by James Roderick Burns

(publishing December 5th)
How Walruses Live
(publishing December 6th)
I, Too, Am Cone
(publishing December 7th)



AS NIGHT FELL, a wind picked up in the harbour.  Fishing-boat lines rattled; gulls went screeching about the lanes.  His errands complete, the vicar of Northport sat warm – if regretful – opposite his friend, the bookseller.

‘Truly, Montague?  Whatever did you do?’

‘I’ve no time for details.’

‘It wouldn’t take long, surely?’

‘Well – one final cup, then.’


Reverend Rhodes was vicar of a large but sparsely-inhabited parish overlooking the sound.  Never married, he’d recently acquired a sixteen year old niece, orphaned by consumption, of whom – despite her manifold, bristling energies – he was yet fond.

Must you, Elinore?  There are handfuls of it all over the vicarage.’

‘Oh uncle, don’t be such a bothersome thing!  If I followed your star, my hair would be in the same state as these dreadful bushes!’

She made a series of strokes through her long, dark tresses.  He noticed she still held her head in the carefree manner of girlhood.  There were too few reminders of such times, and he wished to restore to their lives what modicum of stability they had formerly possessed.

She did, however, have a point about the shrubbery.


The following day he hunted up Fitzsimmons.

‘Did I not ask you to clip those overhanging – boughs, two weeks since?’

‘You did, sor, yes, and so I did.’  Fitzsimmons tamped tobacco into a wooden pipe rendered dark as basalt by long fingering.  ‘Twas an awful job, if you don’t mind me saying.’

Rhodes stood for a moment stroking the Piccadilly Weepers his niece could not get him to remove.

‘Show me.’


At both ends of the house the growth was thickest, a great hedge looming silently up, beetling over the gables, casting the garden into deep shade.  But neither end had windows, so there he had ordered no work.  Both front and back, however, mighty thorn-bushes encircled the house like wild Indians.

‘Here,’ spat the vicar.  ‘Here, and yet here.’

Fitzsimons nodded, white-faced at each gesture, as though at the salty trumps of doom.

‘Indeed, those were the exact spots, sor, which I pruned!  Half a dozen baskets.  A boy carted them off.  Gave him a nickel from my own pocket.’

Rhodes shook his head in consternation.

‘Told your niece of the work I did, sor.  She was kind enough to fetch me a glass of lemonade.’


Fitzsimons nodded, was dismissed.  Rhodes headed for the drawing-room.



It took a few moments for her to appear.  Again, the cursed brush!  He seized it.

‘I wish to speak to you about the bushes.’

‘Yes, Uncle Montague?’

‘You assisted Fitzsimmons.  How went the work?’

‘Oh, marvellously!  He chopped away like some great mechanical apparatus, and seemed so over-heated I was moved to take him a drink.’

‘Yes, but what of the work?  Did he progress – make his way, so to speak, from beginning to end?’

‘Oh, yes.’

‘Then why’ – he pointed at the window – ‘can light barely penetrate these infernal thickets?’

His niece was quiet for a moment.  ‘Well, Uncle, I don’t know.  But I shall find out.  Marcy, down in the hollow, has a relative who knows of such things.’

With a flounce of her skirts she retrieved the brush and left her uncle staring out of the window, a branch tapping now and then by his face.


A few nights later, he heard it once more: a damned and resolute tapping, as of fingers or the head of a walking-stick.  It was quite maddening.  Eventually the vicar rose and stumbled downstairs.  Where normally in summer he would expect the drawing room to be faintly outlined, now there was nothing; not even the humps of furniture, but solely an extent of window giving on the garden.  Behind the panes, like black cloud or clutches of wire, was a mass of thorn-bushes waving in silence.

He shuddered and retreated to bed.


The next morning, Rhodes set out to admonish his man.  But on entering the garden he stopped, amazed.  No thorn-bushes were to be seen.  Both sides of the house were clean as a freshly-shaven cheek.  Stone sparkled in the light; sun picked out thorn-heads in a pruned hedge flat as granite.

