Tag Archives: Issue#9

The Course of Empire, Mischa Parkee

Part One: The Savage State

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Thomas Cole, The Savage State. Oil on canvas, 1834

This is the savage state. You are the savage that charges down into the wilderness; a hunter with only eyes for your prey. This is your basic human instinct, yet you are susceptible to the expectations of consummating an empire. The light of dawn is struggling to break through the clouds and maintain brightness in the severity of the anticipated storm; your rawness of emotion, your untainted early stages of desire, your ultimately savage state. But the sun is soon to be unsuccessful; the figurative native is soon to be dispossessed from the land he calls home.

 

*

 

It is raining the day she goes to see Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire. The humid wetness soaks through the layers of her dress and her skin, and her bones shudder in exhilaration. The paintings from Cole’s collection are on loan for only a matter of weeks before they are to head back to the New York Gallery of Fine Arts. Mercy had driven the two and a half hours from Sydney to Cessnock to spend the day absorbed in the rich and rustic textures of the converted town hall, now known as The Hunter Gallery. Cole’s is the biggest collection that the esteemed rural gallery has ever commissioned and she is excited about finally getting to see one of her favourite artists’ works in the flesh. She had studied his brush strokes, his technique, and his harboured ambition to illustrate a pessimistic vision – the rise and fall of civilisation – for her thesis at the National Art School.  But now, looking at the dark palette of The Savage State, she sees it, not for its commentary on man’s early relationship to nature, but for what it really is. She sees the chaos that had been her relationship with Lucas; the cavernous wilderness in the foreground is like a giant gaping hole waiting to swallow the charging native, whose only thoughts are on securing their prey. She sees the vast openness of the land and danger of the looming storm clouds, and how easy it had been to be swallowed by her ideals.

There had been something about him that had made her ravenous. The movement of the days became more like that of poetry. The sun would lull into the moon, the days unknowingly become nights. All her thoughts were consumed by the burning beneath her skin, that instinctive impulse to secure her prey. It was as if her concept of time had become nothing but an inconspicuous blur as her hunger took over her senses and ravaged her thoughts. As it kept slipping into new day after new day, time seemed to escape her conscious thoughts until she was nothing but the shell of her former self; nothing but a fleshy animal of desire and hibernation. She had been part of the real world when she was first with him, but part of a fantasy with her own set of unattainable expectations, oblivious to the poison of her prey.

Mercy had always tried to make contact; when they went to the little Tapas restaurant on their first date, or when they walked down to the pub to get a quick bite before they went to see the latest superhero film that Lucas liked. Every so often she attempted to subtly let her hand catch the back of his as they walked in a strategic dance, like a hunter stalking its prey. Although Lucas seemed not to notice, she was sure that he had just been playing hard-to-get. Looking back, however, she thinks herself foolish for not seeing it earlier, for wanting to capture the feeling of it all with oils on a piece of canvas when every moment a little piece of thread had been unravelling from a jumper; the storm of the Savage State had been closing in on the sun.

 


Part Two: The Arcadian State

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Thomas Cole, The Arcadian or Pastoral State.  Oil on canvas, 1834

This is Arcadia. It represents the space inside your mind that believes in miracles and impossibilities. The storm has cleared to reveal the idyllic alternative to the savage state. The part of you that is unpredictable; aligned with the hunter’s mindset of securing your prey. Much of the wilderness’s uncertainties have given way to ploughed fields and pruned bushes, depicting the foundations of what will eventually be your empire. It is the fabled world of knights in shining armour, of princesses who always find their ‘happily ever afters.’ It is the greeting-card picture world of your brain; the world that never came into being, and that never can.

 

*

 

Lucas hadn’t felt the rain. He wore only one layer of clothing, and Mercy noticed that he had no goose-flesh and did not shudder. Mercy, who sat in the passenger seat of his Toyota as they made their way back to Annandale after seeing one of Lucas’s unmemorable superhero films, remembers feeling the cold wetness of the rain seeping into her pores as if she had been sprayed by a garden hose. Her eyes continually glanced sideways, searching for Lucas’s eyes, for a reaction from him; an acknowledgement of her coldness, for him to take her hand or turn the heating on. His eyes met hers once, briefly, and then continued watching the road ahead.

She was wearing the crimson blouse she knew Lucas liked best. He had told her on one of their first dates that it had gone well with her long ebony hair. Mercy had been in a particularly jovial mood despite the weather. She was imagining all the ways in which it might prompt him to encourage her into his bedroom. He would take off her wet clothes and warm her body against his own. It would be a feeding ground. Her, pulling his see-through white shirt over his head, and him, tugging at each little red pearly button of her blouse with the fumbling hands of desire. They would kiss each other greedily, devouring one another until there was nothing left but scraps – leftovers for a morning feast.

‘I’ve never felt this close to anyone before,’ he had whispered, jolting her awake from her fantasies.

Mercy knew from bits and pieces he had told her that he wasn’t close to his parents – though she hadn’t quite deduced why at that point – and that this had fractured him somehow, like there was a magnetic field inside of him that would always find a way to repel.

Her heart swelled. ‘Neither have I,’ she replied.

But of course, that wasn’t exactly true. She had felt a similar way at least once, or possibly twice before. There was Darren in Year 11. He had wooed her with his surface level love of Romantic poetry, which had an unwavering ability to satisfy her youthfully primitive desires when they should have been studying for biology exams. And then there was Noah during her first years at art school. Mercy had fallen for his bad-boy-misunderstood persona, although she quickly tired of him when his façade wore thin, and she discovered that really he prided himself on taking inspiration from Picasso simply so he could paint whatever the hell he wanted and claim it was ‘abstract.’ But she didn’t want to ruin the moment with Lucas. She didn’t want their relationship to fall. She had wanted the idyllic pastures of their early and neatly defined relationship to remain perfectly ploughed, ready for the next stage, which meant responding in ways she knew he wanted. She was the hunter, and he was merely her prey.

Mercy wonders now, however, whether or not Lucas had been playing hunter as well.

