Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Ido Sokolovsky. Born in 1967, Ido is from Israel, and used to read science fiction in his youth. Now in his mid-life crisis, he writes sci-fi stories in Hebrew for any one willing to publish them. His friend Yehudit translated this story in return for a plate of humus.
This is the story’s first publication.
Smile of the Monster
by Ido Sokolovsky
“There was a monster in the loch. It’s not there now, but once there was.”
The old man’s face is red, his hooked nose surrounded by blue veins, testimony to long years of alcohol consumption. His eyes are bloodshot and he nods his head vigorously, adding: “It’s not a fairy tale. When I was a boy it was here in the loch.”
“And when was this, Garison? Seventy years ago? Eighty?” Mrs Campbell passed by him, carrying a heavily loaded tray on her way to the table of the two tourists. The young man in the green sweater has been holding forth to his red-headed freckled girl-friend as to why a monster in Loch Ness is unlikely. It is this that has awakened the old man from his drunken sleep near the counter.
“You must forgive Garison,” explains Mrs Campbell. “That’s his third beer this morning.”
Expertly she places their order before them. The young man leans over so that Mrs Campbell doesn’t block his view of the old man and asks aloud: “Do you mean to tell me that you have actually seen the monster?”
The old man is silent and closes his eyes more tightly. Apart from the tourist couple there are four old people at the inn, all well on in years. They wear peaked caps and are intent on playing some kind of card game. The remaining tables are abandoned in the cavernous dining room. Garison alone sits near the counter, a glass of beer in front of him. The windows look out on the blue-green waters of Loch Ness, surrounded by thickly forested hills. In the distance towers Ben Nevis, its summit wreathed in clouds. It is not surprising that more tourists don’t come to the inn to enjoy the stunning view. The Three Pines is at the top end of the village and reached by steep, narrow, twisting lanes. In fact it is to be wondered why the Campbells ever chose to establish their hostelry in this isolated spot rather than down by the loch where all the other shops, pubs and restaurants in the mountain village are located.
The young man interprets Garison’s silence as defeat and gives a triumphant grin towards his girlfriend. “You see, Julia, there are almost no fish in Loch Ness. If there are no fish, what does the monster live on?” Mrs Campbell who was half way back behind the counter suddenly claps her hands, her eyes wide with consternation. “I completely forgot your mustard, love,” she shouts, and dashes behind the counter, emerging with a small metal mustard pot in one hand, the soles of her shoes resounding on the old wooden floor. Mrs Campbell is short and wide, her greying hair caught up with a clip. She wears a simple brown dress and a large kitchen apron round her waist. She has plump red cheeks and although she, like Garison, is entitled to be described as “old”, when she smiles she looks like a little girl, and she smiles almost all the time.
“Once there were honest, God-fearing folk round here,” declares Garison, “and Reverend McPherson, may God have mercy on his soul, said he saw the monster, and that’s enough for me.”
“I’ve not been here as long as you, Garison,” answers Mrs Campbell, “but I did get to meet Reverend McPherson, and he never told me anything of the sort.” She turns to the girl. “Here, have some mustard, love.” She ignores the protests of the girl, who apparently does not like mustard. “This isn’t shop stuff. I grow the mustard in my garden, you know, without chemicals and things.”
“You, Flora,” grumbles the old man. “You say it’s nonsense, but your brother makes a nice living from the souvenirs he sells down at the store.”
“D’you mean something like this?” The young man sticks his hand into the backpack that lies at his feet, and brings out a glass decorated with a long, dragon-like creature, its mouth open in a roar.
The old man leans towards the couple and examines the glass, then nods as though his worst fears were realised.
“So Leonard’s your brother?” asks the girl.
“Yes, love. And I know exactly what you’re thinking: how can a little thing like me have such a tall brother?”
“You’re not that short.” The youth tries to be polite.
“Aw, you fibber! You’re too nice,” says Mrs Campbell. “You’re Americans, aren’t you?”
“Australian” he answers, adding: “I’m Jim and this is Julia”.
Jim is tall and good-looking and now he affectionately rumples his girlfriend’s mass of red curls. Julia, who has just taken a bite of her sandwich, gives him a long look as though she is not altogether thrilled with this display of ownership.
“Flora,” says Mrs Campbell. “Widow Flora Campbell.”
“And there’s a horse, too,” declares Garison. “A white horse who plays with children in the grass. He’s called Kelpie.”
“Oh, that stupid story,” says Mrs Campbell, and she suddenly looks her age as the smile vanishes from her face.
“He convinces one of the children to get on his back. The hands of the bairn stick to the horse and it disappears with him into the Loch and he’s never seen no more. ”
Silence reigns in the room. Then Jim sits up with renewed interest. “Just a minute,” he says.
“You’ve actually seen this horse?”
Garison half turns to Jim, which causes him to wobble on his chair. “When I was a lad I had a friend called William…”
“That story again,” says one of the peaked cap ancients. He doesn’t even raise his eyes from his cards.
“You hush, Busby,” says Garison angrily. “You don’t know nothing about it.” He struggles not to fall from the tall chair. At that moment, a door behind the counter opens, and out steps a young and pretty girl and lays her hand on the old man’s shoulder.
“Stop it, Garison. You know how mum hates it when you talk about that.”
Garison nods, wearily, and turns back with difficulty to the counter. He points to his empty glass. The girl takes it and expertly fills it from the draught piston.
Mrs Campbell regards the couple apologetically. “After you hear that scary story a hundred times…” She shrugs and returns to the counter.
Jim pays no attention to her. His gaze is fixed on the girl holding the glass. She has straight brown hair over a clear forehead, large green eyes and high cheekbones. A small mouth and straight nose complete the likeness of a Greek goddess. Behind her, glimmers of light through the open door reveal a hob burning in the kitchen, but the girl does not at all look like someone who was slaving over a hot stove for the last hour, but more like someone who just emerged from the ministrations of a professional make-up artist. Only after Julia’s astonished gaze lingers on his face for several long seconds does Jim suddenly shake himself and return to his fish and chips, which he devours with gusto.
“Thanks, Mary. You can go back inside,” says Mrs Campbell, and the beautiful girl goes back into the kitchen closing the door behind her.
“Strange” says Jim, his mouth full of fish. “Such a beautiful girl. I’d have thought she would be behind the counter to attract customers.”
“Maybe the owner wants people to eat her food rather than sitting and staring open-mouthed,” answers Julia, tartly. Jim turns to her with a big smile and shakes his head teasingly left and right. “Do you think I am going to abandon you for some Scottish lass? Don’t worry, Julia, for me you are the most beautiful girl in the world.”
Julia doesn’t seem reconciled, and finishes her sandwich with big bites and signals Mrs Campbell for the bill, then sits and rakes Jim with her eyes while he struggles to extract the leather pouch hidden under his clothes and pull out coins and notes. After Mrs Campbell leaves their change on the table, Julia takes a few coins and leaves the rest. She hurries to shoulder her red backpack, and waits with pursed lips while Jim struggles with his. It is now impossible to leave the inn because a large tourist bus completely blocks the door. As the bus passes the door its logo, a smiling snake-like creature, can be clearly seen below the inscription: Nessie Tours. During the enforced delay Julia notices by the door a framed photograph of a smiling boy. A small brass plaque announces “In Memory of our Little Angel Andrew. The Loch took him.” She slips the coins in her hand into a wooden charity box below the picture.
“God bless you, love,” says Mrs Campbell, pressing her hand in thanks, and Julia nods curtly. By this time the bus has passed and by the sound of it has found parking behind the inn. The young couple leave and disappear down the narrow lane leading away from the Three Pines. After a minute, the sigh of hydraulics indicates that the doors of the bus are opening to disgorge its passengers.
An attractive tourist guide now appears. Blonde, thirtyish, Celia stands and counts the tourists, mostly elderly but with one or two families as they file into the large room.
Just as she finishes making sure that everyone is in place, Aidan, the tall, taciturn driver arrives, having locked up the bus. Mrs Campbell indicates with a movement of her head the far end of the dining room, and guide and driver go and sit close to the four old men. The hubbub in the room hasn’t even made them raise their heads from their cards.
For the next hour Mrs Campbell rushes round the inn like a hurricane, handing out menus, taking orders, pouring drinks and yelling orders in the direction of the kitchen door, where Mary is intently preparing the meals. She places loaded plates on tables, collects dirty dishes, disappears with them into the kitchen and returns at a pace that many a young girl might envy. Notes and coins change hands and disappear under her apron, while the exact change is unfailingly returned each time. And all this time Mary does not set foot outside the kitchen even once, and none of the diners has the pleasure of seeing her.
Celia, who has finished her meal, leans back with a smile. “Amazing, isn’t she? She must be sixty if she’s a day,” she says to Aidan. Aidan nods without saying a word. Celia regards him sideways and the smile fades on her lips. Aidan was certainly an improvement on a randy predecessor, but long months of working with someone who barely acknowledges your existence certainly gets to one. Strange, the only time she had heard Aidan speak more than one sentence at a time had been when he recommended the Three Pines inn after some tourists had complained about the crowds down by the loch. Since then they have come here every trip, and she is very satisfied. She doesn’t have to worry that one of the tourists will wander off into the crowd, as happens all too often in the restaurant area down below, needing to be tracked down when time comes to board the bus. Not only that, but the stunning view from the windows reminds her each time why she has chosen this profession. Also there is another reason why she’s always happy to come here, a reason she keeps secret from Aidan, although it’s really no effort to keep a secret from someone who is totally uninterested in you.
She decides that the time has come, gets up from her place and heads towards the door. When she reaches the counter she stops to call out loudly: “Half an hour more, everyone”. In the momentary silence that follows, Garison’s voice is clearly heard. “…his liver floated to the shore… but he was never found…” A few embarrassed smiles appear on the faces of some of the guests. Celia acts as though she hasn’t heard, and goes out. The noise quickly starts up again, voices and the clink of glasses and cutlery fill the air while Garison’s head slowly sinks onto the counter and he mumbles drunkenly, “William, William,” and his eyes close.
Celia stands near the back door of the inn and waits. Mary, spotting her from the kitchen, comes out wiping her hands on her apron and they stand facing each other for a moment, apart yet close.
Inside the inn, Aidan sits and stares at Mrs Campbell. Now things have quietened down a bit she walks slowly, and signs of fatigue mark her face, but instead of sitting she moves among the tables checking that the guests are satisfied. One of the tourist children waves the monster doll in her face and she pretends to be frightened. But although she faces the opposite direction it seems that she senses Aidan’s stare, and goes over to him, taking the chair vacated by Celia.
“She’s with Mary,” he says, and continues to look at Mrs Campbell with no change of expression.
“What have those two got to talk about?”
Aidan doesn’t answer but continues to look at her until her smile gradually fades as understanding dawns.
“You mean to tell me… she’s, she’s like that, the other way?” There is genuine horror in her voice.
“I’ve never seen her with any bloke, ever. But she’s got two tickets for the concert tomorrow.”
“The pervert!” says Mrs Campbell through clenched teeth. “I’ll show her what for!”
Mrs Campbell gets up with renewed vigour and disappears behind the counter. “Mary!” Her voice sounds from the kitchen. “Mary! Get back to work right now, d’you hear me?”
Mary obeys, but not before she casts a long look over her shoulder at Celia as she disappears inside the inn.
Mrs Campbell, confronting the guide, points a trembling finger at the company logo embroidered on the pocket of Celia’s jacket.
“A smiling monster—that fits,” she snarls. “I should have known you were up to something when you never came to collect your kick-back.”
A thin smile flits over Celia’s face.
“If I was a man it would be perfectly alright, wouldn’t it?”
“If you were a man I’d know what to expect, sly thing that you are. Let me tell you, Mary’s spoken for!” growls Mrs Campbell. “She’ll marry when her lad comes of age this summer.”
“Oh, really!” Celia rolls her eyes. “Even you must know things have changed these last fifty years. Spoken for? Maybe when you were Mary’s age.”
“Everything OK, ladies?” Aidan appears from round the corner of the inn, his hands in his pockets, a pair of elderly tourists in his wake on their way to the toilets.
“Dear Aidan,” Mrs Campbell addresses him formally, “you are welcome to bring your tourists to my inn whenever you please, as soon as you find a new guide—one who doesn’t foist her perversions on my Mary.”
“Aiden answers to me,” says Celia, scowling. The stupid woman really lives in the last century, thinking that Aidan is the boss just because he is a man.
“As for you!” Flora Campbell points a finger, trembling with rage. “You won’t come near my inn if you know what’s good for you.”
“Very well. And I hope your business won’t suffer too much,” concurs Celia, then raises her tour guide voice to Mary in the kitchen. “Nine o’clock tomorrow night, Mary! I’ll be at the main entrance.”
Mrs Campbell makes a pushing motion with her hand at Celia’s face as though she would knock her over by remote, and goes into the kitchen slamming the door behind her.
Celia goes towards the bus where a few tourists are already gathered waiting for Aidan to open the door. Aidan also looks at the back door and seems sunk in thought. Mrs Campbell has done well to conceal the connection between them, but this business of Celia and Mary must be stopped. Therefore he waits until Celia passes him, and says quietly: “Scotland is not London, you know.”
Celia stops, and turns towards him questioningly.
“I mean to say,” says Aidan, “that here in the mountains all kinds of accidents happen to people who don’t behave with care.”
“Are you threatening me, Aidan?” asks Celia, her eyes narrowing with fury, lowering her voice so that the waiting tourists won’t hear. “You haven’t heard the end of this.”
“I’m not threatening,” says Aidan. “Just warning. You’re not from here and you don’t know this village. It’s true they all have television and most of them are connected to the internet, but make no mistake: they don’t live in the same world that you do. In some ways most of them live according to the rules of their grandfathers and grandmothers.”
He turns and goes towards the bus, pulling his keys from his pocket. Celia watches him go with pounding heart. Aidan is different from the usual blustering male; certainly he is not one for idle talk. The inn seems suddenly less friendly, the view of the lowering mountain more threatening as she boards the bus.
Despite the lovely weather round the loch that day, towards evening a thin, annoying rain begins to fall. In the inn Mrs Campbell closes the windows one after the other and pulls the heavy wooden shutters to. A bright neon strip illuminates the wooden floor with an unnatural, almost sickly light. Garison is long gone, and Busby and his card-playing friends get up and leave the inn, nodding to Mrs Campbell, disappearing into the dark one by one, bending their heads against the unceasing rain.
After a while Mrs Campbell begins to lift the chairs and lay them upside down on the empty tables. When she is done she takes a broom and with expert movements sweeps the floor, gathering the dirt at the threshold and sweeping it out into the rain. Then, when it is clear that no more guests will come, she locks the door and switches off the neon light. Only a small lamp above the counter now lights the large room. Mrs Campbell goes to the cash register and begins to count the day’s takings.
