Issue 15 unthemed

Page 1




Tannith Perry, John Wayland, Cristina Stubbe, Harriet Avery, and Judy Birkbeck



Editor’s Introduction……………………………………………….……………………………3 Introducing the Judges…………………………………………………………………………4 The Judgement……………………………………………………………………………………5 How to be a Supervillain……………………………………………………………………….10 Juke Box Interview: John Wayland…...……………………………………………………23 Perran The Heller………………………………………………………………………………..25 Stripped…………………………………………………………………………………………...38 A Love Story………………………………………………………………………………………57 The Dancing of Hands………………………………………………………………………….67


THE RED LINE Dear, Dear Readers, It’s been too long. Seriously. But the wait is over, and it’s time for us to be reunited via the medium of creative fiction. What better medium could there be? You wouldn’t like us popping up on your telly or phone, trust me. Five stories for the Un-themed issue, and some unconventional narratives hidden amongst them. We have love in computer code, aspiring Mexican supervillains, imaginary friends, child soldiers, and a stray dog. We hope that you enjoy them as much as we did. As well as this we have our second Jukebox Interview, when answering six randomly selected questions this issue is Perran the Heller’s John Wayland. Since he came off his motorbike a few weeks back I know he’s been alleviating his boredom by impatiently checking the site to find out whether the results are out. They are, John, and they’re on the very next page... For the rest of you, keep an eye on the site for the next short-list, for the Strangers theme—we have four writers for you that we’d like you to think of, not so much as strangers but friends you haven’t met yet. And, if you’re a writer, you still have two themes left for 2015: ‘Underground’ and ‘Heat’. Send us your stories! WE. CAN’T. WAIT. Best Wishes



Niall Bourke is 33, originally from Kilkenny but currently living in London where he teaches English Literature. He is currently finishing an MA in creative writing at Goldsmiths university of London. He writes both poetry and prose and has been published in Southbank Poetry, Silver Apples, Three Drops From A Cauldron, Prole, Holdfast magazine and Roadside Fiction. He is currently working towards his first collection.



What funny things short story competitions are. How does one judge the ‘best’ short story? Of course there are things to look out for – does the story have correct spelling and punctuation? (Although I am inclined to overlook minor errors. Errors and typos can happen to any of us and I’d much prefer to read a truly sparkling story with the odd error than a truly accurate story without sparkle.) Does the dialogue work? Are clichés avoided? Are images original? Is the plot plausible? But, while these questions might serve as guidelines to aid the selection process, they only work up to appoint. Imagine two stories, both executed

equally well - but the first a humorous account of drunken night in a broom cupboard and the second the raw exploration of the loss of a child? Who is to say which is ‘best’? Ultimately, picking the ‘best’ story from a short list is like someone picking the ‘best’ colour – really it comes down to personal preference.


With this in mind I have (tried) to leave personal preference out of the judging of the following stories and, instead, have tried to judge each story by how well, and with what degree of originality, the author executed what they were trying to do (or at least what I think they were trying to do). First Place - How To Be A Supervillain Writing in the second person is a bloody hard thing to do – or rather it is a hard thing to do well. But I thought Christina handled it very well indeed – additionally so while exploring the theme of teenage isolation. It is not that this is a ‘bad’ theme. It is, of course, a very pertinent and resonant theme. But the danger is that this theme has been written about so often it is very hard to explore it without falling into angst ridden cliché. But through the combination of the excellently handled second person, some lovely imagery (the headmaster ‘huge and unwieldy like a planet’) and the almost comic (excuse the pun) motif of the all American (and all white) superheroes balanced delicately against the black and red and Spanish speaking ‘villains’, Christina explored this theme with originality and feeling without lapsing into cliché. And what a truly horrible word ‘beaner’ is! Second Place – Stripped I think Judy can be a little aggrieved not to have won. I think, in truth, this story would have won other competitions. Judy is a fine writer and, if this story is anything to go by, has a bright future ahead of her. Her evocation of Africa (I as-


sume South Africa) is really excellent – her economic descriptions, her use of nouns and African idioms, her attention to details like the polishing of a rifle with shoe polish. The themes in this story are difficult (child soldiers, the isolation of the outsider, the blighting identity hangover left by the aftermath colonial rule) and truly deserve to be explored. So why second and not first? I just thought that too much ground was trying to be covered here for a short story – too may themes. I think anyone of the smaller scenes in this piece would have made a truly excellent short story in their own right. But when all put together there was just a little too much pulling the reader in too many directions. I think ‘Stripped’ has all the hall marks of the beginnings of (a very good) novel. It reminded me of Alan Paton’s ‘Cry The Beloved Country’ crossed with ‘Things

Fall Apart.’ Third Place – Perran The Heller I loved John’s exploration of Cornish sea lore and his use of colloquial dialect. It was a real celebration of often overlooked local mythology. Perran’s voice was haunting, his character mysterious and intriguing. The images of the sea the octopus, the boats, the drowned Lego men, the seaweed, the lobster pots – were so good I could almost taste the salt on the air. And the twist at the and was clever and haunting. However, at times the long, descriptive pieces got in the way of the real story – Perran’s story. There were too may melodramatic adjectives in these sections, too many ‘strong’ words (‘vivid scents’, ‘dark chaos’,


‘malestrom’, ‘engulfed’, ‘plunging’, ‘spiralling downwards’ – all within 4 sentences). These bits felt like the author reminding us he was there and jarred somewhat. I would consider editing these out. Perran’s voice and his story really had my interest and, for me, this potential to be a really good haunting tale in its own right. Joint Fourth – ‘The Dancing Of Hands’ and ‘A Love Story’ Harriet’s ‘A Love Story’ was ambitious and original – which I applaud. I particularly liked the concept of a robot stealing someone’s heart. The use of ‘code’ to tell parts of the story was interesting – but not sure it added much besides reminding use the main character was a robot. I also like the character and voice of the poet but not sure what he added to the story – perhaps deserves his

own story? The main issue was it was that the story was too hard to follow. Only one character was named and the rest were referred to throughout by pronouns which became confusing. Also there were 4 – 5 different scenes which, for my money, is just too much for a story of this length. I’d consider editing out some of the extraneous detail here and re-working into something half the length because the concept and some of the imagery was original and merit worthy. Tannith’s ‘The Dancing Of Hands’ was, similarly, not without merit. The character of Aldo was mostly well developed and had some nice personal touched – like his well- rehearsed spiel about his home village. And I really like


the line “feeling herself spreading thin, so thin that it seemed that at any moment holes would appear”. However, the main issue for me (and here Tannith may be a victim of my own personal taste) is that if you are going to write about something that has been done to death (like a break up) you have to do so originally. And using animals as metaphors for the characters (a vulture devouring a poor, lame dog) is about somewhat cliché. Also, I found it hard to believe that 1) Nathalie would get out of bed in the middle of the night for no apparent reason to go and look for a dog and that 2) Aldo would go with her despite her not telling him what was going on. Not without merit but I would consider revising so that more I being ‘described’ and that less is trying to be ‘said’.


How to Be a Supervillain By Cristina Stubbe

Exactly three months and four days after your Mami dies, your abuela wears a red flower in her hair and you learn what it's like to be invisible. There's a clatter on the floor and you flinch at the sound before realizing you were the one who dropped your plate and now there are cheerios all over the floor. Abuela doesn't even notice, humming a Julio Iglesias song under her breath. It's been 95 days and Abuela has worn black for all of them, except today. You feel as if you have been in the shadows for so long, your clothes matching the dark corners of the house and in your room, that you don't remember what it's like to have a real conversation with Abuela and you can't stop staring at the flower, like a smeared bullet wound in her dyed black hair. This is just the beginning. The first step in how to stay invisible is to be very, very quiet in the hallways. You have been doing this since you came to this school, after Mami died and you had no choice. It's not like you had friends in your other school, but being invisible there was easy and no one bothered you. Now, you press yourself against the lockers if you can. Quiet as a ghost, and maybe everyone else will see through you like one too. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but the point is that you try. Peter, unwashed blond hair clumped together in an approximation of dreads, and his friends laugh as they walk down to their classes and


you slink to your locker. Try not to jump when your neighbor slams theirs right in your face. Make it to class right as the bell rings. Sit in the back and ignore the jeers. Later, pick a quiet table for lunch. Don't listen as they make comments about your food, how it smells, calling you a "beaner" and asking if you're gassy from all the rice and carne asada you eat. Open up your comic books and graphic novels, read about the white superheroes and their heroic escapades, Captain America, blond and perfect and beating up the Red Skull. Read your Lord of the Rings, where all of the hobbits and elves and wizards are white, and the Orcs are dark-skinned and savage. Still, you enjoy these things, and you can pretend for a moment you aren't here, in the lunch room, where the cafeteria ladies call you mijo and slip you extra french fries and give you pitying looks as you sit alone. When you go to your locker to get your books, there's a stinking can of open baked beans in it, and a few stray blond hairs near the rim. Peter. You don't even eat baked beans. In class again, you get called on to answer a question. Your teacher speaks slowly. "Why do you think Holden hires a prostitute but then doesn't sleep with her?"

You don't know. "Because he was an asshole white boy with issues," you say and there's scattered laughter and the teacher's face turns red. At the principal's office, you're asked why the swearing was necessary. You have no answer but you're tired, tired, tired. They don't punish you--instead, Mr.


