Short fiction from Alex, our Contributing Editor, exploring the stagnancy of mid-twenties life and the change that can be made in a single day by a single enigmatic stranger.
Ripples from raindrops spread over the surface of the ocean, and bounced off the umbrella in my hand. The air smelled of salt and seaweed. I shivered and adjusted my scarf. Checked my phone, but the buzz just told me I should have charged it hours ago. Long grass whipped around in the wind that buffeted my body as I stood still. My hands shook, and I closed my eyes.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Tears fell when I stopped holding back. I turned away from where the water met the horizon, and walked towards the town.
Clearing was a town in a wide-cut circle of space, among an ocean of trees that spanned miles. Clearing was town where people were born and where they died without ever seeing beyond its borders. No one knew what, if anything, was outside the forest’s borders. It was far too dangerous to explore.
None saw Bakari, hovering at the edge of the crowd. Flakes of white had begun to fall from the sky, drifting to rest on the black garments of those gathered. Many had assembled. Hasan had been more popular than he would ever have admitted. As the last of the earth filled the grave, the mother placed her lit candle atop it, blew it out and spoke her prayer. All were silent. Thicker flurries drifted down from the sky. The priest spoke her final words and the congregation left. Bakari waited. The snow fell thicker, and still he waited. When he was sure, he walked to the grave. With a shaking hand, he lit the candle with a golden tinderbox. Shielding it, he closed his eyes. As he cried, his heart trembled. The prayer sounded thin between his cracked lips.
Bakari watched the birds on the ledge across the street, as they flew away over the treeline. He looked up, Mede had fallen asleep at his desk. Standing, he shovelled more coal into the furnace. He wrote a note: “Feeling ill. Have gone home to rest.” Retrieving his coat from the oak stand by the door, he left.
Snow crunched under his boots, and he breathed out in curls of white. As the chill was truly setting in, the streets had cleared of most of the inhabitants. Smoke rose from chimneys, thick and dark against the grey clouds. He pulled the cloak tighter as gooseflesh ran along his arms. The street was straight and narrow, it ran parallel to the town’s main avenue. The wooden buildings were tall, and made the pathway shadowed. He crossed the footbridge where the river ran through and paused, looking down its length he could just make out his home. All the lights were out. Bakari bit his lip and looked down at the water. Melting ice had made it full, and it rushed towards the treeline in the west. Turning, he walked onwards.
It took no more than half an hour to reach the felled trees at the edge of Clearing. Young, replanted trees grew just beyond that; though they were stunted, spindly things. Snow cover was deeper here, he could feel the freezing water starting to seep into his shoes. As he passed under the canopy, the crunching ice was replaced with a soft bed of needles; the corner of his mouth twitched upwards at the scent. Small comforts. Rarely tread, the pathways between town and border were difficult to follow. Bakari lit the lamp strung to his waist, illuminating the gloom and casting wild shadows among the branches. Shrubbery here had already been picked clean of winter berries. He looked around, but the woods were quiet. Still, his pulse quickened a fraction.
Just where the woods grew dense, he came upon the wall. Made of red stone, it came up to his navel. He reached out and the air above it rippled, shimmering blue and green; sycamore leaves reflected in the summer pond. He smiled. From the leather pouch on his belt, Bakari pulled out the old charm. A worn thing – a star carved in pine. It smelled like the dying embers of a fire. Holding it aloft, he whispered the ancient words. Crimson fractures, like cracks in shattered glass appeared on the invisible barrier. Gripping the charm, his palms were sweating. Climbing over the wall was like walking in a gale. Yet, in an instant it was over. The red disappeared, and Bakari stood on the other side. Hands gripping his knees, he took deep breaths.
Little light reached this part of the forest, and the day had begun to dim. Bakari’s lamp illuminated only a small circle around him. With little but intuition as a guide, he walked onwards. The trees were older, the trunks were thicker and their branches weaved together in a mesh that blocked out the sky. Fungal life was all that seemed to grow on the forest floor here; mushrooms with funnel caps that were the colour of beeswax. It was still and silent, save for the sound of Bakari’s footsteps, and smelled of moist earth and tree litter. The thin trail he was following wound around trees but did not veer wildly in any direction.
As he walked, his pool of light began constricting. He topped it up some with a vial of oil from his pouch, and the flame grew. The amount of light did not. Still, he persisted. The illumination of the lamp dimmed until it reached mere inches from his feet. Relying on his hands, Bakari felt his way on, pressing against the rough bark as he crept forward. In the shadows, there were flutters and the stamp of hooves. Though his chest trembled, he continued forwards. The lamp sputtered out, and he kept going. Hooves to left, wingbeats to the right. They got closer with each step he took. With one more step he walked straight into something solid. A tree. He turned to walk in another direction. Out of the gloom, titanic eyes shone black. Bakari collapsed.
