Daydream Island by Nathan Leslie
When we want to vanish, we visit Daydream Island. On Daydream Island we can recline on the grass and close our eyes. We can think about mountains capped with ice, glaciated striations. We can reminisce about yodeling, even though we have never yodeled. We can daydream about fields of flowers rife with honeybees and butterflies. We can follow the buzzing flight of the bees to the nest, to the inner honeycomb, to the queen.
In our daydreams we have no need for bunions or blisters. We have no use for political machinations. We can ignore death and disease. Intentions and deceits are as important as the fluttering points of a leaf. We concentrate on the polka dots beneath our eyelids, the way they coalesce into patterns. Are these holograms? Are these manifestations of our subsumed egos?
We have been told the physical world is a kind of illusion, but we know that is not the case. Illusions are the emotions and concepts solely in our brains. These are unreal. We know this because when we think of flying red snakes over the desert we can hear their delicate scaly wings, but they are not physically there in the sky of Daydream Island. They are in the place behind our eyes where our mothers still live and our grandfathers hold our hands and fresh bread is baking just for us in the oven, the rain softly pattering on the roof above us.
We visit Daydream Island for this and sometimes we fall asleep in the grass and wake up with dew dripping onto our eyelids. At other times we smell the scent of the dark earth and the animals that live there unseen. We are unaware of our foibles, our weaknesses and pretenses. When we recline in the grass on Daydream Island we are only aware of the elephants we ride upon as they dance in swirling patterns. We barely even worry about breathing. It just happens.
Music in the time of plague by Martin Porter
Cherry blossom and bird song.
It is an early spring.
The gentlemen, who arrived unexpectedly in the hot afternoon, are finally leaving. They tell that the plague has been ravaging the city, and they have left to stay safe in their country estates. They sit under hastily erected canopies just beyond the walls. The courtesans recite poetry inside the palace, they sing. The most elegant of the young men plays a flute. The girls look over the parapet in an attempt to see him.
It is late at night and the cherry blossom falls in the cool. You hear insects and a nightingale, and imagine the lilt of his flute in the distance. Perhaps a branch is moving in the breeze, or perhaps the gate is opening. You hear a shutter quietly released. The night watchman, who sometimes neglects his duty and dozes, has probably taken notice. Now you can sleep peacefully. The young courtesans are still gossiping but this is not uncommon. Their giggles do not disturb you. You hear a young man’s whisper coming from the kitchens. The servants must be working late, cleaning the tables and cursing the late departure of the unforeseen visitors.
Morning comes quickly. You bathe, ready to greet the master of the house and his captains. A kitchen girl serves you oaten bread and porridge. The young courtesans arrive, giggling, unusually late. They still talk about the flute player. A bedchamber maid enters, speaks softly to one of them. You see her pass a flute surreptitiously from her apron, and the courtesan hides it in her tunic. Later, when you pass her, you ask after the night’s entertainment. She responds with an elegant poem. It reveals little, implies everything. You smile to yourself.
The cherry blossom falls in abundance.
The flute lies silent.
A Woman Told Me This by Catherine McNamara
A woman told me this: when her lover died, she went to the church and sat in the second-to-last pew, where she knew she would attract little attention for they had been colleagues for a stretch. At the front of the church stood the man’s wife with her shredded curls, and the two sons whose foibles and brushes with the law and opulent tattoos she knew as intimately as those of the children she’d never had. Did she feel robbed of a life? He had told her that she would. That one day it would seize up inside of her, the wish to uproot all he had ever planted in her, every gasp and cell and flourish of his liquid and the burning of her skin and parts. He had told her she would want to eviscerate her own bowels to be emptied of him, and remove her heart from its safe cage as a wild native, splashing it to the ground with its torn tubes. Her lover had been a dramatic, vital man who liked to toy with their darkest entwined currents, especially as he stroked her hair in bed, or his knuckles drew across her belly.
The woman told me these things, adding that the embrace of this man was the only thing that she would take from this earth.
From Love Stories for Hectic People, Reflex Press, forthcoming February 2021
First published in Vestal Review
Things That Are in the News, and Some That Aren’t by Nod Ghosh
A seal rises from the East Coast with a four-dot Lego brick on its head. The creature is unaware of the plastic barnacle it hosts.
A father throws his empty coffee cup into the water, shows his son how it floats, talks about displacement, though he’s never left the land of his ancestry.com.
Professionals migrate out of the city as COVID-19 normalises remote work, to find their health plans are only valid in Rio de Janeiro.
There is a fire at a masquerade ball, where some are measuring thread counts while others negotiate a good price for N95s. The musicians play The Platters and an immortal requiem, until smoke gets in their eyes and lungs. Many brave things are done that night, though there’s speculation about how the blaze began.
Volunteers are on high alert, because the body of a calf pilot whale signals danger to the rest of the pod. They know the mammals are prone to stranding, but can’t help noticing the water is warmer than it used to be.
A woman writes a postcard at a cloth-covered table on the cigarette-scuffed pavement in Trocadéro. She dreams of a wholesale transformation of the global economy, pays in Euros and misses the old centimes. No one seems to sell postage stamps anymore.
Global shipping problems drive up the price of every day items, and children chew on cardboard to quell the pangs in their tummies.
A shark bites a woman’s leg, while you take forty-five degrees of my pie, and somehow I am left with none.
Pyongyang promises test missiles aimed out to the sea, and a shadow falls over Mar-a-Lago.
