Tag Archives: mortality

Pass Over, Alec Mallia

I was paying to watch her die, every week.

 

I flew to the city when she was admitted and managed to get a room half an hour away in a share house. At four or five in the morning my eyes would open to the cracks in the roof, shying from the window light as if sleep was ever going to come back into the picture. Pulling the dusty cover off my razor, I’d make sure every single hair was cut to the skin. Little red welts would begin to wrap across my chin, and I’d remember why I kept the beard back home. Before walking out the door there would be three perfect circles, five scratched attempts and two games of noughts and crosses on the morning’s paper. On the way there the red needle of the speedometer nestled exactly to each road’s speed limit. When an orange light came on in front of me, I’d slam the breaks – safety first.

Eventually I got lucky and someone rammed straight up my backside. It was one of those utes that sat three tires above all the other cars on the road. Couldn’t see a scratch on its actual body but apparently I messed up his precious bull bar. He was waving his arms about and screeching this-that and the other. I did my best impersonation of a copper, talking all slow like ‘HAVE. YOU. BEEN. INJURED?’

He was having none of it, and by the time that got sorted I was at least an hour late.

 

Coming down the hill to the car park I’d circle round the first floor, finding the nicest little spot with a twenty-point reverse park job. On the colder mornings I smoked in the fire escape, eventually shuffling in the building to one of the reception desks. There was a lady there most Sundays; her name was Michelle Zhao. Grandma would always tell me that getting someone’s name, ‘and all of it,’ was the polite thing to do. Of course I was terrible with names, worse with faces, and although this never bothered me, I had begun to try with Michelle.

‘Michelle Zhao!’ I called, with a sort of coughing, shuddery-ness from the lingering accident’s adrenaline. She waved, almost crouching under her desk from her startling, but a smile nonetheless.

‘It’s good to see you Mister Davies, I’m sorry about your grandmother.’

I did the ‘gloom’ smile and nodded, ‘Didn’t think I’d be back again so soon, but here we are.’

She grabbed a nurse and eventually we found the ward, stopping outside her room. The nurse briefed me that things might not seem right with her mind, that her lungs weren’t looking ‘optimal’ either. She was staying for monitoring.

‘We’ll see how she goes’.

The nurse opened the door, and I sat down on the plastic chair across from her. Gran tilted her head a little towards me. The bed was your standard, stiffish, folding piece of work that could be found in most hospitals.

‘Close the curtains will you?’

They smelled of that musky, second-hand perfume – week old daisies shoved into a bottle of brandy. A slightly rotund man danced about on the television with his hair slicked back,

‘I’m Jonathan Brian and this is MONEYGRAB!’

 

I cleared my throat and she raised an eyebrow towards me, ‘How’re you feeling Gran?’

She looked up and down, squinting.

‘I know you.’ Her brow scrunched up behind her glasses. I leaned forward and showed my teeth.

‘I’m JONATHAN BRIAN and this is MONEYGRAB!’

She smiled a little, shifting in the bed and propping herself upright. A couple of nurses went by past the window. My foot started tapping on the floor, ‘It’s Ian, Gran…’

‘Oh of course, sit! Please!’ She smiled, nodding as I gestured to my already seated bottom.

‘What have you been up to hey?’ I reached forward before her hands squeezed the bed so hard their veins popped out.

I leaned back.

She raised an eyebrow and looked past me, leaning slightly out of the bed towards the figures moving past the door.

‘You’ve done it Ros! You’ve won a thousand dollars!’ The TV rang out, bells dinging. Bright green cartoon stacks of money flashing on the little box.

Gran coughed and smacked her lips together, ‘Did she come with you?’

‘Who?’

‘You know who.’

I shoved my hands in my jacket, ‘She’s not here. She’s not coming’

She, my mother, was dead. I know that for a fact. Saw the photos of the crash. Car was wrapped around a power pole, ‘Speed suspected in cause of incident.’

As the years go by it’s getting harder to recall what she had to do with me, let alone who she was. I remember a couple of beaches, being in the back of the car, a foggy birthday or two. Gran would slip details now and then before snatching at her cross and shaking her head. Her name was Kate. Gran said she did ‘bad things’ and that they had to ‘save’ me from her. The photos I had of her were from her last couple of high school years. I remember the sound of the fights they used to have. You could feel my grandfather’s voice in the walls. We used to have a wooden spoon in the house that was chipped where Gran smacked her with it a couple of times. After they’d sent me to bed I’d hear the intro to ‘The Bill,’ and sooner or later they’d start talking if she wasn’t home – which was often in her last years. I used to sneak down the stairs and stick my ear through the paling to try and hear things. I’d never get more than a grunt out of Grandad, but Gran had a sort of hiss when she spoke about Kate. It was never good.

She died around my eleventh birthday. By then I hadn’t seen her for two years.

The day after the funeral Gran found Grandpa in the garage with a hose from the Alfa’s tailpipe to back window, driver side. We didn’t speak of her at all after that, or at least I didn’t ask.

‘When bad things happen, we don’t stare.’

Not that I ever had the chance to bring it up — boarding schools were Gran’s tool of choice, military high schools with brief holidays. I’d spend those days away from her and that house. By the time I got to university I was already living a few hours away.

Gran’s fear of ‘her’ and ‘she’ was the first time she was on our lips since those days.

But she forgot her the moment the words left her lips. We talked about Melbourne for a while and my ‘big job’ coming up before I left. I made sure to use vague enough terms to make sure she was both proud and uninterested.

Things complicated, and I moved back to the old house. My room had been stripped to a bed and empty drawers. Down the hall Gran had turned Kate’s old room into a kind of study. There was just a leather chair and half-filled bookcase left. On the second Sunday night I sat in the chair and stared at the shelves. Any kind of book was stacked right next to its opposite.

EncyclopediaBritannica– 45 Volumes, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, a strong display of Tolstoy and a few other Russians. Beneath that an array of war books ranging from Gallipoli to the Battle of Long Tan. Just above the olive-drab spine of Gallipoli was a corner of a page or piece of paper. It stuck out between the back and the jacket. An envelope, shoved into the ‘about the author’ page. The front of it simply read ‘Sorry’. It was unsealed, and the letter slipped out of it.

‘I am sorry for what I did just now, Ian, Janet.’ Handwritten in jittery blue pen. After that line a few words had been struck through a handful of times until they were scratchy blobs.

‘…but I’m more sorry for what we did to you, Kate.’

Another bird’s nest of tangled rewrites.

‘I don’t expect anyone’s forgiveness or sympathy.’

There was nothing else. I left the letter on the chair and closed the door.

Before the fourth Sunday I was sitting on the edge of my bed. It had poured all day. The night was missing the rolling moans of buses, the splintering leaves and animal noises. It was all black after the window, and there was no sound to tell me otherwise. White shone up from the desk, and my phone crunched in vibration on to the floor. I scrambled to pick it up, answering the call but saying nothing as I pulled it to my ear.

‘Hello? Mr Davies?’

I scratched my nose and brushed my hair to one side, ‘Hello, who is this?’

‘Mr Davies there has been an incident with your grandmother,’ the earpiece crackled.

‘What sort of incident?’

She had suffered some sort of stroke going to toilet, banged herself up pretty badly. The accelerator stayed pressed on the orange lights.

Michelle was working that night and she grabbed the doctor for me. ‘Mental trauma’ and ‘risk of comatose’ filtered through amongst muffled words. There was the slightest smell of orange on his breath. ‘Not much time.’

We arrived at her room in the ward and the doctor pointed, ‘She can hold conversation, but I would be careful not to give her stress or upset her’.

The letter was dangling on the edges of my sight.

