flash fiction

The Shadow Factory

Below is my second round story for NYC Midnight Flash Fiction. I won’t know how this one scored until next weekend, but I found writing in the genre of fairy tale enjoyable and somewhat liberating. I drew inspiration from Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Fisherman and His Soul’.

 

The Shadow Factory

The old man held his grandson’s hand and the two walked towards the quiet part of the city.  Beyond the flashy entertainment and restaurant districts, past the sparkle and glitz of the retail quarter, their steps became slow and hollow on the stones. In the late afternoon, in the fading warmth of the sun, the man’s shadow was far ahead of him, looking through the dusty storefronts of the first few vacant buildings, appearing around corners and on walls before melting through the one-way glass of empty factory windows. The small boy beside him cast no shadow at all. On the boy’s face was the constant visage of disconnected euphoria, lips parted, the beginning of a smile, but a cold faraway look in his eyes.

 

In the fading light the man almost lost sight of his own shadow, but as he rounded the corner he saw the rectangle grey building that was their destination, and when he came to stand under the neon blue security spotlight, his shadow complied and fell back in under his feet. On the door there was a tarnished brass plaque that read ‘DarkenUp Industries’. The man knocked hard three times and waited for the soft click and low groan as the door inched open.

 

A stooped elven figure motioned the two inside and offered for them to sit at the walnut reception desk. The room hummed a little, as if somewhere in the bowels of the building, cogs were grinding and pistons were thrumming. When they were seated, the elf took his place again behind the desk. Elves were so often lithe and ethereal, but this one was ruddy with a nose ring and an eyebrow piercing.  His hands were square and gnarled at the knuckles and he turned up the oil lamp so that orange light licked the walls. In front of him he had readied a little pot of ink, a quill pen and piece of heavy parchment.  ‘Thank-you for meeting with us,’ said the man as he gestured towards the boy. ‘I really had nowhere else to turn and…’ The elf raised a hand in a motion for the man to stop.

‘Am I correct that you wish to make a formal request?’  The man nodded emphatically. The elf considered him sternly, then turned his attention to the child, whose expression had not changed. ‘Then I ask that you proceed in the agreed manner. Once I have documented your preamble, you may sign the form and we can finalise your request.’ The man sighed deeply and began…

 

‘Once upon a time there was a man who knew both light and dark. He was an honest man who worked hard every day, but he also grappled with the dark side of his nature. And it exhausted him. He would go to work and do his best, but would ignore someone begging on the street. He would gamble, and enjoy it. He would carry in wood for his elderly neighbour, but he would not stop to help a stranger in need. He would drink, and enjoy it. When he and his wife conceived a child he was overjoyed, and his one great desire was for the child to know more of the light and goodness in the world, and less of the dark. He wished for their child to have none of the failings of which he suffered. His wife wished for the same and they would sit up long into the night, hoping and dreaming for a child who was always good and kind and pure of heart. Their baby daughter came, and she flourished. Everyone noted the child’s kind disposition and how her days were filled with good deeds and random acts of kindness. When the golden-haired girl stood in the midday sun, she barely cast a shadow on the earth, such was the lightness of her soul. In time she met another kind-hearted soul and the two started their own family…’

 

The elf tapped his knuckles against the table, impatient for the man to finish.

 

‘But when the man became a grandfather and first held his grandson, he knew something was terribly wrong. As the boy grew he never frowned or cried or showed any emotion whatsoever, save for a kind of cold, disaffected euphoria. And he cast no shadow.’

 

The elf completed his scratchings and slid the page over to the man. ‘I understand you are here to purchase a shadow for the boy. Please read the disclaimer…then sign here.’ As the man signed, his signature seemed to glow with an otherworldly light, and a chill settled on his body. Then the elf stood and motioned for the two to follow him through a small door at the back of the room.

 

The shadow factory was a series of dark rooms with whirring machines and holding pools. In one room there were a series of tanks, with what looked like sparkly black fish darting about in moon-blue liquid. The elf took up a small net, expertly scooped up a fish and in a fluid motion, grabbed the boy’s arm and drew him close. He deftly pinched the child’s nose and when the boy opened wide to suck in breath, the elf slipped the wriggling black blob into his mouth. The boy gulped, wide-eyed, then stumbled back before doubling over. In that moment two elf factory workers, dressed in grey overalls, ushered the man into a different room so that he could fulfill his side of the agreement.

