The Familiar

The way I see it is this.  If people spent more time looking with open minds and less time looking to find fault, they might be happier.  They might actually find what they’re looking for.

See, those people down there, yeah those ones – the ones with the flaming torches. They’re looking for evil and they’ve decided what it looks like (which is a simple formula to them.  “Different = Dangerous”) and so they’ve found something that sorta fits the bill, ignored anything that don’t and are acting on their assumptions.  Plus you can guarantee a bloke down the tavern said or one of the elders said or THEY said.  No-one knows which bloke, which elder, which THEY.  It’s just got to be true.  Cos the minute you say “whoa – hang on – who told you that?  Where’s the proof?” suspicion will fall on you. So you don’t say nothing.  And no-one says nothing and before you know it everyone’s got caught up in the moment and one set (a small set mind) is handing out flaming torches like they’re toffee apples and everyone just takes one co they don’t know what else to do. What are they? Ants?  Bees?  Sheep?

People say they’re the top of creation and look at them – hardly an individual amongst them, unless you count that poor wretch in the middle.  She couldn’t get more individual, could she, bless her.  That’s one woman who asked “why” too many times.  “Why don’t we try this?” “Why do we always do it that way?” “Why don’t you just be yourself and stop worrying what other people think?”  That’s what got her where she is now.

And see the people round the edges, yeah, I know, the smoke’s getting a bit thick. If you’re bothered now, best not stick around.  But look – the ones that are hanging back, the ones that are thinking “why am I holding this torch?” “why is this a good idea?” “why do we think this will make things better?”  Yes those ones – they’ll be next, mark my words. They’re gonna have to think quick if they don’t want to do the thing but also don’t want the others to know they didn’t.

Cos the thing is, people do think Why?  But they think it the wrong way.  They think “Why did the harvest fail again?  Why is my cow barren?  Why did my child die?” and then they look around and find someone to punish for it.  Life’s short.  Who can blame them you might say.  But funny how no-one says “why’s the harvest been so good?  Why have I got more calves than I can sell?  Why is my child so strong and healthy its face glows like an apple?” and then find someone to praise for it.

That woman – what did she ever do?  She wasn’t perfect.  Who is?  But you gonna to say that one little woman is guilty of everything that’s gone wrong – this year’s rain, this year’s non-stop rain, the cold, the crops rotting in the fields, the blue babies?  You think they gonna say to their maker when they meet him – “oh that little woman – we thought she was bigger than you”?   Nah – nor me pal.   If someone could put that to them – see the folk on the outside, they’re asking themselves that right now and trying to fade off into the night – look that one’s put his torch out, that one is starting to cry a little.  But most of the rest – I reckon now their blood is up now – if a voice came from Heaven they wouldn’t hear it or they’d blame the poor wretch herself for conjuring it up.  See they’ve looked for me too but they won’t find me.  I’ll miss her but nothing I can do to help now.   Most respect I can show is by going away and not watching what they do to her.  Best I can do is find someone else like her.  Someone who don’t mind a companion that’s been battered by life and shows it but don’t think it’s the mark of the devil or nothing.  Someone who knows how to ask “Why?” the right way.

But you and me, mate, we’re lucky cos we don’t waste time with talk.  We may think “Why’s there no food?  Why can’t I find somewhere warm and dry to sleep?  Why is the only thing caressing me a pile of fleas?” but we don’t go and blame anyone. We think “there was food once – there’ll be food again.  There will be shelter somewhere one day, there will be caress sometime” – and if not, well, that’s life innit.  Us and them and the fleas and the sun coming up and the rain coming or not coming and birth and death and the whole shebang – it’s all life.

Come on, best stick with me mate.  No point asking why this happened.  It’ll happen till the end of time or until people stop looking to blame others and start looking inside themselves and learn to just accept the fleas along with the caresses.  They’re lighting the pyre now.

Let’s go.  Don’t look back.  The sun always comes up.  It always comes up.

Copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permissionflames

Advertisements

Snow

Snow came just before my eighteenth birthday. Snow so deep and widespread it blocked roads for miles. A souvenir paper was printed afterwards: photos of snow above door lintels, photos of the postman tramping for miles over snow, photos of dogs on hastily made sleds. Cars were abandoned on the motorway: drivers rescued by locals and put up in community centres. We trekked the three miles into town to buy bread and essentials – little groups trudging slowly. People called out cheerfully to strangers, helped each other up when they fell. In the little supermarket, the local radio was on – no music, just news. A helicopter had rescued a farmer’s wife who’d gone into labour, neighbours rallied round their elderly neighbours, made sure they were safe. Snow’s not going to get us down – we can recreate the Blitz spirit.

Our hill, you should have seen it. It was bad enough anyway, a double hairpin bend – drivers need to blast twice on the horn driving up or down. When it rained, you walked to school in a twisting torrent. When it snowed – no chance. If there had been a snow plough, it couldn’t have got up. Anyway, our postman wasn’t a hero. No way he was going to clamber up the slip down for the sake of 100 houses. So no birthday cards. No presents.