“Take a good look at that money,” says Mary, emerging from the kitchen. “It’ll be a long while till you see a take like that in one day, now that you’ve taken care to drive away the one tour bus that comes here.”
“I’m not worried,” murmurs Mrs Campbell without turning to face her daughter. She continues to count feverishly.
“Twenty, twenty-five… We’ll have a few hard months and then Aidan will come here with a new guide, preferably a married woman, forty, fifty… and you my dear will stop playing with fire and stay in the kitchen when there are customers. D’you get me?”
“You can’t imprison me here for life, mum.”
The old woman’s shoulders droop, and she turns wearily to Mary who is rocking back and forth as she leans aggressively against the half-open door.
“I know it’s boring for you here, but just a few more months and Stuart will be of age, you’ll wed him and have bairns, and believe me that will keep you more than busy!”
“And if I don’t want that lout? His head is full of straw and he’s got pillars instead of legs!”
Flora Campbell approaches her daughter and lays a hand on her shoulder, shaking her head from side to side.
“Don’t do that!” Mary closes her eyes, and turns her head away.
“Open your eyes.”
“Don’t want to.”
Slowly and agonizingly the young girl opens her eyes and looks into the eyes of the old woman who now holds her shoulder with force.
“Now,” says Flora. “Tell me please what happened to your Auntie Ronda when she went to live in the city?”
Mary obediently declaims: ”A gang of hooligans pounced on her in a dark street and tore off her clothes.”
“Exactly.” And Flora concludes: “And she wasn’t half as pretty as you. Busby and his people from the back section had to find those hooligans one by one and cut their throats, and then all of us shook with fear for months in case the police found out and came here.”
“Just a moment…” Mary raises her head. “Don’t even think…”
Flora increases the pressure on the girl’s shoulder, and leans forward till her face is almost touching hers. But this time Mary doesn’t blink, and they stand facing each other for a minute until the corners of Flora Campbell’s mouth droop disappointedly, while Mary grins, bitterly.
“Look at that,” says the girl. “It seems I’ve grown up earlier than you think. In the end I belong to the same place as you and I’m not a little girl anymore.” She grins while the old woman turns to the counter and buries her head in her hands.
“If you’re no longer a little lass it’s time you began to think realistically.” Her muffled voice is heard from between her hands and she mutters, as though to herself: “Once it was all so simple. Everyone was in the same place. When the schools began all the children went to the same school, all the youngsters married whoever their parents told them to, we were like everyone else. Today…”
“Today, deviants are not ashamed of who they are.” Mary completes the sentence, lifting her head and looking sadly at her mother.
“What exactly are you going to do with that pervert in Inverness, Mary? What do you think she’s going to want after you see the performance and have a few pints together? Don’t you realise that at some point she’ll try to touch you up? Then what’ll you do?”
“And if it was a man?”
“Exactly the same problem. That’s why you’re intended for Stuart. He may not be a genius but there’s no-one else for you…”
“And if I don’t agree?” Mary raises her head now. “Maybe I want to wander in the world, to see places and not to stay imprisoned in that kitchen, in this depressing village. Maybe it’s better for me to be alone and not have any children, ever? Children like me who need to hide all their lives.”
The old woman’s eyes widen, and she raises a finger in front of Mary’s eyes. “And little children will continue to disappear into the loch because you are not willing to do your bit?”
“I didn’t choose that role.”
The door opening with a bang cuts short her words. Aidan stands there, his bare head wet with rain.
“Everyone is here already,” he says. “Except for you two and Mrs Strachan. We should get moving.”
The two women look at each other.
“Well?” says Flora Campbell to her daughter.
“Oh, I’m coming,” says Mary crossly. “Andrew was my favourite nephew. But I’m making no promises after this evening.” She goes behind the counter with her mother in her wake.
“And you,” she says to Aidan, when she reaches the entrance, “don’t even breathe in Celia’s direction. Understand?” She goes out into the darkness. Flora stops by Aidan and they exchange looks. She opens her mouth to say something, but changes her mind and takes from the pocket of her brown dress a bunch of keys.
Outside, the rain intensifies. Aidan goes to the bus while Mrs Campbell stays to lock up the inn. Mary waits tensely for him near the open door of the bus, sticking her chin out so that the rain wets her hair and streams down her face. Aidan bends, seizes her by the waist and carries her over his shoulder into the bus. Afterwards he goes back just as Flora reaches the door, and he carries her in the same manner. The bus is full to bursting with villagers, and a chorus of voices greets the two women. Mary wipes the rain from her hair with the sleeve of her shirt and nods curtly to everyone.
“What a sour face,” jokes Stuart, a large-bodied youth of seventeen, and immediately receives a blow on the back of his head from his father, Mr Denis Calderwood, who is sitting beside him. Mary, for her part, demonstratively ignores him.
“Thank you for coming, everyone,” says Mrs Campbell.
“What a thing to say! Andrew was one of us,” says Margaret Gon, a tall thin women whose woolly cap covers her curls.
“I suggest quiet, now.” Leonard’s voice sounds from the centre of the bus. Leonard is a tall man, and although there are a few seats left he remains standing, his head almost reaching the ceiling.
“We don’t need nosey parkers like Garison to peer out of their windows just now to see what’s making the noise.”
Wordlessly, Flora goes up to her brother and hugs him briefly, and then turns and sits in a vacant seat exactly behind Aidan. The sound of air is heard as Aidan releases the hydraulic brakes of the bus, and he manoeuvres expertly in the narrow lane so that the bus turns towards the exit without once having to use the reverse gear which would sound the alarm and draw unwanted attention. The rain has become a silver screen dancing in the lights of the bus as it travels through the lanes of the village in the direction of old Mrs Strachan’s tumbledown shack.
Some two hours later the bus stops on a low hilltop overlooking Loch Glau. The noise of the motor is silenced and the lights turned off, and again the darkness is filled with the sound of falling rain. From the windows of the bus dozens of pairs of eyes search the surroundings of the loch. More than once they have had to cancel everything because a pair of lovers had decided to be alone in the wild, but tonight the rain has driven every living creature from the loch. Soon it will be too cold, but meanwhile the weather is perfect. After five tense minutes all the occupants of the bus nod to each other and Aidan frees the hand brake. The bus sails noiselessly down the hill and stops with its wheels almost touching the waters of the loch licking the shore.
Mrs Campbell now removes her brown dress and exposes her drooping breasts and wrinkled belly. Next to her Mary takes off her shirt, and the smooth white skin of her shoulders becomes rougher and rougher until it becomes a hard scaly crust. Stuart who has taken off his shirt places two muscular hands on this father’s shoulders, who for his part pulls his son’s trousers down. The trousers are joined to the boy’s shoes, and now two long hooks are exposed in place of legs. Meanwhile, Mary puts her back against her mother’s breasts. Flora clasps her close until the breasts disappear into the body of her daughter, and her head melds into her back. When Leonard undresses with great difficulty, from the waist down he can be seen to be all one bone, and this is why he cannot sit. At the back, Busby and his three card-playing friends are struggling to take off their clothes and Aidan, watching from the front, signals to Mrs Strachan, whose scales are beginning to spread over her back, to go and help.
“It’s alright, Strachan,” groans Busby, still struggling with the sleeves of his shirt with stiff arms. “We’re managing, here.”
Aidan waits until he sees that those in the rear of the bus are progressing satisfactorily and then strips off his own clothes. From the outside his shirt looks as if it’s made of normal cloth, but the inside is covered with sponge over a row of white teeth which now slowly emerge. He goes to the moving bulk which was previously the occupants of the front seat, and turns his back to them while slimy trickles attach to him to join him to the pile of bodies that is merging into a unified whole.
For several minutes, an orgy of panting, groaning bodies rocks the bus, and then there is silence once more. After several minutes, the head of a huge reptile peeps out of the front door of the bus, in its wake a snake-like body with dozens of short legs. The creature flows quickly into the black waters and disappears. Again, silence reigns, and for a long time nothing happens.
Suddenly, bubbles appear in the centre of the loch, then a powerful whirlpool, then the head of a white horse emerges from the dark water. Its eyes are wide with terror and it thrusts with its hooves against the foaming water, trying desperately to reach the shore and escape the enraged predator at its heels.
Translated from Hebrew by Yehudit Keshet
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Helen Marshall. Helen (manuscriptgal.com) is an Aurora-winning poet, a Canadian author, editor, and bibliophile. Her poetry and fiction have been published in The Chiaroscuro, Paper Crow, Abyss & Apex, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and Tor.com. In 2011, she released a collection of poems entitled Skeleton Leaves from Kelp Queen Press and her collection of short stories Hair Side, Flesh Side came out from ChiZine Publications in 2012. Currently, she is pursuing a Ph. D in medieval studies at the University of Toronto, for which she spends a great deal of her time staring at fourteenth-century manuscripts.
“Sanditon” was originally published in her debut short story collection, Hair Side, Flesh Side (ChiZine Publications, 2012) as well as in a limited run special edition chapbook (also by ChiZine Publications).
They were in the elevator, Gavin’s voice surprisingly deep and gruff, but his smile was so charming, it lit up his entire face. He touched her lightly on the arm, and she was happy for the warmth of him, but wryly wary. He was married. She knew that. He pressed the button for his floor, and Hanna felt the ground dropping away beneath her, again when he slipped his arm around her waist, not too firmly, gently really, and it was the warmth of it she loved.
“I’ve had too much scotch,” she whispered.
“Surely there’s no such thing when you’re among writers.”
“We’re not among anybody now. They’re still downstairs.”
The door pinged open: the hallway decorated with bright yellow wallpaper with paler fleurs-de-lys in velvet; the carpet red, shaggy; sconces well-lit, almost as well-lit as Hanna felt. Her steps muddled a little bit, the carpet soft under her shoes, and Gavin’s arm steady around her. She leaned into him, closed her eyes, breathed out and moved away, unhooked her arm.
“Coming in?” he said, his voice catching in the smallest way.
“Of course not.”
“Right,” he replied. And then: “Why not?”
“Because you’re married.” Hanna paused. “And I’m not, at least not to you.”
“Right.” But his hand was still hovering near her, and she didn’t move away from him or the door. “The thing is, you’re the most interesting person down there, and the rest of them are a bit of a mess right now. If you go back down, you’ll only end up playing mother to a bunch of old farts trying to figure out how to write for the BBC. Or get their novels published. Or get their published novels adapted for the BBC. Better to stay here and play the wife.”
“You’re very charming, but no.”
“Fine,” he said again, but he still hadn’t moved away from her, and in fact the distance between them was getting smaller, micro-inch by micro-inch. “It doesn’t have to be about sex.”
“It doesn’t?” Hanna replied, and she enjoyed the startling vibration of the electrons between them, wondered about all that kinetic energy piling up; it had to go somewhere.
“Sex is overrated.”
“Not with me.”
“Tea then?” he asked, quirking an eyebrow.
“What, in your room, at four in the morning?”
“I’ll put on the kettle. I saw tea bags in here earlier.” He used the space to take out a plastic key card and slide it into the surprisingly modern lock. At her last hotel, they gave her a three-pound key that she had to return whenever she left. It could only be retrieved when she handed over her passport for inspection.
The lock whirred and clicked, and Gavin opened the door. The room was largish and decked out in the same colours as the hallway, but the lights were off, discarded luggage making muted shapes in the darkness. Gavin moved closer for a moment, and Hanna didn’t quite move away, letting him bump up against her as he slipped the key into a second slide. The lights flickered on, low for the first five seconds and then burning up to full illumination.
His hand touched the small of her back, and Hanna took a step in, but didn’t quite move past the entrance hallway and into the body of the hotel room.
There was a small round table with a tall plastic boiler, the kind Hanna had in undergrad for mac and cheese, a basket with assorted teas, sticks of dehydrated coffee, a biscuit wrapped in plastic. Gavin fitted the plug into the three-pronged socket.
Hanna looked around at the now illuminated luggage, a big brown suitcase, half-filled with books, clothes spilling out, socks; the smell of aftershave was slightly chemical.
Gavin turned back to the kettle. “Shit,” he muttered, “the light’s not on.” He tapped on it half-heartedly. And then back to Hanna: “Did you really want tea?”
“Coffee would have done.”
“Right,” he collapsed into the chair and Hanna eyed him warily. The scotch was starting to kick in a little, and she realized she actually did want the coffee; the world was a bit unsteady. “What’s it going to be then? Mother or wife?” he asked, that charming smile of his.
“Editors are boring. Do you really want to correct my punctuation right now? You can go and join the lot down there, they love editors. Until they have them.”
The jet lag was wearing Hanna’s good sense rather thin, and she liked the feeling of being in the room, watching him fumble with the kettle, and knowing that neither one of them needed that kettle to work. And the deep growl of his voice was . . .
She finished the biscuit and sat down on the edge of the bed, next to the suitcase. She took out one of his books, admiring the cover, the beautiful French flaps. “Gavin Hale. A writer at the height of his craft. A book not to be missed. From Simon Hatch, no less.” Flipped through the first chapter before laying it, carefully, beside her. Looked at him.
“The punctuation really is quite bad. Even I couldn’t fix it.”
“So don’t fix it.” He didn’t get up. He dragged the chair he’d been sitting on over with his legs until he faced her, and they were really quite close together. And then he reached out and touched her hand, very gently, opening up the fingers and sliding his hand in.
“I can’t,” she protested.
“I—” And then he leaned forward, stopping her breath, kissing her lightly on the lips. “—might.” Her eyes were mostly closed, and when she opened them, his head had moved away scant inches. He was watching her, waiting. There was a smile—that goddamn smile, Hanna thought—like the Cheshire cat’s, slipping onto his face and then off again.
“It wouldn’t be professional.” She said, but this time she let herself smile back, just a little.
“That’s mostly the point.”
She let go of his hand. He waited. Then she reached out with both hands, took the front of his shirt, and slowly tugged it closer to her.
“Good,” she said.
* * *
Hanna lay back in bed, limbs tangled in damp covers, and Gavin was beside her, sheathed in polished sweat. The suitcase sat overturned on the floor, the books scattered out onto the carpet, but other clothes had joined the mix. A lacy pale blue bra, her conference jacket, the shirt Gavin had been wearing very recently. Hanna’s breathing was still a bit scattershot, and Gavin had that smile on his face again, as he leaned over to kiss gently her collarbone, and then he moved a touch lower to the beginning of the swell of her breast, and then lower, and then to the nipple, which made Hanna lean back further into the pillows. She made a small noise.