 

The two left the factory district. The child held the man’s hand in the dark. As they passed back through the flashy lights of the entertainment district, the child was wide-eyed and his cheeks grew stained with the hot tears he cried for the pain and poverty of his city, for the sorrow of his fellow man.  Beside him the old man was not moved by any site he saw, and he cast no shadow.

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flash fiction

Lake Serenity

This latest story is my first round entry for the NYC Midnight Flash fiction competition. I was glad to draw Sci Fi as I’m currently teaching the genre, and I drew much inspiration from the film Blade Runner, especially in my choice of narrator.

 

Lake Serenity

Synopsis: From mountains and rivers of trash comes something truly life-changing.

I’m not going to bore you with the logistics of space travel or recount how my past and my programming got me here to this solitary posting on a rancid planet. There’s no point describing my physical appearance to you, except that I understand the human desire for visuals. If you need to see me, think about the female replicants in the film Blade Runner, but take away the sequins and the lithe sexiness of Daryl Hannah and picture a thick outer layer of matt brown latex over mechanical limbs and you’ve got me. You can picture me naked if you like, but I never had clothes and was never designed to please the human eye. Unlike the fictional replicants, I’m a functioning relic of 21st century robotics; a machine of circuitry and solar powered cells. Deep inside my chest is one of the few remaining biochips, most likely programmed by a teenager during an era obsessed with gamification. Please forgive the tone of my narration; I only have four AI stats that define my ‘personality’.

 

58% inventive: My mission- helping mankind solve their trash crisis.

29% patient: The reason why I haven’t ripped my own circuits apart.

11% cynical: Yay (!)

2% pride: No joke. I guess they thought I needed a will to live.

 

On a clear day this place can be aesthetically pleasing. Under a thin white sky, the vast quantities of trash come to mimic the geological landforms of earth; rolling hills, deep valleys, multi-coloured mountains and glaciers of compacted whitegoods carving the landscape, creating deep ravines where rivers of oil and putrefied organic matter flow. My small factory is positioned beside a wide crater that gradually filled with liquid, swelling over the years to form a vast lake. In time the lake’s contents reacted with the mineral composition of the planet, turning the pool a deep blue-violet with a glossy surface and a slight effervescence. The cynic in me calls it Lake Serenity.

 

The garbage arrives weekly on a rectangular shaped freighter that simply hovers over a coordinate, rattles close to the surface and evacuates the load through crude dispenser doors.

The only requisite for trash planet was a field of gravity strong enough to retain the refuse, but not so powerful as to interfere with the aeronautical operations of the super-junkers. There’s no oxygen here, no human-life sustaining conditions, and in a way that is ironic, given the miracle product I manufacture.

 

Filtration day is always a thrill. I flick a switch and a valve opens, sucking liquid through a pipe positioned with an intake inlet just below the surface at the centre of the lake; a spot with the least contaminants. The moody blue fluid fills a sterile vat and then seeps through a series of increasingly fine filtration compartments and strainers, ensuring the end product contains no microparticles larger than pollen. The fluid is measured into large glass canisters and stacked neatly, ready for transportation to earth. The sludge collected on the strainers is carefully removed after every operation and stored in thick-walled holding tanks.

 

In the early days I had done a series of increasingly stringent tests on the sparkling blue liquid and deemed it safe for human consumption. At the very least it was an attractive drink with UV light reactive qualities and a texture both fizzy and silky. I finalised my report, along with a copy of the positive test results which indicated that it may even have restorative qualities for human cells. I’d also done a few tests on the by-product and deemed it unfit for human consumption. At room temperature the sludge was stable but when warmed to 37 degrees, the solution became volatile and would attack the cell walls of organic matter.

 

It took an interminable amount of time for the earth agency in charge of garbage shipments to respond, but eventually a craft was sent that hovered above my factory yard, lowered a freight platform and signalled for me to load my product. It was six months before a second collection vehicle arrived, this time taking five times the volume of the first and confirming its early popularity. The drink was to become so popular that the vessels would make a pick up every second week.

