Tag Archives: fiction

Featured Prose: Elizabeth’s Spencer’s “On the Hill”

Elizabeth Spencer. Photo by John Rosenthal.

Elizabeth Spencer. Photo by John Rosenthal.

As you all might know, Five Points Vol. 15 No. 1&2 has just been released, and one of the stories you can expect to find inside is Elizabeth Spencer’s “On the Hill.”

Here’s a little bit of info about Ms. Spencer:

Elizabeth Spencer was born and raised in Mississippi. She has lived for long periods in Italy and Canada and now lives in North Carolina. She has published nine novels including The Voice at the Back Door, The Salt Line, and The Night Travelers, plus a memoir titled Landscapes of the Heart. The latest collection of her stories, The Southern Woman (Modern Library), includes The Light in the Piazza, which was recently made into a Broadway musical.

Enjoy the story!

“On the Hill” by Elizabeth Spencer

Regarding Barry and Jan Daugherty you first had to know that they lived out about two miles from town. Lots of people do live out in wooded areas here; the whole town is filled with trees so that the extent of it is not easily determined. Even so the Daughertys were to be thought of as distant. The little maps which accompanied their frequent invitations were faithfully followed, for they gave wonderful parties.

They had not been very long in Eltonville, only since last winter, it would seem. Exact dates of their arrival and acquisition of the property were not easily determined. The fact was nobody could pin down any exact information about the Daughertys. Jan, in fact, sometimes went by another name—Fisher. But it was easy to think she was in the modern habit of retaining her maiden name, or was it the name of a former husband? The Daughertys, if asked, gave rather round-about answers. Jan said, in regard to the name, “Oh, I keep it for Riley.” Riley was her son. Then was there a Mr. Fisher, somewhere off in her past? It was hard not to sound too inquisitive. Riley was a blonde little boy of about ten. When guests arrived, he ran about taking everybody’s coats and then vanished with them, upstairs. He reappeared at departure time, looking sleepy but holding wraps by the armload.

As for the girl, younger, probably six, she clearly was Barry’s daughter. But was she Jan’s? Were there two divorces in the background? Not unusual: who cared? It wasn’t really that anyone would care, one way or the other; it was just that nobody knew.

Going to the Daugherty house was like a progress to an estate. The road off the state highway wound through trees, but broke into the open on a final climb. The house itself sat free of all but a couple of flanking oaks. Its galleries suggested an outlook over vistas.

It was a joy to come there. How had they managed so soon to find such nice people? For a dinner invitation, you arrived just before dark and parked in an ample space. Barry himself would be just inside the door. He had a broad smile, skin that always looked lightly tanned. Sometimes a tie, sometimes not. He had picked up easily on local habits. His hair was dark brown, sprinkled with gray. He never slicked it down. And Jan? Well, she knew how to dress and how to greet. The feeling imparted was that every- thing was under control, and that the arriving guests were the choice people of the earth.


It would soon be dark. Looking out toward the terrace from where she sat at the end of her table, pouring coffee while Barry refilled wine glasses, Jan would say, “Last winter during the snow, what a lot of creatures wandered in.” “It happens in town, too,” one guest would offer. “I admired them, as much as you can admire a ’possum—is that it? Those things with the long snouts and skinny tails. I’d hate to dream of one. I wonder if they bite.”

“We’ll ask Riley to find out at school,” Barry said.

“They certainly bite,” one of the men volunteered, speaking from country knowledge. “But just if you corner them. They’re sort of timid.”

Where on earth were they from, not to know about ’possums?

“Then there was the raccoon,” Jan continued. “What a precious little guy. All black circles under his eyes.”

“You must have put food out.”

“Oh, just a few scraps.”

“They’ll love you to death. They’ll certainly bite you.”

Somebody had a story about a raccoon his aunt had let in the house, because he looked so cute. He had rifled the cupboards and climbed on the shelves. He had tried to get in the refrigerator. How to get rid of him?

“They carry rabies,” the same informing man said.

“Don’t disillusion me,” pled Jan.

Evenings there sped by, but when the guests spoke of them later, there was not much more to remember later than talk of ’possums and raccoons.

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Five Points Volume 15 1&2 Available Now!

fbinviteFive Points is proud to announce the release of our newest issue, Volume 15 1&2! This is a double issue packed with a wide array of poetry, fiction, essays, interviews, art, and more! Here are some of the contributors you can expect to see in the new issue:

  • Kim Addonizio
  • Ward Briggs
  • Billy Collins
  • Christopher Dickey
  • Lauren Groff
  • Jennifer Haigh
  • Barbara Hamby
  • Edward Hirsch
  • Jane Hirshfield
  • Alice Hoffman
  • Edward Hower
  • David Kirby
  • Laurence Lieberman
  • Deborah Luster
  • James May
  • Sharon Olds
  • Chelsea Rathburn
  • Anya Silver
  • Elizabeth Spencer
  • Elizabeth Spires
  • Ernest Saurez
  • Melane Rae Thon
  • Daren Wang
  • Lauren Watel
  • ……and many more!

Visit our website to find out more, or purchase copies of Five Points here!

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Author Reading: Colson Whitehead

COLSON WHITEHEADFor students/faculty of GSU, we’d like to let you know about an author reading taking place on Thursday, February 21. Colson Whitehead will be at GSU’s Troy Moore Library (9th floor GCB) giving a craft talk at 1:30 p.m. At 7:30 p.m. of the same evening, he’ll give a reading in the GSU Speakers Auditorium, followed by a Q&A and book signing in the Troy Moore Library.

The event is free, but because of space constraints, it is open only to GSU students, faculty, and staff, and you must reserve a free ticket here: http://colsonwhiteheadatgsu.eventbrite.com/
Whitehead’s four critically acclaimed and bestselling novels are Zone One; The Intuitionist, winner of the Quality Paperback Book Club’s New Voices Award; John Henry Days, which received the Young Lions Fiction Award and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award; Apex Hides the Hurt, winner of the PEN/Oakland Award; and Sag Harbor, finalist for the PEN/Faulkner award and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. He has received a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, a Whiting Writers Award, and a fellowship at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers.
We hope to see you there!

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Our New Online Submission Database is Up and Running!

We’re pleased to announce that we are now accepting submissions online via Tell It Slant! Here, you will find all of our submission guidelines and reading periods, and you can submit your work to our journal at the click of a button! You can also enter our James Dickey Prize for Poetry contest straight from this site!

So what are you waiting for? Click here to start submitting!

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Guest Post by Hugh Sheehy: “Secret Goings-On: Learning from Ray Bradbury and Ernest Hemingway”

We are proud to present a new guest post by Five Points contributor Hugh Sheehy, whose short story appears in 14.3, our most recent issue (see bottom of the post for a brief bio). Read on to learn more about his take on some of Ray Bradbury and Ernest Hemingway’s works–including connections between the two.

By my count, Ray Bradbury wrote for five new generations, including his own, in his lifetime. This is to say nothing of those readers, radio listeners, and (eventually) television and film buffs who were mature or getting there when he was born in 1920. Some of his early readers had surely been alive to see the Civil War, and one can only speculate about how wonderful, strange, and perhaps painful visions such as his must have been for them. Given the widespread displays of remembrance and grief when he passed away last month, it seems assured that many future readers will pick up his books. My daughter, who was born May 6th of this year, has already listened to me read a number of stories from The Illustrated Man. While it would be a stretch to call her a devotee, I can say that she appears captivated by the consonance and rhythms

Rereading The Illustrated Man, I have been struck by the spare force of Bradbury’s sentences. I have also noticed that it is difficult to overlook the apparent influence of Ernest Hemingway, whom Bradbury not only read avidly but also spoke and wrote about in many places and publications. This is not to devalue Bradbury’s writing in any way. Rather, what I’d like to do is describe in brief what I see as his contribution to the craft of short fiction. In reading Hemingway, Bradbury must have observed that Hemingway was not just telling stories. He must have observed that Hemingway was telling stories in ways that allowed his audience to see storytelling in new ways: that they were a kind of art. I believe that Bradbury’s discovery of this side of Hemingway can be witnessed through Bradbury’s contributions to the fields of science fiction and horror, to which he is generally viewed as having introduced a literary dimension.

