SLM Interviews The Writer, Amanda McLeod – (Heads up – She’s Savvy and A Damn Good Writer)

Interview with the Writer 

Sick Lit Magazine: How long have you known , deep down, that you’re a writer?

Amanda McLeod: I always loved to read, and could read well before I started school. English was always my favourite subject and right through school I just adored reading and writing.
I ended up with a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in English, but was just a little too scared at that point to try and make a career of it. Later, I tried again – starting an editing course – but I had to move in the middle of the course, and external study wasn’t available so I had to withdraw. After my first child was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, I started studying child development and education so I could be the best advocate for him that I could be. This set me on another path for a while, supporting and advocating for children with additional needs. As I studied though, I found a passion for children’s literacy. The way young children are spellbound by books, and how beneficial reading is for children, really resonated with me. I studied writing children’s picture books – they’re much more complex and nuanced than they seem on the surface!- and have written a number of manuscripts. This led me to question why I shouldn’t keep going, and write the kind of literary fiction I loved so much in school (and still do, to this day). I sent out two pieces. One of them was rejected pretty quickly, which was really deflating. But I read it over again and I knew it was good. I believed in it. I just had to find it the right home – it needed someone who wouldn’t shy away from the grittiness of it. And that’s when I heard about an editor named Kelly, who ran a magazine called Sick Lit, which published material others would shy away from. I read some Sick Lit content and it felt like it might fit. Turns out, it did. The feedback I got from Sick Lit staff made me feel like I could back myself. So I dove in, and started writing and submitting in earnest. Recently I’ve had an opportunity to exercise my journalistic skills, which has been both challenging and enjoyable. I’ve ended up coming full circle, back to the reading and writing I’ve loved for so long – it just took me a while to get here.
SLM:  What inspires you as a writer?
AM: A lot of my work stems from asking questions like ‘what if…’ and ‘what about…’. These flights of fancy can take me in unexpected directions. 
The piece ‘Remains’ is a great example. When I first read your prompt, I wasn’t sure it was for me. I haven’t written or read very much science fiction. But I let the concept of ‘future’ sit there in my mind and incubate for a while. What might the future be like? It depends who you ask. I pondered today’s forward thinkers. People are planning for the colonisation of Mars. Space flight is coming closer to being a reality for everyday people. People will soon be leaving Earth, many permanently. Plenty of people have speculated about how intergalactic travel might look in the future. I started wondering, ‘what about everything that gets left behind?’ If in the future (and this is becoming increasingly likely) Earth can no longer support humanity, what might be left? Life almost always finds a way. If all the humans upped and left the planet, how might life change? 
And what if something, or someone got left behind? What if someone refused to go? How might it feel to wake up and find that the universe had moved on without you? Those were the seeds of thought from which ‘Remains’ grew.
SLM:  Tell me one thing that scares you and excites you all at the same time.
AM: Sharing my work with the world! It’s exciting to think that others might read my words and engage in deep thought or lively discussion as a result, as I have with the words of so many others. But it’s also terrifying to take something you’ve worked so hard to create, and share it with strangers. 
SLM: Name one of the WORST experiences you’ve had as an up-and-coming writer; I.e., submission disasters, strong personalities, etc.
AM: I’ve been focusing really hard this year on paring back. For a long time I was multitasking to the point of ridiculousness, and it was draining. I started really cutting back on everything – stuff, engagements, responsibilities – so I could dig deep and make real, substantial time for the things in life that truly bring me joy. And I really notice it now when that overwhelm starts to creep back in – because I start making really careless errors. The worst was a competition entry I sent, rushing to beat the deadline when I decided what I’d written was good enough to enter, and promptly submitting the wrong file because I was trying to balance too many tasks at once.
SLM:  Favorite book. Or books. And go!
AM: Take a seat, we could be here a while… I have a beautiful illustrated collection of Jane Austen’s work that my husband tracked down for me. I had a copy of Bryce Courtenay’s ‘The Power Of One’ that I read and read until it fell apart, and each individual page was loose inside the cover. I have a book by Norma Johnston called ‘The Potter’s Wheel’ that I have dragged to every house I’ve ever lived in – it resonated with me when I was younger and I’ve kept it with me ever since. More recently, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood really got me thinking and sparked a lot of intense conversations, which is something I believe books should do. And a marvellous book called ‘All Cats Have Aspergers’ by Kathy Hoopmann holds a special place in my heart. 
SLM: Is there a novel in the works for Amanda McLeod? If so, tell us about it. And then send it to me so I can mark it up and encourage the hell out of you!
AM: There is a novel! It’s in the super early stages of development. I’ve written about three chapters. I’ve got it planned out, but structuring it will be challenging – the protagonist is unravelling a family secret that only came to light after her mother’s death. There are two people who know the whole truth, and one has just passed away. I need to make sure that it peels like an onion, and as the layers come away, new meaning to old events becomes clear. I’d be honoured for you to read it Kelly, when I get more of it written! There are also a number of children’s picture book manuscripts I’m working on, and a series for early readers. Children who love books grow into adults who love books and sparking that passion for literacy early is something I really feel strongly about and want to be a part of.
SLM: I got over 200 rejections before my book was finally published in 2016. I still take rejection to heart and sometimes react very poorly. How do you deal?
AM: Nothing rips the base out of your gut like a rejection, does it? The disappointment still stings me every time. Depending on the situation, I think I react differently. If it’s a straight up ‘no thanks’ and nothing else, I go back over my list and remember all the pieces I had published that were initially rejected. Just because they weren’t right for one publication, doesn’t mean they won’t be great for another one. I cast a critical eye over my work again – have I missed something? – and then just keep looking for the right home. If I get feedback with the rejection, I look at it as an opportunity to improve it, and hone my skills. Another great consolation is to look at acceptance rates. A lot of them are really low – I figure a 5% acceptance rate means 19 rejections for every acceptance. And finally, I tell myself that the sting is because of how much I value my work. 
# # #
Amanda McLeod Headshot
Amanda McLeod is a writer and artist, currently based on the east coast of Australia. Her fiction has appeared in Sick Lit Magazine, The Scarlet Leaf Review, OJAL: Open Journal Of Arts And Letters, and elsewhere. She enjoys good coffee, rainy nights, being outside, and almost anything to do with cheese. Her plans for the future include finishing her novel and publishing a children’s book.
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Photography, Running, and Writing – Artist, CARL SCHARWATH

