Scotoperiod

night falls inside my body / & turns it blind / the way a muddy river / browns a white fish / & my body is a lunar calendar / longing for Ramadan / to catch the glimpse of a new moon / I look through the window / & find a rainbow / with a different spectrum / a long curve with ribbons of G R I E F / across the skyline / these days / I am learning to stay alive / because living has become more of an abstract noun / than a verb / something I only imagined / & wished for / touch this boy’s tongue & / feel your hands go numb like darkness / I have crawled through my gullet / in the torrents of songs / where hope was just a line living through slow solos / & verses & rhymes / of a subtle hymn / but never a sight of light from a distant proximity / touch his eyes / & watch your forefinger / become a tap where water runs from / I have dug a well in the same gullet / finding if there was any trace of honey / milk / or sugar / left in my body / but none / just stones / & torsos / & echoes of old conversations / just a dark rickety cavern / & a wind of aloneness / hold this boy’s palms / & feel the breath of a poem / falling from the west / like zephyrs / & don’t we break our faces with a smirk / just to prove that everything is fine / that there’s something to hold on to? / light has become a brittle glass / so I don’t grasp it / the way I should / to avoid another shatter / I have tried all I could / to create sparkles / in my body / I have glued fireflies to my skin / but they neither burnt my grief / nor illuminated me / if not a sunflower that wilts in the morning / what else am I ? / perhaps closed eyes wandering through a dream / where the world was just the world / before God spoke / where darkness was just a coverlet gilding the earth /

Chinedu Gospel is a young Nigerian Poet. He writes from Anambra. His works have appeared or are forthcoming in The Rising Phoenix Review, Lunaris Review, Rough Cut Press, Eremite Poetry, FERAL, Poetry Column-NND, Fahmidan Journal, Sledgehammer Lit, and Rigorous, among others. He tweets (@gospel79070806) & is on IG (@gospelsofpoetry).

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Transience

if to wish away a moment
is not to be      I wish

for this particular light
in leaves of pacific live oak      for

the salted horizon      bay sliver
of toenail      buildings dripped brightly

how reality interrupts itself
in gray herons in backyards

in the unexpected glistening back
of a blowfly      alighted on hand

where is a pen
when I need one?

how something as subtle as light
can trickle down      form channels

cracks in stone,      canyons
ebb and flow            of the sun

unfolds so slowly
you almost miss it

light alights on the dogwood
branches      are movement      which is to say

light. shadows cling to undersides
and slide      as the ground tilts

Savannah Voth is a high school senior from California who loves to write and create art in many different forms, often finding inspiration through observing everyday things.

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Things that I will tell you in the middle of the pouring rain

I lied to you when I stepped on the airplane saying that
I would never miss you: the same season in the window and the old
branch that never loads enough cherries and the moisture
that haunts my skin forever.
I was heading to another city, the stars cloaked it like a cloud.
I lied to you when I said I won’t be afraid of
living on a ground that doesn’t belong to me. I ate
sandwiches on the plane, now they churned
in my throat. I couldn’t even swallow them smoothly like I would do
in the morning waking in your pearled skyline.
I heard that the rain was pouring down to you in the night I left.
I knew the flood was killing lives in Henan and now I worry
you may be suffocated by the same water.
I am hanging in the middle of the sky, three thousand miles away from
you. I could do nothing.
I lean closer to the window, imagining the rain dropping on my face. I wonder
if you are afraid when I am not here with you in the wind and the water.
I used to be there, listening to the wind the rain the thunder for a whole night.
Neither of us was scared because we knew we were going to survive under
each other’s breath.
Now I am shrouded by the dust and the light.
I close my eyes in the air
at a height that I could easily touch the moon
but not the ground I place my root in.

Shi Yang Su is an international student who is currently studying creative writing. She is a firm believer in “show, don’t tell”. Her favorite poet is Sharon Olds. Her poems have been published in Antimatter Dreams, Neologism Poetry Journal, Across the Margin, Misery Tourism, CERASUS Magazine, Rat’s Ass Review, Down in the Dirt, MORIA, Dreich Magazine, YAWP, and Trouvaille Review, and her poems are forthcoming on The Bitchin’ Kitsch and Sledgehammer Lit.

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Milanese

We arch
steel dawn

but can’t jump
this void where

swallows spin
blind, and

when rains come,
we gargle tears

and hemorrhage
as one,

spattering
cobblestones.

Richard Manly Heiman lives in the pines of the Sierra Nevada. He works as an English teacher and writes when the kids are at recess. Richard has been published by Rattle, Into the Void, Spiritus (Johns Hopkins U.), and elsewhere. His website is https://www.poetrick.com.

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A re-enactment on the withered slope

The garden fades in double sunset, still
hard-edged and amber,
loitering patiently. And jaundiced light,
unseasonably chill,
trickles like played out gold
through blighted trees.

From High Street Hill,
the steeple cross scowls down
on stained glass portals and a rusted gate.
Pale children flit in whispers
through the town,
and at the forest’s edge,
their faces fade.

The drizzling fog misting the sugar pines
can’t hide the gallows noose,
stiffened and blue. The trapdoor seems
impervious to time, as if tomorrow,
boot heels might bust through.
And bells might thunder
up the canyon wall,
and early nightjars
start their churring call.

Richard Manly Heiman lives in the pines of the Sierra Nevada. He works as an English teacher and writes when the kids are at recess. Richard has been published by Rattle, Into the Void, Spiritus (Johns Hopkins U.), and elsewhere. His website is https://www.poetrick.com.

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When the hurly-burly’s done

The mist breathes up. It hugs us
and we rise with it, never wearing
boots where boots should be.
Strange how at ground level
all that’s bony turns to mush.
Can’t tell where I end and all
the clinging stink begins.

But the most important thing is—
listen, remember, and tell it,
for God’s sake
—I’m not alone.
Never. I’m one of a windrow.
One hundred and ninety-three,
shriven in hail and timber.
Pigs rooted but I stayed deep,
nestled in April’s sodden clods.

When days above grow longer,
it rains and we leach a bit more.
But I’ll testify to the hornet’s song,
and I do still recall these things:
Fire pinks, petaled like blossoming
wounds. Rabbits, running in smoke.
And sticky unripe peach juice,
trickling from my cooling lips.

Note: After the Battle of Shiloh, many of the dead were buried quickly in mass graves. The location of some of those graves is unknown today.

Richard Manly Heiman lives in the pines of the Sierra Nevada. He works as an English teacher and writes when the kids are at recess. Richard has been published by Rattle, Into the Void, Spiritus (Johns Hopkins U.), and elsewhere. His website is https://www.poetrick.com.

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10-Year-Old Judas at the Custody Battle

I remember when the judge
asked me
who I wanted to live with
my mom or my dad

they were all very good about it
the lawyers, the judge, my parents
they made me feel very special
like a kid who was going through
an extremely difficult time
and deserved comfort

nobody’s niceties
could get one thing
out of my head though
that by making this decision
I was choosing one over the other

my mom I said
feeling guilty I had betrayed my father

it was then they should’ve brought out
a snack or something
so I could
take the communion of cookies and milk

Daniel J. Flore III’s poems have appeared in many journals. He is the author of 4 poetry books. They are Lapping Water, Humbled Wise Men Christmas Haikus, Home and other places I’ve yet to see, and Pink Marigold Rays.

