Aphelion Issue 258, Volume 25
February 2021
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Forum
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
Dan's Promo Page
   

Children and Fools

by Iain Stark




The mattress is hopelessly lumpy, and she doesn't mind. It is dry and--mercifully--bug free.

Its bulk is a heavy burden as she and Darra laboriously lug the battered leviathan along the rime-coated pavement. They cut a V-shaped swath down the packed street, heavily swaddled passersby parting almost reverently, skirting around the girls and their haul.

"We're going to be sleeping in style tonight, my friend," Darra's voice chimes with pleasure.

"You mean a nest of packed cardboard and balled-up blankets isn't 'stylish' enough for you?" Her tone is soft so as not to upset her newly-minted companion.

"I mean that our feet will stay dry tonight," Darla huffs as she tugs on her corner of the mattress.

"Not if it rains," she mutters.

"What was that?" Darla shoots her a warning look. "What did you say?"

"I was just wondering where we were going to park it for the night. You know, in case it rains," she says, pointing up at the city sky with her free hand.

"Does it look like it's going to rain?" Darra asks, arching her eyebrows incredulously.

"It never looks like it's going to rain. 'It never rains but it pours'," she quotes.

"Where'd you get that from?"

"It's one of my mamma's old sayings," she says, looking to the ground.

"Oh, lord. You and your mamma's sayings. You have one for every occasion, don't you? I think that you make that stuff up just to torment me. I really do," Darra chortles.

"Forget it," she mumbles. "Let's go find us a spot. Hopefully one with a wide enough ledge. Or a roof." She squints suspiciously at the lone, swollen cloud that has appeared over the skyline, skating smoothly along the pristine dome like a dark scout leading the way for an invading army's charge.

"I know just the place," Darra's face lights up as no doubt her mind has already gone to that special, dry spot that would serve as their sanctuary for the night.


*****



A few blocks down and a couple of streets over, the pair stand before a tall iron gate, its long, slender bars an interlay of smooth paint chips and dark patches of rust. Beyond lies a tangle of plants so dense that the garden itself is scantily visible. One had to battle through a mass of floppy. spaded leaves and moss-coated thick hanging branches to discover the secret nestled within the unrestrained wilderness.

"How in the hell did you plan on us getting in there? And with this mammoth to carry, no less," she asks, heaving up her side of the mattress.

"Magic." Darra says, turning to her companion and grinning. "Do you believe in it? Magic, I mean."

"Come off it." She takes a hand off of the mattress to shove at her companion. What was Darra playing at? Was she trying to spook her? She was sensitive to those kinds of things. Superstitious, even.

"Tell me your name," Darra demands all of a sudden, dumping the mattress onto the pavement.

"I already told you 'no'," she says, shaking her head and turning back to look at the gate. Why though? she muses. Why do I not want to give her my name? Because there's something insoluble about Darra. What was it? She couldn't quite put her finger on it. The not knowing rankled, practically itched. She's too eager, she thinks.

'There's power in a name'. That was another of her mamma's sayings. Maybe she was being superstitious. Maybe.

"Aw, shucks," Darra says good-naturedly, but there is a sharpness to her stare. "Let's get a move on, then."

The two pick up the mattress--its weight balanced awkwardly between them--and round the garden's perimeter till they find a section of the gate obscured by a snarl of branches jutting out between the patina-speckled bars, like a prisoner cravingly groping for the freedom outside.

"Here," Darra says, her eyes glinting in the dusky light as she surveys the dark tangle.

Darra tugs the mattress in behind her as she slips like a ghost through the outwardly impenetrable thicket. She has no choice but to follow in Darra's wake, or let their take drop.

Goosebumps ripple over her skin like mushrooms spouting out of a moldering log, as she pushes deeper into the growth. The air in the copse is muggy, and the cling of humidity is almost unbearable as thick tendrils rise to mist fans of waxy leaves with sparkling beads of condensation. She shoulders past and their clammy cuticles stick like tentacles to her hair and face.

She holds her breath as she wills the cloying, wet darkness to expel her. A step forward, and then another. A heartbeat, a short gasp of hastily drawn-in air, and she's out of it.


*****



"See?" Darra calls, sweeping her hand over the overgrown little garden proudly. "What a find, huh?"

"Um, sure," she replies, staring around unsurely at the weed-choked clearing. The garden had once been well-kept; a lush, hidden oasis, growing--almost ignominiously--behind a drape of concrete and iron. If she looked closely enough, she could still make out the gently curving pathways, the deliberate placement of trees, the precise arrangement of flowerbeds into pleasing, geometrical patterns.

Whomever had been entrusted with maintaining the garden, had long left the place to rot and rust. The flora was an imposing bluff of vitality, but for every healthy leaf there was one drooping with spoilage, marked with ragged holes and ugly, yellow blotches. For every gracefully bowed branch, a broken one, its splintered bark bristling with snapped-off twigs.

The ground was planted with plush grassy mats soft enough to bed down upon, but the sharp thistles and tough, scratchy weeds poking out of the yielding turf would make sleeping comfortably impossible.

