short story

The Case of the Missing Turtles

This story was in the Spy genre, which actually had me stumped for a long time. It had to feature smuggling, and a character who was a mentor. In the end I went for a teenage protagonist and set part of it in one of the waterholes of my youth. The mentor is Danger Mouse. My main problem this time around was time management, as this challenge started on my first week back at work and sadly I left most of the writing until the last two days.

 

The Case of the Missing Turtles

The waterhole was home to an ecosystem of decomposing leaves, slippery sticks and clumps of brown green algae. Undisturbed, the dark water was a glass mirror of the afternoon sky. Ivy, as part of her teen spy regime, had perfected the art of careful waterhole entry and knew to step lightly over twigs and leaf sludge on the bottom; too much movement and the water would become a murky soup. Once she was in deep enough, Ivy began to swim, a gentle breast stroke, and made her way to her familiar submerged rock where she sat in peace and quiet. On the far bank Ivy noted a group of freshwater turtles, spread out and soaking up the last of the sun through their knobbly green shells. It had been a good breeding season. Now that she was back at school it would be more difficult to keep an eye on the turtles.

 

She was getting ready to swim back to the bank when she heard a splash and a voice downstream. She couldn’t see who the person was and had left her binoculars on the bank, but she heard snapping sticks and swearing so it was clear that the person wasn’t familiar with the forest. When she heard a second male voice she froze, and focused her senses, trying to see through the trees. She saw a flash of yellow, a face in profile, but she couldn’t tell who it was from this far away. They seemed to be moving off down the creek and were soon out of sight.

 

When she got home, Ivy’s mother was cooking dinner but still made the time to look her daughter up and down. The wet hair was a give-away. ‘You know I don’t like you swimming in the creek alone. Leave those muddy shoes outside.’ Ivy took her shoes off and tossed them onto the back landing. ‘And tell your brother that dinner’s ready.’

 

Her brother Conrad kept his room dark. He’d used a staple gun to put a blanket over the window, but he didn’t have an eye for symmetry, so it hung to the side and let some light in. The room also smelt like unwashed oily hair, cheap spray deodorant and an earthy smell she couldn’t quite place. All this contributed to a powerful younger sister forcefield. What was missing from the room now was the lanky frame of Conrad himself. As a dedicated spy, she felt the urge to snoop through his things, although similar ventures in the past had yielded little but lolly wrappers, incomplete homework sheets and a small coin collection. She noticed a few new toys- Kermit the frog on a skateboard and miss piggy in a pink car- and this solved the mystery of why he insisted, at seventeen, of choosing McDonald’s happy meals. As she closed his door again, she heard him come in the back door and passed him in the hallway as he went straight to his room and closed the door. Despite his mother’s mild hysteria over the dinner getting cold, he took a long while coming to the table.

 

Ivy never planned to become a teenage spy. When she was ten and the family were out Christmas shopping, she’d been delighted to see her mother slip into a camera shop. She was hyper aware of the rectangular box under the tree and opened it last. When she peeled back the paper, it took her brain a full minute to register that inside the box was a pair of binoculars, and not the camera she so desperately wanted. After the disappointment simmered down, she took the binoculars and went out looking for birds. But of course, it was much more fun to spy on the neighbours. Ivy had always been a bit of a daydreaming loner but with the binoculars she became obsessed with imagined crimes, plots, deals and heists. Above her bed was a large poster of Danger Mouse, with his sidekick Penfold. Ivy watched the cartoon religiously, and Danger Mouse had become the perfect teen spy mentor; he spoke 34 languages, could shatter metal with his voice and could perform military style push-ups on his index finger. Ivy had eventually saved up for her own state of the art polaroid camera. It was more expensive to buy film for, but it meant she didn’t have to send the roll away to be developed. She could keep the documentation of her discoveries away from prying eyes. In her first year as a full time spy she had captured evidence of: six drug deals, one case of projectile vomiting, numerous incidents of pre-teen nose picking and one extra-marital affair. The most recent item that Ivy added to her spy kit was a small cassette recorder and she was currently experimenting with ways to conceal the device while recording conversations. She’d tried to record a conversation with Conrad, but her brother’s inability to do more than grunt made things difficult. She’d recorded a one-way phone conversation her mother made to a friend, but the details were little more than basic variations on the following: I know! Can you believe it? How awful, what did she do?

 

The school yard was always a hive of espionage and extortion. On any given day you could witness blackmail, theft and stand over tactics, and this was just in the canteen line. Conrad was a senior this year, so he could jump the queue of juniors. Although this was vaguely irritating, at least it would finally stop him from hassling Ivy to buy him food or let him push in. When she saw her brother- a boy with no part time job and very little pocket money- pay for a sausage roll with a fifty dollar note, she knew that something odd was going on. Like a good spy, she pretended not to notice. She also pretended not to notice when he gave his mate Riley a twenty and worked even harder to contain herself when she saw him put the rest of the money back into a wallet that seemed to be bulging with notes.

 

At home that evening Ivy watched Conrad closely. He’d gotten back home much later than usual and went straight to his room without raiding the pantry or fridge for food. Very suspicious. Ivy knocked on his door and lied, ‘Mum wants me to see if you have any dirty cups or bowls in here’. She could hear him moving something around. There was a scraping noise which sounded like he was putting something under his bed. When he opened the door, he grunted and pushed a cup into her hands. She took in the smell inside his room again, but the earthy smell seemed to be gone.

 

A whole school week had passed before Ivy made it back to the waterhole to check on the turtles. Putting her bag down she noticed a scrunched burger wrapper and a slushy cup. With a frown she shoved them in her bag. She didn’t like to think that people had come here and had disrespected the place enough to leave their rubbish. She slipped into the water quietly and swam to her rock. From there she looked to the far bank but couldn’t see a single turtle. This was quite perplexing. It was the time of day when they would normally be out, catching rays in the late afternoon. This was strange indeed.

 

When Ivy arrived at school the next day she was surprised to see that Conrad was already there. He and Riley were sitting at the far end of the playground, hunched over, and there was a third person with them who she didn’t recognise. She wouldn’t normally use binoculars at school, lest she get a label as some kind of weird pervert, but she was just too curious to let this meeting go unobserved. She slipped in behind the garden bed where no one else could see her and carefully adjusted the focus until she could make out the trio. The third person looked to be the new casual science teacher. Riley was drinking from a slushy cup and Conrad, shoulders hunched, kept looking around and then leaning in closer to the other two. His lips were moving but it was impossible to hear what they were saying. She was determined to know more.

 

Later in the day, Ivy was pleasantly surprised when it was the new casual science teacher who welcomed her class into the lab. Being able to observe the man up close was fortuitous indeed. He looked young, even though his haircut and dress were overly neat and formal.  His accent was Australian but had a hint of something more difficult to identify. Was it South African? It was hard to tell. When he wrote his name on the board- Mr. De Bruyn- Ivy smiled to herself. She might not speak thirty-four languages like her mentor Danger Mouse, but she knew that this was a common surname in Afrikaans. The lesson itself was dull, mainly textbook work, and she noticed that when the class were working, Mr. De Bruyn would intermittently take himself into the storeroom at the back of the lab. He was careful to close the door behind him, but when he came back out the last time, Ivy could see that there were a few large glass tanks on the benches in the storeroom, but not what was inside them. She kept pondering the connection between this man and her brother. She had to find out what her brother was involved in. He had money. He was getting up early. He was definitely up to something. She knew that this was the time to be discreet. Conrad must not know that he was under surveillance.

 

The next morning Ivy was ready for the next phase of her operation. She got up at dawn, pinched a ten dollar note from her mum’s purse and left the house for the little bakery near the school. At this time of day, the bread was hot and the smell of the croissants was enough to drive anyone mad with hunger. She bought two French pastries and a large coffee and made her way to school. No students were at school yet but Brandon, the school cleaner, was just finishing up. He was a man in his forties and he held himself like someone who was truly disillusioned by life. She wasn’t sure it would work, but Ivy was bold. She offered the man a coffee and fresh pastries in exchange for the use of his keys for ten minutes. He agreed. She didn’t even have to make up a story about leaving something in one of the rooms.

 

The Science block was set apart from the school and was near the teacher’s car park. Without students the lab seemed gray and hollow, and the sound of her shoes made a clicking noise on the tiled floor. When she opened the door to the storeroom she registered an oddly familiar smell, like forest slime. It was the same odour she had smelt in her brother’s room. Along one wall was a long bench and on it were a series of glass tanks. All of them had a small amount of water and a few rocks. As she moved closer, Ivy could detect movement and was shocked to see that one tank was crowded with freshwater turtles, clumsily trying to climb on and over each other. At the back of the room, Ivy lifted a blanket to discover a tank containing a listless brown platypus who was about the size of a hotdog bun; a creature that should never be kept in captivity. Ivy was dismayed. She’d never known the science staff to keep any animals except for tadpoles to teach students the life cycle of amphibians. Something was very wrong here. Even though it was difficult, she left the animals in the storeroom and locked the lab door behind her. On a sheet of paper, Ivy took an outline of the key, so she could make her own copy using her key blank set. Danger Mouse would be proud.

 

For a second time Ivy got up extra early. It was raining, so she put on her heavy black raincoat with the hood, and her waterproof backpack. Even if she was spotted it would be hard for anyone to make out her true identity. She waited until the cleaners had finished in the Science Block and using the key she had made, was overjoyed to find that it worked to unlock the door.