Photography, Running and Writing with Carl Scharwath

Sick Lit Magazine: What inspires you as an artist?

Carl Scharwath: Other artists. I have a deep love of reading, the arts and discovering new authors and photographers. The biographies of artists are also inportant to learn as they have gone through many of the  same heartbreaks and still  overcame them.

ART_STUDIO

SLM: Tell me a bit about your creative process.

CS: Since I am a dedicated, competitive runner, many of my story and poem ideas give birth on the run. Unfortunately those great sentences are forgotten by the time I arrive home, but the ideas are not. I also run with my cell phone and have captured photos on my run, either by stopping or returning latter. Ideas are all around us, we only have to be receptive.

Blue

SLM: What music are you currently listening to?

CS: I  will always love REM and thier innovation. From my teen years The Beach Boys and Brian Wilson’s solo albums still spark a memory from simple times in my life.

Awaken

SLM: If you could categorize these pieces in a few words, what would they be?

CS: Surealistic, philosophical and thinking how they would look as an oil painting.

Angel of the Antiques

SLM: What are you working on right now?

CS: A new short story, my second chap book and a play. Working full time, having grand children and training as a runner does not leave much time but I try my best on early weekend mornings to dedicate time to my art.

DUMPSTER ART

SLM: Tell me something that not many people know about you.

CS: My daughter and I spend nine years training together and were awarded a 2nd degree Black Belt in Taekwondo

Explorations

SLM: How would one of us, per se, purchase your work?

CS: I have never thought of the process to sell my work. My enjoyment comes from being published, the creative process and working with and meeting editors such as you.

Cyrstal

courtyard

Waiting for a dancewoman reflection

***

Carl Scharwath has appeared globally with 80+ magazines selecting his poetry, short stories, essays or art photography. He won the National Poetry Contest award for Writers One Flight Up. His first poetry book is ‘Journey To Become Forgotten’ (Kind of a Hurricane Press). Carl is a dedicated runner and 2nd degree black- belt.

Remembering Snake Skeletons and a Cherry Red Impala -Artist, Finn Lafcadio O’Hanlon

Remembering Snake Skeletons and a Cherry Red Impala

On the 21st September, a second solo exhibition by 24-year-old English-born American artist, Finn Lafcadio O’Hanlon, will open at the Whiteconcepts space in Berlin. Titled The Plague Year, it will expand his meticulous exploration of syncretic religious, mediaeval and ‘pop’ iconography, cartography and lexicology – this time, within an exotic, decaying dystopia detailed in more than 25 very finely detailed monochromatic works. 
 
Finn’s last exhibition at Whitespace, two years ago, was one of the most successful openings for a young artist in Berlin that year. Introduced by the controversial German artist, Jonathan Meese, the entire show sold out within 48 hours.

Born in Brighton, England, Finn Lafcadio O’Hanlon grew up among creative, nomadic types in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Los Angeles before returning as a teenager to Sydney.

But as he recalls in the following brief memoir, it was his childhood memories of being often on the road with his eccentric parents in the American southwest that gave him a lot of the imagery that still populates his work.

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I spent my early childhood in the southwest of the United States. My mother was part-Cherokee, born and raised in Oklahoma, and my father was an Australian, but we lived for a long time in Los Angeles. We would often drive between the west coast and my mother’s family in Tulsa, but we’d take these circuitous routes on un-mapped back-roads, adding days and hundreds of miles to a journey that was already fifteen hundred miles long via the direct route on Interstate 40, through desert towns like Barstow and Winslow and Albuquerque.

 

I still remember the weird roadhouses we stopped at, filled with faux-Native American trinkets, and Mexican candied skulls, as well as petrified tree fragments, fossils and pebbles of polished turquoise. We’d end each day in some rickety, half-dead town in Arizona, New Mexico or Texas, staying in a cheap motel with a swimming pool and a noisy ice-machine. Sometimes, we’d be so close to the Mexican border that it made no difference which side of it you were on – it could just as well have been Mexico but with better air-conditioning – and at that time of the year, the whole place would be overtaken with unsettling (but to a young kid, exciting) syncretic symbols and rituals, part Catholic, part ancient Toltec, part Hopi or Navajo, with black-robed Madonnas, painted skulls and masks, crucifixes and snake skeletons. It was never scary and solemn, only celebratory, not just honouring the dead but inviting them to a party, to spend time among friends and family. The barbecue smoke always smelled of mesquite.

