Tag Archives: short story

Skin

Last week, my family suffered a bereavement so profound, I don’t know if any of us will ever fully recover. This person was actually the second member of our family to pass away since the start of 2020, both of them young people, both of them parents, both of them loved and missed and cherished. It’s been a hard year, so far. A few nights ago, I found my mind wandering back to my childhood, and I remembered this story – one which I’d had published in a now-defunct online zine called wordlegs back in 2013. It’s one I feel a deep attachment to, because it came directly from my memories of being a little girl. Somehow, despite the story’s subject, it brought me comfort; it brought me back to a time when my lost family members lived and breathed and shone with the beauty of their youth. I’m proud of it. The story’s no longer available anywhere online, so I’m republishing it here, with thanks to Elizabeth Reapy, wordlegs‘ editor, who was the first person to see potential in it. Thanks, Elizabeth. (Coincidentally, Elizabeth’s second novel shares a name with this story, though they’re not similar in any other way! I recommend you check it out, along with her first novel, Red Dirt.)

A rabbit on a background of grass

Photo by Christopher Paul High on Unsplash.com

Skin

When I was a child, I had an uncle who hunted. He lived next door in what had been my grandmother’s house, which meant I saw him a lot; somehow, though, we never talked much. He had hounds who followed his every move like acolytes worshipping at the feet of a god, despite the fact that all he did was kick them and call them filthy names. Whenever he walked by their cage, they’d eat each other for the chance to get near him, and they’d howl like nothing on earth. Hearing it made my chest tighten up, like I’d suddenly taken a breath of cotton wool. My mother was always asking him to come in and have dinner, just to come next door for a little while and sit with his family, but he never did. He liked to eat with his memories instead, which didn’t bother me.

I thought my uncle was cruel, though people laughed at me for being ‘soft’.

‘Go on, you old eejit,’ my mother would say. ‘There’s many a dinner we owe to that uncle of yours.’

‘But he hurts his dogs,’ I protested.

‘Arragh, now. Dogs are used to that sort of thing. And anyway, they’re working dogs, duck. They’re not pets.’

I knew that. I knew they didn’t sit in front of his fire at night, snoring gently in the heat, like our dog did. And still, I worried about them.

I worried about everything.

 

About five weeks after my father’s accident, I came home from school to find Mam crying quietly in the sitting room. I stood in the doorway watching her for a while, feeling dizzy and far away. Eventually, she looked up, and she jumped a bit when she saw me.

‘Jesus! Pet, don’t stand there like that. You frightened the life out of me.’ She laughed, a short and hard sound, like a pebble in a shoe; then she hurried to wipe her eyes, rubbing them roughly with the tea-towel she still had in her hands.

‘What’s wrong, Mammy?’ I asked, afraid of what she might tell me.

‘Ah, now. Nothing at all. I just got a bit sad.’ She slapped her hands against her thighs, shoving herself upright in a businesslike, everything-is-great manner. ‘Will we get the dinner on? Are you hungry?’ She messed my hair as she strode past me towards the kitchen. ‘Did you have a good day in school?’

‘Mam, is Daddy all right?’

‘Grand, love! He’s grand!’ she said. But she didn’t turn around and tell me to my face, and that’s how I knew she was lying. She had a thing about looking people in the eyes when she was telling them the truth.

 

My father worked in a factory that handled heavy chemicals. I didn’t know then, and I still don’t really know now, exactly how his accident happened, but it had something to do with a pressure gauge and an over-filled tank, and probably his own negligence in not wearing his safety gear. He’d often told me he and the other men didn’t bother with things like eyeguards and ear-protectors.

‘Sure, I have to be able to hear if the machines are labouring,’ he explained to me once. ‘How can I do that, if I’m all muffled up? If I can’t hear the motor, it could go, and it could kill the man standing beside it. My ears’ll be nice and warm, but someone else’ll be going home on a shovel.’

But it had been my dad who’d been rushed out of the plant in a screaming ambulance, one which had hit the road in spots as it flung itself around the bends on its way to Dublin. It had been him who’d been burned, him whose flesh had melted. Him who was driven out of his mind with the pain.

Him.

Mam hadn’t let me see him for ages, and when I was allowed to visit all I could think about was mummies in ancient Egypt. We’d been doing them in school. Dad’s bandages looked cleaner and whiter, I thought. Other than that, he’d do in a museum.

‘I love you, Daddy.’ I remember telling the tiny square of scarlet I could see peeping out between the swathes of material. ‘I love you.’ I wanted to kiss him, but Mam told me ‘no’. Dad told me nothing, because he couldn’t talk. Anyway, I don’t think he was even awake.

‘Good girl,’ said Mam as we left the hospital, ready for the long journey home. ‘You did very well.’

I wondered all the way home what I could have done better.

 

I was at the kitchen table one evening trying to think about my maths homework when I heard the keening of my uncle’s hounds. It made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Mam, who was sitting at the far end of the table over a cold cup of tea said, ‘He’s home early. He must’ve had a good hunt.Why don’t you go and have a look, and say hello?’

I swallowed as she spoke, my spit tasting sharp and sour. ‘But Mam – I’m doing my homework, I have loads.’

‘It’s Friday, hon. You’ve plenty of time to do your homework. And your uncle’s been so good. Go and say hello, he’d love it. He’s very fond of you, you know.’

‘No, he isn’t,’ I said. ‘He hates me.’

‘Now, that’s just silly.’ She got up, grabbing her cup of tea, and crossed to the sink to throw it away. ‘Go on outside now, just for a few minutes, and I’ll have a treat for you when you come back in.’

‘What sort of a treat?’ I didn’t move from my perch in front of my copy book. I drew a line under my sums, carefully, and kept working. I still couldn’t add up properly without drawing dots beside the numbers like a baby out of Senior Infants, but at least I’d learned to draw them lightly so I could rub them out afterwards. I hated maths, but it was my dad’s favourite thing in the world besides rock and roll. I wanted to show him how good I was at adding and multiplying when he came home from the hospital.

‘God, Claire, I don’t know,’ snapped Mam. ‘A bit of apple tart. I’ll make you some custard. All right? Just go on outside, just for a few minutes, and talk to your uncle. I’ll call you when you can come back in.’

I slapped my copy book shut and shoved myself out from the table, making the legs of my chair stutter and skip along the lino. The sound of it normally drove Mam crazy. Today, she said nothing. She just stood and watched me as I stamped over to the back door and wrenched it open.