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Family Time

We thought we’d mastered it, of course,
those breezy gerunds, gust fronts from adverbial phrases,
minor winds from indirect objects
we passed around like pie after dinner.

But little darlings don’t we find ways
to fill the empty middle ground and tell our silly selves
what we like to hear and call it meaning,
which is, after all, what we’ve meant all along?

Our strategy’s been flawless.
What happens, happens. The space gets filled,
we call it good. We even look back and say
it seemed like a dream, but we were there all the time.

Doesn’t the family make you feel like a cry?
That too will pass, like so many things passed:
the rituals we made in the garage while parting,
the prayers we said, if only I had meant them.

And you remember that night, late November,
when I came to visit you.
Cable TV switched off
and I wanted to know how the war years were for you.

There we were, in the front room of the ranch house,
when that memory leaked, no, blurted out:
you held the letter in your first wife’s script reading pregnant, divorce,
and you teetered as if on a pier surrounded by swollen water.

Dale Cottingham is of mixed race, part Choctaw, part white. He is a Bread Loafer, won the 2019 New Millennium Award for Poetry and is a finalist in the 2021 Great Midwest Writing Contest.

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In The Hotel

I want to tell you
about the rhubarb in the conference room.
Sharp words tossed round enhanced by gestures
then came retorts, even side glances.
The subject was beside the point.

I want you to tell me about a lot of things:
How does it feel to have men
survey your lovely curves or
exactly why your eyes turn milky
when we make love. It’s as if
you become a god to yourself,
everything melds into the present.
Maybe it’s like that for others.
I can’t say, but I want that for you, for us.

These seem to be connected
in some way. Maybe this is why speech
is sometimes called verbal intercourse,
because in both there is a kind of play
that reveals the soul.
It reminds me that this language
nails things down to keep them open.
You can pick and choose,
make things fit your mood
or style, or change those altogether,
inviting to some, and to others
a challenge that dispatches them to the hills.
I saw this this evening lounging
in the hotel, my vision lowered
to the journal’s blank page
for what turned out to be a long time,
but seemed like no time at all.

I’m looking forward to the in-room meal,
the movie I’ll watch, my call to you
when I’ll tell you I miss you,
Hell, we might even have phone sex
and after I’ll slip into sleep,
my mind creating in swirls
of reds, greens, a world of its own.

But don’t worry. Tomorrow I’ll wake.
The sun will come up. The coffee will brew.
I won’t be passed over.
Under my door, my bill will arrive.

Dale Cottingham is of mixed race, part Choctaw, part white. He is a Bread Loafer, won the 2019 New Millennium Award for Poetry and is a finalist in the 2021 Great Midwest Writing Contest.

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Sandwiches

after “Peanut Butter” by Eileen Myles

You always say
you aren’t hungry
’til you see me
eating. I make
the two of us
peanut butter
sandwiches
in nothing but
boxers. You lounge
in nothing

but a T-shirt.
I hate going out—
stranger’s sweat
on my body
& drunk guys
grabbing
your waist
to move by.
I hate the noise
that drowns out
the sound
of you calling
my name.
This is better.
I prefer this

quiet. A walk
with the dog.
A shitty movie &
your feet on
my lap. Going
for groceries—
stocking up
on peanut butter.
I always drive.
You’re always
along for the
ride.

Beck Guerra Carter is a nonbinary lesbian poet from Austin, Texas. They are an MFA candidate at Texas State University. Beck has been published in Lavender Review, Q/A Poetry, Odes and Elegies: Eco-Poetry from the Texas Gulf Coast, and elsewhere. Their life is more than a list of failures and accomplishments. So is yours. Beck’s pronouns are they/she.

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The Meadow

Mother, my legs are uncertain.
When the fox comes,
my hooves are a faulty
drumroll across asphalt.

Lights soar past and wail
horribly, like so many animals
screaming. You told me lights
can break a body open.
There are so many predators
at night. I close my eyes.

Open. Pick up my pace.
His russet body flickering
between trees. My legs learning
the language of evasion.
They stutter across leaves.

Mother, I miss the meadow
where I met you.
Everything green, the grass full
of small lives crawling
onto my spotty body. And there
was you and I. The sky
spread above us like a promise
of something good to come.

The woods are more cruel
than I have ever realized.
I can hear you, I think.
The desperate thudthudthud
of your hooves after me.
But you are too far behind.

Mother, when does a promise break?
I feel his breath.
My muscles ache and this
darkness is unfamiliar.
Thorns scratch my side and draw blood.
I stumble all the way down.
Thorns kiss then press
right through my throat
and I do not think they are thorns.

Beck Guerra Carter is a nonbinary lesbian poet from Austin, Texas. They are an MFA candidate at Texas State University. Beck has been published in Lavender Review, Q/A Poetry, Odes and Elegies: Eco-Poetry from the Texas Gulf Coast, and elsewhere. Their life is more than a list of failures and accomplishments. So is yours. Beck’s pronouns are they/she.

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House of Ash // Body of Water

The house was red that’s what I remember.
A house is a home depending on what hold its bricks together.
Sometimes that house felt like a cathedral.
All that holiness and doubt.
My dad has eyes like seawater.
When the waters rise the house will be an island by itself.
He told me: Home is wherever you are, make sure you remember.
Sometimes I felt like a colt in a burning barn.
These memories the only fire I can’t extinguish.
When she knelt for me I felt like an altar.
Offering: my body.
Sometimes her mouth tastes like ash and I can only think of burning.
The pool water turned red when I sank into it.
Water poured in the crux of her chest.
I don’t know how to drink without drowning.

Beck Guerra Carter is a nonbinary lesbian poet from Austin, Texas. They are an MFA candidate at Texas State University. Beck has been published in Lavender Review, Q/A Poetry, Odes and Elegies: Eco-Poetry from the Texas Gulf Coast, and elsewhere. Their life is more than a list of failures and accomplishments. So is yours. Beck’s pronouns are they/she.

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Sun-dried Fish

My mother loves me
like she loved sun-dried fish burnt
three different shades of golden,
each hue for a different section
of the fish: ocean-caught from the
salty waters of a 5-mile walk from
her village. These fish don’t need cleaning
because the sun gone and went and
burnt them clean of their lingering
dreams of the undulating ocean. Summer
would come on like a staticky TV set and
burn my mother so hot that she learned to
love it. Savor it like Lunar New Year’s meat
buns which came once a year and hardly ever
had enough. In those days, it was so sweltering
and the power of the sun was too much, to the point
that you could not go naked and expect to survive.

