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Flash Fiction
919 words
SHJ Issue 14
Spring 2016

At Least Be Welcome: England 1956

by Charles Hansmann

The lane ran between fields, and when it took a broad swing the land rose, and not exactly a wind, but a lifting of air, made his jacket feel light.

He rounded the hill, and the lane angled down to the village. At the back of a house was a long run of yard that was almost all garden. He saw a woman at work stuffing handfuls of straw into the crotch of corduroy trousers.

Burke walked up through the yard.

“I’m making a scarecrow,” said Olive Vern. “But the harvest is in. What do we care if the crows come now?”

The scarecrow looked more comical than menacing. Burke admired the pillowcase head, the darning thread pursed for a mouth.

“Will it work? Are crows really frightened of them?”

“It’s for the school children, for Halloween. Miss Reed will bring them just after tea. Along with some of the mothers.”

“Are you going to make a spook house?” Burke thought of ghostly sheets, eerily lit, and dark, unaccountable noises.

“I think they get enough of that. Let them read the newspapers if they want to be scared. Now there’s Suez. All this fuss to control a canal.”

She tightened her kerchief. “Have you ever examined the teeth in a cow skull?”

“I should imagine they’re flat.”

“We’ll hunt for some today, behind the old abattoir. It hasn’t been used since the war. The hill’s a kind of graveyard, the bones are all scattered. Uncanny....”


Her voice overcame its tremble. “How the teeth still hold.”

They heard the children coming up by the lane but could not make them out till they rounded the hill. The children ran everywhere at once, a motley of jackets tumbling up the yard like brightly-painted mice.

Olive Vern handed Burke a carving knife.

“Nothing fancy,” she said, “just the usual jack o’ lantern.”

Triangular eyes, triangular nose, a grimace with triangular teeth—that’s what Burke remembered. He squatted in front of the roundest pumpkin and severed the stem, cut a lid in the top, and spilled out the mucus of seeds. The little girl Clara came dancing over to watch him, giddy with excitement, and slipped in the mess. She ran away crying with seeds all over her stockings.

The mothers cast Burke a wary glance. Olive Vern sounded a horn.

It was time for the Halloween hunt. They went to the hill behind the ruined abattoir, where the butchered bones lay scattered, bedded down in scraggles of grass. Footing on the hill was tricky. As Burke poked around he found an old cap and slipped when he stooped to pick it up, startled by the skull, bleached and cracked, staring out from the weeds as he lifted the bill.

“Do you find it morbid?” Olive Vern asked, reaching down to stroke the forehead and brushing back the brown grass that entangled it.

“Is it meant to be a kind of communing?”

“If you were dead, and your body was lying someplace like this, would you rather people leave you alone, or pick you up now and then and stroke you?”

“When I am dead I probably won’t care. But for now I think the touch of the living, if not felt, would at least be welcome.”

Olive Vern looked up at him and smiled. “Let me see your teeth,” she said, and Burke showed them to her by laughing.

Clouds came in and the children ran off with the darkening day. They ran far and wild, as if a mistake had been made on the length of their tether.

But then some instinct, or just distance, slowed them, and as it got darker their mothers started calling, not urgent yet, but as a way to start them circling. The children flew up like birds alert to the changing significance of shadows. Their voices went flying on the wind, dipped, and suddenly they came running back.

Soon it would be stumble time, the ruts and rocks camouflaged by dim and mottled shadows. The party started moving toward the house, and the children again ran ahead. It was odd that they resembled the birds, because as they ran they chased up dark flocks that had already settled in the trees and bushes.

Olive Vern watched their flight and turned toward Burke. “Before he was deployed,” she said, “he liked to visit places that were pictured in a book he had, a sort of literary history.”

“You mean places that have appeared in stories and poems?”

“Yes, and even in hymns. One time we went to Stanton Harcourt. It was big news in the eighteenth century: two lovers killed by lightning, embraced in a haystack. Alexander Pope wrote a poem and it’s engraved on a stone in the parish church. God was merciful, he said. The lightning ‘blasted both that it might neither wound.’”

The birds circled back with loud cries. Olive Vern pulled the kerchief from her head and shook out her hair. It was winged and black as a raven, one white lock curling jagged from her forehead. “Doesn’t it look as if I too have been blasted?”

Late-season dandelions and yellow chrysanthemums bordered the garden. Farewells rang out. The little girl Clara, who had spoilt her stockings when she slipped in the pumpkin seeds, took her mother’s hand as she skipped through the gate. She wanted to know whether bleach, which after all made white things whiter, might also put the spiff back in blue.

SHJ Issue 14
Spring 2016

Charles Hansmann

is the author of five poetry chapbooks and received the 2010 Apprentice House Chapbook Award, the 2011 Clockwise Chapbook Award, and the 2013 Willet Press Poetry Prize. Recent fiction appears in Crack the Spine, KYSO Flash, Intrinsick, and Star 82 Review. His work is forthcoming in The Best Small Fictions 2016 and Journeys 2016: An Anthology of International Haibun.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury