Tag Archives: speakeasy

Sky lanterns

The stars are not the stars tonight; they burn
so fleetingly—they drift, an earthly flame
inside each paper shell. With each slow turn
their dancing puts those distant stars to shame.

We wrapped our hearts in promises and pride,
in pledges inked across thin sheets of doubt:
Translucent, insubstantial, finely dyed,
our lanterns glowed until the one burned out.

I always meant to be the one to leave,
the one to go—a lantern in the sky—
to fly away. I always meant to grieve
my own mistakes in private, by and by.

The stars are still; there’s nothing left to say.
I loose my grip and let you drift away.


The Lark

It started out as a lark. God knows, we needed a laugh or two. Someone had found a bottle of liquor, gin or vodka or something. I don’t know; I don’t drink. Paulie climbed up on the fire escape and pulled the ladder after him.

“Chicken fight,” he said, grinning. “Take turns. First one up gets a drink. No one gets up, I drink it myself.” He took a swig to show us he was serious. There was a chorus of protests, but in seconds John was up on Andre’s shoulders, his brother Will on Junior’s, and they were off, shoving each other around the alley.

Martin and I stood in the middle of the crowd and watched. I wasn’t any good at chicken fights, not against the boys, no matter how much Martin wanted that drink. Besides, we had an agreement: he wasn’t about to leave me alone, not with these boys. We barely knew them. So we stood together in the middle: not so close to the front that we’d draw attention, but not so far back that they’d think we didn’t trust them. Josie crouched by the wall in the back, pulling petals off a plastic flower she’d picked up somewhere.

The whole match took place in near silence. No one wanted to bring the Rovers down on us. The only sounds were the scraping of rubber on gravel, the panting of the fighters, and occasional insults from Paulie. Even those were hushed.

The boys started laying bets. John was bigger than Will, but Andre was taller than Junior. Junior, though, he was smart. He didn’t just rush at Andre; he danced around, dodging broken boards and bits of rubble, trying to get Andre to trip. Finally Andre stumbled over a chunk of concrete, flailing one arm while holding onto John’s leg with the other. John leaned back, trying to keep his balance. They stayed upright, but in those few seconds Junior dashed for the fire escape.

Andre pelted after him. Will had one hand on the railing and Junior was trying to lift him up. John grabbed his brother’s arm and hung on. They stood there like that straining and pulling, while the boys egged them on in harsh, laughing whispers. It was all pretty funny.

“What the fuck’s wrong with you, anyway?” I heard a voice behind me. I turned to look, and froze. A couple of the boys had pinned Josie against the wall, and a hard-eyed boy had her chin in his hand. Her eyes were squeezed shut. Her mouth, too.

“She’s like a little bird,” he said to one of his friends. “All fear and hollow bones. Don’t gimme that deaf-mute act, birdie, I heard you talk before. All I asked was your name. Be polite and answer me, huh?”

A sudden, deafening wail split the air. The bottle shattered in Paulie’s hand. He stared at the blood and the spilled liquor for a long moment before dropping to his knees and covering his ears with his forearms. Junior and Andre were already down. John must have hit his head when he fell; there was blood, and he wasn’t moving. The boys were all shouting now.

I grabbed Martin’s hand. “We’ve got to get her out of here,” I hissed between gritted teeth. “Listen!”

Underneath Josie’s keening and the confused yelling of the boys, there was a muffled howling noise. The Rovers. The boys heard it a split second after I did, and the alley erupted into chaos. Paulie swung down from the fire escape and grabbed John, slinging him over one shoulder.

“Fucking freaks,” he spat, glaring at us. “If I’d’a known, I’d’a killed you. Fuck it. Let the Rovers do it.” He staggered off down the alley. Will stumbled after him. The rest of the boys bolted in opposite directions. Best bet is always to split up.

We never split up, though, me and Martin and Josie. I kicked the hard-eyed boy aside. He whimpered and covered his head. Let the Rovers have him, I thought without sympathy.

“C’mon, honey, it’s okay, we got you.” I tugged Josie’s arm gently, pulling her after me. “Hush now, we gotta run.” She blinked at me. The shrill noise stopped, which only made the Rovers’ howls that much more terrifying.

“She never even opened her mouth,” Martin said as we ran. “Did you see? She never did.”

