Category Archives: Issue #13

A Country with no Borders, Hiroki Kosuge

An act of pouring yogurt into granola and other perverted sexual practices are prohibited here.

With millions of flushed contact lenses, the ocean finally found the sky.

Skyscrapers with red lights blinking on top remind me of monkeys in heat.

This aquarium exhibits more than 10,000 animals that hate human beings.

Before sleeping alone, I cut both an Ethernet cable and my umbilical cord.

Now I have magical powers, I can let you or freshwater clams speak. Choose.

Some angels have tattoos of demons.

A single mother imprisoned for allegedly pouring Red Bull into an ant colony.

To be murdered or to be brutally murdered that is the question.

I have become a butterfly because you told me to do whatever I liked, Daddy.

Rain is medicine. Lightning is a jewel. Cumulonimbus clouds are, now, hold your breath.

‘No matter what color you dye your hair, the world will end.’

I failed to become a poet or a patron of a poet. Good night.

 

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The Dainty Line, Leanne Wicks

I want to see
beyond my borders
over the entrenched lies.

I am the Australienne
submitting to her husband
in this land of sweeping pains.
Two dead women every week
at the hands of men
stained with green and guilt.

My mother told me so
after the horse had trampled.
Where are the examples,
frontline warnings
from matriarchs who knew
the battle that I would gallop into?

Granny’s general memories
refused to retrieve files
but crossing the dainty line
I asked about feminine care
Oh, we didn’t talk about anything
down there!  Girls were frightened,
ignorant.  Our mothers never said.
We used a belt and cotton rags.

Bleeding’s what we’ve always done.
As I grew, I never knew why
she didn’t talk to Grandpa.
Maybe it was the war
that tore them.  He was as tall as a gum,
RAAFed in Borneo.
After Granny’s funeral I sorted her things.
On the highest shelf
at the back of the laminated wardrobe
behind precise pink and elf-green
hand-knitted jumpers it
was hidden:

A douche kit.
Bottle of Lysol (used for bathroom tiles, floors
and uterine walls)
stood constricted
by the laboratory-red hose
wound within the wash bowl
pump primed and funnel fanged
still ready to wash him away,
fifty years after her final child.

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Crescents, Evangeline Hester

The world holds crescents in a cerulean sky
Jostling with stars that in syncopation lie
With the darkness

In homes and hearts
Tomes and marks
Chiselled on the walls
Did you pray today did you pray today did
You
Wash the blood off your hands?
The stain on your lands
The twist in your parts
Our hearts
Crisp and monastic

While our limbs lingered there in the silt
Calling to one another like oily birds
Will you wash yourselves will you wash yourselves will you
Wash

Those homes and hearts?
Bleeding parts
Of some great horned beast
His arteries the streets
Clogged with jostling worshippers
And Philistine foreskins
Curdling and curling inwards
Crisp like burnt plastic

Latrines the gutters
And dusty shutters
That wink prying eyes at one another
Have you prayed today have you prayed today have you
Into the dusk.
At home,
A mother strangles a bird with scarlet thread

While windowmen
Wash the blood off cedar doorposts
Door hosts
In Sodom

 

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Riot, Adele Sandercock

Sarah had spent much of the previous week in bed, rising only at night to make a piece of toast and smoke a cigarette. Cradling her phone in her hand, she would scroll through the news, bouncing between any online media outlets she could find. She had called in sick for each of the three days she had been rostered on.

On the days she woke to silence, she would move to the large computer in the study.  Her body was weak with an intolerable sadness she couldn’t articulate. The larger screen aided in her rumination and she spent hours searching and reading. The photographs on a larger screen hit her harder. Faces reached out to her, bloody and weeping with a sorrow that grabbed at her chest, pulling her down lower and lower. Was this what the crushing of a soul felt like? If she, on the other side of the world, in no way affected aside from measly words on a page and photographs on a screen, if she could feel this dread, this pain, then what about them? What must they feel? Her guilt compounded the feeling of losing little bits of herself, fragments of innocence were being chipped away.

Still, she looked on. Images of masked men stalking cobblestoned streets, carrying knives bigger than she knew possible. Wailing mothers and press conference promises.  Later, in the comfort of her darkened room, she wondered what they did with the bloodstains. Perhaps a lone council worker with a wet broom and bucket slowly scraped it away, his hope and faith swirling dejectedly alongside the diluting blood.

She had not dreamt last week.

Sarah ate her muesli, unblinking as images of steel barriers and riot squad police flickered across the television screen.

‘Members of The United Patriots Front are now arriving on Stafford Street with police already here to…’

A note sat on the kitchen bench:

Will be home late. Please do your washing and make something for dinner. Being productive will make you feel better. Mum xx

‘..composed of Neo-Nazis and fundamentalist Christians and led by convicted criminal Blair Cottrell.’

Her spoon hovered over the breakfast bowl as she watched steely faces pace across the screen. Black eyes matched leather jackets embroidered with words of menacing fear.

Sarah slipped on her thongs, wincing as the rubber grazed at the blister between her toes. She was sick of thinking. Her fingers tingled with the urge to check her phone. She stood quickly, before her thoughts tangled themselves. Pulling her bag over her shoulder, she walked out the front door.

Sarah’s usual seat on the bus was taken by two teenagers, not much younger than her but exuding a confidence she lusted for. She sat a few seats behind them and put her headphones on. Both girls had long hair that fell thick and heavy across the neon blue seats.

