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"All the departing souls" by Sandra Arnold

A flash of fantail wing, a clack of beak on glass. Elena watches the bird zip between the windows of her study and the kitchen. She checks the outside window frames. No insects. So the bird’s frantic fling is not for food. Then what? An open door? She checks all the doors. Reminds herself she is not superstitious. No. Not in the slightest. She absolutely does not believe this little bird brings news of death.

The fantail sings and zings between the windows for a whole week, its tiny notes sliding down the glass.

In the second week she finds a buried truck in her garden. A toy truck, rusted and bent. Who lost it? Who loved it? She spins the wheels then reburies the truck. Digging deeper she finds the bones of a cat. Who loved this cat? What was its name? She covers it with soil.

In the third week she looks out the window and sees a group of people in her garden. The fantail circles around their heads. Some of them look familiar: an old man she knew forty years ago; a woman with a baby; a child holding a kitten; a group of young men dressed in black. When they see her looking at them they nod and carry on walking. She opens her door and runs out into the garden.

They’ve gone.

The fantail sits high in an ash tree. It cocks its head on one side.

In the fourth week she dresses carefully to meet her friends at the café in the park. She’ll explain to them she isn’t responsible for what her husband did. Despite what they’ve heard she’ll make them understand she is not to blame for his actions. If they are the true friends she believes them to be she knows they will stand by her, no matter what. She buys a coffee, carries it to an empty table, sits down, draws a breath to steady her beating heart, checks her watch and phone and studies the menu.

A busload of noisy tourists burst through the door and swarm up to the counter to order food.

A howling toddler runs half-naked out of the toilets into the café, his frazzled mother following. “It’s okay,” the mother keeps repeating. “You’re okay. It’s all right.” The boy throws himself on the floor, arms flailing, legs kicking, mouth wide open, face lobster red, screaming in the most monumental tantrum ever heard in the history of the world.

The café customers freeze. Their heads swivel in the direction of the mother. Eyebrows shoot up into hairlines. Lips arc downwards. Muttered tsk tsks. A loud “Needs a damn good smack on that bare bum.”

The child scrambles to his feet and rushes out the door into the park. His mother charges after him.

A collective sigh of relief. Conversations continue.

Elena waits.

She checks her watch again.

The café empties.

Her coffee grows cold.

She checks her phone again.

The staff start locking doors.

Sandra Arnold lives in New Zealand. She is the author of five books including The Ash, the Well and the Bluebell, Mākaro Press, NZ, Soul Etchings, Retreat West Books, UK and Sing no Sad Songs, Canterbury University Press, NZ. Her novella-in-flash The Bones of the Story will be published n the UK by Impspired Books in mid-2023. She has received nominations for The Best Small Fictions, Best Microfictions and The Pushcart Prize. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from Central Queensland University, Australia.


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