Most distracting were the skeletal frames of the iron-wrought lawn chairs, and the latticed, flat-topped garden table that had been piled into a small jumble of joints and limbs, and set to the side. Furnishings that had once been fine, were now broken, corroded things left forgotten in a likewise abandoned plot.

"Put it down here," Darra says, dragging the mattress an extra foot before letting her end of it fall unceremoniously to the soggy grass. "Let's settle in," she adds, scouring the purpling sky. The dark brought with it an unwelcome chill that stung the skin and stiffened the toes. It made rough sleeping an absolute misery.

A rustle of tattered jackets and threadbare clothes, and the pair were nestled close together on top of the bumpy mattress, blanketed by carefully folded layering of their shed clothing. They slept in their smallclothes; undershirts and saggy-bottomed undies only.

"Tell me a story," Darra murmurs sedately as she wiggles under the improvised covers.

"You tell me one. Distract me," she says as she tries not to peer too deeply into the garden's shadowed corners.

"But you're so good at it," Darra persists. "All of my stories end and begin in the same place."

"Once upon a time…" she sighs.

"No," Darra interjects. "A real one. A real story. One about you. About your mamma. I want to know your life."

This makes her wary, but she is tired, and cold, and she is worried that if she doesn't comply with Darra's demand, the girl will shuffle away belligerently, taking with her her much needed body warmth.

"One story," she cautions.

"Then you better make it a good one," Darra practically purrs, snuggling closer.

"We had an old cuckoo clock in our house. Me and mamma. You know, one of those made completely out of whittled wood, cheaply lacquered with glued-on numbers and dials, and such. Wouldn't have won any prizes at the art fair, but I loved that thing. Every hour on the hour, I would pester my mom into picking me up so that I could reach the clock and wind its dials. I'd wind and wind until, finally, that chipped, little cuckoo bird popped out of its hatch. Made a little hooting noise, and everything. Highlight of my life, when that thing popped out." She chortles, then falls silent and turns on her side.

"What? What were you saying?" Darra prompts, snaking her arm in an embrace.

She shifts awkwardly. She didn't like this much closeness, no matter how cold it became.

"That's it. That's my story," she says, burying her profile into the mattress's cool top.

"That was nothing!" Darra hisses, and the muscles in her arms tense.

"Let go, Darra. You're hurting me," she stiffens in Darra's grip.

"Not until you tell me a real story. A cuckoo clock? That's the best you can do? What about all of your mamma's old sayings? When she says this, and she says that. Tell me about those times." Darra's voice loses its edge, and now she practically croons.

"I can't," she whispers into the dark.

"Why not?" Darra asks in a voice as soft and as seductive as a sigh.

"Because that's the only memory I have of her. The only real one, anyways," she finally admits to Darra. To herself. "Her old sayings? I made those up. I imagine her, this folksy old bird, spinning her folksy tales while she makes me breakfast waffles in our cozy little corner-kitchen. Pancakes if it was a Wednesday. It's stupid. It's so stupid, now…" she chokes.

"I see," Darra muses, and goes so far as to nuzzle her hair.

She inhales sharply and pivots her hips on the mattress, trying to break Darra's hold on her.

"Ssh…" Darra makes a hollow sound. "You don't need to hide from me. We all need our memories. They are what make us. The good, the bad… Even the fake ones, eh?" Darra holds her tighter.

"I…" But that is all that she manages. Darra is squeezing her midriff and it is hard to get a breath in or out.

"Tell me your name," Darra's cool breath is like a dove's wing brushing at her ear.

"N-no…" she stammers, struggling against Darra as the girl's dark eyes light up like twin Christmas ornaments and her skin radiates with heat. It begins with an odd prickling sensation—like the pins and needles feel of a sleeping limb—that quickly graduates to an inferno.

"I'm cold…" she writhes in Darra's death grip. Why am I so cold? She wonders distantly. Why am I so cold, when she's so hot?

"Don't worry, now. Don't fret. I'll remember you. Tell me your name, and I'll never forget. I'll keep you with me. Forever," Darra promises.

So, she does. With her last breath, she does.


*****



As daylight breaks, Darra stirs and stretches. She pushes the mound of clothes off of her warm body, and stands.

She chooses her clothing at random from the pile, and dresses unhurriedly. Working her shoulders, she bends and lifts the mattress up off of the ground. The pale, stiff body rolls off its dimpled surface to the damp lawn.

It rolls until it joins with the piled furniture, becoming yet another of its mess of limbs.

"Children and fools tell the truth. Or, at least that's what my mamma used to say."

She smiles and waves, then turns and exits the garden, the lumpy old mattress dragging heavily behind.



THE END


2021 Iain Stark

Bio: As a woman living with visual impairment, Iain Stark's main writing focus is the displaced and marginalized individual in a none-too-inclusive society. Iain has a B.A. in Psychology, and an M.A. in Creative Writing and English Literature from Tel Aviv University, graduating Magna Cum Laude. She is also a former freelance writer and editor, copyeditor and project manager in the private sector.

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.