Tag Archives: memory

Touched, Kimberley Carter

Photo by Muillu on Unsplash

When was the last time you dreamed in any colour other than gold? You wish there was a dial or perhaps a valve that you could use to drain the world of that particular metallic hue. Maybe then, the world would return to the way it was before.

You find the memories from the time before especially difficult to keep straight. Memories are strange. They are never straight forward. They are like quantum particles that when observed, change direction. One afternoon, after a bland and tasteless lunch, you sit your children down in the dining room and do your best to explain to them the beginning and the before. You fumble a lot, lose your place and ramble. Your voice is muffled through your mask and your hands are sweaty beneath your gloves. You find there is no real place to start, no way to explain these things clearly to children who only know the after. Somehow, this seems important though. These are things they can only experience if you tell them.

You try and begin with a simpler time. You describe in vivid detail crowded concert halls where your head gets jammed in a rockers damp, un-pruned armpit. You tell them about hugging friends in greeting and kissing strangers, and travelling. Travelling! To them, it’s a foreign concept. Communities are now so small. They are closed off, locked and barred. The only good stranger now is a familiar one. The children make faces at you. They are still young.

*

Somewhere along the way, you tell them about a girl. You think her name was Amelia. Or maybe it was Emma. It is hard to know. You only met her once. You were a pharmacy assistant at the time. Young, fresh and roped into doing the job that no one wanted. You don’t remember the house being anything special. The weeds were stretching tall in their stolen beds and the grass was high as a wheat field. So high it almost obscured the hastily erected sign out front. It read, ‘Caution: Quarantine Zone. PPE must be worn at all times.’ Already, even then, that sign was familiar.

You knocked on the door and when there was no response, you knocked again. You must not be knocking loud enough, you thought. You call out instead.

‘I’m from the pharmacy,’ you say, ‘I’m delivering your medication.’

You don’t forget what she looks like when she opens the door. You describe her to your children as hunched and small. Her pyjamas are old and filthy. Her hair is matted and oily, she is like an underfed lion hiding in the wheat field waiting to pounce. Her eye bags are like new moons, carving circles into her cheekbones. Your children ask what was wrong with her. ‘This is what loneliness looks like,’ you answer.

She slides the cash under the fly-screen and tells you to keep the change. You think you see her in your newsfeed, months later. Or maybe you didn’t.

*

Your children ask you ‘What is cash?’. You take them to a dusty unused corner of the house and pull out an old box hidden among the shelves. Inside, carefully filed, named and catalogued, are notes and coins. You make them sanitise before and after touching them. After all, cash is now a dirty collectable.

You are glad they are showing interest. You are glad they are asking questions. Questions are good. Questions are better than blank stares and obvious fidgets. You decide to tell them how it started. That the first spark was a man in the media; a shaky video that most people discounted as fake. But a fake virus does not multiply the way this one did.

You are losing their interest. You can see it but you cannot stop. Some stories need to be told simply for the sanity of the speaker. This is what you tell them, you say: Imagine your senses being flooded every hour, every day with news of this new virus. Look at all the pictures of brightly coloured microorganisms spiked like maces. Listen to the ever-growing list of people posting videos about how they feel, what they’ve been through. Read what the government has to say. That it’s contained. That it’s non-threatening. That it’s a naturally caused mutation of a pre-existing virus strand. No one believes it, not even you. How could you? The statistics were bleak. You thought perhaps you were seeing the end. After all, what kind of virus could possible exist that turned people into gold?

The different stages of the virus became predicable once you got used to it. And you did get used to it. Humanity adapts surprisingly quickly to world changing events. You have started sympathising with world war two survivors, you don’t remember when. You picture yourself on par with them, sitting down in the rubble of a train station, listening to the bombs above and saying to one another, ‘How was your day today? Anything exciting happen?’

Your children chime in. They say ‘We know! We know!’ in feigned boredom. Of course they know. There are signs everywhere. In every classroom, in the libraries, in the halls. There’s even a magnet on your fridge written in large red letters ‘Know the symptoms of the Midas Touch. Protect yourself and others.’ Your children may know this but knowing is different to understanding.

You explain anyway. You have to now. You cannot stop. You are winding up the toy, racing towards the punch line. Why is this so hard? The first stage of the virus is the slight yellowy shimmer in the whites of the eyes. Next, the Touched person’s veins change colour, from a deep blue to a rich gold. The worst symptoms, you say, are the invisible ones. The loss of taste, and the stiff limbs that feel like running through water. It’s like the gold has been heated in a furnace than poured into your body shaped mould and left to cool.

You tell them about the great debates over where it came from, whether it was purely spread by touch, about how long it could survive on surfaces and whether the virus was small enough to become airborne. The last stage of course is the golden hue the skin takes. That’s what people will remember, not that most died from their hearts giving in or their lungs collapsing. You were too young to remember SARS or measles. You hope that your children will not remember the Touch but you know you are wrong.

You are afraid you have bored the children. They will no longer sit still. They see the sun glinting through the window and beg for the chance to play. It is already getting late. You are running out of time. You look into their eyes and you find yourself unable to say no. You haven’t told it yet, the most important part. You convince yourself it can wait till tomorrow. You retreat into the half-light of your office. Your mind is full of the things not said.

There is one image that sticks most clearly in your head. This, you do not share with your children. This, you file away like a postcard and every now and then it comes knocking on your skull.

*

You remember seeing an elderly couple on a park bench, their skin stiff and covered with a golden sheen. They were the first Touched you saw in person. Over the years, you have questioned and wondered and imagined how they died. Who were they? How did they get there? What was the last thoughts running through their gold-riddled minds? You remember it like this:

They are two statues; mannequins dressed in their nicest clothes. The woman is wearing a loose-fitting dress covered in sunflowers. The man is dressed in some stretchy slacks and a blue checkered shirt. In the small space between them their hands are clasped together. They are smiling into each other’s eyes. Those facts never change.

You think maybe one night, the woman notices the dull distant look in her husband’s eyes. Maybe she sees the golden veins creeping up his throat and says to him, ‘let’s go for a walk’. Then she helps him dress. She grabs his cane, his hat and his glasses. She leaves the masks and gloves at home. When she opens the door, she helps him through the threshold. And when he stumbles on the way up the hill, she supports his arm in hers and tells him ‘Your cane! Use your cane!’. They make it to the park that’s little more than a grassy hill. She sits him down to wait for the sunrise. Or is it sunset? No, you are sure it must be sunrise. There is nothing more fitting. The mist coils around their shoes and the dew on the bench seeps through their clothes. She talks to him about anything and everything and always she holds his hand. You imagine the comfort that would have bought the old man. The comfort of physical touch that fades so quickly from memory. The comfort of knowing that someone was there with you, and they weren’t going to let go. You miss the feeling; it nags at you like an ache in your chest or a pressure behind your eyes.

The night then starts to lighten. The mist seems to raise from the ground, briefly bringing the world to life in a glow of pure white. Then the sun starts peeking through. You’ve always thought that sunrise is best; more special. You hope they were watching the sunrise. You hope they managed to see it. You can picture them, sitting on that little bench holding hands as they are bathed in the warmth of a new day.

Did she look into his eyes as he died? Did she cry tears speckled with golden flakes that glittered in the dawn? Did she simply decide not to let go? Did she decide to hold his hand as it stiffened, and wait? Would it have been a relief when her own skin hardened and took on that golden hue; when she lost the ability to move and her thoughts dulled and slowed. Whether it was her heart or her lungs that gave first doesn’t matter to you. Neither does it matter if it was the man or the woman who died first, or the sunrise or the sunset that they watched. The truth lives in their smiles as they stare into each other’s eyes and the clasp of their hands on the bench between them.

You secretly hope no one touched them, that they were given dignity. You hope no one took their clothes or broke their arms off. You wanted them to sit together on that bench overlooking the little grassy park, a frozen moment in time. A tribute. They faced the Touch together and for that they are immortalised, if only in your mind.