Bradbury’s style in his short fiction points most directly to the Hemingway stories published in In Our Time. Take the well-known opening of “Indian Camp”:

At the lake shore there was another rowboat drawn up. The two Indians stood waiting.

Nick and his father got in the stern of the boat and the Indians shoved it off and   one of them got in to row. Uncle George sat in the stern of the camp rowboat. The young Indian shoved the camp boat off and got in to row Uncle George.

The two boats started off in the dark. Nick heard the oarlocks of the other boat     quite a way ahead of them in the mist. The Indians rowed with quick choppy strokes. Nick lay back with his father’s arm around him. It was cold on the water. The Indian who      was rowing them was working very hard, but the other boat moved further ahead in the     mist all the time.

“Where are we going, Dad?” Nick asked.

“Over to the Indian camp. There is an Indian lady very sick.”

“Oh,” said Nick.

Across the bay they found the other boat beached. Uncle George was smoking a   cigar in the dark. The young Indian pulled the boat way up on the beach. Uncle George gave both the Indians cigars.

They walked up from the beach through a meadow that was soaking wet with dew, following the young Indian who carried a lantern. Then they went into the woods and followed a trail that led to the logging road that ran back into the hills. It was much lighter on the logging road as the timber was cut away on both sides. The young Indian stopped and blew out his lantern and they all walked on along the road. (Hemingway 15)

Ernest Hemingway

This is an extraordinarily accomplished passage. Let me count some of the ways, beginning with the most well-known. The language is concrete with few modifiers. It presents the reader with a sequence of logically interconnect-able images that create questions about what images, some of which can be construed as events, will follow. In other words, the sentences tell story directly and concisely. Dialogue creates a larger context. Characters and their relative familial and social are accomplished thought both naming and not-naming (while Hemingway’s attitude toward these Ojibwes may not seem charitable or fair, it is essential to representing the white, male, patriarchal point of view that the short story ultimately works to undermine). The story has also introduced and begun to exploit two thematic elements that work together throughout the piece to demonstrate Nick’s ironic coming-of-age at the Indian camp: mystery and apprenticeship. The former is conveyed through the figures of the canoe on the shore of the misty lake and the speechless Indian figures, who exist here as moving bodies and guides to the unknown camp, strange Chirons who will ferry them to a place where Nick will learn something of death. As for apprenticeship, the dialogue makes clear that Nick’s father is taking his son with him to work with him, in this case as a doctor making a serious house call. A few paragraphs after those supplied here, his father will refer to him as an “interne” while providing the boy with descriptions of the Caesarean section he is performing on a pregnant woman. Nick’s father is grooming his son, however fancifully, to become his replacement. The story also has begun with a group of males taking a boy with them as they go to help a woman, which prepares the palette for the contrasting images Hemingway will provide of men and women coping with pain in sharply different ways. He has also placed the figure of the white male doctor–one of the most prestigious in Western society–in the classic position of the hero, though the reader’s access to him is limited by the Nick’s perspective. The central placement of Nick’s father is accented heavily by his uncle’s distribution of cigars before the doctor has even begun the operation–as if it is a foregone conclusion that it will be successful!–and together these elements create a suspenseful question for the reader as to whether he will succeed in his errand in the Ojibwe camp. The embarrassed answer the story provides–the same verdict on manhood delivered throughout In Our Time–is fundamental to a transformation of the American hero that resonates throughout much of the literature written since.

And here is the opening of Bradbury’s classic story “Kaleidoscope”:

The first concussion cut the rocket up the side with a giant can opener. The men were thrown into space like a dozen wriggling silverfish. They were scattered into a dark sea; and the ship, in a million pieces, went on, a meteor swarm seeking a lost sun.

“Barkley, Barkley, where are you?”

The sound of voices calling like lost children on a cold night.

“Woode, Woode!”


“Hollis, Hollis, this is Stone.”

“Stone, this is Hollis. Where are you?”

“I don’t know. How can I? Which way is up? I’m falling. Good God, I’m falling.”

They fell. They fell as pebbles fall down wells. They were scattered as jackstones are scattered from a gigantic throw. And now instead of men there were only voices-all kinds of voices, disembodied and impassioned, in varying degrees of terror and resignation.

“We’re going away from each other.” (Bradbury 26-27)

This was true. Hollis, swinging head over heels, knew this was true. He knew it with a vague acceptance. They were parting to go their separate ways, and nothing could bring them back. They were wearing their sealed-tight space suits with the glass tubes over their pale faces, but they hadn’t had time to lock on their force units. With them they could be small lifeboats in space, saving themselves, saving others, collecting together, finding each other until they were an island of men with some plan. But without the force units snapped to their shoulders they were meteors, senseless, each going to a separate and irrevocable fate.

A period of perhaps ten minutes elapsed while the first terror died and a metallic calm took its place. Space began to weave its strange voices in and out, on a great dark loom, crossing, recrossing, making a final pattern.

“Stone to Hollis. How long can we talk by phone?”

“It depends on how fast you’re going your way and I’m going mine.”

Ray Bradbury

The places where the styles match are easily enough noticed. Bradbury uses the same direct and concise writing to create a scene and give it a context. He uses names and dialogue to enrich that context and give the story direction and suspense. Names differentiate characters in the manner necessary to this story, where it is what the men (there’s really no good reason, aside from the time this was written, for the story to lack female astronauts) share in common that is important to the tale’s overall meditation on how time makes one’s antagonists into figures remembered fondly, maybe even into figures essential to one’s sense of identity. The last two lines of dialogue set up the radio drama that will play out through the rest of the story, as the astronauts hurtle through space to their respective deaths, all the while talking to friends, cursing enemies, and, in the case of the central character Hollis, coming to terms with the kinds of people they have been until now.

There are important differences, too. First of all, Bradbury’s writing is more poetic. He uses analogy freely, whereas Hemingway’s prose is concentrated on presenting a world as-is (as opposed to a world as-like). This arises not only from the pressure Bradbury might feel as a writer dealing with materials readers have most likely not encountered firsthand; it also arises from a passion for visionary imagination that is notably absent in the Hemingway piece. Take, for example, the sentence “The men were thrown into space like a dozen wriggling silverfish”. Bradbury might simply have written “The men were thrown into space,” a statement that provides the visual element necessary for the story to proceed. However, he attaches the analogy “like a dozen wriggling silverfish” to endow the story with a new quality, a kind of dazzling effect that is accomplished by a few specific details. The use of the continuing tense in “wriggling” creates motion and also gives the modifier a feeling of endlessness; the compound “silverfish” also does double duty, in that the reader sees the words “silver” and “fish” (which together produce a flashy image) while also recognizing that Bradbury is comparing the astronauts to a benignly verminous insect (and hence insignificant, pesky at most, in the broad scheme of the universe). Finally, the effect is limited by “dozen,” which gives the reader (this reader, anyway) a number that can be visualized only briefly because of the mental effort required in imagining twelve more-or-less-identical-yet-distinct astronauts flying willy-nilly from a rent vehicle in outer space. When added through simile to the simple statement “The men were thrown into space,” those three words “dozen wriggling silverfish” set off a small and pleasant fireworks display in the reader’s mind; they also give way to a feeling of distress, because the wriggling figures are visibly alive. It is this secondary level of imagination, describing a world as-like, where the narrative’s principal figures undergo transformation temporarily, that sets Bradbury’s style apart from Hemingway’s (which is not to suggest that the style is without its own problems, but only that Bradbury found this way to move past his predecessor).

