Tag Archives: Childhood

Being: Mark Four, Melanie Adams

I.

 

The winter of ’92 had infected my mother with its frosty failure

It clutched her womb with barren hands

She haemorrhaged a me, mark three.

 

With a grievous contraction, she expelled

The coagulated nothing

Spurned by her body.

 

The stab was familiar.

 

In 1980, first blood seeped from her young form

Rippling tides of relief.

 

Summer of ’92, it had gripped her viscera

The day after the miniature cardiac throb caressed her ears

And the surge of maternal love sparkled in her chest.

Her arid figure cracked and crumpled.

 

My father’s shirt had promised them a daughter.

Draped in the vivid spirits of the Violent Femmes

His mind incanted: Let me go on.

 

My father bought a bounding ball of puppy fuzz

For my mother, as consolation.

 

Later, I heard ‘constellation’

Picturing all my selves that never were

Coalescing into celestial objects.

 

Doctors told my mother

Her anatomy was the great antagonist

Bellicose, designed to obliterate.

And yet, this determined speck

Clambered out of the mire of non-existence

A scatter of atoms, at first

Uniting into lungs, a brain

And a heartbeat.

 

And so I was.

Born all aperture, drinking my surroundings

With large brown spheres

Gleaming. Winking.

Slung from stellar oblivion.

 

II.

 

I was fourteen years, crushed up

A thousand tiny shells spat out by the sea

With its wringing tide.

 

Sinking in its mouth

Until my bones lodged in the back of its throat.

Life coughed up my skeleton.

 

The Violent Femmes and their jagged colours hung about my ribs

Fluttering, gored into strips by a decade of spin cycles.

 

I had grown from a clot of cells

To this, a self-immolating bush

Destined to blacken and burn out.

 

They said God’s hands had

Plucked me from the astral plane

Of their empty bodies

Flinging me through incandescence

To this dimension.

 

Why would God waste his divine fingers

Stitching something to squander?

 

My bled-out siblings called

From the belly of the earth.

I ruptured and burst like a tired star.

 

I was the sprout that had struggled

Through the concrete fissures of the footpath

Poking its fecund face

Into suburban spring.

 

I wanted to crawl back down.

 

To slide back down the spiral at the centre of the world

To slink back into

The hull of my mother

To sleep within her dormant walls

Secreted for a century

Before my renaissance.

 

Instead I was an unblinking eye

Inhaling weltschmerz

Without slumber.

 

Eating the city’s grime and feasting

On its acrid disappointment.

 

The shirt’s prophecy unravelled

Me, a violent woman

Dreaming of gunshot wounds

 

Pockets groaning with stones

Weighed down in the river

Hoping to sink.

 

Diffuse like light pollution

Lying limp on the floor.

Atomised. Paralysed.

Shredded to a joyless confetti.

Floating away.

 

III.

 

The moon mirrors my mother’s love

Luna urges me as she does the ocean

To lift its arms. To rouse itself from its bed.

To swell and embrace the salty shoreline.

 

My fragments, like iron filings

Magnetised back together.

 

I raise myself as a filament

Conducting light. Throwing it back

To my family, who so loved me

That they shovelled the soil of debt on their own shoulders

Just to hold me. Just to see my newborn face

And hear my infant giggle —

The mellifluous tinkle of chimes

Thirteen years in the making.

The shirt sacrificed itself to us.

Its vibrant creatures stretched and ripped

Beyond recognition.

I still feel the noble ghost of its ribbons

Stroking the crevices of my back.

 

Existential guilt still hums

A covert wasp’s nest crafted in my skull.

I will spray it away someday

But for now, I will cradle this tender glow

Cupping my hands

Over the blazing candle

Of being.

 

 

Works Cited

Violent Femmes, “Blister in the Sun.”1983. By Gordon Gano. Violent Femmes. Slash Records, 1983, Cassette.

 

 

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Eye Opening, Crystal Gralton

Lexie receives some money at the end of each week—usually an amount carefully calculated by her parents in regards to how much they can spare. She always places each valuable coin and note in a large, glass jar; she isn’t the type to store her money in elaborately designed boxes or even in a bank account where most people her age would logically choose to deposit their money. She needs to be able to see the money, needs to see that she is getting closer to her goal. Her family always questions why she never spends any of her pocket money and her brother often teases her with his never ending guesses of what she might be saving for. She never gives in, never gives her family the slightest hint of what she has been planning. She slides another coin through the opening and listens to the familiar clinking sound; then she watches the colourful notes squish together after she feeds them through the thin hole soon after. The truth is there is no big secret to what she is saving for—no huge elaborate plan to travel the world or book out an entire Taylor Swift concert. All she wants is to pay her way through college so that the financial burden is off her parents. She decided to hide this from them because she knew they would take it hard, always wanting to give her as much as they could—and in a way they had. Technically, the money had been given to her by them; they were paying for college, but she knew they wouldn’t see it that way. Well, the money had been for college. This suddenly changed the day she met an unlikely friend at the local park.

*

‘Lexie don’t you think it’s time for breakfast? You don’t want to be late for your class.’

Her mother’s voice grabbed her attention at once. She picked up her faded blue backpack off of her bedroom floor and rushed out her door, nearly sending the globe sitting on her desk tumbling to the ground. Realising what she’d knocked, she stopped and turned to inspect the damage she may have caused. Lexie held her breath as she saw the globe balancing on the edge of the desk, scared that even a slight change of oxygen in the room could end in a shattered mess of bits and pieces on her floor. She had spent many nights when she was younger nagging her parents to buy her that globe; from a young age she had a keen interest in exploring the world and venturing out on as many adventures as she could. Quite often her brother would rat her out to her parents, revealing that she had spent another night awake, spinning the delicate round ball of countries, stopping it with her finger and day dreaming about an adventure in the nation it had landed on. She sighed in relief when the object finally stilled.

‘Lexie?’

‘Coming, Mum.’

Lexie headed down the staircase and into the kitchen. She immediately smelt the familiar scent of her mother’s famous zucchini surprise and sat down at the wooden table that was noticeably worn from constant use. Her mother slid a plate with a slice of zucchini quiche on it across the table. Lexie brought the plate to a halt and quickly stuffed the delicious food into her mouth. Her mother watched her with amusement and laughed.

‘You’re going to make yourself sick!’

Lexie tried to answer, but her reply came out in unrecognisable mumbles. When she finished, she left her dirty plate on the kitchen table. Guiltily, she walked towards the door, throwing a quick sorry over her shoulder as she quickly shut the door behind her. She walked at a much faster pace than usual down the concrete path that led to her college and soon noticed her friend’s recognisable long, auburn coloured hair in the distance. She decided to pick up the pace and finish the rest of her journey in a slow jog. When she finally caught up to Ashley she was so out of breath she clutched her chest in pain.

‘Hi Ash, how ar—’ Lexie’s greeting was cut short when a huge gust of wind brushed past her and knocked her assignment sheet out of her hands. She panicked and raced off after the windswept papers. Ashley followed close behind her. They both turned a corner and then another. Lexie’s lungs felt as though there was a raging fire trapped within from all the running she had endured in the last ten minutes. Soon they both came to a halt as they realised the wind had died down and was no longer carrying her papers on a never ending journey. Lexie was surprised when she noticed a figure hunched over, sitting next to where her assignment lay. He was an older man, huddled in a mass of blankets to shelter himself from the harsh chill winter always brings. Lexie hesitantly walked up to him, half fearful and half curious to know about the man she had incidentally come across. Ashley stayed behind, too uninterested to follow after her. Lexie was so lost in her own thoughts, imagining every possible scenario as to why this seemingly harmless man had to create a home on the streets, when her feet collided with his. Lexie quickly jumped back and blushed in embarrassment.

‘Sorry, I didn’t realise I was so close.’

“That’s okay. Here, I believe these are yours,” the man replied while he picked up the various sheets of paper and gave them to her with unsteady hands.

‘What’s your name?’ Lexie asked.

‘Arthur,’ he replied with a genuine smile.

She decided to ignore the annoying voice in her head pressuring her to ask Arthur all the questions that were bouncing off the walls inside her brain. It isn’t her fault that she is so curious; it’s her dream to become a journalist, it will be her job one day to find out people’s unique stories and question them for information. At least that’s what she continually tells herself when her friends decide to call a sudden intervention, pointing out her need to question and investigate even the simplest things in life.

‘It was nice meeting you,’ Lexie said with a frown forming on her forehead.

‘Is something wrong?’ Arthur asked.

‘It’s just…’ Lexie turned around and noticed Ashley rolling her eyes and motioning for her to hurry up. ‘Never mind, maybe another time’ Lexie added, smiling at Arthur and making her way back to Ashely. The pair made it back to class in silence, Lexie too consumed with her own thoughts.

Every day she had classes to attend at college. After that, she made sure to leave ten minutes earlier so she had the chance to speak to Arthur again. Each day she started to find out more about him. Piece by piece, she started to put together the puzzle of his story. She learnt that he used to work as an ambulance officer. He used to save lives every day, but the one life he was unable to save was that of his wife. His wife fell ill and there was nothing the doctors or he could do to save her. He had sat by her beside every day that she was there. That cost him his job, but he didn’t care. She had limited time left on this Earth and he was determined to spend every last moment with her. He had to sell his house to pay for all the numerous and highly expensive medical bills to keep her comfortable and pain free for as long as possible. This is how he ended up here, on the street that Lexie stumbled upon.

Lexie had also made another sad discovery. One day she visited Arthur to discuss the book she had given him. She had allowed him to keep her favourite book Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne. She hoped he would find it interesting and engaging rather than childish. She loved the book when she was younger and it is still a story she holds close to her heart today. Lexie loved to read and she was hoping that he would share this same passion.

‘Did you start reading the book I gave you?’ she asked.

‘I can’t say that I did,’ Arthur replied with a grim face.

After a few more curious questions from Lexie were answered she learnt the disheartening truth: Arthur had poor vision and was losing his eyesight at a rapid rate. Every time he tried to read the words would start to blur, creating a sea of black ink. After wracking her brain for ideas on how she can make the situation better, she ran back home later that day with an idea.

When Lexie returned home, she was greeted by her father, ‘Hey, Lexie. I have something for you.’

‘What is it, Dad?’

‘Here’s your pocket money, don’t spend it all at once,’ her father joked.

