Archive for the ‘!What’s New!’ Category

Winners of the 2021 !Short Story Contest!

Monday, September 6th, 2021

Never one to waste time,
the winners are:


Safe Air
by Mike Wilson


by Eris Young
Echo of Hollow Hooves
by Rachel Friedman

What a contest.

Some of our strongest writing, ever, and every single finalist received a Judge Vote. “Safe Air” was the run-away winner, with a vote from every judge, and three Grand Prize votes.

In the 75 days since we announced the finalists on June 14th, we have received 4,210 hits from 2,118 unique IPs.

Though Fan Voting didn’t have the usual turnout– there were only 63 cast!– the voting was especially interesting. We had a tie for the second runner up, so both received a half vote. Remember, each vote cast results in three votes, hence the screwy percentages…


“Safe Air”
by Mike Wilson
with 39 votes.

by Ale Malick
with 37 votes.

by Eris Young
with 27 votes
“Echo of Hollow Hooves”
by Rachel Friedman
with 27 votes

I told you vote often!

View How the Judges Voted

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Last 16 hours of Fan Voting 2021 !Short Story Contest!

Saturday, September 4th, 2021

That’s right, you have but hour left to


for your three favorite stories.

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A Gift from Zhino, the Kurdish Translator at Kara Tepe Refugee Camp: pt. IV.

Wednesday, September 1st, 2021


And on that morning
Zhino asked about the mascara dripping down my cheeks.
Wondered why my eyes were swollen red.
I told her of the I’m sorry’s of the morning,
how I had no shoes
that fit the feet I held in the palms of my hands.

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A Gift from Zhino, the Kurdish Translator at Kara Tepe Refugee Camp: pt. III.

Sunday, August 29th, 2021

by Marianne Peel

And on that morning
Zhino, the Kurdish translator,
brought her mother into the shop.
Wanted to show me this matriarch
who had clutched the side of the raft
with all her strength and stamina
as they crossed the treacherous sea
between Turkey and Lesvos.

And on that morning
this matriarch would lay on a gurney
while the surgeon carved a tumor
out of her brain.

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A Gift from Zhino, the Kurdish Translator at Kara Tepe Refugee Camp: pt. II.

Wednesday, August 25th, 2021

by Marianne Peel

And that morning
I had no shoes to offer
the family from Syria.
Had only flip flops three sizes too big
for the husband

       clownish shoes, good only for
       seeking a laugh
       from a choreographed stunt or fall.

And I had no maternity underwear
to offer the wife
whose belly swelled beneath her burqa.
And I had no hijab to offer.
The head coverings plastic bin was empty.

She desired a deep green hijab
with gold threads.
Wanted to drape the fabric
around her face, bring the green flecks of light
out of her eyes.

And I had no football shoes for the daughter,
who showed me how her left foot
was stronger than her right,
kicking an invisible soccer ball with one foot
then the other.

And I had no socks for the baby.
Toes cold before the morning sun
warmed everything,
even the rocks
at the roots of the olive trees.

On that morning,
I was bursting with no
in answer to everything this family needed.
My mouth was full of I’m sorry
and this is all we have
and I wish I had more to give you
and I’m sorry your feet are hurting
navigating all the rocks in this olive grove.
Shoes broken,
exposed feet spilling onto crooked rocks,
unable to gain balance. 

I could not keep my eyes from crying.
So many I’m sorry’s tumbled out of my mouth.

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A Gift from Zhino, the Kurdish Translator at Kara Tepe Refugee Camp: pt. 1

Monday, August 23rd, 2021

by Marianne Peel


That morning
an orange tabby
darted out of the shoe room,
scrabbled over my feet.
and exited out of the back of the tent.

In the shoe room,
she had given birth to five kittens
and throughout the day
in between refuges seeking shoes and clothing
when translations from Farsi or Urdu or Arabic were silent,

the mother cat clenched her newborns
around the scruff of the neck
teeth sunk in just enough to secure the hold
and carried them out into the field behind the shop,
one by one.