 


Part Three: The Consummation of Empire

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Thomas Cole, The Consummation of Empire. Oil on canvas, 1836

Within the Empire, the majestic sturdy columns have slowly been constructed to form the foundations of your idealised relationship. Each brick, each stone, each pillar represents a struggle you believe you have conquered together, that you have built over time to finally form the beloved city of your dreams. The knights and princesses of your Arcadian state often visit this idle place to feast with their old friends and laze beneath the sail of a lulling boat, drifting without direction. It is a monument of achievement and pride, a soundly built structure of your desires. But an Empire built of ideals is doomed to fall. You cannot live in the Empire, feasting and idling for long. Soon you will have to face reality, and in reality your beloved Empire has been consummated to fail.

 

*

 

Mercy was preparing the fruit platter. The setting sunlight twinkled softly through the window of their kitchen.  The thought of finally having a space of their own, one that they had built themselves to create their very own personal empire had overwhelmed her with pride. She was starting to truly believe that their relationship was reaching sustainability, that they were compatible, that they understood one another beyond the initial hunger. By the time she had placed each watermelon slice, each strawberry quarter, each little plump blueberry into its prospected spot on the plate she had created quite a well-constructed tower.

‘Looks good,’ Lucas said, peering his head around the corner of the kitchen door.

She remembers feeling at ease in their new kitchen, preparing for their small housewarming as if she had done it a thousand times before, as if her and Lucas’s joint preparation was some sort of anticipated ritual. Looking back on it, however, Mercy thinks about how when she was doing the vacuuming, Lucas hadn’t even offered to lift up his feet.

When their guests arrived – an eclectic mix of Mercy’s old friends from Fort St High School, artsy classmates, and Lucas’s joinery buddies – she poured drinks and smiled like she was the face of a toothpaste ad. And later in the evening, when they had all had a bit to drink, talking over the top of one another about their lives and where they saw themselves in the future, Lucas reached across her to pour himself his sixth whisky of the night. Mercy forced herself to feel an indifferent sense of contentment as his arm brushed against hers, and she gave him what she thought was a playful glare of admonishment.

‘Just one more,’ Lucas declared.

‘Don’t you think you’ve had enough,’ she said, reaching out to place an affectionate hand on his sun-tanned arm.

Lucas drew away. ‘Oh don’t be ridiculous, Mercy! I can have one more drink.’ She was shocked into immobility at his hostility as he grabbed the whisky bottle in a fumbling display. The act might have been considered funny – a humorous anecdote to be passed on at the next dinner party; “remember that time Lucas got really drunk and made such a fool of himself? And remember how caring Mercy was, taking him off to bed like that? If that was my boyfriend, I would have left him in a heap on the floor.” That was if he hadn’t lost his footing and catapulted straight into her festooning fruit display with a loud and echoing clatter.

Mercy remembers watching the watermelon pieces drop with a deflated sounding squelch, the carefully quartered strawberries hit the floor, and the perfectly plump blueberries roll off in all directions (she had found little collections of them under the couch and beneath the shelves later). With the blinds tightly shut and the lamps casting a harsh glare across the mess, she noticed how the light was suddenly shining on things differently.

 

Part Four: Destruction

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Thomas Cole, Destruction. Oil on canvas, 1836

Destruction is dawning. This is what has become of your meticulously constructed Empire. This is what happens when you refuse to let nature take its course, when you become too distracted by the ideal. This is what happens when two people come from incompatible magnetic poles; they repel. Nature is dissatisfied with the idealised, man-made structure. The Empire begins to crumble, to fall apart at the seams. The savage clouds that the sun fought so hard to overcome are thickening, planning their destruction. The knights and princesses of Arcadia attempt to flee, terrified of the city’s crumbling walls, the rising water, and the fire’s ravenous rage. But there is no escape. The native is coming to reclaim the land that rightfully belongs to him.

 

*

 

‘Let’s go see the factories,’ Lucas announced one overcast weekend in July. ‘I want you to see where I work.’

He was reaching out. He must have been. Desperation filled Mercy’s lungs. He hadn’t initiated an outing in a long time. She couldn’t quite remember how long it had been, but she thought sometime around when she first moved into Lucas’s apartment about nine months prior. She didn’t know how she should answer. The desperation to connect clouded her judgement.

She had been reading Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia at the time. She remembers this because she found her copy a few days later, discarded amongst an array of trashy Woodworker and GQ magazines. Her heart had beat faster at the thought of Lucas pondering Chaos Theory and the analogy of stirring jam into pudding. On a lazy Sunday afternoon perhaps, when the sun hovers in that perfect transitional stage between day and night upon the horizon.

She never before considered the possibly that he had simply tossed the book there without even realising it was hers. Had he known it was one of her favourites? Surely she’d told him – although, staring blankly at the flames of the Destruction, she can’t quite recall.

When they arrived at the factories, they had lain on the concrete of the deserted carpark and watched the smoke leak from the heavy industrial chimneys as casually as if they were watching stars. Mercy wanted to see what he saw in the smoke, his furniture-making and the industrial world it came from. But in her mind, she was lying in an uncomfortable position with the pressure of the oily concrete beneath her head, watching pollution fill the air, slowly taking away their oxygen.

Is that what he sees too? Mercy had thought. By the look on his sombre face, he must have seen something more. He seemed to possess a connection to the factories and their smoke that ran deeper than a workplace affinity.

Maybe he saw how soullessly mechanical they were, that all they were able to do was something they were programmed to achieve. It concerned Mercy that there was not an ounce of life in the factories and that the same emptiness she associated with them she also saw in Lucas’s eyes. A vast, yet polluted nothingness, like the clouds of smoke that ooze from the chimneys, resembling giant cigarettes. The smoke had no purpose. It was simply what was left over from the mechanical workings of the factories where most of Lucas’s time was consumed.

Maybe that’s what he saw, Mercy thinks, a resemblance to himself.

 

Part Five: Desolation

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Thomas Cole, Desolation. Oil on canvas, 1836

The desolation will arrive slowly. The remains of the Empire will decay, until there is nothing left of it but a cold hard emptiness. You brought on the desolation yourself. The chaos of a deteriorating ideal has taken its toll, and nature has finally taken back what belongs to it. Beneath the surface of the mysterious water lie the remnants of destroyed cities, the desolate state of relationships passed, of artificial empires. People may visit it, take pictures, commemorate what might have been. But in the end, it is completely void of life, nothing but a past to be consumed by the earth until there is nothing left of it except dirt. From the dirt, with time, the wilderness of the savage state will return, slowly replenishing itself until the cycle begins again and another idealised relationship builds its first brick in what will eventually become this once again: desolation.