Lexie took the money that her father gave her and ran up the stairs with a purpose. She closed her door and dropped to the ground, rummaging through the items under her bed until she found the one she was looking for. She weaved the glass jar out from underneath the rest of the items and popped the lid open. She placed the coins inside and put the jar on top of her desk next to her globe and her copy of Journey to the Centre of the Earth, which she had retrieved from Arthur when she realised he wouldn’t be able to read it.

*

That was how her collection started. This is what she has done every week for the past two years, placing each coin and note she gets into the shiny glass jar. She picks up the glass jar and places it into her backpack, not needing to count the money as she already knows the exact amount from constant, careful calculations. She knew exactly how long she would need to save in order to reach her desired amount. She swings her backpack around her shoulders and walks down the stairs to go talk to Arthur about the idea she has.

When Lexie arrives at Arthur’s usual spot, she is finally able to tell somebody the plans she has for the money. She explains her detailed plan to gather enough money to be able to pay for the eye operation that he desperately needs. She knows he has been through a lot over the last decade and she wants to be able to provide him with an escape. Books have always been a tool she has used to feel as though she is going on an adventure and to be transported to another time and place. She wants him to be able to read so that he has something other than the negatives to focus on while he spends his days on the streets. She also knows how important vision is and would be heartbroken if he lost his when she could have done something about it. What she didn’t count on was Arthur’s reluctance to accept her help.

‘No Lexie, you keep your money.’

‘You gave up everything to pay for your wife’s medical bills, let someone do the same for you.’

‘You still have college to pay off; I’m not worth wasting your money on.’

‘I will still be able to pay for college it just might take a little longer.’

‘Lexie, I can’t take your money.’

‘You can and you will, you need this operation.’

After a few weeks of convincing him, Arthur was finally checked into the hospital for his eye operation. While Lexie waits for his operation to finish, she places Journey to the Centre of the Earth on the table next to the bed he will be recovering in. Her mother walks up beside her and places a hand on her shoulder.

‘I thought you were saving up for an adventure,’ she says.

‘I was saving for an adventure, just not my own,’ Lexie replies.

 

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Where Light Doesn’t Exist, Alex Chambers

Robert and Jaden were running out of ideas. It had been too long since Georgia had disappeared down the cave and black clouds were quickening overhead.

The cave was unlike any they’d seen or read about as it wasn’t made of stone but foliage. Trees sprouted up from the ground then curled and combined with leaves, bushes, and branches to make a completely solid structure, daunting the barely teenage boys standing just outside its mouth. It was lightless inside and no matter how much the two of them called, there was no echo or reply from Georgia. But the strangest of all was that the inside of the structure was significantly larger than the outside. When Robert and Jaden had dared to venture inside earlier, it became clear that they’d walked for much longer than physically possible before turning back.

Robert thought back to earlier this morning, when Georgia had pounded on his door and demanded he come see what she’d found. Jaden was dragged along when the pair chanced upon him on the way into the forest. When they had arrived, Georgia pointed down into the abyss. ‘Come on!’

‘What is it?’ Robert asked, approaching slowly. Jaden said nothing and kept his distance as Georgia grinned and began trotting into the mouth of the cave.

‘I dunno,’ she said. ‘But it goes a long way—I’m gonna see how far.’

She hadn’t said anything more. Before Robert or Jaden could even utter a protest, she’d dashed off. When she didn’t return for a few minutes, the boys tried to follow her, but found that the seemingly straight line surrounded by impossibly close-knit trees wasn’t so simple. As they walked, the path twisted and turned even though they never once changed the direction they travelled. The further they went, the more the light was swallowed by the shadows of the cavern.

Robert, now pacing back and forth at the mouth of the cave nearly an hour later, was starting to mumble to himself. ‘It’s getting late—we need to do something. I can’t believe we couldn’t stop her,’ he groaned. He’d been running his hand through his tan hair so many times now it was no longer neat.

‘Calm down,’ Jaden growled from against a tree nearby. ‘It’s Georgia’s own damn fault. Always running off and doing stupid stuff like this. I wish you hadn’t babbled to her about how ‘interesting’ this ‘strange new phenomenon’ looked either.’

‘Okay, I got a little excited,’ he admitted. ‘But this is like something out of one of my sci-fi books! There could be a whole universe in there—’

‘Please don’t start again.’ Jaden rolled his eyes and began rubbing his forehead. ‘I’m tired. This is the fourth supernatural thing we’ve had to deal with this week.’

The isolated, English countryside town of Edgeville was far from the first place anyone would’ve guessed would be a hotspot for paranormal activity, but for the past couple of months, the town’s children had found themselves embroiled in a series of strange happenings. A decrepit mansion appeared on the outskirts of town one evening and disappeared the next. Pale, ephemeral figures stalked the town’s graveyards. Objects floated and flew across rooms. And the children had had more than enough encounters with fanged, clawed and/or winged creatures that stalked them relentlessly, but always just out of the corner of their sight.

No one over the age of eighteen knew about any of this and most of the older children tried to deny it or explain it rationally. No matter what, any time an adult was called to investigate one of the strange and dangerous incidents it would vanish. Whole haunted houses would disappear. The floating spectres would evaporate just in time for the adult to miss them.

The children of Edgeville no longer slept soundly, but that didn’t stop some of them from trying to do something about it or being intrigued.

‘Do you think it goes underground?’ Robert said. ‘That would explain why it goes for so long and why it’s so dark inside.’

When he didn’t get a response, he turned to see Jaden yawning.

‘You’re still talking science-y mumbo-jumbo,’ he said.

‘Aren’t you interested?’ Robert retorted and then he added, ‘or worried?’

‘No. You don’t sound like you’re worried either.’

Robert thought for a moment, then said, ‘Are we just getting used to this, maybe?’

‘Sick of it, more like,’ Jaden huffed. ‘I mean, how many times has Georgia leapt into some dangerous situation and come out just fine with that stupid grin all over her face? And you’re treating it like a big mystery novel that you’re trying to figure out.’

‘This is a big mystery,’ Robert said. ‘And I do want to figure it out. And if we keep investigating, maybe we’ll all figure something out.’

A distant rumble of thunder came from far above. Jaden wrinkled his nose and frowned. ‘Go get Veronica. We’re not getting anything done right now.’

Most of the town’s children tried to ignore or flat-out deny that there was anything wrong, but after the incidents had started, a small band of kids had decided they’d actively explore the terrifying events that plagued their town. Veronica, as the oldest over Jaden by a few months, had been unofficially designated their leader, which meant that when Georgia got herself into trouble, it was usually Veronica who ended up organising the rescue mission.

‘Does your phone have reception out here?’ Robert asked.

‘No.’

‘Neither does mine. Stay here then, just in case Georgia comes back out. I’ll head into town…’

‘Fine by me,’ Jaden answered, sitting down at the base of the tree.

There was another, louder bang of thunder. Robert gave a thumbs-up and hurried off out of the forest.

He first swung by his own house, creeping in through the garage door and rifling through his father’s things for anything of use. As he’d hoped, he found a rope along with a heavy-duty torch. He wasted no time making a run for Veronica’s house a few streets over. He mulled over the thought of gathering up more friends for the rescue, but a flash of lightning accompanied by a dangerously close rumble caused him to decide that he was close to running out of time.

He approached the front door, first tossing the rope and torch into the bushes, and then knocked. Robert figured it’d be best to avoid any suspicious questions. The door was opened by Veronica’s father, Curtis, who greeted Robert warmly.

‘What can I do for you, Robert?’ he asked. ‘It’s looking to be a heck of a storm. Not really the right time to be off playing in the streets, eh?’

‘No sir,’ Robert answered. ‘I was actually wondering if Veronica was around. I had a, uh, spur of the moment idea. It was looking to be a good night for a movie so I wanted to see if Veronica and some other friends wanted to come over. Is she in?’

‘What a great way to spend a Saturday night! She’s home—I’ll go and get her. Just remember not to put on anything too scary. You know how she hates all those violent horror movies.’

Curtis called his daughter and departed the room. Robert managed to hold the smile on his face until Curtis left before grimacing. Veronica came treading down the stairs and frowned when she saw Robert’s expression.

‘Let me guess,’ she said. ‘Georgia?’

Robert nodded. ‘She’s in trouble.’

‘What did she annoy this time?’

‘It’s a little more complex than that bat thing she upset last week. It might be better to see for yourself. It’s in the forest.’

‘I’ll go get my coat and some good shoes,’ she sighed. She hopped back up the stairs and returned a moment later wearing a pair of pink gumboots and a baby-blue raincoat. Veronica was a year older than Robert, but nearly a foot shorter. She wasn’t as smart as Robert and she definitely wasn’t as brave or strong as Georgia, but she had a shine in her blue eyes and a posture that was tall and confident. Robert could tell by looking—even if Veronica couldn’t see it herself—that she was definitely most suited to be in charge.

‘I’ll try to explain what’s happening on the way,’ he said as they departed. He stopped a moment to retrieve his rope and torch from the garden before they jogged towards the forest. A drizzle of rain had begun to shower the pair as they fought through the trees and bushes towards their destination.

‘It’s over there,’ Robert pointed past some trees and over a hill. ‘I left Jaden there, in case Georgia came back.’

In between breaths and crashes of thunder, Robert tried to describe what the cave was to Veronica.

‘So it’s like a cave, but it’s bigger on the inside than it looks from the outside,’ she panted. ‘But it’s made of trees?’

‘Exactly!’ Robert said. ‘Think of what could be inside there. I mean, there could be anything really—’

‘Is that it?’ Veronica interrupted.

The rain had intensified, but there was no mistaking the gnarled shape of the cave a few metres away. As they hastened towards it, a flash of lightning illuminated the area. In the half-light, the cave looked more twisted and unnatural; the branches of the trees sharper and darker, but something else had caught their attention in that brief moment of sudden light.

‘Robert,’ she breathed. ‘Was that…?’

‘Yeah, I saw it too.’

Something had jolted like a startled spider into the cave, too fast for either of them to make out what it could be.

‘A deer?’ Veronica suggested.

‘Too big and too quick,’ Robert shuddered. ‘And…I think it was black. And scaly.’

‘I really hope you’re wrong. Could it have been—?’