From the drawing-room came singing, the sounds of brush-strokes through hair.


It took some time before he regained his composure, but after ascertaining Elinore had indeed visited the hollow, and was well-disposed for the day, he took to the high-backed chair in his study and extinguished the lamp.  His niece offered to play for him, but was rebuffed.  In the silence and gloom, he endeavoured to understand the conundrum by thoroughly ignoring it.  His sermon for the following Sunday would help this understanding along.

Soon his mind wandered to the sparkle of light out on the sound, an occasional seal braving the harbour, walks through the woods leading to the vicarage.  In no time he was asleep.


At first, he believed a breeze must have disturbed his slumbers.  There came a long, wavering ticklishness about his neck, like the touch of delicate fingers, or the trailing leaves of a weeping willow.  He sat up, but in the gloom was constrained by some manner of soft binding.

Rhodes shook his head (was he still in the grip of a dream?) and managed to grasp his tinder-box.  Fingers that had lit a thousand pipes had the lamp alight in moments, and – ah!  In the rosy effulgence he saw this was no dream!  All around him, over arms and legs, coiled thickly like a serpent’s nest in his lap, was a river of black, writhing hair!  It shone with the dark glister of something unspeakable oozing from a hole, and sensing movement, looped about and laid course for his neck.

But where those vile tresses may have ended he could not say, for Rhodes cried out and fainted dead away.


The bookseller started.

‘Did you – learn anything, then, Montague?’

‘I did, sir.  Most assuredly I did.  Never let a witch do a gardener’s work!’

How Walruses Live

I MET HER in the Walgreen’s by the railroad station.  I had a few minutes to kill before the LIRR delivered my darling Abe from Wall Street, and rather than worrying over how many parlour-car scotches he might have consumed, I decided to browse the manicure section.  I never made it.  She was slumped with her pup beside the flying-elephant ride, crying as though it had swallowed their last nickel then refused to lift off.

‘Are you okay?’

I wasn’t sure how to address her.  ‘Dear’ or ‘honey’ didn’t seem to cut it.  She was quite a bit bigger than me, and though her skin was a nice russet brown, it was criss-crossed with tusk-marks.  Her boy was plump as a chestnut.  Each sob sent a sympathetic wave through the entire wobbly length of him.

She wiped away a tear before answering.

‘I – well, not really, but thank you for asking.’

I nodded.

‘I’m Bonnie.  New in town?’

She nodded back.

‘Just a few days, since my husband Claude hauled out in the harbour.  But where are my manners?’  She sniffed, wiped away another tear.  ‘I’m Lily, and this young man is Edward.  We’re from Nova Scotia.’  The pup poked his head out from beneath her flipper, his mouth a small round hole in a ball of fuzzy whiskers.  He grunted.  ‘We’ll be alright.’

But they weren’t; at least not then.


I caught a backhander next day for failing to drive him home.  Abe believes in discipline served cold.

‘Ten bucks taxi fare, Bee.  Ten!  That’s coming out of your housekeeping.  Now get outta my goddamn sight.’

There wasn’t much point prolonging the discussion, so I went back to the kitchen.  He’d drink himself to sleep in his La-Z-Boy soon enough, and I could catch up on my thinking.  The pup had bucked up a bit when I asked if he’d like an ice-cream float from the soda fountain.  We sat on opposite sides of a booth while he sucked it down.  She’d had a chance to fix her make-up, and her cheeks were a bit less shiny.

‘So what brings you down here?’

‘Well, my husband, you know – Claude – he felt the feeding grounds weren’t so great this year, and he’d heard you had nice clams in this part of the world, and so – well, that’s it, really.’  She dipped her head as this little speech went on.  Clams, my ass.

‘So it was his idea?’

She didn’t answer.  Little Edward came up for air with a rather satisfying belch.  She smiled, some missing light making it back into her eyes.  They were huge, pitch black.  I’d have killed for those lashes.