 

*

 

Mercy stares at the landscape of the final painting. There are no people in it, she realises for the first time. Perhaps they all drowned in the expanse of water whilst she had still been forcing herself to remain on the surface, too afraid to be dragged down to the bottom where all of those dead souls lie. There is nothing there but a sky of savage clouds, devoid of the mystical dawn light she so desperately wants to see in everything.

But, like jam cannot be unstirred from pudding, she knows that time cannot turn backwards. Mercy is there with them now, sinking beneath the surface to let nature swallow her. She embraces the desolation. She no longer feels like one wrong move could fracture her meticulously crafted world, no longer feels like the native of The Savage State is displaced from his homeland.

Mercy walks down The Hunter Gallery’s stone steps with purpose, out into the greying light of the late afternoon. When she reaches the final step, she turns back around to glance at the converted town hall. Its sturdy sandpapery columns look like the entrance to a tomb, Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire locked tightly away inside. A moment passes before she turns and takes the last step to the bottom, making her way down the long, winding path back to where she parked her car.

The empire that she built up with Lucas had fallen, leaving her in the vast solitary space that stretches out beyond the horizon – further than her idealistic eye can see. And she is free to do anything she wants with it.

 

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Wednesday, Bridget Corke

Bing bong.

I look up from where I am crouching on the floor, legs tucked under me and a wine bottle in each hand as I restock the shelves. A face with more wrinkles than my shirt peers down at me through square metal-framed glasses that magnify the eyes to alien-like proportions. Those same eyes follow me as I push myself up from the floor until I am the one looking down.

‘Hi Mrs Foster. Will it be a green ginger wine or a sherry today?’

Those big eyes get even larger, then blink, as she tries to figure out which drink will be the best company over the next couple of weeks; and which will put the smallest dent in her pension. Once a fortnight on a Wednesday, after she has collected the pension from the Centrelink down the road, Mrs Foster comes into the shop to refill her stock. Her swollen hands, riddled with arthritis, finger the collar buttoned at her throat. A fine gold chain drapes down her chest; a diamond ring with intricate work around the central gem hangs from the chain and swings as she shuffles closer to me.

‘Mmm, I think I’ll take a green ginger tonight, thank you, Jay. I need a little spice in my life. This is the only way I can get it, ever since Eddie died.’ This statement is followed by a wink in my direction.  I slap a smile on my face and try not to let on that inside I’m cringing. Mrs Foster needing ‘spice’? Nope. Not going there.

In a few strides, I have grabbed the fortified wine and am at the counter. I’m hoping to get Mrs Foster out of here before she says anything else that I’ll have to spend the rest of the night forgetting. Slipping the bottle into a brown paper bag, I put out my hand for the coins with which Mrs Foster will inevitably pay. Slowly, she counts out the $8.90, starting with a few gold coins and then methodically counting out the silver shrapnel.

‘$7.80…$8.30…$8.40…’

Finally, satisfied that she has provided me with the correct change, Mrs Foster trots to the door, wine in hand.

 

*

 

Bing bong.

I’m in the fridge, stacking cartons of Carlton Draught and shifting from leg to leg trying to stay warm, when a man wanders into the shop. He appears to be in his late 30s with a paunch that rests over his trackie pants. He has on runners with the soles worn away and dirt smudged across the front and the top. A frayed t-shirt clings to his chest and back where sweat has soaked through the material, leaving dark patches. He looks around the shop blankly. I catch a glimpse of the bloodshot whites of his eyes and his tiny pupils. He doesn’t seem to take me in as he continues to glance around, standing in the middle of the aisle and making no move to get anything. I wonder if he’s forgotten whatever it was that he came in for. As he again turns his head my way, he jerks back as he realises that I’m standing on the other side of the cooler room door. For a few seconds, he stands there looking at me while I stand there looking at him, and then he wanders back out of the shop.

Bing bong. 

A group of guys, not much younger than me, maybe eighteen or nineteen, walk in. With heads held high, hands in pockets and some shoving, they make their way to their Holy Grail, the premixed drinks. They crowd the fridge door and pull it open.

‘How ‘bout two six-packs of the Woodstocks?’

‘Nah, we need more than that. Get the Woodies and a ten-pack of Jack Daniel’s.’

‘Fine, but you’re paying for it.’

‘Fuck off…I paid last time. This is your shout, you tight arse.’

The smallest of the group looks over his shoulder, sucking on his lip, then turns back to the fridge and sticks his hand in. After some more shoving and arguing, they come over to the counter. Two six-packs and a ten-pack hit the bench. A dark-haired individual with a patchy moustache that looks as though it has been drawn on with a felt tip pen, leans against the counter as he waits for me to ring up the grog.

As I scan the packs of alcohol, I notice that the lip sucker is now standing off to one side, hunched over and with his arm around his middle. Subtle. I’ve seen enough people shove bottles up their tops to know what a thief looks like.

The patchy moustache holds out some cash, but I don’t take it.  Instead, I lean on the counter and look straight at the thief. My eyebrows draw together, and my nostrils flare.

‘Hey mate… planning on paying for that?’

He turns red and looks down at his hoodie.

‘Oh… uh… yeah. S-sorry, I totally forgot about it.’

He puts a cheap bottle of red on the counter along with the other grog.

 

*

 

Bing bong.

It’s five minutes until closing when the same dishevelled man from earlier stumbles back through the front door and sways over to the spirits. He picks up a bottle, looks at it without really seeing it, then puts it back down, too close to the edge of the shelf. He repeats this process as he makes his way up the aisle, every few bottles looking over at me with pupils that seem to be even smaller than before. I tap my fingers on the counter. This isn’t looking good for me. Peering over in my direction again, his gaze flicks down. I follow it until I realise I’m looking at the till.  Great. My heart begins to thump, throwing itself against my chest as though it can make a break for it. Sucking in a breath, I glance at the door on the other side of the room and then back at the guy perusing the spirits. Who designed this goddamn trap?  Someone who obviously couldn’t be bothered to think about providing future employees with an easy escape route. Dick.