‘Good girl. I’ll only need a minute.’

 

I crept out of our back yard and into the lane, watching my uncle beat his dogs into his garden. It wasn’t a bit like ours, full of greenery and flowers; my uncle had covered his over with roughly-finished concrete after my granny had died, the shed that had been her pride and joy now a falling-down monstrosity beside the pristine dog pen. I hung close to our back door until he’d corralled the last hound, thwacking and slapping at them with a thick stick, shouting until they listened to his voice over the red-misted pounding of their own hearts.

They all had names, these dogs, despite the fact that all my uncle ever did was abuse and hurt them. But he gave them all names.

Over his garden wall, a clutch of freshly-caught rabbits lay. I didn’t touch them, but I felt sure they’d be still warm and supple, their eyes still bright. Perhaps their last breath hadn’t been fully exhaled. I felt a sour taste in my mouth again, and I swallowed hard against the rush of sudden liquid up my throat.

‘Howya,’ said my uncle as he slid home the lock on his garden gate, nodding vaguely in my direction. I returned the greeting, and perched on our back step to watch him. I tried to think about things I could say to him, but he made me scared, so I didn’t say anything.

He started to sing under his breath, huffing out through his nose, as he grabbed his huge knife from its holder on his belt. He wiped the blade once or twice on his trouser leg before severing the twine that bound the rabbits together. They plopped wetly onto the stone slabs he’d untidily cemented on the top of the wall.

Despite myself, I watched.

‘Time to drop your drawers,’ my uncle muttered, taking one of the rabbits in his hand. He held it up, the rabbit swinging gently as he turned it this way and that, appraising it. Then, he laid it flat on the wall and swiftly, as easily as if he was tying his shoelaces, he ran the knife around the rabbit’s legs, one at a time. He worked at the carcass with his fingers for a few minutes, the movement looking almost gentle.

When he pulled at the rabbit’s pelt, ripping it away from the body like he was removing a sock, I screamed so loudly that I gave him a fright. He dropped the knife and turned to stare at me. Perhaps he’d forgotten I was there.

It was the redness. The rawness of the flesh. The muscles, clearly visible; the sinews and tendons. The colour, so private and painful. Something I should not be able to see. White bandages flashed into my mind, white bandages and scarlet skin. Scarlet skin and pain, and pain equalling death.

I ran for the door to my house, slamming it, not caring about the noise.

My mother was on the phone in the hall, clutching the tea-towel to her eyes. I ignored her and ran for my room.

 

‘Claire,’ I heard her say, much later. ‘Come out here, please.’ My closed door muffled her voice.

I was buried in my duvet, my face swollen and sore. I’d cried all evening. My mother’s phone call had been brought to a swift end after I’d burst back into the house, but she’d mentioned ‘doctor’ and ‘treatment,’ and she’d wept, before she’d been able to hang up. I’d stuffed my head under my pillow, trying not to hear, but I had anyway.

‘Claire,’ she said again, knocking gently. ‘Come on, please. I want to speak to you, young lady.’

Every muscle ached. I felt like a piece of paper, crumpled up so badly it could never sit flat again. I stumbled to the door and pulled it open. My Mam’s eyes were full of tears, and that set me going again. I let her wrap me up in a hug, her belly warm and soft. I tried not to wet her jumper, but I didn’t really manage it. My face was soaking, and covered in snot.

‘Your uncle is downstairs, love. He wants to talk to you.’

My heart jolted, and I shook my head, grinding my eyes shut. My mother soothed my sobbing shoulders, stroking me gently. She kissed the top of my head. ‘Shush, now. He wants to say sorry.’

She evicted me from the embrace and stood me back from her, arm’s-length away. She rubbed my clammy cheeks with her rough thumbs.

‘Try and smile, pet. Try and be nice.’

I nodded, two more hot, fat tears spilling out. Mam wiped them away.

 

My uncle stood in the kitchen, looking out of place. It was like seeing a clown saying Mass. He had his flat cap scrunched in his hands, and something else too. I couldn’t see it properly.

‘Claire, Uncle Paddy has something he wants to give you,’ Mam said.

I glanced up at my uncle’s sun-darkened face. I noticed, for the first time in my life, that he had bright blue eyes. Brighter even than Dad’s.

‘I’m awful sorry, duck,’ said my uncle. His spoke quiet and low and liquidy, like he had a cold. ‘I should’ve thought.’

I felt Mam shove me from behind, her fingers sharp in my back.

‘That’s all right, Uncle Paddy,’ I said. I ran my fingers over my hot and sticky cheeks, wiping away the last traces of tears, suddenly feeling shy.

‘Here you are. Your Da was always saying how much you loved reading. I haven’t a lot of time for it myself any more.’ He cleared his throat with a sound like someone taking their foot out of a cowpat and held out a roughly-wrapped brown paper parcel.

‘What do you say, Claire?’ Mam asked.

I looked up at my uncle again. He had grey in his hair, all around his ears just like dad had, and soft wrinkles around his eyes that were so familiar.

I ran my hands along the jagged edges of the tape he’d used to wrap up my gift. ‘Thank you,’ I whispered.

‘Now,’ he said. ‘I’ll be gettin’ on, so.’

‘Will you not stay for your dinner, Paddy? I’ve plenty in the pot.’

‘Not at all, not at all. Sure I’ve my own bit made, inside. I’m grand altogether.’

‘All right so, Paddy. If you’re sure,’ said Mam, eventually.

My uncle nodded and started twisting his cap again, looking down at his muck-encrusted boots. ‘I’m after draggin’ half the field in here,’ he said.

‘Never you mind. It’s only a bit of muck. It’ll all be grand. Won’t it, Claire?’

I smiled up at my uncle, and he nodded at Mam before throwing me a wink. I clutched my book to my chest as my uncle turned towards the door.

‘Yes, Mam,’ I said, as my uncle slipped out the back door into the evening.

 

 

Flash Friday – ‘Judge, Jury, Executioner’

First woman jury, Los Angeles, 1911. Public Domain photo by the Library of Congress. Image sourced: flashfriday.wordpress.com

First woman jury, Los Angeles, 1911. Public Domain photo by the Library of Congress.
Image sourced: flashfriday.wordpress.com

Judge, Jury, Executioner

He looks so fine up there, his head thrown back, a thick pulse thudding at his throat. If it weren’t for his shackles he could almost be in church, a pillar of righteousness.

