Refugee

I sip the hot drink and feel the skin on my tongue tingle from the burn. It’s heavenly; so rich and strong, the consistency of syrup or melted chocolate. I clasp my hands around the mug and shiver as the warmth rushes up my arms. Raising the mug to my burnt lips, I take another sip.

I close my eyes, and allow myself to think about the others. How cruel this world is, that luck decides who lives and who dies. If one of a million things had happened differently, Randy would be sat in this refugee camp drinking too hot, too strong hot chocolate and I would be the one buried beneath our high school.

If I look back now, I can trace back the cause and effect.

My sister was two years older than me and amazing at everything. My parents adored her and I grew up in her shadow, doing exactly the same things that she had done two years previously; but I could never do anything to her standard.

When she moved up to high school, she joined the school gymnastics club. Soon she was being entered into county, and then regional, and then national competitions and winning everything she tried. She was amazing. When she came home with all her medals and trophies my parents would turn to me and tell me that “if I worked hard that could be me”.

When I moved up to high school, I didn’t join the gymnastics club. I joined the basketball club.

I was the only girl on an entirely male team. At first, I was terrible. I knew nothing about the rules and the boys teased me mercilessly, but every time I felt like giving up I thought what my parents would say. They would compare me to my sister and wonder why I had turned out so badly. So I put my head down and worked like hell. I improved slowly, but a time came when I was officially a member of the team, and we would go and play games against the other schools, and gradually we began to win them.

I wasn’t at school on that day because of a game. It was huge; if we won, we would be entered into the South West tournament, further than we’d ever got. We’d been training for months. I more was terrified than I’d ever been in my life, but somehow, when I stepped into the court, everything fell away. The match was infinitesimally close but we won, and were in the coach on the way home when our coach driver turned up the radio and we heard the news report.

I am alive because I didn’t want to be my older sister. Is that fair? I decided to rebel and my reward is that I get to survive, while my sister, who never did anything wrong, is dead.

Or maybe it’s not my fault at all. Maybe it’s not my fault but pure luck. Maybe an earthquake on the seabed a thousand miles away caused a small disturbance out at sea that became a giant wave that came and swept away our city. Maybe the world is just randomly evil and cares not for who it destroys.

Or maybe we did something wrong. Maybe our city was evil and didn’t deserve to exist, and some God somewhere decided to sweep it off the face of the earth, like a spring cleaner carelessly ripping through the delicate cobwebs of spiders.

Or maybe this was going to happen anyway. Maybe nothing we could have done would have changed the changed the pattern of events. Maybe, in the future, people will look back on this day and say that this was when everything changed, the pivot point on which everything rests. Maybe this was necessary. Maybe all this death and destruction has some ultimate purpose. Maybe there’s some lesson to be found from this mess.

If there is, I can’t see it from here.

 

 

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Blood-Red Leaves

The forest was blood-red. The leaves in the trees had turned burgundy and they covered the ground like a red carpet. It was unnaturally silent: no birds sang from the treetops, no animals rustled in the undergrowth. Only the fingers of the black trees twitched, and the blood-red leaves clinging to the dark branches swayed eerily.

I walked slowly through the forest, trying to keep as quiet as possible. Not that it’ll make any difference, I reminded myself. She already knows I’m here. I shivered and wrapped my arms across my chest.

There was no path to follow. The trees closed in overhead, their fingers and blood-red leaves blocking out the sunlight. I carried on walking, knowing that if she wanted to talk to me, she’d choose somewhere where she could easily trap me. Sure enough, after a couple more minutes, I stumbled across a small clearing.

Brown grass, covered in the dying red leaves, grew wild. Although the trees were leaning in, their branches stretching over the clearing, none grew inside the grassy expanse. It was empty apart from a gnarled tree stump in the centre. I walked over and sat down. The minutes stretched by like years and I was beginning to think that she would keep me here until I was old and grey when a voice echoed through the woods.

