Black and White
– By Ken Mooney
I was nothing once. And then I was born, created in a moment of heated desire and emotion, a moment of love, pride and vanity.
And like all creations, in that moment, I knew love.
The love of a man can change you: it can reach inside and alter your soul, transform you in ways that you never thought possible, that should not be possible.
But love is not meant to last: it is not a fierce unchanging beauty, but a delicate seed that needs to be nourished, that needs to grow and to be allowed to change.
The love he felt for me could never last. I was a passing fascination, an obsession with a moment that had to end so other moments could be born. But it was glorious when it lasted: he would stare at me for hours on end, his eyes moving over every line and every detail. He would lose himself in me and I would welcome him with open arms. I would relish the attention, the pride that he felt in my form.
When he touched me, it was with the caress of a lover, of a man enchanted with everything he could see and feel. Every stroke, every blemish would disappear under his smooth fingers and I would be perfect.
But those blemishes became more pronounced with time: when he touched me, I could feel him press softer against me as if to avoid them. His fingers began to smell of absinthe and opium, of foreign spices and herbs that I could not repeat, of other men and women whom he loved and lost in their own moments.
He notices each fault in my features, and I know that I am lost to him forever. His visits become more infrequent, and his eyes are now pools of disappointment. His fingers will not explore my surface. I remain covered, as if he is embarrassed by everything that I have become.
There was a time when I would have done anything he asked of me, when I read the desire in his eyes and listened to his wordless prayers. And so I took his sins and made them my own; I wore them on my own flesh. I wrote each crime and disgrace on my features, each inhumanity and injustice on my soul.
He thinks that he lost his soul forever in me, that I am the symbol of the wasted years that he cannot destroy and will not forget. But I know that he gave his soul willingly: I know that this is what he wanted, though he will never admit it. As much as he loathes me, his hatred turns ever inwards, eternally reflected between his eyes and mine, like a ghost trapped in a hall of mirrors.
He visits me no longer, unable to look at me: he acts as if he cares no longer for the soul that he has left here, like he hates me as much as he hates himself.
I am safe here, but I do not feel safe: a man who hates himself is a dangerous man, and this attic is a dangerous place.
Ken Mooney was born in Dublin, Ireland and still lives there. He studied English at TCD, and currently works in TV advertising. He released his first novel in March 2013: Godhead is a contemporary dark fantasy about the Greek gods and is the first book in The Last Olympiad. He is currently working on a sequel, The Hades Contract, which is due in early 2014, and will have a non-fiction release later in the year. Follow him on Twitter @kenmooney or check out his website.
The Master and the Matchbox Girl
– By Karen Quinn
The orphans were inside for their morning prayers. They had been kneeling in the cathedral for an hour, each little head bowed before the cross at the altar. The Mathematical Master was in charge. He sat at the back nearest the door, arms crossed, head held high. He never prayed. Once, in class, the orphans asked him why. In response, he asked them why they did. None of them could really answer.
He checked his pocket watch. The face was cracked, the photo on the inside worn. Quarter to twelve. The Master caught the attention of the youngest orphan, telling her it was time to leave. She nodded, nudging the child beside her. Slowly they began to shuffle to their feet, each genuflecting ever-so-properly before they walked down the aisle.
Outside they assembled in pairs. It was approaching the end of autumn, so the orphans put on their scarlet cloaks. The Master was in the middle of a head count when he heard one of them speak.
‘He looks just like an angel.’
He followed the orphan’s gaze. She was looking at the statue of The Happy Prince.
‘How do you know?’ The Master said. ‘You have never seen one.’
The orphan nodded. ‘I have.’
The Master laughed. ‘Oh, is that so?’
‘And where did you see this angel?’
‘In my dreams,’ she said.
The Mathematical Master frowned. He did not approve of children dreaming.
He always thought the statue was grotesque. The Happy Prince was a large figure that loomed over the city. Draped in fineries, leaves of gold, with a sword that had a ruby on its hilt, and two fine bright sapphires for his eyes. The Master tried not to look at it, but he glanced at the figure as he and the orphans walked by.