The other major difference lies in the selection of narrative content. While this may seem obvious, I would argue that Bradbury’s interest in science fiction and horror arises from the same faith in imagination revealed by his stylistic leaps into a secondary realm of figuration. Bradbury trusted the imagination to take him somewhere, to lead him through a kind of story-making that would not only recount a sequence of events but also signify something to his reader. In the case of “Kaleidoscope,” a story widely anthologized and adapted to other media, Bradbury’s trust in his vision wound up leaving us with a sad, profound, and strange tale about doomed astronauts which cannot help but remind us of how our own paths in life have taken us away from both enemies and friends and how those figures, growing ever distant, are both dear to us and part of who we are. That is to say, his story reminds us that the people we know and have known belong to the stories we each tell ourselves about who we are.

I am not interested in ranking these two authors against each other. Each has made his own mark, and each will be around for at least some of the unforeseeable future. However, it may be useful to note the difference in their attitudes towards their work and their lives. They were writers of different temperaments, as Bradbury suggests here, in a letter he wrote his friend and early publisher August Derleth in 1944 or 1945:

            “Hemingway strikes me as a man who has a steel grip on his mind and is afraid to let go,   for fear of finding out that he is some species of lovable, sentimental, ordinary jelly-fish underneath. He seems a little too preoccupied with being hard, and that fairly well indicates a lot of secret goings-on in his mental life.” (Eller 81)

“Secret goings-on” is a way of talking about dreams and hopes (to the extent they can be separated) that one conceals for fear of embarrassment or shame or some kind of social punishment. It is easy to hide our dreams when prevailing cultural narratives present pictures of economic, political, and social decline, when so many of our favorite stories concern the end of the world through disease or zombies or climatic armageddon. There are wars in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, there is the so-called War on Terror. Even here, in a New York July with no war in sight, it is easy to despair a little over the shortness of summer. It is easy to imagine things ending, and doing so badly. But stories of decline grow tiresome after a while. The truth is that I don’t hope or dream of a terrible ending, not for me or anyone in my family. To defer hope in order to privilege pessimism is an exercise in cowardice and, maybe worse, sloth. It seems to me I would do well to crack another of Bradbury’s short stories, and maybe I would do better to read it aloud in the company of my wife and daughter, to remind us that not only do we not know what the future holds, but that our imaginations belong to the mysteries awaiting us there.

Works Cited

Bradbury, Ray. The Illustrated Man. New York: Doubleday and Company, 1951.

Eller, Jonathan E. Becoming Ray Bradbury. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2011.

Hemingway, Ernest. In Our Time. New York: Scribner, 1996.

Hugh Sheehy’s story collection The Invisibles, winner of the 2012 Flannery O’Connor Award, will appear in October from the University of Georgia Press. He lives in Brooklyn and teaches writing at Yeshiva College.

Purchase the most recent issue (featuring Hugh Sheehy) here!

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Five Points Volume 14.3 On Shelves Now!

Five Points Volume 14.3 is out on shelves now! Learn more about the new issue and order a copy here!

This issue features works from the following authors, poets, and artists:

  • Edward Hirsch
  • Mark Jarman
  • A.E. Stallings
  • David Kirby
  • Anne Marie Macari
  • R.T. Smith
  • Linda Pastan
  • David Wagoner
  • James Wooden
  • Ron Houchin
  • Tania James
  • Nancy Zafris
  • George Singleton
  • Hugh Sheehy
  • Debra Spark
  • James Rioux
  • Beth Gylys (Interview with A.E. Stallings)
  • Cynthia Farnell
  • Ernest G. Welch

For a full table of contents, click here!

Be sure to visit the Five Points website for a sample poem and more information on the issue!

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Featured Prose: The Pound Game by Mick Cochrane

Mick Cochrane

The Pound Game

Wilson does not sing simple songs. This woman is reading from something, it is a thick official document, an assessment, she calls it, but the tone is judgmental, accusatory. An indictment is what it is. Her name is Ms. Biondi. She is a therapist, a clinician, her name followed by a long series of initials, unimaginable degrees. She reads quickly, relentlessly, without affect, measuring his son’s deficiencies on various hyphenated scales, delays measured in percentages and calculated to the second decimal. The boy is four years old and slow to speak; he’s sometimes difficult to understand. But as Ms. Biondi reports the results of her testing, the problem is more complex, more vast. She recites a long litany of ordinary milestones not met—cognitive, social, syntactic—accomplishments not achieved, but just that one sticks, worms its way into his consciousness where it sticks like a fishhook in his heart. Wilson does not sing simple songs.

Fred had foolishly imagined something else entirely, a different kind of proceeding altogether, something cooperative and supportive, sympathetic, possibly therapeutic, chairs pulled together in a semicircle, Styrofoam cups of coffee, knees almost touching. But when Fred explains that his wife will not be able to attend, that she is in the hospital, the response is so muted, he feels as if he’s breached decorum somehow, been inappropriately personal, offered too much information.

In fact, this seems like some sort of quasi-legal procedure, six or seven people with titles arranged behind a long table. Somebody from the school district, a parent representative, the coordinator of special

education, a small squadron of therapists. They have nameplates, reading glasses, thick stacks of files in duplicates, water glasses. It’s like a senate hearing.

They’d done the tests—a battery of them, they called them, administered a day-long beating—two weeks before at Children’s, spent the better part of a day moving from department to department, from office to office. It was hot and the air conditioning was on the blink. There were doors and windows propped open with books and brooms, the receptionists all sweaty and fanning themselves with manila file folders. The tests were administered in rooms the size of broom closets, all by different specialists, each of them abrupt, professionally cheerful in a too-loud, vaguely menacing way. If you got in Wilson’s face right away, demanded to shake hands and peppered him with questions, he shrank, hid, buried himself behind his father’s legs. He performed part of what seemed to be some sort of I.Q. test from beneath a chair, reaching out gamely to match shapes and colors, his little knuckles dimpled with baby fat. Fred should have put an end to it then. There were more tests, but Wilson had had enough. There was some coaxing, then bribes, finally threats. Eventually, flushed with the heat and utter frustration, Wilson kicked a chair.

“Such anger,” the psychologist said. “Where is that coming from?” she asked Fred. The implication seemed to be that it was coming from him somehow, that he must be the chair-throwing type. He’s not; he’s pacific, probably to a fault. He retrieved the chair and apologized on Wilson’s behalf, but deep down he more than understood, he cheered—under the circumstances, throwing a chair struck him as a deeply honest, utterly sane response, the definitive right answer.

He could try to explain, but where would he even begin? “I don’t know,” he told her, “I’m not sure where that’s coming from,” and she made a notation on her clipboard.

The case against Wilson is air-tight. He is speech-impaired, in need of Special Services. Various therapies are recommended, speech, occupational, several others. The word he keeps hearing is “intervention.” The importance of early intervention, various intervention strategies, multi-faceted interventions. As if his son is a third-world country they’re planning to invade, a tumor they intend to


The man from the school board, silent up until this point, finally speaks. He is silver-haired, with a neatly trimmed moustache, and the faintest accent, vaguely but not quite British. He has the smiling air of an elected official, which he apparently is. He explains Fred’s options as a parent, his rights, so slowly, with such rehearsed scriptedness, Fred realizes, this is some sort of Miranda speech, a safeguard against

lawsuits. Fred reads the man’s name—Robert Blum, Jr. and tries to memorize it, like a license plate, in hopes that he’ll someday have the opportunity not to vote for him.

Fred is profoundly distrustful of bureaucratic machinery of any sort, suspicious of the district’s supposedly benign concern—he’s been a union rep, he knows how they operate—not at all sure that he wants Wilson to be classified, to be brought, in their words, “into the system.” In a phrase like that, he can practically hear the clanking of the chains, the key in the lock.

Things conclude somewhat vaguely—papers to be read and signed, a learning plan to be drawn up. Any questions? If Martha were here, she’d have questions, Fred is sure of that, some pointed questions. That’s her job, asking tough questions, in depositions, in court, thinking on her feet. The things he thinks of afterwards, she says at the time. Fred is by nature slower, more deliberate. He likes a lesson plan. The more detailed the better, whether he looked at it or not, it made him feel secure, knowing it was there. Now he lives in the land of no lesson plans, and he’s learned simply to listen and nod and wait. There’ll be time to talk it over with Martha later.

