Spiders and Oranges
The crate of clementines was a conundrum for Amy. She hated spiders, cobwebs and dark corners. But she loved oranges.
“Go on!” In her head, she could hear her brother, Tom, urging her to plunge her hand into the box’s shadows. If he were here, he’d trap any spiders with a glass, their legs furiously tapping the invisible sides unable to understand why they couldn’t escape.
Tom wasn’t here. However, Amy did have a big bug-bashing torch. Gripping this tightly, she shone the flashlight down and picked up the smoothest, shiniest clementine. It was perfectly palm-sized and bursting with juice. She started munching.
By the fifth clementine, Amy’s pace had only slightly slowed, she was so hungry for their sweetness. The sixth was slightly misshapen, though still no sign of spiders. Registering the rind’s different texture brought back childhood Christmases: the orange at the bottom of their stockings, church carols and white Christingle candles dripping a thin wax sheen onto the fruit beneath. She could do with an extra layer of skin like that.
Amy’s teeth crunched down on a pip, sending splinters of pain through her gum like the sudden jab of a Christingle cocktail stick. Was it her dad who’d taken her to that service? Amy blamed her spider phobia on her dad, the citrus over-addictions on her mom. But church could have been with either. Even before their divorce, her parents had only one thing in common: the treats supposedly for Amy and Tom were always staged to get at each other, or to force their children to pick favourites. Especially around Christmas.
Amy stopped eating. She hated memories, she hated pips and this clementine had an acidic bite. Even sugar wouldn’t lift the sour edge.
Amy spat the remains of the clementine into the half-empty crate, dumped her discarded peel on top, then stuck it outside. Once the rotten fruit had collected enough bugs and spiders, she could send it to one of her parents for Christmas. But which one should she choose?
Dark Pools and a Pink Beret
“It’s only a small pond!” Naomi laughed gently, but still Carl couldn’t open his eyes. What his girlfriend was asking him to do mattered too much. Too much for him to look, and too much for him not to.
Naomi was beautiful, bubbly and kind-hearted. Almost enough for him to risk explaining. But not yet. Carl didn’t mind friends’ leg-pulling about his love of punning, moon-gazing and marathon cycling. Mostly they also accepted his fear of open water without getting it. So far, so had Naomi, except now her pink beret was floating off on her parents’ oversized garden pond and she wanted him to save it.
Those who’d known Carl longer were only half-jesting when they described his cycling obsession as trying to out-pedal his own shadows. They also understood his avoiding water, though he’d never told them that every time he looked into a pool, it was like seeing his brother Paul slipping again from the lake edge. The sudden shock when the bubbles stopped and Paul’s head not rising…
“Look, you hold my flowers; I’ll fish for my hat.” Naomi let go of his hand and Carl felt an armful of petals brush his face.
This mattered so much. But it mattered in more ways than just the one.
“No, I’ll do it.” Carl opened his eyes. He could feel himself shivering, though the pond surface was mostly unrippled after the earlier gusts of wind. Naomi’s beret was a sliver of pink heart, its stalk-like bobble almost catchable. Almost. It was three metres away…across the water.
Focusing only on Naomi’s reflection beside him – beautiful, bubbly and as warm-hearted as his brother – Carl picked up a stick and thrust it through the slippery pondweed. Slowly, he reached out towards her sinking hat.
The bird ends up on Carla’s mantelpiece in the way things often filter randomly into her life, then make themselves not just at home but part of her. She brings the picture back with her from a writers’ retreat. As she empties her suitcase, she thinks about the man in the town gift shop, who knew the woman who painted the owl. After ten minutes listening to the shopkeeper retell the dead artist’s tragic history, buying it seemed the least Carla could do. This even though she had a feeling each piece came with a similar story; she imagined the man’s mouth wired somewhat like the bell on his door, sounding whenever an item was touched.
Back home, the print fills a space above the fireplace. Even in meditation, Carla senses the owl’s eyes watching her: fierce, intense, quizzical. There’s something beguiling too about the night scene in the tawny’s eyes; each contains a small moon and cat face. Although beaks can’t curve, she’s sure that her owl is grinning.
Within a week, Carla can feel the picture warm the room. Every time she looks, she notices something different. Though the colours and creatures can’t actually have changed, their shades and corners grow softer and gentler. Other days, she stares and feels vivid energy swirling featherlike through her body. In a bizarre way, she thinks, the painting is almost the pet that friends urged her to get after Pete’s death. Only more interesting.
At the time, she’d bitten down the desire to snap that she wanted Pete back not a tiresome puppy or stodgy territorial hound. Cancer, at Pete’s age – it wasn’t fair! But it wasn’t her friends’ fault. How could they understand? There was only one person who could have come close. Was: instantaneously everything turned to past tense.
Still, this dead artist…though Carla can’t quite explain or justify it, there’s something strangely comforting in the passion and the pain of the woman’s life and brushstrokes. It’s as if Carla could have painted it herself, had she been a painter: the same throb and thrill, balm and calm, that she used to share with Pete.
Day by day, the effect grows stronger. Carla notices too the back-boiler’s suddenly smoother purr. The bird and its cats have hypnotising expressions, she decides, sitting down to meditate directly in front of the picture. Cross-legged on the carpet, Carla stares into the owl’s eyes while the ting of her meditation bowl fades into the distance.
Usually Carla’s mind follows the room, house and street noises towards silence. But today her surroundings grow louder. As her eyelids close, she vibrates with the chimney’s gusts, the buzz of the gas-fire’s metal frame, draughts through a gap, restless water in a pipe, shaking now with gale ferocity. With each sound, an image: the dead artist’s husband lost at sea, their storm-hit home, subsidence uprooting foundations, water pouring through doors, the ceiling sliding towards the painter, her reclusive life afterwards in the shelter of a small studio, a blur of other voices and faces, then a sense of peace as snow falls on a winter lake. Carla’s mantra chimes like a heartbeat.
Her neighbour Paul calls round a month later.
“Sorry, it’s been a while, I lost my job, then Linda left me for that bloke again and my niece flooded the bathroom…” Paul practises his apologies as he walks up the path.
The front door is ajar.
No answer. Paul pushes the door open. Calling Carla’s name again, he walks cautiously up the hallway and into the lounge.
Carla is still in the same position in front of the hearth, motionless, unblinking but warm and upright. There’s a tawny owl on her shoulder. In each of the bird’s wide eyes, a bright moon and a purring black cat. Mesmerised, Paul sits down beside her.
S.A. Leavesley is a journalist, fiction writer, poet and editor, who fits life around words and words around life. She loves writing flashes but also has two short novellas: Kaleidoscope and Always Another Twist (Mantle Lane Press).