Tag Archives: discovery

The Valley, Anna Blackie

Marcus hung on the precipice of the Valley, looking down into the only world he’d ever known. He marvelled at how insignificant it seemed from this height. Turning his focus to what lay above him, Marcus hauled himself through the crack in the sky, the tantalising scent of fresh air luring him out of his comfort zone. Finally, he lurched over the rim of the Valley, scurrying onto a thin ledge and standing shakily, desperately pushing his aching muscles, both terrified and excited by what lay before him.

*

  The air was warm and thick, despite the relentless movement in the Valley. They had long ago realised that fresh air was not easy to come by, all breeze barred by the vast mountains that surrounded the small town. Marcus clung to the tree beside him, his fingernails digging into the soft bark. The ground trembled incessantly, the vibrations growing stronger and stronger with each passing second. Marcus analysed the movement of the earth, careful to note the way the ground folded and creased as the disturbance played out. The earth continued to shudder violently, those who were unprepared sent soaring through the air. He watched as Mr Roy, the baker, flew past him, the stout man bracing himself for the inevitable impact against the Valley wall. As suddenly as they had begun the tremors ended. Marcus’s eyes were drawn to the small crack of light shining through the top of the Valley. He watched closely, waiting for change, some movement, just a flicker of light, anything…   With a deep sigh Marcus released the tree, his fingers unfurling to reveal two large handfuls of dirty bark. He gently released the debris, opening and closing his hands in an attempt to restore the blood-flow.
‘Marcus!’ Mr Roy called from behind him. Marcus turned to watch the small man make his way back up the hill, his white apron askew, and face bright red from the effort.
‘All right there, Mr Roy?’ He called back to the baker.
‘Yes, yes, this isn’t my first disturbance you know.’ Mr Roy chided as he reached him, the bakers ruddy face glistening with a layer of sweat. ‘But you know how these things are, let your guard down for five minutes and you’re soarin’ out your kitchen window!’ Marcus laughed, life in the Valley certainly did have an element of the unexpected.
‘How’s that research of yours coming?’ Mr Roy asked as the two men walked together through the Valley.
‘Oh, you know,’ he mumbled in reply, ‘No breakthroughs yet.’
‘Well you just keep on keeping on, Marcus’ Mr Roy said, his jovial tone before suddenly turning serious, ‘If anyone can crack the code of this place, it’s you.’ With that, Mr Roy gave Marcus a firm clap on the back and made his way back into his bakery.

*

  The origin of The Valley had been speculated over for as long as there had been people inhabiting the tiny enclave. The Church of the Palm spoke of a hand that reached down into the Valley and released life onto the land. The non-believers spouted stories of people falling from the sky, of fish growing legs and emerging from the Valley’s deep, stagnant lake. Children were told tales of men sprouting from the ground, like seeds growing from the soil. Marcus seemed to be the only citizen of the Valley unable to stand the ambiguity; even as a boy he remembered questioning the fables their home was built upon, the myths and folklore not enough to satisfy his thirst for the truth. Although, it wasn’t until the arrival of disc that Marcus fully began to question the Valley, becoming desperate to know what lay outside the only reality he had ever known.

Marcus followed the outer wall of the Valley home from school, his small fingers running against the smooth barrier that surrounded him. He moved with a bounce in his step, a somewhat unexpected side-effect of the spongey Valley floor. As he grew closer to home he caught the sound of voices, the walls surrounding the town making it almost impossible to have a private conversation outdoors without your dirty laundry echoing throughout the town.
‘Do we tell him?’ he heard his father ask apprehensively.
‘Of course we tell him.’ his mother replied, ‘don’t we?’ she added with uncertainty. Marcus stopped and listened to the conversation, sure that his parents were talking about him.
‘This is just the sort of thing he’d obsess over…’
‘Well, we can’t very well hide It.’ his mother declared. Curiosity burned through him, and Marcus began to sprint towards his home, the sprung-floor of the Valley bouncing his tiny body higher and farther than he could have managed alone. He rounded the corner and spotted his house.

The small cottage hugged rocky boundary of the Valley, its walls and roof anchored to the side of the cliff. Marcus followed the sound of voices to the small garden outside. His mother and father stood in the centre of the grassed area, his younger sister Jenny hugging their father’s legs, her small body not even reaching his knee. Marcus was too excited to focus on his family, his attention immediately drawn to the object. It lay in the corner of the back-yard, squishing half of the vegetable garden. The disc was huge, at least three times the size of their house. Marcus approached it slowly, as if afraid the inanimate silver object would rear up and bite him. His family stayed quiet as they watched him inch closer, sensing the fervent excitement that lay beneath his hesitation. He walked slowly around the object, amazed by the vast size, taking its metallic sheen and the massive, stern face chiselled into its surface.
‘What do you think it is?’ he asked his parents who had silent moved to stand behind him. Marcus’s mind was reeling with possibilities of the disc’s origin, each more unlikely than the last.
‘They used to tell us stories about silver discs in school. Myths of these objects falling from the sky and crushing whole houses.’ His father told him quietly, ‘I always thought they were just fairy-tales, scary stories…’
‘Where did it come from?’ Marcus asked as he crouched down to touch the object, caressing its cold, hard surface. ‘How did it get here?’
‘It arrived while you were at school,’ Jenny announced from behind Marcus, making him jump slightly as he had been so involved in the object that he’d forgotten she was there.
‘I was lying in the garden looking up at the sky,’ she gestured to the sliver of light shining through the roof of the Valley, ‘then suddenly it got really bright, and that thing,’ she gestured to the mysterious silver disc, now glistening in the dim light, ‘started to fall towards me. I jumped up and moved, it would have squished me flat if I hadn’t!’ Jenny finished her story, beaming from ear to ear. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity, the moment Marcus had been waiting for. Of course it was Jenny who saw it all go down.
‘It came from the sky?’ Marcus repeated, running the words through his head, trying to make sense of the senseless.
‘That’s what I said.’ Jenny replied, clearly miffed at Marcus’s lack of appreciation of her near-death experience. Marcus plunked himself down next to disc, not willing to give his younger sister the satisfaction of appreciating her story. Despite his overwhelming jealousy, Marcus knew he had to find out the origins of the disc.

*

The disappearance of the disc was as surprising as its arrival. Each morning Marcus had ventured out into the garden to perform his daily tests. First he measured it, struggling to reach his tape measure over the diameter of an object so much larger than himself. He often dreamed about the disc growing through the night. He would run into the garden the next morning, disappointed to discover nothing had changed. After he’d taken his measurements he would sketch the object, careful to include every detail. When the disc had first arrived Marcus left gifts of food next to it morning and evening, at least until his father had found out and stopped him, unwilling to waste the food on an inanimate object that had crushed half of their vegetable garden. Unable to provoke a reaction from the disc any other way, Marcus had begun to speak to it. He would tell it his dreams as he performed his tests, then inform it of his day at school in the afternoons. Despite the disc’s obvious inanimate nature, Marcus had become quite fond of the object and the plethora of secrets he imagined it held.

Marcus had fallen behind on his testing schedule on the morning of the disc’s disappearance. He’d been unwilling to enter the conscious realm, his dreams filled with silver objects raining from the sky, the faces etched on the discs filling his ears with stories of the world beyond the Valley. When he finally awoke and made his way outside he was greeted with a sight much more spectacular than that of his dream. An enormous hand emerged through the crack in the sky. The hand was more massive than anything Marcus had ever imagined, thousands of times bigger than the disc. The light emanating from the crack in the sky caught on the hands gargantuan surface, illuminating its full scope while darkening the valley below. Each finger was alarmingly thick, the giant fingernails grubby with dirt. Marcus stole a look at his own hand and marvelled at the similarities, unable to form a coherent thought about what was unfolding before him. A thick wrist covered in dense black hair came into Marcus’s view, lowering the hand closer and closer to the disc. The fingers flexed towards the object, reaching to capture it in its grasp. Marcus scurried to the side of his garden, sketching the scene transpiring before him, a voice in his head screaming to him, telling him this is what he had been waiting for. The hand plucked up the disc, lifting it as if it was no more than a piece of paper. Marcus watched in awe as the hand rose higher. The wrist disappeared through the crack pulling the hand and disc along with it.

Speculation as to the origin of the disc and hand ran rampant throughout the Valley. The Church of the Palm experienced an influx in their patronage, the towns’ people believing that God had finally begun to take an interest in their home, the hope being that this Almighty force may be receptive to the prayers of the people. Those of religious orientation began to pray day and night, waiting for a hand big enough to destroy them to reach down and grant their wishes. Others were less optimistic, believing the hand and the disc were signs of the apocalypse, and thus began to prepare themselves accordingly. However, as the weeks past with no sign of the hand, disc or anything else out of the ordinary (despite the regular tremors, which the people of the town had long since accepted as a fact of everyday life) the people began to forget, and soon questions of the unknown were put aside and people moved on with the mundane flow of life. All, that is, except for Marcus. The appearance of the coin had sparked something within him, a deep, searing curiosity that consumed his every waking moment. For the next five years the coin, the hand and the origin of the Valley were all he thought about.

*

Marcus had worked tirelessly to prepare himself for what lay beyond his home. He had developed strong, muscular shoulders from spelunking and climbing throughout the Valley. He had also grown to match his father’s height. At 16, Marcus was already a head taller than all the citizens of the Valley and showed no signs of a decline in his growth. As he continued to grow, he found his climbing exploits became gradually easier. His length allowed his to reach further and pull himself higher along the enclosed walls of the Valley. One day he found himself further up than he had ever been before. The view was magnificent, Marcus could see the entirety of the Valley stretched out before him, his friends and family ambling along beneath him. From this vantage he could see the overhang of the crack in the sky, like a rock shelf, certainly one that Marcus could hoist himself onto. He had no idea what would be on the other side, but he was sure that it was the key to the mystery of his home.

‘Climb out?’ She repeated incredulously, ‘How do you even know there is an out? For all we know you could get to the top and fall into nothing.’ His parents sat across the table from him; his mother ringing her hands as she spoke, while his father remained stoic and silent, apparently deep in thought.
‘There has to be something more out there, Mum’ he pleaded with her, ‘the hand, the disc, they had to have come from somewhere.’
‘But Marcus-’ she started, struggling explanation to placate her sons curiosities.
‘No Mum, we both know it’s true. There has to be more than this…’
‘He needs to go,’ his father announced.
‘What! How can you support this Jeremy?’
‘If we don’t let him go now he’s just going to find a way to do it eventually anyway, right Marcus?’
‘Yes,’ Marcus answered, avoiding his parents gaze.
‘But if he goes now and we help him prepare, then, maybe, he’ll have a better chance.’ Marcus’s mother listened incredulously, unable to accept the idea of releasing her only son into the unknown.
‘I need to know what’s out there Mum,’ Marcus told her, gripping both her hands in his, ‘If I don’t figure this out it will eat me alive.’ Tears cascaded down her face as she took a deep, shuddering breath and nodded.

  *

He hung on the precipice of the Valley, looking down into the only world he’d ever known. Marcus reached out to haul himself through the hole in the sky, his aching muscles screaming in protest as he heaved his long body through the crevice and out into the open air. The sky Marcus saw as he emerged from the crack was more spectacular than he could have dreamed, the light so bright he was forced to cover his eyes. The weak rays of light that had shone down into the Valley were nothing in comparison to the huge, burning ball of bright heat that hovering miraculously on the skyline, causing Marcus’s eyes to water as he peaked at it from behind his hand. Marcus’s vision began to adjust as he took in the breathtaking view before him. He had done it. Finally, gloriously, he had done it.

Eventually he tore his eyes away from the marvel before him and looked back down towards the Valley. He could now see that his home was a deep crevice, carved into the side of what appeared to be a colossal mountain. As Marcus craned his neck backwards to take in the scope of the mountain, a deafening sound ruptured through the silence, followed by a vicious rumbling underfoot. Marcus grabbed hold of the closest ridge and clung for dear life. The disturbance outside the Valley far more violent than he could have anticipated. Around him he saw a flurry of movements. The hand appeared, Marcus watched as a long arm protruded out from behind it. A desperate excitement inside him screaming that the truth was almost known. Marcus could see now that the arm was attached to the mountain. His brain exploded with millions of attempted explanations, struggling to comprehend what he was transpiring around him. Before he had time to digest this breakthrough, he felt the shuddering increase. A sound louder than anything Marcus had ever heard broke through the air around him- a barking cough amplified to the highest extend. The violent tremor of the mountain was unrelenting. Marcus’s grip faltered and he slipped down the ledge, grappling wildly in an attempt to grab hold of the cracked opening of the Valley. Before his hands could make purchase, Marcus was flung from the mountain. Sheer terror flooded through him as he felt himself freefalling away from everything he had ever know and the answers to the mystery which he had devoted his life. As he fell backwards he looked up towards the mountain, his perspective and the shock of his imminent death allowing him to take in the enormity of what stood above him, and process what he saw him with no scepticism or fear.

A huge man, the scale of which beyond anything that Marcus could have possibly imagined stood before him, draped in the mountain that Marcus now realised to be a huge overcoat. Marcus continued to fall, the air pushing past him at a phenomenal speed, but he no longer cared. It was a man, no mountain or Valley, but the biggest man Marcus had or would ever see. A sudden wave of tranquillity washed over him as his minuscule body hurdled to the ground.

 

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The Outskirts of Benslimane by Josie Gleave

I am called brave for leaving my home and moving to the other side of the world, but I know that any bravery I might have comes from my sister. She is the one who can effortlessly introduce herself to a crowd of new acquaintances or play the peacemaker in an argument. She climbs back on the horse that just bucked her off. I wanted to be her.

I have not seen my sister for over a year since I moved. It feels like ages to us who are often mistaken for twins. I stand on the edge of Paris at the Levallois-Perret train station where we are meeting for only a few short days. I arrived early, and she will fly in from her summer job in Morocco where she has been training horses for a family she claims is one of the wealthiest next to the King.

As I pace the platform, I pose the question: how does a twenty-something, female, Arizonan horse trainer end up in Morocco? There is a blank space in my mind when I think of that country. Instead I imagine a desert of sand and a solitary tiled palace with extensive stables full of black horses. I think of our parents in Arizona who I know have been uneasy for her safety. My own feelings of concern were that she would not be taken seriously or treated fairly. Americans feel loved within their homeland, but that warmth is not always reciprocated when abroad.

