Category Archives: fictionissue15

The Darkness and the Witch, Emily Langley

At dusk, just when the blisters on Lila’s feet were bordering on unbearable, Rivan raised a muscled arm for them to stop. Thinking he was wanting to make camp for the night, Lila let out an audible sigh of relief. She was shushed immediately. 

Hidden in the shadows was a creature nothing like anything Lila had ever seen before. She crept up to where Rivan stood, and crouched behind him. 

‘What is it?’ Rivan’s whispered question went unanswered, because Lila doubted there was even an answer to give him. It was grotesque.

It was scaled, mostly muddy shades of brown and green with the occasional tinge of a deep blood red, and had jet-black curled horns protruding from its temples. Lila estimated it was the size of a large pig, like the ones on her uncle’s farm. 

Rivan reached behind him for his bow, which clattered against his quiver as he grasped it. 

The beast snarled. It was slightly high pitched, but the way the creature hunched over and clenched its muscles indicated it was likely to attack. 

Rivan nocked one of his arrows. 

The creature snuffled and turned its face toward the forest floor. It shuffled its stubby legs around for a brief moment, as if trying to gain footing.

Lila leaned forward past Rivan to get a closer look. ‘Wait…’ It was blind. Its eyes were pure black like the plague victims, and it had gnarled slits in its face instead of a nose and seemed to lack any lips to hide its large yellowed fangs.

It screamed. The arrow impaled through its scaled body did nothing to quieten its pain.

‘You absolute idiot,’ Lila growled from low in her throat, over the dying wheezes of the creature. ‘Why the hell did you do that?’

‘What? Are you insane?’ Rivan scoffed. The furrow that appeared between his eyebrows marring his perfectly tanned skin. He looked between her and the monster that lay dead a few metres in front of them. ‘To protect you!’

His sincerity astounded Lila for a beat. She stared at him as he stood dumbfounded, his hand holding the bow extended out by his side. She breathed in through her nose loudly, then let it escape through her parted lips and her eyes fluttered closed.

‘If that was the Witch…’ She didn’t even have to open her eyes to sense the realisation dawn on him, the gasp that came from his direction was telling. ‘I will learn how to use this damn axe just to chop your useless head off!’

‘Harsh… but fair.’ Rivan took another glance at the creature’s body and cringed. ‘I guess we’ll find out soon if I just singlehandedly killed the rest of Easthallow,’ Rivan mumbled to himself, and it did strike a sympathetic chord in Lila. She would have done the same if she had any skill in hunting or combat; it would have been instinctual.

Lila forced herself to crack a small smile in his direction. ‘Hey, let’s set up camp for the night, huh? You could teach me how to chop up firewood?’ She had to forcefully stop herself from putting a comforting hand on his shoulder, far too aware of the curse that crept slowly up her arm.

They left the creature’s body where it lay, both too afraid of the consequences of what had been done, especially if it truly was the Witch.

*

Her house was darker than she had ever seen it before. Despite years of living there, she had to trail her hand along the wall to track where she was going, she could see almost nothing. She stumbled through the hallway, tripping over the carpet that lead into her mother’s bedroom.

As she entered, it suddenly got light enough for her to see the shape of her mother’s body, exactly as it had been for weeks.

She tripped toward the bed, wrists jarring when she had to catch herself from falling face first into her grandmother’s sleeping figure. She pulled back the covers.

Wispy darkness had become trapped under her mother’s skin and crept through her veins, creating black webs over her entire body that moved like a flowing river. Her skin was mottled black and grey, and her face was tired and sunken. Her eyes were completely black and unseeing.

Her grandmother still spoke to her sometimes, in clipped and strained segments. She was lucid, but Lila could tell the pain was a constant. She would die soon. It was a fact that everyone in the village knew, with dozens of people already dead from the same disease.

This time, she only gasped for air, her chest and ribs visible through translucent skin as they moved with desperate vigour.

‘Lila,’ a voice rasped next to her. She whipped her head around quickly, her dark auburn hair flicking into her face as she did. Rivan was standing next to her. He nodded his head in her grandmother’s direction, and Lila simply shook her head in response. What she meant was obvious.

She felt Rivan slip his hand into hers. What she could feel of his palm was warm and comforting.

Realisation dawned upon her quickly and forcefully like she’d been hit with a sledgehammer. ‘Wait, Rivan…’ Dread dropped in her chest.

She watched his face crumple in pain. His hand gripped hers what would have been painfully tight if her nerves weren’t rotting. He gasped.

‘No, no, no, no.’ She pulled away from him in a panic, having to forcefully pull out of his hold. ‘Please’. Lila instead clutched his shirt.

He faded in front of her eyes. His shoulders fell to a slump and the rest of him quickly followed. It felt like only a second to Lila, but soon Rivan was nothing but a pile of black sludge and dust. Even his bones were gone. Lila’s grip on his shirt tightened in vain.

She woke with a loud gasp.

‘Lila?’ Rivan’s voice was groggy with sleep and came from the other side of the fire they’d made, ‘You okay?’

She tried to reply, but it came out as just a soft whimper. Her throat was tense. The stars above them, usually bright against the dark night, were blurred from her tears. She stared upwards with her jaw clenched, begging herself to stop crying, to not make it worse.

Rivan’s blanket rustled. ‘Come here, Lila’. She heard him pat the ground.

‘No, no, I’m okay.’ She cringed. Her voice was thick with tears, and she could tell from Rivan’s silence that he didn’t believe her.

Lila could see his silhouette against the flickering light as he stood up.

She scrambled away from him as he crouched down next to her, with her palm scraping painfully against the ground in her panic. The other was still covered by the glove, but it shook from trying to hold her weight.

‘I’m alright, Rivan…’ She forced a smile that hurt her cheeks, in an attempt to divert his concern, ‘I promise. I’m just really on edge after today, and worried about grandmother. The village will fall into chaos without their elder.’

He nodded solemnly, and moved to drag his pile of blankets around the fire, dirt rising with the smoke. He situated himself alongside her, with their blankets almost touching.

His presence was comforting. Lila fell back asleep to the quiet sounds of his breathing barely audible over the crackling.

*

They moved quickly the next morning, with a renewed sense of urgency spurring them on.

They reached the rough circle Lila had drawn on the map, the closest estimate to the location of the Witch’s hut she’d been able to make, within a few hours. It took more hours of wandering, circling around countless trees and rocks, to find anything of worth. The area seemed completely uninhabited.

Then the discovery of the hut was made, accompanied by a yell of triumph from Rivan. It stood, nestled around a large grove of pine trees, in complete isolation. There was not even a path leading towards where it stood. Stand it did, but little else. It was made of grey stone, with one tiny window and a large black iron door and matching chimney. Completely unimpressive and unimposing.

The door was unlocked. Rivan entered first, gesturing to Lila almost immediately to follow.

The hut was lined with tables made of dark wood. They were populated with bottles of coloured liquids, small plants in miscellaneous pots and containers, and a few worm tomes. A deep grey cauldron, worn from use, hung inside the dead hearth. The entirety of the small room smelled stale and earthy.

‘Nothing,’ Rivan sighed. Lila watched him run his fingers over one of the desks, a neat line of dust removed with his touch.

Lila nodded slowly, hoping she seemed calm and that the wrath of shakes that had invaded her body were not noticeable. ‘Why don’t you go and check outside one more time? I’ll see if I can find anything noteworthy in here.’

Rivan raised the corner of his mouth in a sympathetic half smile.

Lila dropped to the floor in defeat. The stone floor immediately scraped up her knees, and she folded herself over completely so her forehead laid on top of them.

One final, desperate attempt: ‘Show yourself, you bitch!’ she screamed into the empty hut. She held her breath for a few seconds, straining to hear any kind of movement or reaction.

The squawk of a bird sounded shockingly close to her ear, which scared into unfurling so her back was straight. Before she could make a sound, a strong arm wrapped around her waist and a hand slinked over her mouth, pressing down firmly.

‘How’s the hand, sweetheart?’ a raspy voice whispered into Lila’s ear.

She was let go and pushed into the floor. Lila flipped around, her already scuffed palm tearing sharply against the rough stones.

She was met with a pointed smirk from the woman that towered over her, sharp canines on display. The Witch’s hair was raven black and her red irises seemed to glow smugly in the sunlight. She leaned closer and grabbed Lila’s gloved hand, the fabric of which had torn with her fall. Even through the fabric the Witch’s hands felt ice cold. Lila couldn’t hold in her pained gasp when the woman ran her thumb over the rip on her palm, the direct contact so cold it burned. The Witch traced a sharp nail over the exposed portion of Lila’s skin, which was swirling black and grey, and was completely numb. She couldn’t feel the slice or the small droplet of black blood that appeared.

‘You poor thing, Lila Weston.’ The Witch’s face was blank as she stared into Lila’s eyes.

Lila shrunk back, feeling uncomfortable under the Witch’s gaze and the knowledge of her identity. ‘My grandmother sent me…’ She started to explain, but the Witch suddenly sent her flying across the hut. Her back smashed against the wall, glass shattering upon a nearby table from the impact.

The Witch’s black heels clicked across the floor as she stalked over. ‘I’m well aware,’ she growled. ‘I know everything, Lila. Your curse, your village… You have her eyes…’ The Witch trailed off, her concentration breaking as her eyes lost focus.

Lila started. ‘You know my grandmother?’ Her grandmother had been the one to send her on this quest, telling her hushed directions to the hut that Lila had heard tales of as a little girl. She had thought it was a fairytale, a story to prevent the children from venturing too far from the village, and yet her grandmother had been adamant.

The Witch scoffed mockingly under her breath, ‘Do I know your grandmother?!’ She raised her voice and leaned forward so she was face to face with Lila, who could feel cold breath on her skin. ‘I loved your grandmother. I know more than you could even imagine, little girl. I’ve been around for centuries. Do you even know my name?’

Lila held her gasp. Against her better judgement, she picked herself up from the ground. ‘I don’t think so.’

‘Dianora.’

Lila didn’t recognise the name, but nodded regardless. ‘Dianora, I need your help.’ She paused, thinking over how the conversation had gone thus far and trying her best to appeal to the witch’s weakness, ‘We need your help. We’re dying, my grandmother is dying, and we’ve tried everything to stop it.’

‘And I’m your last resort,’ Dianora sighed. ‘How touching.’

Lila leapt toward Dianora, placing her hands on the witch’s bare arms. ‘Is there anything…’

Lila’s plead was cut off. ‘And how naive. I don’t owe you anything, especially not after your little hunt yesterday.’

The blind beast, Lila thought in a panic. ‘That was an accident.’

‘Hurry up. I don’t often make time for slaughterers; I was very fond of that little creature.’ Dianora shrugged and tilted her head to the side to stare at Lila.

Lila slammed her infected hand against the wall and yelled ‘How can you stand here and do nothing then? Dozens of innocent people are dead and so many more are going to follow!’

‘What makes you think you deserve to live? You are worse than animals; humans are malicious and entitled and weak. I’m through with helping you and getting nothing in return. Get out.’

Lila gasped for breath. The reality of the situation, the hopelessness, was claustrophobic and pushed against her unrelentingly. The thought that her entire village was just sentenced to death, made her skin crawl. She glanced down at the worst of the prickling, her left calf. Circling around her leg was a black and silver snake. Its scales shifted against Lila’s olive skin.

It took her a moment to process. She looked up to Dianora, who was smiling maliciously at her.

‘You’re insane!’ Lila screamed, using her numb hand to pull the snake off, just in case it attacked her.

As she charged out the door, Lila heard Dianora mutter behind her, ‘Go on and cry about it.’

‘Lila!’ Rivan must have heard her yelling, or the way she clamoured loudly out of the hut. He sprinted over, eyes wide and scanning her quickly for any kind of injuries. ‘Are you alright?’

The world is ending, Lila thought. She pulled him in, grabbing his face with both hands, and she could feel the warmth of his cheek on her palm. Their lips met desperately and his hands grasped at her waist. The touch was electric and deadly.

Lila had just signed away his life, but all she could do was grip him tighter and hope that humans had more time than they thought.

The Chameleon and the Tiger, Ellise Artery

Labord tip-toed swiftly through the silent morning streets of Raipur. The pale dawn light provided him with ample shadowed doorways and inlets to conceal himself from the undesirable early-risers walking by. The day was already warm, heralding the heat that the sun would bring. Labord wiped his sweaty hands roughly across his dirt stained shorts and absently brushed away the fallen strands of loose hair that covered his eyes. Checking once again that the street was empty, he rose from his crouch and moved onwards, quickly resuming his hunt along the scented and unmistakable trail of freshly baked bread.

The man he followed, a baker from Chor Bazaar, pushed a bread-laden cart down the cobblestone streets, unaware of the lithe figure pursuing him. His overloaded cart rattled down the road, its burden of bread bounced and shifted precariously over the rough street. With his target now back in sight, Labord crept closer. The rising beat of his heart cautioned him to remain concealed, yet his stomach impatiently growled with hunger. The muscles in his legs were beginning to ache with tension and his thick, unkempt hair had latched itself to his sweaty forehead.

The sun did not share his patience and as the number of shadowed doorways lessened Labord began to hear the sounds of scooter engines and bike bells on the streets surrounding him. It would soon be too late.

He continued to maintain a close watch on the cart and its driver and noticed with anticipation that the baker had taken a short cut. Just up ahead now was a small, yet hazardous, inlet where carts wheels can easily become unbalanced.

The timing was perfect.

Labord sprung forward as the left front wheel of the cart dipped into the gap. Caught between the two stones the cart jolted and the perfect integrity of the bread-stacks gave way. A large loaf had fallen from the cart and Labord ran for it as fast as his thin and short limbs would carry him. On his left and right he glimpsed other figures emerging from the surrounding streets and converge towards the front of the cart. It was the pack. He quickly glimpsed Lomadi, Hiran and Singh all closing in on their own fallen target as he himself lunged straight towards the loaf.

The baker who was trying to gather his fallen wares hadn’t yet noticed the ambush of children and before Labord knew it, he was running down a side street at full speed, his catch held tightly to his chest and laughing as he ran, joyous as he was with his success.

*

Labord wound his way down the streets, still confused by the many twists and turns and found himself in dead-ends quite a number of times before the stranger found him.

He was headed well in the wrong direction when a boy, only a few years older than himself, stopped in front of him, blocking his path.

Labord thought nervously about his catch and instinctively tried to hide it, but the stranger remained stationary. He wore a tan sleeveless shirt, black linen shorts and his long black hair was tied up revealing his gaunt face and bone thin frame.

