Where We Walk
Arriving home to wind chimes, legs burning and eyes as soft
as the earth’s breath through the trees.
Up from the swaying shore, through the savage garden, we walk.
Venturing to chalk cliffs, memorising laughs and licking salt
from the waves of tall grass where poppies bleed.
Arriving home to wind chimes, legs burning and eyes soft.
Palms chafing against the rough bark of a branch holding us aloft.
The old elm’s twisted torso recovering from our knees.
Looking over the swaying shore and the savage garden where we walked.
Bicycle wheels on well-worn paths, on our way to haunt
the creaking library where we turn brown pages to find Eurydice
before arriving home to wind chimes, legs burning and eyes soft.
When rain lands on seldom-soaked soil and prompts a cough
from your throat, the kettle screeches, I pour tea, thank the bees
from the swaying shore, and the savage garden where we will walk.
Though landscapes change, no memories are lost—
we’re tied to this place, where we do as we please;
arriving home to wind chimes, legs burning and eyes soft.
Up from the swaying shore, through the savage garden, we walk.
I watch the slivers of light dance across your face,
loose hair drifting with a feeble current.
Our arms spread out— a mocking embrace.
Bodies still, suspended. Remnants of urgent
struggles to reach the surface, where lily pads nod
against ripples. The burn of death certain.
Your foot tangled in eelgrass, mine lodged
inside a crevice.
Lovers once, now corpses in a pond.
Perhaps the world is jealous
the fish and I have you to ourselves,
or maybe you break your promise
to stay with me. Because as your body swells
and the vegetation rots away,
you float up— leave me by myself.
A boat’s belly bumps into you, here to separate
us as they pull you aboard. Here I remain,
Lost to all but the fish who watch me decay.
An Incomplete Sentence
Full Stop was stubborn. A no-nonsense type.
He was a back-of-the-crowd kind of guy.
That friend seldom invited. The last picked.
He made things awkward. No one laughed at his jokes.
One day someone did. And Full Stop was stricken;
her name was Comma, and she fit in crowds well,
Comma was curvy, free-running and wild.
You’re strange, I like it, she said to him once;
they got along well, went to cafés, watched films.
But Full Stop was simple and Comma wanted more;
he wanted to settle: a house, some kids,
she wanted to travel, see more of the world.
Never a compromise- he let her go,
and hoped that one day she’d slow down, return.
For now Full Stop waited, alone again.
Where he first started: the back of the crowd.
Noel gasped, the cool night air scorching his lungs and throat. He shivered, dark hair plastered to his head, clothes a second skin. Staring up, he frowned as he recognised his mother’s face: brown eyes red-rimmed and glittering alongside the stars behind her. His head was on her lap and her hands trembled as she wiped his fringe from his forehead, fingertips warm against his skin.
“Oh thank God! Thank God— Isaac! Isaac, he’s awake!” she called, tears slipping past her lashes and down her cheeks.
Noel flexed his fingers, surprised at the blades of grass he caught between them. He scarcely registered his mother’s hands on his shoulders, too distracted by the sudden appearance of his father. He knelt beside her, panting, thick brows furrowed and water dripping from his beard. “Son, are you alright? Christ, you almost— we almost…”
“Noel, we know you can’t help it but—” his mother breathed, “I don’t even know how you managed to get out the house, we saw you in the river— we thought you…”
Noel blinked, realising that he had been sleepwalking again. It never got this bad: he’d usually just wake up from stubbing his toe on furniture or running into walls, not from nearly drowning himself in the river.
“I’m sorry,” he whimpered, “I didn’t mean to.”
His parents sighed and helped him get back on his feet. “We know, lad. It’s not your fault,” his father muttered as his mother wrapped her shawl around him. They made their way up the grassy slope, towards their cottage. Noel watched smoke rise from the stone chimney and shivered, eager to escape the cold. His mother went inside but his father halted by the stables, beneath the oil lamp hanging from the roof’s edge, and gestured for Noel to join him.
“We must be more careful. Nobody’s going to help in case something bad happens. Not this time of year.”
There was a loaded pause, an unspoken grief solidifying the air between them. Noel glared at his bare feet and his father hooked an arm around his shoulders, pulling him close. “I know you miss him,” he said, Noel nodding in response. “We all do.”