She stopped and they flicked their heads towards each other. Robert switched on the torch and they hurried down the hill towards the cave. He swept the light over the area, scanning for any sign of Jaden. They both began to call his name, hoping he’d just fallen asleep under the tree, but it soon became clear he wasn’t answering.

‘He probably just went home, right?’ Veronica said. Her voice was quivering.

‘I told him to wait here, though,’ Robert said. ‘And I know he’s lazy, but he wouldn’t go home without Georgia.’

They both turned and looked down the looming maw of the cave. Even now, armed with the torch, Robert couldn’t see anything other than the walls of trees on either side of the path deep into the darkness. It seemed to stretch on forever.

‘Give me the torch,’ Veronica said, holding her hand out. ‘And one end of the rope.’

‘But—’

‘One of us has to stay out here,’ she explained. ‘And you’re right—Jaden wouldn’t have gone home without Georgia. If they did go home, we’d have seen them on the way here. So they’re in there.’

‘I want—’

‘I know,’ she continued. ‘I know you want to see what’s in there. That’s why I’m going in; you might get lost or distracted.’

Robert huffed, but complied. ‘If you see anything dangerous…’

‘I’m not leaving without them either,’ she said. Without another word, she faced the cave, torch in one hand and rope in the other, and began to tread cautiously into the abyss. A ways in, she started to run, calling Jaden and Georgia’s names.

Robert watched her get smaller and smaller, the rope in his hand unwinding rapidly as the light from Veronica’s torch steadily vanished from view. He was alone in the closing darkness. The sky howled and rain began to pelt him furiously. He stepped into the mouth of the cave, hoping its branches would at least keep him dry as he waited. The rope in his hand continued to unravel.

*

The walls of the cave had begun to change. Veronica could see the branches and foliage of the trees melting together to form some new substance that was a dull brown. It looked like it’d be sticky to touch, but she didn’t dare test this thought. A smell like decomposing fruit had begun to gradually rise in potency and it took all of Veronica’s willpower to avoid turning back. What was worse was that the light from her torch was steadily becoming useless. The blackness of the cave seemed so immense that her light couldn’t pierce it. The ray seemed increasingly insignificant as she ventured deeper. Her heart was thundering like the storm she had left so far behind

‘Jaden!’ she called. ‘Georgia!’

She stopped running for a moment to catch her breath and listen for a response. She thought she heard footsteps somewhere ahead, but otherwise the cave was silent.

‘Please, please, please be Jaden and Georgia.’ she muttered.

Veronica increased her pace and began calling again. The ground beneath her boots was growing warmer and softer. She dreaded the thought of aiming her torch downwards to see what was happening to it; instead she focused the light on the void before her. As she jogged along, the light occasionally illuminated the walls and Veronica noted that they were stretching further apart. Something was dripping from them without a sound. There was no way she was still in the forest.

When she called her friends again, she gasped at a sound not too far ahead. She thought it’d been a groan. She sprinted into the darkness, clutching her torch and rope and almost tripped over the slouched figure of Jaden.

‘Jaden!’ she cried. The torchlight flew over his features, telling Veronica all she needed to know: he was hurt. Blood was dripping from his nose and mouth. She shrieked, dropped the torch, and began to shake Jaden by the shoulders. Soon enough, she heard a voice from the darkness.

‘What time is it…?’

Veronica stopped and picked her torch back up to direct it to the space beside Jaden. It was Georgia, lying face-down on the ground. When she sat up, Veronica became aware that she was also injured: she had a crimson gash across her forehead.

‘Georgia?’

She blinked and shook her head, realisation setting in. ‘Oh, ‘sup, Veronica? How’d you get down here?’

‘Never mind that,’ Veronica said. ‘Help me get Jaden up—we’ve gotta go.’ She moved to shake his shoulder again, but Georgia motioned for her to step back. Without any further prompting, she began slapping Jaden repeatedly until a series of moans came from his throat.

‘Quit it, quit it!’ he snapped, jumping to his feet. ‘I’m up!’

‘Then we’re leaving,’ Veronica said, standing. ‘You can tell me what happened when we get out of here.’

‘Okay, but question,’ Georgia said, dragging herself to her feet. ‘How’d you get past that thing?’

‘Thing?’

‘Yeah, the thing with lots of legs and eyes.’

Veronica didn’t move. Jaden turned to her and could just make out her horrified expression in the torchlight. ‘You didn’t see it, did you?’

She slowly shook her head.

‘Well ya might soon,’ Georgia said, looking past her friends. Veronica held her breath and could faintly make out a scuttling sound in the direction Georgia was facing.

‘Stay close and don’t look back,’ Veronica instructed. No more words were said as the three tore back through the cave along the path of the rope.

*

It was well and truly storming now, with rain slamming down like the world was ending. The cave offered little safety from it to Robert who was now drenched. However, not once had his gaze left the direction of the darkness where he now watched his three friends charging towards him. Jaden and Georgia’s faces were covered in blood. Veronica looked like she was about to cry. They arrived and stopped in front of Robert, whose expression was a mixture of concern and joy.

For a while no one said anything, and the cacophony in the skies above was all they could hear. Then Robert jerked his thumb back behind him, towards town. ‘I’ve uh,’ he said. ‘Got some Disney movies at my place. And a heater. You guys want to come over? Tell me all about it?’

Georgia made some sort of discontent sound and Jaden shoved her.

‘Sounds great, Robert,’ Veronica sighed. ‘Let’s get out of here.’

 

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Deda’s Secret, Melinda Wardlaw

It was so cold out that Eli’s bones ached. A fierce wind rushed through the laneway and flattened his parka against his back. Lowering his head to buffer the gust, he dug his small hands deeper into his jacket pockets and trudged onwards through the cobbled laneway, steadily drawing away from his cosy row home and closer to the marketplace where he was to meet his Deda. Clumps of snow clung to the edges of the stone path; the middle was a shallow mess of sludge and dirt, making his journey treacherous. He slipped on a patch of black ice and threw his hands out to his sides to stay on his feet. ‘Woah!’ He kept on, lowering his face even further from the wind that gusted off the Vltava River as he got further from his small, but cosy home and closer to the city centre where he was meeting Deda at the marketplace. Miss Zvonicek had told his class that in the United States they call Chicago the ‘Windy City’. He thought maybe they hadn’t been to Prague in the winter; some days the wind was so strong he felt like it was going to blow the city right off the map.

Eli had his entire life savings—225 koruna—in the zipped inside pocket of his red parka. He stopped every few minutes to check that it was all still there. It had taken him a whole year to save up this much money; he hadn’t spent any of his birthday money and he was always trying to figure out how he could earn more. He often helped his neighbours by chopping and carrying in their firewood and Mrs Herink paid him five koruna each week. It wasn’t much, but it was all they could give. Sometimes money was too tight and they would offer a weak smile and a few logs to take to his mother, or a quarter of a bag of potatoes. He always said ‘thank you’, but he hated it when they paid him with potatoes. They were often soft with green parts and had weird bits growing out of them. Mostly he threw them away; Mum said not to bother bringing rotten vegetables home—they would only make everyone sick.

Deda always said that winter was for working and summer was for playing. He spent most of the days huddled in his small workshop at the back of his pre-war cottage sawing and chiselling blocks of oak into furniture to sell at the marketplace. That’s why Eli was headed there now, to help Deda sell his furniture. It was his first real job. Deda said he would give him another 225 koruna if he helped him sell his woodwork at the markets on Sundays. It wasn’t a job to be taken lightly. Eli was warned that it would be a very long day with a lot of standing up and little time for breaks. Some days, the worst days, snow fell quickly and the wind whipped up fierce and it was just horrible to be outside. On those days the marketplace was mostly deserted; there were never any customers to buy the furniture, which lead to a boring, freezing day with no sales and no money. Deda and Eli both knew that the following week would be tough with hardly anything to eat and a low supply of firewood.

Eli stopped when a scrawny ginger cat holding a small silvery fish in its mouth sprang out of a doorway and slunk past him soundlessly. He glanced down at the red scratch marks on his right hand from his last encounter with a stray before he ran on past a large stack of wooden crates balanced at the end of the laneway. He jumped over the low stone fence and out into a bustling street at the edge of the Old Town. Deda had said that the best way to get to the market was to stay away from the riverbanks and to cross over Charles Bridge, past the Astronomical clock, and into Old Town Square.

Eli had taken only a few steps onto the old bridge when he saw puffs of smoke coming from the direction of the marketplace. The hairs on his arms sprang up and he broke into a run, dodging a dawdling group of older ladies coming from the opposite direction. His pulse quickened and he rubbed his hands together. He turned his head over his right shoulder and called out to the ladies: ‘Did you see the fire?’

A round-faced lady wearing a red patterned headscarf turned to look at him. ‘Fire? What fire? There is no fire, boy.’

Eli pointed across Charles Bridge to where the smoke was thickening. ‘THAT FIRE!’

The five ladies turned and their eyebrows shot up. The shortest woman clasped both hands to her face and gasped, ‘Oh! It looks to be the marketplace.’

What? The marketplace? Eli sprinted the rest of the distance across the bridge. The Astronomical clock was nothing but a blur as he streaked along the cobbled streets. He passed an electronics store that had a wall of plasma screens showing the semi-final of the Czech Cup. He slowed just enough to get a glimpse of the score. Sparta Prague was up 2-1. Yes! He pumped his arms and picked up speed again. All he could think about was Deda and if he was okay; he wasn’t thinking about the cold or his life savings as he ran faster towards the Square. Suddenly, his left foot slipped on the ice and he skidded forward, losing traction. He waved his arms wildly to keep his balance, but it didn’t work. He fell heavily onto his knee, tearing a hole in his only pair of jeans and scraping a layer of skin off. He cried out, but there was no one around to hear. The pain shot through his leg and it swelled up immediately; a trail of blood ran down towards his shin. Eli kneeled there on all fours, stunned for a moment before he caught his breath and heaved himself into an upright position to inspect the wound. He brushed the snow off his knees and tried to run on towards the Square, but pain rushed into his knee and the best he could manage was an awkward limp. He had to get to Deda. He had to help him move the furniture.

The money in his pocket meant nothing anymore.