But instead he’s in the dock, and I’m here.

The judge reviews the evidence, making it sound even more damning than the prosecution had. Gruesome injuries, he drones. Overwhelming strength. I tremble, but the defendant doesn’t hang his head; he stays straight-backed, his eyes fixed in the crowd, on one face in particular.
I don’t have to look to know which one.

When I caught my husband sneaking out at night, I did nothing for the longest time. I waited. I chose my moment carefully, following on silent feet. When I saw him embrace another man – this man, whose life I’m about to judge – a rage like hellfire filled my bones and blood.

So I crept to his house. I murdered his wife. It was as if a demon overtook me.

And when they dragged him to trial, this fine innocent man, he confessed. To spare my husband, he confessed. To spare me the shame.

‘Madam Foreperson. Your verdict, please.’

Like a coward, I rise and condemn him, and his eyes never leave my husband’s face.

**

This week’s Flash! Friday (which I heartily recommend you try) asks participants to write a story between 190 and 210 words (I barely scraped in!) based around the image prompt, above, and the ‘concept’ prompt of ‘Man vs. Self’. The image prompt was of a jury of women sitting in judgement, and perhaps it’s because of my love of folksongs with their dark, twisty deeds, but the first place my mind went when I thought about interior conflict was this: what if you were judging someone for a crime you knew they hadn’t committed, but you had no choice but to convict them?

Well. And so, this tale was born.

Again, I make no claim to have written a ‘good’ story. It’s a story which didn’t exist an hour ago, and that – for me – is enough. I’ve been finding story-writing tough lately, and so any week in which I can get a story to coalesce long enough to capture it is a good one. Let’s hope it’s a good sign for the rest of the day’s endeavours!

Alors, my loves. I must fly. Happy weekend, one and all, and make sure to do some creative thinking over your down-time. It can only be, I’m assured, a Very Good Thing.

Wednesday Writing – ‘Eclipse’

Photo Credit: Prozac74 via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Prozac74 via Compfight cc

Eclipse

Many things happened the year I turned ten. Mother died, Father chose another wife from among her sisters, my new brother was born, and the sun disappeared.

‘It is behind a cloud,’ clucked the old women. ‘A day, and it will reappear.’ But it did not.

‘It is lost beneath the earth,’ speculated the old men. ‘A day, and it will find its way.’ But they were wrong.

I do not know who first decided that my brother had stolen the sun, but once the idea had formed, and been spoken aloud, it ran around faster than a winter wind.

‘The sun is inside the child,’ the whisper started. ‘He has swallowed it, the worm!’

‘Cut him, then,’ said another mouth, another carbuncled tongue. ‘Cut him, and free it.’

My father told me they would come. When they did, they bore knives.

‘You must understand,’ they said. ‘It is him, or us.’

But my father refused them entry, and so they bled him. They took his wife and tormented her, but she said nothing. By then, I was several miles away, my brother strapped to my back. I was fast, and small, and quick. Silently, we watched the flames rise from our village.

Laying my brother down to rest that night, I stroked his soft face. He smiled, and golden light spilled from him, out into the darkness, from every pore of his body.

The next morning, the sun returned. None but we two saw it rise.

**

Apologies for the non-blog yesterday. Something went wrong with my computer and/or my Internet connection and/or the WordPress site; my techno-whiz husband fixed things, but not in time for me to post, I’m afraid. I’m sure not hearing from me caused widespread global upset, but it can’t be helped. Buck up, chaps, and let’s keep going!

The above wee storylet is one I’ve submitted to several places, without success. I wrote it a long time ago, and so technically I’m cheating, here, but I hope I’ll be forgiven for it. I’m not sure why Eclipse never found a home, but I’ve decided now it never will – not anywhere beyond this blog, at least. I like this tiny story, particularly the first line, and so I thought perhaps I’d share it and see what others think. Thoughts? Suggestions as to why it has collected rejections like a broom collects dirt? All suggestions gratefully received, but do remember to be kind above all else.

I’m a busy and somewhat under the weather woman today, so I’ll be off; there’s always another task to tackle. Have a happy Odin’s Day, and I’ll see you all tomorrow.

Wednesday Writing – The ‘It’ Girls

Photo Credit: OrangeCounty_Girl via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: OrangeCounty_Girl via Compfight cc

The ‘It’ Girls

‘Why is the box just plain white, Mum?’ She twists in her seat and frowns at it. ‘Did they change the packaging, or something?’

‘Must have,’ I say, swallowing a yawn. ‘Eyes front, Marie. You’ll get sick, otherwise.’

‘Whatever. I haven’t been carsick since I was a kid.’ She twists further, and I’m terrified she’ll lift the lid.

‘Wow. That long?’ I mutter as I flick the indicator.

‘Ha ha,’ she mutters, rolling her eyes, but she settles back into her seat. ‘Hey, I hope they didn’t, like, cost loads, or whatever.’

I wait for the throb in my heart to subside before I’m able to answer. ‘Why would you say that?’

‘No reason,’ she sing-songs. Sometimes she sounds just like the TV. ‘It’s just – thanks, you know. For getting them.’

‘Yeah,’ I say, pretending to be distracted by a passing car.

‘Georgia’ll have made such an effort, you know? To have the perfect party?’ I cut a glance across at her. She’s staring out the side window, chewing the inside of her mouth. Her hands are hidden in her sleeves, but I can tell she’s picking at her nails.

‘It’s just going to be a few of the girls from class, isn’t it?’ I say, looking back at the road. The turn for Georgia’s house is less than a hundred metres away, and the base of my skull begins to throb, slowly.

‘Well, yeah. But they’re the important girls,’ Marie sighs. ‘And don’t give me this ‘you’re all equally important’ stuff,’ she interrupts, loudly, right before I’m about to say those exact words. ‘You know what I mean.’

‘All right, darling.’ The turning light changes to red, and I fight the urge to swing the car into a U-turn and zoom back into town, but I know the shop is shut. Christabel’s Cupcakes, even though the woman who runs it was baptised Tracey and God knows where she got her notions about ‘cupcakes’ from, because they were simply called ‘buns’ when I was growing up. Christabel’s sell their wares in light pink boxes, not plain white ones, and they wrap them like Christmas presents, and there’s always a queue out the door. I should have just found the money from somewhere and slid it across the counter in return for twenty identically perfect cakes, buttercream with silver sugar accents in silver paper cases, delicate vanilla sponge, light as a dream.

