A Special Penance

Written By: Mark Shields

At this time of the year I know it's best to layer warm clothing. Regardless of the temperature really, I always feel colder than usual when I leave for my dreaded walk. Stepping outside I gently place the key in the keyhole and turn it to the right, I like to hear the solid thud of the bolt sliding into place, giving me confidence the door is locked. A brief sense of comfort, with few to follow.

I turn and lock eyes with my companion, who has been quietly waiting for me. I should be happy to be greeted by a familiar face. This one is too familiar.

"It's been too long James. Longer than last time."

"Let's hurry, I don't like being seen by the neighbours." It's late, and I am fearful of raising suspicions. With my companion on my left side we make our way almost in lock step down the street.

The changing leaves flutter in the light breeze, making that incomparable sound of fall. The ones already fallen scatter beneath our repetitive, methodical footsteps. The streetlights shimmer through the heavy, foggy air

"But really, why do we keep doing this to ourselves? They say time heals all wounds don't they?"

"Time won't heal hers" I mutter.

"That is true. But don't you wish it would all go away?"

“I don't think I'm capable of wishes. All my wishes are consumed by my desire for the opportunity to change the events of the past.”

Each time I make my way out on these cool autumn evenings, though it is too difficult for me to bear to recall in detail, I am delivered flashes of intense memory that sear into my conscience, which in fading prompt me to take this journey again. Transported back to that night, I hear the roar of the car engine revving and gathering speed, the crunch of bone under the tire, the splattering of mud on the fenders. Her muffled whimpers on the long drive out to the lake...

My hideous crime. Long forgotten by the society around me, surely documented in ink in some judicial archive, but written in blood on my hippocampus.

"How often do you think of how our lives could have been different?" My companion asks.

"Always, Matt in every moment it affects my thinking. It influences everything I do. Why do you ask me that everytime we do this?"

"It helps me understand why we do this."

"How? All it does is give guilt more power over me." I say with unhidden hopelessness.

"Exactly." My companion retorts with a sneer. His tone undergoing a predictable change.

My breath turns to ice crystals as I speak, which disappear as quickly as they arrive. How I wish that could be so for my body, that I could simply disappear - without guilt, without repentance. That someone, something could exhale and release me from this pilgrimage.

"You had one simple job that night. One simple job. If you could have kept hold of her none of this would have ever happened. She'd have gone back to her family; you and I, we'd have left all of this long behind and, dare I say, lived happily ever after. Now all we have is this, and it's your fault!"

"I lost my confidence that night." I say as I hang my head a little lower. “And I never got it back."

I remember the cool metal of the trigger warming slightly as my index finger began applying pressure, the recoiling force of the gun pushing me back again and again, the shattering of the driver side window...

The walk continues with a silence, perforated only by Matt's familiar questions, and digs at my constitution. I find moments of solitude in watching my shadow dance along the street, cast onto the fog by the streetlamps. Its jaunting movements unrecognizable in my own demeanor. I never seem to notice any other souls but ours on this journey. I'm not sure if its because they're not there or my mind is too frayed to recognize them.

A couple more corners turned. A few more blocks traversed.

Many would say I was lucky. I never faced earthly justice for my deed. I suppose that's true. I should be grateful, but gratitude has the weight of a feather while guilt has the weight of an anvil. Maybe a stronger person wouldn't cave to the guilt, he could go on seeking and finding pleasure. All I have is a compulsion to return to the vestiges of her. To ask forgiveness that cannot be granted. Asking a grave for forgiveness is a special penance. It's inanimate, apathetic response absorbs one's feeling into its permanent depths.

"I don't understand you, how you live with yourself. You're just pathetic, coming here over and over." Matt's quips turn to outright scorn, always as we approach the final corner.

"Stop it!" I plead with him, feeling a tear cooling as it wanders down my cheek.

The cast iron gates of the cemetery slowly become visible, the eternal torch drawing me there like a moth, inescapably. Any futile thoughts of turning back now disappear.

Once inside the gate silence grips the world around me. The air seems a little clearer now. I glance at the all too familiar names adorning the tombstones of strangers. I offer a solemn greeting to each of them.

"You're as scared now as you were then aren't you?"

"You know I am."

"You deserve to suffer like this, you ruined us! And it pains me to remind you each time we do this, but it must be so! You must know you can never escape! I need you here just like you need me!"

I have no response to his increasing hostility. They have become stains on my character, having been delivered for so long without being washed off. But where can you wash yourself when you've done what I've done - Destroyed a friendship, killed an innocent victim.

I place my left hand in my pocket and another familiar feeling travels from my finger to my brain. That cool metal of the trigger. I'm getting close now. I lighten my footsteps as one might when attempting not to wake a sleeping child. I don't want to disturb her. The path curves to the left slightly, I count three rows of headstones and make a hard right turn down the fourth row. I count the eight silhouetted stones along the way and stop at the ninth. Just enough moonlight washes the stone to let me make out her name- Emily.

