October: FLIGHT

Sheri L. Wright, Spiral Staircase, Harrodsburg, Kentucky

Sheri L. Wright, Pushcart Prize nominee, is the author of six books of poetry, including her most recent, The Feast of ErasureWright’s visual work has appeared in numerous journals, including Blood Orange Review and The Single Hound. Of her photograph ‘Spiral Staircase’ she notes: “Journeys are seldom a straight line to anything, much less out of our own fears. Sometimes we need to circle them like vultures, waiting for an opening to feast on what we most dread, what we cannot understand until we experience it for ourselves.”

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Nuala Ní Chonchúir, One For

A magpie sits on the shed roof, beaking his call to the wind – cacacacaca. I see his tongue judder with the force of his complaint; he looks like he is about to vomit. My stomach shifts and falls. One magpie; he couldn’t bring more sorrow than is already here. He fans his wings and sails away.

I slip into my shirt, pull on my jacket and knot the tie borrowed last night from Mr Slaughter next door.

“You’re still her husband. Always will be,” Mr Slaughter had said, hoping, I guessed, that I would agree, to make safe his widowhood, to validate it.

I thought of my wife, stretched out, stilled.

“Yes,” I said, “she will always be mine.”

The wardrobe mirror makes wings of my arms, plumage of my chest; my eyes are black beads, haunted. I open my mouth to call my wife, remember that she is gone. Before I can swallow it, a long sound emerges from my throat – cacacacaca.

Nuala Ní Chonchúir, interviewed this month, is a short story writer, novelist and poet, born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1970 and living in Galway. Her fourth short story collection, Mother America, was published by New Island in June 2012. For more, go here.

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Marcus Speh, The Butterfly Collector

We lived on a dahlia once. Then, a fresh breath of creation still lay upon the land. We were happy people, flower folk, and we didn’t mind that success came in all sizes, small and large, because failure did, too. After a hard day’s work in the fields, we met at the pub to flush away any anger that stood between us. We danced, we made music and we were bards, every one of us. Butterflies used our homestead as a breeding ground: when they were still wet from birth, we wrote songs on their wings. One day, a very old butterfly returned to us. He said he’d been captured and travelled the globe in a world-famous collection owned by a great man. We were not surprised, because this old lepidopteran was a beaut: many eyes of red and black were arranged in a semi-circle on his blue wings, which cried dark tears, and he was sprinkled with gold dust all over. “One day,” he said, “another man bought me off the butterfly collector.” – This man wasn’t after our bloke’s markings, but after the tiny letters that we’d put there before his colors had even dried. “He copied the poem of me and set me free,” said the old one. “He was a collector of truth, that human,” he said and fluttered up, right into the sun above our heads.

Marcus Speh is a German writer who lives in Berlin, writes in English and spent a wonderful year in NZ. ‘The Butterfly Collector’ is an unpublished flash from his mosaic novel Gizella (forthcoming from Folded Word). Marcus blogs at marcusspeh.com.

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Andrew Stancek, Pigeon Dreams

Pigeons are what I know best. We’ve always kept them, Father and I. He says Mother used to help, too, but I don’t remember. In the only picture of the three of us, he’s looking at her like she’s a dollop of whipped cream he’s about to lick off his Kaffee mit Schlag, and she’s frowning, holding her bulging belly. I’m the bulge. Although the picture is black and white, I imagine her hair is blonde and her dress is red. I stare until she looks like she’s going to talk to me, right from the picture, but then she doesn’t. Father will talk about pigeons till his voice grows hoarse but if I ask about her, he gets quiet and his mouth turns down like he bit a peppercorn.

Pigeons have flown at 170 kilometers an hour and can travel 1800 kilometers. That’s the distance from here to Madrid. Maybe Mom is in Madrid, sipping sangria and thinking of me. When I turn eighteen, I’ll find her and ask why she left.

As I coo and dash around the barn, pretending to soar, I wonder if Mom decided no more pigeons. I know I’m the only boy at school who loves them. I tied a note to the leg of my favorite, Traum, and sent him on a quest. When he lands on his perch tomorrow, I hope for a return message.

Andrew Stancek was born in Bratislava and saw Russian tanks occupying his homeland. His dreams of circuses and ice cream, flying and lion-taming, miracle and romance have appeared recently in Tin House online, r.kv.r.y, The Linnet’s Wings, Connotation Press, THIS Literary Magazine, Flash Fiction Chronicles, Istanbul Literary Review and Pure Slush.

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Tania Hershman, Flight

The fox, the rabbit and the ants stood on the edge of the cliff. The fox and the rabbit had parachutes.

– What will you do? said the rabbit to the ants.
– We will hold onto the parachute, said the ants.
– What if you fall off? said the rabbit.
– We’re tenacious, said the ants.

The rabbit looked at the fox. The fox shrugged.

– Okay, said the rabbit.

When they were ready, the fox held out his hand to the rabbit. In their other hands they held their ripcords. The ants clung to the parachute. The fox and the rabbit looked at each other. Then they stepped over the edge.

At the bottom, they stood up, dusted themselves off. The ants formed an orderly line in front of them on the valley floor. The fox and the rabbit were still holding hands. No one looked up to where they’d come from. No one looked back.

– Okay? said the fox.

Everyone nodded, and they began walking forwards into the new world.

Tania Hershman’s second collection of 56 short fictions, My Mother Was An Upright Piano, is published by Tangent Books. Her short stories and poetry have been published in print and online and broadcast on BBC Radio. She is writer-in-residence in Bristol University’s Science Faculty and editor of The Short Review, the online journal spotlighting short story collections and their authors. More at Tania Hershman … making things up.