I should have. But instead I stayed up till 2 a.m. trying to bake quietly enough not to wake my sleeping child upstairs, and I found a plain cake box from somewhere, and that’s what’s waiting on the floor of the car. I’m not even sure if any two of the buns I made would pass for the same in a bad light, from a distance, and this is what I’m sending my girl into a party with.

‘So, like – are they pretty? The cupcakes?’ Marie asks, and for a second I don’t know what to say. The light turns green, and she doesn’t press me for an answer as we wait for a break in traffic. We turn off up the hill towards Georgia’s, and I press the pedal too hard.

‘Whoa, mum,’ laughs Marie over the roaring engine. ‘Cool it with the F1 stuff!’

‘Sorry, love,’ I say, looking for a space to pull in. Georgia’s driveway is full, and the grass verges and pathway are crowded with 4x4s and Land Rovers. I double-park beside a Jag and something I don’t recognise and flick on my hazard lights, and Marie leans over to kiss me goodbye. She flings herself out of the passenger door, and she leans in to pick up the box of cakes, touching it like it contains a sleeping baby. I want to tell her then, but I don’t. My heart thrums as I stare at her, clutching the tiny white rectangle with its battered corners and its grease stains, gazing fearfully up at the house, and I know I have to leave. Lights spill through open doors and windows, and I see crowds of people who all look perfectly the same, and I have to concentrate on not throwing up. I haven’t even washed my hair.

‘Aren’t you coming in?’ calls Marie to me. I gesture at the traffic.

‘I’ve got to get home, love!’ I shout. ‘I’ll be back at ten, okay?’

She tries to smile. ‘Okay, mum,’ she says, and blows me a kiss.

I catch the kiss she blows me, and I indicate to pull out, and I drive away and leave her there.

 

Wednesday Writing – The Empty Vessel

Photo Credit: irene gr via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: irene gr via Compfight cc

The Empty Vessel

It was one of his little classmates, dusty and sweat-stained and wide-eyed with urgent excitement, who brought word that Rudi was gone. Papi was in the orange grove. Mama was pounding the bread. And I, I was standing by the window playing with my hair, hoping Nico would walk by.

But instead of wild-eyed, black-eyed Nico, I got a child whose mouth barely closed around the words he carried. It was far from a fair exchange.

‘He did not come to class, Senora!’ babbled the child, before he’d even come fully to a halt. ‘He did not come! The master sent me to fetch him, Senora, for a whipping! And you are to come too so that you may learn, he said, how to keep your pups in line!’

The words spilled across the sunlit floor. Spent, the child panted in the doorway, his eyes bright. My mother said nothing, and simply threw the nearest thing she had to hand, which happened to be the smallest of the scale weights. It smacked the unwelcome messenger smartly on the ear, and she nodded, satisfied. She always had a good arm, and a sharp eye.

‘Ow!’ wailed the child, rubbing his wound. ‘What was that for?’

‘You have upset my yeast, with all your yelling,’ declared Mama. ‘It will be flatter than a crone’s bosom at this rate.’

‘So what? Aren’t you going to fetch Rudi? I am to bring him back for afternoon lessons.’

‘Be off! Tell the master Rudi is unwell.’ Mama’d found her kneading rhythm again, and her words wobbled in time to the beat. ‘Tell him he has not left the outhouse all morning. Tell him even the pigs cannot stand to be downwind of him. Say that -‘

‘Oh! Can I see him?’ crowed the child, dancing from leg to leg with excitement. ‘Can I smell him, Senora?’

Mama picked up the next-heaviest scale weight, and the child whipped away from the door. He was gone, whooping, down the path before I could blink.

I sighed. ‘Aren’t you going to look for him?’

‘He’ll be with Papi, or your uncle.’ (Uncle had the farm next door). ‘I have better things to do than try to understand a seven-year-old.’ She flicked a glance at me. ‘As do you, Mariela. Nico will want more in a wife than hair. Go and find some work to do, and start to learn your trade.’

I felt my cheeks burn blotchy red as I stepped outside.

I didn’t want to feed the chickens, or the pigs, or bring water to the flowers, or sweep the steps. None of those jobs involved grace, and all of them involved sweat. When Nico rode by I wanted to be fragrant and flushed pink, hair shining and sweet, not covered in stench.

So I walked down to the harbour, hoping maybe that the wind would pinch my cheeks and make something beguiling out of my hair. Perhaps I would see Miguel among the boats and perhaps, this time, I might permit him to take the kiss he’d wanted from me for at least six months. Perhaps word of it might reach Nico’s ears.

I smiled at the thought, and walked faster.

But the harbour was deserted. The boats were in, and empty, the catch long gone. I scuffed my way to the water’s edge and sat, the tang of the ocean scrubbing at my lungs.

Far offshore – almost too far for me to see – a boat lay drifting. It looked unmanned. I could make out no trailing mooring rope, nor any oars nor movement, and the current carried it far out as I watched, too far for rescue, and almost too fast to believe.

There was nobody to tell, no alarm to raise. Someone’s livelihood would suffer, but what could I do? I was merely me, Mariela, and nobody was there to help me.

I walked home, unwatched and unwanted.

Dinner sang in the oven, and still no Rudi came. Papi returned from the grove, and no small shadow haunted his. Mama went to Uncle’s house but came home alone.

Then Mama packed some food for Papi and he went out from house to house, asking for his son. Mama ran to the square to search each face, to ask ‘have you seen him?’, and to spread the word. I stayed at home. I thought only of Rudi, but I brushed my hair until it shone like silk, just in case.

It was not until the night was at its thickest that I thought to remember the drifting boat, the one which had been deliberately untied and left to the mercy of the sea, the one which had looked empty – maybe because the person inside it had been smaller than a bundle of sticks, and hiding because the whole thing was a great adventure, like the ones in the comics he saw for sale outside the drogueria. Papi slapped me when I told him, but I kept my weeping inside.

We stumbled to the shoreline in the dark but all we saw was empty, open water, and one boat missing from the dock. We sat until the morning came, but all trace of boat and boy were gone.

Later that same day, I cut my hair up to my skull, like a small child’s. Nico never looked at me again. And Miguel? He found his kisses elsewhere, after that.

