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From Xenoglossia, Tianqi Li

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

 

Excerpt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ju opened his mouth. ‘I don’…’

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

This time, he actually heard himself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Are you a foreign spy?’ she asked.

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

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

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

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

‘Yi Mei, I’m not—’

But she was already gone.

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Golden Drachmas, Claire Catacouzinos

Thasians wrestle with malleable metals. They mine, smelt, mint, and tend to hot furnaces, wrought with much toil. They are iron-willed smiths like Hephastios, forger of the three-forked thunderbolts. They should be equal to other Hellenic cities; but why has Athens seized their markets and a gold mine at Thrace? Why do the Athenians’ believe they can rule them? Thasos is the golden island, caved with quarries of gold, marble, lead, and iron. For they are masters of hammers, strikers that can crumble empires, not sooty anvils that tolerate threats.

 

Limenas, Thasos, 463 B.C.E

 

Sixteen year old Nesaea, an orphaned Abderan now living at Thasos, grabs a silver blank disk inside the minting workshop, and places it in between two blocks of iron, the dies that have carved designs. She raises her hammer, tightening her grip, and strikes down on the first die; the punch made. Yes, she thinks, as she takes the disk out, another great coin for today. She stares at one side, touching its edges, checking that the image of four tiny squares is smooth. Perfect, she thinks, as she then flips the coin to the other side, wrinkling her nose in disgust at the sight of the bald-headed, bearded satyr, kneeling to his right as he carries a struggling nymph. She imagines her master, Aglaophon, that four-plumed monster, carrying her to bed like he does with the slave girls at night. Thank sweet Demeter he does not know about her disguise.

She tosses the new coin to the pile of forty-nine drachmas that she has made on the marble table, listening to slaves outside smelting metal. Out the window, she sees sweating faces, men’s short tunics damp, their skin tanned just like her own, and their callused hands with disjointed and purple-bruised fingers holding metal clamps. They pour the molten metal into circular, shallow pits that are narrow at the bottom, and wait for them to cool.

Turning away, she stares at her messy nest of coins. If only these were hers, every piece for her to keep, to help her start a new life away from Thasos. She suddenly feels wetness in her loincloth. She knots her eyebrows, thinking it can only mean one thing. She holds in her breath, her skin tight against her ribs like leather stretched to make a tympanon, a hand drum, and touches the dampness in between her thighs. The god Deimos creeps upon her when she realises with dread what it is. Damn the gods, she thinks, my gorgon has escaped her case.

She hears her friend returning to the workshop and she knows she needs to get back to her master’s house and grab a linen rag. Why did she not remember to wear extra rags today? Last night she tried to count on her fingers, to remember the last time her blood flowed, but her mind was empty like her clay cup beside her bed. It has been months, she thinks, so many months since my body has done this.

Wiping her hand on the inside of her brown chlamys, she pins her cloak to her right shoulder, snatches a few drachma coins, hides them in her breast-band, and runs out of the mint workshop.

‘Where are you going, Nireus?’ her friend asks as she passes by.

‘I will be back,’ she says.

‘You cannot leave,’ he says, grabbing her arm, ‘the official will cut your throat!’

She yanks his arm away. ‘I will return in an hour, just cover for me until I get back.’

‘The things I do for you, Nireus. Just think, one day it will be us shitting on the golden hills!’

Yes, she thinks, one day we will be living on solid mountains of gold in our own houses…one day.

She hurries past the three minting workshops and peeps behind the stone wall. She sees her red girdled supervisor with his pot-belly, his long hair tied back in a ponytail, a leather whip in his hand. For a moment she wishes she had her long hair again, braided to the side by her mother’s milk-skinned hands; but once she hears the loud crack of a whip, she’s glad she hacked it off. There is no work for her as a slave girl, besides selling herself at brothels, having older men’s oily and hairy bodies upon her. She remembers what her mother told her that day the Athenians ransacked her home, two years ago, ‘You run, you hear me, Nesaea, you run and take care of yourself.’

She sneaks past the slaves blistering in the heat, and runs out of the back entrance of the metalworking precinct on the west side of the agora, the market place. She passes Thasians ambling near their struggling slaves, and dodges the fresh-smelling stalls of bakers, but it is when she sees a young couple, holding hands, the woman’s stomach swollen, and the man’s hand caressing her belly, that she slows down. Her heart still racing, she watches the woman and touches her own stomach, feeling its hollowness, her body not ripe. One day, she thinks, staring at the woman, rubbing her belly, one day soon enough, I will be like you, with my own husband beside me.

When she sneaks into her master’s house, and hides behind a marble column, both hands touching the cold frame, she sees Aristophon, her dear friend, one of her master’s sons, painting on a wooden board in the garden courtyard, with its cream and brown pebbled mosaic floor. Aristophon, the man whose name she whispers at night in her sleep, wishing to share her bed with him, to feel his hands on her breasts, hands that are stained with pigments and powder that are mixed with egg yolk inside an oyster shell, to bind the colourful paints. How she yearns, longing to tell him every day of her true identity, to have him look at her with those cerulean eyes, like he does with the Thasian maidens at festivals that dine with him, who are dressed in silk, one sash fastened to their waist, another under their plump breasts, their heads adorned with wreaths, their bangles and gemstones shining.

Oh how Nesaea wishes to dress like a girl again, wearing these expensive dresses, and her body, oh how lovely and thick and round it will be, plumped with fine slices of fish that are salted with thyme in fig leaves, and sesame-cakes. Aristophon likes wealthy girls, not scrawny girls that bind their breasts with linen, smelling like foul, muddied swines, and diseased pigeons.

I wish you knew, she thinks, then I could kiss you.

She turns away from the column and sneaks past him, entering the slave quarters. None of them are in sight and the room is crammed with four beds, all the coverlets bedraggled. She hurries to her bed, bends down on her knees and searches through Satorneila’s wooden chest. They have to be in here, she thinks, they just have to. As soon as she lifts up a black, tattered dress, she finds the linen rags. Thank you, merciful Zeus, she thinks, standing up and wiping herself clean. She changes into a fresh loincloth and places a rag inside. The bloodied rags are still in her hand.