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James Claffey, turned to tiny vessels

Strewn leaves over cold water, I am in green trunks, the banana spiders mere inches from my face. The leaves are colored bruises, camouflage for my body which will soon rest amongst them. Ignoring the freezing east wind, the sun shattering into pieces off the face of my watch, I move out along the thick branch that stretches to the middle of the pond. So strongly it blows, the blood in my cheeks turns away from its force, and a shower of rain falls on the earth. You have to face your demons, she told me. You can’t keep running away forever. Not true, I said. Instead, I laughed at her, guilty of rejecting her love, thrown off by the narrowness of her wrists, the nothingness of her frame. Dandelion stalks, browned to husks, juniper bugs turned to tiny vessels, the natural decay spread beneath me in all its intricate beauty. Nothing about it is haphazard – not the veined wings of the dead bluebottles on the window ledge at home, nor the piping call of the warbler above me in the tree – nature’s ordered world. Toes grip rough bark, one foot placed deliberately in front of the other, the same slow meditation I practiced on the Via Crucis in Taos, all those years ago. She accused me of flight, of always running away from my responsibilities – fight or flight she said, fight or flight. And on the limb, high over hidden water my limbs refuse to work and I cannot alight.

James Claffey hails from County Westmeath, Ireland, and lives on an avocado ranch in Carpinteria, California, with his wife, the writer and artist, Maureen Foley, their daughter, Maisie, and Australian cattle-dog, Rua. His work appears in many places, including The New Orleans Review, Elimae, Necessary Fiction, Connotation Press and Word Riot. His website is at The Wrong Corner of the Sky.

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Sharon Stratford, Flights of Fancy

Sophie had a magpie mind that flew across the world swooping on shiny thoughts and dazzling ideas. She loved to soar in that supernatural space filled with wild one-day-dreams where she could escape the washed-out cavity of her days.

In her magpie mind she could think of ways to help her dad care for her mum, while Alzheimer’s nibbled at their days together. She could spend effortless hours with her mother, accepting the childish ways of the parent she had known.

She could ease her new compulsion to flick the light switch three times before she entered a room and three times before she left.

In her magpie mind Sophie could juggle numbers, multiplying them and adding to them until they divided into herds that stampeded towards her debt. Those thunderous herds dented hire purchase and credit card figures, destroyed bank loans and devoured digits off her bills. She could make her business succeed, rising high on her latest marketing plan or the creation of another innovative service.

She could remember her man and the fire in their relationship before he left her for someone more grounded.

In her magpie mind, Sophie created stories and had conversations with characters. She could imagine the imprint of a king’s naked arse in the snow and laugh so hard she snorted.

She could reinvent herself.

One day, Sophie got lost in her mind.

She hasn’t been heard from since.

Sharon Stratford is a Wellington writer. She loves spending days at the beach with a good book for company, playing with words and swapping stories with children.

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Ken Pobo, Kites Over Branches

In second grade Miss Rogers put Gwen in the yellow reading group. Learning to read came slowly, words rolling on her tongue like gumballs. How could she tell Miss Rogers that the books she was given bored her silly. Who cares if Spot runs? What else would he do?

That was sixty years ago. Reading is now a snack eaten between customers or after the dishes are done and before bed. When her husband, Tree, asks her what book is her favorite she says, “Something on Lincoln, I think.” Tree can name, in order, his Top 10 books. Every one is about World War II.

Aunt Gwen tells few people about the high school afternoon when she burnt a copy of The Bible. It seemed like a fun thing to do at the time. She has no guilt. After all, it’s not like there aren’t scads of them all over the place. She grinned as the white cover flamed yellow and red—before fading into an ashen gray. At first the smell was like autumn leaves burning. It grew more sour.

She tells her daughter to read more.

“Trash those movie magazines and read something fulfilling.”

“Movies fulfill me,” Annie replies. “And music magazines.”

Aunt Gwen thinks of herself as a book. The pages turn way too quickly now.

Soon they’ll litter the lawn, amble down the street. Her sentences released, like kites breaking free of branches, flying over her sagging roof.

Kenneth Pobo had a collection of his micro-fiction called Tiny Torn Maps published by Deadly Chaps in 2011. Recent stories appear in Philadelphia Stories and Wilde Oats.

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Elaine Souster, Fantasy Fears

I remember this beach as a child; I had no friend, only my shadow.

I ran, skipped and played as it danced in front or behind me. If I jumped off a rock it disappeared but it was always at my feet when I landed. It belonged to me.

Today I stand alone; I face the sea and look towards the islands in the gulf. Behind me the sun is setting and from its fading light it creates a shadow of me that stretches down the sand to touch the water’s edge.

I turn round to face the hills and watch the last of a summer’s day take flight over the horizon. The night creeps down and my shadow dissolves into the dusk of twilight.

The moon rises and as I walk I’m guided by the glimmer of its light though the trees.

A breeze awakes shadows in the trees and in the light of the moon they strive to be free. They prance in and out of the darkness and I become entangled in their warped shapes.

I feel fear as they touch me and their black branches try to pull my shadow into the depth of night.

Like a child I run. Shadows cross my path, I duck and weave to escape them and hurry to my house.

I open the front gate and the moonlight shimmers down the path, in front of me my shadow grows tall and strong as it leads me to the door.

Elaine Souster is an accomplished artist who several years ago discovered a love for creative writing. She is active in various writing groups and supports other writers. She loves to take her view of human nature and turn it into a story.

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Len Kuntz, Over the Wing

There is nothing left to do and so she flies. It doesn’t matter where.

The man in the middle row won’t shut up. His belly keeps spilling over her seat. It reminds her of a mudslide, of jelly sandwiches she used to make for her boy when things were better.

The man’s name is Ed, his hands huge mallets covered in fur. His wedding ring looks painful, squeezed by all that swollenness.

He orders double scotches that come in miniature bottles. The topaz liquor makes her think of the Aztecs and Mayans, then Mexico of course, their first trip post-honeymoon, her husband saying, “Let’s be adventurous this time.” So they’d gone hang-gliding, learned to scuba. When a waitress wouldn’t stop flirting, he suggested a threesome and she went along with it but cried for days afterward.

Ed slurs when he says, “I’ve flown 100,000 miles this year.” He asks if she belongs to The Mile High Club and when she says “No,” he nods toward the plane’s restroom. Then Ed tries to touch her hand, so she points to his ring. “Oh, that thing,” he says. “It might never come off.”