 

Later, when I became an artist working on large, intricate drawings in ink on paper, the impressions of those road trips insinuated themselves into what I drew: skulls on snake bodies, ’60s neon signs, tattooed women and grinning death-heads, the Robert Williams-influenced cars (my parents drove a cherry-red Chevy Impala SuperSport). Even the modern military references were derived from fleeting glimpses of fighters and tanks arrayed on open tracts of desert, at Nellis or Luke air force bases, or Camp Navajo. They seemed as commonplace as the motels, drive-in diners and cheesy girlie bars that littered our route.

Finn Lafcadio O’Hanlon-

For further information, to receive a selection of high res images, or to arrange an interview, please contact Finn by email: Flohfactory@gmail.com . His work can also be viewed in low res’ at https://www.instagram.com/finnlohanlon/

Below: Finn Lafcadio O’Hanlon, photographed in Kreuzberg by Lotti Leona, 2015
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The Bus – by KATE JONES

The Bus

 

I stand among the groups of middle-aged parents lining the pavement beside the bus that contains their beloved offspring.  Excited faces scattered with acne and over-zealous make-up press against glass, or turn away, sharp haircuts bobbing as they talk fast and laugh with friends.

I pick out your window.  You sit politely, neatly, long curls hanging round your shoulders.  Your father’s nose side-on to my view.  You do that thing you do with your glasses, where you push them up your face with the back of your hand.  I have never seen anyone else do this, apart from my mother.

I tell myself that you are not leaving forever.  You are not my mother.  You are just going off to adventures, and experiences.  You will come back.  Yet, my insides feel the same way as they did when I lost her.

Your long lashes loll like fronds as you bend down to retrieve a paperback from your holdall.  I wonder if you have packed the bunny that has sat on your bed since I brought you home from the hospital, the yellow blanket wrapped tightly around you.  My grasp onto your perfect form even tighter.

Your friend taps you on the shoulder and you stretch your arms to hug her.  She bounces down beside you.  Your face is hidden from me now as you turn to talk to her.

Other parents are milling around in groups, talking to one another, shouting to their offspring if they have their this, their that.  I don’t shout messages to you.  I just watch, this last, lingering, private moment.

The engine starts, rumbling loudly and spitting out cancerous fumes from its large exhaust.  You face back toward the front and pop a red sweet into your mouth, making your cheek plump.  A faint cheer goes up from inside the bus, and some of the still malingering parents’ cheer, too.

You turn your head at last.  Look surprised that I am still standing there, alone and apart from the crowd.

And you smile.  Genuine, happy, relaxed.  You raise your slender arm to wave.

I raise mine too, mechanically, try to smile back as honestly as I can.

And then the bus pulls away from the curb and you turn back to your friend.  You have already dropped your hand.  You are already miles away.

And though I tell myself you will return, you are not gone forever, I walk back towards my car knowing that my home will be quiet, and things will be as I left them.  I know that there will be no smell of body spray clogging the bathroom; no dirty underwear on the floor; nobody playing loud pop-songs into the night.

And I know that the world – my world – has shifted slightly, into the unknown.

Kate Jones©

 ***

KATEJONES

***Kate is a freelance writer based in the UK who writes articles, including regular contributions to online women’s magazine Skirt Collective, as well as publishing life writing and poetry both in print and online.  She has a passion for flash fiction and short stories, and is usually found lurking around coffee shops, writing and listening to other people’s conversations. Jones has also become a regular contributor to Sick Lit Magazine, and is a 2016 nominee for the Pushcart Prize through Sick Lit Magazine.***

She blogs at www.writerinresidenceblog.wordpress.com.

Find Kate on Twitter at:  https://twitter.com/katejonespp

*Photography courtesy of Brian Michael Barbeito*

Eclipse / F is for Fish – by PETER JORDAN

Eclipse

I’m not sure what time of the day it is. I have no watch, no phone. From the length of the shadows cast by the people in the crowd I guess it’s early. All of the crowd, every single one, look up to the sky, cell phones raised, taking pictures.

There are seagulls flying about haphazardly. A security van has its hazards on. Things aren’t right.

Curious, I walk across the street, navigating slow traffic.

A girl in uniform smiles.

What is it?

An eclipse.

A what?

Where have you been, she says. Mars?

As the moon moves slowly down over the sun, I look right at it.

You can’t look at it directly, she says. You have to put your hand over your eyes.

I look at her.

I’m only saying what it said on the radio!

I ignore her and continue looking directly at what is left of the sun.

When I look away I see a trail of greens and reds and yellows.

Right now, she says. It looks like an engagement ring.

She reminds me of someone.

Suddenly, everything gets dark, cold.

Is this supposed to happen? I ask.


 

F is for Fish

My head is clear but I can’t move. I try to sit up but nothing happens. My right eye doesn’t open fully. It takes a second or two to focus… I’m in my bedroom.