I watched her little glazed eyes staring straight through to the wall, juddering sometimes towards the odd nurse that’d pass her by. When they brought her food they’d follow the trays to her lap. It took a few tries for the nurse to feed her but eventually she managed to pull through it. Her eyes rolled back into position — staring into nothing. I waited another minute before walking in. She was glued to a spot that was a few inches right of the television. Her face stayed the same regardless of what flickered across the screen. I sat next to her, and she didn’t move a bit. There was an aerobics class on the television.

‘Gran?’

‘Gran?’

‘I found the letter.’

Her eyelids twitched and she looked away. I pulled the chair closer.

‘The,’ she spoke, ‘letter?’

She blew air, trying to heave into a full-body eye roll.

‘Gramps said that you both did something to Mu- Kate.’

She stayed silent, and I watched the reflections in the window before she spoke again, ‘I don’t want to hear this now Ian.’

I pulled the chair beside her and shook my head, ‘Did you ever ask her to stay? Did you ever ask what she needed?’  I bit my lip, and for some reason chuckled.

‘She left you.’ Her hands gripped the bed, ‘Left us.’

She looked at me for a second before snapping back to the other side of the bed.

‘You never tried to be better for her?’

Her lips were shut.

‘I need you to be honest with me Gran,’ I said to the back of her head.

Nothing. Could barely see her breathing, but I could hear the whistle and hack of her inhale/exhale routine. She might have said something under the coughing and spluttering but I didn’t hear it. I pulled at her shoulder and turned her around towards me. Her eyes would never meet mine.

That last Sunday night I drove through a red light on the way home. I parked in the garage and locked the old roller. In the house I made sure that every switch was off, every cord pulled, every curtain shut and every door closed. My effects were splayed out on the guest bed, and they fit decently back into my bag. The alarm was off, the door unlocked.

I started walking east.

 

Download PDF of ‘Pass Over’ here

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Phantom, Rabeah Zafrullah

08/09/15

CARNEGIE POLICE DEPARTMENT

PART 2 OF AUDIO RECORDED INTERVIEW

 

ADAMS: Am I a suspect?

POLICE: The body was found in your apartment, Mr. Adams. We need to know why.

ADAMS: So I am a suspect. [laughs] People keep telling me that the police are getting duller, but shit man, I didn’t believe them ‘til now. Your parents must be so proud.

POLICE: Mr. Adams, I’m going to ask you to remain civil and answer the question.

ADAMS: Right. No, of course! Please continue, I’d hate to stand in the way of justice.

POLICE: Can you explain why Eric Compton was at your residence on the night of the fifth?

ADAMS: Never heard of him.

POLICE: Can you explain why your phone records show that you called him twenty-six times on the day he was strangled? Choked to death in your very room?

ADAMS: What can I say? I’m clingy.

POLICE: So you do know Eric Compton?

ADAMS: Eric Compton the drug dealer? I’ve never heard of him. I’m a model citizen.

POLICE: Mr. Adams, the more you cooperate, the faster you can leave.

ADAMS: I can leave when I want. No handcuffs, see?

POLICE: Alright. Let’s go back to the beginning, Mr. Adams. Can you tell us how you lost your arms?

 

They say war changes you, and I have to agree. There’s just something about getting your arms blown to hell and having surgery in a bloody tent that makes you see things differently. Really changes your perspective – although that might just be because I’m practically blind in my left eye and can’t see for shit. And then there’s the damn morphine. Now that changes you. They like playing God with it, giving it and taking it away. They wean you off it like as if you won’t remember how good it feels to not be in constant agony. You get prescribed other shit, but God, nothing does it. So you bet your ass I was buying it wherever I could find it. I wasn’t an addict or anything, I could live without the drugs. I just didn’t see why I should. But it was getting harder to get the good stuff, even after I pawned off my medal for cash. The monthly allowances barely staved off my hunger, and the pain wasn’t getting any better. They call it phantom pain. You think your wrist itches and you go to scratch it, but then you realise that you don’t have a wrist anymore or anything to scratch it with. But God, the itch doesn’t give a shit about whether it’s supposed to exist or not. It just keeps on existing, starting off small – you could almost ignore it. Then it just grows and grows until it’s a clenched uncontrollable mass of scorching muscle that twists in on itself. It drives you crazy. Panadol just doesn’t kick it.

I’m going to be honest, before I was in the army, I was a bit of a thief. Shocker right? Me – the morally upstanding citizen with the medal of ‘bravery’ in one non-existent hand and a hypodermic needle in the other. It was mostly petty though, nothing too serious, but you start to miss that extra cash. I was good with my hands, could get a wallet from a man while he was still walking. It was easy living. You can’t really do that with a prosthetic. Can’t really do shit with a prosthetic except drop things. I could have gone my whole life living on that money alone, maybe get a crap job somewhere if I had to. I don’t know why I joined the army. I guess I thought I needed direction in my life. Instead I got a bloody IED. I still have the scars from the shrapnel. It’s been six years, and they don’t look like they’ll fade any time soon. Arms don’t show any sign of re-growing either, but you can always hope.

Listen, before I get to the bit about my arms, my real arms, you should know that I didn’t kill anyone. Not even in the army. Call me a thieving druggie, sure, but I’m no murderer. I’m practically a pacifist. Sure, Eric was my dealer and he was a piece of shit, but he’s the one who got the drugs in me. I wouldn’t kill him. I wouldn’t kill anyone, I swear.

*

‘Just one prosthetic arm? You couldn’t afford two?’

‘The army didn’t think I needed another.’

‘I see. Mr. Adams, you were taken in for petty theft before you joined. Have you attempted any other such crimes since then? Theft? Drugs? Murder?’

‘Of course not. I’m armless.’

‘Where did you get the money to purchase drugs from? Did you have someone steal it for you? Or did you owe Eric Compton a lot of money? Is that why you killed him?’

I didn’t kill Eric.’ ‘Then who was it?’

*

I think it was quite early on. I remember Eric had come in to shoot me up and he had brought a friend with him, a guy called Boxer who looked 85% steroids, 14% beard and 1% brain – and that was being generous. Arms like he had stuck balloons under his skin. I think he had come along to have a laugh at the poor tin soldier, but I was too far gone to give a crap about them. Anyway, that was the first time I noticed it. I was in this beautifully tempered bliss, no pain, no nothing. I’d started thinking I’d got my arms back and I was lifting them up and marvelling at the creases and joints. They looked so real I was convinced they’d grown right back. Drugs will do that to you. Stay in school kids.

Boxer and Eric were leaving, either trying to get out before the cleaner came or because they were bored of watching me look like I was about to drop off. Even disability loses its charm sometimes. Boxer had been amusing himself by throwing shit at me all day and yelling ‘think fast’ or ‘catch’, and then just as he was leaving, he tossed the keys right at me – straight for my face. Out of pure instinct I put my hands up, and of course that shouldn’t have made a damn difference, but it did. I swear the keys hit my hands instead of my face and I felt them hit my hands as well. It wasn’t a phantom feeling, God no. It was real.

For a moment, I thought my arms had actually grown back and I was whole again. That was probably the happiest moment in my entire life. It didn’t last. I tried touching my face, but it didn’t work. Later on, I told myself it was the drugs and the keys had really hit my face. I started to believe that was true, but then it happened again and I hadn’t even taken a chewy vitamin. I was at the checkout and the lady was giving me my change when a coin dropped, and instead of going for it with my prosthetic, I went for it with a hand that didn’t even exist. Except I actually caught the damn coin, and it bloody well hovered in mid-air for a couple of seconds. Doesn’t sound like much, but it felt like forever. I checked the cashier’s face to see if she was as shocked as me, but people don’t like to look at you when you don’t have arms, like amputation can be ocularly transmitted or something. But I really had caught the coin and I had actually used my arms – the ones that didn’t even exist. Holy shit, right?