Labord nervously asked, ‘What do you want?’

The stranger stepped closer. ‘You are part of Singh’s pack, are you not?’

Labord did not answer.

‘I’ve been watching you, I know you are.’

‘What’s it to you?’ Labord countered warily.

‘I wanted to warn you about Singh,’ he said, stepping closer. ‘What’s your name?’

Labord answered.

‘But that’s not a pack-name,’ the stranger said, puzzled.

‘How would you know?’

‘That is what Singh does. His “pack-names” are all animals.’ The stranger scoffed but continued on seriously. ‘Singh, who I knew as Rosh, thinks only about survival and he thinks the only way to survive is to become an animal.’

‘What’s wrong with that?’ Labord retorted, feeling the need to side with his pack.

The stranger moved closer and continued, ‘Singh is trouble. I know because I used to be in the pack – in fact I used to be the pack-leader and Rosh was my closest friend. Until he…lost himself.’

‘Lost himself?’

‘He forgot where Rosh ended, and Singh began.’ The stranger looked into Labord’s eyes and a look of deep hurt and doubt passed over his face. He said no more.

Labord swallowed and stepped back.

‘I don’t know who you are, but I have to get back.’ He turned to leave.

 ‘You should leave the pack while you still can,’ the stranger behind him warned, as Labord began briskly walking back the way he had come.

‘Don’t trust Singh Labord, don’t trust him!’

*

Labord finally found the Ghar, a small abandoned warehouse on an empty street behind Raipur train station. Across the road was a flour mill, a small pharmacy and a few shabby houses.

The Ghar was their main maand – their den – as it was perfectly located close to three main bazaars in the area, and well away from any police stations; an area Singh had claimed as their pack’s territory.

Labord was the last to arrive back. He jogged inside, eager to escape the sun’s heat. As his eyes adjusted to the shadowed warehouse, he spotted Singh, Lomadi, and Hiran sitting together on the rugs surrounding their brick-made fire pit.

They hadn’t noticed Labord enter yet and were all sharing their own catch and laughing together. As he walked up to announce his victory, bread in hand, the laughter stopped, and they looked towards him.

‘Look what I got, Singh,’ he beamed and handed the loaf over.

Singh took it silently as Labord sat down across from him, next to Hiran.

‘How did everyone else go?’ he asked.

‘Not too bad,’ Hiran said. ‘We’re the only group who got something though. The others have already gone back out.’

‘Why did you take so long to get back?’ Singh asked absentmindedly as he tore up the bread loaf.

Labord cringed, ‘I – I got lost.’ He looked to Hiran who gave him a supportive smile. ‘I’m still getting used to the streets, sorry.’

‘And this is all you got?’ Singh held up the now dismantled loaf accusingly. ‘You didn’t… stop along the way and eat something else you got?’

‘No!’ Labord objected, taken aback. ‘Of course not. I brought everything back, I swear.’

Singh continued to stare at Labord, his expression unreadable, his eyes glaring and contemplating. Labord was too frightened to try and decipher his thoughts. Did he somehow know about the stranger? The silence dragged on while both Lomadi and Hiran ate their share, aware that any interference would not help the situation.

He knew then, Singh was deciding whether or not to officially adopt him into the pack. He had only been with them for two months; he was the pilla of the pack, the ‘cub’ as Singh called him, and Singh had for so long refused to give him a pack-name, to finally accept him as one of them.

Worry and a slight tang of panic quickened Labord’s heart. He needed this – he needed to stay with the pack to survive, he couldn’t do it on his own, he knew that now. He knew how quickly somethings could change.

Just six months ago Labord had been living with his father in New Delhi and just three months ago with his half-brother in Raipur’s north.

But war and death and his half-brother’s hatred had kicked him out to the streets.

He didn’t think about food at first – he cared more about finding somewhere warm and dry to sleep, some clean water to drink and only then, when his stomach began to ache, would he look for someone to provide him with food. Labord had been naïve to expect such charity, for weeks he survived off the leftovers, scraps or whatever else strangers would pityingly give him. But the charity was not enough and after the fourth week he had resorted to stealing. He was small, nimble and found it surprisingly easy to snatch an apple or banana from the bazaar without being noticed and it worked a few times…until it didn’t.

His quickly degrading appearance turned looks of pity to looks of disgust. He spoke to no one, in fear they would call for police, an occurrence Labord had learnt to avoid totally. He had fallen to the harshest form of existence and was surviving only from the food found in unlocked garbage containers in back alleys when Singh had found him.

Singh took him to the Ghar, fed him, clothed him, and introduced him to the pack.

He now slept on dry ground and went to sleep each night with food in his stomach. And he owed it all to Singh.

Labord swallowed nervously, remembering what he had come from and knowing how easily Singh could make that nightmare his reality once again.

His sweaty palm rested in his lap and whilst he refused to look, he could hear both Lomadi and Hiran softly chewing their meal and he could smell the sweet scent of bread. His ever-rebellious stomach tightened and growled in hunger at the smell of food.

Labord, horrified, tried to ignore it but Singh grinned and finally looked away.

He reached down and threw Labord a portion of the loaf then went back to eating his. ‘Your pack-name will be Girgit,’ he said.

Labord radiated pure relief whilst Lomadi and Hiran praised him and officially welcomed him into the pack.

He was one of them now. But for good or bad? He was not yet certain.

*

Labord had tried to forget the stranger, but each time he saw Singh he wondered exactly what it was he had been warned of. Even weeks later he still couldn’t get the it off his mind and he found himself watching Singh closely, trying to find the answer. But now that Labord was Girgit – an animal Lomadi told him was a small camouflaging lizard – Singh was even more friendly and encouraging than when he was the pilla of the pack.

The further he thought on the stranger’s words the more lost he became. Nothing made sense. Who was the gaunt-faced stranger and why did he seem so eager to protect Labord from Singh and the pack? Labord could think of no answer and found no other option than to search for the stranger and ask him these questions himself.

But, finding him proved much harder than Labord had anticipated. He had spent eight days wondering the streets near where they had last met, and though Labord was now considerably more confident making his way around Raipur’s streets, he could not find any trace of the stranger.

Not until the ninth day… when the stranger found him.

Labord was about to finish his fruitless search for the day and began heading back to the Ghar when the thin youth stopped in his path exactly as he had done before.

‘You were looking for me?’ he said.

Labord swallowed and stepped closer. ‘Yes.’

‘You want answers?’

‘Yes.’

The stranger smiled knowingly. ‘Walk with me,’ he said, turning and walking away without waiting.

Labord caught up and waited for the stranger to speak first, he didn’t know how to begin. But the silence stretched patiently, and they had walked down two streets before he finally spoke.

‘Shall we start with my name?’ he asked.

Labord nodded.

‘I am Drongo, formerly Baagh, the ‘tiger’ of the pack.’ He spoke the latter name with disgust. ‘Are you still Labord?’

‘Yes…well no, I am called Girgit now.’

‘Ah.’

Labord heard his disappointment and pushed on.

‘Please,’ he said. ‘Tell me why I should be so cautious of Singh.’

Drongo stopped suddenly, forcing Labord to halt too. They were on one of Raipur’s highways; scooters buzzed past them in both directions, motorised carts, bikes and every now and again a car. Crowds of people walked along the streets, carrying baskets of food, children on their hips or large jugs of water balanced on their head.

Labord instinctively wanted to walk back the way he had come, to hid in the quieter streets and alleys he was now so used to. But Drongo wasn’t looking at the people or at Labord, he was looking up at the sky and smiling.

‘Look there,’ he said, pointing. ‘Can you see those geese up there? See the way they fly – the v-shaped formation?’

‘Yes,’ he said, looking up. ‘What of them?’

‘See there? The goose who was in the lead is now falling behind and another one has taken its place. Now if you keep watching, you will see this happen again and again.’

Labord began to grow frustrated. He didn’t see how this had anything to do with Singh, in fact he was quite certain it had absolutely nothing to do with any of his questions. He heatedly said so to Drongo.

‘No, no!’ Drongo assured. ‘Don’t you see? It was geese that Rosh and I used to be; not ‘lion’ and ‘tiger’. That was how we ran things; we took turns leading, and we worked together, the whole pack – as one. It was good and it worked.’ He smiled at the memory.

Labord sighed in frustration. ‘But Drongo,’ he pleaded, his patience all faded, ‘What did Singh do?’

His face dropped and he looked at Labord calmly, then he sighed and finally told Labord everything.

Singh wasn’t an orphan but a runaway child from an abusive household. He saved Drongo’s life four years ago when he had first entered the streets, he was the one to help Drongo form the pack and he was the one who thought of survival above all else.

He was the one who, for survival alone, had almost killed Drongo for leadership and had forced him to leave the pack.

Labord didn’t want to believe it… but he also knew it was surely true.

He left Drongo in a hurry, hoping that the distance between them might help him to think. But it did not.

The further from Drongo he walked, the closer to the Ghar he became – the closer to Singh.

He could not just forget this and go on. Being in the pack had so changed his life that just the sight of Drongo reminded him of what he had so narrowly escaped. He couldn’t sit idle and condemn Drongo too.

He knew what he had to do.

*

It was dark when he walked purposefully into the Ghar and straight towards where Singh sat with the other nine members of the pack.

Singh noticed him straight away and stood.

‘Where have you been?’ he asked harshly.

‘Out talking to Drongo,’ Labord answered, looking him in the eye.

Were it not so dark, Labord would have seen Singh’s face pale, as confusion then understanding crossed his face. His mouth opened then closed and he was noticeably unsure exactly how much Labord knew.

Their silent confrontation had caught the attention of the other pack-members, who waited silently aware of the tension.

Labord’s heart beat furiously and the adrenaline pounding in his head pulled the words to his lips.

‘Why did you do it?’

‘I don’t know what you are taking about,’ Singh answered calmly.

Labord stiffened and clenched his jaw. ‘Are you really going to deny that you unfairlybanished the former pack-leader?’ He spoke loud enough that an audible murmur rose from the pack on his right.

‘What’s he talking about Singh?’ Hiran asked, stepping forward.

 ‘Did you say Drongo?’ another voice asked. ‘I remember him. He disappeared last year.’

‘No, Singh kicked him out,’ Labord declared and pointed an accusing finger. ‘He almost killed him, and he kept it a secret from all of you.’

‘Singh is this true?’ Lomadi came forward warily.

‘Baagh was a leading us nowhere. I did it for all of you,’ he proclaimed. ‘I did it for the pack. For us!’

Those of the pack who were not already standing, jumped to their feet.

‘Drongo was our leader! How could you do this?’ they all exclaimed.

Singh tried to calm their accusations, but his voice was drowned out by the others who clearly remembered who their true leader was. Singh began stepping away from the pack in retreat. He looked to Labord who had stepped forward and now stood with the whole pack behind him.

‘You won’t last a week with that broken tiger leading you,’ he spat.

Labord grinned. ‘Who said anything about a tiger?’ he said. ‘We are all geese here.’

Dirt, V.Y. Catto

The truck had the company name on the side, done with a home-made stencil and pink spray-paint:

TOBY AND BINAAR: REMOVALIST SERVICE

Dina rode in the truck all day with the two happy young men and listened to their enthusiastic singing with bemusement. They had a fondness for Cheryl Cole.

The trip took under an hour once they got on to Windsor Road, and for the last five minutes of it they were free of the established suburbs and driving through flat, old farmland. Here the mountains loomed as a thick blue line on the horizon, and to Dina it seemed that the distance between was broken only by a few fences and stands of wind-break trees.

‘Going to the new house,’ Binaar sang, adlibbing between CD tracks.

‘Going to the McSuburb,’ Toby added.

Dina smiled and said, ‘It’s not a McSuburb, it’s a “curated residential experience”.’

The boys laughed through the next chorus, as the wide gates of Dina’s new suburb slid into view on the left. The polished stone plaque glinted at them in the afternoon sun:

“Greenhills on Windsor – your life starts here

*

Dina stood on the new-laid road in front of her new beige house and watched the removal van drive away. It was done. All her stuff was in one place again.

‘They would not stop singing the whole time!’ Angela, her wife, was messing around with the front screen door with a phone hanging from her ear. ‘I reckon Dina liked it, meant she didn’t have to speak to them. Hang on. Hey! Coming in?’ she called, waving, then the wave turned into a vicious slap to her bare forearm, ‘Shit, these mozzies.’

Dina turned to her wife. ‘You signed on the dotted line, remember?’

‘Yeah, but I wanted to live next to a picturesque wetland, like it had on the pamphlet. Fuckers didn’t mention it came with a mosquito-specific Hellmouth.’

‘We will live next to a wetland, but they’ve got to finish building it first. You saw the satellite images, there was barely a creek running through here before.’

Angela slapped at her arm again.

‘Shit off!’ she snarled, then spoke to Dina in a pained voice, ‘Seriously, come inside. I need to pretend we have neighbours.’

‘Give me a minute,’ Dina said.

The sun was sinking low, and if she squinted she could almost imagine that the house on the next block over had a roof. With a little more effort she could pretend that the expanse beyond was a new suburb full of green smells and warm rectangles of light, and not three acres of torn soil awaiting forty-eight identical beige houses. There were dozens of concrete slabs down, and the four lots next to hers had their timbers in. Only her house, No.2 Parkway Close, was finished, aside from the show-home, No.1 Parkway Close, which was the developer’s office and was empty between 5pm and 9am. The two houses sat opposite each other in the deepening gloom like guardian monoliths locked in an unblinking stand-off. Dina stood between them on the road and gave a sigh, breathing in the rich smell of cooling soil.

Maybe the imagining would be easier in half an hour when the sunset was sufficiently advanced, and then maybe she wouldn’t spend the night trying to shake the feeling she was becalmed, her house a beige boat on a clay sea. She went inside.

*

Dina and Angela took breakfast in what would become their sliver of a backyard. There was no fence or grass yet; it was a trampled patch of soil full of crumbly concrete from their slab, but they had brought a bench for the pavers by the back door. Dina sipped her tea and stared out over the dirt expanse while Angela sat forward, eating watermelon and spitting the seeds out.

‘This is so weird,’ Dina said, as she rubbed the night’s grit from her eyes; this morning it was dirt-coloured, ‘I can’t stop thinking about all the trees that used to be here. It’s that smell. It’s pushing buttons in my head.’

‘I know, it’s strong, eh? Binaar reckons it’s ‘cause they dug down to the clay layer.’

‘And it’s really quiet. I thought there were supposed to be crews out today?’