Honeysuckle factors in
faintly, dances and caresses her
work-scarred palms and provides
good but ephemeral company when
her stomach bulges like the stomachs
of half-pregnant 13-year-old girls in
her village. Like a dream halfway between
God’s blurry heaven and earth’s blue
purgatory, my mother loves me the way
she loved the boy whose thighs and arms
tore themselves to shreds from the stones
of neighbors with faces that colored themselves
gray and red, like mud that had dried itself up
and bled red when the rain of a thousand bombs
died by violent combustion in the soil of her hometown.
She loved him but could not lift a finger,
even if he was her brother.

Sherice Kong is a 16-year-old writer from New Jersey. She works at Midlight Magazine and Café Au Lait Magazine. Her work is forthcoming in The Aurora Journal and superfroot. Find her on Instagram @reiceicey.

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Tomato Juice

I sit alone and watch the sunset from a window seat on the bus. My headphones are in, so no one will talk to me. As the desert scenery rolls before me, I see fellow passengers layered over the landscape, reflected back by the glare of the windows. A woman is reading. A man is staring at his phone.

Over a week ago I got off the plane in Rome. I spent a few nights there and took the train to Naples, and a boat to Sorrento. I flew over the volcano Mount Vesuvius, but I didn’t see it blow. I landed in Split, took the bus to Dubrovnik, and am riding to Vienna now. I ride away from the Ocean, but the moon, it seems to be following me.

When I was a child I used to think the moon really did that, follow me, I saw it go wherever I went, right out the car window. The first time I rode a plane overseas, I swore I saw the sun set, then rise again in a matter of minutes. It was the summer solstice, I was a child, could you believe it?

They say girls shouldn’t travel alone (they call women girls too). But I’ve taken trains, planes, buses, and my own two feet over borders, oceans, and mountains.

They said I was running away, like there’s shame in leaving. But I swear I breathe better through a cigarette out the open window of a car, you know my aunt, grandma, and two uncles died of cancer? But I still kept smoking until someone said it’d give me wrinkles. Now I eat sunflower seeds in the car, keep a cup for the shells and yellow Gatorade to wet my mouth.

I don’t drink mixed drinks, only beer and wine, except for Bloody Marys and micheladas. I didn’t used to like tomato juice, until I tried it on a plane. The altitude changes your taste buds, so does leaving.

I wrote a poem about him on a train, well it was really about me. It’s funny how the world tells you love is forgetting how to breathe, but I can breathe just fine up here. I inhale deep, thirsty for air. You looked so small from the window of my plane.

I sit alone and watch the sunset from the window on the bus. I swear the moon’s following me, could you believe it?

Sarah Shaughnessy is a writer and a poet born and raised in Santa Cruz, California. As someone who has lived her life with depression, anxiety, and ADD, much of her writing revolves around mental illness. However, her work also touches on subjects such as relationships, sexism, societal expectations, and the human condition. She currently resides in Chicago, Illinois, with her partner.

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At a Red Light

There are those who only have their name to give as thanks.
Have you seen a two-year-old boy hand his papa an orange peel?

That is what I remember, and Barry’s eyes, too, oddly sweet, gleaming with oil,
glazed and losing. Admitting with his palm, thirty of the filthiest cents I have ever seen,
      A sort of proof, I suppose.

“Where are you from?” means “where are you as a person?”

At an intersection, on the corner, by a guardrail plastered with band stickers,
by a highway to nowhere,

I am always home but do not belong.

George Cassidy Payne is interested in the intersection of poetry, social justice, representations of spirituality and concepts of self. He’s a part-time professor of philosophy at the State University of New York (SUNY) and teaches workshops focusing on writing and philosophy. He holds a master’s degree in philosophical theology from Emory University. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous journals, including Barnstorm, Chronogram Magazine, Adelaide, Adirondack Almanac, Tea House, The Mindful Word, Ink Sweat & Tears, Scarlet Leaf Review, The Writing Disorder, Califragile, Zingara Poetry Review, Deep South Magazine, Allegro Poetry Review and several others. His debut full-length collection, A Time Before Teachers, was released in 2019 from Cholla Needles Arts & Literary Library.

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Late Autumn in New England

clock chimes harmonize
with the cadence of cascading leaves
who, leaving their branches of birth, fall among the
fallen foliage.

red brick; old, staid,
resonant with the results of receding chlorophyll.
have you had your fill?
is the image burned into your mind,
burnished and glowing and real?
or will it fade? like the color from the leaves
or the life from your cheeks
or the blue from the sky as you approach monochrome
winter.

the clock chimes again.
there are no leaves left to fall.
a barren trunk shudders in the weighted wind and
reverberates with the hollow sound.

Jared Schwartz is a writer from New York and a student at Brown University. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Glassworks, North Dakota Quarterly, FEED, and Anthropocene. He can be found on Instagram and Twitter: @jschwartzpoetry.

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After Dark

after Haruki Murakami

I.

From a violet grows an expanse of trash.
Maggots gnaw on rotted bones.
Rats scurry. A scent of raw sewage.
We are here to police flowers,
but our cage is built of iron.
We are an anathema and a curse,
confined to licit darkness,
doomed to roam the Earth ad infinitum.

II.

A room divides via mitosis into two rooms,
one observed by secret camera.
On a television screen, static, the sound of a woman singing.
There is a bloody knife on the linoleum floor,
and blood congealed to the walls.
The Alphaville Hotel. Midnight.
We can’t escape the feeling
we are being observed.

III.

A bed on the roof of a 24-hr. Denny’s.
Beneath the covers lies a girl, perhaps nineteen
with straight black hair, peach lipstick.
A man in a black leather jacket, riding a motorcycle,
drops a cell phone in the street.
On the line, the voice of a woman:
Don’t ever show your face here again.

IV.

In the bathroom mirror, the reflection
of the sleeping girl. She levitates silently
without waking. We see on her wrist the scars,
we hear the sound of voices in the empty restaurant.

V.

The trash reverts to a purple violet. The violet grows
through the roof of a stadium.
We cannot tell if we are dreaming.
We are pure consciousness, floating above the city.
6:44. Trains rattle underground.
Before we black out, we eat tuna sandwiches in the park.
Then all returns to darkness.

VI.

We are hidden from ourselves.
The sea washes away our thoughts,

crowned with flickering light.
We are deep beneath the surface of the waves,

the tide heavy on our shoulders,
as we lift the city out of exile.

Kevin J.B. O’Connor received his MFA from Old Dominion University. Currently, he is pursuing a PhD in English at University of Kentucky. He has work forthcoming in Notre Dame Review this fall. He lives in Lexington, KY.

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Reunion

In response to preconception I’ve adapted wrinkles,
a clever and malevolent grin. I would say the mockingbird knows.
The wind, however, is oblivious. Don’t ask what I mean
speaking of traps and forest fires. The soul yearns
for the loquaciousness of crickets, especially on a night like this.
A rebellion against half-truths of petrified knaves,
or what passes for nabobs in backwater towns,
constructs itself from nothingness, rhyme. I’ve been cleansed
by gin, or so I say, against the strife of so many years—
dreams, disease, quotidian decay. Red hawthorn
surges in corridors of brick, born again of intensive conjecture,
the polished loafers of one hundred and forty-three
scholars known to these halls, who have returned to pay homage,
redress, recapitulate—fomenting the illimitable potential of the age.