Like bees flitting out of the hive, Parisians flood the station. They are a swarm of blue suits and black dresses. I scan the faces of each traveller finding none that resemble my own. When the flight calms and I anticipate waiting for the next train, a statuesque female with long, straight hair rises on the escalator. She is zipped in a black jacket with an embroidered Arabian horse head over the heart, tired blue jeans, cowboy boots, and a rhinestone belt with a horseshoe buckle. We squeal each other’s names and hug. Together we weave through the streets, passing her lumpy duffle bag back and forth to rest our shoulders. My mind is teeming with questions and so I begin.

 

‘How did you end up in Morocco?’

 

It started with Riley’s phone call. He used to shoe for the same stables I worked for in Arizona, and so we would see each other from time to time at the show circuit. He rang me one day saying he had a job for me body clipping some horses for a photo shoot. He said the guy would pay well, three grand for the lot. I said I could get it done and asked for the location of the stable. He said Morocco, and I thought, like the country?

He called me on Monday, and I was on a flight that Wednesday. I only stayed a week that trip so I could get back for the second half of the university semester, but I got to know the owner, Anas, and his situation. His three main properties: the Villa, the Centre, and Comagree are all on the same road on the outskirts of Benslimane. His racing stable is on the coast of Mohammedia, a half hour away. Most of the show horses were stabled at the Villa while the Centre and Comagree had a mixture of agriculture fields, olive and citrus groves, donkeys, goats, cows, sheep, and miniature horses. Anas tries to make money out of his work, but his dad is content keeping him out of the city. See, Anas does everything extreme. He took partying to the extreme. Now he has over 500 head of horses. That is extreme. But it keeps him out of the city. That week, I just body clipped. Anas found out that I can ride and asked me to come back.

One month later, I was back on a plane to Morocco for the summer. To show me the land, Anas took me on his daily rounds. Every night he drove to each property to check up on the horses. He had pastures upon pastures of foals, yearlings, two year olds, three year olds, and pregnant mares. He didn’t remember all of their names, but somehow he knew every pedigree. He would point to a horse and say, ‘This horse was by this and sired by this horse and its grandfather was by this.’ Sometimes he sat up all night long researching pedigrees, and if you weren’t careful and didn’t go to bed on time you would be stuck there with him. Anas wanted to bring back the pure and traditional Barb. If you look them up, Barbs look like fat little ponies, but when you see them they are big boned with huge necks. According to Anas, a few years ago the Moroccan government was lax about accurate breed records. The Barb was disappearing and so anything that looked like a Barb was listed as a Barb to build the registry. While looking for a true bloodline, Anas was also breeding pure Egyptian Arabians and racehorses. He had more than a couple of projects in motion.

Anas set me up in the Villa. I had a room to myself with hot and cold running water and even occasional air conditioning. I was taken care of. The only problem I had was a rat that paid me a visit one night. Already I had a little mouse and two big geckos sharing my accommodation. There was no room for a rat. I locked it in the bathroom, but struggled to sleep. Every time I started to doze, I heard it scurry and bang into a wall or I dreamed that it was nibbling on my toes. In the morning it had left through the same hole it entered. I duct taped it tight.

From six in the morning to five at night, I worked with the horses. Anas had unrealistic expectations for the stallions’ progress, but I still tried to please him. He wanted them prancing and doing tricks, but most couldn’t ride in a straight line. Half of them weren’t even broke before I arrived. I split my horses into two groups. The first I turned out to pasture to let them run and play in open space. The others I lunged in a round pen and the next day I rotated. I schooled the halter Arabs by training them to position their necks high and back legs outstretched and then I worked on breaking the stallions. Some of those studs were raunchy. I mean, I would take them out of their stalls and they would try to bite my head. They would strike at me, rear up, and come at me. When I was breaking Markmoul under saddle, all he would do was buck. What I found to work with Markmoul seemed to ring true for stallions in general. The more consistently I worked them and rode them, the better they became. They were easier to handle and weren’t retarded. Let a stud sit for a bit, and they turn into mischief-makers. So I give them a job and it makes them happy. I think men are the same way.

My two years of high school Spanish were obviously of no use that summer. The people spoke a concoction of Arabic and French. A couple of guys at the stable took it upon themselves to educate me, which started as pointing at an object and stating its name. I kept a vocabulary list on my phone and botched the spelling of every word so I could read it later. Ayoub and I became friends through this process. He worked at Comagree, but was close to my age so we went riding together and explored old ruins and roads. I don’t know what language we spoke, but we could understand one another. We carried on full conversations in this odd foreign dialect that probably wasn’t really a language.

One of my favourite evenings was when Ayoub and I drove to Mohammedia. I had been before to see the racehorses, but never at night. That is when the city comes alive. Whenever we were unsure of directions, we pulled over on the side of the road and Ayoub would call out to a lone vendor selling snail soup or cactus fruit. The people were helpful and friendly, almost too friendly with a tendency to jump in your car and take you to the place you are trying to go. We arrived at Mohammedia, walked along the boardwalk and watched a little carnival on the beach where there were horse rides and camel rides for children. Somehow Ayoub convinced me to ride the Ferris wheel. Terrible idea. It went around and around for what felt like an hour and it went fast! I am not great with heights, but that was hardly my primary concern. First of all, it was a carnival ride. Second of all, it was a carnival ride in Morocco. The hinges looked shabby with ropes and knots holding things together. My nervousness only encouraged Ayoub. He tried to shake the carriage so it would rattle and swing and then he would laugh and laugh.

Early in the month, Anas asked me to show some of the Arabs in halter. I told him I would if he really wanted me to, but I didn’t think it was a good idea. The horses wouldn’t have a fair show with me. Women aren’t exactly repressed in Morocco, but they don’t show horses. Even if I trotted out with the best Arab gelding, I would still be a woman. Anas knew the risk, but still thought that I deserved to flaunt my work. I told Anas his horses would have a better shot with me training and a man showing.

Morocco has its own politics and rules around horse shows. I let that be. In no other way was it a problem that I was a woman. The guys treated me a bit differently, but that was because I am a white American, and as a trainer I was a little bit higher than them. After they saw me manhandle a couple of the studs and bust my butt working and getting dirty just like them, they accepted me.

One day, all the guys and me were at Comagree looking at the Barbs used in Fantasia. We had just gone to the festival and seen the main competition where twenty men on Barb horses, dressed in traditional garb, gallop towards the audience and shoot their rifles into the air one time. The goal is to fire in unison so it sounds like one single shot ringing out, not popcorn. These Barb horses are a fiery breed. They are taught to dance and rear upon hearing certain Arabic words. One of the guys brought out this grey Barb and jumped on bareback. The horse took off down the road, reared on command like The Man from Snowy River, sprinted back toward us, and skidded to a halt. The man jumped off and said to me, ‘You?’

‘Yeah!’ I swung up on the grey without a thought of possible dangers. It was my chance to prove my riding ability. We galloped to the end of the road, and I repeated the Arabic commands. The Barb pranced and then reared, pawing the air. We shot off again and slid to a stop. The guys clapped and cheered for me. I slid off the Barb’s back and couldn’t stop smiling. Amongst the commotion, Said asked me something in Arabic. I was used to nodding and agreeing with what was asked of me even when I didn’t understand. Next thing I knew, he was kissing me! I guess you can’t say yes to everything.

As much as I loved Morocco, I did miss speaking English. What a relief when Enda arrived from Ireland. At least I had one person I could talk with easily. Enda was hired as a farrier, but he also helped exercise the horses with me. He loved to ride. But he had one problem; he had a massive appetite. Hajiba was our amazing cook who sourced most of our food from the properties. Everything she made was saucy and delicious, but Enda still said he couldn’t survive on three meals a day and no alcohol. He was pleased when the guys at Comagree invited both of us to another Fantasia festival. It turned out to be more of a post-wedding, bachelor’s party for some guy from the next town over, but it meant Enda’s belly would be full after the feast. I sat next to Enda and Ayoub and tried to not feel out of place as the only chick in the tent.

The people aren’t that big on plates or forks in Morocco, but they do have a strong sense of community. The men passed around a community bowl of water to dip your hands, community towel to dry your hands, and then one community glass of water to drink. I started with the cup, but turned my back for a second and it was gone. By the time I noticed, it was halfway around the table. I didn’t want it back. The one thing I did get to myself was bread because it is eaten at every meal and used as utensils. When the banquet was laid before us, everyone dove in fingers first and used the round khobz to shovel lamb, potatoes, and carrots into their mouths.

After we ate, four girls entered the tent and danced. Everyone clapped along as the dancers waved their arms and flicked their hands as if flinging off water. One of the girls continued to sway as she climbed on top of the table. Then she turned to me and tried to pull me up alongside her. Um, no. But she didn’t give up. She urged me to join her until the guys hollered for my submission. So I thought, when in Rome…. There was a lot of hair whipping and hip shaking, but I can’t deny that it was fun. Once I jumped off of the table, everyone in the tent was on their feet dancing, clapping, and flicking their hands. I found Ayoub in the crowd and stayed close to him. He showed me some steps he knew, and I tried to teach him country dancing spins and dips. Enda was beside himself. ‘How can a people act like this without a drop of alcohol?’

What I loved most was making friends. There was this one guy who lived down a road where I often went riding. I don’t know his name, but we called him Avocado because he had green eyes. Whenever he saw me passing, he came out of his house to give me a piece of fruit. I loved that. People didn’t have a whole lot, but they didn’t need a whole lot. From what I saw, most of the people were happy. They were religious. They believed in a God. They believed in helping each other and doing what is right and being kind.

Oh, I almost forgot. Anas told me this joke. Why is the donkey’s nose white? It’s because his enemy is the children who pull his ears. When he went to Heaven he peeked his nose in, saw all of the children, and ran off.

 

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Bad Faith, Christopher Grady

I dreamed I was rolling an immense boulder up a hill. I awoke before I saw how the dream would end. The earth makes another rotation, the sun rises, the sun sets, the waves crash again and again. I had to go to work.

I did some push-ups and sit-ups to curb a cubicle body. I showered and dressed. For a moment in the dark I watched my girlfriend, Sarah, sleep. We had met a few times at parties. We had the same three conversations every time we met, one of which was how we had the same two conversations every time we met. Now we didn’t speak at all.

I kissed her on the forehead then kissed the baby on his. He was an accident. When Sarah told me she was pregnant I wanted her to have an abortion. I didn’t have the nerve to bring it up. Why pluck this child out of nonexistence only so it will fear the same nonexistence hurtling towards it. I could frighten it with religion like I was. Feed that down its throat foie gras style, like my father did. When I was little my father woke us in the middle of the night saying the end is now. He made us get in the car and drove into the middle of nowhere awaiting Christ’s glorious return. On the way home Mum hummed “Coming Round the Mountain” and Dad demanded her to shut up. After that Dad broke down and Mum took over. She sent me to a Montessori school so I could work out what I was into. My parents were very different people.

It was still dark when I reversed out the driveway. I remember driving past people waiting at bus stops or in cars in congestion when I was at university. People on their way to work before the day had awoken. I knew I never wanted to be that person. I became that person. I never wanted to be an inmate of this sandstone university then that job with its lack of prospects and rungless ladder. I became that person. I started at the law firm out of uni as a paralegal, thinking it was a good deal, delaying desires, hopes and aspirations because the money was good. I was closer to ten than I was to forty, then. Now I’ve been of legal drinking age longer than I haven’t.

The traffic was frozen. A woman in the car next to me did her make up in her rear-view mirror. Sometimes I wished a plague would thin out the herd like wildfire freeing up these lanes a little.

I had the radio on. The news told me how someone was mugged at filthy syringe point, how the Lolitas of someone of coin or cloth had grown up and come out against them, how a wife beat her husband to death with a frozen leg of lamb, how a man armed with a sandwich and a coke was shot down while a helpless rich man’s child was exonerated for affluenza. And then, on top of that, my tooth hurt, number two-seven or two-eight (Dad was a dentist).

Work was a lot of the same. I repeated what I had to repeat. I tongued my tooth and sometimes I had to photocopy something. This was never good; there was always someone else there. I waited and the person in front of me sneezed.

He looked at me. ‘You didn’t say bless you,’ he said.

I walked away.

Then came lunch. I spoke two languages while being surrounded by others who struggled with one. A young guy sat next to me. Out of all the spare seats he chose that one.

‘Hey, man,’ he said, ‘when they say jelly wrestling do they mean KY or Aeroplane?’

I didn’t work in a law firm. I was immersed and playing the role of someone working in a law firm.

The day ended. It was dark and when I looked up I couldn’t see the stars. I sat in traffic and the news was just as bad. I pleaded for that plague.

Later, I looked across the table to my girlfriend, a glass of wine in front of both of us. She pretended not to notice that I would finish the bottle and I pretended not to notice the cigarette smoke clinging to her clothes. Our relationship was built on pretending. I could see the glow of primetime TV where confectionery rotted the teeth of amorous lovers, but they’ve already done all their smiling. Sarah spoke to her mother on the phone. Her grandfather could predict the weather with his knees and her grandmother was dying of cancer with liver rot and alcoholic dementia to boot. She’d tell stories of her past, that she had danced the Charleston to the troops when in fact with calloused fingers she had sewed pockets in trousers in perpetuity.

The earth makes another rotation, the sun rises, the sun sets, the waves crash again and again. And there will come that dream.

*

A few weeks later there was a work cocktail party at an upmarket bar close to the office. We celebrated a case we had won. I had very little to do with it. I didn’t look forward to it. Everyone talked shop, if not they talked about money and what they’d bought or were going to buy. That’s how they searched for their happiness, like King Solomon, nouveaux riche. I’m sure they all had sore elbows from patting themselves on the back.

I drifted away and sat at the bar. I talked to this girl. She would have been mid to late twenties, I think. I asked about her accent. She told me her name was Charlotte Dumonde and came from Belgium, a little town called Ecaussinnes. I asked her where that was.

C’est près de Soignies et La Louvière,‘ she said.

I shrugged my shoulders. She told me it was about an hour from the French border. She told me she had worked in a chapellerie in Lyon and had travelled down to and through Madagascar. She told me she would do it all again soon.

