The Call of Blood

By  |  0 Comments

By Alex Reece Abbott

Hazel tips her brown paper bag and ten green grenades roll across the kitchen counter.

She takes one and sniffs at the smooth leathery skin. When she offers the fruit to her sister, Rose brushes her off and carries on taking her knife to the chives.

Hazel lines up the egg-shaped fruit in a neat row. “Amazing, eh? They’re calling them pineapple guavas down the market. Rowan spotted them and wanted to try some. Cost a bomb, but we’re on holiday — give the nipper a treat. Anyway, I forgot to get the strawberries…so we’re having feijoas for dessert.”

Just saying Fee-GEE-OH-ah sounds musical, exotic. Not a lot of people spoke Portuguese when they were growing up in Auckland. Not that they heard, anyway.

The word takes Rose back, back to the feijoa tree. Hazel probably doesn’t remember. Feijoa sellowiana. Acca sellowiana now. Towards the end of the summer holidays, the evergreen bushes that lined their quarter acre used to be heavy with ripening feijoas. Wasps would get drunk on the fermenting flesh, and war at the foot of the shrubs. When they were kids, they ate the fruit. Cut them in half with a teaspoon like boiled eggs, and scooped out that almond flesh — if they weren’t too sour — or too ripe, when the warm insides turned to gritty slime.

The grown-ups called them an acquired taste.

Rose swallows hard and waves her knife at the fruit. “You want these tonight?”

“Uh-huh. Why not?”

She watches Hazel assembling the birthday cake that she’s baked for their mother, Vi. Hazel can remember when it suits her. Rose jams the feijoas in a white porcelain bowl. The sepals flare over the edge like torpedo propellers. Typical thoughtless Hazel, bringing feijoas into her home. Seething, Rose scratches at her cheek where a hot rash is rising.

Over on the sofa, Vi switches off the television. Rose wonders when her mother’s skin became so Pollock-spattered with liver spots, wonders if she’ll go the same way.

Rowan groans as her grandmother wraps a spindly arm around her shoulders.

“Too noisy,” splutters Vi, going into a coughing fit. Still wheezing, she reaches down the side of the sofa and pulls a present from her handbag.

Rowan rips off the dinosaur wrapping paper. “Read me this one, Grandma,” she whoops, swinging off the furniture and waving her new book.

It strikes Rose that Hazel was about the same age as Rowan. When it happened.

Vi pulls Rowan back on the sofa, and points at the book-cover. “This one’s called The Royal Fern.” Her voice is deep, steeped in a lifetime of tar.

“Loyal Vern,” chants Rowan.

“That’s right.” Vi opens the book. “A very old story about a king. And, he wants to protect his family, but he’s frightened and he’s in a rush. In his panic, he doesn’t know what to do. And then…he sees…the fern.”

“Listen to her,” Rose hisses in her sister’s ear. “Reading that to your daughter like butter wouldn’t melt. Never mind The Royal Fern — how about The Royal Fucking Feijoa — we all know that one, don’t we?”

Hazel glares at her. “It’s a silly old fable. Drop it.”

Rose holds out a big jar of gherkins to her. “Potato salad — gherkins or not?”

“Gherkins,” says Hazel. “But don’t go overboard.”

“Everything alright? Yell if you need a hand,” calls Vi, without moving from the sofa.

“Stay there, birthday girl,” Hazel answers, all sing-song.

Rose grinds her knife against the steel. “Such a fake.”

Hazel holds out her spatula and offers her a scraping of dark chocolate icing.

Rose shakes her head. “She obviously doesn’t remember either, or she wouldn’t be
reading that — and, you wouldn’t let her.”

Hazel polishes off the leftover icing. “Leave me out of it.”

“Or, she doesn’t want to remember.” Rose lowers her voice. “You remember the feijoa trees, Haze? Every summer, all that fruit. Falling. Soft, green, rotting on the hard-baked ground. Feijoas. Those shrubs were only good for chutney, or screening out the neighbors. Then, you turned up with feijoas this afternoon — didn’t they used to make you gag? Remember?”