The postcard image would come knocking often, especially in the first few months of the pandemic and always while you were at work. Even through the protective barriers, the gloves and the masks, you still saw something of the world. You remember a little girl, maybe around eight. She was wearing tiny pink gloves and a mask with flowers on it. They were a matching set. You saw her wandering the store, not touching a thing. Instead, she amused herself by jumping on the X’s. Every two metres, a bright blue X has been ironed onto the floor. Later, a more permanent solution would replace them. The little girl in pink was too small to jump from one X to the next, so she jumped and shuffled, jumped and shuffled. It occurred to you as you watched her, that this was her normal. Jumping on the X’s will be a part of childhood. Already children were making songs and games to play together using the X’s, and their masks, and the sanitiser their parents drenched them with.

*

Outside, you can hear your children playing, they pull your mind back to the present. You will not allow them to go further than the yard. The games they play are different to what you had grown up with. Their laughter settles like a heavy sadness in your bones.

You wonder at the changing world. You wonder when you last touched somebody, or saw a stranger’s face, embracing them without paranoia or fear. You wonder when it started feeling wrong to have someone standing behind you in a queue. You wonder when money started feeling dirty and why you didn’t notice it disappearing.

Your head drops to your desk. What is it you are trying to teach them? What is the point about chattering on about the past? You know the answer. But you are afraid. You do not want the past to be forgotten. The air in your office feels stuffy, your throat is tight and dry from talking and your shoulders are slumped. Tomorrow. You will tell them the rest tomorrow. You will say goodbye properly then. You will tell them how much you love them and how much you wish you could hold them.

You decide to go for a walk; a long one, even when you know you shouldn’t. You are surprised at how normal everything looks. At how the wind rustles the trees and sends the grass shivering. At how dogs are unafraid to approach you. You see a man flying a kite that is harnessed to his waist. You watch him for a long while, see how the kite bends and twists, dancing in the air and how the man pulls and strains and desperately spins to keep it airborne. As you walk, the sun begins to set. The sky turns gold. You lie down on the highest hill, ignoring the quiet complaining of your joints. You are so tired. As you lie there, you forget for a moment whether it is sunrise or sunset; whether there is a tomorrow or a yesterday. You thought you would hate the colour gold. Detest it. Despise it. But in this moment with your limbs heavy with liquid gold, the grass vainly pricking your skin and the wind stroking your hair, all you can think is that it’s warm.

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Cherries, Verity Oswin

Photo by Andriyko Podilnyk on Unsplash

The trees had been spatchcocked (a violent act) against the trellis.
A wind broken with salt set the orchard a-hum.
The cherries fell plump, desultorily.
The baskets were lashed to our waists.

You were a treble clef— arms curled round the stave.
I was afraid of heights, men— the withered ends
of everything — I found you under a tree eating cherry money.
We were hungry— wanted flesh, sugar— red.

Did I say it was Tasmania, 1996? Did I say we hitch-hiked, pitched
our tent on an oval? That the pegs slid deliciously into the green
island town called Snug? Anagram of sung you said, of guns I said.
You said palindrome— rolled your eyes all the way back in your head.

At noon we woke to the honey thwack of the bat against leather cherry
bruised by those south Tasmanian boys, all clean and white, striped
against the grass peppermint morning, peered out of the flap; middle of the match
cheeks still glazed from the sticky gaze of the miners the night before.

We really were only nineteen.
We really did spend the summer picking cherries.
It turned out our twenties would be like the cherries—
splendid, unapologetic, strung on a wire.

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Swan Lake, Swarna Pinto

Photo by Andrew Reshetov on Unsplash

If you keep walking west along the Woodend Road, passing newly built double story houses with double garages and flower pots at the front, you will come to Blue Gum Tree Lake Reserve without noticing my house. It is the last house on the street and is hidden behind large weeping willows. Overgrown apple, plum and apricot trees surround my house. It is a weatherboard with curly peels of white paint hanging onto timber slats. My front and back yards are big and get overgrown with weeds and grass until a council gardener turns up. My old Holden Sunbird, covered in dust, sits on the driveway.

I like to sit on the porch at dusk to watch people coming back from walks in the reserve or picnics near the lake and to hear them talking. Sometimes I hear them talking about me. You know there’s an old woman who lives there all alone. Gives me the creeps. I like my solitary existence and I like my house. The best thing about my place is that I can see swans gliding on the lake from the backyard. Before coming here, I lived in a few different places with different people. Now they are all but fading memories except for my memories of Sasha and Jana.

*

I met Jana when I was a scholarship student in Soviet Russia. My university was in Astrakhan, a city by the Volga River in southern Russia. I lived on campus in Hostel Number 7. After classes, I hung out with three other girls from my tutorial group–Jana, Anu and Meena–who came from Sri Lanka like me. Jana had a boyfriend in Sri Lanka who wrote long letters to her. He was called Saman. Anu, Meena and Jana were classy and beautiful. Jana was the most beautiful. I was plain and awkward. My left hand was useless. It hung limp. It had been like that since I was about ten, after I fell off my bicycle while trying no-hands down a steep slope.

All three of them went out a lot and usually missed morning lectures. Jana even missed tutorials. But it didn’t get them in trouble because I let them copy my lecture notes. I let Jana copy my assignments.

We liked to talk about boys. We all agreed that Sasha was the cutest. We saw him at morning math lectures. He came in at the last moment and hurried out just as the lecture finished. He sat in the back row where guys usually sat, but two or three seats away from them. Jana was very keen on Sasha although she was dating Arun, a mature PhD student from India who looked like a movie star. She also had Saman waiting for her back in Sri Lanka.

Once, Jana said that Sasha looked like a Greek god.

‘He’s not Greek, he’s Russian,’ I blurted out.

The moment those words went out of my mouth, I knew I had made a big mistake. Jana rolled her eyes.

‘What does it matter to you?’

She left the rest to hang in the air: you who are ugly.

Jana was like that. She would hurt me but later would make it up to me.

A week or so prior, Jana asked Meena and Anu if they wanted to go to a party on Saturday. Both declined as they had dates.

‘I’ll come,’ I piped up.

‘You can’t dance. I’ll ask Oumou, she’s terrific.’

Two days later Jana followed me into the stolovaya. She put her tray on my table and sat across me. I finished eating my lunch and got up.

‘Sit down and eat this. Please.’ She pushed a plate with two pieces of cake towards me. By the time we were descending the stairs, I was laughing with her. She stroked my hair and said she wished her hair was smooth like mine.

‘Have you done your Chemistry yet?’ I asked, knowing that she had not. Then I let her copy my assignment.

But when Jana implied that I was not worthy even to talk about Sasha, I detested her. I liked Sasha very much and felt that he liked me as well. At the lectures, I would feel a thrilling tingle on my nape, encouraging me to turn around. Sasha would smile and my heart would leap, shooting an exciting warmth inside my whole body. I was sure that he was going to talk to me soon. Then Jana came to a morning lecture.

After the break that morning, Sasha did not return to his seat. I was secretly happy because I knew that Jana came to strike up a conversation with him. Jana fidgeted beside me for a while, then abruptly went out. I thought she was going back to catch up on her sleep.

The next day in math class Jana was glowing. She told us how she had met Sasha in the stolovaya the previous morning. While Sasha ate his kasha, Jana had sipped a hot chocolate. Then they had gone out for a walk along the Volga. It had been cold and Sasha had draped his jacket over Jana. He had bought hot savoury piroshkies from a roadside vendor to eat while walking.

‘Did he kiss you?’ Meena asked.

Anu squealed, ‘She’s blushing.’ Then she whispered, ‘Arun will kill you’.

‘He doesn’t need to know.’

Meena said that they made a smashing couple and Anu agreed. They said the same thing when Jana hitched up with Arun.

‘Congrats,’ I heard myself say in a strange voice.

Jana wouldn’t stop talking about Sasha. I tried to switch off but heard that they were going to the movies that night.

‘You should find somebody and have some fun,’ Jana advised me, while pointedly looking at my limp and useless left hand.

Meena and Anu looked at me and then at each other.

‘She likes Sasha,’ Jana explained. ‘Haven’t you two seen how she turns back in class to look at him every five minutes?’

