Category Archives: Issue #4

Pioneers, Natascha Wiegand

 

A russet plume of dust chases my old car along a typical Queensland country road. An old wound cut through the dense scrub and scattered stand of blanched gums. I slow at a wider stretch of dirt and gravel opposite the aged, colonial-style metal gate that serves as a carpark. I doubt if little more is ever needed. Here to greet you are the no-nonsense, resolute letters, ‘Pioneer Memorial’ welded along the top section of the gate. Above this, a white wooden arch—the type you see posted over the cattle grids of outback stations— serves as the support for weathered, bold-black letters, ‘Howard Remembrance Park’ further reassures you of your location. Tan-brown supporting brickwork, fades out to white fence posts, strung together with cheap paddock wire. The ‘Kill Rust’ industrial mud-brown paint on the gate has cracked, peeled and, in many sections, parted ways from the spiralled metal. What remains are years of layers slapped on by thick, heavy brushes, wielded by hands and hearts that never cared. A small brass plaque is screwed into the brickwork: ‘These Gates Dedicated to the Glory of God and to the Sacred Memory of the Pioneers of the Burrum District’. Well someone cared… once.

I lift the latch, releasing a small groan, then a squeal, as if to signal that the battle is over. The sound dominates the flat rectangle cut out of the desiccated Queensland bush. For the first time I notice how quiet and still the air is. Half-a-dozen thin, dust-choked Norfolk Pines line each side of the entrance; a driveway of tyre tracks pushed down into the short, desiccated grass.

The number of plots is reputed to be almost 1700, but after a quick scan, I settle on a number closer to 200. How many unmarked graves must lie before me? About a dozen sculpted monuments tower over the mostly brown and grey speckled granite headstones. Standing guard in the Primitive Methodist section—the first to establish a church in Howard in 1887—a few obligatory angels carry baskets of flowers, while others stand posed praying for those beneath their cold alabaster feet. Almost everything that was once white, is now encrusted with a patina of yellowish-grey lichen and black mould. All the angels have at least one arm missing—a sadder version of the Venus de Milo. Are these monuments victims of time and faulty workmanship, or the defenceless prey of amoral creatures?

Impressive ornate crosses, some with Celtic patterns woven into the cold white marble, dominate the Roman Catholic section. Running from the west to east fence, the grounds are divided into Presbyterian, Anglican, Catholic, Primitive Methodist and Baptist sections. I notice that a lone Mason was welcomed into the Presbyterian domain. The cemetery was laid out in 1882, and follows the Christian tradition of placing the headstones facing the eastern horizon. According to Matthew 24:27, ‘For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.’ The faithful of Howard’s century past await the second coming of Christ. I’ve had too many years of Catholic schooling to be swayed by the Bible; but to each, his own. I’m not buoyed, constrained or channelled by any particular faith, but I am comfortable with my lack of it. Do I believe in an all-powerful being that created the ground on which we stand; the stars in the heavens above us and all that lies beneath it?

Five years ago my mother was diagnosed with cancer. She never wanted to make a fuss and ignored symptoms for so long that she managed the terminal trifecta—bowel as the primary, with liver and lung as secondaries. They say that this is the test. When struck with such disastrous news, do you plea-bargain with an imaginary entity for the safety of a loved one? Did I seek refuge in the belief that it was ‘God’s will’, find any consolation that after being tortured by an eight-month battle of operations, pain and disease, mum—always the rock in our family—would somehow be rewarded in Heaven? I am one who accepts that horrible things happen to good people, and that the morally bankrupt are often extremely fortunate. I accept that there are no reasons or a great plan; life simply is what it is, and I’ve discovered that this philosophy is liberating. I watched my father torment himself, frozen in time grasping for some ever-elusive ‘reason’. I believe in the most basic principle of kindness, because as social creatures this is how we accommodate each other. This is how we evolve and, dare I say it, become enlightened, both as individuals and as a species.

I can understand the desperate search for the helping hand of a benevolent, supernatural being. Had I existed in a time and place where the only consolation of half your children never reaching adulthood, was the hand of a friend on your shoulder as they supported you above an open wound in the earth and whispered, ‘It’s God’s Plan. Your baby is with him now’. I am willing to admit, that my faith’s pedigree may have been very different.

A wooden plank bench, neglected for decades, stands as the only invitation for the living to linger a while. Its journey through time has not been kind. Decades of Queensland summers have stripped it back to bare wood; a scattering of mustard-tinted paint flakes desperately cling to the splintered wood and the simple lines of its supporting steel frame. When the moon is full and silver light dances across the smooth, cold headstones, I can easily imagine the spirits gathering here, and reminiscing on times, long since past.

One memorial statue in particular calls to me. Life-sized figures of a young man and woman, draped in classical Greek-style robes stand facing each other; behind them, a broken column—symbolic of a life cut-short. Their downcast eyes focus on their joined hands. I surmise that it’s the final resting place of a young couple, but when I read the inscription on the pedestal, it reads:

In Sorrowful and Everlasting Memory

of our only Darling Child Noel Olgar Power Starr,

who died of Diphtheria  Oct. 30th 1908 aged 6 years and 2 months.

The Pride of our Hearts & Home.

Six years & 2 months of Earth’s Best Love Lies Buried Here.

Good-Bye Darling! Our own true love.

Love shall always live with us.

 

Diphtheria—a disease we attribute to third world counties, where life is all too often short, cruel and difficult. These were was also the conditions of that time and place.

Coal was the reason for this region’s Genesis. This was not a land of massive man-made craters, where Jurassic-sized machines tear away at the earth, but of ninety-four barely human-sized rabbit warrens, which branched out a hundred metres below the roots of gnarled ghost gums. Here, thirteen year-old boys followed their fathers down into the long, dark tunnels, and for twelve hours a day, the tiny open flames on their helmets were their guiding lights. With bare backs, slippery and wet with coal dust and sweat, the miners contended with collapsing tunnels, poorly managed detonations, methane gas explosions, inadequate wages and, for the sake of a livelihood, picked away one fist- sized lump of coal at a time. How many of the region’s 400 coal miners were slowly strangled by black lung and ushered into an early grave, is anybody’s guess.

I wander among the resting places encircled by rings of brittle, poisoned grass. There are the lucky few who managed to reach into their seventies, eighties and even nineties, but so many more failed to come close to this:

Charles Neilsen Schmidt… aged 1 year 3 months

Donald McLeod… aged 2 years

H. Smith Hamilton… aged 7 weeks

Samuel Gongram Warren… aged 3 years 6 months

and the roll call continues…

Seeing so many graves of children is difficult—even for me. I’ve never been a parent, so cannot know… only imagine the devastation such a loss would have on the parents. There are many plots that bear witness to such a tragedy occurring multiple times in the same family. All that promise, held in life so young, never to reach its potential.

I hear the telltale sound of stones lashing metal, and a car soon comes into view. It’s a Sunday morning and I’m curious to see if any of the scattering of recent internees actually receive a visitor. The entire ground is devoid of fresh flowers, though a few colour-stripped, tattered plastic imposters lie scattered amongst the headstones. A small silver hatchback slows at the ‘car park’, and momentarily hesitates before making a quick u-turn and escapes back into the dusty curtain of eucalypt. Either I’ve been mistaken for a spectre, or walking amongst the dead wasn’t what they had in mind. I’ve reached the stage in life where there are now more days behind than hoped for ahead. My mother was cremated—she disliked the thought of worms feeding on her, though I’m confident embalming fluid would keep the most persistent of grubs away. Some of her ashes were scattered on the calm, clear waters of the river which meanders behind her house. She would take a small amount of time from work each day, to walk and swim her dogs there. The only ‘personal time’ that she really had. She didn’t wish to be forgotten in a cemetery, and I agree that I can’t see the attraction. For the religious who feel that they need to be buried in sacred ground, fair enough; for myself, raise a glass, be kind to each other and scatter my dust to the winds.

 

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The Narrator, Melissa Farrell

 

As he dresses for work, Harry wonders just how long his parents-in-law will be staying. They have exchanged their life in the suburbs for one on the road, selling their house and buying a large motorhome with plans to travel the country. So far they have only managed to travel the twelve kilometres across town from their previous home to his. Their monstrosity of a vehicle is parked in his driveway and has been for the past three weeks, leaching his electricity and guzzling his water. His in-laws, who sleep and shower in their motorhome, spend the rest of their time lounging about in his home.

Harry cannot abide their company, but there has always been that sweet sense of release at the completion of any engagement with them. Now he is cornered in his own home, snared by these wretched people. His mother-in-law, Thelma, is an impetuous woman, all urge and impulse, a mess of emotion. She cries or laughs at the slightest provocation, in a frantic sort of way that sounds as if she is in some sort of distress, confusing Harry so that he is never quite sure whether she is actually crying or laughing. This unrestrained disposition flows through all facets of her behaviour from the way she speaks, without any censoring, right down to her eating habits, the way she attacks her food in a vulgar bustle of gnawing and gnashing until her plate is empty. Her husband, Gary, is an arduous bore who is incapable of conversation, preferring to pontificate, or to tell stories which he stretches to tediousness. With winter setting in, Harry suspects that Thelma and Gary may be and hunkering down for the season.

Harry’s wife, Sherry, is behaving strangely. Since her parent’s arrival she has indulged in a childish energy that Harry finds irritating. She is laughing wildly at all of Gary’s predictable jokes, calling him ‘Daddy,’ and is constantly referring to him for answers. ‘What do you think about the situation in Afghanistan, Daddy?’ Or ‘why does the moon seem closer when it rises, Daddy?’ When Harry had pointed this out to her, she had behaved like a petulant child, sulking for the rest of that day. She is also encouraging her mother to do most of the cooking. Thelma’s bland concoctions of tasteless grey meat and mushy boiled vegetables make Harry squeamish. He misses his wife’s cooking. He misses his ordered life and his orderly wife.

Harry looks in the mirror and straightens his tie. It is emblazoned with the

‘Harry’s Hardware’ logo. The only place he feels any sense of composure at present is in the dominion of his hardware store. He lingers for longer hours amongst the neat rows of screws, glues, tools, paints, rattraps, hatchets, and buckets. He inherited the store from his father who had left instructions for Harry to sell it and to continue with his studies in journalism. Harry, determined not to let his domineering father dictate his life from the grave, discontinued his studies and kept the store. Finding it in a careless disarray of random stock and messy financial records, he had systematised the whole affair. From the shelves up and had slowly shaped the store into the methodical and productive business it is today. He has sedulously trained two employees to ensure that everything is performed to his design. He takes great pride  in knowing that his store is the most efficient in town. And amongst the tidy aisles of the fluorescent world of the hardware store, he is at peace. A psychoanalyst might tell him that his need for order and control stems from his parent’s marital problems and their subsequent lack of attention to him during his period of toilet training.

‘Who’s there,’ says Harry. He pushes open the window and looks out into the garden below. The other thing that has been bothering Harry is that he sometimes hears someone talking, seemingly about him, but he has been unable to find its source.

‘Where are you?’ says Harry as he begins prancing around like a territorial rooster, looking back and forth, up and down as if searching for someone. ‘I don’t know who you are, or where you are, but you’d better bugger off,’ he demands. Anyone observing this scene could believe that Harry had gone quite mad as he seemingly addresses some invisible interloper.

The bedroom door opens and his wife, Sherry, comes in. ‘What’s all the shouting about? Is someone here?’ she asks as she glances about the room.

‘Someone’s here alright,’ Harry tells her.

‘Who?’

‘I can’t find him.’

‘Who are you talking about?’

Harry stands quite still and listens. He takes Sherry by the shoulders. ‘Can’t you hear that voice?’

‘What voice?’

‘The one speaking just now.’

‘Are you feeling alright?’ Sherry puts her hand to Harry’s forehead.

‘Didn’t you hear that? He just said ‘Sherry puts her hand to Harry’s forehead’.’

‘I can’t hear anyone,’ says Sherry looking at Harry with concern.

‘Shh, listen carefully,’ Harry whispers. ‘Don’t you hear him? He just said ‘Harry whispers’.’

‘I don’t hear anything. I think you should sit down,’ she says as she eases him towards the bed.

‘I don’t need to sit down. I’m late for work.’ He takes one last anxious look about the room before pushing past Sherry and slamming the door behind him.

 

Arriving at work, a flustered Harry heads straight to the restroom. Locking the door behind him, he stares into the mirror. ‘Who are you?’ he asks. ‘Are you in my mind? Am I going crazy?’ Leaning closer to the mirror, he stares deeply into his blue eyes as if some answer lay buried there. ‘Ah ha,’ says Harry. ‘My eyes are grey, not blue. I would never call them blue. You’re not me… then who are you?’ Harry waits for an answer. There is a knock on the door. ‘Won’t be a minute,’ calls Harry. He splashes his face with cold water, adjusts his tie, and takes one last look at his reflection before opening the door to his working day.

There are a few customers waiting at the counter as Harry approaches. He notices one of his employees check his watch. Harry is never late. Just ignore him, Harry tells himself as he makes his way to the counter. With effort, he stretches his mouth into a smile and addresses an elderly woman waiting to be served.

‘What can I help you with today?’

‘I’m after paint for an outdoor wooden table.’

Harry knows just the one for the job. It is a waterproof paint compatible with wood.

‘You think so?’ says Harry.

‘Ah… yes.’

‘Sorry… what I mean is, I think you should go with a hard wearing paint. It’s not waterproof,’ Harry says smiling smugly towards the ceiling, ‘but it will last longer.’

‘Oh… if you say so. I was thinking of a muted colour, perhaps a beige.’ Perfect thinks Harry, who likes the colour beige very much.

‘Aubergine would be a good choice,’ suggests Harry. ‘I think aubergine goes nicely on any surface. It’s one of those versatile colours.’

‘Oh… well okay then… if you think so.’

Harry does not think so. He hates aubergine, but he strolls over to the paint counter and proceeds to mix a vile combination of black, grey and purple.

