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The Emperor’s Path, Nicholas Wasiliev

Thirty days have September,
April, June and November
February is alright,
It only rains from morning till night,
All the rest have thirty one,
Without a single day of sun
And if any month had thirty two,
They’d be bloody raining too!
- Anonymous, Kundasang War Memorial, Sabah, Malaysia

We are forgotten.

Alfie and Howard call out. Think they’re being pushed somewhere.

‘Keep it up Harvey!’

‘Don’t let that cage get to ya mate!’

So fucking good to hear them. I put my eye to the widest slit between the bars of bamboo. Can only see the outline of the same Jungle Pine that I saw yesterday.

Fucking bamboo. Every fucking sturdy building here is made from it. The locals make use of it in bloody everything. Wish the Japs designed this cage so I could stretch my legs without crushing my neck.

Think it has been three days in here. It’s hard telling the time when you can barely see the sun. The heat and humidity helps: it’s midday when the heat gets to you; after that it’s afternoon. And at night you’d freeze, of course.

You know it’s morning when you hear our fellas walking on their way down to make repairs to the airfield that we built back three years gone, when we got here after Singapore. You never hear them coming back; Japs make sure we work.

Mornings are the best. Just hearing those boys going past, particularly Alfie and Howard. Reminds me of where I am, cause sometimes this cage does things to you.

We’re members of 2/15th Regiment, and have been since we joined up in 1940. Alfie is a Queenslander, a league boy like me. He signed up because he wanted to check out his mother’s roots. She was a Scottish girl before she emigrated and had him, so Alfie figured that because Europe was where the war was, he could go ‘home’ whenever we got leave.

Howie’s a Victorian, his father played in the VFL for Collingwood. He signed up for the same reason I did; both our fathers had served in the Great War, our grandfathers the Boer War before that. So we got on pretty quickly.

We did basic together in Singapore; that’s when Pearl Harbour happened. So when we were told that we were at war with Japan, we thought it would be a walk in the park. Then Singapore happened.

As guests of the emperor, we were put on a ship to Sandakan, this little hidden pocket of nowhere, to build an airstrip. We quickly found out how hospitable Japs were.

Those fuckers remove any honour we have; they just try to break us. They even started making up rumours that Australia was being invaded.

Three days back one high’n’mighty little Jap came by the mess hall while Alfie and I were sharing the most heavenly cig that we’d exchanged with a Sandakan fella. So this Jap started sounding off about our cities being bombed. One bloke asked about Sydney.

‘Sydney yes!’ came the answer, ‘boom, boom, boom!’

‘Brisbane?’ Alfie asked.

‘Yes, Brisbane! Up in flames! Boom!’

‘Bullshit?’ I asked.

‘Yes, Bullshit, boom, boom, boom!’

Our blokes couldn’t stop laughing. So, after a typical beating that yellow-stained shit throws me in this cage for being a smart arse. Speak for himself!

We never believe their crap. The locals had come by our camp a few months back and exchanged a broken radio with Howie for two of his gold teeth. We got it working and found that the Yanks had turned the war.

We spread the news, telling our blokes ‘…what the kingfisher was telling us’, so the Japs had no fucking clue that we knew they were losing. Made us think that maybe one day, our fighting lads will come save us.

It’s easy to get carried away thinking like that. I did it myself last night!

As always, the Japs checked the cages as always to see who was dead. Then they gave me my first drink in three days.

But the Japs are no problem. It’s the silence, when it’s not broken by the occasional shot. Only sounds are the jungle: soaking rain that comes down in the afternoon and doesn’t stop till the next morning, and the heat that sticks, rips and rots the seams of whatever is left of your uniform and boots.

The silence makes you listen for our boys. You hear them coming, flying in like angels, raining hell on these gits, then taking us far away from this hell-hole.

I hate waking up after that dream. See what I mean?! This cage does things to you. Hope. My best friend and worst enemy—

A Jap unbolts the lock, and flings the cage door open. ‘Speedo, Speedo,’ he barks.