It seemed to come from everywhere at once. It hissed through the leaves like wind, rumbled through the ground like thunder. The voice was as old as forever and as youthful as a child. Her voice was wise and cruel and clever and bitter and my heart pounded at the sound of it. It was her.

“You dare enter my dominion?” She thundered furiously. “Before I kill you, tell me why you dared to set foot in my forest.”

My hands were trembling like a miniature earthquake, so I sat on them. “Please, good lady, I come to beg your help.” I said, wishing my voice wouldn’t quaver like a child’s’.

This time her voice came from behind me. It was quieter and but several hundred degrees colder. “If I agree, what will you offer me in exchange for this?”

I didn’t turn around. Speaking to the trees, I answered, “My lady, I do not have much, but I can offer you my money. I have over two thousand denra at home and I would be very happy for-”

“What need do I have for human money?” she cried mockingly. “Your useless lumps of metal are worthless!” Her spiteful laughter made the trees shake. The groans of the tree branches filled the air. I sat dead still on the tree stump, shivering. I have nothing to bargain with. She will surely kill me!

The trees grew still again and the unnatural silence stretched onwards. I strained to hear her, wondering if she was creeping up on me so she could kill me. I wanted to turn around, but I was frozen with fear. Suddenly, she hissed in my ear, making me jump. “I crave something far deeper than wealth.” She paused tantalizingly, enjoying my fear. “I will help you, but only if you give me yourself in return.”

“Myself?” I asked, terror restricting my throat. She was right behind me! I wanted to turn around but I couldn’t move.

“Yes…” She hissed. Her hand landed on my shoulder, imprisoning me. Her nails dug deep into my skin. “Give me your soul, and I will give you what you want.”

I hesitated. I needed help so desperately, I was willing to do anything… but my soul? Was it worth it? Doubt filled me and I was about to refuse when a shrewd little voice spoke up. If you don’t give her what she wants, you won’t leave here alive. If you are to die, at least get her help in the process.  I tried to speak but my mouth was bone dry so I nodded instead.

“Good.” She breathed. I could almost see her cruel smile. Her cold fingers stroked my cheek, her nails scratching my skin. “Now run home, little human, and you’ll find the help you needed has already arrived.”

I didn’t hesitate. Everything inside of me wanted to get away from her as quickly as I could. I jumped up and speed towards the edge of the clearing. But before I plunged into the forest I stopped. I don’t know what it was, but something in me made me turn and look back. Maybe I just wanted to see her. Maybe I wanted to show her I wasn’t afraid. Whatever it was, it made me turn and look at the clearing.

But the clearing was empty. The gnarled tree stump sat in the centre, alone. I frowned, looking closer, not believing that she could disappear that fast. Then I saw the darkness under the blood-red trees and froze. The shape was tall, taller than me, and barely recognisable as a person. The shadow shifted slightly and I caught a glimpse of scaled skin, talons for hands. Evil seemed to seep from it the darkness like a foul smell. The temperature dropped and I shivered in the sudden dark.

Fear clenched a fist around my throat. My feet seemed to have turned to stone.

Then the darkness hissed, in a voice that was absolutely devoid of humanity, “I will collect my payment at the next full moon.”

I turned and fled.

His Restless Nature

 

He is restless

Constantly in motion

Like smoke billowing through the air

Never still: twisting, contorting

Fleeing one second, attacking the next

As changeable as the wind

Creating flawless works of art with a flick of his fingers:

Goddesses, and elves, and water-nymphs

Their long-lashed eyes gazing down from the heavens…

But only for a heartbeat, a snapshot:

Before they become boring, and torn to shreds

By his own restless nature

Moving on, moving away

Fleeing from himself

Leaving behind scraps of beauty:

A glimpse, perhaps,

Of what he could do, of what he could become

If only his head

Was not stuck in the clouds.

Unease

There once was a young girl, who lived a perfectly ordinary, simple and nondescript life. She woke alone, she ate alone, she worked alone, and she went to sleep in a vast, empty bed. She thought that she was perfectly happy and content.