By noon, she burrowed a nest of kittens in the long grasses.
There, the song of the mourning doves lullabied her babies to sleep,
eyes closed tight, secure and unafraid,
Mama feline standing guard,
ears pricked for intruders.

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Fan Voting is now open

Sunday, August 22nd, 2021


Vote Here
As our fresh content posts throughout the Fall, a link to the voting page will active on
our Retro Navigation Panel,
somewhere around

<——————— here.

Speaking of fresh content,
here is our Autumnal Publication Lineup:

Monday, August 23rd

A Gift from Zhino, the Kurdish Translator at Kara Tepe Refugee Camp pt. 1
by Marianne Peel

Wednesday, August 25th

A Gift from Zhino pt. 2

Sunday, August 29th

A Gift from Zhino pt. 3

Wednesday, September 1st

A Gift from Zhino pt. 4

Saturday, September 4th


Sunday, September 5th

A Gift from Zhino pt. 5

Monday, September 6th

Winners Announced for the 2021 !Short Story Contest!

Wednesday September 8th

A Gift from Zhino pt. 6

Sunday, September 12th

Still Life
by Marianne Peel

Wednesday, September 15th

Career Man
by Chantelle Tibbs

Daily Publication from September 19th until October 26th

Famous Last Wishes
by Tom Ball

Sunday, October 31st

Digital Halloween Party
with the Defenestrationism Team

Wed, November 3rd

Try and Be Kind
by Chantelle Tibbs

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The Echo of Hollow Hooves

Sunday, August 15th, 2021

by Rachel Friedman

“Aisling,” the dark voice said. It was frightening, and yet as familiar as a lullaby.

Aisling didn’t bother to move. This had happened a hundred times before, so she knew that she was dreaming. When she finally awoke in the gray dampness that preceded the sunrise, her limbs were as clamped as though they had been in restraints all night. This, too, was nothing new.

When she was a child, she had wondered about these dreams. Her mother, distracted by the demands of being the housewife in charge of more than her fair share of chores on their boggy farm, had once assured her that they were nothing. By the time that Aisling had wished for a second opinion, Jacob had gotten into his accident, and then almost no one paid attention to Aisling at all.

In that harsh land, people died young, although they might not die quickly. Jacob and Aisling’s parents were long gone, but Aisling, although almost perpetually bent from the work, still tried to grow crops in their fields, and Jacob still sat in his chair by the fire. The fall that had injured his spine had apparently left him fit for doing little else.

It was a hard, solitary life, which was subject to only two interruptions, although only one of them was welcomed. This was the pub, where countless generations of gaunt and cheerless hosts employed their children to hand over earthenware mugs of beer to every person in the village for a penny. The quality of the beer changed with each successive owner, but it was always eagerly sought after and quickly drunk. After all, nobody actually bought it for the taste. They wanted the warmth of it, the way it could lighten their spirits, and for any pleasant hallucinations the alcohol might bring.

Sometimes, however, when the bar was almost pleasantly in swing, and some of the adults had just begun to try out tunes that they had never properly known, the sound of vast, hollow hoofbeats would fill the air, and then they would know that the other interruption had arrived.

It was bad luck to see the Wild Hunt. People often said that this was why they seemed to have bad luck all their lives, for the Wild Hunt was impossible to miss. Nobody had ever seen it clearly, but this might have been because few of them ever tried. The procession of ghostly horses and riders trailing the silent, leaping hounds was all that people were willing to identify, although sometimes people would get close enough to report a glimpse of fiery, rolling eyes and the drooling, gnashing mouths laden with needlelike teeth. It was hard to believe that such creatures existed, but they did.

Forget any local mutterings about the Devil or Divine punishment. Everyone knew that the floods, the fevers, the poor crops, and every other misery imaginable was all due to the witchcraft and general ill-wishing generated by the Wild Hunt. This belief was admittedly supported by the occasional phrases uttered by the Hunt that were overheard by luckless farmers. The remarks were always issued by the leader of the Hunt; none of the others uttered a sound, not even the animals. Perhaps they remained silent out of respect, or perhaps, some people said darkly, the Hunter had removed their tongues to prevent such interruptions.