 

Inside the lab storeroom she had to move fast. She commandeered one of the large fishing buckets and poured in a little fresh water. Nimbly she plucked out the freshwater turtles one by one and gently plopped them into the bucket, where they squirmed around and over each other. ‘Sorry guys, it’ll be a little crowded in there for a while.’ She counted seventeen all together. At home the night before she’d sat down with the family set of encyclopedias and she knew that when she popped the small platypus into the same bucket, the two species would not attack each other. She’d also done some research into the Australian wild animal trade and knew that turtles were kept as exotic pets in South Africa and that a single platypus could fetch as much as five thousand dollars. Carefully she lifted the shy, plump creature from the other tank and marveled at his flat fleshy bill and smooth, slick fur. ‘I’m going to call you Penfold. Come on buddy, you’re going home.’ Before she left the lab, Ivy did one last thing so that the smugglers would know their plans had been deliberately foiled.

 

Later that morning there was some commotion in the playground after Mr. Be Bruyn had found several happy meal toys in a glass tank in the Science storeroom. He’d become uncharacteristically agitated and all the witnesses would attest that the teacher was out of line when he’d gone over to where a few seniors were sitting and had shoved a boy by the name of Conrad. The police had been called and Mr. De Bruyn had been escorted from the premises.

 

Down at the water’s edge, Ivy carefully released the platypus first. Little Penfold was so keen to be back home that his webbed feet started making swimming motions even before he made contact with the water. He slipped under the surface, made a few gentle ripples, then was gone. Carefully she put the turtles on the bank one by one. Each made a slow race for the water and clambered through the leaf litter. Their knobbly shells looked like living rocks as they swam together for the far side of the waterhole. Ivy sat for a long while, alone in the peace and quiet.

danger-mouse

 

Standard
flash fiction

Daughter of Loki

 

There is a great burden in holding the darkness of mankind. Not even a goddess can do it for eternity.

***

 

The wide freight platform jerked and rattled lower, deeper into the earth. Helen unconsciously held her breath. The ice-blue sky was receding above and she shook the last of the fresh breeze from her hair. No one attempted small talk; all gave themselves over to that feeling of being swallowed by the earth.

 

Once they shuddered to a stop there was much movement. People lifting heavy reinforcement beams and metal scaffolding that would secure the site and others rolling out the huge drums used for removing earth to the surface. Helen recalled the exciting phone call from the archaeological team. A major discovery…a large section of what appeared to be a Viking village near Uppsala…swallowed by a landslip around 880…implements, jewellery, armour and what appeared to be a fully intact wooden tomb.

 

Helen moved toward the wooden structure. It was lined in oak planks and looked more like a small antechamber than a tomb. It had survived the landslip intact. It had tumbled in the landslip, but the slow motion twisting of the earth had not destroyed it. After a tense hour the door finally groaned open.

 

Across the black fen comes a wretched soul, in her arms something delicate wrapped in a mess of swaddling rags. Her feet sink in the mud and only the crescent moon bears witness to her passing. She finds the place in the dark. A glowing flame through oaken slats. She thuds on the door and waits…

 

A blackened form lay in the centre of the room. Tattered threads on remnants of shrunken leather skin, yellow teeth, empty eye sockets and long wisps of white blonde hair. A woman? The soft torch light revealed more. The arms and legs seemed too long; this woman would have been a giant, even among the tallest of Danes. Beside her was a silver knife, a small hand axe and a spangenhelm much larger than any Viking helmet Helen had seen before. Inside it there seemed to be a thick remnant of dark rust. Blood? She bagged a small sample. There were pieces of other skeletons in the room too, mostly animal. One skull appeared small but human. A baby?

 

She places the babe on the deer hide in the centre of the room. Afterbirth still clings to its matted hair and its mouth opens and closes in a contorted but silent scream. Hel, the daughter of Loki rises to tower above the two souls. She examines the strange body form, the lungs that have grown outside the body; they pulse and quiver in the firelight. The new mother offers a large amber bead, and breathes out the words. Hel, daughter of Loki, keeper of shadows, take away this darkness…

 

Scattered inside the chamber were various ornaments that seemed unrelated, and Helen was careful to bag and label them all separately before tucking them in her crate. Amber beads. Coins. A brass Thor’s hammer pendant. A bone comb and several whale bone needles. A rusted piece of chainmail. She marvelled over each item.

 

Hel stands and her shadow looms large as the fire gutters and fades. She offers the mother the blood-filled helmet and the woman trembles as she drinks in the blood of Odin. Hel’s hand forms an arc with the blade and in one swift movement she severs the pulsing pink lungs and throws them on the glowing coals. The babe twists and writhes and Hel leans close and breathes deeply. From the small body there seems to swirl a dark liquid smoke, an absence of light, and Hel throws back her head, opens her teeth and drinks it in. And the earth shudders and moans.

 

There was not much time before the last lift to the surface. Helen had worked methodically, documenting, taking samples, bagging artefacts and now she felt tired and heavy. She kept glancing at the tall skeleton with its empty eye sockets and web of hair. Removing a whole skeleton would be a delicate operation for another day.

 

Across the fen comes an old warrior with his eldest born son. Thor is angry with the young man, who in the heat of battle had gone mad and slain three of his friends, butchered them as if they were enemies. He had woken from the stupor with no memory of the event. The brothers of the fallen were sure to come this night, for revenge…

 

It was beneath an undisturbed pocket of dirt that Helen made her final discovery. She moved carefully, brushing and dusting it clean until she was certain she was looking at the bones of a large hand. The ulna and radius seemed to be sheared cleanly through. A strange find indeed.

 

Hel looms tall and her shadow grows gigantic as the fire gutters and fades. She offers the men the blood-filled helmet and they drink. The younger man trembles but the old man’s back is straight as he says the words. Hel, daughter of Loki, keeper of shadows, take away this darkness… She is swift and the axe severs the young man’s sword hand in a clean blow. As he howls and gasps, Hel opens her mouth wide and sucks at the dark smoke liquid that flows in place of blood from the man’s wrist. And the earth shakes and groans.

 

Helen wrapped the skeleton hand in cloth and tucked it carefully into the crate beside the baby’s skull. In that last moment the shadows seemed to grow thick and she shivered, glad to be leaving. As she crossed the threshold she glanced for a last time at the skull. The air in the room seemed to swirl and shift and for a moment she felt much older than her years and her body felt too heavy.

 

As she emerged, she gulped at the light. Her shadow grew tall and her blonde hair swirled and glowed. The crew had barely unloaded the freight when violent tremor shook the earth and the cavity below collapsed in on itself again.

 

 

 

 

 

Standard
flash fiction

The Small Things

Historical fiction story written for the finals of the flash fiction challenge in 2015 (featuring a bullet proof vest and an animal shelter). You can tell I was teaching WWI that year. I got an honourable mention- it came in 11th.

 

The Small Things

The evening news flickered muted blue light across Laura’s face. She sat next to her mother with a Great War textbook on her lap; history homework that she would never finish. The TV showed an aerial shot of an alleyway in Paris, gunshots, people running, and then cut to scenes of people crying, holding each other, laying flowers. France. She was learning about France, and all those lives lost in the mud and trenches. Her fingers flicked the pages until she found a map. France was shaped like a star.

 

Another news story made her look up. This time it was a tribute to a French police dog killed in the line of duty. There was a photo of the animal wearing a special bulletproof vest. She was curious.

 

“Do animals go to war? Do dogs?”

 

“Sadly, they do. You know you had a great, great uncle Alan who looked after horses in World War One, maybe even dogs. We have his old army kit in the shed. You might find something interesting in there.”

 

“Did he die in France?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Laura opened the shed door and dust swirled in the warm beams of sunlight. The room took a breath and the ethereal lace cobwebs quivered as she moved across the room. The A.I.F. kit bag was on the top shelf. She carefully removed each item: a leather bound shaving kit, scissors, a pair of threadbare woollen socks, a heavy woollen blanket folded neatly, a tattered photo of a young woman and lastly, a metal tin with what looked like a man’s thumbprint pressed into a smear of dried mud from a distant time and place. The metal lid was stuck fast, and Laura worked with keen fingers to loosen it. With a scrape it came off and she smiled to discover a little diary. Gingerly, carefully, gently, she lifted it out. In her hands it fell open to a page where a folded yellowing note had been placed. Carefully setting the note aside, she read that day’s entry.

 

 

Somewhere in France, 4th December, 1916

 

Yesterday it snowed for the first time. For a while the frozen mud was dusted white and looked clean and pure. Today it is raining and the heavy grey ice and slush taunts us like death. I’m not as unhappy as those sods at the front. They have me in a reserve trench, looking after wounded animals. I have made a moveable sheltered clinic from a horse cart and currently have care of three dogs and an injured carrier pigeon that I’m keeping in a wicker basket. It’s almost time to remove the bird’s splint- which is actually a matchstick! Two of the wounded dogs are known to our battalion. Rusty is a local breed and his thick coat makes us all jealous. He’s a trained sentry dog- he goes on patrol around secured areas and growls or barks when there is an unknown presence. He got his leg caught in some barbed wire last week, but he’s almost ready to go back to the front. A stocky mixed-breed dog we call Sergeant Sniffer has been with us for over a month. He was first seen running towards us ahead of a bitter green sea of mustard gas. He must have caught a whiff because he has a hacking cough like some of the men who were too slow to fit their masks. He’s a champion because he starts to whimper when he first smells the gas, and gives us fair warning before an attack. The heavy shelling last week took its toll and he could barely stand when they dropped him off, and couldn’t stop quivering and shaking. After some sleep and a few extra chunks of bully beef, I reckon he’ll be back to his old self. The third dog is quite a mystery. She’s a black German Doberman and was very disoriented when we caught her. She’d lost half her right ear and I removed some shrapnel from her back and hind legs. She is deaf, but hopefully this is temporary. She was carrying a small tin around her neck, like she was some kind of messenger dog. She growled at first but eventually allowed me to remove the tin and look inside, where I found a small note. I’m desperate to know what it says, but it’s written in German so I’ll have to get someone to translate it for me. For now I’m keeping the dog with me and have called her Jess. She’s lovely company and someone must be missing her; she curls up against my belly when I’m sleeping in my cot.  In three days we move out, not sure where, but I doubt we’ll get any reprieve from the cold.  I’ll certainly miss the warm sun, the fruit and the beach this Christmas.