Lucky for me, it thawed just enough for us to get to the station so I could go for my university interview. The train was late and slow. The tracks had frozen and were now defrosting. We went up past flooded fields full of bloated sheep; drowned in the melt water. And then we changed direction.

But the snow hadn’t melted in the North, so there we were, Mum and I, in totally the wrong clothes, looking out over a city which would have been strange even if it hadn’t been sparkling white. The roads were clear but the pavements were slippery under my smart shoes and where the snow had been piled up into the gutter it was impossible to climb over in a narrow smart dress. A total stranger came up laughing, picked us up in turn and carried us to the other side of the road. Then we were on my own. The faculty house was up some uncleared side street. We crunched up to the door in sodden shoes, snow dusting our skirts. The secretary took Mum off for some tea while the Professor and I sat huddled over a gas heater to talk about English.

And so we returned from the still frozen North to the thawing South. The bloated sheep were hidden by the dark and our town was dripping with melted snow. And then here was home: warm and cosy, the lights in the dining room illuminating the diminished snowman in our front garden. The postman had been at last and finally, two weeks late, I had birthday presents to open.DSCN1241 Inside Out

Copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

The Return

Without the map she would not have come. Forty years had passed and she was settled a hundred miles away. She had long closed the drawer on that part of her life, packing up and disposing of more than books and diaries. Unfolding the map’s feeble creases had caused tears to drip onto the biro and felt tip. Night was falling. But how could she be afraid? Modern bad boys were warm indoors playing games online, too engrossed to be out bullying or vandalising.

She trusted only one friend with her secret: that in her loneliest days, strange and out of synch, transplanted from rural Berkshire to West Glamorgan, mocked for her accent, uncomprehending of theirs, she had gone alone to the river and alone to the copse and had talked to the spirits there and they had comforted her. They had sparkled under the trees hanging over the tumbling river and they had murmured from the larches and she had felt at peace.

Life was not so lonely anymore. But it was busy. No longer any time just to sit. Constant rushing and organising, buzzing with demands and responsibilities. Once she had been the lonely girl who drew a map to show where the fairies were, not sparkling childish tinkerbells, but living breathing spirits of wood and water. Now she was a practical adult, sensible and unemotional. Or that was what people thought. Life had taught her to hide herself.

But here she was, sitting under the trees as the full moon rose. She closed her eyes and was silent. But the wood was not silent. The air was cold, but she was not cold. The tree felt warm to her back and her heart filled with peace. “Croeso” it whispered. “We’re glad to see you” it breathed.

She opened her eyes and saw a child before her. Silver and made of moonlight and holding something and then gone. And she remembered. It had been what she had meant to do all those years ago. She unfolded the map for the last time – she could barely see it in the dark but she knew that it set out all the secret magical places and did not belong to her anymore. She folded it back up and poked it down into a cavity under the tree. “Diolch” she heard.

She stood up and rolled her shoulders and looked up into the moonlit trees. “I’m going now” she said, “I won’t be back again. But I want to say thank you. Thank you for being my friend when I was so lonely. Thank you for helping me learn to be happy on my own. Thank you for reminding me how to listen.”

She walked away, down past where the playground had been, where the pigsty had been, where the boy with the rotten teeth had lived and got in her car, parked outside her old house. She looked up at the moon as she drove away – she would never come back. But she was taking the child she had once been away with her and together they would learn to be still and at peace.DSCN4089

Copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Healer

I was only five when I found I could heal things. I picked up a butterfly, struggling to fly, its wings crushed by another child. My hand started to warm as I touched it and the butterfly lay still for a moment.  I was sad, thinking it had died on my palm, but then it twitched and flapped its wings briefly before taking off into the sky. I didn’t realise what I’d done then of course, I thought maybe it had revived with just the heat of my skin.

It probably wasn’t until I was about twelve that the truth kicked in. My friend was in pain. Her stomach was hurting her. Cramps we thought. I tried to comfort her and she started to move away from me, but then she said “your hands feel so warm – can’t you put them on my stomach?”

DSC_1043It felt really weird, putting my hands on her like that – around the navel. You don’t really touch each other that way, but she was beyond caring. For a while, she went from grey to green to white and her face contorted. I was scared – it didn’t seem right to me. Then she relaxed and let out a sigh. With the sigh, her colour came back and my hand started to cool.

She turned to me and frowned: “that was weird” she said, “I thought I was going to die – what did you do?”

“I don’t know” I confessed, “but maybe you should go to the doctor.”

We gave an edited version of events to her mother and her mother took her straight to A&E. Turned out she had acute appendicitis – the doctor couldn’t believe it – said it had been about to burst and then seemed to heal itself just enough to get her to hospital in time.

It doesn’t come all the time mind you, sometimes I can help someone with the pain or the stress, can help alleviate the depression on their mind and sometimes I can’t. I never know when the gift will come, I just feel my hands warm up and realise that this is the time this is the chance.