Aisling seldom had the time to go to the pub, although she dutifully took Jacob there every evening and pushed him back in his rough wheeled chair just before she went to bed. She liked the idea of temporary obviation as much as everyone else, but her chore list was too long to allow her to indulge in such a minor luxury. It was possible that she resented this, but she never said so, and no one thought to ask her.

Perhaps it was because she had never managed to drink enough to ruin her looks, but Aisling was considered to be the prettiest woman in the village. With her rust-colored curls and mild hazel eyes, she was more striking than dainty, but in a drab, damp, village, this only made her seem more remarkable. This never seemed to cause any contention among the other ladies. If Aisling had given herself airs, there might possibly have been some trouble, but she surveyed the world with the same tired eyes and slumped shoulders as the other women. She blended in so well that the ladies seldom bothered to think of her in particular, except to think that her hair sometimes added a touch of much-needed color to the landscape.

Apparently not all of the men experienced the same exhausted indifference to Aisling as the women did, for one night, when Aisling was taking him home, Jacob excitedly told her that she had just become engaged. Her response, understandably, was to tell him that he was too drunk to know that such jokes were not humorous.

“I’m not joking,” Jacob said, insulted. “Malcolm- the pub owner’s eldest son- worked up the courage to ask tonight. He said that if you married him, his whole family agreed to take both of us in. I accepted on your behalf. It’s a chance for both of us to do better. They’re the best-off people in the village, you know, with a good weatherproof house and far less work to do than the rest of us. You’ll inherit the bar alongside Malcolm, and we’ll never have to worry about another bad harvest.”

Aisling stopped walking. “You didn’t ask me,” she said, her voice low and tight.

“I’m your closest male relative, it’s all proper. And besides, how could you not be pleased?”

There didn’t seem to be anything else to say about the matter.


The people in the vicinity seemed to have as pessimistic view of marriage as they had of everything else in life, but they did like weddings. Weddings came with the potential of a free spectacle, refreshments, and music, even if the bread was occasionally stale, the beer scarce, and the sole musician remarkably unmusical. For the wedding of the brewer’s eldest son, they expected the offering to be rather higher. By popular demand, the ceremony was to be held in the evening, when the chores would in theory be completed and everyone could come and enjoy themselves. The excitement was so great that they almost forgot the bride.

A few of the women did offer to help Aisling dress, which the bride seemed to think was an unexpected kindness. In actuality, however, there was very little to do. Aside from a wash in a hip-bath full of tepid water, Aisling just had to dress herself in her best clothing, a slightly frayed dress which still held a hint of its original green dye. One girl had managed to find a few rare wildflowers for Aisling’s bouquet, although the scraggly blooms somehow looked out of place with her attire. Her groom had not thought of buying her a new dress; perhaps he had believed that it would be improper to do so, or had lacked the time. Their engagement had lasted all of three weeks. It might even have been shorter had it not been for the fact that was the length of time it had taken them to brew the wedding beer.

Aisling walked to the ceremony alone. The priest, as everyone had expected, was already drunk when she arrived. But before he could begin, there came the sound of the dreaded hollow hooves.

Everyone froze, or almost everyone. Defying all that she had been taught, Aisling alone turned around and looked at the Wild Hunt. As if in response to her acknowledgement, the Hunter leaned down from his horse and stretched his hand out towards her. “Come,” he said. His dark, frightening voice only held a faint resemblance to a man’s, but Aisling brightened up as though she knew him. She stretched out her hand to grasp his. Malcolm only just managed to knock it away before she could touch him.

“Aisling,” Jacob cried out, “don’t be a fool; this is no time to suddenly run mad. This is your wedding day, the happiest day of our lives. And besides, everyone knows that the Hunter and his followers are evil.”