We laughed and her lipstick stained her drink’s skinny straw which, while she made a point, she pretended to smoke real elegant and Holly Golighty-like, tapping away imaginary ash. The moment reminded me of when I first met Sarah. It sparkled like jewellery and champagne. The drinks caused a blossoming glow to radiate in my chest like a sacred heart. We were the kind of drunk where every idea was a good idea, all of which couldn’t be done too soon. Later, I backed her up against a wall and kissed her and put my hand down the front of her jeans. She was doing everything I had wanted to do but never did. For years I rationalised my stagnant existence and arrested development, my fundamental dissatisfaction. I looked for right in what I knew was ultimately wrong. I looked for something where I knew there was nothing. That’s why we find faces in clouds, a man on the moon and the Mother Mary in toast.

Charlotte went off to the bathroom. I went back to the bar. She didn’t return and I couldn’t find her.

*

The baby cried. I ignored it like it was someone else’s. I looked at Sarah across the table. I thought I’d feel something. I thought there’d be a cocktail of guilt and the desire that caused it. What put my head in a whirlwind was the complete lack of guilt I felt.

Over the coming days and weeks I thought of Charlotte. She’d left a lesion on my brain. No, that sounds contaminating where what she left was enriching and mesmerising, like a murmuring of starlings creating geometries. I kept going back to that bar in hope of finding her. I didn’t. I packed a bag and left it in my car. I stared at it in traffic every morning and evening. The news was always bad. That plague never came. I didn’t want any of this. I wanted out of Maggie’s Farm. I’d rather ask forgiveness than permission. I’d rather regret action than non-action. I was ready to be happy.

One morning, I left. I wrote a note of no more than ten words. Love was not one of them.

*

I flew to Lyon via air conditioned Dubai. I looked out the window at the incomprehensible desert receding into city.

It was raining in Lyon. Pluie Prudence road signs advised. Straight away I looked for her. I found the hat store she had told me she had worked at. The English lady who owned the store told me Charlotte had visited a week or so ago. She told me Charlotte frequented a café not too far away.

I went to Le Lion, on the corner of Quai Saint-Antoine and Rue de la Monnaie, and asked monsieur, who stood behind the counter next to hanging salamis, if he’d seen her. He said he had. He said she came in every day. I did the same. I’d sit by the window sipping a coffee in the morning and a beer in the afternoon, looking up at the basilica on the hill which overlooked the entire city. Every morning and afternoon I asked monsieur about Charlotte. He always said I missed her until one day he said he hadn’t seen her at all. I went back to the hat shop. I was told Charlotte had left for Madagascar. I was told the name of a place Charlotte had mentioned. I took the first flight I could.

*

If the Garden of Eden was the beginning of the earth, Madagascar was the end. I took a train destined for Charlotte. The carriage I rode was painted and by the door was written: 1ère Classe. The second class carriages weren’t painted at all. I shared that carriage with a couple. They were white, bovine tourists, fat fucks in jeans and joggers. I turned and ignored them.

At one of the stops were merchants and markets and hungry children. There was a bouquet of black begging hands, bare chested girls with glockenspiel ribcages or bulbous bellied boys. I felt like a cunt because earlier I got annoyed by the heat and that my clean, bottled water wasn’t cold enough.

*

I ended up at a colonial mansion. One of those buildings the French left behind with the language. This was the place I’d been told about. There were only two others staying there and they spoke English. Christian was a teacher from Cameroon with African accented French and Ganesh was a paediatric surgeon from Malaysia of Sri Lankan blood.

I was told they’d seen Charlotte a week or so ago. She had said she was going away for a bit but was coming back. They told me I should stay there until she returned. She had left some possessions so they knew she would. I liked this idea.

We all sat out on the white veranda overlooking green hills. A soft rain fell. Ganesh told me he had left his two daughters and wife at home to work with Médecins Sans Frontières. He asked if I had a wife or kids. I said I didn’t.

*

I did nothing all day while Christian and Ganesh worked. I drank gin and tonics to ward off malaria and listened to the BBC World Service on a crackling radio. Something had gone down in Liberia, or maybe Libya. I don’t remember.

Sometimes I took walks down to the markets where in wicker baskets lay cathedrals of cumin, cayenne and turmeric. Chilli peppers towered taller than the squatting children peeling pistachios beside them. All I could smell was fish and sweat. Car horns honked and vendors hawked, there was a pounding of a goat-skinned drum and a street preacher with tattered black bible in hand warned of hell and sweated like a soul singer.

Most of the time I stayed at the mansion, sitting out on the balcony drinking those gin and tonics or local beers surrounded by the stray cats and dogs who seemed to reside there. Cats roamed with their tails held high showing off their assholes. Next to me a dog whimpered in its sleep. One million stars burned like a furnace and I imagined somewhere someone was awaking unwillingly for work.

*

I knew Charlotte wouldn’t return. I left post-it notes on my vanity mirror. I wrote: you piece of shit, you worthless fuck, et cetera. I changed them every week. They quickly held no effect over me, they became as normal as brushing my teeth. Ha-ha, self-loathing, the black truffle of brain diseases.

*

One afternoon Ganesh returned with wilted posture. He slumped in a chair on the veranda and demanded a beer. Clouds gathered and the sky turned a gun-metal grey. A storm would soon strike. He lost a six year old in surgery. He blamed himself and cursed the static air around him. I thought of my son.

*

I don’t know how, but Christian and Ganesh found out I had a girlfriend and son and had left them. They felt they had scalpelled open my chest, my true self spilling out.

‘Shame on you. You’ve seen the children here beg and plead,’ Christian said. ‘You know the motherless and fatherless ones and the restavecs.’ Restavecs were children staying with relatives who took advantage of them. Restavecs were common day Cosettes.

Christian and Ganesh didn’t want me around. I told them I wasn’t leaving. They ignored me. I’m sure a few more bad surgeries or a mother dying in childbirth would make them forget all about my sins.

*

A few weeks later Christian broke his silence and said he’d heard word about Charlotte. He wouldn’t look me in the eye. He said she was only an hour away by train and that he’d take me. The train left in the evening and he said he’d go straight there after work and we’d meet at the station. I packed all my things. Ganesh wouldn’t shake my hand. He asked me what my girlfriend and son’s names were. I lied about both. I knew he saw right through me.

At the station I couldn’t find Christian. I boarded and walked down the crowded carriages. He wasn’t there. I knew he had no intention of getting the train.

I was in unpainted 2ième Classe. The train rocked and swayed and everyone stared. Maybe because I was the only white person, maybe because they too could see my chest bared open revealing everything like an old lady dropping her prescriptions showing the world all that infects her. I understood the pounded gavel, the disdain and hatred held by Christian and Ganesh and everyone cramped inside that train for its fourteen hour crawl.

Some part of me still believed the train would lead me to Charlotte. It didn’t. There came that dream.

 

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The Ring’s Travellers, Shannah Connell

The Ring’s suns had provided the citizens of Navoe planet with yet another perfect day. Trisella had been shopping with her mother in the Apollo district in the city of Drita. Her family lived in a small town called Perplexion, on the outskirts of Drita.

Big cities were even more alien to Trisella than the tiny planets orbiting her home world. Dozens of multi-coloured orbs could be seen if you looked right up into the sky, and every single one had a name, a story, and a population. However, those who had the knowledge of all of those things were few and far between, and their numbers dwindled with each passing year.

The Pocket Travellers—an ancient, evolved race of humans who flitted, with the assistance of their portals, from one planet to the next—were rumoured to have passed into extinction, and the ‘accidents’ that caused the portals to close were known as the main reason for it.

Her mother had given her permission to walk down the next street and window-shop. She was to stay in sight at all times, and after her mother had paid for her new books, she would take her daughter to lunch. Trisella strolled down the street, her boots clicking against the iron slabs. She kept her mother in the corner of her eye, and peered into windows and displays, her gaze catching the sparkle of something that wasn’t a jewel. The fractured piece of crystal was shaped like the letter C, curved and jagged at the edges, frayed in places that crystals shouldn’t be frayed. It had seen heavy damage, but it was resting on a red velvet cushion like it was some kind of sacred artefact.

Pulling away from the window and its odd crystal prize, Trisella continued down the street after checking with her mother, who hadn’t yet pulled away from the book stall. She was striding along, minding her own business, when she walked straight into someone, even though the path in front of her was empty and there was no one to be seen.

A voice cried out, ‘Blast it!’ and suddenly, Trisella was being yanked forward, the sensation like a hook beneath her ribcage, and then she was falling down, down, down through a black, airless void until her feet found the floor, her legs trembling with the impact, and she pitched forward to her hands and knees before she’d even opened her shocked-shut eyes.

Her hands were stuck in some awful goo-like substance, and the floor didn’t feel like a floor at all, because it was warm and moving and…

Ugh!’ Trisella yelped, and scuttled backwards, away from the goo, wiping her hands desperately on her dress, letting out tiny whimpers of disgust as she went. ‘What is that? Where am I? Hello?’

‘Be quiet, you moronic human!’ the voice from before hissed. ‘You’ll wake it up!’

Trisella felt a familiar shiver of indignation, but the sensation of dampness won over, and she looked down at herself again. Her eyes were adjusting to the darkness of her new location, and the pulsing of the walls around her was almost soothing in their rhythm.

‘Why am I all soggy?’ Trisella asked. There was a huff, and she was suddenly hauled up and propped against the wall by a large hand on her shoulder.

‘If you hadn’t walked right into me and knocked me off-course, you wouldn’t be soggy at all, let alone in the stomach of a Waleos,’ the voice muttered, and Trisella’s guts roiled at the thought.

‘The… stomach…? Of a what?’

‘A Waleos, you idiotic child! You know, swims in the acid lakes and has terrible gnashing teeth and likes to eat small humans for snacks? A mutation of the whales of the old world.’

‘I’ve – I’ve never – what,’ Trisella stammered. In all honesty, she thought she would be far more panicked, for someone in the company of an invisible stranger, trapped in the stomach of a lake-monster. Maybe the panic would set in later.

‘Who are you, anyway?’ Trisella asked. She was quite sure that the stranger was next to her, pressed up against the wall of the… stomach. Shudder.

‘Name’s Crag,’ the voice replied, and Trisella felt her hand being shaken, even though when she squinted, she couldn’t see anything more than a vague shape before her. ‘And you’re… Trisella.’

‘How do you know my name?’ she demanded, caught off-guard.

‘It’s the duty and responsibility of a Pocket Traveller to know the names of all of the Ring’s inhabitants, no matter how small or insignificant their lives and experiences may appear.’

She scoffed. ‘Crag’ was clearly having her on. ‘Pocket Travellers aren’t real. Everyone knows that.’

‘So, do you have a better explanation for how, one moment, you were on a side street in Drita, and then you bumped into me and ended up in the stomach of a creature who lives halfway across the Ring?’

‘I…’ She didn’t, in fact, have an explanation for that. She did, however, want to get out of this… Waleos stomach, and back to her mother.

‘Pocket Travellers are very real, thank you very much, small, insignificant Trisella. Our numbers grow smaller every year, but we still exist. There are still planets to take care of and portals to fix, so we keep on going, for as long and as far as we can.’

‘Is that what you’re doing, then?’ Trisella asked, choosing to play along for now. She wished there was some light, or that they weren’t invisible, so that she could see their face. ‘Fixing portals, or taking care of the planets?’

‘Both,’ Crag answered, and pulled on Trisella’s sleeve, nudging her down the wall, and she felt the air grow hotter somehow.

‘Ewww, why are we moving? Where are we going?’ The flesh beneath her shoes squelched unpleasantly; Trisella tried not to think about it.

‘I thought you’d knocked me off-course, but it seems as though the thing I’ve been searching for is here after all,’ Crag muttered. ‘There’s a tiny planet, up in the fourteenth sector of the Ring, called Creos. Its portal—its pocket—was displaced by some inter-planetary disruption. I was dispatched to retrieve it, and the path took me through Drita, and, apparently, you.’

‘So, did you leave from Creos? How did you leave if their pocket is displaced? Do Travellers really have their own portals? Can you take me back to Drita? My mother is surely worried about me. I was supposed to stay within her sight and Drita is such a large city and she’ll think I’ve gotten lost and it will be awful and she’ll be so mad—’

‘Do you ever shut up?’ Crag snapped, exasperated. They grabbed Trisella’s wrist and pulled, and Trisella felt the fleshy floor beneath her move as the stranger hopped over something, yanking her after them. ‘Yes, I left from Creos. I have my own portal, on my wrist, like a watch. I can either use that, or use the aligned portals on the planets. Pocket Travellers are called that for a reason. We travel through the portals, and our sole duty is to ensure that they remain functional, because if they don’t—if they get broken or lost in space, like the one I’m looking for—the entire planet is cut off from the rest of the Ring.’

Trisella was gaping. She knew she was, but… she couldn’t seem to close her jaw. Pocket Travellers have their own portals? She supposed that made sense, given their name, but it seemed so absurd and impossible that she could barely understand it.

‘The hows and the whys are extremely complicated and you won’t understand so I won’t go into them here. I’ll take you back to Drita when I find the portal—if we activate my portal here, I might never make it back to this particular creature. Hopefully your family won’t think too poorly of me. We’ll make this as fast as we possibly can. Do you know what a deactivated portal looks like?’

‘No,’ Trisella replied. She’d never even seen an activated one. Perplexion was far removed from Navoe’s portal temple.

‘Well, then, you’re in for a treat!’ Crag cried out, louder than their conversation warranted, and the Waleos’ stomach rumbled in reply. Trisella would have told them off for making noise when they had told her off for the same thing not five minutes ago, but there was light coming from a hand and a face was swimming into view through the sudden, blinding brightness.

A long, pointy nose set in a narrow, impish face, wide green eyes and wild black hair, Crag was every bit the oddball that Trisella assumed him to be. His eyes seemed to be fractured, as if they were carved from gems. His skin was unnaturally clear, and almost shiny. His outfit was as patched together as her quilt at home, every single article of clothing sported a wide pocket, buttoned and zipped to oblivion, bulging in strange places and looking completely out of sorts. It was a smorgasbord of colour. His boots were the only things that matched—heavy, black ones, laces and metal and hard edges. Trisella suddenly felt extremely conscious of her plain blue dress and brown boots, her yellow hair seeming plain next to the black corkscrews on Crag’s head.