Then she looked straight at me.

‘Sasha is mine.’

I did not hear anything after that. At the end of the class Jana wanted to talk to me. I ignored her and gathered my books.

‘Are you upset over Sasha?’

My pencil case slipped and landed near Jana’s feet. I thought she would pick it up for me as I was holding books with my right hand.

‘Are you?’ Jana insisted.

I placed my books back on the desk and bent down to get my pencil case.

‘Pathetic. He knows about you.’

I picked up my pencil case and rushed to my hostel.

Pathetic? Sasha knows about me? Am I pathetic? Did everyone think I was pathetic? How could Jana hurt me like that just after copying my math assignment? I decided not to let her do this to me anymore.

I remember coming into my room and wishing there was somewhere I could go, for Jana was sure to come and see me as she always did on her date nights. She would chassé into my room ostensibly to check her make up in my mirror but in fact to show off and to hear my compliments. After she left, her perfume would linger and torture me well into the night.

I threw my books on my bed and went out. I walked on Tatisheva Street, turning my back on the direction to the cinema and Volga. I pictured Jana and Sasha walking: Jana on Sasha’s arm, the way Russian couples walked. Jana would be leaning on Sasha. He would bend his blond head and kiss her glossy lipsticked mouth.

A sudden rush of warm air threw me backwards and I landed on my useless left hand. A goods train thundered past me. My heart pounded. Two more steps and that train would have killed me.

Tears came unbidden as I lay there. I cried until I was spent. Then I got up and looked around. I knew that the station was only a half an hour walk from my hostel, but I did not know which way the station was. The railway line disappeared into birch trees in both directions. If I walked the wrong way I would be lost and frozen to death.

It was getting dark and the cold was seeping right into my bones. My wristwatch had stopped at 2.30, the time the math class had finished. I guessed it was around six by then.

I started walking along the railway, making sure to keep a few feet distance. If I didn’t see any lights in about half an hour, I would turn back and walk the opposite way. I was thinking whether to go further or to turn back when I heard a bird flapping its wings above me. I shivered as a huge dark shape disappeared into the night. It’s only a bat, I told myself. A sliver of a pale moon peeked from behind grey clouds calming me a little. I kept walking. Under my boots and gloves my feet and my fingers were numb from cold.

A dog howled from somewhere far away. It was a mournful howl. My teeth chattered when I spotted two yellow eyes in the distance. The eyes belonged to an animal much bigger than a dog. It advanced, keeping its gleaming yellow eyes trained on me. It was a wolf. Quickly, I hid behind the closest tree. The wolf came closer but stopped about ten yards away from me.

It bent its head and sniffed at something on the ground which looked like one of my gloves. I looked at my hands and saw that the left glove was missing.

Take it and go. But it left my glove and continued to come towards me. Could it hear my teeth chattering and my heart thumping? I closed my eyes and clamped my teeth together and stayed rigid despite the shivering. The wolf padded around my tree and stopped right behind me. Prey in sight, it was waiting for me to make the first move.

I don’t know how long I had stayed that way when I felt a tingle on my nape and heard a familiar voice say, ‘Priviet.’ (Hello.)

I spun around.

‘Sasha?’

‘Vsio normalna?’ (Everything okay?) he asked.

I whimpered, ‘There’s a wolf.’

‘Mmm?’ Sasha looked around. ‘I don’t see a wolf.’

‘Pashli,’ (Let’s go) he extended his hand.

He picked up my glove from the ground and put it on gently. Then he placed my left hand on the crook of his right elbow and covered my hand with his other one. We started walking and Sasha suggested crossing Swan Lake.

He wanted to know what I was doing back there. I asked him where Jana was.

‘You must answer me first.’

As I struggled to compose myself, Sasha looked into my eyes with such tenderness I burst into tears. He let me cry on his shoulder. When I became quiet, he asked again.

‘To watch trains.’

‘Very funny. That’s a decommissioned line.’

I shivered uncontrollably and Sasha removed his winter coat and draped it over me. He would take me to his Babushka’s house to warm me up.

It was then I told Sasha about Jana’s hurtful remarks. I said that she had just finished copying my math assignment when she said those things.

‘Forget Jana. You are very sweet and very intelligent.’

Swan Lake was gleaming white right in front of us. Sasha glided around the lake holding me tightly to his warm body. The moon was out and stars twinkled in the dark purple sky. He sang a Russian folk song, Moscow Nights, in a beautiful baritone.

The wind picked up as we approached his Babushka’s house. It was an old weatherboard and stood among a few bare trees. There were no other houses near it. From the moonlight that fell on it I saw that the windows were boarded up. We climbed some wooden steps and Sasha opened the front door with his key. He then scooped me up and carried me into the lounge, while floorboards creaked all the way. He placed me gently on a sofa in front of an old log fire place and adjusted his coat over me. I saw cobwebs hanging from the ceiling and from framed portraits on the walls. In no time Sasha built a roaring fire. I felt deliciously warm and drowsy.

‘Ona budet v poryadke,’ I heard somebody saying from far away. I wanted to ask who was going to be fine but I could not talk. I could not even see who was talking. I knew I was sleeping, but had no idea where I was.

They said I was found lying on a bench near my hostel on a very cold morning. The temperature had been five degrees below zero during the night. I was barely breathing and they had rushed me to the hospital. I had been very ill for over two weeks.

‘I don’t know what happened,’ I told everyone who asked me, although I clearly remembered the night with Sasha. Anu and Meena came one morning to take me back to the hostel. I didn’t ask after Jana.

I was not allowed to go to classes for another two weeks and I mostly slept. A nurse from the campus Medpunkt visited me daily. She massaged my left hand which was coming to life. One afternoon the Faculty Dean came to see me. He questioned me about the night I was found on a bench.

‘I went for a walk up to the station and got lost. I don’t know how I ended up on a bench.’

‘Jana was with you that night?’

‘No.’

Then he said that Jana hadn’t been seen since the day I was found on the bench. I lifted my eyebrows and kept quiet. But when he said that Jana had been sighted near Swan Lake an audible gasp escaped from me. He looked straight at me as he continued talking in his measured tone.

‘On that night, the ice on the lake would have cracked even if a small child were to step on it.’
He stayed a few more minutes, telling me how to catch up with the lessons.

‘Don’t worry. We’ll find her.’

*

The next day my nurse had found me in a delirium. This time I stayed much longer in another hospital. More than a year had passed by the time I could attend classes.

The first thing I did was walk to Swan Lake. The morning was bright and crisp, the sun reflecting off the pure white snow. My boots made soft crunch … crunch …noises as they made imprints in the snow. The lake was a flat white sheet. Swans had already migrated to the other side of the world as they did each year. For a while I watched people skating on the lake. It was snowing when I walked back and my footprints disappeared under the falling snow.

I decided to immigrate. I would go wherever and do whatever. I applied to UK, Canada and Australia. Australia replied and within six months I was in Melbourne. Once in Melbourne I could not find a research position and ended up becoming a cleaner. I cleaned up other people’s messes. I learned to clean mine.

Now that I have all the time in the world to think, conflicting thoughts swirl in my mind. I know that I was very ill in Astrakhan all those years ago. I also know that severe hypothermia can cause hallucinations and confusion. But I would like to assure you that my night with Sasha, the most beautiful night I have ever had, was real.

I left Astrakhan and went to Moscow to forget Jana and Sasha. Then I came here to Melbourne for the same reason. I wanted to forget the past. But the mind is a tricky thing. It keeps all the memories I have wanted to forget. And I am glad to have those memories intact. That’s all I have now.

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The Migrant, Pooja Biswas

I know these silences of which you speak.
they emerge as if from a womb, and recede into the spaces
behind your eyes (concave; green-lit), spaces you do not recognise
for strangers have trampled upon them
& long since left their marks.

I know these silences of which you speak.
they curl, quiet animals, beneath the dusk of noonday automobiles
& sheltering hands: heat-softened, quiescent, in untroubled sleep.
no voices wake them, nor thoughts disturb
as the hours pass darkly by, distant as marching feet.