Kevin J.B. O’Connor received his MFA from Old Dominion University. Currently, he is pursuing a PhD in English at University of Kentucky. He has work forthcoming in Notre Dame Review this fall. He lives in Lexington, KY.

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After Rimbaud

A borrowed title for a book of plums,
or rather, poems, jockeys
for permission in my mind with a falling Gothic helmet,
an image of wheat crackers, and news
of a “thousand holes in Blackburn Lancashire”—
imperfectly remembered, ad hoc
as a crown of violets, clothing made of straw,
hollow men on a stage, all illusion,
the heart salvaged from misery and mystery
capering in wan light. Dawn resists,
thieved and symbolically dismembered,
aligned in arch commiseration with the stars,
while the bar of progress blinks unwittingly
on a computer fallen, and “the dream cools.”

Kevin J.B. O’Connor received his MFA from Old Dominion University. Currently, he is pursuing a PhD in English at University of Kentucky. He has work forthcoming in Notre Dame Review this fall. He lives in Lexington, KY.

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Everything Seems So Normal Until We Wonder How to Live

The stable jobs
the cable TV

the khaki pants
the taxes paid.

‘City names’ chosen for the kids.

No dirt roads
no worn-in denim
no canned peaches

no hand-rolled cigarettes
no dance parties.

I once watched every adult I knew dancing so hard I could smell it.
Furniture pushed to the side in a cabin built by hand.

Marvin Gaye so loud the grass shook.

Nissa Sorenson is a poet and quilt maker. She lives in a pink house with her daughter Annabelle, her partner Phil and their dog Rosie – on Mercer Island in Washington State.

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Not Eating Jellyfish

In the market yesterday I picked up some cod cheeks and octopus and forgot to put them in the fridge. That’s what I thought when I woke. Could I smell it? The fan was still whirring in the corner. I could hear the ribbons flicking like tentacles as it turned. The last tenant had attached them to the grill. I stared into the shuttered dark. Yes, I could smell it. To get up now and secure it in the cool, or turn and think it dream and sleep again.

I woke again to the sound of the shower upstairs, then, sometime later, Azalea from upstairs going out to work, her boots pounding across her floor, her door pulled shut, her boots again on the stairs, then the door to the apartment block singing on its hinges, the echo in the stairwell as the lock clunked. It must be 8am, if she’s on time. She’d be skipping across to her little Clio, tearing up the street to get on the road into Victoria. The sun was coming through where the shutters don’t quite meet. It already felt like thirty degrees. I’d slept naked under the sheet, which had become balled up at the bottom of the bed. I reached forward and pulled it towards me, and up over my head, and closed my eyes. But it was too late. I was awake.

Straight for the shower. That’s for the best. I cranked the handle and let the cold water fall on my thin hair and down my back. My eyes were closed. Was I still asleep? Almost immediately my bladder released a long, lovely stream down my leg. I held my cock and aimed in what I thought was the direction of the plug hole. I could hear the piss gurgling down the drain. I could feel myself beginning to smile, the relief of this, the pleasure of a full-blooded piss, my cock a little firm. How many beers had it been? And spirits too? I realised I couldn’t remember the walk up the hill from the beach. But it had been fun. There had been a lot of laughter. George’s son Luis had played his guitar after hours of goading. He’d looked beautiful with the moon behind him on the water, on his high stool at the edge of the terrace.

I grabbed a towel and wrapped it around my waist and went through the bedroom into the kitchen. The fish was in the fridge, the pink suckers pressing like veiled eyes against the plastic bag. What time had I put it in there? I pictured it sitting on a chair next to me at George’s. I took out some tomatoes and sliced them on the countertop while the kettle boiled, then went out onto the balcony. It was only about a metre deep and a couple wide. Most people in the block used it for storing mops and buckets and hanging out a few towels, but I’d fitted a small table against the railing and there was just enough room to bring a chair from the kitchen, so I could sit and write in the sun, the racket of the cicadas knocking their knees in the dry field opposite. Every so often a car or van would roar past and curve up the road behind the huge statue of Christ that looked down on the town. I sat and drank my coffee and forked a few slices of tomato into my mouth. I was sweating already, itching under the arms.

I considered going back to bed. Take some pills and get under the sheet. Or go straight to the beach, swim to the lighthouse and back. But I had an article about the new brace of Maltese poets to complete for the Irish Times and a short piece about last week’s gay pride in Valletta. I watched a farmer bringing a small flock of sheep over the stubbled field. The tomatoes were hitting my stomach. I went back into the dark apartment, almost slipping on the tiles as I headed towards the bathroom. But the queasiness stopped. It would pass. Just breathe. I caught sight of myself in the tall free-standing mirror which the previous tenant had decorated with shells and bits of driftwood. Slightly stooped, thin-haired, warts, freckles, sunspots. Just the beginnings of a paunch. Arms hard though I’d stopped lifting years ago. Nothing to be ashamed of for a man my age.

I could hear Eoin’s voice like he was in the room with me: Not bad for an old fucker!

He would have loved the pride festival, all the colour, all the boys. I lay down on the bed and thought of the time we’d been invited up onto a float by our friends and how different it all looked from that height, awkwardly waving at the crowds. Then I got up and went to the balcony to write.

*

At four I put on my swim shorts and a light shirt, shoved my goggles and towel in the tote bag that had my wallet, notebook and pen, and pulled the apartment door firmly behind me. I already felt lighter, walking down the hill past the apartment blocks and the mini market, the quiet building sites with bars of scaffolding spiking through unfinished windows. The sucker punch of the heat. How Eoin loved it. That zombifying heat, he called it. Just got to enjoy it, no point in fighting it.

I turned down Triq Ulisse and could see the water, its dark blue just a tone darker than the cloudless sky, clutched in the horseshoe of the harbour before stretching out into the horizon. The terraces along Triq Il-Port were already busy, waiters crossing the road from the restaurants with trays of beer and wine. Television screens attached to the poles of canopies were showing a football game. I went right along the waterfront towards the main town beach and the harbour. George was setting up tables outside his restaurant. He waved across at me, “See you later?” and then, “Enjoy the water.”

I laid out my towel on the concrete and put my tote bag at the head like a pillow and unbuttoned my shirt. There were a fair few people in the water, mostly locals, doggy paddling in groups and chatting. Snorkels pierced the surface like periscopes. Kids, released from school, were running around at the water’s edge with buckets and spades and coloured nets with bamboo poles. Above them the limestone buildings reached up the hill, the sun licking the heads of the tallest ones. It would be going down before long, but still its heat radiated across the town. I put on my goggles and climbed down the steps into the water.

It’s as warm as the pool at home, Eoin had said that first time, joy on his face.