Well, I was psyched. I was convinced that my arms were slowly going to become more and more physical until everyone would be amazed at how I actually regrew my arms. It was the power of love, I’d tell them. I even tried telling my therapist, but she went on about PTSD and hallucinations. Couldn’t prove I was right could I? I had no control over when my arms would work and when they wouldn’t, but they would work sometimes, usually when I wasn’t thinking about it – instinct you know? Impulses and stuff. That’s when I could catch things from the air. I used to pretend that I could see my arms back when they first got blown off and my imagination was never really up to scratch, but now I could actually see them, every single wrinkle and hair. It was mostly through my half blind eye, so they looked kind of fuzzy and vague, but sometimes they’d clear up – those were usually the times when I could use them as well. Sometimes I’d forget I didn’t have my prosthetic on and I’d be using my real arms to do things instead. Of course, the moment I’d realise, it would all fall apart. But it was happening more often and I was getting better at it, not very quickly, but I really was. Soon I could use it consciously. I practised as much as I could, only when there wasn’t anyone around, but the whole thing was exhausting. Lifting a paper was like lifting at the gym when a pretty girl was watching how many weights you put on. Hell, I was getting pretty ripped. It was a damn shame that no one could check out my mad biceps.

Here’s the thing though, my arms were great when I was controlling them, but when I wasn’t, the pain was ten times worse. I’d be staring at my arms and they’d be blurring in and out of focus, mottled red things with the veins squirming like worms and the fingers blackened with oozing gashes, bits of metal shrapnel sticking out everywhere. I’d be screaming like a mad man and I was convinced that somehow my left eye was showing me what my arms looked like before they were cut off by the doctors. My arms started working normally more often, which was great, but I couldn’t stand the God damn pain anymore. Eric and Boxer were over a lot more often. Sometimes Boxer came alone and then afterwards Eric would show up bruised like a bad apple. I didn’t ask questions.

I only had so much money though, and Eric and Boxer were burning through all my emergency savings. I was barely eating once a day, and I still couldn’t really afford groceries after I got my shots and the more shots I got, the less they worked. I needed money badly and I had no way of getting more. And then I had a stroke of sheer brilliance. You remember how I said I was a great pickpocket? Never got caught in my life and I had bet that I’d have an even better record with my hidden arms. What kind of cop was going to arrest a man for stealing when he doesn’t have any hands to steal with? I figured it out on the train one day. This lady’s phone started ringing from inside her bag. So she opens the giant thing, fishes the damn phone out then starts yammering away at it without closing her purse, so it’s just wide open and I can see her wallet right at the top. And I thought, if I can pick up all those other things with my hands, what’s stopping me from picking people’s pockets? It was genius, and even though I wasn’t nearly as good as I was with my old arms, this job had its own perks. Sometimes, you’d get people who noticed what was going on you know, felt something moving in their pockets, and they’d turn around to glare – but I was a freaking disabled man, and they weren’t about to stare at me for more than a second. They’d actually feel bad for suspecting me! It was better than being invisible. It was like I was the Pope. No one thought I was capable of crime. Sometimes I’d take to wearing my camo and I bought a little veteran’s badge type of thing. God, the way they’d blush when they saw me like that. I was a freaking saint, and they were criminals for suspecting me. I started to regret selling off my medal. People would have shit their pants.

The money was rolling in, and you can bet that I got the morphine as quick as Eric could give it. On the days that he couldn’t commit, the pain was incredible. It was almost like it increased according to how much I used my arms. My fingers would be twitching like an electrocuted chicken, and I’d be feeling my heart throb in my arms instead of my chest. Boxer was showing up more often and sometimes he’d watch me screaming for five minutes before he did anything. He liked watching people suffer.

*

‘So you’re saying Boxer killed Eric.’

‘I’m saying I didn’t kill Eric.’

The officer scribbled something down, and I took a deep breath. It had been three days since my last dose and I could feel myself losing control, and this idiot with his questions wasn’t helping.

‘So what happened the night of the murder?’

*

I had started promising Eric ridiculous amounts of money for the morphine, but something was up with his suppliers. I had been in control for the last three days, the longest I’d ever gone, and I knew I couldn’t keep it up much longer. When the pain came, it was all-consuming.

I was on the floor when he got to me, damn insane with how bad it was. My arms were on fire, they just wouldn’t stop clenching and unclenching, making jazz hands at the ceiling then ready for a fist fight. Anyone could see that I needed some damn help, but Eric, bless his soul, just stood there and laughed for a moment. Not an all-out laugh, more like an audible acknowledgement of something funny. And me on the ground, with my hands playing an invisible game of peek-a-boo, faster now that he had laughed, like my arms were glad there was an audience.

*

‘Was Boxer there that night?’

He was looking up at me expectantly now, but I couldn’t afford to lose focus by talking. I couldn’t let my arms take over again. I was breathing faster now, practically hyperventilating. What if I couldn’t stop it?

*

Eric was smiling down at me. If I could have moved my hands I would have punched him. But then again, he also took the time to inject things into my ass, so he couldn’t be that bad. A part of me wondered if Boxer was with him, ready to make me wait five minutes. Eric knelt down and leaned over me, and suddenly my arms stilled, falling to my sides.

*

The officer was leaning over me now, concerned, and my arms were becoming mutilated before my eyes, twitching and clenching. They were turning red now, red and blue and black and now here was the metal, growing out of the dappled skin like pea plants. I couldn’t control them anymore. God, they were shaking. I couldn’t stop it. The pain was snaking up, and my hands were curling in for a clench – shit! Was that blood in my nails? I knocked over a glass of water, and the officer’s eyes widened.

‘Did you do that?’

‘No! No, it wasn’t me!’

They were going spastic now, and the pain, oh God, the pain. And then, with one last clench, they stilled and settled on the table. Oh God, not again. Not again, please no. The officer was too close and he reached for his radio but my arm got to him first, grabbing on to his, I couldn’t control it, I swear, and then, while he was looking at me with those God damn wide eyes, just like Eric’s, my other arm reached inside his chest. It wasn’t me. I couldn’t control it. But God, I could feel my hand squeezing. One hand clutching his heart and the other twisting my face to look at his, look at those eyes that went wide then blank like Eric’s.

 

When the others rushed in, it was too late. The cop was on the floor, leaking blood like a faulty tap. They were looking at me, but I was looking at my hands. Still red and black, still uncontrollable but no longer clenching. Instead they were drumming on the table. Impatient almost.

 

Download PDF of ‘Phantom’ here

Tagged , , , , , ,

Rorka, Rohan Viswalingam

Blood be the body

Surging in it and out of it

Dribbling over the dimming eyes

Separating those eyes

 

Sending the fire out of the mind

Spurting it out of the head

Giving the body supremacy over the city

Drenching the windows in a fiery dark

 

The unmixable smoke

It penetrates the body

Hollowing it out of life

Destroying the centre

 

The crunching face rages with fury

Breathing the black smoke from the air

Sending it down through to the lungs

Deeper deeper go the tainted vapours

 

The city will fall before me

My power will snap the infrastructure

The statues will crumble

Until the rubble will be a second sea

 

The sea will roll interminably

Burning the bodies falling from the surface

Swallowing the enfettered souls

And I will watch those ghostly pained faces

 

Sulphur will penetrate the safe havens

Where the innocent are hiding

In their shady burrows

Warmed by their fleeting love

 

The Black Widows will peak out from the gaps

Come sprawling

Out over the totems of falling civilization

Possessing the newly purged landscape

 

Mercy, there will be none

Just a reminder ever brutal

That homes are temporary

That the reckoning is inevitable

 

The spirits have just been waiting

Forcing a false sense of security

To the lethargic inhabitants

That nothing will come of their decisions

 