“So the wife, then,” she said after a moment. He looked up from what he was doing, and Hanna ran a finger along his fashionably stubbled chin.
“Or the editor if you’d like.”
“That was very nice.”
“My professional evaluation?” He asked playfully, kissing her finger.
“The punctuation was very good.”
“I think I read that review once. ‘The punctuation was very good.’”
“Reviewers are terrible people. They don’t hold a candle to editors.”
Hanna watched him pause over this, thought he would make another rejoinder. Instead, he said: “You can stay the night.”
She opened her mouth to speak again, to say something else, but then she closed it. “I’ll be back in a moment.” He kissed her again and then rolled onto his back with a sigh, as she untangled herself from the covers. She slipped around the corner, and then into the bathroom. She closed the door, locked it.
Hanna let out a breath, and began to run the tap. The slightest tremors of a hangover were starting to tighten the circumference of her skull, pushing on her brain. She pooled the water in her hand and then rinsed out her mouth. Bleary-eyed. Tempted by the idea of not needing to go home. Hanna spat out the water, and then looked up into the mirror. Something caught her eye, a smallish discoloured lump on the side of her neck, no bigger than a dime. She squinted, touched it with a finger. The skin was dried out, rough, but the space itself was numb as if all the nerve endings had been disconnected.
She shook her head, tried scratching it with a nail. A queer sensation ran through her body, as if the area was simultaneously hypersensitive and blanked out with Novocain.
“Gavin?” she called uncertainly.
“Yes, my darling?”
There were sounds from outside the bathroom, but Hanna had to squeeze her eyes shut to remain steady on her feet. The handle jiggled but the door was still locked. He knocked softly. “Hanna?”
She shook her head again to clear it, and then opened the door for him. Gavin was casually leaning against the frame, but there was something subtly wrong with the pose, a slight strain in the shoulders.
“It’s . . .”
He moved behind her, and slipped his arms around her waist, kissing the nape of her neck.
“No regrets, I hope?”
“No, it’s not that. There’s something here—” Her finger brushed the spot. Numbness. Tingling. “—can you see anything?”
Hanna was a bit scared. She had read numerous accounts of women discovering small lumps on their breasts, had a friend at college who got cancer, and had to take a year off for chemo and recovery. There had been a list of people who had signed up to go with him, visit the hospital and keep him company. Hanna hadn’t been one of those people. She had liked him well enough, but the whole thing was a bit grotesque, and then he had lost his hair and his face had swelled until his head looked like an egg balanced on his neck.
Gavin reached up and took her hand in his, moving it away from the spot, then leaned in close to look. “Do you have a tattoo?” he asked after a moment.
“A tattoo?” she asked, couldn’t understand the word. It’s cancer, she thought, not a tattoo. Something that wasn’t part of her yesterday.
“It says something here: Sanditon. Is that Greek?”
“Why the hell would I have Greek tattooed on my neck? Do I look like I grew up in fucking Oxbridge?” she asked, and her hand trembled in his. She could see his face again in the mirror, and he was looking at her, face a bit tense as if he could feel their relationship going strange, growing real. The eyes were colder, and the smile had slipped away.
“Look, I’ll get your things. You don’t have to stay the night.”
“I—” she said helplessly, wanting something from him, seeing he wasn’t going to give it to her. She tried for a smile. “I don’t think I should. I’m not the wife.” A pause, and then the barest hint of a question. “Only the wife stays the night.”
He looked her over, nodded carefully and kissed the back of her neck, ran a finger down her spine, and Hanna felt it like a chill.
“You’re more fun than the wife. And the editor, for that matter.” He went from the bathroom. She stared at herself in the mirror, the dark spot, but she didn’t want to touch it again. Gavin brought her clothes to the bathroom entranceway, and she put them on as fast as she could, trying not to let her shirt touch her neck as she buttoned it up. She couldn’t figure out the jacket so she just slung it over one arm, and then she was out of the door, and standing in the hallway with the pale gold fleurs-de-lys, chest tight, feeling the fear for real now that she was by herself.
Carcinos. Carcinoma. The Greek words for cancer, she thought, and then, Screw Gavin and his books and his beautiful voice and his cat smile and his wife, damn them all to Hell and chemo and let him be the one. He has a family, and that’s why you have families, so you don’t need anyone to sign up to sit with you while you die.
And then she caught her breath, and she got in the elevator, and she went home.
* * *
Home was not really home. Home was a tiny room at the edge of Cowley, just outside Oxford where she was renting while she conducted research, met with potential authors for Belletristic, Inc. It was approximately five feet across, eight feet wide, with a recessed nook holding a desk, carelessly painted, makeshift shelves, and a window incapable of closing. The bed had no sheets, but tight, stabbing springs that she had to learn to weave her body around when she first arrived.
Hanna’s own suitcase was large, black, filled with tightly rolled t-shirts and a few nicer things for professional use, Gavin’s neatly typed manuscript handed over for her editorial inspection and a somewhat smaller sheaf of paper, her own unfinished notes on a novel. As she unpacked, she stowed the t-shirts in a rickety chest of drawers and spent five minutes wedging the suitcase between the uppermost bookshelf and the ceiling. It was too big to fit anywhere else, and if it wasn’t stowed she would have had less than a hand’s span of room to stand in.
When she lay on the bed, springs pressed sharply against her legs, the suitcase stuck out a full foot and a half over the edge of the shelf. Hanna worried that it might fall on her while she slept, so she checked it again, but it held firm, did not budge, just loomed over her, disproportionately large against the cramped, cracked ceiling.
At first, she didn’t think about Gavin, about the darkened mass on her neck. But then she did, and she rooted around in the top drawer, amidst the power adaptors, her passport, and other paraphernalia, until she found a hand mirror. She tried positioning it at different angles, and with her shirt off she could just about find a clean line of sight, the hand shaky, awkward.
But it was there, and it was slightly larger than she remembered it being. Hanna breathed deeply, her shoulders rising and sinking, the bed creaking beneath her. She put the mirror away. Then she reached up, fingers snaking along her collarbone, exploring the side of her neck. She could feel the roughness, a slight sponginess as she put pressure against it, that same feeling of simultaneous tingling and numbness. A hard scarab shell, scab-like. She forced her nail into it. The tingling intensified, but it didn’t feel bad—just very, very strange. Slowly, she dug the nail in until she could feel the edge of the thing against her finger. She dug a little bit more, scratching, getting the other fingernails involved. Then something peeled away, flaking off between her forefinger and thumb. She brought it around for inspection, leaning down on the pillow, the dark shadow of the suitcase in the background of her vision, in the foreground a paper-thin scraping of something—she didn’t know what—with the word “Sanditon” in a kind of languished, cursive scrawl.
Hanna picked up the mirror, repositioned it, but as she gazed at the spot she could see—something, the spot was dark but not as if it were bruised or discoloured or some kind of dysplastic nevus, but more like a shadow, like there was no surface at all, a hole in her neck—yes, when she moved the mirror she could make out the edges, not tears or scratches but a thin bank of skin around—nothing. Nothing.
* * *
Hanna didn’t know what to do, she had never seen anything like that. She sat on her bed, the phone receiver heavy in her hand. She thought about calling her doctor back home, but she didn’t know what to say, and she couldn’t go to a doctor here, she couldn’t remember what her health plan was and if it covered overseas medical. Probably not. Her publishers were cheap, and cut corners where they could. Like this room. Like the standby plane tickets from Toronto.
In the end, she called Gavin, his number written on a business card he had given her when they met yesterday before the conference. He hadn’t looked like his author photo; somehow the photographer hadn’t captured the energy, the expressiveness of his face, the charisma that came only in movement and animation. But she was alone in a city where she hadn’t known a single soul.
The phone rang several times. A woman answered.
“Hi,” Hanna started, suddenly unsure of herself. “It’s Hanna Greeson. I work for Belletristic, Inc.” She paused. Considered hanging up the phone.
“I’ll just get Gavin on the phone, love.”
A voice distantly called. Hanna could make out the sound of a dog barking. Maybe children in the background. Or a television. Some sort of extra noise that her room didn’t have.
And then Gavin’s voice came over the line: “Hanna.”
“Gavin,” she replied. “So that’s the wife.”
“And you’re the editor.”
“Right,” she said. “That’s right.” She could feel that the phone call was unwelcome, but she didn’t want to hang up. She couldn’t remember exactly where he lived, somewhere near Holland Park, maybe. “Look, Gavin, I’m going to be in London tomorrow and I wanted to talk to you.”
She heard a door closing at the other end, and then the noises were muffled away. Gavin’s voice, reserved, querying. “Talk.”
“Yes, talk. There’s something—something I need help with.”
“I’m not much good in the helping department. Ask around. Ask anyone. I’m bloody useless.”
“Really, Hanna, it was very lovely to meet you at the conference, but—you know how these things go, when the cat’s away. . . . There’s really nothing I can help you with.” His voice sounded final. Hanna could hear the click coming.
“Listen to me, Gavin,” she said softly, intensely. The kind of whisper you don’t ignore. “I said I’m going to be in London tomorrow and you can meet me at the Euston Flyer at three, or you can put the wife back on the line, and I can stop being fucking professional.”
* * *
Hanna took a morning bus into London. She had wanted to shower but she was afraid of what might happen with the water dripping off the edges of the opening in her neck. She had stolen some saran wrap from the communal kitchen and tried taping it like a band-aid in place. But the tape kept peeling and wouldn’t hold properly, so eventually she gave up on the whole thing and did her hair in the sink. She put on makeup, dressed nicely, wanted to look good for him, for Gavin Fucking Hale. She didn’t know why, but she did it anyway.
She couldn’t sleep on the bus. She kept wedging her neck between the window and the seat to hold it steady, but then she was worried that she was pulling too much at the skin. At last she just settled her head back, and read the book that Gavin had given her. It was clean writing, serviceable prose with just the right amount of pathos, the perfect, quirky dialogue—all up to snuff; her publisher would be proud. An old woman with pinkish-dyed hair caught her eye, smiled, nodded at the book. Hanna pretended not to see.
When she arrived in London, she picked out a seat near the back where she had a good vantage point. She didn’t know if Gavin would come. She didn’t know if she’d make good on the threat, and was half curious to find out.
Hanna spotted him, eighteen minutes late, a few minutes before she had decided to take out her cell phone to see if she could goad herself into calling. He made his way over, face looking dull, more like the author photo.
“Well,” he said, “I’m here so you can call off the charge and put down your weapon. I’ll come in peaceably if you only ask politely.”
“Gavin.” She put away the phone, waiting as he took his seat. “I’m glad you came.”
“Ah, my dear editor. What shall it be, business or pleasure?” And then to the waiter who had wandered within distance. “We’ll have two scotches. On me. Neat, no ice.” The waiter nodded, and disappeared the way that good waiters do when they can sense an awkward situation. “Neat and tidy,” Gavin continued, meaningfully, but this time to Hanna.
“I didn’t know who else to call.” Now that Gavin had come, Hanna realized she didn’t have any idea what to say next, how to begin the conversation.
“Let me start. An autograph, maybe?” A little mean, snarky. “No, something else then. A second draft on the new manuscript? Notes and first impressions?”
“What about a second fuck?” Just to break his stride. He was making her angry.
“And then a third and a fourth and when would it end? We might as well be married at that point and then who the hell would edit my books? The wife can’t do it.” His stride unbroken, and even charming in spite of himself. “It’ll be dogs and cats in the street. The lion and the lamb all cuddled up. The end of freedom, democracy, and Her Majesty out of work, pumping gas for a Paki kebab seller.” He leaned back in his chair, took a sip from the scotch which had appeared magically on the table.
“Fine,” she said.
* * *
They were in the bathroom, Hanna with her skirt up around her waist and Gavin holding her up, pinned against the side of the stall as he machine-gun thrust into her. A door opened, and then Hanna heard it closing again quickly, barely, over the sound of her panting and Gavin’s deep-throated grunts.
Then they were finished, and Gavin was slumped down on the toilet, a happy, sweaty smile on his face, running a hand over her bare buttocks, pulling Hanna close until she was resting on his knee.
“Aren’t you quite the surprise?” he said hoarsely, a little smugly too. “Fancy a second turn?”
This time Gavin spun Hanna around, her breasts pressed flat against the door. Hanna was afraid that the lock might give, the problem with ladies’ bathrooms in old pubs where the doors didn’t seem to fit the frame. Gavin pounded away behind, and his hands were at her waist, and then one cupping a breast, and then the other at her neck. Then she could feel something tearing along her shoulder, and warm numbness filled her so fast she thought she had already released.
But Gavin had stopped, she realized. His hand touched lightly upon her shoulder. He was saying something, softly, almost scared.
“A gentleman and a lady travelling from Tunbridge towards that part of the Sussex coast which lies between Hastings and Eastbourne, being induced by business to quit the high road and attempt a very rough lane, were overturned in toiling up its long ascent, half rock, half sand.” Hanna didn’t know what it meant, was almost lured by the unknitting of her thoughts, the pulse of pleasure still having built to a nice warmness, mingling with the numbness starting at her shoulder; she felt happy for a moment, but Gavin was still speaking. “There is something wrong here, said he, but never mind, my dear, looking up at her with a smile, it could not have happened, you know, in a better place, good out of evil. The very thing perhaps to be wished for. We shall soon get relief—”
“What’s that?” Hanna murmured drowsily, forgetting she was leaning half-cocked against a mildly graffitized bathroom door.
“What do you mean, what’s that?” Gavin asked.
“That—a gentleman and a lady travelling . . .”
“How the Hell should I know?” He tugged on her arm, simultaneously pushing and pulling away from her. Then he was tugging up his pants, buckling his belt, as Hanna leaned against the side of the stall, trying to get her breath, not really enough room for the more elaborate elements of Gavin’s attempts to put his clothes back on.
“Gavin, what’s wrong?” The numbness fading away. Panic returning, fear. The sense of inevitable breakup, people drifting apart. “Did I—?”
“No,” he answered. “Look.” He unlatched on the door, and there was that push-pull as he took her wrist, guided her to the bathroom mirror. She tried to hitch her skirt back down, and almost tripped.
Then she was in front of the mirror, and Gavin was running a finger along her shoulder, but there was no warmth to the gesture. Hanna looked, and at first she couldn’t see it, but then she noticed the fault line running several inches to her clavicle. The edges of her skin had puckered up like old paper and there seemed to be nothing on the other side. Gavin reached up to where the fissure began, where a strip of something onion-thin, almost translucent, had curled up. He bent his head closer, tugging very gently on it: “There, I fancy, lies my cure, pointing to the neat-looking end of a cottage, which was seen romantically situated among wood on a high eminence at some little distance, does not that promise to be the very place?” He was reading, she realized, and then she could see that on the underside of the flap was a very tiny scrawl.