‘Me too. You should go over and ask Connie,’ Angela said, chomping and spitting.

‘Her name’s not Connie.’

‘Uh-uh. She works in a developer’s office, her name is Connie.’

Dina looked at the ground where the pips – dozens, now – were hidden amid the dirt and gravel. The soil was trampled; evidence of work boots and wheel barrows and Utes and small, caterpillar-wheeled machinery, with the bottle tops and cigarette butts and sandwich wrappings that came with them.

Just then the wind picked up, whipping red-brown silt from the drying dirt and throwing it into the air. The field before them transformed into something otherworldly: a ruddy haze obscuring the distance and great curls and waves of dust dancing ever higher into the sky above. Angela began to splutter.

‘Bugger this for a joke,’ she said as she took her watermelon inside.

Dina sat mesmerised until her vision was obscured with tears and she, too, fled into the house. Angela was running around closing doors and windows and swearing every time a gust blew grit into her face. Within fifteen minutes, the haze was higher than their house.

‘It’s a sign,’ Angela said.

‘You think the ghosts of the trees are sending us a message?’

‘Yes. It’s that we should get on with the unpacking before our mortgage eats us alive.’

Dina sighed.

‘Let’s start upstairs,’ she said.

*

It rained that night, clearing the air and washing wet swathes of red-brown stain into the gutters, across the concrete slabs, and on to the roofs and beige walls of Nos. 1 and 2 Parkway Close. Dina woke to the sound of Angela banging around downstairs.

‘Good morning,’ Dina said as she stepped into the family room. The back door was wide open and a chill breeze swept in, forcing her to wrap her dressing gown tight. Angela poked her head around the corner from the kitchen.

‘Fucking. Dust. Everywhere,’ she said, then resumed sweeping.

Dina looked around, blinking the night’s fog from her eyes. Every surface had a coating of fine, red-brown dust.

‘Wow,’ she said, ‘is this… more than yesterday?’

‘Yeah. And I closed everything! Might have to pack the ventilation holes with tissues… ’

Outside the morning sun was drawing steam out of the dirt in little curls that turned to chaos when the wind grabbed them. Angela tossed the broom aside and snatched up the dustpan.

‘… and I tried to speak to Connie about it when she drove in this morning, but she was yelling at someone on the phone. Totally ignored me. You notice there are no crews out again, today? Construction was supposed to be kicking along,’ Angela continued, trailing off to a mutter as she closed her eyes, ‘Christ. I hope the developers haven’t gone bankrupt or something.’

‘Let’s go for a walk, get away from this,’ Dina said.

‘There’s nothing within walking distance except more dirt,’ Angela said bluntly.

Dina stood back as Angela bustled around the back room, sweeping the surfaces with grim determination.

‘I’ll… go unpack things that won’t stain,’ Dina said.

The hours passed, and Dina woke from an unintentional afternoon nap to the sound of the front door slamming. She opened the bedroom window – immediately flinching from the dust-laden breeze – to see Angela throwing her bag into the car.

‘Where are you going?’ Dina called.

Angela looked up, squinting, and flapped a hand at her angrily.

‘Close that damn window!’ she cried.

‘Sorry! But what… why are you charging off without even saying bye?’

‘I can’t! I fucking can’t! The dirt has it in for me!’

Dina shut the window and hurried downstairs, just catching Angela before she drove away.

‘Hey!’

Angela wound down the window. ‘You keep unpacking, okay? I’m going to figure something out. I’ll be back in an hour or so.’

*

Dina closed the front door and turned to face her empty house. The smell of the dust was less potent than the smell of the clay outside, but it was drier, more intrusive. She stood with it until the sun dropped low and a shaft of light from the kitchen window broke across her ankles, and the sound of a car door stirred her from her reverie. It wasn’t Angela; the timbre was wrong. The next moment Dina was turning the door handle and hurrying into the street.

‘Connie,’ she cried, ‘Wait!’

The woman glanced up at her from the boot of her car, a scowl on her face and a phone at her ear. Dina realised her blunder too late.

‘Oh, sorry! Um, I don’t remember your name. Can I just ask you about the–’

Connie slammed the boot shut, and strode to the driver’s door.

‘No, Jeff,’ she said, ‘I’m not interesting in tabling something. I’m suffocating here!’ As she got into the car she threw a nasty hiss in Dina’s direction, ‘These people are beasts!’

With that she slammed the door and drove away.

Dina frowned, then strode up the driveway of No.1 and banged on the door.

‘Hello?’ she called, ‘Anyone? Whoever the hell works with not-Connie? I’m a resident and I have some bloody questions!’

When no answer came, she peered through the front window. What was the formal living room in No.2 was the main office in No.1, complete with curved reception desk and binder-lined bookshelves. It was unbelievably clean: nothing in the bin, no post-its, and no plants. Connie didn’t seem like a neat type; she seemed like an eating-fish-tacos-over-her-keyboard type.

Dina glanced over at No.2, at the empty driveway. Ribbons of red dust tumbled down the street ahead of the breeze, coming to rest in the gutters for only a moment before a gust picked them up and rolled them out again. An uncomfortable feeling stirred in her guts.

A moment later she had picked up a fist-sized lump of concrete from among the chunks of clay in No.1’s front garden.

It took more force than she expected to break the glass. The month-old deadbolt turned smoothly and she was in, sneaking behind Connie’s desk with a dreadful excitement running through her bones. The desk bore only a stack of blank paper, a few pens, a laptop, and a printer. Dina poked the laptop tentatively. It was made of cardboard, with a high-res print of a keyboard and screen, and an exploratory prod told her the printer was similarly constructed. She looked around, taking in the stock photos of a smiling, blonde, white woman, and on instinct she walked to the bookshelves and pulled out a binder.

Empty.

Another instinct – a firmer, and more troubling, one – led her inexorably down the hall to the back room. A breeze reached her from somewhere, bringing with it the smell of damp, freshly cut grass. Dina looked up, and out at the yard.

It was green.

She slid the glass door aside and stepped out into a garden – a metre wide sliver of green boxed in by a tight fence of corrugated teal panelling. Sunset was fading, and the encroaching night brought with it a lone dog barking, voices and laughter from nearby, and music – a familiar refrain that drew Dina out the back gate and down the access path to the road.

“I see it, I want it, I stunt, yellow-bone it.

I dream it, I work hard, I grind ’til I own it…”

Dina smiled, some of her anxiety fading. Before her sat the neighbourhood of her imaginings: the rectangles of light, the lawns and trees, the scent of eucalypts. And someone was playing Beyoncé.

Confused but elated, she turned to see her own house. Her mouth fell open. The windows were dark, the front garden was a trampled mess of dirt and weeds, and the garage door was ajar in a way that suggested a serious hoarding problem. The sweet night breeze brought a rush of dust, and the smell of clay.

Dina turned around, staring at the lawns and young trees, the clean modern frontages and wood-panelled detail under-lit from the garden beds – a whole suburb of gallery spotlights – and back to the squat goblin that sat on her land. She swallowed, her throat thick with grit.

Just then, strange sound reached her: a gentle shoosh-shoosh, coming from behind and some distance away. She turned. A man was wandering along the gutter, carrying a hand-held pesticide sprayer. As she watched, he deposited a barrage of strategic sprays into a drain.

Dina regarded him silently for many moments. He looked up and waggled the sprayer so that the reservoir sloshed.

‘You should keep clear, Miss. This ain’t good for humans, neither.’

He began spraying again, and Dina quickly scuttled up the nearest driveway. Behind her, the front door opened and she was flooded with inviting light and Beyoncé coming from quality speakers.

‘Oh hi! You must be new. Please, come in!’

The woman’s face was familiar, and Dina found herself agreeing automatically.

*

Dina stood in the entry hall to a house that was identical to her own. The music was coming from the living room, accompanied by low conversation. In the hall was a man dressed from head to toe in pastel yellow. He was leaning into a golf swing, sans club.

‘Tok! Whoooosh!’ he said, as he mimed watching the ball disappear into the distance. A trio of spectators clapped dutifully.

Dina stepped into the living room and was confronted by a group of blonde women who smiled at her with their teeth.

‘Oh hi!’

‘You’re so interesting!’

‘Where’s your husband?’

‘Yes, we must introduce him to the boys.’

Dina looked over at the group of men standing nearby. They were gathered in the middle of the room, listening to the surround sound focal point with expressions of intense concentration. None of them moved. Dina was quietly crafting a polite dodge for both the concepts of ‘husband’ and ‘the boys’ when she realised the women weren’t paying attention; they had resumed their conversation the moment she broke eye-contact.

‘Oh, honey! They sell pre-sliced eggplant, now?’

‘Game changer!’

There was another round of applause from the hallway.

No-one noticed Dina backing carefully into the kitchen, putting distance between her and the teeth.

“Sometimes I go off (I go off), I go hard (I go hard)

Get what’s mine (take what’s mine), I’m a star (I’m a star)”

The fridge was huge; double doors in chrome that matched the kettle and toaster. Dina walked by the marble-topped island, running her fingers along the cool stone until she reached the microwave nook. Without looking, she prodded the microwave and was unsurprised to feel it shift a good inch: cardboard was very light, after all. She wandered over and leant on the toaster heavily and precisely, her elbow sinking through it until it no longer resembled an appliance so much as a punched hat. The kettle she knocked to the floor, where it rolled until it ran up against a small pile of red dust.

The night had grown colder, and Dina shivered as she stepped out into the backyard. She had taken only a step towards the back gate when a glint caught her eye.

There, sitting in the metre-wide strip of grass that comprised the backyard, was a ride-on lawnmower. Dina stared at it for a long while, until the song filtering through from the party behind her died away and the silence that followed sent a jolt of fear down her spine.

She had remembered where she had seen the hostess’ face before.

The mower forgotten, Dina threw the latch and ran out the garden gate. She ran straight through No.1, not daring to look at the stock photos as she passed. She emerged into the quiet and dust of her street just in time to see Angela step out of the car with a grin on her face. With a triumphant flourish she popped the boot and showed Dina a box containing an over-sized, industrial vacuum cleaner.

‘Look! The damn dust doesn’t stand a chance!’

‘Ange, call Toby and Binaar. Tell them to come back first thing tomorrow.’

‘What? Why?’

‘We can’t live here. No-one can.’

Angela gave her wife a long look, and then quietly pulled her phone from her pocket.

Kingdom Animalia, Simon Emmerson

For decades before he died, a man living in New York fed sick and parasite infested pigeons. This man was a germaphobe, well known for his propensity to shun any and all things unclean. He would often wear clothes only once, before throwing them away. And yet, for all this, he reveled in the pigeons that flocked to him. It is curious to imagine why such a man as this would give such consideration to an animal that, by all accounts, is a common, dirty, carrier of disease. And yet, despite having numerous friends and admirers, Nikola Tesla would never write so fondly of any person, as he did of his favourite pigeon. Since I first read of him, I have often wondered what kind of upbringing and experiences developed such a disparity in his mind, and why these proclivities of his made him such a target of scorn and mirth. Unfortunately, I can only speculate on much of Tesla’s experiences, and I will do so, but for the bulk of this piece, my own life, which can be more confidently expounded upon, will have to suffice.

            Having spent my childhood around many animals, treated in many different ways, I spent a large portion of my life simply ascribing certain levels of importance to animals. Before affection could even be considered, their importance was paramount.

*

Cattle dogs; important, respected and cared for.

Cattle; less important, a means to an end.

Snakes; important, kill if they’re anywhere near the house.

*

            These separations were, unsurprisingly, not inherent in my mind; they were taught. My mother taught me to hate rodents. My father taught me to handle dogs. Separations that I believed, but I now know don’t make sense.

            DaVinci, one of the greatest minds of history, pointedly described man as the “king of the beasts.” That though we have power over them, we are not above them. This is something that many cultures find difficult. Greyhound racing, cockfighting, even the faceless, guiltless packed meat in a grocery store, requires us to think of ourselves as somehow different. And to do that, children are taught from a young age that it is correct. Many children are taught that animals are good, but eating meat is also good. In some places more extreme examples are necessary. To separate a dogs inherent worth and your emotional attachment to it is an impossible thing to explain to anyone who hasn’t grown up seeing pups drowned because we couldn’t afford to keep them, and there was nowhere that would take them. To invoke DaVinci again, the man was known for digging up human corpses to better understand how the human body worked, but he spent much time and energy purchasing and releasing captured animals. We may never know how Leonardo’s childhood affected these attitudes, but I can only imagine his genius contributed.

            I don’t condemn my parents for instilling these harsh attitudes. It was how they were taught, and the way they knew to survive in a place that could be cruel and unforgiving. And I hope I will not be condemned for my childhood, complicit in these things. Necessity and indoctrination are insidious bedfellows.

*

                With the perspective I have since gained, these early attitudes being drummed into me feel almost Orwellian, though I understand how extremist that statement may seem. But being forced to accept a concept that goes against empirical evidence is fundamental to the sort of world described in 1984. The first discordant note struck for me in this system I had been taught was cats.

Cats that we feed, cats that catch rats and mice, good.

Feral cats, bad.

            But as a child, this was something that couldn’t be seen so clearly. In the same way that a person I’ve never met before doesn’t become less real because of a lack of familiarity, cats as a species should have had an absolute value.

            Curiously, Ayn Rand, a brilliant and famously dry author driven by that same absolutist objectivism, felt strongly about the value of animals, particularly cats, and was instrumental in the expansion of my philosophical perspectives on animals. Much like the Orwellian notion of Double Think, I accepted the difference despite the objective flaws in the philosophy. I trusted (subconsciously, of course) that those who taught me had a deeper understanding that made the difference clear. Of course, the difference was ultimately arbitrary. To accept it was one thing, but to believe it, it needed to be taught, to be felt, in a biased manner. And I was taught, in a sense. Interactions between children and feral cats are rarely without strife, and I was no exception. It is hardly surprising that spilled blood solidified my capacity to believe in the apparently inherent divergences of domesticated and feral wildlife. But later, as my experiences grew, and my thoughts strayed back to the little cat, and towards these ideas, it became clear that my perceived notions were, at best, oversimplified.

            Perspective was once more forced upon me almost a decade later. In my early teens, stepping through a box thorn looking for rabbits, I almost stepped onto an Eastern Brown Snake. It, quite understandably, took exception to this. A hiss was my first warning, and certainly the only one I needed. As soon as I looked down and laid eyes on the scaly fiend, my fear utterly took over. Instinct carried me maybe 50 metres before I even realised I’d started to run. That incident induced revelation in me. The realisation that I had been the aggressor; that the snake had in fact given me more warning than I deserved; and that I had so thoroughly regressed to my fear instinct that I don’t even remember beginning to run. Frankly, the snake had acted a lot more reasonably than I had. In fact, if the snake had reacted the same way I have, I would likely not be alive to write this now.

