Jackdaw Lane

Write about a character who hides in the grass. Written 2018.

I spent those years starving. I couldn’t control my life, spinning down the plughole with my running shoes. I couldn’t control my work, with a boss against whom an icepick looked sensitive. I slept with whomever presented themselves, and none of them were brutal enough to satisfy my punch-drunk heart.

When I met him I was washed away. Finished, swept clean off the board. He appeared in my life like a nuclear blast and since then there have been only shadows. How he reduced me, like stock, to something thick, simmering, seconds away from melting and burning. Ruinous, ruinous. Neither of us were fit for domesticity.

And he hadn’t the manners, the experience, the knowledge, to put me off. And I wasn’t even answerable for myself, being almost entirely mad. Half-starved, savage, despairing, desparate, I was an appalling creature. I would cringe at the thought of myself, but the future is a desert. There’s no shade in which to cringe. Being in the future means having done whatever terrible thing it took to live through an indescribable present. The future is for whore and rogues, those who don’t bother blushing.

I waited for him one summer morning, lying in the grass of the little field next to the road he drove down. Among the scrappy hedgerows, with sun-bleached bits of rubbish, near a patch of spring-damp mud, I crouched. My bike lay beside me in the long grass. I looked through the screen of branches for his car. There was some kid beside me trying to chat me up; I was only vaguely aware of him. The blood beat in my ears; my heart roared; my pulse felt vast in my throat. So must a leopard feel as the incredible burst of speed takes them over, the present of their prey before them and the future of the bite and the blood blurring together.

I was the character who hides in the grass. I was thin, ravenous, barely clothed, shredding my self-respect, with the project of my little life in tatters. Twelve thousand miles and twenty-eight years from anyone who cared, I hid in the grass like an animal, hopeful of a casual cruelty that had come to define my life. Appalled, I look at the girl in the grass and swear never again to be her.

And hiding in the grass, forever stuck behind that screen of branches, the starving girl doesn’t care.

Switch

Two men, washing each other clean in a river, duck beneath the ripples. It’s not terribly deep. They’re in a sort of pool, a little out of the main body of the river, which is brown from the silt and earth of the dry banks. When the men resurface, their identities have become tangled. Their friends, sitting on the dusty riverbank, do not quite catch this exchange, but it happens nonetheless. Like two girls whose long hair becomes tangled and snarled as it floats and twines together in the bath, the two men emerge feeling as if they have lost something personal, and gained something foreign. Like wearing someone else’s sandals. Your size, but not your tread.

The two men (who are actually cousins) have always been similar, and the family stories which surrounded them have been similarly dramatic and extraordinary. Their mothers have always been quite like each other – it is through their mothers that they are cousins, even though the women and their sons are far apart in age. Their fathers have also been like each other. The cousins and their parents have formed a kind of symmetry, in the way that family groups sometimes do.

Although it is cloudy and too cold for a proper swim, their friends and some more of their family have wandered down to the river through the olive and elder trees and now sit on the banks chatting, pulling and plaiting rushes, wondering how much fish you could get from such muddy water. The cousins are standing together, knee deep in the water, and everyone else is minding their own business. Then they walk a few steps further out and submerge together, the way everyone does when they are kids. It would be no surprise to see two pairs of waving legs emerge as they do a handstand on the bottom.

But they come back up, the water streaming off them, sweeping back wet hair with their hands, rubbing it out of their beards. They wade back to the bank, clutch each other’s arms, and start writing the water out of their shirts, their thin cloths.

Maybe the sun breaks through the clouds. Maybe it even seems to tear them open.

So much hangs on a moment. Unseen perhaps even by heaven, two cousins sneakily exchange identities beneath the muddy river so that they can both get what they crave. After all, they are already so close, what does it matter, who does what? It’s all the same family.

Things merge into things. The question of who sees the incredible thing is forgotten. The story becomes what they saw. What they saw becomes what is seen, becomes what was. The frames that separate experiences blur. The cousins will become confused, and what really happened lost in a veil of words.

So much hangs on one word: εἶδεν. He saw.

The younger cousin leaves with his friends. They show him that solicitude that groups of friends sometimes reserve for the one who is a little strange, prone to fantasising, or perhaps a bit weak-minded. Suddenly he says that he saw the clouds part, violently, and the breath of God – the friends look at each other a bit sadly, because this is evidently one of his bad days – the breath of God come out of the sky like a pretty dove.

A dove? they say patiently.

Yes, yes, he says. He makes fluttering motions with his hands. Soft, grey, plump-breasted. So gentle. It just settled on me. Like a puff of air. Like a kiss.

Doves aren’t river birds, one of them says with a snort. He gets an elbow in the ribs and someone says, don’t be an arsehole, Thomas.

But the cousin isn’t bothered. I said like a dove. But not …

And what else? says someone, trying to be kind.

A voice.

Oh yeah? Where from? Whose voice?

From heaven. It said, ‘You are my son, beloved, and I was truly pleased in you.

The kind one gives him a gentle punch on the arm. Yeah mate, he should be. You’re a good bloke.

Better not tell your dad that, the questioning one says. He might feel a bit put out if you say your dad’s in heaven.

How come I never see these things? Or no one in heaven says they’re well pleased with me? the questioning one moans.

Yeah, I wonder, says someone. There is a gentle ripple of laughter.

The cousin looks back and sees his other self still standing by the river, looking at the sunlight dancing on the ripples. Then he turns away and keeps walking down the road in the direction of the highway with his friends.

Who saw these things. One man. But which? Later, much later, when all the stories are put together end to end, little discrepancies will become clear. One version will say that the younger cousin saw the heavens open, the spirit descend, and the voice speak to him. One version will say that the voice spoke to others about him. A third will not bother to mention that only the cousin saw these things. A fourth will say that it was the other man who saw and heard them. By the time the discrepancies are evident and problematic, so many terrible things will have been done in the name of this story that an accumulated guilt and filth fills the cracks between versions. Flushing out the whole would crack it like an old plate.