He stands and thanks these people, people for whom he feels no gratitude, because . . . because that’s the kind of man he is—the deeper he feels himself in trouble, the more polite he becomes. He’s thanked a state trooper for a hundred-dollar ticket. Shaken hands with the doctor who found his wife’s cancer.

Back at the hospital, Martha is propped up, IV’d, slurping soup, watching Andy Griffith on the overhead TV.

“Goober thinks his dog can talk,” Martha says.

She is still pale, but no longer frighteningly so. The day before, when they’d signed her in, her blood pressure was dangerously low, barely registering. She’d put Ellis on his bus, come into the house, and blacked out. Upstairs in the bathroom, Fred heard a sickening thump and found her sitting on the pantry floor, groggy but game, like a heavyweight who didn’t want the fight stopped, protesting she was fine, just fine.

Fred picks some saltines from her tray and takes a sip of her water. He looks at the television. Sitting on a stoop with a scruffy-looking shepherd mix, Goober is grinning from ear to ear. Fred remembers this episode; he’s seen it before—it’s just Opie and a new kid in town

pulling a prank. They’ve got a walkie-talkie rigged to the mutt’s collar. Andy will teach the boys a lesson in the end, but still, it makes Fred sad to see Goober so pathetically duped.

She fills him in, the results of her blood work, which is basically good, fine, fine, nothing much beyond the normal chemo response. If her antibodies come back just a little, she’s good to go again next week. But once again, there seems to be some fluid accumulating. Not a lot, nothing to be alarmed about, that’s what they keep saying. Her scan was clean.

So why? Fred wants to know. But the doctors don’t have any definitive answers. Maybe this, maybe that. Maybe nothing. Maybe they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about, he’s tempted to say.

He wants some certainty. All the high-tech machinery, the journals piled in their offices, the white coats. They look like scientists, but they talk like somebody’s farmer uncle chewing the fat about the weather. Could be. Hopefully. Probably. Wait and see. Fred’s car mechanic can diagnose a squeak or a sputter with much more confidence.

“How’d it go?” Martha wants to know.

“Okay,” Fred tells her.

“That bad,” she says.

“Wilson is speech-impaired,” he says. The official language sounds

foreign in his mouth.

“It’s going to be all right,” she says. “We’re all going to be all right.” Fred isn’t sure what that even means, he cannot imagine what “all right” might look like, but he nods.

“It was like a trial,” Fred says. “It was like he’s guilty of something.”

“I know,” Martha says. “I know.” For now neither of them says anything more. There’ll be time to unpack it all later. He takes her hand, gives it a slow massage, rubs her wrist under her hospital bracelet. She’s out of gas, and he’s sorry that he’s tired her out. They have a sad moment of silence together, watching the Andy Griffith closing credits on the television screen.

She taps her wrist and jerks her thumb to the door. “Now get going,” she tells him. “They hate it when you’re late.”

Fred offers to stay. He can call a neighbor to watch the boys, but Martha insists he do it himself. They’d agreed to stick as much as possible to their family business as usual—“keep it normal” is how Martha puts it. Which is absurd, of course. But they do it anyway. They try their best.

In the preschool’s parking lot, Fred straps Wilson into his car seat. Asks him about his day and receives the usual answer. “Good.”

“What was snack?”

“Red juice,” Wilson says softly. “Circle crackers.”

Fred can understand him perfectly, goddamn it. If you just listen, he’s 100% intelligible. Wilson looks out the window, watching serenely, and his father tries to follow his line of sight, imagine what he’s observing— sunlight through the leaves? If you love someone, you can understand them. If you don’t, you can’t. How hard is that to grasp? You need a graduate degree to figure that out? That’s something Fred might have told Robert Blum, Jr. and his team of so-called helping professionals.

When Fred picked him up, Wilson had been playing with his new buddy, Cheyenne, digging through a sand pile for small brown stones, which Wilson has been bringing home in his pockets all week, insisting they are magic beans. They do look a little like beans, brown and smooth. Some seem to have a little cleft, like a coffee bean. He’s been finding them between the cushions of the couch, in Wilson’s bed, in the washing machine. Fred stood for a moment, out of sight, and watched Wilson and Cheyenne work in perfect wordless cooperation.

One of the few jokes Fred could remember long enough to repeat involved a little boy who never spoke, not for years, not a mumbling word. Finally, finally, after many years, at the age of nine or ten, the kid breaks his silence. “Mom,” he says one morning. “You burned the toast.” The family is astonished. Why? they wonder. No words all this time. “Up to now,” he tells them, “everything’s been fine.”

Fred starts to sing. If Ms. Biondi wants simple songs, he can do simple songs. It’s been an oversight, easily corrected. “Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream…” He sings it through twice. No response from Wilson. He tries “This Old Man.” He makes it all the way up to five, knick-knack on my hive, which doesn’t sound right. Hive? But he can’t think of anything else that rhymes with five; it must be hive. And what in god’s name is knick-knack? On a hive? It sounds obscene. He can’t believe this is a children’s classic. He sings louder now, brings even more forced joviality to his performance—he is a happy scoutmaster, he is Miss Betty, he is Raffi in concert. He plays knick-knack on his gate, on his spine. He looks and sees Wilson in the rearview mirror. The boy fixes him with a look that seems to express both bewilderment—what is with you?—and betrayal. You too?

At the kitchen table, while Wilson stands on a bench at the sink, scrubbing his soccer ball, for the second or third time today—he’s the neat and clean one, give him a bottle of Windex and a roll of paper

towels, and he’s in hog heaven—Fred sorts through the contents of Ellis’s backpack. His lunch is mostly uneaten, save for his cookies and one perfect bite from his cheese sandwich. The apple has been back and

forth more than once and is looking the worse for wear. Ellis has a good appetite; he’s just the slowest eater his father’s ever encountered, a talker, a dawdler, who may not even get around to picking up a fork for a good ten minutes. The lunch period at his school lasts something like eighteen minutes.

“How’s Mom’s blood pressure?” Ellis asks, and Wilson pauses in his ball washing operation. His hearing is perfect. This is not the sort of conversation Fred thinks he ought to be having with a nine-year-old, but Ellis is an unusual kid. He hears everything, remembers everything. He’s always been full of questions, and Fred has always tried to give him straight answers, not to blow him off.

“Good,” Fred tells him. “Excellent.”

“How’s her electric lights?”

“Perfect,” Fred says. “They’re blazing.”

Still, Ellis looks worried. The week before, he had accidentally walked through the downtown library’s security gate with a book. An alarm sounded, and while the uniformed security guard, smiling the whole time, disengaged it, Fred could see the color drain from his son’s face. He held back the tears until they made it to the car. “The same thing happened to you once, didn’t it, Dad?”

“Sure,” he said. “It happens to everybody.”

“Tell me about that time,” Ellis said, and Fred cooked up some bogus parallel narrative, a fiction involving himself, his own father, a library, and a security guard. Of course, books weren’t electronically

tagged back then, and he’s pretty sure his father never set foot in a public library, but no matter, the point, he figured, was not the details but the reassuring noise of his voice. Has Ellis always needed so much reassurance? Fred doesn’t think so.

“What time tomorrow is Mom coming home?” Ellis asks.

“The doctor says first thing in the morning,” Fred tells him. “She’ll be here to meet your bus tomorrow.”

“What if she’s not?”

“Then we’ll be disappointed,” Fred says. Politicians never answer hypotheticals, and now Fred understands why: his kids, Ellis and Wilson both, can fire off a half dozen or so in a single volley, what about this, what about that. Fred has his own hypotheticals, half-formed, dark rooms he doesn’t want to visit. “But look,” he says. “They said tomorrow.”