            It created a paradigm shift in my mind between myself and animals, and the way I’d always treated and categorised them. I remembered the cat I’d once foolishly tried to befriend, but this time, with the filter of perspective, and the epiphany that the cat must have given some warning that I, tiny ignorant human that I was, could not interpret.

*

            Long after I had moved to the city, after graduating high school, there were more irreconcilable phenomena. Friends who had snakes and rodents as pets were difficult to become accustomed to. A disparity between animals that are owned, and animals that aren’t, could be rationalised in my mind, but the same animal being different due to their status of ownership, still didn’t sit right with me. That same ring of falsity that began with feral cats began to manifest in more complex notions. I have since come to love snakes, and though I haven’t quite come around on rodents, I certainly don’t hold them in the scorn I once did.

            It was at this point in my philosophical growth that I first read of Tesla and his beloved pigeons. And not only his pigeons, but the disparity between his kind generosity, and his general avoidance of most human contact. It strikes many people as odd that he would behave this way, and so; it is a remarkable subversion of human pack bonding. Many species, ours included, bond easily to each other, while bonds with other species are much more difficult to form and keep. There are many reasons for this, the psychological “other,” language/culture barrier, etc, but the important point is that, for whatever reason, Tesla formed a pack bond with his birds, a space in his heart humanity had never been able to fill. It even seems likely that he saw no cogent difference between his companionship with the birds, and the companionship other people found with each other.

            We are taught from childhood to consider animals in certain ways, ways that I have outlined, many of which are often not conducive to equivalent treatment. But throughout history we have come to treat people and their experiences in similarly degrading fashions, time and time again. We go to the zoo to watch animals we don’t often get to see, to watch how they act and react behind walls of glass. How closely does this resemble so much of the media we consume in modern times? We watch celebrities, game shows, reality television, as we would watch chimpanzees. We watch talk shows and panel shows to sate this desire for closeness to these celebrities. While the freak shows and body horror circuses of the past have been abolished, shows such as Embarrassing Bodies or Freak Show feel uncomfortably close to being their spiritual successor.

            But these musings are more symptomatic than causal. Such situations cannot exist without the mindset to create them. Where our minds go determines where our actions fall, for better or for worse. To exploit a creature, one must mentally be able to divorce itself from the reality of that creatures experience. I would be lying if I said that I had never done wrong to an animal, and each time I had no thought of how the animal would react. As I have grown older, however, my mind has regularly gone back to that first false feeling. Perhaps if the small black cat that scratched up my arm as a child had been less wary and more curious, my later revelations would have occurred more quickly. Perhaps if I had been calmer, more cognisant of the caution of a lone cat in an unforgiving country, I would never have needed a revelation at all. But I was a child, and a life in the Australian bush does little to soften a cat’s temperament.

            I understand that this talk of modern media styled as freak shows, and Orwellian realities may sound a little extreme, and in many ways, it is. For most of us, the way we view people at concerts or on television is fundamentally disparate from how we view animals at parks or zoos. We put ourselves in the place of others, we empathise, we live their journey. But when hearing about stalkers, about obsessive fanatics, or seeing shows like Big Brother or the Bachelor, to me, at least, the idea rings true. Perhaps the reason Nikola Tesla was considered so strange was because he forced us to confront our own relationship with each other and nature. Or maybe Ayn Rand’s objectivist views drew such ire because people like to feel as if they are important, as if, on a universal scale, we matter. But if we are to enter a truly accepting society, we might just have to admit that we aren’t more significant than Ayn Rand’s cats. That we have no more meaning in the grand scheme of things than Tesla’s pigeons, or Einstein’s parrot, or any of the animals DaVinci owned or release. That we have no more reason to think ourselves important than a scared little black cat on an old wooden verandah. After all, humans aren’t all that special. We’re all just animals.

Hush Little Songbird, Sophie Ormshaw

Avelina curled up in the corner of the room, shaking as the stone walls dug into her back. It was cold and every so often the wind would come through the opening in the wall. She looked out and remembered what the tower looked like from the outside. High above the rest of the house, the tower looked like the most luxurious spot in the entire house. Who would have thought that it was actually the castle’s dungeon?

This was the second time he had left her in here, and just like every time before the sun was low on the horizon. Soon it would leave the tower dark. Soon he would return. Unlike the first time he put her in here, she knew she had to get out, she knew what would happen if she didn’t. Her body shook with the memory of what was in the dungeon. Must get out, must find a way.

A bird landed on the bed post next to her. It looked at her, then outside, then back to her. When it looked back at her, their eyes connected and it was if it was trying to tell her, ‘Get out. Jump. You can do it.’

But she knew what would happen if she jumped. She had already tried the first time.

Avelina brought a hand to her ankle and said to the bird, ‘If I’m to escape, that’s not the way out.’

She started to think about the first time she met Lars. He was so nice, who knew he was really evil inside.

*

6 Weeks Ago

Avelina’s music rang through the seedy bar.

Her fingers flew across the piano and her voice sang over with a melody. She could feel the nerves from the beginning of the set leave her as she grew comfortable in the music she created.

When the song finished there was some applause. Who really listened to the entertainment anyway?

She smiled around the room, looking at the different creatures that frequented the establishment. Some had tails poking through their pants, some had pointed ears like hers, some even had claw like hands.

But she had another peculiarity to her body. Grotesque deformed limbs that hid beneath her skin of her back. Limbs that she made sure they couldn’t see; they couldn’t tease her for what they couldn’t see.

She brushed her hand across her pointed ears, she belonged here, she was fine. Though the bar was not one of the best it was the only one that would give her a chance to play. She had to take what she could get.

Avelina looked around for a second time, but this time she caught someone staring back at her.

He was a handsome man with cat like eyes standing at the other end of the room. As soon as she caught his eyes, she looked away getting up and starting to pack up her music sheets that sat upon the piano.

‘Hey.’

She spun around to find the man behind her. He must have moved fast.

‘My name is Lars. That song was beautiful. Like a songbird. This is for you.’ He brought his hand out from behind his back and produced a single rose. His voice was melodic and rich. That combined with his eyes made a hypnotic presence. ‘Can I buy you a drink?’

She blushed, nodded, and accepted the rose.

*

He was amazing. The most amazing man she had ever met. And the things he could do. He could make things appear right before her eyes. Avelina asked him once how he could do that, he said magic. I wish he would teach me. Then she could do the beautiful things that were only possible in her dreams.

They arrived at his castle and Avelina couldn’t keep her eyes from expanding wide in wonder. It was beautiful. It looked like a castle from a story, with stone walls and conical roofs and a luscious green garden that lay in front of the giant front door. As she looked, she could even see a tower looming over the rest of the house. What a view that tower would have over the countryside, surely that would be the best room to live in.

He led her to the front door and turned to her. ‘Now that you are here Avelina, you must know, that your voice belongs to me now. You mustn’t speak to anyone here except for me. Understand? And no singing unless I give you permission.’

She nodded, though she didn’t understand.

He smiled his charming smile and led her inside.

She gasped as she looked around the grand entrance. There was a huge staircase in the middle and a chandelier hanging from the ceiling. The entire room seemed to be alive and glow with magnificence. By the time she looked back at Lars he had a small box in his hand.

Her smile grew wider and she accepted the gift, he would take offence otherwise. Inside the box was a diamond necklace. The stones shone from the light in the castle and she picked it up, gave it to Lars and turned around so he could put it around her neck.

‘For you. And as long as you keep the rules there are many more to come.’

He led her up the stairs, and her fear was the only reason her feet moved instead of dragging along the ground like she wanted them to. The staircase Lars led her up was cold and hard. The cold spread up through her bare feet and as they spiralled up, the air around them grew colder. Avelina had disobeyed him; he didn’t like that. She didn’t know what was up the stairs, but she knew nothing good.

At the top of the stair was a door. One that creaked when it opened and looked heavy to push. He led her into the room with a gentle hand on her elbow. She kept her head down and stayed silent, too afraid of what he might do.

‘You were such a good girl, but you disobeyed my orders. I said no singing on your own. So now you must be punished. It’s so you can learn.’ He brushed a hair from her face with soft fingers. She turned her face into him, but he turned and left the room. No other instructions or signs of the affection. She missed his warm hands against her skin.

Once he left, she looked around the room. It was like a veil had been lifted from her eyes, she was trapped. He locked her up. Her throat started to seize, she had to get out. The room was decorated with a simple bed, a standing mirror in the corner and nothing else. Opposite the bed was a skinny section of the wall that was open to the air outside.

Perfect for escaping.

The shirt she was wearing would have to be altered for the ligaments under her skin to be useful. It was long sleeved and high on her neck. No way her wings could escape from underneath it without some help.

She looked around the room trying to find something sharp. There was a standing mirror in the corner of the room. Perfect. She went to the mirror and with all the strength of her coming panic attack she could muster, she tipped it. The frame slammed against the floor and the glass shattered leaving a selection of small and large shards for her to choose from.

She took off her shirt and sliced two lines in its back with the glass shard. It bit into her hand as she sliced, but she persevered. She pulled the shirt back on and pushed her wings through her skin and out of the cuts in her shirt. It had been a long time since she had exposed them, even Lars didn’t know about them, and as they stretched out Avelina could feel how weak they had become.

They would just have to do.

She looked over her shoulder at them, and quickly looked away. They were thin and discoloured, hideous, the reason she never showed them to anyone.

She stood on the ledge. No rail, just a sudden end to the room with a fifty-meter drop at the end. Nothing to hold her back. She wasn’t scared of the cliff; she was scared of the room she was in and what would happen if she stayed.

Taking a couple of steps back she prepared herself for the jump and ran.

Across the room gaining speed and going into the light that was her freedom. Her feet left the floor as she leapt of the ledge. Her wings caught the wind and lifted her up and up until–

A jolt from her ankle stopped her assent. The jarring sensation from going too fast and being pulled back made her wings falter and she fell.

Her arms flailed, and her body slammed against the stone of the fortress’s tower. Her shoulders took the brunt of the force, but she must have also hit her head because for a moment all she saw was black and all she could feel was something holding her by her ankle. When her vision returned, she looked up and saw a chain attached to her ankle that wasn’t there before.

Blood rushed to her head making her lightheaded.

Her arms had hung above her head as she had no strength to keep them at her sides.

As soon as the sun had begun to set, she had felt a sensation of being lifted up the tower wall.

‘You shouldn’t have jump, Songbird. But it did show me something you haven’t shown me before. Why did you hide these from me? I suspected of course. Your aura showed me that you were something special. Something different. Something powerful’ He had stoked her wings gently. ‘These wings are lovely. Shame what I’ll have to do to them.’

He had gotten up from the chair he was sitting on, leaving her on the cold floor.

She kept her eyes downcast as he walked across the room and picked up a glass shard that was left on the floor.

Tears leaked out of her eyes as he sliced some of the feathers. It had felt like he was cutting her nerves and she wanted to scream in pain.

‘Okay now to deal with this ankle. The chain was just a precaution, but it will disappear if you don’t jump out the window again. The chain catches everything.’ He looked at her with a soft smile that hid his devilish side underneath. ‘It is also next to impossible to get up without help.’

Once Lars was gone again, she had felt around her ankle. Though the chain and bruises were gone the soreness remained.

Avelina touched her ankle. There was no more evidence of what had just happened.

*

It had been a week since her time in the tower and Avelina was exploring the castle, careful not to sing a merry tune while she walked. Lars would hear and punish her again. She shivered. She didn’t think she could handle another night in the tower.

After discovering her wings, Lars would ask her to bring her wings out for him to admire. She didn’t understand why, they were discoloured annoyances that looked out of place on her body. But him admiring her made her feel beautiful.

As she was walking down another dimly lit hallway, she came across a door. Not a fancy looking door, something plain and ordinary, except for the fact that she could feel the magic radiating through the wood.   

He never told her specifically to stay away from certain rooms. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to know more about him and his magic.

Her hand touched the doorknob and she pushed it open to find a staircase.

The magic called to her and she walked in, down the stairs and through the doorway at the end.

She stopped her steps and her eyes widened.

Around the room was piles and piles of … bones.

The blood rushed out of her head and she turned and bolted up the stairs.

Why would there be bones? What were they for? Who were they?

Avelina threw herself out the door and continued to run until–

‘Avelina. What were you doing?’

Oh no.

*

He wasn’t as calm as he was the first time he put her in the tower. He was angry. He had thrown her inside with murderous eyes and said, ‘When the sun sets, I’ll be back, you won’t have such an easy stay in here this time,’ before he left the room and slammed the door.

Once he had left, she curled up in the corner of the room, and she feared what he would do when he returned.

His words when he caught her outside the room with the bones, rang in her head, ‘it is not your time to be sacrificed… The Castle feeds my power… I must feed the Castle.’

Avelina looked at the door, she didn’t think she could stay another night here.

She got up and walked towards the ledge.

She learnt from that first time that she couldn’t fly out of there, not unless the invisible chain was detached. But maybe there was another way out. What if she could take Lars by surprise, evade his grasp and leave through the front door….

She looked to the door frame and noticed it was big enough to stand on. With a new determination in her step, she started to pull the bed frame to the wall next to the door

The bed screeched against the stone floor and she stopped. Her ears tingled as she listened for a noise outside the door.

When it seemed to be silent outside, she ripped the thin sheet from the bed and started to tuck it under each bed post. Her hands had started to shake, adrenaline coursing through her veins. At any moment she could be discovered.

Once she had the material under each post, she pushed the frame to the wall next to the door frame.

The light coming in the room was dimmer now, she had to hurry.

She got onto the bed and put a foot onto one of the flat posts and lifted herself up with a hand on the wall to steady herself.

She reached for the frame and balanced on the balls of her feet, but she couldn’t pull herself up. Thinking of no other option Avelina rolled her shoulders and pushed out her still tender wings.

She thought to Lars admiring them. Should she be doing this, going against him? No, he was going to kill her if she didn’t escape. No affection was worth death.

Avelina gripped the door frame and beat her wings a few times. She almost screamed in pain as her wings tried to pull up her body and she pulled on the wood with all her might. Until finally she balanced precariously at the top of the door frame the wood having hardly enough room for her feet.

