. It had to have been a local. Only a local would have timed it so well. His walk home after singing practice, alone because he’d stayed behind to rehearse his solo part for the Christmas midnight mass. Was it a grown-up, a teacher maybe? Or one of the kids from school? Many of them went away to study and never came back. You wonder, did your brother’s killer run away to forget, and keep on running until he was off the edge of the map? Far beyond this island and this language, to other islands and languages that you do not know.
As you finish at the petrol station tonight, the light is strong. It pulls you. Instead of going home you fill the tank and drive. Past your parents’ house, past the school, past the disused farmhouse on the edge of town where even now streaks of brown snowmelt cling to the barren hill. Here is where they found your brother: it’s always the last place to lose its’ snow. Only a local would have known that. You speed on. Past the farmhouse and its snowmelt, and over this mountain to the next town and the one after that. It’s late, and the road is empty save for an occasional silver truck all lit up like a fishing boat luring squid. You turn up the sound and sing along to the radio: these are new songs, songs that have a fast insistent beat. If one of the old songs comes on that he and your mother once sang, you punch the dash and change stations. It’s not that you don’t care. But… His time is over now. And you need the kind of music that keeps you warm and alive.
On this bright bright night the light slants endlessly so that you feel the world spin under you, the sun a crazy ball bouncing on this round horizon, a ping-pong tied to a bat with elastic string. The clouds deepen in colour until they’re like petrol floating on dark oily puddles of sky, then lighten again as the sunset segues into dawn.
You know then that your chance to sleep is gone. But why waste a sunny night sleeping? You can sleep when you’re dead.
Lane Ashfeldt grew up in Dublin. Her stories have won the Fish Short Histories prize and the Global Short Stories prize. You can read more stories by Lane in her début collection of short fiction, SaltWater.