Sarah could hear their voices over her music. One was loud, the other had a pitch that would bring dogs to their knees.

‘Noooo, don’t draw the M like that, there needs to be space for three more words, remember!’

The girl shrieked to her friend.

Sarah pulled one headphone from her ear.

A piece of black cardboard stretched across the girls’ knees, a thick white pen hovered over an M. They continued to argue over letter placement and size – they too must be heading to the rally.

The bus ride to Stafford Street was usually short, but the road closures meant frustrated drivers were taking detours. With every swaying stop of the bus, Sarah felt familiar, dizzying nausea. She gripped onto the seat in front and looked out the window. Crowds of people stood ahead, holding angry placards. She had arrived. As she stepped off the bus, the cool fresh air instantly releasing the knot in her stomach.

The girls got off behind her, one holding their sign, the other carrying a shared backpack. Sarah turned, curiously squinting against the mid-morning sun. The girl holding the sign noticed Sarah’s interest and raised it.

‘NAZI SCUM NOT WELCOME HERE’

Her eyes widened.

‘It’s great isn’t it?’ the girl beamed.

‘Yeah, it’s.. it’s great – amazing. I wish I had one.’

The girls continued walking alongside her.

‘Don’t worry, you can come with us, we can take turns holding it. I’m Celeste.’

The girl with the backpack held her hand out and Sarah was again struck by their self-assurance, their ability to just be.

‘Thanks, I’m Sarah.’

‘Olivia,’ The girl with the sign strode on, smiling back.

‘Let’s go!’

More people had arrived since they had left the bus and a clear separation of groups had occurred. Some wore mostly black with the Australian flag either draped across shoulders or sitting high on carried poles. Others carried placards, some just pieces of paper with illegibly scribbled messages, others professionally printed with screaming red letters.

PROTECT OUR PEOPLE SECURE OUR BORDERS!

A quiet fell over the three girls as the crowd swept them in. Sarah looked around and was surprised by how far they’d moved.

It was like getting caught in a rip, she thought, the waves might be small, but they were strong.

The vigorous chatting between Olivia and Celeste was replaced by tentative whispers, then they stopped walking. They were on the wrong side, only by a few  metres, but they were now surrounded by large, bulky men, many of whose faces were covered by bandanas, only their eyes visible. And angry. They reminded Sarah of the men she had seen on the news carrying machetes. Dizzying, she grasped Olivia’s shoulder to steady herself, but quickly let go, embarrassed at the intimacy of the touch. Despite Olivia’s reassuring glance, Sarah was reminded of how long it had been since she’d let someone hug her, how foreign the pushing of bodies against her felt. Skin against skin.

After tentative whispers and silent instructional head-jerks, the three slowly pushed their way towards the line of police separating the two groups. The crowd was surging forward. The air felt heavy with anticipation, like watching the lighting of fireworks, the nervous trepidation before the sparks caught and flew into the air. Sarah held her breath against the acrid odour of bodies mingled with stale tobacco. Celeste led the way, the poster secured under her arm. They moved quickly, sidestepping and hopping until a man stepped straight into Sarah’s path, separating her from the girls. He was tall; she was at eye level with the FUCK ISLAM emblazoned across his thick, dirty jumper. He smirked, his teeth bleached white in perfect symmetry. Sweat beaded upon his lips, threatening to run into his open mouth.

‘Excuse me,’ Sarah said. She looked down and stepped to his left.

He moved to block her.

‘You’re not excused Lefty,’ he responded to a few pitiful cheers around him.

Sarah flexed her fingers, teeth clenched, a tingling in her stomach. She searched the crowd for the girls, but they were lost in a sea of national flags and the pulsing collective rage.

She looked up, steely eyed.

‘Aren’t you hot?’

His smile gave way to a frown.

‘What?’

‘I said aren’t you hot? In that jumper. Aren’t you hot? It’s 30 degrees.’

‘The fuck? No. I’m not hot.’

Sweat dripped from his eyebrows and cascaded down hollow cheekbones.

Sarah caught sight of Olivia a few metres away, her elbows locked behind her by a man twice her size. He laughed as she kicked and screamed, looking at Sarah with a determination, a conviction that refused to be squashed.

Sarah liked making herself small, especially when the weight of the days became too much. Knees pulled to chest and blankets up to earlobes, she was almost undetectable when her mum would come to check on her. A small mound on the bed like a pile of unfolded washing. An insignificant presence. Olivia’s eyes, fierce with purpose, reminded her that there was more than blackened bedroom windows and bad news.

Sarah raised her voice, ‘You’re really sweating. I think you need to take your jumper off. You might overheat.’

Her voice, although loud and demanding was patronisingly sweet, hiding a gurgling swell of emotions. She stared into his furious blue eyes. The man puffed out his chest, pushing it towards her. Unmoving, she laughed at him loudly, heartily but without the familiar rush of warmth. She continued to laugh despite the sneer and gritted teeth that hovered inches from her face.

With a sharp kick in the shin and a flurry of angry words, Celeste had pulled Olivia from the clutches of the still-laughing protesters and they pushed their way towards Sarah, quickly pulling at her arms to leave.

‘Stupid bitch,’ the man yelled.

‘Far out girls! What were you doing?’ Celeste yelled once they had escaped the throng of thick necked nationalists.

‘He was a piece of shit,’ Sarah replied.

Olivia was quiet.

‘Well, yeah of course but the police were so far away and wouldn’t have seen any of that,’ Celeste said. She and Olivia looked concerned.