 

It didn’t take Laura long to type the German characters into an online translator. As she copied down the words she felt a chill, as if the ghost of a scared German soldier boy was given life after almost a hundred years.

 

She joined her mother who was watching the late news. There was footage of a chocolate and tan German shepherd puppy being given as a gesture of solidarity from Russia to France. Ally to ally.

 

“I want to read you something I found in Alan’s diary. It’s a note from a German soldier.”

 

She held out the paper and with a trembling voice, finally breathed life into his words;

 

“I am not your enemy. We are not heroes for killing each other. I wish for peace this Christmas. Fresh snow makes me think of home- of fruit cake dusted with icing sugar, mulled wine and gingerbread- but all I have is watery stew and rye bread, and I know at home they go hungry. I wish that we could all be with family now, to enjoy the small things, because that is all there really is. War is the enemy.”

Standard
short story

Curtain Call

Last year I made it into the finals of the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge and finished 10th with ‘Curtain Call’. I knew my story had to be clever and polished. It was an open genre but had to feature an undertaker and a sunrise. I spent a lot  of time in the theatre as a child, and had a clear image from a production of ‘Under Milkwood’ by Dylan Thomas, where the actors were positioned around the theatre, and would speak when their spotlight came on. I really wanted to capture theatrical lighting, the excitement of opening night and the moments in amateur theatre when the audience take a deep breath and hope that no one forgets a line. I also wanted my undertaker- as a twist- to save someone’s life.

In the end I tried to write my story as if it was a theatre production. I tried to capture the chiaroscuro lighting and the black and white moodiness of German Expressionism. I also left myself and the audience with some unanswered questions, a few little secrets tucked away. Unfortunately the American judges couldn’t grasp the ambiguity, and suggested I hint that the husband is sick early on, which entirely defeats the purpose of the story. See what you think….

 

Curtain Call

The smell in the theatre on opening night was unmistakable. Mixed with the usual scent of mothballs and fresh paint, the audience added a base note of cigarette smoke and top notes of floral perfume and breath mints. Rosie was sitting in the front row, off to one side, wishing she had a friend with her. Her mother had insisted that this was a ‘grown-up’ play, not normally suitable for ten-year-olds. She was allowed to watch it because her parents were playing leading roles. She had been reminded on several occasions that the play was not real, it was all an act. Rosie glanced at the front page of the program.

 

The Final Curtain

‘Can you ever truly know a person?’

Performed by the Cedarwood Amateur Theatre Society

 

The lights dimmed, voices hushed and Rosie held her breath in the expectant blackness. She could hear the heavy drag of the curtain drawn back and squinted to make out shapes on stage. But when the light came, it was from the back of the hall. Standing in the centre of a milky white spotlight was her father. All heads turned to see him in a formal blue suit, his face unnaturally pale and his hair combed neatly back. He did not speak but kept his eyes straight ahead as he moved slowly within the spotlight towards the stage. He turned to face the audience for a few seconds, before laying down on a plinth, centre stage, that was shrouded in heavy green velvet. The spotlight flickered then, and went off. Rosie inhaled sharply, but released her breath when a warm wash of light spilled across the stage, revealing the whole set. Her father was lying still on the plinth, but she could see her mother now, playing the undertaker in a neat beige suit and red lipstick, arranging fake roses and placing them in a vase on a table stage left. She approached the central figure, made an exaggerated gesture of closing the man’s eyes, and neatly folded his arms across his chest. At stage-right there was a painted window framing an outdoor scene; a green hillside, the silhouette of a tree and a sun rising, or was it setting? It was hard to tell.

 

Rosie had been coming to this theatre since before she could crawl. She loved the make-up, the props and especially the costume room with its rows of woollen suits, stiff crinkly taffeta dresses, maid’s uniforms, army coats and hat racks with strings of fake pearls, bow ties and the assortment of masks and wigs. She loved to climb into the rafters and look down on the stage during rehearsals or curl up on a blanket backstage as the final night afterparties slipped on until the rowdy early hours. But this time Rosie hadn’t been allowed to watch any rehearsals and when she asked why, her mother said that the director had made all the crew sign a studio agreement not to discuss details.

 

Home had become increasingly tense in the lead up to opening night; there were slamming doors, curt exchanges over the dinner table and a battered cigarette pack had been fished out from a bottom draw. All this culminated in a late night heated argument when Rosie, ear pressed to the wall after lights out, heard her father say, ‘I told you, it didn’t mean anything.’

‘Don’t you dare tell me you were getting into character.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘What a cliché. You disgust me.’

 

The play itself was made up of a series of monologues. The undertaker would open a door, welcome a character to the stage and then take her exit, leaving each person alone to pay their respects to the dead man. The light would change to a muted blue as each character triggered a flashback or memory. First was his brother who made the audience laugh as he reminisced over daring childhood adventures, then made them cry over a petty conflict that would never be resolved. Then came a childhood friend. A sporting coach. An officer in uniform. In between flashbacks, the set returned to the present as the woman in the beige suit arranged paperwork, trimmed the man’s nails, made phone calls. When she welcomed a young woman with blonde hair and a flowing floral dress to the stage there was a long pause, as if someone had forgotten a line. In the audience, Rosie could hear muffled voices, whispers behind her, someone sniggering. During her monologue the woman gave an impassioned performance in the blue light; she clutched the man’s hand, she draped her blonde hair across his face and appeared to cry real tears. She made to leave the room and then paused before sweeping melodramatically back to his side. As the audience drew in a collective audible breath, she kissed the man hard on the lips, making her exit all the more dramatic.

 

During intermission, the audience were abuzz with cheap wine and conversation. A few journalists were asking people what they thought of the play, the acting skills of the dead man, if it was a successful deconstruction of identity? Rosie sat on her own with a watery hot chocolate. She kept thinking of her dad, arms crossed, eyes closed. Kept thinking of her parent’s fight. Kept thinking of those tears and that kiss. Those angry words.

 

In the final act, the curtains were drawn back to reveal the same room, but on the following day. The light was different now, it was that of an early morning, and through the painted window the sun was rising. A soundtrack of sparse birdsong bought a kind of fresh lightness to the stage. Bunches of flowers and cards encircled the man on the plinth, and to one side rested a wreath made of ivy. The funeral was over and the woman in her beige suit was finishing up. She took a white folded sheet and flicked it open, before fluttering it over the dead man’s body. She took a long look at the audience, the perfect image of serene composure, before leaning down and whispering something in his ear that no-one else could hear. And that should have been the end of the play. The curtains should have closed and the audience should have given the cast a standing ovation during the final curtain call. But instead the man’s body gave a sudden jerk, his hand fell out from below the sheet and Rosie could see it contort into a fist. She saw the quick rise and fall of his chest as he clutched off the sheet with his other hand, revealing his purple red face, bulging veins, eyes rolling back. The audience were frozen. He was very convincing. There were a few voices, open mouths, but no one moved from their seats. Then he put down shaky legs and staggered off the plinth onto the stage, all the while clutching at his chest and sucking for breath. When he collapsed and started convulsing, a few people in the audience climbed out of their seats and made for the stage. Rosie saw her parents then as if she were looking through a foggy tunnel. She saw her mother drop to her knees beside her father and commence CPR. She tilted his head back, put her red lips to his, and gave him three quick breaths. Then she yelled for someone to call an ambulance before starting on the chest compressions.

 

The cast never got to complete their final curtain call on opening night. Instead, a famous photograph now hangs in the foyer of the Cedarwood Amateur Theatre. It depicts a dramatic tableau. In the foreground the few audience members still sitting are simple silhouettes. The greater part of the frame is taken up by a stage littered in crushed flowers and broken vases; the white light stretches the deep shadows into a mosaic of jagged fragments. At the back of the stage stand a few actors, their forms partly obscured by darkness; a man in an army coat, another in a sports uniform. At stage left the light falls on a blonde woman, crying thick mascara tears. Her shoulders are curved over, her arms are wrapped around her knees, and the floral patterns on her dress give the illusion that she is a part of the crushed flower carnage. A man dressed in a dark blue suit is propped against the right wall of the set. His hair is slicked back, his face is a greying shade of pale, but he is smiling with lips that are smeared with a greasy gash of bright scarlet lipstick. On his right sits a woman in a beige suit, her hair dishevelled, holding the man’s hand. On the left is a girl of ten who is leaning in and stroking the man’s face. Framed in a painted window on the wall behind the trio is the simple scene of a sun setting. Or is it rising? It’s impossible to tell.

