By Sam Le Butt
Little Mikhail was busy squatting. Wedged in the alley behind his house, his buttocks were bare and pink with cold, or maybe embarrassment at being exposed outside. They needn’t have been. The alley is quite safe, Mikhail reassured them. Not even the wind comes down here. Beneath his buttocks lay a doll, buttered with his sisters constant affection; the fragile trophy of their on-going feud.
Mikhail was relishing this triumph, this glimmering space in the morning, and he noted the tightness behind his knees, near snapping in the cold. He concentrated on the early sun: a fixed arrow, dripping watery sunlight from the puncture it made in the sky. In this he foresaw his sister’s tears and he shrieked like an owl mad with mice. The shout shattered its way up the narrow walls, gaining deeper notes from the cold stones before dispersing like pollen where the alley opened out flat with the roofs.
He was half-way through the perfectly coiled shit when the silver disc rolled by. Delighted, he rushed out of the alley after it, already forgetting his carefully crafted act of war in the sprig of a new enterprise. His mind was a golden grasshopper. Rounding the corner, he saw the tin rolling down the hill, gathering tiny metal scraps of possibility like a magnet as it went. He clattered down after it, limbs as sparse as antlers. It was just gaining enough speed to be called a rocket when it disappeared, swept into the hands of a flying beggar.
He felt he might cry.
No, he wouldn’t cry. That was his sister’s job, he thought, turning back to look up the hill, towards the abandoned doll. Or the sun’s job, he wondered, stretching his neck further upwards.
He didn’t see the next tin jump up at him from the hill’s momentum, and it punched him dead in the centre of his echoing chest. Scrambling up, he examined the tin with clucks of glee: Concentrated Steak Rinds (now with extra pulp!) What a day! He stared at the brown illustration all the way home.
Mr Frew had perfected his eyes. He had spent years training his eyelids to hang at precisely the right level, so he could just about see a nicely blurred picture of the greyness around him, but still covered enough of his vision so it felt like he was asleep. It was the only way he could face the world. However, it did mean he lost the last baguette to Old Mrs Wintergate, who crept beneath his static outstretched arm like a dormouse.
Pesky bitch, he thought, moving his whole body like a merry-go-round to watch her hobble away from the market stall. Greedy old thing, her basket was piled high: bread (his bread, really), meat, tins… she was battling off death with some pretty substantial weapons, he thought, whilst leaving the market.Death’s not gonna bother someone eating steak; they mean business! Complex proteins, they mean to hang around, at least until after digestion.
He turned onto the high street, walking in slow bouncing steps like a camel. If he widened his steps, and dropped his torso lower between them, maybe he could move from regular walking pace into a new realm of slowness; maybe even slower than the world. And he could increase his frames per second, like a fly, and see more. Maybe then he’d open his eyes all the way…No, his eyeballs would get cold.
He slowed right down to a stop when he reached the hill, and fixed his eyes on the pale sky. He tugged on his eyelids, asking them to remember how to rise with the sun, and he washed them in the watery light. Good that it was watery. Soft on his nervous pupils.
Between the rays, a butterfly slipped out, beating its wings senselessly like a drunk, and he put out his hands to shelter it. Looking down at its wings, he saw a face-punch of colour, and intricacies of design. It seemed as though all time, past and future, and all chaos and love and fear was mapped out on its tiny coloured back. He read the destiny for all men on the right wing, and the secrets of the Gods on the other, and the plans of Nature for all when the wings slapped together. He looked up, letting his eyelids droop down to their natural state, and the butterfly flew away. That was a bit over the top, he thought.
Taken-aback by his hyperbole, he considered that maybe he held his eyes too low too often. I have become dulled, he thought, watching a silver disc canter down towards him from up the hill. I sit in the middle of life, like a hen squeezed in between two other, fatter hens, providing some kind of cushioning hen pillow that would protect me if the hen house ever flew off.
The tin bounced nearer.
If he knew what Death’s breath smelled like, maybe he would see the chaos and love somewhere other than on a drunken butterfly’s wings. Maybe I’m drunk? he thought.
He caught the tin with both hands and read the label: Highly Pressurised Baby Carrot Heads +25% extra free! Who would buy this? he thought, strolling home.
White Mike stood adrift on the hill, imagining he was a great and grand ship rolling across the watery planes of the sky. His coat became sails as he stood outstretched, arms either side of the pale sun. Actually he looked more like a winter tree, a twisted black spine half-rotten, for White Mike was a spiny-sort of homeless man; awkwardly elegant.