‘I’m sorry,’ Sarah said, confused. Hadn’t they met only an hour before? It had been a long time since she’d seen her friends. There was only so many times she could lie or make excuses about going out before she stopped responding and they stopped asking.  She was happy with her room and the television. But she appreciated the company of these strangers today. They began moving towards the sea of colourful banners.

ONE RACE = HUMAN

A chant was beginning just as they connected with the counter protesters; a group that now seemed much larger than the other side.

‘DON’T GIVE IN TO RACIST FEAR, MUSLIMS ARE WELCOME HERE, RACIST, SEXIST, ANTI GAY, FACIST BIGOTS GO AWAY!’

The volume rose with each round and Celeste held her banner high.

Sarah yelled and sang until her voice cracked. Olivia slung her arm around Sarah’s shoulders as they swayed back and forth, the crowd moving as one.

Sarah’s feet hurt; new blisters had emerged between each toe. The United Patriots Front had shrunk considerably in size as the afternoon wore on. Their catalogue of ‘war cries’ was limited, and their voices barely heard over the much larger crowd of counter protesters. Many had slunk away as the sky turned an orange pink and the shadows grew longer. Her phone buzzed in her back pocket. Her mother: Are you ok? Please come home now. But I am glad you got out of the house and I am hoping it was productive.

Sarah smiled. She didn’t want to think about tomorrow. Deciding whether she would stay in bed for the day sapped more energy than she had left. Today, the holes inside her had shrunk somewhat, and that was enough for now.

Darkness began to settle upon the city street. The air lost its spark, and a quiet calm fell as the police dismantled the steel barriers.

The three girls, weary but content, slowly walked back to the bus stop.

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The Wave that Breaks, Tanya Davies

The beach curves away from us, limber and inviting. But you don’t want to walk.

If I was alone now, I would wander and remember the times of beaches. The people. Their scents slotted into the salt, the crushed shells and tea trees.

‘Let’s make a pattern,’ you say. ‘Then we can look at it from up there.’

You try to engineer wavy lines, like sets of sound waves that surge and cross, but the sand spills, gets chopped up, and you give up. You ask what we can play.

The first time we came here you were five months old – you slept for a full half an hour and I felt a shard of myself, my old self, cut through. And I loved you; soft, pink, breathing so deeply. The rest of us, the three of us, tried to be a family, but the shoreline was garlanded with a slew of bluebottles, a string of whimsical blue, and your sister refused to swim and your dad sulked in his usual humid cloud of anger.

He proposed to me on a beach in Cornwall, which sounds just as I would like my life to sound, but it was only the location that was right. I had told him I didn’t love him, and he had cried, and held me more tightly, refused to let me go. So I said I would be proud to be his wife, which was true.

I grew up beside the beach – a world-away beach in a town of wind and rain, an ancient town that’s now spoiled and shamed by its crumbled stone and muddy tides. Cold walks on the promenade on Sundays. Water lashing the sea wall every November, throwing bricks into the road.

It was a beach for windy walks with dogs, tangled hair, gloves and woolly hats; a muddy ocean with a tide that receded right out to France, or hurled itself at the sea wall, spraying onto the road. In all those years we only sat on the sand twice, in swimsuits, sun on our pale skin. Some friends came to visit from London, and we ran down to the shoreline where my brother flung a scoop of wet sand at me, plastering my eyes shut with sodden grit, and I howled as my mum hauled me to the first aid tent, ashamed that he had embarrassed us once again.

When I was older I lay beneath the pier, on that hard sand and fucked a man I thought I loved, desperately digging for my identity and coming up empty.

On the honeymoon we went back to Cornwall. I had forgotten my shoes and had to course the cliff side in your dad’s too-large slippers and I forced myself to laugh as I slipped and slid. I thought of falling, the marital metaphor of not knowing where I would land, and the wind bit into my cheeks. But no man had taken me away before, even to a freezing windswept shoreline. I’d only been to Brighton with a boyfriend, which of course I had paid for. And only then a day trip on the train. Fish and chips, and making your sister into a sand mermaid, then back on the train into Hackney – to the kitchen sink drama and window envelopes – before bedtime.

Apparently, some people like the mountains or the rainforest or lakes. I suppose that must be fair, true, though I can’t think what pulls them there. Perhaps it’s the peaks that reach closer to the sky, or the canopy closing in like a blanket that protects them from people.

I could say I like to stand at the intersection of land and sea but I think I just like the noise, the hard vibrations, the infinite shine of mirrors on the water, or, like now, the noiseless crackle of raindrops pricking the blue skin.

We weave along beside the water. The weather is awful but I shouldn’t be surprised, it’s only September.

‘You know, Christian and I used to watch a TV show when we were really young. Grandma would always sleep in late on Saturdays, and we’d watch these weird Saturday morning programmes. There was one about beachcombers. They collected driftwood and shells and bones and things off the beach, and then I think they sold them or something. I can’t really remember.’

It was some American thing at the end of the seventies. A schmaltzy theme tune, probably. I dreamed of picture book idylls, strips of colour torn from paradise, bone-coloured beaches, peridot bays. I would be a beachcomber, collecting washed up treasures.

You are just months from puberty. You smile at me, still interested in my stories. ‘Did you want to be a beachcomber?’

‘I did.’

‘What did Dad want to be?’ Although you’ve asked before, of course.

‘He wanted to be a superhero. Fighting baddies.’ I can’t say that he wanted to be a bank robber and an assassin. This is why I tell you about me, because I have to lie about him. Sorts of lies, anyway.