But the nature of the land will take hold

Giving no creature a second dice roll

Erasing all hope in their prayers

Leaving but the peaceful silence before annihilation

 

We will teach the people

Of the hierarchy of breath

The legions of emissaries will show no mercy

And the land will be cleaned flat

 

The sea will calm

The Widows will relinquish their thrones

Leaving a vacant, dusty city

Waking up to a new age

 

And it is without the stragglers

For they have whittled themselves away

In the dark crevices that we made

The ones they hid in before perishing

 

The new sun will be born of water

The water of their blood

That ran down the buildings into the stream

And the sun will be called Rorka

 

The purity will be the rage

The rage of extinction

The seething hate of being chosen

Chosen to be vanquished by the upper power

 

The sun will warm the new places

Giving pulse to the dried up swamps

Giving jobs to the legged cripples that survived

And leaving the fallen rubbed into the darkness like charcoal

 

The old safe place is gone

The rebirth is complete

Total Completion

Purity from a sun

 

A new form must be made

A new leader of the second sun

Born from the new sea

And from the shadows of before

 

Build it

Start with the teeth

With black sperm squeezing through the gaps

Forming the gums and lips

 

It all comes back to what we destroyed

A refreshing of the old body

To make a new one

To command the Widows and sea

 

Fetch the parts from the old coves of death

Feed the veins from the seabed

Supply the bones from the graves in the buildings

Give me the soul from the Second Sun

 

The soul will be the centre

Herding the water around it

Connecting the tendons

Latching the veins together

 

Then an earthly being will form

A disgusting new being

A sick reminder of the past

But eventually a new ideal for the future

 

There will be no skin

Only the crimson muscle

And perfect white tendons

No shroud of skin to hide the lies

 

And Skinless will sit on a throne of waves

Constantly nourished by the water

Held above the rusted buildings of old

Giving it elevated reprieve from this sordid world

 

No new citizen will be forgotten

They will come to worship Skinless

They will fill the buildings

Stepping over the stale bones of the past

 

New words will come from Skinless

And the new citizens will learn the past

Learn the present

And they will know the future

 

 

Download a PDF of Rorka

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Being: Mark Four, Melanie Adams

I.

 

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

It clutched her womb with barren hands

She haemorrhaged a me, mark three.

 

With a grievous contraction, she expelled

The coagulated nothing

Spurned by her body.

 

The stab was familiar.

 

In 1980, first blood seeped from her young form

Rippling tides of relief.

 

Summer of ’92, it had gripped her viscera

The day after the miniature cardiac throb caressed her ears

And the surge of maternal love sparkled in her chest.

Her arid figure cracked and crumpled.

 

My father’s shirt had promised them a daughter.

Draped in the vivid spirits of the Violent Femmes

His mind incanted: Let me go on.

 

My father bought a bounding ball of puppy fuzz

For my mother, as consolation.

 

Later, I heard ‘constellation’

Picturing all my selves that never were

Coalescing into celestial objects.

 

Doctors told my mother

Her anatomy was the great antagonist

Bellicose, designed to obliterate.

And yet, this determined speck

Clambered out of the mire of non-existence

A scatter of atoms, at first

Uniting into lungs, a brain

And a heartbeat.

 

And so I was.

Born all aperture, drinking my surroundings

With large brown spheres

Gleaming. Winking.

Slung from stellar oblivion.

 

II.

 

I was fourteen years, crushed up

A thousand tiny shells spat out by the sea

With its wringing tide.

 

Sinking in its mouth

Until my bones lodged in the back of its throat.

Life coughed up my skeleton.

 

The Violent Femmes and their jagged colours hung about my ribs

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

 

I had grown from a clot of cells

To this, a self-immolating bush

Destined to blacken and burn out.

 

They said God’s hands had

Plucked me from the astral plane

Of their empty bodies

Flinging me through incandescence

To this dimension.

 

Why would God waste his divine fingers

Stitching something to squander?

 

My bled-out siblings called

From the belly of the earth.

I ruptured and burst like a tired star.

 

I was the sprout that had struggled

Through the concrete fissures of the footpath

Poking its fecund face

Into suburban spring.

 

I wanted to crawl back down.

 

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

To slink back into

The hull of my mother

To sleep within her dormant walls

Secreted for a century

Before my renaissance.

 

Instead I was an unblinking eye

Inhaling weltschmerz

Without slumber.

 

Eating the city’s grime and feasting

On its acrid disappointment.

 

The shirt’s prophecy unravelled

Me, a violent woman

Dreaming of gunshot wounds

 

Pockets groaning with stones

Weighed down in the river

Hoping to sink.

 

Diffuse like light pollution

Lying limp on the floor.

Atomised. Paralysed.

Shredded to a joyless confetti.

Floating away.

 

III.

 

The moon mirrors my mother’s love

Luna urges me as she does the ocean

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

To swell and embrace the salty shoreline.

 

My fragments, like iron filings

Magnetised back together.

 

I raise myself as a filament

Conducting light. Throwing it back

To my family, who so loved me

That they shovelled the soil of debt on their own shoulders

Just to hold me. Just to see my newborn face

And hear my infant giggle —

The mellifluous tinkle of chimes

Thirteen years in the making.

The shirt sacrificed itself to us.

Its vibrant creatures stretched and ripped

Beyond recognition.

I still feel the noble ghost of its ribbons

Stroking the crevices of my back.

 

Existential guilt still hums

A covert wasp’s nest crafted in my skull.

I will spray it away someday

But for now, I will cradle this tender glow

Cupping my hands

Over the blazing candle

Of being.

 

 

Works Cited

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

 

 

Download a PDF of Being: Mark Four.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Solid Sand and Broken Water, Hannah Baker

i.

He had soft sage and lavender fingers

When his mother took him up the estuary

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

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

For months she carried him, thinking only

Of his potential, then lost him like a limb.

 

Suddenly become a second son,

He doesn’t feel like a miracle.

Unless they’re supposed to grow

More insubstantial, year by year.

 

Now he can’t help but hold sensations,

Keep them pressed into the soft mud of

His muscles, either side of his stony spine

 

Like the smell of cold grass, broken and

Sharp, wound round his little knuckles

Until he felt the hair-thin roots give.

He shuddered and stopped tugging

But those blades bit back and dug

Their imprint deep into his fingers.

 

Surely his brother would only be bones,

And even those pitted in this acidic soil.

 

Porous surfaces never used to panic him,

But the stinging sight of honeycomb now

Swells his tongue back to close his throat.

 

He tries to run, to only glide over the earth

And so ward off its patient hollow hunger,

But gravity forces his feet to knead the ground,

And long for rest on this grassy headland.

 

Though his soles are callused they still sweat,

And the veins show through his instep,

Blue and green like branches and streams.

 

Thick clay skin means nothing

When the cracks threaten to leak

His beaten blood.

 

Even the sea breeze bores into him

But the warm honey sun is soothing

And from this high the sand is as solid

As anything can be.

 

Every direction leads, he thinks,

Not to headstones holding old bones down

But to ribs exposed like mangrove roots.

 

ii.

Death happens, not easy but often.

Entropic, all matter is mostly vacuum,

It would be easy for lethargy to sink into

Atoms, and for weary rock to turn to sand.

Observed closely enough, coastlines are infinite,

And molecular gaps keep anything from ever truly

Touching. But somehow matter retains, regains,

Its energy, even advances to animation when

Bodies meet, or bloody waters break and

Out of the lather erupts something new.

Not easy but often, life happens too.

 

iii.

She laughed out sea roses as a child,

When her father warned her off wanting.

Still the smell of certain perfumes and the sea

Clearly recalls to her the sticky softness of

Petals unfurling and clinging to her tongue

Before tumbling off the cliff of her lips.