‘So, Trisella,’ Crag said, and she could count every single straight tooth he had, he was so close. ‘Shall we find ourselves a portal?’

‘And if we find it, you’ll take me back to my family?’ Trisella asked. She felt that it was probably a good idea to get all the facts before she went along with a no-doubt crazy scheme.

‘PT’s honour,’ Crag promised. ‘I’ll even show you my portable portal—here, don’t touch it for the love of—it’s here, on my wrist.’ He held out his arm to her, pointing the small, handheld light away from their faces and towards the throbbing, wet, pink floor of the Waleos’ stomach… Gross. No.

Trisella moved closer to examine the shining slab. Smooth, faultless crystal shined from a dark band encircling Crag’s wrist, looking for all the world like an extremely large wristwatch, minus the hands and the knobs. It shined with power, and Trisella was reaching out before she’d even started to think about touching it.

A hard rap on the knuckles with the back of his other hand deterred her from that path. Trisella yelped and drew her stinging hand back against her chest, hissing, ‘What was that for?’

‘You could have activated it!’ Crag snapped. ‘I want to stay in this stomach for as long as it takes to find that portal and get out of here, understand?’

Trisella glared. The light was still so harsh on Crag’s face, but she could read determination anywhere—she saw it on her little brother’s face, sometimes, when he’d decided to do something that their mother and father wouldn’t approve of. Crag might seem to be a bit of an idiot, but he had a job to do, here. She may as well go along for the ride, seeing as she had no choice and no other way out.

They made their way along the stomach wall, which looked uncomfortably like a bunch of thick, velvety, pink swathes of fabric stretched across a prison of bones. She felt like a mouse in a trap. Crag’s eyes were fixed forwards, and when Trisella focused on where he was looking, all she saw was piles upon piles of pink, acid-melting waste. She had no idea what a massive creature like this would find to eat in an acid lake, but it couldn’t be safe. The puddles of formerly-whole things that it had apparently eaten were in the centre of the stomach floor, and the part which Trisella and Crag walked on was slightly raised, still disgusting, but safe from the toxic contents of the Waleos’ diet.

‘There!’ Crag whispered, shining the light into a mountain of pinkish bones and chunks of flesh, some of it visibly, rapidly rotting. Something glinted within.

‘It’s in there?’ Trisella groaned. ‘Why?’

‘You can’t always get what you want,’ Crag replied, and pressed the light into her hands. ‘Stay here, and keep shining that light where I had it.’

He slid down the wall and into the waste, and Trisella cringed at the sloppy sound his heavy boots made. She watched, holding the light, as he donned gloves and rifled through the pile, finally coming up with an extremely filthy, possibly pre-digested crystal chunks. Trisella instantly recognised them—the velvet-cushioned item in the shop window looked just like these, if only a little cleaner.

As Crag scrambled back up the bank of the stomach-river, the Waleos let out a rumble, and Trisella almost dropped the light. The ground started to shake and roll.

‘Would you hold onto these, please, Trisella?’ Crag asked, pressing the crystals into her hands and bracing her against him with a hand on her shoulder as the rumbling of the Waleos increased.

Fear bit at her throat and pulled the air from her lungs, but Trisella gripped the crystals with both hands against her chest, and gritted her teeth against the roiling vibrations of the gooey cavern.

‘Hang on!’ Crag shouted, looping his arm through her left elbow, and a flash sparked out of the corner of her eye as he slammed his palm down on his wrist-portal and then everything was gone in a burst of darkness.

The void lasted longer than it had the last time. It still felt as though there was a hook under her ribs, but this time it felt like a harpoon, dragging her underwater, the heaviness of the air making it difficult to breathe. Then, as quickly as it had begun, it stopped, and Trisella was lurching forward once more. This time, however, Crag’s hand clamped down on her shoulder and kept her upright as she swayed, dizzy and nauseous.

The sky was red. The stars were the same, but the sky was red, not blue, and not enough time had passed for the sun to be setting already. Trisella looked around, confused. She appeared to be standing on a great stone slab, red dust flurrying from where she had landed. The sky was red.

‘Welcome to Creos, Trisella,’ Crag announced, sweeping the portal crystals out of her hands and giving them to a hooded figure off to the side of their landing place. ‘This guard will restore the crystals back to their place at the foot of the portal, so I can now take you back to your family. Shall we?’

Trisella nodded, and took the offered arm, drawing breath before Crag yanked her back into the void.

The bustling streets of Drita were a harsh change from the sinister silence of the Waleos stomach and the crimson serenity of Creos. The knowledge of what she had seen in such a short amount of time seemed to press on her brain, and her lungs felt too tight, as if she was still holding her breath from the void. Her nose seemed to burn with the acid stench of the stomach waste. She had no idea how long she had been gone—it could have been half an hour, it could have been two hours. But she and Crag stood in the very street they had collided on, and he gave her a two-fingered salute as he stepped back into his portal void.

Trisella returned it, watching as he faded, knowing that she’d probably never see him again and wishing that she had asked more questions, and only turned away when she heard her mother’s cry of relief from down the street. When she looked back, after receiving a hug and a scolding from her mother, Crag was gone.

 

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The Tree, Catherine Hughes

The words seemed so casual. Slipped so easily into Mum’s stream of consciousness that I almost missed them. She’d been talking for an hour or more, filling me in on the news of the last few months. The family was gathering tomorrow for Dad’s eightieth birthday party. Phil and the girls were arriving tonight and I’d come early to help Mum with the food, although she never really let me do much. So far I’d picked some herbs, peeled the potatoes and made the morning coffee.

One of our rituals on my visits home was for Mum to catch me up; about Fred from the post office and his bad knee, Hazel’s recent pilgrimage, and Mum’s latest community choir concert. Who had left and who had arrived in our tiny town.

I sat at the kitchen table, warm and drowsy, lulled by the sun on my back, the flow of Mum’s voice and the thick, muddy coffee that warmed my hands and coated my throat.

I almost missed his name. A slight break in the narrative and a softening in her tone pulled me back to the words.

‘You heard about Rick’s accident? I thought you must have, although I was surprised you didn’t come back for the memorial service. I assumed someone would have told you. We didn’t find out until we got home a couple of days after. I did wonder that you didn’t seem to have been here.’

An almost imperceptible pause and then the stream flowed on. ‘I saw Aunty Pat up the street the other day and she said they were surprised you hadn’t come, or phoned, or something. So I wondered whether maybe you didn’t hear. But you did, didn’t you? I know he hadn’t been back for a while, but I assumed that word would have got to you somehow. Unless they thought we would tell you. But we weren’t here.’

Another pause…

‘You did know, didn’t you?’

When the flow finally stopped I found I had shut my eyes, resisting the words and the story they inferred. It made no sense. An accident meant one thing. Rick had an accident when he fell out of the tree.

 

******

 

‘Don’t be idiots,’ they shouted after us. We’d been in the pub all afternoon and decided to celebrate the end of school by climbing the tree, right to the top, higher than ever before.

‘You can’t climb trees in a storm. Rick, mate, if you want to be stupid don’t take Katie with you.’ The barman, I think it was Stan, followed us out to our bikes, leaning on the edge of the verandah.

Rick looked at me and shrugged. ‘You better stay here then,’ he laughed before taking off and shouting over his shoulder. ‘Last one to the top has to buy the first round tonight.’

Of course I went with Rick. Always with Rick. We got to the top. To the fine, small branches, balancing in the fork of the trunk, as far up as it was possible to go.

Too much beer to let us think. Not enough to make us too clumsy to try.

 

******

 

Don’t think about Mum’s words. What they might mean. What they can’t mean.

Stay in the tree. That’s much safer. Well it wasn’t really, but it might be, set against what Mum had said. Accident. Memorial. Safer than that. The tree could have killed him. Could have killed us both. But it didn’t, not that day, not any day, through all the years we lived alongside it.

That afternoon, the last time we climbed, the noise was immense. We clung to each other, scratched to billyo, whipped by branches cracking against each other and beating against our skin, exhilarated beyond words. Right at the top, looking over the town, pummelled by the wind.

The chair beside me creaked as Mum sat down. Her hands covered mine, still clutching my cooling coffee. ‘I’m sorry pet. I was sure you would know. Can I tell you what happened?’

If I didn’t open my eyes, if she didn’t say the words, maybe there wouldn’t be a tale to tell. Except for the one about Rick and me and the tree, on the day of our last exam.

The sun was still warm on my back. I uncurled my fingers and carefully placed my hands palm down on the uneven tabletop.

I shook my head.

Just stay in the tree. I can hear the wind thrashing on that wild afternoon. And now it was thrashing through my belly, just as it did on the day that he fell.

 

******

 

I thought he’d died, but it was only a broken arm and a concussion. The branch that snapped and took him to the ground was like a gun going off beside my head. Suddenly his grinning face, so close to mine, was gone, disappearing in the midst of twigs and bark and shards of branch. He could so easily have been killed, probably should have been. He looked so fragile, his flannelette shirt a splash of red in the grey and brown debris far below.

My trip to the ground took forever; the tree an enemy for the first time, gripping and clutching, trying to stop me getting down. There was no one to call, no mobile phones. Just the two of us off on our own. When there was something silly to be done, it would just be us. Enough beer and adrenalin and we thought we could do anything. Until that day anyway.

Rather than killing him the tree actually kept Rick alive. So much stuff fell with him that it cushioned his landing. He was bruised all over and one arm hung at a very strange angle but by the time I reached the ground he was conscious, groaning and laughing.

‘It was first to the top not the bottom who had to buy the next round. There was no need to push.’

I was so relieved that I threw up in the middle of the mess, which made him laugh, and groan all the more. Somehow, I got him out from under the branches and twigs. There were so many jagged edges that could have gone straight through his body if any one piece had been in a slightly different place. I threw up again. And again when I thought about it later that night and over the next few days when I dreamt about it.

 

******

 

I still have that dream. Looking down from a great height at a body, tiny and still far below. Sometimes it’s Rick, sometimes my children, occasionally it’s me I’m looking at. And then, the desperate scrabble to reach the ground, before it’s too late.

My own personal recurring nightmare.

But the tree didn’t kill him. That was Rick’s accident. It had to be. The only one.

Mum stroked the back of my hands. My eyes stayed resolutely shut. If I didn’t look at anything maybe that would work. The tree – that was the accident. He was alright after that.

We left home and went to uni; Rick to become an engineer, me a physiotherapist. We shared houses and friends and watched each other’s backs for years, inseparable, until Susie came along. Rick fell for Susie like he’d fallen from the tree, suddenly and without warning.

Just after they got together Rick came home one night, subdued and nervous, completely unlike him.

‘Susie doesn’t think it’s a good idea for us to live together or see so much of each other. She thinks you distract me and don’t let me concentrate on things I should be concentrating on.’

‘What, like her?’ I snapped.

For hours I raged, argued and ridiculed, but I lost him that night. Susie was strong and beautiful and completely overwhelmed him and our friendship. In a month he had moved in with her. Six months later they moved to Western Australia and then they were married. I was invited to the wedding but it was too far, too expensive and just too hard to think about. Although we were never a couple, he was still my other half and it was a long time before I really forgave him for letting her shut me out of his life.

We met up over the years when our visits home coincided but it was always awkward with Susie. Occasionally Rick came to Sydney for work. Without Susie, he would always leave a night free so we could catch up. A couple of times he stayed with us and Phil and Rick had a great time bonding over my strange quirks and idiosyncrasies. I went to bed and left them comparing notes and drinking whisky.

‘He’s a male version of you.’ Phil whispered gently through his hangover, the morning after one of these long nights. ‘You obviously spent way too much time together when you were kids. How can you finish each other’s sentences when you’ve only seen each other half a dozen times in the last ten years?’

Usually though, we went out. Phil didn’t mind that every now and then I would get a phone call that made me sing around the house before I disappeared for a very, very late night with another man.

The chair beside me creaked again as Mum pushed herself to her feet with a heavy sigh. A hand on my shoulder, a kiss on the top of my head and she retreated back around the benchtop to continue her work.

No matter how tightly I clamped my eyes and clenched my teeth she kept intruding.

The last time I saw Rick was very different.

It was about five years ago. Phil and I had been steadily drifting apart. We were both tired; tired of mindless work, the endless stress of trying to live well, desperate not to make mistakes with our kids, and always to be on top and in control. We had stopped talking, stopped communicating at all.

I was feeling pretty miserable when Rick called.

‘Hey Kit. I’m going to Canberra for a couple of days next week. Any chance you could come down? I won’t be back for a while and I’d really like to see you.’

‘You’re coming on your own? What’s the matter, babe? You sound awful. Are you sick?’

‘I’ll tell you next week.’ He cut me off abruptly. ‘Please come.’

Phil nodded vaguely, and I was off.

Rick had been offered a job in a diamond mine in South Africa and was in Canberra to organise an urgent visa.

‘Why Africa?’ I asked over dinner the first night. ‘And why so urgent?’

‘It’s more why not Africa than why,’ he replied quietly.

Susie had left him for one of their closest friends. They didn’t have children and after nearly 20 years of marriage his life was suddenly a vast and empty ocean.

We spent the next two days talking; about what was going on in our lives, how sorry we were that we had lost each other, and how bitter and disappointed we were in so many ways.

After dinner on the last night we traded memories of all the stupid things we’d done, including the day Rick fell out of the tree. Many hours and much wine later, our laughter dissolved into tears. I hadn’t seen Rick cry since his dog got run over in front of his house when we were about ten. When I returned to my husband and daughters I left my best friend with much sadness and many tears.

Funnily enough, those few days with Rick were a catalyst for me and Phil to sort ourselves out. I told him Rick’s news and said I was scared we were going to end up in the same place. We began to talk about the disappointment and frustrations we felt towards each other and our life, and gradually began to find each other again.

We’d heard from him occasionally during the intervening years. In the last email, about a month ago, he said he had a girlfriend that he knew we’d like and that they would be home for Christmas.

I hadn’t got around to replying.

‘I’m going for a walk Mum. No…on my own. I won’t be long. Please…just don’t fuss me.’

Head down, eyes open but my mind still doggedly closed, I strode towards the centre of town. A goods train stopped me at the level crossing. Unconsciously I began to count the carriages, beating my fist against the barrier. With every beat, another memory.