She’d been married ten years and could never get the threesome out of her mind, thinking he probably never really loved her if he could ask for something like that. Then she came home one day and knew.

She looks over the wing now, her flying, the rest of them below, living, destroying everything.

Len Kuntz is a writer from Washington state. His work appears widely in print and online. Len’s story collection debuts from Aqueous Books in 2014. You can find him at People You Know By Heart.

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Maris O’Rourke, Flighty Thoughts at Charles de Gaulle Airport

When I look at them I always wonder what are they thinking?

Those fat-bellied old farts in their crapulent crimpelene pants of boring beige and open-necked shirts of shitty green. You see them everywhere waiting for flights – just sitting, legs stuck out in front of them, arms crossed, staring into space, surrounded by bags you could fit a body into.

They’re usually on holiday with the wife. If she speaks they grunt, nod, mutter, mumble or stare at her with who are you? surprise.

Sometimes they nod off, twitching spasmodically, like old dogs dreaming. Occasionally they look at their watches but mostly they sit unmoving, arms across their corpulent bellies.

She’s dressed to the nines and clearly looking for adventure, excitement, some frisson with her croissant! Guilt produced, obligation met, old fart in tow – ensuring it won’t happen.

Maris O’Rourke has been published in a range of poetry journals in New Zealand and overseas (including being Guest Poet in Poetry NZ #44) and placed in a number of competitions, including the South Island Writers’ Association National Competition, the Caselberg Trust International Poetry Prize and the Robert Burns Poetry Competition. Her first children’s book Lillibutt’s Big Adventure has just been published by Duck Creek Press and she is now working on her first poetry collection while exploring flash fiction.

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Christopher Allen, Flight

The field: doubtful of morning, calm like a blanket smoothed for the last time but nervous like a million sleepwalking birds. The fence: barbed, a jagged song on a staff between hell and hope.

I only have to cross it. They will see me, shoot holes in me – but I’ll cross the field. To be remembered, to be noticed. For daring to try, for knowing how few succeed.

The sun rises. The field begins to sing a tune my father taught me about the hope of flight and the sad truth that both are reserved for other species. I close my eyes, conjure the celebrated place beyond barbs and forget not to breathe. A wisp of steam curls into the gelid morning grey like a decision I can’t take back: the decision to die in the unforgiving light of day.

They must see how biology betrays me – the ones with guns. I convince myself their arms are unloaded, like a critic’s inkless pen. I tell myself their guns are licorice hanging flaccid at their sides as they sleep. I’m an artless liar, and I cannot stop myself from breathing.

The field ripples – a light wind – the bird blanket trembles. The forest behind me joins the field singing my father’s song. A battle hymn. I open my eyes. I run, I write. And the world – the trees, the field and the hope of home – bursts into flight.

Christopher Allen is the author of the absurdist satire Conversations with S. Teri O’Type. His fiction and creative non-fiction have appeared in numerous places online and in print. Allen blogs here and here.

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Anonymous_Author©, Fight

“You. After school. Basketball court. Snap my fingers snap your neck.”

Kevin’s experienced fist thwacks his palm. A rainy afternoon scrap’s arranged to test the mettle of the new boy on the block. I’ve no choice, and at 3.30pm unwillingly comply. For too long I flail miserably, impotently. The repugnant young spectators bray. Then I see red, as they say. Thrash him. Give him a nose twister, a nasturtium. Cave Kevin’s face in. Bones splinter. Kevin sees red, too. Blood red, then grey. He crumples with an awful permanence. Something has shifted forever.

I freak out. Fight or flight? Fight and flight. Across the field, out the gates, into town. It’s rain-dark. Silverbeet-coloured trees, which are neither silver nor red, shroud the slick roads. I run fast, bouncing off strangers. Mist permeates their angry, sibilant voices with coldness and the white noise of tyres on wet asphalt becomes ugly. I would have welcomed the punch in the face – it was the threat of the punch that caused more damage. Peering back every few steps, through the inkiness, I feel sick.

“We want to see the colour of your fear,” he’d told me. Well, this was it: a boy tearing through blackness, all his light absorbed. I’m inseparably linked to the end of the world. Or think I am. Or want to be. It pours. The sky pounds a percussive dirge on the footpath. Bleak rhythms belt against the concrete. I’m still running.

Anonymous_Author© is the literary voice of an unknown writer. He is an existentialist suffering from an identity crisis and exists only through the benevolence of language. He is currently working on his UnAuthorised AutoBiography. Follow him on Twitter (@anonauth).

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Abha Iyengar, A Travelling Life

She could only imagine it now. Darjeeling. Pondicherry. Kolkatta. Europe. Images flashed in front of her eyes. How she had loved movement, leaving one place for another, but always with Rahul. Sitting behind Rahul on his bicycle as they careered down the mountain roads, her navy blue pleated school skirt flying, showing her brown legs and red boxer shorts. Then in college on his bike, her printed long skirt lifted above her knees, riding astride without a care in the world. They travelled all over the country, never settling down.

At Pondicherry she had conceived her son and given birth to him in Kolkatta. Finally, she had opted to settle down but it was not for her. They had lost him to a monkey bite! A monkey had come to their verandah in the night and bitten her son to death.

“Come, Shona,” Rahul had said to her, his eyes mirroring her sorrow, “we shall travel again.” How hard Rahul had tried to cheer her, taking her across Europe for a holiday. So many flights, so much movement. But with the stone of sorrow sunk in her centre, she was immobile. Soon after their return to Kolkatta, Rahul left her. “I have to move on,” he said, giving her a last forlorn look. She had not followed him out.

Within a year she lost all feeling in her legs. Now, sitting on a wheelchair, she flew over her past every day, circling her life.

Abha Iyengar is a widely published poet and author who doesn’t let the term ‘genre’ faze her. She lives in New Delhi, India and loves travelling on foot and via her mind. Her flash fiction collection Flash Bites is available as an ebook on Amazon and Smashwords. More at her website and her blog.