His knee ached and he stopped for a moment, hoping the pain would pass. It didn’t. Eli took a deep breath and hobbled on towards the marketplace. He covered the distance as quickly as he could, but soon the smoke spread further and stung his eyes; breathing became harder and he choked back air that burned his throat. He limped on and his shoulders tensed when he saw several hefty men scurry across the Square with hoses and large white buckets of water. He wiped an arm across his brow, quickened his pace, and covered the fifty long meters to the marketplace, hobbling on his sore leg. When he reached the tents of the marketplace he stood on tippy toes to try and see where the flames were coming from, stretching his neck to see further. ‘DEDA! DEDA!’

No one answered.

At the back of the marketplace he saw that the flames had already devoured the end rows of trestle tables, scorching everything in their path. The blaze moved on and was licking the narrow legs of the next row of stalls. Deda’s furniture was directly in the path of the blaze and all he could do was watch. He turned and weaved through a line of ornate black lampposts that framed the outer stalls in the search for his grandfather. The knots in his stomach tightened when he couldn’t see any sign of Deda, or any hint of the other stall holders. Where are the people? The tables towards the front had been abandoned even though they had been prepped for sales, only today there were no sellers and buyers. Eli pushed past a pile of purple velvet and ran deeper into the marketplace calling out to his grandfather. ‘Deda! Deda! Where are you?’

Still no one answered.

He stood and looked all around at the chaos not knowing what to do. Determined flames licked hungrily at the tables and took hold, devouring every last morsel it touched. From behind him, he heard the sound of heavy boots stomping on the cobblestones. Two of the hefty men ran past struggling with a hose, the one wearing a reflective jacket yelled out to him. ‘Kush, Kush, little man. Get out of here before your tail catches fire!’

Eli’s heart raced in his small chest and the heat prevented him from staying within the markets. He limped backwards, not able to take his eyes from the flickering flames.

Eli watched a balding man run to the back stalls and signal to someone to turn the hose on. Water spewed out and onto the tables drenching everything that had been burnt and ruining anything else that hadn’t. Eli turned and hobbled out of the marketplace. Outside, the smoke enveloped him and his breath became raspy as stinging tears streamed down his cheeks. Eli wiped his eyes with his sleeve and was amazed to see Deda’s little fluffy cat, Churchill, slink out from behind a garbage bin and sit on the kerb twitching his singed tail. He ran over to Churchill and hugged him close. The small cat miaowed and rubbed his head on his shoulder. He then frantically looked around him and felt the knot in his stomach tighten again. Where is my Deda? He couldn’t see him anywhere. He was alone and he didn’t know what to do.

A moment later, he heard heavy footsteps and, like a mirage through the smoke, Deda appeared and put a protective arm around his shoulders. ‘Eli! There you are! Come now, come.’

Churchill jumped out of Eli’s arms and ran straight to Deda, weaving in and out of his legs. Eli threw his arms around Deda’s waist and held on to him as tight as he could and he felt the knot in his stomach disappear. They walked away from the marketplace and headed in the direction of home, but before they reached Charles Bridge Deda steered him off into a nearby pub. Eli looked over his shoulder to make sure that Churchill followed closely behind.

A beer and a glass of lemonade were placed on the bar and the two sat and drank in silence. After a time Eli spoke. ‘Deda, where were you?’

‘Eh? I was looking for you!’

Eli smiled weakly. ‘So what will we do now? How will we buy food this week?’

The older man looked earnestly into his grandson’s wide eyes and sighed deeply. ‘We will manage with what we have. Times have been tougher than this.’ Deda patted Eli’s knee and continued, ‘Not everything goes to plan, but we go on. We have to look past what has happened and live for what comes next.’

Eli sipped his lemonade and nodded. He felt hope that everything would be okay. The furniture was gone and Deda seemed to be alright about it. His shoulders slumped forward and he sighed deeply.

He glanced up when he noticed that Deda had swivelled in his seat and placed a rough hand on his knee, pointing to the flat screen television showing the Sparta game where the score was 2-2. Eli nodded and gave a weak smile. He loved the football and he dreamed of going to watch a live game someday. That would be the best thing ever. But he knew that there was no way he would have enough money to go.

A huge cheer erupted from a group of merry men huddled around a small table. They were staring at a flat screen TV where the semi-final had just finished. Sparta Prague had won the game 3-2 by a last minute goal. One of the men jumped out of his seat and fist-pumped the air, beer flew from his upraised glass and landed in a splat onto the gaudy carpet while the others all laughed and clapped. Deda laughed along with them and winked at Eli.

‘See? All is good.’

Then he dug his hand into the inside pocket of his jacket, brought out a narrow white envelope and handed it to Eli, motioning for him to open it. Eli’s eyebrows lifted and he flicked a glance at Deda before he turned the envelope over and tore it open. He found a folded piece of paper inside, but he could feel that there was something else folded up with the letter. Eli looked up into Deda’s twinkling eyes and took a breath in. He looked back down at the letter and unfolded it quickly and gasped. In his hand he held two tickets to Letna Stadium. Oh wow! Eli’s eyes widened and he looked slowly up at Deda and then back to the tickets. His arms were covered in goose bumps and his mouth dropped open. How did he get these? Eli tried to speak, but no sound came out. Deda clapped a light hand on his back, lent in and kissed him on his forehead.

‘We are going to the final next Sunday. Stop worrying. Everything is good.’

 

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Solid Sand and Broken Water, Hannah Baker

i.

He had soft sage and lavender fingers

When his mother took him up the estuary

To his brother’s tiny grave. Her first-born,

She told him, still-born, but still borne.

For months she carried him, thinking only

Of his potential, then lost him like a limb.

 

Suddenly become a second son,

He doesn’t feel like a miracle.

Unless they’re supposed to grow

More insubstantial, year by year.

 

Now he can’t help but hold sensations,

Keep them pressed into the soft mud of

His muscles, either side of his stony spine

 

Like the smell of cold grass, broken and

Sharp, wound round his little knuckles

Until he felt the hair-thin roots give.

He shuddered and stopped tugging

But those blades bit back and dug

Their imprint deep into his fingers.

 

Surely his brother would only be bones,

And even those pitted in this acidic soil.

 

Porous surfaces never used to panic him,

But the stinging sight of honeycomb now

Swells his tongue back to close his throat.

 

He tries to run, to only glide over the earth

And so ward off its patient hollow hunger,

But gravity forces his feet to knead the ground,

And long for rest on this grassy headland.

 

Though his soles are callused they still sweat,

And the veins show through his instep,

Blue and green like branches and streams.

 

Thick clay skin means nothing

When the cracks threaten to leak

His beaten blood.

 

Even the sea breeze bores into him

But the warm honey sun is soothing

And from this high the sand is as solid

As anything can be.

 

Every direction leads, he thinks,

Not to headstones holding old bones down

But to ribs exposed like mangrove roots.

 

ii.

Death happens, not easy but often.

Entropic, all matter is mostly vacuum,

It would be easy for lethargy to sink into

Atoms, and for weary rock to turn to sand.

Observed closely enough, coastlines are infinite,

And molecular gaps keep anything from ever truly

Touching. But somehow matter retains, regains,

Its energy, even advances to animation when

Bodies meet, or bloody waters break and

Out of the lather erupts something new.

Not easy but often, life happens too.

 

iii.

She laughed out sea roses as a child,

When her father warned her off wanting.

Still the smell of certain perfumes and the sea

Clearly recalls to her the sticky softness of

Petals unfurling and clinging to her tongue

Before tumbling off the cliff of her lips.

 

He told her she had been born too early.

Half-knitted, with fluid in her lungs

And a film of foam for skin,

She might have unspooled again.

But she chose to cough and cry instead.

 

Surviving with just this, she sometimes still

Feels like a miracle, and marvels at herself:

No tiny flame wind’s whim could flicker out.

 

By holding heart-sized stones she learnt to

Swim in a lake as cold and sharp as glass.

Her lungs already knew the worth of leaking,

But gravity needed help to hold her down.

 

With hands like lace she dried and sewed

Lilies and larkspur between her petticoats

And cocooned herself, as if with paperbark

 

Then paced, finally leaving distinct prints,

But passing unstung through the bees in the

Clover, over pine needles and rosemary, into

The solid embrace of the wind. Sand blows

Into the old scars of her eyelids, still she reaches

For the shape into which she wants to grow.

 

She will expand, year by year, from within,

And when all her layers chafe she knows

Her pumice-light bones will keep her afloat.

 

The bruises that bloom and linger only show

Where everything else ends and she begins.

 

Her pulse beats in her lips, drowning out

The pounding waves. Her heart had been,

Before her birth, only ghostly filigree:

Useless, however delicate and complete.

 

Now she’s dense and centrifugal, feet planted

In shifting sands, scoured by salt spray and

Spitting rain. She can afford to shed a little;

She’s known plenty of loss, but no lack.

 

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Attached, Elín Kristjánsdóttir

‘WHERE IS THE MONEY?’
‘I – I…’

‘WHERE IS IT?’

‘My – my – my friend…’ her voice vanished. Ploy cried, and Ton stood silent, sympathising. Their empathy would not save her. The salty taste of tears wet her mouth. The strike hit her skin, and every muscle in her body contracted.

*

The rooster crowed and the sun had not yet risen. Dim was already awake. Her tailbone rubbed through the thin mattress against the wooden floor as she struggled to find a comfortable position. Only a few more minutes, she thought. Her siblings piled up next to her like puppies unconsciously fighting for the warmest spot. Ton was at the other end, still like a mummy, wrapped in the only blanket that was to be shared, while Ploy clung to her own hug, shaking like a leaf caught in a typhoon. Dim stood up and spread the blanket equally over her siblings before covering herself in a floral green and gold sarong. She felt the chill of the morning breeze as she stepped into the dusk. Drizzling, shiver-awakening showers were heard in the distance and Dim dipped the bucket into the river before releasing the bitterness over herself. The drizzle bit her skin like a pile of nails, digging deeper into her bones with every dowse. Deprived of physical sensation, Dim shakily changed into torn shorts and a faded purple tee, and the tingling de-goosing skin eventually generated a radiating feeling.

The jetty was slippery and as she walked, Dim continuously imagined a scene in which she would fall silently into the river. She didn’t have the faintest idea of how to swim. She had been afraid of depths ever since she remembered herself. Dim recollected that deep within the lifespan of her unconscious soul, was a coda, situated somewhere in the depths of an unknown darkness. Dim’s passage of thought was disturbed when she discovered her grandmother in the kitchen, already cooking her dumplings.

