Tag Archives: Long short story

Cold Current, Melissa Farrell

She still dreams of him. They are always at the beach house, the soundtrack of the ocean thundering in the distance. The light is unusually bright, creating a shimmering incandescence. When he comes to her, his hair is wet from the sea and she can taste the saltiness of him. He will hold her close and she once again feels that sense of place. As she slowly wakes, she will linger in the haze of him, in the feeling that all is right again, until that moment when cold clarity reaches in and sweeps him away and the incredible emptiness returns.

 

Anna is running late. She had set the alarm, but a silky slumber enfolded her, easing her back into a forgotten dream. Time is nagging as she rummages through the wardrobe for a blouse to wear. She pulls a black stretchy one with lacy sleeves from a hanger, unsuitable for a Saturday morning breakfast with her friends, but needing no ironing, it will do.

Twenty minutes later, Anna is on the monorail streaming towards the tall towers of the inner city. The latest news reports are flashing on the telly-screens, but she watches through the window as the suburbs slide by, at the movements of the people at ease in the world that surrounds them. A man glides a sudsy sponge across the bonnet of a car; a girl rides her bike through the flickering shadows of overhanging trees; an old couple sit close and cryptic on a park bench; children splash in the clear water of a backyard pool; a woman stretches to hang washing on a clothesline. As the images flash by, Anna knows it is more than a window that separates her from that world.

Her phone vibrates. It will be one of her friends checking in on her, making sure she is on her way. She wonders how much longer their patience will last. Surely there is a use-by-date for sympathy, a time where they will congregate together and shout ‘enough’. She hates that she has become a worry to her friends who are watching her closely, waiting for some sign that she has returned to a sense of the world. They try to coax her back with inclusions in the various events, the birthdays, the dinners, the get-togethers, but it is the very consistency of their lives that makes her more aware of the changes in hers, the fluidity of their connections that makes her isolation more acute.

Time is supposed to dilute pain, to diffuse its severe shape, to take you in its flow until the pain is just a whispery ghost left drifting in the current. Time is passing, but it is leaving her behind. The flux and surge of life is sweeping everyone along, while she treads water, just managing to stay afloat on the tides that surround her. Sometimes she is surprised that she is still bobbing about on the surface, that what lurks in the depths below has not pulled her down, or that she has not allowed herself to slide under, to simply slip away, just like Daniel. She still euphemises, still avoids some words. He died. Daniel is dead and he has been for a whole year today.

Was it only a little over a year ago that after all treatments had failed, she had pulled him from the tubes and the fluorescent world of doctors and chemicals that had claimed him? She had salvaged what was left of him, taking him home to the beach house for those last days. She held him at night and sat with him on the deck by day, looking out at the ocean, watching the deep green waves rise up before smashing into a white foam on the heavy rocks below. The movement of the ocean had energised him, connected him once again to the young man he was before illness rushed him prematurely to the end of his life to die at thirty-four years old.

What gets her up in the morning and dresses her and moves her through each day is a gossamer awareness of the potential for her own ending. The quiescence of this idea whispering its promise is what keeps her persevering even though the façade of the everyday, the routines people build around themselves as a barrier against the pure mystery of life, has worn away and she is only aware of the empty chasm left in its place. She maintains this holding pattern while she waits for something to align itself, or for an idea to shape itself into an action.

Once again Anna sees her mother reclined across the unmade bed. She had looked so tranquil, her face holding none of the usual harsh angles. Anna had stood over the bed, watching, not wanting to wake her, not wanting to disturb the peace her mother had found. It was only later that she discovered her mother had taken enough sleeping pills to ensure that she would never wake again. The idea that some sort of inherited flaw could lead her to the same end, could allow her to take the same facile way out, disturbs Anna. She wonders too if she would be able to readily discard the hallowed gist of life that she and Daniel had fought so hard to hold onto over the three long years of his illness.

The word ‘time’ draws Anna’s attention to the telly-screen. It is an advertisement for a cryogenic company. This service was once offered to the dying in the hope of recovery in some distant future, but in an increasingly overpopulated world, it is now only offered to the living, as a form of time travel, a means to begin again in some distant future. ‘Travel through time’ declares the voice-over as a row of sleeping capsules appears on the screen. ‘Sleep for up to one hundred years and awaken to a bright new future.’ Anna feels something shift, something tightens or loosens within her, she cannot tell which, but she feels the change as she considers the implications. To be taken into the flow of time again and be swept into the future, to sleep for a century and awaken to a world in which Daniel had never been born, was never a part of. Is this the solution she has been waiting for? Could this sharp-edged present be softened by the passing of one hundred years? When Anna looks back to the screen, images of the escalating war in Asia have taken over.