She pulled away from him without even thinking, her heart a misfiring jackhammer, and there was an awful tearing sound as the strip came away in his hand. She knelt down, grabbed the jacket she had left behind in the stall and wrapped in protectively around her shoulders.
“Whatever it is you’re doing, I want you to make it stop.”
“Whatever I’m doing?” he asked, but distractedly; he was staring at the piece that had torn away.
“I won’t call your wife, I promise.”
“Bugger my wife, Hanna,” he said. “The old lady has nothing on you. She’s made of nothing but laundry lists and children’s paintings and cheap romance novels. If I cut her open I’d expect to find nothing more than a list of things she had forgotten to pick up at Sainsbury’s, and maybe a notice about an overdue fine. But this is—”
“—this is bloody Jane Austen.”
* * *
Hanna did not go home to the tiny room in Cowley. Gavin set her up in a hotel room close to Victoria station, on a street filled with similar Georgian-style, whitewashed facades that hosted numerous other anonymous hotels. The manager knew Gavin, that was clear, and provided a room large enough to fit several of her Cowley apartment rooms inside. The space was comfortable, the bed soft and plush, the manager suitably unctuous if a touch overly familiar.
Gavin guided her in, his demeanour having taken on the excited, manic glow of a kid at Christmas.
“You’ll be fine here, darling,” he said, drawing open the blinds, and then shutting them again quickly. “The least I can do, considering your . . . I’ll have your things brought up from Oxford tonight.”
Hanna nodded and sat down on the bed. Her shoulder wasn’t sore, exactly, but she found herself wishing he would just go so that she could have a proper lie-down, clean herself up.
“But, Hanna, just in case—” She looked up at that. “—I don’t think you should really go outside, not in your condition. Stay here. Rest up, fortify your reserves, and I’ll have my doctor set up the appointment. Shouldn’t take more than a day or two.”
“I don’t want to go outside,” she replied.
“Of course not. Good.” He wandered away from the window and came to stand nearby, still looking around the room distractedly. “As I said, shouldn’t be more than a day or two. And I’ll be in touch.” She nodded, was surprised when he leaned down and kissed her on the mouth. Sought after some witty thing to say to him in response, because he was now looking at her eagerly, intently, for a touch longer than he should have been. He seemed to catch himself doing it, and he cleared his throat. “Take care, my darling, and don’t worry, not about a thing. I’ll take care of it all.”
Then he was gone, and Hanna could feel the weariness taking its toll. She rolled onto her side, couldn’t be bothered to get underneath the covers, and then for the first time it what seemed like a month, she slept—
—was woken up to the sound of her phone ringing.
“Hanna, Hanna, is that you?” Her publisher. “Hanna, something extraordinary is happening.” The voice was cheery, chirpier than Hanna remembered it being.
“What is it, Miri?” she mumbled into the cell phone.
“I’ve just received a call from James in Brighton. And he received a call from someone by Vauxhall. Something’s going on with Gavin Hale—something big. Everyone’s buzzing about it, but no one knows what it is. All very hush-hush. But you saw him in Oxford, didn’t you? Did he say anything?”
A stab of panic. Hanna propped herself up onto the pillows, trying to clear the mugginess from her brain. “No,” she said quickly. “He didn’t say anything. We just talked work. Regular work. The manuscript he was shopping around.”
“Was he—I don’t know—surely he must have said something?”
“No, just what you’d expect.”
A pause on the other end. Some of the chirpiness was disappearing from Miriam’s voice. “Can you find out what it is? You’re—where are you staying?—close to London, that’s right. See him. Set up a meeting. See if he’ll cut us in.”
“I don’t think that’s a very good idea.”
“Hanna, you’re twenty-eight years old and I know like every other twenty-eight-year-old working for crap pay, you’ve probably got an unfinished manuscript of your own stuffed away in a drawer, mounting student debt and the ache to do something real, to put some beautiful piece of fiction out into the world without it getting shat on, and maybe earn enough to feed yourself.” Miriam’s voice was picking up speed like a freight train. “And like every other out-of-grad-school hire, I can tell you that you know nothing. Not yet.
“Listen to me, your job status is about as close to probationary as it can be, and none of those pretty dreams are going to come true unless you can do this simple fucking job. You’re in London. This is what we need from you. That’s why you’re in London.”
Hanna swallowed. “Right.” Silence on the other end. “I’ll see what I can do.”
She hung up the phone. Her shoulder began to ache.
* * *
“I’ve cleared it with my agent, and I’ve got a deal all prepped and run through the legal mill,” Gavin told her excitedly.
“I don’t want a deal,” Hanna replied. “I don’t even know what the deal is for. I don’t know what’s happening to me!”
The hotel room had felt increasingly small over the last twelve hours, and Hanna had been pacing it back and forth like some kind of large predatory cat locked in a cage. This was the first bit of raw meat that had been dangled in front of her since Gavin had left her there, and she couldn’t help but take a swipe at it. She just wanted to see something bleeding.
“Something extraordinary, my darling. One of the world’s greatest authors, the peak of her career, just a pinch past forty and she’s writing up a storm, really gaining momentum with these quirky little romantic comedy things she’s been putting out there—and you know what?—the people love it, they’re just falling all over themselves to find out what happens with all those stuffed-up, bloody aristocrats and then—BANG!—bile and rheumatism until her mind could no longer pursue its accustomed course, and it’s all gone forever except that last, unfinished manuscript. Sanditon.”
“She was going to call it The Brothers for George Crabbe but—” He finally caught the long look that Hanna had been shooting at him, and perhaps he sensed something of the tiger in her. “Yes,” he continued, a little abashed. “Sanditon. The unfinished manuscript, only twelve chapters that she wrote, but you, my dear, you—”
He stopped, his face caught in an expression of absolute rapture. Hanna didn’t like the way he was looking at her.
“I think it’s all there.”
“What, the manuscript?”
“Yes, the manuscript, the whole bloody finished novel, there—”
“Gavin, that’s impossible, crazy, where is the doctor?”
“The doctor?” Pulled up short.
“Yes, you imbecile, the doctor, the doctor, the fucking doctor you promised me!” Hanna practically shouted the words at him. She felt close to tears. She had been terrified to look at her shoulder, afraid that perhaps there would be nothing there after all, that it would just be some malignant melanoma and that that the rest of it was all something dream-whipped up by the tumours pushing on her brain, spreading everywhere. She had dreamed that someone was feeding her through a paper shredder, and she had woken up screaming. Some of this finally seemed to get across to Gavin, and he stopped the triumphant parade, the gleeful little biography lesson and finally looked at her properly. She could see him doing it, re-evaluating her, shifting the categories in his mind.
He crouched down in front of her, and took her hand in his. “Hanna, darling.” He stroked the sensitive flesh between her thumb and forefinger, brought her hand up and kissed it gently. “Some extraordinary is happening, miraculous. It’s about more than doctors; it’s about art and beauty, something coming back to us from beyond—I don’t know, from beyond where—something we were supposed to have, that the world was supposed to have.”
He kissed her hand again, and then reached up to gently touch her face. His eyes were wide, the feverish excitement gone for a moment, and Hanna couldn’t tell if it was calculated or not, but she found herself slumping into him, into the warm embrace of his arms.
“It will be alright, my girl. There’s a kind of magic to it all, miracles don’t happen every day, and I’ll be right here, I’ll take care of you.” He stroked her hair lightly, gently. “It’s an extraordinary thing and we can’t stand in the way of it. You understand, don’t you?” He pulled away just the barest amount, and their eyes locked, his were liquid and brown and Hanna thought she could see the slight reflective sheen of what might have been tears in his eyes.
Hanna wanted to say that she didn’t understand, why the Hell should Jane Austen choose to write her last words on the inside of a twenty-eight-year-old editor, almost two hundred years after her death? That wasn’t a miracle, that was fucking poor planning.
But Gavin was kissing her now, very gently, just a little nibble at her lower lip, and she found she didn’t care quite as much as she thought she might, and maybe he was right anyway, maybe it was a miracle and all this was happening for some reason beyond her. And he kissed her again, and then that spot right behind her ear, his breathing a tickle in her hair, and then lower, and then—
“I just need to see it, Hanna,” he whispered, “just to be sure, to know for sure, that I’m right. You understand, don’t you?”
* * *
It had been a week. Her suitcase still hadn’t arrived. She imagined it back in the tiny room in Cowley, shoved against the ceiling, the makeshift bookshelf beginning to sag now, hers and Gavin’s papers beginning to muddle all together. Gavin had brought her a fresh set of clothes at least, but they didn’t fit quite properly, a little tight across the chest, a little baggy around the waist, and Hanna was almost dangerously sure that they might have been things stolen from his wife’s half of the closet.
She’d received three irate phone calls from her publisher, but she’d let them all go to voicemail. She consoled herself with the knowledge that she did, in fact, have the insider knowledge Miriam was looking for, even if she couldn’t share it just yet. Gavin had warned her not to. Said he would talk to his lawyer first, make sure everything was kosher, and that she was protected. It turned out that she wasn’t—a boilerplate bit of her contract gave Belletristic, Inc. the first right of refusal to anything she produced or obtained while working for them. It was unclear which clause Sanditon would fall under, but it was clear that some part of the contract had it covered. So the lawyer had recommended a temporary gag order, and she’d listened, put everything through to voicemail except her parents, and stopped answering e-mails.
Her initial fear had begun to transmute into a waiting tension, and then boredom, and then curiosity. She had started trying to capture pictures of the novel with her cell phone. The outside bits were easy enough, where the skin had peeled back from the fissure, but she didn’t want to cause any more damage. She fingered the papery tissue carefully, with her right hand, used her left hand to zoom and snap. The first twenty pictures were awful, but after several hours she found that she was starting to get the hang of it.
With the load of clothes, Gavin had also dropped off a copy of the 1925 Chapman transcription of the original manuscript, now housed in King’s College, Cambridge. She had read through it eagerly, but in the end she found herself increasingly bored. There wasn’t much of it, not enough to truly get the shape of the novel beyond the description of the town for which the novel was named, and its various, colourful inhabitants. It wasn’t Pride and Prejudice, she thought, but it was something. And perhaps the missing bits would flesh it out, get to the real crux of the narrative.
She began to transcribe the images she could get out of the camera. It wasn’t very much, though the writing was surprisingly dense. She finished what she could in about a day’s worth of meticulous photographing and transcription. And then the boredom returned, hours of it, just sitting, reading and rereading the copy Gavin had left and then trying to match it up with what she had on her computer.
Hanna didn’t know how it happened, exactly, but she found herself tugging on the skin just a little bit, to read several lines that had been obscured in shadow. And then just a little bit more. Soon she found there was a wide enough space that she could just fit in the edge of the slim phone if she was very careful. It felt strange, but not painful, rather a tickling sensation at the edge of the remaining skin and then nothing on the inside. Without a light, though, her cell phone didn’t have a good enough camera to make out very much else, just dim shapes, the curvature of the inside of her skin.
But, still, she had plenty of new material. Hanna could intermittently pick out scraps of dialogue and narrative that hadn’t been in the original. It wasn’t all in proper order, after all, and trying to read it was something like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.
When Gavin arrived on the fifth day, Hanna was debating whether or not she might be able to get a little bit more brightness on the camera phone if she could manoeuvre herself closer to the bathroom light. She was standing up on the sink, shirtless, her shoulder pressed toward the ceiling and the cell phone held awkwardly in her right hand, snapping away like mad.
She almost fell onto the sink when she heard the door open. The ceramic cup holding her toothpaste crashed to the floor, and smashed apart.
“Hanna?” he called from the doorway. “Are you alright, darling?”
Hanna crouched down gingerly, careful to mind the bits of pottery, and popped her head out around the corner. “I’m fine. Where the fuck have you been, Gavin?” She snapped.
His mouth crinkled with a smile, and his brow crinkled with a smug look. He tugged her in for a very passionate, if quick, kiss before releasing her. “I’ve been showing off the pages, that’s where the fuck I’ve been. And—you know what?—they love them, everyone bloody loves them, want to know where we’ve been getting them. I’ve gotten half a dozen calls from Rosemary Culley of the Hampshire Jane Austen society, demanding to know where I found it and if I want to publish with them; and all the big boys, of course, James & Sweitzer, Great Auk, Door Holt, and that’s just in Britain. The Americans can sense there’s something going on, and even if they don’t give two figs for Jane Austen, they can smell the money. Not that we’ll go with the Americans, of course, not really theirs, is it? I mean, it’s ours, of course, well, it ought to be—”
“And the Canadians?” she asked.
“Foreign rights, that’s obvious. But there are no major players there, wouldn’t make any sense to shop it around for the first print run, let them wait for it, they don’t need it first—”
“I’m Canadian, Gavin,” Hanna said pointedly. He had the good grace to look abashed.
“Of course, we’ll consider every offer,” he paused, checking to see if she was mollified then dismissing it. “But that’s not really the point, is it? It’s not about the money, it’s about the culture, rediscovered, the unexhausted talent of the nation’s greatest writer—”
“—Shakespeare, who is Shakespeare? A balding man with a passion for soliloquies, perhaps he had a couple of real zingers, Macbeth—Hamlet was a bit too slow if you ask me—but nothing like the human drama of Austen, the subtle play of wit, understatement, the clever critiques of a society straitjacketing itself out of all the good bits of life.”
Hanna could see that he had worked himself up into a frenzy of speechifying, but that the patter sounded clean, a little too clean, rehearsed maybe. The kind of thing you might deliver in an interview or on a talk show.
“I’ll need the next lot of papers,” he added. “The work you’re doing is extraordinary, just extraordinary, my girl. My editor. My perfect editor.” He paused for a moment, noticing at last that she had her shirt off. “What’s happened here?” He reached toward her, fingering very gently the flaps of skin, more than there had been the last time he had been there.
“An experiment,” Hanna replied, smoothing it out of his grasp and back over the gap in her shoulder. She moved out of range, feeling his speculating gaze on her back, to where she had kept some safety pins. Deftly, she slid the pins through the double flaps of skin, pinching closed the hole so that it would not tear further. “I don’t know how else I’m supposed to get anything else out of it. There’s only so much I can read on the outside.”
“Right,” he nodded, still speculating, “Of course. Can’t just cut you open, can we?” He laughed. She did not.
The next day he returned with a new camera, one mounted on the end of a snake tube. He had duct-taped a very small LED light to the tip of it. He sat her down on the bed, and carefully unhooked the safety pins, slid the camera in. Hanna held her laptop on her knees. She sat very still, afraid to move. And then the pictures began to flood in, a little grainy at first, but there was so much more than she had been able to capture herself. She felt herself getting caught up in the excitement of it all, catching little snippets that she knew she could slot into the jigsaw puzzle of the narrative.
