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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flash fiction

Quinkin Rock

When I started entering the NYC midnight short story and flash fiction competitions, this was the first story that I had success with. I wanted to write something uniquely Australian and capture the funny side of our culture as well as explore the more spiritual aspects of the desert landscape. In the competition you get assigned a genre, a setting and an object. For this one I got action/adventure, an underwater cave and a dumb-bell. You have 48 hours to write and the story must be <1000. The image of the underwater cave came to me quite quickly. I wanted the protagonist to feel a bit alienated, a bit of an outsider, so I took a city type- used to working out at the gym- and put him in an outback town. I really wanted to capture some of the more haunting aspects of the ancient landscape and Aboriginal culture. I read a story when I was younger called ‘Quinkin Mountain’ by Percy Trezise and I liked the idea of the quinkins; often tricksy and sometimes frightening ancestral spirits who live in caves. I was never really happy with the ending and have learnt it’s a real skill to come up with a story that has a satisfying ending in less than 1000 words.

Read the story below;

Quinkin Rock

Beneath the nothing blue outback sky, Nathan replayed the events of last night. His face was already starting to turn rash red and he felt the trickle of stale beer sweat run down his back and soak into his jeans. It was just after seven but already the horizon had melted into a mirage of shimmering ooze. In his pocket was a rough map printed from Google with a smudge of pink lipstick marking the spot. No wallet. No phone. No shoes. No dignity.

The first week on the farm had been heavy work. Nathan’s soft hands were blistered and weeping and he’d suffered his share of humiliation. It was pretty clear that his ability to lift weights in an air conditioned gym did not translate into an ability to toss bags of grain onto the back of a flat-bed truck. His prowess at lifting dumbbells made no difference to his ability to dig fence holes in baked earth. When it had come to letting loose on Friday night he was left with no option but to head to the only pub in town, a shabby relic of former colonial glory now dulled with red opal dust, and drink beer and shots of rum with the locals.

He could feel the curse spreading out from his solar plexus as it tightened his chest and corrupted his lungs. He could still feel the vibration of the old man’s voice as he pointed the human bone, hair glued to the end with spinifex sap. Every stab to his chest felt bayonet-deadly. Nathan had gaps in his memory from the night but knew he’d had too many drinks and engaged in too many flirtatious gestures with the wrong woman. He was a sucker for pink lipstick. When the singing curse was done, he saw the yellow white of the Aboriginal man’s eyes blink closed and his earth coloured skin dissolve into the impenetrable dark before he disappeared entirely. The effect of the curse had been instant. The locals stood around Nathan who began to clutch at his chest as his head slumped and rocked sickly on his neck. Falling to his knees, he began to wretch with big violent spasms that bought up a stomach juice steak dinner and a gush of beer froth. A crowd had gathered and there was some low whispering. The girl with the pink lipstick crossed her arms, shook her head and went back inside the pub. After that only fragments of the night…talking…a map…a bumpy car ride. Then the morning sun white hot on the horizon.

He trudged on painfully. After a few unbearable burning breaths he saw the landscape up ahead begin to change and a burnt orange monolith rose, ominous and ancient, from the bedrock. Blackened tree trunks stood like watchful sentinels as he stumbled on towards the craggy rock form, terrifyingly human in its shape.

Nathan rested on the rock and was grateful to be out of the sun. He followed the wall around and located the rocky outcrop with the opening, like a jagged smile, just behind it. His feet had been cut and scratched and he was happy to feel the more forgiving coarse sand of the cave mouth. Small wiry shrubs clung to the rock and the earth exhaled a mossy breath which cooled his face and spoke with a silent ancient tongue. It was strange, but as he crossed from the outside into the shelter of the cave his stomach, which had been burning and twisting, seemed to settle somewhat. He kept going over the instructions; move deeper into the cave until you come to a small body of water that seems to be glowing with a holy light. Strip naked. Dive into the pool and swim towards the light. You will surface in a second cave. What happens next is not certain. You may be met by the Quinkin spirit. You might not. He might forgive you. He might not. You need to take one of the smooth, ancient river stones from the secret cave and swim with it back to the other side. If you are not forgiven the water will swallow you down into its monstrous belly womb where your blood and flesh shall feed the earth and your bones will rattle for eternity. Simple.

The water shrunk his genitals and his heartbeat throbbed in his temples. He could see light bubbling up from below and braced and inhaled as he slipped under the surface, the first time just to look. His vision ebbed and flowed and he tried to keep his submerged body still. The light was indeed coming from a large hole under the water, big enough for him to slip through. Surfacing, he took one huge breath and this time he exhaled slowly, as he had learnt from skin diving documentaries, and swam towards the light.

When he emerged again, river stone in hand, his clothes were gone. Nathan made the long walk back towards the town naked, relieved, exhausted. As he approached the pub a collective cheer went up and the Aboriginal man from the previous night came out to greet him, grinning broadly, shook his hand and slapped him on the back. He grabbed the river stone from Nathan and beckoned him to follow. In a special room at the back of the pub was the ‘wall of shame’. It was decorated with numerous photos of naked sunburnt men, all taken as they emerged from Quinkin Rock. In a corner of the room was a large glass cabinet full of similar smooth river stones.

‘You survived the initiation.’

But that night in bed there was something more. Inside the cave, something had stirred inside him. An ancient voice spoke and he knew he was home.

 

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