Whatever these two, inextricably tangled, men saw and heard beneath the water, it seems that no one else was witness to it on that grey day. Two cousins from a family marked by madness and suffering ducked out of sight for a moment, and tried to evade, scrub off, or exchange those hallucinations which they fear will no longer torment only themselves.

Contracted

They were married in the little church at Holmbury St Mary; the vicar took the Aretino triptych out of its wrappings, gritty with dust and glass from the bomb which struck the north chapel. William wore morning dress and not his uniform, which made him look smaller, older, and more of the Foreign Office. Her parents left immediately after the wedding breakfast because her mother wanted to return home to feed the twins, whom the family agreed were the only good surprise presented by the war. She did not ask them to stay because she couldn’t honestly say that she wanted them to. From that point of view, she was well aware that this was how she ended up married: having no real preferences about anything, it seemed natural that people who had developed preferences should take precedence. Her parents said that her lack of inclination to anything was a well-disguised laziness, or immaturity. They did not seem particularly dismayed about this. She wondered if they would have felt differently had she been a boy. When William, fifteen years her senior and going to a diplomatic posting in Morocco, said she should marry him, she couldn’t find a reason to object. She was nineteen, unsuitable for a job, and William wanted her. She waved her parents off from the hotel doorway, feeling forlorn in her taffeta, still clutching the tulips that her mother had wanted for a bouquet.

They muddled through a wedding night which satisfied what William wanted. She lay still, feeling formless and soggy, while William arranged himself for sleep. It surprised her that such fuss was made about an act which had no definite beginnings and such a laughable ending. When they arrived at the embassy’s married quarters in Rabat, she was told to arrange the house in any way that suited her. She left everything as William had put it. He arranged French lessons to supplement her schoolgirl French, but she found Darija easier and more interesting – even if it had to be learned surreptitiously. William had no Darija, and no intention of learning it. He read French well enough, if the books on his bedside were anything to go by. He was reading a book called L’histoire de l’œil by Georges Bataille. She thought it was about optometry until she read the opening vignette. William came in while she was struggling with an adjective that she realized was ‘starched’. ‘Do you want to read it?’

‘Is it good?’

He laughed. ‘That’s not a word associated with this book.’

‘Then why are you reading it?’

He gave a small smile, which he quickly swallowed. It was not a look which she had seen before; not a disposition she associated with William. ‘Has it occurred to you that I might not be good?’

She realized that William’s moral character has never crossed her mind. It was not that she believed that she would end up with the good, as her parents clearly assumed. Or that she was entitled to it, as her sister had. Contrary to the prevailing belief in Surrey during the war, goodness seemed to have a positive quality and this required choices, which in turn required knowing what you wanted. Without the river rocks of intended action or desires, life flowed around and through you, she thought, and you were carried away down a peaceful stream.

‘I hadn’t thought about that.’

He got into bed. ‘I’ve never known how you do it,’ he said, ‘this…passivity. It seems unhealthy to be so, I don’t know, still.’ He took her hand and looked at her speculatively as she stood by the bed, holding the book. ‘Still, never look a gift horse in the mouth.’

She got into her own side of the bed and went to sleep.

Now, at the gate of the Souk el-Attarine William again takes her hand and brings something out of his pocket. She stands in silence as the women – all a head and shoulders shorter than she in her espadrilles – flow past her. She thinks it might be nice to roam through the perfume market alone, just for a little while, but it seems rude to push William away now and ask if he hasn’t some embassy business to get one with.

He is unwinding a small skein of red thread – her own embroidery thread, she sees – and tying it in a loop with a complicated knot around the little finger of her left hand. ‘What on earth are you doing?’

‘Making sure I don’t lose you,’ he says, tying the other end around his own thumb. ‘Darling.’

‘You’re joking,’ she says. She feels a kind of lurch in her stomach. ‘I’m not a dog. William!’ But he has proceeded into the market, and when a foot and a half of red thread has played out, she is tugged along on his heels.

He spends a few moments looking at a small spice-grinder, asking the man how much he wants for it, while she struggles vainly with the loop of silk. It tightens as she tugs at it. She realizes that William is giving her a minute to exhaust herself with the fetter, the way you allow a young dog to half-strangle itself with a lead before it gives up and walks at heel. The spice-seller either does not notice, or does not see anything strange about the young white woman in a white blouse and blue skirt and hat pulling at the red circle on her little finger.

William puts down the grinder and walks away, drawing her with him. ‘Ma salitsh!’ The man calls after them. I’m not finished.

‘Mashi dabia,’ she mouths at him. Not now.

‘Are you angry with me about something?’

He turns slightly. ‘Of course not. I just don’t want you to get lost here, that’s all.’

‘What about what I want?’

He laughs. ‘You’re always saying you don’t know what you want. North Africa’s a dangerous place when you don’t know what you want.’

‘I don’t want this,’ she said. She had the sense that she should be more outraged, but that feeling – even the fear that she suspected she should feel – was foreign to her. ‘It’s perverse and ridiculous. Take it off, William. Please.’

But he turns and again the swarm of bodies parts and flows around them; the red thread becomes invisible in the flux of djellabas and bundles of goods, and she is tugged along like a puppet, or a bee drawn drunkenly to the next flower. She tries to see if anyone else is thus constrained, but it is impossible to see beneath djellaba sleeves, and Moroccan couples do not shop together.

She closes the gap between them but a feeling of dislike prevents her from putting a hand on his blue-blazered shoulder. She realizes, with a dull surprise like the aftermath of a bee-sting, that she does not like her husband. The smell of rose-attar, leather and heavy cotton accompanies this thought. She looks around for someone, a woman, to whom she can mouth Awni afak, but no one will look at them in the souk’s winding whitewashed passage. Anyway, what help could they give her against her own husband? Even if she were in Holmbury St Mary, how could anyone help her against the man she has so lately, apparently, chosen?