I know these silences of which you speak.
restive as the untilled earth, heavy as the unborn, pale
as the unwritten. upon the stone & hew of plough & sickle,
between the creases of callused hands, these silences
coagulate, stubborn as old sweat or new blood.

I know these silences of which you speak.
the silences of crowds, of bees, in which no single speech
can be discerned; the silences of foreign streets, an exile’s dreams.
the rush & turn of wheels & wind, of dust & departing things,
the subtle loss of passing by, of passing on, becoming history.

I know these silences of which you speak.

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Mornings with Doves, Judith Mendoza-White

When José María opened his eyes to the new morning, he knew this would not be an ordinary day. Apprehension tightened his eyelids as he snoozed the alarm, struggling to face the dim light of the early autumn sun and dismiss the irrational foreboding that kept him curled up under the blankets.

The ominous feeling tightened the pit of his stomach into a knot while he stood in the shower, lathering his body with soap and water to wash away the vague sensation of discomfort and fear. The dream came back to him with the sudden sting of the after-shave lotion: a dark, uncanny dream, as real as the water running down the sink. A dream in which he, José María, knew he was dead.

During breakfast, he tuned in to loud music on the radio and chatted to his wife and daughter, who were getting ready for work and school and only contributed absent-minded answers to his incessant, unusual small talk.  Eventually, alone with his thoughts in the overcrowded suburban train, he was forced to face the idea. He knew this was the last day of his life. The feeling, which had started as a mere aftertaste of last night’s dream, had now become an absolute certainty.

He walked the first of the three blocks that separated the underground stop from the insurance company where he worked, but stopped before reaching the busy intersection ahead. It was stupid to continue plodding along the noisy downtown street as if this was yet another ordinary weekday, avoiding the hurried passers-by who elbowed their way past him, the offending odour from last night’s garbage bins climbing to his nostrils. Wasting the last day of his life in front of the paper-crowded desk, just like every weekday of the last twenty-five years, would be even more absurd.

Retracing his steps, he turned the corner and walked to the nearby park where he often ate his lunch on warm, sunny days like this.  In what felt like a split second he found himself sitting on a sunny park bench, a large pot of chocolate ice-cream on his lap. Half a dozen doves cooed and picked at the gravel around him. José María stared at the half-eaten ice-cream. He did not remember buying it; it might as well have materialised in his hands by magic. The eerie sensation increased. How did he even get to this park? It did not look at all like the one where he usually sat during lunch breaks away from the office.

This dream has been playing up with my head, he concluded. With a sigh of exasperation, he pushed the ice-cream carton away.

He felt unusually tired. Leaning back on the bench, he thought of his wife and daughter. If this was indeed the last day of his life, shouldn’t he be spending these last hours in their company? Cecilia was doing a Math test that morning; she had mentioned it during breakfast. He imagined her eagerly jotting down figures at the school desk, the unbecoming uniform creased, her thick brown hair tied back in the usual careless ponytail. He smiled at the vision, which appeared so vivid that his fingers moved as if he could reach his daughter’s worried frown. At this point his daughter looked up and smiled at him, as if she could feel his eyes on her.

The image soon faded, and José María stretched his legs under the warm autumn sun that bathed the park, empty and still at that early morning hour. With a start he realised someone else was sitting at the opposite side of the bench.

‘Rodríguez?’ José María gasped, ‘Rodríguez, from General Villegas High School?’

The newly arrived nodded and smiled. The world was indeed a small place; what with running into an old high school friend in a small hidden park, lost in the hustle of downtown Buenos Aires. He had not seen his classmate, or thought of him, since the day his family moved away from the small country town almost thirty years ago. As he went to say this out loud, Rodríguez opened his briefcase and took out a crumpled paper; a page torn out of a school copybook. It was an unusual briefcase; it reminded José María of the school bags they both used to take to class. Rodriguez pointed at the figures on the paper.

‘The Math exam, do you remember? We both failed, like your daughter Cecilia’.

Irritated, José María thought that Rodríguez could not possibly know his daughter’s name, even less the result of the test she’d be doing this very minute. He went to say this, but instead heard himself telling his old school friend about last night’s dream.

Rodriguez listened in silence and then replied in a calm, matter-of-fact tone: ‘We are brought up in the fear of death; that’s the problem. Yet it is nothing but another form of life. A crossing… A transition, that’s all.’

A white dove fluttered its wings over José María’s shoulders, distracting him from the conversation. He threw his arms up in the air to scare it away. When he turned to his school friend, he found that he had left without a word of goodbye.

Shaking his head at Rodriguez’s lack of manners, José María thought that since the bench was now empty, he might as well lie down for a while and enjoy the sun before starting the walk home; perhaps even put a hint of tan on his white-collar, middle-aged skin.

When he tried to lie down though, he found the park bench was no longer a bench but a narrow, uncomfortable bed. No, it was a stretcher, a hospital stretcher; and the doves around him had turned into men and women dressed in white who leaned over him, placed weird gadgets on his mouth and his bare chest.  His wife’s teary face flashed amongst the others; José María tried to call her name, but the words refused to leave his dry, sandy throat. Cecilia stormed in, still wearing the ugly dark-green uniform. She pushed her way through the figures clad in white that surrounded him, trying to reach him, her voice breaking into sobs.

‘Dad! Daddy!’

Her mother put her arms around Cecilia, pulled her away from the scene. A sudden pain, sharp as the tip of a knife, stabbed José María’s chest as the voices and the faces around him faded in the distance.

He opened his eyes to Rodríguez’s soothing voice in his ears.

‘Nothing wrong with a good cry, my friend.’ Rodríguez’s hands were on his shoulders; an incorporeal, yet comforting gesture. ‘I used to cry my eyes out as well; at the beginning, that is. You miss them all so much, it’s only natural to see them in your dreams. You’ll get used to it soon enough, though. Sooner or later they’ll all cross the border and end up here, anyway. It’s only a matter of time. And time on this side, let me tell you, goes by real fast…’

Wiping away his tears, José María looked into Rodríguez’s eyes. They were the same eyes that used to smile at him in class, decades ago. It was then he realised he was staring at Rodríguez’s teenage face; smooth, unlined, unchanged.

Leaning back on the park bench, José María closed his eyes and allowed the white doves and the new knowledge to descend upon him. In this way he learned, while his eyes dried out and the last tears disappeared down his throat, that the dead dream too.

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The Memory, Melissa Farrell

I have this early memory of my mother. We’re in the house where we lived for a couple of months before we moved to Italy, while my father was in Naples organising our new home. I must have been two years old because I turned three soon after we moved. This memory is like looking through a lens that won’t quite focus. I’m sitting on a blanket. There is some sort of pattern to it, but I can’t quite make out the detail. A collection of soft toys lies beside me. One might be a rabbit. I’m looking out through the bars of a wooden cot. My mother and a man. Sitting close together on a couch. Murmurs that don’t take quite take the shape of words. My mother stands. Leans down and kisses my forehead. Then she and the man disappear down a set of stairs into a darkness below. That’s it. That’s the memory.

We were in Italy for three years. My father had an engineering contract in Naples. I have some memories from our time there but they’re of moments lying outside the context of the larger world: sipping a sour orange soft drink from a thick glass bottle, riding in the back of a car through honking traffic, walking through an endless space while clutching my father’s hand as we gaze at paintings on the walls.

My sister, Anna, was born in Italy. She was born several months after we arrived. She was a chubby white baby who our Italian nanny would bath outside in a big wooden barrel. The nanny’s name was Giulia and she could only speak a few words in English. She taught me to speak Italian. I’ve forgotten the language over the years since we returned to Australia, having nobody to speak Italian with. I can remember stories Giulia told me, long stories about strange creatures who lived in magical forests. She must have told me these stories in Italian, but I remember them in English.

We have photographs from our time in Italy. Black and white ones. There are lots of my sister and me. Even in tones of black and white you can see my olive skin, inherited from our father’s side of the family and further deepened by the southern Italian sun, in contrast to my sister’s pale skin that would turn red but never seemed to hold a tan.