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Writing – ‘Good Things Come’

Photo Credit: Leonrw via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Leonrw via Compfight cc

Good Things Come

Leave the ‘ouse at seven-twelve; all good. Hop the train at seven-forty; all good. The gatherin’ crowd means I get shoved into someone’s armpit – not so good, but it could be worse. I feel like a slab of meat in an abattoir, my fingers goin’ numb around the bar suspended from the carriage ceiling, swayin’ gently with the clack-clack, just like every other poor sod.

But it’s all good.

We screech into her station, and I watch as she elbows her way on, knockin’ folk left and right. I hide behind some bloke’s newspaper, FTSE-this and NASDAQ-that lickin’ my eyeballs, but when I stick my ‘ead back out again I see ‘er, like she’s got an ‘oming beacon stuck to her forehead. She jus’ draws the eye, y’know? Face like one o’ them statues. Angled. Perfect.

She looks tired this morning, though. Can ‘ardly blame ‘er. You ‘ad a late night, eh? Oblivious, she flicks her finger up and down ‘er phone screen, swipin’ this way an’ that. Workin’? Sendin’ a very important email? I grin. Or checkin’ your dating profile, are we, love? Leanne6Herts, that’s you. Tweetin’ about your night on the tiles, yeah?

I look away before I want to. Any longer an’ she’d have felt it, like a weight. Any longer, an’ I might as well have screamed her name. I bite my lip and breathe, staring in the direction of the window, gettin’ an eyeful of some woman’s ear’ole, and beyond that, a spaced-out looking dropout with a nose-ring. Scum.

The ping as we reach the next station causes a handy bit of kerfuffle in the carriage, just enough to give me the chance to catch another glimpse. She’s leanin’ against the wall, her ‘andbag held tight, water bottle clutched like a baby. Still on the blinkin’ phone. In ‘er own world, this one. In ‘er own bloody world. Don’t I know it.

Eight-nineteen. We reach our destination right on time.

She’s ever so polite, stoppin’ to let folk off in front of her, smilin’ at some bint with a kid. Gives me a chance to slip out past her as she’s helpin’ to get the pram down from the carriage to the platform, all laughter and jollity. You can turn it on when you want to, eh?

The river of people bashes past me, umbrellas and briefcase-edges and cleared throats and mumbled conversations and excuse mes and muttered curses. I ‘ang about by the barrier, cradlin’ my ticket, ready to slip through. Just got to time it right.

‘Ere she is.

I slide up to the validator, an’ out I go. Carried along by the flow, we make our way up to the bridge like we’re all one tribe, y’know, all fightin’ the same fight. Suits and jeans alike, skin’eads and barbershop jobs. Nobody looks at anybody else. Nobody speaks. Nobody even notices me.

I make it across the bridge, no problem. Timin’, I warn myself, chancin’ a look back. I stop, ignorin’ the shakin’ heads and the clickin’ tongues all around me. Time it right, man!

She’s over halfway across – no goin’ back now, sunshine. She’s still clutchin’ that stupid water bottle, bags under ‘er eyes, face pale. I can barely keep it in long enough to let ‘er look up, in ‘er own time, an’ just when I think she won’t, she does. She finally does.

She looks up an’ sees me there, the press of people at ‘er back and the flow urgin’ her on. I smile my widest smile an’ hold out my arms, welcomin’-like, an’ she tries to stop walkin’ but someone bashes into her. Come on, darlin’. You ain’t got no choice. I tried it the nice way, and you weren’t ‘aving it. I’ve waited long enough.

She drops the water bottle, an’ it gets kicked away, quick as quick, as the press of people carries her to me like a reward, like a prize. Like nothin’ more than I deserve.

 

 

Wednesday Writing – ‘Memento Mori’

 

Memento Mori

I was hurrying down Morrison when he came at me, straight out of the alley beside the old grocery store. I put my head down and ignored him at first, sure he was just one of those guys who hadn’t taken to the process so well, but he was determined to catch my eye.

‘Hey,’ he muttered, shuffling over. ‘Hey, man. I gotta -‘

‘Can’t stop, buddy,’ I called, holding up a hand, wondering when the government was going to face facts and segregate these things. ‘In a hurry, y’know?’

‘Please,’ he said. ‘Just need a minute.’ A faint stink billowed out of him, a memory of breath.

‘Don’t you got a job to go to, friend?’ I asked. That’s the point, isn’t it? I didn’t say it out loud, but he had to know I was thinking it. Anybody would be.

He blinked and made no answer, swaying on his feet.

‘Man, I really am sorry. Okay? Really. But if I’m late for work I get to hear about it all week. You understand, right? Nothin’ personal.’ I’d reached out to shake his hand before I could stop myself, but his fists were buried deep in his rancid pockets. He froze. I glanced up at his face properly for an instant then, and he just stared at me out of wet, sloppy eyes. I couldn’t tell what colour they’d been; the process had washed it away.

I shook the guy off – his smell, his voice, the pallor of his face – as I kept walking, and by the time I finished work for the day I’d forgotten all about him. I walked home through empty streets. Apartment buildings rose into the dusk all around, dark and cold. My own building had thirty percent occupancy, and I knew I was one of the lucky ones. When I closed my door behind me I didn’t feel like something finally buried. I knew if I shouted, someone would hear me.

They might not come. But they would hear.

I saw him as I came near that old grocery store again, the one that had never been open during my lifetime. There he was, waiting in the shadows. Had he even moved since this morning?

‘Look,’ I said, before he could speak. ‘I told you before, all right? I can’t talk to you.’

‘Just, please,’ he said. He looked worse than before. Dark hollows beneath his eyes threatened to swallow his face.

‘Weren’t you at your job today? Huh? Did you just stand around here all day? Were you this useless when you were alive, too?’

‘Buddy, come on,’ he replied. ‘I gotta show you. Gotta show someone.’

I wasn’t sure why those words pulled at me, but thirty seconds later I was following him – a Refurb, an actual flesh-and-blood walking talking dead guy – into this alley. It smelled like hell.

Then, he stopped. I heard a noise, and looked down.

A kid. A kid lay on the ground, white-faced and wide-eyed, breathing hard as she stared up at me. She couldn’t have been any more than nine. It looked like maybe her leg was broken – certainly, she wasn’t going anywhere fast. This is good, flashed across my mind. The bounty for returning runaways was high. How she’d managed to escape from the Farm was anyone’s guess, but all I knew was they’d pay to get her back.

