Tag Archives: Short Story

A Confederate Prayer

By Ireland Fuller

I could tell the moment I got in and dropped my bag that I wasn’t staying. I felt the days march deep in my bones and echoing in my belly. Even though my bag didn’t weigh much, I dropped it like a bale of hay. I carried ammunitions given to me by the supply officer, some hard biscuits and a piece of salt pork. I’d brought the pork from home; the final piece of meat from our last hog. I told Ma to keep it. They needed it too. She insisted I take it. Being a good Christian son, I obeyed my Ma. I have a pencil and some paper held together with a bit of string for practicing my letters. I took out the book of prayers given to us by the Chaplain.  I tucked it into my shirt pocket near my heart. I hoped God might hear them and I’d be less afraid. I have a tin of matches and a candle to use on the nights we can’t risk building a fire. There’s a pair of socks I took off a Billy back in Vicksburg. Is it a sin to steal from a dead man?

A blue gray fog and the smell of sulphur surrounds me. I have arrived in the heart of Hades.  Drunken soldiers fill the night with the haunting Rebel war cry. Any man that says he’s heard it and wasn’t afraid has not heard it or is lying.  The Federals answer with a cannon blast that shakes the ground beneath me.

I see no point in drinking. When I meet the Lord I want to be sober. I sit by the fire and take out my pencil and paper. An officer helps me write

Alfred Thomas Fuller

Vienna, Louisiana

12th La. Co E

and pin it inside my shirt collar. I write a note to Ma saying I’m sorry and to tell Melissa to forgive me for breaking my promise. I ask the Lord to save my soul.

Come sunrise I will march to the forward line. My Mississippi rifle, a Christmas present from Pa, will defend me against the weapons and endless gunpowder of the Federals. I have stood with men who fell. I have stood with men who ran. I will not run.

No.  I won’t be staying long.

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Ireland Fuller is a registered nurse who works at a Northern California hospital.  She grew up in Arkansas and Louisiana. She lives in the Monterey Bay area with her husband, daughter and two dogs.  “A Confederate Prayer” is her first publication.

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Knickers

By Tom Sheehan

I was fighting it all the way, wearing knickers, me, twelve going on thirty it felt some days, dreams about Ginnie Wilmot practically every night now, the morning dew being the vague remnants my father spoke about with a smile on his face, new hairs in my crotch, my mother wanting her boy to look neat, my father looking at the horizon almost saying this too will pass. It was his one-shoulder shrug that carried verb and noun in its arsenal. I had early discovered that he did not need a lot of words.

My mother was looking at her choice of two hats, checking them out in the mirror on her bureau. A dried flower was creased in cellophane in one corner of the mirror; I’d heard some reference about it but had declined interest. My father’s picture, him in a Marine uniform, was framed in a second corner, my sisters and me in another, in our Sunday best a year earlier. A palm frond from Palm Sunday twisted itself across the top of the mirror. I think the hats were as old as I was. I knew she would pick the purple one. Her eyes announced the decision prematurely; again, an article of speech. Much of the time we were a family of silence, where looks or shrugs or hand gestures or finger pointing said all that was needed. My cousin Phyllenda had given the hat to her. “You’ll look great in this one.” I could never tell my mother Phyllenda’s boyfriend had swiped it from a booth in Dougherty’s Pub in Malden Square where he’d go of an evening or two. I’d seen them talking an evening on the porch, Dermott’s hand up under Phyllenda’s dress and it not yet dark.