 

Lucy and Kate are sitting at an outdoor table leaning towards each other in conversation as Anna approaches. She knows why her friends have chosen an inner city café. They want to draw her in from her detached existence on the outer coastal fringes, to connect her to the energy that throbs through the inner city, as if feeling its pulsing heart will somehow defibrillate her life. But as she approaches the café, she feels partitioned from the motion around her, like a tourist observing another culture, a culture that operates on a semantic system she can no longer understand.

‘Sorry I’m late,’ Anna says as she takes a seat. The look of relief on each of their faces makes her feel guilty.

‘Where’ve you been?’ asks Lucy. ‘We’ve been trying to phone you.’

‘I’ve had my phone switched off.’

Anna notices the quick look of concern that flashes between them. She knows this breakfast is for her, even though nobody has said it. They know what today marks.

She smiles and tries to sound casual. ‘I’m starving, what’s on the menu?’ Sensing the tension loosen in her friends, she determines to be the Anna that they want her to be, at least for this morning.

The three of them have been friends since childhood. Now in their mid-thirties, they are still close, but as Lucy and Kate talk about their lives and share the latest gossip, Anna finds herself sitting outside the conversation. She laughs when required and nods occasionally, but she feels little inspiration. A shadow of uncanniness creeps in as she observes them. It is like viewing a scene that is both familiar and alien. In the light and focus of a changed perspective she no longer melds with this apparition from the past.

Lucy is looking very pregnant and as they discuss plans for a baby shower, Anna can feel their glances as they check for her reactions. She had been trying to fall pregnant before Daniel was diagnosed. Anna keeps smiling in an effort to reassure them. She could tell them that she feels no regret about not having created a life, only at not having saved one, but she does not want to talk about this today.

‘When are you going back to work?’ asks Kate. Anna expects this question. It is one that they have regularly asked for the last few months since she quit her teaching job. They do not understand her need for solitude, the space that gives her pause, the seclusion in which to wait for her life to take on some sort of shape again.

She tells them what they are waiting to hear. ‘Soon,’ she says. They seem satisfied with her answer.

Aboard the monorail on the way home Anna looks up the number for the cryogenic company and calls. There is an information session for prospective clients the following week. She books her place.

The company is situated in a technological district on the edge of the city. The squat building of four stories in industrial grey does not seem exceptional enough to contain the expanse of a century, but when Anna gets to the elevator she can see that the building reaches down into the depths by another twenty floors. She wonders how many people are down below, sleeping into their futures.

The conference hall is crowded. On the surface they look like a random mix of men and women, of varying ages and appearances. As she takes a seat, Anna searches those around her for some sign, some behaviour or expression that is common amongst them, something to indicate the shared desire to deceive time, to break from the hold and thrust of its linear unfolding. But she detects nothing in their bearing to indicate a yearning for a yield in mortality, a plasticity to bend and stretch at their will, the need to leave the present and sleep into another century.

The session begins with a lecture on the science of the process and a stream of facts tumble forth. They are assured that everything is sound. One hundred years is now a very safe time frame for this type of procedure. In fact, a vastly longer period of time would be possible, but government regulation will not allow for any advance at present. Power to the capsules is secure. In the event of electrical outages, solar-power can keep the capsules operating for years. If there is any breakdown in the system, the capsules are programmed to automatically begin the waking procedures on the occupants.

The process is similar to being anesthetised. One will be aware of going under and then waking again. There will be no dreaming, no sense of time having passed. Anna realises that her grief will not be dulled by the passing years. The darkness will follow her to the future, but she hopes that the light of a new world will absorb much of it. She will see the process as a rebirth, a fresh beginning in a transformed world.

They are informed that counselling is available for those left behind. Anna will not be telling her friends what she has planned. She could not bear another major goodbye in her life, or the protests and the attempted interventions that would no doubt follow. She will leave messages for each of them explaining her choice, to be delivered after she is asleep. They will not understand, but the course of the years will convey them along until she is an amorphous memory left in the wake of their lives.

The lecture continues and many questions are asked by others and are answered while Anna simply wonders how soon she can be put to sleep.