"Maybe our presence here disturbs her as much as it disturbs you." he exclaims.

"Then it's a disturbance to which we are both fated, I have no other course of action."

"Yes you do. I know what's in your pocket. You always have another course of action. You're just too weak to take it. You come out here every time thinking you can make it right, that if you do it in front of her that will make it better, that she'll forgive you for what you did."

His words shatter me like the glass in the car. I remember walking up closer, seeing the blood on the inside windshield, the deformed set of legs stretched out from underneath the front left wheel. I look into her cold eyes as the last signs of life flicker away.

We both stand still for several moments. The epitaph, barely visible but which I could recite if ever prompted, reminds me why I make this morbid pilgrimage. Once again I lift my hand, empty, out of my left pocket.

"I'm sorry." I whisper, truly hoping that this time it will be heard. In return only silence. The air around me feels as though it has dropped in temperature by whole degrees.

After some time Matt places a hand on me. "Well, that was fun once again. Until next time?"

I look over my right shoulder, and gaze upon those familiar eyes, but find no words.

We both turn and step away from the plot, back to the leaf-strewn path. “In my heart, James, we'll always be together,” the ethereal last words of my companion who now drifts his way off toward the southwest corner of the cemetery. He has another grave to visit, one which I am always careful to avoid, and will never lay my eyes on as long as I continue to live. He will be there a long time.


Initial

Written By: Danielle Ly

I trace my fingertip over the hollows of the tree, following the knots of bark. I press my cheek against it, hugging the tree close.

I miss you, often.

When there is a moment of silence in between the shouts of everyday life, I find myself far away. I see myself sitting with you, on the hood of your car, watching the stars. I can hear your voice sometimes, laughing on the train. I see your face in crowds of people.

And then in a rush, I am back to my life, running. After it all happened - not right away, but a many months later, when I was alright again - I still found myself taking days off to drive myself up to that hill, sit on the hood of my car, and close my eyes, pretending you’re still there.

I lean my back against the tree, pull my legs to me, and rest my chin on my knees.

I remember your funeral very well.

They dressed you up the way you hated. They placed white roses all over your much too big casket. I wanted to slip in with you before they lowered you into the ground - a life without you? I could never imagine.

I remember my eyes had been so tired from all the crying, I could barely see. Everything was strained and blurry. But your face was in such vivid detail. You looked like you were sleeping, and for a moment, I thought you were and I breathed a sigh of relief.

What a funny joke, I would have said when you opened your eyes. What a rude thing to do, I would have told you.

But you never opened your eyes again. You just lay there, silent and unmoving. And I cried more and more because I knew that you weren’t coming back to me.

No more late nights driving in your car, no more laughing until our ribs hurt, no more arguing over you being late to meet up, no more dinners at each other’s houses.

No more you.

I still cry, when I think a bit too much about what you would have been now, if you were still alive. You would have been so successful, and so happy. I just know it. I have to smile at that, that even without any proof - I feel it in my heart, the happiness you would have felt.

I hope you know, no matter how many years pass, you are always aching in my soul, a home away from home lies in my bones for you. You are my heart.

I face the tree again, running my finger tip over the indent that are your initials.

The loveliest name I would ever know.

Flirting with the Divine

Written By: Cody Smith

She is a cruel mistress...

She comes and goes as she pleases, as fickle as the wind, never staying long. She cannot be summoned, yet many yearn for her presence even if they don’t know her by name. She reaches out to many, man and woman alike, yet she favors the bold, the daring and the skilled. Those she touches are filled with a headiness that resonates deep within the soul. Those familiar with her touch become drunk on the very idea that she may grace them with her presence. A euphoric intoxicant that no man can get enough of, she is addictive.

She is like a graceful dancer or a familiar lover as she moves and works with you. She is always gentle but has the power to leave knees week and breath bated. Her lingering presence invigorates the spirit and leaves one entranced as they tap into the universal potential. She explores deep within you, never knowing what she might find, but always recognizing the shining beauty when she finds it. Once found, she lights the fuse and waits for it to explode forth into reality. Every explosion is unique and filled with subjective splendor.

The masterful among us recognize her influence and respect her ways. They cultivate ritualistic intent and prepare themselves for her next visit. Because when she does come she comes as sudden as lighting and, as if you were struck by lightning, courses through your veins and reaches out into the tips of your fingers. She is like the storm, you can prepare yourself for the thunder but you can never predict when the lightning will strike. The ethereal nature of her existence attracts her to the divine and, no matter how humble, whatever is rightly done is divine.

Give yourself to her fully. Let her become the captain of your ship made from flesh and bone. She will give and you will take. She will ask for nothing in return. She knows that her gift will help to bring beauty into this dull grey world, as it has for all of the others that have come before you. She entwines you with her harmonious grace, dragging you forth into the present moment. Moving through your limbs she creates majesty with your talent and entices others through your actions.