A May Sunday was a bit snappy this early with the sunrise. “There will be hundreds of people at Nahant Beach today.” Both the radio in the bedroom and the kitchen were on; her music almost mute in the background. She looked out the window across Cliftondale Square, across the green of the traffic circle and the new green of elms already leaping at full growth against the sky. On the third floor we lived, yet not as high as some of the elms. Gently a nod was spoken, an affirmation. “They are waiting for summer at the beach,” she added. “They go walking on the beach looking for it. It’s over the horizon a few weeks yet. We will go right from church. You will wear your new green suit.” At length it had become her trip-hammer approach, the hard music. In that voice I felt the agencies of iron and slag at a mix. “You don’t know how proud I am of you in your new suit. And two pair of pants, at that.” For sure, iron and slag in her words, the new and the dross. At her lighting up about the new suit, I cringed. Two pair of pants seemed eternal, would carry me into high school, into football, the mold of the locker room, pal-talk growing the way my older brother would nod, owning up to all I had heard. Hell, there’d be knickers, for God’s sake, for girls, lots of them prettier than Ginnie Wilmot who once sat across a log flashing her white underpants at me so that something happened in my throat, something so dark and dry and dreadful that I can taste it yet.

Simon Goldman it was who sprung the suit on my mother, little shrunken Simon with the poppy eyes and the red face, on Saturday morning collecting his due of pennies she yet owed on a parlor set. “It’s green herringbone tweed, my Helen,” he said, in that possessive delivery he must have developed early in his game. “It has two pair of pants. For you yet cheaper than anyone. Resplendent he will be in it. Resplendent. No boy in this whole town has a suit like it. And the famous golfers wear knickers, I’ve seen them in newsreels at the theater. Hogan and O’Brien and Downey, McDevitt and Fitzpatrick, McHenry and that Shaun whoever from Swampscott.” He was inventive, you had to admit. I’d have said a liar as well as a schemer. “Two pair of pants. Green. Herringbone. Think of the message.” His eyes almost fell out of his head, dropping Ireland almost at his feet, dropping it at her feet. I almost pushed him down the stairs, he was at it again, selling her, saying it was a bargain, saying you people are climbing the social ladder on my advice and merchandise. Truth is, she cautioned me once, only once, on how I should remember Simon. “I found him,” she had said, “he didn’t find me.”

The worst part of it all, putting on the suit, the knickers with knee length socks, was having to take off my sneakers. I thought they were welded to me. I thought I’d wear them forever. I belonged in sneakers, foul or fair, “But not in your new suit.” It was as if her whole foot had come down on the subject. My father lifted his chin, flicked his head aside, gave off a mere suggestion of a nod, shrugged his shoulders. This too shall pass. With a knife he could not have carved it deeper.

In my new greenery we headed for Nahant Beach, me in my green knickers, four sisters all dolled up in the back seat of the old Graham, the titters and snickers behind their hands, my unsworn vow becoming animate at the back of my mind, a prowler on the outskirts of a campground.

Up front, in her purple hat, a purple dress with a big collar, a black pocketbook with an over-scored but lustrous patina, my mother looked straight ahead, playing now and then with the knob on the radio, trying to catch La Scala or New York out for a morning stroll.

She stared at nothing she might wish to have. Beside her, between her and my father in a car borrowed from my uncle, was the second pair of green herringbone knickers. Not knowing why they were there, I nevertheless felt my father’s hand in it. I wondered if there had been an argument’s movement along with the package, or behind it. Arguments I had heard, about dozens of things, then quiet discussions. Once it had been about the radio one could hardly hear. “Music has shaped me,” my mother once said, “from the very first touch to the very first clench of fist..” That’s when I knew she loved the brass of a band or an orchestra, not just the oompa of it, but the cold clear energy of horns clearing their throats with melodies one could only dream of.

“Toot the horn,” my mother said. “Now there’s Dolly Donovan.” Her wave was thorough and friendly. No message hung on its signal. “She’ll be at the beach. Maurice will bring her.” I did not deflect a message in that pronouncement: it came anyway. Maurice bid and Maurice done. Some laws, it seemed to say, were carved in stone. It could have said Life is more than being made to wear greenknickers, but I wouldn’t let it.