I remember falling at the front door then crawling up three flights of stairs trailing a bag of broken glass behind me, then nothing.

My phone rings. I wonder if it’s Simon. Simon has been my sponsor for the past two years. I met him in rehab, like me he’s an alcoholic but Simon is in recovery. He has a god in his life. He’s living the program.

He gave me his two goldfish to look after while he’s on holiday. He thinks this little act will keep me sober. He’s wrong. Before Simon gave me his goldfish I knew I was going to drink. The compulsion for alcohol had returned.

Here lies the paradox: I don’t want to drink, I know from bitter experience what happens but a part of me does want to drink, a part of me that says this time I’ll be fine.

Sometimes I think I’d like to get a little bit drunk but Simon tells me that getting a little bit drunk is like getting a little bit pregnant. Once I lift the first drink I’m beat. Lifting the first drink starts a physiological craving. The more I drink, the more I want, until I black out and then pass out.

I hear music. Shauna is home; she lives directly below. She looks different every time I see her. Sometimes I walk by her on the stairs, say hello and don’t immediately realise it’s her. She has that chameleon-like quality that great method actors have. She should have gone to Hollywood. Instead, she’s trapped in a flat mixing antipsychotics with class A’s. She’ll put on a track and play it over and over again. Today it’s Nena’s 99 Red Balloons – the German version. Shauna is stuck somewhere in the mid-eighties, when she was a child and life held no fears.

I shout, but no one can hear me. I need to sit up to shout properly. So I lie looking at the ceiling with my mouth open while 80’s Europop drifts up from below. Please don’t let me die to this song. If I’m going to die then let her play Snowblind by Black Sabbath. When I was a kid I loved that song. I thought it was about a guy who gets stuck in a blizzard, until I realised it was about coke addiction.

I remember my first drink; I was fourteen years old. If I saw the world in black and white before I took that first drink then taking it turned everything to Technicolor. It seemed I’d found the answer to my prayers. Drinking took away the fear, that feeling of being less than. All of a sudden I measured up. The problem is it never lasted; within a few years I was a full-blown alcoholic. People say there is a line, like something you step over, one minute normal, the next, alky. In truth the line is blurred.

It seems that things can’t get any worse, but I’ve had rock bottoms before. Simon talks about the time when he decided he’d had enough – the jumping-off point. Simon says I should move a muscle when I’m in mental pain: Move a muscle, change a thought. But I can’t move.

I’ll play I Spy.

I Spy with my little eye something beginning with AAlcohol.

There are four empty vodka bottles on the dressing table. Three are Smirnoff and one is Vladivar. I don’t remember buying the Vladivar. I can’t see the floor but I know they’re there as well, all empty.

I read recently that more people drown in the desert than die of thirst. Flash floods are the killer. It doesn’t rain for a long time and then, when it does, people aren’t expecting it, and it really rains – for days on end, and people just drown. That’s what it’s like when I drink; a flash flood. A long dry spell and then, when it comes, it’s a downpour.

B is for Boredom.

I can’t see anything beginning with B but I think I might die of boredom. Sherlock Holmes took morphine to stave off boredom. Maybe the police will investigate after my body is found, maybe a modern day Sherlock Holmes will look around my room, and as 99 Red Balloons ascends up from below, he’ll deduce: ‘All is not as it appears, Watson. Something hastened his demise.’

‘What do you mean, Holmes?’

‘99 Red Balloons, my dear Dr Watson!’

‘You weren’t bored again this morning, were you, Holmes?’

C is for crack.

Not the drug; I’m talking about the cracks in the ceiling. I’m sure I’ve noticed the big cracks but I didn’t notice the little ones. They look like they’ve been there for a long time but I don’t think the ceiling is going to collapse. They’re just a part of it. I suppose if you look closely at anything for long enough you’ll see little cracks. Maybe that’s why I’m no good at relationships; I’m worried if someone gets too close they’ll see the cracks.

I used to think I was a born survivor, one of those people you read about in Reader’s Digest who gnaw their own legs off in a snowstorm, then slide a hundred miles on their arse to the nearest hospital and now they have a new career as a skiing instructor. And maybe I was a survivor at one time but not anymore. Something happened after I crossed the line from social drinking to alcoholism.

D is for dehydration.

That would be a good one for my mother – died of thirst. When her friends ask over the garden fence with clasped hands what I died of, she’ll be able to say: He died of thirst.

Oh, was he an adventurer?

Sort of!

The phone rings again. I’ll bet it’s Simon.

I fall asleep.

When I wake I have the harsh metallic taste of blood in my mouth, like raw egg. It’s late afternoon. The window is closed but I can still hear the traffic: people living their lives, coming home from work, collecting their children from school; doing what I can’t do.

The thirst reminds me of the time when I was a kid in hospital. For two weeks they kept me on a drip. I wasn’t allowed anything to eat or drink. When they took me off the drip, my mother asked me what I’d like to drink. I’d been dreaming of cold lemonade for weeks; but I said tea. I’d like a cup of tea. Trying to impress, always trying to appear something other than what I am. I would do anything to go back to that time and tell my mother that I’d like a glass of lemonade.