 

He told her she had been born too early.

Half-knitted, with fluid in her lungs

And a film of foam for skin,

She might have unspooled again.

But she chose to cough and cry instead.

 

Surviving with just this, she sometimes still

Feels like a miracle, and marvels at herself:

No tiny flame wind’s whim could flicker out.

 

By holding heart-sized stones she learnt to

Swim in a lake as cold and sharp as glass.

Her lungs already knew the worth of leaking,

But gravity needed help to hold her down.

 

With hands like lace she dried and sewed

Lilies and larkspur between her petticoats

And cocooned herself, as if with paperbark

 

Then paced, finally leaving distinct prints,

But passing unstung through the bees in the

Clover, over pine needles and rosemary, into

The solid embrace of the wind. Sand blows

Into the old scars of her eyelids, still she reaches

For the shape into which she wants to grow.

 

She will expand, year by year, from within,

And when all her layers chafe she knows

Her pumice-light bones will keep her afloat.

 

The bruises that bloom and linger only show

Where everything else ends and she begins.

 

Her pulse beats in her lips, drowning out

The pounding waves. Her heart had been,

Before her birth, only ghostly filigree:

Useless, however delicate and complete.

 

Now she’s dense and centrifugal, feet planted

In shifting sands, scoured by salt spray and

Spitting rain. She can afford to shed a little;

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

 

Download a PDF of Solid Sand and Broken Water

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

You and Me, Asmono Truong

They say first impressions are indelible. The surpassing of decades has failed to mute my recollection of you, dear Francis. A murmur, a pause, then an outburst. You certainly knew how to make an entrance.

The pause frightened me. Were you okay? How is my baby? I asked. Before they could answer, you screamed your presence. Like an athlete who screams of success in penetrating an opposition’s goal, their pioneer and daring, you declared your entry, and overwhelming, into the world.

You cried, boy, could you cry! Such a talent in distress, my attention captured, instinctively and gladly were your needs above mine. Your pain is mine, and your cry I could identify amongst ten thousand. They carried your wail to the adjoining room as doctors surrounded me as if to redirect the spectacle.

My thoughts were only of you.

‘You are losing a little blood, my dear. The heparin is being troublesome but we have it under control,’ a doctor reassured. I had been on various anti-coagulants since I began to suffer clots in my legs several years ago. One day I awoke to a swollen ankle, and that was that. I was at risk. A life-threatening risk, a doctor would bluntly advise. A little mass of misguided platelets, doing as designed but risking the very life they sought to repair.

Nevertheless my thoughts were only of you. Welcome. How are you? It is very nice to meet you. Welcome. These were my last thoughts before I lost consciousness. The stage was not yet big enough for the both of us. The light was all yours.

 

I awoke to a darkened room, the bedside aglow with monitors whose font resembled advertising neon. The soft thrum of the air conditioning felt deceptive given the staleness of air and moderate temperature. Its empty sound was all I heard and within the dissatisfaction I was reminded of exactly where I was, and who I was missing. Your name I called as I searched for and pressed the buzzer by my side.

‘How are you?’ a nurse asked as she entered. She swept to the IV on my right, weighing its contents with one hand whilst tracing its tubing with the other. My wrist was soon in her gentle grip feeling for the glub glub of my blood measured against the sight of her watch. She smiled. Her question was rhetorical, she would know if anything were wrong.

‘When is it? Where is my baby?’ I asked.

‘It’s 11 pm. You’ve been out just over a day. It’s Tuesday now, you came in on Sunday. You are doing well now. Your baby is healthy across the hall. I think they’ll be letting you go tomorrow.’

‘Can I hold him?’ I asked.

‘Sure.’ The nurse departed to return with my desire. ‘What’s his name?’

‘Francis.’

‘Isn’t that a girl’s name?’

‘It can be for both. I gave him that name because I didn’t know if it was going to be a boy or a girl. My only preference was for a child. It’s Francesca, Fran, and Frances that’s girly.’

I lifted your hand Francis and it fell to rest in the centre of my palm, just where a magician holds their coin. I thought if we played rock-paper-scissors I could choose paper, and would always win. My giant paper envelope would nullify any configuration you chose. Life is not always fair and you would one day break my heart.

‘Francis, you are perfect,’ I declared.

The nurse smiled. ‘I’ll be checking in on you every couple of hours. If there’s anything you need, then please just press that buzzer by your bedside.’

You were asleep through it all Francis. Through my examination and whispers you were probably unaware. But I raise no complaint because it was only joy. You lay there asleep upon the rise and fall of my chest and I thought to join you as I allowed myself to drift and fade into the night.

 

The next morning I heard footsteps shuffle into my room.

‘Good morning sleepy head,’ a man said.

I was already awake and had heard him, but far more attractive was keeping my eyes closed and focusing on your presence in my arms.

‘Good morning!’ the man called again. Someone gave my big toe a squeeze for good measure.

‘Hi,’ I replied.

I opened my eyes to see Dr Shaun’s arched form standing by the end of the bed. He studied the chart in his hands without expression and then made eye contact over the rim of his glasses.

‘All appears in order and we’re happy with where you are. You are both ready to go home later today,’ he said.

I willingly misunderstood. I too was happy with our location, I liked that we were being cared for and our needs attended to.

‘Can we stay a little longer?’ I suggested.

The nurse detected my disappointment.

‘It is hard, there is a day devoted to mothers after all, but you’ll be fine,’ she attempted. ‘We’ll have your possessions ready, and can call you a cab.’

‘Thank you,’ I obliged.

‘My wife just had a baby, it is a wonderful time. Will your husband be home?’ the cab driver said, a few minutes into the journey.

‘Um, no. It will just be us.’

‘When is he coming home?’ he continued.

‘Um, no. It’s just me. Me and the baby, alone.’

‘Oh.’

His shoulders tightened and his gaze upon the road became more intent. It almost felt as if I should apologise for his embarrassment. The rest of the trip remained silent but for the voice of the GPS and the tick of the fare meter.

We pulled up outside my home. The driver, whose discomfort still lingered, could not seem to look me in the eye.

‘How much?’ I diverted.

‘Um, have it on the house, miss. It is the least I can do.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘Positive,’ he said with greater footing.

‘Thank you.’

I carried you, Francis, for nine months without struggle. But now as I carried you to the front door, my, were you heavy! I realise now how weak I was then, such was the focus of my attention. I pushed open the door to a greeting of stillness and quiet. A stain at the centre of the lounge rug marked where my water broke. You began to cry.

I rested the bassinet on the dining table and lifted you out. I was struck again by how utterly unique you were. I imagined that even if I wanted to, you would be impossible to ignore. There would never be another like you given the infinite possibilities that added and wrestled their way into your creation.

‘Baby, what is it? This is home. Welcome to you. You and me. You and me now,’ I said, ‘You and me.’

Your cry eased, your face lost its creases. The bridge of you nose reminded me of a crinkle cut chip that decided to become one that was smooth. Do you remember the tune I hummed as I held you? We swayed with my knees as springs, our first dance.

‘Let me take you to your bedroom,’ I whispered. Your space I had prepared for so long! Clotted cream were the walls painted to the nine foot ceiling the colour of midnight. Galaxy patterned cornices of moons, planets, and stars surrounded the sky. You could always dream and would always be free. A cot, a rocker, table for changing, dresser, toys, mobile, dust bin, and lamp were at your service. I placed you sleeping Francis inside the cot, the faint expansion and compression of your chest told me I was no longer alone.

 

For the time we had together your father never came to visit. From the moment he knew that you were coming, a coldness was apparent in his touch. Contact was initiated more from my side, our conversations became increasingly brief, and messages were more typical than meetings. He never really even said goodbye, but just gradually disappeared.