‘You animal,’ I growled, turning on the Refurb. I clenched my fists. This has to look good, I told myself.

‘No! Mister!’ The kid’s voice was like a whistle. ‘He helped me! I fell, and -‘

‘Enough,’ I told her, never taking my eyes off the Refurb. They weren’t supposed to hurt the living, but I guess you never knew. How can any of us be sure?

‘No,’ said the Refurb. His eyes were flabby. Blank. He’s just instinct, I told myself. Wrapped up in a body. He’s barely more than a machine. ‘No. Please.’ He took a shuffling step back and slid on something in the garbage piled there, falling back against the sacks. I took my chance.

A swift, hard jab to the abdomen, and he groaned so bad that I almost believed he felt it. Another, and another. There was barely any resistance in his soft flesh.

‘No! Arnie!‘ screamed the kid. ‘Stop hurting him!’

‘Arnie, is it?’ I said, bracing myself for another punch. ‘You’re a dead man, Arnie. No pun intended. You know that, right? Even if I hadn’t found you hurting this girl, or whatever it is I can make ’em believe you’d been doing up here, I’d probably have killed you just for being lazy. You’re going in the ground, my friend. Nobody needs a Refurb who won’t work.’

He looked up at me then, and his watery eyes overflowed. The barest twitch of his face could have been a smile.

I threw the killer punch. Arnie’s jaw shattered, and he lay still.

Is there a fine for smashing up a Refurb? I thought, shaking out my fist. Hardly matters. The money I’ll get for returning the kid will more than cover it.

‘Okay, little lady,’ I called, hauling myself up off the trash-pile, leaving Arnie’s twice-dead body where it lay. ‘Come on, now. You ready?’

I turned, but she was gone.

‘His name wasn’t Arnie,’ I heard her say. I squinted into the gloom, but there was no sign of her. ‘Well, maybe. It could’ve been. I call them all Arnie.’

‘You – what? Come on, kid. I don’t have time for this.’ I turned, looking, but besides me and the cold Arnie, there was nobody in this alley.

‘It takes years, you know,’ she continued, from her unseen perch. ‘The average Retirement application. And it can only be approved once a Refurb’s given at least twenty years of service. Don’t matter how many times it messes up – nobody cares. A Refurb’s gotta work until it falls apart.’ She sighed. ‘And they’re programmed not to hurt themselves, each other, or the living.’

‘So?’ I wished I could see her. The flesh on my back started to crawl. ‘What’s this got to do with you?’

‘Call it a public service,’ she replied. ‘They pay me whatever they’ve got, and I get them killed. Win-win.’

I looked back at Arnie. ‘You mean he – he wanted this?’

‘Wouldn’t you?’ She sounded angry, now. ‘Worked hard all his life, knowing that all he’d get for dying would be a day off?

‘I – but, it’s how it’s done,’ I said. ‘We need the labour.’

‘Right.’ The kid sounded further away now. ‘Tell yourself that when you’re on your deathbed.’ I heard a tiny scuffle, and a small grunt of effort, and a tiny shadow moving against the night.

‘Hey,’ I shouted. ‘Come back here! I’ve got to get you home!’ There was no answer. ‘Little girl!’

The wind skirled round the alley, tossing some papers and loosened trash. A cat flashed its eyes at me in the darkness, then vanished.

When I got home I called the authorities. Told ’em I’d seen a bunch of thugs harassing a Refurb near an alley off Morrison; I couldn’t intervene, because it was one against five. Possibly six. Said I hoped the guy would be okay. Mentioned a runaway kid, and asked about a reward.

Then I went to bed, but the darkness had a weight in it, and I was afraid to close my eyes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Writing

Photo Credit: Anoop Negi via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Anoop Negi via Compfight cc

The Bird-Baiter

‘Hey, Noosh!’ Siggy. Great. Just great. ‘You on late shift tonight, eh?’

‘Well, uh. I’m hardly here just to see you, friend.’ He fell into step beside me, long and lanky where I was twisted and frail. His arms swung free. Hands at the ready.

‘Sure, sure. Think you can catch somethin’ ‘sides starlight tonight, maybe?’ He laughed like a flung cat, all hssss and no ha.

‘Try my best, I guess,’ I said, wishing he’d go back to whatever it was he’d been doing before he spotted me. Spying on the women’s hut, prob’ly.

‘Yeah. Believe it when I see it.’ He clapped me on the back, fit to knock me flat. ‘See you at sunup, little man.’

‘Little man! I’m older’n you,’ I muttered, once he was well away.

Didn’t take me long to reach the Sand. It stretched for miles in both directions, the sea’s gentle kisses already lulling me. I wasn’t the first Baiter to dream on the job, and sure I wouldn’t be the last, but for fellas like Siggy, one slip-up was more than enough.

‘Noosh,’ nodded Barret. ‘You’re early.’

‘Sir,’ I said, slipping on my gloves.

‘Got your goggles?’ he asked, pointing towards the spares box, just in case. But who’d want goggles full o’ someone else’s sweat and spit? I fumbled in my pocket and drew out my own, facet-cut lenses polished clean, adjusters oiled and ready.

‘I’ll jus’ get started, sir. If that’s fine with you.’ I strung the goggles loosely round my neck and tried to look capable in my too-big gloves, made for proper hands. Barret hmmed and went back to his paperwork, waving me vaguely on. So I went.

I settled onto the perch, comfy as a cactus mattress, and watched the dying sunlight turn the sea pink. I grabbed up my rope, nestling it loosely between and around my gloved fingers. I didn’t bother with my goggles, not yet. They made the world look like a headache, unless it was full dark, and everyone knew birds didn’t come out at dusk.

I did check whether the Bait was in the net – the guy before me had done his job right, for once. Then my gaze roamed the sea for a while, watching the waves.

So, when the rope jerked, it fair knocked me off my perch. I pulled and tied it off instantly, though, without even thinking. The huge net at the rope’s far end clapped shut, just as it should, and it jerked, tautly, with the kicking of my prey. I closed my eyes, fumbling my goggles on with shaking, gloved hands. Then, I squinted through the haze and caught the flash of one giant white wing, the edges of the world shattering off into multicoloured planes.