Christ, where did my boss say the panic alarm was? I can picture Dave’s round bearded face smiling up at me, welcoming me to the shop. I remember him telling me about the staff discount, but nothing else springs to mind. I really should have been paying more attention. Now I’m stuck in the shop with this dodgy bloke eyeing the till and a panic button whose location I don’t know.

I think about calling the cops. He hasn’t made a move yet, but the longer he stays here, the more the knot in my stomach tightens and bile rises in my throat. When I put my hand into my pocket and feel nothing but a few empty gum wrappers, I remember that my phone isn’t here. I left it at TAFE this morning. Bloody hell. I was so tired that when it was time to leave I left my bag in the locker.

I reach for the landline on the counter only to see the fluoro pink post-it note stuck on top. It’s broken and won’t be fixed until Friday. While I go through my options, I watch the man continue his way around the shelves. Maybe he won’t try anything. My heart continues to pound in my chest. Trying to get out and save itself while leaving the rest of me to deal with the situation at hand. Maybe he will leave like he did earlier, although, now that I think about it, that could have been him casing the joint.

Bing bong. 

We both look over at the door as Mrs Foster enters. She doesn’t seem to notice the man standing a few metres away from her.

‘Jay, I got home and decided that I might as well buy a sherry too, just in case of emergencies.’  She winks as she walks down the aisle towards me. I glance at the man who has now turned and is facing us.

‘Sure thing Mrs Foster.’

The sherry is on the shelf half way between us. I edge around the counter and try to calmly make my way towards the bottles. He hasn’t changed his position; he just continues to stare at me. His dirt covered hand moves near his side, and I see a flash of silver. Yep, pretty sure that’s a knife. I grab the bottle closest to me then head back to the counter in an awkward side shuffle, ensuring that my back is never turned to him. I place the bottle on the counter and notice that Mrs Foster has begun to open her purse to pull out more coin shrapnel.

‘This one is on the house, Mrs Foster.’

‘Oh no, I can’t possibly take it for free, it’s-’

‘Please just take it.’

‘No, that wouldn’t be right.’

‘For Christ’s sake just take the bloody bottle!’ I shout, shoving it across the counter and into her hands.

Her eyes open wide and her mouth quivers. I’ve never been anything but pleasant with her before, but if that was a knife, she needs to get out of here before the shit show begins. As I walk to her on shaking legs, preparing to shoo her out of here, the man takes a few steps forward. I freeze, not sure what my next move should be. He is looking at the ring on the chain around Mrs Foster’s neck and raising his hand, which I can now clearly see is holding a knife.

‘Gimme the riiing,’ he slurs as he lurches forward.

Mrs Foster stumbles back into me. I can feel her body quaking against mine.  She’s so small that the top of her head barely reaches my chest. Her hand wraps around the ring, and she shrinks back from the knife-wielding nut job in front of her.

‘I said gimme the ring.’

‘No! Eddie gave this to me fifty years ago. I’m not giving it to you.’

‘I don’t give a fuck about this Eddie bloke. Gimme the goddamn ring,’ his attention shifts from Mrs Foster up to me, ‘and you, gimme the cash!’

My big hands become useless, causing me to fumble with the till. I’m basically swatting at the register and hoping that it will open. Jesus Christ! Finally, the drawer dings open and I grab all of the notes, shoving them into a brown paper bottle bag. When that’s done, I grab a handful of coins, then look at the knife-wielding fiend.

‘Uhhh, did umm… you want the coins as well?’

He stares at me for a few moments as though weighing up whether or not it would be a good idea.

‘Nah, too much hassle. Just the notes and the ring.’

‘Look m-mate, it’s her engagement ring given to her by her dead husband. I can get you a Hennessy Cognac from the special liquor cabinet. That one’s worth about three and a half grand. Probably more valuable than that ring.’

The longer he is here, the more sober he appears which is frightening in its own way. His thick brows pull down to meet the creases in between his eyes. I hold my breath as I wait for his answer.

‘And how will I make any money from that? I don’t know anyone in the market for a fancy bottle of grog, but I know plenty of blokes who’d fork out for a nice piece of jewellery. Now stop pissing about and hand it over, you stubborn old bitch.’

I look at Mrs Foster and see her jaw tighten and her eyes narrow. No one’s coming to help us and Mrs Foster isn’t going to back down. I round the counter and push Mrs Foster aside, barging into the intruder. Having not fully come down off his high he is still unsteady on his feet, and he falls backward onto the wooden floor. His free hand latches onto the front of my polyester shirt, taking me down with him. I wriggle and pin down the arm with the knife, but he’s strong, despite his unhealthy appearance. We roll on the ground. He tries to stab me while I avoid the blade and try to hold off the arm attached to the knife. Every breath burns my lungs, and my arms ache as I try to wrestle the knife from his grasp. The man’s struggling begins to weaken and I let my gaze drop to the knife.

THWACK.

I rear back and place my hands on my forehead. The fucker head butted me!  The pain in my head feels like my skull has been cracked. A hard ache radiates from the point of impact to the base of my head. I try to stop focusing on the pain remembering that the bastard has a knife. He’s coming at me with it now. With one hand still clutching my head, I scramble backwards until my shoulders hit the counter. He’s still advancing on me, and there isn’t anywhere else for me to go. I close my eyes and wait for the inevitable.

CRACK.

I hear a hard smack and open my eyes to figure out what has happened. Through bleary vision my watery eyes, I see Mrs Foster standing over the two of us, her bottle of sherry raised and fire in her eyes. She kicks aside the knife in the man’s limp hand. My heart continues to race as my aching head tries to take in the scene before me.

‘I’ll take up that offer of a freebie Jay.’

 

 

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Games for Boys: The Myth that Women ‘Don’t Play’, Kaitie Andrews

The jaws of the dragon swing open and waves of blue flame envelop the dungeon. Black scales shine, and bones protrude through the leathery skin, rippling with each slight movement of muscle.

