My Mother’s Ashes by Elaine Chiew

A cold front is coming in. The columbarium calls to say they’re open Monday to Friday, 9:30-12:30, for collections.  I recognise the urn when I go there; it’s Mother’s Ming Dynasty replica from her one trip to Hang Zhou she thought was such a ‘thrilling bargain.’  The negligently-dressed director sits me down to go over some do’s and don’ts: sports grounds, waterways, and National Trust grounds are popular choices, but “it’s not great for the next person who wants a picnic.”  His tone is jocular, but he’s not remotely funny. One grieving relative blew up ashes in fireworks, another pressed it into vinyl. Just imagine. I could tell him I’m driving to Venice, heading for the canals and I might trigger an anthrax scare, but I don’t. 

 It’s 1647 kilometres and will take approximately 16 hours. Mother’s strapped to the passenger seat, riding shotgun. In Warley, when I tank up, I explain to Mother we’re not flying because I can’t abide the thought of her sitting on my lap for two hours. She hates big bodies of water, anything looming large above her head. The urn wobbles all along the M25 to the Channel Tunnel (double-whammy there) but once across, the lid finally settles. Passing Calais, I see several car accidents, the wreckage looking like hulls, bodies. “Do you remember we’d taken a trip to see the German bunkers?” Where our words were slung as raw wounds—me, how does it feel to have everyone hate you! She, well at least they bother to hate me! But why shatter our fragile détente? Another road trip memory intrudes: detouring through Lyon, she demonstrated the art of the quicksilver word (your simian children) and the wounding minute gesture (the elegant shift of the body away from speaker mid-sentence).  Celestial accusations against one’s forebears can be heard, and the urn shakes from side to side, as we’re buffeted by sleet and wind down the A4.

The rental car stalls somewhere near Reims. A French mechanic shows up, quite dishy in a nondescript fashion: my type, as Mother might sneer. He shakes his head at my babbling, disrespecting my French. I finally work out I’ll have to hole up in a B&B while waiting for a new rental car. Mother always loved the Italians and hated the French. Every year she’d disappear off to Venice, and it’s a mystery what she did there. I imagined her roaming around St. Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace—gaining auras, bargaining like a cheap shrew for embroidered linen, flirting with the camarieri in the piazza while cursing tourists, family and pigeons. Well, there you go,” I say to the urn, just desserts,” and deposit her on top of a chest of drawers.

A pock and a thwack against my window-pane at night.  A mystery awaits in the dark. Gasping out of deep slumber, I stumble against the chest, trying to turn on the light. The urn falls and shatters.  I cut my foot on pieces of blue-washed Chinese hills and tiered pagodas. Blood smears the carpet but there’s no ash.

Shock. Where did the ash go? Then a sharp pain, tentacling away from my foot. Spreading. My heart shifts, locks. It’s my mother, still jabbering, not letting me go.


 

Elaine
Elaine Chiew is a writer based in London and Singapore.  She’s the editor/compiler of Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around the World (New Internationalist, 2015), and her most recent stories can be found in Potomac Review, Smokelong Quarterly, and Jellyfish Review. She’s also won prizes (most notably the Bridport Prize) and been shortlisted in competitions, including the BBC Opening Lines, Mslexia, Fish, etc, and named Top 50 Microfiction by Wigleaf and Top 25 in Glimmer Train’s Emerging Writer’s Award. She has a law degree and an M.A. in Asian Art History.

Tigers by Kathryn McMahon

Blue, green, and yellow roses bloomed over my grandparents’ sofa. Napping on it, I once saw a sapphire tiger there among the musty blossoms. My grandfather and uncles crawled around, hunting for a paw or tail, only to tell me it had been a dream. I asked where my grandmother was. “Out,” they answered. Tucking me into bed after dinner, my mother told me her parents were getting divorced. “They don’t like each other anyway,” she said, jaw popping. My grandmother went to live with a man who wore mutton chops and served lamb with mint jelly at Easter. (I did not dream that.) Then a woman came to sit among the blue and green and yellow roses. She smiled commercial lips and smelled of a department store flashing jewelry and dizzy lights. The sofa cushions were no match for her perfume, but I still fell asleep in her lap. My grandfather soon left for California with the perfumed woman, but before he did, he sang to me one final time and gave me a tiny gold ring with my emerald birthstone. I begged to wear it on our last walk. Perched on his shoulders, I dipped under the kitchen threshold, and we stepped out into the wide backyard that melted into a park. Somewhere along the way, the ring slipped off. My grandfather and uncles crawled into the night after it, but never found it. Wiping my face in the shy, summer dark, I looked up at the perfumed woman. “The emerald is camouflaged in the grass like a tiger’s stripes,” I said. She knelt down and smoothed my cheeks. “There you go. Now you’ve made a treasure for another little girl.”