Johnson asks you how you're feeling, and your skin prickles at the sickly, pitying tone in his voice. You imagine yourself standing, knocking the chair back with the force of your body and pointing at him. Like the blank gutter space in your comics, where there is a loud, super-contrasted drawing and then the aftermath, but your brain has to figure out what happened in between. Right now, your brain imagines Mr. Johnson's chair as a canon, shooting him into the air, higher, higher, body wiggling and grotesque as it pierces the atmosphere, ruddy face frozen in a wide-open 'o.' He's huge and unwieldy like a planet and you want to laugh and laugh at him. Someone touches your shoulder and you realize you've been chuckling. Mr. Johnson, looking concerned, gives you the rest of the day off, citing it as good for your "mental health." At home, Abuela isn't there, getting her nails done with her friends, and you remember how Mami used to greet you with a kiss on the cheek and ask you how school was and you'd watch her as she soaked her habichuelas in pork fat, the air crackling with the smell of chorizo and loud salsa music. It's times like these, the house silent as a morgue, your chest aches with how much you miss her. You shower to get the stench of baked beans and sweat off of you before you make yourself a hot pocket, staring at it as the fake cheese starts to ooze from the end, signaling the time to take it out. You carry it up to your room and read your comics, the glossy pages staring up at your face. Pick up Iron Man, but frankly, Tony Stark is kind of a dick, reminding you uncomfortably of Peter and everyone you hate. He's nothing like you. You take a bite of your hot pocket,


which tastes like ash disguised with a thick gooey layer of fake cheese and open another book. Maybe you can be like Black Widow. After a few pages of that, you decide you aren't nearly cool enough to even try. No one is as good as Captain America, either. Maybe you shouldn't be a hero, you've never seen any that look like you on the page, and all they seem to do is give big speeches about not hurting anyone and not do a thing. The screen door downstairs creeks open and shuts and you hear keys clatter on the countertop. You wait and see if Abuela says hi, or notices that there's nothing to eat, but it is quiet for a long time, long enough that you make your way downstairs. What you see is this: Abuela, sitting at the table, staring at a picture. The frame has blue edges and messy paint splotches, from a summer camp you went to six years ago. Mami and you smile real big in the picture, you with your thumbs up, wearing Mickey Mouse ears, and she has a big-ass bow in her hair, red and white like Minnie. Creep up the stairs to leave her be; hide under your covers with your Winter Soldier comic book. Hold your breath when you hear footsteps at your door. Say nothing until the footsteps leave. Imagine Abuela taking out the red flower in her hair, putting in the jewelry box you remember your Mami picking out while your face was glued to the new Batman action figure on the shelf nearby. Go to sleep, the glossy page of your comic stuck under your chin. Peter is in your dreams that night. He's older, muscled, still has those fake locs. He is wearing a blue suit, red cape. Like Superman. You're in a mask, all black.


He is protecting the people behind him, face scrunched up into a sneer. "Could've guessed this is what you'd become, beaner," he says, voice ringing and loud. Heroic, even if what he's saying isn't. That's the thing, isn't it? Everyone is always blinded by the white skin and cape. You don't say anything. The mask constricts you, tightens around your vocal chords. He's the hero--he's the hero. He follows rules, has people looking at him in example, but you don't, you realize giddily. You can do whatever you want to all the people like him, who hurt you and spit at you, who look at you with pity. You see Mr. Johnson in the crowd, and he's looking at Peter with awe in his eyes. You taste bile in your throat. The thing about heroes, even ones like Peter, is they have that trustworthy face. Blue eyes and big, pearly grins. People trust him. You, you're from the shadows. It's time you learned to embrace that. The first step in how to be a supervillain is to identify your enemies. Enemy Number One: Peter with the fake-ass dreads who always smells like he hasn't showered. The one who dares to call you stinky and makes fun of your dark skin when you come back from visiting la playa. You imagine flicking him away with just a hand twitch, imagine him just disappearing with a snap of your

fingers. Chopping off all of his hair and maybe setting it on fire. It's very clear to you then. Back at school, Peter gets up in the middle of a class. For some reason the teacher isn't there, but that hardly registers. You are you, but a better you. Taller, the soft pouch around your belly from too many tostones gone and replaced with


hard muscle. Your skin is clear and your hair is soft, not oily and stringy and hanging in front of your eyes. Peter prowls forward and every single eye is on you two, and the air quivers, trembling with what may happen. (This isn't new. Usually it's rotting food in his locker or on his desk to remind you that you smell. It's notes in his scratchy scrawl that make fun of your language, tu espa単ol.) Today, it's like the dream. You think you see Mary, one of the girls in your class, with her eyes flashing red but then Peter stands in front of you and just points and laughs and laughs and laughs and everyone else starts joining. Laughing and laughing and laughing and your face flushes red and your nails dig into your skin, leaving little crescent mark indents and the world seems to turn grey and Peter's mouth shifts, laughing turns to screaming and his hair sparks, catches flame and you feel like Doctor Doom meets Johnny Storm, so powerful and in control and-"Pay attention." Something drops on your desk, jolting you to look up, and everything is the same as it was. Peter snaps Mary's bra strap and Mary tosses her hair at him. Your cheeks feel hot and Peter stares straight at you and snickers, whispering something in Mary's ear. She giggles too. You feel like everyone's

eyes are on you. "I asked you a question." And you spend the rest of your day in mortified silence. So, you realize you need a plan. Step one of how to be a successful supervillain is accomplished, maybe not well, but it happened. Enemy: Peter & co.


Step two: Take stock of your inventory. When you get home, empty as usual, go to your room and stare at everything you have. It isn't much. A small twin bed with faded green sheets and a big body pillow with a large, cartoonish word emblazoned on the fabric: BANG! Go through your drawers. Accidentally drop your old piggy bank on the floor, the cracked pink ceramic shattering and leaving coins scattered all over your floor. The noise stops you and you watch, mesmerized, as the coins roll and roll until they settle onto their sides. Heads or tails. You pick up a coin heads up and flip it, watching it spin until it lands, heads up again. Maybe you can be Two-Face. Pocket the coin. You never know. Then go back to figuring out what the hell is in your tiny room. Pause. Touch

1. Outlaw white people getting dreads. 2. Give Abuela new house. 3. Order a statue of yourself built (the better you, of course. Strong and smooth-skinned and attractive, with glittering white teeth‌)


the picture of you and Mami you have pinned to your wall, both of you beaming like you won a couple of free meals at Vejigantes, the Puerto Rican place nearby. The picture blurs so blink rapidly, and ignore the way your chest hurts. Maybe you ate a bad hot dog today at school. Drop your hand, go through your drawers. You have some scissors, but you're not allowed to take those to school, though you think dreamily of cutting Peter's stupid hair. Sigh, sit down and stare at the disembodied pig snout and the one beady eye that glares at you from its bodiless existence on the ground. Kick it a little. Take out your comics again. Study the Joker, and then stare at yourself in the mirror, pressing your fingers onto your lips and try to make your mouth sneer. Mami's kind brown eyes stare back at you, not intimidating in the least. You sigh again. Finally, stare at your mess and begin to pick it up. You decide that you can skip step two and move onto step three--take over your class, then the school, then the world, roughly in that order. In between homework (Mami's voice in your head: Jaime, haz tu tarea, ahora mismo), make a list of what you would do once you became ruler of Everything. 1. Outlaw white people getting dreads.

2. Give Abuela new house. 3. Order a statue of yourself built (the better you, of course. Strong and smooth-skinned and attractive, with glittering white teeth like the movie stars.) That's all you have so far but it's a good start. Maybe next, you can rename a city after yourself. You wonder what it would be like to see your name in lights.


You still have a pencil to the paper. Jot down, I would have named my capital after Mami. That's not protocol though--mothers don't usually live in the comic books. When you wake up the next day it's one like any other. Roll out of bed about twenty minutes later. Get dressed in the nearest clean clothes, whatever black thing is strewn on the ground. Stub your toe on some stray piggy bank you did not clean up. Brush your teeth and your hair, even though it sticks up in curls that just won't do what you want. Glare at the angry, red raised skin on the bridge of your nose and on your chin. Your teeth are kind of yellow, you notice, which is not at all conducive to being erected up as a monument or in posters and pictures. Abuela calls your name--the bus is here. Hurry to your room and tug on your shoes. Forget to tie them. Grab your backpack and make sure your coin is in your pocket and then go into battle. The battlegrounds are the ugly yellow ceilings and the cold tile floors. They're the blue lockers and the gum on the underside of your desk. The opposition is Peter and his smelly hair and the whiff of body odor when he lifts up his arms. The bullets are the spitballs he tosses at you, that get stuck in your hair and on

your clothes. School is full of casualties, like your pants which rip when Peter steps on your shoelace and you trip, spilling all of your books and landing heavily on your knee, the fabric tearing apart with that sound of popping stitches. Peter's laughter rings in your ears, and the others join, manic like the sound of hyenas after they discover their new prey. Everything takes on popping neon colors,


the red from the cut on your knee brighter, Mary's patent Mary Jane shoes glossier, Peter's tongue a fizzy neon pink. You float up in the middle of the room and the metal chairs start to shake. You can hear the horrified yelp when the chair lifts Peter up on his own and his eyes wide with fear and that cornered animal panic and you feel so powerful. Absently, you wish for a helmet like Magneto to finish the effect. You open your mouth and-The bell rings. Peter snickers, close to you. Get up, rage building in your system. You may not have real superpowers, but you are a supervillain and now is the time to show it. His eyes widen as you come closer and you shove him. Hard. The sound of him hitting the lockers with a clang and falling down makes you grin. One of his locs getting caught in the closing door of the next locker and ripping out, so easy like damaged hair does, makes you smile wider, deranged, a heady rush of power and you think, it would be so easy to take chunks of that hair and keep ripping it out. You lift up your arm and have the satisfaction of seeing Peter with genuine fear in his eyes and feel the sharp intake of breath his chest takes before a teacher comes up and grabs your hand. "Both of you, principal's office, now!"

In the waiting area, you and Peter are separated. He goes in first and comes out looking vaguely triumphant, even if he inches around you. Twitch like you're going to jump at him and smugly watch as he startles and nearly trips over himself to run out of the office. In the office, you stare into Mr. Johnson's runny blue eyes and your fingers twitch on your thighs. He seems to be settling him-


self, shifting in his large leather chair, like a giant planet that moves into orbit, or an old house that creaks and groans until the floorboards are used to your weight. He finally turns to look at you and you gaze back at him, waiting. "Erm..." He sounds nervous. Like he doesn't want to startle you. "We know you've had a tough few months," he says carefully. Scoff at him just to see him squirm. That power. It's nice. "Unfortunately, we cannot let this attitude stand by. We have called your grandmother to pick you up. You will be suspended for two days because of this incident. I suggest," he finally says, looking confident for the first time in the conversation. "That you think about what it is you've done and the consequences. Please wait outside until your grandmother comes." When Abuela picks you up, she just looks at you with a quiet frown. You squirm under her gaze, not feeling quite so powerful. "Tu mamรก no hubiera querido esto." Your shoulders slump because she's right. Mami would not have wanted this. You are not a hero. You are not a villain. You're just a child. As she takes you to the car, you look up and see Peter with his own mom. He's talking to her excitedly, and he--they look like a family. Her with the same eyes

and smile, and she kisses his forehead. Peter glances up and catches your eye and you both look away, uncomfortable, and when you sit in the car, knees to your chest, you remember that last moment with Mami, making it just in time to see her take her last breath, to hold her hand and feel it go slack in your grip. People coming in once the monitor falls flat into a steady, damning beep and


you letting people move you, every limb limp and mind completely blank, empty like the body that used to hold Mami's beating heart and that mind that could cook the beans Peter would smell on his skin and make fun of, the mofongo that would melt in his mouth and the platanutres so salty it was impossible to have just one. In comic books, there are no mothers, for the hero or the villain. You are quiet the rest of the year, keep to yourself. Being a supervillain takes a backseat just so you don't have to see Abuela's face look like that again. Years go on. Go to college. Keep your head down. Meet a girl. Meet a boy. Get married (to the girl, to the boy, it doesn't matter). Abuela dies the year after you graduate. Go to the funeral. Go to job interviews. Work your way to the top. Your name is not in lights, but it is on stationary, and on every important legal document, and you have a molten gold plaque that you are irrationally fond of on your desk. There is no statue of you, but your skin is clear and your teeth are white, and there are long-winded speeches about you whenever you are invited to an event, and in pictures where you shake the hand of someone important you are immortalized.