Hazel plucks chocolate curls from the grater and drops them into her mouth.

“Remember what started it? Remember what our guardian, our protector over there did?” says her sister. She waves her knife towards the sofa, where Vi is still reading. “Eating with your mouth open again. You were like a truffle pig, snorting and snuffling your way through every meal.”

“Keep your voice down,” says Hazel, washing her hands.

Rose remembers. The trick was not to look while Hazel was eating. And, once The Animal had invaded their home and taken up residence, he didn’t appreciate Hazel’s table manners either. Not looking was not enough. Get down from the table, it’s like eating with something feral.

And, when he kicked off, what did their ever-loving mother do?

Nothing.

She sees The Animal like it was yesterday. Sees him, fermenting at the end of their kitchen table, like something Hazel had brewed up in her birthday chemistry set. Hears his ranting, punctuated by him smashing the bread-knife handle against the red Formica. That weather-vein, bulging and ticking on his left temple. Stormy weather.

“Smelling good, girls,” calls Vi.

Rose eyeballs Hazel. “Not long now,” she answers.

Their grandmother used to say that you are what you eat. The Animal was what he drank. Hair, steel grey of a brewery beer cask by 24. Then, ten years on, he washed up at their door. That pocked, gaunt face, puce as the pinot noir that used to grow in that vineyard at the end of their street. His predator eyes: cold blue, never blinking.

Hazel turns away. “Let’s finish getting this meal ready. It’s been a long day.”

“Some things need to be talked about — and you brought her here,” presses Rose.

After licking a dollop of cream from her thumb, Hazel adds more caster sugar to the bowl. She gently stirs it. “My head’s already full of work stuff. And, it’s her birthday — so don’t start.”

Rose rinses a couple of sprigs of rosemary from her garden, then pounds the sharp leaves into a fine green paste. The scent hits her, sharp and clean. Sunshine. “Start what?”

“Don’t go to too much trouble girls,” calls Vi. “I’m not all that hungry.”

“Blood is thicker than water, that’s all I’m saying.” Hazel splashes dark vanilla essence into the cream and stirs again.

“And, so is mucous, but I still wouldn’t waste my spit on her,” says Rose.

“She’ll hear you.”

Rose snorts. “Yeah, I’d forgotten that her hearing loss is almost as selective
as her memory.”

“You know she’s not well. This could be her last birthday.” Hazel nudges her sister. “C’mon, remember when she used to read with us?”

Rose glances over at her mother and Rowan, still sharing the story. “Maybe we remember things to overwrite our less pleasant memories — maybe…we remember to forget.”

“It’s ridiculous, getting worked up about all that old crap.” Hazel peels another long ribbon of white chocolate and samples it. “The Animal died years ago. Didn’t that give you…closure?”

Rose stares at Vi. Her mother’s face is set hard under the halogen spots. “Having a
nice time, Mum?”

Vi gives Rowan a squeeze. “Well, beats hen racing, doesn’t it?”

Rowan bounces on the sofa. “Cock-a-doodle-do-ooooo!”

Rose is thinking about one sticky Saturday, late summer. Pushing Hazel out the front door and getting her down the steps. All the while, her mind skittering, searching for safe distance — Nan’s, the neighbors — even up one of the big trees in the backyard. All too obvious, all places that were already known. Needing more time to think, the blood pulsing like sonar in her ears. Taking Hazel to the one place where they couldn’t be seen from the lounge windows — behind the feijoa bushes.

Move Haze. Move quick. Stay quiet.

Pressed low to the ground, like soldiers in Vietnam on the grainy six o’clock news.

Then, flexing those dense, overhanging branches, branches long and low like open arms. Holding them back, so they could burrow beyond the branches, make it to that small space against the trunk. All the while, the shouting from the kitchen carrying the sound of their names.

“Don’t be heavy-handed with the chocolate, Hazel,” calls Vi. “I like to taste my cake.”

Rowan’s belly-laugh fills the room. “Cake! Caaaa-ake!”