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Gus Simonovic, Kidnapped

And, once again, all the stars hide behind the horizon, and unite into one. Paint the dark sky into grey, red and blue. Restore the shapes of birds and the clouds. I open my wings and, in one snatch, I kidnap the morning. I cover you with my shadow, and we fly. Filled with lightness, free, frivolous. We fly, hand in hand, blindfolded by sunlight. We chat, we talk, we laugh, we are quiet. And you sing – we sing – to scare the night away. And I talk and we talk; we speak the same tongue, have the same fears. We talk ourselves into another day: friends, lovers, family. We play, we laugh, we tell the truth, we lie, we dream, we run, we promise, we lust, we fly… Away from that scary night, away…


When sun crashes over the hard-edge horizon and breaks up into the many stars, again. The darkness blinds me with a special kind of silence, one that bodes danger, muteness, that yells at me: “Talk, tell me: what were you saying behind my back?” Clouds fall heavy and I hear the whisper: “Give me your hand, I am good for you, I’ll light the candles, entertain you, tell jokes. I’ll take off my clothes and sprinkle my body with lightness, laughter, lust and promise. Remember me? Spread your wings, we can fly together!” I howl my wordless reply as I try to hide in the shadows of the birds.

Gus Simonovic is a performance poet and producer. Along with his own poetry collection, his work has been published in NZ and UK magazines and anthologies. In 2010 he created a spoken word show “iWas” and in 2011 released a 15-track poetry/music collaboration CD. He is a Poetry Slam winner and a regular guest poet at poetry events in Auckland and internationally. Gus is currently working on his new solo spoken-word show “Aotearoa – Lost in Translation”, as well as a new collaborative multimedia performance “Insomnia in a Daydream”. More at Printable Reality.

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Sally Houtman, Two Flights Down

Every Saturday we go with Mama, take the bus to the three-storey house. We stay upstairs, Sophie and me, while Mama works. It’s our job to fold the washing. She brings us the basket filled with sheets, pillowcases, fluffy towels, warm from the dryer, smelling lemony and sweet. When Mama’s gone we play a game. We knot the sheets around our heads, drape our shoulders. We are angels, brides, fairies, sheiks, sometimes peacocks, the washcloths our tails. The house is big with white walls and a twisty marble staircase. We can hear Mama in the kitchen, rattle-clatter-clink, sounds echoing through the halls.

Sophie stands on the bed, arms outstretched. She flings the sheet and twists. She is a dancer, centre stage. Her dark hair hangs loose around her shoulders, lit by a skylight above. The room has cushy carpet, closets filled with boxes, dresses, shoes. I wonder what it would be like to have a cupboard just for handbags, a coat for every season. Sophie giggles. Downstairs I hear water running, metal clattering, woosh-klunk-splosh, Mama singing a gospel song.

We lie on the bed beneath mounds of linens, look up through the window. We are dolphins, Sophie and me, swimming in the white-capped waves. Sophie’s breath is warm against my neck. From two flights down I still hear Mama, laa-la-aah, her voice a cello-hum. I reach for Sophie’s hand, squeeze her fingers. It’s all I need, just Sophie’s breath and Mama’s singing and a perfect square of sky.

Sally Houtman is a Wellington writer. She began writing fiction and poetry in 2007 and threatens not to stop.

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Townsend Walker, The Gun Wasn’t Hers

She hadn’t wanted it, but there it was on the seat beside her. For your protection, they’d said. Just in case.

She was driving I-90 from Seattle to Chicago. Running a package out for this guy she knew. A delicate instrument, he’d said – didn’t trust UPS. The pay was good and she was between gigs. Lots of empty country out there, they’d said. True. Miles of nothing but dirt and sky flying by.

Out past Billings, a rock hit the windshield. Shattered it. She jerked the wheel, nearly drove off the road. Where the hell did that come from? She slowed the car to a stop and sat there until her breathing got down to near normal. The sun caught hold of the edges of exploded glass, turning her windshield into a web of rainbow colors.

She couldn’t see driving far with a slivered windshield and had no clue where she was going to get a new one in this wasteland.

She looked around. In the rearview mirror, she saw something move – back alongside the road, by those loose rocks. Her stomach lurched. Grabbing the gun, she found the safety, clicked it off, then willed her legs out of the car, onto the pavement. Caffeine-alert, she walked down the road, scanning the horizon, hair whipping around her eyes.

But he wasn’t out there; he was behind her.

Townsend Walker is a writer living in San Francisco. His stories have been published in over fifty literary journals and included in six anthologies. One story won the SLO NightWriters story contest. Two were nominated for The O. Henry Award. Four were performed at the New Short Fiction Series in Hollywood. During a career in finance he published three books: foreign exchange, derivatives and portfolio management. His website is here

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Rebecca Simons, Nothing New

Frown deepening, she considered the top of his head. “If you don’t want to come, say.” He cleared his throat, raising eyes to focus on that spot just above her right shoulder – she hated it when he did that. “Well,” she demanded, insisting he meet her stare. His eyes flickered, briefly making contact before sliding back to the spread-out newspaper. She stood abruptly, bumping the table, and moved to the bench. Her back towards him, she poured more coffee. “I’m quite happy to go on my own, it might give me the chance to meet someone who actually wants to be with me.” The coffee pot thumped back down. “Honestly, I don’t care. Just let me know.” Four years of breaking up and making up marched wearily across her shoulders. She sat, pushing the newspaper aside with her free hand. He gave her that lost kitten look. She hated that too. After all those empty promises, the emotional yo-yoing, he could still make her feel like the bitch. She sipped the coffee, determined he speak next – it was cold. “Well,” he cleared his throat, eyes unfocused, “you know I’ve got to be here for the boys. I can’t just drop everything and go whenever.” She swallowed, anger familiar as his face, tracking bitter liquid. His eyes briefly met hers. She nodded, carefully placed the mug on the table and let go. She said, “You stay. I’ll go.”