After sending the uncertain customer on her way, Harry looks towards the ceiling. ‘You think that I’m some sort of puppet, that you can read my thoughts and predict my actions? Think again,’ he says to nobody in particular, before spending the rest of his day second guessing himself and leaving many dissatisfied customers in his wake.

 

The following morning when Harry wakes, he lies quite still, listening for a few moments. ‘You’re still here,’ he sighs.

‘Where else would I be?’ asks Sherry.

‘I’m not talking to you.’

‘Harry, what’s going on? You’re scaring me.’

‘Can’t you hear that voice?’

‘What voice?’

‘The one speaking right now.’

‘Harry, maybe you should see a doctor.’

‘I don’t need a doctor,’ insists Harry. ‘Leave me alone,’ he shouts to the room.

‘Harry please…’

‘Shut up. Shut up the both of you!’

Sherry pulls the covers over her head and sobs.

 

At dinner that evening, Harry sits silently while Gary tells a protracted story about a holiday that they took to the coast when Sherry was a child. Although Harry is preoccupied with listening for a voice that only he can hear, he feels a trickle of jealousy at the story. His own childhood had held none of the adventure of his wife’s. After Harry’s father had left, just getting through each day’s routine was an overwhelming affair for his mother. Their house had reflected the disarray of their lives, everything out of place and out of order. His mother was oblivious to this, living largely within the narrow world of her own mind. Harry would fantasise that he was adopted and that his birth parents, who were organised and tidy people, were searching for him and would rush through the door at any moment to rescue him into a happy family life.

‘How would you bloody know?’ Harry snaps. ‘For your information, I was a very content child!’ Harry is in self-denial about the way he felt as a boy. At his outburst, Gary had stopped in mid-sentence and they all sit staring at Harry now, waiting for some sort of explanation.

‘Harry, what’s wrong?’ asks Sherry

‘Nothing’s wrong. Everything’s bloody terrific.’ Tears begin to well in Sherry’s eyes.

‘Tears begin to well’. ‘Is that the best you can do? Talk about hackneyed! Maybe it’s time you found something else to do with your time,’ laughs Harry.

‘Maybe it’s time we all went to bed,’ Gary says signalling for Thelma and Sherry to rise. The three of them hurry out leaving Harry alone.

Feeling as flat as a nail head, Harry leans back in his chair. ‘Oh, that’s clever, ‘Harry says sarcastically’. The similes are from my world perspective,’ he says to the empty room. ‘I’m not talking to the empty room and you know it. Come on, it’s just the two of us here. Admit that you exist and tell me what this is all about.’ Harry sits in silence as if he is waiting for some concealed presence to answer. Finally he shakes his head and says, ‘okay, if that’s the way you want to play it.’ He stands and opens the refrigerator, reaching for a bottle of beer. ‘You’d be mistaken,’ he says with conceit, pulling a bottle of chardonnay from the shelf. Harry does not like wine but he pours himself a large glass anyway. ‘Cheers,’ he says and takes a deep gulp. He fights the urge to balk at the flavour and continues to drink.

 

The following morning, dealing with an intense hangover, Harry watches Thelma’s tacky lipstick coated mouth move to the discordant tones of her voice. It cuts through his consciousness in an unintelligible babble. Sherry and Gary have gone to the supermarket and as it is his day off, Harry has nowhere else he needs to be. Thelma has just devoured a plate of bacon and eggs and Harry can see bits of bacon dangling from between her yellowed teeth. She is a truly repugnant woman, thinks Harry. ‘You think you know me and you can read my thoughts?’ he demands.

‘Well, Harry, I suppose I don’t really know you terribly well…’

‘I’m not talking to you,’ he says in an aggressive way that alarms Thelma making her jump. Harry laughs at her reaction and stands to leave.

‘I’m not going anywhere,’ he says. ‘Now what?’

‘Why don’t you sit down,’ suggests a confused Thelma.

Harry continues to stand, glaring obstinately into the room. After a few moments, he begins to feel foolish.

‘I am not foolish,’ Harry shouts.

‘Oh Harry, I’ve never thought you were foolish. A little droll at times, but never  –’

‘Take this,’ he says grabbing the back of Thelma’s head and plunging his mouth to hers in a kiss that tastes of eggs. ‘How’s that for repugnance?’ he shouts.

‘Oh Harry,’ exclaims Thelma, ‘I’ve always felt that there was something between us.’

She moans as her greedy mouth finds his again. He pulls away to make his escape from the loathsome woman. ‘Is that right?’ he challenges before pulling her up and sweeping her along the hallway to the bedroom. Tossing her onto the bed, he pulls his trousers down and leaps onto her, raking her nightgown aside.

‘Oh Harry,’ she swoons as he pushes into her.

‘How’s this for aversion?’ he calls to the ceiling.

Harry is momentarily surprised at his level of sexual performance before he finds himself flying backwards through the air and landing on the floor with his trousers around his ankles.

‘What’s going on?’ bellows Gary, standing over him, fists held high.

‘He pulled me in here and forced himself on me,’ Thelma shrieks.

Harry stumbles to his feet, pulling his trousers up as he rushes for the door, pushing past Sherry who is wailing uncontrollably. He feels a momentary surge of compassion for her. ‘Shut up!’ he shouts as he pushes Sherry against the door with his hands around her neck. ‘How’s this for compassion?’ he cries. Sherry is struggling to take a breath. Gary grabs him from behind and throws him to the floor.

‘Hold him down,’ Gary shouts to Thelma, who throws her naked body on top of Harry, pinning his arms down with her thick thighs.

‘You think you’re in charge, that you can read my life with such confidence? You have no idea and your narration is so clichéd,’ Harry laughs. ‘Come on, ‘surge of compassion’, I’ve heard it all before. You’re so banal. And why the formal language? Throw in a few contractions, mate.’

‘Shut up, Harry,’ yells Gary as he tries to console a bawling Sherry who is slumped against the door. ‘Make him shut up, Thelma.’ She presses her bacon- scented hands over Harry’s laughing mouth, which makes Harry laugh even harder.

Harry is still laughing when the police arrive. As he is handcuffed and pushed out to the patrol car, their words wash over him: rape, attempted murder, hears voices, yells at people who’re not there.

Harry tries to explain to the police about the voice he hears. Nobody seems to understand, until they send in a psychiatrist who asks him all sorts of questions and believes that he can indeed hear a voice. Harry is relieved until the psychiatrist testifies in the court, calling Harry a paranoid schizophrenic. Harry shouts out that it is not true and he calls to Sherry and her parents to help him, but they will not look in his direction. He is dragged from the courtroom, yelling profanities at the ceiling.

Harry is committed to an institution for the criminally insane. The doctors will try many medications, but none will prove successful. He will spend the next seven years trying to convince them of his sanity until the fine thread that holds him together snaps. His mind will close down and he will simply stare into space for the rest of his days, never to utter another word.

 

Sherry does not visit Harry after he is institutionalised. She just wants to put her life with him, which was unsatisfying even before his mental health issues, behind her.

She files for divorce and once it is finalised, she sells the hardware store and begins an affair with the real estate agent, Barry. Sherry experiences lust for the first time and a year later they wed and continue to live in the home that she once shared with Harry. Sherry’s parents continue their stay in the driveway.

Sitting in their mobile home that is yet to travel very far, Thelma and Gary discuss how they much prefer their daughter’s new husband to her previous one. As Gary watches Thelma, he wonders if he will ever be able to nullify the vision of her in bed with Harry, of her calves wrapped around his skinny white buttocks.

‘Did you hear someone?’ Gary asks as he looks about.

‘Oh Gary, that’s so funny. No Gary… or should I say Harry, I didn’t hear anyone.’ Thelma laughs in that frantic way of hers. Gary hesitantly joins in and Thelma does not notice his furtive glance towards the ceiling.

And so you see, life goes on and nobody misses Harry… not even me.

 

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The Sideboard, Patrick Pearson

 

The past is not gone. We carry it about with us, in our genes, or in our characters, or in our faces, or in those secret places within our souls where the present is denied access. And sometimes we carry the past quite literally as baggage. In the corner of my lounge, or lounge-room as it’s called here in Australia, an old item of furniture stands eloquently mute, taunting me to unravel even a little of its knotted and unwritten history, to decipher some of the code which has been willed into my life. It should really be in the dining-room, because it’s a sideboard, but it’s been pretty banged about in the one hundred years it’s been around, and I’ve decided to give it a break from its dining-room duties.

For all the dents and scars on its surface, it’s a remarkable piece nonetheless. It stands almost a metre high, its dimensions cut deliberately to the golden mean, so that it’s over a metre and a half wide and half a metre deep, drawn in simple lines, with no showiness or flourishes at all. The polished wood on the outside is a deep walnut colour, and there are lighter reddish shades visible in the grain even after years of either vigorous polishing or benign neglect. Inside, the wood has never been polished or varnished, and it’s lighter than its outside flank. This is where the wood of the sideboard can be coaxed to reveal its identity, its provenance.

Scratch it just a little, sand it briefly in a hidden spot, and its scent rises rich to one’s nostrils and throat, so that a wine merchant would say it was redolent of cinnamon, with low notes of black pepper and subtle tones of dark cherry. This sideboard, on light duties in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, is made of a distinctive African wood from a tree which has become rare. Ocotea bullata is a tree species which thrived for hundreds of millions of years in the high Afromontane forests, but now it’s officially endangered and seems destined for extinction. Its English name is ‘black stinkwood’, because when the timber is new-felled and raw, its scent is headily rich – so strong that the first Dutch settlers into the southern African interior called the trees stinkhout – ‘smelly wood’.

In a convoluted way, it’s partly because of these Dutch settlers that I have this sideboard at all. The Dutch settlers didn’t call themselves, ‘settlers’ – they called themselves trekboers, which means literally, ‘itinerant farmers’. The British called them trouble, and were glad to see them leaving the Cape Colony, round about 1830. One of the regions they moved to was where my sideboard grew, or rather where the stinkwood tree which became my sideboard grew, before it was felled. When the trekboers started arriving, the reigning great chief of the Basotho people was named Moshoeshoe, pronounced ‘Mo-shwee-shwee’. Initially he believed the trekboers that they were itinerant. They weren’t, really, and he spent the rest of his life preventing their complete appropriation of his territory. Once they had been allowed to grow a crop to feed their stock, which Moshoeshoe argued was natural hospitality, the trekboers argued that the land was now theirs, and they were willing to fight and die – and kill – for it. And if they did uproot themselves to move further into the interior, they sold their farm to new arrivals and then hastily whipped up their oxen to draw their wagons northwards, leaving the newcomers nastily surprised when the Basotho wanted the land back. Land is like time: it’s a tricky thing to own. Perhaps it even possesses us for a while, until we move off or are pushed off, or are lowered under it. In fact, the land the trekboers wanted and claimed hadn’t always been Basotho territory, either. It had belonged to the San Bushmen, hunter-gatherers who had wandered the region for at least forty thousand years, making their strange clicking sounds and telling their Creation myths to each other as they followed the game from water-hole to water-hole, owning almost nothing but the instant of their being.

Then, probably round the time Macbeth was killing his cousin in Scotland, the Basotho people started moving in, and the Bushmen were killed or assimilated – or else driven westward into drier lands. Land is only yours for as long as you are able to defend it, unless your society is unusually prosperous and peaceful – and that’s always an aberration in history. Land is a resource rather than a possession, and in the brutal war for resources, you can’t always will the rights to your land to your children. Sideboards are a different matter: they can be owned, sold, given away – or willed to the next generation.

 

After my mother died, three pain-wracked years after my father’s sudden death by heart-attack, our family sat reading their will. My father’s flowing hand divested them in death of their possessions, item by item. The sideboard was to come to me, and my first thought was that my father must have written the will before I’d emigrated with my wife and children to Australia. Surely he wouldn’t have left me a

sideboard to take halfway across the world? There were no manufacturer’s marks on it as clues to where it had been made, though my mother had told me once that the sideboard had been her father’s, and that it had travelled by ox-wagon to her parents‟ home.

I was puzzling how to transport the sideboard in my Honda when my eldest brother offered to help me move it. ‘It folds up,’ he said. ‘Look.’ He opened one of its doors wide, and lifted the door gently. It popped out of its hinges and came away in

his hands. ‘Try the other one,’ he said. I opened it so that it was at right angles to the sideboard’s length, pulled it upwards and it slid up to meet me.

‘Wow,’ I said. ‘Will we need a screwdriver?’ I hadn’t ever helped my parents move house; I’d been the first child to move away from our home town at twenty-one.

Before that we’d lived in the same house for ten years, so it was a revelation to me that the sideboard came apart.

‘No screwdriver – just hands.’ My brother pulled out one of the draws. ‘Look at this,’ he said, and he slid the bottom of a draw carefully out of its grooves, then folded the draw’s hinged sides inwards so that it tucked flat. I did the same for the other draw, compressing it gently together like the sides of a wooden accordion.

The shelves inside the sideboard lifted out easily, and were stacked in the little pile next to us. The rest of it looked pretty solid still. ‘What now?’ I asked.

‘Hold that side,’ he said, and he unhooked two diagonal iron strips which crossed the back of the sideboard, then he used finger and thumb to pluck out four small hand-carved pegs which had been hidden along the back. ‘Now pull,’ he instructed, and I did. The backplate fell away, but the sideboard stayed upright. ‘It was designed so that one person could take it apart, or put it together,’ he said. ‘Tug the bit in front.’

I did, and it glided easily toward me. As it came away in my hand, the whole superstructure of the sideboard swayed, unmoored from its rigidity but not collapsing under its own weight. ‘Now we just lift it,’ said my brother. We flipped it onto its top, and its two sides folded softly into each other so that its bulk had disappeared. What a moment before had reached to my waist was now stacked flat, its entirety about twenty centimetres high. ‘There,’ said my brother. ‘I moved that a few times.’