‘William, you don’t tie your wife to you in a public place.’ She says this mostly to his blue-banded panama, beneath which she can see a fringe of thinning sandy hair. She thinks that she has never touched his hair, nor does she want to. Ever, she realizes.

‘No one here would think twice about doing it if he was with his wife in Piccadilly Circus.’

They are halfway down the long passage of the souk when the call to afternoon prayer filters through the stalls. There is a discernable shift, as stallholders begin to retire to back rooms, flap out sellayas, and turn away from the white couple walking in single file along the cobbles. As the passage empties and the red thread surfaces from the flux of bodies which has obscured it, a number of things coalesce in her mind. One is that she does not want to be alone with her husband. A second is that William does not seem to be her husband. A third is that she wants to leave the confines of the souk, to go and not to return. She does not want to be in England, or in the house in Rabat – full of William’s things, his books, his strange looks, the silences before bedtime. It will take some time to arrive at what she wants, and now she is ready to accept the task of spending that time.

It occurs to her that William might be doing this as a joke, a game. Perhaps it is sexual, in some way. She turns this thought around and considers it, as he continues walking along the souk-passage, forcing her to toddle in his wake. She decides that she does not care whether it is a joke. She is no longer interested in William, or his intentions, or what he might find amusing. She is interested in herself, and the fact that, suddenly, almost incredibly, she has a distinct and urgent preference for something.

She creates some slack in the red thread, then bends her head to it and takes it in her teeth.

The best and worst of gods

After a lengthy rest, I have started writing my teaching material for next year. Among it is a unit on the origins of the English language, by which I will remind my Chinese-Australian students that they, too, share in the Germanic heritage. I’m always astonished by how little kids here know about language and culture – both their own and English. I think the way high-school English is taught is a disaster; it’s completely divorced from linguistics, history, culture – all the things that people actually write about. So Diving Bell Education (aka me) is putting together a syllabus of middle school English as I think it could be taught. This is taking a fair amount of time, and one of the reasons why my posting will likely be a bit thin over 2022.

*

Not my gods, you say. Perhaps. But every seventh day you recall Tiw, the best and worst of the gods.

Thor looked narrowly at Tiw, the dark god who stood always off to one side, observing proceedings, making sure that oaths were kept and battle conducted fairly. The god of thunder frequently disagreed with Odin Allfather, but they agreed about Tiw – he annoyed them both senseless.

‘Where did he even come from?’ Thor asked Heimdall. Guardian of the Bifrost, the colour-glittering road between worlds, Heimdall saw every coming and going – except Tiw’s. Heimdall shrugged, his golden eyes never leaving the many worlds of Yggdrasil. ‘Tiw was here before us, before Asgard and Valhalla, before the Bifrost. He came on a wave of words from the east, where they call him Deywos.’

But Thor was already gone. Gods do not like to be reminded that even they come from somewhere. ‘What do we need him for?’ he said to the Allfather, who had given up an eye in return for wisdom. ‘He’s unlike us, and his insistence on oaths sticks in my craw.’ Thor banged Mjöllnir, the hammer forged for his hand alone; somewhere on the World Ash, kingdoms fell and millions perished.

‘We need him precisely because he’s unlike us,’ said Odin distantly. ‘He has been here from the beginning, and he will have a hand in holding back the end.’ Then he fell silent, which meant that even Odin did not fully understand the knowledge he possessed. He was simply bound, by the pain he had endured as he hung on the tree for nine days and nights, to recount what he knew.

Thor left in disgust. But he was afraid, too, because the High One had alluded to the terrible time: Ragnarok. The end of all things, which every living thing feels drawn towards, and which makes even the gods despair.

Ragnarok, Odin knew somehow – though he could not have said how and wished he did not know – would come about when the monstrous children of Loki, the Trickster, the Liar, Inverter of the Right Order, Lord of the Prank Pushed Too Far, Patron of the Broken Promise, God of the Friend-Turned-Cruel, when his children brought an end to this pretty world and everything in it. Such monsters come into being because the gods do not obey their own rules. That it would be Tiw who suffered the very first wound of Ragnarok, aeons before it came about, seemed both right and dreadful to Grimnir, the Hooded One.

And it would go like this.

The bringer of the end will be the giant wolf Fenrir. Born of Loki and a Jotunn, Fenriswolf has a mouth as big as the sky. When he opens his jaws, his top teeth form the vault of the heavens, and his tongue will lap up the ocean where lives his sister, the Jormungandr. But even Fenrir was a baby once. A wolf puppy, soft and trusting, liquid-eyed and little. Because they cannot yet kill one another, the Aesir allow Fenrir to live, but in misery. Unloved, unfed, unhoused, the Fenriscub can only turn wicked.

In the Fimbulvetr, men will say, ‘If only the gods had shown some love to Fenrir – even once.’ And as the world is consumed by cold, we will remember that it is not lack of riches, or skill, or justice that you die from, but lack of love.

So there was Fenrir, great and unloved, roaming the fields around Asgard. The gods knew he had to be fed, but not one had the courage to do it. Only Tiw took meat and threw it to the wolf, because it was the right thing and the brave thing to do and because he was so old that he could remember when gods were both good and brave.

Fenriswolf fed, and looked at Tiw with his great golden eyes, and was a little grateful. And Tiw looked at Fenrir and foresaw in the neglect of the wolf all our ends.

The wolf grew, the gods feared, and they conspired to bind him. They had Gleipnir made. This was a fetter constructed of impossible things – a woman’s beard, a mountain’s roots, a cat’s footfall, a bird’s spit, a fish’s breath, a bear’s sinews. Thus is the wolf – the truest thing in Asgard, clear as ice, simpler than the sun – hobbled by ignoble things, words and the snares of thought.

They brought Gleipnir to the island Lyngvi where Fenrir lived, alone and hated, torn from his mother and family, reviled amid the green leaves and the other creatures. Fenrir looked at the gods, boozy with mead and their own power, and despaired. Thor the bully, Odin the deceiver, smiling Frey and Freya who appear only when the hard work is done – Fenrir despised them all, and himself too for longing for a soft touch from even one of their hands.