‘We can walk a bit more if you want to,’ you say.

But I know you’re not impressed with the rhythmic and relentless pushing and breaking of the waves, the wait and watch for the swell, the small disappointment of the feint, the satisfaction of the grand roaring break, collapse.

You’re not impressed by the scale, the depth, the improbable way the land drops away and is filled with a bowl of salted water that urges, clamours, crammed with the odd and uncanny, in colours whose names cry out to be stated: cerulean, cyan, bioluminescent.

The rain is coming down harder, and the wind sloshes my breath about in my throat. Your dad would have loved it today, with the flat grey sky bottling above us and the rain crackling. He’d say it reminded him of Cornwall, when we ran into the sea and ran out frozen-numb and grinning.

Your friends are growing taller, their voices scraping and gravelling, and their skin becoming shiny.

‘No, I’m okay. I can walk anytime. What do you want to play?’ I get the soccer ball out and begin creating a set of rules, trying to just talk rather than think. If you hit my legs I have to run to the steps, if you hit my torso I have to run to the steps and up and down them twice, and if you hit me above the neck you get tickled, so you’d better run! This seems to please you, so we begin. I’ll add in new things as the fears, memories, regrets, fade. As I run, with the cold salt air in my throat. As I hit upon another thing that might make you laugh, keep you talking to me, keep you looking at me, before you grow another inch or two, shifting, moving, and I lose you too.

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MelalUKEa Boy, Leanne Wicks

Music Class 

‘Where’s your guitar, Dylan?  Hop to it, boy.’
He straightened and skipped a half step until
sniggers slithered around his legs.
Why do teachers say things they don’t mean?
Two rows from the front, Dylan held the neck
of the borrowed guitar toward Mr D as if it were his own.
I must concentrate today.

Fingers found F chord
and the calming strum
settled his stomach.
At the coda, Dylan’s mind
shifted to the window
the sea glinted
for him.
Soon.

Melalukea Medicine 

8am Saturday. Scrambled eggs done.
Time for the sea rhythms, water and sun.
Dylan clips his helmet and rides through the breeze
down to the saltiness, down to the sea.

He reaches behind to check it’s still there,
pats the side of his uke and smiles to the air.
Notes meet his heart as his feet touch the sand
peace in his guts, just as he planned.

Pausing to pray, he nods to the edge
looks for the right spot and plonks on a ledge.
A second of still in which
he’s stealing God
for himself.

Seaside Prayer 

Hey, God, 
It’s so good here with You.
Why can’t I stay?

He slaps the front of the uke with the flat of his hand,
echoing the thwap of sea to rockface.
And plucks at a string, head tilted to compare
tone to roar.

I want to hear You, the rumble of Your voice.
Speak just to me, Father.
You’re always here,
not like my other Dad.

The Interstate Move 

Dylan stared at the road
lulled by his head vibrating
on the side window.

Guitar ringtone jolted
his Mum.  Always.
She buried phone under the faded
folder of ‘DV Stuff’.
New life in Melalukea. New friends, she said.
But I only have one good friend.
He’s Aspergers, too.
Books hid us 
in the demountable library.
Felix.  He’s my lucky charm
and we are getting further away
from him every minute.
‘Play me a tune, honey.  C’mon
it’ll be OK.’

Dylan scooped the ukelele from his lap.
Familiar, like cuddling the cat.
He leaned to see placement
of second and fourth fingers
on reliable strings.
His fingers kept marching
as he remembered
being stuck
in the dented Hilux
Dad called the truck.

He never did ask
why she didn’t come and get him.
It was his turn with Dad.
The solicitor said he had to go.
Dylan used to stare out the window
and finger his booster seat sash
creating tunes
til the ‘Club House Bar’
neon yawned with him.
Will Daddy find us?

Blessing of the Pets 

Dylan snuggles his ukulele
softly kicking the back of the next pew
as his mother shares the first reading.

A whippet slips
her owner’s grasp,
licks his hand.
Tucking the uke inside his blue jacket
Dylan pats the tiny head.

The minister calls for beloved friends
places a hand on fur and feather in turn.
Her lips whisper halos.

Dylan presents the wooden instrument
Rev Bryony turns and looks out over the lake
as if she were called.

She nods and collects the anointing oil
forming the sign of the cross
on the boy’s freckled forehead
then chipped orange paint.

‘In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit
I anoint you, Dylan, and your instrument
May you play your life for God
for He wants to hear you play’

Secret Beach 

Bike tossed to sand
like a beach towel
as he seeks the sea.

I know I can play it

Water approaches his ankles
like a loving cat
and draws out minor chords.

Dylan’s breathing slows
Your will be done on earth
as it is in Heaven

Clouds whisper
and their white foam
on the sea coaxes him to play on

Dylan takes another step
and the blue parts
like a glassy aisle to Heaven
before embracing him.

If his mother were here
she would have heard the
change in tone
the resonance of his sea-strum
that echoed even in the shells
as if the sun were dawning
on this beach alone.

‘Stay a while with me, Dylan.’
He hears His voice plaited
around the strings
and smiles, taking another step
into the hug of the ocean.

Play the sea.

His mother would have
screamed
She would have been the only thing to stop
Dylan from soothing
himself up to his neck
ginger tufts of hair like anemone arms
waving farewell.

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The Migrant, Pooja Biswas

I know these silences of which you speak.
they emerge as if from a womb, and recede into the spaces
behind your eyes (concave; green-lit), spaces you do not recognise
for strangers have trampled upon them
& long since left their marks.