I picked a direction away from the crowds, towards the other side of the bay. There was a string of coloured buoys like a giant rosary blocking off a nest of fishing boats. I selected a yellow one to aim for, dropped beneath the surface, straightened my legs, gave a first kick and was away. One, two, three, four, breathe. One, two, three, four, breathe. Fish darting in the water, blue sky, small rocks and weeds, blue sky. I could feel my body loosening, all the nausea that had lingered since the morning passing away with each stroke, shoulders uncurling, heartbeat quickening. I reached the yellow buoy and clung to the rope and looked back at the beach and the heads bobbing in the water, the children running and screaming, the men coming with trays to the restaurants. Then I breathed deep and plunged and swam back towards the harbour.

I lay down on my towel to dry in the sun. There were others lying on the concrete and sitting on the harbour wall. An old lady sat in a garden chair, book in her hand, dozing. I closed my eyes and listened to the noises of the seaside town, the sea slapping up against the harbour wall, the conversations in English and Maltese, French and German, the faint music coming from the restaurants on the other side of the water.

And then something else picked out from the general hum, a surge of children’s voices, giggling, shouting, talking over one another, talking at breakneck speed in Maltese. And feet around me, small feet running on the harbour.

I opened my eyes and sat up. The boys who had been at the water’s edge with their buckets were now on the harbour, boys of six or seven or younger, skinny and brown, mops of black hair slick with sand and salt. They were at the edge looking down into the water, talking incessantly. Then one of them, the one who’d maybe set himself up as ringleader, who’d led the charge across the beach and along the harbour, and with the ease of one who’d done it many times before, dipped his bucket quickly into the sea and out again, walked a couple of metres from the edge and tipped a jellyfish onto the concrete with a sloppy thwack.

It lay there like an ill-baked panna cotta, palpating on the hot concrete. Nearly a perfect disc, a few inches thick, its edges white, almost see-through, darkening to a deep autumnal brown at its centre, speckled with purple blood vessels. The boys were cackling and jumping around and dancing, and another boy came running up, his bucket splashing over the edges until he dropped it and another jellyfish slid out and flopped over on the concrete. They danced around their prizes like bacchanals.

I’d no idea what they were saying. What I knew of the language couldn’t compete with their lightning-speak. The boy who was the ringleader started to poke at one with his spade and then to put the spade under it to try and flip it over. Then he grabbed one of the crab-nets off another boy and stabbed the jellyfish with the bamboo stick. He stabbed it and stabbed it stabstabstabstabstab while all around they laughed and clapped. He pierced the other one at the side and pushed the bamboo through like a skewer.

They were feet from me, and I was frozen. I should get up and do something. I should stop them. Eoin would have known what to do. What to say. At least stop them from catching any more.

What I really wanted to do was walk away, to shuffle backwards, to watch it from afar and then to not see it at all.

One of the boys was now slicing into the jellyfish with the front of his spade like he was going to remove a triangle of cake.

“Why? Why do you do this?” A voice, a sudden adult presence standing next to them, to me. It was a French woman, one of a group who had been sitting on the harbour wall. She was tall and slender, in a green swimsuit with a Turkish towel wrapped around her waist. Her long hair was matted from the day at the beach, slung around one shoulder. The boys stood in silence, looking from her to the jellyfish.

“Why have you done this? Why have you killed it?”

The ringleader said something in Maltese, something quiet, then looked down at the jellyfish again. The others’ faces were scrunched in confusion. Could they not understand what she was saying? Or was what she was saying just madness to them?

“You stabbed it with your stick,’ she said, holding her hand in a fist and recreating the motion. “Stab. Stab. Why?”

They shrugged and looked at the ground, and then at each other. One was waiting for another to say something, to take them away from this stranger’s scolding.

“Do you eat it? Do you eat the jellyfish?” She brought her hand to her mouth and mimed eating.

This they understood, making yuck noises, turning up their noses, holding their little pot-bellied stomachs with sickly grimaces.

“Then why do you kill it?” She pointed down at the jellyfish with a long index finger, a white palm. “This is life. It is life.”

A man came up the steps out of the water. He was about my age, with a belly hanging over his shorts, and wore a black swimming cap that shone like a snooker ball. “What is going on?”, he asked, his question directed at the boys. Perhaps he was related to them, but he didn’t seem to single one out specifically.

“These boys,” the Frenchwoman said, turning only slightly towards him, keeping her keen gaze on the unrepentant children. “These boys have killed these jellyfish.”

“So?” he said.

“So…”

The boys, hearing in that So their vindication, ran off in an instant, shouting and chattering, back along the harbour towards the beach. They would probably have already forgotten the Frenchwoman by the time they hit the sand.

“So,” she said, now facing the man, staring down his glare. “Why do they do it? It is life.”

“It is good. They are dangerous. Every year people have to go to hospital. Terrible.”

“But—”

What she wanted to say was why should our pleasure in the water take precedence over their life, but I could see in her eyes that she knew it was pointless: the man could be reasoned with as much as the boys could.

But they are not poisonous, I thought. They barely sting. I wanted to say it, I wanted to join in. Eoin would have. He would have done what the Frenchwoman did, as soon he saw the first one land on the concrete.

“They are not poisonous,” I heard myself saying, before realising I’d said it loud enough for them to hear. They both turned to me, conscious that they had an onlooker, even though there were so many onlookers. I found myself standing up, taking the few steps towards them.

“They don’t sting, these ones,” I said, “They are fried egg jellyfish.”

“They do! Every year, hundreds of people sent to the hospital. People die.” He was exaggerating, yet there was a fierce belief in his voice. I was suddenly wary of him in a way that can happen when that close to another man, barely clothed, the belly I’d noticed earlier in ignorance of the width of his shoulders and his couple of inches in height on me, or that he was actually about ten years younger. Maybe the Frenchwoman saw what I was thinking, saw an inevitable squaring off between males, for she tutted, shook her head, and started to move towards where she had been sitting. I went that way alongside her. I could hear a splash as the man dove back into the water.

“Why do they do it?” I don’t think she was asking a question, or even speaking to me. Her question was bigger than this island.

“Like flies to wanton boys,” I said.

“You are Irish?” she asked, stopping and turning to me suddenly. She had tiny creases around her eyes from looking into the sun, light brown freckles on her cheeks.

“Yes.”

“Do you know Glen of Antrim?” She had changed the subject so abruptly, as if the jellyfish incident was now firmly in the past – it was time to move on.

“No. I mean yes, I know of it. The Glens. But it’s the wrong part. I’m from Dublin. In the south.”

“I swam in a bay there once,” she said, looking out across the water, “many years ago. In the glen.”

“I’ve heard it’s very beautiful,” I said, but she didn’t answer, and paced back towards her friends, a man and two women, sitting on the harbour wall.

I thought it was time to quit and head to George’s. Not too early by any stretch. I put on my shirt and gathered up my things. As I was leaving I thought I should turn and nod to the Frenchwoman but then thought that I shouldn’t – I was no ally of hers, I was the closest to the incident, I should have stopped it happening. Should have stopped it getting worse.

George put a smile on my face, as he always does. I took a table that wasn’t underneath the parasols, so George could keep those seats for the ‘three-coursers’ and I could catch the last hint of the sun. He brought me a glass of beer and some olives.

“How was the swim?”

“Fraught,” I said, chuckling.