I fall asleep again.

When I wake my jaw and tongue are sore.

E is for electric shock.

My muscles go into spasm, my buttocks, thighs, calves, biceps and stomach all cramp up and release. When the spasms are over, and they last maybe five, ten minutes, I’m exhausted but I find I can move. I turn on my side and manage to get myself semi-upright at the side of the bed. I’m still wearing my clothes. On the floor is the bag of broken glass I dragged up to my flat three days earlier.

My muscles are no longer in spasm but I’m shaking badly. In this fashion I make it to the kitchen. I catch a glimpse of myself in the long mirror in the landing. But it’s not me; it’s an intruder, a bearded skeleton who has ransacked my flat.

I make it to the water-tap and quench my thirst.

Then I reach to the cupboard for a chill pill. Diazepam will give me a soft landing but it’s also a muscle relaxant. The tablets are in one of those little bottles that have a safety cap to stop kids opening them. My brain tells my hand to squeeze the lid while turning, but somewhere along the line my hand doesn’t receive the signal. A task that would take me ten seconds now takes minutes. This is how it will be for the next few days. On the bottle it says ‘take one as required’. I take four, and in a couple of hours, I will take another four.

I stand over the sink sipping water, but my head is still in the room. I know I’ve forgotten something. And then I remember… F is for fish.


***

IMG_1113

Peter Jordan has received various awards, including a literary bursary from The Lisa Richards Agency, while taking an MA in Creative Writing. Two consecutive NI Arts Council grants followed soon after. His work has appeared in Thresholds, Flash500, The Pygmy Giant, Flash: The International Short Story Magazine, The Incubator, The HU, Brilliant Flash Fiction and CrabFat. In addition, three of his stories are in anthologies. He has taken time out from a PhD to write a crime novel set in Amsterdam. You will find him mostly in Belfast and Donegal and on twitter @pm_jordan.

Anatomy of Womanhood – by SERA FLYNN

 

Anatomy of Womanhood

 

  1. On feet: “Your feet must be small and soft,” they say. “You must move quietly, like the slightest breath, and stay on the marked path.”

 

Kiki doesn’t move quietly. She runs. And she is swift, swifter than the boys in her neighbourhood who drop from her peripheral vision one by one until all she sees is sky blurring by and all she feels is the pistoning of her legs, the earth traveling upwards through her veins and bursting behind her eyes.

 

The mothers soon stop that. They cluck over her, muttering that her legs are too muscular, like a boy’s, that she must walk, like a lady. They bind her feet in small patent leather shoes. The kind of shoes that reflect nothing but pitch – the color of the darkest night without stars.

 

Except the men on the corner, they see something in the reflection of those shoes they like. They sit and sneer as she passes. As quiet as a mouse, she fears their sharp gazes on her, their phlegmy snickering. She says nothing when they flick at her dress straps with their fingers or pinch the hem of her skirt. She stays still, feeling the bottoms of her feet itch.

 

But on the night when Mr. Azikiwe corners her in the alleyway, hands insistent, pressing her down, she moves like lightning. Her brother once told her lightning does not come down from the sky. “From the earth, Kiki,” he said, sighing at her fourth-grade ignorance. “It comes up from the earth to meet the sky.” And so that is what she is; neither quiet nor small nor soft – she is a lightning storm blinding him as she darts away from Mr. Azikiwe’s grasp and out into the street where she screams until the police come running.

 

That night, after questioning, in the darkness of her room, she takes off her shoes and looks at the long bones of her feet. The lightning there sparks and gutters. Still there, for the next time she needs it.

 

  1. On cunt: “Your cunt must be pure,” they say. “You must be clean and well-groomed – bare and sweet like a peach. But not too sweet, so boys know you are not to be picked.”

 

Magda has overheard the boys talk in class, sitting with shoulders hunched, elbows on knees, voices low and laughing.

 

They list off names of girls they’ve kissed up against the brick wall behind the cafeteria, exchange information about which eighth grader won’t complain if a hand slides up her skirt an inch too far, or which teacher will turn his eyes away if he stumbles across them while smoking his daily cigarette on the football field. These are the important things, things she hears over and over. She could practically recite them in her sleep.

 

Sometimes, she relays these secrets to Lily as they lounge on the window sills in the bathroom, passing a lollipop back and forth. “Skanks,” Lily scoffs. “Don’t they know you’re suppose to make them work for it?” Magda feels as though she should protest, speak up for these girls she’s known since kindergarten – Mary, Lakeisha, Jasmine. Her cheeks bloom with such hot joy at the sharpness of Lily’s language, at the sight of her cherry-colored lips on the lollipop, that she says nothing.

 

It’s when the boys in her class talk about how a girl smells, how it all depends on her hygiene, how the briny, fishy smell sticks to them, stays on their hands, that’s when Magda feels sick to her stomach.

 

She’s always liked the way she smells, a private, secret pride. Sometimes, in bed at night, she slides her hand across the warm, giving skin of her stomach, down between her thighs, twisting her fingers in the curls there. Carrying that hand to her nose, she falls asleep, comforted by the smell. She dreams of salt-skimmed ice and flying fish that break from beneath, soaring up against the moon.