They shuffled back into the house and Noel trod up the stairs, pausing at the closed door of an unoccupied room. He didn’t need to open it to know there was a small bed inside, a chest with a wooden sword and straw dolls beside it; belongings left untouched for two years. He reached for the door handle, but let his fingers slide off as he turned towards his own bedroom door. He changed into dry clothes, glowering at the lake through wavy glass before drawing his curtains shut against the moonlight.
The next morning Noel met his friends in a meadow by the village border, their horses tied with generous lengths of rope so they could graze freely.
“Can’t believe you nearly drowned,” Will chastised, flattening the grass with his pacing. “You could have been the next one!”
“Let’s just be glad he didn’t drown, eh?” Ellery said, ripping out handfuls of grass while Noel studied a flat pebble he’d found outside his front door that morning. The village was higher up from the lake, where only grass covered the ground. Thinking of how it got all the way up to his home made something stir in his gut.
“Why are you not concerned about this?” Will asked Ellery, then pointed at Noel, “After what happened to his little brother? And Adam?”
Noel tensed, trying to focus on the smooth surface of the stone between his thumb and index finger. He was distantly aware of Ellery barking something at Will but it was muted, as if they were underwater. He registered the sound of his breathing— too loud— and shut his eyes.
Sammy swings his wooden sword, it clacks against Noel’s twice before catching him unawares by the thigh. Noel goes down, exaggerating his demise to his little brother’s endless amusement.
“Will, you’re being an imbecile. Adam is gone. And like everyone else that goes missing, he’s not coming back.”
Lightning splitting the sky, thunder shaking the windowpanes, Sammy curled up next to him, listening to Noel’s jokes and giggling quietly under the covers. He always leaves fear outside Noel’s bedroom door, Sammy told him.
“No— he’s alive! I’ve heard him. A few nights ago… his voice, by the lake. If he’s out there and there might be others too. No bodies were found so there’s a chance—”
Skipping rocks by the lake in the evening, Noel managing to replicate his father’s technique while Sammy struggled and pouted when it got too late to be outside. Sammy waking Noel up once their parents had gone to bed, asking him to teach him how to skip rocks.
“You’re insane, Will. Those are dangerous thoughts. You’re not hearing his voice. It’s just the cold and the mist over the lake playing with your head, bringing back memories. Let. It. go.”
Noel telling Sammy to go back to bed…
Ellery shook Noel’s shoulder gently, breaking his train of thought. “Noel, you alright?” asked Ellery, voice soft.
“You don’t look too good,” said Will.
A dull pain throbbed in Noel’s palm, where he clutched the stone. He felt shaky, off-balance. “Yeah… Sorry, but I think I’ll head back. I’m not feeling well.”
Ellery nodded, “Okay. Just look after yourself, alright?”
Without another word or a backwards glance, Noel got onto his horse’s back and rode home, pocketing the small stone.
He reached the stables by the cottage and dismounted, striding towards the entrance of his home and pausing for a moment. From his periphery, he saw the lake reflected in one of the windowpanes. The wind picked up, it felt heavy with moisture. Noel took a deep breath then reached into his pocket. There had to be a reason for this. What if Will was right? If those who disappeared really were alive they’d want someone to go looking for them. He’d do it for Adam. For Sammy.
Noel waited until his parents went to sleep, watching the glimmering lake from his window. He saw a blanket of white fog roll over the water’s glossy surface. He was careful about walking over the floorboards, taking specific steps to avoid the groaning planks. He’d oiled the hinges of the front door earlier that evening to silence its creak.
Outside the moon was a crescent above him, scarcely illuminating the pebbled shore of the lake as he pushed a rowboat out into the black water.
Noel rowed out, feeling the chill of growing fog rising up and pouring into his boat. He didn’t know what he was hoping to find, simply clinging onto what little hope he had. Once he’d lost sight of his village lights, he paused to rest, noticing how he could no longer hear any crickets or other insects. He must be far away from any land.