After six months of preparations, the day for her sleep arrives. Anna has passed the medical tests and completed all of the legal paperwork. She has sold the house, the car, most of the furniture, and has given what is left to charity. The company provides financial management for sleeping clients, but she has very little left after paying for a century of sleep. An airless square metre of space is also provided to store any personal belongings. She uses this to store a suitcase of clothing, a brown mohair jumper that had been Daniel’s favourite, and a small brooch of her mother’s. Despite her attempts to disengage from any feelings of sentiment, she found that she could not let go of these items at the end. Nor could she control the surge of regret that surfaced, an oily slick floating across a wave of relief when the time came to move out of the beach house. She has a vague notion that there is more she should have organised or could have taken with her, but her focus has been on dismissing the present. The less she takes with her, the more she leaves behind.

As she enters the grey building where she will spend the next one hundred years, she takes a moment to look back at the city skyline, registering its shape, wondering how much it will have changed by the time she next walks through these doors.

Once inside, Anna is processed with a speed and efficiency that gives her little time to contemplate what is about to happen. She suspects this is intentional, a way to counter anxiety for the client, but she feels no apprehension, only a sense of release now that the time has come.

Soon she is lying in a thin white gown, being given the initial injection that will put her under before she is transported to the capsule for the final preparations. She closes her eyes and the green-robed medical team are replaced by a drawing from a childhood storybook that appears before her, of a man with a long grey beard. He is lying beneath a tree, yawning and stretching, waking from a long, long sleep. Her mind slants and the image slips away as a stream of ice runs through her veins. She feels herself tumbling through space and then she is in the beach house. Daniel is there looking out towards the ocean. He turns to her and smiles as the house fills with a gleaming white light that seeps through him as he disappears. The walls fall away and the ocean floods in. She is lifted by the swell and finds herself drifting in a deep green wave before a cold current sweeps in and carries her away.

 

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From Xenoglossia, Tianqi Li

It was 1960, the height of the Cultural Revolution, a time when people had to recite something from The Quotation of Chairman Mao before they opened their mouth. Ju woke up from an accident and found himself speaking English, a language that could only be learned by outstanding Communist party members or cunning national traitors. He was neither, but would others believe him?

 

Excerpt

Zhang Ju woke to a world of silent snow. Patches of white clashed against each other, cotton and plasterand enamel. His first thought was, is it the Lunar New Year already? Have we entered the next decade? —But no, that couldn’t be right. He blinked slowly and saw a pale tube leading to his left hand, nailed to his wrist by two strips of white tape.

Ju turned his head slightly to the left. Among white wood and more white cotton was a single drop of red, a little shiny book, and he relaxed without realising he’d been tense. It was not only a copy of the Quotations from the Chairman, but also his very own, and he’d made the protective cover himself. It was cut out of some plastic remnants from his factory, and he was proud of the delicate handwork, a symbol of both his senior craftsmanship and his faith.

It was better to put the book back into his pocket, close to the heart. Ju extended his right hand, only to find he couldn’t extend it far enough. There was no pain, just a general numbness. Some memories came back, but more were still in a haze. The first person that jumped into his mind was Comrade Yi Mei, his fiancée. Thinking of her plump cheeks, Ju lowered his eyes in shame. As the Chairman dictated, one should fight selfishness and repudiate revisionism. Thinking about a woman before his widowed mother and his younger brother, who was one of the top Red Guards in school, was not right. He could see the Chairman’s look of disapproval in his mind. No wonder he was still not admitted into the Party, despite a solid working class background.

But how did he end up in hospital? What happened?

Before he wondered long enough to give himself a headache, a girl walked into the room without knocking. She was well groomed in a neat grass-green uniform, and the same coloured belt was one button too tight. She put a tray of white bottles and syringes down on the side table, glanced at Ju, and jumped back in surprise, two short braids dangling over her shoulders.

‘You’re awake!’ She shrieked. After a moment, she regained her composure and quickly amended, ‘We shall support whatever our enemies oppose and oppose whatever our enemies support.’

Let a hundred flowers bloom, and a hundred schools of thoughts contend,’ Ju replied in kind. His voice was rougher than he imagined.

The girl — probably a nurse — gave him a warm smile, and served him several mouthfuls of water from the enamel mug. Replacing the mug on the table, she asked politely, ‘I’m sorry, what did you say?’

Let a hu…’ Ju repeated, but choked on the water remaining in his throat. He did not have the strength to sit up, which made the coughing even worse. When he could finally breathe again, the numbness was replaced by an inner ache that defined the boundaries of his body.

The girl stared at him, clearly concerned. ‘Do you want me to call the doctor?’

‘I’m all right,’ Ju decided to recite something shorter, ‘All reactionaries are paper tigers.’