 

image1

Kathryn McMahon is an American writer living abroad with her British wife and dog.
Her stories have appeared in Syntax and Salt, The Cincinnati Review, The Baltimore Review, Jellyfish Review, Necessary Fiction, and others. Recently, she has received nominations for Best Small Fictions, Best of the Net, and the Pushcart, and she was a finalist in the 2017 Wyvern Lit flash fiction contest. She also reads prose for The Adroit Journal. On Twitter, she is @katoscope. Find more of her writing at darkandsparklystories.com.

Nine Pancakes by Melissa Fu

1. My very educated mother just served us nine pancakes

Well that’s a real slap to the poor woman, isn’t it? What’s the point of all that education if she just ends up serving pancakes to snot-nosed kids?

This is to help you remember how to keep things in their place. This is the order of the planets. This is the order of the family. This is what the women do. This is what the children do. This is how you make the pancakes. From scratch, not from the box.

2. My very educated mother just serves us noodles

What kind of mother only serves noodles? That’s what happens when you let education and women mix. Bet you anything the noodles aren’t even proper pasta. Ramen, probably. Just add MSG and hot water from the tap. Yo mama’s so educated she neglects her kids.

3. My very educated mother just serves underhand

This is what she has learned: It’s better – more efficient, more tactical, less hassle, fewer headaches – to conduct her business on the sly. Like Austen hiding novels under needlework. She uses the low expectations of the well-fed as trip wires. Underhand, she serves balls to catch the Old Guard off guard. She makes them scramble across the court when they thought this thing was going to be doddle.

4. My very educated mother just sighs

when once again, assumptions are being made. Assumptions about who the doctor is, who is speaking on the phone. Sighs when she sees only one female and two brown faces in the lecture theatre when she derives the Schrödinger equation. None of this is new. She started sighing years ago when a boy marched around study hall shouting ‘She’s wrong! She’s wrong!’ to anyone who would listen to him and even to those who wouldn’t. She wasn’t wrong. She just didn’t solve the problem the same way he did.

5. My very educated mother jumped

from discipline to discipline. From continent to continent. To the front of the queue. To the back of the pack. Over the candlestick. Out of the Ivory Tower. Again and again. Why did she keep climbing up that spiral stair case? What was she looking for each time she leapt from those parapets? There she goes again – falling, tumbling, twisting, turning, head over heels over head. What does she see this time? She was not pushed. She jumped.

6. My very educated moth

flies toward the flame. Not such an enlightened act, when you think about it. On the other hand, maybe it’s the only thing to do. There comes a point where there is no other draw, no other lure. The moth cannot undo its education, it can only go forward, into the light. Even if it blinds. Even if it burns.

7. My very existence

I owe to my very educated mother. Each time she hopped orbits, from the pancakes to the flames, she learned something, became educated in a different way. If not for her circumnavigations, I wouldn’t have my owl-like ability to look at life from all angles.

8. My voice

has within it the voices of my mother and her mother and her mother’s mother. Although it comes from just one body, it is layered with the wisdom of generations. When I speak, all these voices ripple outwards, carrying our words into greater spheres of influence.

9. Me

I stand, not on the shoulders of giants, but on this stack of nine pancakes. I can see for miles. If I have seen further than my mother, it is because of her pancakes and the way she served them.


