Her Aria

The newspaper sat uselessly in his hands. The paper rustled as the mid-morning breeze bustled in through the open kitchen window, gracing the table he sat at – his home-cooked breakfast all but untouched – for just a moment. His eyes were thick with tears. His lips trembled and he coughed once, twice, three times. The tickle remained. His dressing gown was matted with raw egg, patches of congealed yellow looking like snot or worse. His glasses slid down his nose, the tears now leaking freely from his eyes, but he didn’t move to catch them.

Music played from outside. Whether outside his house or just outside his kitchen, he didn’t know. His ears had begun to ring. The music was a low, sleepy aria that hummed with the force of a bagpipes low drone – though far sweeter to the ear. It sounded like an angel’s song, her last call into the mortal world before she vanished forever. He thought of Moira, his wife, and how she’d adore the music. She never played it in the house, not anymore. She had grown protective over her precious arias.

He tapped the back of his neck, the muscles there tightening and squeezing on his throat. It ached unnaturally, like a spectre of long gone guilt was there in the bright yellow kitchen with him, choking him from behind. He coughed again, once, twice, three times. He smiled on the last cough, bringing his hands to the rough patch of beard he’d managed to grow along the flabby gizzard of his neck. As if a ghost would stand next to the bananas in the middle of the day. But still the feeling in his neck grew tighter, more constricted. The newspaper fell from his hands, the wind scattering the pages free of the checkered table cloth his wife had hand sown two summers before. A section stuck to the table, mired in a trench of egg and tomato sauce.

His lips were dry. When he flicked his tongue free of his mouth he winced, it was just as dry, just as horribly, horribly dehydrated as his lips. The feel of dry flesh on dry flesh sent spasms of pain down the length of his neck. He reached for the mug of coffee on the table and glugged a luke-warm mouthful. His lips stayed moist for a second, his tongue even less. He moved his mouth, trying to call out, but his words deserted him, betrayed him, and left him silent in the kitchen haunted by the aria from outside.

Panic became a strange bedfellow then. He’d never in his life met the ghoul that inhabited his body now. His breaths were short. His heart thump, thump, thumped like a hare caught in a hunter’s trap against his chest. He heard the feeling laugh in his ear, just a soft moan by his left lobe and he knew in that second – that clarifying second – that Karma in all its Hindu glory was real. He felt the weight of an overweight man on his front, the pressure in his neck the kerb of a dimly lit street. He struggled with his belt buckle, his entire body feeling too full, too full, too full. And then, like the Angel singing the aria, she walked into the kitchen.

“Moira,” he gasped, his hands so slick with sweat that they slipped from the table and threw him to the floor. But it didn’t sound like her name. It was the final moans of a dying animal, the vowels the same but the consonants were cut up and drawn out, their blood and entrails staining the kitchen floor. She didn’t stop. She walked to the window and shut it tight against the wind. He tried to say her name again, like it was all a dream and he just needed her to hear him. He tried to say her name again but the pressure in his neck grew so tight that he heard the faintest, softest click in his neck and his lips froze, mid-part, in a horrid ‘o’.

Moira picked up the newspaper and sat by the kitchen table she’d loving decorated. The aria grew in tempo, in emotion, in volume, filling the house again with its haunting melody.

No longer scared sing.

The Hope of Strawberries

It wasn’t that it was sunset – though the golden hues that decorated the plain horizon reminded her of the quiet changing of autumn leaves – as it was the end of her day. She sat with her knees bundled beneath folds of blankets. Fresh strawberries sat on a porcelain plate on the boundary between night and day, a line that was slowly creeping forward like the advancing lines of a contemptuous foe. She’d brought the plate from home. It wasn’t particularly special, though, it had to be said, she didn’t give any credence to the taste of strawberries either. But each of them, the plate and the strawberries, felt necessary somehow. Like she had no choice. She had to bring them with her. Here. To the very limit of her own territory.

An owl watched her curiously. He had been eyeing up a harvest mouse a moment or so ago but the little thing had scurried away at the sound of his wings flapping. Now, hungry and irritated, the owl watched the woman watch the world and wondered what the human word was for Oostaphan.

She wrapped a third blanket around her shoulders and buried her nose in its smell. Laundry detergent, cigarette smoke and something else all mixed together into a lacy concoction that made her head swim. She felt that now was an appropriate time to cry. She didn’t. But she felt like, had she wanted to, now would be an excellent time to let go of a few tears – if only to stop the aching behind her nose. But no, she wouldn’t cry. She couldn’t. So, she plucked a strawberry from the little plate and bit into it instead. Stray juice ran down her lips and galloped for her chin. Wild and free the juice ran hard and fast, knowing that if it could just reach horizon it could be free. But the woman’s hand was too quick. With a gentle whoosh stirring the growing night air, she smoothed the juice from her face and threw the strawberry head down onto the grass.

The harvest mouse listened to its heart thrum in its ears, a furious angel song that whispered blessings and reprimands in equal measure. He knew he shouldn’t have strewn so far from the bracken. He’d known it. Every fibre of his being had begged the very sinew of his ligaments to stay hidden beneath the thorns. But that smell. Oh! That delicious smell! The harvest mouse was many things: a loyal borrower of straw, a heavy user of the snaking river, a viciously funny addition to any gathering of mice, and a gregarious singer in the correct company, but strong-willed against aromas as potently delicious as this one? No siree bob. He was not that. And still, even now, as the acid in his muscles was only beginning to slacken its grip, his nose was twitching, debating whether or not to make another dash for it.

She reached for the green stained bottle and relished the cool smooth curves of its body. The label was rough where the glass was smooth but she forgave it all the same. For, was she not right that it would taste as fabulous, regardless of label or glass or…fuck. Fuck, she swore beneath her bald dome, which pooled the moonlight in an untouchable pond of lunar white. Fuck, she clucked her tongue, stinging one of the sores in her gums. “Fuck,” she whispered white wisps of breath that drifted high above the advancing lines beneath. She’d forgotten to bring a glass.

The owl left its branch like a bolt of snowy lightening as it spied the pink feet of the hungry harvest mouse. The woman jumped, little white pills falling from her hand like hailstones, as the dying caw of the mouse zipped through the air – gunshot! – before returning it to silence. She didn’t understand the word, but the owl did. Curious, it thought to itself, that a harvest mouse would care so deeply as to lose its life in the hope of a strawberry.