‘What would you, Allfather?’ Fenrir said, although the name father curdled in his throat. ‘Another test of my strength?’

‘You broke the last two chains easily,’ said Odin. ‘You are called Hroðvitnir, the Fame Wolf. Live up to your name by testing yourself on a third.’ He brought out Gleipnir, and Fenrir felt the dwarves’ magic radiating from the pretty thing, which was thin as a ribbon of silk and intractable as impossible things always are. And Fenrir looked at Tiw, who blushed at the pretence, and they all knew that every head on the island held the same thought: This is a trick; the gods are without honour; and yet it must be done.

‘I will not bind myself with it,’ said Fenrir sadly, ‘because you and I both know that I will never be free.’ He could feel the jaws of fate closing around him, but still, even the battle-wolf of the splendid sky-shield did not want to submit so meekly, or to let his captors go unbloodied. He had to have something to comfort him in the long aeons during which he will lie, feared, bound, and waiting for the end.

‘We will give you a bond,’ said Odin, the Bale-Worker, the Riddler, the Blind Guest, ‘a pledge that we will remove the fetter if you cannot get free.’ His promise fell like a stone, as the gods’ promises always do.

‘Let one of you put his hand in my mouth,’ said Fenrir, ‘while I test this fetter. If I am not freed, the hand will be lost, and will remind men for all time that you cannot trust a god.’

They winced at this and each one looked at the other, hoping someone else would volunteer to put their hand in the mouth of Fenriswolf.

Why did Tiw step forward? Did he do it as the lord of oaths-after-battle? The patron of the Thing where men hammer out matters of dispute? Or because he alone had fed Fenrir from a puppy, lost and howling for his mother, loved by none, whose little misery is evidence of how unworthy the gods really are? We cannot tell: we know only what the gods do, rarely why.

But Tiw put his hand between Fenrir’s jaws as the fetter was wound around the wolf’s legs. They looked at each other in sorrow and profound understanding that by this action, they both lost: Tiw lost his honour, and Fenrir his freedom. Then Fenrir strained against Gleipnir, which tightened even as he pulled, and he knew it would never come off until everything, everything – the sun, the moon, the sound of a cat’s step, even sound itself – is ending. He struggled all the long heavenly day against the fetter, and he would never ask the gods to release him.

They stood and laughed uneasily, then more heartily when Fenrir closed his jaws and took the hand that had fed him, and Tiw shouted in both pain and shame. The Aesir departed, leaving the wolf bound, and the god who had been the best, now the worst, destroyed. And Tiw and Fenrir lay on Lyngvi and knew that they had become bywords. We remember them every seven days; we will remember them when we hear the wolf at the door, when we see any man and creature who will eventually be the death of each other.

Crabgrass

On hands and knees
I fight with matted crabgrass,
hauling grimly at its ropes to clear
the ten square feet I want for hebes.
It’s like fighting Australia itself.
Inert, characterless, thick.
Deep taproots staple it to the ground,
ropes of it tie us to our penal cities.
Bland, wasteful, a green superfice –
It’s the grass equivalent of a comb-over.
Lazy, unlimited in its mute tenacity;
resistant, airless, spreading.

This is a crabgrass continent;
I am stuck in a weed republic.
The presence of life is not living.

There’s decent soil beneath –
dense and dark,
churned clean by monster worms,
pinkly veinous serpents
delicately singing nitrates
sucked up by the weeds above.
A binful of strawish stuff
is my day’s yield – it will grow
overnight to thwart me.

Here, a gardener must bully.
Crabgrass isn’t gardening
any more than being here is living.
A fibroid plant, falsely pregnant
with promise it will never show.
You can teach the black soil beneath
Nothing it does not already know.

Microfiction 318: Cat’s Eye

For the longest time I preferred to be eyeless.

I have many ways of sensing approaching prey. Mostly it ends up the same way – a colloidal smear along my black-top skin, scraped on by the butter-knife of a car. I can feel the shudder of a car driven too fast and the bounce of the unbelted driver within it. There’s a moment when two tyres lose contact with my skin as the car skids around a corner. A mere human handspan of rubber runs along my hard black carapace, but I can sense that frisson of driver fear, and the frantic over- or under-steering before the lock-shock-skid and eventual crash.

There is a long deep moment of peace before the sirens. The upended wheels spin to a slow stop. The miles that will never be driven sink back into me like untaken breath, the blood dries like a fond tattoo along my cracks.

They invented eyes and began sticking them into me. Eyes by the million, like Argus. I still couldn’t see the sun which melted and burned my black skin, or where the rain came from, pooling and drowning me. But the eyes were cats’ eyes, good for seeing in the dark. They have been designed, I think, to give you a fighting chance. The eyes remind you that the road is there and it is red-eyed and wild. It goes on forever – you do not. Respect it.

In fact, I have come to like my eyes. Retro-reflective, softly glowing, showing the whipcords of my lanes, my culverts and bridges, stretching on essentially forever. You seek out my gaze. What shines back at you is no lure of mine – it’s your own desire to push on, your own headlights seeking out glance after glance of mine.

The chatoyancy – that little strip of light reflecting the rounded eye – that you think is the soul looking out at you, is really your own light bouncing off something infinitely dark, dark all the way down.

Look into my eyes, before you skid and scrape yourself over my skin. I do not mislead the gaze. I look into you only as keenly as you look into me. I already know where I’m going. I’ve never needed eyes to see it. I am the Road.