‘Look,’ I said, ‘this might be out of line, but we have a book group in town and you might like to come along, you know – get to know the ladies.’  I wrote down place and time for her on a napkin, not expecting her to show, but next week there she was, Edward in tow, wearing a pink jumper with a little enamel maple-leaf high up near the collar.

‘Come on in.’

I’d got Margie to bring out the biggest couch we had, but winced as she settled in amongst a battery of creaks.  It held, and she smiled around at the ladies as I introduced them.  We were discussing The Old Man and the Sea, and though she didn’t say much, I thought she might have some thoughts on that subject.  I stayed behind a bit, collecting glasses, then took her aside.

‘Glad you came.’

‘Thanks.  I enjoyed meeting your friends.’

I noticed she had a dark patch under one eye, and was holding her left flipper down by her side.

‘You know, there are rules about that kind of thing, nowadays.  They’re even enforced occasionally.’

She looked away, making an ineffectual effort to tidy away the bowls with her good flipper.  I reached over and turned her face back to mine.  It was warm, quivering, and had a curious stiff-bristle feeling along with the heat.

‘Do you want me to help?’

She shook her head.

‘I can’t.  Claude – ’

‘Oh fuck Claude, honey.  This is your life.  And his.’  Edward was chasing Margie’s dog ball through a patch of sunlight.  The floorboards groaned as he leapt and landed.  ‘Listen, you don’t need to do anything.  But let me know where I can reach you.’

She handed me her card and sniffed.

‘Edward,’ she said.  ‘We need to go now.’

As they went out she tried to stop herself looking back, but couldn’t.


I saw her now and again over the next few weeks: at the grocery store, the beauty parlour, one time lying in the shadow of the harbour bandstand watching her pup slipping in and out of the water.  I was kind of busy myself, so didn’t stop.  But I thought about her often.  In the end, it came in a phone call.  The timing couldn’t have been better.


The voice was small, hesitant, but I knew it was her.

‘Lily?  Where are you?’

‘By the harbour.  Edward’s holding the receiver so I can talk.’

There was a moment of confusion and she went away.  The sound of plastic clunking on metal, a series of urgent grunts.  Then she was back.  ‘I’m sorry, he dropped the thing, and – Bonnie?’

‘I’m here.’

‘Can you help us?’

I took a moment myself, taking inventory, and concluded what I’d managed to gather up to then would have to do.

‘Lily, listen – get to the bandstand, right now.  You know where I mean?’

‘How will I – ?’

‘Just be there.’

Twenty minutes later I pulled up in a U-Haul, the biggest truck they had.  I’d squeezed everything that mattered into the space above the cab – look at that, twenty years – and let down the ramp in the shadow of the bandstand.  Two sets of noses and tusks poked out.  I heard a small, timid grunt.

‘Hi,’ I said.  ‘Need a ride?’

I, Too, Am Cone

I HADN’T RETURNED to the Island in years, but when she called from beside the harbour, it all came back: strip-malls petering out into scrubland, roads without pavements, bottomless coffee and bagels piled high with green-olive cream cheese.  I heard boat-lines clinking, a plaintive gull’s call, and smiled.

‘Hello,’ she said.  ‘This is your wife.’

I looked at the phone.  I’m not in the habit of taking calls from that many consumer-protection lawyers with funny accents, especially ones who regard themselves as the lone American in a sea of sixty-seven million foreigners, so I waited.  ‘I’m by the harbour.  He’s – he’s gone, Michael.  I had to get out, take a walk, you know.  So I’m just wandering around.’

It was sad, but not unexpected.  Her father had been ailing for years, slipping away for weeks and at death’s door the day she flew back.  She wasn’t cold, exactly, but practical: a bundle of intertwined instincts from which a personality peeped, occasionally, like a seal breaking the surface.  Then she could be funny.  On our first date she dragged me half the length of Manhattan, repeatedly claiming it was only another block to the station.  A block is knocking on for a thousand feet.

‘Anna – I’m sorry.  What can I do?’

