Helen McClory


By Helen McClory

Prompt, from Leah Umansky: Write in the second person. Include one or all of the following images: star, snowflake, owl, a famous tv character.


            Christmas Eve finds you sitting alone in an emergency bothy on the side of the mountain in the Scottish Highlands, soaked to your underwear, poking at damp logs and trying to get a fire to catch. It’s taken you all day to get here, though it was not at first a strenuous journey. This is a families-and-their-dogs type of summit, busy most holidays and weekends in good weather. The hut is only provided on the off-chance of bad weather and foolishness, which there are plenty of in this instance. The day started out blue and frosty. You dawdled, ate snacks, took breaks to cry into your sleeves when there was no sign of other walkers. Towards noon, a sudden turn. Sleet and driving rain, to the point where people were muttering on their way back down, turn back, pal, it’s not going to let up tonight. But dreich was what you needed. Any excuse to put your head to the ground and trudge onwards. Whatever was it possessed you, at the summit, to leap down off a last rock, like you were someone with a need to be leaping? Then over on the ankle, the pain stratospheric. You rub the swelling. Not serious; pathetic, mostly in the pantheon of bodily injury. Leaving a dull throb; you hold that throb to yourself like a gift. True you could have louped down the mountain on your good leg, or caved and called for help. But you have your reasons.

            Somewhere in a secret pocket there’s one of Janno’s lighters. It takes a while to locate, while you shiver open the rucksack’s knots and zips. You’d love a nip of something brash and peaty, though you don’t drink, you remind yourself. What else? No lantern, no sleeping bag, not much in the way of food. A gritty energy bar and some old teabags from another trip. No pot or stove to coax the worth from them. There though, the fire’s catching. You get to work on your damp boots and your wet socks, then rub at your slab-cold feet. After an hour, misery ebbs, and you take the measure of everything around. In the firelight you can make out dirt floor, doorless cupboards, log basket, rough ladder up to the sleeping loft. You won’t be sleeping up there, not with your ankle the way it is, and so far from the only heat.

            There’s a knocking at the door – who knocks at a bothy? It’s meant for all comers. You wince over, getting your feet clarty. At the door, there’s nothing. Winter dark and its stars in a weatherless sky. The barely visible windsheltered side of the hill. Then, there’s an owl. It is standing right in front of you, looking up.

            You’ve never seen an owl in the wild before. You don’t even know if their range is this far North. Certainly high up on a mountain seems unlikely. What species is this? It’s very large, almost the size of a toddler, though that implies something weak and awkward. You are unsure of owls, in general. You are the awkward one here. You hop to one side, and the owl walks in. Perhaps it has a broken wing. Disorientated. It moves to the fire, and jumps onto one of the wooden benches. You close the door and slowly seat yourself back down where you were. The owl gives you a friendly glare. Eyes like amber in a hunched mottled body. Nothing happens. For some time, you both sit watching the fire, which smokes and crackles. You wriggle your toes at the grate, and then stop, in case the owl is offended, or mistakes them for small baby mice.

            Eventually your eyes grow weary, and you pull on your dried socks and stretch out on the bench, mindful of the creature beside you. As you sleep you dream brilliantly of the owl. In the dream, the owl, grown larger still, removes its coat and balaclava of feathers. Under it all is a squat-necked woman, or a man, or a child of any gender – you can’t be sure. The owl-person, still seated by the fire, takes out a set of knitting needles and begins to tick away on them. You want to ask something, but if there’s anything worth asking, the heat of the fire and your reluctance to break silence hides the words away in the back of your mouth. Nothing but a sigh escapes, full of ambiguity as sighs always are. Are you content? Stymied? It is not the time to lock your emotions into any particular definition.

            At a point before dawn you wake feeling a sudden pressure on your shoulder. You try very carefully not to panic. The owl flaps its wings a few times, and the door creaks open. You are sure the owl’s head must turn all the way round to check on whoever is here now. You don’t have any power of motion, beyond moving your legs, which seems risky. Now you think, what if the owl is insane and attacks you in a frenzy. This presumes owls can go mad. Rabid, then.

            The pressure lifts: the owl is walking over to greet the new guest. You get up. Flurries blithering in. A snowflake lands in your eye, not that there is much to see anyway. Water trickles down your cheek. Nothing has come; the door stands open with the owl on the threshold. And then, in a moment marked by no sound, it is gone. You wait, then close the door after. The fire falls in on itself while you sleep. In the morning you look around, packing, telling yourself not to look. Time to go.

            You stand at the door now. It’s Christmas day. Whiteness like down spreads soft below, as far and far as you can see.

Helen McClory is a writer from Scotland. Her first flash fiction collection, On the Edges of Vision, was published by Queen’s Ferry Press and won the Saltire First Book of the Year 2015. Her debut novel, Flesh of the Peach, will be published by Civil Coping Mechanisms in 2016. She can be found @HelenMcClory. There is a moor and a cold sea in her heart.

Shepherds, Why This Jubilee?

By Bryan Furuness

Prompt, by Helen McClory: Write about the most moving thing you have seen at festive time (can be totally fictional of course).

When it comes to Christmas Eve services, you can have your non-denominational inspire-a-thons, your Catholic pews jammed with the sweaty lapsed, your Lutheran sopranos keening like red-tail hawks on the descant in "Angels We Have Heard on High." For sheer production value, you can't beat the Episcopalians.

Trinity Episcopal, my church in Indy, is big on beauty. It's just that, for most of the year, the beauty is understated, almost austere. The building looks like it was airlifted from a village in Yorkshire. Think: stone walls, oak doors with iron hinges, dark wooden pews on stone floors, all capped by rafters painted as brightly as a calliope.