The light fucking blinds me. The Jap grabs my arm in his fist and I fly into the mud. I look for some sort of landmark, and see that lifesaving Jungle Pine. Eyes on it, I get myself to stand up. It’s helping my eyes adjust.

The Jap pulls out another bloke from the cage next door. He’s got ulcers on his ankle larger than a 50p piece. And I see his fucking bone. Looks like he has the runnies too. Must be cholera. Half the boys have it.

The Jap beats him to get him up. He isn’t moving. So the Jap shoots him in the head.

He pulls more of us from all the cages, one-by-one, putting a bullet in anyone who doesn’t get up. Doesn’t matter whether they’re sick or injured.

Another Jap makes us walk. Fucking hurts to put one foot in front of the other, but it’s good to be out of the bloody box. The view down this path stretches out to an open muddy space outside the mess hall.

This view always reminds me of the view from my veranda back home, with the huge paddock of brown grass, and old pine trees lining the driveway. My brother and I used to call them pines ‘carrot trees’, cause they looked like giant green carrots sticking up out of the ground. Was peaceful there too, apart from the sounds of Dad shooting rabbits—

There’s a couple hundred of us outside the mess hall, all shunted in here like beef cattle. I see Howie and Alfie.

‘You little bastard! Nice of you to join us for our little gathering,’ Alfie laughs.

Howie offers me a cigarette. ‘You have to suck the Jap’s cock to let you out?’

‘Nup, just used charm. Bet you would’ve done that.’ I missed these buggers.

A Jap shouts at us to move into two lines, taking my cig before I can light it. ‘No smoking!’

We all squeeze up; they start walking us, out of the camp towards the jungle.

I remember seeing some of our guys being led out like this a month or so ago. Apparently the Japs want to move us inland somewhere, to some place called Ranau. Probably cause our air force boys are getting ready to kick the shit out of them. Well, sorry Japs, but marching us a few kilometres inland ain’t gonna do much when you’re flying in a fucking plane.

I hate jungle. Of all bastard places, this is the greatest bastard. It’s always raining, and on the rare occasions it isn’t, the humidity makes you wish it might as well be. The scrub sticks into you more effectively than barbed wire – any cuts from that always get infected. That and the mozzies that eat you alive, and you can barely see due to how thick the canopy is. Jungle works better than any fence; we knew if we ever escaped in our malnourished state we’d be dead within a day. That was if we weren’t caught first.

We’re being led up a steep path, looks like it has been recently cut. The mozzies feast on us as we all climb; humidity crawls its way into us through our breathing and weighs us down. We’re weak, tired, injured, and sick. How do they expect us to climb this?

We march a few hours. How we do that, I don’t know.

Then there’s a foot in my periphery. A bloke has collapsed, his body wrapped in beri-beri by the looks of it. A few boys try help him up, but a Jap pushes us on ahead.

A few minutes later we hear piercing echoes from behind us cut through the trees. Soon, that same Jap walks past us, his gun sizzling from falling water droplets. He looks down and wipes bits of brain off his lapel, then grabs a dirty white handkerchief out of his pocket and wipes his face.

If I ever get outta this, I’m gonna put thirty bullets through that fuckers forehead.

He walks on ahead. I see above him through the canopy a mountain, towering above the rest of the hills we’re travelling over. We know this mountain. The local fellas praise it like no tomorrow, cause some mountain spirit is there. Its slopes are steep and monoliths of rock strut out on its summit, like a crown of thorns.

I fucking hate this mountain. Feels like it’s looking down at us, contempt little toy soldiers! Fuck you!

I see Howie; his eyes are to the ground, breathing hard.

‘You see Alfie?’ I ask between breaths.

‘Haven’t seen him since we left. He’s probably behind us,’ Howie spits in the mud. He’s struggling.

‘Keep it up mate. Think about your girls Double-Ds, that’ll put a spring in your step.’