The struggle

Lily lay on the sofa overwhelmed by the deep well of Amazon and Netflix, not to mention the enviable collection of Steven Seagal’s oeuvre, provided by her boyfriend Ben. ‘Listen, I’m afraid I’ll have to duck out,’ Lily said. ‘A quick detox from the realms of digital possibility should see me right in a jiffy.’ ‘First world problems,’ Ben said, annoyed that his curation of Seagal had hindered their night in. ‘Watch anything. It’s lies interspersed by product placement. Shoot all poets.’ Lily was already packing, talking about the librarian of Alexandria while she threw socks into a bag. ‘You’ve never understood epistemological saturation, have you, Ben? Not really, I mean,’ she said, trying to work out how much of the toothpaste was legally hers. ‘That’s always been your problem. We’re dynamite sexually, but it’s your inability to put yourself in the place of Eratosthenes of Cyrene which has really stuck in my craw.’ Repressing his anger, Ben started a cup of tea. In the bedroom Lily was still talking about the librarian of Alexandria, whom she imagined having an argument with his wife. ‘She probably said Think you know everything, don’t you, dusty bastard? and then departed with the captain of a ship confined to the harbour while its books were being copied – and there was probably only one copy of Ptolemy’s Almanac and a thumbed over copy of some Babylonian smut under a lonely seaman’s bunk.’ ‘I doubt lonely seamen could read,’ Ben said over his Earl Grey, but Lily’s sorrow had reached hysteria and she added underwired bras to the pile that would clothe her while she tried to shuck off civilization’s vast narrative flood. ‘Poor bloody man, probably sat in his wifeless house overcome by how much he knew that he didn’t know. Shut himself in there and died – because housekeeping is impossible when you’re confronted by the fathomless ocean of wisdom tarted up as narrative, but you wouldn’t know anything about that would you?‘ ‘It’s simple,’ Ben says, putting his tea down and kicking in the screen of the telly. ‘I’ll be Steven Segal. Art’s only useful if it’s transformative. And don’t expect a cuppa after this.’ Lily was halfway out the door with her bag when she remembered an overdue library book – Almond Flour Treats by Annabel Mann – but Ben was already busy laying charges around the living room. ‘What’ll I do?’ Lily wailed. He gave her a lunatic grin while thumbing the rubbery-red button on the detonator and muttered ‘Get running.’

Image: Aykut Aygogdu

Morning Pages

As you can see, an exercise which I wrote quite quickly. I’m deeply skeptical of ‘literary novels’, which is why I’ve taken the rip out of this. Anything ‘literary’ always seems to be written by people like me – unemployable, over-educated types trying to skive off work by making a textual meal out of everything. And also because no one will publish my lugubrious crap.

***

She still dreamed, sometimes. Only when Mark was home and she was sleeping beside him, though. And this, the fact that she was a healthy menopausal woman with a wardrobe full of long loose linen dresses and artisanal beads, meant that she had to keep going to the writers’ group, keep doing her Morning Pages, keep eating, loving, and praying.

That was witty, she thought, lying in bed. She made a mental note to put it in the Morning Pages.

This time the dream had been about a dinner. Obviously, no one was actually eating, which was one of the great reliefs of dreaming, the fact that you couldn’t put on any weight. It was in his favourite restaurant. Somewhere off to the side were two goldfish bowls beside each other, the two fish jumping out of one and into the other like something from a cartoon, crossing in the air. She thought about this. Perhaps the bowls reflected her insecurity about her breasts, which were too small to put her in the Nigella-style-fecund territory, and too large to be described as boyish. She had consulted Sir Henry Robinson about the possibility of resizing them. It turned out that since his knighthood, Sir Henry only worked on Yemeni burn victims. She had left his offices, feeling that she was always wrong. Especially about her breasts.

In the dream, she had looked outside the restaurant window, and seen the bishops of Bath and Wells crisscrossing each other on the Embankment. The trees were in full leaf, and she realized that Mark would fear getting papped by some roving scumbag lurking behind the trees, his lens pointing at the restaurant window. Mustn’t use words like scumbag, she thought. She realized that her fear of papping, being papped, paps – it all referred back to her breast insecurity.

Bishops, breasts, and goldfish bowls. All playing on the watery lucidity of her consciousness. The church, the patriarchy, and the airlessness of a fish-breasted woman. That was a good image, she decided, ignoring the fact that it made no sense. If Virginia could come up with images that were both resounding and made no sense, so could she. One for the writer’s group.

She realized she had spoken aloud. Mark turned, sleepily, nuzzling the pillow. As if nuzzling his mother’s breast, she thought. She smiled at him tenderly and touched the nascent grey at his temples. His eyes opened.

‘Who the hell are you?’ he said to the strange smiling woman at the end of his bed.

Inheritance

Right now, in the attic of a Vermont farmhouse, a pregnant woman is kneeling on the dusty floor holding a letter and feeling the terrible folds of a fairytale settle around her. Like most things found in attics, the letter is not hers – not originally, anyway, although an inheritance and the problems of heredity have made it hers.

Downstairs, her husband is unpacking a cradle in the baby’s room. She can hear power tools and the sound of whistling and cursing which gives a running commentary on how well David can follow IKEA instructions. In the garden outside the baby’s room is an arbor of roses where she had planned to sit , smelling the flowers and exposing the child to beauty in its first days. Uncle Antonio, who renovated this house and whose death has made it theirs, is also present in the arbor, as a fine gray ash fertilizing the roses he planted.

The woman’s name is Yvonne. The baby will be Antonio or Antonia, depending.

They are a nice couple. You would like them. You would like them because they are hardworking, imperfect, good-humoured people. You could have dinner with them and not worry about what to talk about, or what you should have brought. You could go silent in the middle of the meal and not feel awkward. Despite this sudden inheritance, they are neither wealthy nor entitled. Yvonne comes from Pittsburgh; her father was a mechanic. David comes from Philadelphia and both parents are school teachers. Dead Uncle Antonio and his sister, David’s mother, came to the country from Venice, Italy, in the 1980s. David knows nothing about his Italian family, speaks no Italian, and last saw Uncle Antonio at the Christmas before his death where a warm handshake was all they exchanged in the festive chaos.