Gavin was breathing heavily, his mouth very close to her ear as he tried to manoeuvre the camera around. He kept shifting his weight, making the bed creak, and throwing off her balance. But she didn’t move. Kept very still for what seemed like hours. She had to pull herself up straight so that her stomach, sagging a little from the English food and the lack of exercise, wouldn’t wrinkle and distort the images on the inside. Finally, he pulled out the little camera.
“Well done, my darling.” He beamed at her, and this time she did smile back, good and proper, but her eyes were already drifting back to the manuscript, the long scrawls of words written around the slight concave dimple of where her spine stretched out the skin of her back, the flat of her shoulder blade, the hollowed insides of her breasts.
* * *
The weeks had crawled by, and now Hanna was watching Gavin on television, with some late night talk show host with a polished look to him, steel-grey hair, charming and a little self-deprecating, in a neat grey suit. Gavin was well turned out, and his bearing showed off his confidence to best effect. He was talking animatedly: “Sanditon,” he said, “she called it, and I quote, the very spot which thousands seemed in need of. And now we have it.”
She muted the volume. The real Gavin was lying next to her in the bed, had stayed over for the last few nights. Hanna was glad of it, had found that the standard assortment of complaints she typically brought to bear against her partners didn’t quite bother her so much. Perhaps it was the general loneliness. Perhaps it was because he was married, and didn’t seem as demanding as she would have imagined. Sometimes he seemed to forget about the sex altogether, caught up in a blur of telephone calls, the occasional phone interview or, as she was watching just then, major media appearances. What had been an energetic bit of fucking, punctuated by happy moments of productivity had soon blurred into less frequent heavy petting and a little more kindness. He read to her from the manuscript, practised his interviews with her, got her to ask him questions, and waited, patiently, for her evaluation of his performance.
But not right then. Then he was nuzzling her shoulder, careful around the pins, didn’t want to hurt her, he said. By this point, Hanna didn’t know if it actually was hurting or dangerous. The doctor had never come, despite assurances from Gavin that he would pop round tomorrow or the next day. Not malice. It wasn’t even deception—not real deception—but she could see the question drifting out of his mind two seconds after she’d asked it, not sticking in there as a real concern at all. And so it had become less real to her as well. The manuscript was almost finished, and there would be time for doctors after that, and money too. Gavin had negotiated an advance of half a million pounds, almost unheard of, and his phone had rung off the hook for about a week—inquiries from Jane Austen’s estate, more pressing queries from the librarian at Cambridge demanding that he stop the press releases until the veracity of the document could be determined, requests from researchers, book dealers, rival agents, rival lawyers—until he got a second phone, giving the number only to his agent, his lawyer, Hanna, and his wife.
“You’re beautiful, my darling, well and truly beautiful.”
Hanna smiled, touched the silk-wire hairs on his chest. “And you are a man who gets paid to make things up for a living.”
“Am I?” he asked plaintively. “I had forgotten. It seems as if I’m only parroting other people’s words, a publicist for the dead.” His eyes flicked to the screen.
“I believe I’m the one who is supposed to be feeling sorry for myself. You should be cheering me.” She quirked an eyebrow, curious at the change of tone.
“Right,” he said, “That’s why I began with the bit about you being beautiful. Which is true, by the way. Every word of it.”
“I’m the editor,” she answered. “Not the wife. Don’t make me the wife.”
“Ah, the crux of it all.”
“Cruxes are for editors, I was taught.”
“Crosses are for wives.” He paused. “To bear, that is. I am my wife’s cross, she says sometimes.”
Hanna said nothing.
“I think I might not go home tonight.”
“I think I might not go home ever again.” He whispered.
Television-Gavin was saying something witty to the camera, and, muted, Hanna just caught the close-up on his face, smiling. She thought about that smile—the cat’s smile—slipping on and off again, the warmth of him beside her. Felt a little sad.
“I think you should go home.”
* * *
The next day, Hanna left the hotel room. The unctuous hotel manager, attentive to the last, stopped her at the door.
“Mr. Hale said that you weren’t to leave.” His voice apologetic.
“Mr. Hale is not my fucking keeper,” Hanna hissed. The manager took a step back, and she took the opportunity to walk out the front door.
She took the bus from Victoria station to Oxford, this time without a book, without anything to do. After a while, Hanna took out her phone, began to check the missed messages—an overflow of worry, excitement, sometimes anger until the voices themselves became increasingly indistinct, just a mass of things wanted from her, things offered to her. She was fired, apparently. Her mother wanted her to come home. Something from Gavin at the end that she pointedly ignored.
There was a weight lifting from her, as she stared out the window, watching the hills roll by, a patchwork quilt of dark green shrubs and lighter tones of grass, fields, the strange light of the shifting mass of clouds a clear sign that rain was coming. But it was England, and there was always rain coming, so she just watched the clouds, mottling from silver to black to white, shades and textures she never saw in the sky back in Toronto.
Hanna made her way up Divinity Road, and turned off at Minster, the smell of roses and heavy humidity in the air. She barely recognized the house now, but when she unlocked the door to her room everything was where it had been before. She was worried that someone might have put her things out by the side of the road, even though she had paid up for four months in advance.
Carefully, she climbed up onto the bed and unwedged her suitcase from its cramped space between the shelf and the ceiling. She had forgotten how small the room was, and it smelled musty now from the windows being closed in the summer. The bed was unmade, the towel she had used to wash her hair before she went to London hanging from the inside door knob. Dry now.
She put the suitcase on the floor, and lay down on the bed.
* * *
Someone was knocking on the door to the room. Hanna opened it cautiously, mostly expecting to see Gavin standing in the entranceway, but it was an oldish woman, formerly pretty, with smallish breasts and a rounding waistline.
“The wife,” Hanna guessed aloud.
“The editor.” The woman quirked her head, smiled, and she was prettier than Hanna had imagined at first. “May I come in, love?”
Hanna gestured her in, but there was really nowhere for the two of them to sit, not with the suitcase taking up most of the available floor space. The woman did not try to sit, standing a little awkwardly. Hanna caught her looking around the room, her eye taking in the peeling ceiling, the narrow walls. “Sorry,” Hanna apologized. “I’ve apparently lost my job. But it didn’t pay very well to begin with—thus, the room.”
“Gavin tells me that you stand to make a good deal of money soon, you and he. Are you going somewhere?” She nodded to the suitcase, and Hanna took the handle, tipping it up vertically so that there was a little extra space.
“Home, I think.”
“Not on my account, I hope?” The woman’s gaze was sharp, but then she smiled again and sat down heavily on the bed. Hanna sat down beside her, not quite as heavily, still unsure of the bearings of the conversation, unable to navigate it.
“No—” she began. “It’s just been a long time. I miss it.”
She nodded. “Well, you’re a pretty girl. I imagined you would be, common as any young lady in the kingdom with a tolerable complexion and a showy figure—” Quoting now from the book. “—very accomplished and very ignorant.”
Hanna didn’t let herself show any sign of emotion at the jibe. “He showed it to you then? The pages?”
“That’s not new, love. The original, the bit we already had.” Mrs. Hale turned away then, and began to dig through a large, overstuffed purse she had brought with her. Eventually she took out a manila envelope tied shut with string. She unwound the string carefully, not drawing out the suspense on purpose, but Hanna began to feel it anyway, something like dread. The envelope had an address on it, and a name, JAMES MARTEN, M. D.
Finally, Mrs. Hale slipped out a series of photographs—x-rays, the shapes white and grey against a background of black, oddly reminding Hanna of the clouds earlier. But then as she looked further, she began to make out letters, little scrawls. Her eyes had gotten surprisingly good at reading this kind of text, fitting the superimposed images together, separating them into sensible bits and re-arranging them in order.
It was a love letter. To Hanna Greeson, the most darling editor in all the world. She couldn’t make out all of it, but what she could read was most definitely Gavin’s—clean writing, serviceable prose with just the right amount of pathos, the perfect, quirky endearments. But tiny, distorted, imprinted on the insides of his tissue.
“He came home complaining of a pain, oh, months back now. Around the time he went to Oxford. And met you, I expect. Dr. Marten investigated. We were worried about colon cancer. His father went that way, younger than he should have. He was about Gav’s age. We were both very scared.
“But then the results came back and it wasn’t cancer, and Gavin said he had found something, he had a major project due, something big. Yes, he showed me some of the pages. They were good. Very good. And it was all very exciting, a huge relief, something to take our minds off the things that had almost but not quite happened. But he didn’t come home one night. I wasn’t surprised really. Sometimes he does that when he’s working. God knows, we have enough money and with the kids around it can be hard for him to get writing done, so when he’s in one of those moods and there’s a deadline coming, sometimes he’ll just rent a hotel in town and stay on until the work is done. Or so he’s always told me.
“But then the doctor’s office called. I was half-sure that they had been wrong the first time, and it was cancer after all, but no, something else. They showed me the photographs. I didn’t know what it was.”
She was silent for a long moment. Hanna looked again at the images, Gavin from the inside, made strangely unfamiliar when she saw all the curves and the angles backward. And the writing, of course.
“He told me. He told me about the pages. About everything.” Mrs. Hale looked up and Hanna found herself returning the look, unwilling to speak. And then, unexpectedly, she rested her hand on Hanna’s.
“It’s okay, love. Really it is. You weren’t the first, and I have no doubt there will be others. It’s just his way, and I’ve made my own peace with it. It’s what we do—wives, that is. It’s what marriage always meant to me, and it’s why I married him. Because he needs someone to care for him, for all that bundled enthusiasm and pride and ego and sometimes kindness. He’s not a bad man.
“And the truth is—the real truth, between us women—is that I’d rather have Sanditon. Even if Gavin never wrote another word, the world would keep turning, there are plenty of Gavin Hales in the world and no one would really mourn.” Her smiled quirked up, reminding Hanna of Gavin’s smile, the way two people can come to look alike when they have shared a life together. “But then there’s you, my dear, and then there’s Jane. And maybe the world can’t live without her. Maybe that’s what it all means.”
Carefully, Mrs. Hale reached for the photos, took them from Hanna’s numb fingers, slipped them back into the envelope and placed it on the bed beside them.
“He might come for you.”
“I’m going home. Tonight,” Hanna said.
“He might come anyway. But I hope not. He’s a good husband, despite everything.”
Mrs. Hale stood, took her oversized purse and left.
Hanna was alone in the room. The envelope was beside her, but she found that she didn’t want to look at it again. She could hear the footsteps going down the stairs, listened as the front door quietly clicked shut.
Then she unzipped the suitcase, and searched around inside for her own manuscript, the pages not entangled with Gavin’s after all. She counted out each one, finding herself reading bits and pieces as she went, automatically reassembling the words in her head, the shape of the unfinished story. Hanna found she liked it still.
And then she slipped off her jacket, unbuttoned the blouse beneath and slipped that off too. The pins had kept the skin from tearing much further, but she could feel the perforation running down further, almost to the swell of her breast now. She undid the pins one by one. She pulled back the flaps of skin. The ink smudged a bit, but she didn’t need to be so careful now that it was all fully photographed, the words recorded. She found that she could peel away most of her shoulder, that queer feeling of numbness and excitement all wrapped up together.
And then she rolled up her manuscript, and she slid it through the gap, could feel the slight pressure of it against her ribs, on her pelvis. It felt right there. She reinserted the pins again, closing up the gap, thought better of it, and took out the tiny traveller’s sewing kit she kept in the top drawer. Bit by bit, she stitched together the edges until they just about fit, only a few times when she had to tug the skin close to match up ends that didn’t quite join up any longer. She could feel the weight of it, the way the pages settled against her inside, the words face-to-face with Jane’s, pressed together, ink rubbing on ink in the darkness inside her skin.
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Victor Fernando R. Ocampo. Victor is from the Philippines, and his work has been published in the Philippine Free Press and the anthologies Philippine Speculative Fiction (Volume 6), The Ayam Curtain, and Fish Eats Lion: New Singaporean Speculative Fiction. His story “Here Be Dragons” won first prize at the Romeo Forbes Children’s Literature competition in 2012 and was published by Canvas Press. He lives in Singapore, by the side of foggy Bukit Timah hill, with his lovely wife and two spunky daughters.
The story was first published in Bewildering Stories in 2012.
Victor Fernando R. Ocampo
For the third time since he had crawled out of the wreckage, Felix pressed the power button on his phone. He hoped against hope that something, anything, would happen, but nothing did. It was exactly the same as the last time. His phone was inert, impotent.
“Why am I even alive?” he groaned, oppressed by the silence, of the shapelessness of evening.
Frustrated, he removed the back cover and took the battery out. He placed it between his palms and shook it desperately. For added measure, he prayed to St. Isidore, the patron saint of the Internet. “Help me,” he asked softly. “Spare me one small charge, please, just enough for a status update, just enough for a text.”
The young man required only enough power to send a quick word for help—one small blip to tell the world where he was and that he was okay. But St. Isidore’s help line, it seemed, was otherwise engaged. His phone remained stubbornly, obstinately dead.
Despite the wracking pain, he knew that he had no choice but to walk if he wanted to be rescued. “Forgive me,” he asked his passel of precious saints. “But if you wanted to really help me, you should have just killed me. At least I’d be with her.”
Felix had totaled his car on a remote and desolate stretch of highway. He hadn’t gone on a road trip in a long while, not since he’d lost his wife in the nightmare of the previous year. Now his foolhardy journey had almost cost him his life. “You’re not the type to travel by yourself,” she had once warned him. “We’re so used to being together. It would be hell to be on the road alone.”
He shook himself from the prison of memory and inventoried his things. The watch she had given him for his birthday had stopped ticking. There was a big, ugly gash on its beveled glass. His messenger bag, the one she had lovingly picked out from the recyclables store, was badly scratched but still intact. Nothing else in his car seemed worth saving.
Felix stared at the dark road that stretched out towards the horizon. The sodium vapor lamps had been spaced apart too far apart. They left only small islands of light in the vast ocean of darkness.
Before he took his first unsteady step, he made a sign of the cross and offered a prayer to St. Jude. Felix felt his soul sallow and threadbare. He needed to arm himself against the shadows. The night was still young and he worried about what further troubles lay ahead.
“Stop using prayer as a good luck charm,” his wife had chided him. “It’s not a religion for you anymore. It’s voodoo.” His little leaps of faith unnerved everyone he knew. But he didn’t really care about what anyone thought anymore. Pain and loss had a way of turning even the smallest of comforts into crutches and somehow his constant calls for intercession made him feel less desperate, less powerless, less alone.
