The Rules

By J.McAuley

The bent old man with the accordion. The young woman banging the tambourine against a velvet knee. The children dancing in hectic circles, elastics sliding from their corn-silk hair.

He leaned against the barn door, half in, half out. Deciding. On the barn door was a hand-carved sign: no smoking, no open fire, no alcohol. He had crossed an ocean to escape them, but rules awaited wherever he went. And though he had been invited, it didn’t mean he belonged.

Behind him, dusk simmered, shining its tangerine light into the circle. Night was approaching; where he came from, it was morning. He turned to blow smoke at the disappearing sun, then turned toward the music.

The bent old man with the accordion, the young man leaning against the dry hay, the silver-haired woman tipping back in her rusty chair. Clapping, clapping.

He tipped toward the past, then moved toward the future. He dropped the cigarette, grinding its tip into the dirt with his heel. He grabbed the hands of a girl with a long black braid. He would have liked to dance with the young man leaning his back against the hay. But…Rules. The girl smiled, and they bounced and spun.

Sweat poured from his forehead, rolled down his back, and slicked his palms as they polkaed back, back into the past. The old country. The lost world. The burnt notes built on pebbled streets. Sweat spread in damp circles under his arms, gathered between his clavicles, rolled down his nose. They slipped apart, hands hot and wet, while the cool night poured in. An owl hooted its one-note wisdom but was not heard. The music turned, changed direction, became modern again, tapping impatiently against the porous wood walls.

For a while, he rested. Watched the bent old man with the accordion, the dog searching for scraps, the aunty stuffing a cookie into her mouth, eyes darting furtively to make sure no one noticed. His eyes caught the gaze of the young man—dark curls and eyes like lightning. The young man smiled.

Unsettled, the man patted his breast pocket, reassured by the sharp corners of his cigarette pack. He felt for his lighter, a hard cylinder in the front pocket of his pants. He rose, then made his way to the open door. He needed to smoke.

The young man followed, asking for a light.

“It’s a dirty habit,” he scolded, then leaned toward him, the flame fragile between them. Together they inhaled.

Later the barn would burn, a roaring, unexpected blaze that threatened the farm and harassed the forest. They would say it was a careless gesture, a flick of the wrist, a bad habit. The man should have known better. Couldn’t he read the signs?

For now, he listed the things he once had, the things he now held. The taste of smoke, the sunset, the old world, the curled photo of an old love, the music, the loss, and this moment.

Musepaper Story Prize #61

Jennifer McAuley spent over a decade working as a visual artist, living on the wet west coast of BC, Canada. After a series of life changes which included a move to the small mountain town of Nelson, BC, she started to earnestly pursue the craft of writing. Find more samples of her work at

* This is the author’s first literary award. *

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