Nothing about Yvonne and David’s lives could be described as fairytale. David is a graphic designer. He does layouts for here-today gone-tomorrow magazines, sometimes textbooks, and so far, two children’s books (early readers, with pudgy, fingerless children cuddling pudgy, Labrador-ish puppies). Yvonne worked in communications. Even she doesn’t know what that means, beyond replacing emojis with actual words on the emails from her boss to the rest of the large company. They married, lived in an apartment in Philadelphia and worried about the rent going up. They wanted to start a family before they both turned thirty, and when they had difficulty with this, they took out a loan to try IVF. Confused and upset at its failure, they took out a second loan, for a second cycle. Then a third, for a third cycle.

The point is this: David and Yvonne are normal. They’re so normal it’s not worth building up a picture of their normality by recounting what they’ve shouted to each other from nursery to attic all morning, or mentioning the songs that David has been listening to as he builds the cradle, or that Yvonne has looked at this beautifully renovated farmhouse and felt insecure about the good taste of David’s Italian relatives. They are simply two people who did not think about the stories which inform our hopes until life refused to fulfil them.

Our earliest stories are insidious. We do not realize this until we examine our sense of failure, or betrayal, and find the origin in those shadowy blocks of story that have built our world. Unemployed, you feel a failure because in your earliest stories everyone has a job: a merchant, a miller, a woodsman, a prince (it’s a job, in fairytales), Postman Pat, Thomas the Tank Engine, a slew of teachers at Hogwarts. Single, the stories about marriages rear their heads from your childhood: the prince marries the princess; the miller’s daughter marries the king. Even the Three Little Pigs have each other. So, in the sudden long evening of infertility, foundational stories of parenthood emerge from the shadows. They play like movies on the walls of the bedroom you lie in to mourn yourself. You see that you always assumed it would happen eventually: pregnant you, frantic you, exhausted you, joyful, proud, both of you engrossed in the child who combines the best of your joint qualities.

Here is Yvonne and David’s first sin. They do not know why they want a child, or why they feel so cheated when they fail to have one. They do not recognize the massive engine of those earliest stories pushing them up life’s steep gradient. They have taken these stories so much for granted that they don’t even see them.

Here is Yvonne and David’s second sin. Now that they have recognized the stories which drive them, they do not consider that it may all be in vain. Fairytales are dangerous because they suggest that millers’ daughters, poor farmers, unhappy kings, orphan siblings, arrogant princes, small girls in the woods, will eventually find a place of ongoing happiness. It’s only the miller’s daughter who marries the king that we hear about, not the thousands of other flour-dusty millers’ daughters struggling through life without kingly husbands to make things better.

You think the story is about you – and perhaps it is. But only in the spaces, not the words.

Here is Yvonne and David’s third sin. They try to force it. They sit on the end of the bed in their apartment and hold hands, listening to the rush-hour traffic swirl around, and agree on one more cycle. Lying on the paper sheet with her feet above ear-level and a literal television camera knocking politely at the door of her womb, Yvonne has no qualms about the sight of the blastocyst, their sixteen-cell proto-child, rolling down the tube like a lottery ball. She does not think that they are seeing things that only gods should see.

This pregnancy sticks. Yvonne waxes great and David hovers around happily, like a satellite moon. They are happy, relieved, chastened. Now they are prepared to acknowledge those tutelary stories which inform their hopes. The idea that they have forced something unwillingly into being is shouldered aside in the rush of yoga classes, baby showers, calls to mothers and mothers-in-law. They bask in the world’s powder-soft caress for people whose lives and hopes have coincided.

And then Uncle Antonio dies, leaving them a renovated farmhouse in rural Vermont, its contents, and a Toyota Tundra with four thousand miles on the clock. They are astonished – not so much at the sudden memory of David’s uncle, or the fact that he blew his own brains out somewhere on the Appalachian Trail, but that he has left it all to them, in one fell swoop releasing them from debt and Philadelphia. Sometimes, they think, manhandling the fairytale into the right configuration is all it takes.

They drive to Vermont and the feeling of sinking into a fairytale is thick in the spring air inside the car; it is packed beside the other precious things in the U-Haul trailer. It makes them feel good about pitying Antonio, who was a bachelor and clearly unconvinced by life. Unlike us, they think, and then feel bad about their smugness.

Now it is all leaching away from Yvonne, kneeling on the attic floor, holding the letter. Her knees and ankles are numb and her stomach, occasionally quivering as the baby turns, makes it all so much worse.

Downstairs the cursing has stopped and David is singing ‘Grandma’s Hands,’ by Bill Withers. ‘You wanna come down in a minute and see this,’ he shouts up. ‘I done gooo-ood. Man, I could sleep in this thing, if I could fit in it.’

Yvonne calls his name, but he cannot hear her over the music. She cannot get up. She cannot shout again for him. She can only read the letter. It bears the letterhead of the Prion Diseases Centre, University of California, San Francisco, and comes from Dr Michael Winstrom. It is dated two weeks before Antonio’s death. It is a long letter and begins by telling Antonio that he may find it beneficial to have a relative or family physician present as he reads it, and that he may call Dr Winstrom at any time to discuss its contents.

The letter refers to tests which Antonio underwent some months previously, and to a brain biopsy taken at the same time. It confirms that he is suffering from a disease called Fatal Familiar Insomnia, which Yvonne recognizes from a CNN special called, luridly, ‘Something’s Killing Me: a Family Curse’. This disease, which affects some seventy families in the world, afflicts sufferers with a form of insomnia so terrible that it kills them. Strongly hereditary, it turns the exhausted brain into a hole-riddled sponge, and the sufferer lives their last months without sleep, wakeful and fragmenting, until death.

The letter contains a heredity chart, showing the presence of the disease for six generations of David’s Italian family. Antonio is a red square at the centre. Cases of the disease are coloured black – circles for women, squares for men. Every generation has had a case, Yvonne sees. Sometimes two – in the nineteenth century there were five in a single generation. She and David are marked on the chart, an anonymous circle-square combination with question marks. Their child is a small grey question mark.