‘Nothing.  Just call later.  Broadband’s still on.  I’ll talk to you then.’  I went back to my screen with a hollow heart.  A bit of work might sort it out,  but this time the magic of transport planning failed to do the trick.

When I got to America, I could hardly wait to engage with my peers at the University of Bony Creek.  I’d studied the rise of suburbia – Levittown, the ubiquity of car culture – and rather than adding to some stack of dusty monographs, wanted to do something about it.  Missing pavements, for starters.  Instead I was met with five years’ worth of blank stares.

Still, there was Anna.  On our second date I took her to the graduate dorm.  She stood goggling at the squalor.  One of the math-nerds in the suite had punched a hole through the sheet-rock wall, taped up the Taj Mahal in fond hopes of avoiding a thousand-dollar fine.

How much does this cost you?’

A week later, we’d pooled our resources and moved to Huntington.

Now I imagined her up the road in Northport, where her dad had lived, picking up cleaning supplies and calling her sister.  None of it made things any better.

I walked over to the traffic department.  We’d been working on metered access to a new roundabout by the distribution centre, and Tommy was at the controls for this evening’s night-coning festivities.

‘Hey,’ I said, ogling his bank of screens.  ‘All good to go?’

Without turning round he curled a finger around the joystick, clicked a button.  Every monitor wheeled round into a single giant image of the unfinished roundabout, now the sole focus of Tommy’s massive compound eye.  Though littered with breeze-blocks and chunks of discarded kerbing, it still looked magnificent – clean as some undiscovered island laid bare by a storm.

‘Course.  Unlike you blueprint-monkeys, we work for a living.’

Tommy liked to affect a gruff exterior, but at heart he was a marshmallow – taking his mother to the theatre, baking his flatmates little cakes.

‘So what can I do you for?’

‘Oh nothing, really.  The old man finally slipped away.’

He grimaced and I filled him in.

‘Wanting cheering up, is she?’  I nodded.  ‘Hmm.  Well, keep an ear out.’

The office would be quiet now, so without understanding what he was on about, I headed back.   A couple of hours later she called.  All the earlier hesitation was gone; her voice leapt out of the phone like a tiger bounding through a fiery hoop.

‘So, I finished the family room, started on the den.  That’s the office you know.  Daddy kept his things there, my mom’s stuff.  Clippings.  Evidence.’

I pricked up my ears.  She was on the case, and either furious or thrilled; I’d no idea which.

‘Go on.’

‘So I was looking for the deeds to the house, but I found something else.  An old folder.  It was furry, you know, like somebody had been constantly touching it.  It was bound up in about a million rubber bands that fell apart when I touched them.  Inside – ’

At that moment the incoming call button flashed and my monitor sprang to life.  When I didn’t pick up, an instant message popped into view: Open the link, you cretin.  I clicked on the portal that allowed users with passwords to access our live video-feed.  I watched Tommy’s crew carve the closed roundabout like skaters riding a wall.  They were building something with two rounded top-bumps, a bottom point of orange cones.  The luminous bands shone like teeth in the dark.  How’s that for cheery! a second message said.

‘ – there were newspapers, from the family.  My mother’s father was in there, and not Charles, like we were told.  Not Samuel Charles Goodman.  Samuel Cohen Goodman.  We’re Jewish, Michael.  Jewish!

The shape finally revealed itself on my screen: an enormous, wobbly love heart, light dripping from its curves.  She hated lovehearts and everything they stood for.  I typed furiously into the messenger: Not that!  Anything but that!  Get it changed to something round – a bagel, or something!

‘Remember that guy in the joke who meets the other old guys playing chess, and they all introduce themselves, like Cahn, Coyne, Kane, you know, and the guy bows and says “I, too, am Cohen!”’

She seemed delighted and stunned in equal measure.  I didn’t want to interrupt the moment but felt I had to offer something – some tiny bit of reassurance, a portion of love to complete the circle.  Without waiting to see what they managed to make, I fired off an e-mail with a password, an embedded link.

‘That’s great, Anna!  Listen, can you get to the computer?  I’ve sent you a message – ’

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