By Monique Hayes
Bend back the briars. To Amberly’s castle we go. She listens for the trump that will bring them together,
for him to arrive, wearing a doublet with an invented coat-of-arms, on a palomino horse. The minute glass windows gleam above
the moat as the drawbridge drops for only him, gone these long three years. The brambles have gotten long too, white buds
of pearly everlasting popping up from under the overgrown twigs, purple calla lilies waving to the soldier and his steed as
they ride, and segmented berries shining among the brushwood. This is her routine reverie.
Past the mountainous terrain of Amberly’s bed comforter, and the rough sea of the blue
carpet, the castle looms majestically. Her father built her a palace, the outside the color of sterling grey. The tools that
tended to the castle for two months made for delicate hand work. With a ruler, he measured the width of each entrance and
exit. He shaped the spires, his fingers in the shadows, until the tops matched the height of her auburn hair when she stood
up on the stool. He said that this home would be half a home until he came back.
The brambles weren’t always there. They grew from time lost. They are not all that
is taking over in her fading fantasy. Her balcony bed is adorned with cobwebs stretching from the opposite posts as if they
were silver volleyball nets. The curtains are chewed by visiting moths, fatter with every month. Her curled hair has dropped
down to her bellybutton. When the brambles began to creep into her fancy, they did no harm. They were decorative and colorful.
She wanted some color against the grey. But it took everything over and created a problem. It kept her distant.
When she saw him last, his face was still. There was the familiar musk scent, woodsy and
thick, before he hugged her good-bye. Today, Amberly envisions him with a five o’ clock shadow to show time’s
grooming habits. There is sagging in the cheeks and a steely purpose set in open eyes. Her father has been directed here by
her royal remark, her daughterly demand, said simply and shyly over the phone. Come
home. He never does. Her letters are mailed to faraway places, Kabul and Charikar. She is seven and cannot pronounce them
correctly. Her mother can, though her Jersey accent clips certain consonants. What Amberly
can do is wait.
Amberly turns away. His old folded fatigues sit in the dimmed room. Her mother has been having
trouble looking at them these past two weeks. She won’t hold them to her chest the way she holds other pieces of laundry.
Amberly took up the charge, after she found the shirt. She buries her nose among the buttons, making his shirt a pillow of
yarn and thread. The greens and the browns of the cloth sink into a steady cloak of black as she closes her eyes.
She wonders if they fight with swords and in sandals like in the great Bible battles. Will
he meet wizards with secret weapons and witches who cackle over cauldrons in Afghanistan?
These are the enemies she knows best, from storybooks. But she hasn’t heard a single name for the enemy the soldiers
must strike against in this war, not one person who can be blamed for everything going wrong. It is scary not knowing who
Her father is in a land of heat and haze, a land she can scarcely picture. This is why the
castle comes as a relief. They can both imagine it wherever they are. But what about the brambles that twist themselves on
the floor and on the walls? How will he cut through them? Others have tried and did not make it home. His honors intrigue
her, hearts that are purple, stars that you can pin on your uniform, but what good would they do if they don’t bring
him home? He struggles against the brambles in her imagination. The pointy tips of leaves dig into his exposed skin. When
he’s more forceful, he bursts the berries and they bleed juice onto his scalp. She is above him, in a balcony, anticipating
his arrival. Amberly cannot view his wounds from there. Her father left her where he thought she belonged. He has made it
so she won’t have to see the consequences.
Her father’s leather slippers lie underneath, their tassels glinting like the polished
surface of the table. Once upon a time, those shoes squeaked. You couldn’t get them to stay quiet, not with a spell
or a wish. Amberly has forgotten the outline of his heels in them and the way he walks down halls. She swears to herself that
she won’t forget anything else in his absence.
Amberly crouches to collect her father’s slippers. They swing on her fingers and they
are less stable on her feet when she puts them on. But they are warm against her small soles. At the top is where she feels
it most. It is where her toes touch softness. Nothing prickles her skin or protects her from being near him, with no brambles
to destroy. A squeak brings her back to reality. The noise does not sound like his. She cannot fill his shoes.
Dusk hangs in her bedroom windows, most of the light settling at the bottom of her castle.
Her mother will soon knock on the door and tell her that it’s getting late, and her mother will pause and ask herself
why the shirt is wrinkled and why the slippers have left her own closet. Amberly will choose not to reply. She’ll flip
up the drawbridge, stroke the sides of the silver castle, and walk past her mother in the slippers. The castle looks so daunting,
too large to her. His slippers? She might grow into them before his return. Yes, he is coming later, but love is never late.
received her MFA from the University of Maryland
College Park. Her work has appeared in Prick of the Spindle,
Prima Storia, Children, Churches and Daddies,
and Birmingham Arts Journal.
The Fisherman’s Journey
By Susan Dale
Daily, but before sunset, the fisherman comes to the riverbank. And while
the world is cradled within the gray arms of dawn, lost stars drift around the fringes of sunrise. The fisherman travels into
the moments before daybreak; a time suspended in quiet, and moist with mist.