I know these silences of which you speak.
they curl, quiet animals, beneath the dusk of noonday automobiles
& sheltering hands: heat-softened, quiescent, in untroubled sleep.
no voices wake them, nor thoughts disturb
as the hours pass darkly by, distant as marching feet.

I know these silences of which you speak.
restive as the untilled earth, heavy as the unborn, pale
as the unwritten. upon the stone & hew of plough & sickle,
between the creases of callused hands, these silences
coagulate, stubborn as old sweat or new blood.

I know these silences of which you speak.
the silences of crowds, of bees, in which no single speech
can be discerned; the silences of foreign streets, an exile’s dreams.
the rush & turn of wheels & wind, of dust & departing things,
the subtle loss of passing by, of passing on, becoming history.

I know these silences of which you speak.

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Along Enemy Lines, Jacqueline Greig

The sullen heat woke Emile, pressing against him as he became aware of the birds squawking outside.  He sat up, pulled the heavy window shades back, and the morning light streamed into his room. Walking through swirling motes of dust, he felt the tiles, cool and reassuring against his feet as he padded down the corridor. Then he remembered that yesterday, everything had changed.

At the end of the darkened hallway he thrust open the door and stepped into the humidity. The two tall palms still reached skywards from the front garden and Rama, the street-sweeper, was pushing his cart and brushing away leaves with his twig broom. His familiar smile crinkled his eyes as paused to wave at Emile.

Where were they? The soldiers Emile had expected to be marching down the street with guns and bayonets. Was too it early? Hadn’t they finished eating breakfast yet?

Down the road, a desultory, horse-drawn wagon progressed passed Toko Okumura, the shop where he and Wim had bought ice creams yesterday. Now, tacked to the wall was a poster, its corners lifting in the lazy breeze.

Were Mr and Mrs Okumura his enemies now?

He scampered across the road, its surface already hot enough to bite his feet, and stood before the poster.

CITIZENS OF BATAVIA

Strategic necessity has led to the surrender of Batavia. The Japanese occupation army will arrive shortly.

Please avoid walking and travelling about unnecessarily.  Abstain from any hostility, or demonstrations of anger, against the occupiers. Fighting the enemy is the role of the army not of civilians.

Maintain peace and order, and trust that the local authorities will do their utmost to protect your civilian rights.

Food and water are readily available at present.

God give you strength.

 

‘There’s a notice on Mr Okumura’s shop,’ Emile announced as he slid into his seat at the breakfast table. Through a mouthful of porridge, he continued, ‘It says we’re not to fight the Japanese.’

His mother looked up from the breakfast she and Alya were preparing.

‘You are not to walk down the street on your own!’ Mama admonished, her voice sterner than he’d ever heard before.

‘Where’s Wim?’ Emile demanded. There was no bowl at his older brother’s seat.

‘He’s gone to Tjimahi to find Papa. He’s bringing important things from us, clothes and letters. Remember, you wrote a letter too?’

‘Why? Why didn’t he take me with?’ Emile protested, blinking furious tears from his eyes.

Ag, Mieltje…you know it’s dangerous. I can’t risk you going,’ Mama replied.

‘Where’s Tjimahi?’

‘Very far Emile. Too far for you. And I need you here to help me. You and Cahya have to do all the men’s jobs now.’

He spooned brown sugar onto the porridge and watched a sweet, aromatic pool form before he stirred it into the depths. Many years later he would recall how quotidian each mouthful had been, but now he said nothing, ate slowly, and waited until Mama and Alya had left. Then, heart pounding, he grabbed a bamboo steamer from the cupboard and carefully placed two slices of bread with jam and several left-over dumplings in it. He checked the lid was tightly sealed.

He recalled his aunt, Tante Snet, had talked about a Japanese prisoner camp at the harbour, Tanjong Priok. Yes, he thought, they had taken Papa there!

‘What’ye doing?’ Cahya asked, materialising as quietly as a cat. He leaned against the doorframe, scratching his bare foot along his shin.

‘I’m going to Tanjong Priok to look for Tjimahi camp. I’m going to find Papa.’

Cahya’s eyes, shiny brown as lychee pips, widened. ‘How d’ye know the camp’s there?’

‘I just know.’

‘Tjimahi means ‘lots of water’ – maybe that’s because it’s at the harbour?’ said Cahya.

‘P’rhaps,’ Emile replied

‘Can I come too?’

‘No. They’ll notice if we both go.’

‘I could help.’

Emile considered this for a moment, wishing Cahya could come along, but he shook his head.

‘Stay here and don’t tell anyone where I’ve gone. Promise!’

‘Okay,’ Cahya said, slumping against the doorframe.

Emile called out to his mother, ‘Cahya and I are going out to the garden.’

‘Be sure to come back in if it gets too hot, and stay under the trees,’ she replied, her voice drifting from the sewing room where the women had already gathered for the day’s work.

Emile slipped out the gate feeling Cahya’s wistful gaze follow him as he started down the road. A few soldiers lounged in the shade of the roadside palms; he avoided their eyes and hurried across the bridge. The women below waved at him as they spread their washing on the river rocks and slapped it in rhythmic waves against the canal wall.  Wim had once told him if you followed the canal, Kali Sunter, it would take you to the harbour. He set off along the edge of the deep, green waters.