The girl frowned and was silent for a long moment. When Ju started to feel uneasy by the silence, she said, ‘I’m afraid I can’t understand you. Can you speak the Peking tongue?’

‘What are you talking about?’ Ju was confused. ‘I’m speaking the purest Peking dialect.’

‘Or could you tell me where your hometown is? Maybe I could get someone from the same place.’ She then continued with equal confusion and perfect seriousness, ‘Political power comes out of the barrel of a gun.’

Ju did not know what to think. He glanced at his copy of the Quotations rather helplessly, and the girl turned her heels as if on cue, saying she’d go find the doctor. Ju watched her go and replayed their conversation in his head. In fact, it was she who had an accent, a kind of nasal sound that indicated far north. ‘Well, conflicts and struggles are common and absolute,’ he mused, and raised his eyes to see the next person walk into the room.

It was Yi Mei. She was in the exact same uniform as the nurse, her belt tied just right. Ju felt a familiar warmness blossom in his heart.

Everything is for serving the people,’ Mei said with her low, calm voice, and walked to stand at his bedside. ‘It’s good to see you awake. How are you feeling?’

‘I think I’m all right, but I may need your help,’ Ju said, trying hard to control his smile, and consciously stiffened his hands that longed for her touch, if only a quick handshake. He wanted to ask how she was and what exactly happened, but the expression on Mei’s face shut him up.

She looked into his eyes as if examining whether the stitches on a bed quilt were tidy, and then asked softly, ‘Why are you speaking English?’

Ju looked at her blankly. English? He didn’t know a word of English.

He had no idea what he’d say if the silence remained longer. But the northern girl came back, followed by a middle-aged man with round-rimmed glasses and a rumpled uniform. He nodded to both Mei and Ju, saluted and bellowed in a baritone, ‘We have the Marxist-Leninist weapon of criticism and self-criticism. How are you, our selfless hero, Comrade Zhang? Comrade Wu said you had some problem speaking…?’

Ju opened his mouth. ‘I don’…’

He froze mid-sentence, not only because Mei was staring at him, her face expressionless and her eyes sharp as burning needles.

This time, he actually heard himself.

And it sank in. He had been speaking English ever since he woke up on this hospital bed. A language that he could not speak, and certainly had never studied in his entire life.

The doctor saved everyone by saying, ‘Ai-dong? Are you freezing? Hmm, it was summer last time I checked.’ He grinned at his own joke, and came closer to check on Ju with professional efficiency. Mei’s face disappeared. ‘Where does Comrade Zhang come from?’ Ju heard the nurse ask. There was no reply.

‘You’re sweating a lot. Probably due to a fever caused by an infection,’ the doctor said. ‘The accident was very bad indeed. Don’t worry, I’ll fix you in no time. As the Chairman said, health is the capital of revolution.’ He nodded, did a bad job of straightening the quilt over Ju, and went out of the room. The nurse followed suit.

Ju looked at Mei, who looked straight back. She was standing with her back against the opposite wall, as if a snake was coming out from under the bed. ‘I…I don’t know,’ Ju croaked, struggling to find the right words to say.‘I don’t know.’ He could not find anything other than I don’t know. ‘What accident? Were you, were they speaking…? Am I still…?’

Mei stared at him for another moment, and recited, ‘Down with all ox-gods and snake-ghosts,’ almost under her breath before turning to leave. Her voice was quivering.

‘But I’m not an ox-god nor snake-ghost!’ Ju burst out. He was shaking, and he could feel it. ‘I’m not…I’m not a landlord or bourgeoisie or insurrectionist or rich peasant or rebel or traitor!’ What else was included in ox-gods and snake-ghosts? But the doctor came back with the nurse, asking why and what he was shouting about. Ju shut his mouth out of instinct, afraid that the doctor might know some English, or know that it was English he was speaking. In a swirling fog of panic, he lost focus amongst the surrounding whiteness, oblivious to the thermometer and the wet towel and more water down his throat, praying for Mei to come back — although there was no one he could pray to, as gods did not exist.

It was only after the doctor and the nurse left again, and did not return for some time, that Ju calmed down enough to think. While busying over him, the doctor and the nurse had talked about him in a serious tone, worrying that he might be suffering some after-effects from the accident, and thus was not in his right mind. He had just woken up from a week-long coma, after all. The poor comrade! What a brave man, a true hero, sacrificing himself to save public property! All comrades are servants for the people, just as the Chairman observed.

