short story in Black Dandy #4 (Aug 2019, ed. Andrew Lynch)
From the publisher:
Black Dandy is a literary journal dedicated to excellence in magic realism, surrealism, and the otherwise strange.
Based in New Zealand, we’re proud to feature top talent from around the world. Our fourth issue features 8 stories from today’s most compelling writers.
A young girl’s unusual relationship with her mother uncovers the shocking way she deals with the world around her. Join a petty criminal as he navigates the perilous dynamics of a party to which he wasn’t invited. A frustrated writer tries to understand why her apartment has become the center of a most peculiar series of circumstances. A couple trekking through Italian wilderness discover the inhabitant of a world nothing at all like their own. Ever since an injured crow entered his life, the man who cares for it learns more about the locals than he’d care to know. A witch accustomed to luring kids with sweets adjusts to life in an age where smartphones are more addictive than candy. A lonely man lovingly welcomes his new companion, who’s just been delivered by courier. After the death of his mother, a young man discovers through the power of breakfast cereal that a mother’s love never dies.
Flatblack, the first page:
A slight upward or downward motion would enable you to see all that I can see.
Edwin A. Abbott, Flatland (1884)
The day I lost my wife we were looking at a photo. I had taken it the day before while out running along a rocky ridgeline. It was not the subject of the picture—an old, ruined stone cabin just below our route—that magnetized our eyes and tracked frown lines on our foreheads, but something far less apparent beyond it.
A fine, black, vertical line.
It just stood there, upright in the middle of the bare, steep meadow.
“What’s that?” Tina broke the silence, at last, tilting her head as though she could get a clue by considering it from a different angle.
“No idea,” I shook mine, then shrugged.
“Maybe something on the lens, a hair?”
Not convinced at all. “Too straight.”
“Just a pole, maybe, then.”
I was looking for another one, but she was faster.
“Isn’t that where we heard that noise?”
“Shit,” I commented.
Here: she said it. I perfectly knew that was the place, but I was doing my best to deny the obvious. Because that noise had almost required a change of underwear the day before. That grinding, metal-foil squeaking climbing up in pitch; the demented parody of a mooing cow.
But that was not a coincidence. There are no such things.
“We have to go there,” Tina said, a spark in her azure eyes. “See what it is.”
I knew that spark all too well. How many times had I followed it? How many times had it not been trouble?
“Looking for the ghost cow, act one,” I chuckle, but as we round a boulder and cross the pitted dirt lane leading to the abandoned quarry, the sight of the sign
before me—the triangular hazard sign with the black silhouette of a cow on it—makes me swallow my humor whole.
Although I am acting here as skeptic, I’ve never thought ghosts were a joke. It’s just my role in this moment, playing it down.
I’ve always wanted to believe in ghosts, and since meeting Tina I did. Gifted, her mother used to call her. Not a true psychic, maybe, but a special kind of empathy: she felt things, and if you were with her you could feel them, too. When she was a baby, her mother used to tell, Tina would look and laugh at thin air, play with it, talk to it.
Just imaginary friends, her mother would smile, until the day my future wife spilled milk from her mug while dancing with the imaginary friend, and my mother-in-law saw small footprints forming by themselves in the stain.
Since we moved in together, I’ve felt lots of presences, but twice we shared undeniable experiences.
Once we woke up together in the middle of the night—three o’clock, sharp—and we distinctly saw a little girl coming up the stairs and looking at us; she was too
tall for being our daughter, let alone our daughter never had a halo outlining her body. And it was so cold, the air suddenly thick and dense, with that unmistakable
smell of a newborn’s hair. A smell that only later, reading up on the subject, we learned often accompanies such phenomena. But my adrenaline-induced fight-or-flight reaction was tuned to fight, apparently, as I leapt out of bed with a bellow, and the figure dodged behind our dresser—where, when I checked, there was nothing. Tina told me not to utter a word, to write down what I saw while she did the same. We compared our versions, and it was the very same—and the following
morning our daughter asked us: “Who was here last night?”
While my wife understood my instinctual reaction that night, she was disappointed: the child did not seem threatening, just sad, maybe looking for someone to alleviate her loneliness; and I, the brute, scared her away. She didn’t come back, even though we felt her presence many times in the house.
The other ghost appeared prior to this, and it was angry, and I shivered every time I thought back on it. It wasn’t in our home, fortunately, but at a friend’s in Liguria; we were helping with the annual olive picking. When he told us he’d be putting us up in the “ghost’s room”—where other guests had felt a presence, and allegedly even seen one once—Tina and I were excited for such a spooky accommodation.
She had woken me then, terrified, clutching our then-baby daughter in her arms and begging me to switch the light on because she was staring at her. I felt the cold,
and I felt that gaze. As I complied, we both clearly saw the completely black figure of a woman sliding sideways and, like a sheet of paper, slipping into the half-closed closet with a screeching, eardrum-piercing hiss. I didn’t smell any flowery odor that time—or maybe I was just too scared to breathe.
Had that been our only encounter, I think we both would have tried to stay away from ghosts as much as possible, and indeed for some years we didn’t encourage
my wife’s gift. But then the other incident happened, the one with the little girl, and since that night Tina had been looking forward to the next time.
And now, in her focus, in her bright bewitched eyes, I see that she feels next time is near.