I slithered out of my gloves and grabbed the knife at my belt. Throat, wings, feet, I recited as I clambered down. I’d never had to finish a catch; I’d never made one alone before. My knife was a stranger in my palm.

I slapped my way down the boards, approaching the net carefully. The catch thrashed about in it, a bird as white as bone and easily as big as me, which was big for a bird. Its beak was as long as my arm and it shone like moonlight on water. I’d seen, up close, the damage it could do.

‘Easy,’ I whispered. ‘Easy, now.’ The bird reared back its head and screamed at me. I tried to hide the knife behind my back, but there was no fooling it. Huge black eyes rolled, following my movements. ‘I don’t want to hurt you,’ I told it, because it was true. Cut just right, we’d always been told, and the catch feels nothing. It just dies.

I blinked, frowning, as pale, pinkish light started creeping in around the edges of my goggles. They began to steam up. I swore under my breath, but knew I deserved as much for hauling them on in a hurry. I stuffed my knife back into my belt and scrunched up my eyes before pulling my goggles away from my face. I started to resettle them, hoping the seal would take properly this time. This job had to be done right.

‘Please,’ said a voice. ‘Please, I’m begging you. Don’t hurt me.’

I held my breath. For a long second, I stood, goggles in hand, and then I made another move to put them on again. Get this done, and stop being stupid little-man Noosh, no-catch nobody.

‘No! Not those stupid things! Please! Look at me. With your own eyes.’ The voice was like soft cool sand sliding through my fingers. I chewed on my lip for a bit, feeling Barret’s gaze on me, hoping he wasn’t spying out the window of the Baiters’ hut, wondering what the hell I thought I was doing.

And then I cracked one eyelid, just a hair’s breadth, just to see. I wasn’t long about whacking it closed again.

Half a breath later I flicked my two eyes open and stared, my heart throbbing so fast it made my whole body shake.

A woman lay in the net – a white woman, pale as a pearl, with hair that looked like a candle flame. She had a vivid gash down one leg and she cradled one arm, like it was injured. She was wrapped up into herself so that I couldn’t see, but I could tell. She was naked.

‘I know what you want to do,’ she said. ‘Please. Don’t. Your people have killed so many of my sisters already.’

My mouth fell open. ‘Your – your sisters? But we kill the mountain birds. For food. We don’t kill no women.’

‘They are,’ she said, sadly, ‘one and the same.’

‘But I don’t -‘ I began. She shook her head.

‘I don’t have time to explain. Please. I will find it hard enough to fly with my injuries as they are; with every second, I grow weaker. I beg you – set me free.’

‘But – I can’t,’ I said. Her skin glowed even whiter now in the growing dark, and it drew my eye. ‘I have to finish a catch, or I’ll never be – I’ll never be good enough.’

‘I don’t want to die,’ she told me, fixing me with those large black eyes.

I leaned in close. Her pulse was hopping in her throat and I could hear her breathing, fast and shallow. I wrapped my fingers around my knife handle and drew it out; she flinched, a huge tear rolling down her moonlight cheek.

I slashed a hole in the net, hoping it was big enough, and then I turned around. I wanted to vomit, but I bent forward and breathed deep for a while, and it passed. Through the rushing of my blood I heard the fluttering swoosh as she clambered free, and out of the corner of my upside-down eye I saw her flying, skin like a coconut’s innards and hair like the sun.

I didn’t see the spear, and neither did she.

With a whoop, Siggy and his idiot friends, goggles all round, clambered out of the undergrowth. I didn’t see where she fell, and I couldn’t watch them bring her in.

When I wouldn’t join in the feast the next day, Barret called me over and told me I’d be a better farmer than a bird-baiter, anyway. He gave me three weeks’ pay and a handshake.

I looked him in the eye, and in his face I saw white-skinned women with bright yellow hair, and I knew nothing I could say would change his mind. I saw myself being laughed at as the village loon if I said a word to anyone else, and I knew he wasn’t going to explain.

So, now I grow beans and maize, and it’s a fine life. I go to the feasts, but I don’t eat, and at night I stare at the mountains and dream of star-pale skin and hair like fire.

 

 

Writerish Wednesday

Today’s words – two girls  ::  thick braid  ::  peel  ::  heavy traffic  ::  allergic reaction – are unashamedly borrowed from CAKE.shortandsweet‘s Wednesday Write-In #3 (originally held in September 2012). CAKE has been offline for the past few weeks, and I’ve missed it terribly. Let’s hope it comes back soon.

two girls :: thick braid :: peel :: heavy traffic :: allergic reaction

Image: lovethispic.com

Image: lovethispic.com

All The World’s a Mountain

She carried the thick braid with her everywhere she went. It lived in her pocket, wrapped up in a fine linen cloth, tightly bound around itself like a never-ending loop.

She didn’t look at it very often, but its weight was always there.

‘What is with this rush hour, huh?’ muttered her neighbour, a tall and heavy-set man with skin so dark it absorbed the day. His voice made her fingers tremble, and she realised she’d been clutching at her coat, squeezing the lump of hair within it like a totem. ‘You ever seen such heavy traffic?’ The bus they were riding in sat, honking, amid a sea of metal and glass. The windows were beginning to run with moisture, and the air was too heavy to breathe.
She did her best to smile at him, but he – already forgetting her – rose sharply to his feet.

‘Hey! Yo! Driver, man! What’s happenin’ up there?’ He squeezed his way past, his elbow slamming into her shoulder. He did not bother to apologise, and she felt something sharp at her heart. Another layer of her patience began to peel away.

She ignored the yelling that kicked off around the driver’s cabin as she smothered the fear, the growing anger, the rising rage.

Her hand found the braid again. Through the fabric of her coat it felt cold, and wet, and heavy. She squeezed it, clenching her eyes against the noise and the heat and the stench

No two girls could be more alike, mama had always said. Born the same day, each with hair like evening and eyes like the dawn. We were friends. Always friends. Our hands fitted together like they’d been carved as one, and we were so rarely at odds that the older folk smiled and said of us that we could read one another’s minds.

But what is sweet and lovely at five is not so at fifteen, and still less at twenty.

My friend’s mama took her away before she turned twenty-one and sold her to a man from the mountains. He became a husband more bear and hair and growl than human being. She called out to me, her words not formed by tongue and teeth; I heard her, but not with my ears. She was so far away. To say I missed her is to make a mockery of the words. An oozing void gaped within me where my heart had been.

And then, one day, her voice stopped.

