Susannah loved autumn. Trees shifted from dull green to vibrant yellow and warm amber, before catching fire in a blaze of triumphant red. Traffic-stopping colours begged her to pause and marvel at the culmination of a season’s growth.
She’d done her part earlier by hanging codling moth traps, feeding, and carefully pruning. But the real work of growing belonged to the trees that produced a harvest with or without her help.
It seemed a pity to dissect this bounty. Still, slicing through the scarlet skin and crisp flesh revealed buried treasure. When fruit ripened to its maturity, it released the seeds of its regeneration.
Smiling at the memory and anticipation of her grandkids’ demands for more, Susannah baked her apples into fragrant pies.
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Fishermen were prone to exaggeration. Long weeks at sea did strange things to a man’s mind, and he’d start seeing things. Night fishing might bring him face to face with things he couldn’t quite explain. The feeling of being watched, or the sense of something moving unseen below the surface.
Every fisherman accepted the unflinching right of the sea to bestow life or death upon those who dared venture from the safety of dry land. No wonder they drank.
Bryn thought all those stories were tall tales told over too many jugs of ale. Unusually for a fisherman he dismissed superstition. He taught himself first to swim, then to dive for crabs. In his free time he played a flute made from a piece of red coral he found on the sea bed.
One night he rose, unable to sleep, and took his small boat out. A fat white moon reflected in small ripples on the water, and he gazed at it for a while. There was no reason to cast his net, but he did anyway. A moment later something tugged at the floats.
Bryn hauled in his catch, spellbound by shining silver eyes and pearly skin, blue hair floating around her waist. He leaned closer and she wound her arms around his neck.
“Come with me,” she sang. “I answer your call.”
When his boat washed ashore days later everyone assumed he’d drowned. He should not have learned to swim, they said. He didn’t show proper respect to the sea. But afterwards some who fished on the night of the full moon swore they heard music, coming from below the waves.
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Queen Eleanore regarded the two knights recommended by her Master at Arms with her usual regal disdain, but inwardly she worried. She had few choices, and none appealed. Least appealing of all was marriage to the power hungry oaf who ruled the neighbouring kingdom.
But a year of war had exacted a heavy price, and she cared deeply for her people. Her father’s sense of duty ran in her veins. She would do what she must to secure peace, and a battle of champions would end the bloodshed.
“Sir Tauthe of Denham, why should I choose you as my champion?”
Tauthe returned her gaze with a bold look of his own. Eleanore schooled her features into well-practised blankness. She liked curly hair on a man and he wore his well, complementing a strong jaw and bright, clean armour.
“As your majesty knows I am unbeaten at the joust. My sword training was undertaken with the great Dirke of Greenhill, and I have proved myself in battle. It would be the greatest honour to defend this land as your champion.” He bowed low, one hand on the pommel of his sword. “My life and my sword are yours.”
Eleanore nodded and turned to the other knight. His bowed head revealed silver scattered among dark, cropped hair. His armour, though of fine quality, was marred by a scratched crest and dented breastplate. This was how he presented himself to his monarch?
She didn’t miss Tauthe’s sideways glance.
“Sir Gerann of Bree.” She looked him up and down, cool and distant. “Why should I choose you as my champion?”
Gerann raised his head. His left cheek bore a long thin scar, and another ran vertically on his scalp to a damaged right ear. Eleanore blinked at the fire in his eyes and he dropped his gaze immediately.
“If it please your majesty, I would give my heart and soul willingly for our land.” He drew his sword bright and unmarked from its battered scabbard, then knelt and offered it to her with both hands.
Eleanore weighed the confident ease of a man unbeaten in battle against the scarcely older but shabby, combat-scarred veteran. She had to choose the right one if she hoped to keep control of her throne and her life.
The queen took a breath. A silent prayer, and she nodded at Gerann. Master at Arms wore the ghost of a smile as he brought her pennant forward.
Eleanore needed a man prepared to get close enough to risk injury, and tough enough to fight on despite it. She trusted Gerann would fight to his last breath. And if he lost, they would each accept their fate with honour.
Despite everything, Jo couldn’t help but feel excited. She’d come to the amusement park with four friends, hoping to forget about Ben. So far it was working, though she missed having Molly by her side to share inside jokes and angry rants about her ex. They giggled through the haunted house and ate way too many sugary treats. She even won a bright blue bear at the shooting range all by herself.
When they reached the front of the line for the Ferris wheel, Jo hung back at first. Then she swallowed hard, took a deep breath and got into the last car. She should be strong enough to conquer her fear.