 

I was eventually provided with a detailed brochure of product marketing, distribution and reception. Most interesting to me was the fact that my partners on earth had been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for turning trash into a health tonic. ViBlu© was first used as a mixer in nightclubs. The purple glow under UV lights made it popular with bartenders and the slogan ‘Outta this world’ backed up by the truth of its off-world origin meant it was a marketer’s dream. When consumers reported an increase in energy levels, it was stocked on the shelves of health food stores and juice bars across every mega city on earth. Pretty glass bottles, glowing with vitality and sweetened with just enough skyberry flavour enhancer to suit the human palate. When scientists noticed that the ultrafine protein strands in ViBlu© soothed human nerve cells and resulted in a significant smoothing of wrinkled skin, the population went crazy for the stuff. A stunning example of human ingenuity.

 

I waited for personal recognition but none came. Maybe I was just an outdated clump of circuitry covered in brown latex, with a human programmed biochip in the place where my heart should be.

 

So, without an imagination it is impossible for me to picture the impact of the contaminated batch of ViBlu© on the human population. I don’t know if cells popped, if bodies exploded dramatically, if they withered over a number of days or if the effect was more like a slow spreading rash across the globe. What I do know is that the junkers have stopped and that no matter how patient I am, I’m only 2% satisfied, and forever is a long time.

 

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flash fiction

Bella Vista Dave

This was my entry for the semi-final round of NYC Midnight flash fiction comp. I was unhappy with so much about this story; I struggled with drama and the pool as a setting stumped me. In the end I got thinking about internet trolls, and how they have to be someone’s neighbour, and this in turn gave me a vision of Dave, lolling in the pool. My synopsis:

‘You may be offended by the sight of Fat Dave in the pool, but at the end of the day, there’s not much you can do about it.’

 

Bella Vista Dave

In the centre of the Bella Vista complex was the pool area. From all four townhouses, residents could look down on this tropical oasis. From above, it was the picture of perfect symmetry. Around the outside were gardens of golden palms, birds of paradise flowers, and the pink and orange of fringed hibiscus flowers. Tasteful sandstone tiles lined the perimeter of the rectangular pool, framing the deep sapphire blue of the water.

 

But use of the pool had become the subject of a number of complaints from the residents, and the body corporate had decided to settle the matter by vote at the upcoming AGM.  You see, at any time of the day or night, residents could look down and see the lolling figure of Dave on a Lilo in his tight shorts. Fat. Hairy. Often drunk. And they wanted it to stop.

 

Life was nearly perfect for Laura Randall, the resident at Number One. Her parents had bought her this townhouse, she had just been made assistant manager at Kara’s Kosmetics and she was certain Mike was going to propose to her any day now. She and Mike had spent most days in the pool last summer, but since Dave came and ruined the serenity, Mike had taken to surfing instead, and she was seeing less of him than she liked. When she looked down and saw Dave out there again, she swore under her breath and pursed her lips. She would definitely be voting to have him banned.

 

The resident at Number Two was Carlos. His son had left that year to study abroad, and Carlos often found himself sitting by the pool, contemplating life. But it seemed that no sooner had he sat down, Dave would come down and bomb into the water. They’d had some verbal confrontations early on, and Carlos worked to control his rage. Looking down at the prick, beer in hand, fat toes in the water, Carlos found himself fantasising about what he’d really like to do to Dave. Grab him by the throat. Hold him under the water a little too long. Feel the life drain out of his flabby body. But it had taken Carlos years to learn to control his anger and he wasn’t about to lose control on some pathetic slime ball loser in the pool area. Let the vote decide.

 

Elizabeth Perkins, resident at Number Three, had been the most vocal about Dave and his use of the pool. She had just retired from a long career as a school headmistress and was desperate for some rest and relaxation. Early on she had visited Dave at Number Four and implored him to give her some space. He’d given her a dumb confused grin and closed the door in her face. She tried to find out more about him, but there wasn’t much to know. He worked online from home, which was the reason he always seemed to be around. After she let her feelings be known, he made a point of coming down every time she tried to swim. And he started doing the same to all the other residents. It was Elizabeth who had petitioned the body corporate for a vote and she couldn’t wait for the outcome. If a majority agreed- and she knew they would- Dave would be restricted to using the pool between the hours of four and five PM.

 

But on the evening before the vote, all three residents received an unsolicited email. Sender unknown.