‘Satorneila!’ someone calls.

Nesaea slams the chest shut. By the gods, no, she thinks, looking around the room to hide herself. But there is no time. Damn the gods, what is she going to do?

‘Satorneila, have you made my oxtail soup?’

The door opens and Nesaea does not move, her body feeling heavy like the stout iron block the slaves hammer metal on.

‘Nireus, what are you doing home so early?’ Aristophon asks, his hand still on the door handle.

I can lie, she thinks, or I can tell him the truth. Perhaps it is time he knew, but what of the master, what will he do? Will Aristophon tell his father; surely he would not do that to me?

‘I…I,’ she says, looking down at the rags in her hand, ‘I had an accident at the workshop.’ She sits down on the bed, touching her chest. Yes, that will have to do.

‘You’re hurt,’ he says, running over to her and bending down on one knee.

Their eyes lock. Nesaea’s heart beats faster, her palms damp. All she wants to do is tell him the truth.

‘Where are you hurt?’ he asks, touching her shoulder, looking at her legs, her hands, her arms, her neck, and her face. ‘Where are you bleeding?

It’s his eyes that torture her, those blue depths weakening her heart. ‘Ari,’ she says, smiling inside, thinking about that sweet name she calls him, and drops the rags and grabs his hand, ‘I need you to listen.’ He squeezes her hand. Please, she thinks, please do not hate me.

‘Did someone at the workshop hurt you,’ he asks, shaking her hand, ‘I will have them removed from the place.’

‘No, no,’ she says, taking his other hand as well, ‘it’s not that.’ She looks down at both of his hands, rubbing her callused thumbs against his smooth skin, her back hunched over like a wilted flower, its petals browned, shrivelled and soft. ‘I…I need to tell you something,’ she chokes. Tucking a short strand of hair behind her ear, she holds both of his hands again in her lap, bringing them close to her mouth to kiss. He smells like olive oil, she thinks, mixed with lemons and yellow yolk. When she looks up, teary, and stares into his eyes, her cheeks reddened, his eyebrows are knotted, his mouth agape. It’s her teary eyes that make him see; she is a girl.

He blinks four times, and jerks away.

‘You lied to me,’ he mutters, letting go of her hands and stepping away from her. He holds his mouth shut and turns away.

‘No, Ari, you need to listen to me,’ she pleads, getting up and grabbing his arm, ‘you need to listen to me.’

He moves away from her, and she clasps both hands to her mouth, sucking in a deep breath. He walks sideways, touching his forehead now as he stares at the ground.

‘You are always keeping secrets from me,’ he says, turning around and looking at her.

Nesaea feels like a wooden spinning top that the gods have unwound, her life unstrung, staggering to its last turnings of hope. She squeezes her eyes shut and prays — please, Hera, oh please, help me.

She opens her eyes, still holding her hands together, and rests them under her chin. ‘I need to protect myself,’ she says, looking at him.

‘You always say that!’

‘I know, Ari, I know, but I did not want to die on the streets.’

‘You should have told me,’ he says, ‘I thought we were like brothers.’

‘How can I be that close to you when I was bought by your father?’ she asks, her eyes tearing again. She thinks about his father hitting her over and over again on the head when she drops a tray of fruit.

Silence. The goddess Hesykhia forbids the branches to sway outside, the birds from warbling, and Nesaea’s mouth to move.

Aristophon clenches his fist. ‘Who are you then? Are you really someone from Abdera?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then what is your name?’

Shaking her head, she closes her eyes, her clasped hands in front of her lips now. I want to tell you, she thinks, oh how every night I want to tell you; but you know now. Nothing good will come from this. Nothing.

She opens her eyes and she can see the pain on his face, just like Achilles when he lost his beloved friend, Patroklus. ‘I cannot,’ she says, shaking her head, ‘I cannot tell you.’ She flees from the room and runs into the courtyard.

‘Come back!’ Aristophon shouts.

She ignores him and sprints out of the lion-sized door, never looking back, never wanting to see the pain in Ari’s eyes.

‘Stop!’ he yells, ‘Nireus, come back!’

I cannot, she thinks. Your father will have his way with me now. She keeps running, past the chunky trinketed Thasians, and thin, short-haired slaves holding amphorae and sacks of food. Past the stalls selling corn, wheat, leather and rowlock thongs, jars, and nets of garlic and olives and onions, until she is one in the midst of the sweating crowd at the temple of the god of war, Ares.

Looking around the area, she tries to find a gap to escape through, when she hears a man say, ‘This sacrifice will scare those Athenians away!’

‘Nireus!’ Aristophon calls.

Go away, she wants to yell. She pushes past the Thasians, and trips. Wincing, she looks down at her skidded knees, grimy and bloodied. When she looks up, Aristophon sees her. Damn the gods. Her heart pounding, she runs faster and faster, hearing the pan-pipes and reed pipes pierce her ears as people chant to Ares — hail to the spear-wielder! She sees strangers’ blurry faces of toothy grins, bushy eyebrows, and black-pigmented eyes staring at her. She passes cracked buildings and stalls opened with fresh caught tunnies, codfish, and mackerel. Following the cobblestone footpath, she heads to the docks, listening to the shouts and commands by the boatswains, the sounds of sailors hammering in dowels.

‘Nireus, wait!’

She sprints east to the iron mines that she first worked at disguised as a boy, when she was fourteen, before Aristophon found her.

She pants now, each step thudding with the beat in her ears. Twelve fishing boats at the dock are swaying in the breeze. Once she’s in front of the hollow cave, she touches the bronzed and red-tinged edges of the entrance, her eyes catching sight of the layers of smoky iron rocks with their dark raspberry and ebony spirals at the foot of the entrance. Looking over her shoulder, Aristophon’s running, his cheeks reddened, his eyes determined like a foot runner returning home with an important message from an enemy. The sky above him is turning grey and cloudy by the Nephelai nymphs; they will soon pour water from their pitchers, casting rain across the land and sea.