Suddenly, it's time for more job interviews, but you are the one doing the hiring. Your first few candidates are all a blur of good intentions and nervous, sweaty hands, rĂŠsumĂŠs with the ink smeared from handling too soon after being printed. It's nearly four o'clock and you're eating what your partner packed for you, cooked with your mother's recipe and tasting like home, both old and new. It is a


different kind of power, the one you have now, but power nonetheless. When you go home, your partner is still at work, so go into your home office. You mean to look over those résumés, but instead, go through a few boxes you still have from moving into this house a few months before. When you open one, a plume of dust floats into the air and you sneeze. Pick up the jewelry box, touch the engraved gold on the wood. Remember the red rose abuela put in her hair almost every day until she died. Think of Mami's fingers when she picked it up and proclaimed, "¡Para tu abuela!" Open the box. More dust comes out so stifle that cough that tickles irritatingly in your throat. There's a folded piece of paper inside. Open it, smooth it out with your fingers. In faded pencil it says, Supervillain Steps. Stare at the paper, then fold it up again, carefully following the same worn lines. You hear the door open and your partner yells a cheerful greeting so get up, hold the piece of paper over your trashcan. Hesitate. Put it back in the jewelry box. Close it. Go have dinner. Your partner is making habichuelas tonight. Your mami's recipe.



What’s the best idea you had that you didn’t follow up on? My best idea was to record a demo cassette of our band’s songs on a second hand 4-track and hand it personally to the beloved John Peel. At the ensuing crossroads, one half of the partnership forged a path that would lead to a double platinum debut album, a headlining slot at the Reading Festival, adoring fans and concerts in every continent. The other half of the partnership became a teacher and has forever lamented the best idea not followed. What is the best short story you have read and why is it the best? I have two. I read Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut at school when I was 15. A satire on enforced social equality set in Huxley’s dystopian world. It’s brilliant. I chose to emulate Harrison Bergeron for coursework and it was the first proper short story I wrote; I think I’ve still got it somewhere. It gave me the bug. David Almond’s writing is so sparse and beautiful. In his short stories, the supernatural and extraordinary are wonderfully understated, lurking in the background of the everyday lives he describes, often so far that their mere suggestion is nothing more than a delicate, mysterious whisper. ‘Where Your Wings Were’ is my favourite. Simple, breath-taking brilliance. Yes, no or maybe? Depends who is asking and what they are proposing but almost certainly yes. Do you have any superstitions? What are they? Never ride your road bike into stationary objects in unlit underpasses at 25


miles per hour. I prefer to impose superstitions on my 4 year old daughter. The stock ending is ‘…or you’ll kill a fairy.’ and can be preceded by any number of alternatives such as ‘Clean your teeth’, ‘Stop crying’ and ‘Go to bed’. What is the most annoying thing in the world to you? The (bad) use of grammar – the difference between knowing your shit and knowing you’re shit. That and Michael Gove.

How did the theme inspire your story? I read an unusual BBC news story about a ship called the Tokia Express which shed its load of five million pieces of ‘Sea Adventure’ Lego in a storm 20 miles off Lands End in 1997. I couldn’t shake the recurring image of tiny yellow frogmen, sea dragons and octopuses being sucked by invisible currents to the corners of the world before being spat out onto remote beaches and into the hands of obsessive collectors. Where else but in an unthemed competition could shipwrecks and Lego not only happily co-exist but also spawn a story about life and death?

John’s poetry has featured in several anthologies but ‘Perran the Heller’ represents an early foray into the realm of short story writing. His work is influenced by the unusual stories he hears and the interesting people he meets in his role as the Head Teacher of a busy primary school in rural Northamptonshire. He is an Ironman triathlete, father to 3 daughters and has a pet snake.


Perran the Heller By John Wayland ‘The giant octopus will suck your eyeballs from their sockets and drag you to your doom!’ cried a familiar voice, the wet hands of its owner hoisting lengths of dripping rockweed over my shoulders, looping them around my neck and yanking them tight. I knew who it was immediately. It was Perran the Heller – the troublesome child. My best friend. ‘Get it off me!’ I screamed, ripping away the weed in strips and delighting in their silky texture and the squelch of slimy air pockets bursting against my skin. Perran and I wrestled each other, falling about in the wet sand, trading insults and throwing mock punches. Eventually, Perran pinned me, sitting on my chest, his calloused fingers catching my smooth wrists. I offered no resistance; he

looked older this time and new bands of muscle twitched across his bare chest and bunched in his shoulders. He rolled away victorious, both of us lying on our backs, side by side, lungs sucking up warm Atlantic air. A hundred tides or more had separated us, but the passage of time had done nothing to dull our friendship. ‘Back again, eh?’ he started, ‘I’ve missed ya, City Boy! That baby face of yours hasn’t changed a bit.’ ‘Ha ha, piss off.’ I said. ‘Ooh, make up for it in spirit, eh?’ Perran replied. ‘Listen, I got something to show you.’ I whispered. ‘But how did you know…?’


I knelt up next to Perran’s chest and reached into the pocket of my tired linen shorts. I held out a straight arm toward him, dark tentacles poking out through gaps in my fist. Cradled in my palm and sitting in a puddle of wet sand, was a black, plastic octopus, it’s comically bulbous head resting atop eight symmetrical coiled arms. ‘Tokio Express still giving up its secrets, even now.’ Perran said, carefully taking the octopus and turning it over in his hands. Kaleidoscopes of bright azure and brilliant sapphire flickered in his wide eyes as a fantastic tale took shape and set sail in his unfathomable mind. How I longed to hear another of Perran’s stories! ‘You never heard of the Tokio Express, eh? Oh, you’re such a bleddy dobeck!’ he roared, snapping his hand shut over my prize before circling me in a blur of spins and leaps. ‘Hey, give us it back!’ I yelled. ‘Nah, get lost!’ he raced off, bare feet gliding over low, limpet strewn rocks and hard ridges of wet sand, sprinting towards the morning sun, the black octopus held aloft and throwing its elongated shadow over me, tangling me in its mas-

sive tentacles and leaving me cold. I knew virtually nothing about Perran. He was a free spirit; an intriguing puzzle that I had never properly explored. But what did that matter? After all, here we were, looning around as happy as Kings; best friends and complete strangers at the same time.


Perran was as much a part of the seascape as the shifting dunes and the chiselled crags. To me, he seemed to have been hewn from the coastal earth; risen from the mud. Nourished by the ocean’s minerals and given breath by the Atlantic breeze, he was at once the land and the sea and the air. He passed almost unnoticed; a quiet passenger on Earth’s journey, guided only by the passage of the sun and the ebb and flow of the tide. A mop of blond hair, tousled by the sea air, framed a tanned face, weathered beyond its tender years. New, dark freckles burst across the bridge of his peeling nose, cracked lips drawn into a wide smile. And, oh, those blue eyes that would dance in every shade; plumbing the darkest navy of ocean trenches to the vivid turquoise that flowed into the shallow rock pools and over the wide sandbars. I was an imposter in Perran’s world, betrayed by the sun which was already prickling my skin and bringing colour to my pale, virgin cheeks; my soft, bare soles no match for the jagged rocks that Perran navigated with such grace. I didn’t belong here but was thankful to be present in Perran’s world, where days stretched out before us and time slowed to beautiful crawl. We spent hours stalking enemy barracks through the tall Marram Grass and deep dunes with our driftwood rifles and pebble grenades. We built miniature fortresses in the sand and became the slayers of gigantic, invading sea monsters. When we’d had enough, we lay on our backs in the hot sand, letting the sun warm our faces, spotting shapes in the clouds. ‘On a freezing Winter’s night, the Tokio Express sailed into a terrible


storm off Lands End.’ Perran began. ‘So, Tokio Express was a boat? Sounds more like a train from the future, not a bleddy boat!’ I replied. ‘Slammed by a giant swell which the newspapers later called a once in a 100 year wave. Shed its containers straight to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean where they’ll still be sat now, encrusted with barnacles and covered in weed and anemonies. Rusting hulks, teeming with fish and crabs and God knows what else.’ he said. ‘So? Who cares? Happens all the time, right?’ I said. ‘Ah, but lost overboard was millions and millions of bits of Lego! Imagine that, eh? All of it seafaring stuff, too. Tiny yellow people in diving gear, swimming around with their hunting spears and breathing apparatus! Pirates climbing the rigging; unfurling the Jolly Roger and firing cannons at ghostly ships. What a sight!’ Perran cried. ‘P’raps they were just trying to find their way back home, eh?’ I said, indulging my childish imagination and wondering for a moment where Perran called home but swallowing back the question.

‘Cargo from the Tokio Express has washed up in France, across the Atlantic in America and even in New Zealand! Can you imagine those secret underwater corridors and mysterious pathways that spirit the ocean dwellers all over? Who knows where home lies?’ Perran said. Without waiting for an answer, he leapt up and sprinted across the sand.