‘Yai! What are you doing? You don’t have to do my work!’

‘Mai pen rai, child. The freezing breeze has already awakened me, and since I have nothing to do, I might as well help you. Your mother is already gone, so we have to hurry.’

‘Yai ka, have you chopped everything?’ Dim asked.

‘Oh, yes child. I have chopped the sweet lettuce, the garlic and ground the chicken already. Why don’t you fry the ingredients while I grind the peanuts? You fry it just the way I taught you remember?’

Dim was very talented when it came to memorizing recipes and methods of how to prepare Thai delicacies. In fact, she was so gifted that her mother withdrew her from school as she concluded that there was more advantage in having Dim cooking and selling treats at the street corner of Lad Phrao 68, than being brainwashed by a governmental figure. Dim poured the oil over the wok pan before throwing in the garlic. The fumes dominated her senses.

‘Hom jang, gratiem lan sao,’ her grandmother sang as a compliment.

‘Kob khun ka, Yai,’ Dim thankfully replied and added the ground chicken, stirring it sharply. She dropped the sweet lettuce into the blend and continued stirring before adding the palm sugar along with other flavours. She measured the soy sauce with great attention, never less than three splashes and never more than five. Too much saltiness easily destroyed the entire process, while too little saltiness resulted in dull-looking dumplings. The perfect portion of soy sauce produced a finger-licking tastiness, good-looking dumplings and a successful day of vending. Therefore, perfection was essential.

‘Oh, you’re at that stage already! Hang on; let me add the peanuts,’ her grandmother exclaimed. Dim stirred the dish until it was non-sticky, and a smile snuck through her lips. The aroma watered her mouth while her tummy trembled for a taste.

‘Now take the wok pan off the stove dear and put a smaller pot on for the garlic.’

She took the ground garlic and soaked it in vegetable oil before putting it on the stove to be heated. Meanwhile, she joined her grandmother in kneading the filling into small beads. Then she drained the tapioca pearls, which had been soaking overnight, added four tablespoons of vegetable oil, and gave the dough a light massage. It was astonishingly soft. Those dumplings would melt so nicely in one’s mouth that there would be little need for chewing. Once again, she smiled, frothing over her own creation. Not a single soul would find her dumplings undesirable. The smell of the filling was still haunting, as Dim struggled not to lick her dumpling-infused fingers.

‘That’s perfect dear! Now let us knead the filling into pockets of tapioca shall we? We are running out of time,’ her grandmother said.

Dim took a bead and just the right amount of tapioca and rubbed it around the bead, sealing it perfectly. The mouth-watering, stomach-crumbling process of steaming took an hour, and then the dumplings were ready to hit the road. Dim’s grandmother soaked the cooked dumplings with garlic oil while Dim placed them neatly on the stall, and strew fried garlic over them as a final touch. The dumplings stood on the show-table, incredibly proud for being dumplings, her dumplings, Dim thought. The slightly visible kneads shone beautifully through the transparent pockets of tapioca pearls, with their light garnish of garlic. They were the rulers of the stall’s kingdom, kings and queens dominating over all other dumplings in the Universe.

‘Have you washed the cabbage and the chilli dear?’ her grandmother asked when the stall was otherwise ready for departure.

‘No I haven’t!’ Dim replied and hurriedly washed what was to be served with every portion of Saku Sai Gai. Dim imagined the cabbage and the chilli being servants of her highnesses. Ton and Ploy were already up and about, picking at Dim’s majesties when they thought she wasn’t looking.

‘HEY! You can only take two pieces each!’ she said, slightly annoyed.

Dim secretly examined Ton’s abraded back as he stood devouring the savoury, feeling sorry for him. She could feel the twinge splitting her skin, thinking about it. It hadn’t been his fault. That bastard girl of their father was the one to blame. The coal on her face obviously gave it away, but their father took his second-wife’s side, blaming Ton for the trouble that spoiled brat had caused. Their useless father regularly made up his own truths, intoxicated by distilled sugarcane residues, causing trouble, which was not as private as he tended to think, rather it was trouble for everyone but him. His unreliable facts were nothing but rubbish, for which their repressed and co-dependent mother constantly fell victim. Dim’s self-claimed responsibility was to endure that misery to protect her younger siblings. Love was nothing but an infinite torment she thought, for which she was determined never to fall. Dim had no chance of protecting her brother this time. Indistinct utterances in the dust, her objections were. Without shedding a single tear, Ton had stood steady as a bull while his back was torn to shreds. He stood for his dignity, like an honest person would, for he had no reason whatsoever to light his own house on fire.

‘Thank you Pee Dim! The dumpling was absolutely yummy-yum-yum!’ he called out with a smile that melted her heart. Nothing took that boy’s joviality away, no matter how often he was unfairly and hard-heartedly treated.

‘I’m happy you liked it nong chai.’

Ploy was hiccupping like a stressed baby. It made Dim feel uneasy, since hiccups always meant something bad.

‘You silly-bean! You ought to drink water when you chew on the dumpling. Your throat is too small to chew it like pee Ton.’

Dim gave Ploy a glass of water, which she drank like a thirsty dog. Dim made sure she swallowed the hiccup away before leaving, since that silly toddler could easily forget that it had a hiccup, heaven forbid, whatever it could bring about.

‘I’m off guys. Take care of yourselves and behave so you won’t get into trouble… and don’t leave your hiccups unattended!’ Dim said before taking off with the stall. She was wearing the new apron that her grandmother gave her. It was yellow in colour with a detachable money-pocket. There were still a few coins in it from yesterday’s salary, however her mother had certainly emptied it from the day before, leaving nothing but necessary change. Her grandmother stood looking at her, smiling.

‘Chok dee na, lan sao! Kho hai ram hai ruai na ja!’ she said in a teasing voice. Dim placed her palms together and lowered her head.

‘Kob khun ka yai.’

‘No need to Wai for me dear, I know how grateful you are.’

The traffic slowed Dim down, as she hurriedly pushed the stall towards her destination. Kids clad in white shirts and navy bottoms howled continuously as they sat at the back of moped-taxis, passing through much quicker than the standstill cars. Vendors were already sweating heavily. Impatient customers had their eyes fixed on their watches and Dim could hear their bellies crumbling. She sped up, for she knew that time was money.

Dim wondered if Fon would join her in the afternoon. She had never introduced or mentioned her to her mother. Dim’s mother didn’t like people who weren’t family.

‘They can’t be trusted,’ she stressed over and over again.

Fon had been incredibly helpful for the past few weeks, coming over every other day. They used to go to the same school, before Dim was pulled out to work. Fon helped Dim with the customers and kept her company. She was pretty funny, but sometimes she expressed childish behaviour. It got on Dim’s nerves slightly, but most of the time she ignored the fact that she often found Fon annoying. Dim thought it was better to have some company rather than no company at all. Fon had never invited Dim to her home, or told her where she lived, neither had Dim invited Fon to her house, for that matter. Dim was surprised to see the first customer of the day already waiting at her spot. Perhaps not so surprising anymore, it was the boy who had been her first customer daily for the past three weeks.

‘Two portions, krab,’ he ordered his usual, with a big grin on his face. Dim put ten pieces of dumplings in two separate boxes and placed them in a plastic bag before adding fresh cabbage and chillies. The boy was obviously excited to receive his first meal of the day. Dim couldn’t help but wonder what he found more exciting; eating her dumplings or touching her hand.

‘Kob khun krub, khun suay,’ he said staring at Dim, waiting for her to respond. She felt quite awkward.

‘Mai pen rai,’ she said, and he thankfully took off. Flirting was such an awkward act, she thought, especially when she had no interest in getting involved with anything that had to do with love. Dim hoped that he would give up his hopes soon enough, he would have better luck flirting with Fon.

There were always two peak hours during the day in which the dumplings disappeared like a spill in the searing sun; the mornings between seven and nine and the afternoons between three and five. Normally, Dim would be out of dumplings at three thirty. Fon joined her at noon, chewing on two, then three dumplings, and babbling about her day. Dim had saved some money that she kept in a secret pocket in one of her two long-pants which she would use to pay for Fon’s dumplings later that afternoon. Expressing gratitude was something her grandmother had taught her. As Fon bragged about a boy she had a crush on, Dim wondered if Fon appreciated her generosity, but Dim’s attention was caught upon hearing the word Silom.

‘SILOM?’ Dim replied flabbergasted; ‘That is like two hours away and only rich people live there!’

‘I know right!’ Fon replied; ‘He said that he would get me a job.’

‘What kind of a job?’ Dim replied suspiciously.

‘Oh who cares when it’s in Silom! Probably at a hotel or something. I will be working around the rich and wealthy and in the end that will get me a rich man and a very nice life,’ Fon said. Dim decided to keep her mouth shut, as she didn’t wish to ruin Fon’s fantasies. A girl, merely a teenager would never get a job at a nice hotel in Silom. There was something dodgy about that boy of hers, Dim thought, he was most likely a third-rate character, that is to say, if he was real.

About fifty dumplings were left and peak hour was approaching when Dim realised she couldn’t hold it out without going to the toilet. Fon recognised her agony.

‘Are you all right?’ she asked.

‘I really need to pee… Would you mind watching over the stall and taking care of the customers for 5 or 10 minutes, please?’

‘Ohh I thought you were unwell! I don’t mind at all! I will guard the stall with my life and sell the dumplings like a pro,’ she said with a cunning grin on her face.

‘Thank you… I will leave you with the apron in case you will need some change if it gets busy.’ Dim said. Without thinking, she took off her apron and sprinted towards the toilet.

Her need was great enough that Dim worried she would indeed wet herself. An attempt of ripping the door open failed for it was locked, leaving her agonized. Dim lowered her clenched legs and secretly pushed against her lady pocket, swearing she would have it cut off. The waiting felt like an entire lifetime. It was Lung Pui that eventually came out, the vendor from across the street. Ashamed, he looked at Dim as he saw her releasing the hold of her nose.