Across the waves, swimming gently uptide, there appeared on the surface the wrinkly apparition of Old Mrs Wintergate, a mermaid past her days of service and relaxed in her wisdom, like that of a brothel Madame. He called out to her, inviting her to sing and light up this pale dawn with the warming tones of temptation! She did not hear.
No matter. He had resumed enjoying the cold sea-breeze against his face when the silver disc came shooting toward him from up the hill.
An enemy canon? At this time in the morning? He blinked his hollow eye-lids slowly, fixed on the threat.
“Out here, far from land, death may come any minute, but I have lived with its face on the back of my head for long enough; I know how its mouth moves!”
As it flew nearer, he realised what it was. What a day! Fire consumed his nautical reverie and he sucked the speeding tin into the folds of his cloak. Flashing into a near alcove, White Mike squatted down. He tried to open the tin. His breath became hot and frenzied, clouding on the cool metal in petals of hunger. His elegance turned short and jaggedy, a little storm.
He wrestled. He started to bark, and the barks glided round the alcove in ghostly echoes.
This would not do. In his desert mind he remembered a stone; a sharp and pointed stone, jutting proudly from a monument just up the hill. This he could use, to smash into the tin. Racing against the wind, he flew upward. The air drew shut as he moved through it, closing the space behind him like a zip. All the heat was in this tin, this magic silver disc. He didn’t even see the cloud of silence surrounding an old lady lying on the street, and he moved on, higher.
Little Mikhail placed the tin onto the high counter-top by his mother’s elbow. The elbow was eager, pushing right up against the skin to see the world better. Mikhail could hear the removed whispers of his sister searching for her doll upstairs.
“What’s this?” said his mother.
“Concentrated Steak Rinds, now with extra pulp,” Mikhail said carefully. “It’s food. I think. I found it—I know how much we need it. Don’t worry, another man took one as well, so at least we know it’s okay.” Mikhail carefully omitted that this other man was in fact a ‘flyingbeggarman’ who looked close to death, and therefore would eat anything. He climbed (one, two) up onto the chair and bunched up his legs, ‘mini-owl’. ‘Owlet?’
His sister’s whisperings were curdling into a low wail, like a ghost if you flushed it down the loo: “Wooooooooohhhhhhhhheeeeerrrreessss mmyyyyyy doooooowooooooooooooooooooooll?”
“I don’t want stolen food in my house,” said Mikhail’s mother sharply. “Take it to Old Mrs Wintergate, she is frail and delicate like a spider web. She would appreciate the home delivery.”
Mr Frew arrived home. It was quiet like snow. Cold like snow too. He stood with the door open, his back to the pale morning, shadows collecting under his chin and around his half-closed eyes like old friends.
Where was she hiding? Or trying to hide, but failing to move her swollen baby-bump out of view; even his half-asleep, grey, dead view.
He swung the door shut, and it banged like a cough. He sensed movement in the kitchen, by the sink. He averted his eyes and moved decisively down the hall towards his study. His wife appeared at the kitchen door, the smoke of new-life whispering around her like snakes.
“Well? Did you get any food?” She was faceless. From moving too fast? He sidled past, clutching the tin of food inside his pocket.
“No, Old Mrs Wintergate took it all, she wants to live forever.”
He moved slowly into his study and clicked the door shut. Back in the hall, he heard a faint, “What will I eat?” but he’d become like a fly, slower than time and hunger. If he slowed down enough, the chaos might escape the butterfly and unfold around him. He added the tin of food to the right turret of the fortress of food tins he had built in his study, before quietly going to sit inside.
Old Mrs Wintergate was dead. Not on purpose. She had been walking with her shopping and she had died. What a day! Her blood was half frozen and the heat steaming off a fresh baguette carried home for breakfast had cracked her heart. She stopped, halfway through a new step (and each step was a new venture in itself for Mrs Wintergate) and she had begun to cry, feeling her head floating away from her. Her bones had folded like paper and she fell, soft as a whisper, onto the cold hill. Her shopping was not so quiet; a glass jar of jam had smashed, there was cold slap of a steak and all of her tins had giggled, tinkling in a silver disc procession out of her bag, and begun rolling with gathering momentum down the hill.
Sam Le Butt comes from Cornwall, UK, and currently resides in Scotland, having just completed my MSc in Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh, focusing on short fiction exploring themes of surrealism, bodies, and the feminine fantastic.