Here is Yvonne and David’s fourth sin. They have forgotten that the heart of fairytales is not happiness, not courage, not beauty. It is conditions. Even you, whom the fairytale has largely disregarded, may not disregard them. You may not achieve the happiness due to the protagonists, but you can achieve a kind of peace by recognizing the stories which drive your life and your bit-part role in them. This peace is dependent on fulfilling certain conditions, of which the chief is this: you cannot force life’s hand.

And so Yvonne kneels on the floor of the house which, in less than three minutes, has become a prison, and one floor down, David looks happily at the cradle in which his baby may sleep the only sleep of its life. And outside, from the fertile soil of the rose garden, the thorns begin to grow up, up, and around this pretty house.

The Gardener

writerswrite.co.za challenged us all to ‘Write about an eccentric gardener.’

Miss Rhys said she would organize the memorial garden. There were other women in the village who would have enjoyed the protracted period of consultation, planning, and design, but the village felt that it was Miss Rhys’s due, since she had taught the village children for nearly half a century (including the boys for whom the garden was a memorial), and because she could provide most of the plants from her own stock, thus costing Steeple Claydon almost nothing.

The space given over to the garden lay in the marshy ground behind the village square; it had been slated for development, but the cost of drainage proved prohibitive. Undaunted, Miss Rhys turned the marsh into a lake, incorporating the reeds and abundant amphibian life within her design. After a year of work, the garden was opened by the lord lieutenant of the county and his wife, a classicist of some minor fame who moonlighted as a telly-don. Officially named the Tom Underwood Memorial Garden, it commemorated a boy who had disappeared nearly half a century before and was commonly believed to have drowned in the mill race. The absence of a body led to darker whispers, as did the five other young men whose disappearance over a fifty-year span caused the village – and the spinster who had taught them all – to mourn and ponder. All the boys had been hale, high-spirited young men, given to breaking windows and hearts, and who had not been above attempting to relieve village girls of their dignity in the marshy little copse which was now their memorial. Bodies had never been found, and the absorption of masterful young men into the world was eventually assumed to be the way of things. The garden which was eventually made for them was known informally as the Lost Boys Park.

‘Such beautiful plants,’ said Dr Carruthers the lord lieutenant’s wife, coming up behind Miss Rhys. ‘And a very peaceful design. Just right for sitting here meditating on time. Forma bonum fragile est. Poor boys. Did you know them well?’

Miss Rhys squinted at the woman, who was framed by the bunting brought out from the church hall for the opening. ‘Oh yes,’ she said. ‘I taught them all as children. Tom Underdown was in my very first class when I came back to Steeple Claydon after university. They were all lively boys. Sometimes too lively, if you ask some of the women here.’

‘Hasn’t that always been the way with boys?’ said Dr Carruthers fondly. ‘They break our hearts and become our heroes.’

‘Quite,’ said Miss Rhys. ‘I wondered if the plants meant anything to you, as a classicist, I mean.’

The telly-don stiffened slightly, feeling as if she were being tested. Her most popular programmes had been the racier ones. Gladiators, Governors, and Gonads on Pompeii. The Food of Love: Cooking the Classics, and the BBC’s Children in Need charity one-off: Agrippina v Messalina: Rome’s Biggest Bonk-Off. She hadn’t translated much more than a school motto for years. ‘I’m not entirely…’

‘From the Metamorphoses,’ said Miss Rhys, dead-heading a ranuncula.

Dr Carruthers looked at the garden, searching for some deeper allusion in the tweedy arrangement of boring greenery and sapling trees. She was planning a special on Gardens of Greece, but it was being held up by the Beeb’s unwillingness to pay for an entire crew to spend the summer in the Greek Islands. She noticed a lot of bay laurels, which everyone remembered as the tree into which poor old Daphne had been transformed as she fled Apollo’s advances. ‘Oh yes,’ she said. ‘The laurels. That’s a nice gesture. I suppose we do see our young men as Apollonian types. Chasing loathly maidens and all. Witty.’ She tried to resist a curl of her lip at the village schoolteacher’s presumption that she could out-reference a telly-don. At a loss, she took herself off to the lakeside and sat on a bench (the gift of the county sexual assault hotline), while Miss Rhys manned the tea urn.

Dr Carruthers had been sitting on the bench for a while, politely receiving and then impatiently fending off, requests for autographs when she noticed an avenue of saplings running either side of the path which led to the lake. She recognized the young trees as poplars, alternating the black variety with the white. It dredged up an undergraduate memory. Weren’t black poplars the metamorphosis of Dryope, the poor little wood nymph who was raped by Apollo? And Leuke, another nymph equally badly-treated by Hades – she was turned into a white poplar. Perhaps the schoolmarm wasn’t so unsubtle after all.

The lake was a pretty oval of blue-gray, reflecting the gentle clouds and an English summer sky. Reeds softened the edges, and emerging from them into the deeper waters was a statue of a young girl, slender-bodied and maidenly. A breeze whispered through the reeds.

‘Nice, innit,’ said a woman at her elbow. She balanced a selection of cakes on a large paper plate.

‘It’s lovely,’ said Dr Carruthers, thoughtfully. ‘A nice memorial.’

‘Not that some of them deserved it,’ said the woman, biting into a mound of scone and cream. ‘When I was a girl this was just marsh and scrubby bushes. I caught young Billy Carew coming out of them one night like a rabbit. And the Garner girl, she who’s Mrs Thomas Atkins now–‘ she gestured with a dimpled elbow to a family group with a round blonde woman in the centre, her arm around a round blonde child, a peaceful smile on her straw-hat-shaded face. ‘–She was in a terrible state. It weren’t no sorrow at all that Billy Carew vanished to wherever he went. And he don’t deserve no garden neither. But it’s nice, all the same.’ She ambled off towards the tea tent.