The sun had almost set. He would return, and she would strike.

It was when all the light had fully disappeared, she heard the footsteps coming up the stairs.

Breathe in, breathe out. Stay calm.

Lars pushed open the door, took a step inside and then paused noticing the bed.

At his pause, she leapt.

‘Where are—’

Off the door frame with hands extended, pushing the magician to the opening in the wall.

Her attack seemed to surprise him, but he quickly recovered and started to restrain her. She pulled at his hands and fell to her knees to push him further towards the edge.

She couldn’t tell if he knew that she was trying to steer him towards the ledge or not, but it didn’t matter, as long as he went over the edge.

The struggle went for an eternity and yet it couldn’t have been more than a minute until they were at the edge.

She let go of her grip on his arms and stopped struggling.

‘What are you—’

In a final burst of strength, she pushed him off the ledge and, not waiting to see if the chain caught him, she fled the room.

Down the stairs, though the hallways, across to the giant staircase and to the front door.

I will not become bones in this house. She paused at the thought. Avelina didn’t want any others caught in this house either.

She would have to be quick, who knew how long it would take Lars to get out of the chain and back into the tower. Her eyes turned towards the lit fireplace that warmed the room to her right.

Time to burn this place to the ground.

Ode to Phineas Bunting, Anneliese Smith

My story begins seventy years ago, in the year 1885, when I met a woman who lived in an isolated part of town, at the bottom of Marsland Valley. I didn’t know it then, but this meeting was to leave a lasting impression on me as years went by. I was just sixteen years old then, and in my first week of school after summer vacation. Despite my lower-class status, I was fortunate enough to have the privilege of attending one of the finest schools in England, Denvershire Boys, a school critically acclaimed for its academic success. All seemed to be going well for me at the time—that is, until I got into a fight with a boy called Tommy Pritchard, on my second day. From that moment on, I frequently found myself at the mercy of the teacher’s cane and, in time, I came to experience an ever-growing disenchantment with the place. A disenchantment similar in nature to the vines that crept along the walls of the older school buildings like many blind, grasping fingers trying to pry through its brittle defences, to its core. In a similar vein I felt myself being taken apart, bit by bit, by the callous industriousness of our time. Many factors combined to achieve this effect. The austere teaching staff, their strict adherence to punishment. The grey stone walls, devoid of feeling, formal and dignified and as unlovely as the smoking factories increasing dramatically in number as the years went by. In short, the memory of that place is one I would care very much to forget, except for one thing, it was the first time I met Phineas Bunting.

*

I’m not exactly sure how it happened, but as I was making my way home that day along a familiar route down Georges Street, I somehow lost my way. The sun had nearly completed its full arc, and by the time I found myself in the forest, it was almost night. A troubled mind must have been the cause of it, or I wouldn’t have lost my way. Fortunately for me, I had the luck of spotting a three-storey house, just through the trees, minutes later. The house was a greyish facade overlaid with vines, encircled by a plot of land that was likely a garden at one time, judging by the weeds sprawling through the dirt. Given its condition, I wasn’t expecting anyone to answer, so I was surprised when an old woman greeted me. She had kind blue eyes and was wearing a gown of homespun cotton. To all appearances, she seemed friendly enough, and I had few qualms about approaching her. If the woman had any remarkable feature, it must have been her complexion; it was so pale and thin, it reminded me of papyrus scrolls, barely preserved against time and hardly fit to withstand the subtlest atmospheric alterations.

The woman was evidently stunned by my appearance. ‘What are you doing here?’ she exclaimed. I was chilled to the bone and unsure how to answer, so I said nothing. ‘Come.’, she said, ushering me in, ‘this is no time for a boy to be roaming about!’ She gazed at the thick conglomeration of storm clouds and dust in the sky. ‘Indeed,’ she muttered, ‘this is no place for either of us.’

The house was surprisingly well furnished and revealed an appreciation for fine arts and embroidery. The dining table was made of good quality pine and was laden with silver candlesticks and china plates; in the end, I admit, my impression of the place was quite favourable. A fire flickered in the hearth and a russet mat was strewn invitingly across the floor. I was about to make my way towards it, grateful for a little warmth after the cold and damp, when I heard a low, beating sound in the attic, followed by a low, cooing sound. The old woman followed my questioning gaze.

‘Would you like to see them?’ She asked in a husky voice that called to mind the sound of embers crackling. I suppose curiosity won over against better judgement in that moment, for the woman motioned for me to follow and, quietly, I obeyed.

The sole source of light was the flicker of her candle. Our forms cast long shadows across the walls as we made our way up. The noise upstairs had receded, and it was grimly silent, giving the place an almost unearthly stillness. I cannot quite describe it, at least not clearly, but the house had a strange aura about it, a hush and solemnity unruffled by the chaos of the outside world. Almost as if it stood apart from reality, suspended along a different time slot, a different frequency as it were. The door opened a crack and I could just make out the restless forms within.

The woman placed a finger silently to her lips. ‘They’re unused to strangers; you must be very quiet.’

The attic was larger than I’d expected and was home to various species of bluebirds, numbering the hundreds. How a modest three storey building could house such an enormous room was quite beyond me.

‘Lovely, aren’t they?’ The woman remarked as a bird, slightly larger than a pigeon, perched on her shoulder. It had the most extraordinary coat. A colour which could best be described as a mixture of perennial lupine combined with the delicate blue green of boracite, a combination in close likeness to the chrysocolla mineral found near the outskirts of Cornwall. I traced my finger along its feathers and was surprised by the cool, airy quality—like a mist through which my fingers dissolved.

‘What kind of bird is it?’ I asked.

‘It’s a Phineas Bunting, a rare species of bluebird sometimes found in the wilderness of Hubei. They can travel great distances, at great speeds—in the harshest of climates, over mountain ranges, and sea, into unexplored territory.’

‘I’ve never heard of it.’ I stated matter-of-factly.

‘Of course, you haven’t. They’re incredibly rare, and sightings have been few. They can camouflage themselves, making their capture near impossible. And when they die, their bodies transpose and a new bunting is born.’ She brushed her finger under the talons of a wizen bird with rheumy eyes and set it on the table. ‘Watch,’ she said, ‘I’ve seen this so many times, I can almost pick the precise moment.’

Minutes passed and then the bird let out an odd choking sound like the exhaust of an engine. I watched, astonished, as its feathers dissolved into a shimmery blue-green liquid. The process reminded me of the perfusion of water colours bleeding across the page to form some strange hybrid solution. The solution bubbled and gurgled and fizzled into a fine vapour until the bunting was no more than a translucent thread between my fingers. Seconds later, a blue-green bird the size of my thumb emerged. I gasped. I had heard of asexual reproduction before; certain species of ants were capable of this, but never had I known a bird to be capable of the reproduction I had just witnessed.

The woman laughed. ‘You look startled; it’s not the first time Phineas has evoked that reaction.’ ‘Come,’ she said, coaxing me into a chair. ‘Sit.’ I did so without a word. The woman took the newborn bird and placed him on my shoulder. Phineas Bunting regarded me curiously before closing its eyes. I felt the cool airiness of its feathers as it sunk into my shoulder.

Some time passed before I made my way downstairs and took a seat by the fire. I stared vacantly at the flames as I contemplated the strangeness of that place, so oddly situated. Why did the woman keep so many birds? Was she lonely? Eccentric, perhaps? I felt mystified by the ethereal quality of the house, almost as if it were attached to the earth by the most delicate of threads. The way the bird dissolved into mist…

I was dimly aware of the kettle bubbling in the next room and shortly after, the woman returned holding two cups. She rocked back and forth in her chair, regarding me between sips.

‘It’s not often people chance by this house,’ she remarked. ‘Tell me, what brings you here?’

‘I don’t know,’ I said after a moment’s reflection. ‘I was making my way home and not long after, I found myself here.’

‘Indeed,’ she replied, a note of curiosity colouring her tone. ‘I suppose you’ve been wondering why I keep so many birds.’

I nodded. ‘I’ve been meaning to ask—If you don’t mind.’ I felt slightly nervous under her gaze; those shrewd old eyes stared at me with such intent, they seemed capable of seeing beyond my physical essence into the more intimate recesses of my mind. The fire dimmed to a flicker and only a portion of the woman’s face was illumined in the fading light, creating an effect similar to the chiaroscuro style in Rembrandt paintings. After a time, the woman’s lips moved, almost imperceptibly, in reply, as she whispered a single word. ‘Enchantment.’ Her eyes glowed with an intensity unnerving to me, and I was under the impression for the second time that day that I was suspended somewhere between reality and the more elusive realm of the imagination.

‘Come, ‘let me show you something,’ she said, extracting a flutelike instrument from her pocket. She blew it, but it made no sound. I was aware of a slight rustling upstairs though, which soon grew to a restless flurry as she continued to play. The woman ceased after a time, and I assume the invisible sound ceased with her, for the commotion upstairs came to a still. I found this quite puzzling.

‘What’s it all about,’ I queried, the subtle tides of curiosity emboldening me to be forthright.

‘This,’ she stated, ‘is an infrasonic amplifier.’ ‘We can’t hear it, but they,’ she motioned upstairs, ‘can.’ The Phineas Bunting is an ingenious creature, attuned to the subtlest sounds—sound waves from the ocean, from earthquakes, and storms. It helps them find their way back, to safety.’

‘I don’t understand. ‘How can a person create an instrument they can’t hear?’

The woman was thoughtful. ‘Would you believe me if I said I had the ability to contain the sound waves of an earthquake, or an avalanche, vibrations that shock the core of those nearby, within a single contraption?’

I shook my head. I wasn’t about to be taken in by the sensational stories grown-ups tell children. ‘But I liked your story,’ I added to be polite.

The woman laughed. ‘Of course, you did.’ ‘Come, I have yet to show you the Phineas Bunting in its natural surrounds.’

The birds were roosting peacefully when we re-entered. The woman opened the window and blew the instrument and, immediately, the birds took flight, a flurry of blue and green swooping the air in one fine stroke of colour. It was then that I recalled their ability to camouflage. I watched as the buntings dissolved into the trees and then, one by one, into the sky. So many organic shaped jigsaw pieces locking themselves in place. The clear blue expanse stretching before us in all its infinitude and the buntings melting into it like a fine thread. At a single protracted point, which lasted, perhaps, only a second, I was stunned by the image before me; I wasn’t sure if the sky was undergoing a curious metamorphosis of colour and form or whether the image was unfolding in reverse. The effect was of an illusion that now calls to mind the works of M.C. Escher, particularly one titled, Day and Night [i], where one imagines seeing double until one is not so sure of what they see: if the birds are flying into darkness or light, if the figures are moving up or down the stairs, or if one is looking at birds in flight or fish in full stream. The woman glowed; her face was radiant with an inner light before she ceased playing. By some strange instinct, or perhaps, it was practise, the buntings flew inside, seeming to sense that the room offered them respite from the outside world.

Moments after its passing, the image receded to memory, as the colour and intensity of all things must fade with the passing of time, with only the faint outlines of impression still remaining. The woman’s smile faded as she stared vacantly ahead; after a time, she stirred from her thoughts and turned to me.

‘People are ambitious creatures,’ she remarked, without feeling. ‘We’re after money, status, success.’ ‘But in our feverish pursuit of these things, we risk unravelling the very fabric of what is beautiful in this world.’

She gazed out the window as wisps of smoke collected in the sky, growing rapidly in mass and volume as they drew near; at length, she snapped the curtain shut and turned her gaze to me.

‘The Phineas Bunting is a remarkable creature. ‘It can navigate through storm, earthquake, even smog. The toxins in the smoke trigger a faster homeward flight.’

Her words certainly made an impression on me; however, it was her last words that resonated with me most.

‘The coexistence of nature and humanity is on the brink of dissolution, and in its absence, there will be nothing but concrete slabs, steel furnaces, and smoking factories.’

Something stirred inside of me then like the eddying of waves as they leave faint imprints on the shore.The glow left her eyes and a pang of emotion foreign to me pervaded in the silence. Even then, I think I understood something of the loss she was conveying.

*

I didn’t realise it of course, but this was to be one of our last conversations; changes in circumstance forced me and my family to relocate soon after. Many years later, following a period turning iron at a steelworks in France, I decided to visit her again, only to find the house gone. The strange thing was, there was nothing left, no remnant of a portrait, no fragment of wood. I did, however, manage to unearth a certain handkerchief—the initials, C.M, matched hers, and lying next to it, a blue-green feather. I took the feather up and felt the light, wispy texture of it. And I knew. I was once again astonished by what I saw; the forest bleak after a sodden day, was suddenly aglow. The trees shone golden green in the sun. The garden, once overgrown with weeds, was overlaid with plants; bright specks of colour splayed across the forest, so gloriously laid out, it could have been designed by a botanist. The transformation took place the precise moment I touched the feather. And I knew then that my old friend, Phineas Bunting, was enchanted. But as fate would have it, I wasn’t to relish in the revelation for long. A chill wind swept by, whisking the feather from my grasp and, moments later, the forest returned to its former bleak state, devoid of colour. I was filled with the same disenchantment I had once felt as the feather drifted from me till it was nothing more than a speck in the sky. The image reminded me of an ode I once heard about a fish swimming upstream, only to be swept into the engine of a steamboat. The two images conjoined as I watched the feather drift from sight,                      into the torrent of dark matter ahead,                                                 toxic waste and carbon monoxide,                                    a myriad of spores sailing through the ether,               to be claimed by the all-pervasive pall through which the delicate thread of                                                                                                                                                    nature disintegrates.

Endnotes

[i] See M.C Esher’s, Day and Night, February 1938, woodcut print, for a visual overview.

Mr Rigby’s Elephant, Conrad Fuller

Pieter De Wet was Pretoria Zoological Gardens’ chief elephant keeper, and it was certainly his abilities with calming the beasts which excused the amounts of scotch he drank before arrival each morning.

*

On my first day, I was met by a young woman named Lerato, who insisted I call her Lera. With six years of experience, she would act as my minder while I acclimatised. There was a whole team of us who worked as elephant keepers, and we would only work with one species.

The first impression afforded to me of De Wet, which was provided in a summary by Lera, gave me fright.

‘He’s rude, but he doesn’t say much which means I get to do the talk each day. He is very good with the elephants but we are mostly just obliging him until he retires.’

When we met, it was his skin that reminded me most of the beasts we kept: its wrinkles were old and leathery, identical in texture and patterning to those on an elephant, only shallower and Caucasian rather than grey. He wordlessly offered me a similarly-patterned hand to shake, and I could smell that he had been drinking when he introduced himself. He was moderately tall but rotund, and had short white hair ringing his bald head. Lera left me in his hands while she delivered her talk and De Wet wasted very few words explaining how he ran things.