There was common ground despite the thirty five year difference between the two of you. You were both confronted with the unfamiliar, and the expressions when each or you perceived distress or pleasure were undeniably similar. The comparison made him look infantile, and you, Francis, were imparted with a mature quality. You did far better than him. A light you shone where it was dark. An upswing you provided in a frightening descent. Hope and purpose you restored. A gift you were, but one that I could not keep.

 

It started with a peculiar morning. My alarm did not wake me, you did not wake me. The day instead arrived with a broadly lit room and the roar of a sports crowd from the neighbouring field, their cheers and groans rolled through the air. My intuition was the first to assert that this was not my life. I wake up earlier and differently, my thoughts gathered and became desperate for you. I immediately leapt from bed and made for your room.

I found you cold and silent. Without cravings, without curiosities. Lifeless you were, and in bottomless agony I realised that your company was gone forever. My Francis. There are not enough tears to wash this pain away. Everything that you were was taken by what they called a Sudden Infant Death. Each of these words speak with an increasing tragedy and grief, that without warning, you, were gone.

Was this your secret plan all along? Did you dislike the circumstances you were in? Could I have done better? Was it simply that I was not good enough? They said that being a mother would be a difficult and heavy burden, but the curse of once being a mother is terrifying. Maybe my mum could sense my crying. She called that day.

‘Laura?’

‘Mum,’ I sobbed.

‘Oh darling, what is it?’

‘Francis is gone mum. He is gone.’

 

You are gone Francis, but just as my memories and emotions can endure the passing of time, so too will I always remember you and me.

 

Download a pdf of You and Me’

Tagged , , , , , ,

Here was one, Victoria Brookman

Here was one who breathed

who laughed

who yearned.

 

Who birthed.

Who fed.

 

Sweated in the heat

and shivered in the cold.

 

Gazed mindlessly at supermarket shelves,

decision fatigue closing in.

 

Who ironed and refused.

 

Who burnt a few dinners,

triumphed at the pav.

 

Here was one who yelled and stressed,

cried tears of joy

— often.

 

Encouraged.

Heaped scorn.

Played favourites.

(And was one.)

 

Who fucked and came and loved.

 

And, above all, was proud.

 

Arrived in a sac, left in a bag.

 

Not defined by nothing.

No flame,

nor universal bounds.

 

I love life.

Here was one.

(Vale B.E.H.)

 

Download a pdf of ‘Here was one’.

 

Continue reading

Tagged ,

Pioneers, Natascha Wiegand

 

A russet plume of dust chases my old car along a typical Queensland country road. An old wound cut through the dense scrub and scattered stand of blanched gums. I slow at a wider stretch of dirt and gravel opposite the aged, colonial-style metal gate that serves as a carpark. I doubt if little more is ever needed. Here to greet you are the no-nonsense, resolute letters, ‘Pioneer Memorial’ welded along the top section of the gate. Above this, a white wooden arch—the type you see posted over the cattle grids of outback stations— serves as the support for weathered, bold-black letters, ‘Howard Remembrance Park’ further reassures you of your location. Tan-brown supporting brickwork, fades out to white fence posts, strung together with cheap paddock wire. The ‘Kill Rust’ industrial mud-brown paint on the gate has cracked, peeled and, in many sections, parted ways from the spiralled metal. What remains are years of layers slapped on by thick, heavy brushes, wielded by hands and hearts that never cared. A small brass plaque is screwed into the brickwork: ‘These Gates Dedicated to the Glory of God and to the Sacred Memory of the Pioneers of the Burrum District’. Well someone cared… once.

I lift the latch, releasing a small groan, then a squeal, as if to signal that the battle is over. The sound dominates the flat rectangle cut out of the desiccated Queensland bush. For the first time I notice how quiet and still the air is. Half-a-dozen thin, dust-choked Norfolk Pines line each side of the entrance; a driveway of tyre tracks pushed down into the short, desiccated grass.

The number of plots is reputed to be almost 1700, but after a quick scan, I settle on a number closer to 200. How many unmarked graves must lie before me? About a dozen sculpted monuments tower over the mostly brown and grey speckled granite headstones. Standing guard in the Primitive Methodist section—the first to establish a church in Howard in 1887—a few obligatory angels carry baskets of flowers, while others stand posed praying for those beneath their cold alabaster feet. Almost everything that was once white, is now encrusted with a patina of yellowish-grey lichen and black mould. All the angels have at least one arm missing—a sadder version of the Venus de Milo. Are these monuments victims of time and faulty workmanship, or the defenceless prey of amoral creatures?

Impressive ornate crosses, some with Celtic patterns woven into the cold white marble, dominate the Roman Catholic section. Running from the west to east fence, the grounds are divided into Presbyterian, Anglican, Catholic, Primitive Methodist and Baptist sections. I notice that a lone Mason was welcomed into the Presbyterian domain. The cemetery was laid out in 1882, and follows the Christian tradition of placing the headstones facing the eastern horizon. According to Matthew 24:27, ‘For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.’ The faithful of Howard’s century past await the second coming of Christ. I’ve had too many years of Catholic schooling to be swayed by the Bible; but to each, his own. I’m not buoyed, constrained or channelled by any particular faith, but I am comfortable with my lack of it. Do I believe in an all-powerful being that created the ground on which we stand; the stars in the heavens above us and all that lies beneath it?

Five years ago my mother was diagnosed with cancer. She never wanted to make a fuss and ignored symptoms for so long that she managed the terminal trifecta—bowel as the primary, with liver and lung as secondaries. They say that this is the test. When struck with such disastrous news, do you plea-bargain with an imaginary entity for the safety of a loved one? Did I seek refuge in the belief that it was ‘God’s will’, find any consolation that after being tortured by an eight-month battle of operations, pain and disease, mum—always the rock in our family—would somehow be rewarded in Heaven? I am one who accepts that horrible things happen to good people, and that the morally bankrupt are often extremely fortunate. I accept that there are no reasons or a great plan; life simply is what it is, and I’ve discovered that this philosophy is liberating. I watched my father torment himself, frozen in time grasping for some ever-elusive ‘reason’. I believe in the most basic principle of kindness, because as social creatures this is how we accommodate each other. This is how we evolve and, dare I say it, become enlightened, both as individuals and as a species.

I can understand the desperate search for the helping hand of a benevolent, supernatural being. Had I existed in a time and place where the only consolation of half your children never reaching adulthood, was the hand of a friend on your shoulder as they supported you above an open wound in the earth and whispered, ‘It’s God’s Plan. Your baby is with him now’. I am willing to admit, that my faith’s pedigree may have been very different.

A wooden plank bench, neglected for decades, stands as the only invitation for the living to linger a while. Its journey through time has not been kind. Decades of Queensland summers have stripped it back to bare wood; a scattering of mustard-tinted paint flakes desperately cling to the splintered wood and the simple lines of its supporting steel frame. When the moon is full and silver light dances across the smooth, cold headstones, I can easily imagine the spirits gathering here, and reminiscing on times, long since past.

One memorial statue in particular calls to me. Life-sized figures of a young man and woman, draped in classical Greek-style robes stand facing each other; behind them, a broken column—symbolic of a life cut-short. Their downcast eyes focus on their joined hands. I surmise that it’s the final resting place of a young couple, but when I read the inscription on the pedestal, it reads:

In Sorrowful and Everlasting Memory

of our only Darling Child Noel Olgar Power Starr,

who died of Diphtheria  Oct. 30th 1908 aged 6 years and 2 months.

The Pride of our Hearts & Home.

Six years & 2 months of Earth’s Best Love Lies Buried Here.

Good-Bye Darling! Our own true love.

Love shall always live with us.