 

******

 

‘What are you doing?’

Rick was looking up, staring intently into the traffic safety mirror that guarded the crossing.

I was about four. Kristie in her stroller, and me and Mum had just collected the mail. Mum and Rick’s mum were talking. I stood alongside Rick and looked up. It was so funny; we were completely squished out of shape. Rick was like a giant ginger head with no body, freckles swimming across his face.

‘What are you doing?’ I repeated, giggling. ‘You look like a munchkin.’

Without moving Rick replied solemnly, ‘How do you reckon the cars get their shape back before they get here?’

Our first proper conversation.

 

******

 

‘Please Tam, come look, you’ll see what I mean.’

The time he tried to convince Tam Rowland, the Rural Fire Service chief, that the fire that burnt the post office down was started by a spark between the mirror, some rubbish and the afternoon coal train. The reflection of the setting sun in the gaps between the carriages was so blinding.

 

******

 

‘Rick, Rick, don’t be a dick

If you keep me waiting

I’ll give you the flick.’

As I swung around the pole, aged fourteen, waiting, always waiting for him to arrive.

 

******

 

Rick and Phil’s first meeting, unexpectedly one weekend when we were home. While I jumped about excitedly, sure they’d get on, Susie stood, looking away, impatient to leave.

 

******

 

The train passed. I crossed the track, ducked under the mirror and headed up the hill.

When we were kids the tree rose above the town, an ancient gum, vast in the middle of a paddock. A pine wind break ran along the boundary line, protecting the farm house further round the hill from hot westerlies and storms from the south, but the gum stood aloof.

As I got older and the population grew, chunks of properties were carved off and subdivisions appeared. Smart houses behind pristine hedges replaced the cows on the hill behind the town. But for many years the tree had remained, just beyond the edge of development.

I saw the shiny new gate as soon as I turned the corner, shut against the field where the tree stood. That shouldn’t be there. This day was just full of things that shouldn’t be.

The tree was still there. I could see it in the clearing, powerful in its isolation. The core of my life, as essential as my family, the home I grew up in, and Rick.

‘God help you if it ever came down,’ I muttered, slightly disgusted at my dependence.

But there shouldn’t be a gate. The tree belonged to us all; we always assumed it did anyway.

The sun was dappled, still warm but diffused by shadows from the wind break that remained on the boundary fence. The huge pines looked incongruous now, rough and ugly along one side of the avenue that was lined with elaborate topiaried hedges and architect designed mansions on the other. The wind high in the pines sounded like the sea pounding the shore and a heavy scent followed me as I headed towards the gate.

There shouldn’t be a gate. The tree was meant to help me, save me from the truth of the news I walked out on. Save Rick, save us all. How could it do that from behind a gate?

I didn’t lean on the gate. That would give it legitimacy. Instead I stood slightly back and pretended it wasn’t there. I was so weary of all the things I was pretending that day. It wasn’t in a paddock any more, just another block of land to be built on, with fences all around.

The thick knotted rope we had badgered Rick’s dad into hanging so we could get into the tree was still tied to the lowest branch. We were probably six or seven.

I couldn’t imagine letting my daughters out at that age on their own, knowing they were going to spend the day trying to climb a tree. Maybe we were older; I think our parents were just braver.

 

******

 

‘Dad, we need the rope. We really need it. Really, really need it. You wouldn’t want us to get hurt, would you? It’s so much safer with a rope.’

‘Come see Dad. Reckon we can jump down. Course we won’t be silly. Safe as…come tie it up for us and we’ll show you.’

 

******

 

I remembered the feel of the rough rope in my hands as I swung from knot to knot until I reached the smooth fork at the base of the climb.

Raging angrily at the barrier before me and at Mum’s news about Rick, I noticed a small clump of new leaves snared in the gate. Without actually touching the wire, I unhooked them and held them to my face.

And waited.

Waited until I could absorb the truth that Rick was dead.

Until I was brave enough to unclench my body and let that truth flood me.

Until I was ready to walk back home and let my mother hold me and to let myself mourn.

I crushed the leaves against my cheeks, the scent of the eucalypt gradually earthing me, while I desperately tried to ignore the truth that I wouldn’t see him, not at all, not ever again.

My other half, my tree dwelling friend.

 

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NiKKi, Hiroki Kosuge

18th April, 2014

Church

I went to church on Good Friday. A man standing by the lectern preached about the importance of choice in our lives. Then, we sang a hymn. Every single believer but me sang pretty well.

The preacher said, ‘Anyone interested, please come over here.’ The believers flooded to the lectern. They were asked to choose either a black bean or a white bean. Some took a black bean in a transparent plastic cup. Others took a white bean in an opaque plastic cup.

After having completed the countdown of three-two-one, they swallowed their own beans hastily.

At that moment, the floor underneath the believers who swallowed white beans cracked open and they fell into a deep pit. Those who chose black beans seemed to be relieved and returned to their seats contentedly. The preacher said, ‘You see? This is the importance of choice in our lives!’

Just before leaving the church, I looked into one of the deep pits by the lectern and heard a voice: ‘I should’ve chosen a black bean.’

28th April, 2014

No Woman No Cry

I saw a woman weeping in the train. Her face was reddish and slightly swollen with alcohol. Then her phone rang. While she was talking she only said, ‘Why?’ Hanging up, she started sobbing again. She cried like an animal. She opened the window, and threw the phone to the outside of the train.

The phone pinged, and was run over and killed. The louder she cried, the more brilliantly her tears dropped on her light-blue dress, and shone.

Finally, her body was completely covered with her tears. They looked scaly. She had become a large fish. After flopping on the seat several times, she leaped through the window and dived into the water under the Harbour Bridge. She left behind her tears, which were as hot as melted iron.

 

 11th May, 2014

Mother’s Day

From the bus, I saw a woman in the cemetery. She was polishing a tombstone, kneeling down on the ground. She was the only one in the cemetery. The tombstone was shining like a gray gem while other graves were deserted, or broken.

I arrived at the Shopping Centre. There was a huge arch of pink balloons and flowers for Mother’s Day. There were a lot of people carrying flowers in their arms. The petals of chrysanthemums in their arms were rigid as soldiers. I bought eggs and milk, and left, wondering how cruel Australians were, since chrysanthemums are only used in funerals in Japan.

On the way home, the bus passed by the cemetery again. Nobody was there, but a fresh bunch of flowers were left in front of the shining tombstone. The flowers were swaying like a giggling child, blown in the wind. I wondered how many mothers were lying in the cemetery. Then I remembered my own mother, Nanohana, who was named for a flower that blooms in spring, and was proud of that.

 

29th May, 2014

A Shovel

I happened to find a shovel at a museum shop, which was heavy and reminded me of my childhood. When I was a child, I was afraid of shovels. Every spring, without any good reason, the heavy lumps of iron were given to us, and we were forced to plant sweet potato seedlings. We dug, until the teacher told us to stop. The teacher said, ‘We’ll harvest in the autumn,’ although none of us asked when to harvest. I didn’t really want to harvest, because I knew I would have plenty of food in autumn even without sweet potatoes. I would rather have washed my hands as soon as possible, and have run away from the garden named after the manga character in which I was least interested. The hole I made looked like a grave for me. I didn’t like adults or children.

A museum attendant asked me if I would be interested in gardening. I smiled, looked at the shovel with a floral pattern and then asked her if I could make a grave with it. The staff was appalled and stepped back, but assured me, ‘If you want.’

30th June, 2014

An Over-Familiar Possum

I went to a swimming pool in the city. My goal was to be able to swim fifty metres. I managed to swim forty-five metres today. I am almost there. However, as I forgot to bring my goggles, my eyes became bloodshot and everything I saw became hazy. Even after I had left the sports centre, I couldn’t see things clearly.

Later, I went to a Turkish restaurant. The restaurant was filled with smoke. Rubbing my eyes, I ordered a kebab. A waiter asked if I needed a regular salad. I couldn’t read the menu but could only see his white teeth shining dimly. I left the restaurant, groping for a beacon outside.
The street lights were the strangest. I could see a dim ring around the light. It looked like a halo, and I regretted that I went to the church frequently these days despite the fact I was a Buddhist.

Walking at a snail’s pace to the station, I passed through Hyde Park. There was an extraordinarily huge possum. The possum looked at me as a beggar. I remembered that I had a Tim Tam and opened my bag. However, because of haziness, I couldn’t find it. The possum seemed to be really irritated. Finally, I found a Tim Tam and threw it to the possum. However, the possum rejected it and said, ‘Mate, can I have a durry?’ Then I finally found that it wasn’t a huge possum but a homeless person. I apologised to him and scurried back to my home.

 

13th July, 2014

An Accidental Indian Dance Instructor

As I make it a rule to write outside on a sunny day, I went to a park. When I was sitting on the bench and writing, I could see two girls dancing an Indian dance. One of them was Indian and another girl was Chinese. They seemed to be practicing for a performance. The Indian girl was teaching the Chinese girl. As they had danced for more than an hour in front of me, I realised that the Indian dance consisted of four patterns.

1. Make a loop with fingers

2. Bend knees

3. Shake hips

4. Tilt neck.

The Indian girl (I named her ‘A’) did two-four-three-one-three-four-four-two, while the Chinese girl (I named her ‘B’) did two-four-one-three-one-four-three-one. ‘A’ did two-four-three-one-three-four-four-two again, but ‘B’ did two-four-two-three-one- four-four-one. ‘A’ did two while ‘B’ did four. When ‘B’ did three, ‘A’ did four.

A: three-one-three-four-two-one-three-three-two-one-four.

B: three-one-three-four-two-one-three-three-two-one-one.

So close!

Then a strong wind blew my papers away. ‘B’ kindly picked them up, looked at the B4 sized papers on which numbers from one to four were scribbled and tilted her neck.

That’s it!

 

14th August, 2014

Lost

I took a wrong train. It was a night train to go to Melbourne. I had plenty of time and didn’t have anything to do but sleep. My face reflected in the window was as black as a portrait drawn in Indian ink. It wasn’t easy to sleep.

I looked at an obese man sitting on the other side of my seat. He had been talking to himself, while looking at his computer screen, ‘Crap…Crap…Crap…’ I looked into the screen and found he was watching a film. It was a film of his own life.

He was a child who was lovely, smart and vulnerable. He could get high marks in any subject, but wasn’t good at playing any sports. One day, he was chosen as a rugby team member by lots. It was obvious he was the poorest in the team. He didn’t practice and was absent on the day of the rugby match, because he didn’t want to show his poor rugby playing. Next day, nobody blamed him, but he blamed himself. He reckoned himself a loser. He graduated from school and got a job in a construction company, but soon quit. He stayed indoors and kept on eating. He believed he was always starving despite his body swelling like a balloon.

He clicked a rewind button and started watching the film again, murmuring, ‘Crap… Crap… Crap…’ Then, our eyes met. He said, ‘What are you looking at?’

After an awkward pause, I said, ‘I’m lost.’ He said, ‘So am I.’

 

 15th September, 2014

This Is No Longer A Bus Stop

When I got to the bus stop, there was a sign. It said this was no longer a bus stop due to the changed road conditions. I found an aged couple sitting on the bench. I said this was no longer a bus stop. They looked at each other, laughed and said that was why they were waiting here.

Again, I said this was no longer a bus stop and therefore the bus wouldn’t come no matter how long you would wait. The husband studied me and then whispered something into his wife’s ear. His wife slightly nodded and opened her bag. She fumbled her red enamel bag and took out a piece of a yellowish paper.

It was a timetable. However, I couldn’t read it because there were so many small holes in the paper. Again, I said the bus wouldn’t come, folding the paper. They burst into laughter. I was disgusted with them and started walking. After a while, however, I felt sorry for the couple. Both of them must be suffering from dementia.

After having walked for a couple of minutes, however, I heard a thundering sound. Looking back, I could see the bus stop flying across the sky, like a skyrocket. The couple in the rocket-like bus stop waved to me with big grins. Then, I realised they had been waiting for the moment the bus stop would no longer be a bus stop, literally.

 

16th October, 2014

Arsonist

She called me and said she wouldn’t be able to talk for more than ten minutes because she was now imprisoned. I was really surprised because she was my best friend and was unlikely to commit a crime. I asked what she had done. She said she set the woods on fire, which wasn’t intentional. I suggested that she should have claimed that she was innocent. She said she couldn’t because it was true that she had set fire to a palm tree in the woods. I asked her why she had set the fire on the palm tree. She answered she was falling in love with the tree and couldn’t forgive it for reaching its branch to another palm tree. She confessed that she was about to lose her marbles whenever the palm tree quivered its leaves in a blowing wind. When she was about to say something, the telephone was disconnected. I wondered if she had already become crazy.

Afterwards, I told this creepy story to my partner. ‘It’s crazy to fall in love with a palm tree, isn’t it?’

My partner, a eucalyptus, didn’t say anything as usual. I hugged him tightly, closed my eyes and then enjoyed his clean scent.

 

 4th November, 2014

Coy Carp

There lives a coy carp in the Sinobazu pond within Ueno Park in Tokyo. No one has seen it swimming. Hidden under waterweed, seemingly, it keeps still. It has a hobby, though.

The coy carp is into Twitter now:

 

#Shinobazu Pond

Water is lukewarm.

 

#Shinobazu Pond

Am afraid of Dengue fever.

 

#Shinobazu Pond

I wanna go to the beach someday.

 

There lives a coy carp in the Shinobazu pond within Ueno Park in Tokyo. No one has seen it swimming. Hidden under waterweed, seemingly, it keeps still. It is an ambitious carp, actually.

 

 16th December, 2014

Wednesday, the Day of Loneliness

Mr Sato our boss is now often absent on Wednesday. It’s quite okay because he is just taking his paid leaves. He’s within his rights.

One day, one of my colleagues, however, told me Mr Sato’s secret in a cafeteria at the company.

She said in a low voice, ‘A friend of mine saw Mr Sato in a park on Wednesday.’

After looking around carefully, she added, ‘He was on a swing there. Alone.’

I didn’t know if I should laugh in the moment like this. I just imagined a middle-aged man sitting on a swing by himself.

I thought it would be the ultimate loneliness.

 

 6th January, 2015

Beer & Beach

Mum would tell me when I was a child that life originated on the bottom of the ocean. Then I wondered if we would ascend into the sky like balloons when we died.