 

Laura sucked in her breath when she opened her inbox. Sitting there, at the top, was an email with a subject title that read ‘tinder slut’. She glanced around out of impulse, to make sure she was alone in the room. There was no written message in the body, but there were a series of dated photographs, showing Laura at a bar with an older man. Laura had kept her tinder habit alive a little too long after starting her relationship with Mike, and these photos were evidence that she had been unfaithful.

 

Carlos felt most lonely at night, and this had him more often going to his inbox, hoping for news from his son. When he saw the email with the subject line ‘manslaughter’ he thought there was some mistake. When he opened the message, he was shocked to see that it featured an image of a young Carlos in a mug shot, during a time in his life he had worked hard to put behind him, to forget. He’d gone to jail for manslaughter, served eighteen months for a stupid drunken fight, but had learnt his lesson. He had hoped his son would never find out. Carlos felt his pulse quicken and a tightening in his chest.

 

Elizabeth had always been proud of the way she maintained her double life. She prided herself on being dependable and professional in her working life, and for the way she concealed her private indulgences. When she checked her emails on the evening before the vote, she was shocked to see a message with the subject line ‘dear dominatrix’. Her back stiffened, and she leaned closer in to the screen before clicking it open. In the body of the message were a series of stills taken from what looked like CCTV footage at the underground club she frequented. Despite her half mask, one of the images was obviously her. She stood up and stumbled back from the screen.

 

At the body corporate meeting, the executive members were surprised to find that no-one had voted to restrict the resident at Number Four from using the pool. The matter was closed and they moved on to other agenda items.

 

***

 

From above, the swimming pool at Bella Vista was the picture of perfect symmetry, ringed by tropical gardens, the water a deep sapphire blue. On any given day, the residents could wave down at Dave, as he floated, legs spread on his Lilo, like some fleshy exotic flower.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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.”

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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.

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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.

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

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flash fiction

Sister Kate

The story below is a piece of historical fiction, written from the perspective of Ned Kelly- an Australian folk hero and bushranger of Irish background who was caught by the authorities and hung in Melbourne Jail in 1880. My object was a mouse and my setting was a secret laboratory. I have an interest in Australia’s colonial history and wanted my setting to reflect those times when the European settlers pushed into- for them- what was  the wild and unknown frontier.  I built the story around two very strong images. The first was inspired by my teaching of Australian Gothic short stories. I had a clear image of a still waterhole at night when the stars were so bright in their reflection on the water, that it appeared as if the waterhole was a carpet of stars. My other image was of a mouse. when I was living in the bush a few years ago I opened a draw and startled a native mouse- an antechinus– who had a nest. She meticulously moved every leaf to a new place and took her babies from the draw on her back, one by one. I thought it would be interesting to put the mouse in the cell with Ned at the end, and contrast the images of freedom for the mouse who could simply slip out through the bars, with the captivity of man who would never know freedom again. I was also going through my ‘punctuate dialogue like Tim Winton‘ phase. I spent a long time editing this story and trying to ‘show not tell’, especially when the troopers come to the house to find Ned’s sister Kate alone.

 

Sister Kate

The Kelly home stood solid, defiant, pressed square against the earth. On two sides the bush and ghost gums were pushed back and a newly completed post and rail corral held two wild horses, stamping and scared by the wood smoke of the hearth fire. They shook the grey dust from their manes and snorted angry breath which fogged in the late afternoon light. Ned considered the work he had ahead to break them in and smiled. A challenge, true, but he was more than capable. His last three horses were being sold in the city to a cash buyer; a racehorse trainer for the Melbourne cup. His sister Kate was inside waiting for him. It had been a long day and he wanted stew. He needed whisky.

 

During the day it was impossible to see the other wooden structure. The slab timbers had been silvered by the sun and the small mud brick chimney was fashioned from the very earth on which it stood. Behind a clump of grey green cork trees and partially dug into the hillside, it simply was not there. Accessed through a half-door, everything was orderly. A crudely fashioned copper still sat central and was flanked by the two stolen rum barrels which gave the Kelly family whisky its amber body and a sweetness that almost compensated for the gut stripping character of the liquor. In another corner sat a smoky glass flask filled with black liquid opium tincture; something Ned had learnt to make during his time on the goldfields. The only light source was a small tallow box that hung from the ceiling.