The heat rose around Emile, making his clothes cling to his body and his feet clumsy in their boots. Mama never let him walk barefoot like Cahya. He imagined himself a desert adventurer arriving at a river oasis. Such a hero would drink from the water and cool his tired body in its freshness. Emile perched at the edge of the swiftly flowing canal and took off his shoes. His feet swung into the current and the water swirled and eddied in turquoise rills around them. How deliciously cool it felt. He knotted his laces and slung the shoes around his neck before continuing on, now walking in the shade and avoiding the stones. Already he could not avoid the hunger gnawing at him, and the thoughts of the dumplings he carried.

‘No, they are for Papa!’ he said fiercely.

The path stretched, an endless white before him, and he counted his progress in groups of ten steps. The waters of the canal were becoming sluggish and brown, above which sunlight glanced from a viridescent haze of midges and mosquitos.

 What would Wim and Papa say when he arrived? Papa and Wim would be happy to see him.

In the distance a dirty, faded dog appeared, trotting towards him with her tail and rump swinging and her ears laid back.

It can smell dumplings, Emile thought.  I must not touch the dog. Mama said that dogs could be dol, mad, and they bit you for no reason. Then you become dol too.

Emile stared ahead, ignoring the dog. Nose to the ground, she followed him hopefully and soon he got used to her small, brown presence. Cahya had told him that dead people could come back to earth as animals. The dog must be a friend, come back to protect him. He clutched the thought, holding it tight.

Without warning, the dog whined and flattened her body, thin and quivering, on the path. Before them stretched a grey wall, high intimidating with its spiked wire slung along the top.

There it is, thought Emile, excitement filling him. The prison where I’ll find Papa. I’ve walked so long. It’s here!

Three soldiers leaned against a gate set in the concrete; their cigarettes glowing as they talked in low accents. The boy and his ragged dog were merely the landscape of this strange place where they found themselves.

Emile walked up to them while the dog slunk back in the shadows.

Sayonara,’ he said, using the word Mama had taught him. ‘Papa?’ he added, pointing at the walled enclosure.

The youngest of the soldiers waved him away, turning an impatient back on this intrusion and lighting another cigarette.

Perhaps they understand English, Emile thought.

‘Sayonara…. Daddy?’

The young soldier lunged at him and Emile saw his disdainful eyes before ducking the blow that whooshed past his ear. Another of the men bent over Emile and pointed to the camp. ‘Daddy?’ he asked, his tone rough and strange to Emile’s ears.

Emile nodded, his heart galloping in his chest.

The soldier extended his white-gloved hand and Emile felt his tight grip. He looked up at the man’s dark eyes, the stern hair combed from his forehead, and the blemished cheek that glared at Emile. Unsmiling and silent, the man led him along a scrub path which lay shadowed by the wall and up an embankment of loose stones and scree that slipped and crunched beneath their feet. The man bent down, and Emile smelled cigarettes and sweat. Firm hands gripped his body and he swung wildly through the air, his breath snatched from him.

Then he stood on a ledge overlooking the wall. Below stretched a parade ground where Dutch men, some in KNIL uniforms, marched under the shouting scrutiny of Japanese soldiers. He strained to identify his father. His fingers tightened, gripping the wall as he scanned the distant men. There was a man marching in an officer’s uniform. His back was straight and tall. His hair short and dark.

Papa?

No… no it wasn’t him. He wasn’t there. Emile recognised no one and, feeling his throat tighten, he blinked away the burning in his eyes.

The black-eyed man looked up at Emile in expectation.  The small boy shook his head and let the strong arms lift him down. They walked back along the path, separate and still.

The steamer! He had forgotten the steamer. Mama would be angry. Emile raced back up the path. The soldier, arms hanging limp, watched the child’s run and return. His mouth hinted a smile when Emile offered him a dumpling, but he shook his head and joined his companions at the gate.

The younger soldier picked up a stone and aimed it at the dog. He was rewarded with a dull thud as it hit her side and she ran off yelping.

Emile watched the dog disappear. She had not been his friend for long, but he was alone without her. He didn’t look back as he walked along the canal through the cicada-buzzing heat. The monotonous, insistent koo-eel of a cuckoo mocked him from trees that threw long shadows across the path.

Evening dark was flowing up from the river when he finally crossed the bridge and turned into his street. In the distance he saw Mama. He broke into a run.

 

My recollection may no longer be precise; it’s been so long since I was told this story. I believe my father’s eyes held mine and, given to rumination as he was, he concluded, ‘I have no idea why the soldier tried to help me that day. Perhaps because I was only six years old or maybe we stood together at the edge of a world in which neither of us knew the rules.’

 

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Mama, Alix Rochaix

Mama, Mama,
oh Mama.
These are the words I will use
to begin your eulogy.

No longer forbidden to utter
the M-word.
Call me Cole, you decreed.
Like everybody else.

Nicole Elodie Lemaire.
That was you. And I was just one
of everybody else.

Only my lover could tell me
that when I writhed in the shadows of a dream one night,
I squeaked out the question,
Mama?
Then louder, as if escaping a great
and weighty grief–

Mama!

This ICU isn’t blinding white.
Someone has thought to paste a mural
of a cheerful coastal panorama
across the rear wall.
And there
is your smashed and intubated face,
superimposed upon it.

That once exquisite face.
One of your eyes gone, I’ve been told.
Sea-green iris
and all.
All of your perfect teeth
taken.
Apart from a jagged white fragment
a vestige, still visible
in the black blood cavern
of that once lovely mouth.

All this a swathe of bandage,
splash of disinfectant brown,
scramble of tubes,
pipes with square junctures.

