short story

Curtain Call

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

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

 

Curtain Call

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

 

The Final Curtain

‘Can you ever truly know a person?’

Performed by the Cedarwood Amateur Theatre Society

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

‘I’m sorry.’

‘What a cliché. You disgust me.’

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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short story

The Military Chest

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

 

The Military Chest

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

 

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

 

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

 

******

 

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

 

******

 

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

 

******

 

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

 

*******

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

‘Have you worked here for a long time?’

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

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

 

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

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

 

******

 

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

 

******

 

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

 

******

 

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

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

 

******

 

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

 

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

 

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short story

A Character in That Story

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

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

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

IMG_2647

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

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

 

A Character in that Story

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

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

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

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

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

‘Did Petunia seem jealous of this attention?’

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

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

‘What happened next?’

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

***

Tuesday, October 17th

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

 

Sunday, December 12th

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

Saturday, February 1st

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

***

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

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

‘What’s all her fault?’

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

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

 

***

February 28th

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

 

May 12th

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

 

May 13th

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

***

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

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

***

May 20th

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

***

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

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

***

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

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short story

Black Sunlight

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

 

Black Sunlight

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

“How long will it take?”

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

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

“Maybe one day you’ll find out.”

“I hope so.”

 

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

 

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

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

“You were CEO of Deepwater Horizon.”

The crowd responded, “filthy oil miner.”

The prisoner was shaking and he rocked on the spot.

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

“Filthy fuel burner.”

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

“Filthy polluter.”

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

She was their statuesque saviour.

 

An onyx idol of black sunlight.

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short story

Between the Sun and the Moon

Parenting a toddler alone can be hard, but in this outback horror story it is both isolating and terrifying.

 

Between the Sun and Moon

They had said goodbye to daddy at dawn, waved from the street as he coaxed the road train to life, listened to the deep rumble as the engine swallowed every other noise. The truck rattled and shrugged off the rusty iron dust left by the night. Dense diesel fumes warmed the air. Dan waved down from the cab, high above the road, as the little boy squirmed in his mother’s arms, clinging too tightly, his fingernails in her neck. She tried to catch a glimpse of Dan, tried to catch his eye one last time, but his face was already turned toward the highway.

They stayed until the truck had found the vanishing point on the horizon and was swallowed by the gorge country on the road south. Now would come the familiar loneliness that settled in her bones, the extra depth to the shanty-town shadows, a longing that continued like a dull ache until he came back.

 

The first time Dan left, Jessie stopped talking for three days. Since then, Courtney followed a clever ritual to keep him talking. She would bring the boy inside and they would trace daddy’s journey with a matchbox truck across a map of Australia. ‘Here we are!’

‘Here we are,’ he would mimic, a child’s finger finding the place. She’d let him colour in their town on the map with a red crayon, to match the sand and blood sunsets. He’d scratched a jagged black line to show the gorge country to the south. At the bottom of the map the boy had stuck some houses and hotels from an old monopoly game. ‘Ad  ah  laid’

‘Adelaide,’ she confirmed.

‘Sid nee.’

‘Yes, that’s right. He goes on to Sydney.’ A few more houses and hotels represented the other city. The boy would often giggle then, and trace the next part of the journey north to the Top End and then back to the starting point; a simple triangle on the map, but a round trip that took almost a month. ‘And then he comes back.’

‘Like the moon.’

‘Yes honey. Like the moon.’

Today, the map ritual had not worked. She could feel the little body stiff and angry against her chest and she tried to relax him, to coax him to talk. He had thrown himself backwards into her chest so fast and with such anger that his skull had split her lip. He howled in his room while she wept hot tears in the kitchen. Dan did not understand that life with a toddler was a lonely life. Feeling guilty, and in an effort to sooth them both, Courtney packed the car for a trip to the waterhole. The river would be a mucky semi-dried-out billabong[1] at this time of year, but it always calmed the boy and if she was lucky, he would sleep on the drive home.

 

The waterhole felt like a natural temple. There was something sacred about water during the dry, and the white trunked gums that encircled the pool shed their bark in long strips, staining the water the colour of Black China tea. There was a rock ledge over the deeper end and a shallow sandy end. If you were careful not to disturb the slimy, dead leaves on the bottom, the water stayed fairly clear. But while she was unpacking, Courtney didn’t notice Jessie wander towards the rock ledge. From the corner of her eye she saw a soft quick wisp of white-blond hair and then the sickening sucking sound of a small body slipping under the surface and then…nothing. The deep end. The darkness.