Felix squinted and followed the thin line of orange lights that seemed to lead towards infinity. To his relief, he spotted a bus stop about half a kilometer away. “Someone will pass by for sure,” he thought. That would be his ticket back to civilization. The young man felt for his bus card in his pocket. He took it out and stared at it for a few seconds, as if to assure himself that it was really there. Satisfied, he started walking towards his lonely destination.
The night was neither cold nor excessively humid but Felix turned his collar up as a precaution. He had walked about a hundred meters when he remembered that he’d left something of heartbreaking importance, something that he couldn’t live without. He slapped his forehead in dismay and quickly ran back to his car.
“Where is that glove compartment?” he thought, as he searched the wreckage frantically. The front of the car was hopelessly crumpled. For a minute, he thought that what he was looking for was lost forever and started to hyperventilate.
“St. Anthony, patron saint of lost things… please help me find it. St Jude, patron saint of lost causes. Please have mercy on me.” He closed his eyes and repeated the litany in his head like a nervous tick. He forced himself to take deep breaths until his feelings of panic were checked. “I can’t have lost it,” he repeated, cracking his knuckles. “I won’t ever lose it.”
Felix took a step back to calculate where the glove compartment lay under the car’s twisted frame. When he settled on a spot, he started to remove as much metal and plastic as he could. What began as a careful, studied process slowly escalated into a frenzy of destruction. He tore through the wreckage until he found what he was searching for—a woman’s red turtleneck, carefully preserved in a still-intact plastic package. It had been protected from the crash by a magazine and an old rubber sleeve. The young man slowly pulled out his shrink-wrapped treasure. He opened the package then gently stuck his nose in. His wife’s sweet scent still lingered on the fabric.
Felix put the keepsake inside his bag and resumed his solitary walk to the bus stop. The terminal was unlike any he had ever seen. There was no sign indicating what station it was, nor in fact, any identifying marks at all. There were no bus schedules detailing arrival and departure times, or none of the billboards that cluttered other shelters. There was only a small laminated notice, attached to one post, reminding commuters to “Select Option 2 for a return ride.”
Felix didn’t have to wait too long before something appeared in the distance. Like the stop it attended, the city bus that arrived was odd and strange. It was a heavy-duty Hino coach, with a low non-step floor and a spacious box-like interior. He remembered seeing a vehicle like this before, somewhere in the lumber of his grandfather’s dusty photos. An unsettled feeling came over him and he had to stop himself from running away.
The vehicle was painted sky blue all over, except for a white stripe that wrapped around the cabin, below the large plastic windows. A sign on the windshield said “AIRCON” and above it was an LED board that read “Non-Stop.” Both flanks were decorated with three white hearts. The smaller ones said “Save Gas,” while the big heart had “Love Bus” in bold, red and yellow lettering. As it pulled up in front of him, he noticed that despite the vintage design the bus seemed newly manufactured. So new, in fact, that the chassis was spotless and the rubber on the tires showed no signs of wear. The surreal cleanliness added to his growing anxiety and his body made an involuntary shiver.
He made the sign of the cross three times before getting on board. As he entered, he asked the crisply-uniformed driver where the bus was headed. The man shook his head and did not speak. He pointed instead to the modern ticket reader behind him. Felix tried to engage him in conversation, but as soon as the driver’s gaze fell on him, Felix shut his mouth. The man’s eyes blazed like hollow furnaces, burning away all questions, cauterizing all speech.
Felix flashed his bus card. Two options appeared on a small screen, simply labeled with the numerals “1” and “2”.
“You are young. Choose Option 2, my boy,” the coach’s solitary passenger told him. “I’ve selected Option 1 already. That way one of us will see where each one goes.”
“Thank you, sir,” Felix said as he moved uncertainly down the cabin. He sat opposite his fellow commuter, an old European man dressed in a black cassock, with a white Roman collar around his hearty neck.
The young man whispered another prayer of thanks. What luck that he was traveling with a priest. The presence of a man of God dispeled much of his naked fears and for the first time since his accident, he felt the faint flicker of hope.
“Thank the Lord that you are here,” the priest said. “I was slowly going mad by myself. What is your name, my son?”
“My name is Felix del Mundo,” he answered softly, nervously, like a child’s prayer.
“I’m pleased to meet you, Felix,” the old man said, in a deep reassuring voice. “I am Father Vladimir of the Society of Jesus.”
“I’m pleased to meet you too, Father,” he replied, as he dusted the chair with his handkerchief. “There’s something creepy about the bus driver. He didn’t want to talk to me.”
“I don’t think he can speak. I’ve tried to converse with him for the best part of this ride. He simply took my last obolus, my last coin, and sent me to my seat.”
“Do you have any idea where he’s taking us? The sign on the bus says ‘Non-Stop,’ but where is it non-stop to?”
“I wish I knew, my son,” the priest said. “Your stop is the only one I’ve seen since coming aboard. The odd thing is that this isn’t the same bus I started riding. I distinctly recall boarding a white LiAZ tourist coach.”
“I’m not sure I get what you mean. But, yes, something isn’t right,” Felix concurred. His dusting became more frantic. “I’ve never seen this kind of bus before. What stop did you board at, Father?”
“I… I don’t remember, actually,” Father Vladimir muttered. “I was coming back to Estragon from a big Semiotics conference. At some point I think I was in a car accident. I still have my luggage with me.”
“Estragon?” the young man asked. “Where on Earth is …oh my God! We’re dead, Father. I think we’re dead!” The young man said with a start, seized suddenly by the unforgiving inevitability of mortality. “I saw this in a movie once. Think about it. We were both in car accidents, in different countries! How did we get here? That can’t be a coincidence. My God, we’re dead!”
Felix hung his head with the grim realization, and raked his hands through his hair repeatedly, trying to overcome a sudden urge to scream. “Here I was thinking how lucky I was to escape without a scratch.” Felix took out his hanky and brushed the back of the seat in front of him. He cleaned it thoroughly before banging his head against the foam cushion.
The priest let a few moments of silence pass before speaking. “Calm yourself, my son. We don’t know that for sure, do we? I certainly don’t feel dead, but then again I’ve never been dead before. There could be other possibilities.”
“What other possibility is there?” Felix asked, befuddled by the unfamiliar logic of their situation. “We must be dead, and this bus is our hearse. It’s too much of a coincidence to ignore.”
“There is… there is coincidence, and then there is synchronicity,” Father Vladimir continued. “When two things happen together, that doesn’t always need to mean anything.”
“Sorry, Father, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the young man said, cracking his knuckles anxiously.
“Sometimes things just happen together, and there’s really no connection between them. That’s called ‘coincidence.’ However, if you do find something, like an idea or a plan that connects the two, that’s actually called ‘synchronicity.’ I believe what happened to us was pure coincidence. My accident and your accident are not connected. Yes, we’re on a strange bus heading to an unknown destination, but that doesn’t mean we’re on an omnibus to the afterlife. Think about it, if we’re dead, shouldn’t there be more people on this bus? Thousands of people die every day.”
“Are you for real, Father? I’m sorry, but you don’t talk like a regular person.”
“Well, this is far from a regular situation,” Father Vladimir said. “I’m not sure we are even in the regular world anymore. We could be dreaming, or unconscious.”
“So are you saying that this is only in my mind?” Felix asked uneasily. He looked out the plastic windows with uncharacteristic diffidence as the bus swept by endless fallow fields wrapped in darkness. The pall of night reminded him of the vacancy, the finality of oblivion, but something in his heart told him this wasn’t death.
After a period of reflection he said, “Maybe you’re right, Father. I always thought that there would be a big tunnel of light when you died, and that the people you loved would be waiting for you somewhere. No, I don’t feel like we’re dead at all.”
“Don’t be too put out,” Father Vladimir said quietly. “This is all much too strange, even for me. I wouldn’t blame you at all for feeling moribund.”
The old man droned on about death and the persistence of memory but Felix just couldn’t focus enough to listen.
“It’s moving too fast to jump off,” the young man remarked. “I just want to get off. Perhaps if we rush the driver together we can overpower him.”
“And then what?” the priest asked. “We would just be lost. It would be better for us to reach a destination first, at least before we contemplate such actions. I don’t think either of us would like to be trapped out there. It’s nothing but a brutal wasteland.”
Felix said nothing. This had been the second time in his life that he had wanted to jump from a moving bus. The first was in New York City, a little more than five years ago. With his student visa expiring, he had no choice but to return to the land of his birth. The young man had been so used to life in America, that Promised Land for all Filipinos, that his trip back home had seemed like a punishment, an exile to limbo after his brief taste of heaven. On the bus he had fought a great urge to run away, and he would probably have done so, if a beautiful young woman hadn’t sat right next to him. Like Felix she was also on her way to Manila. By some odd twist of fate, they ended up spending the next fifteen hours together. In those long golden hours, they became fast friends. Before they knew it, their relationship blossomed into something else. A year later, the two of them were married.
“We feel most mortal before dawn, they say,” Father Vladimir said, trying to comfort his brooding companion. “Let us keep our wits about us and not lose hope. Who knows what destiny waits at the end of this ride?”
“Thank you, Father,” Felix sighed. He knew that the old man was trying to make him feel better. “It’s just that being trapped on this bus is driving me nuts. I wish we knew where we were going. It doesn’t really matter where. I just want to get somewhere and get the hell off.”
“I can’t honestly say that I am not worried,” the old man mumbled. “But Milton said that the mind is its own place. In itself it can make a heaven of Hell, and a hell of Heaven. Perhaps we can lighten our mood with a change of topic. Let me think… hmm… my life’s work, my magnum opus if I may, is a lexicon of dreams. I have been compiling it for decades. Shall we talk about dreams instead?”
“You study dreams?” Felix asked, momentarily distracted. He had dreamed of his wife every single night since her death. Different dreams, different situations, but always with one thing in common: every night she would tell him to come and find her. His anxiety returned, and Felix took out his handkerchief and started folding it into a four-point pocket square.
“Yes, I study them, looking for a common language to define their meaning.”
“So can you interpret dreams, Father?” he asked, tucking the pocket square back into his pants.
“In a manner of speaking, I can,” the priest explained. “For example, according to my research, if you dream of riding on a bus to nowhere, it means that you feel you’re being carried along by events beyond your control.”
“So…you think that we are in a dream right now?” the young man said, looking around the strange bus and weighing the unreality of their situation. “I suppose that’s possible. I could be in a coma somewhere.”
“When you wake, or think you do, what would you say of this evening?” the old man asked. “I have an interesting thought experiment. Let’s say that we are indeed just dreaming, and you are dreaming that you’re riding a bus to places unknown, what is your inescapable tragedy, my son?”
“I haven’t said a prayer to St. Christopher yet,” Felix said abruptly. He had wanted to ask the old man about his dreams, but couldn’t bring himself to open his heart to a stranger.
“Sorry? What do you mean?”
“St. Christopher. He’s the patron saint of travelers.”
“And buses, I imagine,” the priest added. “Forgive me, but I feel as if there is some truth that you are denying. However, I suppose Carl Jung can wait, if you’re not comfortable with confessions.”
The old man looked out to the manifold darkness and became lost in his own thoughts.
After a while, the young man began to feel irritable and a bit lightheaded. “Father,” he asked. “Do you have anything to eat?” In his rush to drive back to the city, Felix had forgotten to have dinner. Now he felt the deleterious effects of hunger, as his blood sugar started to drop precipitously. “Is it possible to feel hungry in a dream?” He thought, “If I die now, this won’t be suicide. The saints will let me see her. Please St. Jude, St. Anthony, let me see her. We need to be together.”
“Ah, hunger…another great leitmotif. Knut Hamsun used it well,” Father Vladimir murmured, still lost in his thoughts. The priest had spent too much time in the bus alone, and succumbed readily to the temptation to forage in his mind for conundrums and verities.
“Father, I have diabetes,” Felix cried out. He knew that his wife wouldn’t have approved of a diabetic coma, not after she had spent so much time mothering his illness. “I feel dizzy.”
“Oh! I’m sorry. Where is my head today?” the priest said, with much embarrassment. Father Vladimir opened one of his large valises, inside which he had an enormous bag of chocolates, bottles of mineral water, and a crumbly cake packed securely in a sturdy Styrofoam box. “I was on my way to a party for the children of my orphanage. I suppose this is as noble a use for these victuals.”
The priest took out some paper plates and used the handle of a plastic fork to cut the cake. He carved out a big piece and handed it to Felix, along with a bottle of mineral water. “Smačnoho!” he exclaimed. “That means bon appetit.”
“Thank you. That was surprisingly delicious,” Felix said, gobbling his share with desperate gusto. “What kind of cake was it?”
“Kiev cake,” the old man answered proudly. “It’s a divine confection, isn’t it? It’s made of two airy layers of meringue with hazelnuts, chocolate glaze, and a butter-cream filling. It’s very rich, like the culture of my people.”
After they finished eating, the young man excused himself to take a nap. When he woke up it was still night time. In the bus he did not dream, and that bothered him greatly. He realized how deeply he needed the comfort of seeing his wife every night, even if it was just a shade of her memory.
The young man noticed that Father Vladimir had also fallen asleep. He wondered how long they had been traveling. He looked at his watch but remembered that it was still broken. He tried to recall the details of his accident, but his memory now seemed fuzzy. It was as if it had happened a very long time ago. He took his phone out of his bag and checked it again. “Please, I just want to see her picture,” he prayed, but his phone remained hopelessly dead.
A voice boomed suddenly in the darkness: “Come on, let’s get to work! In an instant it will all vanish and we’ll be alone again, in the middle of nothingness!”
“Dios ko po!” Felix cried out, startled by the old man’s declamation. “Sorry, I didn’t know you were awake, Father.”
“Nothing like a quote from Samuel Beckett to start the day,” Father Vladimir said gruffly. “Night and sleep came and went but we did not dream. At least I didn’t.”
“But it’s still night,” Felix protested. “In fact, I think it’s still the same night. Everything is exactly the same. Nothing’s changed since we ate and slept.”
“Forget the night, my son! Beckett said that nothing matters but writing and this applies to us now,” the priest said, with a distressed tone and an odd, vacant look. “I think I have figured out where we are. We are not dead. We are not dreaming. We are in a story. Oh heavens, this would be such a contrived, self-referential plot if that were true!”
“We are trapped… in a story?” Felix asked warily, as he got up and moved a few rows behind his companion. The young man wondered if their situation had finally taken its toll on the old man’s sanity. He started a silent litany to St. Dymphna, the patron saint of mental health, just in case.