 

I believe that my sideboard started life on a mountainside in what was one day to become the kingdom of Lesotho. It may already have been a sapling when Columbus sailed westwards, and it certainly would have been a magnificent and mature tree by the Napoleonic wars – a green force towering thirty to forty metres tall in its mountain fortress in ‘Basutoland’ as the British had begun calling the area. Perhaps its bubbled leaves were fluttering in the wind in 1833, when Moshoeshoe realised that he needed to fight trekboer fire with gunfire rather than spears. In that year he requested a white missionary for his territory, suspecting correctly that missionaries would gain him access to guns, and he got three missionaries instead of one. One of those was to become a lifelong friend of his, passionate about protecting Basotho lands from both trekboer and rapacious British officials. That friend was the French missionary Eugene Casalis, and his connection to my sideboard and to me runs in an almost straight line: Casalis’s daughter Adéle would be born in Basutoland, and she would marry the young Swiss missionary Adolphe Mabille – and he was a close friend of my great-great-grandfather Paul Germond.

 

It wasn’t my great-great-grandfather who felled the five-hundred-year-old tree that became the sideboard. If my detective work is right, it was his grandson, Theodore. Yet indirectly and genetically, I suppose, he had a hand in it. Where does any chain of responsibility or causation begin, I wonder? In this matter of the tree, Mabille was also a link in the chain, and of course his wife Adéle: as missionaries they moved to Basutoland because she spoke fluent SeSotho as well as French and English – and it was their enthusiasm which persuaded my great-great-grandfather to go too. By his calling on the missionaries in the first place, even Moshoeshoe himself is linked to the felling of the tree and the building of the sideboard. And of course the trekboers, for invading Basotho lands and precipitating Moshoeshoe’s need for guns. The roots of causality run deep, like those of responsibility, and they’re hidden in the tunnels of their subterraneality, so who’s to know? At that time the black stinkwood trees were as plentiful on the mountainsides as passenger pigeons had been on the North American plains; the result of a connected series of events, though, is that here in my lounge is a stinkwood sideboard, cut, dried and polished, while its few still- surviving cousins reel under an ongoing arboreal genocide.

 

My great-great-grandfather Paul and his wife Lucie launched their mission school at Thabana Morena in Basutoland in 1861; by this time they had two sons, a two-year-old and an infant who’d been born on the way. That infant, Louis Germond, was my great-grandfather – who almost didn’t make it to fatherhood. On a visit

‘home’ to Switzerland it was discovered he had consumption and wasn’t expected to survive. Louis returned to Basutoland with his parents in the hope that a drier climate would keep him alive a few more years; had he stayed in Switzerland, I suppose there would be no sideboard in my lounge and perhaps no me at all, only a Swiss grave marked ‘Jacques-Louis Germond, n. 1861, m. 1885’ – or thereabout.

Louis did survive, and married when he turned thirty. Between 1891 and 1906 he and his wife Nelly poured out nine children. I surmise that it was one of those – Theodore – who cut the black stinkwood and sawed its planks, then planed and sanded them into the sideboard I have now. My grandfather Paul Germond was born in 1894, a year after Theo, but my grandpa Paul wouldn’t have been the one to cut down the great stinkwood tree and fashion the sideboard. When I was a boy I used to visit Grandpa on the occasional trip with my parents, and in his shed were spades and ploughshares and harrows, and seed-fiddles and barley-hummellers and potato- shovels and corn flails and scythes – but no great saws or planes, no wood-clamps or spokeshaves. My grandpa wasn’t a woodworker; he was a sower and a planter of seeds, crops, berries, vines, fruit trees – anything edible. His chief aim was to teach people how to farm and feed themselves.

 

I have a photo of the second generation Germond family in front of a grass- roofed building on their mission in 1906. Louis is standing proudly to the side of his brood of children, and my grandpa Paul is squatting solidly on the ground right at the front, earthy and open and looking at twelve much like he did at eighty. On his right is his gentle brother Theodore, ‘Gift of God’, the child family journals say was sensitive and kind and obedient. He is slim compared to my grandpa, his eyes are darker, and even at thirteen he looks like a saint. Everyone knew Theo was going to be a missionary, even then. The other Germonds are scattered about in the photograph, my mother’s paternal uncles and aunts whom I never met, not one of them, and my adult self wonders why not.

 

I’m certain it was Theo who cut down the tree and built the sideboard. It would be impossible to prove in a court of law, but logic dictates that it must have been Theo. He was intent on becoming a missionary, but his younger brother Roby dreamed of becoming a doctor, and Theo realised that their father wouldn’t be able to afford Roby’s medical studies in Europe. So, because he was clever with his hands and loved carpentry, self-sacrificing Theo became a woodwork teacher and saved all his salary for Roby’s studies. In 1917, he and Roby headed to Europe, where Roby qualified as a doctor before returning to practise in Basutoland. Theo, the sensitive carpenter who went to Paris to study missionary work, the young man who worshipped both God and wood, was felled at the age of twenty-five by the great flu epidemic in 1918.

In that same year my grandpa was appointed to the faculty of agriculture at a startup college, a college which became Nelson Mandela’s first university. Grandpa’s appointment involved a five-hundred kilometre journey to the tiny town of Alice, where he would live until he died at eighty-two. From Basutoland went all his worldly goods and he travelled the mountainous roads the only way he could – by ox-wagon.

Grandpa Paul would have needed furniture for his new home, and I know, just know, that his dead brother Theo would have wanted him to have the sideboard, so lovingly crafted from the rich, dark, fragranced wood of the black stinkwood tree, crafted so that a tiny spark of Theo lives again each time the disparate parts of the golden mean glide and slide and fold outwards for travel. Here the sideboard stands, in my lounge in the mountains of Australia, or my lounge room as I’m learning to say.

 

References:

  • de Clark, S. G. ‘The Encounter between the Basotho and the Missionaries of the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society, 1833–1933: Some Perspectives.’ Kleio 32, no. 1 (2000/01/01 2000): 5-22.
  • du Plessis, S. A. C. ‘Moshweshwe of the Basotho.’ Kleio 8, no. 1-2 (1976/06/01 1976): 68-72.
  • Germond, Robert C., ed. Chronicles of Basutoland: a Running Commentary on the Events of the Years 1830-1902. Morija: Sesuto Book Depot, 1967.
  • Rorke, Fleur. The Call. Westville: Osborne Porter Literary Services, 2011.
  • Rosenberg, Scott. ‘The Justice of Queen Victoria’: Boer Oppression, and the Emergence of a National Identity in Lesotho.’ National Identities 3, no. 2 (2001): 133-153.
  • Thompson, Leonard Monteath. Survival in two worlds: Moshoeshoe of Lesotho, 1786-1870. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.

 

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Taras’ Parthenians, Claire Catacouzinos

 

They would have their revenge one day, these bastard children, sons of bitches and Helot slaves, they were filthy mutts, unworthy of Spartan rights and citizenship. Their Spartiate fathers had disowned them after the First Messenian war, their Helot mothers tried to protect their puny sons, but they were better off to be thrown over Mount Taygetos, down into the chasm of the Apothetae. They were named, the Parthenians, the sons of virgins, born out of wedlock, and wherever they went, they were attacked with cacophonous insults from the Spartans, that scathed their hearts. For they were inferiors, half-bloods; but they would have their rancorous vengeance, oh yes they would, for the gods themselves willed it.

 

Amyklai, Lakonia, 706. B. C. E.

 

In the month of Hekatombaion, Neophytos the Parthenian was at the Amyklaion sanctuary celebrating the Hyakinthia festival among the Spartans, Periokoi and Helots. It was the second day of the festival. Neophytos was lined up behind other men on the right side of Apollo’s temple, waiting for the sausage contest to begin. There were six older men in front of him, wearing the red cloaks of Spartan men. He looked above them and gazed at the almighty, towering statue of Apollo; he wore the Corinthian helmet, held a bow in his left hand and a spear in his right that pointed down towards the entrance of his rectangular temple. Neophytos could see through the marble columns the priestess offering a chiton the women had sewn for the festival, and watched as she placed it down on the pedestal shaped as an altar that the statue was built on; a gift to Apollo, rejoicing in honour of him and his lover Hyakinthos. May they be blessed, he thought, looking away and staring at the cooked pieces of pig intestines filled with pork mince in front of him, hanging on the wall. Each sausage was pierced with a spear to keep it in place – by the gods, they looked delicious to eat. Neophytos licked his lips as he heard someone laugh beside him.

‘You look hungry Neo, I can see you desire to test your tongue.’

‘All in good time Timaios,’ he said, laughing with his friend. ‘But I will win the eating contest today.’ Of course he would, his stomach was grumbling for food, he could eat four pigs like Dionysos feasting, and then drink it all down with diluted wine; he could salivate on the tenderness of each meat – ah, he wished the damn contest would start already.

‘I am not so sure, Apollo standing before you is on my side today, have you not seen the hyacinth flower I wear?’

Neophytos looked down and saw the red flower attached to Timaios’s belt. The bastard, Apollo would favour him today. ‘Where did you get that?’

‘From your averter of unlawful desires.’

‘My Oreithyia?’

‘Yes, she entered the sanctuary moments ago with the other dancers, they are handing the flowers around for good fortune. It seems I am in more luck.’

Neophytos turned away from his friend, looking for his beloved – where was she? More men joined the two lines for the contest. Neophytos looked over their heads, searching for the girl who doted him with her honey-sweet love. When was the last time he had seen her, four days ago? She had been preparing with the other girls for the procession dances for their three-day Hyakinthia festival.

People were scattered everywhere: other Spartan men were near the lounging statues of couples who lay on marble recliners shaped as lions feet, children raced each other to the left of the sanctuary near the marble buildings, and outside of the precinct chariot races would be starting soon, after the parades of carts decorated with Spartan girls and women finished going around. Then to his right, on the other side of the temple, were four rows of choir boys and girls already competing amongst themselves, playing the kitharas and aulos, and singing the celebration song to Apollo; Oh great Apollo, hail! God of the golden bow and the creator of the hyacinth flower. Oh great Apollo, hail!

People everywhere wore crimson tunics: the women wore short chitons, Spartan men were draped with their red cloaks, and they all wore grassy wreaths – except for the Helots, Neophytos’s mother amongst them. They stood out like deer, waiting for their predators to strike them down. They wore the symbol of their social class; dog-skin caps, that shielded their faces from Helios’ rays. Why could they not have a day off from wearing them? Neophytos thought.

He turned away from the groups of Helots and saw a couple of women walking around with baskets filled with hyacinths in their arms, their long, violet chitons lapping and fluttering in the wind like Pegasus’s wings; their veils covering their braided hair. One of the girls, Oreithyia, bent down and handed a child a red flower. She smiled at the little boy and Neophytos felt an overwhelming feeling of love that swelled his heart and made him smile. Ah, my Oreithyia, he thought.

He watched the little boy, a couple of metres in front of him, place the flower amongst the many others that rested against the circular altar. Neophytos remembered how he had gone to the altar yesterday with his mother and half-siblings, and placed their own red flowers amongst the rivers of red and purple flora. It had been the sorrowful day, the first day of the Hyakinthia festival where everyone mourned with Apollo for the loss of his lover, Hyakinthos. The hyacinth flowers spilled along the circular altar like the spilled blood of Hyakinthos when he had been killed by a discus. Neophytos could not imagine losing Oreithyia. How long had it been now since their secret union when they had first tasted each other’s lips? He watched her rise from the ground and place the basket on her head, the flowers complementing her rosy lips and tanned skin. May Apollo bless her, she looked like a sun-light Hesperides, rich and luscious like the golden apples they were entrusted to care for. If only he could hold her in front of everyone like they did every night when her betrothed, Dexios, was away, fighting in battle with the other Spartans. He watched her compose herself, and when she was ready to walk away from the altar, she looked up, and Neophytos and her locked eyes on each other, and without being aware that Neophytos had been watching her, thinking about their relationship and her beauty, she stood there and smiled at him, Neophytos the Parthenian, the man she truly loved, and she wondered if they would ever be together, to hold hands in public. However, she would be ridiculed if she married him by the ever-watchful Spartan women, whose eyes were all-seeing like Argos-Panoptes; but she could not help thinking that if only Neophytos was a full-blooded Spartan like Dexios, they would be able to wed and create their own family. Yet, Neophytos had lost that right once he was born a half-blood, he had been dishonoured by the community to remain wifeless like the rest of the Parthenians. She did not know how their love affair was going to end, and when, and if Dexios returned, she could go through with marrying her betrothed. She looked away and bent down to give a little girl a flower – may her fate be different to her own.

Neophytos turned back to Timaios who had been watching him stare at Oreithyia. He was the only man who knew of their affair, but he had told them, their secret was safe with him. Just as Neophytos was about to talk about Oreithyia with Timaios, an old man shouted behind him, ‘Move, you dirty Parthenians.’

Timaios elbowed Neophytos, but he ignored his friend.

‘Are you deaf, boy? Move out of the way, you bastard child!’

Neophytos folded his arms, ‘Wait your turn, you old brute, there is plenty for all.’

Move.’

The Spartan men in front of him now turned around. ‘Let him through, show some respect to your elders,’ one said.

‘Did your mother teach you any manners?’

‘With this one, how could she when she is bending over like a dog,’ another said, who wore wristbands.

Neophytos clenched his fists while his arms were still folded; he tightened his jaw, wishing he could put these men in their place.

‘I bet ten drachmas a Helot is breathing hot desire into her bosoms and thighs,’ the man with wristbands continued.

‘Shut up, you cock-sucking swine,’ Neophytos yelled.

‘Come at me, boy. I will rip your balls off; there is no use for them in our city.’

‘You dare make war upon me, I scorn the threats you vomit forth.’ Neophytos lunged at the man in front of him, but the old man, who had tried to push through, knocked him in the ribs. He let out a breath full of air as the old man grabbed his arms behind his back.

No sound echoed throughout the sanctuary anymore; the choirs of girls and boys stopped competing. All eyes watched the men in front of the temple of Apollo.