 

21430243_1430595740393902_3471833617508160878_nMelissa Fu grew up in Northern New Mexico and lives in Cambridgeshire UK. Her work has appeared in many publications including Bare Fiction, The Lonely Crowd, International Literature Showcase, Gnarled Oak, Loss Lit and The Nottingham Review. She was the regional winner of the Words and Women 2016 Prose Competition and was a 2017 Apprentice with the London-based WordFactory. Other honours include a Pushcart Prize nomination and shortlisting for the Wasafiri New Writing Prize 2017. Find her at Spillingtheink.com or @WritingCircles.

The Undecided Colors by Tara Isabel Zambrano

We rode the bus all night long. Outside it was wet, the irritating summer drip. The bus felt safe and dry. Remy, my second cousin, drove it around the block and then went around the town in circles. Benches, lamp posts, schools and drug stores, occasional open fields nestled with puddles. We passed by the graveyard where his mother was buried. He slowed down but didn’t stop. At the bus stop, some people screamed and ran after the bus. I rested my cheek against the window and laughed. It made me feel important and in control.

Remy was driving the bus for the first time. He let out a long sigh every time he turned and went over the curb. “Great timing, there’s nobody on the road.”  His arm, tattooed all the way down, his head angled as if listening to someone whispering a secret into his ear. He came back from Afghanistan not too long ago and smelled like a turned vegetable. He told me he’d smelled worse. I could tell he was better with cars.

Around midnight, the rain stopped and the tar roads shone as if paved with diamonds. I thought about my mother; saw her face in the dark panes of empty buildings, her shadowed eyes fixated at me. I always thought she was depressed, the undecided colors in her eyes. And yet the only one who could see right through me.

Out the window, a cloud veiled a gibbous moon.

“How’re you doing, babe?” Remy hollered and honked. “Fine,” I hollered back. “I still see sand everywhere, the meds drive me nuts,” he said. Then he raised his right hand and shook his fist at the night.

When I was twelve, my mother and I used to walk to Hare Rama Hare Krishna temple in the downtown, lunch was free on Sundays. I watched the bone-thin priests and eager devotees rushing through the corridors. There were the indigo-colored paintings of Krishna playing with his mother, Yashoda, whose face didn’t look anything like my mother’s face. But I hoped someday it might. The food tasted delicious after hours of walking. I felt sleepy on our way back and my breath smelled of potato curry and garam masala.

Caution, the yellow sign read as the bus rode up the hill. Even though I knew every bit of town, I wondered where Remy was going. Where he had been and why I was here with him at this hour. After a few years, I’d figure it out, I said to myself.

The trees on both sides of the road looked like ghosts, waltzing in the pregnant air. I pulled out cigarettes and walked towards Remy. The pale shrubs quivered as the bus drove past them and the headlights made small moons ahead. I could see Remy’s face, flickered orange through the curling smoke, his left hand firm on the steering wheel and his steady, purposeless gaze. I wanted to know what he was running from.

Outside, a thin streak of light sliced the chest of darkness. For a moment, I didn’t know who I was, or where I was.  When it came back to me, I imagined my mother sitting at the kitchen table. She was waiting for me. Her face was sagged around the edges with the weight of our failure in finding love. And I thought of Remy’s tongue in my mouth, a whiff of his stinking sweat in a way I’d find both repulsive and attractive.



 

TIZ

Tara Isabel Zambrano lives in Texas and is an electrical engineer by profession. Her work has been published in Wigleaf, Moon City Review, Lunch Ticket, Storm Cellar and other journals. She reads prose for The Common.

The Hollow of Freestone Peaches by Kristen M. Ploetz

You should know the peaches are rotting in a paper bag on the counter. Their funk now aphrodisiac for the fruit flies that queue on the screen, females agitated and anxious as they wait for the moldy juice to seep through and make a hole so they can lay their eggs. You’ll smell them when you collect your things, hear the wet larval pulse. That day you brought them home with a cabbage and two pounds of broad beans, you proudly lined them up in two blushing rows of eight, asking would the pie be done for dessert. They weren’t ripe and you bought the wrong kind so I told you to leave. So hard for you, isn’t it, to get even one thing right. To ask the sunbleached farmer which ones? The difference is heavy. Clings. Weighs me down more than the forgotten birthdays and flimsy gifts and your crisscross trails of dirty dishes sour socks unhung pictures broken vows. Twelve days ago I was going to make your favorite pie, maybe set the smallest peach aside to savor over the kitchen sink littered with fuzzy peels and brown bruises before weaving the buttery lattice (never lard—go to your mother’s house for that; you’ll have time for that now). Bite into sunset colored flesh and let the summersweet juice drip from my chin. Let the pit fall free into my hand, clean and woody, nothing to be sucked dry, reminding me of the day we kissed behind a knotted tree in the orchard’s last row, the day you promised me everything.