I had a friend called Jim. When I first met him, we were final-year students at the university. He was the kindest man I had ever met. We would often go to the beach on Sunday. Jim would tell me the names of birds floating in the clear sky. I would talk with him about my dream of becoming a poet. He would never laugh at my callowness. It may be just because both of us were intoxicated throughout the summer, though.

‘I must be strong to be a poet,’ I said.

‘Poets must be vulnerable,’ Jim said.

After we got drunk, we would exhaust ourselves swimming at the beach.

When the summer was over, Jim left the town in order to get a job in a city on the east coast. On the day he left, we promised to meet again. I haven’t seen him since then.

Some years later, I really became a poet.

Jim became an ornithologist, I heard, and died of lung cancer at twenty-seven.

I have forgotten his gentle voice, sunburnt skin and coy smile. We didn’t take any pictures in that summer. All I can remember now is the taste of bitter tides, and that we did believe we were immortal while we drank beer on the beach.

 

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From Shattering, Ally Bodnaruk

Shattering is a young adult science fiction novel set in a far-flung future-city of August, where tensions between the Patron ruling class and anti-technology activists are building. At the centre of the controversy is the Imprint program, a new method of prolonging life using synthetic bodies and downloadable ‘imprints’ of the human mind. Mallory Li and her best friend, butler, and Imprint Bligh find themselves drawn into the mess when Mallory’s inquisitiveness sets her down a complicated path.

 

Chapter One

For tonight’s evening of never-ending torture, Mallory is stuffed into a pale-yellow dress that swishes and flounces and does nothing to keep her warm. It’s the old-school kind, the type that doesn’t know how to change colour or flash sparkling, star-bright lights. To complete the look the family’s pseudo-Butler, Bligh, carefully pins her hair up; he’s the best at not poking her scalp with the sharp hair clips, so she always shoves the box at him before Mum has a chance to grab them.

‘Make sure you leave some strands out,’ Mum instructs Bligh. ‘It’s becoming quite uncouth to have it all slicked and pinned back. Make it look a little more natural.’

‘Of course Ms Li,’ comes the butler’s response as he teases some of Mallory’s thick, black hair out of the bun, ‘is this better?’

‘Oh yes, dear, that’s lovely. Don’t you look darling Mallory?’

With the number of pins still sticking out of her hair where Bligh has yet to secure them, Mallory thinks she looks more like the bushes in the park during winter, all sticks and tufts of sad leaves rather than anything darling. Maybe she can sneak out to the park and hide in the bushes. Blend in and stay there until everyone’s either sick with worry or forget about her altogether. Whichever comes first. She can live in the park and jump out at passers-by, all wild and spiky, and be one of those human interest stories on the news.

‘Thanks Mum, it’s perfect.’

‘Call me Mother at the party, dear,’ her mother softly scolds her as she adjusts the dress straps. ‘And don’t go copying Laurel Sandifer’s weasel of a child and call me by name. They may think they’re setting a new trend, but I guarantee they just look like fools.’

‘Of course I won’t, Mother.’

Her mum pats her cheek and gives her a brief, pleased smile. ‘You are a good girl Mallory, you do your father and I proud.’

Where Did She Come From? Who Is She Really? Is There A Family Out There Missing Her? Find Out Next Week On ‘Wild-Park-Girl’.

Mallory spends most of the shuttle-ride to the party thinking about the rest of the opening credits. She’s curled up in one of the window seats, tucked against glass, while her parents sit in front speaking quietly to each other. They’re being hosted this week by Patron Ama, a biotech engineer who runs the biggest augmented reality company out there — S-A Industries. Mallory’s dad started out working under Ama, but he’d left the company a few years before Mallory was born. He doesn’t talk about it much, Jeremiah Li isn’t a man of many words — he always has too much work to do. But when he does he speaks fondly of his time at S-A, and with a great deal of professional respect for Ama in spite of Everything That Happened. That’s how her parents refer to it, capitalisation and all. Everything That Happened. From the professional disagreements, to the firing, to the law suits, to even more law suits, to her father’s own Patronage and Ama’s refusal to let the bestowing of the title go unchallenged. Most of it had gone on when Mallory was still quite little so she doesn’t remember much of anything, but she can hear just how bad it had been in the way her father describes it as ‘a hard time’ with a tired frown or her mother’s description of Ama as a despicable woman.

None of that means they can skip the damn party when Ama hosts it though. Mallory has checked. If she hates the parties with their roundabout conversations, bright lights, and intense scrutiny, she feels an incandescent rage towards the parties at Ama’s. The stares increase tenfold as people peer at her parents and Ama, waiting to see if someone cracks. They always talk to her as well, something about it looking worse if they didn’t. At least Ama seems to despise the little act as much as they do. Mallory thinks she does at least; it’s hard to get a read on her.

They have to travel through Mid-City to get to Ama’s mansion so their shuttle is gliding through the high-rises and densely packed apartment buildings. It fills Mallory with a lingering claustrophobia, so different to the meandering estates and sprawling corporate headquarters that make up the Upper-Echelon. Concrete walls rush by as the shuttle speeds along; beads of light spilling out of windows, the only thing breaking the monotony. As the shuttle line traces the buildings and edges closer to ground level, Mallory begins to notice bursts of red writing spattered against the walls.

ELITISM KILLS

PATRONAGE = MURDER

WE ARE THE OPPRESSED

The walls of August turned a canvas for those that call themselves revolutionary.

‘Pay them no mind, dear,’ her mum calls back to her. ‘All great societies must have their dissenters.’

Mallory hears her dad mutter, ‘Though why ours must be so pointlessly annoying,’ before her mum frowns him into silence.

When the revolutionaries first started becoming more active a few years back it had sent a frisson of excitement through the Upper-Echelons. It had sounded daring and brave and like their world was expanding into some great Epic. They did small things at first; graffiti and hacking jobs, a few labs got broken into. Nothing too disruptive. But then there’d been an attack in the Factories, one of the largest computerised production lines was put out of business for a week and the Patrons had sent in the Guard. There hasn’t been any revolutionary activity outside of Mid-City for over a year.

Secretly, Mallory has been a little disappointed at the lack of excitement.

As their shuttle pulls up outside Patron Ama’s house, Mallory’s stomach tightens. Ama’s house is almost a palace. It’s gargantuan. Pillars of marble and gold rise from the ground and line the entrance drive, like path markers to a temple they exclaim ‘I am here, I am grand, and you will worship me’. The house itself is a testament to technological and architectural wonders, but built in the old-time style everyone knows Ama favours. It looks like it’s made out of golden sandstone, edged in the same marble as the pillars, and decorated in elaborate gold-leaf and swirling carved patterns. But each brick is actually made of durable poly-synthetic-plastic and contains a computer processor linked back to a central server. Mallory loves it as much as she hates it. She loves the complication, the sheer brilliance of having a house built out of a computer, but she hates the arrogance it exudes. It screams power and status, a snarling beast that demands respect from all who pass through. Mallory has wondered in the past how hard it would be to hack; she’s considered getting Bligh to reprogram it to display childish images and insulting words. But actions like that would be enough to have her thrown in jail, no matter her parents’ status, so she leaves her plans as a fantasy.

Mallory imagines the house covered in sparkling butterflies and love hearts as they walk up to it just so she looks less impressed.

‘Why are you smirking? Stop it,’ her mum murmurs. ‘You have to stay in control, dear.’

‘Yes Mother, of course Mother,’ Mallory intones, pulling her face back to neutral. It’s possible, Mallory thinks, that Mum will only be pleased when Mallory successfully learns to replace her face with a blank piece of paper. Then whatever emotion she’s expected to have can just be drawn on.

Her mother gives her a cautionary look as they walk up the grand staircase and into Patron Ama’s party; Mother, Father, and Daughter — picture perfect family.

 

The ballroom is lit like gold. Opulence spills out of every corner of the ballroom, delicate flowers hang from baskets (the real thing!) while little bots flutter and flit like iridescent butterflies over their heads. But all Mallory can focus on is her shoe pinching her left heel; rubbing in a sharp, stinging way that heralds a blister. She tries to shift her weight to her right to relieve the pressure, but the movement only causes another stab of pain and a wince that she doesn’t manage to conceal. Her mum squeezes her elbow, though the conversation she’s holding with Patron Ama doesn’t falter. Mallory can tell that she’s going to get another lecture on poise and proprietary when they’re back at home. The reprimand makes her palms itch. She grits her teeth to keep the frustrated words down inside of her where they coil in her stomach like electric wires; sharp and shocking.

She’s never enjoyed the Patron Parties, endless parades of only the most powerful, the most influential. Her parents force her to attend because they think it will instil a greater understanding of August City’s politics. But the parties are boring in a way that goes beyond a lack of something to do. It’s people either ignoring her or talking down to her. We think of you as a mere speck if we think of you at all, their eyes tell Mallory as they look at her with disdain.

Mallory is not allowed to speak. Her parents are too afraid she’ll say the wrong thing to the wrong person. She’s just here for her parents to show her off while she studies the delicate balance of civility and cut-throat politics that keeps August running. She’d been fascinated by it when she was younger, the way the Patrons would circle each other with their words, talking round and round about everything except what they really wanted to say. Yet somehow they still understood each other. Her mum says it’s all about listening to the things they don’t say, the gaps in the conversation, and learning to leave those spaces in your own sentences. It had seemed kind of mystical up until her parents decided she needed to learn to do it herself.

Now it just seems stupid.

Twice a week she has to sit down with her mum and Bligh and work on her Politicking. She hates it. But Mum insists it’s what she needs to know to manage the world.

‘This is important Mallory,’ she says whenever questioned. ‘This is your future.’

Even Bligh thinks it’s important that she learns, which is saying something. Normally he agrees with her when she complains about all the dumb little things that constitute life in the Upper-Echelons. So she goes to the lessons and she tries to remember it all. She can’t help it if her inner-monologue, the one Mum is always telling her to rely on, is more interested in just screaming than in passive-aggressive implying insults.

‘Let them point out their own flaws themselves, if you can. Ask them if they’re going for a vintage style if their clothes are out of season. Wonder where their partner is if you know they called it quits,’ her mum recites. Mallory imagines punching them in the face instead.

Whatever. She swallows the thoughts down and watches old Street Fighters repeats on her QScreen in her room after every lesson. Her parents don’t like her watching ‘those kinds of shows’, the ones that are meant for the unsophisticated and uncivilised masses of Mid-City and the Factories, in no way for the daughter of a Patron. But Bligh is the only one who ever comes into her room anyway and he doesn’t care.

That’s not the complete truth. He does care, just not about what she watches. He just knows she only likes watching the fights when she’s feeling particularly angry. He even stood up for her and asked her parents if she should learn self-defence (they completely dismissed the idea, but she loves him for trying). That’s how it goes with Bligh, he just seems to get her. Ever since Dad brought him home from the lab it’s felt a little bit like it’s her and Bligh against the world. Sometimes she imagines they’re in one of the ancient cop shows Aunt Emmy studies, all well-timed jokes and a complete understanding of one-another’s psychology. Mallory and Bligh. Bligh and Mallory. They’d have pithy nicknames for each other like Robo-cop or Terrier and Mallory would always turn up late to crime scenes with a grin and two coffees while Bligh cracked jokes about crime waiting for no one.

She went through a phase when she was fourteen of asking Bligh, ‘what’ve we got,’ every time she saw him.

Breakfast Scene. Enter Mallory. Eyes crusted with sleep, dressing gown falling off one shoulder. Bligh stands at the counter, apron covering his blue button-down, a plate of eggs in one hand and a piece of toast in the other.

Mallory: What’ve we got. (It’s a statement and not a question). Serious voice.

Bligh blinks.

Bligh: ‘Breakfast?’

Yeah, it always worked better in the old shows. Bligh’s not as witty as she sometimes likes to think he is anyway.

 

Her shoe is still hurting. Damn thing. Bligh had told her to make sure to wear them in before the party tonight but she hadn’t listened. Well, she had listened; she’d just decided she had better things to do. Now her heels are burning, practically on fire, and all Mallory wants to do is take them off and sit down in a corner somewhere and douse her feet in ice.

‘And how are you doing in school, Mallory?’ Ama turns to speak to her just as Mallory is gearing up for another pain-relieving shuffle.

Mallory nearly falls over. It probably just comes across as a slight waver, a rocking movement as though Ama’s words have lashed out like a punch and tried to knock her over. Ama doesn’t speak to Mallory. No one speaks to Mallory. It’s an established fact of the world. Like gravity. Or that Bligh can always tell when Mallory is lying.

Shit. Shit. Shit. Her mother’s eyes are drilling into her. Do not disappoint! Telepathy is not needed for Mallory to know what her mum is thinking.

‘It’s going well.’ More detail, don’t freeze up. ‘We’ve begun studying the Theory of Synthetic Intelligence.’ Something else, something else. Oh. ‘Carrie might have mentioned it?’

Perfect. Ama’s niece is Mallory’s age, but is absolutely hopeless at biotech. She works in the class below Mallory for Tech Lab.

‘No, I don’t think Carrie’s class has begun that unit yet,’ Ama says pleasantly enough, but the way Mallory can see her mother smile in her peripheral vision means Ama is at least a little put off.

‘Oh, well it’s a very interesting topic.’ Neutral, keep your face neutral, she thinks. Show no fear.

Mallory thinks it’s working. She’s about to give Ama a politely snide smile, lift one corner of her mouth and duck her chin just like she’s practiced —

The ballroom is suddenly filled with darkness as the lights go out. Everything goes quiet as conversations grind to sudden halt. The lights at a Patron Party don’t just go out.

Mallory freezes in shock like everyone else. She wants to reach for her mum’s hand but doesn’t dare move because what is happening? Harsh breaths and trembling fingers. Is the room really filled with darkness or is it just empty of light? she thinks, somewhat hysterically.

Quiet voices begin to fill the void of dark silence that surrounds them.

‘What’s going on?’

‘Did Ama plan this?’

‘Why did the lights go out?’

The lights come back on as suddenly as they went out and nothing has changed. Except. No one is moving, wide-eyed as they look about the room trying to determine if this is something they need to be concerned about. No one wants to be the first one to panic.