A colossal figure emerges from a stone archway and plunges a battle-axe into the gaping mouth of the shimmering beast. The Barbarian’s chainmail coats his muscular frame and blood seeps through cloth on his arms and legs. An Elven Ranger flings a careful arrow directly into the dragon’s icy blue eye, sending it reeling. The roar shakes every inch of the stone dungeon the party had just struggled through.

From the back of the room, a tiny man, with a lute, begins to strum, empowering the efforts of the attackers before him. The dragon bares his murky yellow teeth and claws at the Bard.

At the edge of the party a tall, slender Elven Sorcerer adorned in flowing robes of navy and gold lifts her wand. Cosmic energy flows through the dungeon as the rest of the party turns and waits for the Mage to unleash her devastating power.

The Sorcerer is elegant, proud, sexy; a fourteen-year-old girl’s fantasy avatar. My fantasy avatar, actually. A deep, too-dramatic backstory involving Fae ancestry weaves in and around my head as she speaks with words that are mine.

‘I cast Burning Hands on the drag –‘

My speech is cut off as the party collectively groans. I’m sitting at a makeshift table of books, which is covered with chips, dip, soft drinks and mobile phones. Halo and rock band posters adorn the walls, and I’m resting my head on an unmade bed. Crumpled clothes are spread across the floor like the autumn leaves outside. There is a d20 clutched in my hand as my body slowly begins to deflate.

‘You can’t use Burning Hands. You’ve already used your level 1 spell slots, remember?’ The skinny boy, with a shaved head sighs. ‘Seriously, how many times do we have to go through this?’

‘Leave her alone, she’s getting it,’ my friend the Bard, sitting to my left, gives me a thumbs up. I smile back at him and look down at my cantrips instead.

‘I’ve got this.’ I nod my head and pump my fists a little, hoping that I’m assuring the group.

This was my first Dungeons and Dragons campaign. We were at Matt’s house, our Dungeon Master. I’d only been invited because the Bard wanted to get in my pants. But I’d begged to go because the idea of a group of people sitting together and tapping into our imaginations was intoxicating. At the time, it seemed worth it to put up with the pimply bag of hormones waiting eagerly for his turn to play.

I wondered if, months after starting Dungeons and Dragons, when the friend who brought me along tried to plant a sloppy kiss on my neck and grope my breast that perhaps I’d gone too far in my quest to regain entry into this magical world. I tried not to let this ruin my love of the game, but suddenly every newbie mistake I made was no longer endearing in his eyes. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the seductive Sorcerer had become a liability to the party. I quit a few weeks later.

Growing up, I used to play Power Rangers with boys in my class amongst the grim concrete of our schoolyard. I would go to my next door neighbour, Steve’s house, and we would trade Pokemon cards. My friend Nick had a Nintendo 64 and sometimes Mum would let me go over after school to play Banjo Kazooie. These experiences and my sense of play and imagination were ruined so much earlier than my friends for one reason: If you’re a woman in a male-dominated space, whether it be in the corporate world, your home life or just in the hobbies you enjoy, there is a danger.

For years, I felt that sometimes I was reconciling my sense of personal safety just to be ‘one of the boys’ – innocent neighbourly visits as a young girl turned into late night walks to a friend’s place with a console with a group of guys I’d just met. Where were all the fellow women?

In 2014, The Internet Advertising Bureau published statistics that 52% of all UK gamers were women.[i]

I found this statistic only weeks after it was published. It was a hot topic on many online message boards, including Reddit. It rocked the minds of many young nerds, especially those used to the sausage fest that gaming discussions and events had become. Despite the pervasive and unavoidable belief that women are endangered in gaming culture – to some extent, they represent or are, approaching the majority.

Did the possibility of a more inclusive future of gaming where women wouldn’t have to feel at risk excite these guys? Nope – it terrified them.

Why? The myth, that women just ‘don’t play games’ or that it is a male-dominated hobby, seeps through every nook and cranny in gaming literature and representations in popular culture. Let’s be real – the first thing many people, myself included, think about, in relation to ‘Dungeons and Dragons,’ are losers who drink copious amounts of Mountain Dew and don’t have girlfriends.

The idea of girls playing Dungeons and Dragons is unheard of in popular media. I had little interest most of my teen years. The image of dweebs with no social skills sitting around playing fantasy games is not enticing to a young girl. Comic book stores? According to pop culture, always run by lonely, fat men. Not flattering portrayals of people who just have shared interests.

This perception has not gone unnoticed by its participants. Men who identify themselves as gamers have gone so long being referred to as losers that when a woman finds interest in the same area, she’s often met with hostility. What gives her the right to intrude on their safe space? Why is she allowed to openly declare she loves World of Warcraft when I’ve been ostracised for it? She hasn’t earned it.

This idea sounds silly, and rightly so. But it exists. And it’s expressed through misogyny. I have a lifetime of experiences to show for this silliness. When working at EB Games, I had a customer roll his eyes and ask, ‘Okay, well, can I talk to a male that works here?’ when I admitted I was unsure about Yu-Gi-Oh cards.

It runs much deeper than just my experience playing Dungeons and Dragons. The gaming industry, as a whole, is still obsessed with producing games for boys.

You wouldn’t be wrong if you assumed that gaming is dominated by male audiences. Most forms of gaming and geek culture in media have had a heavy focus on being a male past-time, or an activity for boys. The gender bias is obvious. In a 2009 study of the 150 most popular games across nine platforms, it was found that 81% of all characters were male and 80% were white.[ii] In 2013, Variety reported that only an estimated 12% of the video game industry workforce was made up of women.[iii]

The issues with the 18% of characters who are female have been well documented. There are gallons of ink spilt over the topic. There are endless examples of troubling female representation in games: outfits and posturing for women are especially notorious. Women, such as Rydia in Final Fantasy IV, are overtly sexualised and pitiful in terms of protection, whereas main male characters, such as Cecil and Kain, are given practical protection – armour. The women in Mortal Kombat are interesting to look at, with their large breasted and barely-clothed bodies, they are expected to engage in bloody combat with heavily armoured brutes. Games such as World of Warcraft, constantly parodied for their rarest and strongest female armour, also happen to be the most revealing.

Perhaps we are reaching the crux of the reason that we assume women don’t enjoy video games. The impracticality and over-sexualisation of female bodies entrenches the idea that women are objects to satisfy the male gaze. Who cares if her ‘boob plate’ armour actually directs a blade to her heart, as long as she looks good?