‘Fuck you.’ Howie shakes his head.

Howie had a missus for close to two years. He’d been planning to marry her before the war got in the way. He didn’t like it when Alfie and I try to get him to talk about her; he liked to keep her for himself. Lucky bastard.

I’ve never been with a girl. Not even a smooch. Mother told me I had to be a gentleman to women when I moved from home to the city. First girl I’d spoken to properly was a girl who watched my first Manly Colts game. Her brother was the captain. We didn’t talk about much outside of what happened on the field.

Eventually, after a few more mountains, the night arrives quietly, but with it the rain. We stop for a break, which is a blessing. Howie collapses. Come on you!

I steady him on a stump next to me, before falling against a tree myself. I listen, hoping to maybe hear our fighter planes. Fucking silence makes you think like that. I drift out quickly.

I’m back home. Dad is showing me how to use his old sniper from the Great War. Think this was from a few years back. He likes shooting rabbits to stop them eating his beef cattle’s grass. Those gunshots across the farm are such comfort, means Dad is home; making rabbits drop like flies. He never misses.

Mother doesn’t like him showing us how to use his sniper; she said he spent more time polishing it than he did with her. But we still love him. At dusk everyday he’d march back home, rifle over his right shoulder, with half-a-dozen rabbits for that nights stew. We marched behind him; playing toy soldiers. At night, we’d eat with Mother inside, but Dad sits out on the front porch, eating by himself. He’d be there all night. We’d always drift off to sounds of him wiping his nose with his old handkerchief. He always sniffled at night—

The jungle welcomes me back. A Jap is beating everyone awake to be on their feet.

I’m alive? I genuinely thought I would not wake up. How unbelievable. I look over at Howie on the stump next to me, his body deathly still.

I poke him to get him up. Doesn’t move.

‘Howie?’ I poke him a few more times.

Then I get it. I’m not bullshitting myself.

I’m glad he didn’t have to wake up to this again.

We start walking in lines, going past the lucky ones who didn’t wake up. I don’t know how I’m still going. I’m just walking. One foot. Then the other.

All Japs are bastards, especially their emperor. Suppose this is how they do it in Japan, make a path just to watch how many of us drop. It’s probably some cultural thing. I remember in basic training when they talked about the psychology of the Jap, how they all had the mentalities of dark-age warriors. I almost feel sorry for these Japs around me, they probably did not even know what a gun was till the war.

There’s a mist coming down. I hear shouting up ahead. There’s a boy leaning on a bamboo tree. His eyes are staring into the canopy, dunno what he is looking at.

A bunch of boys are trying to get him to stand up. You can do it mate. Come on! Why aren’t you getting up?!

Two Japs shout at him. He keeps staring. So they bayonet him a dozen times. His eyes are still looking in the same place.

I’m just walking.

A few hours later the man in front of me collapses, so a Jap blows him away through the back of the neck. He gasps, air escaping from his lungs as he desperately tries to take a few last breaths.

One foot, then the other.

This fucking mist. The fucking trees. The fucking rain! More mud and more fucking rain. I’m just walking.

Minutes go by…

Hours go by…

I’m just walking…

Hours…

Hours…

No one’s coming for us. No one will ever come. They’ve left us here. Alone.

Are we nothing? Just absolutely fucking nothing?! I guess to you we are.

I feel a bit dizzy; there’s mud… around my knees, I think. I’m just looking through the mist, looking… For something.

Is that…?

I think I can hear engines. It’s our boys! There’s a Jap shouting at me, but he doesn’t matter. It’s over for him.

I’m saved! I can’t wait to see home – Dad and Mother will be waiting for me. I’ll be with my brother. We’ll see Dad’s face at the sight of his sons in uniform marching up the hill towards him. No toy soldiers anymore, now we are real men. They’ll sit us down to a beautiful roast chicken, with pumpkin, onions, and boiled potatoes. And Dad won’t be out on the veranda anymore. He’s with us. We’ll sit and eat as a family.