 

Standard
flash fiction

The Bear and Squirrel

I wrote this story for the first round of this year’s NYC Midnight Flash Fiction. I drew historical fiction, which has to be one of my favourite genres. My object was a rope and the setting had to include a seized plot of land. This story came to me very quickly as it instantly made me think about post-revolutionary Russia and the subsequent famine in Ukraine after collective farms were introduced. I had just come off the back of teaching the Stage 6 Modern History national study of Russia, and it was cool to be able to use some detailed historical knowledge to write a piece of fiction.

This is a sobering little story. I used the colours of the Ukrainian flag – the blue of the sky and the yellow of the grain- as a motif. As it was less than 1000 words I used the three part structure; three subsequent years to show the progression of the plight of one Ukrainian farming family. I didn’t know how this story would be received- I felt my tone was a bit contrived- but in the end I placed at the top of my heat. Enjoy.

 

The Bear and the Squirrel 

There is an old Ukrainian folk tale about a squirrel and a bear. The bear ignores the squirrel and brushes him aside. When later the bear is caught in a trap, the squirrel chews through the tangle of rope. Even though the squirrel is small and weak, he saves the life of the mighty bear.

The bear is Russia. The squirrel is Ukraine. The year is 1930.

 

*****

 

There is a sound that wheat makes when the breeze blows in late autumn and the grain is groaning on the stem; a soft sweeping whisper. The fields had turned pale yellow as if the wheat were a golden belt separating the black loam soil from the endless blue of the Ukrainian sky. Katya had been cooking all day and had prepared a large loaf of bread to bless tomorrow’s harvest. The kitchen was filled with the smell of sweet and sour soup, pickled vegetables, smoked pork sausage and potato dumplings. Outside the window she could see her two boys. Artem was sharpening a scythe, always dutiful and planning ahead, but the younger boy Alex had draped a red scarf across his chest and was pretending his rake was a shotgun.  ‘Comrade Alex’ she called, ‘the revolution can wait until you’ve been fed. Call your father.’

 

In the lamplight Katya noticed how strong the boys had become and how much the younger looked like his father Ivan. The family ate slowly in silence out of respect for the food, for family. Their neighbours the Solvetsky’s had packed up and left their farm one night, convinced to move onto a collective farm. A team from the kolkhoz had come and harvested the Solvetsky’s wheat a few days ago and Katya had watched the strange mechanical harvester. In the past it had been old Solvetsky and his boys, using scythes, with the girls following behind with twine to tie the bushels. It felt as if the ripples of change were finally reaching them from Moscow. ‘Papa…we aren’t going to join a kolkhoz, are we?’ Ivan frowned at Alex and shook his head.

‘No. I hope not.’ Katya felt her breath catch in her throat and she studied her husband’s face.

‘You hope not? I thought it was optional.’

‘They say it’s optional. And then they come in the night and ask you again.’

 

The boys began to hear stories from the neighbour’s children, of people refusing to hand over grain and livestock, of one man who made a stand and was shot in front of his wife and daughters before they were put on a train to a labour camp. The wheels of revolutionary reform kept turning and a few boldly coloured posters started appearing around the village. In one, men and women laboured side by side in the field under a glorious Ukrainian sun, and behind them were rows of barns in the style of the kolkhoz. There was a growing expectation that all men had to carry the motherland towards prosperity. Stalin’s first five-year plan was to drag Russia out of the dark ages, with a focus on heavy industry, and grain was the only commodity the country had to sell the world.

 

A year later the soft swish of ripe grain on the stem swept across the night-time landscape, but this time it was peppered by the cries of sheep, pigs and cows being slaughtered. It hadn’t taken long for the kolkhoz farms to become full, as they were increasingly seen as the only option. More farmland was swallowed, amalgamated into collective farms, and more machinery replaced manpower. Farms were ravaged, livestock herded off, granaries plundered for a dwindling supply of seed. As production targets increased the people grew hungrier and people were by the communists as too many mouths and bellies to feed. Families chose labour camps only over a bullet to the head, and the reports from the camps were grim. Shrinking skeletons, starvation and the very depths of human depravity lurked in the frozen shadows of the camps and Katya, curled against Ivan’s warmth in the weak light of early morning, made him promise never to take them there.

 

The meal that night was extraordinary. The boys ate so much meat that their bellies bulged and Alex could barely move from the table. Usually when Ivan slaughtered an animal they helped make sausages, or salted the meat before air drying as a means of preservation and to flavour a year’s worth of soups and stews. This time the animal carcasses were slung up and their blood dripped out onto straw in the barn. The boys were directed to drag all the sacks of seed grain and potatoes into the barn as well, along with jars of pickled vegetables and jams, every skerrick of food they had left.  Katya had Ivan construct an outdoor fire pit where she roasted a leg of lamb and both of the suckling pigs. A chicken stew bubbled on the stove inside and a crudely carved lump of steak sizzled in a pan for Ivan. When would they taste meat again?

After the meal was finished the family said their farewell. At midnight the barn fire gave off the defiant scent of burning fur and charred grain and something almost intangible; the smell of burning memories, play, happiness.

 

*****

 

This year, the feast had been replaced by famine. The heavy blue sky of the Ukrainian flag searched for the golden band of yellow ripe wheat, but was met instead by a landscape of broken dried stems and clods of dried earth, as if the crust of the earth was peeling back to reveal to reveal so many skeletons. Yet still Russia rushed towards progress, more hungry than the people she had forgotten to feed.

Standard
short story

The Military Chest

This short story was inspired by my recent trip to Scotland. It was at the end of winter and the bulbs were just beginning to flower, and every day saw more bluebells, snowdrops and jonquils blooming like paint spatters all over the forests and even on grassy verges beside the road. I drew ghost story for this one, and was pretty excited as I hadn’t written in that genre before. This story scored well and secured me a place in last year’s NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge finals. I moved between time periods to add history- from the present and a real estate agent trying to sell an old manor house that came with a title, to scenes from the tortured past of the former inhabitants. I did something quite despicable in this story, which was to trap a labouring woman inside a large military chest…..

 

The Military Chest

The approach to Falkland House was slow. The last half-mile snaked through woods of ash and aspen where the moss-covered skeletons of the trees formed loose arches over the road. Rotting leaves made the drive slippery, and on a few occasions Dana found herself gripping the steering wheel with white knuckles. She made a note to buy a decent pair of lined gloves. Every time she travelled to a new property, she tried to imagine it as prospective buyers would see it. A pessimist may see the pot-holes and narrow road and notice the isolation, while an optimist would be on the lookout for red squirrels or mating pairs of collared doves. It was her job to paint the property in an optimistic light…not an easy task on this occasion.

 

Dana had received the offer to show the property a month earlier. The agents like her accent- the slight hint of Australian made her sound honest. She remembered the phone call where she had asked the usual questions and took note of the answers: Yes, a few people had died there since it was built in 1750, but this was not unusual for a building of this age and there was no grave yard on site, which was good. Yes, the property came with a title, but the claiming of which would prove to be a legal nightmare for any prospective buyer, so questions in this direction were to be tactfully evaded. Unfortunately, a series of residents with poor taste and deep wallets had screwed with the aesthetics and due to budget constraints, Dana was advised to refurbish a single room in the classical style as an example of what might be achieved, given the right buyer.

 

When she pulled in, the vista of the house did not disappoint. The woods had cleared at the last minute to reveal a symmetrical, sepia toned sandstone building straight out of an 18th Century romance novel, complete with a rectangular tower in the centre. Not gothic, but close.

 

******

 

A hive of activity surrounded Sir Ninian’s return to Falkland house, but the man himself seemed exhausted, deflated. His butler was given a private audience in the first instance, and the details of the master’s service in the Boer War was disclosed so that the downstairs help were necessarily informed. Sir Ninian had found it difficult to cope in the heat and humidity of the African continent and his skills in marksmanship and physical endurance were thwarted by the driving sandstorms and poor diet he was forced to endure on the African continent. The British loss was a blow, but he was glad to be back in Scotland. After formalities, he embraced his wife Margaret with all the strength left in his arms and found his wife much thinner than when he had left. He requested that the footman unload his belongings and large military chest, and had the items sent to the master bedroom. Margaret sensed his exhaustion and sent the chambermaid- Hannah- to draw him a bath.

 

******

 

Dana took note that the entrance hall was not as badly ruined as the rest of the house, for the fact that it was plain- dark wood panelling and a scuffed marble floor. It wasn’t covered in lime and yellow wallpaper like some of the rooms, and hadn’t been painted shades of ‘fuchsia’ with trimmings of ‘banana boat’ like the others. The interior for the most part was tasteless and tacky, as if someone in the 80s had tried very hard to brighten it up before boarding up the door and leaving it for good. It was rare that people sold a property with a title, but the man who could have been the Laird had only lived here for a few years as a child, and was adamant in the advice letter that he would never be returning. Her plan was to decorate one of the rooms in the classical style, to show prospective buyers what was possible. She was pleased that the master bedroom, though darkened by a layer of candle soot and in desperate need of a good hot mopping to remove various stains from the floor, was relatively untouched. For now, she set herself up in one of the smaller bedrooms and fell into a heavy sleep.