 

On the night Lily wakes her with a pebble against her window. They stride through the darkened streets towards the playground, laughing in murmurs with hands held between them. Magda almost tells Lily what she’s heard, how she feels. She imagines a night when, at a sleepover, she might tell, her head bent against Lily’s own brilliant red hair. She would hear in that space before sleep Lily’s soft agreement as she slides her hand down between Lily’s thighs into the warm, bristly heat.

 

At the playground, someone waits beneath the glare of the street lamp. Magda cannot see them clearly, but the boy-shapes are big and dark. Lily ignores Magda’s question, allowing one boy to reach out and pull her against him as they approach. “Don’t,” she murmurs, but the word dissolves into a giggle.

 

Magda perches on a roundabout, trying to ignore the soft sounds coming from the end of the slide where Lily is smothered beneath a boy-shaped shadow. “Hey, wanna make out?” the other boy asks, scuffing his foot across the grass. “Sure,” she responds because – why not? His mouth is too pliant, his tongue hard and insistent and she’s about to protest when he worms his hand into her pants, then jerks it back. “Yuck, girl! Don’t you shave?” he exclaims and, from the slide, a responding snigger. Encouraged, he continues, “Just like a bramble down there.”

 

Magda has time to say nothing because it is a bramble – a briar of thick vines woven from hair. Those vines slither up around her, forming a labyrinth from which deep, blood-red roses bloom. Roses that smell of the ocean. The last thing she sees before the vines enclose her is Lily’s face, wide-eyed and staring, and the last thing she hears is a boy hissing from between his teeth “Whoa…”

 

They come to see Magda, the boys from her class. The girls, too. Sometimes, on a dare, they attempt to penetrate the briars but only scratch and scar themselves on the thorns. The vibrations reach Magda deep within where she lies nestled amongst roses. She could tell them: no sword or stone shall reach her.

 

It will take a princess with fiery red hair.

 

  1. On breasts: “Your breasts must be pert,” they say. “Round, like a lemon, but not as big as a melon – that’s too ungraceful. You must uncover them only for one who has paid for their beauty. They will offer milk to your marriage, calm the squalls of your children.”

 

Dia’s breasts get in the way, and so she binds them.

“Amazons, yo, that’s what we are,” laughs Cortez, pinching out her cigarette. “Can’t no breasts ruin our aim, eh?”  Dia sometimes wants to say: our aim is shit, sister, but this would earn her a smack across the mouth, so she keeps quiet.

Quiet like a fox – that’s what Cortez says, on account of when Las Zorras jumped Dia in she didn’t make a sound, even though they left bruises that bloomed for weeks. “Knew you was one of us, Di,” she throws away the words with a sideways sneer, but Dia gathers them up and carries them inside her heart. “The boys, they respect a girl who keeps her mouth shut.”

Dia wants to point out no one is louder than Cortez when Los Lobos are around, loping down the sidewalk, a pack circling the girls, sniffing at them. Cortez slys her eyes, lets her fingers linger a little here, laughs a little too loudly there and when Jester slides his hand beneath the hem of her shirt, she does not brush him off. “They status, Dia,” she says, later. “You gotta let them catch you now and then. The streets aren’t scared of us, y’know? We just girls. But the boys – they got real hardware.”

Dia wouldn’t know. When the boys are around, she doesn’t say a word, just tries to fold in on herself, pull her tail in, bind her breasts tighter, make sure there’s nothing they can hold onto. She is proud of being in Las Zorras, but Los Lobos are a different breed – she’s heard stories of what they do when they’re disrespected. Their hands on Las Zorras are temperamental – one minute petting, one minute sharp as blades to skin you alive.

Like Lulu.

“Hey, puta got what she deserved,” Cortez declares and the other Zorras nod. “She knows the price, man. You run with Los Lobos, you playin’ with the big dogs.”

Rumors on the street is, Lulu’s barely alive, collateral in the hazing of the gang’s newest member. When she returns, a month or so later, she’s sullen, until Cortez confronts her – “Sister, you knew what you was getting yourself into. That’s why you learn to shoot.” – as she pats the 9mm tucked in her waistband. “They get too fresh, you go all Amazon on their ass,” and she throws back her head to laugh. Dia does not point out the Amazons were a myth. She does not say ‘my heart is not mythical and magical. It’s soft and breaks easily.’

She keeps her mouth shut.

The night Los Lobos come for Dia, she tries to slither, boneless from their grasp. She has mostly gone unnoticed in their rituals, but she knows she cannot escape their hazing forever, even using her binding as armor. In the shifting shadows of the streetlamps, they’re a route of shadows that grunt and murmur as they tug at her shirt, at her pants, pull her from herself. The concrete is rough against her ass, someone fumbles with the bandages around her breasts, uncoiling them and then kneels between her legs.  The night air, cold on her skin, makes her gasp. Her voice is unleashed. She yaps and hollers, biting when someone places a hand – salty and stinking of metal – against her mouth.

“Yo, someone’s gonna hear. Bitch ain’t worth it man,” she hears amidst her noise.

Then, the gunshot. She explodes into darkness.

They give her the bullet, later, at the hospital, flattened out like a penny on the A-train track. “Oddest thing,” the doctor tells her. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Your breast bone and your ribcage – for lack of a better explanation – are impenetrable. Like steel. The bullet bruised you. There might be internal damage.”