Rebecca Simons is an ex-office worker who discovered short story writing while enjoying a mid-life crisis. Although her university years were spent studying European language and culture, she has found an even greater challenge in mastering the use of her maternal language, English, and hopes to continue with this challenge for many years to come.

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Matt Potter, Move Over

I shoved the over-stuffed backpack into the locker overhead, slammed the door shut and looked the Singapore Airlines steward – medium-height, slim build, unlined expression – in the face. “I reserved this seat two days ago. I’m not fucking moving.”

The steward, bent towards the old woman in a velour leisure suit sitting in my seat, smiled. “You won’t have to.”

“Sorry,” I said. “I hate flying.”

“Isn’t Tyson swapping with me after we take-off?” the old woman asked. Her pale blue eyes, perhaps vacant, perhaps possessed, flickered, seeking assurance.

I looked past the steward’s shoulder – I hate anywhere but the steady middle of the plane, over the wing – down the aisle to the toilets. Three months travelling the US and Canada. Portugal and Spain. France. Belgium. The UK and Germany and the Czech Republic. Then fourteen more hours flying from Berlin and an eight-hour Singapore stopover. Six more hours and home.

I sighed. I also hate going home.

“You’re not in the right seat, Nana.”

I looked across inquisitive heads towards the other voice. Eight? ten? twelve? ferrety, pinched faces, three generations of new Thailand tans and I love Phuket t-shirts, looked over at Nana. A lottery win enjoyed by the whole family?

My fingers drummed on the headrest beside me.

“Oh dear,” Nana sighed. Her knees parted like the Red Sea and before our eyes, her lap turned dark and wet and spreading.

“You can have a seat in First Class,” said the steward.

I white-knuckled the whole way home.

Matt Potter is an Australian-born writer who keeps part of his psyche in Berlin. Matt has been published in various places online, his anthology Vestal Aversion was published earlier in 2012, and he is also the founding editor of Pure Slush. Find more of Matt’s work here.

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Carolyn Smith-Masefield, Wings of Conscience

The toilets were empty.

“How long we got, la?” His little suffix whispered against my ear. He rubbed against my hard on. I was his La, he’d told me, always at the end of his thoughts.

“Three days.”

He squealed. I froze. His forefinger circled my captain’s wings.

“Come, la.”

His breath caused tiny hairs to lift off – three days of him eclipsed 300 nights of the one-at-home.


“Four Floors of Whores, la.”

My mouth twisted up. Insidious city, its grey head in the world of business while its dimpled legs spread under the table.

We parted for our rendezvous in the sultry underbelly, his pleasure-seeking nose sniffing out 30 grams of white death, my treat.

Cocooned in the belly, fuzzed by drink and erotic play, I missed him inhaling his nose-candy. I didn’t miss his slow drop to the floor, his hand flopping on my ankle. I didn’t miss eye whites… spittle flying… shuddering…

My feet flew me away beyond breathing. Gasping on a street corner, I reached for my phone.
“Harris? Look, been thinking. I’ll take the Bangkok hop in the morning.” My breath flew out.

“Sir? Breakfast, la?” The suffix thudded against the door.

“Wait!!” Wrenching on pants, shirt, jacket… wings?! Realisation winded me, fear dripped down my face. He’d lifted them again, like always. They’d be pinned to him…

Think! New wings… Who’s on today… Harris! His locker, his wings!

My mouth spread, my eyes widened. Time to fly.

Caroyln Smith-Masefield writes for sanity, teaches for humanity, lives for equanimity, dresses for vanity but can rhyme with manatee.

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Daphne Claire De Jong, Lunch with Dickinson

The old man looked sinister – ragged coat and equally ragged beard, watery deep-set eyes. When he claimed the other half of the park seat the young woman’s muscles gathered for flight. Stuffing her book and the rest of her sushi lunch into the roomy bag by her hip, she toppled it, spewing the book and plastic food box, followed by her keys and wallet, onto to the maltreated grass and damp earth at her feet.

As she grabbed her cellphone from the brink, righting the bag, the old man dived forward and snatched up her wallet.

She gave a gasping little scream, thinking Dial 111?

“Here.” Knobbed fingers with surprisingly clean nails handed her the wallet.

“Thank you.” Blushing, she recovered her keys and abandoned lunch while he rescued the book.

He straightened wheezily and gently wiped the mud-smeared pages. “Ah,” he said, “Emily Dickinson.”

“You know her?” Blinking.

“Intimately. He ate and drank her precious words/His spirit grew robust/he knew no more that he was poor/nor that his frame was dust…

He danced along the dingy days,” she cried. Then hesitated. “Do you like sushi?”

He gave a little bow, and dropped the proffered box into a large, drooping pocket of his coat. “You’re fond of Miss Dickinson?”

“Yes, but…” frowning at the page, “I don’t understand some lines.”

“Ah.” He held out his hand for the book. “Let’s see…”

She was late for her Eng. Lit class that day.

Daphne Clair de Jong, author of almost 80 romantic and historical novels published worldwide, is a past winner of the Katherine Mansfield BNZ Short Story Award and other awards, has had numerous short stories and articles published in magazines and anthologies, and some poetry in literary magazines. She also tutors writing in nearly all genres and runs the world-famous-in-New Zealand Kara School of Writing and Karaveer Writers’ Retreat at her home in rural Northland. Find out more here.

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Sian Williams, On the Road to Damascus

Leaving his friends at the guesthouse, the young man walks into the desert.

On the treeless plateau the heat is intense, presses him down into the ancient sandstone. He squints into the glare and in the distance sees the glint of abandoned tankers on the highway and the greasy coils of the river. He walks downhill towards a gully, seeking shade. Further down he finds puddles and bulrushes – home to frogs, invisible birds, and, he suspects, snakes. The canyon rises imperceptibly around him. As he walks, the sky fades: blue, pink, apricot. The wadi twists and divides, labyrinthine now, the walls too steep to scale.