 

In slow motion she jumped in after him. Below her, blackness, and as she went deeper, the light above became a distorted dream. She thrashed around, feeling for him. Desperate against the murk she tried to calm the panic and, blinking through the brown, just made out the rays of light that slipped through the triangles of a small-fingered hand, like a skeletal shadow-puppet. She grabbed at his arm and kicked against bursting lungs to the surface. As she gulped and swallowed the air he began to thrash, his tough fingers trying to pry off her own. It took all her strength to get him to shore and when she held him, laboured to breathe, she noticed her shoulder and was covered in round-mouthed bite marks. He yelled at her then, saying he wanted to die, saying it over and over. And then the screaming started. Screaming until blood began to flow from his nose, screaming until blood flowed from his ears, screaming as she strapped him in the car seat, screaming all the way home as the black blood congealed and crusted in the heat.

 

He had gone back to being semi-catatonic and she could barely look at him as she cleaned him up for bed. She gently lifted his exhausted body onto his mattress. He turned his face away when she tried to kiss him. On silent feet she left the room, and more for her own benefit said, ‘I hope you’re feeling better now. We’ll see the doctor tomorrow.’

Doctor Ryan’s surgery was little more than a shed. He flew up from Adelaide once a month, unless there was an emergency. The small corrugated iron building let out increasingly frequent groans and tings as it warmed and expanded in the heat. The red sand had crept in and lined every crack in the concrete slab. The all-pervasive red dust; she hated it. The ‘surgery’ itself was a small partitioned room and the rest of the space was filled with a circle of white plastic chairs. There were a few families there, but none that she recognised. They’d probably travelled long distances for check-ups, immunisations and assurances that their children were normal. There was one other family in the town whose dad was a long haul truck driver, but they had three children and seemed….happy, self-contained. Two other families had dads working in the mines, about a half day’s drive north-west from here. It did seem strange that there were no Aboriginal families here. Courtney had done some research. The town had been much bigger about 10 years ago. She guessed times had changed, people moved away.  In the centre of the waiting room was a basket of odd toys where Jessie sat with his matchbox truck, driving it in a big triangle. She observed him now, seeing him as the visiting doctor would see him. He would probably say the boy was underweight, that he should be talking and eating more by now, that the tantrums should be easing and the bed wetting should be less frequent. She dreaded the part where he examined Jessie’s body.

‘Come in Jessie. Mrs Paterson. How are you?’

The boy smiled and shook the man’s hand ‘like a big boy’, and Courtney was reminded of how much she loved to see him happy.

‘I’m guessing the boy’s father is away at the moment? How is that going?’ She bit her lip and looked down at her hands.

‘This has been the hardest one so far.’ She wondered how much she should say in front of the boy. She was torn between her own insecurities- that it was her own fault, her inept parenting- and a desperate need for adult help.

‘Sometimes he won’t respond to me, won’t talk, won’t eat. He’s very irrational. Yesterday he ran into the waterhole and then struggled when I tried to save him…’

‘To save him?’ The doctor stood up and looked from the woman to the boy.

‘Yes. I think he wanted to kill himself.’

‘Mrs Paterson, if you don’t mind, I’d like to have a talk with your boy alone.’

She sat for a long time in the waiting room. While she couldn’t make out words, it was clear that the boy was talking freely with the doctor, and she felt a twinge of sadness for the disconnection that had developed between them. In an effort to distract herself, Courtney looked at the various posters; an outdated poster for the Mary Poppins musical, an advice poster for correct teeth brushing and various Aboriginal Medical Service fact sheets. She noticed a faded illustration of Nami Gorge and the waterhole where they had been the day before. Below it was a short recount of a local dreamtime legend:

 

In the Dreaming, Walu the Sun-woman lights a fire each morning. She paints herself with red ochre, some of which spills onto the clouds, creating the colours of the dawn sunrise. She journeys by day with her torch, then returns in the darkness to her camp in the east. But she is jealous of her husband Ngalindi, the Moon-man, for he can be seen at night. She cuts off pieces of him with her axe until he is gone as though dead for 3 days. Then he gradually returns, devouring the Sun-woman’s light until he rises full and angry. Walu and Ngalindi have an angry and restless son who grows so tired of their constant battle that he calls on lightning to destroy them both. But the sun and moon are eternal and the lightening instead takes the life of the boy. His screams become the thunder, his body becomes the rocky gorge and his blood becomes the water of the sacred pool, Nami. Every day the Sun-woman weeps for her boy and every night his father remembers him.