I wasn’t able to get my hands dirty until the afternoon, when he sent me to clean the yard, as a basic test of my capabilities.

At the day’s end, he would habitually invite everybody to go drinking after work, but nobody ever accepted. Lera had warned me from the beginning that nobody accepted, and that I shouldn’t. His haunts weren’t safe to visit, and he drank far more than any of us would have liked to see him under the influence of.

Over my first month, I began to see both sides of De Wet. He was brilliantly caring with the animals. Every day, he would routinely check their gums and feet, which was the most intimate task. He undertook the major trust-building exercise of sponge-bathing the young elephants. He would occasionally walk in amongst them, which was against the rules and annoyed most of the staff, but I somehow found myself admiring it, and wishing, hoping that I could live outside the rules if I attained his position.

As the new boy, I was burdened with the task of refilling his hip flask from a bottle of Dewar’s, kept in a desk in the offices. He was always short-tempered and cursed like a gangster from a movie. He frustrated everybody by encouraging us to stay late, unpaid. And his attention to detail was absolute. He spoke so little that all he ever really fed us was criticism. I didn’t ever see him raise his voice, but received cutting criticisms all the same. His memory was near-perfect, and with each individual criticism he would recite many of the offender’s previous infractions, so that one’s cumulative mistakes hit at once. And got heavier as time passed.

And yet, every evening he would invite us to join him drinking.

This routine continued. Until my grandfather died. He was a farmer, with an encyclopaedic knowledge for the animals on the veldt. I’d be lying if I said that time spent with him was not a major factor in my desire to become a keeper.

I returned to work the day after his funeral. And for whatever reason, that day was the only day any keeper ever accepted his invitation. I broke the unwritten rule amongst the elephant keepers to never drink with De Wet.

The William of Orange hotel was half English pub and half homestead; a common style in Pretoria. Amidst my glasses of liquor mixed with soda and every three neat scotches he drank for mine, he shocked me.

Perhaps his inebriation exposed some honesty, or perhaps it was the fact that I was the only one to ever accept his invitation. I’m unsure. But before he was an elephant keeper, he was an elephant killer.

*

The safari parks are always full; the necessary land to host a large population of beasts of that size is never allotted. To keep the populations manageable, the different reserves calculate how many animals their park can accommodate. Then they sell the right to kill the excess to foreigners with outrageous amounts of money; an elephant permit today will cost you more than a million American. That money is then used to expand the parks, to host many more animals. Distasteful as it is, the more that are killed, the disproportionately more that are accommodated.

De Wet was raised on a failing farm in the Transvaal, where every year the number of cattle decreased. There was nothing left for him there, and because he was so far from civilisation, his education was very poor. So, at the age of sixteen, as his parents were considering selling out and moving to a flat in Pretoria, he didn’t want to leave the land. His options to stay connected to the veldt were limited: he could join the military, he could try to keep the family farm running, or he could work as a labourer on a larger farm.

Or he could become a game warden.

Game warden was a good job for De Wet. After almost a decade he was still a young man, but he had guided dozens of hunts. Lions, leopards, cape buffalo and rhinoceros were all hunted occasionally, but elephants were always the most expensive. And most sought after.

And it was around this time that political issues greatly reduced the number of foreign hunters. By the season’s end, a single old bull was left unclaimed in Kruger National Park, where he was employed. So, with winter approaching, De Wet ventured out onto the savannah, serving in the capacity of the second to a Mister John Rigby.

As the chief hunter in the park, Rigby was a legend in hunting circles. He was thin and wiry, which made him appear taller than he was, and he had a hard face. He had led countless hunts for princes and millionaires, was an expert tracker by all accounts, and a crack shot.

To conduct such a hunt at the season’s end was a physically demanding task, and when Rigby selected him as a second, De Wet understood the expectation. After reaching sexual maturity, male elephants are solitary and interact with the herds only to mate. As such, it was much harder to find a bull than a herd of cows. And it was even more difficult to find a single, specific bull.

Rigby sourced an old green Land Rover with no roof. Winter bedrolls were packed first, then small cooking stoves and billy cans, plus a cache of olditary canteens, and plenty of spare fuel. Each of them had a set of binoculars, a compass, a rifle, one box of locally-made ammunition (as the sanctions had starved their supply of the higher-quality German or American shells), and a decent knife, which were to be kept within arm’s reach at all times. Anything else was a luxury, for this was a purposeful hunt.

The two departed in their battered chariot an hour before sunrise, day one. They needed sunlight to walk, but not to drive, as the danger from Cape Buffalos or stalking lions was acceptable under the sun. On foot, however, both animals would methodically track them, attacking at the opportune moment, but in the daylight, they’d see them coming.

At sunup, they parked, left the keys in the Rover, and set off. Their starting point was just south of the Limpopo River, which served as the border with Rhodesia, or Zimbabwe as it had been recently renamed.

De Wet kept up with Rigby’s pace all morning. They moved off the track and headed eastwards, towards the border with Mozambique. It took them two hours to move ten kilometres across the moonscape of dried gorges. By midday they took a break and changed their socks. Their feet were their primary weapons in this hunt, and they had to be maintained as carefully as the rifles.

The afternoon saw them move into the foothills along the border. Rigby walked into a dry river gorge between two tall hills, before scrambling up the slope. As De Wet heaved after Rigby, he was reminded by the man of a mountain goat by his slimness and incredible maintenance of pace over any terrain. To climb, they grabbed at the sickle-bushes which littered the hillside, and at the crown of the hill they made good use of their binoculars.

Several elephants were seen to the south, so they rapidly descended back into the river gorge. They followed the dry riverbed south until it forked east, and they scaled another line of hills to continue south into a large veld of red bushwillow. Amongst the scorching-red trees and rocks, they sighted the first trio of males. Although separate from the families, bulls will associate with other bulls in small groups lead by the strongest and most aggressive. The bull they were seeking was older and likely submissive to a new, young bull or simply on its own. Neither of the two groups they saw that day counted an older member, which was unfortunate as a bull living solitarily for an extended period would mean more aggressive and unpredictable behaviour than one which had submitted to a younger, stronger male.

They swept back to the vehicle in the evening, and De Wet was tasked with putting on a brew. Tea was a central morale booster, and after a day of hard movement and cold food it was a welcome injection of energy. They slept on their ground mats with a moderately sized fire opposite the vehicle, sleeping between the two for more security. Then just before dawn they awoke, and De Wet made a brew while Rigby plotted the day’s movement on their huge map sheets. After breakfast they drove a short way to the next location, and began the search again.

The second day they pushed south, ending their search along the Shingwedzi River. They had to camp further away that night on the plains between that and tomorrow’s task, the Olifants River, to avoid the danger from Nile Crocodiles.

Despite its name, which is an Afrikaans derivative from the word elephant, they failed to find their bull on day three. They saw two families and a number of bulls, but none of them was their quarry.

Day four they moved further south again, rising, mapping and brewing, followed by a hard day of constant movement, ending with a return to the Rover. Day five they managed to push south hard in the morning and search along the Nwaswitsontso River throughout the day. Rigby was pushing things now, and they stayed until shortly after dusk before even beginning their trek back to the car.

During the evening walk, they had to really move. Rustlings in the nearby bush which may have been a stalking lioness or a Cape Buffalo saw them both fire off a few shots in an attempt to ward off whatever it was shadowing them.

De Wet was growing restless by day five, but dared not voice his doubts to Rigby. It was possible the bull had crossed over into Mozambique, but Rigby maintained a cool head of certainty that they would find him.

And on the banks of the muddy, wooded Sabie River, they found it.

Then it all went wrong.

The two hunters approached the elephant, who was moving in and out of the trees to drink, from the side to get a clear shot. The heavy wooding allowed them to weave in close to the bull. They would then break the cover of the trees onto the clear and sandy banks for the shot. They were on the beast’s far side, so Rigby would approach from downstream, while De Wet covered him from the bank, safely shooting in an L-shape.

So, Rigby broke cover into the open while the elephant was facing De Wet; the perfect angle for a shot under the shoulder.

Now, Rigby may have hunted with his feet, but he lived by the gun. His rifle, manufactured by the infamous Westley Richards of London, was always perfectly cleaned and oiled. He personally replaced the firing pin regularly, while most others would leave this up to an armourer. And when he shot, the blend of Turkish Walnut and brushed steel seemed welded to his nervous system.

What he couldn’t control was the ammunition.

His first round fired and missed. In hindsight, De Wet said, its inferior quality would have accounted for the miss. But it still hit the old bull in his flank.

He tried to cycle the rifle, only to find the bolt locked up. Later, upon inspection, De Wet discovered that the cartridge had suffered an overpressure, cracking the bolt face and jamming everything up.

The bull charged.

Rigby roared to De Wet that he now had to open fire. The elephant had turned to charge Rigby, exposing his side (and, thusly, shoulder) to De Wet.

It was De Wet’s job, as the second, to shoot now. But he didn’t.

De Wet lowered his face but kept his eyes fixed to mine in accounting for this. He nursed the glass of scotch on his lips, and stared into my soul.

‘I could have taken the shot. And I didn’t. Deliberately.’

You see, De Wet had guided one elephant hunt too many. Unwilling to shoot the elephant, he simply stayed in the trees.

The cow’s tusk caught Rigby under his left arm and speared his intestines out. She then trampled him, crushing all four limbs.

‘He screamed, for a good ten minutes’ De Wet recalled.

De Wet returned to the body after an hour or so, certain that the elephant was gone, and the scene of butchery was indescribable.

I asked him why. He replied he just could not kill another elephant. And has not since.

I’m unsure whether the endless parade of drinks was giving me courage, or if I felt somehow entitled to an answer after all I had heard. So, I asked him.

‘Should you have gone out, knowing that your head wasn’t in the game?’

The glare I received broke all the others I had received that night.

‘No’.

After letting Mr John Rigby die, De Wet was unemployable. Unable to return to the veldt, he got as close to the animals as he could by taking the post at the gardens. But after less than six months, he turned to drink.

‘Trust me kid,’ he said to me, before I dizzily left for a taxi that night. ‘If I saw Pretoria Gardens on the cards that day, I would have put one behind her shoulder’.

Neah Bay, Bryana Innis

*Trigger Warning: mention of suicide.

Neah Bay, Washington, 2019

Alana felt a soft sense of dread and apprehension settle in the pit of her stomach as she drove into the familiar seaside town. She was now twenty-three years old and hadn’t been back to this place for four years. She had been able to avoid coming back with excuses of having to work and her busy study load. If her family wanted to see her, they came to Vancouver where she lived. She knew they understood how painful it was for her to come back, but this year her mother had pleaded for Alana to return and she couldn’t bring herself to say no as she had on countless other occasions.

Her nerves increased as she passed the familiar sign “Welcome to Neah Bay”. She slowed the car down and took a few deep breaths, reminding herself that she could do this. Even the sight of the familiar pine tree forest, which used to be one of her favourite things about this place, failed to placate much of her anxiety.

The drive home felt familiar the closer she got. She passed by familiar shops and sites. The smell of saltiness and pine wafted through her rolled down windows. It was as if nothing had changed and yet many things had. How many times had she walked these streets? It felt as if she had never left.

A few houses painted with bright primary colours came into view. Her home was painted green. She stopped the car and sat in silence for a few moments. After four years, she was home.

Her mother was in the kitchen washing dishes when Alana entered the house and her Dad was sitting at the small, round table with his coffee and morning newspaper.

‘Alana,’ her mother smiled as she pulled her daughter into a hug, wiping away a few stray tears as they pulled apart.

‘So she’s decided to come home,’ her Dad said pulling her into another hug.

‘Hey Dad.’

‘Derek come say hi to your sister,’ her dad called out. A few moments later her younger brother climbed down the stairs to meet them. He’d grown much taller since she’d last seen him. He had let his dark hair grow longer so that it flopped messily into his eyes. Dark, seemingly black eyes bore into hers and it reminded her of the reason she hadn’t come back for years. She pushed down the lump that had lodged in her throat and smiled, greeting her brother with a ‘Hey’, but her mind felt like it was millions of miles away and for a moment she was transported back in time…

*

6 years previous…

Alana stared into black eyes; for a moment she was reminded of the deep pools of water that could be found along the rocks at the beach, except these ones were never-ending. They belonged to her cousin Ben who was giving her one of his rare smiles. She hadn’t seen him smile in so long that she continued to stare as they walked home from school.

‘What are you so happy about?’ she demanded, squinting her eyes as she looked up at him.

‘Emma’s coming home today’ He shrugged. She’d forgotten about their friend coming home from her family holiday. Alana suppressed the urge to roll her eyes – he was like a lovesick puppy when it came to his girlfriend, but she was glad he had someone who made him happy, who could pull him out of the dark moods he got into so frequently. She didn’t blame Ben though. He’d been through a lot.

They finally reached Ben’s house and she noticed a car parked on the curb outside his home. The car door opened and out stepped a girl with dark blonde hair and piercing green eyes. Ben started to run and Emma laughed as he picked her up and spun her around. He put her down and kissed her lightly before pulling back to smile at her as if he was looking at the sun. Alana caught up to them and again rolled her eyes, but tried hard to suppress a smile. It was rare to see Ben happy, but Emma always seemed to bring this side out of him.

‘You guys are gross,’ she commented dryly, responding to their outward display of affection.  Emma pulled away from Ben to pull her friend into a hug.

‘Don’t be jealous, I still love you too,’ Emma teased.

*

2019

Alana blinked and fought back the tears that threatened to surface. Derek looked so much like Ben. She had seen her brother a year ago and he hadn’t caused this reaction in her. She supposed that coming home brought up all these feelings for her. She stayed in the kitchen making small talk with her parents as long as she could before excusing herself. She went to lay down on her bed and drifted off into an uneasy sleep.

*

Alana jogged steadily along the beach, her shoes hitting the wet sand with solid thumps, which turned to wet squelches as she entered the forest at the end of the beach. Squelch thump, squelch thump echoed in her ears. She started to pick up speed, racing as fast as she could through the tall pines and wet bracken. Her feet seemed to know exactly where to take her as she ran through familiar surroundings. She soon reached the foot of the headland and didn’t slow down as she ascended the tree-covered hill, eventually reaching a clearing from which she could look out onto the ocean. It was a windless afternoon and the ocean was glassy and flat, yet storm clouds were gathering in the sky and a few drops of rain were starting to patter on the ground. She stopped, doubling over to catch her breath. As she looked out at the bay, her breath caught in her throat for a moment as she spotted a pod of whales breaching on the horizon. It brought back a memory that she hadn’t thought of in a long time.