“Well, winter is around the corner.” He thought I meant it was cold but before I could explain he was away whistling, straightening chairs and waving at passing cars.

I took out my notebook and pen and tried to write, but there was too much bustle on the promenade. The lights were already coming on, slung between the awnings of the restaurants. Groups of people walked past, mostly tourists, enjoying the calmness of the late afternoon. They’d been home after the beach, showered, snoozed a bit maybe, put on their good shorts for the long warm evening sitting out. A clan of young Gozoan lads came boundering down Triq Ir-Rabbat in white T-shirts and denim shorts, flicking the back of one another’s heads, play wrestling. I watched their brown legs as they turned left on Triq Il Port.

The restaurant was filling up with couples and families. Children, on best behaviour, the menus huge in their hands, leaned in conspiratorially to suck straws from their cola, knowing they’d been told to make it last. I called George over and ordered a burger and fries and another beer. His son Luis delivered it about ten minutes later, his upper arm muscled like a goose egg where he held the tray.

“Not playing tonight?” I asked as he set down the glass on the table.

“No,” he smiled, “Not tonight. I tell papa he needs to pay me better.”

“Ha! Well, I’ll see if I can bend his ear.”

“Ah, thank you!” He slipped the tray under his arm. His black T-shirt pressed against his chest. “But, no. Last night was the last I play this summer. I am back to Malta on Tuesday for University.”

“Well,” I said, looking at him like he was already on the ferry, growing distant, “I shall look forward to hearing you again next summer.”

“Thank you, sir. We shall see.”

The courteous Sir. I’d scared him off. Old perv.

I watched as he walked back down to the counter, spinning the tray like a thaumatrope between his thumbs and fingers.

“Not eating jellyfish?”

I was startled from my thoughts by the voice suddenly beside me. I looked up. It was the Frenchwoman.

“Not eating jellyfish?” she said again, emphasising jellyfish, as if I’d already forgotten our earlier encounter. Her smile slackened slightly, as if my initial non-reply had made her think her joke ought not to be a joke but an accusation. Why are you not eating jellyfish? Everyone hunts them in these parts. A delicacy.

“What?” I said, then smiled. “Ha. No. There was none fresh today. The chef’s boys were stopped from bringing home their catch.”

There was a small mischievous curl at her lips. Her eyes moved to my plate, around the table, back to me. She was fifty, maybe, but looked younger. I had an image of Yeats’s Eva Gore-Booth, a gazelle sprinting across the Serengeti, graceful and balletic, and intelligent. She had thin-framed black glasses on which she hadn’t earlier when she was squinting on the harbour.

She sighed suddenly, as if to get to the reason she had come over.

“Thank you,” she said, placing a finger onto the table. “For earlier.”

“Thank me? Why? I should have done something.”

“Thank you for at least bringing some facts. I looked it up after. It’s true. Not poisonous.”

I didn’t know what to say. Well, I did, but she stopped me from saying it. I could see her friends across the street, glancing over, anxious to get going. Then I said it: “Would you like to join me?” I gestured to the empty seat opposite, then to my plate. “This has just arrived. And they’re quick here. George’s service is the best in Marsalforn.”

“Sure,” she said. “One sec.”

She paced across the road to her friends. I watched them talking, her friends looking with concern from her to me and back to her. I ate some fries with my fingers. They were probably telling her not to be daft, I was a complete stranger, an old man who swam alone. But she was braver than that. And they knew it, so their protestations had the obvious air of show. They were already thinking about just the three of them, a night without their ringleader.

She came over and slinked into the plastic chair and picked up a menu.

“What’s good?”

“It’s all good,” I said, signalling to George who was already on his way, smiling like I was a sly dog, though he knew which bowl I drank from.

“You come here often then?” she said. That roguish smile again. She ordered a glass of white wine and the grilled seabass. I was halfway through my burger.

“Here,” I said, pushing my plate towards her, “Have some fries.”

She picked up a couple and nibbled them.

“They’re good.”

“It’s all good here.”

I was being confident, trying to be charming. She smiled at me, her brown eyes suggesting she’d made the right decision, to ditch her friends.

“Rachel,” she said, extending the hand that had just fed her the fries. I reached across and shook it.

“Fergus.”

“Well, Fergus, it is nice to meet you.”

“And you.”

Luis arrived with her meal, saying nothing. She barely looked at him. She tucked into her seabass, chopping off the head with precision, coaxing out the cheeks. I sipped my beer, watching her eat. She gulped some of the wine.

“You are married?” she said. She nodded towards my left hand which when I looked down I saw was resting on my notebook like a juror’s on the Bible, my wedding ring dulled and burnished.

“Yes,” I said. Then: “Well, no. My partner died.”

I looked down at the ring on my finger on my notebook, deciding. Deciding the same thing since I was fifteen. To take the conversation around the corner.

“Eoin. He died. Last year.”

I raised my eyes. Hers were on her plate, feathering fish from bones.

“I’m sorry.”

“We would come here every summer. Nearly all summer since we retired. I got here in May. Will cling on to October now.”

“You have a house here?”

“No, I rent an apartment. At the top of the town. We used to rent a different one but—. It was too hard to go back there.”

She stopped eating and sipped her wine. She chewed, washing the meal around inside her mouth. She nodded.

“I had wanted to scatter his ashes here. Up at Wied il-Għasri. It’s the most beautiful place in the world.”

I looked across at the banks of restaurants tapering around the bay, the lights reflecting on the water. She put her knife and fork together with a chink to bring me back.

“And did you? Scatter the ashes?”

“No. Yes. But not here. In the end we did it in Ireland. The rest of the family wanted to be there. You know.”

“I know.”

George came to take the plates. He asked how it all was, to which she said delicious. Great as always, George, I said. He asked her the questions I had not: where she was staying (Lagoon Hotel), where she was from (Marseille), how long she was here (the week), had she been before (only to the main island, years ago). He said she must go to Victoria and see the walled city and she said yes, she planned to do that, but was clearly done with his banter, “More wine?” she asked, “More wine?” looking at me. Before I could reply George saidm “One more wine, of course, and Fergus, more beer?” and he was off without my answer.

As soon as he’d gone she said, “You are writing?” She nodded again, at the ring on the finger on the notebook. The notebook.

“Um. Yes…trying.”

“Travelogue?”

“No. Though sometimes. No, this notebook is for writing poems.”

“You are poet?”

“Yes. I write poems.”

“Published?”

“Yes. A few books. Back in Ireland. And I write articles, reviews, that kind of thing.”

She grinned.

“Can I read it? What you were writing?”

“No.” Immediate. Always my response. “It’s not finished.” I could hear Eoin’s voice: it’s never finished. She made a face of faux-miffed. Or maybe she really was miffed.

“You can find some online. If you like. I’ve got some online. Fergus Crawford.”

I’d only meant it as a salve, something she could think of later, on the flight home when I was already a memory, but she unclipped her handbag and flicked out her phone. “Fergus Crawford.” She was googling. Then reading something. Maybe I had known this would happen. The slightly nauseous flicker of delight coursed through me.