‘Oh, hey Dim, I didn’t realise it was you… I am so sorry about the stench in there… I got a slight food poisoning,’ he looked at her guiltily as he wiped the sweat off his forehead. He did look sick indeed. Dim rushed into the toilet without offering any kind of comfort to Lung Pui. She had already watered herself slightly, and the rest was due to escape if she failed to hit the bowl in time. A euphoric reflex ventured throughout her body like a flux of released feelings of repression, but Lung Pui’s horrendous odour managed to make its way to Dim’s senses all the same. She began retching uncontrollably, and ran out as if being chased by a noxious ghost. It wasn’t until the toilet was out of her sight that the retching finally stopped. And a hiccup throbbed her throat like a Glawng Yao. Dim was petrified. She ran towards her stall convinced that something bad was happening. She worried about the various scenarios of Fon’s troubles, was she being bribed? Whatever it was, something was not right. Dim squinted her eyes to make sight of the stall in distance as she ran. Speed increased with every step as the sight of the stall became clearer.

The stall was vacant, abandoned. The fifty or so dumplings vanished, and Fon was nowhere to be seen. Dim circled around the stall in a panic. She wondered if her savings were enough to replace the loss, the chances were slim. Thinking back to her younger brother, knowing she was bound to receive the same fate; the skin-cutting strikes, the blood streaming and the scars to be left on her skin, made her shake like Ploy this morning, the leaf caught in a typhoon. She spotted her apron few metres away from the stall and ran towards it, full of perhaps unrealistic, desperate expectations.

Later, when Dim’s back was beginning to heal slightly, Lung Pui claimed to have spotted Fon disappearing onto a bus with a bag full of dumplings in one hand, and Dim’s detachable pocket in the other. She seemed to have quit school; for Ton never saw her there after the theft, and neither did the entire neighbourhood. It was a peculiar case; it was as if the earth had swallowed her. Recalling that boy she had mentioned, Dim deliberated whether Silom had befallen her.

 

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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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The Great Roaring Noise, Bruce Naylor

 

This is sort of a kid’s story. Not that I believe in kid’s stories… I am currently expanding it into a novella, which is turning out to be rather macabre, so perhaps it’s more of a nightmare than a story. However, this is the short story where it all began….

 

‘But what was it like Da?’ whispered Seamus in the gloom. ‘Tell us about the Great Roaring Noise.’

Da chuckled, ‘I keep forgetting that you kids are all too young to have heard the Great Roaring Noise.’

Nine little sets of eyes blinked in the dark, eagerly waiting for him to go on. It was one of their favourite games to pass the time. They would give him no peace now, badgering and pestering him, until at last he would sigh, and then in his slow and dreamy voice, begin to talk of the life that had been before.

Before the Dark.

‘Go on Da,’ Seamus pleaded, his tiny high voice penetrating the silence, ‘Tell us what was it like.’

‘Keep your voice down,’ hissed Da, ‘or you’ll wake him, and then you’ll have nothing to worry about except which one of you he’s going to eat for lunch.’

They all froze, hardly daring to breathe, hoping that he wouldn’t hear them. He was over there in the other corner, nestled amongst the trash. Occasionally, in the soft dusty dark, they might hear an antenna twitch, but Old Man Cockroach had barely moved since he ate their brother, Blod, yesterday.

After a long while, the one they called Ten, simply because he was the last one of them born, and Da had run out of names after the first nine, grabbed Da by the leg.

‘Please Da.’

Da sighed and settled back into the dust. With his front legs he slowly cleaned the dust off his palps before beginning in a slow whisper, ‘Well, you couldn’t really call it a noise…’

‘What do you mean,’ whispered Buck into the frightened hush, his outsized fang that gave him his name, glinting in the gloom.

‘Well, it’s not like the sort of noise you might hear. Like when Old Man Cockroach gets hungry and comes looking for us, or even a scream like Blod made when he was being eaten,’ and here, Da’s voice fell away.

None of them would ever forget the terror of that moment, as Blod was swallowed, piece by awful piece.

‘No, it’s more like the sort of noise that you feel first. And it’s only later, when it’s all over, and you realise you’re still alive, that you might think about what it sounded like. It’s like, I don’t know, like…like the sound that the walls might make if they fell down, like the sound you might hear inside your head if it was being crushed by the jaws of a cockroach.’

Ten whimpered with fright when Da said this, but Da didn’t seem to notice, he was in the grip of a powerful memory.

‘It was like the sound of a thousand spiders screaming as they’re being boiled in hot water. Except it wasn’t the sound I heard first, but the wind.’ Da paused for effect. ‘It was the wind that really frightened me. I had never seen a wind like that before. I remember that day so clearly. I was in my corner working the web early. We’d had a good harvest the night before, with the flying ants just throwing themselves at us. Our webs were groaning with food. I was so stuffed! Couldn’t have possibly eaten another one. I’d been up most of the night, wrapping and storing the harvest for a rainy day, but still I woke up early before all the others, to repair the tears, to check the tension. Our family have always been like that. We’ve worked that corner for generations.

You have to understand that in the old days, on the Outside, you didn’t have Old Man Cockroach to worry about. They stayed down there on the floor where they belonged, and we had the skies. Things had an order then. We all had our place, not like now, not like this topsy-turvy time.’

Da was on a roll now, his voice soft with longing. This was what the children loved. Tales of the old world – when a spider wasn’t too scared to move, lest he be eaten.

‘And the light,’ Da went on, ‘Oh the light, it was so bright, like nothing you ever get here. With light like that, you could see the flying things clear across the room. You could set your web up just right, catch ‘em on the updraft. No spider ever went hungry in those days.’

‘No hunger!’ squeaked Pip. Not one of them could remember a day when they had not been hungry.

‘So anyways, when this wind started up, I did what we’d always done. I called the alarm to tell all my brothers that something was up. I grabbed the web just like you’re supposed to, and shook it with all my might, so they could all see, so they could run and take cover, and to frighten whatever it was, to warn it off, but it wasn’t frightened at all. It just kept coming, up the edge of the roof, and heading straight for me.’

‘What’d it look like?’ whispered Ten, in the faintest of voices.

‘It was huge, like some silver beam of light, and on the end is this black mouth as wide as five spiders, and that’s where the terrible great roaring noise is coming from. And it’s hungry, like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Not even like Old Man Cockroach over there,’ said Da, gesturing with his head towards the other corner. ‘He just comes over ‘cause he’s a little bit hungry and fancies a bit of young spider for afternoon tea. This thing was different. It was insatiable. It sucked up everything in sight. Whole webs, whole families that had worked the north roof for countless generations, back to the dawn of time, gone in the shake of a leg. It was terrible,’ Da shook his head, lost in grief. After a long moment, he raised his great shiny head, his eight eyes glinting in the dark. ‘Now, where was I?’

‘The Great Roaring Noise,’ they all said together.

‘Ah yes, The Great Roaring Noise. Well, it came straight for me. I see the edge of the web start to lift off the wall, and I run. Just in time too. I just made it back to the corner, as the whole web was sucked straight off the wall. All the ants I had so carefully wrapped and hung from the roof for a midnight snack – gone. My three brothers who were working the west wing – gone. Your grandfather, your grandmother, my sister, all gone. But still, the beast wants more, and the faster I run, the faster it follows me. It’s then that I realise, that it’s after me. Every time I duck and dive it changes direction. And it’s gaining on me. I can feel it’s cold breath on the back of my neck. Finally, I make a desperate dive for the Crack.

‘The Crack,’ breathed Max.

‘Tell us about the Crack,’ continued Jax, finishing Max’s sentences as he always did.

‘My family,’ said Da, before pausing to correct himself, ‘your family, have used the Crack for hundreds of lives. It had never failed us before. I just make it inside the Crack, before it gets to me, and that terrible noise passes over the top of me, and moves on up the wall. I don’t mind telling you kids that at that moment, I’m crying, I’m sobbing like a baby, I’m panting with rage and screaming at the top of my voice. But finally I get a grip on myself. I have a look around me and I notice that there is no one else in the crack. I’m the only one who made it back. That Roaring Noise got everything. My whole family, all our supplies,’ and here, Da’s voice wavers a little, and he pauses before continuing, ‘at least I’m alive, I tell myself, I’m safe, here in the Crack, it can’t possibly get me. The Great Roaring Noise is still out there, but for the moment, it moves on and leaves me alone. Nevertheless, I wedge myself in tight at the back of the Crack, get all my eight legs in close, and push against the walls.’

‘It came back didn’t it?’ squeaked Pip.

‘Yes, my little one,’ said Da, gathering Pip under his foreleg, ‘it came back. But this time it comes right up to the Crack, sucking and pulling. The pressure was incredible. The wind was so great. It felt like my insides were being sucked out my mouth. There was nothing I could do, so I let go.’

Nine little gasps of astonishment punctured the dusty dark.

‘Then what happened?’ breathed Bobbin. He had a raspy nasal voice that sounded like he had a permanent cold. Da said that he was probably allergic to house dust in the Belly of the Roaring Noise.

‘Well, I remember flying through the dark like I was falling down into a great pit, and then nothing.’ Da looked slowly around at his children. ‘When I came to my senses, I was here. Oh, those first few moments were horrible. I’m feeling around me in the dark, and the dust is so thick that I feel like I’m breathing nothing but dirt. All around me I hear screaming. There are spiders everywhere. Your family, and all the other great families of the North Roof.  All the different ones too, even the big black ones, all mixed together. Most of them with missing legs, and some of them, poor souls, have been turned inside out like a sock by the Great Noise. Then I hear my sister,’ and here Da’s voice fell so quiet that they all had to lean in to catch the next bit, ‘Your dear mother. She’s lying right here in this corner where we are now, and I can see at once that she’s hurt bad. She whispers to me to come near. “I’m done for,” she croaks. I hold her close and say, “No way, you’ll make it Mildred –” but she shakes her wise old head. “You know what to do,” she says. And I do, but I don’t want to. “It’s for the children,” she says, “Do it for the children.” And I’m weeping and wailing, but I have to, so I take my teeth, and tear open her abdomen. Then, with a great cry, she dies, and in that moment, you all tumble from out of her, and that’s when I take each one of you, each a tiny, but already fertilised egg, and I tuck you in the dust, away from the other spiders, and all the terrible things that live down here, and as I do so, I name each and every one of you.’

Da looked around at all their little faces, so intent, so serious. He had never told them the whole story before, and none would move a muscle in case he stopped. They didn’t want to hear it, but at the same time, each of them wanted to know their history, their whole history, for the first time in their short lives. With his foreleg, Da indicated each of the assembled spiders in turn.