As the first stars pulse in the thin slice of sky above, he notices, on a high ledge, an eagle owl. Huge. Omnipotent. It turns its orange eyes on him and he is transfixed. He sees a ruler who knows no sin or salvation, neither good nor evil, only life and death. The owl spreads its wings as wide as the sky and takes flight. The young man drops to his knees and cowers in the reeds as it passes silently overhead, pulling the night behind it like a mantle.

Now he’s alone in the dark valley. Panic-stricken, disorientated, he stumbles over boulders, through bushes, into pools. Then, unexpectedly, the rock walls open out and in front of him lies the Euphrates: wide, slow, moving like oil under a perfect Muslim moon. And beside the river is the road – his way back to Birecik.

Sian Williams is editor at Flash Frontier. She is slightly obsessed with owls and once encountered an enormous eagle owl in a wadi in Turkey.

Michelle Elvy, The Fantail and the Blowfly, 1940

The Pied Fantail has shown up three days in a row. Mrs Morris can see it from the kitchen window. It comes at dinnertime, flits from branch to branch, then dives to the verandah and returns to its perch among the trees. A pīwakawaka, she’s heard it called. A messenger.

Mrs Morris makes soup. Supplies are scarce but she has onions and potatoes in the pantry. The fantail swoops again and plucks a blowfly out of mid-air. It’s a large meal for such a small bird. She thinks of her son, Elton. The last letter arrived weeks ago, when he was bound for Britain. He’d dreamed of flying since he was a boy. Now Europe seems impossibly far away. It will be getting cold there, just as her verandah is warming in the October sun. She wonders if he’s eating well, if he’s getting enough sleep. She wonders if they have fantails there.

She dices an onion. Her eyes water. She wipes them on the corner of her apron. The fantail is battering the blowfly now. He lets it go and it flies away, staggering, slowing. The fantail swoops again, grabs it in its claws and pecks wildly. The fly is torn piece by piece. It crashes to the verandah and the bird dashes to swallow the now bite-sized morsels.

The fantail flies back to its branch. Mrs Morris shivers.

She dices a potato. Her eyes water. She wonders where her boy will be flying at Christmas.

Michelle Elvy is founding editor at Flash Frontier. She recently found herself reading notes from the New Zealand Ornithological Society, housed in the Auckland Museum Library.

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Please also see this month’s interview with Irish author Nuala Ní Chonchúir.

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Coming in November: stories about eye contact

Interview with Nuala Ní Chonchúir

October 2012

This month, we had the honour of sitting down with Irish writer Nuala Ní Chonchúir for our special international issue of Flash Frontier. Poet, novelist and short story writer, Nuala has published her newest collection of short stories, Mother America, this year.

On language and form

FF: You were first published as a poet but you’ve diversified into short story and novel writing, and in all these forms, your writing stands out for its intensity, strength and passion which is handled with a delicate appreciation of language. Do you think this balance comes from being a poet first? Does poetry influence the way you go about writing short stories or even novels?

NNC: Certainly as someone who writes poetry I value concision in language and beauty. I was also brought up bilingual – English at home, Irish (Gaelic) at school – so I have always been steeped in language and asking questions of it. Language is hugely important to me as a writer and as a reader – I love those who take risks with language, I love stylists like John Banville and Annie Proulx. Kevin Barry is doing great things with Hiberno-English.

For my own writing, I like to use interesting language because, I feel, it adds richness. Having said that, plain language – like Hemingway’s – can be equally rich. I guess I value writers who take great care with words.

FF: In short story writing – and especially in flash fiction – the opening is critical. You pay a lot of attention to the way your stories open (and readers can see the careful opening of each of the stories in your collection Nude here). Do you think this is the most important part of the story? 

NNC: The opening is the hook and it has to be arresting. I don’t like stories or novels with lots of preamble. As Jim Dickey said, “If the story is about a bear, bring on the damn bear.” I don’t think it’s the most important part of the story but a good opening is certainly crucial to keep the reader reading.

All my writing starts with an opening line that occurs to me, or swirls in my brain, until I get it down. I then see where the story will lead me. I usually have that, a vague notion of a character, and an even vaguer one of a situation (which often changes as things progress). So I don’t think in ideas, more in feelings. The idea (the story) comes as I write it.

FF: And what about titles (which you also do so well)? Do they come first or last or somewhere in the middle?

NNC: The title often comes very early, along with the opening paragraph. I don’t struggle with titles but I have to have the appropriate one for things to sit right. I sometimes tinker with them until they feel exactly right. I hate wishy-washy titles and try to avoid them. The title has to woo the reader – it’s as much a part of the story as any other part and writers would do well to give titles a lot of thought if they don’t occur to them easily.

On your short story collections, Nude and Mother America 

FF: You open your story collection Nude (Salt Publishing 2009) with a quote from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing: “Nudity is a form of dress”. The stories in this collection paint nuanced colours of everyday people and their relationships, layered with rather extraordinary experience and emotion. So do you paint your characters nude, or are they intentionally clothed in layers for the reader to peel back? 

NNC: I don’t mind what way readers unlock characters but I try not to be deliberately obscure or secretive, because, as a reader, that irritates me. Fiction is a temporal form so I place my characters in a section of time where something is going wrong for them and see how they cope. Literary readers are very clever and they can pick up on hints but it is probably better to just present your character as they are in a bad situation. I’m not a fan of twist in the tail stories, for example, where ‘all is not as it seems’ but in a really obvious way.

I love this quote from Kurt Vonnegut (while not entirely agreeing with the last bit of it…): “Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.”

FF: Your latest short story collection Mother America (New Island 2012) is about the connections and gaps that exist between people across generations and time and place. These stories travel the world just as do your poems of The Juno Charm (Salmon Poetry 2011). And while your stories and poems take your readers to so many places, you remain an Irish voice, as if these stories could not be written from any other hand. Do you feel first and foremost like an Irish writer, or an international writer? 