‘Nothing to worry about!’ Patron Ama shouts suddenly to the crowd, ‘I told maintenance they had to wait till tomorrow for the tests, but clearly I need new employees.’

There’s a titter from the crowd as they pretend to relax, but Mallory can see the Guardsmen on duty racing out of the room as Ama glances around with a tight expression. A flash of red from above catches Mallory’s eye. Instead of the soft gold from before, the bots are twinkling blood red.

‘Oh dear,’ her mum says from beside her as she too looks at the ceiling. ‘We’d better go find your father.’

 

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Badu Mangrove Morning, Willo Drummond

When the sun hits

the surface of the Badu

morning do you know

what must be done?

 

When the sun hits

the surface of what must be done

fish wake to feed

river and ocean

 

river fish feed

shore birds training

ironic eyes to

assess the day

 

shore birds assess

the Badu morning

while grey limbs write

shadows across the silt

 

shadows lace the surface

of the Badu morning

of everything here

as good as breathing

 

of everything here

as sure as hope, where

the sun lights the

surface of the living

 

where the sun hits

the hope of the shivering

rippling sensation

of understanding

 

when the sun glints

off the living morning

there is a rippling

of intention

 

when the sun glints off

the morning badu

when thought is no more

and only time will do

 

when everything

breathing is alive

to sensation, alert

to morning glance

 

when the sun glances

off the thought

of no more, rising

waters turn to milk

 

when the rising

milky badu

thoughts breathe

under-surface secrets

 

secrets surface then

to cool their heels

with detritus

in white water

 

when thought hits

the surface of the badu

morning the sky

glimmers at your feet

 

when the surface of

trees go under

when the sky rises up

we hold our breath

 

we hold our breath

with each root

that we’ll make

one more day

 

under the surface

of this sky, under the

hope we hold for one

more chance of breathing

 

when the breathing

sun skims roots

as the sky rises up

everything sways

 

everything sways

and shivers everything

slips just out of grasp

 

when the shivering

sun breathes badu

do you recognise

your intention?

 

When you meet your

breath by the sliding sun

when the light hits

the surface of the shadow lace

 

when the sun hits

the surface of the Badu

morning do you know

what it is you must do?

 

Notes

The Badu Mangroves are located at Homebush Bay, Sydney. Badu is the Dharug word for water: “Dharug Dalang. A Collaborative Tool for Language Teaching”, http://dharug.dalang.com.au/Dharug/plugin_wiki/wordlist [Accessed 17 August 2014].

 

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A Void Dance, Suzanne Strong

Drunk on the adulation of the humming crowd beyond the blinding white, and the tequila shot he had downed, he staggered, then leaned into his characteristic seductive sway, exaggerating each step.

‘Wish you, wish you were mine…’ His voice was deep and textured and his mouth touched the microphone intimately; his breath was loud and heavy as he examined the faces of the thousands of hungry people before him. A void, an emptiness was present in this stadium, masses of humanity, seething and moving, arms up, around and reaching out to touch him in some way. Their need as great as his; it was an unspoken exchange between them, a brief affair, a salacious ‘one night stand.’ Thousands of women and men’s faces, adoring, some crumbling under their emotion, ravenous for his gaze or acknowledgement even if for a second, like lions pacing waiting for their sinewy carcass at the zoo, a tinge of desperation mingled with violent objectification. The exchange was mutual.

He fixed his gaze on one tall blonde woman; her slender arms and fine shoulders excited him, her eyes looked back at him unflinching, strong and seductive. He wondered if they would meet later. Inside he felt this familiar falling feeling, like in his dreams very often, this sinking sensation in his gut he used to have when hurling himself off a cliff into the river of Ku-ring-gai National Park. Though that had been exhilarating, this however, was not. It was more like an ache, an abyss, an anxiety and an imperceptible void. It was usually only momentary.

Until he turned his back on the crowd and faced his band, catching the eye of Tim who was beating his skins with characteristic ease and flair, like he was himself dancing on top of each of them. He shot Dylan a satisfied grin. The song climaxed and they strummed the last remaining chords. Silence only for a moment, then the band resumed the next song, the drums lead and Jai came in with deep, driving bass. The crowd roared, thousands of people he would never know.

On this expanse of wood, with lighting, erected amplifiers, electric guitars and bass, a mass of drums, lights and images streamed across the audience, he felt he could exist here forever. His body was robotic in its sensuality. His missed his long dark hair that used to cover his eyes, now he ran his fingers over the shiny wetness of his bald head. He was neither conscious of his body nor acting deliberately, as if he left his body when he performed, occupying a space above himself hovering over the circus below and perceiving himself from the outside.

His father used to line up all of his children and demand one by one they stated what they had achieved that week, made to justify their worth. Dylan remembered his father’s closed fist slamming into his face; full and hard like a plank of wood that reverberated sheer pain through his sinuses and nasal cavities. These memories were fierce but it was his father’s words that haunted him more; no one will ever want you, look at you. Dylan knew his wife, Sophie, loved him and Zac and Angel…but there were the women…always an insatiable desire for this. Sophie understood mostly; he always made sure she knew that he loved her and never would leave, but you know, he was who he was, ‘Dylan Johnson.’ Flashes of their more vehement fights recently, unsettled him now, but he reassured himself of her loyalty and love.

Sweet guitar chords, deep bass and the driving of the drums reverberated around him as a tangible landscape and delivered him away. As the song faded Dylan turned to Jai, Tim and Michael who all stood next to him now and they all linked hands and bowed.

His ears rang as he walked off stage. Even though he had worn earplugs, it never seemed to totally block out the wall of sound that remained. Back stage there was an ecstatic vibe, people sipping champagne, chatting with band members, leaning against the wall, women playing with long strands of their dyed red hair as they focused on every word that Jai, Tim and Michael were saying and laughed in shrill tones.

Dylan laughed. ‘Ahhh boys,’ he thought. Images of those three from the past, flashed brief footage across his mind, everything they had been through, the births of both his children, Michael’s recovery from drug addiction and subsequent divorce and the death of Jai’s sister.

‘Great show.’ He patted Jai and Tim on the shoulder as he passed.

‘Fuck yeah.’ Jai embraced Dylan in a magnanimous hug.

‘As always,’ Tim answered with a cheeky expression.

Dylan smiled at both of them, that expansive, enigmatic grin curling at its edges that had appeared on many magazine covers, newspaper articles, online and television talk shows.

Their manager David tapped Dylan on the back.

‘Hey man, Sophie gave me this to give to you.’

‘Weird, thanks mate.’

‘No worries. Pretty old school, old school love,’ David said chuckling.

Hearing her name shot a painful sensation through him that he couldn’t explain. The sight of her handwriting on the envelope unnerved him, he didn’t know why. Smiling briefly at a brunette and blonde on the way, Dylan went to his dressing room. He could party soon. Sitting down before his mirror, he poured himself a scotch and opened Sophie’s letter. He sipped the scotch relieved there was a momentary break from everything. Opening it, he heard her voice as he read:

 

Hi Luke,

I can’t do this anymore. You treat me like shit, your behaviour with women after shows is disgusting and you tell me I should be okay with it, your drinking, the pills, parties, your mood swings, irritability and rage. I’m exhausted in every way. You treat the kids badly and you’re competitive with them, especially Zac. I thought I could handle the women and sometimes I hoped you would change, but clearly you don’t want to. You always say you can’t do ‘normal.’ What you mean is you want to do whatever you want, and fuck what I need. When you say you love me, it passes right through me as if I’m a ghost. You don’t seem to know what love is. None of this fame shit is real, Luke. It used to be just us facing everything. When we met years ago, you chased me, wanted to prove your worth to me, doing things to please me, telling me you’d make it . I never understood this. I loved you already, Luke Johnson, quiet, shy and gentle. You were always Luke to me. Now I don’t seem to know you at all. You’re not the man I loved 10 years ago. I miss him. Was this ever you? I don’t even know. I’ve been so alone for years now. You act as if I’m lucky to be with you. You’re so arrogant. Your personality changes — Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde at times and it scares me when you yell and throw things. It’s the same look you get when you see a new woman you want to chase. I don’t want Zac to think this is how he should be or Angel to put up with this. You really don’t care about me or anyone else, especially your kids. Whenever I raised your behaviour and tried to leave in the past, you’d argue, yell and blame me. I have to leave, for myself and the kids. Don’t try to find us. It’s best we don’t see each other for a while. I’ll ring you so you can talk to the kids.

Sophie.

 

Dylan threw his glass smashing it completely on the wall; golden brown liquid drew crooked lines down its whiteness. Tim and Jai appeared at the door. Dylan covered his face with his hands.

‘What the fuck, Dylan?’ Jai said.

Dylan didn’t raise his head. After a pause he said, ‘She’s left.’

‘What? That can’t be true, she’s left before man, don’t worry she’ll come back again,’ Jai said putting his hand on Dylan’s shoulder.

‘Sorry, man.’ Tim said.

Dylan didn’t say anything and picked up his phone. Dialling Sophie’s number he knew it would go straight to message bank. When it did, hearing her voice was painful. He sought to veil his heightened adrenalin and the familiar inflection of aggression in his voice.

‘Come on Sophe, you know everything is not as simple as this…Just speak to me, I can come to where you are, we can talk about it.’

He slammed the phone down sending items on the dressing table flying.

‘She won’t talk to me,’ he yelled at Jai. ‘I need to find her, I’ve gotta go…’ He made for the door staggering past Jai, who grabbed him.

‘You won’t be able to find her, man.’ Dylan struggled to free himself. Jai held him.

‘I will. I have to…’ He pushed Jai against the wall.

‘If she doesn’t want to be found she won’t be,’ Tim said.

‘You have no idea what I’m going through. Stay out of it.’

‘She’s come back,’ Tim said with concern.

‘This time is different, she’s determined,’ Dylan said walking out the door. Jai followed Dylan onto the street.

Dylan stood on the sidewalk of Kent Street, inner city Sydney. The din of traffic, people’s voices and laughter from nearby restaurants and clubs provided a cacophony of sound, in the cool evening air. Dylan bent over and nearly threw up. Jai approached him.

‘What the fuck am I going to do?’ He looked up from his hunched over position.

‘Don’t know mate, but I’m here for you.’

‘I feel safe with Sophie. What if she really does leave me?’ His eyes were wide and his face crooked with fear.

‘I don’t know Dylan, but maybe you should think about how she felt with you.’

Dylan and Jai walked to a bar on George Street. Dylan rang Sophie’s phone repeatedly, with no reply. After many drinks they found their way back to their hotel in Elizabeth Bay. Jai stayed with Dylan, downing more shots of vodka in his room and listened to Dylan’s bleary-eyed ramblings about Sophie and their fights recently and how it couldn’t be over. Eventually, Jai went to his own room to sleep.

Sitting on the end of his bed, Dylan blinked through the haze of copious amounts of scotch and vodka. He did take cocaine on occasions but not this evening. He wept lying face down on the bed. Everything seemed to be caving in on him. He felt like he couldn’t breathe. He took out the picture of Sophie and Zac and Angel in his wallet and traced their faces with his fingers. Tears obscured everything before him.

Images of his mother’s peaceful features, her green eyes when the essence of her life left them and she breathed her last, overwhelmed him now. His mother, his only safety was gone. Now this overwhelming grief swept over him, as if it had happened again. An insurmountable emptiness, pain and abandonment seemed to cave him from within – only this time he didn’t think he could survive it.

He went to the drawer next to his bed where he kept his pills, sleeping pills mainly, though he had others for anxiety and depression as well. He examined the bottle. Opening his mouth, he swallowed a large handful of the small white pills with a shot of vodka, and laid down on his bed. Closing his eyes, he imagined his mother in her floral dress that played in the wind, hanging washing in their backyard and smiling at him in their swimming pool. Picturing Sophie or his kids was too painful. He surrendered now; the fight was over.

 

‘He’s tortured, Jaz,’ Sophie said to Jasmine sitting in her living room late that evening. ‘Do you still love him?’

‘Love him? I think love became fucked up a long time ago, Jaz. I feel numb, nothing. There were times he was humble and pleaded with me and for a while he would be different, and then it would go back to how it was, switched sometimes in a moment, like a split personality. He doesn’t seem to have a conscience. I’ve realised something though, Luke’s addicted to the fame, attention, women and can’t feel good about himself without it. Me? I’ve been addicted to him.’

‘Sweetheart, you’ll be ok. I’m here for you.’ She touched Sophie’s hand.

Jasmine got a call on her phone, ‘What? Luke? In hospital? What for?’ Jasmine listened to her husband David on the phone and turned to Sophie whose face was distraught.

‘He’s in hospital, Sophe.’

‘What? What do you mean?’ Sophie said, rising to her feet from the couch as if it was an involuntary action.

‘He overdosed on sleeping pills.’

‘I can’t breathe Jaz…’ Jasmine took Sophie in her arms. ‘Is he ok?’

‘He’s ok, Sophe, it’s not your fault.’

Sophie cried into Jasmine’s shoulder.

 

He opened his eyes as the scent of her perfume permeated the room, embracing him. She looked smaller, frailer in a way he couldn’t define as she walked towards his bed. Like a flower separated from its source; browned at the edges and with petals precariously threatening to fall. Her shoulders seemed more exposed, the bones in her neck protruded from her green singlet, her body so familiar and beautiful, had always provided a sharp pain inside, bitter sweet like something he longed to possess mixed with dark regret, and inner unworthiness. Her hair was down, barely brushed, she had no make up on, and her green eyes regarded him with a weariness he had not seen in her before. Darkness framed her eyes. Dylan could barely look into them they seemed to blink away tangible pain. Tears traced her cheeks.

‘Oh, Dylan,’ she said barely audible. She took his hand.

‘You never call me that,’ Dylan said, looking down at her fingers in his.

‘I’m so glad you’re okay.’

‘Sophe.’

‘Are you ok?’ she asked.

‘I’m ok,’ Dylan said, forcing a smile.

‘You need help.’

‘I know,’ he said.

Dylan was pale, the lines in his face looked like crevasses, deep, chasms concealing underlying truth. Apparatus was attached to his chest, small round circles with winding chords, an IV in his wrist and a machine monitoring his heartbeat displayed green lines of security. He looked at Sophie as if he was a child craving his mother.

‘Please get help. Think of Ange and Zac. We can’t lose you.’