When she has had her way with you, leaving you breathless and worn, she moves onto the next man or woman. She picks those who have cultivated their skills and prepared themselves for her arrival. She aims her bow and strikes for the heart. She pulls light from the dark and beauty from the depths of the vast sea of human potential. The wise come to recognize her work and can see when she has moved the hand of another. A knowing smile appears on their face as they breathe the softness of her name. She is eternal and transverses time and space. She has known many before you and will know many more after you are gone.

She is fleeting, she does not stay long.

The Muse is a cruel mistress.

Soul Collector

By: Danica Power

 

The field was beautiful.

Miles and miles of land had stretched before ones’ eyes, rolling over small hillocks, slight mounds dotting the otherwise perfectly flat earth. The grass over it all grew thick and lush and high, reaching skyward like a thousand emerald ribbons being drawn to the heavens while still tied firmly to the ground. This image was made even more spectacular on days when a slight breeze slithered through the verdant strands, turning green fields into a grassy mirage, giving them the appearance of having transformed into a strange green sea or even stranger, rippling smoke. Unlike the sea which it could nearly, but not quite, be mistaken for, the field did not have the oceans’ graceful violence; it was softer, quieter and a great deal less threatening.

The green was broken up here and there by wildflowers, sprinkled as generously as stars in the sky. Purples and yellows were splashed most frequently, but blues and reds could be seen as well. The presence of the wildflowers usually meant the field was alive with movement, even without the transformative wind. Whether it was the flutter of butterflies or the hum of bees or other insects, the field spoke of life. The blue sky that shone overhead looked down on the living canvas; a beautiful piece of the world where everything was alive, and just being there made you feel whole, and at peace.

Yes, the field was beautiful, once.

The land now, however, was silent and dead.

The grass broken and trampled, the wildflowers buried beneath churned up dirt and the bees and butterflies chased away. The loss of the field was tragic, but a field could come back to life, return to its splendour.

The bodies that lay scattered across the field, however, would never return to their lives, never recall former glory; the life of the field could be resurrected, the lives of the dead soldiers were lost forever.

Hours before, the field had been full of the sounds of dying warriors; pleas and mutters to unseen angels and demons, cries for loved ones, sobs of pain and regret. Dying breaths.

Even before that, the field had been filled with the sounds of battle and of those cut quickly from their lives, without even a chance to whisper a prayer for them or another before they just ceased to be.

But that had been hours and hours ago.

Now, the field was empty of all life; even the carrion birds, who’d been circling overhead as the battle raged, had been chased away by the figure who wove among the bodies.

The cloaked figure made a strange sight, walking amongst the dead, like a reaper of sorts, with their black hooded head. Yet they did not have the imposing spirit of a bringer of death. The figure, in fact, was slight and walked with a strange sort of grace, hesitating over bodies as if saying a prayer.

Indeed, as her hood slipped back to reveal a shock of golden hair, one might think her an angel, and indeed it would explain the strange ethereal feeling she gave off, appearing almost to float above the bodies.

Or perhaps she was simply a looter, come to rummage amongst the corpses of war for small, sellable tokens or clothes.

She sought nothing so mundane.

Underneath the hair, beautiful features matched her beautiful locks. Her chin was small and narrow, delicate even. This led upwards into wide, high cheekbones that reminded one of a lion. Her lips and nose were statuesque; lips sensuously plump and a nose that matched her chin; narrow and delicate. This all, along with downcast eyes, unseen at first, were framed in a heart-shaped face.

She seemed normal in appearance. Or, at least, she seemed almost natural, save for some strangely unnaturally beautiful features. This idea of strange beauty would be dispelled by whoever looked at her as soon as her gaze lifted.

Her eyes were normal shape and size, of course, and sat where eyes should, but where a usual person has a dark, deep pupil and dynamic iris marking their orbs, she lacked an iris and her pupils were reflective, like those of a cat. Also like a cat’s, they were diamond shaped. And instead of white cornea, her eyes shifted with blackness, like dark pungent smoke caught in a marble.

What was strangest of all, however, was the strange emptiness in her eyes.

Despite this, her eyes being that strange colour and depth, there was a sweetness about her, an inexplicable innocence which contrasted heavily with the blood spotting the hem of her cloak and the oppressive darkness surrounding her.

It was not just an emotional darkness of so many dead, but a more tangible darkness, as well. The sky was deeply clouded, deep and purple like a fresh bruise. The clouds hung heavy in the sky, threatening rain. And indeed, thunder could be heard echoing overhead, like angry mourners looking down on the dead field and demanding, furiously why? The darkness was illuminated occasionally by lightning, but the sharp forks that leapt from cloud to cloud did nothing to dispel the darkness completely, and instead cast the ground below in an eerie light each time.

The rain, however, would wait. The woman had a job to do.

She picked her way over everything as if unaffected by it. And indeed she was.

For death was her summons.

She was a collector of souls.