 

******

 

There was no point hiding the fact of Hannah’s pregnancy. The girl would not say which of the young men it was, and after a stern talking to by Margaret about the continued performance of duties, Hannah was relieved she was able to stay on at Falkland House even after the child was born. ‘We are not so harsh as they are in England. The Scots, at least, have their pride and humanity intact.’ But as Hannah grew round and rosy, the lady of the house seemed to shrivel and shrink. There had been such hope, for such a long time before the Laird had gone to war, that Margaret would conceive an heir. But now that he was back it seemed that their relationship lacked affection, and she seemed much older than her one and thirty years.

 

*******

 

Dana gasped awake, left with a sensation of claustrophobia, of being trapped. Her back and legs felt sore, as if she’d spent the night curled in a foetal position. The morning light was falling in pale shreds through the dusty window, and she noticed that there had been a hard frost overnight. A man who maintained the property grounds was coming to assist her today, and she made her way outside when she heard the approaching hum of a land rover.

 

The man seemed old, wiry, and he wore a light t-shirt even though the day was icy. ‘You must be Ivan.’ Dana put her hand out and shook the man’s hand and noticed him glance over her shoulder towards the house.

‘I’ve bought the items you asked for. They’re on loan, mind, and must be returned in the same condition.’

‘Of course. Absolutely.’ He gestured towards the back of the vehicle. Inside was a large oil painting with a gilt wooden frame. The shellac gloss had faded and cracked, but Dana could see the proud figures; the Laird and his lady. ‘So, this is Sir Ninian and…’

‘Margaret. Commissioned on his return from the war.’ Looking at the couple felt like looking directly into the past.

‘Have you worked here for a long time?’

‘I’ve been caretaking the grounds since before the family left. My days are much more…predictable now. The young master was a bit of a firebug, and on some days, I felt more like a volunteer firefighter than a groundskeeper. He seemed intent on burning the place to the ground. Hoarded candles. The paintings, curtains and the vintage clothing were removed for safe keeping, and eventually donated to the local museum. There might be some other furniture in the garden shed, if you need more.’ He gestured to the painting, ‘where am I going with this?’

‘The master bedroom.’ She followed him with her eyes and noticed how he hesitated at the threshold, before straightening his back and disappearing inside.

 

Ivan was clearly uncomfortable in the room; he helped her hang the curtains and the painting but took his leave as soon as this was done. Dana admired the room which looked much better already- the brocade curtains gave it a kind of grace and grandeur she was hoping for, and the painting of the Lord and Lady would be a talking point for potential buyers. She noted the composition of the painting; the figures were central and on one side were the curtains, and on the other side a few items from his service including a large military chest. She considered the back packs modern soldiers used today and wondered at how much the world had changed. Margaret looked fierce and proud, a small woman with dark hair and green eyes. She rested her hand on his shoulder. Sir Ninian had a rifle resting against his leg and his eyes looked towards something in the distance, as if looking out across the moors.

That night Dana could barely sleep. She was restless and her legs and back seemed to ache for no reason. She also thought she heard a woman moaning- not from inside the house but from somewhere in the garden. The sounds would increase in intensity and then fade away again and it was only in the early hours of the morning that they seemed to stop and Dana got some rest.

 

******

 

A cold breath of wind was blowing up the glen the day the Laird set off for Edinburgh. The servants had given lady Margaret a wide berth for the last few weeks as her temperament seemed increasingly irrational and spiteful. Hannah had been relieved of duties as she was nearing term, and the other maids were surprised when the lady summoned Hannah to the master bedroom.

 

******

 

Ivan was right, the garden shed held some very useful items of furniture, as well as spare tallows for the candelabra. She didn’t find the four-poster bed she was hoping for, but she did find an ornate coat stand and the military chest from the painting, which she semi-dragged back to the house.

 

******

 

‘He told me what happened.’ Margaret’s face was pale, even in the orange candleflame, and her eyes were dark and hollow. Hannah sobbed hot tears and bent her head down as she waited for her lady to finish speaking. ‘You disgust me. Pack your bag and be gone by the time he returns.’

‘But the baby…it wasn’t my fault. On the night he returned, he set upon me as I was drawing the bath. He was like an…animal.’ With that Margaret lashed out and grabbed Hannah’s hair, pulling on it so violently that the pregnant woman fell forward onto her knees and the side of her head collided heavily with the corner of the chest. The candelabra was rocking, slashing the room with flickering light and hot drips of tallow.

 

******

 

Dana woke that night to the sounds of the woman moaning as before, but this time it was much louder and coming from the master bedroom. Strangely, she could see the flicker of a flame and as she moved closer saw a woman moving around inside the room. The figure seemed to glow a pale blue and the shadows seemed to twist and blur the edges of the silhouette. Dana froze in horror when she recognised the spectre as Margaret, somehow free from the painting and pacing around the room. The figure continued to pace, wringing its hands and muttering, while the moaning from the military chest got louder and more urgent; sometimes asking for help, at other times enduring what must be the wracking contractions of labour. Why did she not let the woman out? Dana felt sick, but could not look away, and time seemed to speed up and slow down all at once, until the moaning had finally stopped. And then one last sound, barely audible; the gurgling cry of a newborn baby. Then the ghost made for the chest and grabbed at the lock and in that moment the morning light filtered into the room and the vision dissolved.

 

Dana had to know. She dragged the chest out onto the lawn. With an axe and the vison of Margaret’s ghost in her mind, she swung it and cracked the lock. She had to know what- or who- was inside. The chest seemed to exhale a deep final breath as she opened the lid. Inside were the skeletal remains of a woman, with dried blood on the shreds of her uniform. But…there were no bones belonging to a baby. Then Dana’s vision blurred and she saw Hannah slowly rise on shaky legs, before flowing away on the breeze; the trail of her freed spirit causing clusters of snow drops to burst from their buds.

 

Standard
short story

A Character in That Story

This particular entry for the NYC Midnight short story competition is from last year and I really enjoyed writing this one. I drew fantasy, a private detective and an adoption as my prompts. I wrote my first draft so quickly that I had a good amount of time for editing, which was a rare luxury, and I ended up finishing at the top of my heat.

After growing up on a diet of fairy tales, I really wanted to subvert the genre and twist that oppressive ideal that the youngest and most beautiful sister is also the most good, gracious and deserving of love. I also came up with the idea that somewhere there exists some ancient scrolls upon which are written the seven archetypal stories and played with the possibilities of tampering with the originals. I wanted the older sister to be the heroine of the story, and for the sidekick to be a genie- fantasy creatures from Islamic culture are often overlooked in the new wave of fantasy creature popularity so I thought this was good choice.

I documented my brainstorming for this one. I found that mapping it out really assisted my thought process and it was an approach I have taken in all subsequent planning phases.

IMG_2647

I tried to play with some of the common assumptions in fairy stories, and twist them. Also, I deliberately chose not to have a happy ending for the same reason.

Synopsis: An older sister, fed up with the formula of the fair maiden story, sets out to put things right.

 

A Character in that Story

Smoke from the evening hearth-fire had settled in the canopy and the trees cast twisted shadows in the moonlight. Eduard, a young detective famed for finding wanted criminals and missing persons, had met with a poor woodcutter earlier in the day. The distressed man had offered him a pitiful sum of money to find his missing daughter.  Eduard tried to avoid charity cases, but this case seemed… intriguing. As he drew closer to the cottage Eduard took a mental note of the restless silhouette of a young woman he saw through the window. He smoothed his hair and tapped on the door. He could hear the deep rattle of a man’s voice. A woman whispering. A moan? It was not long before he heard the heavy bolt slide back and without pleasantries, was ushered into the kitchen.

The mother of the missing girl was sitting, ashen faced, clutching a small leather-bound book to her chest. The father was a large man whose face looked kindly in the flickering light, but his calm was betrayed by white knuckles as he clutched a heavy tankard of ale. Their younger daughter was the person he’d seen pacing the room, and she was introduced as Jasmine. She had long golden hair, fine features, milky skin. She should have been attractive but somehow the detective did not find her so. He glanced at her and established that she had been having a tantrum. The mother made a gesture for Eduard to sit, and he gently began trying to tease out the details.

The couple had two. The eldest was Petunia who her father described as ‘big boned with broad shoulders, large hands, thin brown hair and a plain face; an unremarkable girl. Not wicked but stubborn.’ They had found the youngest as a babe in the forest glade; she was so tiny and delicate they decided she must be of royal blood and made a petition to the King so that would be allowed to adopt her. Their wish was granted and the couple grew completely besotted with the angelic and good-natured daughter they christened Jasmine. ‘We just knew she was special, destined for great beauty, love and a happily ever after.’ The young detective was taking some notes and Jasmine moved beside him and touched his hand, at which he instinctively recoiled. This physical gesture, although slight, was enough to start her off pacing the room again.

‘Tell him daddy. Tell him what happened the day she left.’

‘It had been a really exciting time, with Jasmine getting so many marriage proposals. Princes from far and wide were making the journey just to get a glimpse of her beauty. Some were handsome, others rich, but Jasmine knew she had not yet found her true love.’ Eduard directed a question to the girl’s mother.

‘Did Petunia seem jealous of this attention?’

‘She never mentioned marriage. She was plain looking, but she could have become a scullery maid or similar. On the day she left, the girls had a huge fight. Jasmine had been singing to a nightingale when Petunia pushed past her with an armload of wood. The bird was startled and Jasmine had called her sister a “dirty toad”. As soon as the words were said, Petunia started hacking, and then…she coughed out a toad.’ Jasmine’s face contorted as she remembered the scene, and grew animated as she added more to her mother’s story.