Your spiralling hair shorn up
from the temple, a bolt
driven in…

Oh, Mama.

Monitors on your vital signs.
Just a reedy bip bip,
tiny beads of expanding,
then dying light.

I have been told again today,
to expect the worst.

You would have thought
this is the worst.

You often assured me,
sought to inform me, saying,
You don’t want that.
About whatever it was your street-smarts,
your wisdom,
would thrust aside.

I know
you would not want this.

Your much younger lover,
uninjured driver,
the last to ride with you, still so alive.
Still the livewire.

The last to hear your laughter.
He sits across from me, beyond the white cases over
your broken bones.

Stares at his phone and the ceiling.
He doesn’t say much.
I hadn’t heard his name before.
Later,
I won’t remember it.

After two days, when the questions are over,
he vanishes.

When they said that there were still signs
of brain life, I surprised them
by blurting out,
That’d be right!
A raised eyebrow.
A note scrawled.

While this brain life rails against the dimming of its light,
I know.
With my fingertips on your thready pulse,
this is no option for you,
as you were,
in the fullness and flush of your senses.
For me to be talking about teaching you,
perhaps,
to talk again.

I lean towards your unbandaged ear
and whisper,
Go.
Who could witness that?
Apart from the panorama and all
that keeps you hovering,
tethered by a fluorescent
filament of a heartbeat.
Or you, or what’s called your soul
maybe,
as it levitates above me.

So I speak it,
into your still warm
so soft ear.

Let go.
In this rare lull in the bustle,
I look to the ceiling with a level eye, and tell you

with calm conviction,
that your best path does not begin
down here in this ICU.
Stitched, wired, plated together–
perhaps.

No.
Not you,
Nicole Elodie Lemaire.

Go.

I am your daughter. And I am given
to flippant comments, emotional detachment.
Capable of commanding a fractured spectre of a mother
to let go of her life.
Not pretend
that your physical presence
is more valuable in near death, than it was to me
in your big bold life.

And if a hidden camera
and your hovering soul,
record all this,

So be it.

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Crazy Norm, Teresa Peni

 

‘Can I have a word?’ Olive asked Norm.

‘Sure,’ he said, shuffling outside.

Norman stood six-foot tall between Olive and the café, blocking her from her own business. The sooner this was dealt with, the better, she thought.

‘Norman, you can’t come in and drink the water anymore.’ Olive smiled as she said this; she was too nice, even whilst booting him out.

‘You can’t talk to Sophie either, not unless you’re ordering a coffee–don’t tell her she’s beautiful, don’t bring her wine–’

‘Why not?’ he implored.

‘Because it’s not appropriate. You can order food or drinks, but stop pestering her.’

‘Can I wait for the bus, inside? You’ve let me do that…’

He was trying to salvage some of it–any of it–he didn’t have enough money to buy coffee every day, didn’t even like coffee… But he liked Sophie. Oh, she was a pretty one.

‘But Olive…’ The boss lady was shaking her head.

That’s it. Another place he wasn’t allowed to go. He looked down at his scuffed shoes and a good idea popped into his head: he would stand (and smoke) at the bus stop and watch Sophie from the street! He liked her little jeans that were shorts, she wore them with thick black stockings. A hole was beginning to wear out near her bottom, she needed to buy new ones. He wondered if that was something he could bring her.

‘And no smoking near the door either–you can’t smoke within four meters of the café.’

How big was four metres? Probably all the way to the bus stop.

Olive had reached her limit. He’d already been in twice today, standing at the water jugs pouring himself endless cups, staring at Soph, then sitting and shuffling the magazines. He was bothering the customers. Sweet Norm, but not right in the head. Yeah, she felt sorry for him, but he was stalking Soph, who was too young to handle it. This is my café, Olive thought, and I must deal with the weirdos.

Norm wandered off toward the chicken shop, where he liked to watch raunchy video clips; at least he would be out of her hair.

 

Norm was absent the following day. And the next. He must be catching the bus at a different stop, thought Olive, and she felt relieved; she had tons on her ‘to do’ list before her cruise holiday. This would be her first proper break in five years since she started the café. She finally trusted her staff to keep things rolling, it was time for a recharge. The night before her departure, Olive sweated in the dark and stared at the ceiling. But whatever worries that bothered her, she pushed them away with her plans: sleep-in every day, pretty cocktails, spa treatments, yoga at dawn looking out to sea… It will be alright, she whispered to her pillow.

 

On Monday morning Norman stood outside the café, smoking and admiring the pink clouds blanketing the horizon. He was serene and looked a little bit stylish. Wearing a wide-lapel, baggy brown suit and an old trilby felt hat, he’d traded his cruddy old Reeboks for leather brogues that were buffed to shine. Neither was he carrying the Coles bag that usually accompanied him everywhere. He sat on his bench, puffing away.

This was how Soph discovered him as she trotted up to the café door. She gave Norm a polite wave, but he barely noticed her; he was off with the pixies. Soph felt nervous. This was an important day, being trusted to manage the café. The pavement was riddled with puddles, the wind messed her hair, and her legs were cold. Autumn’s coming, she thought, fumbling with the keys; it was always a struggle to open the café door… that’s right, the square key first, then the oval one.

‘Can I help you, Dear?’ Norman was standing right behind her. Sophie flinched, the key found the sweet spot, the lock sprung open.