Winter came and frost kissed the ground. The orphans were only allowed to play outside for an hour at midday. The rest of the time they were ordered to stay indoors. The orphanage could not afford sick children. In the evening, as the orphans prepared for dinner, the Master would take his leave. He would walk aimlessly around the town, hands in pockets, inhaling the crispness of the air. He never spoke to any of the townspeople and they never spoke to him.
On one unremarkable evening the Master felt faint, so he sat by the statue of The Happy Prince. He was recovering from a fever that had taken hold a week previously. As he waited for the feeling to subside, he took out his pocket watch. He ran his thumb along the photo inside. The faces were no longer visible, but one was smaller than the other. A child, possibly. He rested this thumb there for a moment.
Then he heard her speak.
‘Would ye like a packet o’ matches, sir?’
She was only a few feet tall. Her hair was frizzy and she was dressed in rags. The Master noted her left eye, swollen and purple.
He waved her away. ‘Not today, young lady.’
‘Only a shillin’ for a packet.’
‘No thank you.’
‘Help keep you warm this winter.’
‘I am pleasantly warm.’
She looked him up and down. ‘I don’ think so. Ye look a bit peaky.’
His tone was definite. She walked away.
The Master didn’t let her get too close, but he checked his pockets nevertheless. The coins still jangled pleasantly. He took it as a warning though, it was time to go. Before he left, he noticed the most unusual thing – a swallow, sitting on the statue’s sword. A swallow at the beginning of winter. The most unusual thing.
Then he saw that the ruby was gone. Another unusual thing.
The Match Girl was sitting by the statue, legs swinging. She had three boxes to sell. The Master thought she was loud and obnoxious. His orphan children would never speak like that, regardless the attention they sought. Although her swinging legs reminded him of someone who he thought he’d forgotten. The pocket watch ticked close to his heart.
She noticed him approach her.
‘Are you a thief, child?’
She frowned. ‘Not today, sir.’
‘And how about yesterday?’
She looked puzzled. The Master pointed at The Happy Prince’s sword, where the ruby once was. She looked back at him.
‘I’m no climber sir, whoever took that must not be afraid o’ falling.’
She appeared honest.
‘Would ye like a seat, sir?’
He knew better than to take a sit beside a thief. ‘No, thank you.’
‘A shillin’ for a box, sir?’
‘No thank you.’
He put up his collar, turning to leave. Her light voice called after him.
‘Strange t’ see a swallow in winter, isn’t it?’
He continued to walk, passing by the town’s seamstress. She was particularly gifted, making beautiful gowns for the Queen and her maids. He thought it was odd to see her buying oranges from the merchant. A luxury for a woman who earned so little. He had heard that her son was sick, so maybe the Queen had shown pity. She shuffled past, head low. She had no time to speak.
The orphans walked in pairs to the cathedral. As they were passing, the Master noticed that the Happy Prince was missing an eye. “A rare sapphire”, was how it was described by the town councillors. The Match Girl was skipping nearby. When she saw the Master, she waved and pointed to the statue. She had noticed too. He didn’t want his children to see her, so he looked away. He couldn’t associate with such a child, but he promised himself to return later.
In the evening, he met her by the statue.
‘Did you take the Prince’s eye?’
‘Are you lying to me, young lady?’
‘Then who did?’
‘I don’t know, sir,’ she thought about it, ‘well, I think it was the sparrow.’
The Master didn’t appreciate jokes.
She shrugged. ‘Why else would he stay here? All his friends are in Egypt and he’s very much alone.’
‘Maybe he is stupid.’
‘Or maybe he’s our thief.’
The Master looked very severe. He had very little time for games.
The next day he was passing with the orphans when he heard her scream. A desperate woman had tackled the Match Girl and both had fallen to the ground. It was frenzied, the girl was scratched and punched. Eventually she reneged on her defence, loosening her grasp. The woman grabbed a box of matches and ran away. The rest were scattered on the wet ground, destroyed. The Match Girl sobbed, her tears heavy and loud. The Master was only a few feet away, but he had to walk on. He wasn’t in a position to help the girl, not in front of the orphans. He could never trust her anyway. She was a vagabond, a self-confessed thief. He was in no position to help her.