I watch now as my sister passes her new son to our father. Our mother stands by his side. I can smell the brandy in the morning coffee she holds tightly. He carefully takes the baby and leans down to kiss him on the forehead. The baby has my sister’s pale skin and a soft white fuzz on top of his head. My sister’s smile is wide as she watches our father with his first grandchild. I pull out my phone and take some photographs. It’s time to create new memories.

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Empty Shells, Lani Watt

When I was a kid, I remember my Grandma taking me for a walk along the beach. It was a day just like this: scorching hot sun prickling my skin like needles; the humidity encouraging the sweat to plaster my shirt to my back. But the sea breeze was heaven. And the water lapping over my feet as I walked the shore reminded me why the beach was the best place to be at that very moment.

I was a bit of a rough nut, as everyone liked to tell me. Shells were being tossed haphazardly into the basket Grandma used to keep her sewing threads in, sand littering over the top of them. ‘Why?’ was my favourite question at that age. I wouldn’t learn until I was growing up myself just how annoying that could be. Patience of a saint, Grandma had.

‘Grandma, where do shells come from?’

‘They come from the sea,’ Grandma explained as she handed me one that I had decided was a pretty cool looking one. Aqua-blue, shiny, clean. It didn’t immediately go into the basket with the others.

‘Why?’ I shot back, studying the shell.

‘Maybe they’re the souls of the beautiful people who passed away when they’re no longer with us. It’s a lovely view for them don’t you think, darling? Perhaps this is why we feel compelled to collect some and not others. They’re the souls we’ll always stay connected to,’ Grandma mused. I still remember the knowing smile she gave me then.

That was when I started to gather the shells out of the basket and put them back in the sand, carefully, with the opening facing out to the water. I kept that one cool shell she gave me.

‘What are you doing, sweetheart?’ Grandma asked.

‘I don’t want to take someone else’s friend home.’

Some things as you grow up just stick with you. I remember looking back over the beach from the direction we came, seeing hundreds of shells littered all over the place. It was nice to think about, even back then. But now, since I lost you, I keep coming back here.

I’ve been sitting here yet again looking at the beach. I keep getting drawn back here. This was our place. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to come here to feel like you’re still with me. But today is the first day I have ever sat right down beside an empty shell that is almost identical to the aqua-blue one I kept way back when. Your favourite colour.

Now I’m older, I don’t know if I truly believe Grandma’s sweet musings of the world and the beauty of the relationship between shells and the beach. What if they’re really not empty shells? I can’t leave this one here, I have to take it with me. Just in case.

For some reason, today it feels easier to turn away from the water and walk away without looking back.

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>Delete File: Y/N?, Sheriden Goldie

Silver pulls the eyepatch away from her left eye. Her fingers press the skin around the metal protrusions, unable to rub in case her skin should pull away from the edges. She closes her one eye, stretches and feels the slight grind in her shoulders. Metal plates and screws pop over each other. She returns to the screen. Silver aligns her aug-eye’s interface over the display’s and selects ‘upload.’

Feeling behind her ear, Silver slides the memory card out of its slot. The patch of synthetic skin hangs loose, and she imagines she can feel the cool air touching a circuit. All phantom feeling, but she shivers anyway. The frame of the screen has a glowing port that she presses the card into. It zips closed, the download of data starts ticking over at the bottom of the screen. She cracks the plastic seal of a new memory card, and slots it in, pressing the synthetic skin back into place. There is a faint buzz and hiss, as the internal vacuum seals the opening.

A blue icon flashes at the edge of the screen. Silver taps the glass table top, and it opens. Mei’s avatar smiles from the corner of the message box.

Mei: You heading home yet or what?

Silver smiles, without parting her lips. Her fingers draw a circle on the table top, and a keyboard illuminates. Silver types.

Silver: Changing over memory cards, just waiting for the download to finish.

Mei replies with a thumbs up.

A second blue icon flashes. Silver frowns, tapping it open.

Rosalie: Has sent you a parcel.

Rosalie: Wish you were here…

Silver aligns her internal interface.

>Open parcel

>Data received

>Image file received.

>View now? Y/N

The image unfolds, spreading across her screen. Silver feels the lower edge of her eye quiver. The city sprawls behind Rosalie, hugging the base of the mountain. She is standing with her back to the camera, but her head is turned, the sunlight catching red hair and haloing her face. The tear falls hot and quick, and Silver’s hand darts out to catch it.

 

*

 

The phone vibrates on the table. The sound interrupts snores from under the blanket. Silver’s arm reaches for it. Long fingers catch an edge, spinning the phone away. She caterpillars to the edge of the bed, picking up the phone. It’s buzzing stops.

‘Hello?’ she says. Her aug-eye boots.

>Interface activating

>Date: 2567.05.07

>Time: 08:37

>Ready for input

She feels the buzzing through the base of her skull.

‘No, I’m in bed still, it’s my day off remember?’ Her sandpaper voice bounces off the walls. She sits up, swinging heavy legs over the edge of the bed. The blanket slides away, half onto the floor. She doesn’t pick it up.

‘What do you need me to come in for?’ Her fingers trace figure eights around her eyes, sweeping the sleepiness away. She presses her feet into the carpet. The blinds begin to rise as her augmented interface systems boot up. The sunlight creeps up the wall slowly. Silver mutters into the phone. She goes to the alcove that serves as a kitchenette. The coffee machine sputters.

‘Sorry, say that again… Couldn’t hear you…’ The coffee mug trembles in her hand.

>Biometric warning: Breathing – Erratic. Pulse – Increasing. Blood Pressure – Falling.

‘Do you know’ she pauses, waiting for the voice on the other end to finish. ‘Yes, of course, I’ll come in straight away.’

>Biometric systems: Increase fluid intake. Regulate breathing. Sit down.

Silver’s hand still trembles as the coffee drips into the mug. She focuses on the rhythm of her breath: inhale, exhale, repeat. The coffee burns her tongue, and the feeling of lightness behind her eyes begins to fade slowly.

 

Standing outside the precinct, Silver watches the passing traffic. Her aug-eye boxes and tracks the cacophony of movement. Her other eye is bloodshot. Silver slides up the optic cover and wipes the moisture away with an unsteady hand. The cover hides her tears from the other agents inside. She is glad of that. She slides the cover down. The ache in her stomach won’t let up. Her hands tremble, so she pushes them into her pockets. A dark car rolls to a stop.

The last time she had seen Rosalie, outside the hospice, they had fought Rosalie ripped a branch off a Japanese Maple and lunged wildly at Sliver. Stabbing for her face, neck, eyes. She had screamed to turn it off the whole time. The nurses pulled Rosalie away with sad nods. They saw this all the time. They left Silver standing in the garden until a dark car had driven her away. The branch of the Japanese Maple remained cast aside on the manicured lawn.

Silver is drawn back to the present as the car door swings open. Silver realizes it is now dark blue, not the black one she remembered.

‘Sil, is it true?’ Donna’s impeccably coiffed hair, chemically set into a wave, has a distinctly greyer tint than the last time Silver had seen it. Donna’s arms wrap around Silver’s shoulders. At the touch, Silver suddenly feels cold, but her biometrics remain stable.

‘They wouldn’t let me see her…’ She says. Silver’s eye fills with tears, seeping under the edge of the cover. Donna squeezes her shoulders and they walk inside.

 

The room is clean, but the walls were the sort of beige that reminds Silver of stained sheets. Donna sits next to her; a tissue box placed in front of her. Silver plucks one out and holds it under her eye.

‘She hasn’t called home for weeks,’ says Donna, speaking to some other unseen entity.

‘When was the last time you saw her?’ Silver asks.

‘Around June,’ says Donna. Silver waits for her to continue. ‘She came home for a while; continued her treatment remotely. She struggled. We struggled. She asked us not to visit anymore when she went back in.’ Her voice wavers.

‘She sent me a photo,’ says Silver, ‘yesterday. She was standing on a lookout.’

‘That must have been from when she came home. We tried to take her out, get her to see beauty again.’

Silver examines the table top in minute detail.

>Composition: Wood veneer. Polychip filler. Recycled metal frame.