*

6 years previous…

 ‘C’mon, we might miss them!’ Her cousin called back to her as she struggled to keep up.

‘They’re not going anywhere!’ Alana shouted back as she ran.

‘Yes they are. They’re migrating,’ Ben replied. Trust Ben to not pick up on her sarcasm.

‘Migration lasts for months, Ben.’

They soon reached the foot of the headland and she slowed to a jog as they climbed the hill. She finally caught up to her older cousin, who had stopped at the clearing on top of the headland and doubled over to catch her breath.

‘Did we miss them?’ she asked sarcastically, and then adding as an afterthought, ‘You get weirdly excited over a bunch of whales.’ Ben ignored her, his back rigid as he scanned the horizon.

‘I swear I saw them when we were back on the beach…’ he muttered to himself. It was a few minutes before he shouted out, pointing to a spot just beyond the headland.

‘They’re in the bay!’

Not 400 metres from where they stood were a pair of humpback whales that were slowly coming to the surface to spout water out of their blowholes. They were so close that Alana could hear the whoosh of the water as it left the creatures.

‘Wow,’ she breathed out.

 The pair of them watched the whales for a further ten minutes as the creatures slowly left the bay to move further north. Ben turned to her with a rare smile and his unruly hair flopped messily into his eyes.

‘Worth the run?’

‘Definitely.’

*

Tears started to well up in Alana’s eyes as she watched the distant animals jump out of the water before splashing spectacularly down again, white foam and sea spray emerging from the impact of mass to water. She hated Ben for what he did, not only to her but to his family, most especially to Emma. She didn’t understand how he could’ve done it. Floods of memories she had tried to suppress for so long came rushing back into her mind, but one in particular stood out stronger than the rest.

*

6 years previous…

It felt like the same afternoon as countless afternoons before it. She’d just had her after school band practice and Alana felt happy and free as she walked down the pathway that led to Ben’s house. He wasn’t at school and she planned on giving him an earful for skipping school without her. They did everything together. The least he could do was tell her he wasn’t coming. She decided to forgive him though, in the name of having a nice afternoon with him and their friends.

She opened his front door unceremoniously and kicked off her boots, where a whole pile of shoes were stacked messily by the door.

‘Ben?’ she called out. The house seemed oddly quiet as she entered the lounge room. ‘Emma?’ She knew her Aunt and Uncle would still be at work but normally her cousin had music playing loud or he and Emma would be watching television in the lounge room. Suddenly Emma appeared at the top of the stairs, but something was wrong; she looked white as a ghost and tears were streaming down her face.

“Alana,” she choked out. Alana became alarmed at the sight of her friend and started to climb the stairs. Emma never cried and Alana felt an unexplained sense of dread as she saw how shaken up the other girl was. As she got closer, she noticed how badly Emma was shaking.

‘Emma you’re scaring me. What’s wrong?’

Her friend shook her head and seemed unable to speak as a fresh wave of tears streamed down her face. She started to speak incoherently.

‘I-I can’t – I don’t understand. I-I. He wasn’t – He was fine. I just-.’

‘Emma, breathe.’

The other girl started to cry harder and Alana pulled her into a hug, trying to reassure her.

‘It’s Ben’ Emma sobbed into her shoulder, ‘He’s dead.’

Alana felt shock roll down her body despite her disbelief.

‘What do you mean?’

‘He-he killed himself.’

*

Alana could still feel the remnants of shock that had run through her body that day 6 years earlier. She let her tears fall freely down her face as she watched the whales for what seemed like forever. Finally, they stopped jumping and she turned to leave, with a new resolve to do what she had come back home to do; what her mother had asked her to do.

The door reverberated slightly as Alana knocked as loudly as she could. The nerves that had been playing in her stomach since she’d arrived back home now increased tenfold and she almost turned to go back to her car, when the door opened and there stood Emma, her friend from long ago. Alana ignored the fear that had lodged itself in her stomach and swallowed down the apologies that were on the tip of her tongue. How do you apologise to someone you’ve ignored for 5 years?

‘Hi Emma,’ Alana forced herself to smile at the other woman who blinked in surprise.

‘Alana.’

‘I’m sorry, I should’ve called. Mum told me where you lived and I just—’ Her excuses were cut off as she was pulled into a tight hug.

‘I’ve missed you,’ Emma said.

‘I’m sorry,’ Alana repeated lamely. She was about to go into a more in-depth apology when she was interrupted.

‘Mummy!’ A small boy who looked to be about four or five was pulling on Emma’s shirt and trying to squeeze in between Alana and his mother. ‘Mummy I’m hungry.’

Emma pulled away to answer her son. ‘Okay, honey. Just give me a minute.’

Emma pulled lightly on Alana’s right arm. ‘Stay for a drink. Please.’

Alana felt herself nodding but she couldn’t take her eyes of the little boy whose hair flopped messily into his eyes. Deep black eyes suddenly looked up at hers and the similarity between the boy and Ben was startling. This is why she had avoided coming back. A deep longing for her cousin lodged deep within her stomach like a black hole and she felt it tugging her, pulling her, to where she did not know. Where do you go when the person you miss is gone forever? Alana forced herself to look up at Emma.

‘He looks exactly like him.’ She commented. Emma smiled sadly.

‘Everyone says so,’ she agreed.

‘Just one drink?’ Alana asked.

‘It would mean the world to me.’

*

Emma was quiet as she poured the boiling tea into two large mugs.

‘Any sugar?’ she asked. Alana shook her head. ‘I forgot, you don’t really like things sweet, do you?’

‘Not really, no.’

The two women sat waiting for their drinks to cool down. Emma tried to keep up the conversation with small talk, but Alana was so overwhelmed by seeing her second cousin for the first time and by Emma’s presence that she was barely present in the conversation. Emma sighed and Alana refocused her attention on her old friend.

‘I’m sorry,’ she explained. ‘I was just thinking of Ben.’

‘You still don’t forgive him, do you?’ she said perceptively.

‘How can you forgive him?’ Alana retorted. ‘After he left you like that?’ Alana blurted out what she’d been dying to say for years. Emma was silent for a few moments before answering.

‘I didn’t forgive him at first. I hated him. He knew I was pregnant and still he left. I thought he loved me enough to stay…but over the years I’ve thought about it and have made my peace with it, if you could call it peace. I just think he must’ve been in more pain than I knew, perhaps more than I can understand.’ There was silence again and then Emma stood up suddenly, holding out her hand. ‘C’mon, I’ve got something I want to show you.’

Alana took her hand and followed her old friend down the hallway of this unfamiliar house. They entered a bedroom and Emma let her hand go to rummage through a cupboard that seemed to be full of junk. Finally, she emerged with a wooden box. She rummaged through the box briefly before pulling out a silver bracelet with what appeared to be a carved wooden pendant of a humpback whale. Emma sat down on the bed and held up the bracelet for Alana to see.

‘He finished it just before he died. I thought I’d give it to you when you decided to finally speak to me again.’

Alana was quiet as she took the bracelet into her hand. The pendant was small and intricately made and it stirred something deep inside of her.

‘I know you don’t like to remember him Alana, but I think maybe you need to in order to heal.’

Alana took a shaky breath. Part of her wanted to throw the bracelet down on the bed and run away, but instead she embraced Emma in another hug. Emma was right. Ben was gone but maybe instead of avoiding home and memories of him, she could remember the good things.

‘Thank you,’ Alana said. For the first time since she’d come home, she felt free.

Inchman, Stuart Neal

Joshua watched as his mum, Bernadette, plugged in the cracked kettle. He sat on a stool on the other side of their small kitchen, with his head leaning back against the wall. She pushed the button down to start it boiling, the circle around it glowing a faint orange before failing. The pain began to fade in his leg. He wasn’t sure if it was actually getting better, or if he was just getting used to it. Still in a daze, he reached down to his leg and felt around the enormous red swelling just above his ankle. The centre mark had barely bled at all, but the surrounding bump felt like something hot was trying to break out from beneath his skin, even after his mum had put the cream on it. She made her way across the room and took his hand away from his leg. She rubbed the back of his hand, trying to soothe him. He could only look at the dim floor, at his bare feet and his mum’s floppy sandshoes. It wasn’t yet dark enough to turn the lights on. He wished he didn’t know what was going to happen next. The shuddering steam rose from the open lip of the kettle as the gurgling water began to echo around the room.

He had only been playing. It had been past the hottest part of the day, so he hadn’t put his hat on. The concrete path had still been warm under foot, so he had skipped across it on the balls of his feet before reaching the cooler grass. He had squished his toes into the soft soil and pretended that they were worms.

The yard wasn’t as big as he would’ve liked. But he could turn it into anything he wanted. Yesterday he had decided it was the surface of the moon. He had made craters in the bare dirt. He had still been trying to think of what today would be when the ant bit him. He had thought it had just been a piece of grass brushing up against his ankle, disturbed by the wind. He had yelped, tried to get rid of the ant, and started to limp back to the searing path all at the same time. He had fallen a few times before getting off the grass, but by then she had heard his screaming.

The wire door clattered back into its frame as Joshua and his mother walked back out into the yard. The sun was falling from view, lighting the clouds from underneath. He felt the faint rays flash onto his leg, reminding him of the pain. He kept up with his mother as she took her time, watching her every step as she carried the kettle, one hand on the handle, the other with an oven mitt supporting the base.

‘Look, there’s one just there,’ his mother said, gesturing with her foot, ‘Can you step on it, please? It’s hard with the kettle.’

Most of the heat had already faded from the ground, but she had made him put on his shoes anyway. He shut his eyes and stamped. He hoped he missed. After she had carried him inside, calmed him down and rubbed some cream over the wound, she had gone out to find the inchman nest. It hadn’t taken her very long to find it. She had asked him to come with her for this part. It didn’t sound like a request.

‘Why do we have to do it?’ he asked.

‘It’s not your fault,’ she responded, without taking her eyes off the kettle.

‘Couldn’t we just bury the hole?’

She paused to steady the kettle and looked down at him with soft eyes. The expression on her face told him that more questions wouldn’t get him anywhere. He averted his eyes and they continued at their slow pace.

The nest opening was about the width of his thumb. It was in a sparse patch of the yard, with only a few yellowing stems lying almost flat against the ground around it. Joshua couldn’t remember it being there yesterday. He could see small black movements through the wilting grass. His mother bent over, cradling the side of the kettle as she poured. Steam rose from the mouth of the kettle and the mouth of the nest. She moved her head to avoid it.

The boy had seen an ant farm before at school, with its tight tunnels in squiggly lines. He wondered if the nest in front of him was like that one, even if they weren’t the same kind of ants. The deluge continued. The stream coming from the kettle was bigger than the opening, so small rivulets diverted from the main flow, spreading out over the ground like a spider. It seemed to go on forever. He could almost feel the snakes of water cascade through each tunnel and into each chamber. He shut his eyes again, but the sound and the smell was worse than the sight. The muddy smell in his nose, the gurgling in his ears, he could see the boiling liquid snaking through the nest, flowing over hundreds of ants. Only one of them had bitten him. It might not even be in the nest.

The kettle emptied. His mother tipped it upside down over the hole, shaking each and every last drop out of it. Joshua watched as the final wisp of steam dissipated above the hole. 

‘All done now. Let’s go back inside.’

*

As she measured the water refilling into the kettle, Bernadette tensed her hand. She didn’t need much. Just enough for herself. The kettle stayed under the tap long enough for the last fading dribbles to fall in. She put the kettle back onto the black holder, jiggling it around to get it to click into place. A second click followed on as it started to heat.

She knew it wasn’t all done. Not after seeing the look on Josh’s face. But the boy needed to know, needed to see what to do. He should be free to do what he wanted and understand what comes with that. At least he didn’t run back inside afterwards, but his gait had been brisk. Maybe she was overthinking it.

The mug Bernadette selected from the cupboard had a tartan pattern and the beginnings of a hairline crack running down one side. It was the last survivor of a set bought years ago, and one that Josh refused to drink from. The round jar of teabags usually held a potluck of flavours, but when she unscrewed the lid she could see only one label colour. She reached in and grabbed one. Earl Grey wasn’t her favourite but it would do for now. The kettle finished boiling.

She walked out of the kitchen and into the adjoining main room, her cup in both hands. The placemat at her regular seat was askew, so she corrected it as she sat down and rested the mug there. She tried a sip, but stopped just short of her lips, letting the warmth and aroma rise from the mug. She held it there until the steam became too much and set it back on the worn placemat.

The table was old too. The wooden surface had been worn down to the comfortable smoothness of a well-used and cared for work surface. Any scent from the table had since vanished. She ran a hand over the tabletop near the edge. Her fingers began tracing numbers and letters on the tabletop. At first they just seemed to be random, but soon they became recognisable. Her phone number. Today’s date. Her father’s name. After each she wiped the imaginary script clean and started over.

She could remember when the table was new. Not the exact day that it had arrived, of course. The whole house had looked different then. The house still had its weatherboard walls, but it had been painted a different colour. She had helped her father decide. But she could remember her secret shaded spot in amongst the bushes, the one that no longer existed. The branches of the tree that had provided most of the cover had grown too long and wide and had drifted toward the house. The entire tree had to be cut down, and the surrounding scrub had been cleared out with it. Now the sparse grass had taken over most of the yard, the fence had grown taller, and the path had been paved.

There had been inchmen back then as well.

She had been sitting in her shaded spot reading a book when her father had called out to her. She couldn’t remember her father’s face, but his voice was still sharp in her ears. He knew where she was, of course, but he still pretended. She had to get on to her knees to get low enough to get out of her hollow. Her father had taken her hand and walked with her over to the nest he’d found. It was well hidden beneath a rare patch of thick grass. She had wondered how he’d found it.

‘See them? Nasty little buggers,’ he had said, leaning over with his hands on his knees. ‘But we know how to deal with them, don’t we?’

She had nodded. She had only been a bit older than Josh was now. The kettle her father had used was stout and wide and made of cast iron. It took a long time to boil. She remembered once when she had tried to lift it, when it was empty and cold, but couldn’t manage it. She couldn’t remember if he had any malice when he poured. Did it matter?