Nesaea scurries into the iron mine, her feet slugging through the damp dirt, her legs splotched with mud. There are no oil lamps. If she stays quiet, hidden, Ari will not see her.

Further into the mine, she raises her hands to help her move around, going deeper and deeper into the tunnel. When she can walk no longer, scared of losing the light from outside, she turns around and sits down on the ground, the cold dirt freezing her skin. A tiny drop of water drips in the distance. As she huddles her legs and wraps her arms around them, she rests her chin on her knees, staring at the opening of the cave; she listens to the pounding of her heart.

A figure nears the entrance; please go away. Biting down on her lip, she waits. The figure draws near. The body of a man appears, the light from outside framing him.

‘Nireus!’ Aristophon calls.

She squeezes her eyes shut, tightening her grip around her legs. A cold breeze blows her hair away from her face, a gasp decamps her lips. Opening her eyes, she watches him.

‘Please come out so we can talk,’ he says, holding the side of his waist, leaning down and panting.

‘I do not want to,’ she says.

‘You can trust me, you know you can. How many times have I helped you?’

Too many times, she thinks. Even when she bought the wrong grapes one day for her master, he went with her back to the agora and showed her the dark purple ones that were prized by his father.

‘Can you at least tell me your real name?’

But that will mean I will never be able to hide again, she thinks. My name is all I have left from my home.

Aristophon leans against the cave entrance. ‘I am not going anywhere until you come out.’

‘I will be cold by sundown,’ she says, letting go of her legs and rubbing her arms now.

‘Well, my dear little friend, that will be your choice,’ he says, folding his arms.

She knows she has to decide whether to tell him the truth, or to get out of the mine and run. But am I done hiding? What is there stopping me?

She leans forward and sees Ari at the entrance smooth back his brown hair from his face and wait. If he has come all this way, she thinks, then he must want to help me. He must care for me.

She stands up now, taking slow steps towards him. She can see it now. Back to the first day she met him. Here. At the iron mines, deep in the tunnels, when he offered her water, that rich, delicate water that quenched her thirst. ‘I am Aristophon,’ he had said.

Out in the open where the wind makes her shiver, he turns and looks at her. This is it.

‘My name is Nesaea,’ she says, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.

He ushers for her to come closer, and puts his arm around her. ‘A name of a nymph,’ he says, kissing her forehead, ‘I do not know what I will do without you.’

His words swell her heart, but she sees in the distance a trireme ship sailing towards them with its huge white sails and daunting eyes and its nose slicing through the water. Who are they? How many men are on that ship?

She keeps looking beyond Ari in front of her, her hand on his chest. ‘Can you see them?’ she asks.

‘I see you and only you.’

Thunder cracks in the sky; the rustling breeze is bringing the rain. He needs to look, he needs to see what is approaching us, she thinks.

‘Nesaea, speak to me, my girl of golden hope.’

She looks back at him. ‘My girl of golden hope,’ he called her. I am his golden girl, she thinks.

‘I want to be with you,’ she says.

‘And I want to be with you.’ He touches her hand on his chest. ‘You are special to me like Aphrodite loving Adonis.’

‘What are we going to do? What will your family think of us?’

‘We will leave!’ he says, ‘but I cannot leave the island empty-handed, we must return home.’

‘What if we get caught?’

‘How can we when I have you?’

Men chant nearby and Ari turns around.

In one moment, they see the trireme ship with one-hundred and seventy bronzed armoured men row past them on the rocky hill in front of the iron mine, curving west towards the hub of the city. In one moment, one man raises a shield to the sky, the crest of Medusa with her serpent coiled hair, lolling tongue and sharp fangs stare at them; the Athenians. In one moment, Ari rises from his seat, and that’s when Nesaea sees an archer, pulling his bowstring.

‘Holy Hera, no!’ she shouts, pushing Ari out of the way. The arrow pierces her flesh, blood trickles down her arm. No no no, this cannot be!

‘Hail to Athena!’ the soldiers chant.

Four arrows hit Aristophon in the chest, one after the other; he gasps, grabbing one near his heart. ‘Run!’ Ari shouts, pulling the arrow out, ‘run, Nesaea!’

Her eyes frightened, she’s frozen, staring at him as he pulls the other arrows out. You cannot die, she thinks as the rain begins to fall. ‘I cannot leave you,’ she weeps, touching his shoulder. I cannot abandon you, she thinks. ‘You have to let me help you.’

Blood froths from his mouth. She wipes the sanguine smear from his lips, holding his chin. He clutches her wrist, ‘You run,’ he says, ‘you hear me, you run and live your life.’

More arrows are fired at them and Ari embraces her in his arms, protecting her as the sharp-pointed arrows puncture his legs and arms and back and neck and skull.

You are my girl of golden hope, he had said.

Nesaea holds in her breath, thinking, please do not leave me too, as he stirs in her arms.

 

You came and I was crazy for you, and you cooled my mind that burned with longing. We live, the opposite [lives], daring. Loves new.

— Sappho of Lesvos, Fragments 48, 24A & 59

 

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From Desert Rose, Kristine Barrett

Desert Rose is a realistic fiction piece that is primarily set in the central national forests of Arizona, North America. Samara’s father, Steven Banik, has been found dead inside his lapidary business in Gerringong after a suspicious fire. While Samara grieves and tries to make sense of her family’s secrets, she begins to unravel the complex relationship she’d had with her father. In Steven’s testament, he leaves behind a letter and a small desert rose (gypsum mineral). These items lead Samara to Arizona where Stevens’ old friend, Honani, reappears. While the remaining Banik family members pursue the fleeing Samara across the Pacific Ocean, she discovers the real reason her father fell in love with Arizona.