Hazel leans against the counter, watching Rowan with a smile.

But, you were there, creeping under those branches. You were right in front of me, thinks Rose. The pair of them, waiting in that cool feijoa embrace. Fingers crossed so hard that they hurt. Waiting, knowing that their sanctuary had only one escape route…the same way they came in. All the time, the Animal making his barefoot patrol of the property, shouting and thundering, his warpath leading him nearer and nearer. So close that, even surrounded by all that rotting fruit, she could still smell his vinegar-plonk sweat.

“You remember The Animal,” Rose insists.

Hazel gathers up her perfect, white chocolate ribbons with a heavy sigh. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

One minute, he was all calm manipulation, then temper-fueled outbursts the next. But always, that threatening tone. They were scared under that tree, scared to breathe. Drenched in nervous terror, trying not to giggle. The Animal growling.

I know you’re there, so you might as well come out and save us all some fucking time.

All the time wondering, could the feijoa branches really keep them safe?

Make them invisible?

Rose hears his curses cutting the humid suburban air, hears him circuiting their house again. Sees him stop out on the front lawn, wavering on one leg. Praying that the neighbors didn’t see him. Praying for wasps: he was allergic to wasps. Swearing when it was only prickles that he was pulling from his leathery sole. Hoping that he’d miss some — then they could turn septic like the rest of him. Blood poisoning could be fatal.

But, The Animal was so preoccupied with those prickles from the lawn, he never looked into the shrub where they were waiting, spying through their veil of leaves.

He moved on, searching for them in the high branches of the pepper tree. Ripping open the latch to the space under the house, where they had their den. Wood splintering, then the clatter of the gate hitting the concrete path.

Then, more threats.

And, more promises about how sorry they were going to be. Even at the age of ten, Rose saw the twist of his logic, when he offered to beat some sense into them.

It seemed like they were in the heart of that feijoa bush forever. Waiting, until long after he’d bored with them. Long after his muttering had faded off into the distance.

The slam of the front door, then quiet. Rose knew that he’d be overtaken by some other rage, soon distracted onto another pointless trail. Or, even better, he’d pass out.

They waited. Waited and listened, until there was nothing, except the scratchy cicada drone-song, and the screeching brakes from the neighbor’s kids, chasing each other, skidding and sliding their bikes on the loose metal road.

By the time Hazel wanted the toilet, it was dusk.

The front door was ajar, so inside they crept. In the lounge, the television was murmuring…and, there was The Animal. Flopped across the black vinyl sofa, grunting and snoring.

An empty half-gallon flagon lolling on the brown floral carpet, stranded in a wet patch of cheap sauterne. They gave him a wide berth, and used the other door into the kitchen.

The Good Housekeeping Zombie scanned them for clues.

Where’ve you been? We were calling you.

Just playing, answered Rose, because it was way too late for their mother to start acting like the super-parent.

Next thing, the Zombie says Where? — and, Rose’s mind is jumbling, not ready.

She sees herself calculating: Say nothing = unsafe. Answer = make safe unsafe.

Say something + not the whole story = trigger a full interrogation.

Finally, Hazel started coughing and wheezing.

Distraction.

Her asthma, a perfect escape again.

Rowan squirms on the sofa. “Go onnnnnnn, Grandma. Ag-ainnnnnn.”

Vi snaps the book closed. “The end.”

Hazel sieves snowy sugar drifts across the dark chocolate, then spears the perfect icing with scarlet, barbershop-striped candles.“Only one story, Rowan. Grandma’s tired.”

Vi cranes her neck towards them. “Alright girls? Nothing I can do to help?”

“We’re nearly finished,” says Rose.

Hazel catches Rowan’s eye, and shakes her head.

Rowan ignores her and punches the air.

“Right-oh,” says Vi, settling Rowan down on the sofa again. “We’ll just read this story one more time.”

Hazel grits her teeth.

Rose doesn’t argue when Hazel commandeers her potato salad. She jabs at the surface with fat chunks of gherkin for decoration.