‘Let him go!’ Timaios yelled.

‘Silence him,’ the man with wristbands yelled. Another Spartan punched Timaios and he fell to the ground.

‘Do you know who you are speaking to, boy?’ the man asked Neophytos. He did not care; he was a pig-headed brute, just like the rest of the Spartans. He did not answer him, but fumed out his anger.

‘Hold him steady, I want to admire the craftsmanship my son did to this Parthenian years ago.’ He pulled down the tunic from Neophytos’s chest and exposed the scar of the letter P above his left breast.

‘You are Dexios’s father?’

‘Yes, I am Doriskos.’

Neophytos remembered that day like any other when he had been bashed and ambushed by the Spartan boys, before they went to the barracks and trained in the agoge. Two boys had held him down while Dexios straddled him and carved the letter into his skin, branding him as a Parthenian forever. Someone had yelled for him to stop, Neophytos had thought the torture would end, but once the man approached them, he had said, ‘keep going, son, you need to carve deeper than into the flesh.’

Neophytos clenched his jaw as Doriskos’s face was so close to his own. This was enough, there had to be a change, he had to be respected, to be an equal. He head-butted Doriskos and watched the man fall back to the ground. The men stood still, shocked with what he had done. Neophytos was able to loosen his hands from the old man’s grip and punched him in the face. He grabbed Timaios’s hand and yanked him up. ‘Victory for the Parthenians!’ he chanted.

Spartan men now lunged for them, throwing punches to stop them, but other Parthenians around joined in – this was not about a misunderstanding.

Women yanked their children away and ran out of the sanctuary, screaming. Dirt lifted into the air as people rushed away over the precinct wall and down the hill of the sanctuary into the bushes.

‘The gods will have their heads,’ someone screamed.

Neophytos punched another man to the ground with Timaios beside him. He looked around the rushing crowd but could not see the purple figure of his beloved. He was about to run to the circular altar to look for her when someone pushed him into the marble wall of the temple. The pork sausages fell to the ground, some hit Neophytos’s head. He saw a wristband coming at him and he was punched in the face. He shook his head, drool falling to the ground, and took a swing at the man, punching him in the face. He jumped up, grabbed hold of Doriskos’s shoulders and kneed him in the genitals – now who would not be able to use his balls? Neophytos thought. With his hands full of Doriskos’s hair, he bashed and bashed his head against the temple wall – more sacrificial blood for Apollo. The man fell to the ground, blood frothed from his mouth, dyeing his beard the colour of wine. Neophytos with one knee, knelt down on Doriskos’s chest. Timaios approached him from behind, blood smeared on his cheek and mouth, a sword in hand, and gave it to Neophytos.

He smiled down at the man, shouts and screams drilled into his hears, but he let them fade away; this was his sanguinary time. ‘Tell your son you were defeated by Neophytos the Parthenian.’ He hoisted the sword and took his strike. A croaked yelp, spurted blood, hacked bone, an annihilated arm – ah, the smell of victory.

Timaios smacked Neophytos on the back, ‘That will teach them; we will bring death upon the enemy.’

‘Let this one live,’ Neo said, ‘his son can see the mark I have left behind for him.’ He wiped the sweat dripping from his face, noting that he needed to change his headband once he got home, and turned around. He could see red cloaks twirling in dirt, and ripped crimson tunics moving side to side like snakes. He felt like a suppressed dog that had been suffocated by a leash, had finally bit back and ripped its teeth into its master’s arm, puncturing the skin; the blood oozing, the bitter taste and smell reassuring the dog of its freedom.

Neophytos noticed that amongst the blood and tunics, there were scattered hyacinth flowers around the circular altar. Had Oreithyia escaped? He was about to run over to the altar when he saw an arm appear with bangles, leaning on the ground, and a purple figure revealed herself closer to the flowers, bent down on her knees and looking around the sanctuary. Her veil had fallen from her head; parts of her hair had fallen out of her braid. Oreithyia looked up and Neophytos caught her eye. They stared at each other – if only he could take her to safety, but she could take care of herself, she had been doing it for a long time since her mother had died, when she was younger. Oreithyia stared back at Neophytos; blood soaked his hair, his hands covered in it. When would the fighting end, she thought, when would all of this frightening end?

‘Neo, come help me,’ Timaios called, fighting two Spartans.

He took one last look at Oreithyia and motioned his head to the right – go, run, he thought. He took a bronze dagger from a body on the ground and hurled it at one of the Spartans. It hit the man in the chest and he fell to the ground. Neophytos ran towards Timaios, snatched a sword from another body and struck another man down in his way. He followed Timaios away from the temple and jumped on top of one of the reclining couples statues, and fought another Spartan. The man’s sword cut into Neophytos’s arm, but he ignored the pain and thrust his sword into the man’s stomach. He thought he was in a bloody bath as he watched the blood purge out of the man once he withdrew his sword.

‘Stop this madness,’ someone yelled.

Neophytos looked up, still mantled on the statue, and saw his friend, Phalanthos, on the steps of the temple, holding a spear like the statue of Apollo above his head, but with blistered hands, and an index finger missing.

‘Heed yourselves.’

‘They must be put in place,’ Neophytos yelled, jumping off the statue and walking towards Phalanthos. He kicked a flinching hand on the ground that tried to grab a sword.

‘You are all fools, they will gather more Spartans and they will come find us and kills us.’

‘Not if we take the upper hand,’ Timaios yelled, stepping closer to Neophytos.

‘They will come, they will kill our families, we must go, now.

Neophytos looked at Timaios, perhaps if they killed the two Spartan kings they would not have to leave the city. They needed more weapons, they could fight them off?

‘We must go, leave the dead; the women will return and bury them.’ Neophytos watched as Phalanthos hurried down the stone steps, his long blonde braid swishing side to side as he walked right up to him. ‘Follow me; they will drive us out of the city.’

‘The gods will ensure us victory if we stay.’

‘Hold your tongue, Apollo will smite us for this treachery. We have spilt blood on a day of celebration. Gather your belongings from Messoa and we shall meet at Therapne,’ he turned away from Neophytos. ‘Hurry, men.’

Neophytos clenched his jaw, but listened to Phalanthos’s wise words – he was always right. He was the first Parthenian to train and educate the other Parthenians to be strong and fearless warriors, when all the Spartan boys at the age of seven left to go live in the barracks and train. Phalanthos would take them to the Plantanistas, a secret place that was surrounded by plane-tree groves, a couple of metres south of the tribe of Messoa. Two groups of Spartan boys would brawl with each other there for a couple of months, biting and gouging each others’ eyes out until one group won. Neophytos had learned how to fight with his fists and legs. The first time he had trained with daggers was the day he had been attacked by Dexios in the marketplace at night. If Phalanthos had not found him with Timaios, he would have not been able to take his spiteful revenge.

Timaios turned to him, ‘We could still raise an attack.’

‘I think Phalanthos is right, we are not able to control this.’

They followed the Parthenians down the sanctuary hill. It was going to take a good hour heading north on foot to get to Messoa and far away from Amyklai. Neophytos then noticed that Timaios’s hyacinth flower under his belt had missing petals, a couple still held on, but they were ripped and damaged – discoloured, just like Neophytos’s own heart.

 

Neophytos was beating down a sheet of bronze material later on that night, when the blacksmith’s workshop door slammed open.

‘They are going to kill you; they are sending the krypteia out tonight!’

‘Let them come,’ he said, looking up, ‘I will cut their throats.’

‘Why must you shed more blood to be heard?’ Oreithyia took a step closer to him, her golden bangles jingling. He liked the sound of them, how they reminded him of her and when they had first kissed. It had been the Karneia festival and he had been watching her dance, her bangles and anklets clinking together with every precise twist and flick she made with her hands, her body whirling in the ring dance with four other chosen girls who were unmarried; he had become enchanted by her like Aphrodite herself, and that day, he had talked her into watching him during an athletic race. They had kissed afterwards behind one of the tents set up for the festival. She had revealed she had always been filled with pothos, passionate longing for him, since that day in the marketplace when he had given her food to take home. It had been raining, and it was the dreadful time she had lost her mother to childbirth. How things were changing now, he knew she did not want him to fight for his cause.

‘They will kill you; you will leave me and go to Hades.’

‘My rightful place is to be honoured, to be respected as an equal.’

‘Do not let your pride suffocate you.’

‘How can I when they have taken my right to marry, am I to remain wifeless because I was born a Parthenian?’

‘They are going to kill you.’

‘I am leaving with the others.’

‘What about me, are you going to leave me all on my own?’

Beads of sweat travelled down Neophytos’s face, his olive skin was alight by the fire in the corner that was illuminating the dark room. He ignored her and kept bashing down the bronze material, he needed to finish this, he had to get it right, it would be his last job as a blacksmith.

‘Do I mean anything to you?’

He stopped. His hand unclasped the hammer and he leaned forward on the stone bench, his weight pushed on his arms, his head bent down. She had to come with him, he could not leave her with Dexios; he could not leave her here. He clenched his jaw, wiped his face with his arm and stood up. Their eyes interlocked and they stared at each other.

‘You will come with me.’

‘I will not die for your cause.’

‘I am waiting for Phalanthos’s orders’ we are planning on leaving the city.’

‘But I thought – ’

They heard a noise outside. Neophytos walked in front of Oreithyia – Zeus forbid, had the krypteia been sent out already? He grabbed his sword from the wooden stool where he had left it and watched the door pull open. He raised his sword, ready to strike.

‘I have word,’ Timaios said, taking in deep breaths, leaning forward.

Neophytos withdrew, and threw his sword on the stone bench. ‘What is the news?’

‘Phalanthos has returned, there is word going around that they are attacking us tonight.’

‘We must go.’ Neophytos grabbed his sword and the bronze armour he had been beating down to fit him. ‘Oreithyia, you must come with us.’

‘I cannot leave my family.’

‘If you want a life with Dexios and to bear his children, stay, but if you want to be with me, to be free of these people, come with us, we will marry, I will be able to marry you.’

They left the blacksmith’s workshop, Neophytos holding Oreithyia’s hand, his woollen cloak flapping in the wind, Timaios behind them. They travelled south to Neophytos’s family home and once they were in, his mother, Krateia, stood up from the hearth she had been sitting near.

‘Where have you been, I thought you were killed?’ she hugged her son, and Neophytos let go of Oreithyia’s hand.

‘We are leaving the city with the other Parthenians.’ He told her of their plan and the Spartan’s attack tonight. ‘You must stay indoors; they could kill Blathyllos and Elatreus if they see them.’

His mother called his half-brothers over to sit at the hearth where his half-sisters, Kydilla and Limnoreia were slurping down their broth soups in wooden bowls. ‘Will we not see you again, my boy?’

‘Boethus will take care of you all, I will send a messenger if our plans have been a success, but if you do not hear from me in a couple of years, you must find peace.’

He saw his step-father, Boethus, another helot, carving into wood, making a figurine. He did not move. His mother looked at Oreithyia behind him and Timaios, and she smiled. She looked up at her boy for the last time and cupped his face, ‘May the gods be with you all, my son.’ She kissed him twice on both cheeks and he hugged his siblings goodbye.

His step-father finally stepped forward, ‘Your mother will be fine with us,’ and handed him the figurine he had been carving.

They left the house and saw a snake of light approaching Messoa from the citadel of Sparta. The enemy was coming. They climbed onto their horses and travelled south to Therapne and met up with the other Parthenians and Phalanthos. Before Neophytos left, he looked down at the wooden figurine in his hand, and saw that it was Zeus Tropaios – he who turns to flight.

The Parthenians would find a new fate with order and law, by their own making, for the gods themselves willed it.

 

Glossary

Agoge                                    Spartan system of education and military training

Apothetae                             deposits

Aulos                                      an ancient wind instrument like a pipe

Argos-Panoptes                   a one hundred-eyed giant

Drachmas                              ancient coinage/currency

Hekatombaion                     July/August Summer

Helot                                      captured Greeks of Messenia and turned into slaves for Spartans, they were subjugated and carried out domestic duties and farming

Hesperides                            nymphs who attend a blissful garden

Kithara                                  an ancient musical instrument – a lyre and similar to a modern harp and guitar

Spartiate                               Spartan men of equal status and known as peers

 

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Skyfall, Stephen Henry

 

It was a way to fill in two hours and a velvet darkness that promised forgetfulness and escape, so Kyle bought a ticket to the latest Bond movie without even considering the name – Skyfall. He chose a seat at the side and settled in to the soothing murmur of other cinema goers, the softness of the seat and the gentle sound of cola and ice in a paper cup. He closed his eyes and fought that familiar sense; of a mindfulness of the present that teeters on the edge of the abyss… that threatens to fall and lose itself in the past.

The lights had no sooner dimmed for the previews than Kyle heard the giggle and ‘Shit!’, as popcorn was spilled and a teenage couple found their seats behind him. The

chatter began directly as the boy commented on the kiosk worker, ‘That guy really was a prick – he just ignored us for about ten minutes’. Then a read-aloud text from the girl – her friend wanting to know where she was.

‘Don’t tell her,’ said the boy.

Their attention was diverted to the screen, but the boy determinedly maintained the chatter as the new instalment of ‘Madagascar’ was previewed.

‘Mum’s gonna drag me along to see that next week, wants me there to help look after my little brother.’

‘He’s such a freak, you know he pinched my phone and sent a message to Ruby, telling her she has a big ass.’

They had a comment about every preview. ‘She’s fat.’

‘He’s hot.’

‘What a douche.’

Kyle thought about turning around. He should have hissed at them or told them to keep it down. A year ago he would have, if Megan had been with him, she would have, without a doubt. She probably would have told them to shut up or get out. Now though he didn’t have it in him. Besides that – he was thinking that he used to be like that,  that there was a time when as a fourteen year old, he crept sweaty-palmed out of home for the movies with Megan, and his heart was thumping and his mouth was dry and he was glad when she took his hand. They’d laughed their way through ‘The Blair Witch Project’ and shared a strawberry milkshake afterwards. She’d worn skinny jeans and a white blouse and had tied her hair up with a red ribbon, which he’d wanted to touch. So perhaps he should let the rituals of teenage romance take its course.