A breeze swept by, Noel balked at the unexpected scent of foul water and dead fish. He didn’t think much of it. Admittedly it was odd but not unheard of to have fish die so far out into the lake, usually their bodies get washed up or eaten by bigger fish. In any case, fish dying in a lake is never a good sign. He fidgeted, feeling too cold all of a sudden.
Noel exhaled into his hands to warm them up. On the inhale he realised that the smell had thickened, condensing so much that he could taste its bitterness, shocking and unwelcome.
Something thudded against the side of his rowboat, jostling him in the water. He immediately dismissed it as some type of driftwood or debris. Noel continued to row, determined to escape the reek of decay. One oar nudged against something solid rather than slicing through the water and the boat slowed as Noel struggled to maintain balance. It was probably nothing. He carried on.
A slight sound of something small being dropped in the water caught his attention. He turned his head towards it and saw a ripple spread and bounce off his boat. Noel squinted in the direction of the sound and heard it again from further away. It was more regular this time, as if someone—
Noel froze. It sounded like someone skipping rocks, he realised as a pebble appeared out of the fog and knocked against the side of his boat. “Sammy…” he whispered, barely noticing the name that had slipped from his trembling lips. He knew it was unreasonable but he couldn’t seem to stop himself from calling out again, more firmly: “Sammy?”
There was no echo; the sound of his voice seemed to die before even reaching the vignette of mist surrounding him. The air was dense— silent; Noel’s heart hammered against his ribcage.
Another small knock against the opposite end of his boat. He turned his head and peered over the side of it to inspect the sound but was instead greeted with the face of a corpse. He cried out, shocked to recognise Adam’s features despite the flesh that had peeled from his skull. Noel pressed his lips together, willing himself not to retch at the image of someone he’d grown up with reduced to a doughy, swollen carcass— one remaining eye milky and unseeing, forearm floating by the body, still attached by a singular tendon.
Hands shaking, Noel gripped the oars and tried to manoeuvre the boat to go back to the village. He looked up, the fog had lifted to reveal that his boat was bobbing, closed in on all sides by dozens of decaying bodies floating in the water.
“Oh God—” Noel cried out, fixing his gaze to the interior of his boat, trying to forget the brief glimpses of bare ribcages with skin torn and hanging loose in the water, dissolving. He feared paying closer attention to them lest he recognise more people among the yawning faces.
Noel used the full weight of his body to push against the oars, heedless of the direction he was going so long as it was away. The water seemed viscous, bodies slowing the boat’s movement. Noel felt his arms burn with effort. He stopped short when he heard what sounded like a woman sobbing.
“Hello?” he dared to ask, worried that perhaps this woman needed help. “Where are you?”
The woman’s wails were unintelligible and came every few seconds from different places. “Hello?” Noel prompted again, and flinched when the next wail came from directly behind him. He whipped his head around to see a willowy woman suspended, as if hung from a noose, over the corpses. Her face was obscured by stringy black hair, the skin of her neck mangled. Her fingers, wrinkled from water and black with rot, gripped the shoulders of his little brother.
The crying woman sank until the water was at her waist and something twisted violently in Noel’s chest as he watched her plunge Sammy’s beautiful riot of brown curls beneath the surface. His little brother thrashed desperately, clawing at the woman’s hands and tearing flesh away as easily as if it were the skin of warmed milk.
“Sammy!” Noel shouted, steering his rowboat towards them. “No, Sammy!”
The woman’s sobs were nearly drowned out by Sammy’s flailing and Noel’s panicked screams. As Noel’s boat reached them, he turned and shoved the woman’s ice-cold form away, leaning over the edge of the boat to pick up his brother. He struggled to get a grip on Sammy’s small body, fumbling with the slippery, mushy texture of his skin so much that his body floated face up. Noel let out a gut-wrenching wail at his brother’s suddenly deteriorated face: eyes gone, a hole torn through his cheek, teeth exposed, and skin barely clinging to bone.
Noel felt a pair of hands settle across his shoulders, tipping his weight even further over the side of the boat. He met the eyes of his reflection in the water, focusing on the dark irises glinting with the stars in the night sky behind him, ignoring the pale face of the woman whimpering in his ear.
A singular tear fell into the lake, rippling out before Noel’s head was pushed down into the water.
© Vivian Bolognani