Don’t they say pick your battles? Don’t they say never start a fight in a kitchen?

The kitchen, that warm, cozy, domestic crossroads. A veritable armory, stocked up with meat cleavers, ice-picks — and, plenty more potential weapons. Punch & Judy’s rolling pin and a few good sharp knives, that’s my arsenal, thinks Rose.

Hazel is right. Blood is thicker than water. And, a lot harder to clean up.

Like the Italians say, the call of blood. There’s always at least one relative that you’re unable to ignore. She wonders if it was blood that called her to action, called her to rescue her sister that humid afternoon on the other side of the world.

Blood and feijoas.

She looks at Hazel. Fifty percent of the same DNA, yet so different. Like the way they sampled their memories by time and convenience. Once, she’d been certain that being able to remember it all was a good thing; now she isn’t sure. Still, it has to be better than facing Hazel’s smug denial over the kitchen counter.

Blood and feijoas.

She’s been holding that moment in her unusable memory, picking at it like a spell. And now, the splinter is working its way out. She has to honor what happened to them, even though Hazel swears that she’s already let it go. But, she won’t — can’t — believe that Hazel can forget.

Not when she can remember.

Too well.

Blood and feijoas.

After dinner, when Rowan is in bed and Vi is watching re-runs of Casualty, the sisters tidy the kitchen.

Hazel leans over to Rose like a conspirator. “Thanks again for having us all to stay at such short notice. Cheers.”

Rose taps her sister’s outstretched wine glass. “No worries.”

They watch Vi dozing on the sofa, head dropped to her chest. Every other shallow breath, she lets out a moan.

“She’s had her meds,” says Hazel with a nod. “Just midnight to do now.”

Rose raises her chin to her, grateful that her sister has it under control. She swigs her lager, filling her mouth with clean, cold bubbles. It’s like Hazel is almost relishing coordinating their mother’s complicated array of syrups, patches, pills and potions. Like she’s competing for some daughterly badge of honor.

“It’s good to get away and relax.” Hazel sips her burgundy with a long appreciative sigh. “Nice crumble too. I knew those pineapple guavas reminded me of something.”

“Feijoas?” says Rose.

Hazel ignores her. “They remind me of gin.”

Rose wrinkles her nose. “A taste I never acquired.”

Hazel leans over. “I haven’t told you my big news. I’m escaping. Getting right out of social work, getting away from all those needy families.”

Rose takes another mouthful of lager. “Do you ever think…about all the things that only you and I know? How noone else has those same memories, that same knowledge? They’re part of us.”

Hazel sighs. “Such as?”

“Childhood stuff, memories. All the things that wouldn’t make sense to anyone else. Only sisters.”

Hazel yawns, then taps her empty glass for a refill. “I’m opening a little tea-shop by the sea, selling all my own baking.”

“You won the lottery?” says Rose.

“Positive thoughts only, please. I’ll find the money somewhere — and people love a bit of nostalgia, don’t they? Brandy snaps, old treats. Still deciding on a name though.”

Rose pours her wine. “How about Old Times or Good Old Days?”

“Fab!” Hazel notes them down in her phone. “Any more?”

Rose polishes off her lager and muses that her poker face is wasted, yet again.

Hazel has been insisting that they choose a plant for Vi’s birthday.

Could be the last one, she keeps saying. Supposedly it’s an important ritual, something special to do together.

As a family.

Rose drags herself around the garden centre, still suspecting that Hazel has lifted this whole palaver from one of her social work textbooks. Family Therapy 101?

“This is a nice climber.” Hazel sniffs at an apricot rose. Her nostrils flare.

Rose studies the product card. “Happy Days. Maybe not.”

Hazel scans the rows of English roses. “But, not a plant that’s named after either of us.”

“That’s a shame. I was going to suggest Corylus avellana Contorta,” says Rose.

Hazel frowns.

“Twisted hazel. Very hardy.”

Rose scores a point in the air, but Hazel blanks her.

Rowan yawns and begins kicking the trolley wheels.