Dia smiles. She knows the truth of that.

 

  1. On mouth: “Words must fall from your mouth like petals,” they say. “You must practice a pleasant and rich tone so that you will not sound shrill. A woman’s purpose is not to scold. You must be measured, not harsh or too emotional – emotion is a woman’s weakness.”

 

“Speak to her,” they tell Jo. “She can hear you.”

But Jo doesn’t know what to say. Her mother is ensnared in a tangle of wires and beeping monitors, perhaps no longer there at all. After all, even though Jo hears the shrill tone of her mother’s heartbeat, when she places her hand on her mother’s chest, she feels nothing.

Jo was not present when her mother fell, lecture at the local University interrupted mid-word. She only knows what happened because she heard the nurses whispering, saw some of the students milling about in the waiting room.

“Excuse me,” one of them say, as Jo passes on her way to the vending machines. It’s past midnight. “Can I just say that Professor Hoffman is an inspiration to me. She always has been. I’m just so devastated about what happened.”

A young girl. No more than twenty-one, bright-eyed and fresh out of the package. Jo doesn’t bother to say she lost her mother years ago, before she wrote The Wyldwood. Before she became an entry in Time magazine as one of the Decade’s Most Influential People. Before she was awarded an honorary doctorate and began teaching. Back when her words were whisky-soaked and wild.

“She always told the best stories, in class,” the girl continues. “It must have been amazing growing up with a mother with such a vivid imagination.”

Vivid. Jo’s can’t pinpoint exactly when she realized her mother was different. She does remember her mother’s first attempt to commit suicide, one weekend in the cottage by the lake, remembers finding her slumped in a patio chair, murmuring to herself with a bottle of JD in her hand, an empty bottle of pills on the table next to her. Her words spilled out, half-formed, dark, seeping like ink. Terrified, Jo ran from them where they pooled on her mother’s chest, shifting like a cancerous growth. She ran into the trees, stumbling over roots. That’s where the ambulance driver found her.

She was seven.

It was then Jo stopped talking, overwhelmed by nightmares that her words, like her mother’s, might writhe out of her mouth, alive and insidious. For years, she remained silent. And then, fifteen, tired of her mother’s blackouts, she learned words could be weapons. She could use them to cut and maim. “I hate you!” she screamed, in that last argument. Her mother’s outstretched hands, bleeding at the palm. “I hope you fucking die.”

The last words she spoke to her mother.

Until now.

“I’ve missed you, ” Jo speaks softly. The hospital is asleep and dreaming, lights low, hallway mostly empty. She wonders how many people in this hospital will wake again. “They say you can hear me.”

She hesitates, uncertain. Searching for strength, she curls a hand against her stomach.

“I remember, Mama. I remember the stories you told me when I was young. Before…” The stories that later became the property of the world, but which, at first, were hers and hers alone. “There’s a lot of other things I remember, too. I’m still mad at you about that.” Tears spill onto Jo’s cheeks, burning hot. She swallows the fire, feels it pool, molten, inside.

“Mama, I remember Wyldwood?” The word itself – Wyldwood – exhales in a glittering curlicue of gold.  Fireflies. They cast light on her mother’s face, across the forest of wires that surround them. “You need to come back, Come back to me. I love you.”

At that word – love –  the fireflies burst into a shower of tiny, gilt petals that, spiraling through the air, catch against her mother’s lips, her cheeks and settle on their hands, entwined on the bed.

And with that, Jo settles in to tell the story that was, once upon a time, the way her mother found a path in the dark, tangled forest of their life.

Once upon a time, there was a girl…

 

 

  1. On hair: “Your hair is your crowning glory,” they say. “It must be long and lustrous, perfumed so that you may bathe your lover in its beauty. But it must be covered, for it will tempt the men around you – ‘it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head. For a man not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man (1 Corinthians 11:7).”

 

 

“Not too short,” the barber scolds when Stella asks for a trim. He weighs the length of her brown hair in his palm. She watches it slide through his calloused fingers with the odd feeling of witnessing a private joy. “Too much like a boy,” he barks and his colleague, who sweeps hair from the floor into spiky little piles, laughs too.

 

Stella thinks of her bureau covered in expensive bottles of dry hair shampoo, waxes, balms, mousses and the hour and a half it takes her to get ready every morning. She thinks of Heath, how he stands in the bedroom doorway each evening, silhouetted against the hallway light, as she brushes her hair in the mirror. How, when he leans down to kiss her neck, he carries the scent of someone else.

 

“All of it,” Stella says, the sudden decision a flame catching in her chest.  “I want all of it gone,” and the barber mutters and moans as he shaves it down, taking the money she hands him afterwards with begrudging grace. Before leaving the shop, she winds her head up in a grey scarf, carefully.

 

Heath has recently engaged in an affair with one of the girls from his troupe, a young supporting actress with impeccable dramatic timing and extraordinarily long blond hair. Stella constantly finds these golden hairs around the house – caught in the drain, in the underwear drawer, between her socks, in the soup she prepares for supper.