Aisling turned to look at him. Her eyes were still the same mild hazel that they had always been, but now they were flashing like stars. Her face was pale with rage. “Evil he may be,” she snapped, “but at least the Hunter had the decency to give me a choice once he had chosen me.” And with that parting shot, she stretched out her hand once more. Ghostly fingers reached out and gripped hers.

The party stood there in shock as the sound of the demonic horses’ hooves died away. No one ever saw Aisling again.

FAN VOTING begins next week, Sunday August 22nd

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The Last Will and Testament of Reginald von Elbin

Sunday, August 8th, 2021

by Nicholas Poe

They tore apart Master von Elbin’s furnishings with an animalistic ferocity. Less than two weeks since his passing and his two children, if the scoundrels could be called that, broke the legs of his favorite dining chair and cut through the window curtains with a knife. They seemed to enjoy the spectacle while the ghost of Master still hung over the house.

I suppose our situations shouldn’t be compared. They didn’t have to watch Master’s eyes widen in fear and his thin, pale fingers clutch at his throat. They didn’t see Master fall from his chair, his fist dragging the tablecloth with him. They didn’t watch helplessly as the light dimmed in Master’s eyes.

Thinking about it now sends chills along my spine. But they didn’t see any of that.

The house should belong to them, but it never would. Even when they lived here, they did not belong. Rage bubbled inside me as I watched them peruse Master’s belongings after they left him so alone for so long. How often did I hear Master longing for them, wanting nothing more than his children to be home and happy? But they forsook his love and his devotion. They proved unworthy of this house.

“Look at this,” one of them, Leslie, said as she held a crystal goblet. The finest drinkware, imported from Paris, and it cost my Master a small fortune. “How pretentious, right? Who needs to drink out of something like this?”

She held it above her head and the light from the chandelier spread twinkling golden rays around the dining room. One of them passed in front of my eyes, blinding me momentarily. When I looked again the other monster, Reggie – as he deigned to be called instead of his princely given name, Reginald – grabbed golden candlesticks from the top of the fireplace and tossed them over his shoulder with no regard for their delicacy.

“Kinda makes you want to smash it, right?” Leslie said and my blood ran cold. She wouldn’t dare.

Reggie chuckled. “Be my guest.”

“Naw, someone will buy it.” She added the goblet to the pile with the candlesticks and I longed to retrieve it, to polish the smudges and wrap it in the linen cloth Master kept on hand.

“Remember when we were kids and dad made us wear ties to the dinner table?” Leslie said. She paced across the center of the room, staring at the chandelier above her, the way the soft gold crinkled into leaves and snaked like vines around the spindly arms. Then her eyes brushed past me for only a second. If only she could see the glare I fixed on her.

“I remember the one time I didn’t and he threw a fork at me,” Reggie answered.

“So crazy.”

It was a spoon and you deserved it, I mumbled to myself. Technically, they were my masters now, if they ever accepted the position, and I had to honor that until they, inevitably, consigned me to the junk pile with the candlesticks.

“It’s just like the old man to die and leave all of this crap for us to deal with.” Reggie dug his fingers under an ornamental clock fixed to the wall, but it would not budge. Well, at least that was one thing I saved from this reign of desolation. “Like, he couldn’t have cleaned up a little? All of that money and he couldn’t hire a maid?”

Why would Master need a maid when he had me? Did I not care for him? Well, his children never saw that.

“That would be too easy. And somehow beneath him, I’m sure,” Leslie answered.

“What wasn’t beneath him?”

“The chandelier.”

Reggie chuckled again and left the clock alone. I never particularly cared for the clock, the maroon trimmings failed to accentuate the deep colors of the wood and detracted from the grandeur of the piece, but Master loved it. I would catch him in here staring at the clock for hours, almost as if he watched the actual time pass in every movement of the ebony hands, praying that one of the ticks would bring his children home.

“I know dad was a dick,” Leslie said. “But why haven’t I heard from you? It’s been, what, ten years?”