Note: Today this region is still known for its red dawn and sunset and for its lightening and dry electrical storms.

 

The doctor brought the boy out and sat him down to play with the toys. ‘I’d like to talk to mummy now, okay?’ Jessie nodded. ‘Please, come back in Mrs Paterson.’

‘Courtney.’ Closing the door behind them, he motioned for her to sit.

‘I found some bruises on his arms and legs. Can you explain them?’ He took out a small notepad.

‘I told you. I had to drag him out of the waterhole.’

‘Ah. Yes, of course, it’s just…some of the bruises appear to be older, in various stages of healing.’ She shifted in her seat, and smoothed her skirt.

‘He often tries to escape from me, to run away. Most nights it’s a battle just to put him to bed. He is often up in the night. He has run away a few times at night and it scares me. I usually try to grab him before he bolts. He always tries to break free so I have to hold him tightly. He’s little but he’s strong. And he’s fast.’ The doctor jotted down more notes.

‘He said you like to hurt him.’

‘What! I don’t like to hurt him.’ She shifted in her seat, could feel her cheeks turning red.

‘Please stay calm Mrs….Courtney’

‘I am calm. It’s just that…’

‘Go on…’

‘He scares me. And I feel so isolated. I worry what he’ll do next. I worry what he’ll make me do.’ The doctor took out a prescription pad.

‘It’s a script for Valium, for you. Put him to bed and get a good night’s sleep tonight, it’ll help. I’m going to make a special trip up in two weeks and I’ll bring a child psychologist. Until then, try to rest, eat. Some form of companionship might be good for Jessie, maybe try to get him a puppy or a kitten.’ And that was it. The rest of her day was spent on the phone asking around if there were any pets for sale locally.

That night she called Dan on his CB radio. She could see Jessie playing on the path with the new kitten and allowed herself to smile. ‘He seems happy today. Yes. He’s playing with it now. A tabby. I know what we said, but you should see him, he’s actually smiling. I miss you Dan, can’t wait to see you.’ She allowed herself to think of him, being held, kissed, having an adult to talk to, to eat with. She missed him so much. Then came the sickening sound, the arc of the boy’s hand as he cracked the kitten’s skull with a rock. It let out an involuntary squeak before he bought the rock back down, again and again, and the tiny body became a mangled mash of fur, guts, bone and blood on the path. ‘Oh fuck. He’s killed it.’

‘I’m coming home…’

 

In Jessie’s room, his screaming had finally become a guttural whimper. Courtney had found an old local newspaper in the shed, to wrap the kitten’s remains.  As she folded out the paper, she was struck by the headline dated from 2005: Local boy, 6, killed in road-train freak accident. And the caption below it: Local Aboriginal elder claims town, waterhole, is cursed.

That night, the small muffled voice came again, the only noise in the moon grey night. Courtney listened closely, hoping he would go back to sleep on his own. Then she heard the familiar thump of his feet on the floor and what sounded like a rattle at the window. The Valium had come on so fast, she couldn’t remember if she’d locked it. She peeked into the room through the keyhole; in the half-light she could see his silhouette, frozen at the window, the mist of his breath fogging the glass. She could hear her own heart beating in the back of her mouth. She was too afraid to enter the room.

 

Back in her own bed she listened as he slid the window up, heard his soft feet on the path and the creak of the gate as he let himself onto the street. She lifted her head to see the little frame as he ran off down the road. And then she closed her eyes.

 

It was difficult to see in the dawn light. Dan was so tired and anxious to get home that he was still travelling highway speed as he rounded the bend towards the little town. Dead insect carcasses speckled the windscreen, and the setting full moon in the morning light removed all shadows, making it impossible to see the small grey shape that darted out in front of the truck.

 

In that final moment the woman would swear she was able to feel the earth shudder and sigh, and then stop. In the East the sun was rising above the rocky gorge and Walu’s ochre stained the clouds orange and red. In the West the silver moon of Ngalindi was setting on a parched and ancient land. As the day turned, blood returned to earth, bone returned to dust and another mother and father wept for their son.

 

[1] A waterhole formed when a river stops flowing during the dry season

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