‘I know. I’ll try.’ He glanced into her face. She said nothing. ‘I know you’ve heard it before, sometimes we all need a wake-up call. I’ve always been doing my best, Sophe you know that.’

She looked down and let go of his hand.

‘What about us?’ Dylan didn’t like the sound his voice made uttering these words.

‘I don’t know. It’s more important you think of the kids. I should let you rest. I’m so glad you’re ok. I was so worried when I heard. I’ll bring the kids in tomorrow, okay? They really want to see you.’ She kissed her hand and placed it on his. ‘So glad you’re okay.’

‘Thanks Sophe. I love you.’

Sophie smiled slightly, though she did not look into his eyes. Her lips formed a straight line and her gaze became vacant like seeing an abandoned house on the inside when all human inhabitants had left. Dylan had not seen this in her features before. She stood up and left, leaving only the scent of her presence. He closed his eyes—he did not want to see, anymore.

 

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From Young Warrior, Jacqueline Brown

Young Warrior is an adventure novel for middle school children. Eleven year old Kevin Jones stumbles on a strange and mysterious dojang, from where he is transported to a fantastical realm to train with Master Cheng, and to be taught the ancient secrets of the monks, martial art and combat. But when the magic force that keeps peace in the realm begins to fade and Master Cheng goes missing, Kevin will need to use everything he has learned, as well as a few tricks that only a modern kid would know, to save Master Cheng and his world.

 

Chapter One: The Strange Shop on Orchard Street

Today wasn’t the first day Kevin Jones had stood outside the strange shop that was tucked in the corner of Orchard Street. Its narrow red door had a brass knob no bigger than a brussels sprout. Its little square windows were dirty and grey. Hanging from the roof on rusty chains was a small wooden sign that might once have been colourful and grand, but was now tired and faded.

The sign read:

J.Brown_image1

For a long time Kevin hadn’t even known about Orchard Street. Kevin’s quickest route from his school to home was to turn right out of the front gates, pedal all the way down the main road, then turn left, right and left again. In a hurry, with his school bag over his shoulder and a jumbo juice-box in his hand, he could make it home in four minutes and fifty-two seconds, if he threw his bike down on the lawn and his mum had left the front door unlocked.

J.Brown_image2

But it hadn’t been fast enough. Not after Levi Baxter transferred to the school. Not after Levi Baxter, who was two years older and twice the size of Kevin, took a special disliking to him. Not after Levi Baxter started waiting for Kevin at the school gates, chasing him down on his pushbike that was bigger and fancier than Kevin’s (whose bike had been bought in a ‘Bargain Sale’ of unpopular stock the shop was desperate to get rid of). Four minutes and fifty-two seconds was no longer fast enough for Kevin to make it home without his tie missing, a dead arm and his grubby school shirt pulled over his head.

The last time Kevin cycled the main road home was on the Thursday before Easter. His class had been let out early for the school holidays, and he was flying down the street, his skinny legs pumping on the pedals, a giddy grin on his face. ‘In your face, Levi Baxter!’ he shouted. ‘Let’s see you catch me today!’ Then as Kevin rounded the corner…

Levi Baxter stepped out in front of him. Kevin turned the front wheel sharply to the left and tried to ride straight past him, but Levi grabbed the strap of his school bag as he went past, and yanked. Kevin yelped as his bike slid out from underneath him, and he dropped to the ground. Levi’s meaty face stood over him, grinning. ‘Caught you, Jones!’ Then he wrestled Kevin into a headlock until he couldn’t breathe.

That was also the last time Kevin saw his school bag. By Easter Monday, Kevin heard that his exercise books were seen strewn around the local oval — lodged between tree branches, hanging over the goal posts. One was even stuffed up a down-pipe. Levi Baxter had been busy.

Kevin Jones had spent his Easter holidays devising a new route home from school.

 

Kevin’s New Plan To Ride Home

  • Do NOT go near the front gate! Exit by back gate instead.
  • Go down the concrete steps (twenty-two of them, must stand up and use legs as shock absorbers or Owww!)
  • Zig-zag through the back streets (practise my wheelies!)
  • Peddle down Mrs Mac’s driveway and across her yard (get a good speed first so I won’t get caught)
  • Go through Mrs Mac’s back fence where the palings are missing
  • Go across the oval
  • Then under the trees on the far side (duck for branches)
  • Peddle up the dirt jump and over the creek (Whooooooo!)
  • And cut through the very end of the odd little street to HOME!

 

The ‘odd little street’ was, in fact, Orchard Street, a street which Kevin had only just discovered. The quiet dead end street seemed forgotten by the whole neighbourhood. At the very end was a narrow path between two fences (just wide enough for Kevin’s handlebars to fit) which popped out onto Kevin’s street. From there he could make it safely through his back gate and home. Kevin wasn’t as big and his bike wasn’t as fast as Levi’s, but he was nimble, he could weave in and out between trees and land small jumps easily. He was certain if Levi tried to follow him home on this route, he wouldn’t get caught.

J.Brown_image3

On his last day of school holidays Kevin had timed it on his stopwatch. In a hurry, with his new school bag worn like a backpack and with both hands on the handlebars, he could make it home twelve minutes and ten seconds.

But he never did. Because at eleven minutes and thirteen seconds each afternoon since that day, Kevin stopped outside the strange shop that was tucked in the corner of Orchard Street, and pressed his nose to the dirty glass.

Can you see it on the map? It’s the little rectangle in red.

The first time Kevin looked inside, the windows were so dirty that he couldn’t see in. He pulled the sleeve of his jumper over the heel of his hand and rubbed on the glass. It made a loud squeak. He jumped back. Had the people inside heard? He turned to pick up his bike to leave, but stopped. Who was inside? What did they do in there? Kevin pulled up his sleeve and rubbed again, this time a little more carefully so he didn’t make a noise. After a moment, the dirt began to come off and there was a small patch in the middle that he could see through. He pressed his nose firmly against the glass, cupped his hands around the side of his face to cut out the glare, and stared in.

The room was dingy and dim. There was no furniture and the grey walls were bare. A single light bulb hung from the ceiling on a long wire, giving off a pale light. In the centre of the room stood a squat looking man dressed in long robes of orange cloth, with large panels of gold embroidery around the collar, on the sleeves, and on the bottom hem which brushed his bare feet. The man was staring downwards, the bald crown of his head towards Kevin. His arms were outstretched, and between his hands was a gold bladed sword, its tip touching the stone floor in front of him. Suddenly in one swift motion (Kevin would swear from outside he heard a ‘whoosh!’ as the air parted) he lifted the sword high above his head and…

Kyup!’

Kevin leapt away from the window. What was that? He looked around. No-one else was on the street. No-one else was there to notice. He crept back up to the glass, and when he peered in again, he was astonished.

The little room he’d been looking in was utterly different. It was bright and modern. Lights were on, the walls were painted white and packed with photographs. There were mirrors at the far end, with two flags above them. Kevin recognised the Australian flag, its blue, red and white, with the Union Jack and Southern Cross. But the second flag was unlike anything Kevin had seen. It was square, on a turquoise background with a golden tower in each corner and a red flame in the middle. Through the glass it almost looked to Kevin as if the flame was flickering. There were blue mats across the floor, and a bald-headed man (who Kevin was certain he had seen a few moments ago wearing robes and holding a sword), was dressed in a black outfit with red edging. He was pacing along the front of the room, shouting instructions with a sound Kevin hadn’t heard before.

There were four students, lined up in two rows of two, each dressed in black pants and jackets, (‘dobok’, Kevin would later practise saying, enjoying the way the ‘bok’ burst from his lips). They had coloured belts around their waists. Every time the instructor shouted a different word, the four students punched, and gave a funny yell.

‘Hana!’             

‘Kyup!’

‘Tul!’                 

‘Kyup!’

‘Set!’                 

‘Kyup!’

‘Net!’                

‘Kyup!’

‘Tasot!’             

‘Kyup!’

Suddenly the instructor stopped shouting and looked through the clear patch in the window straight at Kevin. Kevin stepped back. He shouldn’t be peeking. But the instructor merely nodded slowly in acknowledgement of him, with a hint of a smile, then turned his attention back to his students.

‘Yossot!’            

‘Kyup!’

The four students threw another punch.

Kevin grabbed his bike and pedalled home, his heart beating fast. He felt a little scared, a little excited, and most of all, he couldn’t wait to look inside again tomorrow.

For two weeks each afternoon after school, Kevin stopped at the shopfront, pressed his nose against the window and watched the students on the blue mats. The tall student with a blue belt around his waist could somersault over a pommel horse and land back on his feet! The student wearing a green belt kicked quick and high. The other two children were small, and the legs and sleeves of their uniforms so long, that they had been rolled up. They were wrestling on one of the mats. Kevin watched the students curiously. If he could learn to do that, would he be better prepared against Levi Baxter? Then he pictured his mum. ‘Maybe next year,’ he saw her saying, as she always did when he asked about something that needed money. She would follow it with a quiet sigh. Plus, he was still in trouble for ‘losing’ his school bag (completely unfair as it wasn’t even his fault!) Besides, there was something else that bothered him. It was the instructor.

Only occasionally did Kevin try to get a peek at the instructor. Shorter than the student in the blue belt, his head was shiny and domed like the top of a brown egg. When he demonstrated kicks, his legs moved so fast Kevin only saw a blur, followed by a crisp thwack as his dobok pants snapped. But even out of the corner of his eye, Kevin couldn’t forget the image of the orange and gold robes, a glinting sword, the sound of a whoosh as it cut through the air…and it made him shiver.

 

Today, as Kevin was pedalling out of the school grounds, dark clouds blew over the sky. By the time he reached the oval, raindrops were falling. He stood up in his pedals and rode faster. Too wet to stop today, he thought. He jumped his bike over the creek, and turned onto Orchard Street when a fierce wall of wind howled down the road and hit Kevin from behind. Woomph! It blew through his woollen jumper and chilled him from his back to his elbows. Where did that come from? he thought. Kevin mounted the curb and cycled down the footpath, out of the rain. But the wind followed him. Wooooomph! It hit him again, this time whipping around his legs, and he wobbled on his bike, but he kept pedalling. He was almost at the shop when the hanging sign began to swing on its rusty chains, sending an eerie whine down the footpath. Kevin stared up at it as he cycled underneath and then WHAP! A piece of paper smacked him right in the face. It covered his eyes, he was cycling blind! Kevin snatched the paper away with one hand, just in time to see the shopfront directly in front of him. His bike slammed into the wall, and he tumbled to the ground.

Owwww!’

Kevin rolled over, and lay on his back for a moment, catching his breath. He rubbed the back of his head, a small nugget was already forming there. He examined the rest of himself. A few scratches on his knuckles and he’d have bruises tomorrow, not too bad. But his bike hadn’t been as lucky. The front wheel was bent and the tyre had burst open. The handlebars were scratched and the shiny bell dome was dented. Kevin pressed the thumb lever. Instead of a sprightly ‘briiiiingggg’ to announce itself, the bell made a disappointing ‘vvvvvvvvvvv. Kevin slumped. Replacing the bell would take the last of the ninth birthday money he had stashed in his piggy bank. The rain was getting heavier. And he would have to push his bike home. What a stupid day. He stepped forward to see if anyone from inside the shop had heard anything, when a dreadful sound boomed from the end of the street.

‘Jones. I SEE YOU!’

Levi Baxter!

‘This is how you’ve been getting away!’ he shouted.

Kevin stepped backwards, and reached down for his bike. ‘Stay away from me Levi, or I’ll…I’ll…do something!’ he said. He swung his leg over his bike and pushed on the pedal, but with the bent wheel it wouldn’t move. Levi started to laugh.

It must be explained here that Levi Baxter didn’t laugh like other eleven year olds. His laugh was slow and menacing, and his chin and throat puffed out like a bullfrog (Josh Sampson had passed a note around the class while they were watching a video about bullfrogs in science lesson — ‘Looks like Levi Baxter’s twin brother!!!’ it said. The note made it half-way around the class before their teacher Mr Hutchins spotted it, and Noah Samuels ate it on the spot). Now Levi was pacing, step by step, down Orchard Street towards Kevin. ‘What are you going to do?’ he said. He was close. Too close. Kevin pushed on the pedal again, but it wouldn’t budge. Levi had nearly reached him. Kevin threw down the bike and started to run. ‘You’ll never outrun me, Jones!’ And Levi leapt after him.

Without thinking, Kevin changed direction and threw himself at the red door. He grabbed and turned the brass brussels sprouts handle, threw the door open and jumped inside. Bang! There was an eerie echo as the red door slammed shut behind him. Kevin stared, terrified, as the door handle rattled and the red door shook, but it didn’t open. Levi banged on the outside. His voice was muffled through the door, but Kevin heard him. ‘You can’t hide in there forever! Next time, Jones. Next time I’ll get you, you wimp!’ He heard the sounds of his bicycle being stomped on. The crunch of metal. A final ‘vv v v v v v …’ from his bike bell. Then silence.

‘Phew.’ Kevin turned away from the door.

Standing in front of him was the bald-headed instructor.

The instructor looked calmly at Kevin. Then he slowly bowed his head. When he raised it again, Kevin noticed his face was older than he’d thought. His golden skin was wrinkled like a shrunken balloon and his eyes were little half-moons. His eyebrows were pale with flecks of gold. Unsure what was expected, Kevin awkwardly tried a bow.

‘Welcome,’ he said. ‘I am Master Cheng.’ His voice was gentle but confusing, an accent Kevin hadn’t heard before. ‘I am waiting. You are here for free lesson.’

Kevin looked blankly. Master Cheng nodded in the direction of Kevin’s hand. Kevin looked down. Clutched tightly in his fist was the small piece of paper that had hit him in the face as he had cycled down the road. He hadn’t realised he was still holding it. He smoothed it out and read what was on the paper.

J.Brown_image4‘And you are owner of paper, yes?’ said Master Cheng.

Kevin thought about it. If it flew into his face, did that make him the owner? The door behind him had stopped rattling, but he had no idea whether Levi was now waiting quietly in ambush outside. So he nodded. Master Cheng smiled.

‘Then your time has come, young jeonsa.’ My young student. And he pointed Kevin in the direction of the dojang.

 

Download a pdf of Chapter One of Young Warrior

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