NNC: This is a hard one. There’s a ‘thing’ in Irish writing (among critics?) whereby as an Irish writer, you are meant to represent your country in your writing. I am Irish and I feel very Irish but I don’t always want to write about Ireland or Irish people. I also feel very European; I go to Europe a lot. And I love America. (I am positive I will love the Antipodes when I make it there too!) I love travel and inevitably that comes out in the writing.

Some critics don’t know what to do with you if you don’t sound Irish or talk about Irishness all the time. It annoys me when critics make demands on writers, shoulding them about Celtic Tiger novels and, now, Recession Novels. Piss off! We can only write what we are moved to write.

Having said all that, I love writing about Irish people and places, and I love Hiberno-English and will continue to use it because it is what comes most naturally to me.

FF: Mother America has been met with much critical acclaim. Órfhlaith Foyle comments that in your stories “wishes for happy endings lead to fragile and transparent fates through which the past creeps back to take root.” Is it something in your own upbringing that makes this a trend in your stories, or is it more a deliberate plan to work those themes and make them speak to each other, and to your readers?

NNC: Like every writer (like every person) I have passions, interests, ambitions, obsessions, losses, experience. I am also melancholic so I am continually looking back to a lost past and trying to make sense of it and that comes out in the writing.

I like darkness but not utter gloom in stories, though. So I try to keep even a seed of hope in my stories.

FF: You read an excerpt from the story ‘Letters’ here, which is part of Mother America. Did you choose to read this story for the book trailer because it’s part Ireland and part America, a story that reaches across an ocean between people and their histories? How is it representative of this collection overall, even though it’s not the title story?

NNC: Yes, that was the idea. I called the book Mother America because I thought it was a strong title. All the stories feature mothers but not all are set in America. For the book trailer, I wanted something that hit both. There were a few too many f-words in the title story to use that!

I think ‘Letters’ represents the book in that it is about loss and misplacement and a broken mother-child relationship. The scene where Bridie tosses the letters out the window is an homage to a non-fiction scene from the writing of Maeve Brennan, an Irish writer who lived in New York. So there are a few things going on there.

FF: ‘Queen of Tattoo’ is one of those stories dealing with the difficult themes of power, sexuality, identity and bad roads taken – themes you tackle in a lot of your stories. For New Zealand readers, this story will particularly resonate, as the tattoo in Māori tradition is artwork and intricate storytelling, a display of identity and history. Those themes are prevalent in ‘Queen of Tattoo’ also. How did you come to this idea, and is there something about the tattoo artist that particularly fascinates you?

NNC: Yes, I’m kind of obsessed with tattoos, though I only have one myself. I had a poetry collection a few years ago called Tattoo – Tatú, and I have other tattoo stories. I’ve done a non-fiction piece on tattoos as body art too (unpublished as the mag that commissioned it never published it – grrrr.)

‘Queen of Tattoo’ was inspired by the old Groucho Marx song about Lydia the tattooed lady. I love that song and I decided to see if I could invent a life for Lydia. It was enormous fun to write.

On flash fiction and play and the meaning of birds 

FF: Sometimes you are quite playful in you approach to POV, as in the story ‘Roy Lichtenstein’s Nudes in a Mirror: We Are Not Fake!’, first published at Everyday Fiction in 2008.  How does a story like this come to you and how do you decide to take a particular point of view? 

NNC: That one was totally about the voice – the voice came to me and went from there. That kind of story can feel like a gift because it’s like the character tells you the story and you write it down. It’s just occurred to me that I do a lot less obviously voice-driven stories these days, though it’s something I really enjoy.

FF: What’s most challenging about writing flash fiction? And what was specifically challenging about the story ‘One For’ that you wrote for this issue of Flash Frontier? Did it begin from something larger and become something trimmed down? Or did it start out as a 250-word story?

NNC: I wrote ‘One For’ for you! I was in a hotel in Cork when you asked me to submit something and I had seen a magpie on the roof that morning who looked like he was about to throw up. I love magpies – they have such presence – so I started with the bird and went from there; I was also thinking about a friend who recently lost a spouse. I knew the story had to be short so I envisioned it short.

As to what is challenging about flash, well, you have to move and/or surprise the reader and there’s only a certain amount of room. You also have to trust that the reader will get it. I like that flash fiction is amenable to the surreal – it works well in small spaces.

FF: You’ve noted that one of your heroines is Sylvia Plath and that symbols are important to you (and indeed Plath features not only in your poetry but also in your story ‘Cri de Coeur’ in Mother America). Two symbols that recur in your writing are the moon and birds (in your Flash Frontier story as well). Why are symbols so important for you, especially in the forms of poetry and short fiction? And are there particular Irish symbols that are meaningful to you, and why?

NNC: I think things become symbolic to you and, because they do, you carry them over into your writing. I (foolishly) think I am neither religious nor superstitious but I am clearly influenced by both. I was brought up super-Catholic and the church is chockers with symbols – I loved all that and still do: bleeding hearts, mournful statues holding arrows and olive branches, water into wine etc. It was the colourful aspect of an otherwise dull and frightening regime.

In terms of Ireland, we have a rich mythology complete with animal goddesses, emphasis on tripartite gods, fertility charms etc. I love the hare, I love peacocks, I love the moon; I love these things as things of beauty and I love how they can have meaning to a character, so I use them for their vivacity, for their colour.

On your personal connection to places and finding your voice

FF: You grew up in Dublin and now live in Galway. Can you tell us what is special about each of those places to you personally?

NNC: I had a very happy childhood in Dublin – I was a bookish tomboy in a big family, in a rural home-place but I went to the city centre for school and uni, so there were lots of enjoyable aspects to my growing up. I love Dublin’s compactness, grittiness, friendliness; I love its language. I use all that in my fiction, particularly in my novel YOU.

Galway has been many things to me: I became serious as a writer here (maybe I needed to leave Dublin to write it out); I married, divorced and re-married here; I’m raising my three kids here. But, in a sense, it has been an isolating place. It is not my real home and never will be, so I always feel temporary here, even after 16 years. Dublin beckons. I will go back.