There’s something cold touching the back of my neck. A sound pops my eardrums. I feel a sudden need to grab the back of my head, I have to stop something flowing—

It stopped.

‘When you go home, tell them of us and say,
For your tomorrow, we gave our today’
- Australian Kundasang War Memorial, Sabah, Malaysia

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Picking Pockets, Elise Fowler

I, Jacob Henly, state the following to be a truthful account of my whereabouts and activities on the night of Tuesday 8th June.

*

Working in the city on weeknights you’re always going to meet some crazies. Most customers are those finishing late in the office or off to work night-shifts. Sometimes, you have the every-night’s-a-party types stumble in to refuel on Gatorade and processed sugar. But, you never really get much of the homeless coming in.

It was a Tuesday night when she came rushing into the convenience store where I work; her head down, hands stuffed in her pockets. She was quite obviously homeless with her messy hair shielding her face and old clothes dirtied irreparably. My boss always made it clear to us employees that we need to ‘keep a close eye on them hobos. Their fingers are surprisingly quick for the amount of drugs they’re hopped up on’. Yeah, my boss is a bit of a prick. I never really understood this warning because I’ve never had any of them come in, so I don’t usually pay him much attention. But, looking at this one, I thought his warnings were on point.

Working alone in the city isn’t always the safest job, but me being male, six foot two, and having some meat on my bones help a lot in sticky situations. As in, my height means I can easily keep an eye on those suspicious-looking customers who spend a bit too long looking through one aisle only to purchase nothing. This one hadn’t left aisle 3.

I put down my phone, where I was writing up my statistics essay for uni in my notes, and stood up to have a look.

The girl leaned forward and paused as if to pick some things up and turned away from me for a moment. She then moved quickly back up the aisle, as if to flee out the exit. I scrambled awkwardly out from behind the register, banging my knee against the doorway in the process. Dammit, I’ll get a nice bruise out of that one.

She was almost at the exit, but I got there first.

‘Sorry mate, but I’m going to need those back now,’ my tone spoke of no nonsense and I turned my palm up to her.

Dirty blonde hair clung together in dry clumps. Her eyes darted around the store, returning to me, jumping from me, and back again. She breathed in deep fast breaths as she backed slowly away from my advancing figure. In her front pocket, she held something. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew it didn’t belong to her.

She was shaking quite violently. I’d dealt with plenty of kids stealing here, but none of them had looked as terrified as the one before me. Her eyes screamed at me when they skittered past mine, her feet shuffled as if she was ready to bolt at any time.

I stopped my advance, ‘Come on, just give it back,’ I tried to smooth my rough voice, but failed. It sounded more like a low growl.

Her clumped hair whacked her cheeks as she jerked her head back and forth. Her dress hung off her, cracked, creased, and stained. The dress came to just above scabbing knees, dried blood smudged over her shins. Her feet were bare.

‘Look, I’m not going to hurt you. But, you have to give it back… now,’ I used my normal voice this time, hoping for a better reaction this time.

Her wide eyes stopped moving and focused their intensity right on me, but she didn’t move her hands.

Enough was enough. ‘Oi, show me your hands now, girl, or I’ll call the cops.’ My voice echoed throughout the space in the small store, ‘You want to spend the night in jail? Huh?’

Her already wide eyes grew and she released a small sob.

She lifted her arms first, guiding her shaking hands out of the pockets. Freshly drawn blood clung to the fingers and palms, though I saw no source for it on her. In one hand she clutched some blood-stained package of bandages, in the other was a travel sewing kit. Both sourced from aisle three, just as I’d thought.

My first thought was, well shit, she can keep them now. My second, how could she afford those nails? Blood dripped off fake nails. Even covered in blood, they were pretty fancy. Look, I don’t know a lot about nails and shit, but I know they’re not cheap. My girlfriend gets the stupid things and has to keep getting them done. She’s always complaining to me about how much they are – certainly a lot for the homeless. Wait, is she, though?