When he roused, it was as though he sat in void. Could he not feel the carpet of needles below him, he might well have thought he was. The lurch of his heart upon seeing the creature almost rendered him catatonic once more. It seemed to produce its own unearthly light. Eight feet tall, it had the body of a doe and it stood on talons for hindlegs. Feathered wings were folded at its back and the mammalian head tapered down into the beak of an owl.
Why has the deal been broken? It spoke into his mind, but it used his voice.
Bakari shook his head.
It was decided between your people and mine, long ago. You shall not leave the town. Why have you?
His throat was dry.
Why did you leave the town? Why has the deal been broken?
He shook his head, held up a hand. The creature leaned closer, the tip of its beak a foot in front his face.
It was decided. That was to be your place. Why have you broken the deal?
“Because it is not my place. There’s nothing there for me. My lover is dead, and I cannot mourn. I cannot seek the solace of a friend, I cannot openly cry. There was no one else, there was only us. Even if I had not loved Hasan, he was the only other one. There must be a place where there are others like us. There must be somewhere that I am not wrong for existing.” His strangled speech became a shout, “I have broken the deal because the man I love was buried, and I was not invited to the funeral.”
We will help you find the way out.
And once again, he faded from consciousness.
When he awoke, the moon was high overhead, it was full and bright. Bakari stood, he faced a line of trees. His heart hammered, but when he turned around it soared. Bathed in silver night, was a wide open expanse of grass. He ran, whooping with joy. He would be first person to be born in the town of Clearing who did not also die there. He did not look back.
I woke up at 4 am London-time to check the results. Scrolling through the news in the pale dark of almost morning, my face lit up as I read the headlines declaring historical firsts. The youngest woman ever elected to Congress. The first openly gay representative. The first Muslim women elected. The first Native American women elected. At that moment, I felt a beaming, near-euphoric pride for my country—a feeling that had previously been all but consumed by the misery of Trump’s dystopian administration.
There were, however, a significant smattering of grave losses for the Left last night—Beto O’Rourke was defeated in the Texas Senate race (#Beto2020 please), Stacey Abram’s landmark gubernatorial race in Georgia is still too close to call, Florida unsurprisingly elected the openly racist Ron DeSantis, and my own home state of West Virginia passed a deliberately confusing ballot initiative to eliminate access to abortion.
Despite these setbacks, although substantial, there are many wins to celebrate. The Democrats won the House, and a record number of women, people of color, and LGBTQ folks have taken seats in the halls of the US government. Bolstered by the progressivism of the new elects, a renewed priority will be given to immigration concerns, the environment, preventing gun violence, and protecting reproductive rights. There are bold, new voices to challenge the president.
They’re calling it the Rainbow Wave: a younger, queerer, more racially diverse Democratic party. The Rainbow Wave is a culmination of two years of activism, grass-roots efforts, and no small amount of righteous anger that led to the upset of the Republican-controlled Congress.
Here are some Rainbow Wave midterm highlights that have me feeling optimistic:
Letitia James (D) became the first woman in NY elected as attorney general and the first black person to be attorney general.
Veronica Escobar (D) and Sylvia Garcia (D) are projected to be the first Latinx Congresswomen from Texas.
Rashida Tlaib (D) of Michigan and Illhan Omar (D) of Minnesota became the first Muslim women elected to Congress.
Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib via AlJazeera
Deb Haaland (D) of New Mexico and Sharice Davids (D) of Kansas became one the two first Native American women (with Davids being openly gay as well!) elected to Congress.
Chris Pappas (D) will be the first openly gay representative in Congress to represent New Hampshire.
Jared Polis (D) of Colorado is the first openly gay man to be elected as governor. (Remember the major Supreme Court case that ruled in favor for the homophobic Colorado baker who refused to bake a cake for a gay couple? Polis now governs that state. I’m looking forward to many more gay wedding cakes, personally.)
And my personal favorite candidate of this election cycle: working-class, Bronx-born democratic socialist, red-lipstick-wearing goddamn Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. At 29 years old, she is now the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. (We featured her shade of lipstick in a fashion profile in Issue 04, by the way.)
Ocasio-Cortez / CNN
As America watches her sunrise, I hope even more firsts have been counted. Learn their names; they will lead us into this rainbow era of more diversified and progressive American politics. Let’s keep this momentum all the way until the 2020 presidential election. And please, remember what a difference was made last night with your voice, your energy, your vote. To quote Beto, I’m as hopeful as I’ve ever been.
by Robbie Masters. Robbie is a writer and fine artist based in Bristol, UK. Their work addresses questions of transgender identities, mental health and sexual politics through a queer feminist lens, drawing upon their personal experience as a queer, femme survivor.
There’s a grumbling in the basement; in my stomach; in the depths of my mind. There’s a protective cocoon of quilt and down. The faint smell of warm computer dust mixes with the vinegar from a newly opened packet of Chipsticks. Carpet burn has ruined yet another pair of school trousers and scuffed black shoes have no place in this world. Grass stains tell tales; proving that I’ve seen the ground up close. Trip, graze and tumble—does it hurt?