The car rose and she was too fascinated watching the people below to remember she was alone. Her friends were laughing, paired off in the cars ahead. Jo laughed too, until she spotted them. Far below Ben and Molly walked hand in hand, then stopped to share a lingering kiss. Right out in the open, where anyone could see. Like they hadn’t a care in the world.
Jo stared down at the couple, her knuckles white around soft blue fur. Her heart slipped its moorings and fell to earth. From such a height, it was bound to shatter.
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I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, and all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by
It’s quiet, always. I miss birdsong more than almost anything else. Can’t be completely certain but I’m surely getting close now. There’s a salt tang in the air unlike the sour stench of the towns and the damp, gloomy forests – what’s left of them, anyway.
I hack and spit rusty bubbles beside tattered boots. Humans were made to move, but this slow trek is nothing like running and going nowhere for fun. Now I walk, escaping nowhere and carrying it within.
Rest is death.
Behind me, blasted trees stretch gaunt black limbs skyward, twisted and shrieking in the endless wind. My coat barely yields to the breeze, its fabric thick with secrets and stained with unbearable memories. There’s too much knowledge for one man to contain.
I should go on.
I settle on a fallen trunk and cough. Pain spikes hot in my chest.
Maybe we could never have proved ourselves worthy stewards of the universe when every call for caution was ignored, drowned by the triumphant roar of all the other wishes granted to man in his pursuit of mastery. The genie will never return to the bottle, because he exults in his freedom and terrible power to remake the world.
We were our own nemesis, and we refused to believe it. I look up, try to believe the sun still shines, high above the sullen clouds. If it has not forsaken us, why can I not feel it?
I hack and spit red. Red used to mean love. I could curl up here – find solace hidden between roots ripped from grieving earth – dream of all I have lost, and all that has been snatched away. I could rest.
Just a little further.
This desolate greying hill is the last, I’m certain. I will come to the sea, to the end and the beginning. My pack lies empty at my feet. The tighter I clutch my past, the faster it disintegrates in my hands.
What’s a man without a past? What’s a man without a future?
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover, and quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.
He stood at the water’s edge poised between day and night, and pondered the meaning of his existence. He’d never been one to hesitate. He greeted everyone, young or old, with a quiet tap on the shoulder and let them gaze into his bottomless eyes. They always went with him. But the last one had made him pause.
When their eyes met, she pulled him into a world of laughter and pain, sunshine and storms. Quiet peace and gratitude radiated from her and bathed him in calm. Hers was a hard-won contentment, wrestled from the jaws of disappointment to be sheltered among tender moments. She had embraced life and followed her nature, never fighting her path.
She showed him how dark let her appreciate the light, how darkness could illuminate and refine, and how graceful endings crowned all that had gone before.
The sun slid from sight and Death took up his cloak and scythe once again. Understanding at last that his curse was also his gift, he moved on to his next encounter as stars revealed themselves in the indigo sky.
There’s nothing like a home cooked pie, is there? It could be sweet or savoury; that’s not important. Glossy brown crust, fragrant steam, and delicious filling combine to create a flavour unlike any other.
You might try to recreate it in your own kitchen years later. But even though you follow the recipe to the letter, you’ll never get the balance of sweet memories and bitter regrets just right. Accept that and know that nonetheless, it’s still the taste of home.
He was a big man, my father, larger than life it seemed to me. He crawled into my blanket forts, built me a tree house and let me sleep in it, and always smiled at my silly jokes.
I think of him chasing me around the house, roaring like a bear or maybe a tiger. I’d scream in fake fear and run until he caught me. Then he’d throw me in the air and swing me around until I was dizzy, the world spinning past in a bright, breathless whirl of colours. I laughed until I could hardly breathe.
They were good days. But in the end nobody is larger than life.
I slide off the bar stool still wearing my black suit and my head spins. I can hardly breathe and I’m dizzy. But it’s not the same.
I walked down a street that seemed much bigger in my memory. Where were the dangers our mothers warned us about? It was a perfectly ordinary row of houses. Small front gardens were tucked behind hedges in every stage of growth from tight restriction to careless abandon.
I stopped outside the wildest hedge of all, overgrown and formless. Branches glossy with recent rain reached damp fingers towards me. A faint scent of unseen roses blew past. The pale green front door was peeling and the windows were blank. Still, your voice drifted down to me.
“You’re late.” I tapped my watch in mock anger but my lips betrayed me. “As usual.”
“Sorry, wait for me.” You flashed that unforgettably brilliant smile, and vanished.
Alone again, I turned my collar up against light but persistent drizzle. Suddenly colder, I wished past and present would unite into the future you promised before we slipped through each other’s fingers, and were lost.
Wait for me.
That’s what you always said. And I did.
I came back, but all I found were ghosts whispering in the wind.