 

Kate was pleased to have Ned home. No woman liked to be left alone for long out here, on the tattered edge of the colony, where there was little familiar and much to fear from the outback. When the tired sun sank over the ridge that night, the wild horse’s hooves had masked the sound of the mounted troopers approaching. When the heavy boots creaked upon the landing, Ned barely had time to slip away. The whisky jug was still on the table when the first trooper threw open the front door. Kate tried to compose herself.

 

I’m Fitzpatrick. This is Collins. Where’s your brother?

I don’t know.

We’re here to investigate a case of horse theft.

I don’t know what you’re talking about.

We think you do.

 

 

4th November, 1880

Dear Kate,

Melbourne jail is bitterly cold and full of broken men. I hear them sobbing and I refuse to become one of them. The infinite blue sky seemed thin enough to rip apart as they marched me inside and delivered me to this miserable cell. When the door clanked home it frightened a small native mouse that had made a nest under the cot. I sat and watched her move her nest, leaf by dry leaf, meticulous. She was small enough to slip under the cell door, and reminded me that I was no longer free. I watched as she returned, timid but determined, and emerged again from under the bed with two small native mouse pups clinging to her brown fur. She reminded me of the time when our mother took you on her back and waded across the fast flooded Grafton River. I’m not even sure she knew how to swim; our mother was nothing if not brave. I need you to be brave now.

Yours,

Ned

 

Can you explain how you come by those two horses?

My brother Dan caught them. They’re brumbys from the goldfields.

Stop lying and pour us some of that illegal liquor. Your pretty neck could hang for that.

 

Fitzpatrick stepped closer to Kate. In the firelight she could see the yellow white of his teeth. He slowly rubbed a lock of her hair between his thumb and forefinger and traced his finger across her shaking hand as she poured out two mugs of whisky. She tried not to turn her head to look for Ned but she couldn’t help it, and twice glanced towards the back door.

 

Fitzpatrick made a silent motion to Collins, who grabbed Kate roughly and put his hand over her mouth. Ned had forgotten to extinguish the small guttering candle in the still and it made a thin line of muted light which cut through the darkness. Fitzpatrick’s pistol was up, but he stumbled, across the unfamiliar yard. Kate thrashed free from Collins and yelled for Ned to run.

 

But Ned was not the kind to run. Bullets from the trooper’s gun peppered the barrels and glass and the still exploded in a wash of wasted whisky. Ned had his own pistol drawn as he emerged through the shadow between the hut and the square silhouette of his attacker. In the night the orange flash and smoke of gunfire ended the trooper’s life, and when Collins rushed forward, he went down in a similar arc of gunfire.

 

The wild horses shied in the night and Kate fell to her knees. She knew there would be no justice for her family.

 

10th November, 1880

Dear Kate,

Do you remember when we first came here? The whole country looked like a muted canvas of yellow grass, fine grey sand and smooth granite. You won’t remember life before, and in many ways you are lucky. I thought we would be free here, to live, to work, to make a life for ourselves. Oh Kate, do you remember when we first walked to the waterhole in the dark? The stars were so bright and the black water so still that the reflection of stars spread out like a carpet of sparkling light at our feet? My life is spread out before me now, but it is lead dark and bleak. I want you to remember me as a just man, not as the murderer I’ve been painted. Remember me where the wild horses run. Look after our mother.

Tomorrow I hang. Such is life.

Yours,

Ned.

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flash fiction

Oasis

In this flash fiction round my genre was horror, my setting was the North Pole and my object was a survival kit. I knew I didn’t want to set this story in the actual North Pole so I found that there was a place in the Western Australian desert of the same name. Again this one features Australian desert landscapes, a gorge and a haunted waterhole surrounded by flesh eating plants. I had a very strong image of a waterhole oasis from a trip I went on with my dad to the red centre and Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park when I was thirteen.

 

Oasis

The two had broken the rule by splitting up, but there was just too much ground to cover. This part of the Pilbara desert was called The North Pole, which must have been a great joke for the early gold miners, because it was barren and baked hot by the desert sun.  The landform was your typical Western Australian mix of sedimentary rocks from the ancient sea floor and red rusty iron dust. To the north the land opened into a gorge that looked as if an angry ancestral spirit had cleaved the earth apart during a tantrum. Kirra was to stay south of their vehicle and document the endemic flowering plants and grasses. Paul had taken his backpack, survival kit and a length of rope and set off towards the gorge.