FF: Your story ‘Peach’ was the winner of the Jane Geske Award and also nominated in 2011 for a Pushcart Prize (readers can hear you read from it here). Is this story in some way emblematic of your stories, a fair representation of what you try to achieve in short stories?  What elements make this a ‘typical’ Nuala Ní Chonchúir story, if there is such a thing?

NNC: I rarely feel content with a story when it’s done but ‘Peach’ is one of the few that pleases me a little. The pace feels right, unhurried; I like Dominic’s haplessness.

I guess it’s a typical story for me in that it deals with broken love and a man whose default position is dread. An interviewer (male) asked me recently why my male characters are so unlikeable. I was taken aback – I think they are just struggling, like all of us. I have deep affection for my characters because they are flawed not in spite of that. My women are probably equally ‘unlikeable’ in that I don’t write about boring people with boring lives. There would be no point then, no story.

FF: You credit a fiction writing course with Mike McCormack with the turning point for you, back in 1998, when you decided to become a serious writer. Has your writing changed since then? And, given the long and worthy tradition of Irish storytelling, is it easier or harder for an Irish writer today to follow in the footsteps of Joyce, O’Connor et al?

NNC: My writing has changed. I have tried to slow down a bit (I’m always in a bit of a hurry, it’s a personality trait). I have learnt so much over the years from reading other writers and I continue to learn. That’s why I love lit fests – they are an education.

Yes, every Irish writer is inevitably sized up against all our great writers, it’s unavoidable. A reviewer said recently that I was “carrying Edna O’Brien’s flame” which was very pleasing as I have worshipped at the altar of Edna since I was a teenager.  I love the writing of most of our greats and it is nice to be in their company, in whatever small way.

FF: What do you like most in short stories? Who are some of your favourite short story writers, and why? And what about flash fiction? Who are some of your favourite flash writers and why?

NNC: When done well, short stories can be sublime, achingly gorgeous. I love Alison MacLeod, particularly her story ‘The Heart of Denis Noble’; such an elegantly written, moving and original story. I loved Ron Rash’s collection Burning Bright. I cringed and spoke out loud to his characters who were all brilliant wrong-decision makers. Beautifully done. I love Sarah Hall’s collection The Beautiful Indifference – such command of language, such tension. Caitlin Horrocks, Anthony Doerr, Flannery O’Connor, Annie Proulx, John McGahern…

Flash: I love the writing of Tania Hershman (concise, surreal, funny, moving), Nick Parker (funny, off-the-wall), Ivor Cutler (the original short-short maestro), Jim Crace (writes brilliantly about food), Robert Olen Butler (postcards, beheadings, post-coital thoughts – the man is a true maverick who can write anything and make me believe it).

On home and habits

FF: In another interview you mention things that you collect that clutter your writing desk – lucky pennies, things you’ve found on the beach, a paperweight. Are you a superstitious person? Do you have any rituals that accompany your writing or publishing? And do you believe in the luck of the Irish?

NNC: You see, I think I’m not superstitious but why do I collect this stuff? Why do I rub Buddha’s belly every morning? I like charms, talismans, stuff. I guess they are something to fill the religion hole…

As to rituals, I do like to surround myself with things relevant to what I am working on. So for my novel Highland, which is as yet unpublished, I have beach-combed bits from a Scottish beach, the aforementioned paperweight etc. For my novel YOU I made a collage to draw positivity towards the book (it sounds mad when I say that aloud…).

The luck of the Irish? I think we’re lucky that we have a rich literary heritage and that people are literate and like reading. I think we’re lucky that publishers are approachable in Ireland and we have a small scene. (There are downsides to that too, of course!) I think we’re lucky that there is an academic discipline called Irish Studies.

FF: What are you reading this month?

NNC: I have about ten books on the go. I’m reading Silver Threads of Hope a new anthology of short stories by Irish writers in aid of the suicide charity Console. I have another tattoo-related story in it called ‘Squidinky’. I am re-reading Angela Bourke’s fab bio of Maeve Brennan, Homesick at the New Yorker. I am also enjoying Canadian author Zsuzsi Gartner’s short story collection All the Anxious Girls on Earth. I’m reading Bishop, Chekhov and Scottish author Dilys Rose. I’m reading the current issues of Five Dials and Mslexia. I read a lot.

FF: What are you writing this month?

NNC: This month I am writing a short story set in Brazil where I have recently been. And another one about a man meeting his son for the first time. I am also working up the courage to throw myself into another novel. It is proving difficult. Procrastinators ‘r’ us.

And finally…

FF: Travel is important to you both personally and professionally – and we’ve already seen how your collections such as Juno and Mother America take the reader to many places, from Paris to New York, from Ireland to Mexico. In another recent interview here you say: “There are other places I would like to set stories but I would like to visit them, to get a proper feel – Russia, for example. The Antipodes.” So we wonder: which New Zealand authors leave an impression, and why? And do tell us, Nuala, when are you coming to Aotearoa, and will you please stop in and pay us a visit when you do?

NNC:  Keri Hulme – I read The Bone People as a teenager and was blown away. I wanted to live in that house.

Janet Frame – I loved her trio of memoirs; she was extraordinary.

Witi Ihimaera – I met Witi recently at the Cork Short Story Festival. I had read Whale Rider and loved it. He’s a gorgeous person, warm and sweet and funny.

Alan Duff – Once Were Warriors is a powerful, painful novel. A friend who lived in Australia sent me that when it came out. Jake the Muss lives on in my head.

Charlotte Grimshaw – she writes masterful short stories. I’ve met her too – I was on the jury that short-listed her for the Frank O’Connor Award the first time she was shortlisted, for Opportunity.

Katherine Mansfield – of course! We studied her in school and I came back to her recently.

I would travel to NZ in a heartbeat. My son has family there so it is something we have on the cards for when we are rich. I have been very fortunate with the invitations I have received to travel with my writing and I am hopeful that someday New Zealand will enter that mix. You’ll be the first to know!

Thank you, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, for the interview this month. 

For Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s story ‘One For’ which opens our international October ‘flight’ issue, please go here