The reeds whispered Syrinx, Syrinx, thought the telly-don. Syrinx, who had been raped by Pan, and called upon her sisters in her plight, was turned into a reed forever whispering her own name. She looked around the memorial garden, whose careful planning reflected Miss Rhys’s delicate arbitrating mind. God, it said in a very English way, was a gardener. She identified heliotrope, with a cloud of butterflies like a purple nimbus – the transformation of Clytie, abandoned by Helios. And around the rocks near the trestle tables, little psalakanthos, the metamorphosis of a girl bullied to death by Dionysus. She saw a walnut tree sapling, which would offer shade to future villagers and whisper the story of Karya, another of Dionysus’ maidenly victims. She saw Miss Rhys, standing pale and enigmatic in the shade of a small pine tree, and recognized an arboreal allusion to Pitys, who fled the violence of Pan.

She walked back to the centre of the garden, where her husband was making conversation with the vicar. Around an oak sapling the ladies of Steeple Claydon played with their children, admired the roses, kissed their husbands, and waved to each other across the design drawn by Miss Rhys’s fruitful, law-giving hand. She looked at the oak. Erysichthon cut down an oak sacred to Demeter, she remembered, killing the dryad nymph within it in the process. An abominable crime, this assertion of masculine violence over the gentle, mighty prerogatives of female nature. A discreet bronze plaque, on a tasteful piece of sandstone, bore a few lines. Cuncta prius temptanda sed inmedicabile curae, ense recidendum ne pars sincera trahatur. She struggled for a few minutes with the passive subjunctive form of traho, trahere and finally recognized it from Ovid. All means should be tried first, but whatever is unresponsive to treatment should be pared away, lest the healthy part become infected too.

The memory of the young men who had violated Steeple Claydon’s slow and orderly passage through the centuries remained in the garden, commuted to a vegetal form that would be firmly and continually pruned back. Dr Carruthers felt a creeping sensation that she dimly recognized as humility.

‘It’ll be very beautiful in the future,’ said Miss Rhys, relieved of her duty at the tea-urn. She handed the telly-don a cup and saucer. The telly-don took it carefully, and noticed her husband making his familiar time-to-go signal. She had a meeting with her editor to go over the rushes of her next programme, which debated the proposition of women’s lib in the ancient world. Miss Rhys caught the exchange and smiled briefly. The telly-don drank her tea obediently, watching the retired teacher over the cup’s rim. She reminded the younger woman of a pair of garden shears – sharp, accurate, and lethal to the careless.

Unjoynt

A silly piece from an old prompt that said: Write a piece of less than 250 words, beginning with the phrase ‘I couldn’t ask him to do it’. I needed a silly piece because I’ve just had a rejection from a publisher. It’s a shame, because I put an awful lot of work into the novel, but I’ve decided that I will, after I’ve finished crying, firebomb their offices.

I couldn’t ask him to do it, not because I was embarrassed but because it wasn’t the kind of thing our relationship would survive. Few would, I suppose. Stowing a body in the car boot was one thing; helping your girlfriend joint it in the kitchen was another. It had been my mistake, I thought, getting out the handsaw, and I would fix it. I wretched as the top layer of skin came away from the rest, and carried on wretching at intervals as I sawed first one leg off, then the other. I developed blisters on the pads of my right hand from gripping the saw, and the bile from my heaving made them sting when I covered my mouth. But I kept on going, and in this I perceived a kind of grim pleasure in the sheer awfulness of it, the bloody violence, the thought that I was doing the unimaginable. I just refused to ask for help even though a sensible part of me said I’d planned it, so I should get my hands dirty. About midway through I caught sight of myself in a copper-bottomed pan, and saw an atavism; a blade-cleaving, bile-heaving mad cave dweller from an earlier evolutionary stage. I washed the blood off in the deep kitchen sink and slammed shut the oven door. A roasting smell began to take hold. A Sunday roast.


Well, what did you think?

Promise

A writerswrite.co.za prompt: Write about a promise that lasted a lifetime.

The air was still clearing when the clouds began to part and a weak sun shone through. Sitting exhausted on the sodden ground, watching the animals stream down the gangway ignoring the man who had saved them, Noah felt a characteristic rumbling inside his skull. There was a pressure between his eyes just above the bridge of his nose and he knew that after many months of rain and silence, the Lord was going to speak again. He quailed. This was never good, as the years-long inundation which rewound Creation itself back to watery chaos, had shown.

And so it came. That flat, humourless, nasal voice, speaking inside his head without the let or hindrance of air, vocal chords, or a break. Before the Flood, He had made a lengthy complaint about everything man had done. Now He told Noah How Things Were Going to Be.

If possible, it was worse. Animals would live in terror of man, whose task was simply to breed, like locusts. Everything that moved was there for food – except its blood. Blood could not be eaten; man’s blood could not be shed in anger, though in retribution was fine; accounting for blood would be held at some unspecified endpoint. The voice talked on about blood, blood, blood. Noah thought, He’s got worse. The long months of darkness and water had sent the Lord insane. Now He was obsessed with blood and multiplying. Noah closed his eyes. It was like sleep, he thought. A weird half-sodden world of two elements and a feeling of immense fear.

Look, said the voice. Noah looked about him. The animals had spread out a bit as the waters receded, browsing for grass in the mud. Used to the single colour of deep, omnipresent water, the earth’s muted solidity was reassuringly gentle, like eating toast after a violent gastric bug.

I establish my covenant with you. The light was growing harder, brighter. Noah’s flood-weakened eyes watered at a shaft of sunlight, breaking and bending, vibrating and moving like a fish in the air. He cried out in terror. Far above him, on the deck of the ark, his wife and daughters-in-law were beginning the long task of shovelling the manure of ten thousand animals onto semi-dry land. They turned, saw the irradiated sky, and flung themselves face down.

This is my bow. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and my bow appears, I will remember my covenant, between you and all living creatures of every kind.

Noah longed for the darkness and the peaceful flood. He did not know what a covenant was, or how long it would last. They had gone from one nightmare to another. Now they were doomed to live, generation after generation, beneath a sky on a which a giant, capricious lunatic wrote his wishes.