In the rearview mirror I caught my father’s eye. “We might as well see what Forty Steps looks like today, and then come back to the beach.” The gears downshifted as he swung the corner down Boston Street in Lynn. We had come over the bridge spanning the Saugus River. In my nose the salt was alive, and pictures came with it. The gulls, by the hundreds, whipped a frenzy. Waves dashed on the rocks of Nahant, especially where Forty Steps climbed upward from the froth of water. The lobster boats, working yet, bobbed out on the Atlantic. Under sunlight majestic white sails of sloops and schooners and sailboats from Elysium, Islands of the Blessed and Marblehead darted like skaters before the wind. On that same wind brigantines and caravels and corsairs leaped from my reading, taking me away from green knickers and Nahant all the way back to Elysium and Ginnie Wilmot, the salt spray clean and sprightly and the dry vulture of taste yet in my throat from one glimpse of white underpants. Would that mystery, that sight, never go away?

The Graham, brush-painted green, lumpy for the tour of Nahant where Cabots and Rockerfellers and Lowells and Longfellow himself once sat their thrones, cruised along the Nahant Causeway. In the slight breeze you could feel the sun bleaching stones, sand, the inner harbor’s glistening rocks throwing off plates of light like the backs of hippopotami caught in a satin lacquer. People dressed for church and late dinners and nights on the town walked along the beach, their best clothes akin to badges of some sort.

“My, look at that white hat with the huge brim,” my mother said, pointing out a woman holding a man’s arm, three children at their heels. The girls were still giggling behind their hands, restrained while my father was driving, on their best behavior. Once on the beach they would become themselves. And I would set about de-suiting myself.

When we strolled over to the Forty Steps, the waves talking to us, the crowd of people on all approaches, I saw other boys in knickers, but no herringbone green tweed. No iron mother holding her whip and her pride in one hand. A few giggles and harrumps I heard, the way my grandfather could talk, making a point or two on his own. No question in my mind they were directed at my pants more than the whole suit. These people could also nod, shrug, gesture, make sense without words. I wondered what made me want to read in the first place, seeking all the adventure of new words, in this wide world of the body’s semaphore, so expressive, so legitimate.

I knew it wouldn’t take long, not at Nahant, not at the edge of the great ocean itself, not here where the Norsemen and Vikings and Irish sailors were flung to across the seas with Europe behind shoving them relentlessly. My parents, arm in arm, walked on pavement, the girls broke free with yells, I fled down to the rocks at the ocean’s edge. With an odd gesture, my mother lifted a hand to her face, as if surprise dwelt there to be touched, to be awakened, to be lifted for use. That’s when I knew she was the smartest person in the whole world. She had seen it all coming, had practically choreographed the whole thing, and my father thinking he was in control all that time. At last she had measured me against all other boys in knickers. And found something wanting.

Green is as green does, I could almost hear myself say as I slipped on the rocks heavy with seaweed still with salt, still with water, still with an unbecoming dye residing pimple-like, blister-like, pod-like, in its hairy masses. It was more like sitting down in puddled ink, that intentional trip, trying to be a loving son, finding it so difficult in green knickers, obeying more primal urges.

“What a mess you’ve made of yourself,” she said when she saw me, that hand still in surprise at her face. “Go up to the car and change your pants. I brought the other pair along,” so you could get rid of them also she seemed to say. My father had found the horizon to his liking, the thin line of boyhood and manhood merging out there on the edge of the world; no shrug of the shoulder, no sleight of hand, but a look outward that was as well a look backward. I saw it all.

I’m so damned lucky, I said to myself, loving them forever, and then some.

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Sheehan served in the 31st Infantry Regiment, Korea 1951 and graduated from Boston College in 1956. His books are Epic Cures; Brief Cases, Short SpansA Collection of FriendsFrom the Quickening.  He has 24 Pushcart nominations, and 365 stories on Rope and Wire Magazine. Recent eBooks from Milspeak Publishers include Korean Echoes, 2011, nominated for a Distinguished Military Award and The Westering, 2012, nominated for a National Book AwardHis newest eBooks, from Danse Macabre/Lazarus/Anvil, are  Murder at the Forum, an NHL mystery novel, Death of a Lottery Foe, Death by Punishment and An Accountable Death. His work is in Rosebud (6 issues), The Linnet’s Wings, Ocean Magazine, Copperfield Review, Literary Orphans, Frontier TalesWestern Online Magazine and many internet global sites and print magazines/anthologies including 3 AM Magazine, Nazar Look and Eastlit. A new collection of short stories, In the Garden of Long Shadows, will be issued by Pocol Press this summer. 