‘You Seamus, you were first born and brave, you have always been. Fastest and strongest of all your brothers and sisters, then Blod of course, the sweetest and gentlest of you all, then Nero, and you, Grace, tangled up together in each other’s legs, inseparable at birth as you have been ever since. Bobbin was next. What can I say, he tumbled out like a jack in the box ready for action, and hasn’t stopped since!’ Da gently cuffed him about the head. ‘And you, Buck, always ready to eat anything and everything. I’ll never forget that day you tried to eat that marble and broke one of your fangs.’ A little ripple of mirth passed around the group, their abdomens shaking as they giggled at one of the family’s most cherished stories. ‘And of course, not forgetting Pip, though I swear that squeak will be the death of us all, and Max and Jax, always fighting. You two,’ said Da sternly. ‘Just remember that family don’t eat family, no matter what! You hear me?’

They both solemnly nodded, remembering that day, in the depths of a terrible hunger, when Max had chewed off Jax’s back leg. Max hadn’t been able to sit down for a week after Da had finished with him. They all smiled at the memory.

‘Except for Mother,’’ piped up Ten.

‘Yes,’ replied Da, gruffly, ‘well, that was different. She would have wanted it that way. I don’t think I would have made it through those dark times without your mother’s ample body to feed you all. Particularly you, Ten, you were so small, I used to mistake you for a speck of dust in those days.’

They all laughed. Despite having a ferocious appetite, Ten was still the smallest of them all, by far.

‘Now listen up, all of you, and listen carefully. Never forget that you are descended from one of the great families, and you must stick together, even when I am gone.’

At this mention of a life without Da, Pip gave a little sob.

‘None of that now Pip, you have to be strong. That is what makes us different from him over there,’ said Da in a hoarse whisper. ‘I’ll never forget those early days. They had no mercy for each other, because you understand, he wasn’t the only cockroach in the belly of this beast.’

‘There were more of them?’ said Bobbin.

‘Oh yes, there were small ones and big ones and skinny ones and fat ones. But when they got hungry, they turned on each other, the filthy animals.’ And here Da lowered his voice as if he didn’t want the cockroach to hear, and whispered, ‘They even ate their own children!’ They all gasped in horror at the thought.

Da shook his head solemnly. ‘Old Man Cockroach over there, he’s just the last cockroach standing!’ Da spat a long thin stream of venom into the dust to underline just what he thought of that. ‘They have no sense of family, they are nothing but the scum of the earth, and maybe one day, when we find a way out of here, once more when we rule the sky,’ said Da, his voice thick with emotion, ‘we’ll be free of them forever!’

‘There must be a way out of here,’ said Seamus, fiercely.

‘Maybe there is son, maybe there isn’t,’ replied Da, slowly, weighing his words carefully. ‘I haven’t had much time, what with looking out for you all, to turn my thoughts to that. I feel in my waters that there is, and if there’s anyone who can find a way out of the Belly of the Great Roaring Noise, it’s…’

But they never did hear what their beloved Da would have said next. It all happened so fast. In flash, Old Man Cockroach was upon them.

‘Run children,’ screamed Da, ‘Run to the ten corners of the earth! I’ll hold him off.’

With a great war cry, Da threw himself at the cockroach. The old warrior was taken by surprise for a second; he had never seen a spider move so nimbly. As the children ran to hide themselves amongst the dust piles and the collected bric a brac of lost thimbles and scrunched up tissues, wads of chewing gum and safety pins, bread bag ties and lost 5c pieces, Da climbed on the back of the cockroach and bravely sank his fangs into the cockroach’s back. But the Old Man hadn’t outlasted every other cockroach in the Belly of the Beast to be taken by surprise by a simple spider, and with a flick of his ragged wings, he threw Da from his back. Turning with the speed of a boxer, his legs working in opposite directions like a well-oiled tank, armour flexing as he did so, the cockroach pinned Da to the ground with one of his legs. His hideous mouth hovered over Da, mandibles slicing the air like knives.

But the Old Man hesitated for a moment. The truth was, that cockroaches didn’t really like spider too much. That’s why he had left them to last. They were too bitter for his taste. But he had no choice anymore, he was starving, and besides, they were so arrogant, they deserved to die.

Fighting back the urge to vomit, he got a firm grip on the spider’s skull with his jaws, taking care to avoid those fangs, because despite being so feeble, spiders were also quite poisonous. He bit down gently, feeling Da’s skull flex in his mouth. The cockroach thought he might just carefully rip off the spider’s head, where the poisonous glands were, before sitting down to a nice nibble on those legs. They were more to his taste.

Da screamed in agony, and nine other voices echoed him, as his charges watched in horror from their hiding places. They screamed, and the screams got louder and louder until the noise filled the air, and in that moment, a sort of miracle happened. A great wind picked Old Man Cockroach up, and slammed him against the back wall of the Beast. His wings; crippled and chewed and broken from his many battles, were his undoing. The wind had got underneath them and they opened out like an old umbrella in a storm, lifting the old cockroach up in the air, slamming him against the back wall. For what seemed like an eternity, the Roaring Noise screamed through the belly as more and more dust piled on top of dust. All the children were safe though. Da had been training them from birth to run and hide themselves in the soft piles of dust, upon his command. When he had cried, ‘Run to the Ten Corners of the Earth’ they had instinctively obeyed him, just as he had drilled it into them, time and time again. Somehow, he must’ve known that this day would come. But Old Man Cockroach did not fare so well. His wings were twisted backward by the force of the wind, his nose ground into the dust, his body pelted with the rubbish of the screaming void. Then they heard, above the wind, a strange rattling noise coming towards them.

Then complete silence.

‘Shit!’

A voice from outside.

‘Bugger.’

Then a clicking noise, and from where Seamus crouched, safely nestled in the house dust, he saw a giant round window open in the roof of the Belly. The most dazzling light he had ever seen, shone down from above in a golden shaft, burning his eyes, but he couldn’t look away. Then an eye as big as three spiders, like a watery globe, pressed against the giant window.

‘Oh for god’s sake, Dave, have you got the tongs? The bloody vacuum cleaner’s sucked up my tweezers.’

As Seamus’s eyes adjusted to this rich and wonderful light, he couldn’t help but follow the shaft of light as it cut through the thick cloud of dust that had been stirred up by the Noise, and there, against the back wall, where the heavenly shaft of light illuminated a small circle of the dust on the back wall of the Belly of the Beast, lay the most ghastly spectacle.

Old Man Cockroach, his body twisted and broken, was skewered to the ground by a shiny pair of steel tweezers piercing his vile belly, and in his jaws, firmly gripped between his mandibles was their beloved Da’s head.

Without knowing where it came from, and without even thinking, Seamus lifted his voice, the sum of all Da’s patient lessons coursing through his body, and cried, ‘Run my children, to the air, to the air!’ and without hesitation, the nine sons and daughters of Da, ran up the sides of the Belly, and out through the light drenched window in the roof of the Great Roaring beast, and down its shiny sides. They fled for the cracks in the walls, and for the high places where the gentle night breezes blow:  the breeze, that to this day, still guides the delicious flying things of the air into their skilfully woven webs.

And all the children of Da, through their countless generations since, have been taught from birth, to fear the Great Roaring Noise.

No more do they shake their webs in vain attempts to frighten the thing away. Now they know better. As soon as the Voice of the Beast is heard, they flee for the Deepest of the Cracks, behind the ceiling boards, where they have learnt that they will be safe, free from the Terrible Breath of the Great Roaring Noise.

 

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Mud, Cassandra Webb

 

The mud sucked at our gumboots, making every step an effort.  Soon effort became pain, but on we trudged. It had rained for three weeks straight, and the first ray of sunshine made us rush to escape the house.

‘Walk backwards, it’s easier,’ my brother said.

I turned to try it.  ‘I bet you it’s not.’

My foot caught in the clay-like mud, and I found myself looking up at the clouds. Clouds shaped like magical mountains, and castles towering over wild cloud kingdoms. Storm clouds. More rain was on its way.

My brother burst with laughter.

‘Shut up, Josh, and give me a hand,’ I growled.

His home-DIY haircut draped down almost to his nose. Haircuts, garbage removal, dog food – everything became DIY in the middle of a six month long flood.  His eyes dazzled with joy underneath the sandy blonde hair. He looked at my filthy hand, shook his head, and laughed harder.

‘Thanks so much.’

‘Any time,’ he replied, but I could barely make out what he was saying through his bubbling laughter.

The first sputter of rain made him stop.

Home was out of view. Our exploration down a dirt road that had become a shallow river, had taken us into the neighbour’s property. No one actually knew where we were.  A rescue was out of the question. If we happened upon wild dogs, we’d be in trouble.

‘Hey look, what’s that?’ My brother pointed into the trees.

We were in the middle of unknown acres. It could have been thousands; it could have been tens of thousands. There were bound to be trees and livestock, but not much else. So I kept scraping mud from my butt, and ignored his excited pointing.  What had he seen? A trap door to a secret tunnel system?

The sound of him trying to run in gumboots too big for his twelve-year-old feet, made me look up. Like an emu with turned out knees, he left the dirt-river road and began dodging rabbit holes and saltbushes, making a beeline for something.

The rain began to fall harder. Getting wetter wasn’t my worry, but it was icy cold and I was in shorts and a flanny. Muddy shorts.

‘Wait for me!’ I called.

Hidden by the distant tree line, was something made of wood.  A wall?  A building?  Somewhere warm and dry?  The remains of a long forgotten town? I took off running, ignoring the burning in my own legs.

‘You can’t catch me!’ I shouted over my shoulder.

Heavy drops of rain made the world seem smaller. Just us, a few feet of native brown grass and saltbush, then nothing.  The world was putty for our imaginations, as we entered the cluster of trees. Ours was grazing and cropland, where trees were left to grow in clusters.

‘It’s a house,’ Josh declared.

‘A shack.’ I gave the dilapidated building a wide berth, running around it in search of a door.

‘I’d live in it,’ Josh said.

‘That makes it a pigsty.’

The building was nothing special. Its timber walls were covered in flaking white paint. It sat on wooden blocks, and my hair stood on end as I looked down at the gaping holes between the blocks. Not that I was worried about something living underneath the house; I was worried that the rotting house itself might crash to the ground. I didn’t want to be near it if it did. Such things only ever happened when someone was around to see them: the tree in the woods, the abandoned house in the paddock – same thing. And what if someone was inside the building?  The door could fly open at any moment, and a great big guy with an axe could come out swinging!