“What are you reading?”

“Shush.” Her left hand cutting the air.

“What’s it called?”

“‘The Cave’.” Her brow was ridged in concentration.

“Oh.”

I left her to it. The screen was caught in the lenses of her glasses. Of all the poems to fall on. She put the phone down on the table and picked up her wine.

“It’s sad,” she said before drinking. “Are all of your poems sad?” She leaned forward with a grin. “Are you one of those sad poets?”

“I am not a sad person,” I said. “But when I write it comes from a place of sadness.”

“Are you a pretentious prat?!” she shot back.

I spat my drink and started laughing. Her use of the word “prat”. Her serious face. Then she started laughing too.

“Yes,” I said, wiping my eyes. “I probably am?”

“Probably?” That set me off again. Her eyes lit up. “Well, it was nice to meet you, Fergus Crawford, the pretentious poet.”

“Who doesn’t sting,” I said.

“Who doesn’t sting.”

*

It was hours later when George brought the bill and two shot glasses of limoncello.

“Look,” I said to Rachel, “have you been to the beach at Qbajjar yet? On the other side of town? I often go there in the morning. It is beautiful. The water is so clear. You go in off the rocks. Would you like to join me there tomorrow morning?”

“Yes,” she said. “Yes, I will check with my friends. But yes.”

“Brilliant. It really is a perfect spot. Less crowded than the beach here.”

“And no jellyfish?”

“Ha ha. No jellyfish hunters anyway. They’ll be in school.”

*

Azalea stopped in her clackity tracks when she saw me on the stairs, going out ahead of her. I hadn’t drunk too much the night before. And I was feeling buoyant as I went down the country lane beside the prickly pears. A farmer was pushing a rotavator through the dry rubble of a field. The huge eroded tor of limestone shone in the early sun like honeycomb. When I got to the water I looked around for Rachel but I couldn’t see her. Had I not given good enough instructions? Nonsense. It was easy. And she had Google. Maybe her friends had other plans. A day trip into Victoria? Not to matter, we’d not exchanged numbers.

I pulled off my T-shirt and dropped it on the rocky platform with my stuff. I could see the bottom of the sea, the sand and scattered boulders, gold and green fish sucking on the weeds. The tiny needlefish moved across the surface, leaving their miniature wake in Vs on the water.

I went down the steps and straight into a front crawl, fast, I needed to go fast today, arms slapping the water, one two three four breathe. Eoin would always beat me in a race, even doing his breaststroke. Like a swan frantically pedalling below the surface. Even when I went fast like this, turbo-charged my shoulders, his hand would reach the rocks on the other side first, and he’d smile, barely without breath. Knackered, he’d say.

Oh, to swim and not to think of him…

“FERGUS!”

One. Two. Three. Four. Breathe.

I stopped and turned in the water.

I could see Rachel’s head above the surface, coming towards me like a beaming anaconda.

“I made it!”

She was thirty metres away, shouting, coming fast on her breaststroke.

“You were right! It is beautiful!”

I swam towards her like a waterboatman, thinking how odd I must look in my goggles, above the surface.

“You made it!” I said, panting.

We met by the rope of buoys. Her hair was in a ponytail, pulled tight so her whole forehead was visible. She looked so different to last night. She was laughing. Not laughing like she had last night. It was new. Unheld. She was laughing at the joy of the place.

“Follow me,” I said. I swam breaststroke, then front crawl, back towards the rocks where we’d left our clothes. I could hear her behind me. When we got to the rocks I stopped and pointed into the cave. The water was luminous blue. It was clear and yet blue. The blue of the sky. The blue of toilet blocks, Eoin had joked once.

“Incredible,” Rachel said, looking into the water, catching her breath. “Incredible.”

*

We lay on the golden rocks to dry.

“It brings you pleasure?” Her voice to my left, its ring of mischief. To my right the gentle gurgle of the water in the caves.

I smiled, the sun floating in my eyes. It must have been more than a smile, for she sensed it.

“What?” she asked.

“It was our wee joke,” I said, “Eoin and mine. Eoin swam for pleasure. I find pleasure in swimming.”

“Always searching.”

“Something like that.”

“My son was a swimmer,” she said. It was the first time she had mentioned him. First time she had mentioned any family, in fact. Save for last night’s conditional I know. “He swam for his school and then at the University.”

I opened my eyes. The sky was pure blue. As if she could hear my eyelids unlatching, she said, “He’s dead now. Gone eleven years.”

I sat up and looked at her. She hadn’t moved. Her eyes were shut and twitching in the sun, her hair swept behind her. I watched her lips move: “I don’t know if he swam for pleasure. It would have been good for him here. To swim in paradise.”

*

It was too hot. I knew as soon as we set off. And I’d not eaten. Had she? Maybe she’d had the hotel breakfast with her friends. Her friends who she’d not once mentioned – she was mine for the day. Or I hers. After we’d lain in silence for an hour I’d suggested the walk to Wied il-Għasri and she’d snapped it up with her breezy “Sure.” We left the far side of the bay and climbed up the road that ran along the Roman saltpans. The intricate pans stretched along the cliff top like fields in a model village, their dry stone walls sheltering the glistening crop. Old men sat outside the troglodyte caves, dozing and chatting next to put-up tables with the little plastic bags of salt they had for sale. Rachel took photographs on her phone, her arms stretched straight out in front of her, the camera held in landscape. We went along the dusty road, the cliff of smooth limestone to the right curling like a wave about to tunnel, to our left the scar of the saltpans and the azure sea. Soon we turned off the road, followed the quad-bike tracks that ran between the different pans. Up ahead scuba divers were pulling on their suits at the back of a Land Rover, canisters lined up in a row like Skittles.

“You have walked here often? You and Eoin?”

“Yes,” I said, “and it has changed so little in twenty years.”

As I spoke I realised how out of breath I was. The temperature must have been in the mid-thirties by now. Idiot, I thought. How old can one get and still not learn? I had to tell her, it wasn’t too late to turn back, we could lunch at Qbajjar and set out again. I drank some water from the bottle I had with me. It was already half-empty. She had been gulping at hers. Did she have another one maybe? She was a few metres in front of me, looking up and ahead, out towards the sea, a few big tankers far off in the shipping lanes, looking out to the horizon. And then what? Sicily? Crete? Islands where people walked like us past scars of antiquity, measuring the present moment in denominations of the past: twenty years, eleven years, one year, this morning, last night. One, two, three, four. Twenty years since we’d parked the car and decided to walk. Hot as today. The sea shimmering. The men raking over the salt. Twenty years ago. Eoin in his trunks, the loose T-shirt hanging over them. His Moses sandals. His sun hat. Walking at our usual lanky pace. We could never take it easy. Twenty years. And Eoin saying Come on, it will be worth it, wait until you see. There’s a place where we can swim and wash all of this off us. We can wash it all away. The salt. The heat. The secret. We were mostly a secret. In paradise we were mostly a secret too – but free.

I started to cry. Slow salt tears at the edge of my eyes, a tremor inside me. I put a hand to my cheeks. Then a low clucking, a choking, catching my breath. She was a few feet ahead and turned suddenly, “What? Fergus, what?”