“If not,” Ellis wants to know, “can we sue them?” Lately he’s terribly interested in the idea of lawsuits and litigation: liability, what companies do to avoid being sued, all those little disclaimers in fine

print—what is sold separately, not included, not actual size, the fact that color may vary and contents may settle during shipping—the rationale for release forms and permission slips. He’s dying to sue somebody, anybody.

“I don’t think so,” Fred tells him.

Fred has tried to explain the notion of damages, how fault is proven and priced out, but it’s hopeless. Ellis wants to sue Crackerjack because his prize was broken, KFC because they ran out of biscuits, the Cartoon Network because of technical difficulties. Fred sympathizes with the desire, he understands the urge. He understands his son’s wish to be compensated for disappointments, daily sorrows, all the broken promises spewed out by the fast-talking, bait-and-switch world.

“Rats,” Ellis says.

“How about we sue somebody else?” Fred asks.

“Like who?”

“Like the lunch ladies.” Martha would give him hell for planting such an idea, but Fred sees Ellis’s eyes light up, the joyous sense of possibility—justice, revenge, a big windfall at a crabby adult’s expense.

“For what?” Ellis wants to know. “What could we sue them for?”

“Meanness,” Fred says. “Ugliness. Are they ugly, too?”

“Oh yeah,” Ellis says sadly, knowingly. “But you can’t really sue for ugliness and meanness. Can you?”

After dinner, once the boys are pajamaed and their teeth brushed, he agrees to play the pound game, a quick round. They are dogs, strays, housed in a kennel beneath the dining room table. He arrives at the shelter in search of a pet and brings them both home. It is a kind of fairy tale they enact, again and again, some canine Cinderella story, the adoption motif complicated with almost infinite variation.

Each boy fixes his dog-identity—breed, color, size—only after a great deal of deliberation, a certain amount of negotiation, lots of last-minute changes. Ellis is a Husky named Howler. He is part wolf. Wilson is a black Lab pup named Blackie, no, a Dalmatian named Spot, actually, a chocolate Lab named Labby—Ellis rolls his eyes and starts to complain, “You can’t just . . .” but Fred shushes him—then Brownie, then, at last, Chip.

While they conceal themselves under the dining room table, he shows up at the shelter and gives a little speech, announcing his desire for a couple of good dogs, wondering aloud what he’ll find. If he goes too far off script, if he doesn’t say it right, the boys make him start again—it’s some sort of incantation. He coaxes them out, and they bark and yip and growl, and as necessary, give him instructions and feed him new narrative details in a kind of stage-whisper. “At first,” Ellis says, “you think I’m a wolf.”

He looks into their mouths to examine their teeth, inspects their paws, checks their noses and pronounces them wet and cold. They perform a few quick tricks. Wilson/Chip shakes his hand, a hearty, smiling squeeze, human-style, worthy of a photo-op. Ellis/Howler rolls over, turns a quick somersault, and plays dead, hands-paws crossed across his chest.

Fred wonders aloud how much for both dogs. “Sixty dollars,” Ellis says. “Sixty hundred dollars,” Wilson says. In the end, he pays six hundred, and lays out six imaginary bills on the table.

“Okay,” he says. “Time for bed.”

Who knows what this is all about, their inexhaustible enthusiasm for this game. He believes boys, his boys anyway, are pack animals. He’d said so once to a woman at a playground, and she’d edged away from him, appalled apparently by the idea, by anyone who could entertain it. Maybe she was the mother of girls, a couple of those fine-motor geniuses who drew flowers for hours on end. He knew the type. He used to see them and marvel when he’d pick up his own boys at pre-school: they’d be coloring or primly braiding hair, wearing headbands and ribbons and adorable dresses, while the boys would be charging around in the back with capes and makeshift swords, playing Robin Hood.

But it’s true. Ellis and Wilson have always rolled around on the floor together, roughhouse-pouncing themselves breathless. Wrestling is probably Wilson’s favorite form of human interaction. Fred used to worry about injuries, try to step in and break it up, send them off to neutral corners. But now he’s seen it on the Nature Channel—it’s cub behavior.

“Heel,” he says, and they follow him up the stairs on all fours. “Kennel up.” It occurs to him that they obey him much better as dogs than they do as children. Maybe he should lose the parenting books—

there’s a bunch of them on his nightstand, under the cancer books, all unread—and focus on dog training. Another appalling insight into child-raising that he knows he’d better keep to himself.

Twenty minutes later, Fred—sitting on the living room couch, the paper on his lap, a muted ballgame on the tube, wondering whether or not it’s too late to give Martha a call—hears the boys upstairs, some furtive footsteps back and forth between their rooms. It sounds like mischief. He climbs the stairs as far as the landing; he can see the two of them in the bathroom, their backs to him, conspiratorially busy, definitely up to something. Ellis is standing on the closed toilet seat, holding Wilson’s plush Wild Thing in one hand, reaching up to the shelf for something. Fred is just about to holler at them when he figures out what Ellis is doing: he’s dousing his brother’s stuffed toy with Martha’s Estee perfume, the scent she’s worn for years, performing a little spraybottle baptism. “There,” Fred hears Ellis say to Wilson. “Smell that.” Wilson buries his face in the toy, Ellis grins triumphantly, and Fred backs quietly down the stairs.

When Fred awakes in the middle of the night, there is someone looming over him, a face leaning into his. It is Wilson, naked, standing at the side of his bed, clutching his Wild Thing. “What’s the matter?”

“Somebody peed in my bed,” Wilson says softly, eyes downcast.

“Don’t worry about it,” Fred tells him. He lifts the comforter and Wilson scrambles aboard.

Fred sleeps fitfully and wakes again at dawn—there’s just a little light coming in the window. Ellis is in the bed now, too, lying across the bottom. It’s like they’re on a raft, the three of them, some cramped, makeshift, lashed-together affair, like Huck and Jim’s, headed downstream together. Ellis is sound asleep but his jaw is working slowly back and forth, making a terrible grinding. The sound is so insistent and destructive, it scares Fred. Where is that coming from? the social worker would want to know. He’s had nightmares about skeletons, he’s confessed to Fred: like the shipload of ghost pirates he saw in a trailer for a Disney movie, eyeless sockets, grinning, dancing.

Fred doesn’t want to wake Ellis but he massages his jaws a little, rubbing slow circles in his clenched jaw muscles, talking to him a little. “It’s okay, pal,” he says. “Everything is going to be all right. There’s nothing to worry about.”

In the bathroom Martha’s perfume bottle is still on the edge of the sink. Fred sprays some into his palm and inhales. He looks at himself in the mirror: he’s as unkempt and disheveled as any Wild Thing.

On the floor he finds Wilson’s wet pajama bottoms and one of his

magic beans. Fred picks it up and rolls it in his palm. It feels as if there’s no magic in it, no magic anywhere. There’s no such thing as a talking dog. Don’t be stupid, he tells himself. It’s not even a bean at all. It’s a stone.

He knows better. But he does it anyway. Nothing seems strange anymore. Closes his eyes and makes a wish. Like a child, like a damn fool.

From Five Points Volume 13.3

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Five Points Guest Post: Lauren Watel on her New Story “Giveaway”

Lauren Watel’s recent story “Giveaway” is featured in Five Points volume 14.2. Here, she has graciously agreed to shed some light on her inspirations for the story:

Depression runs in my family—my father died from it—and I have grappled with depression, in one form or another, in differing intensities, for much of my adult life.  During one prolonged slump I decided to combat my depression by writing about it, trying to describe the numbness, the lethargy, the loss of perspective, the bleak blackness, in the hope that the act of making something would console me.  At the same time, I was contemplating writing a collection of stories that took as its primary subject the relationships of different characters to infants.  “Giveaway” was my attempt to combine these two preoccupations: depression and babies.