 

Chapter Eight

Everyone fights their own skin in the beginning. Honani had the same argument himself a long time ago. But he wasn’t about to tell Samara that just yet. Through the corner of his eye, Honani could see tears falling onto Sam’s parching skin as thick coils of smoking sage spun into the air. Honani turned away and bent over the smouldering fire pit, chanting quietly to himself. The more he feigned disinterest, the louder Sam’s frustrated curses became. And as Sam’s tears and sweat smeared into white salty plane trails down her face, Honani grinned.

The fire sputtered as a gritty wind picked up. Samara tossed the sagging skin onto a rock as she left the circle. The man was infuriating! All he did was hum and chatter to the earth or himself — she never quite knew which. Her stupid deerskin was too dry, yet again, and becoming impossible to stretch over her lopsided frame. Damn man, she seethed as she sat on a nearby rock, closing her eyes for a moment. When she opened them again, the sun had run half-way across the sky. A shadow loomed over her.

‘Back to work Sam. Unless you have magic mice in your satchel, that drum won’t make itself.’

She followed his gaze towards the blackening mountains. ‘There’s not bad weather coming is there?’ She looked back at her tortured skin dangling off the rock. Her heart sank at the thought of trying to finish her drum in a desert downpour.

‘If the weather turns,’ Honani smiled, ‘as it always seems to with you around, then you need to be finished. That’s the way it is.’ He returned to his side of the fire pit, busying himself with an embryonic rattle. His efficient fingers managed to stretch the reluctant skin while holding and smoothing it out all at once.

‘That’s ridiculous!’ Samara was seething as she prodded the fire savagely. ‘I have no control over the weather! Maybe I’m not cut out for this Honani. Maybe I can’t piece the bits back. Maybe —’

‘Maybe you should stop talking and start stretching.’ Honani studied the withering skin. ‘It needs soaking again.’ He nodded over her shoulder. ‘You’ll need some water from the river. The pot’s empty.’

Samara felt like screaming. After two days cleaning the dead smelling skin, a traumatic four-hour ordeal nailing ninety-three holes, cutting the tough hide, collecting water from the polar river and kneading it feather-soft until her hands were drooping like the print on her mum’s wall of Munch’s The Scream, she felt defeated. Almost. Sighing, she grabbed the water pot and headed down the gravelly slope to the snow-fed river. She felt Honani’s steady gaze following her as she suddenly lost balance, skidding down the slope on her backside.

‘Watch the loose gravel,’ Honani yelled.

‘Oh hah bloody hah. Aren’t you supposed to be my teacher and spirit guide or something? What happened to timing?’ She glared up at Honani. His gnarled fingers wrapped around several strings as he pulled the skin tight, downwards over a balloon shaped bundle of dried weeds.

‘I’d say my timing was just about perfect, Sam,’ he laughed. ‘I give you the essentials, watch out for a scorpion or two and the stars give you everything else.’

‘Stars? Seriously? I don’t want stars up my bloody arse!’ she said, pulling bits of grit from her knee.

‘Just get some water on that skin before it turns into jerky.’ Honani heaved himself upright, disappearing behind a rocky outcrop.

Numb and knee-deep, Samara pushed the pot under the water. At least the iciness seemed to help with her graze. She had to admit that the nature-spirit aspect of life seemed to evade her. Honani’s faith in her and something greater was even more unnerving. She shook her head. As she headed back to the fire, she wondered what her dad would have said, watching her and Honani’s bonding of animal skins. Another soaking with the freshly boiled water made the skin workable again. Samara knew Honani was right. She waited in silence at the fire pit: threading, tugging, holding, hauling the skin closer, readjusting it along the frame and repeating.

Honani was silent as he returned. Samara’s thoughts rumbled through her ears. They seemed so irritatingly loud; she wished she could take the nail hammer to her own head just to create a new noise. A stick suddenly cracked off to her right as she spun around, searching for the offender. Something small bounced through the scrub.

‘Desert squirrel?’ Honani offered.

‘Squirrel? You sure? That just looked like furry dirt flying across more dirt.’

Honani smiled and pointed to the mess in her lap. ‘Skin. Today. Please.’

‘Right! But can we talk as I weave?’ Her fingers crunched together as she held the last few woven loops tight in her bottom three fingers while weaving the opposite side through with white string. Each of the ninety-three tiny holes around the edge of the circular skin had to be threaded from one side to the opposite side, drawing it in around the frame one painful centimetre at a time. The skin faced down with the frame on top so Samara could work from the bottom. It weaved like a flattened figure eight. Glancing across at Honani, Samara saw his brow crease. She knew he was watching her fingers twist clumsily over each other. The bottom three kept a good tension. She thought so anyway, even if the skin was a little saggy on this side.

‘This is land time,’ he finally said. ‘I understand that you want to chat, but this—’ he waved his hands at the exposed valley, ‘this should be done in silence.’

‘Right. Well, I’m not so good with up here at the moment.’ She tapped her head. ‘I don’t know how Dad survived all those years out here. Silent.’ Two days of very little talking was enough for Samara. Her vocal chords were getting rusty and her brain was threatening to disembark completely.

‘Steven was a unique man,’ said Honani. ‘He wasn’t silent the whole time though.’ He looked across the flames at her, his eyes glistening. ‘But this isn’t his journey now. Even though we follow the trail of others, we walk with fresh feet on entirely new ground. You are not your father but you are definitely his resilient kind-hearted daughter. We all lose our way sometimes, Sam. We wouldn’t be alive if we didn’t.’

Samara nodded tearfully, thankful for Honani’s presence over the past months. Words were lost as her throat clamped shut yet again; she felt her ears roaring with unshed tears and her jaw clenching. Her chest thumped painfully as she focused on an eagle soaring overhead, calling to her mate across the sandy ridge. The descending sun shot bright pinks like a laser into her stinging eyes. It hurt; it all hurt.