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A Telegram

By Leighton Critchley

Lincolnshire, England. 1916

I wake early. Dolly is asleep next to me, her thumb in her mouth. She must have crept in, in the night. She prefers to sleep in with me than with Maggie. She complains Maggie kicks her, and she wakes with bruises. Once I move out she can have my bed. If I ever move out.

‘If it wasn’t for the war, you’d be married by now,’ Ma always says. If it wasn’t for the war lots of things would be different, I get sick of hearing it. Norman smiles at me from my bedside table. He got to have his picture taken in his uniform, before he went. He looked so smart in his uniform. Everyone said it.

I listen to the sound of Dolly’s deep breathing. The wind rattles at the window pane. It’s only just light, but it’s a cold winter morning. The day is dismal and grey. I get up. There’s a hole in my left sock. I’ll darn it tonight, under the oil lamp. No doubt there’ll be something to else to mend, there always is. Ma’s eye sight’s fading now, it’s easier for me to do it.

‘Do the mending will you Martha, your eyes are better than mine,’ she says, passing me the pile of clothes to be repaired.

I can’t remember the last time any of us had anything new. Not since the war started. I feel sorry for the little ones. Walter’s wearing that old sleep suit of Norman’s. I’ve had to patch up the feet on it twice. Must be nineteen years old now, that sleep suit. Worn by all of us.

I wrap my shawl around my shoulders and move over to the window. The fields are frosted. A rabbit runs along by the hedgerow that borders the field opposite the house. The rabbit disappears under the blackberry bushes. I hope we get a good lot of blackberries this summer. They’re Norman’s favourite. He used to eat as much as we’d pick. Blackberry and Apple pie, that’s his favourite. Perhaps he’ll get leave in the summer. Perhaps the war will be over by then.

There’s frost on the inside of the window frame. I can see my breath it’s so cold. Mum will have the fire on downstairs already. I’ll help get the others ready for school. She’ll walk them herself if she feels up to it. If not it’ll be down to me.

I listen for the wireless but I can’t hear it. That means Dad’s still out on his first round of milking. He’s up at five every day of the year. He helps out at Mr Peterson’s farm up the road. There’s not so much work this time of year, just the milking mostly. He’ll get more work at harvest time, and I’ll be able to help too. Lots of girls are doing all sorts of work now. Lily from Theddlethorpe, she’s gone to work in a factory in Birmingham. She’s not allowed to talk about what they make there. I’ve said to Dad I’ll help him with the cows but he won’t hear of it. ‘Help your mother with the little one’s Martha, that’s enough for now,’ he says, when I ask him. Most of the girls I used to know went into service before the war started. Times have changed now. Lily wrote to me and said she doesn’t know how her lady will cope without her. ‘She can’t wash a sock, let alone bake a loaf!’ That’s the thing about war, it affects everyone, in some way.

I thought I’d be good in service, but Dad wouldn’t hear of it. ‘None of my girls are to be maids.’ He’s always been firm about that. We’re all to marry good and that’s the end of it.

He’s very good to us, Mr Peterson. He’ll give us a turkey for Christmas if there’s one spare. Mum’s already talking about making use of the bones for broth. She’s very good at making do, considering what little we have now, with the rationing. We’re out of sugar already this week, and eggs. There’s still a basket of potatoes in the larder though. Arthur said last night he was sick of potatoes. He got a  whack round the ear from Dad. ‘Be grateful,’ was all he said.

The window’s steaming up where I’ve been breathing. I wipe it with my sleeve. There’s a boy on a bicycle coming up the road. He better be careful, with this frost. He stops in front of the house. He’s got a postal bag on his shoulder. He’s not the normal post boy though. He leans his bike up against our gate. I wonder what he wants here. He must have the wrong address. There’s not another house for a mile on this road.