“Look Rowan,” says Hazel. “This is like that fern in your story.”

“Well, you’re not short of rain in the Pennines,” says Rose, cleaning her sunglasses. “Europe’s largest, most imposing fern. Deciduous though.”

Hazel strokes the feathery fronds. “Alright, you’re the garden designer. Let’s get Osmunda regalis for her. I think she’ll like it — and, I like the fairytale that goes with it. Every plant has a story, doesn’t it? To protect his family, the Saxon god Osmunda does this really amazing —”

“Listen. Phyllostachys nigra.” Rose points out a stand of black bamboo that’s rustling in the breeze.

She paces, then selects a plant with evenly spread leaves. Curled like bronzed grubs, a couple of fat fronds are about to uncoil.

“A fern. You sure?” says Hazel.

“I thought we’d agreed. Besides, she’s hardly in any fit state to complain now.” She loads the fern onto the trolley with a grin. “Actually, she probably can.”

Hazel shakes her head. “Show some respect.”

Her attempt to storm off is thwarted by the heavy trolley, and the narrowness of the long, leafy aisle. Rose grabs Rowan by the hand, and heads her sister off at the pass.

Hazel grips the handlebar of the trolley so hard that her knuckles whiten. “Yes, I remember — happy now? I remember hiding in the feijoa bushes. And, if I’d known how they were going to set you off, I’d never have bought you those pineapple…fucking feijoas.”

“Fuck-fuck-fuckjoas.” Rowan swings from the handlebar like a chanting monkey. An elderly couple who’ve been checking out the hardy perennials take refuge in the gnomery.

Rose blocks Hazel’s path. “You are my sister. You were with me — so why say that you didn’t remember?”

“You act like I choose what I remember.” Hazel folds her arms. “I don’t know why I can’t remember what I can’t remember.”

Rose tries to get some eye-contact with her. “Don’t want to. That was our childhood that you say —”

“I don’t say.” Hazel draws quote marks in the air. “I didn’t remember. And, I’m glad.”

“How can we be related, when I remember all of our idyllic childhood, and you were right there beside me? Claiming that you remember virtually nothing.” Rose shoves the trolley.

Hazel blows her nose and screws the sodden tissue into a tight ball. “I can’t answer that. Even when you know that someone’s going — it’s still been a shock for me. I can remember her reading to us, playing cards…”

“And, it was always Snap, never Happy Families. Anyway, how long have you known that she’s ill?”

Her sister stares at the ground, stubbing her sneaker against the path. “That’s not important.”

“Not for you — because you knew,” says Rose.

Rowan is watching them with a frown.

“Let’s change the record.” Hazel gestures at Rowan.

Rowan pretends to drive the trolley, whining loud Formula One sound effects. Rose squats by the fern and snaps off some dead wood. Rowan comes to help. She breaks off a fresh green frond before Rose can intercept her.

“Anything for an easy life, so.” Rose stands and wipes her palms on the thighs of her jeans.

Hazel throws up her hands with a groan. “What do you want for your misery — a parade?”

Rowan sits on the path. She yawns loud and long. “Can I see the parade?”

Rose glares at her sister. “Maybe you need some of that hypnotherapy, where they come and recover your memories for you.”

Hazel shakes her head. “That’s the whole point, Rose. I don’t want to recover them. You carry on about The Animal — well, I’d kill him if I could. And, now he’s dead, I want to kill his memory. So drop it.” She looks at her watch. “It’s time to go. I promised Mum that we wouldn’t be long, and Rowan needs her nap.”

As Rose drives them back to her place, the silence is broken by Rowan singing about spiders and dragons, sampling nursery rhymes that she’s gathered in her short life, and making some of it up as she goes along.

Hazel takes forever getting Rowan and all her gear out of the car, so Rose goes on ahead. She leaves the fern by the front door, and opens up for them. The house is strangely quiet.

No television, no radio. No Vi.

“We’re back,” she calls, as she fills the kettle. No one answers.