There was a faint scent now in the cinema, a perfume just out of reach and he half turned to the empty seat next to him before stopping himself. He took a sip of cola and swirled the ice, stretched his legs out under the seat in front of him and then tuned in to the couple behind again. They were weighing the merits of an actor in an upcoming sci-fi movie.

‘Ruby thinks he’s so hot but I think his neck is too long, see how his head just sits way up there?’

‘And he’s nearly bald anyway, I don’t really get what his movies are about.’

Their attention waned, but their conversation didn’t.

‘Hey, check this bruise out will ya? It’s kind of glowing here in the dark, all yellow and shit.’

‘That’s so freaky, how did you get it?’

‘Fell over, chasing my kid brother, knocked my knee on some rocks . . . didn’t hurt though.’

That little bit of bravado reached out to Kyle. He and Megan had discovered a mutual love for everything outdoors not long after Megan’s family moved into the area when Kyle was ten. Exploring the bushland behind Megan’s place, they had climbed or scrambled up whatever they could find, from small rock faces to the larger railway cuttings or the old willows with the ribbed bark that crowded down by the creek. One day they both scraped their right knees after running and falling among the mossy stones that lay scattered along the clear flowing water. Kyle had sat there barely holding back the tears while Megan laughed at him and called him a ‘sissy’. Later, Megan’s mother had stood them against the wall and hosed them off like baby elephants at the zoo before looking at the matching bruises and calling them a ‘pigeon pair’.

Kyle thought that once the feature started the pair behind him might shut up.

They didn’t, but their comments were drowned by the opening action in which Bond commandeers an excavator on the back of a moving train and uses it as a shield. Kyle was more interested in the backdrop as the train moved from a Turkish cityscape to the more scenic setting of sheer granite mountainsides and pine forests. He found himself automatically assessing the cliffs as potential jump sites and wondering what lay at their feet. By this time Bond had made his way onto the roof of the passenger section and was wrestling the villain for a gun as the train rolled over a high stone arch bridge that spanned an impossibly deep ravine. Eve, Bond’s accomplice, had stationed herself above and was looking down her gun sights at the two men fighting atop the train. She hesitated despite being ordered to ‘take the shot’ and hesitated again before squeezing the trigger. She winged Bond sending him sideways and over the edge of the train. Kyle’s breath caught as Bond fell head first, the camera refusing the urge to slow him down, in his grey suit he plummeted like a misshapen lump of granite into the swift flowing river at the base of the ravine. Kyle imagined the train rolling on into the mountains and Eve left there with the heaviness of the gun and its smell, the silence of the pines and the sky, broken only by the distant sound of that rushing river.

If he’d been thinking clearly he would have got up then an there and walked out of the cinema into the gathering twilight instead of sitting there while a nightmare underwater-world formed a surreal backdrop to the opening credits and the boy behind him commented stupidly on Bond’s remarkable ability to hold his breath.

He really was about to say something a little later when the smug little comment, ‘It’s a sawn off shotgun’, floated forward to the on-screen accompaniment of a man . . . sawing off the end of a shotgun.

In fact he was about to turn around and say, ‘You know about guns do you?’, and toyed with the idea of asking the precise make and model of the gun, or for an explanation of why shotguns are sawn off but realised he had no idea himself. Besides, there was that time, when he had pointed out a ‘Harley’ parked out the front of the corner pub. Only, when he had taken Megan over to admire its leather and chrome he’d noticed the ‘Honda Gold Wing’ insignia and hurried her away on some other pretext.

He and Megan had started some more serious hiking and abseiling together as teenagers, but the desire to feel the weightlessness of flight and air had made Kyle restless and Megan didn’t take much convincing. Their first attempt at hang gliding had been from a sea cliff on a day when the whitecaps on the Pacific looked small below but the instructor had suggested they wait for the wind to die a little. After lumbering to a take- off both had been struck by such a strong updraft that it blew them back up the slope to the tree-line, snapping a wing strut, puncturing a wing and leaving them laughing at their inability to fall. They had been introduced to base jumping by one of Megan’s friends and the jumping seemed to be a natural progression from the adventure sports that had come to dominate their life together. Their first trip out of Australia had been to jump from a span over a gorge in New Zealand generally used for bungy and from there they had ventured further afield. There was the terrifying morning they’d flung themselves from the bridge that joined the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur and then a series of jumps in the south western states of America.

Kyle leaned back into the softness of the cinema chair, unable now to avoid thinking about the world of Bond and the world of certain types of men. Guns and motorbikes and falling from the sky without dying, men were expected to know about these things—he supposed. Although the last two years had shown him that such things often demanded a high price from boys and young men, and offered little in the way of redemption at the end of the process.

The action scenes on the screen had given way to the dark timbers, candlelight and cane furniture of a classic Shanghai hotel room. A perfumed Eve and a showered and towel-waisted Bond were getting dangerously close to each other, separated only by a razor. When she’d finished the shave, Eve’s tilt of the head and ‘That’s better’, were met by ‘Yeah’, from behind. He thought about the drama being played out so close to him and realised that the boy was testing out his desired role, weapons expert, one shot wonder and smooth talker. Over the next hour Kyle was privy to a mysterious process of becoming, amidst the popcorn smells and darkness of the cinema.

The boy started to respond on Bond’s behalf.

‘I didn’t think you could come up here’, queried Moneypenny.

‘You can’t’, the boy replied.

He tried his hand at repartee.

Bond: Everyone needs a hobby.

Bad guy: What’s yours?

Teen Bond: Kicking your ass.

He strategized like Bond.

‘He’s heading for the river dude, cut him off.’ He even started to give advice to Bond.

‘Leave him there under the ice, the bastard.’ As if Bond was his sidekick now, Robin to the teenage Batman.

Kyle wondered what the girl thought of the magical transformation of her boyfriend into wise cracking lady’s man secret agent. For the most part she sat there in seeming silence or simply murmured some indistinct response.

The silver Aston Martin DB5 represented the young Bond’s best chance though. He confidently announced it as a ’65 Aston Martin’ and kept up the patter as it took its usual place in the action. At one stage Kyle felt a sudden kick and pressure on his back as up on the screen a car chase took place. He realised that the boy had shoved his foot into his chair and was pressing down hard on the accelerator as Bond’s car came through the top of a corner.

Despite the initial discomfort, Kyle simply settled deeper into his chair and allowed himself to drift, back to that day, his car, Megan riding passenger. He was taking the corner on a rain slicked road just before dawn, jamming the old silver Skyline into fourth. The first glimmers of light could be seen to the east and the windows were down. It had rained last night and might rain again, the air a mixture of wet soil and eucalypt, but he figured they had at least three or four clear hours to get up there for the jump. Megan was looking west to catch the first glimpse of their next challenge. Her hair was hidden under a black cap but as she turned he caught a flash of red. This was to be their tenth jump together, but the first from an antenna mast. Their previous jump had been on their trip to the US, from the top of the sheer El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. There had been a light cover of snow over on the top of the Half Dome across the valley and the westering sun had changed the usual grey tones of the rock to a burnished bronze. The valley floor had moved into early shadow by the time Megan launched herself into space. He watched her grow small and the red of her opening chute below was like the flare of a distant match struck over the darkening valley. He had followed, and felt like some comet falling through the sky, for a moment giving no thought to whether his chute would open or not. The air numbed his cheeks and the tops of the pines rushed up to meet him. He glimpsed the river, ice blue from snowmelt before being jolted back up into the air by his harness. He’d landed next to Megan on the washed gravel of the riverbank and they’d built a driftwood fire there that evening as a way of holding on to such a moment and such a place. They’d talked for a while under the stars but their voices disappeared into the vastness of it all and so they sat, back to back, and fell into a sleepless quietude.

They were planning on another trip, Europe this time, and had been scraping some money together by doing some training work for a small sky diving company and working odd hours in the sports store owned by Megan’s brother.  So this jump was an indulgence, and a recognition that they were linked by the intangible nature of air. They were to be the first to jump from this particular antenna mast situated on the lower slopes of Mt Picken, overlooking the coastal plain on the north coast of NSW. The base of the antenna mast was a little way back from the road and they cut their way through the chain link fence surrounding it. A last check of equipment, harnesses, canopies, footwear, first aid and they started their climb. The first sixty metres was a steel ladder but after that they climbed using the spikes welded to the inside of the antenna. They stopped twice on the way up, the first time to watch the sun lift above the horizon and the second at a small platform two thirds of the way up for the warmth of thermos coffee and a pastry. The highest antenna array was three hundred and fifty metres above the plain and they arrived there, short of breath, forty five minutes after starting their climb. The sun, now well above the horizon, had turned the serpentining river course silver. This was the rich farmland of the river delta and the fields were a patchwork of gaffer green and stubble brown, the ocean, mirage-like, glimmered on the horizon. The adrenalin and the breeze which whistled through the guy-wires made normal conversation difficult, but they didn’t need to say much anyway.

As had become customary, Megan opted to jump first and eased herself to the exterior of the mast. She looked back at Kyle and smiled before turning her attention to what lay in front of her, the distant ocean and the patchwork below.

‘Three, two, one’ . . . the familiar jump, the abandoning of the self to the air, a gust…the shiver of a guy-wire, its tug and release, the sight of her hands spread wide to catch the sky and a glimpse of her face, pale under the black cap and then a flash of red as she twisted unnaturally, not like her at all, plummeting, misshapen, the wind now screaming.

He angrily pulled himself back to the cinema, shaking his head and focusing on the screen. Bond had found his moment of redemption. Kyle thought about how ridiculous that was, an impossibly smug bastard Bond, surviving falls and gunfire and wrecked cars, wisecracking and womanising all the while.

He gathered his rubbish and was about to stand up when he felt the movement behind him as the teen couple, quiet at last, stood to leave. He watched as they came into this field of vision and moved down the steps towards the exit.

In the half light, Kyle caught a glimpse of hair tied back with red.

He was alone again, back at the top of the antenna mast, the serpentining river, the wind through the guy-wires and the moment of his un-becoming – when the sky – just – fell.

 

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Dancing Shoes…, Suzanne Strong

Edges crumpled in triangles on two corners of a fading poster, plastered onto the door of the Rio Rhythmics Dance Studio. Proud vivid feathers stand at attention to the sky, mingling with shimmering sequined head dresses on bronze kissed women’s heads, winking glittering bra tops, barely concealing nipples, exposed skin, silver navel ornaments falling to tasselled tenuous briefs. Arms outstretched, hips moving like some other force was in control, like the women were as artificial as they appeared, warming themselves in the adoration of men, ‘Stepford Wives,’ breathtakingly beautiful and robotic male creations.

Genève and I both saw it and looked at each other, and laughed. The same question on each other’s faces; what were we doing here? A Latin beat and melody drifted down the corridor getting louder as we climbed the stairs. Reaching the top, we saw Juan the Dance Instructor, who smiled at us from across the room.

‘Hello ladies. Come in, make yourselves at home,’ he said in a dense Latin-American seesawing accent.

His body was like a muscular figurine, dark and well defined; through his brief singlet top most of his taut, hairless chest could be seen. His tight, black pants revealed a pert spherical bottom. He was the cliché of a Latin Lover/Dancer, walking over to his side of the room. He smiled at us, looking us up and down, what else would you expect?

‘We’ll make Latin dancers out of you girls, if it kills us.’

‘It may do so too,’ Gen said, laughing. I glanced at Gen, grateful she was there with me, as she always was.

Around the room, people were stretching, some were staring awkwardly into the middle, a middle aged couple looked like they were trying to rekindle their love, instead, they regarded each other awkwardly. A single mother and daughter, in school uniform, also stood uncomfortably looking at Juan. There were the two pulling up leg warmers, in tights and long t-shirts, their hair frizzed up and pulled back by white bandanas (what was this, an episode from Flash Dance or something? And it was a sizzling hot Brisbane summer, after all!)

Another middle-aged couple stood as if they were about to go on stage for a professional performance – their bodies held in the rumba position ready to launch into a routine. You just wanted to walk up behind them and say, ‘Hey, lighten up.’

‘This is a beginners class, isn’t it?’ I asked Gen.

‘Supposed to be,’ she said, also looking at the couple.

Juan called everyone’s attention.

‘Hello everyone, welcome,’ he said, his white smile passed over everyone like a midnight beacon over the dark surging ocean.

A guy who would’ve been mid-thirties with dark curly hair, vibrant blue eyes with lines around them that reflected kindness and a delicate smile like a swallow, whispered to his blonde friend who was wearing board shorts, a t-shirt and no shoes. They looked how I felt; out of place.

‘We’ll start with the basic moves, and then later we’ll get you to dance with partners.’

A drumbeat reverberated, percussion began to frenzy and the charango drove the rhythm of the music as Juan clapped his hands and moved his hips in circular motion, clicking his tongue and saying, ‘Let’s get moving.’

‘Whoa, I hope he doesn’t expect us to do that,’ I whispered to Gen, watching his gyrations and referring to his clicking abandonment. She laughed quietly.

His body was a robot as his hips traced circles in the air, while his upper torso remained static.

‘This is what we do in Latin Dance, the basis for all of our dances, this hip movement. Aussies find this hard to do,’ he said, moving his hips from side to side in perfect formation.

‘Move your hips, not your upper body…’ We began moving and Juan walked around us, touching some of our hips, males and females moving them in the right direction. Then he got us walking around in a circle, while moving our hips. Most of us were struggling, the experienced couple were moving with precision. Genève and I looked at each other and laughed.

‘Australians are so uptight they do not move their hips much, we Brazilians do it all the time,’ Juan said, laughing.