Reggie’s shoulders sunk and he spun a fruit bowl against his calloused palm. The sound – like a rough cloth on a glass window – caused my shoulder’s to clench. The bowl wobbled and tottered, but still he spun it. Put that down before it drops, I almost screamed at him.

“I don’t know,” he said.

“You hated dad, fine. I get that. But did you hate me, too?”

“What?” Reggie shook his head. “Of course not, L.”

“Because it seemed like you did.” She crossed her arms and leaned against the fireplace, watching him pace next to his father’s favorite spot at the table. “When you left, it was just me and him. All of his anger at you, all of his fear, all of that came down on me. I kept expecting you to care. To come back and, I don’t know, save me or something. To take me away, too. But no. You never came back and you never even bothered to call me.”

“I don’t know what to say.” Reggie ran a hand through his hair. “I couldn’t think about…any of this. This house, him, even you. I couldn’t do it. It’s killing me to even be in here right now.”

As it should. Neither of them deserved to be in this house. I remember watching Master in a rage after Reggie left and he shattered an entire set of 18th century glasses – threw them straight through the stained glass of an expertly painted window. I remember his fear every day that Leslie would follow her brother out and, two years later, when she did, that almost killed him. Master deserved better.

For years, I prayed for the children’s return. Despite my hatred, I longed to see my Master smile again. To see them together, happy and at peace, that was all that Master ever wanted. Why couldn’t they see how much he cared for them? How he wanted nothing but the best for them? Since they were children, he pushed them and forced them to be the best they could be. Out of love. Out of admiration. Out of an intimate knowledge of how great they could be if they only cared a little. And they repaid him by breaking his heart. For shame.

“Uh oh,” Leslie said with her head inside of Master’s wine cabinet. “Look what I got.”

She held a bottle of wine, one of the nicest in the collection, by its neck and lofted it over her head. Reggie turned away from the window and smiled.

“Now we’re talking,” he said.

Together, they sat at the table, talking and joking about their childhood and about Master as the bottle passed back and forth.

“Remember that time you painted on the wall in the study?” Leslie asked. “That large…what was it? A T-rex?”

“It was a dragon. A green one that breathed fire.” Reggie smiled as he gazed out the window. “Ironically, seeing it turned dad into a fire-breathing dragon.”

“God, I’ve never seen him so mad.”

“Oh yeah? What about that time you knocked over the vase in the entryway?” Reggie asked.

Leslie’s face flushed and she sank back in her chair. “Oh no, I had forgotten about that.”

Reggie laughed with his head thrown back. He grabbed the wine and drank straight from the bottle. Like a heathen.

That might have been the best day of my life,” Reggie said. “Dad was mad at you for once.”

“What do you mean? He was always mad at me!”

“Oh, please.” Reggie took another drink and waved his hand at her. “Miss perfect grades and piano prodigy. Miss never did anything wrong. Meanwhile, I walked with a limp because I got a few C’s on every report card.”

“I just…I wanted to make him happy,” Leslie said. “I also wanted to make you proud.”

A splotch of red blossomed on her cheek and she took the wine bottle back.


“I thought you were so brave and so cool. The way you stood up to him like I never could.” She shook her head and the wine sloshed inside the bottle. Half empty now. They wasted Master’s favorite bottle.

“I only stood up to him because I was so jealous of how much he loved you,” Reggie muttered to the table. “He never cared about me like that. The way his eyes lit up when he watched you play the piano or sing or whatever else you were perfect at.”

“Are you kidding?” Leslie leaned forward. “I had to do that to get him to care about me. You didn’t have to do anything and he adored you! You should have seen how he acted after you left. Of course, he wouldn’t let me see, but he cried in his office for about a week.”

“Really?” Wrinkles in Reggie’s face lessened as his eyes brightened. “I…I guess I never knew that.”

“Oh yeah, he loved you so much, even despite all the crap you pulled. I could never live up to that.”

He loved you both, you monsters! I wanted desperately to shout at them as they sat at his table, drinking his wine. After all they did to him, after how they hurt him, and they had the audacity to complain! To flaunt his gifts and spurn his care. To come back here only after he died.