I run quickly down the stairs and put on my boots, or they might be Dolly’s boots.

I open the door just as he’s about to knock.

‘What do you want then?’ I ask him. He doesn’t look much older than Arthur but he’s wearing a smart uniform.

‘Telegram, Miss.’ He holds out the envelope. ‘For your Pa, Miss.’

‘You’ve got the wrong address.’

‘No, Miss. Jacques. Mill Lane, Saltfleetby.’ He hands me the envelope and looks down at his shoes.

‘Very well.’

‘Came as quick as I could, Miss.’

I nod and he looks up at me.

‘Be careful on the road, it’s slippery.’ I say.

I watch him hop on his bike and cycle, slowly this time, back down the road.

I shut the door and shiver at the cold.

‘Martha? Is that you?’ I hear Ma’s voice from the kitchen.

‘Yes Ma,’ I call back. She pokes her head round the door frame at the end of the passage.

‘What you doing by the door love? Are the little one’s up yet? There’s porridge on the stove.’

I quickly tuck the telegram into my pocket. ‘I’ll fetch them Ma.’

‘Good girl.’

I go back up to wake Dolly. Then I wake Arthur and Maggie. Once they’re dressed I dish out the porridge.

‘Can I have some sugar? Just a little?’ Arthur asks, when I slap the thick porridge in his bowl.

‘There’s none until next Tuesday.’ I say.

I switch on the wireless. There’s talk of a retreat by the Germans in France. Walter toddles a little too close to the fire and I have to put him on my lap whilst I eat. I have less than the others, but I don’t mind, they’re still growing. I’ve done all my growing, at nearly twenty.

Ma walks in and turns the wireless off. She doesn’t like it. Only Dad and I listen to the wireless. Ma says any good news is only to keep moral up. ‘We’ll know soon enough when it’s over,’ she says. I know it’s because she doesn’t like to think about Norman.

‘Shall I walk them Mum? It’s cold out.’

‘It’s alright love, I’ll go. It’ll do me good. Besides I want to talk to Mrs Gains. Dolly told me they’ve got parsnips in their pantry.’

‘They won’t want to swap parsnips for potatoes Ma. They can sweeten cake with parsnips.’

‘All the same, I think it’s worth a try.’

She sets off with the others in tow. It’s a five mile walk to the local school. I’ll keep the fire up for when she gets back. She leaves me just with Walter and the tabby cat that’s crept in again.

I can feel the telegram in my pocket as I bounce Walter on my lap.

I hear the front door open. Dad walks in. He’s cold and tired. He never complains but I can tell.

‘Morning Martha. A nippy one this morning.’

‘I know Dad,’

‘Best not to go out until the frost clears. Ma’s taken the little ones?’

‘Yes Dad.’ I watch him look wearily at the porridge in the saucepan. ‘A telegram’s come Dad.’

He turns slowly to face me and I fish it out of my dress, I stand up and hand it to him, balancing Walter on my hip. He takes the envelope and studies it carefully.

‘Thank you love,’ he says, but it’s barely a whisper. He clears his throat loudly and leaves the kitchen.

I remove the breakfast bowls from the table then place Walter in the playpen Uncle Ivor built for him.

I tiptoe quietly along the hallway. I stand outside the door of the front room. We don’t use the room much, it’s too cold, but I know Dad’s gone in there. I peek around the half open door.

Dad’s standing by the mantelpiece. He places the open telegram down next to the candle stick and rests his hand on his forehead. It takes me a few moments to realise he’s crying.

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Leighton Critchley is currently studying on the creative writing programme at London Metropolitan University. She’s writing her first novel and has also written for film and theatre. The themes and subjects that frequently emerge in her writing centre around the inherent flaws in our characters, those habits and desires which keep us trapped in certain situations, as well as the relationships we forge and the compromises made in order to sustain them. A few of her favourite writers include Graham Greene, Iris Murdoch, Sarah Waters, and Margaret Atwood.

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