The TV picture wiggles at the other end of the room as signal fades in and out. There are crumbs everywhere. A printer noisily chokes out a piece of ink-saturated paper with Barbie’s new clothes on, ready to be folded and glued down with Pritt stick. As I carefully shape the rigid orange dress around her tiny naked waist, lumpy breasts and slippery smooth legs, I am blissfully unaware that I will one day go to the same trouble to put my own outfits together.
The dressing-up box is a distant memory. Years of rooting through hand-me-downs mean that I know what I’m looking for. I don’t always find it, but I’m drawn to a bargain. There, on the sale rail, is a white wide-neck top. It speaks of beaches and cleavage. It’s in the men’s section, but it’s different somehow. For the first time I feel a flutter of risky autonomy. I’ll buy it. I won’t wear it too often—I think it may be a tad girly. I’ll buy it.
I’m flustered after being told I’m in the wrong changing room. Shoulders restrict me from getting my arms into seemingly endless sleeves. My calves make even the stretchiest of denim fall faint. A reluctant waistband digs where it shouldn’t, while the inside-leg seam grimaces and relinquishes its grip on the now-fraying undercarriage stitches. My bum won’t fit into these jeans.
A charity shop scramble helps me figure it out, I spot a couple of things I adore. The gentle nudge from well-chosen friends gives me confidence to explore. A floral shirt meets a vintage bow tie, suit trousers worn high with braces or a belt. A cheap pair of high-street dungarees call my name. My darling fave comes with me for moral support and before I know it I’m buying them, wearing them and feeling adorable. There’s no turning back—I’m cute now; I’m loveable.
Buy a few sizes up, learn to love leggings and discover the freeing swish and sway of a culotte, skirt or flowing maxi. Engage only with the top button of a silken blouse or a pattern akin to the most beautiful of flower gardens. Forget the clothes that have been designed for your body type —those fuckers don’t know you. A new length of hair and carefully painted face combine with my newfound drapery to form what I think you might call confidence. The colours give it personality, with blushing flowers and matching rosy lips breathing life into the whole ensemble. Is this what it’s like to feel pretty? A deep sigh says that I can do this. The world tells me I can’t.
The box of bow ties still sits among my hoarded possessions, a reminder of my journey to queerness. Drawings of me from my first year of university depict a character I like—one my friends are fond of—but not one I identify with. Shirts still hang in the wardrobe, caressing a Moss Bros suit bag that holds the handsome two-piece that once saw the success of graduation, a summer wedding and a string of job interviews with the happiest of outcomes. Thanks Mum.
I split myself for a while. I lived in separate boy mode and girl mode, blending the two to an extent, but always travelling with one tucked away in the depths of a wheeled suitcase or screwed up in a rucksack.
‘If you’re coming round, are you alright to change first? My housemates are in’. I may as well have cut myself in half. I was hiding again.
I pushed boundaries and burnt my comfort zone to the ground. I took clothes to my beloved charity shops. I shopped and shopped again. Many a selfie I took. I cried when I glimpsed the mirror and my face wouldn’t complete the look. I cut myself shaving. They told me to be careful but I took care not to care. I tried to be pretty and society mocked me for it, but my friends and family kept me strong. My partner loved me all along.
I’m wearing pyjamas to the shops again. The worst happened, but my clothes no longer cared. Clothed or naked, rock bottom felt the same. I’d still feel the pain of a body betrayed.
With help I found new ways to love myself. My body learned to twitch with tension, commanding respect and rejecting repression. I found sanctity in a laser and honesty in my nightmares. My world was upside down, but my skin looked great and my hair stayed glossy. I fought for survival and sought to forgive myself. My love lent me a jumper to keep me warm. My mum sent me a sunshine-yellow scarf to brighten my spring. With the promise of a shopping trip I can weather the storm, I think.
My facial hair wriggled and fell out at my command. I put on weight and I liked it. I ate a lot and I loved it. My clothes still fit, because I bought them too big. My boobs are larger than ever. I’m pregnant with emotion and I’m full of shit. My clothes are different, but I’m coping just the same. I’m wrapped in a duvet, still fighting off the shame.
‘Ode to An Ever-Changing Wardrobe’ originally appeared in the BODIES issue, available here.
By contributor Taylor Wear. Photography by Toa Heftiba.
Full disclosure: I am unabashedly feminine. I love face masks and false lashes and bright, audacious lipstick and ridiculous hoop earrings. And in spite of our current state of affairs, I adore men. Which is convenient, because if someone asked you to guess my sexuality off appearance alone, you would almost certainly guess heterosexual, with maybe a bit of “lesbian semester” potential.
L interviewed her close friends on their experiences of coming out. “Straight Outta Narnia” appears in Boshemia Magazine: Issue 01 from June 2017. The ages of the interviewees have been updated to reflect the year which has lapsed between the original publication of this symposium. All other details remain unaltered. Photography by Sharon McCutcheon.
Somebody recently said to me:
“I don’t mind people being gay, but they should just keep it to themselves and do it privately. I don’t feel like they need to go around telling everyone about it”.