It was all right, Ju told himself. He was a worker, a proletariat (where did that word even come from? He’d never heard of it for sure) and a hero, although he remembered nothing of his heroic act. Just let them think he was still dizzy and unwell. He’d switch back to Chinese before anyone else noticed, and laugh off Mei’s mistake in thinking his gibbering was a foreign language — she had the honour to receive night classes as an Excellent Party Member, but surely her English could not be that good. He extended his right hand and gripped his Little Red Book, ignoring the pain in his arm and his shaking fingers. Yes, he said to himself, everything would be all right.

Except the cover of the Red Book, with the Chairman’s portrait and five Chinese characters, now only had the Chairman’s portrait and five strange squares with golden lines going everywhere.

Ju closed his eyes. And opened them. The five golden drawings, quivering in his hand, remained the same. Quotations of the Chairman. It was as simple as that. Yet he could not tell how each of the five words were pronounced, even though they must’ve been the most well-known characters in their young country. Everyone knew them, even babies and the illiterate.

Ju swallowed hard. He used both hands to hold the Red Book, and raised it up until the Chairman smiled fondly at his eyebrows. The first golden drawing, the one that looked like an amputated centipede, was the Chairman’s family name. Slowly, it began to swim.

‘Why are you crying?’ The voice was cold, distant, but also unmistakably Mei’s.

Ju lowered his aching arms, but still held onto the Red Book. Mei was standing at the opposite wall as before, and it seemed she’d been there for a while. The door was thoughtfully closed.

While Ju kept blinking away his tears, unable and afraid to speak, Mei stepped closer, watching him with caution.

‘Are you a foreign spy?’ she asked.

Ju shook his head, before he had time to decide whether to feign ignorance at her allegation.

‘Do you have illicit relations with the West? Do you have foreign relatives? Have you been learning English in private?’ Mei raised her eyebrows with each question. ‘Then tell me, how do you know English? And how come I’ve never known that you knew English?’

Silence would not help, so Ju answered, ‘I don’t know.’ He inhaled deeply, and added, ‘I don’t know English, and I don’t know why I’m speaking it.’

‘Right, you just acquired it?’ Mei gave him a contemptuous look. ‘I didn’t want to believe it, so I came back, and the way you held the Quotations…I thought maybe it was a misunderstanding… but now you’re just lying to my face.’ She straightened up and recited loudly, ‘Who are our friends, and who are our enemies? This is a question of first importance for the revolution.

‘Yi Mei, I’m not—’

But she was already gone.

 

The only way out of this insanity, his only salvation, was to exorcise the demon called English and resume his normal self. Until then, Ju decided not to open his mouth, except for eating, drinking and brushing his teeth. His mother and brother came to visit, but he did not respond to their relief at his recovery, nor their concern at his silence. His workmates came as a group and brought him a small juicy watermelon, which would have cost them a fortune, but he pretended to be sleeping. And he did sleep; he slept as many times as he could, in the hope of finding the world making sense again the next time he woke up.

But it didn’t. The characters in the Red Book remained undecipherable, no matter how familiar they looked or how well he knew the content by heart. The nurse brought him newspapers every day, but he had no idea how the revolution was advancing in the vast republic. Mei’s words played and replayed in his head, but he could not recall what she really said, not the actual words. In his mind, she was speaking in fluent and perfect English in her clear, serious voice, although in real life the only English he had ever heard her say was, ‘Long live the Chairman,’ when she wanted to show him what was taught in the evening classes she’d been attending. On that same date, she had called him his full name for the first time. Zhang Ju, not just Comrade Zhang. Her lips pouted into a flower for the sound of Ju, and stayed in that shape for a short, sweet moment.

Immersed in the memory, Ju slowly pursed his own lips, trying to mimic her perfect curve. But he could not make the Ju sound anymore. It was not drew, or shoo, or jole; the U was not pronounced as a U. He did not know how it was pronounced.

Mei did not visit him again. Ju’s mother did not approve of this self-conduct in her future daughter-in-law. ‘She should have come every day to visit you,’ his mother said. ‘If not out of love as a fiancée, then at least out of compassion as an intimate comrade. Even if you might be like this for the rest of your life…’ his mother stopped, and abruptly turned her back to him.

Ju glanced at his mother and understood how worried she was, for her hero son appeared to be in some sort of inexplicable stupor. He wanted to tell her the truth, to tell her that he was in perfect health, including a fully functioning and clear mind, or so he thought. But she would not understand a word, not in the only language he was capable of using now.

 

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