>Structural integrity: 98%

>Projected product lifespan: 150 years

The swirls in the veneer are suddenly shadowed.

‘I’m sorry for your loss.’ Silver looks up at her boss. He is looking back at her, his aug-eye shifting in spirals. He sits in front of Donna, and starts to deliver the speech Silver had heard so many times before, but never from this side of the table. She doesn’t realise she is shaking until Donna touches her hand as they stand to leave. Her boss says, ‘I’ve approved your leave Sil, take some time to process this.’ She mouths words. A waved hand silences her protest.

She mouths words. A waved hand silences her protest.

Outside the precinct, Donna and Silver stand together, waiting for Donna’s car to return.

‘We knew she would die. We expected a call from the hospice. Not this, never like this…’ Says Donna. Silver’s aug-eye boxes and traces the paths of the traffic. It keeps her mind busy, distracted. Donna keeps talking about Rosalie. The disease had eaten away at her body. Leaving her hollow. Her organs were removed bit by bit, replaced by wheezing machines, augmented substitutes, or not at all. Donna sighed, and Silver could feel the aching relief seeping out of her.

‘I’m still going to miss her,’ says Silver.

‘Of course,’ says Donna, ‘call anytime.’ Silver knew she wouldn’t.

 

*

 

The quilted foam of the Sync bed is velvety under Silver’s exposed shoulders. The visor slides down over her face. Her aug-eye syncs up, the optic cover projects scrolling text.

>Archive File Retrieval Commencing

>3…

>2…

>1…

 

There is a shimmer as the visor becomes opaque. Silver lets the screen blur in and out of focus. A wave of nausea passes over, as the images whirl, mixing her own internal interface with the memory bank construct. Vertigo passes as the image stabilises, adjusting to her focus range and muscle triggers.

Her eye watches the visor’s projections of the building’s mainframe through the patch. Her aug-eye follows the paths that light up across the screen. The data-streams of the different departments, all flashing in a disharmonious pattern. She focuses on the archives. Maybe I shouldn’t do this. But her mind is already queuing up the commands through her interface.

>Case File Search: Rosalie Flanagan

>Result: 1 File Found

>Unpacking File…

The report streams out, and Silver feels the bile rise in her throat. The images sear themselves in her brain. The crumpled dress around the withered body. A bare-branched sapling tossed amongst the wind. Chipped dollar-store nail polish, pale fingers, lying curled on the dark road. Silver shivers, and feels the velvet ribs of the bed press against her skin. Her biometrics trigger again.

The visual recording of the investigating agent fasts forwards at a flickering pace. It flashes through the day. Silver lets it run while she reads the coroner’s report.

Cause of death: Asphyxiation

Time of death: 01:35 am

Notes: Victim was pedestrian. Brain chemistry suggests unstable mental state.

The video stream shivers and she is watching the road through a windshield. It skips past the sprawl, through the suburbs, into a driveway, a house. Silver watches the flickering lights of home, children, wife. It keeps all of it, every recording, every minute… The thought runs through her head, repeating. Since the install, since logging the cards…

Her mind is wandering, under watchful sensors, and she finds her own files scrolling across the visor. I shouldn’t. But she lets her mind reach. The data file opens, softly, like petals to the sun. Her rookie days. She was leaving work early. The video skips through and then there she is. Rosalie. Sun-kissed and carrying the rabbit bag she loved. Silver had called it childish, but the nurses had encouraged Rosalie to keep it. We were going to the movies, she thinks, recalling the feeling of Rosalie’s hand pulling her along. They had been happy that day.

Silver felt the edges of the memory caving in, could feel the archive recording, absorbing her feedback. A message rolls across the screen,

>Time to jack out.

She folds the soft edges back in, packing the happy face of Rosalie like an origami crane. Silver tags the memory, filing it away in the archive. She begins to withdraw, mentally pulling away. The archive fades out across the visor. She surfaces, taking a deep breath, the recirculated air tastes metallic at the back of her throat.

‘That was a serious dive, Sil,’ says Mei.

Silver slides the visor away from her face. She ignores Mei standing over the bed and goes to the coffee machine. ‘Keep going like that and you’ll begin to corrupt your memory files, you know?’ Mei’s voice echoes around the archive room. Silver focuses on the dark stream of coffee dribbling into the cup.

‘Mei, has anyone ever deleted their own files?’

‘Sure, sometimes. But you can only delete the parts that aren’t relevant to cases, so they have to be screened before deletion, get all the approvals, you know.’ Mei leans against the edge of the sync bed, arms crossed, while Silver nods her head.

‘Do the file deletions affect the brain  you know, the sync?’

‘Yeah, so we’ve heard, it’s not supposed to.’

‘But…’

‘But people delete files, then in about a month – gone. Completely un-retrievable.’

‘Completely?’

‘Yeah, we tested a group of agents. Zero memory bleeds after deletion. And no memories for them to corrupt.’

Silver picks up the coffee and sips. The steam warms her face, and she can feel the place where her cheek is damp. She wipes away the tear, smearing the sheen across her cheek.

Mei sighs, ‘If you changed both eyes, you wouldn’t have this problem.’

 

*

 

The city sprawls around the base of the mountain. Silver stands, leaning against the railing of the lookout. The sun has dipped below the horizon, and the light haze of the city is growing. A network of nodes, flashing lights, towers, and hubs. Silver’s eye adjusts to the light differential in increments. She feels the cool metal of the railing through her shirt. Here in the quiet stillness, she can feel the miniscule vibrations of her aug-eye. She traces a finger along the ridges of metal framework, all plugged in under the skin. She stares into the valley below. The wind that slides down the mountainside rustles the treetops. The optic processor in her aug-eye works overtime.

I can delete it all. I can forget. If I delete, delete… Rosalie.

>Opening data file…

The ellipses flash in sequence. Opening, unpacking, synthesising. Silver waits, her legs swinging back and forth.

>Files ready for review

A message pops up; Silver had to remain linked to the agency network to access the memory files.

Mei: You can just skim through them you know, then authorise the deletion.

Silver: Thanks, I’ll think about it.

Mei: No one would think badly of you, heaps of people do it, you know…

Silver: I’ll let you know.

Mei: No problem, talk later.

>Open files Y/N?

Silver slides down her optic cover, fixing it over her organic eye. The data begins to unpack, lining up in sequence. She picks one in the middle.

She is staring at Rosalie. The memory’s sense-net begins to overlay and dampen her physical senses. The cold air from the open window raises goosebumps on her skin. Rosalie’s eyes are bloodshot, and there is a dribble of clear mucus under her nose.

‘I hate it!’ she says, ‘why did they do that to you?’ she is running her hands up into her hair. The rise of her jumper exposing the pale belt of skin under the navel. ‘I can’t be here! Not with… that!’

Silver’s own voice cuts through, ‘I had to get the augmentation to move into the force, it wasn’t exactly negotiable!’

Hacking sobs follow. Silver remembers the anger, the heat in her chest. The sense-net enflames her cheeks.

‘I don’t want that!’ Her voice choked around the hacking sobs rising from her chest. She paced, gnawing at her fingertips. ‘What is that? I don’t know if it’s even you anymore!’

‘Of course, it’s me,’ says Silver, the feeling of her stomach falling away bled into her voice.

‘But who else is in there, Sil?’

Rosalie walked across the room. Her hands grabbed Silver’s face. Rosalie put her face close, eyes darting back and forth. Frantic. Searching. Silver slipped a hand up and slid up the optic cover.

‘It’s still me, Rose,’ she said, softly.

‘No, that’s not what I meant…’ More sniffs.

Silver feels the tear. Is that mine or the sense-net? She stops the playback. The overlay of senses lessens, but the tear still rolls down.

She remembers how that argument ended.

They had lain together, for hours, curled close. Silver shut down the aug-eye interface and Rosalie traced figure eights around her eyes. Rosalie had learnt not to press too hard. Skin split from the protrusions bled for days.