But one day, as she sat spinning wool, she realised that she felt uneasy. A feeling, a tiny thought, had crept inside her. It was small, vague, like a mist over her mind. She carried on spinning, trying to dismiss the niggling doubt, and for a while she was able to ignore it.

That night, as she lay in bed, the feeling returned with more strength. It slipped inside her and took root. It was unease: a strange feeling that something was wrong, but not knowing what. Nothing is worse than an unnameable fear. She stared up at the ceiling, wishing she could fall asleep and escape. But even when she did slip away, her dreams were full of darkness.

As the days went by, the feeling didn’t leave her. It grew and intensified and became an obsession. A sentence kept coming into her head, pounding endlessly through her brain until it became a constant rhythm drumming in the background:  Something is wrong! Something is wrong!

It was strongest when she was idle, so she busied herself around her small two-roomed house. She washed and cleaned and tided and dusted until her house was cleaner than it had ever been; but the foreboding remained. It wasn’t a small thought in the back of her mind: it was in her body, her stomach, her bones. It was everywhere and everything and in every corner of her mind.

In one of her calmer moments, she sensed something above the terrible unease. It’s as though there’s a storm on the horizon: something is coming. Something is about to snap.

Her life stopped. She barely slept. She didn’t eat. She spun wool like a mad woman, driving the wheel so fast it blurred out of sight. She paced up and down, up and down her small house. Every night she tossed and turned dozed fitfully, sobbing in her sleep. Her skin appeared to shrink, sharply defining her bones. Her young face looked gaunt and haunted in the mirror. The terrible unease filled her and consumed her and drove her to the edge of despair.

One night, when the moon was especially bright, she lay on her bed and stared at the ceiling. She was desperately unhappy; she couldn’t escape the awful feelings any more. They had possessed her.

Weak and exhausted, she tossed and turned through the night. In her broken state, it was easy for a fever to sneak past her fallen defences and force itself into her body. She tossed and turned and sweated and moaned until there was nothing left…

…Nothing at all.

She sat up. For the first time in weeks, she didn’t feel uneasy. She felt nothing. She was absolutely numb, and as empty as a burst balloon. She stood up and walked through her immaculate house in a daze. Her eyes were unfocused, staring straight ahead at nothing.

All the time she’d spent cleaning and tidying, all the years she’d lived in her small house: but now she felt nothing for it. She no longer cared. She unlocked the door and walked out, leaving the door wide open and the key still in the lock.

Barefoot, and wearing only a thin nighty, she walked. The moon was round and incredibly bright, like a silver penny suspended among the stars. The world felt unreal, like a painting: totally still and silent, painted in only two colours: silver moonlight and black shadow. Nothing moved and she began to feel that none of this was real: that if she reached out to touch a tree, it was dissolve into smoke in her hands. The thought made her shiver and she increased her pace slightly.

She walked and walked, at first through streets and past dark houses, and then out into the wilderness, over hills and forests and grasslands. She walked without pausing, without resting, a steady trot onwards to nowhere.

Faintly, through her numbness, a thought arose… something is wrong with Time. It’s stopped. She wondered how long she’d been walking for. Followed by another; or perhaps Time is flying past so quickly that it only appears to be staying still.

She continued walking through the unchanging world. The silence was beginning to get to her. There was no breeze to move the trees, no people awake to talk, and no dogs to howl or bark. It was days, or perhaps years, until feeling came back to her. A tiny crack opened in the fog of numbness, and through it came a faint feeling that her journey was almost at an end. Relief, satisfaction, and a weary ache. Some time after this, she came across a little house. Instantly, she knew that this was what she had been searching for.

She had walked past hundreds of houses on her never-ending journey, but in each the windows were dark and shadows seemed to spill from the doorways, like black breath being exhaled from cavernous mouths. She had hurried on past them, uncaring. But this house was different.

The door had been flung open and warm, golden light spilled through. All the windows were lit up, light spilling from every pore of the house. The small crack in her fog of indifference widened, lengthened, was joined by multitudes more; and then, in one great mighty rush, the numbness and emptiness that had been constricting her fell away, and a rush of gladness filled her. The force of the emotion was so great that she stopped in her tracks.