‘It was disgusting, so I called her a toad again and she coughed up a second one! Petunia looked scared, shocked at her own repulsive behaviour.’ At this the mother began to sob and shake and Eduard put a hand on her shoulder to reassure the woman.

‘What happened next?’

‘Petunia grew agitated and went bright red in the face and we were worried that she would attack poor Jasmine. She kept saying she was fed up, that in the books she read- and in life- it was always the same.  She vowed to find the archetypal ‘beautiful maiden story’ and rewrite it so that plain girls and older sisters could have a fair chance in life, that youth and beauty would no longer be automatic predictors for finding love and happiness. Then she shoved her things in her bag and left. We didn’t try to stop her because we thought she would be back in her own time. We didn’t think she’d go through with it until we received her journal in the mail and all the other misfortunate events started to make sense.’

***

Tuesday, October 17th

The first days after I left were spent at Craegmoor Tavern, deciding exactly where to go. I had a little bit of money, and managed to win some coins from gullible strangers. No one I spoke to seemed to know anything about the origins of fairy tales, not least where the manuscripts were kept. But on the third day I met a travelling spice merchant who said that I should journey to the cradle of man, for surely the stories were as ancient as civilisation itself. This was good advice, and later on I versed him in a game of backgammon and won a purse full of exotic jewels. I was able to buy supplies, and this journal. Tomorrow I leave Craegmoor. I may be causing my family some anguish, although I do not pretend that they’ll miss me. All I know is that I don’t deserve to cough up a toad any time Jasmine perceives me doing something unladylike. I refuse to be a character in that story.

 

Sunday, December 12th

My travels have taken me along the Silk Road towards Egypt. The colours are so vibrant here: the golden egg yolk of saffron; the brightest blue crystal is ground to a paste and used to paint the city walls the colour of an Indian summer; bright blood red is extracted from the tiny gland of a beetle and used to dye cotton. I have seen Saris the colour of captured pink sunsets, dresses greener than apple juice and linen bedspreads the deep golden brown of ancient amber. My family would not recognise me now. I have stained my skin with a deep tannin tea so that I do not look like a foreigner. I have left the name Petunia behind. I’m no longer a garden weed and have taken the name Amal, which means hope. Hope is what I need, as I had resolved to travel next to Egypt.

Saturday, February 1st

I have acquired a unique travelling companion. Weary on the streets of Cairo I came upon a small shop selling rugs, pipes and lamps. While escaping the heat I noticed a small brass lamp, similar to ones I’d read about in the Arabian Nights stories. I tried to remember the magic words and came out with ‘abracadabra’. A voice inside the lamp snapped back, sounding cross and talking in Arabic, which I could not understand. Then I tried rubbing the lamp and out poured a genie in a puff of smoke; he bowed and introduced himself as Asmo. He insisted he was at my service and offered me three wishes. I knew it was a bad idea to accept, but I was so desperate to know the location of the stories I sought, that I made my first wish without considering the consequences. And that is how I set my journey course to cross the white hot sands of the Sahara Desert, destined for the ancient city of Timbuktu.

***

Jasmine remained agitated as Eduard turned his attention to the journal. He marvelled at the sketches, sighed at the poetry and found himself getting lost in the descriptions of foreign, exotic lands.

‘She’s a filthy hag. It’s all her fault.’

‘What’s all her fault?’

‘Everything is going wrong.  At first it was my singing voice. I woke up one day and found that I couldn’t hit the high notes.’ Jasmine wiped a hot tear from her eye and Eduard noticed that her voice did indeed sound a bit coarse. ‘Then a squirrel actually bit me when I tried to pick it up! Normally forest animals come and sit and snuggle in my lap.’ She showed him a nasty puncture wound on her hand which was beginning to fester. ‘But the worst part…the very worst part? I’ve had no marriage proposals in three months! The prince I finally decided I would marry sent me a short condolence letter, explaining that he would not be continuing his suit with me, and would instead be marrying the daughter of a local apple farmer. This woman is older than him and has sunspots on her face.’ Jasmine’s hands had closed into fists. ‘He said he respected her work ethic and the fact that she had solved the problem of an apple blight disease which had in turn saved the town’s annual harvest.’  She jabbed her index finger on the journal. ‘Every incriminating detail is in there. Just find her and bring her back so that she can be punished. I wish she was a toad. I wish she would disappear off the face of the earth forever.’

The woodcutter saw Eduard out the door and when they were alone he expressed a deep concern for Jasmine’s change in character. Rejection had made her bitter and he hoped that something could be done to bring back Petunia and resolve the conflict. Eduard tucked the journal inside his coat and offered assurances that he would do all things possible to find her. But when he got home he was not thinking of Petunia. He lit a candle and immersed himself in more of the wondrous adventures of Amal.

 

***

February 28th

Asmo has a sorry story himself. He says no-one has any respect for a fantasy creature first mentioned in the Qur’an, not least an old one with a thick moustache, hairy arms, puffy pants and curly slippers. He says that creatures of European origin are far more desirable. Only sprites, fairies, leprechauns or elves ever got to go on human adventures anymore.

 

May 12th

Travel across the Sahara is by night when the sand is hard and the camel drivers navigate by the stars. My lips are cracked and my skin is burnt and peeling in patches, but after a month we have finally arrived in Timbuktu. I cover my hair in a muslin cloth and have taken to wearing thick kohl mascara in the local style. After the corrosive sand of the desert destroyed my boots I almost used my second wish for a comfortable pair of sandals, but Asmo reminded me that it would be wiser to purchase a pair at a bazaar, and save the wishes for more important things. By day I marvel at the golden mango trees, the pale sandstone buildings and the nomads draped in white or blue burqas. I have taken to drinking coffee that is black and ultra-sweet. The library here is filled with ancient manuscripts, and everywhere there are gilt statues, a reminder of the riches of a place that once provided the whole world with gold…and stories.

 

May 13th

I used my second wish today. After weeks of covert searching we discovered the location of the vault, deep in the tunnels below the city, containing the scrolls of the seven archetypal stories. The cell was locked so I wished to vaporise so that I could enter through the keyhole. It was the most curious sensation, as if I had become a tendril of smoke from an incense stick. When I gained my form inside the room, I’d never felt so heavy with the pull of gravity.

***

Eduard felt a deep yearning which he convinced himself would only be fulfilled by professing his all-consuming love for Amal. This was more than just a piece of detective work. He felt that deep inside he was an archetypal player in one of the most ancient of true love stories; that somehow Amal had rewritten her own destiny to include him.

In the Sahara, when even the night could not fight off the exhaustion of day, he would reread the journal. Amal shifting to smoke and travelling through a keyhole. Amal blowing dust away and taking down, one by one, the seven scrolls that contained the seven archetypal stories until she found the one she sought. She did not alter the story where the debt must be paid or the story where man suffers from a fatal flaw. She left alone the story of the love triangle and the story of the hero that triumphs in the face of fear. When she found the fair maiden story, she set about making the necessary changes…

***

May 20th

I’m sending this journal home so you’ll know I’m alive and safe. I have a sense that my words are already taking effect, and I hope that Jasmine finds her strength and comes to enjoy her new freedoms. Masa Mala, daughter of the ailing King, successfully petitioned to become a ruler without a husband, and today Timbuktu has crowned its first female King. But Asmo is deeply worried as he still owes me one more wish. He begged me to rewrite the story that warns us to be careful what we wish for, but I told him that care and caution are virtues not to be tampered with. 

***

Eduard wandered most days through the street markets of Timbuktu. He lingered in the marble library, always with an eye for people coming and going. He haunted the university foyer and frequented cafes, hoping to catch sight of her.  More often he spent the hottest part of the day inside an ale house. It was on one such occasion that he saw…Asmo? He resembled the old genie from Amal’s sketches, and was reclining heavily against the wall of the tavern. Eduard touched his shoulder and held out the journal. Asmo rubbed his eyes awake. ‘Do you know the woman who owns this?’ Asmo exhaled a long sorrowful sigh.

‘Oooh! Sir, she is gone. Oooh! Gone. I had no choice but to grant her final wish.’ And then Asmo revealed the final chapter of the story.

***

Amal grew restless with guilt for her sister. She finally summoned the genie to her chamber, and despite his protests, she wasted no time making her final wish: for Jasmine to be granted the thing she desired most in the world. But as soon as the words were spoken Amal’s skin began to change in texture. It grew grey and knobbly and she fell to her knees which had become curved and rubbery. Her eyes bulged from blue to murky yellow, and her body shrank until she was fully transformed into a large toad. Asmo tried to think; reversing an animal transformation was not impossible. But there was one even crueller event. As the genie scooped up the frightened creature it simply vanished. Amal had disappeared off the face of the earth.

Standard
flash fiction

The Human Zoo

This historical fiction story was inspired by the Paul Kelly song Rally Round the Drum  about an Aboriginal man who was a travelling tent boxer. I wanted him to be the main character in my own story and have him travelling with the circus but returning home to Kokatha country in South Australia. I’ve always been interested in very early Australian migration and that horrid era of human history that was all about gawking at human ‘curiosities,’

 

The Human Zoo

At first they appeared like irregular blisters on the horizon. The procession moved so slowly that no one knew when it changed from mirage to something tangible. The red dust and lingering heat swirled around the fluid shapes of the figures, the animals, the carts. The leader seemed so elongated that his top hat reached the sky and his legs looked like spindle-sticks, barely able to carry his weight. As they drew nearer it was clear that he was leading a troupe of three camels that rocked and swayed along the dirt track. Behind him a smaller man rode a grey Asian elephant. Then came three horse drawn wagons with heavy curtains to conceal the identity of the occupants, then came more people, some on horseback, others on foot, and bringing up the rear were three slow moving trucks, all featuring the same yellow logo, ‘Wirths Circus’ and in smaller lettering ‘bare-fist boxing tent’ and  ‘Australia’s only human zoo.’