That evening it began to snow. Light at first, but then heavier and heavier. The Master was sitting in his office, wearing his coat. The lining was damaged, but the weight offered some warmth. He felt restless. The worsening weather offered no comfort. To him, each gust of wind sounded like a crying child. Unable to bare it any longer, he stood up. If he was prepared to be outside then he might as well be there, with the ice and the snow.
Outside, it was quiet. The snow had scared away the townsfolk and the houses glittered by candlelight. The Master would have thought it beautiful if not for the beggars and the white faces of starving children huddled together in the dark lanes. He found himself drifting towards the Happy Prince, towards the place that had rested on his mind all day. There were a few people there, closing up stalls and sweeping snow away from the cobbles. The Match Girl was nowhere in sight.
He sat by the statue and took out his pocket watch. Their faces were almost completely gone now. There were only shadows left. Then out of the corner of his eye he saw her brogues. The Match Girl was standing in front of him. Her lip was swollen, a trophy from her battle with the woman. It matched her bruised eye.
‘Can I sit beside ye, sir?’
‘Yes.’ He was planning to say “no”.
She sat close, her feet not touching the ground.
‘What happened to your eye?’ He had never thought to ask her before.
Her response was innocent. ‘If I don’t sell m’ matchboxes, sir.’
They both fell silent. The Master forced his eyes to the ground.
‘Who are they?’ She said pointing at the worn photo.
‘This is all I have left, young lady’, he said. ‘It’s fading away. Bit by bit.’
The Master noticed her legs swinging. He felt a pang of sadness, which she noted, forcing her legs to remain still.
‘Does that upset you, sir? I’ll stop if you want.’
‘No, by all means, swing.’
She resumed. The Master felt himself smile, only for a second.
‘Can ye remember what they look like, sir? The people in the photo.’
‘Not really, no.’
He expected pity and was taken aback slightly when she just shrugged.
‘Doesn’t matter anyway,’ she said, ‘ye will, when ye see them again.’
He was uncertain, but he found comfort in her whimsical nature. They fell into silence once again. Eventually he spoke, looking at her as if she was one of his orphans. ‘Did you steal the ruby and the sapphire?’
She shook her head.
‘No, sir. It was the swallow.’
She reached into her pocket and pulled out a beautiful, glittering sapphire. The Prince had lost his other eye.
‘Just like it gave me this,’ she explained. ‘I think it looks like glass.’
The Master wasn’t sure how to respond. He should reprimand her. She was a thief, after all. He should take the precious jewel and march her straight to the council. Yet there she sat with a look of complete and utter honesty. To her, the swallow gave her a gift. That gift she could give it to her father, who thought that gold could make him happy. She could go home instead of being judged by those who thought they had the right to judge. She needn’t be a beggar or a starving child. No, tonight the Match Girl with the frizzy hair and the rags was a princess with a fine gem. The Master shuffled to his feet.
‘I think I have spent too long outside. I have not fully recovered from my fever. Go home, child.’
They parted. He watched as she ran around the corner and out of sight. As he made his way to the orphanage, he thought he saw the swallow visit the children and the beggars. He shook his head. That would be a very unusual thing.
The newspapers announced it first. The Happy Prince was to be torn down. He had been stripped of his gold and jewels, his lead heart was cracked in the middle. He was no longer beautiful or useful, really, so the town councillors wanted to melt his body and erect a new, “possibly finer” statue. The Master knew that was impossible. He thought that The Happy Prince found its magnificence in its simplicity. In a smaller column, he read that the winter swallow had succumbed to the cold, having been found dead at the feet of The Happy Prince.
During his stroll into town, he saw the Prince’s lead heart and the swallow’s body lying on the dust pile. He stood there for some time. He was about to check his pocket watch and leave when a woman caught his eye. She was standing on the pile, dressed in white, her feet bare. He thought she would be cold. He blushed at such a silly thought. He watched as she collected the broken heart of the prince and the body of the bird. She smiled at him then, the Master Mathematician. He was sure that he had met her before.