Sometimes, being a woman of note, in an industry that caters to men, is dangerous. Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist blogger, runs a channel on Youtube called Feminist Frequency, which dedicates approximately one forty-minute video a fortnight to examine the harmful representations of women in video games. She has examined topics from the clothes of characters to tropes such as ‘Damsel in Distress,’ which exists in movies just as often. Pretty standard critiques. Yet, the amount of vitriol she’s received from self-professed ‘gamers’ has been horrific. Amongst public death threats, coordinated brigades to ‘downvote’ her videos and Twitter abuse, Sarkeesian was forced to cancel a speech at Utah State University in 2014 due to an anonymous bomb threat called into the venue.[iv]

It goes much deeper than just the physical sexualisation of women. Cultural ideas and harmful tropes are plentiful in all facets of the game industry. Developers can conjure up elaborate fantasy worlds in realms where magic, advanced technology, and aliens exist but still, somehow, retain the barbaric gender roles of current society. The Mass Effect series includes several races of aliens, which come from various points in the Milky Way all conjoining in one place called “The Citadel”. One of these races, the Asari, are an all-female race who, implausibly, have almost identical body shapes to humans with blue skin and minor variances. And what are the Asari known as being, besides the diplomats of the galaxy with a weird mating pattern? Negatively and notoriously sexually active. And strippers. Seriously – Asari are the only species shown being strippers in the strip clubs on various planets. How is it, that in a culture we’d expect to be drastically different to our human norms, a race with feminised human bodies are considered the sexual objects of the entire galaxy?

Video games currently surpass television in terms of time spent in some populations, with approximately one in five adults playing every day or almost every day.[v] It wouldn’t be unfair to say that the troubling representation of women in these games could influence players’ impressions of social reality to some extent.

Deep investigations into the psyche of a regular video-game player aside, the most important thing that the industry can do at this point to encompass 52% of their player base is to reverse the toxic mindsets excluding women. I can’t emphasise my passion for representation enough. As a young woman who enjoys the hell out of seeing cool women represented without tiny outfits, and needlessly sexualised backstories, I want young girls experiencing this in their media as early as possible. Badass female protagonists have been kicking around in indie titles for years, and we are witnessing an emergence of critically acclaimed AAA titles such as The Last of Us, Beyond Two Souls and Life is Strange that feature interesting women who are grounded, who struggle with real problems and aren’t defined by their relationships to men. Despite the clear abundance of men in the gaming industry, amazing initiatives to encourage women to become involved in the industry are springing up. Macquarie University offers a ‘Women in Games’ panel once a year, and international groups such as WIGSIG (Women in Games Special Interest Group) in the IDGA are fighting the good fight.

But, overall, why is the game industry still stuck in the frustrating mindset that their audience is majority men? Why are 80% of these characters white and male? It all comes back to the ‘loser theory.’ Game developers know that ‘gamers’ have gone so long being perceived as non-powerful social outcasts. Young, white men want to be powerful white adults. So, fantasy is created out of these preconceived notions of gamer demographics. It’s a self-fulfilling cycle.

Gary Alan Fine wrote a book, ‘Shared Fantasy,’ that discusses role-playing games and the separation between reality and fantasy. It notes that, in Dungeons and Dragons campaigns, it was common behaviour that ‘non-player male characters who have not hurt the party are executed and female non-player characters raped for sport’.[vi] There’s a separation between the game world and real life – the ‘magic circle’ if you will. But ideas and values are capable of oozing through, venomous and sticky.

In the campaign in Matt’s room, when I was 16, and because I’m a girl, my character was allocated unique tasks by the rest of the party. The party stood in front of a merchant, snow beginning to pepper their skin. They had just defeated the monstrous beast in the dungeon, and upon emerging victorious were greeted with another pressing quest on the mountaintop. The mountain in question loomed behind the rickety stall, plastered with weapons, food, clothes and survival gear. The merchant, a Dragonkin with a thirst for gold, hisses at them. ‘That’s 20 gold for a coat, and that’s the cheapest thing I can give you.’

‘Surely we can get it cheaper than that,’ the Bard pleads. Beside him, the monstrous Barbarian scoffs.

‘Look, we don’t need this. Listen dude. We have an Elven girl here. She’s top of the line. She can get us a discount right?’

The Elven Sorcerer, who had been examining a glass pendant at the stall, froze. ‘Get a discount how, exactly?’

‘You know, give him a favour. Something to remember us by. I’m sure it’ll be better than any gold.’ The Barbarian winks.

The entire party starts guffawing. The Elven Sorcerer joins in before the Bard pushes her forward with glee.

‘Make it nice and wet!’ he laughs.

At the time, I thought it was funny. I just wanted to fit in and not ruin the fun. But a part of me knew my proud Elven Sorcerer would want no part of this.

I play Dungeons and Dragons with another group now – they’re awesome. We’re guys and girls playing a patchwork of genders with no boob plates allowed.

I’m in love with my imagination again.


 

Works Cited

[i] Internet Advertising Bureau 2014, More women now play video games than men, viewed 24 August 2016, http://iabuk.net/about/press/archive/more-women-now-play-video-games-than-men?_ga=1.227578909.1233071847.1411029683, para 5.

 

[ii] Williams, D et al. 2009, ‘The virtual census: representations of gender, race and age in video games’, New Media & Society, vol. 11, no. 5, pp. 815-834, pg 827.

 

[iii] Graser, M 2013 ‘Videogame Biz: Women Still Very Much in the Minority’, Variety, 1 October, viewed 28 August 2016, http://variety.com/2013/digital/features/womengamers1200683299-1200683299/, para 3.

 

[iv] Wingfield, N 2014 ‘Feminist Critics of Video Games Facing Threats in “GamerGate Campaign’, The New York Times, 15 October, viewed 28 August 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/16/technology/gamergate-women-video-game-threats-anita-sarkeesian.html, para 2.

 

[v] Williams, D et al. 2009, ‘The virtual census: representations of gender, race and age in video games’, New Media & Society, vol. 11, no. 5, pp. 815-834, pg 816.