‘Let it out Sam.’ Honani was smiling at her with those clear blue eyes. ‘A skin will crack and sag if holding too much heat or moisture. We aren’t designed to withhold.’ His eyes left her face and resumed the intricate weaving of the rattle. She shuddered with resistance, letting out a splitting cry that was instantly answered by tiny startled shrieks. Samara laughed. Poor desert squirrels, she thought.

‘Better?’ Honani asked. Samara nodded before picking up her frame and half attached skin. ‘Good, because you just gave all the squirrels a coronary.’ She burst into a hiccupping laughter. ‘I’m serious Sam, check your hide because you may have brought that deer back from the dead,’ Honani chuckled.

Lightning streaked across the distant peaks. Honani felt relieved as he watched Sam hold her creation up to the fading light. His heart bloomed as her small smile broadened. He hobbled around the fire to inspect her handiwork. He lifted it up, searching the bottom and tugging the weavings. From the underside, with the drum held high, each lightning strike illuminated the veins and vessels within the hide, sizzling them into new life. It wasn’t too bad for her first drum. He grinned.

‘Congratulations, Sam. He’s perfect.’

Sam wrapped her arm around him. ‘She was definitely worth the trouble.’

Thunder began to rumble in acquiescence. Honani nodded in some shared agreement at the advancing clouds. He poked at their loyal fire, sending sparks high. After a moment, he retrieved his own first-made drum from his bag.

‘Let’s play!’ Honani bellowed, spinning around with a playful smile, drum in hand.

Beating a steady, cavernous pulse on his prairie-painted drum, Honani began shuffling around the fire. He noticed Sam hesitate, likely wondering what people back home would think of her dancing around a fire pit, playing a deerskin drum with an oncoming storm in the middle of a desert. Her dad would have been proud, that much he was certain. There was not a soul in sight except Sam and himself and maybe a few recovering desert squirrels.

‘What the hell!’ Samara shrugged and picked up the beat.

Sam’s new drum, exceptionally taut and not yet reposed, reached a significantly higher pitch than his moderately aged skin. Honani knew the young skin resisted its containment at first, reverberating off the surrounding rock with a hair-electrifying ping. Little stones along the camp floor danced with each beat as the two resonant drums — one baritone, the other like little Christmas bells through a megaphone — slowly began to synchronise. Two twinkling lights appeared on the distant track, followed by the faint hum of a truck. With Sam’s complete focus on him, Honani stopped circling but maintained an ear numbing beat, keeping Sam facing him.

Good. The boys are here.

 

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A Murky Etheree, Laura Gerges

Black

more brown

brownish black

cover me in

yellow waterfalls.

Look beyond my dark soul

dare to lick my tarty back

lest you discover slavery

oozes out of your ancestors’ pores

exposing your lingering bloody past.

 

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Five Loose Screws, Jamie Derkenne

J.Derkenne_image

Note: do not try any of this at home.

 

As she was leaving my mother handed me an envelope.

‘It has the screws for the bed head in the second bedroom. I’m sure you can do it by yourself. It won’t take you more than five minutes.’

‘I’ll try my best.’

She handed me a screwdriver. ‘I even remembered to bring you the screwdriver,’ she said. ‘I knew you’d insist. Not that you really need one.’

The family holiday house I was staying in and which she was leaving was forty-five minutes by rough road to the nearest town.

This was a remote corner of the world. Police recently caught a murderer whose location they knew, but could never find. He had been on the run for seven years. The terrain was so rugged they could never quite catch up with him. There was a single cable power line that came up the valley. That was it. No phone, no TV, no post, no shops, nothing. Sometimes on a cloudy night you could pick up a radio station broadcasting from Sydney, but there was so much static that you couldn’t really make out what was being said or sung.

My mother drove down the road, her dust cloud slowly settling on the road and verge behind her. I stood on the veranda clutching the envelope of screws, and the small green family screwdriver. I looked at the screwdriver. The shaft was bent.

My mother was the tradesman about the house. ‘My tools are words,’ my father said. ‘If you want something done with a hammer, then you employ a carpenter. I do not expect a carpenter to be able to prepare a brief, and nor should a carpenter expect that I be able to use a hammer.’

But my mother had a different view. Household maintenance could only be a matter of common sense.

Years before, my Woodworking class made plywood puppets. We cut out the shapes using scroll saws. The body and legs were separate. The idea was that the legs would be pinned to the body and by pulling a string, you could make the puppet’s legs dance. Our teacher told us we had to drill the holes and secure the legs for homework.

‘Your dads will help.’

I knew, however, that this was my mother’s territory. ‘It’s just a matter of common sense,’ she said. We took my puppet bits to outside the laundry and lay them down on a saw-horse. The saw-horse had seen better days, and wobbled quite a bit. It was very old. I think it had belonged to my mother’s grandfather. I often wondered who had taught her so many practical things. Maybe it had been him. She once told me he had been an accountant. My mother went to the garage and came back with a large electric drill. It was very heavy, like the power tools from the 1940s on display in the Museum of Technology. The casing was made of metal, and the power cord was made from frayed woven fabric.

‘I’ll show you how to use a drill,’ she said. ‘First, we have to use the chuck key and put a drill bit in.’ She looked along the cord. There was a rubber thong which had perhaps once held a chuck key, but the rubber had perished so much that it couldn’t hold anything. There was no chuck key. ‘We can use the screwdriver,’ she said. Using the screwdriver — there was only the one, and it was the same one I was holding in my hand now — as a chuck key was difficult, but she eventually managed to get a drill bit in and the chuck reasonably tight around it. The drill bit looked worn. The tip was polished and rounded. I felt it with the tip of my finger. It felt cold and smooth.

‘You place the drill exactly where you want the hole to go, and then lean into the drill as much as you can, then turn it on. I’ll show you.’ She positioned the drill carefully over the ‘X’ I had marked on the plywood and leant on it with all her weight. The drill made a groaning sound, and the bit started spinning. It didn’t seem to be drilling. The wood started spinning. She stopped and I held the wood in place. We started again.