‘No thanks, Norm,’ she blurted without turning around, thrusting the door shut behind her. He stared through the glass. She couldn’t lock the door–that would be admitting he’d spooked her–but she avoided looking in his direction, even though he was just standing there. He could read the ‘closed’ sign. Sophie began the usual routine: warm up the coffee machine, slice the breakfast fruit. She put music on and checked her watch: Paz, their morning chef, would arrive in twenty minutes.

The rain began to pitter-patter. Norman sat back down on the bench, opening a collapsible umbrella he’d stowed in one of the generous pockets of the suit. In the other pocket was an old tin–carefully packed and extremely precious. Today was a special day and he must be bold, face his fears and reach his objective. He had been awake most of the night, plotting.

The café began to warm up. Sophie made herself a strong cappuccino and stirred the muffin mixture: apple, coconut and white choc chips. She washed the salad greens. A new album was playing because everyone had got bored of Jarryd James, now it was Lana del Rey. She lowered each chair down from the table tops as if they were dance partners, to Lana’s purry voice.

Olive’s cruise ship was probably departing the Sydney Heads this very moment. Shame about the weather, thought Soph, although it would no doubt be perfect in the Pacific Islands. She decided she would fish out her black jeans from the bottom drawer when she got home. Paz finally bowled up; his cheeky Peruvian grin beamed from under a beanie. He sniffed the air, perfumed with baked muffins, then darted back out of the kitchen, ‘I gotta get some tomatoes,’ and headed for the greengrocer down the road.

Laying out date and banana bread slices, her head buried deep in the cake cabinet, Soph realised a figure was standing on the other side of the glass–a man in a brown suit. Still holding the metal cake-slice, she stood up, her face blank as a round plate.

‘What would you like, Norman?’ It was in fact opening time.

Norman stood as erect as his old back could bear. ‘How are you Sophie?’

She scanned him for clues: hair swept back into a damp mat under a hat, saggy face scrapped of the usual grey stubble, cheeks faintly pock-marked with acne scars probably from decades ago. His eyes were shimmering in their watery sockets, dull yet sane green points trained on her like gunsights. He was waiting for her answer, not shuffling his bag or feet for once.

‘I’m well, thank you Norm,’ she replied, and suddenly, Soph meant it. She was twenty-two and in charge of the most popular café in the street, and not afraid of Crazy Norm. Today he seemed less… imbecile… more a clean, quiet soul… albeit still bothering for her attention. She could handle him.

Paz bounced back into the cafe, ‘Forgot the money.’ His chirpiness vanished when he realised who was standing there. He moved slowly behind the cash register, flicking his eyes to Sophie in a bid to gauge her reaction.

‘Just grab that twenty bucks under the sugar,’ she said, pointing to a note she’d stashed earlier for such errands.

Paz considered staying, to make sure Norman was not going to get weird; but Sophie was acting confident, so he figured she had it covered. ‘I’ll be back in a minute,’ he declared, hoping Norman would get the hint and not hang around.

‘Okay–oh–get some salt, too, will ya?’ added Sophie.

She decided to show Norm who was boss now.

‘Norm, I’m very busy. Is there anything I can get you… otherwise I’m going to have to ask you to wait outside for your bus.’

Simples.

‘As a matter of fact, I would like to buy a cup of tea,’ he said, ‘Take-away.’

She wondered why he was ordering a drink–he never buys anything.

‘You realise it’s three-dollars-eighty?’

‘I realise that, my dear, and I have money.’ He plucked a fifty dollar note out of his pocket and lay it reverently on the counter. It looked as though it had been ironed.

She arched one eyebrow and delicately placed the cake-slice down, picking up the note, rang up the tea, then counted out his change. His large puffy palm caught the money as he watched her fingers with obvious fascination. Her body amazed him, the way young skin clung to muscle and bone underneath.

Soph turned to make tea, slightly worried he might start raving. He sometimes mumbled to himself or read the paper out loud.

He watched her flick her hair out the way. She was so much like an African mammal, like the zebras he’d once seen at Taronga Zoo–taut, exotic–he remembered how their buttocks quivered when flies bothered them, they’d flick their bushy black tails. His father had taken him to Taronga for his fourteenth birthday.

‘My father died last week,’ he said.

‘Oh, oh that’s very sad. I’m sorry to hear it.’ She stopped dipping the teabag for a second.

‘Ah, he had a good innings. He was in the Navy, you know. I’m taking him to Coogee–some of his ashes, that is.’

Norm patted his father’s cigar tin in the pocket.

‘I think he’d be happier there, back with the ocean.’

It would be just Norman to do the scattering; he didn’t know how to contact Dad’s old Navy mates. ‘I have to catch the 373 from Circular Quay,’ he thought aloud.

‘Do you want some sugar in your tea, Norm?’

‘I’m not taking my medication anymore,’ she thought she heard him say. Today was so weird.

‘Oh,’ was all she replied, heaping two sugars in. Then noticing the time: the 7:10am to the city will be along any minute. She placed the tea in front of him.

‘There you go, Norm, and a complimentary muffin to help you on your mission.’ Oops, now she was encouraging him. ‘You’d better get moving if you want to catch the bus.’

‘Thank you love, you’re very kind,’ he said, squishing the warm paper bag into his pocket alongside the tin.

Norman picked up his tea carefully, like a large child. He thanked Sophie once more and left, passing Paz, who had returned with the tomatoes and salt. He stepped back into the damp street, glittering now from the morning sun that had worked its way free of the heavy cloud and was giving the early commuters something to be cheerful about.

 

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