 


current headshot

Kristen M. Ploetz is a writer and former land use attorney living in Massachusetts. Her work has been published (or is forthcoming) with Random Sample ReviewAtlas & AliceHypertext MagazineEllipsis Zine, Harpoon Review, Crack the Spine, (b)OINKThe HopperGravelMaudlin House, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a YA novel and a collection of CNF/short stories. You can find her on the web (www.kristenploetz.com) and Twitter (@KristenPloetz).

Invincible by Shome Dasgupta

I was playing in the living room when I heard a loud growl coming from somewhere inside the house.  I’d never heard this noise before–it was piercing, menacing, ringing in my head, and I wanted to hide myself underneath the couch cushions until either the sound went away or until whatever was making the sound came and ate me up.  At that age, when I pictured burglars and thieves, I pictured shadows in a trench coat and a Sherlock Holmes hat, with bright white eyes and pointy nose–that was what burglars and thieves looked like in a poster on my neighbor’s window, reminding the neighborhood to beware.  This character was in a circle with a big slash going through it like the Ghostbusters logo, except the ghost was a shadow trying to steal my Thundercat toys.

My mom wasn’t there in the living room when the shrilling noise sounded, and I hoped with all my might it was a burglar and thief–I hoped it was something like that, because I didn’t want to imagine anything else that could make such a horrifying sound. I didn’t want my mom to be eaten up.  The sound went away.  I wiped my tears.  The sound came back.  I started to shout.  I ran around the living a few times and then through the hallway, to the bathroom where my dad was singing Old Man River while showering. I banged on the door pleading for him to save me, to save me from the monster coming from the garage.  He opened the door, shouting, “What’s wrong, what’s wrong?”  I yelled about the noise, saying, “It’s coming to get me!” And my dad told me not to be scared and that everything would be okay, and it was just the dryer giving the signal that the clothes had finished drying.  He ran, dripping wet and naked, to the laundry room and turned the dryer off before it made another buzzing noise.  He ran back to the bathroom and wrapped a towel around his body.  He picked me up and kissed my head.

“I thought it was going to eat us,” I said.
“Want some cornflakes?” he asked.
“I thought we were going to be eaten up by the dryer,” I said.

That night, I slept in between my parents–with one leg over my mother’s legs, and one arm across my dad’s chest.  I never wanted them to go anywhere again.  I wanted us three to stay in the bed for the rest of our lives.

They’re gone now.  They’re nowhere near me.  They aren’t in the living room, or kitchen, or the bathroom, or anywhere.  That loud terrifying noise ate them up.  I had arrived at the hospital with my friend’s mom.  Brett, who was my only friend in First Grade, didn’t come — he stayed with his dad, while Mrs. Sall took me to the hospital.  I was spending the night at their house.  Mrs. Sall cried as she drove, and I cried with her.

“Head on collision,” was what the nurse told us.
I pictured their heads colliding, but I knew she didn’t mean that.

Eleven years later–I wash clothes at the Clean And Fresh for a living now.  I wash them and dry them and give them back to smiling customers.  And every time I hand them their shirts and pants and coats, telling them to have a nice day and to come back, I think about the first time I thought I had lost my parents.

 


 

shome dasgupta -- author photoShome Dasgupta is the author of i am here And You Are Gone (Winner Of The 2010 OW Press Fiction Chapbook Contest), and The Seagull And The Urn (HarperCollins India, 2013) which has been republished in the UK by Accent Press as The Sea Singer (2016). His first collection of short stories, Anklet And Other Stories was published by Golden Antelope Press in 2017. His novel, Pretend I Am Someone You Like, is forthcoming from the University of West Alabama’s Livingston Press. His stories and poems have appeared in Puerto Del SolNew Orleans ReviewNANO FictionEveryday GeniusMagma Poetry, and elsewhere. His fiction has been selected to appear in The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing (&Now Books, 2013). Shome’s work has been featured as a storySouth Million Writers Award Notable Story, nominated for The Best Of The Net, and longlisted for the Wigleaf Top 50. He is a high school English teacher, living in Lafayette, LA, and his website can be found at www.shomedome.com.