Free! She thought with joy. She embraced her emotions, remembering the unique touch of each of them. Taking another step, she winced. Mentally examining her body, she was shocked. I must’ve walked a long way, she realised with surprise, because I’m aching all over. My bones, my hips, my back. She tried to touch her toes but stopped before she’d even reached halfway, gasping with pain. What’s happened to me?

She turned her attention to the house, placing her fists on her hips and scrutinising it. And the more she gazed at the house, the more she recognised it. It was just so familiar – she knew that, if she went inside, she would know exactly were every little thing belonged. That’s the window to the bedroom, she thought. And she was right.

She headed for the house again, but found herself hobbling. I hurt all over, she grumbled. But despite her aches and pains, she hurried towards the house as quickly as she could. I know this house. Why?

She walked through the open door and was not surprised to find herself in a living room. She turned to close the door and saw that the sky was no longer as black as coal: like ink that washes out of a garment, the darkness had begun to fade away. Colour had returned to the world. And soon the sun will rise, she thought, and her heart lifted in happiness.

She closed the door. The key was in the keyhole so she locked it and slipped it into the pocket of her nighty. Turning around, she peered around at the little living room. A fire flickered warmly in the hearth, and an old rocking chair stood close to the fire. A door led off to what she knew was the bedroom. The lady chuckled. I love that old chair. She hobbled over to it and slowly sat down.

Half-finished knitting sat nearby, as though it was only a minute ago that that it had been laid down by its owner. It just seemed so natural to reach out and pick it up. It uncoiled to become a long pink and yellow scarf.

Without thinking, she slipped the thick needles between her knobbly fingers and began to knit. Soon, the clackity-clack of needles filled the warm room. The lady smiled, feeling a strange but pleasant sense of dejá-vu. Soon she was rocking back and forth, humming a little song to herself that she didn’t know she knew. Absentmindedly, she thought, yellow and pink; they’re her favourite colours.

She slammed her feet down and stopped rocking so suddenly she nearly tipped herself off the chair. The thought stopped her in her tracks. At first, she was confused. How do I know that? How do I know that this scarf is the favourite colours of someone I’ve never met? Then she began to worry. What on earth am I doing? I’ve walked into someone else’s house, and now I’m just sitting here doing their knitting! She looked down at the long mess of wool. I don’t even know how to knit! On the verge of hysteria, she tossed it to the side and stood up, panic thrashing in her heart.

She caught sight of movement behind her and turned, startled and afraid. A mirror hung on the wall and, for a moment, the lady stared at it in disbelief. Her feet walked forwards without her consent. Shock stopped her thoughts.

She was old. And not even middle-aged old; she was ancient. Her skin was dark from years of hard work in the sun and so heavily wrinkled she resembled an apricot stone. Her eyes looked like they’d shrunk backwards into her head and her lips were small and puckered. She looked like a happy woman, though – not bitter and mean. Her eyes twinkled mischievously and her lips curved up in the corners. Hours ago, I was a young girl. I don’t understand!

She had opened her mouth and was examining her teeth when the loud creak of the bedroom opening made her freeze in fear. There’s no time to hide! She thought in a panic. An old man shuffled through the doorway. She stood, frozen in position, ready to run or fight or apologise… but then she looked at him: really looked at him. His hair was thin and as grey as a rainy day, framing his heavily lined face. His eyes were wise, old, and so warm. When he saw her, his eyes lit up with love and he smiled. She knew him.

Without realising it, she smiled in return. An unexpected thought hit her: I love this man and he loves me.

Suddenly, she understood everything. The scarf. Her sudden aches and pains. Her reflection. I know this house because it’s my house; I know this man because he’s my man. That scarf is for my youngest granddaughter, and she’ll be six in a fortnight. I know all this because this is my life. I’ve walked through time into my own future.