At one end of the beach, a narrow stream cut a valley through angled trees on its meander to the Atlantic. Nestled where the stream widened and the beach began was a small, stone fisherman’s hut. Shielded by sweeping dunes on three sides, the hut was invisible to dog walkers and the crowds of holidaymakers who packed the main stretch of beach in August, its slow decay the product of nature alone. Off to one side, a gently shelving slipway fell away to the water, the tide mark showing where the wooden fishing boats would have once moored. A tall chimney rose through a long departed thatched roof and drifts of sand piled high against the sea facing walls as if the hut was slowly being devoured by the beach. I could see paint peeling from the sun scorched wooden window frame and peering through the salt crusted glass I imagined

lobster pots piled high, ancient barometers and dials hanging from walls draped with thick nets and cluttered with pictures of vessels and prize catches. Shelves which were once piled with hooks and floats, tobacco pouches and tin mugs now lay bare, but for a dusting of powdery sand and withered seaweed. ‘Come on,’ said Perran, ‘we have to go in.’ Inside the hut, we sat propped against adjacent walls, the warmth of the smooth, stone wall on our backs. ‘The best fisherman in all of Cornwall spent many an hour here.’ Perran began. ‘Just him and his son. Master and apprentice. They’d row out together from the slipway and into the wide ocean, Father heaving great wooden oars and his son baiting hooks and feeding mackerel lines into the depths. They’d have their


lunch out on the flat sea, Father tearing loaves of bread and spinning romantic tales of shipwrecks and mermaids. Soon enough, they’d pull in the day’s catch and buckets would be overflowing with beautiful, shimmering fish; mackerel shining like polished metal! Gulls were towed back to shore like kites on strings, squalling at the promise of a hearty lunch. The carnival of gulls and the clunking oars brought out the townsfolk from all over who crowded the

slipway, jostling for the first pick. You can imagine the bustle of laughter, keen voices and the clinking of coins changing hands and spilling onto the slipway. Best sound of all, though, the hollow thud of empty buckets! While Father auctioned the catch, his boy’s nimble hands were already untangling knotted lines and mending snagged nets. He would tip a smile as people ruffled his hair and smothered him in praise. ‘Good lad’, they’d say. Course, the boy would keep the plumpest fish to one side, ready for his Father to cook up for supper. He’d stoke the fire while the boy took the fish one at a time and slit up their soft belly with his Father’s blade, reach in and pull out their slippery guts, tossing them to the gulls.’ As Perran talked, he ran a rigid finger slowly down my shirt - sternum to waist - snatching a tight fist of cotton innards and pulling

me towards him. ‘But then the boy died.’ Perran said; his eyes wide and churning with rich cobalt. ‘They say he was only up to his waist, larking around. Unlucky bugger. All those hours bobbing around on the Atlantic, through henting storms and


massive swells and he drowns having a paddle; taken by a rip tide.’ Perran told me this, all the time shaking his head. ‘There’s a grave for him in St Stephen’s churchyard on the hill. Empty, mind you.’ he said. ‘What do you mean empty? You can’t not bury someone.’ I protested. ‘Half those graves up there are empty. Folk lost to the ocean. They never found him, see. Probably swept halfway to America by the currents before he was fish food!’ Perran laughed. ‘How old was he? When he died, I mean?’ I asked. How did Perran know all of this? ‘No older than us, City Boy. His mortal existence just a flicker of a candle in the wind. Course, the boat stopped going out, the fish stopped coming in and

people had no reason to venture across to the slipway. Nobody really knew when it happened but none was too surprised when the fisherman vanished too.’ Perran said. ‘Wait. Maybe it wasn’t true. Maybe his coffin’s empty because he ain’t really dead. P’raps they both just went somewhere else and didn’t tell anyone?’ I said. ‘And lived happily ever after in a little cottage in the countryside, raising pigs and growing their own vegetables? Nice tale but it ain’t what happened?’ Perran replied, unmoved. ‘Well, you can’t know that for sure.’ I said. How could he? ‘You know, City Boy, stories around here find their own way out eventually. They’ll be smuggled down shadowed alleyways like contraband or told in ever


more spectacular ways in hushed voices over pub tables, until nobody is sure what’s real and what isn’t – nobody much cares. Somewhere in amongst even the most fanciful sea tale lies some truth and if the story sits well, people swallow it down like good brandy. Some people say he just up and left, heartbroken. Others reckon he did himself in, wracked with guilt, calmly wading out into the surf and to his end.’

‘Bleddy hell. What do you reckon happened to the Fisherman?’ I begged. At this, Perran’s pupils contracted and his irises swam with dazzling blue ice. ‘What do I reckon, City Boy?’ Perran said. ‘I don’t reckon nothing because I know. I’ve seen him.’ ‘What you need to understand is that it ain’t like the Knockers down in the old tin mines who’d sooner scare you half to death as look at ya.’ Perran explained, ‘Or the headless Spriggans floating across the Moors looking for their noggins. No, this is like a real man - flesh and blood - treading the margins at night and leaving great boot prints in the wet sand at low tide. His fizzogg’s always tipped down or pointing out to sea but I know it’s him, pacing backwards and forwards, looking all distracted. Proper mazed, he is.’

‘Searching for his boy?’ I offered. ‘Zackerly! Christ, you catch on quick.’ Perran laughed. ‘But if you’ve seen him why haven’t you talked to him or shouted after him? It’d be easy, right?’ I said. ‘The times that I’ve thought about racing down to the water’s edge and holler-


‘And, you…are you a lost soul? Were you carried here on some magical wave? Come on. What brought you back?’ I asked.

ing. I’ve even had the air in my lungs ready to belt out a great cry, but what would I say? There are other ways to help, too. You’ll find out.’ Perran said, more agitated now. ‘First, let me tell you about the Fisherman’s boy. I’ve seen him too.’ Perran’s words chilled me. A piece of green plastic seaweed stood proud, perched on a tiny drift of

sand at one end of the stone mantelpiece like a solitary cactus in a desert. ‘Did you put that there?’ I asked, clutching at any distraction to steady the restless storm gathering within my mind. ‘And the rest! Pirate cutlasses, divers’ flippers, tiny yellow life jackets. I’ve seen it all. I have them all lined up there. Gathered from the corners of the world!’


‘There’s not much there, Perran, eh? One clump of bleddy seaweed?’ I said, unimpressed. ‘Well, now I could be spinning you a tall tale and I know it’ll sound made up but, I tell you, I come back here and they’re gone! The treasures of the Tokio Express might make a worthy prize for an inquisitive tourist, brave enough to tread the floorboards of a haunted Fisherman’s hut. Could they be plucked away by the beak of a nesting cormorant? Maybe so, but I know what I think. They appear when folk need them to. Brought you to me many tides ago and again today, didn’t they? And others before that.’ Perran said. ‘They bring a comfort. What child can resist a toy, eh?’ ‘But how did you know about my octopus? You’d not seen it at first.’ I spluttered. Perran stood and walked over to the window and rested his elbows on the flaking sill, gaze fixed on the sea. Finally, he spoke. ‘I’ve been here long enough to taste the coming storms on my tongue and hear departed voices on each breath of sea air. Long enough to feel centuries of crumbled bones in the sand beneath my bare feet and see the mystery that lies at

the water’s edge when others can’t. Everywhere I turn, lost souls at the mercy of the tide, not knowing which invisible current will catch them and spirit them to their journey’s end.’ ‘And, you…are you a lost soul? Were you carried here on some magical wave? Come on. What brought you back?’ I asked.


‘I never left. There’s a plan for me too; different to yours, course.’ Perran said. ‘All I know is that life began in the sea and that’s where it will begin again; it finds a way. Draws people in. Our time on earth is as fleeting as a mayfly’s but it isn’t the end. Only, some get stuck in between; sometimes even forgetting where they’re going.’ ‘Then, perhaps just being here, right now, is enough, eh? When all else if forgotten’ I said. ‘Maybe so, City Boy. Maybe so.’ Perran said. We spent the rest of the day weaving make believe nets and tying pretend hooks. We heaved invisible boats up the old slipway, stoked driftwood fires and watched our long shadows disappear into the night as the tide slowly retreated beneath the chalky thumbprint moon. ‘It’s time for me to go now.’ Perran said, resting a hand on my shoulder. ‘Oh stay, just for a bit longer, eh? It’s not too dark yet. Look at the moon.’ I said, ‘Isn’t it grand?’ ‘I’ll be here tomorrow and the day after. And the day after that.’ he promised. ‘But…Perran. I don’t want you to go.’ I said.

‘Look. Down by the water’s edge. It’s time.’ Perran’s tone, at once soothing but strangely urgent. I followed his gaze to where the lone figure of a man was standing, his heavy cap pulled down over his bowed head. A pale woollen jumper clung to broad shoulders and bunched at his waist, where trousers hung from thick braces.


Across the toe of his boots, gentle waves broke before dragging at his heels as they receded back into the sea. ‘The Fisherman?’ I asked, already knowing the answer. ‘Yes.’ ‘But?’ I said. ‘How did you…?’ ‘Shh, now, City Boy. There’s no time for that, now. This is a time for clear

thinking’ Perran said. ‘So, you’ve been stuck here? Caught between the margins of life and… searching. You’re the Fisherman?’ I said. Perran looked at me, smiling broadly, ‘No, City Boy. You are. You’ll be alright, now.’ A pebble had been cast into the still pool of my mind, stirring the waters and plunging my memories into a dark chaos; conjuring distorted shapes and twisted faces in the maelstrom. Voices I seemed to recognise beckoned me, shouting my name in bursts of sound. Vivid scents scorched my nostrils; pipe smoke and grilled fish, seaweed and salt. The fisherman’s hut, just I had imagined (remembered?), pinwheeled above me as freezing water engulfed me, rush-

ing in my ears and slowing my limbs. I was lost to the water, spiralling downwards; drowning again. Yet in the darkness, I felt calm. In the darkness, I could see everything. The world that I remembered snapped back; stark and vivid. Restless legs which had for so long walked the sands in search of a forgotten prize were already carrying me across the beach and to the water’s edge. Life


began in the sea and it will begin again, just like Perran said. My Father is waiting for me; came looking for me and never stopped. We will go now, beneath the waves, together at last and we will start again, spirited on ethereal ocean threads to somewhere only fate will decide. I’m nearly there, one arm outstretched, ready to surrender my hand to the trusted grip of my Father, the other hand wrapped tightly around a small black octopus.


