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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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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flash fiction

The Human Zoo

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

 

The Human Zoo

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Standard
short story

Black Sunlight

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

 

Black Sunlight

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

“How long will it take?”

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

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

“Maybe one day you’ll find out.”

“I hope so.”

 

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

 

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

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

“You were CEO of Deepwater Horizon.”

The crowd responded, “filthy oil miner.”

The prisoner was shaking and he rocked on the spot.

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

“Filthy fuel burner.”

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

“Filthy polluter.”

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

She was their statuesque saviour.

 

An onyx idol of black sunlight.

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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.

 

 

 

 

Standard
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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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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