‘I need to lean in more,’ she said above the din of the drill. Smoke started to rise from the plywood. The drill was screaming. A small flame erupted. My mother stopped and examined her handiwork. There was a slight ebonized indentation where she had been drilling. The drill bit glowed a dull red.

‘Must be hardwood,’ she said. ‘Maybe we should just punch a hole through with a nail. Have you ever used a hammer before?’

I shook my head. I had used a hammer in Woodworking class, but the school hammers, I knew, were not like the household one. The only time I had ever used a hammer like my mother’s was once in Metalwork class.

‘I have the hammer in the kitchen. I’ll go and get it.’ My mother returned with a large rusty hammer and a four-inch nail. The head of the hammer was ball-shaped. The wooden handle had a large split going down the middle. She had got the hammer and nail from the second kitchen drawer, the one she kept the broken carving knives in. The first kitchen drawer was for cutlery. The second was my mother’s toolbox. It was exactly the same arrangement at the holiday house. First drawer for cutlery, second for house maintenance and broken carving knives.

‘The trick with nails is that you give them a few light taps to heat them up, then you bang like fury.’ She showed me how. She tapped lightly on the nail, and then delivered an almighty blow. The nail clanged as it hit the clothesline and there was a clack as bits of hammer handle hit the concrete ground.

‘No problem. I know what to do.’ She hurried off to the kitchen and returned with a lump hammer. The lump hammer also had no handle. I had never seen the lump hammer before, but then the second kitchen drawer was three times as deep as the other drawers.

‘We just grip it like so and hit the nail with it this way.’ She banged the nail a few more times, gripping the lump hammer head in such a way that she could strike the nail with its side. The nail went through the wood. My puppet made a splitting, wood crunching sort of sound. My mother took the nail out and examined the split wood and nail hole.

‘Nothing that can’t be fixed.’

My mother kept a large roll of gaffer tape in the drawer as well. The gaffer tape was an extraordinarily useful tool. She had repaired refrigerator shelves, garden pots and even the garden hose with that gaffer tape. Once she had even done some temporary repairs on a pair of school shoes. She tore a piece of it off with her teeth — the family scissors hadn’t worked properly since the time they had been used as an awl — and smoothed it over the hole.

‘Now it’s your turn.’

I aimed my nail carefully over the mark on the remaining leg and tapped, a bit more tentatively than my mother, as I wasn’t used to using a lump hammer without a handle. My nail went through without incident, but the wood was slighty burred on the other side. After prising the nail out, my mother carefully peeled the wood splinters away from the hole. One splinter kept peeling until it reached the other side of the plywood.

‘Perfect,’ she said. ‘You see, you can do anything if you set your mind to it.’

‘Mr Robinson had said we should use brass split pins to join the legs to the body.’

‘I’ve never heard of those. We don’t need to buy expensive complicated dooverlackies. We’ll just use some two-inch nails. It’s so easy. I’ll show you.’

I couldn’t remember Mr Robinson ever saying that split pins were expensive or complicated. My mother lined up a leg hole with a body hole, and tapped a nail through, into the saw horse, so that it was about half-way into the saw-horse wood. She then bashed the top so it was bent over, extricated the nail from the saw-horse, and then did the same on the other side. It worked like a pin, but because of the thickness of the nail, the leg jutted out at a strange angle.

‘What is this?’ Mr Robinson asked holding up my puppet with his thumb and forefinger. He said it with the same tone of voice Mr Rodgers used when handing me my marked Maths papers.

‘It’s my puppet, Sir.’ Someone at the back of the class sniggered. I didn’t come last in the form, though. That position was reserved for Alan Bertwhistle, who had moved interstate half-way through the year, and as a consequence had not done any assessable projects for at least six months. Mr Robinson wrote on my report at the end of the year that ‘James tried his best.’

I watched my mother leave, then folded the envelope, put it in my pocket, and went into the bedroom. I lined up the bed head against the bed. Bed head and bed had been separated some weeks before by my mother so they could be carried up in the trailer. Maybe my mother was right. Maybe it would only be a five minute job. After all, she had managed to get the screws out. How hard could it be to get them back in?

The bed head was attached to the bed with two metal brackets. The idea was that you screwed the metal brackets to the bed head, then screwed the brackets to the bed. Only it hadn’t been done that way. Whoever had assembled the bed head and bed in the first place had screwed the brackets onto the bed first, so that the only way of screwing the bed head on was to guess where the metal holes of the bracket were from the other side of the bed head. There should have been six holes, but there were in fact thirteen, as many of the holes hadn’t quite lined up with the bracket holes. Seven of the holes were near misses.

The obvious solution was to unscrew the brackets from the bed, but they were firmly screwed in with three large slotted flat-head screws on each bracket. There were no screwdrivers except the one my mother had given me, which was small and bent. However, my mother had years before showed me a practical solution to this very problem: carving knives.

I was taught how to use carving knives as screwdrivers when she showed me how to do my own electrical repairs.

‘The trick with electrical repairs,’ my mother said, while carefully using the tip of the carving knife to unscrew a little brass screw that held two wires together, ‘is to make sure the colours are the same. If you have a red wire, you should always make sure it connects to another red wire. Same for green, same for black. It’s that easy. And to think some people pay electricians for this.’

We had to wait until my father was out of the house before we started the project. That very morning he had pleaded — begged — with her to hire an electrician. She had agreed, but now that he was out of the house, she had changed her mind. My mother had never hired an electrician, ever.

We were wiring in a new light fitting, one that terminated in two halogen lamps. She had bought it on special at Ikea for just a few dollars — there was a discount on the discount when she had complained there was a dent in the packaging. She unwrapped it and looked at the wires. There was a blue one, a brown one and a red one. She looked at those, and looked at the black, red and green wires from the old fitting.

‘Hmm. Looks like they got the colours wrong,’ she said.

‘Maybe they just changed them,’ I said.