Stripped Judy Birkbeck Under the thorn tree we stood in a semicircle, still as snakes feigning death while the kneeling woman hacked at the baked ground with a trowel, whimpering, one eye swollen and black. Kapomba, a gaunt boy with puny fists stood in the sweltering sun and averted his eyes. His chest heaved and the machete in his hand trembled. “Look at her,” barked Comrade Bingwa, “or you get the same.” Kapomba flinched. I had a stone in my throat. It was Chiko who spoke up. “He is only thirteen.” Bingwa swung his gun round. “You want to join him?” “He could shoot her instead.” “The witch is a sell-out,” shrieked Bingwa. “Two comrades lost because of her.” The whites of his eyes were red. The woman mewled, head bent over, and beads of sweat on her neck flashed in the sun. The trowel sang, clank clank. Kapomba wiped his forehead. The grave was barely deep enough. The machete fluttered. “Do it now,” ordered Bingwa. The first swipe was feeble, he was spattered with blood, sinking at the knees, trying not to look. With each blow he lifted his arm and slammed it down


with a howl like a jackal, squeezing his eyes shut at the last moment. He kept missing. It took forever. He was hysterical. Was it for this I joined the freedom fighters? It was one of many dark things done by our side. We were almost there, the home I had not seen since I was ten, en route to the main road to lay mines. I wished I were back tending the mombe and goats, or going to the river with friends to feel the cool water lick my soles and trap small birds and see who could piss the furthest. I would tell Baba how my jealous brothers had beaten me and left me for dead. * The msasas glowed flame-red. In two months the long dry season would be over with the gukurahundi, the early rains that freshened the air, the crimson leaves would turn deep green, the rain bird would return with its bubbling call, the vleis would fill up with water and the red dust would be slush. The white ants were mending their hills, and snakes crawled out of sleep. We bathed in a trickle of river, taking turns on guard duty – a welcome break from trekking in the stinging sun with heavy loads. Bingwa let us carry

Kapomba’s pack. He reminded us of the boy whose blood and brains were smeared on falling rocks in the gold mine. He would have come with us. Or perhaps I joined the war to escape my wife’s ranting and sneering, her spit sizzling on the fire, her shrill scream like a monkey, ‘You want your children stuck in some dead-end job same as you?’ ‘Mr Goode pays good money,’ I


said, but I knew it was not. ‘Ho-o, this is good, this is wonderful,’ she shrieked with clenched fists. ‘Mr Good-For-Nothing swans around his big white house and sends his children to school and buys clean water while we drink from the filthy river and get sick.’ Suddenly Bingwa gestured and we crouched down, AK-47s trained ahead, waiting for the crack of a branch, the round black eye of a barrel. The grass whispered with footsteps and the blistering heat of the forest clenched my throat like a tight fist. The shrill whistle of a bulbul pierced the air, sweat ran down and breath roared in my ears. A pair of warthogs emerged, snuffling through the undergrowth, we stood up and they fled. Chiko clapped me on the shoulder and cackled like a witch. “Aa-eee, I


thought we were all goners.” We sat down against the flaky trunks of the msasa trees, lit cigarettes and exhaled long and hard. I fondled my AK-47, its banana-shaped magazine, the pistol grip and forward grip made of glossy wood like the fine cabinets of the white man, and the cold black trigger. We loved our rifles. I slept with mine across my chest, hand on the sling. Chiko carried a tin of shoe polish in his pack, for his rifle, not for his boots. I was hoping for a good meal that evening. I would rather have starved than eat another baobab fruit. The powdery white things stuck to the roof of the mouth, the tongue, the back of the throat. We were lucky, welcomed like kings, seven of us sitting round the embers with the family, with sadza and chicken relish and pumpkin leaves with peanut sauce, onions and tomatoes. The villagers had killed one of the last three chickens for us, luckily. Sometimes we had to coerce them. ‘But the security forces will kill us,’ they would protest. We resented their objections. ‘We are risking our lives to give you a better one,’ said Bingwa, who had mel-

lowed since that harshness with Kapomba but still mindlessly shot suspected sell-outs. The night-owl hooted on the roof and a distant jackal howled. In a dark corner of the hut an old man sat on a chair and snorted from a snuff-horn. A pipe filled with dagga hemp was passed round, and a wave of peace billowed


over me and chased away the snakes and lizards in my head. I looked at the sooty roof, closed my eyes and dreamt of leaping flames. I was just a boy when I witnessed the people in the neighbouring village evicted. The axe forgets, the faggot does not: Land. Our land. They stole it. Squatters out, they shouted. We are the owners now. Drove them out like rubbish, took the fat of the land. The goaway birds flapped and squawked: kuwe, kuwe. Mbavha on his white horse roared like a lion. His black watchermen chased the villagers onto the waiting jeeps and their sticks struck those who stopped to gather mats and cloths. People ran, women shrieked and snatched up little ones. Mbavha opened a greedy mouth like a python swallowing a buck and bel-

lowed, and the jeeps crammed tight with bodies bounced away in clouds of brick-red dust. The watchermen herded all the animals, strode from hut to hut and torched the thatch. They left the crackling, blazing roofs and followed Mbavha’s trotting horse with goats and shiny mombe. Yes Baas, no Baas, yes Baas, anything you say, Baas, let me shit on those squatters, Baas. Hungry red and yellow flames leaping, roaring, a whole sky on fire, white men like locusts covering the land. * We moved along an escarpment, exposed to the two spotter planes that buzzed and gleamed in the sun on the horizon every morning, then down the slope into


the forest. The sparse canopy barely hid us. Being agile, I climbed the tall mnondo trees to look out. I noticed the eagle only when I was close enough to see its yellow-ringed eye and yellow talons gripping the branch. It took off with a quiet swish of its enormous wings. We trod warily through the treacherous stillness, waiting for death from the bush or from the air. All my life I had waited for the day I would see Baba again, and now that day was coming with the familiar msasas and mnondos, the plants and birds of which I knew all the names. Even the withered grasses were old friends. I pictured the delighted faces. The village children would run out to greet us and my sisters would come ululating and dancing and raising dust. ‘We thought you were dead,’ they would say, and kill the fattest mombe in my honour. And one day

we would take back the land. Most of the white-owned farmland was unused. They penned the mombe and called the rest a hunting reserve. Conservation, ha? Where was the respect in killing a creature just because you could? They insulted the forest with their gunshots. What if the birds never sang again? The ancestors would not be happy. But this was hidden from me when I was a boy. Back then, I had begged Baba for permission to work for Mbavha like my brothers and get rich. The river bed was dry. In a couple of months it would flood and boil, thousands of bubbles coming to the surface, but for now three dug the sand in the middle while the others covered us.


Suddenly two helicopter gunships appeared over the treetops like eagles, shaking the ground. They circled, spattered bullets and retreated, but soldiers burst out of the forest and the air crackled and flared. We kept running and firing back blindly. Just when we thought it safe and stopped for a cigarette, Kapomba collapsed, dark blood seeping into his shirt. For half a day we staggered through the bush, carrying his puny body. We buried him beside a mukamba tree and

sang. Bingwa would not let us mark the grave. “Goodbye, Baba, goodbye, Amai, said the young man,” I sang. “I must leave you and journey to a far land. Through the forest I will go and you will always be in my heart. Goodbye, son, said the father, goodbye, said the mother. May the ancestral spirits guard and guide you. But the young man never returned because death met him on the way.” My voice crumbled and the tinkling patterns of the mbira filled the air like maize popping in a pan boiled dry. I had fashioned it from strips of scrap metal mounted in a calabash when I worked in the mine, and kept it in a sock tied to my belt. We drank to Kapomba and Chiko gave his shiny gun one last rub with the shoe polish. He wore the boy’s bandolier as well as his own. A wind blew

red dust through the white ant tunnels in the walls and I thought of the roar of flames, shouting and wailing, people running. We had reached the red dust road that meant nearly home. I wondered if my brothers had joined the fight. I hoped they were dead. They would probably fight for the government, the side they thought most likely to win. Was it the ku-


du loincloth, or the stool that set them against me? Or was it because I told Baba I saw Tatenda with his back to me, or rather his buttocks, pumping, and the strangulated voice of the woman: ‘No please, no, no, no please, please no, please.’ *

We approached the homestead from the back and a tethered dog barked, but we threw it poison meat. The houseboy saw us creeping up and grinned. They were all on the verandah, four of them, and their guns were in the entrance hall. Housewives and children too carried Uzis. A whip hung by the door and on the walls in every room were feet and horns of dead animals, enough to make a crocodile laugh out loud. We did that sort of thing when we were


small boys, catching birds and mice unnecessarily, cutting off lizards’ tails, but not when we were grown up. They were sipping gin and tonics and watching the sky turn red or looking at the strange orange fish in the pond. We herded them into the dining room and put them on the floor in the corner, then ordered the older woman to set more places, two for the houseboy and cookboy, as they called them. No more would we be referred to as boys and given new names. A bunch of keys jangled at her waist like Madam on the farm where I had been a servant, to lock away flour and sugar. The servants did thieve food, but it did not pay for the stolen fertile land. What a feast! A mountain of beef on a silver tray, sweet potatoes and rugare with tomatoes and onions and cream, and some strange food. They quaked in the corner, snakes with their backs broken. Chiko and Bingwa ransacked the house while we sat with fat bellies, wondering what to do, when I caught the younger man’s eye. His lip twisted into a smirk like the underside of a snail and I leapt up. “Don’t give me that look, you arrogant little turd,” I said in English. Madam’s lover had spoken these words to me while the boss was away from the homestead. I did not know what a turd was then. He lowered his eyes, but whether he was still smirking or grimacing I could not determine. It was hard to read Europeans’ faces. He was bull-necked, with hair greased shiny over the top of his head, and his arm had a massive scar as


big as a hand, the flesh scooped out down to the bone, which looked odd with the thick neck. We did not kill them. I tied them up, pulling the rope tight so it cut in, once for the boy whom the baas kicked and punched when he demanded to know why they were laughing and the boy told him it was about Madam’s fondness for young men, once for my own wasted years: In the outhouse where I slept I fell exhausted onto the mat. The dogs in the corner shuffled. The baas had gone to Bulawayo. Singing and drumming reached me from the compound a mile away and I wished I was there, kicking up the dust and dancing the jerusarema or sitting round the fire telling stories of lions and elephants talking to vultures and the honey-bird. On waking I fetched a bowl of water and stripped off my smart shirt and lion-coloured shorts to wash. Feet crunched the gravel outside, and not feet of a lizard or porcupine. Something blocked the light from the doorway and I whipped round. Her face was wrinkled and brown with

white grooves when she raised her eyebrows, but I could not read it. Breasts as large as gourds pointed at me through a thin blouse. I gasped and put my hands over my privates. The lizard-green eyes pushed me against the wall and the lips curled like a giraffe’s. ‘Don’t be embarrassed,’ she lilted and stepped inside. ‘You have a fine


body, George.’ I snatched my shorts and fumbled them over my feet. The gourds advanced. ‘You’re trembling,’ said the liquid voice like a bulbul. The gnarled, leathery hand stroked my quivering chest. I had grown fat – I was not blown away by the wind. Suddenly I grabbed my shirt and the bag of half-crowns and shillings from the shelf and shoved past her and out. I bounded through the bush a long way before slowing down, and my pocket bulged and sagged with the coins. If only I were back with my friends. If only I were back with Baba. Maybe the ancestors listened to my prayers, because no leopard or hyena ate me, but police pounced. The black men, meaner than their white boss, wrested the heavy bag from the pocket. “Stealing, ha?” said the white policeman. He emptied the bag onto the ground. “My savings,” I protested, averting my eyes. “And how would a dirty kaffir like you save up this much?” “Four years,” I wailed. “So you’re a liar and a thief.” So passed the next four years.