 

“You’re so busy,” Heath said, when she confronted him about it, hissing in whispers off stage left. “Your work keeps you away from me, Stel. You’re not who you used to be.” and he turned away from her, towards the group of actors huddling, awaiting his direction. As though that was the end of it.

 

And perhaps it is. That night, after her hair is cut, watching him from furtively from beneath her eyelashes over the dinner table, her head still covered, she wonders if this is all her fault: the long hours at the office, the grey in her hair, the way their conversations slowly became only about the house or the fertility treatments. Even their love-making has become rare and mechanical, a means to an end. She remembers those first few months of marriage spent lazy and love-swollen in their bed. They only left to eat. She cooked him meals wearing nothing but her combat boots.“My star girl,” he called her, unfurling the words into her ear. “My spitfire. You burn me,” and sure enough, he carried the marks of her on his body. She let him claim her, make her fire cool to his touch.

 

“I’ve changed my hair,” she says, now, unraveling the scarf. He pauses in his meal, blinking.

 

“What the fuck, Stel?” He spits. “Don’t you think you’re a little old to be a hipster? You look like a dyke.”

 

Anger flares in her, but she quells it. Stands, throws her dishes into the sink and retreats to the bedroom. There, she sits at her dresser, staring at the dark space of her face in the mirror. After a moment, she sees a spark. Just one. A quick glint that blinks out. Startled, she raises a hand to her scalp but finds only the satisfying bristle against her fingertips.

 

The next day, avoiding the sideways glances of her colleagues, she leaves the office at lunchtime, wandering through the side streets of the neighbourhood. She still feels odd about the hair – constantly catching herself reaching up to feel it, and so she avoids the windows. It doesn’t take her too long to find a tattoo parlor.

 

“Lady,” the tattoo artist, a thin young man with snakes curling up his arms, whistles as she perches on his chair, “I love the hair. Bold.” She thanks him, pointing out the star she’d like inked onto the nape of her neck. It takes only minutes, the needle’s lick scalding her skin. “There ya go, sister,” the artist concludes. “With that hair, and your tattoo, seems like you might need to get yourself some new threads.”

 

It’s opening night, and she’s ahead on her paperwork, so Stella calls into the office to tell them she won’t be returning. Instead of frequenting her usual store, a place that sells high-end collections that always seem to be in muted, work-appropriate shades of grey, she meanders into a small thrift shop just around the corner. The place has always caught her eye, with brightly-colored displays, but she’s never had the nerve to enter. There, she picks out a second hand dress the color of soot, studded with shimmering golden paillettes. “A night sky,” the woman behind the counter coos. “With your hair, you are a constellation. With stars on your skin.” And sure enough, when Stella reaches to touch her tattoo, it simmers beneath her hand.

 

It is late – she’s lost track of the time – and so Stella refuses a bag, instead keeps the dress on. As she’s paying, a pair of threadbare combat boots catches her eye. She buys them too. She walks the several blocks to the theatre, with each stomp feeling the anger in her at Heath’s betrayal unfurl and loosen in her chest. People who pass turn to stare at the anger and then fierce joy rising from her, a trail of embers that spiral on the breeze.

 

At the theatre’s front doors, reaching for a door handle, Stella catches sight of her reflection. Her hair has ignited, a nest of flame that lights her whole face. Shocked, she reaches up and finds stars hidden in the bright strands. Stars that gutter in the palm of her hand.

 

Ignoring the people that stare out through the glass at her, she throws her head back and releases her laughter up against the moon. Then, turning, she keeps walking – through the streets into the luminous dark, hand cupped against her stomach.

 

She will call her Esther, this white-hot star inside her. Together, they will be a galaxy.

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Sera Flynn lives at the edge of the world with her husband and two beasties. She tames high school students for a living and in her spare time likes to collect folklore and swim with sea monsters. 

Teresa Law – Art, Life and Artlife.

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Sick Lit Magazine: What inspires your work?

Teresa Law: Women, primarily. I am a feminist and that influences me a lot, along with bright colours and sarcasm. Three things that I love! I’ve always drawn cartoonish pictures, and I think that’s continued many years later. I find that a backstory or argument or some social situation quite often sparks off an idea for a drawing or painting!

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SLM: So is there any digital artwork in your future? Any tattooing?

TL: Maybe digital. I like the effects and I really admire graphic design but I do really prefer “real life” drawing – mainly because I suck with a tablet or in photoshop!

SLM: Any exciting projects in the works right now?

TL: I’m planning on a series of drawings based on Neil Gaiman’s novel ‘Neverwhere’, which I’m excited to start. It’s one of my favourite stories by one of my favourite authors based on my favourite city.

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SLM: What music are you listening to right now?

TL: Based on my favourite playlist on Spotify, I have been listening to LION BABE, Halsey, Dizzee Rascal, Shamir, Phil Oakley, OMD, Kanye, Chairlift and Elle King. Bit of a mixture!

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SLM: Tell us something not many people know about you.

TL: I have such verbal diarrhoea and no boundaries so most people know most stuff about me – I genuinely cannot think of anything! Maybe that’s something in itself!

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Teresa likes her art with a bit of feminism, sarcasm, and lots of bright colours. She currently juggles motherhood, project management, office politics and a fledgling artist dream. 

IG/Twitter: @msteresalaw

portfolio: teresalaw.net