I nodded. It’s not like I hadn’t been expecting it. Like calls to like, after all.


This story is mainly an experiment in trying out a new voice and is related to two other pieces:

Eden

I do not fear the dark. I only fear
the spaces in between the points of light.
There is no course, no route from there to here
We have not tried: we travel them each night.

You trace your constellations on my back,
give me their names, as if it helps to know
where you will be, as if I can’t keep track:
You score them on my skin each time you go.

So I plant kisses, let them bloom all through
the hills I love to wander dusk to dawn.
I scatter prayers like seeds, like beads of dew
still knowing when I wake, you will be gone.

My garden cannot anchor you to earth;
My arms are but a temporary berth.



Сморчки

I walked alongside the pitted road into the forest. Every now and then a green ZIS-5 rumbled past, bouncing loudly across the frost heaves. I kept my head down and hoped they would ignore me, a shapeless figure trudging through the morning fog.

I should have stayed closer to home, what with the Germans pushing east and that POW camp in nearby Kozelsk. But my mother and I ran out of meat yesterday and we needed our last two hens for eggs. So today I rose early, stuck my feet in my brother’s valenki, wrapped myself in my father’s old wool coat and my own shawl, and set out to hunt for mushrooms.

When the road started to curve up through the western part of the forest, I turned east into the early morning shadows. Pale, watery sunlight filtered down between bare birch limbs. I scanned the edge of the trail, searching for the distinct honeycombed caps of smorchki poking up through the dead leaves. I found two small ones, barely worth keeping except that we had no meat. I tucked them in my basket and kept walking.

Deeper in the forest there was a clearing, I knew, where an old elm had split and fallen years ago. It was my spot, a secret spot, the first place I went every spring even before we started rationing. I pictured my mother’s face when I came home with a full basket.

The hail came on without warning, pellets of ice the size of gooseberries. I bolted for the nearest shelter: a hunchbacked fir tree, green branches still bent from the weight of the winter’s heavy snow. Underneath the ground was bare and nearly dry. As I crawled into this makeshift den I kneeled on a sleeping man’s arm.

He unfolded quickly, like a cat, unfurling his arms and legs and rolling up onto his knees. The barrel of his rifle jabbed me in the ribs. I couldn’t even gather enough air in my lungs to scream.

At first I thought he was German. He had that look to him, all blond hair and blue eyes, but he wore a threadbare wool coat with the Red Army insignia on the collar. One of ours, then.

We stared at each other for a long time. Finally I looked down at my basket and the mushrooms that had spilled out onto the soft ground. Hailstones crackled against the bare trees like gunfire. He flinched and lowered his rifle.

“You shouldn’t be out here,” he said.

I found my voice. “Neither should you.”

He raised the rifle a few inches, grimaced, and let it drop again. His knuckles were chapped. There was dirt under his fingernails. “You shouldn’t be here,” he repeated. “It’s not safe.”

“The Germans? They’re this close?”

He shook his head. “Not the Germans.” His gaze slid away from mine and fell on the smorchki. Carefully righting the basket, he gathered them up and brought them to his nose, inhaling deeply, before placing them inside. “They smell like home.”

“You’re a deserter,” I accused.

He glanced at me. “I’m not a coward,” he said. “You don’t know. Every day they bring us more. Two hundred, two hundred fifty at a time. We shoot them in the back of the head and shove them into a pit. Their hands are bound, do you understand? Their hands are bound.”

He showed me, tucking his hands behind his back. The rifle dangled from his shoulder like a broken branch.

“Enemies,” I said firmly. “Fascists and murderers.”

He shrugged. “I shot a boy today. His name was Aleksy. I didn’t ask, but he told me, right before I killed him. They gave me–” He fumbled at his belt, came up empty-handed, let his shoulders slump. “The second day, they gave me a German gun. Less recoil.”

“Where are you going?”

He gestured east, toward Smolensk, toward Moscow. East, away from the war.

East, toward a clearing with a fallen elm and smorchki that smell like home.

I edged away from him, one hand on my basket, the other on the ground. It was raining now, a gentle shower. “They’ll find you.”

“Will you turn me in?” he asked.

“No,” I lied — not because I was afraid of him, but because of the mushrooms — and ducked out from under the tree.

As I ran back toward the road, I thought I heard the rattle of hail, but the sky overhead was clear.