* We stood on a rocky slope with clinging mukondotowa trees and a bird screeched in the stillness. Below us the forest canopy was thickening in a welter of greens and the rich crimson of the msasas. An eagle perched on top. The granite pulsed in the sun under my hands and I was glad of my boots, remembering the cracked feet in the mine. We came into a hollow surrounded by kopjes that stifled us with heat like the throat of a crocodile, the smell of dust on the wind. Sweat poured off and a terrible thirst made each step a labour. From the dry bed sculpted like skull teeth rose tall, leafless ebony trees, and in the middle, signalled by the electric blue flash of a kingfisher, better than any gold, ran a trickle of river. In the wet sand were bootprints, not our own,

and our hands trembled as they scooped up the water. We took turns to drink and look out for soldiers. Near the other bank a glistening, crackling river of black ants flowed to and from a carcass. Each ant in the returning column carried a chunk of pink meat in its mouth and I stepped over them gingerly. The bushbuck would soon be bare bones. “The little creatures devour the big one,� I said and grinned. The sun set in a pure red sky and a hyena gave a wailing whoop. Children greeted us at the compound on the edge of a white-owned farm and smoke curled up from the thatched roofs as if they were smouldering. A woman swept in front of a hut, the broom trembling in her hands.


“Soldiers nearby,” she said. “How near, Ma?” They had been gone only half an hour, five of them, so we set off in pursuit, but in vain. We were more feared than welcomed by some here, so after receiving oxtail stew and sadza, grudgingly or otherwise, Chiko and I held a meeting outside the huts where the older boys and girls played in the moonlight, to tell people we were fighting for their freedom, their land, we had been treated like children and made to plead like children, but we would plead no more. I thought with shame of my own deserted family. “Do you want your children to go to school?” said Chiko. I envied him his education, but he said the teachers whipped them on the bare buttocks till they

bled, then made them sit down. “Our government spends ten times as much on educating a European child as an African child. Are our children not as precious as theirs? Are our children not as precious as the eggs of eagles? Do you want to be ruled by people you have not voted for? Did you know a black person is not allowed to travel outside Rhodesia unless a white official approves, which they delight in refusing? And they call us thugs! They are full of money.” Chiko was good at talking, but the villagers had been beaten, tortured, some murdered by both soldiers and freedom fighters. They said what they thought we wanted to hear, or they said nothing, afraid that wrong things would come from their mouths. We gave up and sang revolutionary songs and danced instead, but


the stool on which I sat to drum on a plastic bucket was like the one Baba had carved for me with lions and hippos, and my brothers were in my head, snakes and worms were in my head: ‘Ho-o, our little brother is having extra sadza.’ ‘Our little brother likes his buttocks.’

‘Baba’s favourite has worn out his buttocks already. Baba has made him a special stool for worn-out buttocks.’ They doubled up laughing. ‘I could do the job you did,’ I retorted angrily. ‘Baba said next year I can.’

‘The jackal bathes where the elephants bathe in the hope of growing as big,’ said Tatenda with a sneer. He pushed me off the stool roughly. ‘Go on, go and cry to Baba.’ They pranced out. ‘I would not steal like you,’ I shouted.

Tatenda came back and grabbed my ear. ‘What did you say?’ ‘I said I would not steal like you.’ He twisted the ear and I squealed. ‘He stole from us, you little fool.


All this land was ours.’ He stormed out. * Dambudzo, what will you do when you see your father? How can you ask me such a question, Chiko? Dambudzo, I want to know what you will do when you see your father.

I will be happy. Just that? Yes. I have waited long years, I have kept the pain in my heart. I will be happy. I will tell him what my brothers did when I was ten: My fine loincloth, my lovely kudu loincloth, beautiful rich dark brown

with thin white stripes. It stroked my cheek, thick and soft, I put it on and leapt into the air, clapped hands and stamped and danced. How I loved my loincloth. My brothers glowered and waited until I went behind an anthill. ‘Ho-o, look what Baba has made for his baby. All we get is ox-skin.’ Tatenda grabbed a flap and pulled it down to my knees and they ran off, laughing. ‘I will tell Baba,’ I shouted and clenched my fists. The rains began and brown beetles came out of the ground and clung to everything. The dried-up vleis filled with water and red mud caked our feet. Everywhere was green, and duikers and warthogs appeared as if by


magic out of the long grass. One day the police appeared as if by magic out of the forest in jeeps and on horseback to collect hut tax. Our chief stooped, thin arms rigid by his sides as he argued through an interpreter. The white man’s cheeks reddened and his forefinger waggled. ‘If you won’t pay in money or goats, your young men can work until the debt is paid.’ The finger pointed and his black colleagues stepped forwards and shoved several older boys towards a jeep. A pity my brothers were not there. ‘We saw you hiding,’ they said later, snatching me behind an anthill where I had gone to relieve myself. When Baba asked why I was bruised, I said a warthog trying to raid the crops attacked. He chastised them for not protecting me and I smirked at the sullen faces. But next time, further from home, they frogmarched me off with a hand clapped over my mouth to stifle screams and beat me halfconscious. I was the cause of all their misery, they said. Tatenda put a finger over his lips at a rustling from a nearby rock. He tiptoed towards it, pounced and held up a tortoise with head and feet drawn in. He stripped off my loincloth, my beautiful kudu loincloth, thrust a knife into the creature’s belly and twisted, soaked the cloth in blood and


grinned. ‘We will say a leopard ate him.’ * The river, the river, its quickening smell, glittering in the sun, the malachite kingfisher flashing by. It was narrow and shallow and a grove of cluster fig trees dripped with ripe yellow-red fruits. Birds scattered and we filled our bellies, always listening. Maybe I was too jubilant at the thought of seeing my father and sisters. Kuwe, kuwe, said the go-away birds and took off with noisy wing beats. Bullets sprayed in every direction, we switched our rifles to fully automatic and Bingwa shouted to take cover and return fire. With loping strides we ran like giraffes towards the bush, the smell of gunpowder filled the air, we crashed through the undergrowth, our arms and necks tangled in the lianas, thorns caught our clothes and scratched our hands, the staccato of machine guns was close behind and I half-tripped over the aerial roots of a mutsamvi tree. I scrambled to my feet and floundered on until the enemy fire died down. We were still lurching forwards when Chiko slumped to the ground and his hand released his precious rifle. Blood pumped from his stomach. I raised his shoulders but his head hung down over my arm. I held him until his eyes went blank and howled. A rage seized me like an angry mamba, I flicked open the bayonet on the end of my rifle and charged round and round a mutamba tree, yelling, then


stabbed the ground over and over. Three comrades stared. Further off, Bingwa lay dead. I stabbed again and curled up on the parched ground. Flies used my face to wash hands and feet. In my head the sky shouted and wailed and blazed. A beetle saw me and stopped. Its hairy legs were motionless, feelers waved, beady eyes stared. I am the stronger one, beetle, I said, but I do not need to squash you. We share this land. I kill those who threaten, or for food, but you, you are harmless. Pray to your ancestors, beetle, or lose your home. They think they know how to talk to the soil, but all they know is money. If the birds and insects refuse to sing, they do not care. The gold mine was wider than the Zambesi, deeper than the Smoke That Thunders. It scarred the land, gaped like the mouth of a crocodile while the stamp mills clanked and thudded day and night, dum-dum, dum-dum, dum-dum. The bossboys wore fancy shirts and swaggered round like lions, beating us with mopane sticks, trying to be the new whites. Fact: three tons of gold ore make one wedding ring. Dum-dum. Fact: they dump or spill arsenic and cyanide and mercury into the rivers. Dum-dum. Fact: Enosh’s blood and brains are smeared on the yellow bottom of the pit and the jeep with his body and half a face zigzagged up the haulage road to give to his parents and Mr Goode was fined five hundred pounds. Mr Couldn’t-Care-Less. The polecat does not smell its own stink. Dum-dum.


* The colours were all bled out. I was like a leaf without a tree. We strode along the old paths I knew so well with heavy hearts, guns slung over shoulders. I was the section commander now. We climbed the last hill. I was ready to rear up and lunge at the enemy, but my anger was tempered by the thought of Baba’s welcome. He is not dead after all, he would say when he saw me, the whole village would rejoice and I would break his heart with the truth about his other sons. At the top I gasped. Before me stretched a vast plain with no trees. In the middle the small river flowed, but the msasas, the mnondos, the grasses, the huts were all gone, and where the ancestors were buried, a road led to a huge, singlestorey white house with thatched roof surrounded by tall, lean gum trees and lu-

rid orange and purple flowers, the white man’s imprint wherever he went. Locusts covering the land. Come nightfall, we crept out of the bush. The dogs gobbled up the meat, whimpered and lay down. Owls hooted in the forest. We tiptoed to the verandah, lit matches, set fire to the roof and retreated. Soon shouts and screams came from within and the whole house was ablaze. Kuwe, kuwe, white people with your sharp fangs, kuwe, kuwe. Come, fire, light up our faces and make our eyes shine. We leant back against the boulders and passed round cigarettes. I took out the cloth and little tin of shoe polish and rubbed it carefully into the fine wood of my rifle.