Creating a sensational portrait of postpartum depression or postpartum psychosis—as when a woman harms or kills her baby—didn’t appeal to me.  I was more interested in depicting a depression that was not dangerous but was nonetheless disturbing, in part because depression is not an emotion a new mother expects to feel.  On the contrary, the usual narrative about motherhood tells us that even though mothers are often exhausted and overwhelmed by colicky crying, sleep shortages, the demands of nursing, and the responsibility of caring for a fragile, helpless creature, they nonetheless fall in love with their babies.  Not all mothers immediately fall in love with their babies, however.  In fact, the realities of motherhood are far more complex, contradictory, confusing, and downright weird than anyone can anticipate, and it was this counter-narrative I wanted to explore.

To depict an experience of maternal depression I needed a character that possessed a higher-than-average degree of discernment about her own mental state, as well as the ability to describe it.  A therapist, I reasoned, could plausibly fulfill these requirements, though I’m aware that not all therapists are necessarily insightful or articulate about themselves.  Though the physical action takes place with a small cast on a small stage, the bulk of the story plots the main character’s interior: Joan’s attempts to catalogue her state of mind, to understand why she feels emptiness and guilt toward her newborn, to figure out what emotions to conceal from her husband and sister and what to reveal to them, and to comprehend what motherhood means.

If you’re interested in reading “Giveaway” for yourself, check out Five Points Vol. 14.2 right here.

Laurie Watel’s fiction was awarded the 2012 Mississippi Review Prize and the 2005 Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award from Poets and Writers.  It has appeared in Ploughshares, Five Points, and New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing and is forthcoming in Mississippi Review.  My poetry and translations have been published in TriQuarterly, Five Points, Poetry International, and Painted Bride Quarterly and are forthcoming in Slate, the anthology One for the Money, and The Collected Poems of Marcel Proust.


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Featured Prose: The Mill for Grinding Old People Young by Glenn Patterson

Glenn Patterson

The Mill For Grinding Old People Young

Friday, 24th December 1897

The telephone rang this morning.

Despite having rehearsed with me how to behave in such an eventuality,Mrs Mawhinney ran through the house, banging doors and calling my name, as though pursued by the hounds of hell. In truth I

was alarmed enough by it myself that I dropped my spectacles on to the carpet as I started from my chair. In another instant I had trodden on them.

Mrs Mawhinney all but collapsed through the library door, collected herself, backed out, and was making to knock as the ringing at last stopped.

I told her, please, to come in, take a seat, calm down. The suddenness of the thing. . . she was saying between breaths . . . it had “put the heart sideways” in her.

I showed her my glasses. The bridge was bent and when I tried to straighten it I heard the faintest of creaks. Mrs Mawhiney would have had me let her go at once to Lizar’s but with Christmas Day upon us there seemed little chance that her haste would be rewarded. Besides, I remembered some years ago having consigned a pair to the back of a bureau drawer.

We waited together another half an hour, going through the drill several more times, before resuming our occupations.

I was right about the bureau, but not about the drawer: the spectacles were in the fourth one I opened. The lenses were a little dulled, my eyes more than a little weaker than when last I put them on,

but so long as I held my book raised to catch the light coming in at the window I could see well enough to read. (I have left them aside as I write this: the hand, I trust, after all these years, does not require such

close scrutiny.) I held the book for two pages then lowered it and allowed my eyelids to close.

Towards luncheon the telephone rang again. I had managed half of the stairs, without the aid of my stick, before Mrs Mawhinney appeared from the kitchens. She looked up at me. I nodded. She dropped a curtsey (unrehearsed) as she spoke my name into the mouthpiece then dropped another as she turned to me and said, “Mr Erskine, sir.”

I negotiated the remainder of the stairs and took the earpiece.

“Well, well, well,” said Erskine, with the pride of an inventor, or at least of a privileged custodian. “What do you make of this?”

“Remarkable,” I said, and meant it. His voice might have been coming from the next room and not the far side of the river.

Mrs Mawhinney was still in attendance. I signalled to her that I was quite all right.

Erskine, meanwhile, was inviting me to dinner at the Reform Club this evening, “Unless you have already made another arrangement.” It was kind of him to allow me the possibility of refusal, even though he knows as well as any man living that I would not otherwise have crossed the doorstep from now until New Year, nor been troubled by anyone approaching it, save possibly Erskine himself.

He was getting up a little party for his nephew who is recently returned from a visit to London in the course of which he made photographs of the places alluded to in Mr Wells’s “scientific romance” The Time Machine, which caused such a sensation when it was first published—what, a year, two years ago, now? These photographs the nephew had had turned into slides, which he intended to project by means of a magic lantern. It was all very short notice, Erkine realized (again the opportunity to refuse if I wished), but he had only heard late last evening that the room had become free at the club. He could send a carriage if I wished it . . .

Mrs Mawhinney was none too pleased when I told her I had accepted. (Mrs Mawhinney, as I have noted, I am sure, many times previously in these pages, is not endowed with a face for dissembling.)

She had a pair of sole fresh delivered.

I told her they would keep to breakfast.

She had a haddock for breakfast.

“It is Christmas, we will have both,” I said.

I will be sorry in the morning that I did. They do not stint on their courses, or their portions, at the Reform Club. The smelts, with which we began, alone would have made a decent dinner for Mrs Mawhinney and me.

An audience of nine gathered in the Antrim Room afterwards, not counting Erskine and his nephew. I knew them all. In the case of most of them I had known their fathers, in the case of some their grandfathers.

A large board with a tablecloth tacked to it had been mounted on two chairs against the back wall. There was some business with the electric lights, which even two years after they were installed are the cause of some confusion and, on occasion, misgiving among staff and members alike; that switching the lights off, for instance, might cause electrocution. Off, though, eventually, they went. (Switch throwers happily unharmed.) The nephew himself oversaw the drawing of the curtains—they had to be “just so”—before declaring that we were ready to proceed with the slides.

We saw the park in Battersea, we saw Lavender Hill; we saw, as an aside, the new Battersea Bridge, the last of Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s grand designs. (I knew Bazalgette, too; visited him once in Morden.) We saw the wrought iron entrances to several of the underground railway stations and listened to Erskine’s nephew’s ingenious equation of these with the burrows wherein the Moorlocks dwelt; we saw the South Kensington Museum, the Alexandra Palace at Muswell Hill—Wells’s “Palace of Green Porcelain.”

The final photograph accompanied the passage in which the Time Traveller and his companion Weena proceed over a hillcrest towards Wimbledon as the “hush of evening” creeps over the world. There was an answering silence in the Antrim Room as Erskine’s nephew read of that great pause that comes upon things before dusk, when even the breeze stops in the trees. So vivid were the trees in the photograph— they had been tinted by hand—that I fancied our breath would have set their leaves moving, had any of us been breathing out at that moment. Erskine’s nephew continued to read (his voice had a grating quality, but the words themselves got the better of it, impressing themselves on my memory):

“To me there is always an air of expectation about that evening stillness. The sky was clear, remote, and empty, save for a few horizontal bars”—these too with a tint applied to them—“far down in the sunset. Well, that night the expectation took the colour of my fears.”

For nine people we gave a rousing round of applause. “For eight people they did,” I should say, at least to begin with. For some moments after the lights had been switched on in the room I remained staring at the blank tablecloth, remembering how the story ran on, the loss of Weena, the Time Traveller’s desolation on his return, alone, to his workshop in Richmond.

When all the congratulations had been extended, all the questions asked about the equipment the nephew had used and the chemical processes he had employed—an inquisitiveness in matters of equipment and processes of one form or another being what had brought most of those present into membership of the Reform Club: them and their fathers and grandfathers—the discussion moved on to our own city eight hundred thousand years hence. (Thompson: “Perhaps we will at last have our new City Hall.”) Erskine, whose own career, and fortune, has been founded on the knack of never missing anything, tried to draw me into the conversation. Given the changes I had witnessed in my own lifetime, did I not think it was foolish in the extreme to speculate on even eighty years hence? I replied that I sometimes felt as though it would be presumptuous of me to speculate on even eight weeks hence. “Nonsense, you will outlive us all,” said Erskine. In which case, I said, it would be our mutual misfortune. Rev. Dr Cathcart said, as he was after all bound to say, that we none of us knew the day or the hour—“no, not the angels of heaven,” as the Apostle would have it—and reminded us that there was still a large body of opinion that would robustly contend with Mr Darwin that the world had seen, or would ever in the future see, the multiple thousands of years that had so fired the imagination of this Wells.