The following day he sat in the cathedral with his orphans and prayed. Outside, the Match Girl played in new sunlight.
Karen is a prose and scriptwriter, as well as a playwright. She is currently writing a children’s novel and working on a number of new projects for the stage and screen. This is her second contribution to The Bohemyth, with her short story After Anna published back in Issue 15. You can follow her on twitter @Monsoonstorm19 or check out her daily blog threebagsofsugar.com.
The Beautiful Lie
– By Sarah McBride
The robin whose breast was as red as a ruby, sat on a delicate branch of the bare weeping willow which stretched its long frozen arms towards the lake.
Beside that same lake sat the young artist, tears glistening beneath his eyes. The robin thought, ‘how beautiful he looks, how he fits in so well with the world around him, made so melancholy by winter.’
The bird unlike the young artist had grown used to being alone. Most of the other birds had again flown south towards light and warmth. The robin had once spoken to a sparrow who told of long decadent days high up in a Jackal-Berry tree where his feathers were warmed by the African sun. He told of how he watched as the sky changed colour from sapphire to deepest amber and amethyst, how he breathed in the scent of the tree’s fragrant flowers and ate its fleshy fruit.
The robin had revelled in the story but secretly thought that his long wait to greet the spring ended in a more noble form of beauty. Only when the death, the dark and the cold of winter were embraced could the beauty of nature truly be appreciated.
And so the robin had savoured the spring, year after year. He loved how the buds appeared, filled with such promise. He loved how the golden narcissi nodded their glorious heads at their reflection in the lake, delighting in their own beauty. He loved how the crocuses opened their petals and welcomed in the grateful little bees that glutted themselves on pollen and saffron. Most of all he loved how the sun emerged from behind her cloudy seclusion and shone her warming rays on the re-awakening earth.
The young artist however, did not share the robin’s patience for he had always looked to nature as his guide, the inspiration for his art. This winter more than ever before, he lamented the lack of beauty in the world. So his paint palette lay dry and cracked on the floor and at the foot of his bed his easel stood forlorn, holding a painting as empty and colourless as the landscape.
One day as the young artist walked towards the lake he saw a beautiful young girl lying on the newly snow covered ground staring languidly at the sky. The girl had ivory skin and long golden hair which sprawled behind her like a fan; she wore a long purple coat.
‘What are you doing?’ He asked, noticing a red ribbon in the girl’s delicate hands.
‘I am making a carnation to put in the button-hole of my new coat. I have looked far and wide for one; in fact I have now wandered miles from home. So I have taken this ribbon from my hair and will make a flower of my own.’
The girl sang as she made the red ribbon into a beautiful flower and her song filled the silent air:
“I have seen true and beautiful flowers with my own eyes,
but soon those flowers withered and died,
so they had merely half the beauty of my own beautiful lie.”
The young artist was shocked by the song and asked; “How can a lie be beautiful?”
The girl did not speak; in fact she never spoke again. She got up and brought the finished carnation to the young artist, holding it close to his face, so close that it brushed the end of his nose. It was the most perfect flower he had ever seen; it was so perfect in fact he thought he could smell its perfume in the frost-kissed air.
As the young artist walked away it was plain to see there were no other footprints on the snow by the lake; aside that is from those of the faithful robin who gently hopped behind him all the way home.
The next morning more snow fell on the garden. The young artist sat in his room and opened the wooden box in which he kept his most vivid and vibrant paints.
The robin stood on the icy window sill, close by as ever and watched enthralled as he began to paint on to the empty canvas.
It was as though he had transcended reality and entered another world entirely. As the painting grew and changed so too did the young artist’s face, which now seemed quite incongruous in the winter landscape. His eyes glowed with joy and his pale cheeks flushed crimson.
The robin had turned his little feathered back on the desolate garden behind him and become quite mesmerised by the unfolding scene.