It was all a bit complicated, because in the old fitting there were two blacks and two reds. She hadn’t been expecting that. The two black wires were together, but the two red ones were in different sockets.

‘I suppose brown means red. Maybe they ran out of the proper coloured wires,’ she said. ‘That means blue means black and green is of course green.’

‘This may look complicated to you, but it isn’t really,’ she continued. ‘All we need to do is wire up the new fitting the same as the old fitting. We’ll draw a diagram so we won’t forget. You should always draw a diagram or make notes if you have any doubts.’

She drew a diagram and on it with her unique handwriting labelled each wire so we could tell what colour it was and what slot it belonged to, guessing at its colour equivalent. Red and brown seemed reasonable. I wasn’t too sure about black and blue. The blue was a vivid blue. Almost an electric blue. She put Gr for Green, Bl for Blue, Br for brown and Bk for black.

She then got the carving knife, and using the very tip, loosened the little brass screws that held the wires in place on the old and new fittings, prising the wires out. We then looked at the diagram for guidance.

All her life my mother had writing and reading issues. If she was growing up now she would have been diagnosed as dyslexic, but she was just told she was stupid. In order to cover up the fact she had trouble writing words, she invented a spidery curly script where one letter was almost indecipherable from another. She perhaps worked on the theory that people would spend so much time working out what the writing said that they’d forget about the spelling. In my adult life I have received perhaps six or seven letters from my mother. I’ve never been entirely sure what any of them said.

I looked at the diagram with its Bk, Bl and Br annotations. I could make out the B, but wasn’t sure if the next letter squiggle represented any letter in particular.

‘Is that a Br or a Bl?’ I said, pointing to the diagram.

‘Bk. Definitely a Bk. This digital age. My own child can’t read his mother’s handwriting.’

Using the carving knife, my mother started tightening the screws. The tip snapped.

‘Get me another knife will you?’ she asked, handing me the broken carving knife. I went to the kitchen and put the carving knife with the others in the second drawer next to the gaffing tape. I took a new one out of the top drawer. My mother bought carving knives six at a time from St Vincent De Paul for 50 cents each. She preferred the long thin ones with the bone handles, because they were good for getting bits out of toasters.

After she finished the wiring, my mother asked me to screw the fixture to the ceiling.

‘Shouldn’t we test it first?’ I asked. She agreed that it was probably a good idea. I went outside and turned the power back on. I came inside, and on her nod, turned on the light switch. There was a loud pop as one of the bulbs exploded. The rest of the lights in the hallway remained dark. Now none of the lights worked.

‘Maybe it was Bl after all,’ my mother said, frowning.

‘It’s the fuse,’ I said. I knew how to mend fuses. My mother had taught me. Our fuse box was the old fashioned type, the ones with the ceramic insulators and a little bit of fuse wire. The power company had once offered to update the fuse box to something more modern and safer for a nominal fee, but my mother had declined, saying their bills were too expensive, and they weren’t going to get yet more money out of her. I went outside with a fresh carving knife, and turned the power off. I took the fuse out and examined it. The wire had melted clean through, which was surprising because my mother never used a single strand of fuse wire.

‘It’s cheap nasty stuff. You need to twist at least four or five strands together for the wire to last,’ she had once said.

I fixed the fuse, using just a single strand, and leaving the power off I returned inside. I was deep in thought. I was trying to do a mental calculation. There were five sockets in the new light fitting, and five wires that had to meet three wires, two of completely different colours to the old wiring. How many permutations, would that be, mathematically speaking, before we had gone through every possibility? I couldn’t work it out. I wasn’t any good at maths. I suspected the answer was ‘lots’.

Which brings me back to the lots of screw holes in the bed head. Armed with a carving knife, I inserted the back of the blade into a screw slot and twisted. It wouldn’t budge. I looked at the screw. It had a fine brown layer of rust on it, almost indistinguishable from the shellac veneer on the wood. This was an old bed. On a lacquered paper plate next to the bracket were the words ‘HS Joyner and Sons, 132 Lambton Road Broadmeadow,’ and then the letters ‘TEL’ and then a four digit number. I never knew that phone numbers once only had four digits.

I wasn’t going to shift the screws in a hurry. The next best thing was to line up the bed head and guess which of the thirteen holes my five screws were supposed to go in. I lined up the bed head as best I could, and opened the envelope. Inside were five loose screws. I looked at them carefully for at least a minute or two, turning them over in my palm one by one.

The screws were amazing. In a way, they were a testament to the ingenuity of man. Each and every one of them was as different to the other four as a screw can be from another screw, and still be called a screw.

The first one had a brassy look and a wide flat slot head. It was about an inch long. Screw number two had a small rounded silver star head, and a thread that looked like it had been originally used to screw two bits of metal together. Number three was rusty, and the same sort as the screws on the bracket that I couldn’t shift with my carving knife. It perhaps had been an original part of the bed. Number four was much the same, except it had a round head and a bent shaft. Someone had tried to straighten out the shaft at some stage by hitting it with something heavy. The threads were all mashed on one side. Whoever had tried to straighten this screw hadn’t succeeded, but had, from the state of the screw, delivered some forceful blows in the attempt. The last screw was black, and had a wide thread, the sort you get for particle board screws, and had an Ikea key head. It was one of the many screws my mother had kept as left over bits and pieces from Ikea projects. My mother loved Ikea furniture, because you could assemble it yourself. She never followed directions which were always printed on a large sheet of paper using graphics and as few words as possible, probably in deference to the fact the Ikea furniture is international furniture. She always preferred to work things out for herself. Had she been asked why, she probably would have said following instructions was somehow cheating. She always managed to assemble the pieces of furniture, but often had bits and pieces left over, which she attributed to careless packing. What hardware we possessed in our house, we possessed because of St Vincent De Paul and Ikea’s careless packing.