 

Diphtheria—a disease we attribute to third world counties, where life is all too often short, cruel and difficult. These were was also the conditions of that time and place.

Coal was the reason for this region’s Genesis. This was not a land of massive man-made craters, where Jurassic-sized machines tear away at the earth, but of ninety-four barely human-sized rabbit warrens, which branched out a hundred metres below the roots of gnarled ghost gums. Here, thirteen year-old boys followed their fathers down into the long, dark tunnels, and for twelve hours a day, the tiny open flames on their helmets were their guiding lights. With bare backs, slippery and wet with coal dust and sweat, the miners contended with collapsing tunnels, poorly managed detonations, methane gas explosions, inadequate wages and, for the sake of a livelihood, picked away one fist- sized lump of coal at a time. How many of the region’s 400 coal miners were slowly strangled by black lung and ushered into an early grave, is anybody’s guess.

I wander among the resting places encircled by rings of brittle, poisoned grass. There are the lucky few who managed to reach into their seventies, eighties and even nineties, but so many more failed to come close to this:

Charles Neilsen Schmidt… aged 1 year 3 months

Donald McLeod… aged 2 years

H. Smith Hamilton… aged 7 weeks

Samuel Gongram Warren… aged 3 years 6 months

and the roll call continues…

Seeing so many graves of children is difficult—even for me. I’ve never been a parent, so cannot know… only imagine the devastation such a loss would have on the parents. There are many plots that bear witness to such a tragedy occurring multiple times in the same family. All that promise, held in life so young, never to reach its potential.

I hear the telltale sound of stones lashing metal, and a car soon comes into view. It’s a Sunday morning and I’m curious to see if any of the scattering of recent internees actually receive a visitor. The entire ground is devoid of fresh flowers, though a few colour-stripped, tattered plastic imposters lie scattered amongst the headstones. A small silver hatchback slows at the ‘car park’, and momentarily hesitates before making a quick u-turn and escapes back into the dusty curtain of eucalypt. Either I’ve been mistaken for a spectre, or walking amongst the dead wasn’t what they had in mind. I’ve reached the stage in life where there are now more days behind than hoped for ahead. My mother was cremated—she disliked the thought of worms feeding on her, though I’m confident embalming fluid would keep the most persistent of grubs away. Some of her ashes were scattered on the calm, clear waters of the river which meanders behind her house. She would take a small amount of time from work each day, to walk and swim her dogs there. The only ‘personal time’ that she really had. She didn’t wish to be forgotten in a cemetery, and I agree that I can’t see the attraction. For the religious who feel that they need to be buried in sacred ground, fair enough; for myself, raise a glass, be kind to each other and scatter my dust to the winds.

 

Download a pdf of Pioneers

Tagged , , ,

All His Dead, Judith Mendoza-White

NOTE: This short story is one of the collection ‘Of Goodbyes and Mourning’, which consists of twenty-two stories dealing with death, fear and loss.

 

In every summer afternoon, when the entire city took refuge behind closed shutters and drawn curtains to escape the scorching Buenos Aires’ heat, don Luciano Gómez sat in his usual neighbourhood café. Afflicted by the obstinate insomnia that sometimes heralds old age, he no longer managed to enjoy much sleep. There was a time when summer siestas were something to look forward to, a daily pleasure he would not have traded for anything. They had now become a luxury he could no longer afford. An afternoon siesta would trigger sleepless nights that he would spend listening to the buses screeching to a halt in the corner, counting the drunken voices climbing up the walls to his bedroom window. The beginning of old age had therefore forced him to sacrifice his siesta, and the corner café was an easy option that took him out of the house in those otherwise empty hours.

That’s what being old was about, after all: spending one’s hours in the best possible way. Luciano Gómez, or don Luciano, as he was known in the neighbourhood, did not have much to complain about. He had a good retirement pension, he owned the apartment where he lived and another one, smaller but situated in a better area of the city, where his divorced daughter and his only grandson lived. Don Luciano had stopped expecting much from life some time ago, and the slow mundane development of his days did not bother him. Anger, jealousy and desire had progressively faded away, allowing him to make peace with himself and the others.

The morning was easily spent, even if don Luciano could no longer sleep past the first light of dawn. The prolonged mate[1]on the balcony, the watering of the many plants and flowerpots scattered around the apartment and the reading of two newspapers kept him busy throughout the morning hours. Then it was time for his usual round to the corner shop and the baker’s, which provided many occasions for small talk with the neighbours and helped kill time until lunch.

After lunch, siesta time began, with its slow empty hours. Then don Luciano rolled up the third paper of the day under his arm, reserved for the occasion, and walked to the corner shop squinting under the glare of the furious afternoon sun.

The bored waiter usually made some idle conversation before taking his order; the high temperatures, soccer, the remote chance of rain. Don Luciano never sat at the same table or ordered the same thing: those small decisions contributed to break the monotony of the hour. Cappuccino, lemonade, black coffee, mineral water. A toasted sandwich or a biscuit later in the afternoon, once lunch digestion was well under way.

The waiter then disappeared behind the counter. Don Luciano opened his newspaper and started to read, but the silence around him and the fact that he had read the same news twice in the morning papers soon made his mind wander away. At that point his calm eyes, where old age had painted bluish hues in the brown, looked up to the open window, and don Luciano started once again to count his dead.

 

Sometimes he started at the very beginning: the blonde he had met in high school. He went over the features he had never forgotten, the way her hips swung by him in the breaks, his surprise at the hardness of the ground under the shovel. From then on it was easy. It was a question of caution and attention to detail; that was all there was to it.

Later, at the university, there had been two more; men this time. One of them stole his idea for the master thesis (it was actually his own fault, Luciano’s, for failing to keep his mouth shut; from then on he had learned his lesson though). So did the thief, of course. The second one was at the time Lupita’s boyfriend. Lupita was don Luciano’s wife, who had passed away five years ago. Don Luciano missed the muffled sound of her slippers on the kitchen floor in the morning, the shared rounds of mate, her sparse talk. Lupita had never been talkative, and he had known he’d marry her from the moment he saw her squinting her short-sighted eyes over a book at the library, the thick glasses half-hidden under a long blonde fringe. After her boyfriend’s death it did not take Luciano long to convince her to join him for dinner and a movie. After forty years of marriage and two daughters she had died during her sleep without noise or fuss of any kind, the same way she had chosen to do everything else in her lifetime.

 

Some afternoon or other don Luciano inverted the order and counted from the end, starting by his most recent dead. The new neighbour at apartment D: young, noisy and bad-mannered, with her insolence and late-night parties at weekends. It had not been difficult.

The member of the club where he had spent his evenings for the last 20 years. Soon after don Luciano joined the club they had had a violent argument over political or religious matters. Don Luciano had clear, absolute ideas and opinions on every matter; he had always prided himself on that, even in his teenage years. That had made his life easier, there was no doubt about that. Life is better lived when there’s no room for doubt or further possibilities: don Luciano went through life with the peace of mind of the blessed few who know that what they say or do is right and indisputable.

The day after the argument at the club, don Luciano had been the first to apologise. He had done so in public, in a low humble voice, in front of the other members of the daily card table. They had all looked at him with good eyes from that moment on, and his reputation for being a good-natured chap had been firmly established. Don Luciano had waited two years to pay his antagonist back, and all that time he treated as a friend the man he knew unworthy of sharing the air he breathed. It had not been hard; it had all been a question of patience, and don Luciano had always counted patience amongst his many virtues.

The hours of the afternoon kept dragging slowly past him; don Luciano called the waiter, ordered another coffee or an orange juice, sometimes a small croissant or an ice-cream. The huge fan continued to blow warm air towards him, and don Luciano continued to count and re-count.