After multiple circles around the studio and watching ourselves in the mirror, Juan allowed us to break. Some of the people were breathless and going various shades of light maroon. One lady was sweating and so breathless she could’ve been a candidate for a heart attack.

Gen and I retrieved our water bottles, chatting about how we were finding it when I suddenly became aware of someone walking towards us. I turned to see the dark man with his blonde friend. Uh oh, I hated these awkward conversations, particularly with men. I was so out of practice.

The dark haired man introduced himself as Mark, looking directly at me, his smile lighting up his features, and the man with straw-coloured hair was David.

I introduced us and leant against the mirror behind me.

‘You guys done this before?’ David asked.

‘Nope, can’t you tell?’ I said.

‘You’ve been fine,’ Mark answered.

‘Gen’s got it down pat. It is going to take me longer because I haven’t danced since high school.’

‘Not really.’

Juan began clapping his hands and started calling out to the group. ‘Now is time for partner dance.’

Juan came towards us and paired up Mark and I, and Gen and David together. Then he continued on pushing together people in an authoritarian voice. We were told to stand in close proximity to one another, lacing our fingers together in a coat hanger like shape. This stance I hadn’t been in since my wedding waltz, which should be more aptly termed a wedding sway. And look how that had turned out. Six months since my marriage break up, but I still felt sick and adrenalin pulsed through my legs. It felt as if I was somehow betraying someone.

Mark and I faced each other. Awkwardness directed Mark’s limbs as he shifted his weight, and his eyes dropped every now and then. I avoided looking directly into his eyes that were both gentle and alluring, but seemed confronting to me. It was a strange feeling being close to another man other than Steve, and now, feeling jittery around someone. Then his words collided around my mind; ‘fuckin’ bitch,’ ‘slut,’ and I felt his hands around my neck…I hadn’t thought about Steve for a while, but every now and then these scenes played as a short film before me. Breathing in, I returned to the here and now. Mark looked at me in an inquisitive manner, questions clouding his face. Looking down at my shoes, I sought to hide my emotions. My gaze turned to the middle aged married couple next to us and I smiled. They smiled back, then turned and glared at each other.

‘You okay? It’s not going to be that bad dancing with me,’ Mark said with a crooked cheeky smile.

‘Of course,’ I said, laughing, ‘I’m a bit nervous about how I will be as a dancing partner.’

‘You’ll be fine,’ he said, squeezing my hand.

‘Pull your partner a little closer,’ Juan called.

Mark’s warm hand rested on the curve of my lower back, he pulled me close and tightened the embrace. Adrenalin filled my limbs, how ridiculous I thought. Less air separated us now, our bodies close, I looked at the contours of his neck bones, his hands were large and somewhat cold from sweat, and his warmth touched my chest. Goose bumps rose tiny round mountains on my skin. His cologne surrounded me, strong and delicious like fresh wood shavings on a carpentry floor. His breath touched my neck and I wanted to relax into it. He looked into my eyes. I looked away. Faint lines around the edge of his lips formed a kind smile.

‘No really, are you okay?’

‘Yep, sorry about that. I’m elsewhere.’

Juan called out commands and we sought to follow. Mark was better than I thought and we moved well together. I focused on the steps, the movement of my legs and feet in unison with his, and the movement of my hips under his large hands. Shifting my attention from Mark, I honed in on Juan’s words to everyone.

Mark and I stumbled. Juan came over and corrected our positioning and movements. He positioned our bodies closer together, we started the Samba, which involved steps forward and backward, and was elegant. Then we moved onto the Rumba, which included a circular gyration of our pelvises and hips together, reminiscent of certain other human actions. Now that was not a little awkward, I was already nervous enough.

Alternating turns and being spun out from Mark and around, movements of our hips in sensuous unison, our cohesion didn’t always work but was extremely humorous. We couldn’t stop laughing, but sought to maintain composure when Juan looked over. Sweet strumming of guitars flamenco style, individual high-pitched plucked notes and honey harmonic male voices serenaded our steps. Juan kept telling me to look into Mark’s eyes. So I did. Over the forty-five  minutes my inhibitions dissipated. Gen and David were next to us, we all chatted and laughed as we sought to emulate the dance, but mostly made mistakes.

When Juan said, ‘That is it for couple work tonight,’ I was disappointed.

‘Thanks, everyone. Give yourselves a clap, you did very well.’

I clapped sheepishly, glancing at Mark, chuckling as our stumbles replayed in my mind. He smirked back.

‘Thanks Sade, you were a great partner.’

‘Except for the bruises on your feet.’

‘Yeah, except for that.’ He winked at me and I smiled feeling self conscious in a good way.

‘How did you guys go?’ Gen asked us. ‘Looked like you had heaps of fun.’

‘I did,’ I said.

‘Me too,’ Mark agreed.

David and Mark said they’d see us next week. Mark turned briefly and caught my eyes, then disappeared. Gen looked at me, turning her head to the side, and said in a singing voice, ‘He looked nice.’

‘Yeah, he was.’

I drank from my bottle, trying to seem nonchalant.

‘Looked like he liked you.’

‘Don’t think so. Even if he did, watch him run when he finds out about my life.’

‘You’re so cynical.’

‘Not cynical, just realistic.’

‘Uh huh.’ Gen rolled her eyes.

I pulled her into a hug. ‘You’re a great friend to me,’ I said, remembering the night I turned up at Gen’s house distraught and with my children, after I had left. She embraced me and took me in.

We walked towards the stairs and said our goodbyes to Juan. Descending the stairs, we returned to our lives again. Gen to her husband and three children, and me to my children and my veterinarian practice not far from here. The following week moved quickly: school drop offs, my daughter’s soccer training, my son’s art classes, my violin lessons, working and on the weekend brunch with Gen and Simone, while Steve had the kids for the day. I hadn’t let him have them overnight, didn’t know if I could trust him. He had taken them to the museum this time.

Stretching on the dance floor again, my senses became heightened as I noticed Mark across the room but no David. Someone was standing behind Mark. Then she appeared, tall, dark haired, and wearing black pants and a fitted yellow singlet. She was leaning in close to Mark, chatting and laughing.

Typical. Of course he wasn’t single. He smiled and waved. I waved back and turned towards the mirror, not knowing where to look.

‘Looks like we’ll have to get new partners, David’s not here and Mark has a new partner,’ I said, nudging Gen.

‘Yep, looks like it. Attractive, isn’t she?’

‘Yeah,’ I said, wondering why she had to rub it in.

Juan approached and paired us up with two guys standing nearby, looking lost on their first class. Peter, my partner, had ginger blonde hair, white skin with yellow tinges on the edges of his face, and garlic emanated from every pore. Dancing with Peter was like slowly receiving dental treatment with no anaesthetic. Juan intervened on many occasions to no avail. After an eternity, Juan called a break, winking at me. I walked over to Gen.

‘Scott would be jealous of what I saw you guys doing,’ I said, patting her on the shoulder. A hand touched my arm. Uh oh, not Peter. Turning around, I saw Mark’s smiling face and his partner standing next to him.

‘Hey.’

‘Hello, how are you?’ I asked.

‘Great thanks. Hey, this is my sister, Therese.’

‘Hello,’ I said, feeling relieved and addressing her directly, ‘you guys danced well together. The talent must run in the family.’

They both laughed.

‘Yeah, we’ll probably dance with different partners next week. I was just helping Tess get used to the class.’

‘Such a nice brother. Though you looked like you knew what you were doing.’

‘I have done a little before,’ she said, surprisingly shy for someone so striking.

Mark explained David had the flu, and Gen said to pass on our regards.

Suddenly, Juan clapped his hands again. I sighed. Not back to Peter again.

Mark put his hand on my arm again and said quietly, ‘Hey do you want to have a coffee with me sometime?’

‘Sure,’ I said, managing a shy smile.

‘What about Friday at Café Tempo, 10:30am?’

‘Sounds good.’

‘Here’s my card if there are any problems.’

I looked at it – he was an Environmental Engineer for the Queensland Government State Development Department.

‘Okay, cool, thanks. Better get back to my partner, you know.’

Returning to Peter, an involuntary smile formed on my face throughout his pushing and shoving with me around the dance floor. Juan hovered close to us. He saw it was a lost cause.

‘I’ll match you with different dancers next week to compliment your skill level,’ he said, and smiled knowingly at me when Peter had turned his back. I suppressed a giggle.

My feet ached and I was pleased when Juan said class was over for the evening. Mark and his sister left pretty quickly, waving as they went.

‘See you on Friday,’ Mark called.

‘Sure,’ I said.

‘Ohhh, a date?’ Gen asked when he had disappeared.

‘We’re having a coffee.’

‘Really? Hmmm, well let me know what happens, okay?’ she said, raising her eyebrows and the tone of her voice.

‘Will do.’

Wandering along Vulture Street, I looked into Avid Reader bookshop as I passed, trying not to look ahead to Café Tempo. Then I saw him; sitting outside, his dark abundance of hair framed his face and his eyes focused on the newspaper below him. As I got closer he looked up and smiled. We greeted each other with a kiss on the cheek. I sat down at the table and a friendly waiter with blonde straight hair took my order and left. All I could think was Mark only likes who he thinks I am.

‘How’ve you been since Tuesday?’

‘Good thanks.’

‘Good to hear,’ he said, smiling at me in a contented manner, sipping his flat-white from the edge of the white china cup.

‘There’s something you need to know Mark.’

‘That sounds ominous.’

‘It is a bit.’

‘Okay, spit it out – all ears.’ He turned his face directly towards me.

‘I have two children and um…left an abusive marriage some months ago.’ I looked into my coffee cup. I hated pity or people knowing my business, but I had to be honest.

‘Oh. I’m so sorry to hear that. Are you okay now?’ His tone of voice quietened and held a tender inflection. He put his hand on my wrist and looked into my face.

‘Thanks. I’m going well now. It’s much easier than it was at first. I’m happier, stronger now.’

‘Must’ve been horrible. How are your kids taking everything?’

‘Yeah, pretty well, I think. I let them see him every second weekend in the day. They have told me they feel happier now than before.’

A cool change fell over our coffee date like a brooding grey sky and southerly breeze. A characteristic Brisbane storm brewing on the horizon had rolled in and now started to pour with rain. I couldn’t gauge his thoughts.

‘Mark, if you’re uncomfortable with this, it’s cool. I know it’s a lot to adjust to, before you just thought I was a single woman.’

‘Yeah, it is a lot.’

‘I don’t expect anything, I just like you…’ I felt vulnerable.

‘I like you too,’ he said, ‘you know that.’

‘I realise things are more complicated than us liking each other. It’s not like when we were young, hey? Sometimes I wish it was. I was hoping we could still get to know each other, but I totally understand, whatever you want.’

‘I’m not sure what I think, Sade. I’d be happy to get to know each other and see what happens.’

‘Sounds good to me.’

Mark finished drinking his flat-white. He asked me about my kids, what they liked to do, where they went to school, what they were like. I answered him, all the while noticing his difference. Not cold, but changed. Who could blame him? It was a lot to absorb. After a little while, he said he had to go.

‘Okay, see you then,’ I said.

I watched him walk away. He had my business card and we agreed we would see each other at dancing. We’d see after that. The day was moving on, its hot breath becoming more stifling. Who knew what would happen? All I knew was I wouldn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on it. I was free now. I looked at the photo of my kids on my mobile phone. Closing my eyes I saw endless blue surrounding me.

 

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Leporine, Alexandra Parsons

Primal is a young adult novel set in Australia, in the not too distant future, after a corpse-reanimating disease has swept the globe. We follow a group of young martial artists as they fight for access to a ‘safe zone’. After a mission in the bush, our main protagonist, Kaye, has been bitten by one of their infected friends (Tirin).

 

Serena drove the knife down into the back of Tirin’s neck. She leaned on it, pushed down with her weight. She could feel the blade grating over vertebrae and it sent reverberations up into her chest.

The outstretched arm that had reached towards Kaye clanged down onto the tray like a headless snake. It twitched once and then finally, the thing that had been Tirin, was still.

Thoughts began to rage through Serena’s mind like a bush fire. Had Tirin really spoken? Had she really heard the word? The plea for death?

She knelt in front of her sister, blocking the view of the body, but Kaye stared straight through her. It was as though she could still see the corpse of her friend there, reaching out for help in her final moments.

Kaye held her wrist tucked close to her chest like an injured paw. The bite mark bubbled red with puckered skin.

Serena had been looking over the top of the Ute, out to the battlefield, when she had heard the scream. Then she had seen the bite – Tirin’s barred teeth melding into flesh. She had smelt the salt of a fresh wound.

It was pure instinct that had caused her to kick out at the thing attacking her sister, like it was a rabid dog. Now the idea that it was Tirin who lay dead beside them was unfurling, hot and painful, in her mind. And worse, that Kaye might end up the same.

‘Get the med kit!’ she shouted to Fyke and Gruff. She could see a rectangle section of Fyke’s face in the rear-view mirror, panic-stricken.

She cupped her hands around her sister’s face like she had once seen her mother do.

‘You’re alright, Kaye-Kaye. It’s fine. You’ll be fine,’ she lied.

 

Fyke pushed himself out from the front seat of the Ute and vaulted into the tray where Kaye was folded in one corner, wrist drawn tightly to her chest.

He saw the body, Tirin’s blood already coagulating with grit and rust. Guilt licked a cold tongue down his spine.

Casualties are a part of war, son, came his father’s voice in his mind.

He stepped over the body.

He saw Serena crouched over Kaye. Then he saw the bite mark and knew what it meant.

He gripped the handle of the Dragon sword on his hip.

Kaye’s head was turned away from him and away from Serena. Eyes down. Resigned.

The leather grip creaked against Fyke’s palm as his hand tightened. He felt the loose rust from the tray’s edge there. Tiny flakes of metal embedded themselves in his skin.

He could feel the midday sun burning on his hair and rippling hot waves over his oilskin jacket. Sweat droplets were sprouting in his palm, making the grip slippery and uncomfortable.