The nephew interjected. We were, with the greatest respect, rather straying from the point. He was of the firm opinion that the city was on the brink of a new Golden Age. He spoke of the Cymric and the new Oceanic, construction of which, we would be aware, had already begun on the Queen’s Island, not a mile from where we were talking, and which would, when completed, exceed in length Brunel’s Great Eastern (exceed it too, it was to be hoped, in good fortune). The one-thousand-foot liner was no longer a possibility, it was an inevitability for the Belfast shipyards, and let the competition try and catch them.

Never mind one thousand feet, Thompson said, if the rumour was to be believed the one-million-pound liner was already with us. Someone else said that if ships continued to grow at the rate they had

grown in the last fifty years then by the next century’s end we would be crossing the Atlantic on vessels a mile long . . .

My dinner was sitting heavily in my stomach—I really do, as a rule, eat so little these days—and now that the conversation had become general I thought that Erskine would not take it amiss if I asked to have the carriage brought round for me. It was not quite half past nine o’clock. Erskine himself saw me down the stairs (watched me, I should say, all three flights, his eyes never once leaving my shoes) and out on to the kerb. It was all I could do, after he had handed me up into the carriage, to stop him tucking the blanket around my legs. He thanked me for coming; told me he hoped I had not been too irked by his nephew’s manner. It was a common failing in the young, imagining they were the first ever to think or feel these things. I thought to tell him it was considered a failing when I was young not to have built a church or written a history by the time you were twenty; thought better of it.

He put his hand on the door as the driver gathered the reins for departure.

“You know you would be more than welcome, tomorrow…”

I stopped him. He makes the same offer every year, and every year, I am sure, I make the same reply:

“It is terribly kind of you, Erskine, but Mrs Mawhinney has all the preparations made.”

Mrs Mawhinney in fact is under strict instructions—this year, every year—to take herself off to her cousin’s as soon as we have finished breakfast. (Haddock and sole!)

Erskine lifted his hand from the door, in a gesture of surrender, or farewell, and the driver snapped the reins.

“You can always telephone,” he called after me.

The streets, despite the hour, were as thronged as a summer Saturday afternoon. Before the builder’s hoardings where a year ago the White Linen Hall stood and eight, or eight hundred thousand, years from now will stand the City Hall, fir trees and mistletoe were still being sold, and as the carriage turned down towards the Academical Institution I witnessed a group of boys trying to hoop-la the statue of Rev Henry Cooke with a holly wreath. A stream of pedestrians was coming towards them, loosed on the night by the Grand Opera House, where the pantomime had just ended: Dick Whittington, if memory

served. On an impulse I leaned forward in my seat and asked the driver (worthy citizen) to turn about and take me back the way we had come. He thought by this I meant that I had forgotten something at the club,

but as we came again into Castle Place I told him to carry on, down Royal Avenue, on, at length, to York Street, thence, turning right at Great George’s Street, right again, into the narrower confines of Sailortown.

The driver slowed the horse to a walk. Some of the rooftops here reached to not much higher than the crown of his hat. He glanced at me over his shoulder. I urged him on—please—a little farther and then a little farther again until we had come out at last at a patch of waste ground below Garmoyle street, looking across the Victoria Channel to the Queen’s Island and the Harland and Wolff yard. “Here,” I said.

The driver helped me alight. “You don’t mind if I stay by the carriage?” he asked. The sound of our wheels had drawn several patrons out of the public house on the corner of the street. They gathered

beneath the solitary street lamp, watching with the driver as I made my hesitant way to the water’s edge. Weeds had pushed up between the cobbles, mingling with the coal dross and the rusting iron and the

remains of a thousand crates that had somehow fallen, just here, from ships coming in to dock.

“Sir?” said the driver, a caution dressed up as a question.

(He may have had in mind the story in the papers of late of the woman who ran the length of the Newtownards Road to throw herself off the Queen’s Bridge, her body, despite much searching of the Channel, yet to be found.)

“I can manage, thank you,” I said, gratitude wrapped around rebuke. I steadied myself with both hands on the head of my stick. The fog that has been wreaking such havoc this past week along the Irish facing coast of Scotland had been halted somewhere out in the North Channel by winds blowing across Belfast from the southwest. My view, notwithstanding the paucity of street lighting and the dulling of my

lenses, was tolerably clear.

A voice called out from beneath the lamp, “You down to see the big boat, Mister?”

I waved a hand—“yes”—and peered out as though searching among the masts and the gantries for the Oceanic’s slipway, but hoping instead for a glimpse of something that predated the first ship to bear the Oceanic name, the whole White Star line, Harland’s yard, the Queen’s Island itself.

Behind me the driver cleared his throat; asked if he might smoke a cigarette, “for warmth, like.” I realised that in the time I had been standing there a fine rain had begun to fall.

I told him I had no objection whatever, then, seeing the flare of the match, catching the scent of tobacco on the air, asked if I might have one, too. For companionship, like. He offered the package and I

hesitated seeing there were only two cigarettes left, but he shook his head to say I was not to let it concern me. I pinched the end of the cigarette between my forefinger and thumb while he struck the match so that when I inhaled the shaft was drawn back to rest against the tip of my nose. It had indeed been a very long time since I had done this. The smoke was as sharp as grief, as searing as desire. My thoughts turned liquid and I felt for a moment that I had actually begun to fall. I leaned more heavily on my stick; inhaled again, deeper; inhaled again, deeper still.

When there was nothing left to inhale I let the ember fall to fade between my feet.

“The world is too good,” I murmured and touched my fingers to my lips. The driver was watching still. I plucked at a phantom shred of tobacco. He turned away.

“Thank you for the cigarette,” I said as he helped me back up into my seat.

Our audience beneath the street lamp had dwindled to two women, one of whom asked me was I some sort of Yankee.

“He’s as Belfast as you or me,” the driver surprised me by saying before I had a chance to speak. I pulled the blanket around my chest. The hooves rang, the wheels rattled, and soon we had joined again the general stir.

The boys were gone from in front of the Academical Institution, but, however they had managed it, they had succeeded before they left in crowning Cooke with their holly wreath.

Mrs Mawhinney must have been waiting in the hallway, so quickly did she appear. She came right out to the carriage step. “Look at you, you are chilled to the bone,” she said and asked the driver, as his master’s representative there in her world, what Mr Erskine could have been thinking, calling on that telephone contraption, keeping me out till all hours in the depths of winter. (That was the order of her complaint, telephone before weather.) The driver, to his great credit, held his peace. I gave him ten shillings of a tip, which he was kind enough to say would keep him in “smokes” for some considerable time.

“Smokes!” said Mrs Mawhinney and took hold of my arm, as much to save me from corrupting influence as assist me to the door.

Inside, she warmed a pair of bottles while I undressed for bed then left me here, propped against the bolster with my writing board and my journal. She paused in the doorway to wish me a Happy Christmas.

“A Happy Christmas to you, too, Mrs Mawhinney,” I said.

I listened to her footsteps receding down the landing, as I have listened to them time without number in the years that we have spent alone here together, and for a moment—just for a moment—I

imagined getting out of bed (imagined myself a man for whom the act of getting out of bed was as fleet as the thought), going to the door and calling after her. . . . But what, and to what end?

On down the landing, she plodded, and into her apartment, so that now there is only the hiss of the lamp for company, the scratch of my nib, and, somewhere across this great, perplexing city, bells chiming the midnight hour.