Her husband opened his arms and without hesitating, she went into them. Cocooned in his warm embrace, she realised that not only was this her life, but this was the life she’d always wanted.

She thought back to her old house and her old life. She’d spent it alone, doing the same thing day after monotonous day. She’d seen no-one, spoke to no-one, loved no-one. Totally alone.

And then the uneasiness made me change. Made me leave. And I walked through time until found a time I was happy. And here I’m determined to stay. I’d rather be ancient and happy than youthful and alone.

She closed her eyes and breathed in the familiar smell of her husband. A smile curved her lips.

This is my life. I’m home.

The Ancient Heart

She was bent over, shuffling slowly

Around her dusty and gloomy house

Scowling deeply, each step causing her pain

Her back bent like a question mark

Broken by life, and time, and terrible sights

That had seared themselves into her memories

As effectively as a branding iron.

Her face was a map of wrinkles

Sunk deep, like scars, into dark,

Weather-beaten skin

She possessed mighty wisdom;

Deep, deep knowledge that seemed to come

Directly from the gods of old

As though they whispered

Their dangerous secrets into her ears.

Her eyes had watched time unfold

When she was young,

They were a shocking cornflower-blue

That made the boys stop and stare… But now,

They are obscured by a film of milky fog,

And the blue is watery and weak

Like the cold, misty winter sky. Although,

Despite everything,

Her old eyes still shine when she speaks

Of her children, and her children’s children

Her skin is sandpaper, her back broken by life

But her heart remains undamaged by

The passing of time.

She is the source of many things

Her huge family stretch from her,

Like the thousands of branches

That stem from the gnarled trunk of a tree:

The ancient heart of everything.

Play-Fighting

The clash of metal on metal rings through the courtyard. Pigeons soar, startled, from the heavily laden apple trees. Maysie, our tortoiseshell cat, looks up sleepily from her perch on the garden wall, then turns her head away. If Ma was in earshot, she would probably start shrieking at me and my brother to quieten down. But I know that she is the other side of the house; far enough away that we can work in peace.

My brother, Adrian, distracts me from my thoughts. “Hey, Miriam, are you here to fight or aren’t you?” I look over at him. Neither of us are wearing any more armour that a breastplate. He prefers to fight with a shield: I don’t. His face is flushed from fighting, but he’s smiling. “Sorry!” I say, before raising my sword and preparing myself. My brother pushes his brown hair from his eyes, his expression one of utmost concentration.

As always, he attacks first. He sprints the three steps towards me and aims a forceful blow at my chest. I neatly step to the left and block his attack, then swiftly cut my own blade down towards his shoulder. He blocks, and we are thrown back into our rapid dance with swords. Even though he is two years older, he and I are very evenly matched at fighting. Apart from him, nobody knows I can fight. A girl with a sword is a shameful sight. So it is our secret.

I know his style, and my mind is flitting through possible attacks, blocks and counterattacks faster than I can deliver them. He is a blur, his expression fierce and serious. We are so close to one another, weaving in and out of the way, and yet we never touch. Only our blades clash together, sending ringing noises echoing off the walls of the courtyard.

After a while – ten minutes, maybe more – the familiar burn of exertion starts to wind it’s way around my sword arm. For a while, I ignore it. But finally I admit that I’m worn out. Almost like my confession was the key to a floodgate, my body seems to begin screaming at me, clamouring to tell my brain about all my various pains. But I’m not going to stop. Not now!

I know that Adrian is getting tired too, because his blocks are slower and are barely stopping my sword before it touches him. His face isn’t flushed any more; it’s bright, tomato red. I’m not in a much better state. I feel like I’m burning up inside and I am uncomfortably aware that the hair on my forehead is slick with sweat.

I can feel him weakening: his attacks are getting feebler and feebler. I grin, taking advantage and showering him with blows. Ignoring my exhaustion, I feint an attack towards his right thigh, then at the last second pull out and swing at his chest. He wasn’t expecting that and my blow catches him full-on in the chest. He staggers back from the blow, his bright red face so surprised that I burst out laughing.