Silver felt the tingle in her cheeks as the memory faded out of her vision. It would take all of it. She thinks. It would take all of her part of me away. Her lips are dry, and she licks them, feeling the numbness in her gums, the tightness in her throat. She wonders if Mei is still monitoring her.

 

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The Answer To That, Sir, Is Nothing, Georgia Buley

There’s a matchbook, in case I want to set myself alight.

It didn’t happen yesterday, nor the day before—

My cheeks were wet so the sparks can’t catch—

But one day. Maybe.

 

          But there is no lighter.

It’s the only bright light in this sea of addictions;

I’ve never sought to taste death on my lips

And blow it back through my teeth.

I’d celebrate if I could breathe deeply enough on my own.

I can’t blame the catch on smoke.

 

          There’s a tiny little turtle that snaps and begs at my skin

And reminds me with frozen beats that I’m not who I say I am—

Not who I write I am.

I take the turtle out and paint him gold

But it always rubs off in the light.

 

          There are pins and needles in my fingers

Where the feeling’s gone and the cold creeps in.

It doesn’t get past my knuckles or up into my wrists—

My heart beats too strongly with that warm warm blood—

But one day. Maybe.

 

          There’s a whistle that screams brightly into the night.

Sometimes I think it’s broken—

Last time I tried to use it, it didn’t work—

It deafened me as it shrieked

But not a soul came running. (Someone told me since that I probably should have shouted ‘Fire’.)

I like to hope that lightning can’t strike twice, but it could happen.

One day. Maybe.

 

          There’s a model of a train

For no reason other than I like to turn the tiny wheels with my fingers

To keep them from flying around another’s neck.

There is a chess piece with its tiny head torn off

With sword and shield prepared for the battle that doesn’t come

With soulful hands carved in prayer to the unfeeling marble.

He comes from the battle of Troy. He comes from the losing team—

A pawn in a game gone way over his little head.

(Wherever it’s gone.)

 

          There are some coins—

Not enough for anything worth buying, mind.

A ten cent piece coated in grime

A silver dollar with an American eagle

A twenty that had been run over by a train

Dali’s clock-shaped, her Majesty’s great visage melted in a gory rendition of The Wizard of Oz.

 

          I like to think my insecurities take the form of hedgehogs

Who prickle and growl and stick out their tongues

And hobble along in their own little way.

They snuffle at the skin of my thighs from inside.

I keep them on hand at all times, ready to bring to the light at a moment’s notice.

It doesn’t do to ignore them for so long: they can go feral—

At least this way I’ve got them under rein.

Maybe.

 

          There’s a heart all wrapped up in butcher’s paper.

It’s leaking out the sides, some thin warm thing that still beats angrily on my thighs.

I touch it sometimes, but it’s too hot to hold;

I can feel it beat against my skin like oceans.

 

          There is a pen. There is always a pen. I find it harder to write on paper.

(Maybe there’s an element of sadism in that.)

The ease of keys under fingertips dulls my sense of the page

I crumple more sheets than I can afford to buy

Notebooks fall into the trash filled with meaningless scribbles across the margins

(And sometimes I ask myself, aren’t they all meaningless scribbles?)

But there’s something of value to them if I demand there to be.

 

          I type my thoughts out into an online void, and I’m applauded by one hundred greyed-out faces.

None of them know anything of me. There’s no joy in this capitulation.

And it’s certain, now, that there’s almost nothing to the thoughts that run rampaging rhino through my mind.

But I write them down anyway, with little scraps I keep handy

And the pen.

Somewhere in there, there’s a ticket stub or five

Train tickets and musical tickets, coffee cards with four holes left to punch—

There’s no real regency in a temporary life.

Tissues long since turned to scraps, tumbled through time

And a vibrant scrap of fabric that once might have belonged to something beautiful—

Or someone.

 

          There are scars and chips and wrinkles all across my hands

Some are from accidents—

And some not.

If pure recklessness causes accidents, then perhaps it might tip the balance back

But it’s clear I’m not as clumsy as I appear.

 

          There’s a few photographs, too.

Not of anyone I know;

I find them in garage sales and fold up so tiny they fit onto one fingertip—

Creasing them makes them feel somehow more authentic—

So I remind myself that when I’m gone I’ll be more than aged sepia.

I’ll be almost more than that, at least.

 

          I draw my hands out and find them empty

Clutching at the banknote-crisp air like if by the reaching I could will it to appear.

And what?

Oh. Something. Anything.

 

          Someone once asked me what I keep in there

And I feign ignorance with those big ol’ baby blues flutterin’ like butterflies

‘What could you mean?’ I say.

‘What could you possibly mean?’

 

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Dasvidaniya, Claudia Frazer

I was taught to be brave. To hold my head up. To keep smiling. Some days it was hard, especially towards the end. My feet were tired from running, then walking, limping, then holding my aching body up and dragging it across the ground. The shawl I had stolen from a farming couple’s laundry along the way slipped from my shoulders, the rough material grazed my neck, tempting my fingers to lean back and scratch. Instead, as I half ran half staggered, my fingers combed through my now tangled red locks. With each step a fresh shot of pain raced up my leg. I walked until I couldn’t take the throbbing in my leg anymore, my breath coming out in staccato gasps as I gripped myself, mentally trying to overcome the pain of my escape.

Frantically looking to my left and my right then both behind and in front of me, even above and below in case someone was to crawl out from the ground or jump on top of me from one of the tall overhanging trees, I looked to see if I was followed. Pausing a moment I held my ragged breath so that I might listen for the tell-tale signs of an intruder. After a moment when there was no sound of foot fall I let out a tiny gasp of relief and hobbled over to some nearby shade. Collapsing beneath the entangled limbs of a giant tree, I leaned my head back and shut my eyes. Curling a small tendril of hair about my finger, I tried to process what had happened. Silent tears trundled down my cheeks as I fell into an uneven slumber.

*

‘Come quickly!’

The little girl gripped her mother’s hand, her red curls bouncing against her back as they followed after her four older siblings, her father and her younger brother. They continued to walk until they stood before a short older man whom introduced himself as Yakov Yurovsky.

Head held high, her father looked Yakov in the eyes as Yakov spat that, as the Tsar, her father was to be put on trial for his handling of the workers strike, now known as Bloody Sunday. The Bolsheviks wanted him to be present for his trial, but he was not permitted to wear any epaulettes, they would not give him that honour.

The older two girls gasped. The eldest, Tatiana, went to say something but was silenced by her father with a stare. The little girl bit her lip as she reached for her hair, tangling a single strand around her finger, she watched in silence as her father won the unspoken battle between himself and her older siblings.

‘I would ask that-’

‘You dare ask for anything?’ Yakov raged. ‘After everything you have done to this country! For Bloody Sunday. For the war! For listening to that snivelling svoloch, Rasputin! You have done enough for this once great nation.’ Motioning to the guards he demanded they take them from his sight.

*

Unable to fitfully sleep, I picked the lining on my dress. The thread barely giving as the dirt clumped the strands together, making it difficult to get to the tiny fragments hidden beneath. Hints and glimmers of emerald, rustic traces of ruby and small suggestions of diamond could be made out through the grime beneath the fragments of thread I was tugging at. They were sewn into pouches beneath the lining of my dress created by myself and my sisters to conceal the jewels whereabouts. It felt like only days before that Mama sent a telegram telling me to hide the family medicine. My eldest sister was unsure of the coded message, but it was written for me, why hide medicine after all? I gathered the family jewels and made my sisters aware of the meaning behind Mama’s simple scrawl. It took us days to successfully sew the jewels into their hiding spots. It all seemed like a pointless waste of time.

My nails wedged dirt into the crack beneath my nail bed as I scraped the thread, my concentration focused solely on my task to remove the precious gems I had sewn into the lining merely days before. The more I scraped, the more frustrated I began to get. The pattern of removing the jewels now reminiscent of when my sisters and I had first hidden them. My lip began to quiver as I mentally urged it to stop. A sob escaped my unsteady lips as I tried to hold myself together. Tears fell freely, drawing paths through the dirt on my face. A mix of homesickness and pain from the throbbing wound beginning a fresh batch of tears. Drawing myself into a ball, I could see that the base of the boots I was wearing had started to crack. Head throbbing in time with my heart I cried until I was raw.