 

[vi] Fine, G 2002, Shared Fantasy: Role Playing Games as Social Worlds, University of Chicago Press, pg 4.

 

 

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Misguided, Ben Lawrence

The fire crackled, green logs spitting sap into the small inferno. A man and a woman huddled close to the fire. Their silhouettes danced around them. They sat on the cracked flagstones of a ruined tower. The rest was tumbled out around the hillock, long overgrown with moss and lichen.

The woman wore a circlet of gold on her greying hair. Her face was dominated by a hawk-like nose that kept watch over lips set in a sharp line. She wore studded leather pants, with thick riding boots and a coat of plates that had once been fine, but was now scarred and dull. On her shoulders she wore ornate pauldrons set in the likeness of a lion’s head, the eyes set with precious gemstones.

A snore came from the prone figure on the other side of the fire. She looked at the pile of blankets and creased her brow in a frown.

‘Bard’

‘…’

‘Bard!’

The man jolted awake at the Queen’s bark, grumbling under his breath. He was dressed in a much simpler fashion. Woollen pants, supple hunting boots, a dirty linen shirt and a simple leather vest. His blonde curls sat in a tousled heap on his head, giving him a youthful appearance.

The Queen’s frown deepened,

‘You are addressing Queen Ysabel of White Shore.’

‘Raise the dead with that shoutin,’ you will.’

She bristled at his lack of respect.

‘You would do well never to speak to me like that again.’

‘Aye, and you might do just as well to keep ye voice down… M’lady. No tellin’ who or what lurks in these parts at night.’

He could feel her baleful gaze drilling into him from across the fire, but she didn’t deign to retort. Probably never been told to shut her trap, he thought.

Instead, she rummaged in her pack and drew out a whetstone. Her sword lay next to her on the flagstones and now she inspected it. With a sniff of annoyance she set the stone to the blade and began honing its edge with long, purposeful strokes. The Bard watched from across the fire, the flames highlighting her movements. They were graceful, exact, and deadly, just as they had been in the battle against the Griffon that day. She did not wear the armour or sword simply for show it seemed.

He inspected his own sword. It was a utilitarian tool, solid iron with a wooden handle and a bronze cross piece. There were several nicks along its edge and some rust spots at the base of the blade. He shrugged and placed the weapon on top of his pack alongside his harp. He didn’t feel like sharpening it just now.

The night was deathly silent. No owls hooted, no critters scurried along secret paths, and the rasping sound of stone on steel set his neck and arm hairs standing on end.

‘Why sharpen it?’

‘Because it needs doing,’ she said in between strokes.

He pushed the sound to the back of his mind.

‘Why? The Griffon’s dead, the battle fought and won.’

‘This battle,’ she said, looking up at him. ‘And who are you to question the Queen of White Shore? You were hired to write a song about my victory over the Griffon. Nothing else, understand?’

He was not surprised by the shortness of her reply. He was used to being looked down on by those of higher station. Yes, they would pay him handsomely enough for a song of their brave deeds, but at any mention of a truth that was not their own, he would be discarded. Just another peasant who didn’t know how to respect his betters. What truly shocked him was her coldness.

‘That beast slaughtered a hundred of ye knights today. Their blood is nawt cold and here ye are preparing for the next battle? Why so cold, mistress?’

‘Are all Bards fools? Or just you? I would think that singing songs of great heroes all day would teach you a thing or two. There is always another battle, another war. To not recognise this is to die a fool.’

He shook his head in disbelief, his mind recalling the images of the battle against the Griffon. He saw again how the Queen had ordered her knights to charge the beast, and how the knights were cut down by the Griffon’s foul claws. All the while, she watched, searching for an opening. He saw how she had urged the last of her knights forward to their death, and how she had charged behind them, trampling those who were wounded in order to strike the killing blow.

‘Aye, I sing songs of heroes, mistress. But none so cold as you.’

She regarded him with narrowed eyes and a furrowed brow, and if she hadn’t been raised a Queen, she might have chewed her lip.

‘You truly are a fool. All heroes are heartless at some point. That is the part the tales leave out.’ She reached inside her pack and withdrew the trophy she had taken from the Griffons’ corpse. It looked like a feather, but it was about half a metre long and rich gold in colour. The fibres were malleable, but he had witnessed swords shatter against them. As his eyes ran along its sleek surface, he noticed how the colours changed, from gold to bronze to brass, and at the very tip, bright silver.

‘How much do you think this is worth, Bard?’

He thought for a moment, but couldn’t think of a number high enough.

‘I don’t know, mistress.’

‘Exactly,’ she said as she twirled it in her hands, the firelight making it look like liquid gold. ‘It is priceless. It is power, and glory, and riches. And this is just one. When I harvest the rest from the Griffon’s corpse tomorrow, I will become more powerful than all the Kings on this continent. And I will start an Empire the likes of which the world has never seen. Yes, my knights died. But they died an honourable death serving their Queen.’ She said this all without taking her eyes off the feather. She seemed to be somewhere else, as if in a daydream.

The Bard didn’t understand.

‘An honourable dead man is still a dead man, mistress. And you’re already a Queen. You’ve a whole kingdom, hundreds of kilometres of land and wealth. Why be an Emperor?’

She tore her gaze away from the feather, although it seemed to pain her to do so.

‘And? Hundreds will become thousands, tens of thousands. I will have it all. And no man will ever dare to question my rule again.’

He was lost for words. Granted he had always wanted a bit more. A few more coins to jingle in his pocket would have been nice. A new harp would be good if he could afford it, and he did want to settle down someday with a plump wife that would give him many sons. But she was a Queen. The idea that she could possibly want for more just did not make any sense to the Bard.

An idea struck him.

‘Do you know the history of this tower?’

‘Of course I do!’ she snapped. ‘It is the seat of the Old Empire.’

‘Right you are, mistress. But do ye know how it came to be nawt but a ruin?’

Her eyes narrowed and she shook her head. A grin split his face, revealing crooked teeth.

‘Worry not, mistress, let me tell ye the tale of the great Empire of Abernia, which stretched all the lands to the north and most to the south, all of it ruled from right here in this very castle.’

‘Get on with it, Bard, I assume this tale has a point?’