I started with the Ikea screw first. The holiday house was practically bereft of tools, but did have a huge assortment of Ikea hexagonal keys. My mother kept them in an old coffee tin in the shed. There were maybe fifty or sixty Ikea keys in that tin. It took me a while to find the right one, and a bit of jigging around to find the right hole, but eventually I got the screw in. From the four remaining screws I took out what looked like the sturdiest, and using my crooked screwdriver, screwed it in. This was hard work. Screwing in a rusty screw with a short bent screwdriver into what may or may not be the correct hole requires patience, considerable strength and callused hands. I had none of these qualities. I blistered the palm of my hand on the screwdriver handle getting that screw in. But now I had one screw either side, and a bed head that was precariously attached to the bed. I had three screws left.

Wondering vaguely whatever had happened to the sixth screw (it definitely hadn’t been in the envelope), I tackled screw number three. It was too tough for the screwdriver, so I resorted to the carving knife. I had it almost all the way in before the carving knife snapped. Carving knives weren’t going to work on this screw. I needed a proper screwdriver, but how?

I remembered I had a little toolkit in my car, under the back seat. It had a tyre jack, and a tool for levering off the hub caps and undoing the tyre bolts. The lever bit looked like it doubled as a giant screwdriver, maybe the sort you need for tinkering with the engine. I found the tool kit, a black leather satchel and took out the tool. It was about 15 inches long, and did indeed have a screwdriver end. A massive screwdriver end. The sort you would use for maybe taking screws out of an engine block. I took it inside and tried to turn a screw with it. The screwdriver wouldn’t fit into the screw slot. It was too big. Maybe, I thought, I could use a hammer, forcing the head into the slot. I didn’t have a hammer, of course, but there was a fist-sized lump of quartz by the back door. I took that and hammered the tyre tool onto the screw head. After about three minutes of repeated blows the screw head fell off. It took with it the piece of screw sticking out of the wood. That would do for that one.

The next two were relatively easy. The fourth one went in so easily that I could push it in and out with my fingers. I thought this might be a problem, and decided to pack out the hole with sawdust and wood glue, a handyman trick my mother had taught me. For some reason there were several small piles of very fine sawdust underneath the bed head. I have no idea where they had come from, as I certainly hadn’t done any sawing. I went to the kitchen drawer where I knew lay a small bottle of wood glue. It had been in that drawer since we first bought the holiday house, about twenty-five years ago. My mother had used it to repair some plastic wall power plugs, and it had lain there since. It took me a while to get the cap off the plastic bottle. The top half was watery, like thin milk. But the glue underneath seemed good. I mixed up a sturdy putty, and using my fingers, crammed it into the hole, and pushed the screw back in. I imagined that in a few hours it would set like concrete.

Concrete, by the way, is a great way of repairing outdoor furniture. My parents once had western red cedar chairs and a small outdoor table that they didn’t look after very well. After some years, the chairs has such deep weathered grooves in them that sitting was uncomfortable. My mother smoothed over the wood with a ferro-cement mix, and they were as good as new. Or they would have been as good as new if my father hadn’t chucked them out sometime over the next few days. My father, without permission or a by-your-leave from anyone, went out and bought a whole new set, taking the old one to the dump by himself. We only found out several days later. My mother was very cross about it, and would still get cross just remembering the incident.

‘For God’s sake Elaine,’ my father would say, his voice straining with exasperation and carefully enunciating each syllable so it was a rifle shot, ‘Why can’t you just go and spend some money instead of trying to fix everything yourself?’

‘At the very least, he could have waited until I got the screws out of the chairs. We might have been able to use them. Completely wasteful,’ she had said.

By the time I got the last screw in, it was dark. It had taken me about four hours to do the job, but I had done it despite a dearth of tools, and a complete unconformity with the screws. I lay down on the bed, my back leaning on a cushion against the bed head. It felt good, sturdy. The kind of bed head you could rely on.

My father’s favourite tune was a song that has many names. He called it ‘Waly Waly’. He’d sing it when he was happy, but it was a sad song. It had a stanza that went something like:

I leaned my back against an oak

Thinking it was a mighty tree

But first it bent, and then it broke

So did my love prove false to me.

I often sing that song inside my head when I’m feeling good about something, when I feel I have accomplished something. Today I had accomplished something. I had, despite the various difficulties, put the bed head back on the bed, without even losing my temper, much.

I knew my mother’s handyman hints were wrong, and that things would have been a lot easier had I bought myself a tool set. But I hadn’t. I should have expected my mother would have some project planned for me. And now, in an isolated cottage I had had to resort to my own ingenuity, meaning the things my mother had taught me. It’s funny how we fall back on doing things because we are used to doing them, not because it makes any sense.

Of course the bed head snapped. Deep down I sort of guessed it would. I didn’t know it would snap exactly, but I knew something would go wrong. I thought maybe my mother would change her mind, and buy a new bed head, or a complete bed ensemble. That was unlikely. Maybe it would catch fire, like the transistor radio she fixed when I was thirteen. But I knew a bed head could not have an electrical fault, and my father had long ago put a complete ban on electric blankets. It was stupid to imagine the bed head could catch fire. Maybe someone would steal the bed head. I tried to imagine someone stealing the bed head. Why would they do that? But then, why did my mother keep all those broken carving knives?

‘Snapped’ is perhaps too strong a word for what the bed head did. ‘Disintegrated’ might be a better way of putting it. I was leaning against it, thinking my thoughts, when it fell into several bits. I got off the bed and examined one of the bits. Where it had broken, the bare blonde timber showed. It was riddled with little holes, and covered with a fine dry powder. In one of the holes I could just make out something moving, like a beetle.

The pieces of wood came away easily from the screws. There was only four of them sticking out, as the one I had wood-glued had fallen out completely. I decided to let them be. I gathered up the bits of wood and took them to the stove to start a fire. Now that the sun had set, it was getting cold. All I had to do was put a match to the bits, as between the dry wood, the little holes, and the ancient shellac, it roared into flame. It was a bed head that was meant for burning. At least I was doing something useful with the wood. My mother would approve.

 

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