But when I looked at them, I could only see them as children. Reggie with his indestructible cowlick and unceasing reservoir of energy. How many times did I watch him bounce through this room, sprinting in circles around his father’s legs? The child only ever stopped to see if his father was watching. And he always was.

And Leslie, with her ponytail so blonde it was almost white. She sat in this room, reading books so intently by the fire that she practically memorized every one. Her eyes were so bright I thought they could see into my very soul.

How I loved them. How we both did. And they broke our hearts when they left.

But they came back and they were here. I smiled. I couldn’t help it.

Leslie stood up and started to pace the room, the bottle sat forgotten in the middle of the table.

She stopped, inches from my face. Those eyes were the same. Piercing. Unafraid. Still, they could see into my very essence.

“Hey, remember this thing?” she called to Reggie who glanced over his shoulder.

“Oh yeah. What did he call her? Martha?”


Mother Margaret, I thought. I helped build this house when your father was not even hoped for. Years I have watched as generation after generation of von Elbins grew in these rooms. Never sleeping, never tiring, only watching and helping as I could.

“I always kind of hated it,” Reggie said. “I thought her face looked weird. Like someone pinched it.”

“I don’t know,” Leslie said. “I never noticed how kind her eyes were.”

“Yeah, well. I didn’t spend too much time looking at old paintings if I’m being honest. There’s like a million of them in here.”

“True. Dad always really loved this one for some reason, though. Maybe it reminded him of someone,” Leslie said.

A smile spread across Reggie’s face as he glanced from me to the window. That same look he always had before ruining another one of Master’s possessions.

“How about we piss him off one last time?” he asked.

“Oh?” Leslie asked.

Reggie dug his fingers under my frame, I could practically smell his breath in my face, and carried me to the window. With one hand, he pushed it open and the gentle breeze rushed through the room. For a split second I could see his face. That old joy lived in his eyes, subdued but waiting. He grunted and heaved me out the window. As I fell the two stories to the earth, I could hear them laughing together in the dining room. My old room.

They were together. And they were happy. Wasn’t that what Master always wanted? 

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Turning Back the Clocks

Sunday, August 1st, 2021

by J.B.Polk 

It was a cold February night of crackling snow and exploding bonfire sparks. Pines poked accusing fingers at the star-spangled sky and the wind carried the insane laughter of a lone wolf. The men standing around the fire rubbed their hands and stamped their feet, their breath trailing in gauzy clouds.

” On a night like this, all one could wish for is a warm cabin, a glass of vodka, and the soft body of a woman to hold onto,” one of them, a thickset man bundled in a sheepskin coat, said.

“On a night like this, one would like to turn back the clocks,” another man added.

“Well said, Vania. Turn back the clocks. But…how far back?” the thickset man asked.

“How far? Different for each one of us, I suppose. As for myself, I’d go back to my wedding day. Masha, bless her soul, was so pretty back then – plump and warm like an oven-baked apple. Yes, I’d give five, no, ten years of my life to see her again. Just as she was on that day: wearing a blue dress, a flowery scarf with tassels…Lost all her plumpness in the siege of Stalingrad, hardly more than a skeleton, starved to death, poor soul…” his voice trailed into silence.

An owl yawned a sleepy hoot in the darkness and the chortling of the wolf seemed to have come a little closer.

“And you, Alyosha, where’d you like to be? Where would your clock stop?” Vania enquired of the thickset man.

Alyosha breathed on his hands and huddled himself against the cold.

“1936. The best year ever. Harvest time. The sunshine was shearing down between the gold stalks of wheat as I took off my shirt and lay down on the stubble. A breeze licked the sweat off my skin. Mother brought me a pot of stew, with chunks of meat and barley. And bread – warm and sticky. Thick slices of rye that smelt of wood smoke. Nothing smells better than fresh bread. And there is no better feeling than the pressure of a sickle handle in one’s hand – smooth, tight, as if sculpted into the flesh. Yes…If I could, I’d go back to the fields and the harvest of that year.”