For every house on our forty-five kilometre road, there was a collection of buildings exactly like this: shearer’s quarters, cook’s quarters, farmhand’s quarters.  This little building was out in the middle of nowhere.

I scanned our surroundings. At least I assumed we were in the middle of nowhere; truth was, I couldn’t see that much, so I couldn’t be sure. As far as I knew, our nearest neighbour was somewhere beyond the wheat silo in the next town. What was this place? A secret hideout for bushrangers? Why was it here?

Josh gave the door a good shove, and disappeared inside. I rushed across the waterlogged grass to follow him. As I bounded inside, the rain seemed to triple in intensity. The noise of gentle drops sounded harsh under the corrugated iron roof.

The house was empty. Not a treasure box, mysterious stack of books, or even an old bed to sit on. Our mud-caked gumboots left brown cloud-shaped marks on the dusty floorboards. We walked about the room, running our fingers over the weathered timber. Maybe something was carved into it. Josh tested the floorboards, jumping and bouncing around; maybe underneath a loose floorboard we’d find our treasure?

The noise began as a distant ‘whooshing.’ By the time I noticed it, it had become more of a rumbling.

My heart pounded. Had we been caught? We were on our neighbour’s property, far from where we said we were going, far from where we could easily be found if mum or dad were looking for us. We were exactly where a serial killer would love to find us…

Shaking with adrenalin, I ran out into the drizzling rain. I didn’t even notice its icy drops. Josh ran in my shadow.

We stopped, and searched our surroundings. Trees, trees, saltbush, somewhere off behind us was the road-river, right in front of us was a rain-shrouded mound of blue metal for a train track that was out of view.

The train rushed passed us. Horn blaring at two mud-caked kids in the middle of a flood.

In our only escape, our imaginations.

 

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Pervasive Poetry, Amanda Midlam

 

Memory Poem, Watching Life Go By On Twofold Bay, and a Suite of Three Poems: Quondola, Flotsam, and Community Soup

 
 

 QUONDOLA

 

It begins for me with the news

of a body found floating off Quondola

an ending for someone else.

The police say there are no suspicious circumstances

which means an accident

or suicide.

The body is unidentified

and uninhabited

dressed in jeans, belt and boots.

It waits for someone to claim it

not the rightful owner of course

but someone else.

In rough seas fishermen are swept off rocks

and drown

but the sea has been calm.

Uneasiness flows through the streets of our small town

was it a stranger, or one of our own?

No-one knows.

It is several days before

identification is made

and waves of grief drench the town.

 

FLOTSAM 

 

He drifted into Eden down the highway

and floated out of town

five years later on the tide

if Reece looking for humpback whales

hadn’t found him

would we have ever known

he hadn’t hitch-hiked off again

to try his luck elsewhere?

No-one knows why

speculation rises and ebbs

like the sea and waves

of rumours water the community garden

where he worked

and where he ran the monthly market

where people sold goods

and swapped gossip.

But no-one knew his story

and as speculation eddies

 his face floats haunting behind my eyes.

 

COMMUNITY SOUP

 

The market is cancelled this month

and all work has stopped in the garden.

But the community lunch must go on.

Some people, like June and Phil, rely on it

and others may not have heard the word

            Now that Greg has gone.

Peter and Pam can’t be there

and Glenda has gone to ground

Community service has been suspended

so there are no workers to oversee

until there is time to think what to do

            Now that Greg has gone.

But Monday lunch must go on,

the door needs to be open, says Pam.

Old Kenny may need a feed.

And others may turn up

We don’t know what to do.

            Now that Greg has gone.

I offer to open the door and make community soup

In the hall Pam has left a loaf of homemade bread.

Alan brings apple crumble, Shannon makes pasta

and Suz brings fruit

Nine adults and two children arrive for a feed

            Janice washes up now that Greg is gone.

 

 

MEMORY POEM 

 

Mud and mire as I patter down the path

the more the mud, the more the mire,

the more my hopes go soaring higher

then I awake

and ponder how mud can hold so much pleasure

when honestly I hate the stuff

and why my waking spirits stay so high

but the answer flees as my muddled mind awakes

and shakes off the memory of this dream place.

 

But on another night I find that other world

and my feet skip and slip happily down that muddy track

There’s a road nearby but the mud is quicker

and I am in a hurry and my feet slither-slather

in mud, anticipation, joy and hope.

Then I awake.  Where was I going?

 

I try to remember details but they flee my waking mind

sleep images crumble into cornflakes

muddy path into highway as I drive my car to work

but feelings work their way into my city-cluttered day

I can’t help feeling concrete constructions block my way

 

Shreds of dream shroud my pillows and lie in wait

taking me back at night to the twists and turns

and the descent of the narrow muddy path,

the ragged edge of my long dress drags in the mire

but I don’t care about mud on my clothes

because I am going to see them all again!

Then I awake.

 

During the day I dream of this other realm

the smell of mud and horse manure and salt from a not distant sea

the feel of my rough dress, the leafy greenery along the path

at night my feet fly faster trying to reach the end before I awake.

And one night I make it.

I am there in the open glen and it is market day and everyone is there.

Then I awake.

 

I have discovered how to take myself there, to find myself on the path,

the mud and the mire, sweet harbingers of home,

I come to the glen where the market is held,

where people come from far and wide

and I look and remember and recognise each face.

Then one night they see me too and clamour in surprise

Sarah! When did you get back?  We didn’t think we’d see you again.

 

Then I awake.

 

I remember the horses and carts and old market stalls.

My name is not Sarah, not in my waking world

but I search the family tree and find seven generations past

Sarah, aged sixteen, stealer of silver spoons, sent to Sydney in 1792,

She survived as a washer woman purging clothes of their past.

And never went home.  Not in the flesh.

But at night Sarah and I go down the muddy path.

We come to the open glen in glee, it is market day and everyone is here.

 

 

WATCHING LIFE GO BY ON TWOFOLD BAY

 

Sleepy-headed, coffee-handed

on Cat Balou as mooring slips

and catamaran slides

on glassy sea

fur seals on end of breakwater wall

fat-bodied, flat-flippered, sleek-headed,

slumbering cumbersome clumsy on land

then one slides silkily into the sea and

sylph-like glides away

while another, face like a wet dog, pops up

beside us and beckons us to play.

 

We chug on towards the further shore

dolphins hear the chug, chug, chug

and answer the catamaran’s call

the game is on

I lean down and see through the sea

dolphins racing in the boat’s bows

three, four, five, six, seven

shining silver bodies thrilling me

we hear a shout, we see a splash,

a white explosion in the blue

a whale is breaching, belly to the sun

splashing back down

in a crash of water

then a smaller one hurtles from the sea

and reaches for the sky

mum and baby humpbacks

on the humpback highway heading south

to Antarctica.

 

Gordon cuts the engine

he’s not allowed to get too close

but whales don’t know the rules

and surround the boat and spy hop

standing upright

behemoth heads rear from the sea

whale eyes regard us

as we hold our breath

then pahhhh the blow from a spout

casts a rainbow

as water from whale lungs

shimmers in the sun.

 

A black ribbon of mutton birds

threads through the sky

migrating from Siberia to Tasmania,

an albatross soars

there’s a bait ball ahead

dolphins circling

seals sharing and whales wallowing

as gannets rain like  arrows

from a mackerel sky

diving for fish.

 

At Snug Cove passengers go ashore,

to lunch on fish and chips

assisted by sea gulls

while pelicans glide overhead

with pterodactyl beaks

feathered bodies full of air,

light enough to float,

graceful in flight, clumsy on ground,

best of all coming in to land

webbed feet tucked behind

then pushed out suddenly in front

aquaplaning with a swoosh

nearby more pelicans squat on lamp posts

growling deep-throated at my yapping dogs

flapping their wings in warning

others jostle with gulls in shallow water

below the tables where fish are cleaned

and scraps are thrown

but a seal decides he wants the scraps

and birds flap and scatter.

 

A pied cormorant and a shag on a rock,

feathers-in-law,

hang out their wings to dry

the winners of bird world

able to fly, dive and swim

watch as a snake bird swims by,

with such skinny head and neck,

I once mistook one for the snorkel

of a friend

and swam after it out to sea.

 

Time to go home up the hill where

pink and grey galahs crop the nature strip,

a slow way to get the mowing done

but they eat the weed seeds

(then redistribute them)

while most birds hop, galahs prefer to walk

waddling like ducks left, right, left

while they graze, tiny feathered cows

and overhead crested pigeons

coo on the power lines

and one pair have a budgerigar friend,

a feather-bed menage-a-trois

and beyond the front fence the bird life changes

but the border doesn’t stop the immigrants

and a fat-bodied cuckoo from New Guinea

perches in the mulberry tree

watching the wattle birds

watching and waiting,

waiting to lay an egg in their nest

as mud larks lark in the bird bath

minding their own business.

 

Time to take the dogs for a walk,

they missed their morning stroll

and we amble across the road

and down  the track to the cliff

a white-bellied sea eagle soars

in thermals, corkscrewing in the sky

a masked lapwing, one tenth its size,

follows its flight and nips with beak

a sea eagle feather floats from the sky

another lapwing squawks as we walk by

because they lay their eggs in scrapes

on the ground then panic

and dive bomb anyone walking near,

the yellow spurs on their wings

inflicting pain and fear

I realise the sea eagle must have spied

eggs or chicks and the assailant lapwing

screams another feather falls

the sea eagle soars off as

we walk on to the pine trees

where yellow-tailed black cockatoos feed

their tough beaks tearing pine cones apart

hungrier now their forests in Victoria

have burned to ash.

 

Home again and time for evening wine

I raise a glass in the sunroom

lorikeets with tongues like brushes

lick nectar from the bottle brushes

on the other side of the pane

soon as pissed as parrots

on nectar that has fermented

hanging upside down

from branches flying low chattering

laughing as a cacophony of cockatoos

scream through the sky

sulphur-crested sulphur-tempered

destruction-tempted big white cockies

bosses of the birds or they think they are

but the lorikeets don’t care.

 

Darkness falls, dogs and I fall into dreams

and possums fall from trees onto the roof.

Ready for the night shift.

 

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