‘Aye, it does. Now, the Empire was at peace, had been for years. But the King was a vain man. He loved nothing more than to sit on his throne and count his coins. Then, one day, during a feast he held as celebration for the conquest of another nation, a real threat came to his kingdom. Or at least, the news of one. A farmer crashed through the door to the great hall, weak and weary from travel. “Dragon! Great, terrible, fire breathing dragon! A vile creature, evil to the core! Please O’ wise and noble King, send your knights to slay this beast and deliver us from fear,” said he. Naturally, everyone at the feast was shocked by such news, but they were even more shocked by the King’s reaction. “Good man! Thank you for bringing word of this threat to our safety. Sit! Feast! On the morrow, I will lead my knights and slay the creature.”

“O’ Wise King, O’ brave King! God’s praise you! The creature is truly evil. It killed ten farmers with one fell sweep of its claws, and then set the buildings alight with its wicked breath.”

“Fear not, brave fellow, my knights and I will slay the beast, of that you can be assured!”

‘So, that settled, they feasted into the night and when morning came, the King and his knights and the farmer set out to find the dragon.

‘They travelled far to the south where the King’s grip on the land was not as tight. The farms he passed were far dirtier, and far poorer than the pretty ploughed fields outside his castle. “Look at what this beast has done! My poor subjects suffer greatly at the hands of its evil.” His knights agreed, but the farmer was confused. The creature had only attacked his village. These farms had not been affected and to him looked as they always had. But he didn’t say so, far be it for him to question his King.’

‘If only all men were as noble and loyal as this farmer’ remarked the Queen, voice thick with derision.

‘Aye, mistress, if only,’ the Bard replied, knowing full well the comment was aimed at him, and recalling that the Queen’s sword was now very sharp. But he continued anyway, hoping his tale would reach her. ‘When the King and his knights came upon the man’s village, ravaged and savaged as it was, they found the dragon sleeping on a pile of bones. The King ordered the charge and the battle was on. For a day and a night it raged, but finally, the beast was slain. Many brave men died in the battle, including the poor farmer.

‘As proof of his victory, the King brought back a large scale from the beast’s breast, crimson and gold in colour. Now, as I said, he was a vain man and wanted to assert his wealth and power even though he was an Emperor. He flaunted his prize and gloated with glee… And was promptly assassinated by jealous rivals.

‘Without a King, the Empire crumbled, and all because the man who had it all, wanted more.’

‘A fine tale, Bard, you obviously have some skill,’ the Queen said begrudgingly. ‘But it is a tale, nothing more than myth and legend based on an old fool.’

As he had been talking, a red sun had begun to rise. It was still an hour or so until dawn, but the first tendrils of crimson light were filtering in from the east, creeping over their camp.

The Bard’s shoulders sagged. He had failed to have an effect on the Queen. She remained stoically silent as she watched the world awaken to the new day.

Eventually, she spoke.

‘Tell me, Bard, what song have you written of me? How shall my victory over the Griffon be remembered?’

‘I haven’t written anything yet, mistress’ he lied.

‘I have seen you practice at night as we travelled from White Shore, and you have just proved you have some skill in the art. Come, sing it to me. Now.’

With a sigh he relented. He picked up his harp, plucked a few strings and adjusted them. Then, satisfied, he began to play a slow melody.

‘There once was a Queen, greedy and bold,

She went chasing legends of old.

 

For o’er yonder hill from White Shore,

There was a creature who she was sure

If not slain, would be her shame,

So she set out, to gain her fame.

 

Over high mountain and deep river,

She voyaged with barely a shiver.

 

She took a hundred knights to meet their maker,

All in the hopes that she could be greater…’

‘Enough!’ she screamed. ‘Your arrogance knows no bounds. You have insulted me beyond forgiveness this night. As Queen of White Shore, I sentence you to death.’ She rose from her sitting position, sword in hand and advanced. ‘The Lords of White Shore have always been their own headsman. Bow your head so that I may make it a clean death, though you don’t deserve one.’

The Bard scrabbled for his blade, regretting his laziness earlier in the night. She was old but experienced, and he lacked training but was young and fit. He took the guard position he had been taught as a child, feet braced apart, sword raised in front. She swung her sword in lazy arcs as she advanced, the blade whistling as it cut the air.

She feigned left then lashed out with a right-hand cut. He blocked to his left then slashed wildly, forcing her to jump backwards. She immediately stepped forward again, bringing her blade down in a swift overhead motion. He barely managed to get his blade up in time, and the force of the blow made his hand go numb. She was much stronger than he had anticipated.

He lunged forward, but his blade was easily swept aside. Overbalanced, he had no choice but to continue the motion. He knew he couldn’t bring his sword around in time, but neither could she, so he threw his fist into her chin as he careened forward.

She fell hard but instinct saved her. As soon as she hit the ground she was rolling, and his sword struck the stones where moments before her head had been. He advanced on her again and she lashed out with her heavy boots, catching him on the knee. He howled in pain and was forced to moved back, giving her enough time to regain her feet.

They had the measure of each other now and the duel settled into a steady rhythm, the clash and clang of their sword’s echoing through the pre-dawn light, giving a grim feel to the red light of morning.

Her sword sliced into the Bard’s arm, her superior skill giving her the upper hand. He grunted in pain and frustration, blood flowing freely down his arm. She advanced again and he backed away, unable to keep his sword raised. He tripped on the fire as he retreated and the Queen’s boot caught him in the chest as he struggled to maintain his balance. He sailed backwards over the fire, losing his sword as he fell, severely winded. Fighting for breath and in immense pain, he dragged himself across the ground toward the Queen’s pack. She advanced, ready to drive her sword into his exposed back.

He reached the pack and frantically rummaged. The Queen brought her sword down just as he rolled, so instead of skewering him, her sword only cut him superficially, grating as it glanced off his ribs. But he had what he had been searching for in her pack, and he drove the feather into The Queen’s neck. Blood erupted from the fatal wound and poured down the feather onto the Bard’s hand.

Her eyes widened in shock as she fell to the ground, coughing and spluttering. A pool of blood quickly formed as she clawed at her ruined neck, fighting for a breath that would not come.

The Queen of White Shore died with the Griffon’s feather still protruding from her neck, shining crimson and gold in the light of dawn.

 

 

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