A Love Story By Harriet Avery The bus leaned to a halt in a puddle before the bus-stop, and, unfolding its doors, let in a gust of wet and muffled passengers, their collapsing umbrellas becoming ragged and bony in damp, gloved hands. Drips from the corners of plastic bags pooled in the worn hollows of the aisle; the bus sighed, and pulled ponderously away, keel-hauling the neon reflections of shop window advertisements over the outer shell. Void: Bus light::low /.Blink Virtual void Island Man() { cout << Grey metallic soar To surge of wheels To dull north circular roar << endl; //Grace Nichols Stream << create.exe << cusip; cout window == raindrop rolls like poetry down glass poetry rolls like raindrops down glass /simile());false}

The passengers settled into the unbroken sway of the bus’s movement, back and forth as though uncannily connected by a web of invisible strings. With condensation steaming the windows, the dark streets outside became flat blank screens, and there was nothing to keep the passengers from sinking vacant-eyed under the drug of the bus’s lulling movement. A girl called Isa-


bel Mariposa Marrin rubbed her sleeve across the glass, and saw only a black hole, streaked with shreds of neon from the raindrops refracting the lights on the other side. As they paused before traffic lights, the streaks settled into three minute red points of light suspended in each droplet. They were travelling on a ship in a wide black sea, with nothing but water and clear cold air for fathoms. Layered on top of the darkness was a mirror-copy of the interior of the bus. Isabel Mariposa Marrin peered at a strange reflection – a shadowy, half-

submerged face, leaning forward in profile against the blackness. She glanced round to see the passenger to whom this face belonged, and unexpectedly found him facing her. In the moment in which her gaze had left the window and crossed the space to the other side of the bus, something had made him turn. Their eyes met. Isabel felt something like comprehension dart through her. He looked back at her. Neither of them moved. LIGHT* visual input = eyes Virtual void compile.() { cout << Behold, thou art fair, my love Behold thou art fair; Thou hast doves’ eyes << endl; //Solomon ./img=imread RGB range = ()(247;216;74)(41;143;107) { cout << Klimt – The Kiss; Void {/.I compare you to a kiss from a rose on the gray simile());false} std::cout mon coeur qui bat /.blink


The bus hissed to a stop. She saw him stand and walk to the opening doors – his eyes left hers and she felt a strange sense of lagging behind in time. Although the bus had ceased rolling forwards, it seemed they were still moving together with its motion, pulled in tandem by the strings knotted tightly somewhere inside their chests. As he stood up, she felt something lift within her. As he passed her, she felt the strings wrench. She seemed to still

see his eyes hanging in the air. The doors sealed between them. Through the condensation, she thought she could see him, a silhouette in the slashed beam of a streetlamp. He stood on the kerb, looking at her. As the bus heaved itself back into motion, Isabel Mariposa Marrin rose to her feet – and then she collapsed. Stream /.action.exe input: action proposed? } Cout:: action accepted /.().c_str()); organic transportation << cauteris.exe

/.Blink Error He stood watching as the bus lurched to a halt at the end of the street. Suddenly everything was flashing with urgent orange lights, the bus, the windows of the nearby buildings, the rain-shined tarmac in dribbled lines


below. The windscreen wipers of the cars queueing behind flicked drips of auburn light from the edges of each rear window. ‘What’s going on up there then?’ said a woman on the kerb. She looked at him, and then crossed the road, peering back at the honking traffic until she disappeared around the corner. He retreated into a nearby alley. Within ten minutes, an ambulance

arrived, adding glares of blue to the orange, and a frenzied siren to the rustle of city rain. If ambulance == arrived && defibrillator { Result = Wait and watch << cusip;} If defibrillator usage >10 {input volt = >3000 resuscitation probability = <10% { Result = system failure //death} The rain had eased to a steady drizzle by the time the ambulance drove away, carrying an extra burden on board, trussed tightly onto the stretcher. He turned and walked in the opposite direction. * The river was black, with pock-marked creases of yellow light. From


the bridge, the clunk of the barges squatting underneath could be heard, sounding at once solid and hollow, mixing with the creak of mooring cables and the layers of trickling liquid. He crossed the bridge above these sounds, walking between stains of light which seeped and spread at the foot of each lamp-post. Malfunction == left chest cavity} { /.Blink Void std::/. Comparison: summers’ day == you } Input <<stranger ahead The stranger ahead initially seemed to be just a protrusion of shadows into the glow pouring from the final lamp, but, from about twenty feet away, the shadows suddenly rearranged themselves into a recognisably human shape, huddled amid puddles, and reflected in the water. He must have been watching the advance of the potential listener, for his head tipped upwards just as the other reached him. His face glowed black, the shadows leaping out and stretching across the skin, welling from the creases under the eyes and mouth, so that the features were strangely obscured. The voice that emerged descended from a far-distant island, a green country with a red sun. What it said was surprising. ‘Poetry is good for

the soul. Will you listen?’ He stopped and waited. When I dead Mek rain fall. Mek the air wash.


Mek the lan wash good-good. Mek dry course them run, and run. As laas breath gone Mek rain burst – Hilltop them work Waterfall, and all The gully them gargle fresh. ‘That’s by a man named James Berry,’ said this street poet. The shadows in his face narrowed as he looked upwards, blinking at the dripping rain.

‘This wet,’ he said. ‘Make me wonder if somewhere he just died.’ The listener peered upwards as well. As he did so, the lamps on the bridge went out. It was as sudden as if a wire had just been cut. The heartbeat of darkness was like a moment of unconsciousness. The poet sucked his teeth as the lights flickered back on. ‘They on the same circuit,’ he said, resentfully. ‘The council should’ve fixed it month ago, but… my light is their money, you know?’ For a long moment, the other on the bridge was still. Then he reached into the pocket of his coat. The poet’s currant-like eyes gleamed blackly; a hand unravelled, stretching out beyond the island of light so that it seemed to disappear. Into the grubby palm was dropped something which gleamed. The poet examined it and then looked up in outrage. ‘What sort of trick you trying to pull? Hey!’ But his listener had already turned and was walking away across the bridge. Left behind in the hand of the poet was a teardrop of glass, capped by a ridge of metal and enclosing a single fragile wire, tightly bound into a nearinvisible coil.


Input: My light is their money. << My light is Error money. << { light is money. << Error Stream << create.exe << cusip; I offer you a lightbulb freshly teased from molten glass like poured sugar(();// Error /.Blink * On the south side of the river, there was a row of seedy shops which sold out-of-date groceries and pet-food, as well as more disreputable items. The flats above were only accessible by a rusting cage-like set of stairs which had originally been intended only as the fire-escape. As he ascended, with each footstep clanging like the jerk of huge clockwork gears, cold water-drips were dislodged from the railings above, gathering and falling around his shoulders and head. At the first floor, he paused. The final high notes of the last drops clinked into the puddles below. Error /.prog(systemcheck. == left chest cavity /. system.proc //1 \= pain


The second stretch of steps was bolted to the side of the building and only used to reach the generator on the roof. The metal slats were thinner, edged with rust, which turned the rain blood-coloured as it trickled down the railings. The structure shivered in the wind, and whimpered with the movement. He paid no heed to this, one hand gripping the bars of the safety cage overhead, the other pressed to his chest. He clambered with an effort onto the flat roof. Now here was a curi-

ous thing. In the centre of the roof, leaning against the bulky silhouette of the generator, was a mirror. * At this moment, some miles to the south, a pathologist in a hospital was checking his schedule for the following day before he went home to food and bed that night. Something had been added at the last minute – a girl who

had been bought in from some kind of bus accident. She had been pronounced dead on arrival. The pathologist, who did not know the girl, was unmoved by this information. He simply saw that the cause of death was presumed cardiac arrest, and his post mortem was to determine the underlying condition. The pathologist did not know – because, how could he? – that the autopsy he would perform in a little over twelve hours would reveal something unexpected. He would arrive as normal in the morning, prep his instruments, make small talk with the work placement students. He would don his mask, and make the correct incisions to open up the claw-like container of the girl’s ribcage. And then he would discover that in the place in which there should have been a heart, there was only a fist-sized empty space. But this was yet to come. The rain-soaked night before had still


some hours to pass, and, as the pathologist paused before the automatic doors to clip his bicycle helmet to his head, he was thinking of nothing more than a good hot dinner, and a vague wish that he’d listened to his wife that morning, and remembered to cover the saddle of his bike. * The mirror on the roof showed a dim reflection of a solitary figure behind the moth-like patches of old age and hundreds of minute rain-circles. if void mon coeur qui bat // endl; /. system proc(emergency.shutdown.exe) Error

Taking off his shirt, it seemed that the ribs glowed through pale skin, thin bars of blue light. The mirror showed long-healed surgery scars scored down the sides and centre of his chest. Carefully, he put his fingernails into these grooves, and pushed. After a second, there was a click. std::cout << warning: system exposure; /.().c_str());prog(systemcheck. chest cavity




Inside his chest, eight rib-like lights blinked slowly, making the corded muscles of red wires gleam in streaks, extending up into a piston-valve under


his shoulder. Motors shivered as he delicately laid the chest plate aside, and, as he straightened to examine the reflection closely, rotary resistors whirred in the deep parts of his back. Sensors gleamed like silver eyes in the mass of wires, reflecting the light from the coronary microcontroller, the glass casing of which refracted the glow into little chips of blue light, the reflections sliding over the silver-iced motherboard, humming as it adjusted to the exposure. He paid no attention to any of this. Instead, he looked at what was nestled into

the wires and warmth of the temperature regulator, still urgently beating. The LEDs were flashing red behind, buds of warmth against this new source of heat. He watched it throbbing, a life-giving pulse inside his chest. /.Blink >>Mek rain fall

Gently, he reached in. Softly, he stroked, with the tip of one finger. It felt warm, the moving flesh of the human heart.



The Dancing of Hands By Tannith Perry

There was no need to speak; Aldo took care of everything. The hotel reservations, the airline tickets and now, as the afternoon heat gathered itself, the taxi driver who loaded their bags into the trunk of his dusty silver Mercedes. Aldo spoke his Italian slightly slower than usual and expected the driver to be able to convert it into Spanish. Nathalie winced slightly at his tone, so much expectation, so little apology. But it worked, or at least they arrived in front of a white-stuccoed building with the right name. He grinned at the driver and made a clicking sound with his mouth-- a sound of satisfaction. She knew that

he would now go around Mexico speaking Italian to everyone they met and there was nothing she could say. At the reservation desk they were met with impeccable English and Aldo handed over his credit card and their passports, then passed the room key to Nathalie. It was old-fashioned with one thick, jagged tooth and she held it in her right hand and rubbed its surface with pleasure. “I’m going to check out the pool and the bar,” he said and passed his duffel bag to her. She took it and went upstairs slowly, the two bags dragging at her like unhappy toddlers.