 

Yesterday it was a patch of red dirt and saltbush, but today the red and yellow bunting announced that the circus had arrived. The exotic spectacle bloomed like a pocket of desert wildflowers. In the centre was the big top and around it were smaller tents and an assortment of animal cages; a Bengali tiger paced ceaselessly up and down, a green parrot squawked and attempted to stretch its wings inside a cage that was too small and a monkey, tethered to a stake, attempted feverishly to pry itself free.

 

Kid Snowball was nursing an injury to his knuckle, but that didn’t dampen his mood. He was used to this hard end of a tough game, and he enjoyed his title as bare-fist boxing champ. But today he was finally back on Kokatha home country, country of the dreamtime serpent Akurra. It had taken a whole year of touring but he’d finally come home. He smiled at the thought of the sacred healing springs, the bush tucker and most of all, his people. Most nights his fights were fairly easy to win; a drunk white bloke would cough up the dough to fight a wiry little black man who proved too quick. Sometimes he copped hate and matched up against men who wanted to kill him, but mostly the fights were over quickly, usually when he landed a stinging double jab to an unsuspecting brow or chin. Kid Snowball could take a fair bit of pain, but most of his opponents could not. His plan tonight was to vanish after the last fight and return to his tribe. He was done with the boxing tent.

 

Crowds of people flowed in from the morning onwards, but it wasn’t until the ringmaster lit the flare at nightfall that anyone was allowed inside. People enjoyed the spectacle in the Big Top, the horses, the trained dogs, the proud but obedient elephant; but it was the human zoo tent that was proving most popular, especially for its newest curiosity. There had been many inhabitants in the last few years- a bearded lady, a few dwarves, and a Chinese ‘princess’ who displayed a pair of tiny deformed feet that she had been binding since childhood. Last year Wirths had even captured a Palawa, a Tasmanian Aboriginal woman and had touted her as the last of her tribe. She was fierce, but her people had spent 10,000 years on an island and she had taken ill with a white fella’s fever from which she never recovered. It was Snowball who had been charged with burying her in the dust of a foreign homeland. He cried salty tears for her and refused to eat or fight for a week.

 

When his final bout was over, Snowball was drawn one last time by the candle glow of the human zoo tent. Identical twin girls were dressed in identical frocks and played patty cake. An old man reclined on a cushion and the flickering light revealed a pair of knobbly horns just below his hairline. He had a few words in broken English and told the audience that he was ‘an offspring of the devil himself’. But it was the giraffe-necked woman that everyone had really come to see, and that Snowball wanted to say goodbye to. She sat upright, unmoving. Around her elongated neck were twelve brass rings and she wore a traditional green tunic. Her black hair was swept into a high bun which accentuated the exotic tilt of her head. Wirths were pretty tight-lipped about where their curiosities came from, but it was rumoured that she was of the Kayan people, captured at gunpoint from a jungle in Burma. The only possession she had with her was some sort of carved doll and Snowball felt sick to think that she may be a mother. Tonight she looked weak and her eyes were glassy. He gently touched her forehead and his hand recoiled from the heat of her skin. She was burning.

 

If he hadn’t been on home country, Kid Snowball might have let nature take its course, he might have had no choice but to let her die. But here he knew the plants, the healing places and he knew how to find the Kokatha medicine man.  He waited for a long time until the crowd was gone and even the restless monkey was asleep. He crept on silent feet to where she lapsed in and out of consciousness.

 

She felt ghost-light in his arms as he carried her into the desert and comforted her in his language. In the morning the only sign that they had been there was a broken doll’s head. And when the shapes of the circus faded into the haze, the land was busy composing a new history: of the famous homecoming of Kid Snowball and the giraffe-necked woman who joined the Kokatha tribe.

 

Two years later, three more Kayan women disappeared from Wirth’s Circus and after a lengthy investigation, the circus were forced to close its human zoo.

 

 

Standard
short story

Black Sunlight

Synopsis: When the whole earth caught fire, the survivors sought refuge underground. But what if the substance that caused so much damage could also bring salvation?

 

Black Sunlight

Even the thin grey dawn light was dangerous, but Zara was close to the cave opening. This foray had been successful and her little jerry can sloshed with petrol, just enough for the last assassination. She loved the smell of petrol, so pungent and volatile, and so very hard to find. As usual, her feet were blackened and the surface ash filled the lines on her hands and face with thin grey spider webs. The communicon unit glowed pale green inside her pocket and as she approached the cave mouth, she pressed her thumb against its smooth scan panel. Blip. The entrance sensor flickered off and she descended, still pleased that the former clumsy trip wire system had finally been replaced. Progress!

 

The cool air brought a familiar scent of home from the subterranean metropolis; a mix of ancient black shale and stale human sweat. She moved down on rough hewn steps, past layers of loose rock, down through the coal bed and deeper through layers of sandstone and fossils from the ancient inland sea. Deeper still came the hard volcanic layers that had once flowed as lava and that had folded and cleaved into the natural cave system she called home. They had christened the city Petra, like the ancient Jordanian wonder of the world, and like its namesake, Petra was also a façade, not planned but forged out of the rock, out of an urgent need to survive. In the end it was the natural environment of the place that ensured that survival. Zara’s father correctly predicted that they would find an access point to the Great Artesian Basin, the vast subterranean aquifer fed by one hundred year old rain. A large soak of crude oil was also discovered in the first few days but no one dared suggest any use for it, certainly not to burn for light.

 

Her earliest memory fragments were of an endless summer that ended when the earth burst into flames. The atmosphere so thin and fragile that solar flares sparked wildfires. Forests burnt so hot that trees exploded and the ember attacks in turn brought down towns and eventually whole cities. Anything would burn if it got hot enough. She remembered death, anger, loss and a blacking out of the sun by plumes of ash. In the darkest days there were vigilante attacks on the people responsible: mining bosses, coal magnates, oil barons. With crops gone and stores destroyed food was scarce, rivers had boiled in their beds; the hungry days had begun. Thirst. Running. Hunger pangs. Sheltering in an underground car park with other families. People who never came back. Her father staying up long into the night with a geology textbook, studying a topographic map. A hot and thirsty trek across charred landscape and rubble and the final breath of relief when they descended into the cave system that would become their haven.

 

Zara emerged into the still centre of Petra. The largest cavern was lit with a myriad of softly glowing solar lanterns. There was no traffic here, no rumble of engines, no fumes. After stumbling past the entrance sensor, newcomers were stopped and examined. Usually they had distorted red faces, solar flare blisters and sunburn and if they still had voices, they begged for water. Most were taken through the narrow crevasse into the migrant quarter and jailed in temporary isolation caves as part of their quarantine. Many complained about the lack of light there, but none complained about the abundant drinking water or food.

 

As she moved through the Justice Centre she glanced at the cave that held the last political prisoner. Above his cell in bright white ochre were the words: DESTROY THE DESTROYERS. Tomorrow he would breathe the breath that killed him. So subtle, yet so deliciously ironic. She wondered what sort of job she would be given after the assassination and hoped it wasn’t something dull like birth-mother. She’d been working on a little project almost ready to be revealed. She stopped in at the little library of unburnt books and checked out the Ford Engine Maintenance Manual. She didn’t want anything going wrong tomorrow.

 

On the way to her workshop, Zara passed the solar rooms. Holes had been drilled to allow sunlight to shine down from the surface. In some rooms, the light fed panels and solar batteries that powered all the technology in Petra; from cooking to communications devices, solar was the only power they needed. Some of the wide caves were bathed in sunlight that bled through small holes and cracks which was then carefully filtered through wire mesh and moss. Plant seeds rescued from the surface thrived into forms and shades of vibrant green chlorophyll. In the taller rooms an olive was fruiting for the first time and a pecan was groaning under the weight of its annual crop. Fast growing tropicals including papaya and tamarillo were favourites with the little ones. In the smallest chamber, unfiltered sunlight was used to garner confessions from prisoners. It only took ten minutes in the gaze of that death god for people to plead, blister, bleed…and then confess.

 

In the early days, when the group had strengthened, there had been raiding parties who dragged people out of underground bunkers- politicians, corrupt officials, mining company CEOs- anyone deemed responsible for mass scale environmental destruction, the loss of culture, the decimation of human civilisation. The holding cells filled up and the assassinations became an important cathartic puzzle piece for cleansing the past. As the prisoners grew fewer, the deaths had become more planned, ritualised; an annual rather than daily event.

 

Billy was waiting for Zara in the workshop. His pale arms were blackened to the elbows and his face was streaked with oil. He smiled a boyish grin. “I’ve greased the ball joints. What’s next?” Zara put the engine manual down on a clean part of the bench and carefully turned to the pages about servicing the carburettor.

“Clean the battery terminals, they’re a little corroded.” Billy grabbed some steel wool and got to work. Zara poured a small amount of precious petrol into a shallow dish, enjoying the pungent vapor. “I’m going to clean the needle and seat. I also think there’s a blocked jet. Once that’s done we can do a practice run.” Billy smiled, eager to get back behind the wheel.