I can’t help it; he looked so funny with his eyes wide, his mouth a round ‘O’ of shock. Laughter spills out of me like water from a tap and I lower my sword. Suddenly Adrian comes shooting into my vision, sword held high, and I only just manage to block him. Caught off guard by his sudden attack, he soon has me pinned against the courtyard wall with his blade at my neck.

We’re both panting. He’s gone – if this is possible – even more tomato-coloured. He backs off, lowering his sword, still gasping for air. I slide down the wall until I’m sitting, with my back against it. He falls down, a marionette with severed strings. My heart is pounding and my hand so cramped I can’t prise my fingers away from the sword handle. After a couple of minutes catching our breath back, he says,

“If you hadn’t begun laughing, you would’ve won that.”

I laugh again, the memory of his face flashing through my mind. “You just looked so funny,” I say with a smile. He returns my smile ruefully, running a hand through his chestnut hair. Now he’s won, our score is… let me see… 7 : 8. But in his favour. Drat! Now I’ve got to beat him tomorrow. We sit in companionable silence for a while before he stands up, offering me his hand so that I can too. I groan as I stand, rubbing my sore muscles. “You shouldn’t have let me sit down, I’ve gone all stiff!”

He grins. “Come on, let’s go and get this stuff off before Ma comes looking for us.” Walking out of the courtyard, I whistle to Maysie, who is still soaking up the sunshine on the wall. With her slinking at our heels we troop through the orchard towards the house.

With my sword bouncing at my hip, and the calming, childhood sounds of the wind in apple trees, the purring of Maysie and the cooing of pigeons, I feel perfectly at ease. My limbs still burn slightly, but it’s a good burn now, a healthy I’ve-just-done-exercise burn. I relax. Linking my arm through Adrian’s, we make our way through the heavily laden apple trees, laughing in the summer sunshine.

The Least Favourite Daughter

The tip of the pen hovered nervously over the dotted line.

For months I had been planning this. Tonight was the night I’d finally be free of my family. A new life, with the man I loved, miles away from anyone who could try to boss me around. For months I’ve managed to put up with Mother’s sneering, scathing lectures and all my sisters’ little comments, a happy fire burning in my chest, a secret belonging to me, and only to me. An escape. Freedom.

So why was I hesitating?

The pen wobbled. Just sign it, Jane!  A voice in my head cried. To be free, all you need to do is write your name. It’s not that hard!

But Mother’s face swam into my mind. Her forceful words reverberated through my head. “I will not have my youngest daughter wasting her life on some… some good-for-nothing tramp! You, unlike him, have a future… education… wealth!”

Am I doing the right thing? Is this all a huge mistake?!

Somehow, the slow burning hatred I felt for my mother has faded. Why can’t I hate her? All the rules, the restrictions, the ‘little-girl-on-the-leash’… If I could remember that deep, furious hate, I would be able to do this!

But I can’t. I can’t do this.

A sly voice spoke up in my mind.

So, what are you going to do? Go back home, with four other sisters, all so much older and prettier and smarter than you? With a mother who will always find fault with you, with your appearance, with your personality, always trying to get you to change? Go back home, to the house where praise means being told that; ‘You did that almost as well as Rebecca did. Perhaps if you keep trying, you might be as good as her… eventually…’ You were always her least favourite daughter. She won’t even notice you’re gone. Sign it. Sign that bit of paper, and you’ll be free of her at last.

The pen stopped wobbling. I took a deep breath. With a perfectly steady hand, I signed my name, ending it with a flourish. I handed the register to the man sitting next to me, sitting so close, touching. He carefully wrote his name next to mine.

And next to me… forever. I smiled at him, feeling my old life slip away. Gone is ‘Ms Jane Felicity Hollan-Rushton’.

He turned, his grey eyes shining with love. “Are you ready, Mrs Jane Peterson?”

I grinned. New name, new life. No more rules. No more restrictions. Let it rip.

“I’m ready!”

Written for Ermilia’s Picture It & Write