The roaring fire leapt and ate up the logs while snowflakes pirouetted in the air then fell into the flames with a hiss.

“And you, Doctor?” Vania addressed the third man. He was tall and stocky, with stooped shoulders and a face crinkled into crepe by the cold. His hands had the tendency to creep to the bridge of his nose as if to pull up non-existent spectacles.

“How far back would you go? Supposing there was a machine that could take you back, what time would you choose?”

Doctor gazed intently into the flames, two bonfires reflecting in his myopic pupils. He lifted his chin. A shiver ran across his features rendering his likeable face suddenly hard and unforgiving.

“Back in Georgia, we had a saying: if the roof’s rotten, change it and you’ll save the house. If the rot settles on the walls – change houses,” he said.

The two other men exchanged puzzled glances.

“You forget we’re peasants, Doctor,” Vania said and prodded at the fire with a stick.

“We think simple thoughts and speak simple words. So we cannot follow your fancy talk.”

Doctor smiled.

“I see you want a story, Vania. Very well. You´ll have a story.”

He shifted his feet, pulled up the collar of the coat and his hands went again to the bridge of the nose before dropping quietly to the sides like homing doves.

“As you know, I was born in Georgia. Beautiful and perfect Georgia – your mother, your father, your child. Your life. Goats’ cheese in Georgia is fresh and white, peaches are so ripe they burst under the slightest touch and a glass of Georgian wine goes straight to your head. What more can a man ask for?

“It happened more than fifty years ago in Gori. Summer had settled for good and my friends and I spent our days swimming in the river, eating apples and plums, and lazing in the sun. Life was good in Gori.

” When you are 12 years old, the world is free of suppositions and hypotheses. It is a real world with reals things and no place for uncertainty. I didn’t know it then, but I know it now.

“There were three of us. Juri, the postmaster’s son, Joseph, or Black Joe as we called him, the son of the local cobbler and me. My father was a teacher, someone who, you could say, belonged to the pre-revolution elite because of his education.

“I can hardly remember Juri now, but I remember Black Joe well, just as he was at that time: a mop of dark hair and a smirk permanently glued to his lips. His irises were so black that the colour seemed to leak into the whites, melting and nearly doubling the size of the pupils and there was something akin to a menace in his stare.

“Black Joe was ambitious and always craved attention. At school and elsewhere, he always had the right flattering words. But I sensed he was not sincere. His handshake was limp and I felt he didn’t really like us all that much – we simply seemed to serve his purpose.

” Every day, the three of us would meet in front of the post office and, putting together a few kopecks, we´d buy raisins and nuts. I never knew how Joe managed to get the daily contribution because his father was poor. But contribute he did, and his sweaty palms yielded the shiny coin grudgingly as if parting with it produced a secret ache.

“Our route never varied. From the post office, we´d go to the square, past the onion-domed church, across a grassy hillock to the river. We´d stay on the bank chatting, swimming, throwing mud bombs at each other. That day was not different – just a hot lazy afternoon. Apart from our shouting, everything else was quiet. The sun was slowly creeping down towards the horizon and we only had enough time for one last dip to wash off the dry blades of grass and blobs of mud before it got completely dark.

“Black Joe dove in first. Juri and I splashed in with laughter right after. I was a good swimmer – my father said I had to work on my body as well as on my mind. One never knows, he said, what might come in handy. Time proved him right.

“Juri swam back to the bank while Black Joe had just reached the middle of the river. I could hear his heavy breathing. His movements were getting slower. And all at once, he began flailing his arms, gasped for air, shrieked, flailed some more, then sank.

“On the bank, Juri was screaming. I knew I had to get to Joe, or he’d drown. In a few strokes, I reached the spot where he’d disappeared. The surface was unruffled. No sign of a struggle. No sign of Joe. I remembered what my father had said about rescuing a drowning man – “don’t panic, don’t lose your head.” I concentrated. I was in charge.