From Five Points Volume 13.2

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Featured Prose: The Arbitrarium by Ian Sansom

Ian Sansom

The Arbitrarium

The Arbitrarium came into my possession some two or three summers ago. I had been suffering at the time from a long depression. My wife and I had been trying for a baby for a number of years and the emotional strain upon us had taken its toll. When the divorce came through, to my surprise my wife quickly remarried and soon fell pregnant.

At the beginning that summer I had been granted a six-week leave of absence from my work. I’d had an uncertain and difficult career, having been passed over for promotion on a number of occasions, and I had begun to find it difficult to be motivated in carrying out my day-to-day duties and responsibilities. I had also found myself becoming frustrated in work situations and prone to outbursts of anger at my colleagues.

After the separation from my wife I had moved to a small cottage overlooking a bay, far from the city where we had lived and made our lives together. It should have been the perfect place for me to begin my life again, but I had been unable to establish any satisfactory routines or take any great pleasure in my new home. I seemed continually to be swimming through a sea of tiredness, and yet I found it difficult to sleep. Often I would lie awake all night listening to the BBC World Service. If I did sleep, I often dreamt so ferociously that I would have to go to another room to lie down and recover.

I noticed the advertisement for the auction in the local newspaper. The cottage had been let to me unfurnished, and apart from the mattress, a small kitchen table and chair, and a few books and personal items, the place remained completely bare. Since I now had time on my hands I thought I might take the opportunity to visit the auction and perhaps purchase some cheap furniture.

It was a long drive to the auction house. I had never before attended an auction and I had not returned to the city since separating from my wife.

The auction was held in a warehouse on an industrial estate in the docks area of the city, and I was greatly surprised by the quality of the items being offered for sale. As well as office furniture there was also fine art, jewellery, Persian rugs, and collectable items of various kinds and some of considerable value. Among the many items of furniture I managed to identify a few things that might be suitable for the cottage: an Edwardian wardrobe, a chest of drawers, and a 1930s style armchair. I made a note of these items in the catalogue.

Out of curiosity I also examined the jewellery and collectable items stored in a glass display case. Among the items there I noticed a beautiful 18ct gold diamond solitaire ring. I stood and looked at the

ring for a long time, so long in fact that one of the porters asked me if there was anything wrong. I replied that there was not.

The ring was my wife’s engagement ring.

Turning away, it was then that I first saw the chest. It was partly hidden underneath a rug. It is difficult to explain to anyone who hasn’t had the feeling, but I felt myself drawn towards it, almost as

though it was calling to me.

It was a large rectangular chest, with a flat lid, the front and ends fitted with iron handles. I was particularly struck by the intricate dovetail construction at the corners. The wood, as far as I could tell, was oak. The iron handles were of a peculiar, distinctive kind, shaped like talons and bolted through large circular ironwork rosettes nailed onto the chest. Several small holes at each end of the box indicated that these handles had at some time been repositioned.

In order to examine the chest more closely I lifted the rug and laid it aside. The lid of the chest was formed from a large single board, mounted with an extraordinarily detailed carved lion mask, surrounded by an intricate geometrical inlay depicting mountains and rivers. The lid was held on using leather strap hinges, and two modern flat metal hinges.

Stepping back slightly in order to examine the chest, I could see that the whole sat on a carved plinth, at the four corners of which were iron lion’s feet, and that the front was fitted with a large central square iron lock escutcheon and a brass lock hasp.

I would be the first to admit that the chest looked striking rather than beautiful. The wood was in places very badly stained. Some cracks and splits seemed to have been filled with a wood filler of a light colour, and where splits had opened up in the dovetailing, large nails had been used to secure the corners. The metal hinges were badly rusted, one of them appearing to have been repaired with a crude solder joint. The leather strap hinges showed signs of decay.

I checked the catalogue. The chest was listed as an Arbitrarium. I had no idea what an Arbitrarium might be.

During the auction I was surprised by the amounts being bid for items. Among the price of the lots noted in my catalogue were a Victorian crescent shaped diamond brooch, which sold for £490, a

Victorian wall clock, which sold for £400, and a Georgian hall table, which sold for £250. I hadn’t at all expected such prices to be bid. The Edwardian wardrobe, which I had hoped to purchase for, say, no more than £100, sold for almost £500, the chest of drawers for £400, and the armchair for £300. I was outbid on every item.

The Arbitrarium was the last item in the catalogue. The bidding began at £100. At first I did not bid. The price rose in multiples of tens, and then fives until the price had reached over £1000. Again, this is difficult to explain to anyone who has never experienced anything similar, but I felt that somehow the Arbitrarium already belonged to me and that I was merely reclaiming it.

My winning bid was £1,450. This was almost the equivalent of a month’s wages, and yet I took no thought at all of the price.

I drove back to the cottage with the Arbitrarium, arriving late at night. On arrival a deep exhaustion settled over me, and I slept until late the next morning.

When I awoke I first made myself a pot of coffee and admired the view from the cottage. One of my only constants during this period was coffee. Since moving into the cottage I had found myself eating

less and less, and drinking more coffee: twenty or thirty cups of coffee a day were not uncommon. I had also taken up smoking, something which I had previously disapproved of. I was smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.

At first, sitting admiring the view—something I hadn’t done since moving into the cottage—I didn’t think at all of the Arbitrarium. But then, to my great surprise, I heard what seemed to be a music coming from outside, a music that seemed, at the same time, to be coming from within me. Remembering the chest, I went instantly to the car, and opened the boot. When I touched the Arbitrarium it seemed to give off a gentle vibration, and a kind of humming sound, and yet I was not at all shocked by this; it seemed to me entirely natural.

With some difficulty I carried the chest into the cottage, and placed it on the floor in the middle of my bare living room.

With the chest I had been given a key—a large iron key, with a label attached on a piece of string. The label read simply, “The Arbitrarium.”

I placed the key into the keyhole on the main escutcheon at the front of the chest. At first it did not seem to fit. Eventually, however, I managed to turn the key, and it released the hasp above it—but it

did not release the lid.

Lifting the hasp revealed a second keyhole, which was locked over two internal short hasps fitted to the underside of the lid. The key did not fit this second, smaller keyhole: I therefore had no means of

opening the chest.

I tried ringing the auctioneers, to see if they might have forgotten to give me the second key. No one answered the phone at the auction house that morning and I later learned that it had closed down.

I had to find some way of opening the chest. On that first day I travelled into the nearest town and purchased some tools—a set of screwdrivers, a knife, a small hammer, and some chisels. I tried gently levering the lid open, but I was afraid that I might break the wood.

On subsequent days I made enquiries of locksmiths and hardware stores, to see if any of them might be able to help me open the lid. None of them were able to assist.

My daily routine began to revolve around the Arbitrarium. I would wake early and start work on it, using the various tools now in my possession. After breakfast I would then go down to the small beach at the bay to swim, or I would walk into the town, a long walk of several miles along narrow lanes.

I also began to make use, for the first time in many years, of the public library. On the internet I managed to find a number of reports and accounts of chests similar to my own—in Berlin, St Petersburg,

Turin, Bologna, Rome, Milan, Croatia, and Slovenia. But none of these chests shared all of the same characteristics as my own: some had carrying handles, some had the plinth, some had the locks and escutcheons, or the carvings and designs, but none had them all. And none of them was referred to as an Arbitrarium.

In an article in the Encyclopedia Britannica 11th edition I found a

reference to “capsae cum sera”(chests with lock), which were used for holding money, precious objects or documents, and which were often decorated with carvings of lions, a lion with its eyes open apparently symbolizing wakefulness and watchfulness and thus the guarding of the owner’s possessions. Such boxes were made throughout Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, designed to be stout enough to offer a measure of security and yet light enough to be mobile if necessary.

Looking back now, years later, it doesn’t seem strange that I should have been the person to come into possession of the Arbitrarium.

On the contrary, what seems strange is that it took me so long to find it.


From Five Points Volume 13.2


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