The Price of Crime by Amanda A. Gibson
The warden paces a path across the black and white linoleum, turning on his heel at either end of his circuit. A stocky man of about 50, the warden wears a suit and tie and his hands in his pockets stir keys or coins, making a jangling noise. His nametag reads, simply: Warden. We haven’t been introduced. I’m fresh off the transport bus so the guards regard me warily, eyes moving from me to the warden. I’ve viewed this scene so many times on television I could be on my couch, but I’m on a metal chair and a tan prison shirt sticks to my back. The linoleum exudes the tang of mop water and bleach.
The warden lifts his chin in the door’s direction. The guards hesitate, then leave. Before the second guard closes the door, he looks daggers at me. He needn’t worry; I’m here for cybertheft, not aggravated assault. I’ve never hit anyone, not even William Wadhams in second grade who gave me Indian rope burns daily. Plus, my hands are shackled at my waist.
I’m in for twenty here at Danville. Most criminals like me are sentenced to the cushy minimum-security prison upstate (where they have real beds and windows that open), but the judge was so appalled by how I bled the local bank dry she put me here with violent types and actual bank robbers.
I don’t consider what I did to the bank in the same light as Her Honor. I’m not a bank robber, I’m a seducer. First, I ran my fingers up the spine of the firewall. I followed a shudder and started massaging accounts here and there, shifting money from large accounts to accounts with balances under $1000. I imagined the wonder and joy I brought people who saw their savings inch up another thousand or two. Having been screwed by one boss after another, I feel for those out there laboring for the thankless Man. I learned what I needed for my early retirement at the three financial services technology firms where I’d worked. Since Uncle Sam backs the banks, I figured the local bank I chose to titillate would be made whole. The little people need a break from time to time, and I was just the conduit, a modern Robin Hood. It was my way of giving.
Once the firewall and I were nice and cozy, I went for the bank’s holdings. I fingered that mound of gold until she writhed in ecstasy. One million for Sheila and me to move somewhere nice. I was thinking Mexico, exploring down to the Yucatan peninsula, but with the new virus coming from South America, I thought Canada might be better. One million was plenty for us to live there, too. I could’ve been a lot greedier. That’s what I wanted to say to the judge. Instead I followed my lawyer’s advice and spoke about contrition — not that it made any difference.
The warden plants his hands before me, his tie falling forward to lick the table. He’s inches from my face.
“I need you,” he says. He explains that henipavirus, loosed in South America, is inside Danville. Three cases. I’m surprised; I didn’t know it was already in the country. The warden says he can’t allow a repeat of five years ago when the coronavirus caught them unprepared and spurred a deadly riot. “The situation must be brought under control,” he says. “It’s im—per—a—tive.” I feel his exhalation on my mouth and smell the mint that clings to it, and I pray he doesn’t have the virus. The coronavirus killed a half million in the U.S.; reportedly henipavirus is more deadly. I steel myself to hide the fear spurring my heart.
He straightens. “This is where you come in,” he says. He wants me to tap into the state procurement database and redirect to Danville a shipment, or two, of medical supplies intended for another prison.
“Can you do it?” he asks, his hands on his hips. He wears a wedding band. He probably has a couple of kids.
“Most likely,” I answer. It will be like a dog rolling over for a belly scratch.
The warden exhales. “Good,” he says.
I fix him with a cool stare. There’s another side to this equation.
“You’ll get a single on the best floor when it becomes available.”
“I’ll get the single on the best floor today.” I will my voice to steady.
The warden nods.
“And a conjugal visit with my lady once a month. A bed would be nice, but here will do.” I indicate the table. “And any book I want, even if it’s not in the Danville library.”
The warden’s eyes are coal black. He’s pissed now so I know to shut up.
I offer my shackled hand, but his hands are back in his pockets.
Night comes and I lie on my bunk. The warden has delivered — I have a cell to myself, on the top row of the block at the end. When the guard escorted me here we passed pair after pair of eyes that seemed to attach to me, so even now, alone in the dimness, I sense their scrutiny. My skin crawls so I pull up the thin blanket.
Light from the hall etches the bars overhead and catches the shiny edge of the chrome sink. Even if I’m paroled, I won’t sleep in darkness until my fifties. A distant scratching reaches me, then a murmuring. I wonder what else Mr. Warden will want fixed. I imagine Sheila, her long chestnut hair and outsized laugh, and wonder how long she’ll visit. If she’ll visit. With the henipavirus here I’ll be lucky to leave this prison alive. Fear grabs me in a chokehold and regret is metallic on my tongue, heaved up from my gut. How will I last twenty years? From the floor below a coughing starts up, deep and phlegmy, the kind that slices the lungs with a million cuts.
Amanda Gibson is an environmental lawyer who has transitioned to writing short essays and stories. She lives in Maryland with her family. Her work has appeared in The Common, Under the Gum Tree, Little Patuxent Review and Orca, A Literary Journal, among others.
Nathan Leslie won the 2019 Washington Writers’ Publishing House prize for fiction for his collection of short stories, Hurry Up and Relax. Nathan’s nine previous books of fiction include Three Men, Root and Shoot, Sibs and The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice, and a collection of poems, Night Sweat. He is also the Series Editor of Best Small Fictions.
Catherine McNamara (Vicenza, Italy) grew up in Sydney, ran away to Paris to write, and ended up in Ghana running a bar. Praised by Hilary Mantel, her short story collection The Cartography of Others was a People’s Book Prize (UK) finalist and winner of the Eyelands International Book Award (Greece). Pelt and Other Stories was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Award and a Hudson Prize semi-finalist. Love Stories for Hectic People is out in February 2021. More here.
Martin Porter, born in Jersey, sojourned for a while in New Zealand, now lives a quieter life in the United Kingdom. He has been active in both the micro prose and poetry worlds and has had work published in the USA, New Zealand, Jersey and the UK and received nominations for the Pushcart and Best of the Net collections.