“Joining the tips of my fingers in a prayer-like gesture, I went right to the bottom. The river was greyish green with slimy plants grabbing at me from below. I spotted a shape, like a felled tree trunk lying on the shaly bed. It was Joe. Kicking my feet once more, I reached him, put my arms around his waist, and pulled him to the surface.

“He was not moving, the curly op of hair plastered over his eyes. Just behind me, I could hear the water splash – Juri was swimming towards us. Together, we struggled to the shore. Joe was not breathing and a dead weight in our arms. His face and lips were blue – the colour of the blueberry jam I used to have for breakfast.

“I took a deep breath and blew it into Joe’s mouth. Juri massaged his heart but there was no sign of life. Although we kept working on him, I had to fight back revulsion. It was as if I were kissing a corpse – unfeeling and cold.

“He’s dead,” Juri mumbled.

For a fleeting moment, I wanted to give up, leave the thing that didn’t seem to be Joe anymore. I lifted my eyes and I saw that the sun was nearly gone. A searing flash of shame shot through me and I realized that I couldn’t stop no. I had to try harder.

“I counted to three and with all my might smashed my fist on Joe´s chest, on his heart. He convulsed. Jets of water spurted out of his mouth, the eyelids fluttered. Juri and I resumed – pumping air into his lungs, rubbing his limbs, pressing on his stomach. Joe opened his eyes – the dark pools unfocused like a cheap camera. Juri slapped his face hard, and Joe sat up retching. More water gushed out. He gulped air.

“I have never been one to believe in premonitions – my father believed in science and taught me to rely on facts only. But looking at Joe, at his quivering shoulders and blue lips, I felt a stab of fear. Fear and regret. It was silly, why would I regret having saved his life? Juri was shouting excitedly and patting Joe’s back. I said nothing. The diminishing spark of the sun got smaller and smaller until it finally went off like a wet candlewick.

“It was the last summer we spent together. My father sent me to Sochi to study. I became a doctor, got a job in a hospital, married, my kids were born. Then the Great War came. I have never seen my friends again. But the strange apprehension, the weird feeling of regret has never left me. The image of Black Joe, just as I had seen him in the river, the eyes dilated with terror, arms flailing, resurfaced in my mind time and time again.”

The crunching of the snow announced someone’s approach.

“Kirigasvili, the commandant wants you,” the newcomer ordered.

“Right now.”

Doctor turned and shuffled heavily in the deep snow following the soldier´s springy step. Like black slashes on a white canvas, barracks emerged from the thick milky blizzard. The soldier motioned him in with a thrust of the rifle butt.

Inside, it was stifling hot. The air stunk of cigar smoke and sweat-soaked valonki – the Red army-issue boots. The man sitting behind a desk beckoned for him to come closer. He looked like an amateur boxer with a stubby, squashed nose and a small razor nick on the right cheek. Despite the heat, he wore an astrakhan hat. A sheaf of papers lay in front of him, and he scanned them briefly.

“Well, Kirigasvili. What can I say? I have bad news for you,” preliminaries were not something he cared for.

“Your appeal to the Supreme Court has been rejected. Comrade Joseph Stalin has not granted his pardon. It seems we need you here, in the camp. You are an excellent doctor, and it looks like we can’t do without your education and experience. Flattering, isn’t it?”

Doctor’s heart slammed against the ribs and a choking feeling, no, a big featureless block of feelings, exploded in his chest. He felt as he were falling, falling ten floors down from the very top of a building to the cement below where he would smash into pieces. But despite all of that, he accepted the verdict with an eery calm.

“You can go back. There’s nothing else,” the soldier ordered.

Doctor kept his unblinking stare on  the green uniform, the golden stars on the epaulettes, showing neither fear nor sadness.

“I should have let him drown,” he whispered  in a flat tone. “I should have let him drown.”

“What? What did you say?” the officer inquired.

“Black Joe. He should not have lived. My fault. All my fault.”

Without another word, he marched out of the barrack, the unhurried walk gradually changing to a fast stride then to a canter, until he reached the warm embrace of the fire.

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