The blonde who though herself out of his league, who made fun of him in front of all the class on graduation day. The ideas’ thief. Lupita’s boyfriend; and later one of his friends, who had started to nose around too much. The guy from the club. The two from the soccer team, who had laughed for days at Luciano’s poor attempts in the neighbourhood’s Christmas championship. The head of department, lazy good-for-nothing who had denied him a well-deserved promotion. The noisy neighbour.

All of them obstacles in a methodical, orderly life. Don Luciano minded his business and expected the same from everyone else. That was why he had chosen Lupita: because he knew life by her side would be easy and comfortable, with no surprises of any kind. But people insisted in standing in the way of his life plan, which he knew was modest enough.

 

People started to walk past the café’s windows, the worst heat of the day already over. Don Luciano called the waiter and paid the bill, thinking that his daughter and grandson would be at the apartment in less than half an hour. He’d buy some pastries or an apple tart, his grandson’s favourite, at the bakery round the corner. It was still too hot to sit on the balcony; it’d be better to have mate or cold lemonade in the living-room, with the air-con on.

As he was leaving the bakery, holding the apple tart wrapped in crispy white paper with both hands, he stumbled upon his neighbour from the fifth floor, who was accompanied by a friend he did not know. He smiled and bowed his head as she walked past him; they had known each other for ages, Lupita used to go up to her flat for coffee and a chat on the odd day.

‘That’s don Luciano, from 1 B’, whispered the neighbour to her companion as they walked away. ‘A good man if there are any. Never in his life has he bothered a soul. If there were a few more like him around, the world would be a better place.’



[1] Mate: typical Argentinean drink, a kind of green tea drank out of a pot by means of a straw, usually shared with others.

 

Download a pdf of All His DeadDownload a pdf of All His Dead

Tagged ,

Absolution, Leigh Coyle

Mack didn’t say a word either. We just watched as she swept the meat ants away from the dead man’s body, working a perimeter of clear space around him in the red dust. A pig dog, frenzied by the smell of blood, wrenched at its chain and she raised her broom at it and shouted.

Her task was pointless and she knew it.

I didn’t know the dead man with his booted feet sticking out into the afternoon, but then, I didn’t know anyone else on that property. Even Mack I’d only met a few weeks before when we were both walking in the same direction. Mack was one of those bull-headed men who can’t think around corners. He wore black clothes in the heat and any spare bit of skin was covered in smudged tattoos, like he’d done them himself. His front teeth were cracked off right across the middles, a long time ago, if you cared to see the worn down edges of them, and he had a face that was all collapsed in on itself. Mean bugger though.

By the way Mack held himself, his body tense, the way he muttered and moaned in his sleep, how he couldn’t look me in the eye for longer than a second, I knew he’d been inside. But the good thing I’d discovered about Mack was he didn’t ask questions. I liked that much about him and, by sticking together we seemed to find more work. That’s why we were there on that property and why we’d heard the single shot which had cracked open the dawn and for a few moments stilled the day.

Mack’d said, ‘That was no 22.’

I’d said, ‘Yeah, think you’re right.’

Then we’d gone about getting ready for the day’s work, pulling on trousers, sweat-stained singlets, hats bent to the shapes of our heads. It wasn’t our business, so when we went past the house on our way to the horses, we didn’t ask questions, even though we could already see the body motionless with the woman sweeping in circles.  We just wanted to get where we were going.

And when we came back in the afternoon, salt-smeared and thirsty after driving posts into the ground all day, we still didn’t want to find out anything about it, except she yelled out to us and we stopped near the gate, me leaning on the fence and Mack shuffling his boots in the red dust. She was blotchy-faced and sweaty, reddened by the dirt so it was hard to tell what colour her hair was, or whether she’d ever once been a looker.

‘Know what this bastard did?’ she said, letting the broom drop against her thigh.

‘Nuh,’ said Mack, with all the effort of someone who didn’t want to know.

‘Shot himself,’ she said. ‘Right here.’ She glanced back to the house as if allowing it the chance to break out of its ongoing silence. ‘And I’ve spent this whole stinking day trying to keep him nice, waiting for some bloke in a suit to come and tell me he’s dead.’

‘Jeez,’ said Mack.

Mack looked at me as if I had the words he needed, but didn’t want to share them out, so on his behalf I asked, ‘Why’d he do it?’

‘Why does anyone do it?’ she said.

I looked at Mack and thought I saw something disturbing in his eyes, but he was that sort of bloke.

‘Beats me,’ I said.

The woman resumed her sweeping. ‘You’re right there.’

We started to walk off towards the sleeping shed, but her sharp voice continued.

‘We hid all the guns, you know. Every last one of ‘em. My husband put the strychnine up in the roof so he couldn’t get to it, I put all the knives in my undies drawer. Last place he’d look, we reckoned.’

We waited while she snatched a dirty hanky from her apron pocket and wiped at her eyes.

The afternoon was stretched red-tight and all I wanted to do was get to the shed, lie down on my bunk with my toes free from boots and think of nothing much. Mack looked uncomfortable with the woman’s tears and fidgeted with his belt buckle. I saw something familiar in the way her face toughened as she spoke again, a sour tinge to her voice.

‘Made no difference in the end,’ she said. ‘This morning, he just grabbed a rifle from the back of Ron Strodeor’s ute before we had time to stop him.’

She paused as she gazed at the mad-eyed dog. ‘Wish we’d get rid of this bloody useless mongrel,’ she said.

I coughed inside my throat to break the mood and gave her a little nod. ‘Well, we’ll leave you to it,’ I said, stepping closer to Mack so we could both turn and escape in one slick manoeuvre. But the stupid bugger had stopped there, unmoving, so I was forced to stay put too, with the snuffling grunts of the dog and the fading heat of the afternoon sucking up the very last drops of moisture left on earth.

‘He just grabbed the rifle,’ she said. She dropped the broom onto the ground. ‘He just cocked it, put it in his mouth and pulled the trigger.’

Her face was lined by the sun and any womanly softness had been worn away by the weather and too much hard work. She looked like someone I’d known once, but I couldn’t quite remember who. She wept and her tears seemed obscene with their wetness, then she folded at the knees and hunched herself over beside where the dead man’s head was covered by a hessian sack.

‘We did everything we could,’ she sobbed into the dirt. ‘But in the end, it was impossible.’ She began to wail, a great heaving bawling which made her body quiver and I didn’t know where to look or what to do. I wanted someone to come out of the house and take the woman away, relieve her of her futile vigil, let the night press its darkness down upon her. But the place seemed deserted.

I glanced over to Mack for help and he gave me one long desperate look like he was seeking my permission to do something. Then that big tough bloke climbed over the fence into the yard where the woman knelt next to the dead man and he crouched down beside her, his huge tattooed arm covering her back, so their three bodies were butted up alongside each other in the dirt like rusty sardines.

Even then the woman continued to talk, as if her words had been caught up somewhere deep inside and were being flushed out with her tears. ‘We were the ones who told him to come. We’re the ones who promised to look after him. He just about blew his head off.’

She paused and then took in a long exhausted breath.

‘He was my brother.’

Mack’s black-haired hand was stroking down the woman’s back as he muttered to her. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, just the sound of his soft voice curling out into the last flare of sunlight; he was saying more to her now than I’d heard him say in all the weeks we’d been together. The woman remained curved over, but was silent now, listening.

I was useless, worse than that ugly crazy mutt, which still thought it could bust out of its lockup. As I stood there watching Mack with the woman I realised that the expression I’d briefly seen before on the woman’s face belonged to my wife, when I’d finally told her I was leaving for good.

For one blinding moment, I let myself understand I was a million times less worthy than that thug Mack, before I grunted loudly in disgust and left them to it.

 

Download a pdf of Absolution

Tagged , , ,