 

When Billy was younger, Zara started taking him with her on night-time trips to the surface. He had never known the earth in daylight and the two moved across long distances together, roaming, looking for useful items. He’d shown a keen interest in cars. Most were mangled lumps but occasionally they would discover a vehicle that was partially intact, or one that would splutter into life. There had been much discussion, but Zara finally convinced the elders to let her and Billy reconstruct a car. Permission was given with a number of conditions. Zara was to meticulously document the workings of the internal combustion engine. While the burning of fossil fuels was considered evil and blamed for mankind’s demise, knowledge of mechanics could be valuable in the future. She was also to design an extraction system for removal of the dangerous carbon dioxide. The elders finally agreed to her plan when she proposed to use the carbon dioxide emitted by the exhaust system to exterminate the prisoners. Poetic justice.

 

After checking to make sure the surface vent was open in the adjoining death chamber, Zara and Billy carefully examined the exhaust hose for cracks or leaks. Once they were sure there were no problems, they were ready. This time she let Billy sit in the driver’s seat and talked him through the process of ignition. He’d tried a few times before, but Zara needed to make sure he wasn’t going to flood the engine. The car rumbled into life and then stalled.

“You have to give it a little more gas. Try to keep it smooth, regular.” He tried again and this time the engine rumbled loudly, then settled into a deep mechanical purr. “Nice one. Keep it even.” Billy frowned in deep concentration and licked his lips. His hands rested on the useless steering wheel. “Tomorrow you’ll be doing this for real.”

“How long will it take?”

“He’s already frail. Maybe an hour.” Billy stared straight ahead and tried to imagine an earth he’d never seen in daylight. Streets. Wide open roads.

“I want to know what it’s really like to drive, to move so fast across the earth that it feels like flying.”

“Maybe one day you’ll find out.”

“I hope so.”

 

In the dim light from the surface dawn, the people gathered in the sacred place at the water’s edge. The rock above glistened and dripped with moisture that cooled the chamber with a sweet ancient breath. The pool glowed and fizzed with a blue effervescence that extended into the infinite blackness of the cave system.

 

When the fractured light formed an intense natural spotlight on the cave floor, the gathered crowd grew still, expectant. An elder in a long patchwork robe motioned for the the last prisoner to be brought forward into the light. The man tried to pull away but was held firmly in place; forced to his knees, back to the crowd. His tissue white skin reacted at once and it took mere seconds for his shoulders and back to hiss and blister.

“Bernard Steven Hayward. You are accused of environmental vandalism.” He shivered and squinted at the faces around him.

“You were CEO of Deepwater Horizon.”

The crowd responded, “filthy oil miner.”

The prisoner was shaking and he rocked on the spot.

“You bribed officials and destroyed legislation that would reduce emissions.”

“Filthy fuel burner.”

“You spilt eleven million gallons of oil into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.”

“Filthy polluter.”

“And you have confessed!” A gurgle came from his throat as he attempted to speak, barely audible.

“I…I…I didn’t know. I did it for my shareholders.” A buzz went through the crowd who erupted into ripples of laughter.

“Your shareholders are dead. You killed them. We hold you responsible for the incineration of three thousand years of human history, the destruction of cultures, the devastation of wilderness, the final decimation of the atmosphere and the complete annihilation of the water cycle.” The man began to convulse in big silent sobs as the crowd cheered and clapped. He’d been waiting a lonely fifteen years for this moment.

 

Zara waited for the noise to subside before stepping forward from the shadows. From between her toes to the tips of her hair she had covered her naked body in a thick layer of glossy crude oil. Only the flash of blue from her eyes and the whites of her teeth betrayed her as being human. “I wish to speak.”

 

She moved forward and put her hand on the naked man’s shoulder, leaving a dark handprint on his red white skin. “Today we condemn the last environmental villain. We will burn fossil fuel for the last time and he will drown in the same odourless gas that ruined our precious planet.” The crowd was silent, expectant. “But today is not our past. Today begins our future.”

 

She motioned for the guards to move the prisoner out of the light, and took his place. The crowd hushed as she turned slowly in the intense spotlight, a full circle. Whispers. Murmurs. Disbelief. “I’ve been outside…in the sunlight….and I did not burn.” She stopped and faced the crowd. “I know how we can return to the surface,” the murmurs and voices grew louder, “the oil that destroyed us can save us!” Zara stood in the light with arms wide, palms opened towards the crowd.

 

The people who were there that day will attest that the light swirled and danced around her, then began to dim as it was absorbed into her body.

 

She was their statuesque saviour.

 

An onyx idol of black sunlight.

Standard
flash fiction

Marella

For this flash fiction story I lucked out and was assigned romance- a genre I don’t read…or write. The object was a locket and the setting was a nursing home. These prompts made feel very tired all of a sudden but I plugged away at my story. I built the story around food and memory, which I felt comfortable doing, and consequently I didn’t have to spend much time on the ‘lovey’ part. The judges really liked this one.

 

Marella

Every morning it was the same. The strawberry jelly was pale and thin and melted to sugar water in her mouth. The apples were stewed for too long and with too much sugar, and they held none of the tartness she longed for. Marella sighed and wriggled her toes in weak protest. Her firm bed was a long way from the spring orchard of her youth and her feet in heavy socks could barely remember the sensation of dew-crisp grass. She had spent so many years alone in this place that being alone had become who she was.

Lunch was another beige feast. Cardboard luncheon meat, pale corn kernels, the muted red-browns of three bean mix and a splodge of grainy potato salad. The little dining hall was a long way from the red cedar table at the back of their favourite pub where she would meet him and they would devour smoked bacon soup or relish the vinegar sweetness of a crisp pickled onion with bread and sharp crumbly cheese. She would eat him with her eyes as they drank mugs of warm Guinness followed by slow malty kisses. But he was long gone now, and she had not been able to follow him so easily to the grave.

In the evening the orderly wheeled in another insipid offering. A plastic plate kept warm under a matching plastic dome. When she lifted the lid, watery condensation ran in rivulets back onto the waterlogged beans, carrots and thin gravy that drowned a quiver of grey meat, long dead. She longed for their days of courting, midnight feasts by firelight, exotic spices, strange vegetables and strong red wine. She would watch his fingers and tongue as he sucked the marrow from the bones. They would drink Turkish coffee, short and sweet, and talk until the orange dawn cracked open a new day. Now the days were interminable.

The new chef caused quite a stir with some of the residents of Coronation Terrace. The men, for the most part, did not like his effeminate countenance, his long womanly fingers or the fact he wore a round silver locket around his neck. The women simply did not know what to make of the young man. Marella was fascinated by his youth and the light way he seemed to spring about as he introduced himself. She thought he smelt like spiced peaches and clean washing. She was not ready for the intense feeling of warmth she felt when he held her hand between both of his and looked her in the eye.

That night she dreamt for the first time in a long time. She floated to a numb and comfortable place where two new lovers were wrapped in a feather quilt, drinking smoky single malt scotch and making those whispered pledges, those ethereal building blocks for a life together. She was restless when she woke and refused to leave her room. She loved him, she needed him, and he was gone. She would often go without food when she was feeling like this and her cold longing would last for days before she let someone shove some nourishing slop between her lips. But today the new chef delivered the breakfast tray to Marella’s room himself. Her body didn’t move but her eyes following as he moved around the room. He touched his hand to his locket.

“There’s a secret spice inside this locket.” She raised an eyebrow. “Promise me you’ll try your breakfast…”

When he had been gone a long while, Marella gently bought the tray closer. It looked as if bubbles had become trapped in the citrus jelly cup and beside it two apricot halves glowed like an impressionist painting. When she lifted a weak spoon to her tongue, she was transported.

It was the toast on their wedding day. He looked nervous, his hand trembled as he held the stem of the glass and a light sweat glistened on his top lip. When he looked at her, everyone else in the room faded to a blur. The room shifted and settled, leaving only the two of them. He looked into her eyes, his mouth moving in a gentle rhythm, matched by the heavy slow beating of her heart.

“To us.”

For lunch the chef bought a soup of spring vegetables, just like the one she made fresh from the garden on their first anniversary. She’d cut everything so small that it barely needed cooking- beans, fennel, peas, leeks and sweet white-purple spring onions- and she’d lifted the flavour to heaven with a sprinkle of lemon thyme.

Marella was growing tired now, but she waited for the evening meal with a deep longing. When he bought the plate to her room she inhaled deeply and was swept back to Sri Lanka where they travelled on their first overseas holiday. White rice, oil-dry crisp pappadums and a saffron- red curry perfumed with cardamom, cloves and cinnamon. The scent had lingered on her clothes, her hair and on his lips. The tang of pineapple sambal, the dark salt of dried anchovies, and the smoke of dried chilli paled against the passion of their lovemaking as the silk curtains stirred in the haze of the late afternoon.

When the chef came in for the last time, she felt so content that it was only a gentle flutter of her eyelashes that acknowledged his presence. He left the offering of Turkish delight and closed the door behind him.

There had been so many roses at his funeral; white, yellow, red, pink. On the day she had been mute, a shell, a whisper lost on a howling wind. She had shut herself away as the flowers faded and the pinks and reds turned brown and withered, her own life shrinking on the stem.

She finally let herself taste the scent now, the delicate rosewater, and she opened herself at last.

 

 

 

 

Standard