Causality Dilemma by Sheldon Lee Compton

When the second egg hatched a week and a half ago, Henry had been ready to destroy it again. But he remembered all those nagging feelings of guilt, strange guilt, murderous guilt that had eaten away at him at all hours, and he couldn’t do it.

He became a parent, instead. Feeding the little thing, trying various items around the kitchen, food from the gas station, a lot of different options, until he realized it preferred spoiled food. Any kind of spoiled food. He fed it with a Visine bottle the first few days, filling it with spoiled milk and going five and six drips at a time, watching it outgrow the paper towels he had made for its bed. Paper towels and then an old t-shirt and then, when it started teetering around the living room, he walked it to the guest bedroom and pointed to the bed. When it only stood there pulsating with a kind of slow inner energy and swinging one arm in sort of a droopy way, he picked it up for the first time skin-to-skin and carried it to bed himself.

His guilt was real and it was powerful. The first time he had syringed his sperm into an egg, it hatched a couple of weeks later and produced a blackened, warped version of the current homunculus. Henry had squashed it with a Tupperware bowl, put on his coat, and left for work.

For several days following the birth of the new homunculus, he told no one, but it started to well up inside him so that one afternoon, just before the lunch break, he grabbed his girlfriend Carmen and pulled her close to him. He shuffled with her until they stood behind the pop machine in front of the truck garage. It was obvious to Henry that Carmen didn’t believe anything he had told her so he invited her to come over and have a look for herself.  Two days later, she knocked on his door.

He let her in and didn’t immediately answer when she asked about the smell. Instead he stood near a doorway in the living room with his head down, one hand worrying a thin patch of hair above his forehead. Finally he looked back up and offered an odd smile before taking a step sideways to let a short, slick-shiny creature step into the doorway.

The homunculus waved with its single, tube-like appendage. She saw her own hand going up for a return wave as if it was somebody else’s hand, an out-of-body reflex. She vomited hard and violently across the tops of her shoes. It dropped onto its stomach and darted quickly to where the vomit spread out onto the carpet. Henry’s eyes got wide and he jumped forward and grabbed the creature just before it started lapping at the mess. Carmen saw a small opening at the top of the homunculus, its head more or less, and something like a finger moving in and out of it. When Henry smiled at her again, her mind broke loose.

 She imagined many different scenarios in which she helped Henry raise the little creature. They dressed it for its first day of school, went to baseball games and wore matching shirts that said CREATURE’S MOM and CREATURE’S DAD, helped it perfect parallel parking, and bailed it out of jail when it was caught with pot for the first time. These came to mind like old Polaroids, family life in squared portraits. In all of them Henry had his big smile and waved to the camera with two gelatinous arms. It smiled, too—a blown out hole in the front of its head full of jagged teeth the color of weak coffee.

Henry’s mind worked, too. It didn’t break, but it worked and worked in elastic terror. He imagined his own hope as a catalyst for change. Any kind of change had the chance of being a good thing after all these years. All he had to do was keep trying. He inspected the bright red welts across his forearms, the area he had balanced the body while carrying it across the room. No pain whatsoever. But the welts, three large spots in all, had developed into blisters since yesterday morning. And now he could see a sunflower-yellow pus just under the bubbled skin. He shifted his arms and watched the pus work back and forth inside the blister the way mercury will move in a level. All he had to do was keep trying, but the homunculus had disappeared into far corners. Somewhere in the house it made a noise like his heartbeat.

 


 

Sheldon Lee Compton photo

Sheldon Lee Compton is the author of four books of fiction and one collaborative chapbook of poetry. His stories and poems have appeared in New World Writing, Pank, Unbroken Journal, Wigleaf, and others. He lives in Pikeville, Kentucky.