On the painting there were three mighty Oaks which stood like wise old Kings in a field of golden corn and three little children in short sleeves playing hide and seek between the sovereign trees. At the forefront of the painting stood a girl, hair as golden as the corn, which fell around her shoulders in waves. She had a face of pure, ethereal beauty and held a bunch of red carnations.
The robin wondered how someone could create such beauty from nothing. In fact the young artist, during those fleeting moments when his paintbrush slowed a little, had thought the very same. For he was quite sure there had been no girl at the lake that day, that she was in fact only a beautiful lie he had told himself.
And yet, how preferable she was to the truth and every day the painting grew more perfect.
‘Oh to bask in such beauty’ thought the robin and he could almost feel the warmth on his body, which in reality had now become quite frozen; until one day, the very day that the young artist finished his painting the little robin fell down dead.
The people of the village and villages from miles around heard of the painting and came to delight in it. Indeed it possessed a beauty which sustained them through one of the harshest winters they had ever known. In the presence of the art they felt quite warm and restored and the real world ceased to exist while they looked upon it.
When winter came to an end as it always does, spring and summer came and the sun shone on the bones of the bird. The autumn came and leaves feel on the bones of the bird. After another bleak winter where the bird lay a flower grew.
Sarah McBride writes poetry and prose. She studied for her BA in English at Queen’s University Belfast where she also graduated with an MA in Modern Literary Studies in 2012. She currently works as a Training Support Officer & lives in Mid Ulster. Sarah is composing a collection of Fairy Tales and recently started writing her first children’s novel.
A Trump Card
– By Kevin O’Farrell
Horace Fortune was a frivolous fool. This was the opinion of his uncle Maximilian; and to be fair, it was not one he was alone in, nor was it a conclusion he had rushed to, for he had practically raised the boy after his parents’ idiotic death by misadventure. Horace’s father had been partners with Maximilian in a company they founded together, but which only became stupendously successful after his demise. Now Maximilian was dying, and so he summoned his brother’s son to see him in his final hours. They had not met in five years, since Horace turned eighteen.
Anyone expecting a sentimental deathbed recantation of the unadulterated pursuit of wealth simply did not know the man whose motto was the unoriginal, if pithy, time is money. And for his nephew he had in mind not reconciliation, but revenge. What the lad needed to be taught was the value of the wealth he had so undeservedly been born into.
To underline the seriousness of his point, he spoke in a dramatic whisper and grasped Horace’s hand, as if seconds from death (it was the only way to ensure the dolt’s remembering): ‘You will continue to receive your annuity,’ he told him, ‘but it will be reduced by half with each successive year. The majority of the estate will remain with your cousins, for you simply cannot be trusted with it. You should be comfortable’ he added sternly, ‘with what I have given you, but I want you also to try and do something for yourself, boy.’ He gestured to the butler and he on cue brought forth the antique timepiece and handed it to Horace. ‘Open it,’ Maximilian prompted. Inside the golden pocketwatch was a sombre photograph of Maximilian, and on its face his motto was inscribed. ‘Heed those words boy, heed them. Every second counts. I learnt that when I was your age and from then on I never wasted another of them. This piece is extremely valuable y’know, its value increases every day – so should sure yours, boy; so should yours. Keep it always, that is all I ask you; keep it as your guide.’
The theatricality of this final audience certainly did ensure it stayed with Horace, though in rendering it so many times he rather forgot which parts had actually been said and which were his own improvised additions. He did indeed carry the watch with him always and sometimes when drunk would open it and mock at his uncle’s image. His fortunes declined in perfect tandem with the years, as ordained; and he did nothing to reverse this, because for one he was having too good a time, and for another did he not have a trump card in his pocket? Finally, time caught up with him and he brandished it cheerfully to the city’s top jewellers. As he sat waiting to go in, Maximilian’s stern countenance seemed now to be smiling slyly from the watch. It barely covered the cost of Horace’s funeral.
Kevin O’Farrell is 29 years old and from Dublin, where he still lives. Last year he completed a doctorate in English Literature at Oxford.