On the tabletop she traced a figure eight over and over again, each one starting where the last ended. On the last, she changed the movement and turned the figure into an ampersand. She wrapped a hand around the now lukewarm mug of tea and took a mouthful. Bernadette heard the rumble of mattress springs jostling around from down the hallway. A cough followed it.

At the very least they were more pleasant sounds than the others she heard earlier today. Her mind drifted back to the muted scream that came through the wall. The sound replayed in her ears to the twitching of her fingers. She drained the mug. She played the scene in her head again. Her response had been fast, but maybe it had been too harsh. Maybe he’ll have settled down by now. After she had poured, he hadn’t exactly run back inside, but it was at least a brisk walk.

Another memory came upon her, of a boy on the news from a couple of years ago. He had been bitten. Only once. But for him, it only took one. She traced out ‘anaphylactic’ and brushed it away. Not much else important must have happened that week, so it stayed on the news for a couple of nights. It had happened not too far from them. Near enough to make you pause, but not close enough to really be affected. But she hadn’t wanted to push too hard.

She had Josh tested when he was a baby, as early as she could book. It had been just a standard one and there hadn’t been any positive responses, so she had thought nothing of it until that boy on the news. She couldn’t remember if inchman bites were even included in it. At least she had the answer now.

Bernadette stood up, ready to talk again. She made her way to the hallway, where Josh had left her a trail of discarded shoes and socks, leading down the corridor to his room. She collected each as she passed them. The second sock was only a foot from his half open bedroom door. The small sign she’d bought for him for his birthday was hanging crooked, the J hanging lower than the H. She tried to straighten it with a nudge, but it ended up askew the other way. She peeked in and elbowed the door fully open when she saw him. He lay on the bed on top of the covers, facing the wall away from her.

She left his pair of shoes next to the door. She could tell that Josh noticed her but chose to remain facing the wall. The mattress wiggled as she sat down next to him. The red swelling on his leg still caused her to wince as she looked at it. She could almost feel the heat radiating from the bite. It would fade, but not for a few days. She would need to reapply some more cream soon. She gathered the top of a sock and guided it over his foot on the non-bitten leg. The other, she left for the time being. A sniff made its way to her ears. Josh sat up and pulled the sock on the rest of the way.

‘We had to do it, you know,’ she said, wrapping one arm around him. ‘That’s what we need to do. They can’t live here with us.’

He nodded.

‘If you get bitten again, I think you should have to boil the jug. I’ll help you carry it out, but you should do the pouring.’

‘I won’t.’ His response was immediate.

Bernadette took a deep breath in but caught the sigh before it left her mouth.

‘Get bitten again, I mean,’ Josh said, looking up at her with a small smile.

A Devil’s Favour, Matthew Byrnes

You seem like the kind of human that likes stories. You’re willing to come into my domain, to sit attentively and try and gain just a little bit more knowledge about things you can’t understand. You know, I remember not so long ago, demons were things people wanted to stay away from. But here you are, with perked ears and pressing questions, wanting to leave with just a few secrets of the world. Small details like that reveal a lot about a person. You remind me of somebody I knew once, many years ago. If you’d like, I’ll tell you a story. But I warn you, you might not enjoy how it ends. It’s interesting watching humans react, when the thing they value most is taken away. Every human I’ve ever met has seemed so above the earthly struggles of other creatures. What happens when they start to fall, when the fragile supports for their lives start to stray? They scramble and fight towards any kind of relief, no matter the cost. In that moment of desperation, they’re just like any other starving animal.

Lauren was one of those humans who I took particular interest in watching. In her youth, I watched her bounding and playing in the fields, only returning home after a full day under the sky. I don’t know what it was that set her apart from the sheep that she lived with, but she seemed wilder, more in tune with the natural world. Her father was a skilful hunter, and as she grew into a young adult, he trained her until her skills rivalled his own. Teaching her to have a respect for the wild, and the ancient forces that dwelled in the natural world, Lauren grew to be a respected and noble hunter. With her light hair and wild features, and the speed with which she glided through the overgrowth of the woods, the villagers compared her more to a wolf than a young maiden.

The more I watched, the more fascinated I was with the pure desire she held, not just to run and explore everything the world had to offer, but to be the fastest, most efficient hunter in the village. She would venture where nobody else would dare, and take on any quarry that came her way. This determination was intriguing to me.  

On a particularly close hunt, I watched her chase a white rabbit along the stony riverbed. She had crept down the rocky slopes, trying to follow the small animal’s bounds, but the rocks were slick with river water. It was so easy for me to shift her position ever so slightly from the shadows. The second Lauren was close enough to spring towards the rabbit, her footholds betrayed her, her ankle standing fast as her body plummeted. Her knee twisted, trying vainly to stay straight as her bones gave way with a delicious crack.

Oh, the doctors had plenty to say when they found her. As they carried her into bed and tried desperately to set her crushed bones into place, they assured her, even as she screamed, that a broken leg was far from the worst thing that could have happened. But when they finally finished their work, and Lauren’s ruined leg was hidden beneath a wrapping of bandage, it was obvious for anybody watching that the spark that had once driven her forwards was all but extinguished. She would never walk again; the doctors were very clear in saying. The bones, muscles and ligaments were ruptured and splintered in a way that shouldn’t have been possible for such an injury. Now her leg lay immobilized, twisted and misshapen like a tree branch growing oddly in a cramped space.

I visited her many times from her bedside. She had taken to watching the predators of the night from the confines of her room. She saw an owl, with its broad feathers and knowing eyes, gliding towards its nightly meal. A wolf howled faintly from the crags of the mountain, its voice barely reaching her ears from many miles away. But I was her favourite thing to watch. I wore the skin of a wild, black cat, with sleek features and agile limbs, as I chased the beady-eyed mice that crept from her cottage at night.

The first time I met her, I enjoyed playing a game with my prey. It was effortless to ensnare the mice I chased; yet I chose to leave the smallest of gaps in the cage my claws became, allowing the tiniest of glimpses of freedom, but never enough to escape before being ensnared again. From the first time she saw me, I knew she was enthralled, not by my skin, but with how I stalked my prey. In her eyes I saw the grief of her situation mingled with the envy for my grace. I wore the skin of a hunter, a skin she had once worn and now mourned.

When I first spoke with her, she was terrified. Humans are supposedly the only creatures in your world that can speak, and hearing my voice ignited all manner of superstitions in Lauren. She pushed me away as I prowled down the side of her bed. She cursed me and fought me when I began to ask her questions. But as the night wore on, I sensed a shred of curiosity beneath her façade. She wanted to know why I was there, and what I was doing talking to her. Any doubts that lingered in her mind were quickly swept away when I asked her one simple question.

‘Lauren, if you could make one desire of yours a reality, if you could request something of the gods, something that would elevate your life above what it is now, what would you want?’

Lauren took a long pause before finally responding. ‘I want to run, to fly, to hunt again. I’ve never felt more useless trapped in this bed, and I want nothing more than to chase and move freely, like you do.’

It became clear quite quickly the kind of person she really was, you see. Every problem in Lauren’s life had a simple solution. There was no river she couldn’t find a path around, no jungle she couldn’t push her way through. And even now, with her body failing her, Lauren refused to accept that there wasn’t another path to get what she needed. She knew what I was; she knew that the omen of a dark creature whispering promises in the night brought misfortune and sorrow. But life was a game to Lauren. A game that she had always won. I could tell that deep inside of her heart. She wasn’t ready to start losing. And so, I offered her a path towards what she craved. I would give her power, the ability to run and hunt again, the ability to stand as being more than a simple human. I would make her a predator.

I can tell you’ve heard stories like this before. I hope you aren’t too angry with me. Maybe you fear for Lauren’s safety, having dealings with a creature like me. Maybe you might even call me cruel, for taking such a beautiful, natural thing and twisting it for my own needs.

Night after night I returned to her side, gradually showing her more of the power I had at my disposal. I changed my shape into exotic animals that she had never seen. I enticed her with stories of far-away lands and hidden ancient truths of the very earth. Every night she turned me away, calling me demon, and monster. And every night, I watched from the shadows as she stared yearningly out the window for longer and longer, as I slowly convinced her. Her expression would soften each night, as she started to laugh at my jokes, and listen intently to the many promises I made. Eventually, she did accept my offer. Rest assured, I gave her everything she asked for.

Magic is something you humans consider other-worldly. But in truth magic comes from the very earth itself. It might well be the most natural thing still thriving in this place you choose to live in. I used a small portion of it to repair Lauren’s leg, and another to build her a home, in the secluded wilds of the woods. A house brimming with the magic of the ancient wild. Magic that she now wielded.

The first few years passed in happiness for Lauren. The house was large and ever changing, the paintings and furniture living companions for her. The library was full of books, that sang and laughed and cheerfully told her any stories she desired. Fanciful creatures filled the halls, animals of every land, happy to chase her and be chased through the house.

Over time, Lauren found that the house, and its many denizens, existed to serve her will. At a whim, the paintings would shift and move to her desires, showing her any image she yearned for. Her favourites were images of snow-capped mountains, of forests and undiscovered country, entire lands that she would have loved to run through. The books in her library told her stories of foreign land: some covered in more ice than stone, whose great peaks were too treacherous for even the most daring of explorers, of great red deserts full of creatures that were dangerous enough to kill any who hunted them.

But as the years passed her by, Lauren learned that magic was a resource like any other. And as the years slowly drained her reserves of magic, she found that the furniture and the walls of the house began to decay. The paintings, once full of vibrant colour, began to ooze and drip from the frames and seep into a colourless mass on the floor. The books began to screech harshly as their pages blackened and curled up into nothingness.

Lauren herself, whose very body was fuelled by this ancient stream of magic, got the worst of it. She found herself decomposing with the house, her own flesh rotting and writhing, her healed leg beginning to creak and break and twist into something horrific and unnameable.

When she begged me to fix it, I told her simply that I couldn’t. This was her domain.  She now needed to provide for it. Lure an innocent soul into the house and slay them. Whatever magic is inside of their soul will go to the house, and their blood will restore your power.

Even as her body decayed, she vowed to never sully her hands with human blood. But as she withered and her mind started to crack under the ravages of time, the promise of relief became unbearable.

What more could poor Lauren do, but finally hunt. An old man had wandered into the woods, crossbow in hand, straying just too close to the house. At my urging, she decided to finally break her vow.

She opened the door, shifting the weight off of her ruined leg as she peered outside. Her eyes were withered and unfocussed. Her frail body trembled as she supported her weight on the doorframe. She held out her hand, attempting to use her magic to attack the man, and small sparks danced at the edges of her fingertips. However, the second her hand crossed the threshold of the house, the sparks faded away, draining Lauren of her strength and leaving her withered form dizzy and faint.

The man noticed her attempt, and paused in his tracks. Lauren’s eyes were failing her, but she saw clearly as his face contorted in fury. He charged towards her door with a familiar determination, brandishing his weapon as he yelled all manner of curses. As Lauren hobbled further into the house, he followed her with all of the persistence of a hunter, deeper and deeper into the labyrinth of decay and ruin. He finally caught up to her, his murderous intent coming to a head, as he brandished his weapon. At that moment, Lauren felt utterly powerless and weak, her body too frail to take any action. And in that desperation, as her heart wished earnestly to live on just a little bit further, she invoked my name, and my power brimmed at her fingertips.

The splintered wooden beams of the walls in the house turned into arrows, their wooden shafts flying from all corners as they pierced the man’s body. His broken frame fell lifelessly to the ground. As his lifeblood sank into the rotten floorboards, the house, and the witch that lived inside of it, began to heal and recover. 

Lauren, now young and vibrant again, strode forward towards the dead man. She was shocked as, now with clear eyes, she saw the corpse of her father, withered by the years, but still wearing the stern, determined expression he’d always had.

She begged me to restore him to life, and to let her die instead. Indeed, there is nothing nature more reviles than a child slaying its parent. But I had already claimed my prize, and this was a reward I could not return. I feasted that night, and even as her skin became smooth once more, Lauren finally understood the role she had inherited for the rest of her days. She thought she was the cat, prowling gracefully as she hunted. But as the years passed and she learned how to lure her prey into her thrall, Lauren finally recognised her place. She was the mouse, enjoying the brief seconds of freedom between my claws, before I snared her once again.

In the years to come, Lauren became resigned to her fate. Powerless to flee the house, never gaining the courage to allow herself to die, her relationship with humanity became far more estranged than she was used to. Mortality became a fleeting thought, something to exploit from others, rather than to be applied to herself. She learned how to use the magic I gave her to better play her role.

With her magic she took the skin of a hawk. She left her human form behind, soaring above the trees as her keen avian eyes scanned the ground for prey. She relished the wind rushing over her feathers, how agile and swift her movements could be. As she approached the den of her prey, she shifted into a wolf, with strong legs and powerful jaws, with a pelt of soft grey. She crept through the overgrowth of the woods, slinking and stalking towards her victims. She approached the lonely and the wistful as a pale lady of the woods, drawing them away from their homes with her beautiful, bewitching visage. They followed her blindly through the dense woods, venturing deeper and deeper, until they found a lovely wooden house. It was charming and beautiful to look at. But when one ventured inside of their own accord it became a deadly trap. A web that ensnared and consumed its victims. 

You might think I’m a monster, and to some degree I’m sure you’re right. But no matter the fate of Lauren, she at least understood how things really were. Humans are just as bad as any demon I know. You destroy, corrupt, and shirk responsibility, all to ensure your precious little, limited lives continue. What I have done that is any different? For all of the ways that Lauren has fallen astray, I maintain that every promise I made her came true. She lives as something more than human. More than animal. That’s the truth of life, the secret that you came here to find. Flesh is flesh, and all animals have it, even humans. It’s only you humans that consider yourselves above the struggles of the earth. Are you really content to live like that?

I like you. I think, below the programmed responses that every person instinctively holds about their stake on the world, you see a glimmer of truth in what I say. As open as Lauren has become, I think she has outlived her usefulness.

Lauren shows a coldness to her now that I never saw in her before. She kills as a matter of fun now, rather than just to survive. I think somewhere along the line, she figured out that I can’t directly influence the world itself. All power has limits I suppose. And even though the thought of a mortal challenging me is amusing, if she gathers enough power, she believes that she will no longer have a use for me.

Tell me, what can I offer you? Perhaps there’s something missing from your life that I can give, if you take Lauren’s place. Every human I’ve met has disappointed me, but maybe you’re different. I sense a spark inside of you, a desire to explore what exists beyond the shackles of humanity. I promise, you’ll be different to Lauren. You’ll have power that the creatures of this world could only dream of. So, what do you say?