Sunday, March 18, 2012

Issue Twelve, Volume Three

From the Desk of the an Editor;
Hello and welcome to another issue of Larks Fiction Magazine. In this issue we bring you the best from authors known and unknown with work of fantastical modern fiction.
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Thank you for reading and I hope you enjoy this issue of Larks.
Jessica Rowse
LFM Editor

Secret of the Maple
By Tom Sheehan

It all began as a hum, not deep, not sharp, but a hum. Locker thought it was turnpike traffic at first, the way semis at times gather in huge road collections that sound like storms at sea, rolling over the land to where he stood. He could picture the parade of huge Kenworth and Reo and International rigs pounding down the road. Oftentimes the weather changed the sound, a kick in the wind, a sudden rise or drop in temperature, a horn or nearby generator making its own waves, or a scream at twilight.
On each occasion he found himself in the cemetery, standing among hundreds of grave stones, paying attention, he thought, to all the territory around him. His father was three years here under grass, under the stone, under the tree, which, as a sapling, he had dug out of the earth at the edge of the swamp and planted its roots beside his father’s grave. He knew the reach of the roots and it did not disturb him, believing the changes in the corpse started after a year’s interment, the embalming lasting only so long before a new kind of life exerted its power down below. If he let it, that new microbic power, it would make him shiver, knock him off his feet, get him closer to the old man who had said, “If you don’t hurry after me, listen for me.”
He never knew where or when to listen, but assumed the cemetery was the best place to start. Maybe later, at home, or in the cabin up on the lake, Vermont steep as ladders beside him, he’d find instructions saying otherwise, his father’s voice in plea, prayer or promise.
The first leaf he picked up carried a scent with it that was not maple, but known to Locker, though he had trouble identifying the original source of the aroma. It was not maple. It was not sugary. It was not tree.
He smelled it, then he studied it, and for some unknown reason that he spent hours and days and weeks trying to reconstruct that initial demand, he placed the leaf against his ear. As faint as dawn, as faint as a light mist on the lake in Vermont when the sun first filters through it, as faint as a hummingbird off the end of the porch in the late sunlight cruising at an angle, he heard the word, a single word but with two syllables … “Ever.”
For an hour he listened to the word. “Ever” did not fade, do a fall-away, or disappear from the auditory possibilities of sound. ”Ever” it said, a constant though whispered word.
Other leaves began to fall. “No,” he said aloud, as if to condemn any thought that was rising in him. “No,” he said again, shaking his head, not daring to believe what he dared to believe, hoped for. But he picked up another leaf and went through the same ritual as the first leaf had gone through. He drew a strong breath into his nose. Then held the leaf against one eye so he could study the filaments of the veins that coursed through it, then, as the final resort, the stretch for believability, he placed the second leaf against his ear.
No doubt existed now, for plain as it could be said, “Fortune” came to him, still with the same thinness of voice, the slow and subtle whisper; the word came on his ear.
Another leaf fell, a bright golden-yellow-red leaf wearing some of the sun and carried another word for hearing. He placed the three leaves in his pocket, the third one carrying his name, the way his father called him into the house at darkness when he was a boy.
“George,” the leaf said, plain as any measure, any sound, his own name. “George,” it had said, in his father’s insistent voice, though faint, subtle, whispered.
George Locker looked around, the nearest tree over 40 yards away, in the next section of the cemetery, but not a maple. He was not sure what kind of a tree it was, but it was not a maple. Then he looked at the ground, as more leaves fell around him. He scurried to grasp them and placed them in his car.
He raced around and around and knew he was losing the game, so he made a desperate decision. Jumping into his car, he drove a half mile to his house, retrieved two rakes from his garage and a large drop cloth, then went back to the cemetery.
He started raking leaves, raking words, raking the book of them, his father’s words that fell upon the ground, that rose out of the ground as roots leaped up.
It was just past 8 AM and visitors and cemetery workers were on the scene and watched as George Locker raked up piles of leaves onto the drop cloth and emptied each load into his car. He begged others to help, and soon, with some kind of contagion he had ignited, the visitors and the cemetery workers began to help him. Some even shook the lower limbs of the tree to shake loose the clinging leaves.
From a distant place, an unknown place, the wind gathered a hush and a rush into itself and slapped the tree from top to bottom limb. More leaves fell, more words gathered, more messages were deposited in his car.
There was an exultant joy when the last leaf was cornered from a little whirl of wind, a tiny geyser of wind. A cemetery worker handed that last leaf to George Locker, content to know he would not have to rake any more leaves from this tree as part of the perpetual care of the gravesites.
When he handed the leaf to Locker, Locker placed it against his ear and heard, “Amen.”
All winter George Locker wrote the book he heard his father read to him.