I packed a bag and left, mid night, on feet grown so used to silence that mama never knew. She slept as I climbed out the window; she slept as I slid into the shadows. She slept as I made my way to the mountains.

I arrived as they pulled her from the lake. Her hair – my hair – dark with dark water, sodden with cold, swollen and dripping and dead, flopped around her neck like a serpent. Her braid was neat and perfect, but her eyes were sealed.

‘She had an allergic reaction,’ blustered her husband. ‘She ate some berry or other and ran into the tarn, out of her senses. Stupid townish woman.’

They commiserated and sympathised and filled him full of their sorrow, but I could see the laughter at the core of him. He’d had what he wanted, and he’d got what he wanted.

Before they buried her, I took her hair.

After they buried her, the mountain man vanished.

My bag has grown threadbare over the years. My clothes are clean but out of date. My name changes every time I am asked for it. I leave no trail.

And I look into the eyes of every man I see, waiting for the spark of recognition. When I find it, I will know what to do.

She sweeps to her feet and grabs her battered travelling case from the overhead rack. The braid drags down her coat on one side, making it swing. She strides up the aisle and asks to be let off the bus in a voice she doesn’t recognise, and before he knows what he’s doing the driver has pulled the lever, the door has hissed aside and she is off, striding between the rows of unmoving cars.

A man – shrunken now, and shaven, eyes hidden by a cap – watches her pass. Before the door can slide closed again he runs for it, squeezing through the narrowing gap and plunging out into the melting light of a city day. His own pocket is heavy, but not with a token of love.

He was born to the life of a tracker. All the world’s a mountain, if you need it to be.

 

Wednesday Write-In #90

This week’s words are:

jungle, matchbox, sparrow, hog, mull

Image: mrssmithscottage.co.uk

Image: mrssmithscottage.co.uk

Wash Day

We wanted to play, Sid and me, but Mum was busy. She was always busy. We scattered as she hauled the tin bath, full to the brim with shirts and soapy water, out to the back door, nearly sliding on one of my Matchbox cars as she went.

‘Get out from under my feet!’ she yelled. ‘This place is a blimmin’ jungle, Rodney. Get those things cleared up, this minute!’

‘Sorry, Mum,’ I said, glad she had hold of the bath. That meant, with any luck, she couldn’t smack me one.

‘I’ll sorry you,’ she muttered, leaning the bath on the garden wall. I heard the gooosh as the wash-water poured away, and the squealing of Mr Johnson’s pig next door. Probably thought it were feeding time, poor bugger.

‘That disgusting hog,’ hissed Mum, kicking our back door closed. ‘Why he can’t just be turned into breakfast, I will never know.’ Sid looked up, puzzled, a line of drool down his chin.

‘Never you mind, Siddie boy,’ I said, wiping his mouth gently. ‘Nothing’s going to happen to ol’ Porky.’ Sid grinned at me and went back to playing, swooping his toy aeroplane around like it were a B-52, doing the ack-ack-ack under his breath. Dad had carved it for me, but I’d given it to our Sid last year. He’d never left it out of his hand since.

‘Get out to that pump, Rodney,’ said Mum, slapping the shirts onto the scrubbing board. ‘Bring your brother, if he’ll go. I need at least two buckets.’

‘Right, Mum,’ I said, hauling Sid up by his collar.

‘At least two, mind! And none of your half-full nonsense. I need these shirts sparklin’.’ She started scrubbing, her hands red and the shirts white as snow.

‘Yes, Mum,’ I said, bundling Sid into his old, too-small coat. He stood staring, thinking who knew what. Probably wondering, like me, where Dad had gone and why Mum kept washing his shirts, week after week, like she was expecting him home any minute.

Sid and me clattered out, a bucket each. The pump was at the end of the road, painted white and red. The women stood around it like a bunch of birds on a garden fence. Mrs Ellis from number 12 was a sparrow, small and bony; Mrs Jenkins from top of the road a crow, beak and all.

‘All right then, young Robsons,’ said one of them as we got close. I nodded and Sid grinned, showing all his teeth. ‘There’s a good boy,’ crooned another, but more of them turned away, their mouths tight. They carried on talking, but in low, far-away voices.

Sid held the bucket steady while I filled it. The pump handle creaked and banged as it went up and down, up and down, the water gushing out like magic. Sid giggled. I knew he wanted to stick his face in, and I hoped he wouldn’t.

I grabbed a full bucket in each hand. Sid scrambled up to follow me, wanting to take some of the burden, but I couldn’t let him carry it. He’d forget it, or spill it, or fall… We’d been too long already.

‘Come on, Sid,’ I said, half-gasping, getting a grip on the handles. ‘Don’t delay.’ We passed the post box and turned the corner, and our house stood at the very far end, looking like it were miles away.

‘Dad!’ burbled Sid, suddenly. ‘Daa-ad!’ He crowed, clapping his hands and pointing.

‘Don’t be silly, Sid,’ I muttered, trying not to let him knock me off-balance.

Look!’ he insisted, plucking at my sleeve.

I put the buckets down and squinted, doing my best to see. Our front door was open, and there was someone there, someone with his back to us. Someone tall and broad and wide…

I grabbed Sid’s hand and we ran, full-pelt. Sid yelled all the way, Dad! Dad! Dad-daaad!

And the man turned.

He wore a full moustache and a dark blue uniform with polished buttons on, and shiny boots. His hat was clutched to his chest, and his eyes were kind. Our mum stood in the doorway like she were nailed to the frame, grey and open-mouthed. Her nose was red. Her eyes flicked back and forth over the front step like she couldn’t figure out what it was.

‘All right, lads,’ said the man, bending slightly, smiling at us. ‘Your mum’s just had a bit of bad news. She’ll have lots to mull over in the next while. You be good lads, all right? You’ll be the men of the house, now.’ He nodded at us, slid his hat back on his head, and strode off.

I stood staring at Mum for ages. Eventually, Sid and me got a shoulder each under her arms and helped her to the kitchen. Sid went back for the buckets; one was gone, but he brought back nearly the full of the other.

I finished the washing, and hung it out.

Eventually, we grew into Dad’s shirts, Sid and me, and they were as starched and white the day we first put them on as the day they’d first been made.

 

**

Just a little note to say: this is my 500th blog post! Thank you all for sticking with me this far, and I hope we’ll have plenty more blogging adventures to come.