My feet jerked me back a few steps as my eyes focused on her hands. The blood didn’t seem to be coming from anywhere, it was smudged all over her hands but wasn’t too concentrated in any area. I looked to her knees. Maybe it’s from them, I hoped. But the grazes on her knees were too shallow to produce that much blood, and they were already scabbing.

‘I think I need to call the ambos,’ I said to myself, more than to her.

A small, mousey voice burst from her mouth. ‘No, no. I’m fine.’

‘No offense, but you don’t look it.’

‘It’s not my blood.’

Shit.

I felt my body locking up and shying away from her. I reached in my back pocket for my phone, ready to dial 000 and get this chick out of here and away from me. I dug into my pocket to produce nothing – my phone was still on the counter. Shit, shit, shit. Suddenly, she dropped the bandages and sewing kit back into her pockets and grabbed the front of my shirt with both hands, the blood transferring there. I felt my lip curling and my neck tensing up as I strained as far as I could away from her.

‘No, please! You have to help me. Someone hurt him and he won’t wake up. He’s bleeding so much. Please. Please, help me!’ Her voice was as rough and frantic as her eyes. She moved her hands to my right arm, her fake nails digging into my forearm, ‘Come with me, please. He’s going to die!’

My whole body was numb, making it easy for her to pull me out of the exit and onto the street. I couldn’t wrap my head around what was happening to stop her from pulling me along, let alone realise that I should have locked up the store.

She rushes me down the block, the streets quiet. All I could think was how loud my

She pulls us to a stop in front of an alley. Her hands release me only to shove me roughly into the dark alley.

Oh shit.

Lying haphazardly half out of a dumpster bin was a body. The top lid was closed on him, securing him in place.

Oh God. This guy’s dead for sure.

I felt her body come up behind me. She nudged me closer urgently, ‘Come on. You have to help him. Move!’ Her voice was curt and echoed through the alleyway.

My breath caught in my throat, choking any words trying to get out. My body was as stuck still frozen as my eyes – focused solely on his misshapen form.

There was blood… everywhere.

I heard a groan from behind me before the girl barged past me towards him. She went to lift the lid with plastic-gloved hands.

Wait, when did she get gloves? When did she put them—

My thought process was cut short when I saw how she was trying to hold up the lid with one hand and pull him out with the other.

This girl is nuts.

My jarred body jerked forward to help, but I stopped before them – unsure and reluctant.

‘Just, pull him out for me. Please!’ she huffs.

My neck tightened with the idea of touching a dead guy and I was about to tell her this when I saw it.

His chest was moving.

‘Wait! Stop! Stop! He’s alive!’

‘Of course he is! We need to help him. Hurry!’ She continued to try and keep the lid open for me.

Gritting my teeth, I grabbed under his armpits and wrenched him out of the bin. His body hit the floor as she let the lid slam close.

‘Oh God,’ I whispered as I took in the sight before me.

The guy’s stomach – along with his t-shirt – was cut open, the wound wide with blood bubbling out. How he was alive at this point, I had no clue.

She kneeled beside him and looked up to me, ‘Come on!’ she grabbed my hand, pulling me down as well.

‘Here,’ she rummages inside her front pockets and produces the stolen bandages and sewing kit, ‘do something.’

‘What the hell am I supposed to do!?’ I hissed at her, ‘I work at fucking 7 Eleven!’

‘Please. Please!’ her hands shook as they fought mine. Pushing, shoving, until I finally gave up and took the items, ‘I don’t know what to do!’

I sat back on my heels and scrubbed my face with my trembling hands. ‘Why can’t we call an ambulance—’

‘No! No! We can’t! He… he’s into drugs… and he has some coke on him,’ her eyes bored into mine, ‘please. Please! Just help him.’

When I don’t move, she rips open the sewing kit, spilling the contents on the floor. Her hands weren’t shaking anymore. They were still as she opened the packet around the string and threaded it through a needle.