So what do I do now? This man in front of me – I know he’s violent, a wife beater, bully – who knows what else. He is lying in agony in front of me, doubled up and my hands are glowing.

What do I do?

Copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Hide and Seek

Sam covered his face with his hands and turned to the tallest wall “one…two..three…”

Jane and I scattered, stifling our giggles. “Ten…eleven..twelve…”

I saw Jane turn a corner and lost sight of her. The ruins were a maze. I clambered over a low wall and ducked down. “Thirty-three….thirty-four…thirty-five…”

I was in a square space. Walls on all four sides made of grey blocks, a small gap in one wall – maybe it had been a doorway. “Fifty-six…fifty-seven…fifty-eight…”

It must have been a home once. That’s what Mum said – this was once a small settlement. Impossible to imagine now, just squares laid out with low walls, nothing inside them, nothing to make them more alive than a lego project. “Seventy-nice…eighty…eighty-one…”

I traced my finger on the damp stone. There was lichen and maybe a fossil. Dad said there would be fossils. I tried to squint. My knees were getting damp on the wet ground and I shifted so that I was squatting instead, without raising my head above the top of what was left of the wall. “Eighty-eight, eighty-nine…ninety…”

What would our house look like if all that was left was a metre of wall and everything that made it home had been taken out? I closed my eyes and tried to imagine. “Ninety-three…ninety-four…ninety-five.”

I must be getting used to the cold, or maybe the wind had changed direction. I wasn’t as cold any more and the draught had gone, there even seemed to be heat coming from somewhere. “Ninety-six…ninety-seven…ninety-eight…”

I opened my eyes. There was a tiny horse carved out of something by my feet, lit by the light of flames. I picked it up and stood up, staring around me. The space around me was dark. A fire was burning in the middle of it. The walls were high and the only light came from a gap in the high roof and the low doorway. Pots and wooden furniture were tidily placed around the room.

I could hear people talking close by but Sam’s voice seemed further away. “Ninety-nine….One Hundred… Coming – Ready or….”

Clasping the tiny horse, I rushed to the doorway and ran outside. There were no ruins: I was surrounded by buildings and strangers in strange clothes were everywhere. One of them turned and stared at me. Pointed. Called out with words I didn’t know.

And I couldn’t hear Sam anymore.

Copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permissionwall

Flight

Tori couldn’t relax. As the sun started to fill the fields, she could make out hares and deer foraging in the sepia dawn but they didn’t delight her. Even as she headed north, she remained tense and alert, staring out of the window at the scenery, the towns, the stations – looking, looking to see if someone was staring back.

Then she saw the sheep. They were slowly moving together in a wide valley which led down to the river as it ran alongside the railway. The flock was not bunched up or spread out. They were head down, nibbling at the dew soaked grass but they were moving in formation. Tori sat forward as far as she could and tried to keep watching them before the train passed. She quickly looked round to see if any of the other passengers had noticed but they were oblivious: asleep, reading, playing on tablets and phones. But the sheep nonchalantly continued, formed into an arrow pointing south, back down the line. And then they were gone.

Tori tried to look back but it was impossible. The next station came and the next and another long piece of countryside. She checked her timetable. The train was running behind.

“Look at that” said the man opposite it, roused out of his sleep as his neighbour shifted in his seat, “that means bad weather coming, that does.”
Tori looked where he was pointing. She realised the field was full of sea gulls and they were…

The man’s neighbour looked out, “it’s not so far from the estuary though is it?”

“Far enough mate, they only come inland when there’s something brewing.”

Was Tori the only one that could see the gulls, settling and flying up, forming themselves over and over into an arrow all facing south, all flying up and settling down further down the line? And then they were gone. Tori shook herself. It had been too early a start. She was too apprehensive. She needed to calm down or he…

An announcement reminding the passengers that the train would not stop at the next station. The pace continued, sped up perhaps. Tori imagined the passengers standing on the platform, stepping back to avoid the suction of the passing train and then she saw them – a whole row of passengers, shoulder to shoulder, staring at her and pointing south – all of them pointing south. And then they were gone.

She looked at the man opposite but he’d fallen asleep again. She had to change trains at the city. For the first time, she hesitated. Searching for her platform, she saw the one which would take her home and paused, not sure which was more terrifying the returning or the continuing; then she found her onward train and climbed aboard.

There were no more strange sights. She tried to relax but the closer she got to her destination, the closer she gripped her bag, the more she clenched her teeth. Finally she arrived and alighted. Among the people rushing about, there was no-one waiting for her, no-one paying her attention. Perhaps he was on the other side of the barrier, out of sight. She stood still while the train pulled away and another came in and then she started for the exit.

Tori bumped into a guard. Or he bumped into her. He suddenly put his face very close to hers and spoke very deep and very urgently. “Go back” he said, “you can get on the train behind you. It’s going back. Make something up if they ask about the ticket, but go back.” And then he was gone.

Copyright 2015 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permissionflight_edited-1