Classy. Timeless. The church goes to work in a dark suit with a red tie. Until December, when the church leaves work and changes in a Speedway bathroom to head to a drag show.

The transformation starts with a process called "greening," which involves coiling about fifteen miles of evergreen boas around every knob and pole in the sanctuary. On Christmas Eve, these garlands bristle with candles, actual flaming candles (forget virgin birth; the real sacred mystery is how the church has avoided going up in a massive sap-fire). In their vestments of heavy brocade and tall pointy hats, the priests look like they wandered off the set of Alice in Wonderland. Trumpeters trumpet triumphantly while a dude in a crushed velvet hat whips around a censer of incense like he's the white Bruce Lee.

Pageantry? We're one torch song away from being a musical.

Or maybe the service is a musical. After all, it features several showstoppers. "Adeste Fidelis" is the Anglican "Freebird." If you haven't heard "O Holy Night" sung by children twisting their hands and rocking up on the toes of their Hush Puppies, then you have not heard "O Holy Night," my friend. And then there was the service a couple of years ago when the church pulled out all the stops during "We Three Kings." At first it seemed like a standard production, an excuse to let the men of the church let loose their most profundo basso, but then, lo! What was coming up the center aisle? Three Kings! Dressed in shimmering robes made of mermaid scales and hats that looked like Jiffy Pop post-pop. One of them had a service dog. And the dog was wearing a Jiffy Pop hat, too.

People were moved, man. Episcopalians don't shout or flop around or anything so unseemly, but eyes were shining. Hands were squeezed. Glances were exchanged that could be translated as Oh, man. This is really something. I'm feeling it hard.

In my pew, I exchanged glances dutifully, but I was not feeling it hard. I mean, I liked it. I appreciated it. I cataloged it as Very Nice. But that was it.

By the time the last star of wonder, star of night faded, even the crusty verger was swiping at his eyes in annoyance. Meanwhile I was wondering if my son, the acolyte, was in place to serve communion, and speaking of bread and wine, what were we going to eat after the service? 


I wasn't always this way.

When I was a boy, church was full of ecstasies. I would stare at the eternal flame and tell myself I am real, I am actual flesh that God has made, this life is not a dream until I was thoroughly weirded out. All year I looked forward to the Good Friday service that ended in total darkness with the pastor slamming shut the Bible with a sound like the end of the universe, making my whole body prickle with goosebumps. At Easter, I would sing the Hallelujah Chorus with the choir, and we would whip ourselves into such a frenzy near the end, gnashing at the words—Forever! And ever! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!—until it felt like we were all going mad.

And then it went away. I don't know when, exactly, but by the end of my teens, church didn't transport me anymore. Not just church, either. I could no longer fall into a book like it was a dream. In a movie theater, I could no longer forget that there were people around me, that I had a body, that I was separate from the screen. 

"The first twenty years of life contain the whole of experience," wrote Graham Greene. "The rest is observation." I don't know if that's true for everyone, but by the time I went to that Christmas Eve service, the one with the three kings and the service dog, it seemed true for me.

Greene also said that sometimes his faith was that his faith would return. So I kept reading. I watched the screens. I warmed the pews. In my cynical moments, I wondered if I was just going through the motions for a reminder of how these things used to make me feel, the way you might keep around an old girlfriend's shirt for an occasional sad sniff.

But even if I knew that to be true, I wouldn't stop. It's better than nothing. And in some burnt pit of my mind, an eternal flame burns a vigil for the return of awe. 


Back to the service in question. Time for communion. Eli must have been in the right place after all, because he ended up next to the priest, ready to hand out wafers. The two of them worked the drive-thru lane of communion—you walked up, got your body, got your blood, and you kept on walking. When I reached the head of the line, Eli handed me the Eucharist and said, "This is my body, given for you," and then he smirked because that's what happens to his face when his lips are trying to smile while he's trying to stay serious. I know this because my face does the same thing. So there we were, smirking at each other until my wife nudged me. I gave him a wink and went back to my pew.

How much time passed before I heard the crash? Could have been two minutes, could have been ten. The communion line was long and I was trying to remember if we had the ingredients for skillet cornbread, but the clang of metal on stone brought me out of that daydream. Before I could tell what was happening, my wife was pushing past me to get to the aisle. The church murmured. I stood stupidly.

I can still close my eyes and see the scene: my boy laid out on the stone floor, looking woozily up at the rafters, his face as white as his alb, wafers scattered all around. The priest, a grandmotherly black woman, is kneeling next to him, cradling his head. My wife is on the other side, her fingertips on his chest as though telling him to stay down. The man in the crushed velvet hat cranes over the scene, looking on in concern. The dog whines. The congregation falls to a hush.

And there I am, standing. Gripping the pew in front of me like I was being electrocuted and couldn't break away.

Then I did, of course. My hesitation only lasted a second or two. I made my way up the aisle and helped him to his feet. My wife and I led him to the common room to get some orange juice and cookies. Within minutes, color was back in his face. After the service, he was treated like a minor celebrity, which he handled with embarrassed smirks. In short, the kid was fine. I wasn't so sure about myself. What happened to me when I saw him on the floor?  In that electric second, I felt . . . something. Or maybe it's more accurate to say I felt everything, overloading my circuits.

A couple of years later, I'm still wondering. What came over me? It's only now, as I close my eyes and picture that scene on the stone floor, that I see how much it looks like a tableau. Like art, or maybe theater. Like an accidental nativity scene. And the feeling that seized me—fear and unbearable love—seems a faint aftershock of the original.  

Bryan Furuness is the author of The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson, a novel. Along with Michael Martone, he's the co-editor of Winesburg, Indiana. His stories have appeared in New Stories from the Midwest and Best American Nonrequired Reading. He lives in Indy and teaches at Butler University.