She finds Vi lying on the sofa, cushions for a pillow, the throw draped over her cooling lower body. The dregs of her medication are on the coffee table beside her. She looks more peaceful than Rose can remember ever seeing her. The words drift through her mind, not a prayer or any blessing.

Blood and feijoas. The call of blood.

Rowan’s shrill chicken-squawks in the hallway bring her to the present. Rose says goodbye to the Good Housekeeping Zombie, and draws up the rug until it covers her completely.

She clucks to Rowan, and shepherds her back outside. Hazel is crouching by the fern, watering it.

“She — Mum’s — g-o-n-e,” murmurs Rose, so Rowan can’t hear.

“Yeah, I know.” Hazel gives a tight little sigh, and stoops to pull a weed from the base of the fern. “Well, they’re together now.” She turns the pot and inspects the plant again. “She always swore that he was the love of her life.”

Rose frowns. “Sorry, you’re not making any sense.”

Hazel drenches the fern with water from her drink bottle. “He went out boozing with some yachter mates in town one Friday, passed out and choked in his own vomit. So that put pay to that.”

“What are you on about? Dad never knew any yachties.”

“The Animal,” says Hazel. “She told me that they were going to get married, back in the day. I thought you knew.”

Rose takes Rowan to the nature reserve, while Hazel waits for the funeral director.

She pauses to study a meadow of pink marsh orchids, breathing in the woody scent of old vegetation breaking down.

Rowan yawns and kicks her gumboots against the chicken-wire tread. “And dinosaurs?”

“And monsters.” Rose checks her watch. “All kinds of old things get preserved in a bog.”

Rowan grins. “Big-bad-mmmmonsters.”

They follow the silvering wooden boardwalk across the ancient bog, where the soil is a dark chocolate fudge. Rowan roars and staggers off, waving her arms, a toddler Frankenstein, her chestnut plaits bouncing against her head.

She comes to a sudden stop in the middle of the boardwalk, and points into the bog. “Was that?”

Among the silver birch trees, there’s a plant, about two feet high. Inside a golden pyramid of last season’s dead stalks, a lush umbrella of green fiddleheads are beaded with glistening crystals of dew. The more upright central fronds are smaller, dusted with rusty spores, but the longer branches arch elegantly towards the ground, forming a dense curtain.

“That’s a royal fern,” says Rose.

“Wassit mean?”

“Mean?” Rose slaps a feasting mosquito off her arm. “It means King Osmund’s fern. Osmunda regalis.”

“Nooooooo,” moans Rowan. “What does it mean? Mum says every plant’s got a meaning.”

“Right.” Rose pilots her down the boardwalk. “And, Rowan means?”

“Peas,” yells Rowan, tugging on her sleeve. “And…what about Violent?”

“Violet? Ummmm. Modesty and innocence. You might learn about them one day.”

“Nan-Vi says I’m precious.”

“Did — does she now?” Rose tracks a lone heron pulling herself through the sky.

Rowan nods, slow and definite; it’s a fact not to be disputed. “Annnnnd — what does Loyal Vern mean?”

Rose hesitates. “I’m not sure. I think it means healing.”

They wander on till they reach a wooden bench, worn smooth by the seasons.

“Sit,” says Rose, taking a seat.

They watch the swaying sedges and lush reed beds, and listen to the warblers warbling. Rowan fidgets with her mittens, but for once she doesn’t argue.

“Okay, once upon a time…”

“A long time ago?” says Rowan.

“Correct. There was a place called Loch Tyne, where an old waterman called Osmund lived with his wife. And, their very beautiful daughter.”

“Called Rowan,” suggests Rowan, with a wild laugh.

“Probably. And, from her light brown hair and rosy cheeks, you could tell that she came from Saxon roots. She ran, light and fast as a young deer.”

Rowan nods and swings her legs. “I run fast.”

“On the late summer evenings, the girl often sat beside the lake with her mother to watch her father. He was working as a ferryman. As he crossed the lake, skimming deep blue waters, his oars would flash and drip. One day, they were watching Osmund when they heard footsteps hurrying towards them. Soon, a gang of men came out of the forest. When they’d caught their breath, they told the women that the cruel Danes were heading their way.”

Rowan leans against her arm. “Uh-oh.”

“Uh-oh’s right. Sure enough, within moments they could hear the Danes shouting. And, the gang of men were so frightened, they ran away back into the woods. Osmund stood and listened for a moment, then he grabbed his oars and began to row his frightened wife and little daughter to a small island. Now, this island was covered by a big old fern. Osmund helped them off his boat, and then he guided them beneath the draping branches of the fern. And, that’s where they lay and hid.”

“Very quietly,” says Rowan.

“Very, extremely quietly. Then, the ferryman rowed back across the water to his cottage. Just as he arrived, the group of Danes rushed in. Osmund was very scared at first, but they didn’t hurt him…”

“He could row very fast,” says Rowan, waving her arms.

“That’s right, so they knew that they needed him. And, all during the rest of that day and into the night, the Danes kept Osmund busy, ferrying troops of their fierce men backwards and forwards across the river.”

Rowan lets out a growl. “Scary soldiers.”

Rose nods. “And, when the last company of Danes was put on shore, Osmund kneeled on the ground. That’s when he gave his thanks for his wife and child, who were still safely tucked away at the heart of the big fern, on the little island.”

Rowan bites her bottom lip. “They hid in the bushes, didn’t they?”

“Uh-huh, right under the branches of the fern.”

“Cool,” says Rowan. “Muddy-mud-mud…”

“And then, years later when she’d grown up, Osmund’s daughter remembered that scary night, and how her father’s quick thinking had saved them all. That’s when she named that giant fern after him. And, from then on, the fern was called Osmunda regalis. That’s the royal fern. Alright?”

Rose watches a kestrel hovering like a crucifix in the sky. Banks of slate clouds are rolling in from the west.

Thunder rumbles and Rowan grabs her hand. “But, where’s Vern?”

Lightning flashes over a clump of gnarled old oak trees on the edge of the bog, and the girl squeezes Rose’s fingers tight.

“Who?” Rose checks her pocket for car keys.

Rowan splashes a mud puddle. “You know — Loyal Vern.”

“We’d better get home before the storm.”

Rowan’s bottom lip quivers. “But, I want to look under the leaves for the kids.”

“C’mon, it’s only a silly old story, all made up. The sooner we go, the sooner we’ll get home.” Rose stands and cringes at the truism; she is turning into her mother.

Rowan charges ahead to the car-park. She perches on the back seat, waiting for Rose to fasten her car-seat.

“Strawberries for dessert tonight, Rowan-o-saurus.”

Rowan growls her assent.

“What are you thinking?” says Rose.

“Nothinnnnn’,” sings Rowan, kicking her feet against the passenger seat.

“I can remember when I had time to think about nothing,” says Rose. “Big subject.”

“Yeah, big. Loyal Vern…read me that one when we get home, Aunty Rose.”

Rose feels the blood rising to her face. The rash runs across her cheek, lumpy as Braille. “Maybe. Or, we might try a new one. The old stories get boring after a while.”


Alex is an award-winning writer working across genres, forms and hemispheres. Regularly published here and there, including in Pure Slush; the Katherine Mansfield Society: Creative Work, Flash Frontier, Hysteria, FlashFlood, Headland Journal, the Maine Review, and Landmarks: the 2015 National Flash-Fiction Day Anthology, her short fiction has won the Northern Crime Competition and the Arvon Prize, and often shortlists, including for the Sunday Business Post/Penguin Short Story Prize, Bridport Prize, Fish, Mslexia and Lorian Hemingway. A multiple nominee for 2016 Best Short Fictions and the writing.ie Short Story of the Year, her literary, historical novel, The Helpmeet was a winner in the 2016 Greenbean Irish Novel Fair, while her contemporary novel Last of the Lucky Country shortlisted for the 2015 Northern Crime Competition. She barely blogs at www.alexreeceabbott.info.

You must be logged in to post a comment Login