About the Author;
Tom Sheehan served in Korea, 1951. Books are Epic Cures; Brief Cases, Short Spans; A Collection of Friends; From the Quickening.  He has 18 Pushcart nominations, in Dzanc Best of the Web 2009, and 260 stories on Rope and Wire Magazine. His newest book, from Milspeak Publishers, is Korean Echoes, 2011. Work in Ocean Magazine, Nervous Breakdown, Canary, Subtle Tea, Red Dirt Review, Nontrue, Danse Macabre, and Qarrtsiluni.

by Fred Hilary

Everyone at our school was afraid of Ratcatcher. She was some kind of caretaker or prefect - I never found out if she had some other function, for her only activity seemed to consist of corralling children who had strayed into the forbidden parts of the school. Even her voice was a terrifying instrument. Her banshee scream of "Boys!" or "Girls!" was like a warrior cry of "Invaders!"
I never learned what her real name was. I don’t think it mattered: her actual name could only have been accident or convenience, and never expressed her true nature like the nickname did. She was old, and I imagined that she existed only in the school grounds. It was impossible that this old fury might be married, or have children, or sit at home with her feet up. I couldn't picture her decorating a fireplace, surrounded by photographs and memories and other such human flotsam. It would be like picturing the Lernaean Hydra relaxing in an armchair with a cup of tea.
Those who she had almost caught spoke about her with a giggling nervousness. Those who had been captured, however, were more sober in their admonishments. Do not stray too far, they said, into the covert and forbidden parts of the school. Not to any corridor that did not lie on one's way; not to the stairs in the tower unless one had proof positive (or unless a teacher could bear witness) that one had been summoned.
The most enticing and yet forbidden place of all was the arches. The arches were the destination of the brave. They were on the bottom tier of the school, abandoned and paint-flaking, where only the boldest rebels and punks and lovers congregated, always in fear that Ratcatcher would spy them. There the equal temper of heroic hearts met and snatched some thrill from the jaws of discovery, before fleeing again in delirious and triumphant flight. They had not been caught, they whistled and hooted, and they settled into their lesson seats like soldiers returned from the frontlines. But they did not all return. And those who were caught were changed, and had the spark of rebellion doused at once. And some never returned, for the same day they faced expulsion, and passed into school legend.
Never once did I even think about going to the arches. I was by disposition the anti-rebel, the quiet apparent conformist who sees such acts of rebellion as a kind of superficial flirtation with disobedience. The heroic grease-slicked boys who ran down into the arches' shadows would grow up to lead dull and mundane lives. I was the sensitive sort. I rebelled in mind and spirit only, and read all the time.
There was a ritual for new boys at the school called ducking (the girls, doubtless, had their own manner of initiation ceremony). New arrivals at the school were snatched by veteran boys and prefects and led forcibly to the toilets. There, they were manhandled into a cubicle, held down with their head thrust into the bowl, and the water flushed over them, the chlorine stinging their eyes and the marble cold against their cheek. Some vomited. That first day at the school, I lived in mortal fear of being ducked. The whole morning after assembly, in the run up to the first lesson, was one big cat and mouse game. I ran for a while, terrified and trembling, but before long my spirit sagged, and I gave myself up to my pursuers, and allowed myself to be led willingly towards my doom. There, at the edge of the toilet bowl, I dutifully dropped to my knees and lowered my head into the ceremonial place. I stopped short of pulling the flush chain myself, but it didn't matter. Word of my cowardice spread around like wildfire, and the story dogged me all through my school years.
So I was not one to venture into the forbidden parts of the school. Nor would I ever have done so, had it not happened. But for all my weak spirit, for all my dogged self-preservation, I still viewed myself as the hero in a great drama, whose spirit would someday rise above the entrapments of circumstance and the mundane flotsam of the everyday. She spurred me on. She led me into the arches one winter afternoon, when the light was already dying; she awoke the dream in me of brave deeds and the ideal of a refined soul. It was by a mere glance that I went.
Red, they called her. She wore a red coat, the most striking red coat, over the dull brown of her uniform, like an emblem of passion and romance. I had never spoken to her, not once, but wordlessly I followed her, or longed for a glimpse of her, for a chance sighting as she passed on her way to classes. The days were marked and deemed noteworthy by sightings of her. And in the evenings, when I returned to the familiar home comforts, I would run over each brief encounter again and again, inflating it in my imagination. She seemed conscious of my attention, though she never once looked towards me or smiled. The air, whenever she was near, was thick with significance, for there was always the possibility that a word or a gesture could arise out of it that could be endlessly interpreted in the solace of my private world. Her soul and mine were enlarged.
That afternoon, she had had her coat snatched in the playground. One of the older boys took it, over some argument I didn't catch, and hurled it over the railings. It fluttered down to the bottom tier and landed by the entrance to the arches. Before its fall ended, the bell rang, and amidst the great press and shove of bodies in the schoolyard I saw Red being carried towards the open doors and fighting against the swell. But then, just as she appeared to be breaking loose of them, Mr. Goldsworth, the boys' teacher in games, appeared from out of the shadow of the doors and called the pupils forth to the changing rooms. He ushered Red inside and she was gone, with a last forlorn glance back.