“Yes, I believe so,” Father Vladimir repeated, suddenly livid at their situation. “We are trapped in a cliché. I had hoped if someone ever put me in a story I would be in something literary, not genre—some novel of ideas or lofty philosophical fiction. But two strangers trapped in a single point in space and time, waiting for Godot all eternity? Maybe this is purgatory…”
“Father,” Felix cut in. “I’m a Business major with an MBA. I’m not so deeply into Philosophy. I have no idea what you’re rambling about and, frankly, you’re scaring me.” He crossed himself silently and said another prayer to St. Dymphna. For good measure, he added another to the martyr St. Sebastian, the patron saint of cranky people.
“I… I’m sorry.” Fr. Vladimir apologized profusely. The young’s man’s worried tone had returned him to his senses. “It’s just that I have dedicated my life to words and meanings. If my absurdist conjecture was true, then this would be the equivalent of hell for me.”
“Hell on a bus? This is hell?” Felix asked. He hadn’t thought about that possibility. Now it became his turn to get upset. There were things that Felix had done in his life that he wasn’t proud of, and Catholic tradition wasn’t particularly kind to sinners. Besides, there was no truer hell for him than any place where his lost love wasn’t.
“This ride… this infernal ride has both of us undone,” the priest reflected. “Let us talk about more pleasant things instead. I myself love to read. Do you like to read, my young friend?”
“Sometimes,” Felix answered, fitfully. “Business books on my tablet mostly. It’s more convenient to read them in the toilet that way.”
“Touché,” Father Vladimir said, suddenly tired beyond belief and without a single word to say.
They remained silent after that. Felix felt his fellow passenger didn’t really converse, but rather lectured; Father Vladimir lamented the decline of Philosophy in an age of restless, clueless youth.
The young man looked out through the dark windows, searching for the moon or the stars, anything that would help him determine the passage of time. There was nothing in all directions but a desolate landscape, one that mirrored the hollowness in his soul. “Just take me away, my love,” he whispered, longingly, forgetting which saint reunited soul-mates and lovers.
After a while, the oppressive monotony of the road began to affect him. Without the company of his wife or the distraction of his phone, Felix’s mind started to root for something to do. Eventually, he decided to move back towards his companion and brave another conversation.
“Father, you mentioned Waiting for Godot earlier. I saw that play in college. Isn’t it the one about the two bums who wait for this guy who never shows? I remember it.”
“You do?” the old man said, his face lighting up. “Godot is a difficult work. Not everybody likes it. Why do you remember it?”
“My wife played one of the characters, the one called ‘Lucky.’ I could never forget it.”
“Is that so? Where is your wife now?” Father Vladimir asked.
Felix absentmindedly reached inside his bag. He squeezed the plastic with her shirt tenderly, before continuing in a pained, halting voice. “She died of leukemia a year ago. Her… her scent is still with me, though.”
He pulled out the precious, shrink-wrapped relic, and showed it to the priest. “It’s like I’ve vacuum packed her ghost.”
“I am so sorry to hear that, my son,” Father Vladimir said sadly. “And I am sorry for intruding on your personal life again.”
“No, it’s alright,” Felix said. “I like talking about her. It keeps her memory alive. Her life was all about that —keeping memories alive. She was an ethno-linguist. After we came back from the US, we traveled around the provinces collecting stories from indigenous tribes. She had wanted to record them all, before they faded away forever.”
“That is a worthy endeavor,” Father Vladimir said solemnly. “Oral traditions are important and they must be preserved.”
“That’s what she always told me,” the young man went on. “She used to dream about a giant computer somewhere in the clouds. It was a place where she could store all these dying stories. In my own dreams my wife keeps asking me to come and find her. I guess in a way I’ve been doing that ever since.”
“I have heard of such places,” the priest whispered, “at least in literature.”
“Anyway… getting back to Beckett,” Felix continued, somewhat embarrassed he had revealed so much. “I was thinking about what you said about synchronicity. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’m in a situation that’s just like the only play I can remember. I believe there’s some greater design at work here. In the tribal stories my wife collected, there’s always a man that goes on a quest to the land of the dead. Father, what if this wasn’t coincidence but synchronicity?”
“That’s… not how it works,” the priest said, “How do you know that what you perceive is true and not simply what you would like to see?” Besides, these Orpheus-type stories always end in tragedy. Haven’t you suffered enough? She’s dead, my son. Let her go.”
“I can’t do that, Father,” the young man said, turning towards the darkness. “I have nothing but my faith left. I’m… scared out of my mind… but I have faith that this bus is where I need to be right now. I also have faith that I will find my beloved Dolores again, no matter how long it takes me.”
“‘Dolores’—what a lovely name,” Father Vladimir noted. “It means ‘sorrow’ in Spanish, and your name ‘Felix’ means ‘happy’ in Latin. Happiness is searching for Sorrow. That is all so tragically poetic.”
Felix said nothing and excused himself. He couldn’t tell if the priest was being sympathetic or condescending. He grabbed his messenger bag and moved again to the rear of the bus. After he sat down, he took out his phone and removed the battery. He warmed it in his hands, praying to St. Jude to give him one last burst of power. He returned the battery to his phone and hit the power button. It was still dead.
The bus continued on in the darkness. There were no other stops.
After their third cycle of sleep, Felix finally saw something that looked like a destination, a gigantic tower looming in the distance. As they got closer he realized that it looked oddly familiar. In fact, it looked exactly like something from his childhood prayer books, a picture of the Tower of Babel.
“Incredible!” Father Vladimir exclaimed. “It is Brueghel the Elder’s painting come to life!”
The digital signboard above the driver flashed three times. The words changed from “Non-Stop” to “The Infinite Library.” Finally, the bus passed through the building’s soaring gates and came to a halt near a low parking garage. There a group of monkeys were waiting with a notice board. The sign read: “Welcome Father Vladimir of Estragon, SJ—Semiotician, Philosopher and Dream Bibliographer.”
“I guess this is our stop,” the priest said cautiously.
“Father, those monkeys are dressed like people,” Felix said. “Who are they? What are they? What is this place?”
“Hmmm…our bus says we are at a place called the Infinite Library,” Father Vladimir ventured.
“Those creatures… They seem to be expecting you,” Felix said. A pang of suspicion began to gnaw at his mind. “Did you know that we were headed here?”
“This is as much as a surprise to me as it is to you, my son,” the old man answered. “But as it happens, I do know where we are. I first read about this place a very long time ago, when I was but a child. My family had a complete set of the Anglo-American Cyclopedia. It was all there, in a thick volume for the letter ‘I’, along with ‘India,’ ‘Idiom’ and the ‘Immaculate Conception.’ I remember that the ‘Infinite Library’ is where all that has ever been written and all that will ever be written is recorded and preserved for all eternity. If that’s true, I cannot wait to step inside.”
The LED display flashed three times again before changing to “Please wait for the Return Bus.” All the lights powered down and the driver stepped out for a smoke. It was then that Felix realized that the man on the wheel was almost skeletally thin, a shadow of death himself.
The leader of the monkeys boarded the bus and greeted them in perfect, if archaic, English, one pregnant with meaning and epic formality. They extended an invitation for the old man to visit the library.
“I must follow my guides,” Father Vladimir said, collecting his luggage.
“What about me?” Felix asked. Though he was terrified of the strange creatures, the young man refused to be left alone in the dark. “You can’t leave me Father, please.”
“You chose Option 2, did you not? That means you have a return ticket. Just wait for the bus to be ready,” the priest reminded him. “My son, I’m afraid that your grief is still very much in denial. Your beloved wife is gone. This is not your story, go back to the real world. Find yourself someone else. Don’t let your tale end in tragedy.”
“No. There must be a reason I was brought here,” Felix insisted. “Take me with you, please. Someone here may know how to find Dolores.”
“Well… I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t,” Father Vladimir said, turning to ask the monkeys for permission. “However, if you miss your bus, you may not be able to go back.”
“I’ll take my chances,” the young man insisted.
“It’s a fair bet,” the priest said. “In a place like this, where only infinities matter, I suppose your bus can wait indefinitely.”
They stepped into the library together. The interior was even more massive than the building itself, with endless rows of galleries and hallways that seemed to extend all the way to the clouds. Each gallery, in turn, was connected by a multitude of pillars and spiral staircases that linked everything together into a gigantic labyrinth of knowledge.
Felix noted that each hall and gallery had a brass nameplate over its entranceway. He did a quick survey and read some labels at random: “English 51st Century Fiction,” “Flash Fiction,” “Algorithms and Equations,” “Internet Memes,” “19th Century Erotica,” “Maps and Cartographic Materials,” “Songs and Song Lyrics.” He could not find any sign for an Oral Traditions section. He tried to ask directions from the monkey guides, but each creature pointed to a different doorway.
Their motley group walked to the central rotunda from where each of the halls for the living languages radiated like spokes. They stepped into a mirror-like portal, and suddenly the signs in the library changed. Instead of language families, the two of them now passed row upon row of galleries dedicated to individual authors. Father Vladimir stopped by the entrance to one of these, a doorway with a brass plate that read: “The Works of Karl Rahner,” and spoke to one of the librarians.
Felix wondered where the priest’s own writings were located. From his companion’s great eloquence, he imagined that it would be a huge gallery. He tried to ask the librarian a few questions, but he seemed only interested in theological polemic. The strange man barely even acknowledged his presence.
Felix left the gallery and began to wander aimlessly through the labyrinth of books. Eventually he came across the room that housed Father Vladimir’s work. Unlike Rahner’s numerous lexicons, this collection consisted of only one bookshelf. There was a thick encyclopedia of dreams, and various books on Faith and Theodicy, as well as many slim folios investigating Liturgy, Charity and the Importance of Sacrifice. He noticed that for some reason there was not a single volume on Love. Felix wondered if the old priest had ever known true love.
He stepped into another mirror-like door and found that the hallway signs had changed to modes of communication. He was in a gallery called “The Cradle of Literature,” where to his delight there were hundreds of music players laid out neatly on the tables. He picked through the gramophones, walkmans, iPods, and strange listening devices that looked like quivering crystals, until he saw one whose power source was compatible with his phone. He pried the back cover open and removed the battery.
Just then a librarian came out of a side door and accosted him. “Sir, you are not allowed to do that,” she said. The young woman looked into the intruder’s face and her eyes widened in stunned recognition. “Oh, my God,” she whispered. “You… you found me.”
For what seemed like an eternity, Felix and the librarian stared at each other, not stirring, not talking; for fear that the other might disappear like a dream. They stood apart, separated by a hyperbolic space, as if they could not touch each other without shattering.
Finally his heart could bear no more, and the young man jumped towards his lost love. He gathered her in his strong arms. “Dolor,” he cried softly. “I’ve missed you so much.”
No words or explanations were needed. The two remained locked in an embrace, cocooned in the library’s strange twilight, when Father Vladimir and the bus driver found them.
“I am truly sorry to break you up,” the priest said, “but I am told that Felix has to go back now.”
“Can I stay, please?” he begged the bus driver. But the skeletal man just shook his head, his face impassive as chalcedony, as he pointed a bony hand towards the exit. Felix felt a shiver that chilled him to the marrow.
“Father, help me! We can’t lose each other again,” Felix cried, his tears flowing freely. He got down on his knees and took the priest’s hand. He whispered a silent prayer to his favorite, St. Jude, and to St. Raphael, whom he now remembered as the patron of soulmates and lovers. His mind composed a desperate canticle to his beloved saints, calling for their intercession, and the compassion of their sacred thaumaturgies. “You said my story shouldn’t end in tragedy,” he said to Father Vladimir. “You have the power to change that.”
The priest heaved a sigh and looked away into the distance. He seemed older, a man filled with the melancholy regret that came with age. “Have you seen my gallery?” he asked. “It’s not as big as I’d hoped. I suppose I still have much work to do before they compare me to Rahner. Right now I feel like that Kiev cake we ate on the bus, all filling and no substance. After watching you and your wife here, maybe I should go back and write about Love.”
Father Vladimir held onto the young man’s hand, contemplating the fragility of existence and the resilience of lovers.
“It’s my story that’s not yet complete,” he said, finally. “Give me your ticket, my son.”
Felix wiped the tears from his eyes, and fished the ticket from his pocket. He picked up the battery he had dropped and slipped it into his phone. It turned on with a full charge.
“This is a multi-band phone,” he said, as he handed it to the priest. “Wherever you are in the world it will pick up the nearest signal. You should be able to call for help. Thank you. Thank you so much!”
“I am a man of the cloth and a soldier to Ignatius. To give and not to count the cost is our motto,” Father Vladimir declared. “Besides, what fool would not do this for love? It trumps all religions and philosophies. Your Godot has come, my son. I must go and find mine.”
As he was about to leave, the old man started chuckling, out of character. He turned back towards Felix and said: “Do you know why your batteries ran out? You had your music playing in a nonstop loop.”
“Yes, I know, Father. I forgot to switch it off,” Felix answered. “I think I was listening to The Police.”
“How prescient,” Father Vladimir mused, as he read the album’s name from the phone’s music player. “Synchronicity.”
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Geetanjali Dighe. Geetanjali lives in Mumbai. She publishes IndianSF (IndianSF.wordpress.com), a bi-monthly magazine that features science fiction and fantasy stories. Her work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction and Muse India. On Twitter she is @GeetanjaliD.
This is the story’s first publication.
I am dying, Manohar. It’s been a long, hard life without you, but at least I met you in this life. Will I meet you on the other side? Will you be waiting for me, as you promised? thought Ratan, half-asleep, on the edge of death, in the middle of the night. Her old and wrinkled body lay on her warm bed.
The fabric of Ratan’s life began to tear, and the glow behind it poured out in rays. The tear stretched softly, like an old paper coming apart at its fibers, and through it a heavenly Goddess appeared by Ratan’s death-side. A Goddess with a glowing face, a golden orb around her head, four arms; and clad in a beautiful red sari decked with golden borders.
“Remember, the wise see only the truth in the mirror, Ratan,” the Goddess said. Mirror? How odd, thought Ratan. “Seek the truth.” The Goddess smiled and beckoned her with outstretched hands.
A dream-like haze came over Ratan, and she barely felt the tug as she came apart, unglued from her body. She quietly died in her sleep. It was the year 2009. She was 95.
When she opened her eyes, she was sitting on a cot in her backyard, outside her house in the village. Manohar’s brown horse, Chetak, was lazily nibbling grass by the guava tree.
A policeman shimmered beside her. He smiled and said in the most gentle way, “Namaste, Ratan. I am your guide. I thought you might find it comfortable to meet me in this attire.”