Smorchki [сморчки]: morels

This month yeah write fictioneers are focusing on historical fiction. I figured I’d join the fun with this little story set against the backdrop of the Katyn Massacre.


Listening

The first time I saw the ‘65 Mustang, her soft-top was shredded. Her passenger door only opened from the inside. Reservoirs stood empty or were missing. The hoses, the seals, the coating on the wires all showed sun damage. She’d been standing with her hood open for years.

Anyone else might have walked away, but I loved her from the moment I saw her. She was perfect.

And she was a present from Jack, who knows me probably better than anyone. Who I don’t know at all anymore, it seems. They said give him space, so I did. They said give him time, so I did. And all the while I missed him something fierce.

And then:

“The time for being patient has passed,” Angus said yesterday. “I want you to try to talk to him.”

“No pressure,” I’d said. It was only his son we were talking about.

“All the pressure in the world,” he’d replied gravely.

So today, I grasp at the only thing that still connects us.

:got the car running. wanna see?: I text.

:sure, when?:

:heading down now:

My head’s been under the hood a good half hour when I straighten up, rubbing my back, and notice Jack leaning on my tool chest.

“Jesus. How long you been there?” I wipe my sleeve across my forehead.

He shrugs. He looks small. Reduced.

I clench my jaw, relax. “I’m glad you came. She’s still not much to look at, but she’s alive.” I swallow. “Um. Wanna check her out?”

“Sure.” He looks vaguely embarrassed. “You know I just drive. I can’t make ‘em run.”

“Don’t need you to.” I tuck the prop down, lower the hood. “Just listen to her.”

He nods.

I climb in, shove the passenger door open from the inside. Jack catches it, protecting the hinge.

“You usually leave the window down?”

“Haven’t bothered. Nobody’s sat on that side.”

His bird-quick glance at me barely moves his chin.

“Listen,” I say again, and turn the key.

The engine snarls into life. I’ve tinkered with it a bit. I hadn’t meant to, but she kept drawing me back, this car. I give her gas, let the sound bounce off the walls.

Jack’s eyes widen at the first cough and roar, then he settles, his shoulders sinking back, windbreaker sliding against orange-peeled vinyl. He inhales, consuming the sound, the scent of grease, exhaust, ozone. Exhales. Finally he reaches out and rests his fingertips on the dash, eyes scanning an imaginary horizon.

“Gorgeous, yeah?” I watch his face, his fingers on the dashboard. He’s in there, my Jack. The possessive is deliberate; the people I love, I don’t give up.

“Like an angel,” he says reverently. “Like she’s been through hell and kept on, and now she’s bragging.”

“She has, I think. ‘Least she’s got a voice now, someone to listen to her.” I ease up, let her idle. The low thrum-thrum-thrum rhythm settles into my bones, comfortable. “Wanna ‘drive’?”

His eyes soften. “You want somebody to put her through her paces later, I’m there; right now I’d just be making noise.”

“That all I’m doing? Making noise?” I floor the gas. It’s louder than I’d expected in the confined space, large as the garage is. The wheel shakes in my hands; I ease up.

“Feels like if I listen hard enough, I’ll hear what she’s trying to say. I’m not going anywhere, like she isn’t.” I let her idle again.

“Where are you going, Jackie?” I barely breathe it, but I know he can hear.

He’s absolutely still, deep within himself. His hand on the dash is rock-steady. He might as well be a statue, a doll.

“I don’t hear what you hear.” He yanks the door lever and he’s gone into the shadows of the garage, slick and fast like he drives.

I watch him go, watch till he’s out of sight, my back stiff and hands white-knuckled on the wheel. And when I can’t see him anymore I crumple over and I cry, big wracking ugly sobs.

Eventually I just sit, my cheek pressed against the curve of the wheel. I blew it, I think. I fucking blew it. The car’s still rumbling. I turn her off with a jerk of my wrist.

I lean over and pull the passenger door shut. Stare at it. Reach over again and roll the window down, all the way.

As I leave the garage I can see his footprints, small and lonely in the grit.

[Note: this piece was whittled down to its bare essentials from the original long version of this story. Many thanks to Rowan G and her brutal editing skills for helping me cut it from 1600 to 750 words. I’d be curious to know what readers think. Which version is more effective? -ch]