Kirra’s most surprising discovery looked like a common Emu Bush, Eremophila Aracnoides, but in this particular specimen the normally yellow flowers were deep red. The common variety did not have these spikes and she accidently scratched her palm on a thorn. Not many Australian plants were poisonous, so she wasn’t worried. She made a detailed sketch of the foliage and flowers in her specimen book and marked the page with a drop of blood.

Her shadow was elongated across the earth and the wind changed direction before she paused long enough to wonder why he wasn’t back. She recorded the co-ordinates using GPS:  21° 6′ 0″ South, 119° 21′ 0″ East, packed up her kit and set off into the melting pink sunset to find Paul.

It was slow going in terrain she was only just getting used to. She carefully chose a path down the crooked rock face and descended into the ravine from the southernmost point. The sand at the bottom was coarse and cool and as she moved along she noticed that up ahead the two rock faces came together, leaving an opening just wide enough for a person to enter.

Paul? Paul!

But her voice was swallowed by the looming monoliths. A flow of cool, sour air was coming from the opening and this meant that the path would open out again at some point. Taking a deep breath, Kirra moved between the two rock faces.

She emerged into a small oasis and tried to absorb its incredible beauty. Nothing on the map indicated a place like this existed. From the centre of a still green pool emerged a gnarly tree which looked like a weathered strangler fig with drooping, twisted branches that caressed the water in a few places. The waxy yellow foliage was serrated and glistened with condensation. Small droplets from the leaves appeared to hiss when they hit the water. The waterhole was encircled by more of the red-flowering bushes.

Then she noticed Paul’s shoes, his bag, his hat. But there was no sign of the man. She called again.

Paul?

She knelt beside the pool and squinted into the water. The surface reflected the sunlight so intensely that she found it impossible to see what lay beneath. She kept tilting her head to get a better look but it was futile; all she saw was her own reflection. There was only one way in and he couldn’t have drowned.  So where was he?

Paul!

Suddenly the air seemed to vibrate. Shielding her eyes, Kirra looked up as a single grey cloud moved its wings across the sky, erasing the last of the day, and revealing the glowing white arc of the rising full moon. The quality of the light changed to a translucent grey as the sparkle of the day was washed away. Kirra felt a burning hiss as a droplet from the fig made contact with the cut on her palm. She fell back in pain.

Fumbling in Paul’s bag she found his specimen book with a detailed description of the twisted fig and the oasis. She was also glad to find his small survival kit and cleaned her palm with a sterile swab, which helped to alleviate the stinging. She swallowed the last swig from his water bottle and looked around again. The rock faces were changing as the moonlight intensified. Blinking like a child in disbelief, she was beginning to see, on every rock surface, the white ochre splattered outline of a hundred pairs of hands. They screamed a silent warning. Get out. Never come back.

The surface of the water was also changing. It no longer reflected the sunlight; instead it began to absorb the moonlight and from deep below the surface, a soft light began to glow. At first it was muted, but soon Kirra discovered she could make out shapes below the surface. She froze in terror but could not look away. Skeletons. Skulls. Kangaroo. Human. Long femurs and small carpals. Teeth. The curve of a human ribcage. The bones twisted and throbbed in the ghostly moonlight, dancing and swirling in a soup of souls, and the surface kept hissing and fizzing.

White hot pain shot through Kirra’s forearm and broke her stupor. She saw that the skin on her hand had become so transparent that she could make out the skeleton beneath her own skin. Her bones were beginning to glow like the bones in the water. She groped inside the kit again and located the snake bite pack. As best she could, using her good hand, she slipped a thin rubber tourniquet up to her elbow and pulled it tight. Her hand was tingling, her skin a mesh of cobwebs in the moonlight.

When she woke in the recovery ward of the Port Headland hospital, the doctor told her that while the tourniquet had stopped the necrosis from spreading, the long car drive had resulted in extensive tissue death and they had not been able to save her hand.

A team of scientists and detectives tried unsuccessfully to locate the gorge. The page on which Kirra Grey had recorded the satellite co-ordinates had been torn out.

 

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