Once she had prepared the needle, she grabbed my hands in one of hers and put the needle carefully between my fingers, ‘go. Do it. Please.’

Her pleading eyes screamed up at me.

Shit.

I turned to his body and focused down on the wound at his stomach.

‘God. How did this happen?’

Her breath stuttered out, ‘Um. We… we were making out back here, when… when this… guy came up to us. He w-wanted his wallet. But, he said no. And h-he had a knife… and,’ tears ran down her cheeks as she gestured towards his stomach.

She moved my hands into position, ‘please, you have to save him. If you don’t, he’ll die!’

I squeezed close my eyes and sucked in a huge gulp of air, opened my eyes and got to work.

He was still bleeding bloody bad. Only seconds after starting to stitch him back up, my hands were dripping.

I focused on stitching the poor bloke together – silently thanking God and my mother for having the sense to teach me how to sew on my own buttons.

While I focused my attention on stitching this poor bloke up, she moved to his head. She bent over and laid her forehead against his nose – staring intensely into his eyes.

‘Wake up… just, wake up,’ she mumbled into his vacant face.

The wound was pretty big so it was a while before I had done a semi-decent – that’s being generous – job at closing the wound. Once I got to the end, I lifted the left over needle and string and I was wondering how I was going to cut it off when the girl sat up from her position and handed me a steak knife.

Where the hell did she get a steak knife from?

Ignoring my thoughts, I took it in my hand and cut the string.

‘How’s he going? Is he still alive?’ Her voice was strangely calm. But, I didn’t pay much attention to that, rather, I quickly reached my fingers to feel for a pulse at his neck – like they do on TV.

But, before I could feel anything I noticed another wound.

Along his neck and down his chest were deep gouges still leaking blood. I’ve seen wounds like these before. Not in real life – but in movies and stuff.

‘Jesus, these ones weren’t done by a knife. These are, like, fingernail wounds or something. How the hell did that happ—’ I stop, a gasp caught in my throat. Bloody expensive-ass fake nails could have done it.

No. No, no, no.

The alley way was silent except for my stuttered breaths.

A breathy chuckle sounded from behind me.

I turned.

She stood before me; her unruly hair was now controlled into a low bun. A trench coat covered her stained dress and she now wore high heels.

What the f—

Her heels clacked on the pavement as she came toward me – stopping just before me. Fear gripped me and held me firm.

She raised her taloned hand with a flourish and laid it against my cheek. Her nails raked their way down my cheek, stopping at my quivering lips. She whisper, ‘thanks for this, Jacob.’

Her body retreats, enabling me to breathe once more.

However, amused eyes keep me still as she backs out of the alleyway. When she reaches the entranceway, she pauses – her whole body and demeanour changing.

Her eyes widen and her mouth slackens in an expression of horror. She lets out an almighty squeal and runs out of sight.

I looked down at my blood stained exterior and the knife cradled in my palm.

‘Wait! You can’t do this,’ I choked out of trembling lips.

A smirk darkened her face, ‘What makes you think that I can’t, hey?’

My eyes jerked around the filthy alleyway as I search for something, anything to get me out of this shit.

‘You’re a hobo! The police won’t believe a word you say over a uni student,’ the thought came out of my mouth before I could stop it. Probably not the best idea to provoke a crazy chick with a knife.

Her smirk disappeared as she strolled back to me, looking around her as she went. As she got closer, she pulled out another knife – identical to the one still in my hand. She swung it around, stopping it at my face.

She leaned in closer, ‘So, murder-suicide it is, then.’

‘What! No!’

Her arm pulled back and then plunged. The knife dug into my stomach for a second before being sliced back out again.

I felt the cold ground hit my back. The knife fell out of my hand with a clatter.

My vision was closing in on itself. The last thing I saw was her fuzzy figure stumbling out into the street.

‘Help! He’s killed someone! Someone help!’

*

That is all I recall.

 

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