And then I erupted and went to her and cried into her thin shoulder. I shook with tears. “I’m sorry,” I said.

“What? No. What is it?”

“It’s, it’s. It’s just.”

Still holding me she moved us towards some boulders and eased us down. I choked, my throat clicked.

She gripped her right arm around me and grabbed my hands with her left hand. I put my shoulder into her. “I’m sorry.”

“Listen,” she said, sitting up straight. “Look.”

She took her water bottle from her bag and drank the last inch in a determined gulp. She put her hand down to the scratchy earth and scoured the bottle along the surface, filling it with dry soil and little stones and the pale desert dust.

“Come,” she said, standing up, reaching down for my hand. She nodded her head towards the sea. “Come on.”

I lifted shakily to my feet, gasping for breath, keeping down the sobs. Air was all I’d eaten since last night. We walked forward hand in hand to the smooth limestone edge, straight as a block of butter. A boat went by with divers hunched like Special Forces.

“You do it,” she said, passing me the bottle. I took it from her hand. My own hand was shaking. I turned my other upwards like a cup and poured the dust out onto it. A small handful. I looked at Rachel. Her eyes were focused straight ahead, out to sea. I thought I should say some words, say something. But I let the ashes fall through our silence, fall through my fingers, there was not a breeze, they went straight down, over the lip of the rocks and into the water. I poured another handful and threw it out in front of me and watched it fan across the surface. I put the bottle on its side and let the rest drift out like a potion, wisp away on the breathless air. We watched it catch something – a pocket of air whipped up by a seventh wave? – and it rose and drifted for a second above the water.

Rachel turned and walked slowly back to the rock we’d been sitting on and I followed and joined her. My legs were aching. I held them under the thighs. We watched the water for a while.

“Thank you,” I said.

“My son,” she said, soft as sand in the throat of an hourglass. “He was like you. I tried to tell him how okay it was. He never listened to me.”

She pushed herself up from the knees and slapped her hands together to get the dust off them. Or to say, that’s that. Or to say, let’s go. Or to say nothing. She started to walk again, the same pace, heading north towards where the cliff would curl into the canyon at Wied il-Għasri. I watched her go, her thin back and long legs, a deer panting for the water. I pushed myself up, wiped the back of my hand across my eyes, and followed her. It was hard going. The smooth surface became chopped and cracked, tumbled with small boulders and scratchy vegetation.

I ran a little to catch up with her. “Listen,” I said to her back, reaching out to try and touch it, but too far away, “I’ve got some fish in the fridge. I bought it the day before last but it should still be all right.”

She didn’t answer me. Or maybe it was too hot to talk. The cliffs and the salt and the blue sky and the dark blue sea – be zombified. Think of nothing. That cicadas make so much noise and don’t go mad with it. Imagine that.

We reached the cliff edge of the canyon and I almost grabbed her, even though she was a good three metres from the edge.

“Don’t go too close,” I said, “the land slips here.”

She took it like bait and stepped forward, so there was only a hump of soft limestone between her and the air.

“Look!” she gasped.

I came down and joined her at the very edge. Beneath us, in the gorge, the sea was full of jellyfish, like the skin of a child riddled with chicken pox. There must have been a thousand of them. A bloom, carried against their will by a ghost current. You could see them breathing, so gentle, as if one heartbeat compelled them.

Michael McKimm is an Irish writer living in London, England. A graduate of the University of Warwick Writing Programme, he has received an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors and was 2010 British Council Writer-in-Residence at the University of Iowa. His publications include the poetry collection Fossil Sunshine (Worple, 2012) and, as editor, The Tree Line: Poems for Trees, Woods & People (Worple, 2017).

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Words of love

The first time I fell in love was with words:
all those warm vowels, close and soft as skin,
and consonants, sharp and startling as birds
when curtains are flung and early light pours in.
At night, when I woke up hungry for voices
I slapped my weary parents with books
until they slurred those familiar noises
I knew matched the pictures. Later each nook
of the house became mine; novels a gateway
to the world, while local streets throbbed
with Italian verbs. I heard stories each Sunday,
and between the lines the true hero was God.
No wonder I fell for the Logos who rules
over all that he made with words as his tools.

Claire Watson is an Australian Salvation Army Officer who turned to poetry after the death of her daughter, Hannah, in 2014. Her memoir, Fingerprints of Grace, was published in 2017. Claire’s poems have appeared in various Australian journals and anthologies, and her unpublished manuscript, A Glimpse of Light, won Highly Commended in the 2021 Friendly Street Poets competition.

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Idle Signs

In the morning you said,
I don’t want you to go.

Outside the fallen leaves were folding—
an aerobic conclusion—you said stay

and broke open the blankets to stand in the chill
you said I have a lot of things to do today.

Your eye pressed against my shoulder
was a sharp command, a nod true as tongue.

I crawled to my car door and waited for
some symptom of regret, a weakness.

Instead, you lifted one hand in the air without a wave
or a warning, without anything for me
to come back to.

Olivia Rae Horn is a secret writer and poet. She works as a business analyst and lives with her partner in Austin, TX.

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prayer (ix)

how the eyelids begin to
tremble, to see the break

between what is and what
should be, eyes glazed over

every phrase, twisting, curved
as a knife – the glimpses of blue

light in lonely flats, the bags
zipped and stacked, troughs

obscene with depth, the murk
rising from toe to waist – and

the pangs, here, of every greater
comfort, how mercy demands

diversion, to look aside with
intent, to set it all before a

dreary altar, to learn to sit
and bear another, to wait

upon the slow binding of
our wounds.

Jonathan Chan is a writer, editor, and graduate of the University of Cambridge. Born in New York to a Malaysian father and South Korean mother, he was raised in Singapore, where he is presently based. He is interested in questions of faith, identity, and creative expression. He has recently been moved by the writing of Tse Hao Guang, Rodrigo Dela Peña Jr., and Balli Kaur Jaswal.

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Henri Nouwen sits beside me on the bus

or at least, i imagine his presence through the
stretch of night, exchanging tender chatter
down the fading highways, where luminescent
yellow and blue take their turns parsing through
the glass, and the water droplets slide across my
hair pressed against their other side. we go past
the colonnades of the business district, shadows
cast over gaggles of cyclists, and the pop and
podcasts leaking from pedestrian earbuds. and
Nouwen speaks between my fingers, directs this
gaze to the momentary assurance of cold fabric,
the foraging for old longings, the grip and release
of seeing the seats vacant around me. and for a
time, he reminds me to form it all into something
to hold, to cherish. then he gets off with me,
steps into the blast of a dewy heat, and we walk
the weary evening home.

Jonathan Chan is a writer, editor, and graduate of the University of Cambridge. Born in New York to a Malaysian father and South Korean mother, he was raised in Singapore, where he is presently based. He is interested in questions of faith, identity, and creative expression. He has recently been moved by the writing of Tse Hao Guang, Rodrigo Dela Peña Jr., and Balli Kaur Jaswal.

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