The room had a view of the ocean just as promised, though it was far away. At one window, a strip of dead, heavy blue like acrylic paint was visible over the tops of a jumble of buildings and scattered palm trees. A second window looked out over a portion of the pool. Not as good as hoped, was the phrase that sprung to mind. But then it wasn’t even true. She hadn’t hoped for much. It was a last minute decision to come to take a vacation in Mexico, money was tight and if she were honest, they wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for all the crying fits that had taken her over in the past few months. “What you need is some time in the sun,” Aldo had said to when he caught her once more on the floor of the living room sobbing. Even then she knew that he’d said it just to have something to say, some solution to provide. The truth was he

had no idea what she needed. But that sentence, like so many of his sentences, was enough to slightly change their course and bring them here. When Aldo didn’t return she wandered back down the stairwell, through the lobby out to the pool. The hotel had three bars. One of which was set into the pool so you could swim up and sit on benches underwater while you drank. Aldo had


thought this beyond clever. It was the picture of it that had made him choose this hotel from a page of hundreds. She glanced at the pool and the underwater stools and then saw him standing in the corner, next to the fence, speaking to a couple, his hands moving expressively. Natalie thought about the deaf women she’d seen at the gate next to theirs at the airport on the way to Mexico. The way they spoke for over an hour silently, a whole exchange of thoughts expressed through the dancing of hands. Nathalie walked over slowly to give him plenty of time to see her, so as to appear unconcerned and casual. But she couldn’t help the little reverb in her chest at the sight of him standing in the sunlight, speaking, smiling. He was

always at his best with new people and from a distance his beauty could still be seen without any complications to mar it. And he was beautiful, his dark hair and sculpted face, those eyes that shifted from seduction to amusement and back again in the space of a smile. In the beginning she couldn’t believe her good fortune. A doctor who turned heads, who whispered poetry in her ear when they danced, who spoke of love the way only men in books did. And he wanted her, plain looking, shy, average her. She’d been so grateful. “…minds me of my village back in Southern Italy. The weather, the sea, the friendly people. Even the language, it’s nearly the same,” Aldo was saying as


she approached. She watched the faces of the two young people. Yes, sure enough they were caught by his charm. “So what’s your village called?” the girl said smiling. “Carpineto Romano,” he said thickening his accent as much as possible, lingering on the R’s. “Wow! That’s a mouthful,” the boy said. Nathalie now stood at Aldo’s elbow.

His rested a hand on her neck and turned back to the couple. “It’s the most amazing place in the whole world, up in the mountains, looking out over valleys and vineyards, many buildings dating back to fifteenth century. And the people…” He waved his right hand in a wobbly circle, the Italian gesture for so much that can’t be put into words. This was his favourite subject: the romance and beauty of his village and the people who lived there. She’d heard this talk a hundred times; it could go on for thirty minutes or more, depending on how appreciative the audience was. In her most cynical moments Nathalie had wondered if one of his primary motives in moving to the US was to be able to spin this tale. Certainly, it wouldn’t work in Italy in the same fashion. But it had worked on her. In the beginning and for a

long while after. Somehow, in the telling, the romance and beauty of the village reflected itself onto him and the listener fell in love, even if only briefly, with beautiful Aldo and his beautiful village. Today, she couldn’t hear it again. She caught the eye of first the boy and then the girl, smiled then turned and wandered back the way she came.


In the middle of the night Nathalie woke. At first she wasn’t sure why and she lay stiff and focused on the silence. Then there was a burst of noise, crackling, squealing, sparks. Fireworks and not that far away. She pushed the single sheet back and went to stand at the window that looked out over the town. After another few minutes of silence there was another round. They didn’t go very high in the sky; nearly on level with her window and only one, or maybe two streets away. Natalie was turning back to bed when light flooded the window that faced the pool. She walked over to it and looked out. An outdoor light lit up the space and she could clearly see a skinny young dog with a bandana round its neck,

head lifted in fear. It stood there tense, waiting and somehow regal. It looked almost like a fox, reddish brown with big ears and a sharp, clever little face. Couldn’t be more than a year old, she thought. And then in the second before the light turned off, it moved, holding one of its paws up and limping away. Immediately she woke up Aldo, shaking his brown shoulder and then pulling at his arm, leading him to the door. Still half asleep he followed her down the stairs, through the lobby and out to the pool. The light came on. Must be motion sensor, she thought. Aldo rubbed his eyes, his face still shaped by sleep. She walked the direction the dog had taken, but it led only to a fence and a closed door. Nathalie


looked around for a second and then noticed two lines in the dust leading under the fence. He’s gone under, she thought and pulled the door open quickly to follow. By now she no longer cared about Aldo coming with her, in fact part of her was regretting having woken him in the first place. But there he was behind her; she could hear his breathing. And as soon as her eyes adjusted, she saw that the dog could also hear their breathing. He was pressed against a ragged bush, his

face turned towards them, nose lifted as if he was using it to test the direction of the wind. The light from the hotel was still on and she could see the bandana was more like a rag and it was tied so tightly that the skin of his neck had grown up around it, almost like his body was trying to get rid of it by absorbing it. The edges looked raw and infected. Now she knew exactly how to help it. She must get that rag off his neck. The light went off and the little road went dark. “You woke me up because of a dog?” Aldo said and snorted. “I’m going back to bed.” The gate shut behind him with a thud that made the dog start and then cower. She squatted down and murmured, “Here doggy doggy.” The dog stared at her and made a sort of gagging noise. She searched her brain and found the word perro and tried that. “Aqui perro perro.” She crept forward on her knees,

managing to get within five feet of the dog when, a few streets away, another round of fireworks, like rapid gun fire away started up and it turned tail and ran. After an hour or two, (she had no idea how much time had passed) she’d gotten no closer to the dog and decided to come back in the morning with some meat


from the kitchen to lure it in. Once asleep, she dreamt about rags being tied around her throat so tightly that she couldn’t speak and then couldn’t breath. The next morning Aldo’s singing woke her. He was in the shower crooning one of the songs from his karaoke repertoire. By the time she was up and dressed he was waiting for her by the door, his hair styled with a small amount of gel, his white t-shirt immaculately clean and pressed. “That young couple recommended a great breakfast place; fresh papaya juice, mango pancakes, spicy eggs. Sounds great, right?” “I’ll meet you there,” she said. The smile dropped away. “Oh Nat, you’ve got to be kidding me.” He wore the same expression as when he came upon her crying; exasperation mixed

with boredom. She imagined that when he said her nickname he spelled it “gnat” In his head. She turned away from him and pulled her wallet out of her bag. He shrugged. “Fine. It’s called Casa Roberto. Just across from the church in the main square.” She looked for the dog behind the hotel, a piece of raw beef wrapped up in some brown paper in her pocket. She’d paid five dollars for it; an amount she would never admit to Aldo and which she admitted to herself was ridiculous. But that dog. She couldn’t get him out of her mind. She wouldn’t be able to enjoy her breakfast knowing he was out there suffering, slowly choking, prob-


ably starved as well. But despite waving the chunk of beef around and searching in a five-block radius she couldn’t find him. Natalie turned back towards the centre of town, attempting to hold back the tears that were threatening to overtake her. She walked, blind to the picturesque streets around her, head thick as she tried to pull back the grey blanket of sadness that was creeping over her vision, threatening to smother her once again.

This blanket had been appearing so often lately and without reasonable justification. What did she have to be sad about? Nothing was the only reasonable answer. Yes, she had given up her own life to move with Aldo to the small town where he’d gotten a better position, but that just meant she had more time to focus on her art. Wasn’t that always what she wanted? Freedom to spend all day sculpting, dreaming, creating? So what was wrong with her? Maybe it was the emptiness inside her, like she had no words left. She thought about the deaf women. From inside the grey blanket she wished for hands like that, to be able to communicate without speaking, to live outside words. She forced herself to pay attention to her surroundings so she could reach the restaurant in a reasonable amount of time. She couldn’t deal with an irritated Al-

do on top of everything else. But what was everything else? Up in front of her she saw the tall spire of the cathedral in the main square and breathed a sigh of relief. By the time she found him, Aldo was happily finishing off a glass of some kind of juice and cutting into a tall stack of pancakes. “You want some?” he waved a forkful in her direction but the thought of that dog


stopped her from accepting. If it was hungry, she would go hungry. She knew this made no sense but somehow she felt better. She shook her head. “Suit yourself.” Aldo waved over the waiter and ordered in English. “You find the dog?” he said. “Not yet,” she said. “Is our whole holiday going to be spent following a stray dog around back alleys? That would be completely ridiculous. Even for you.” The last two words fell like blows and she sat stunned, feeling herself spreading thin, so thin that any moment it seemed holes would appear. She turned to look at Aldo but he was unaware of anything out of the ordinary and was calmly finishing his pancakes.

They paid and walked back in the direction of the hotel. “I’m going to go swimming, maybe take a nap,” Aldo said. “You still going to look for that dog?” She nodded, watching the cobblestones pass beneath her feet. Then she heard a small intake of breath beside her and lifted her head. Aldo was staring off to his right. She turned to look and at first all she saw was a giant mud coloured bird; a vulture, she thought. Then she saw what it was doing. And echoed Aldo’s gasp. It was ripping at the body of an animal on the ground. Something reddish that wore a rag bandana. Aldo tried to pull her away but she jerked her arm back and ran towards the bird, picking up a rock as she moved


and throwing it so hard she almost fell over. The bird lifted clumsily into the air easily avoiding the projectile and perched on a nearby concrete wall. “You dense, nasty bully!” she screamed. All the words that had evaded her for so long came pouring out of her, every insult she could think of, she hurled at the bird. She had thought that had no words left. Instead it was the opposite, she was drowning in unsaid words, words that must be said. And then turning

around to face Aldo, she opened her mouth and said the dread word, the word that she’d promised never to say, the word that didn’t have an even vaguely comparable equivalent in English: Porca Madonna. Pig Mary. She spat it at Aldo, and as his face grew dusky with disapproval, she knew what else she must say. “We’re through.” Her voice was almost calm. He turned and walked away, his very back radiating righteous anger. Only then did the vulture move away, flapping its giant wings lazily off to find another safer, quieter meal. Nathalie went forward and knelt, keeping her eyes averted from the mid-section where the bird had feasted and picked at the firm knot holding the rag in place on the dog’s neck. She ripped two of her nails but finally, finally she managed to undo it. On-

ly then could she breathe.