The world has no time for sentimentality, his father’s voice said.

Already he threatened the whole team by bringing an infected host into the compound. Every second she lived, the parasite grew within their walls.

Unblinking, he slid his eyes over her form. He located the soft, pale skin of her neck.

He swallowed hard.

It’ll be quick, he told himself.

In that moment he noticed small things – the sweat droplets making mini river courses down her neck. The tiny, fine hairs disappearing into her hairline. The determined line of her mouth that he knew well.

Then he saw the blood escaping from the wound, rising over jagged flesh mountains, down valleys of puncture marks.

The parasite would already be spreading.

This is how we survive, his father had said.

Survival at all costs.

Fyke gripped the scabbard with his left hand. He flexed his right and re-grasped the hilt. He took a deep breath. And drew –

 

The blade thunked through bone and muscle, solid and final.

It glinted in the fire light and in his father’s green-grey eyes. But he didn’t once look up at Fyke.

Now his father hacked the rabbit’s extremities off with precise, well-practiced blows – head, front legs, back legs, tail. He tossed the parts into the fire and Fyke looked away. But he could still smell the burning meat.

The audible rip of his father pulling the skin from the carcass broke the silence. He gave a few final tugs to free it from white sinew and muscle. Fyke didn’t want to see that pink, mottled body.

‘This is how we survive,’ his father had said. Then he tossed the limp, hollow skin at his son’s feet. In the dusky half-light, Fyke couldn’t help looking at the twisted fur.

The softness was all gone now.

Fyke thought of when he saw the rabbit that morning. He had felt stifled in the morning sun, the heat just building up for a summer day. It was reflecting off the grass, evaporating the 4:00am dew still clinging to the cuffs of his camouflage jacket and pants. They hadn’t shot a single thing yet and he could feel his father’s frustration growing at the clumsiness of his son’s ten year old feet. Compound bow hunting required silent stalking and Fyke kept scaring the rabbits away. He would step forward and suddenly the brush would flicker with movement as they scattered away.

‘Be patient – a soldier has got to be patient,’ his father had said. But that had been hours ago. He hadn’t said a word since.

Then Fyke had seen something that wasn’t the disappearing white flash of a tail down a hole. Instead, it was a rabbit with its back to him, loping on the outskirts of the grasses. It was young, a kitten.

It nibbled obliviously in the morning sun. Fyke could see its nose twitching, its mouth chewing tiny mouthfuls. He even noticed the texture of the rabbit’s sooty brown fur. And when it moved, the light picked up hints of amber and gold.

Too easy, thought the predator in Fyke. But also too young, he thought.

He went to turn away. But his father, crouched behind him, blocked his path. Eyes locked on the kitten.

‘This is survival,’ he said in a low voice. ‘We’re not here to play games.’

Fyke looked at the rabbit. He hoped for a fleeting moment that it had moved into cover. But it remained, mouth chewing furiously and full of grass. The arrow was already nocked. The arrow release mechanism was on his wrist and clipped to the string.

He looked back and his father’s eyes were on him.

So he raised the bow.

The rabbit seemed even smaller in the circle of his sight.

He could feel his father behind him, like a weight pushing between his shoulder blades.

Fyke took a breath and pulled the string to full draw.

‘Survival at all costs,’ his father whispered.

 

It was when his father made him retrieve the body that he felt the frail weight of the creature. He felt the tiny bones sliding under the fur. He had run a thumb over its ears, briefly, so his father wouldn’t see. And they felt just like the plant that was named after them – ‘rabbit’s ears’ his mother had told him as they knelt in the garden. Because the floppy leaves were covered in fine, soft hairs.

That moment – when the sun cut across the grass and picked up the golden flecks in the kitten’s fur – it was just a memory now. Just a moment of sentimentality.

And the world had no room for sentimentality.

That’s what his father had said that night by the camp fire. And he had said it many times since. When Fyke had sat alone in the stands after losing a Taekwondo tournament. When he was found reading a battered copy of T.S. Eliot’s poems. When he came home with his first black eye. And when he watched the black hearse that held his mother’s body drive away.

 

As the sword cut through the air, he looked at Kaye, hunched leporine-like and shaking. He saw the fine, soft hairs running up the curve of her neck, inches from the blade.

No room for sentimentality, his father had said.

But his father wasn’t around anymore.

He had opted out long ago.

Every muscle in Fyke’s body seized. The joints and ligaments froze and screamed as they tried to stop the sword’s path. The blade sped towards Kaye’s jugular vein –

But it stopped.

He stood panting. His arms felt ripped apart and he could barely lift them to sheath the sword. It slid back with a shink and Kaye looked up at him. In the light, he saw that her brown eyes were flecked with gold.

 

Leporine

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All His Dead, Judith Mendoza-White

NOTE: This short story is one of the collection ‘Of Goodbyes and Mourning’, which consists of twenty-two stories dealing with death, fear and loss.

 

In every summer afternoon, when the entire city took refuge behind closed shutters and drawn curtains to escape the scorching Buenos Aires’ heat, don Luciano Gómez sat in his usual neighbourhood café. Afflicted by the obstinate insomnia that sometimes heralds old age, he no longer managed to enjoy much sleep. There was a time when summer siestas were something to look forward to, a daily pleasure he would not have traded for anything. They had now become a luxury he could no longer afford. An afternoon siesta would trigger sleepless nights that he would spend listening to the buses screeching to a halt in the corner, counting the drunken voices climbing up the walls to his bedroom window. The beginning of old age had therefore forced him to sacrifice his siesta, and the corner café was an easy option that took him out of the house in those otherwise empty hours.

That’s what being old was about, after all: spending one’s hours in the best possible way. Luciano Gómez, or don Luciano, as he was known in the neighbourhood, did not have much to complain about. He had a good retirement pension, he owned the apartment where he lived and another one, smaller but situated in a better area of the city, where his divorced daughter and his only grandson lived. Don Luciano had stopped expecting much from life some time ago, and the slow mundane development of his days did not bother him. Anger, jealousy and desire had progressively faded away, allowing him to make peace with himself and the others.

The morning was easily spent, even if don Luciano could no longer sleep past the first light of dawn. The prolonged mate[1]on the balcony, the watering of the many plants and flowerpots scattered around the apartment and the reading of two newspapers kept him busy throughout the morning hours. Then it was time for his usual round to the corner shop and the baker’s, which provided many occasions for small talk with the neighbours and helped kill time until lunch.

After lunch, siesta time began, with its slow empty hours. Then don Luciano rolled up the third paper of the day under his arm, reserved for the occasion, and walked to the corner shop squinting under the glare of the furious afternoon sun.

The bored waiter usually made some idle conversation before taking his order; the high temperatures, soccer, the remote chance of rain. Don Luciano never sat at the same table or ordered the same thing: those small decisions contributed to break the monotony of the hour. Cappuccino, lemonade, black coffee, mineral water. A toasted sandwich or a biscuit later in the afternoon, once lunch digestion was well under way.

The waiter then disappeared behind the counter. Don Luciano opened his newspaper and started to read, but the silence around him and the fact that he had read the same news twice in the morning papers soon made his mind wander away. At that point his calm eyes, where old age had painted bluish hues in the brown, looked up to the open window, and don Luciano started once again to count his dead.

 

Sometimes he started at the very beginning: the blonde he had met in high school. He went over the features he had never forgotten, the way her hips swung by him in the breaks, his surprise at the hardness of the ground under the shovel. From then on it was easy. It was a question of caution and attention to detail; that was all there was to it.

Later, at the university, there had been two more; men this time. One of them stole his idea for the master thesis (it was actually his own fault, Luciano’s, for failing to keep his mouth shut; from then on he had learned his lesson though). So did the thief, of course. The second one was at the time Lupita’s boyfriend. Lupita was don Luciano’s wife, who had passed away five years ago. Don Luciano missed the muffled sound of her slippers on the kitchen floor in the morning, the shared rounds of mate, her sparse talk. Lupita had never been talkative, and he had known he’d marry her from the moment he saw her squinting her short-sighted eyes over a book at the library, the thick glasses half-hidden under a long blonde fringe. After her boyfriend’s death it did not take Luciano long to convince her to join him for dinner and a movie. After forty years of marriage and two daughters she had died during her sleep without noise or fuss of any kind, the same way she had chosen to do everything else in her lifetime.

 

Some afternoon or other don Luciano inverted the order and counted from the end, starting by his most recent dead. The new neighbour at apartment D: young, noisy and bad-mannered, with her insolence and late-night parties at weekends. It had not been difficult.

The member of the club where he had spent his evenings for the last 20 years. Soon after don Luciano joined the club they had had a violent argument over political or religious matters. Don Luciano had clear, absolute ideas and opinions on every matter; he had always prided himself on that, even in his teenage years. That had made his life easier, there was no doubt about that. Life is better lived when there’s no room for doubt or further possibilities: don Luciano went through life with the peace of mind of the blessed few who know that what they say or do is right and indisputable.

The day after the argument at the club, don Luciano had been the first to apologise. He had done so in public, in a low humble voice, in front of the other members of the daily card table. They had all looked at him with good eyes from that moment on, and his reputation for being a good-natured chap had been firmly established. Don Luciano had waited two years to pay his antagonist back, and all that time he treated as a friend the man he knew unworthy of sharing the air he breathed. It had not been hard; it had all been a question of patience, and don Luciano had always counted patience amongst his many virtues.

The hours of the afternoon kept dragging slowly past him; don Luciano called the waiter, ordered another coffee or an orange juice, sometimes a small croissant or an ice-cream. The huge fan continued to blow warm air towards him, and don Luciano continued to count and re-count.

The blonde who though herself out of his league, who made fun of him in front of all the class on graduation day. The ideas’ thief. Lupita’s boyfriend; and later one of his friends, who had started to nose around too much. The guy from the club. The two from the soccer team, who had laughed for days at Luciano’s poor attempts in the neighbourhood’s Christmas championship. The head of department, lazy good-for-nothing who had denied him a well-deserved promotion. The noisy neighbour.

All of them obstacles in a methodical, orderly life. Don Luciano minded his business and expected the same from everyone else. That was why he had chosen Lupita: because he knew life by her side would be easy and comfortable, with no surprises of any kind. But people insisted in standing in the way of his life plan, which he knew was modest enough.

 

People started to walk past the café’s windows, the worst heat of the day already over. Don Luciano called the waiter and paid the bill, thinking that his daughter and grandson would be at the apartment in less than half an hour. He’d buy some pastries or an apple tart, his grandson’s favourite, at the bakery round the corner. It was still too hot to sit on the balcony; it’d be better to have mate or cold lemonade in the living-room, with the air-con on.

As he was leaving the bakery, holding the apple tart wrapped in crispy white paper with both hands, he stumbled upon his neighbour from the fifth floor, who was accompanied by a friend he did not know. He smiled and bowed his head as she walked past him; they had known each other for ages, Lupita used to go up to her flat for coffee and a chat on the odd day.

‘That’s don Luciano, from 1 B’, whispered the neighbour to her companion as they walked away. ‘A good man if there are any. Never in his life has he bothered a soul. If there were a few more like him around, the world would be a better place.’



[1] Mate: typical Argentinean drink, a kind of green tea drank out of a pot by means of a straw, usually shared with others.

 

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A White Arm, Hiroki Kosuge

My mum has gone to the universe. That’s true. Because I saw her off to the station. She seemed to be a bit tired then. Just before she got into the train, she gave me a cake as a Christmas present. There went the starting bell. When I waved the hand through the window, she had already started drinking and was looking at her phone. Then, as Dad told me that she had been chosen, I felt a bit proud of her although I worried about whether drunken astronauts could go home safely.

My mum used to drink a lot while Dad was absent. She used to drink sake, as if she drinks tea, and would sometimes hit me during drinking. I tried drinking a few times, while nobody was watching, to know why the liquid makes Mum mad. But, last summer, I was carried into the hospital for that. I often heard my parents quarrel out of the hospital room while I was in the bed. I felt very sorry for that because it was my fault. Finally, they divorced last December. (Dad said, divorce means Mum goes far away. I asked, ‘How far?’ He said, ‘It’s too far to see.’ So, I thought divorce would mean Mum goes to the universe. Dad liked the idea, though Mum looked a bit sad when she heard of this.) Dad and I started a new life here from this January. I still can’t get used to the strong provincial accent here.

Now, dad and I are in the hall at school since there is a graduation ceremony today. The ceremony isn’t for me. We, the pupils and parents, have been brought together to sing a song for graduates. Dad standing among mothers seems to be a bit embarrassed because he is the only male. Ken, a friend of mine, said earlier, ‘Where’s your mum?’ I just said, ‘She’s gone to the universe.’ Ken said, ‘You liar’. When I tried to say no, the floor shook and some people fell down like chessmen on a chessboard. The siren blew and dad rushed to me. We, dad and I, bent our bodies and waited for the tremors of the earthquake to stop. After the long shaking, somebody screamed, ‘Tsunami comes!’

 

School teachers guided us to the rooftop. The level of the water rose little by little. I could see burning water cover the field in front of the school. Muddy water walls grew slowly. I could hear the sound of a cage made of mud swallowing the world, and realised that the world was made of sugar, otherwise it couldn’t be broken like this. Looking at the ground, which was about to be fully covered by muddy water, I shouted, ‘A grape is running!’ Dad looked at me briefly and said, ‘Shut up’ quietly. Then, I found that I was still wearing the shoes for gym. I wanted to go to the lower floor to get the shoes for outside, but dad didn’t allow me to go. We were looking at the destroyed houses which came floating down the river. Again, I yelled out, ‘A GRAPE IS RUNNING!’ At the moment, he scolded me severely. I was so astonished I burst into tears because Dad rarely shouts. Dad’s hands were shaking. A group of people running on the street looked like an apple, lizard, and then, grape again. I didn’t intend to make dad angry, but smile as he would. Everything on the surface of the water was spinning slowly. People around us kept on screaming, ‘Up,Up,Up Uuuuuuuuuuuuuup!’ I wondered if I should scream with them, but finally didn’t. Because Dad had been silent.