With an unsteady breath, I gathered my skirts and eased myself back onto my feet. A shot of pain rushed up my leg as I unsteadily regained a standing position. Throat parched, every muscle in my body begged me to stop, lie down, to rest. I wondered how far I had walked, if I had made it out of Yekaterinburg and if the bullet that tore through my upper calf would get infected. Pausing against a thick barked tree, I swiped my blood soaked dress from my legs and prodded the wound. Tiny stabs of pain prickled where I touched. Drawing my head closer for a better inspection, the clumps of dirt, drying and still liquid blood, and the oozing bits of yellow ignited a strong queasy feeling within my stomach. Dropping my dress, I leaned over my shoulder and heaved everything left in my stomach onto the drying clumps of grass behind me.

*

The little girl, who was now almost a woman, could hear the whispered voices from down the hall as they slowly got closer to where she was hidden. Her hair, darkened to a burnt red with age, was tied back in a style more fitting for a Tsar’s daughter than the loose curls she had adorned before. She held her breath, knowing full well the repercussions if she was to be discovered this far from her assigned quarters. The footsteps stopped a couple feet from her hiding place.

‘We cannot let the white army get them.’

‘What shall we do?’

The thunderclap of a pair of steel capped boots pounded the tiles and the imposing voice of Yakov broke the silence. ‘Gather the Tsar, the Tsarina and her children, take them to the cellar. Tell them it is for their own protection.’

*

I would not be moving from this spot for some time. Wincing slightly, I tugged at the thread and watched the first jewel fall from its hidden spot. Finally. Rubbing the small gem between my thumb and index finger a silent tear rolled down my cheek as I recalled Mama. Her smile would lighten up the ballroom as the nobility, the Dvoryanstvo, would beg for a single dance. Falling elegantly at her hips, her dress, an off-white colour, would stand out in the court as so many others opted for bold hues. Smiling, I recalled the soft ruffles as they embraced her torso, my father smiling sweetly as her hand lay in the crook of his arm.

I pulled another thread and another gem, this time a ruby, fell into my palm. This one had been hit by one of the many bullets. It was broken into a thousand fragmented pieces, the jagged edges getting caught on the material. Bits of the disintegrated jewel blew in the breeze and clung to and around my open wound. Shiny hints of red now seen intermingled with the drying darkened clumps of blood. A soft breeze rustled my hair as I inspected the jewels, wisps of red grazed my vision as I lent closer to inspect. Tucking the loose strands behind my ears, I threw the broken pieces of gem in frustration. They hit the bark of a tree a few feet from me. I must not let it get to me. I was taught to be brave. To be strong.

*

The young woman ran back to her assigned quarters. She regaled Tatiana and Olga, her older sisters, what she had just over heard.

A look of understanding passed Tatiana’s eyes. Her long brown hair contained small traces of Romanov red when she stood in direct light. Rushing to the closet, she threw two dresses upon the bed. ‘Get dressed,’ she urged her younger sibling, ‘quickly.’

‘What is to happen to us?’

In response Tatiana threw the beautiful brocade the sisters had earlier modified with hidden gems towards both her sisters. Instructing them to adorn them silently and quickly. Once dressed, she asked her younger siblings if they were able to move freely.

‘Yes, if need be. What is it, Tatiana? You’re scaring me,’ the young woman whispered as she tangled a strand of red around her finger.

Tatiana opened her mouth then shut it quickly, a guarded look replacing her features. She marched towards the door then paused at the threshold, her delicate hand resting on the handle. With a quick glance at her younger sibling, she instructed her to remain alert and be ready before passing through the still open door.

*

Carried on the next gust of wind, I could hear a faint chanting. Someone was approaching! My heart thudded against my chest as the voices hit a crescendo. The pattering of boots against the ground drummed against the dirt in a rhythm parallel to my heartbeat. It must be quite a large group! The rumbling of a horde of boots vibrated the earth. Panicking I began to fear the worst.

*

Shoving and butting their rifles, the soldiers prodded the young woman and her family, directing them towards the cellar. The soldiers lined them up against the back wall under the directive of Yakov. The oldest two girls clasping the younger two’s hands. Their mother and father stepping forward to protect the children. That’s when the firing began.

The loud crackle of ignited gunpowder echoed in their ears as they fired first at the Tsar, then moving swiftly on to his wife, and then their children.

The Tsarina was barely given a chance as she rushed to push her body in front of her offspring. Her only thoughts were of the lives of her children. Stumbling back she fell next to her husband. Each child slowly falling after hers. Their bodies convulsing with each bullet tearing its way through their flesh and blood spraying with every impact of metal to busted flesh.

The pelting of the bullets lessened as the soldiers slowly ran out of ammunition. The soldiers then began stepping over the fallen bodies as they waded their way through the room. They prodded the bleeding corpses avoiding the blood and bits of flesh cascaded across the floor as the gun smoke slowly settled about the room.

*

Attempting to stand, I pushed myself up against the tree, using the firm structure as a wall. My leg throbbed where the wound was located and my legs gave out as I collapsed back against the tree, letting out a faint strangled cry. The footsteps were coming closer. Tugging the dress, another couple of broken gems tumbled to the ground. I kicked them away, as they would only prove my identity. Wide holes now replaced the rubies location in such a way that I could now hide other items if need be. Wrapping the shawl about myself, I arranged it in such a way that it would cover the most of my bloodied dress. I dangled it across my shoulders and positioned it in such a way that it hid the tops of my legs, hiding the still bleeding wound from sight.

The beating rhythm of soldier’s boots slowly hit its crescendo until they were nearly upon me. Before they made it past the copse of trees and would be able to see me, I grabbed handfuls of dirt and rubbed it vigorously through my locks to dim the vibrancy of the red. Smearing leftover smidgeons of dirt across my face, I hoped to conceal my face. I scrubbed with an intensity yet unbeknownst to me, with a strength I did not believe I had left. Tucking the edges of my skirt into the bottoms of my boots, I tarnished over the blood spots until they too were invisible. Pushing the majority of my skirts in between my legs, I hoped to conceal any trace of blood upon my dress that might still be visible lest I forgot any small smidgeon. With a small gulp, I looked towards my fate.

*

Blood trickled down the young woman’s leg and dripped from the base of her shoulder as she slowly lifted her head. Bodies were strewn haphazardly, limbs entangled every which way as blood smeared every crevice. An indiscernible mess.

Soldiers stepped carefully, their guns held at eye level and extended towards the closest body to them. Some were fearful, others showed no emotion, each remained alert.

‘This one’s not quite dead, her body lattice seems to be working as some sort of armour, komandir!’ A tall soldier shouted above the din. The young woman made him out to be closest to his mother. Soft whimpering could be heard. She prayed they would spare whichever poor soul it was that made such a mournful noise.

‘Shoot her again then! This time, aim for her head,’ Yakov spat.

The young woman kept silent. A single boom ricocheted off the walls. She fought to gain control over her quivering lip and shudders before the soldiers made their way towards her. She willed her shoulders to stop shaking and her breath to even out enough so as to make it unnoticeable. Words she longed to scream would fester and burn inside her. If she was to release them, they would sear anyone who heard them. Instead she remained quiet, hoping to be overlooked, to be spared.

*

I could see a couple of soldiers making their way towards me. They were dressed in the dark green colours of the red army. I tried to quieten my quivering heart, fearful that they could hear it pounding from my chest. One was shorter and stockier than the other; they must’ve lost the bet to check on me as they both looked upon me with upturned noses.

The closest turned to his companion upon sight of me. Arms crossing against his chest he exclaimed, ‘Pah! Tis but a krest’yanin, a lowly peasant girl.’

Without a second glance, they turned their backs to me. As I watched them walking back to their group, I could hear small snippets of conversation on the wind, ‘we must keep searching…. he believes her still alive…’

They were almost out of hearing range when the shorter companion’s response set my nerves alight once more, ‘the Romanov’s might be all dead, though one daughter may be still alive.’

 

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