He sets his lantern down, and takes his bucket with
him. He wades from the spongy riverbank, across the shallow river, over to a sandbar, then steps on the riverbank to gather
his nets. Yesterday, in the late afternoon he laid them there to dry. Legs spread and steady, he swings the nets into the
air with wide, stretching motions. He frees his nets into space to get the feel in his shoulders and arms, which tells him
when it is time to launch them into the water. He watches his nets fall across the river to web it in luminosity, as the sun
rises. With abiding rhythms, he will pull his nets in and out throughout the long day until dusk falls to end his fishing.
The fisherman seems suspended in his movements, so
smooth and steady are they, like a water ballet of shoulders to nets, nets to the river. Bird songs bloom in the trees, intoxicated
bees roll in the flowers’ pollen … and all are transferred into the totality of the moment. In the background,
red mountains rise. Their granite seams hold tight secrets they’ve held since creation. Tall pines run up and down the
mountainsides; they spread their arms and drop their green gowns.
These ballets are performed daily against wide horizons
and the deep clouds that sigh into the skies. Flapping wide wings, white herons land to pick their way into the ballet; they
lift their long legs, like stilts that they set down on the sandbar.
Starring in the ballet is the little fisherman of
hard muscles, and motions of such grace that he becomes a part of the entirety; man as one with the elements ... the mossy
riverbank, the arching skies, and the flowing waters endlessly rushing onwards.
Schools of trout stay to the edges of the shaded
river; their tailfins propel their bodies. In unison, baby catfish swim through the sun-kissed river. The river splashes around
smooth rocks and foams over beaver built dams.
Dazed afternoon is afloat in the air. The wind whispers;
shadows lengthen and widen until sunset spills its flames into the sky.
The fisherman gathers up his nets to pull silver
fish from their webbings. He drops the wiggling fish plop, plop into a water-filled bucket, then he bends to lay his
nets out to dry. Tomorrow he will gather them up again … as surely as time, as infinite as the river’s flow.
Through the shallow waters he wavers back and forth
to hold his balance; his fishing bucket he holds high. He climbs on shore to walk to his lantern. In one easy motion, he hunkers
to light it.
Now he begins a homeward journey … down a path
of fallen leaves and pastel seashells. Jaunty his steps. In one hand he holds his bucket of fish: his lit lantern swings from
the other. The glow of the lantern’s light falls across his path, and guides him to another light, that of an acetylene
lamp that shines in the doorway of his thatched hut. There, lantern and lamp join to broaden into the enduring light of the
Susan’s poems are featured online at Jerry Jazz Musician and LanguageandCulture.net, where she has one chapbook, a poem and two short stories in the autumn edition: Connections and Leaving the Mountain. She will have a short story on Ken
Again, called By and Through the Distances. She writes regularly for print
magazines Shadow Poetry and WestWard Quarterly.
Mostly, she is involved in stretching her unpublished novella into a novel.
What Troy Wants
By Linda Sands
is always asking me to do this, asking me to pose. I feel like that sock puppet that went around the world, passed from place
to place, pulled out of suitcases and backpacks, covered in the dirt of continents, only to be propped up against cold stone
lions or balanced on precarious ledges.
He tells me to feel the art—that a photograph lives beyond the moment, beyond the room or castle or
field in which it’s shot. He says everyone will find something different once they stop looking for themselves. I can’t
help thinking how my red shoes shine next to dead roach lying belly up on the floor of the Hindu temple.
Troy isn’t just picky about the lighting, or the framing of the subject—something else and me—he
honestly thinks he’s a professional, telling me to straighten my leg ten degrees, drop my chin, arch my back, now point.
Good. No, less pointy, a gentle gesture. A hint of what lies beyond.
loves you so much, my friends say. Look, you’re in every picture he takes.
Not me, I want to tell them. A piece of me. His version of me. Not Moira. Troy
doesn’t know Moira. To him, I’m a soldier following the orders he spits out, taking the ridge, climbing the base
of the statue, sprawling across the hood of the custom Corvette.
He’s like this in bed too, I want to explain. Not with the camera. I put a stop to that early—but
with the orders—flipping me over like a fish, pushing my head down, circling his fingers around my neck, the whole time
telling me to touch him there, kiss him like that, bite this, slap that, come.
week, the drugstore clerk slipped wrong photos in our batch and I saw someone else’s life. A birthday party, a dog sleeping
with a cat, a baby naked in a bucket, happy people dancing wildly at the edge of a pool. Photos of a life worth capturing.
I want to point that out to Troy, tell him
what I think. Instead, I’ll lean against the broken ship and say, “Take my picture.”
Linda Sands is the editor and founder of scratch, a literary anthology of quarterly
contest stories. Her award-winning essays and short fiction can be found in books, magazines, newspapers and online. While
her agent shops her novel, We’re Not Waving, We’re Drowning, Linda
stays busy as the mother of two in Atlanta, where she’s
finishing a short story collection and a contemporary novel, 3 Women Walk in to a Bar.
Follow Linda’s blog: another good thing, or contact her on her Web site: www.linda-sands.com.