I was amongst the last trickle of children to leave the yard. I recognized the usual compatriots around me. Had the bell been for any other lesson, there would not have been the great push towards the doors, and greater numbers would have tarried to enjoy these last moments of freedom. But we who now remained were the weak ones, the ones who loathed sports. Some drifted away altogether, to some shadowy part of the school, rather risking discovery by Ratcatcher than enduring the cruelty of the playing fields. I was among the last few to move, as always.
Then I thought about the coat. About Red, whose honor and been tarnished, who had been wronged by those not worthy of her. Her last glance back, and the sorrow in it, clinched it. I went over to the railings and peered over. The coat wasn't in the arches themselves, and the yard without was deserted. It would be a simple matter to pluck it up and take it to the cloakroom, where she would find it eventually, perhaps before returning home. I could not simply put it into her hands, though I longed to do so. The mere thought of unmasking myself as her knight was crushingly embarrassing.
I made my way to the steps leading to the bottom tier, and there, poised at the edge, remembered Ratcatcher. Now that the bell was gone, she would be patrolling the yards and the corridors for errant children. She usually scanned the main playground first, and then widened the arc of her patrol, but she was not there today. It meant that she could be anywhere, including down in the arches. I felt my blood run cold and my courage shrink back. Never once had she confronted me, but as an onlooker I had seen her wrath and lived in fear of it.
She was old, with a lean, hawk-like face. Her hair, wiry and grey, grew close about her head. Her eyes, whenever she caught sight of her prey, lit up with a kind of lurid delight. She gave one the impression of perpetual hunger, and then, in my vague inklings, and later with hindsight, I wondered how a person could be so consumed by a vocation that seemed so animal and low.
I weighed the consequence in my mind. It would be worse, surely, to be caught idling? To be one of the strays who perpetually dodged her steps. My own purpose was higher: I was going to retrieve a coat that had been wrongfully snatched and hurled down into that place. Should she catch me, I would explain, I would tell her the plain truth of what I was doing, which after all was the decent thing.
Galvanized by this new thought, that there was some rule of honorable conduct higher even than Ratchatcher, to which she must pay obedience, I descended the steps and crossed the short space of yard to the arches. The coat was only a few steps away, lying under the shadow of one of the pillars. I moved to retrieve it, then froze with shock, because I saw the two lamp-like eyes staring out at me from the darkness.
No voice came. No scream of capture, as in the upper tiers, which for all its ferociousness still conformed to some semblance of law and civilization. The eyes simply looked at me, like a cat's eyes, like a feline devil staring out of the darkness. The coat was almost within reach, yet I could not move a muscle. I waited, and the eyes waited also, looking at me.
I lost my sense of time. I don't know how long I was held there, under the terrible gaze of those eyes. The worst thing of all is that she did not speak. I could see only the eyes burning in shadow, and the vaguest impression of a face, yet not a word came forth to chastise me.
Then, at last, after I broke out in a sweat, when all the weight of guilt and terror became too much for my mind to bear, I blurted out a stammering confession. I was doing the right thing, as I saw it, I told her. Some cruel, childish boy had taken the coat for a joke and had flung it down here. I was getting it back, because I thought it was the right thing to do, because people should behave decently to one another. I was going right back, straight up to the school, and would explain the whole thing to Mr. Goldsworth.
In the end my words dried up. The eyes and the shadowy face had not moved, had done nothing to register any of my confession. The watcher did not come forward from the shadows, either to chastise me or to forgive me. She just went on watching me, and then, whether because my sight became better adjusted to the gloom of the arches, or because I was struck by some sudden realization, I saw that the eyes were mocking me. The mouth was curled into a smile of perverse delight. The face held a terrible knowledge, what knowledge I did not then know, but I shuddered from its impression. I had confessed the nobleness of my act, as I saw it, and the face that now regarded me saw not an ounce of worth in any of it. Rather, it seemed to find it all perversely funny.
I felt a sob rising to my lips but held it back. My hand, hovering over the coat, became stone. Then I had a last impression. I thought, as I peered through the thickness of the gloom, that there was no ordinary woman standing there watching me. There was instead a monster. The hair, which was woven into silver curls in the shadow light, became snakes, writhing in twisted mockery of tresses. The thin body became itself a python in shape, arched back and ready to spring. And the eyes, above all else, held a petrifying, mocking knowledge, that crushed my every noble impulse, and sent me scuttling back up the steps towards the upper playgrounds. I left the coat where it fell, and never again ventured into the lower tier. And never again did I entertain heroic notions, or speak as much as a word to Red, or consider myself worthy of her.
I spied Ratcatcher each day, circling the playgrounds, but she did not acknowledge my stares, and gave no indication she had revealed herself to me. She was just the caretaker, to be feared, charged with rounding up boys, but no more than that.
I thought about the monster I had seen, and thought about those who had met her and remained silent, and knew that we all bore the same terrible knowledge, and so I elected to remain silent with the rest.

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