It grew dark, and we ended up spending the night on the top of the roof. I’d decided not to speak until my dad spoke to me. I lowered my body into the big bed made of parents ’coats and slept like that, and found that I’d lost my voice the next morning. I couldn’t say anything even if Dad asked me to say something with his sad look.

 

After the Tsunami confusion, it’s been decided that I go to see a doctor once a week. It takes nearly three hours from my ‘temporary house’ (Dad taught me to call it so). Since dad has given up his job in order to take care of me and buy a digger, he seems to be busier with his new part-time jobs, but also looked happy with this weekly outing with me. I like to go to the hospital too, despite the fact that Dr Kaneko plunges a silver spatula into my throat and asks some strange questions, because Dad buys me an ice cream. Angelato, the ice cream shop, is located on the ground floor of the hospital. The floor is filled with the scent of the elderly who smell like burnt bread. I suspect something is burning in their bodies, something important.

I am in the habit of ordering a double: green tea and brown sugar. Dad always makes fun of me for choosing such flavours like an old man. A shop assistant at Angelato made it triple as a free gift today. I bowed carefully in order not to drop the vanilla on the top and ran up to Dad. He was reading a magazine for boys. He loves manga comics in spite of being an adult. He glanced at me and said, ‘Gimme the vanilla.’ I shook my head and bit into it.

Dr Kaneko is a beautiful, unlikable woman. When I first met her, as she introduced herself in the standard language, which is unusual in this region, I wondered if she was angry about having ‘a conversation’ with me. Her beautiful smile made me all the more confused. Dr Kaneko, today, asked me ‘What is there in your hometown?’

I wrote. ‘A steel tower.’

She said, smiling beautifully, ‘Anything else?’

I wrote.  ‘A chimney.’

She spoke in superlatives. ‘Well done! How about the mountains, rivers or rice fields?’

I wondered for a while and found myself at a loss, and then wrote. ‘There were.’

Mrs Kato, a dad’s friend, arrived on a rainy Sunday. She was fat and short, like a small shrine. As she said, ‘Hello,’ I bowed carefully. She took out a robot toy, which I didn’t like the look of, from her double-layered plastic bag and gave it to me. She asked if I liked it, so I nodded. Since my mum had gone, I didn’t know how to conduct myself in front of a woman of her age.

We didn’t have anything to do while waiting for Dad. Mrs Kato was sitting politely on the square floor cushion, and I was pretending to play with the robot and was disappointed with the movable region of its arms.

When Dad arrived, it was already dark outside. He apologised for being late and Mrs Kato responded politely. Dad glanced at the robot in my hand and asked if I had said thank you to her, so I nodded. They talked quietly for a while in the stuffy room. Mrs Kato talked while covering her eyes and mouth, one after another, with a handkerchief. I happened to hear that her husband was carried away by tidal waves. I had known I shouldn’t laugh, at the moment like this, no matter how incredible it was. Mrs Kato, in the middle of their conversation, handed Dad money and he immediately returned it. After their conversation, as Dad asked if I would come with them next Sunday, I nodded twice. It is the sign I made to tell my feeling, after I have lost my voice, which means I am with you, always.

It was fine weather on Sunday. But a drive from our temporary house to Mrs Kato’s was not enjoyable because of a traffic jam. Dad said these cars were bringing relief supplies and volunteers. I thought, we are neither of them.

After I finished my second peeing on the road and came back to the car with Mrs Kato, she began to talk bit by bit. She told how she had been searching with her bare hands but she had had no success, and all her hope was now on the digger. She talked with a worried face, like the one who forgot to buy the meat for curry. Dad had been listening to her while chiming in with a remark occasionally.

 

We arrived at Mrs Kato’s house finding ourselves three hours behind time. Mrs Kato said we could cancel today, but Dad responded that we had better get the work done as soon as possible, and climbed into the digger. While he was digging, Mrs Kato showed me around her house. We walked hand in hand lest I slip and fall down. She said there used to be a field of dandelions. Her hand was soft and a bit sweaty. I just wondered why she didn’t smell like sake. The ground which used to be a yellow carpet of dandelions was covered by slime now. The area was filled with the mixed smell of the slime, seaweeds and something burnt. The dead bodies of sturgeons were scattered near a piano lying upside down. I could see the end of the road we were on was blocked by a huge ship.

We, Mrs Kato and I, took a rest by a mountain of rubble. The sludge on the fusuma attached to the broken walls reminded me of a friend’s drawing at the school. Strange, messy and blackly green. He always ends up drawing such pictures since he mixes all his pigments.

Then, I heard Dad calling Mrs Kato behind the broken walls. She seized my shoulder and told me not to come. Her wet eyes with large irises were shining like gentle gems. I didn’t say yes, but nodded twice. When I looked down the ground, I found the fragments of a broken mirror reflecting a flaming sunset.

I could hear Dad was saying something from behind the broken walls. I walked toward the voice, and then stopped. All I could hear was the roar of strong wind. I peeped from a crack of a wall. Mrs Kato was hanging onto a white arm jutted out from the ground. Dad wasn’t crying but joined his hands in prayer and then bowed. It was a beautiful bow, beautiful and cold.

 

Mrs Kato was asked to cremate her son within the day by a man from a municipal office. The man, who looked quite tired, said it was ordained by law. We went to a crematorium. Mrs Kato politely took off her son’s clothes and one shoe and put them in her shoulder bag. She kept on murmuring, ‘Sorry, I’m so sorry,’ while squeezing her son’s fingerless hand. After holding onto his white hand repeatedly, she saw her son disappearing into an incinerator.

It took approximately 20 minutes. I heard someone in the room talking in an undertone. ‘Children can be quickly burnt.’ I wanted to escape from the room, but didn’t want to be alone either. There was only the tick of the second. I felt it like forever.

When the bones, like a fluorescent hard chalk, appeared on the black plank, Mrs Kato cried loudly, as of animals, and then she faced the remains, which used be a part of her, and put a piece of them into her mouth.

 

On the way back to the temporary house, Mrs Kato wearing a dirty shirt, asked if I wanted to eat something since I hadn’t eaten anything since that morning. Dad said no thanks, but as she insisted, we three stopped at a restaurant facing the sea. The radio was on the air in the restaurant.  An idol group was singing about dreams, love and peace. I wondered why they didn’t sing about muddy school bags or torn-off electric wire.

I ordered a Japanese set meal. Dad didn’t make fun of my choice, but just said no. As Mrs Kato, however, told me to order the set, I did so. Dad and Mrs Kato neither ordered nor touched their water.

Mrs Kato, when we were about to leave to pay, said in a murmur. ‘It’s been good.’ As she suddenly said so and burst into tears, the restaurant stuff at the cash resister seemed to be startled. Dad didn’t say anything, but was just looking at his hands sadly as if it’s all his fault.

 

It’s 4:00am now. Dad has given up on driving us home and has decided to take a nap in the car. I couldn’t sleep at all. The night sky was pitch-dark. Dad seemed to be sleeping. Mrs Kato was hugging her son in the tiny white box and just shutting her eyes. I got out of the car silently in order not to wake dad up, and told Mrs Kato that I would go to the toilet. The sky was getting gloomy, but the azaleas along the road were still enduring in order not to melt into the darkness. I stepped onto the observation platform overlooking the sea. I inhaled the chilly air, and then it instantly bloomed in my stomach. I opened my mouth to fill it with the light of the coming morning dawn. However, the silence of the darkness still covered the area.

Suddenly, a bright moonbeam broke through the clouds. The pale moonlight and silent black sea reminded me of the white arm jutting out of the ground. Where did the arm go? WHERE COULD HAVE IT GONE? I got scared, but realised that I couldn’t do anything for that. I watched my trembling arm. It was dimly lit by the moonlight. I prayed. I prayed that my arms wouldn’t become whiter anymore, but the cruel particle of light didn’t seem to stop bleaching my arms. I prayed. I kept on praying until the desperate wish became hoarse cries.

 

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Absolution, Leigh Coyle

Mack didn’t say a word either. We just watched as she swept the meat ants away from the dead man’s body, working a perimeter of clear space around him in the red dust. A pig dog, frenzied by the smell of blood, wrenched at its chain and she raised her broom at it and shouted.

Her task was pointless and she knew it.

I didn’t know the dead man with his booted feet sticking out into the afternoon, but then, I didn’t know anyone else on that property. Even Mack I’d only met a few weeks before when we were both walking in the same direction. Mack was one of those bull-headed men who can’t think around corners. He wore black clothes in the heat and any spare bit of skin was covered in smudged tattoos, like he’d done them himself. His front teeth were cracked off right across the middles, a long time ago, if you cared to see the worn down edges of them, and he had a face that was all collapsed in on itself. Mean bugger though.

By the way Mack held himself, his body tense, the way he muttered and moaned in his sleep, how he couldn’t look me in the eye for longer than a second, I knew he’d been inside. But the good thing I’d discovered about Mack was he didn’t ask questions. I liked that much about him and, by sticking together we seemed to find more work. That’s why we were there on that property and why we’d heard the single shot which had cracked open the dawn and for a few moments stilled the day.

Mack’d said, ‘That was no 22.’

I’d said, ‘Yeah, think you’re right.’

Then we’d gone about getting ready for the day’s work, pulling on trousers, sweat-stained singlets, hats bent to the shapes of our heads. It wasn’t our business, so when we went past the house on our way to the horses, we didn’t ask questions, even though we could already see the body motionless with the woman sweeping in circles.  We just wanted to get where we were going.

And when we came back in the afternoon, salt-smeared and thirsty after driving posts into the ground all day, we still didn’t want to find out anything about it, except she yelled out to us and we stopped near the gate, me leaning on the fence and Mack shuffling his boots in the red dust. She was blotchy-faced and sweaty, reddened by the dirt so it was hard to tell what colour her hair was, or whether she’d ever once been a looker.

‘Know what this bastard did?’ she said, letting the broom drop against her thigh.

‘Nuh,’ said Mack, with all the effort of someone who didn’t want to know.

‘Shot himself,’ she said. ‘Right here.’ She glanced back to the house as if allowing it the chance to break out of its ongoing silence. ‘And I’ve spent this whole stinking day trying to keep him nice, waiting for some bloke in a suit to come and tell me he’s dead.’

‘Jeez,’ said Mack.

Mack looked at me as if I had the words he needed, but didn’t want to share them out, so on his behalf I asked, ‘Why’d he do it?’

‘Why does anyone do it?’ she said.

I looked at Mack and thought I saw something disturbing in his eyes, but he was that sort of bloke.

‘Beats me,’ I said.

The woman resumed her sweeping. ‘You’re right there.’

We started to walk off towards the sleeping shed, but her sharp voice continued.

‘We hid all the guns, you know. Every last one of ‘em. My husband put the strychnine up in the roof so he couldn’t get to it, I put all the knives in my undies drawer. Last place he’d look, we reckoned.’

We waited while she snatched a dirty hanky from her apron pocket and wiped at her eyes.

The afternoon was stretched red-tight and all I wanted to do was get to the shed, lie down on my bunk with my toes free from boots and think of nothing much. Mack looked uncomfortable with the woman’s tears and fidgeted with his belt buckle. I saw something familiar in the way her face toughened as she spoke again, a sour tinge to her voice.

‘Made no difference in the end,’ she said. ‘This morning, he just grabbed a rifle from the back of Ron Strodeor’s ute before we had time to stop him.’

She paused as she gazed at the mad-eyed dog. ‘Wish we’d get rid of this bloody useless mongrel,’ she said.

I coughed inside my throat to break the mood and gave her a little nod. ‘Well, we’ll leave you to it,’ I said, stepping closer to Mack so we could both turn and escape in one slick manoeuvre. But the stupid bugger had stopped there, unmoving, so I was forced to stay put too, with the snuffling grunts of the dog and the fading heat of the afternoon sucking up the very last drops of moisture left on earth.

‘He just grabbed the rifle,’ she said. She dropped the broom onto the ground. ‘He just cocked it, put it in his mouth and pulled the trigger.’

Her face was lined by the sun and any womanly softness had been worn away by the weather and too much hard work. She looked like someone I’d known once, but I couldn’t quite remember who. She wept and her tears seemed obscene with their wetness, then she folded at the knees and hunched herself over beside where the dead man’s head was covered by a hessian sack.

‘We did everything we could,’ she sobbed into the dirt. ‘But in the end, it was impossible.’ She began to wail, a great heaving bawling which made her body quiver and I didn’t know where to look or what to do. I wanted someone to come out of the house and take the woman away, relieve her of her futile vigil, let the night press its darkness down upon her. But the place seemed deserted.

I glanced over to Mack for help and he gave me one long desperate look like he was seeking my permission to do something. Then that big tough bloke climbed over the fence into the yard where the woman knelt next to the dead man and he crouched down beside her, his huge tattooed arm covering her back, so their three bodies were butted up alongside each other in the dirt like rusty sardines.

Even then the woman continued to talk, as if her words had been caught up somewhere deep inside and were being flushed out with her tears. ‘We were the ones who told him to come. We’re the ones who promised to look after him. He just about blew his head off.’

She paused and then took in a long exhausted breath.

‘He was my brother.’

Mack’s black-haired hand was stroking down the woman’s back as he muttered to her. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, just the sound of his soft voice curling out into the last flare of sunlight; he was saying more to her now than I’d heard him say in all the weeks we’d been together. The woman remained curved over, but was silent now, listening.

I was useless, worse than that ugly crazy mutt, which still thought it could bust out of its lockup. As I stood there watching Mack with the woman I realised that the expression I’d briefly seen before on the woman’s face belonged to my wife, when I’d finally told her I was leaving for good.

For one blinding moment, I let myself understand I was a million times less worthy than that thug Mack, before I grunted loudly in disgust and left them to it.

 

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