“Namaste,” Ratan got up and smiled. “Yes. Manohar, my husband, was a Sub-Inspector. He was killed by a dacoit in the jungle when my children were very young.” She paused. “He is here, isn’t he?” she asked gingerly, looking around.
“Ratan,” the guide said, very lovingly, “Manohar as you remember him is not here with us.” Ratan gasped. “This cycle of life and death – it’s an illusion. It’s a kind of art that you have created and loved. Here, there is only Oneness. Many beings choose to discard their identities once they reach here and coalesce into this one truth – this Oneness.”
“No. No. You must be mistaken!” Ratan sat down stunned. “Manohar promised if anything ever happened to him, he would wait for me, meet me when I died. He said so to me himself that morning, when he rode off to catch that dacoit in the jungle. He never came back.” Ratan started sobbing. “I cried for him my whole life. I had to raise five children all on my own. He promised he’d be here.”
“Dear child, this sadness is just your memory. It’s not real,” said the guide.
“Oh! If I could get just one glimpse of him!” Ratan wept.
“Look around you, these surroundings – your body, your tears – they aren’t real.”
Ratan held up her hand. It started to become transparent. She could see Chetak through her hand, and as she watched, the horse started to dissolve. Bewildered, she wiped her tears, but she could not feel her face.
“Have I become a ghost?” she asked and looked for a mirror.
“I am afraid mirrors aren’t allowed in this realm,” the guide said. “Here there is only Oneness. When it is reflected, it creates some resonant infinities that are difficult to attenuate.”
“What?” Ratan remembered something about the Goddess and mirrors. “But I want to see myself.”
Pop! As if on command, her beautiful Burma wood dresser appeared beside them. It was intricately carved, her case of perfumes lay next to the bronze jewelry box; but in place of the full-length oval mirror was an impossibly deep hole.
The guide sighed, and waited. Ratan walked up to the dresser and looked at the mirror. It was a dark tunnel – a hole of nothingness. Puzzled, she peered into it.
It was as if she had dipped her head in an ocean, and was looking at underwater corals. Except that the coral and the seabed were a boiling burning mass, molten and heaving.
Ratan pulled her head quickly out of the mirror. “What happened? What was that?” she said. “Tell me the truth, was that hell?”
“No. It was Aldebaran. You peered into a star,” the guide said.
“You are not in space-time now. You are in another plane – a plane of consciousness. It’s like a dimension… mirrors are gateways to different dimensions here. Let me explain,” said the strange guide. “You can now access any universe, any time, all lives and probabilities. They all exist, in all their possibilities, alongside, beside, below, and above each other. You can jump to any time, any space, any universe.”
“You mean there are parallel universes?”
“Is there a universe where Manohar wasn’t killed?”
“How do I find it?”
“You can look into the mirror and choose.”
“Choose?” Ratan was bewildered, but quickly put her head into the mirror. Sure enough, she saw herself at a function where Manohar was being made the Deputy Commissioner of Police. She saw them living their long life together, and felt all their moments strung out like pearls. She could wear them as an ornament. She pulled back out of the mirror.
“So, by going into the mirror, I can create any life for myself?” She asked.
“Yes, but all those worlds are an illusion – they are Maya. The truth is Oneness,” the guide said.
“But, then, if this is all Oneness, how am I still talking to you?”
“Are you really?”
“Am I talking to myself, then?”
Her voice seemed to echo in the silence.
“Did I create the guide and the Goddess? Is all this my own imagination? Who am I?”
Who wants to know? came her own reply.
Then Ratan looked at the self inside herself. She was now, never and forever, here, there, everywhere and nowhere. She was the reflection mirrored in myriad lives and worlds and times. She was the mirror reflecting herself. Ratan mirrored and saw Manohar. He was her. There were not two, was no other, only awareness. There was only Oneness.
But I can still choose. I can love Manohar, one more time. I can see Manohar come home, riding on Chetak, one more time. Just this once, Ratan thought, and with a quick step, walked through the mirror and plunged into the tunnel.
It was 1914. In the green, misty monsoon dawn, a group of people were on a morning walk in the village, singing patriotic songs, holding candles for the freedom movement. That morning, in that village, Ratan came kicking and crying into the world. Again.
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Indrapramit Das. Indrapramit is a writer and artist from Kolkata, India, currently living in Vancouver, Canada. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Apex Magazine, Redstone Science Fiction and Breaking the Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Ramayana (Zubaan Books, India), among others. He also writes reviews for publications including Slant Magazine and Strange Horizons, and comics for ACK Media. He has an MFA degree from the University of British Columbia, which he uses as a small tablemat while pretending to be an adult. To find out more, visit http://flavors.me/indra_das or follow him on Twitter (@IndrapramitDas).
The story was first published in the November 2011 issue of Redstone Science Fiction.
Looking the Lopai in the Eyes
by Indrapramit Das
Earth almost looks like home, from here. Brilliant blue, cloud-clothed. More visible land-masses, but otherwise strikingly similar. But Alwaea knows it will be very different. She touches the cold window, tracing with her finger the sun-brightened curve of the planet her genes were forged in. The planet that decided, so long ago, what she would look like, right down to the pattern of spirals on her fingertip, delicately imprinted on the glass.
Alwaea knows that Earth did not decide who she would become, and that is all she has. Her hand is trembling.
She is the Ambassador, she tells herself. She was chosen for this.
She will soon meet the governments of all the countries that sent their diaspora across the galaxy to populate her home. She cannot imagine the myriad cultures, the clashing languages, the opposing ideologies, the boiling throng of violent discord she understands Earth to be. She can barely imagine a planet inhabited by billions of humans, when her world has yet to host even a million.
When she first saw Earth through the windows, it almost felt like she hadn’t slept for years, nurtured by robots while her vessel folded space around itself. It felt like she hadn’t left at all. But the closer she comes to the planet, the more different it seems. The glass squeaks as Alwaea runs her fingers across it. This time she traces them along the shorelines she can now see below the clouds. In her mind, they evoke the Earth-map of hundreds of countries she had studied when she was younger, so different from the undivided canvas of her world’s supercontinent. The map had confused her, especially when her mother told her it was obsolete because of temporal distance and shifting politics.
Alwaea’s home is one world, and one country. She represents a single government, though her people have a different word for it.
She closes her eyes and thinks of the vast open spaces of her world. Of staring into the crafty yellow eyes of the Lopai on her nineteenth birthday, winter-breath lit up by the sister stars. She had locked her arms around its horns and rammed her booted feet onto its simian hands, hard enough to shock but not to break. She had wrestled the devil of the steppes to the ground, snow turning to slush underneath them, and she had let go and spoken one of the twenty words the Lopai speaks, one that her mother had taught her. She had watched it run from her on all fours, graceful muscles rippling and horns lowered sideways in submission, its long tail a whiplash against the white ground. She had laughed at the wet red of her hands, when she touched her bloody face.
Alwaea opens her eyes, and she is still shaking. She has never been this afraid in her life.
She opens the envelope in her hand, takes out the letter inside. It is from her mother, who was also Ambassador. It has been years since she handed it to Alwaea on the surface of their world. The vacuum seal of the locker it was in has kept it from weathering. The handmade paper is still crisp, if a little warped. She can even smell the overwhelmingly familiar fruit-sweet traces of pyrap musk her mother wore as perfume, hiding under the smoky scent of brewed ink. Alwaea has waited for all of her voyage to read the letter, as she was told to. She reads it aloud, so the whispered words reverberate in the cramped landing capsule.
“Don’t let them look down on us, Alwaea, like they did to me. You’re far stronger than I. Show them how we’ve grown, and show us how you’ve grown. Come back with our independence in your hands.”
Alwaea’s chest tightens to see her mother’s slanted handwriting again, after this endless voyage of cold sleep. She should feel fury at the letter, the way it leaves no room for failure, no room for concern, even. But she thinks of the time her mother sat in a capsule much like this one, approaching Earth, both her parents long dead from pre-vaccine contagions. Her mother, who came to Earth and failed at diplomacy, failed to show its nations that her home no longer needed to be called a colony but a world of its own.
No, Alwaea thinks. Light-years away from home, she cannot remain angry at the woman who taught her to tame the devil of the steppes, to look the Lopai in the eyes, the woman who had kissed her bloody forehead and come away with lips red to show her pride. Alwaea knows that her mother might no longer be alive by the time she returns to her world. But she will bring their independence with her all the same.
Alwaea puts the letter in her lap. Earth comes closer, little by little, the sun glaring off the mirrors of its oceans. Her people’s motherworld, still beautiful despite its age. Yes. Alwaea will show Earth how they’ve grown in the solitude of another constellation. She realizes she is no longer shaking.
Alwaea touches her face. Her palms come away wet, and she laughs.
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Bojan Ratković. Bojan is an aspiring writer from Serbia, currently living and working in Ontario, Canada. He has a Master’s degree in political science from Brock University in Ontario, Canada and he is currently pursuing a PhD degree in political philosophy from the University of Western Ontario, in London, Ontario.
“Battleflag” was inspired by Bojan’s own personal experiences during the civil war in the Former Yugoslavia. This is its first publication.
They rang out all night, the bombs and the missiles. They do most nights. The world shook and trembled and the ground swelled with falling rubble. Older folks say the sound reminds them of fireworks. They had fireworks in the former times — they would shoot up and light up the skies with bursts of color and everyone would look up, and their eyes would glimmer. No one looks at the skies anymore — the sound of fireworks is the sound of death.
Older folks still talk about the former times, but those are just stories… fairy tales. The bombs are real, the sewers are real, the death and the putrid smell are real, and the rest are fairy tales. This world — their world — is their tomb.
Mornings are a time for weeping, weary faces, and empty silence.
A time for cleanup.
Blasts from the night before tore the roof into pieces and the main bunker was in a shambles. A metal pipe snapped off the wall and killed an older woman in her bed. Everyone worked on cleanup that day. Two boys carried the corpse into the sewer tunnels. The sewers are where all of them end up, eventually.
A tomb within a tomb.
The boys wiggled their way into a narrow corridor and forced the stretcher in behind them. “Which smells better, Wynn? The sewers, or last night’s dinner?” One of the boys grinned, his parted lips revealing chipped, rotting teeth. The dead woman was hoisted up on a stretcher, her cold face covered with a sheet.
“This ain’t the time for jokes, Donny,” Wynn Caden said without turning around. He was a tall, lanky boy of nineteen and he towered over his shorter companion. “But if I really had to guess, I’d say your breath tops it all.” He pressed on, holding up the stretcher from the front and marching forward, knee-deep in muck and waste. Donny tried to keep up, pushing the stretcher from the back and staggering through the filth — thick in smell and texture. The air of the sewers made his throat convulse.
“How’s your li’l sis, Wynn? She okay?” Donny asked as they squirmed their way through a bend in the pipes.
“She’s holding up,” Wynn said and hawked a big slab of spit into the waste below. The yellowish-green slime floated up in the dark water, and Wynn could see a hint of blood in the mixture. “I don’t know how she does it, but she’s holding up.”
“How old is she now?” Donny pressed forward as the flicker of fluorescent tubes grew dimmer, and the darkness thickened.
“Turning ten next month,” Wynn said. A strong desire to barf clawed at him from deep inside the gut, but he clenched his teeth and swallowed down on the sickness.
Donny smiled as muck splashed against his beaten clothes. “Ten already? She’s growin’ up quick. How old was she when your parents died?”
“Not yet two.”
“Whoa… it’s been a long time.”
“It’s been forever. How’s your pop doin’?” Wynn took a big step forward, careful not to slip and tumble into the liquid dung below. The stench was now worse — at first it scarred the nostrils, and then, after a while, it numbed them completely.
“Not too good, pal. I know he’ll end up down here too, like old Mrs. Dorin.” Donny glanced sympathetically at the woman’s corpse, frowned, and turned away. “Sometime soon.”
“Don’t think that way, Donny. You can’t.”
Donny shrugged. “I ain’t got much of a choice, pal. It is what it is, and I guess that’s how it’s gotta be.”
Wynn stopped and turned around. He searched for Donny’s face in the darkness. “Hey, you already know what I’m gonna say, don’t ya? Either we stand and fight our way out of this goddamned pit or we give up, lie down and wait for the rats to eat us. I’d rather fight. You should, too.”
“Sure, Wynn. If you say so.” Donny looked away, eyes swelling.
“Don’t lose faith, Donny. It’s the only thing they couldn’t take from us — it’s all we’ve got left.” Wynn whispered, and then they walked in silence, listening to the splatter of the water and the scurrying of rodents.
Just ahead, deep in the darkness, there was a hole in the pipes. The boys walked carefully to the edge and lowered the corpse. On the count of three, they swung the stretcher and dropped the dead woman into the blackness below. The body tumbled down the pit, and then there was a single deep splash. “Goodbye, Mrs. Dorin,” Wynn said, and Donny mouthed a prayer. They turned and headed back.
* * *
They made their way back through the sewers, slowly climbing to the bunker’s main floor. Suddenly, Donny jerked his head upward. He heard something beyond the buzzing and twitching of florescent lights — it was a steady, rattling sound.
“Something’s up,” Donny said.
They moved closer. They could hear a commotion coming from up ahead. Not the usual kind of commotion: the terror, the screaming, the panic. This was different… this was something else.
Donny dropped his end of the stretcher and rushed forward. Wynn pushed the contraption aside and followed. As they emerged from the sewer pipes, they saw that a large crowd had gathered on the main floor. They were talking loudly, and some were even laughing.
“Someone’s here, Wynn! Someone’s here from up top. Let’s go see.” Donny took off, and Wynn leapt after him. They squirmed through the mass of people and hurried to the front of the crowd.
“They’re coming, Wynn! My dear boy, they’re coming to save us!” A tiny, pale woman with burn marks on her face grabbed Wynn by the shirtsleeve, her voice cracking.
Wynn’s eyes widened. “Who’s coming, Betty? Who’s coming to save us?”
“Battleflag! Our boys from Battleflag are coming! They’re gonna free the city. They sent word. Thank the good Lord, Wynn! Thank the good Lord!”
“But who… Who’s here from up top?” Wynn pushed himself up by his toes, fighting to see. There was some movement ahead of him, and then he felt the push of a dozen bodies.
The residents of the bunker swarmed forward until they had formed a tight circle around one thin, ailing man who used a walking stick to keep from falling over. His skin was dirty and scarred; his hair wild and greasy. From his darkened face hung a patchy, rugged beard covered in dirt. He wore the gray uniform of the surface rebels.
“My friends, listen up! Listen up, friends! Everyone, please, listen here!” A thick man with a harsh voice screamed, his arms flailing through the air. He made his way to the front, then stood beside the stranger and gestured for calm. The crowd settled around him and slowly the noise subsided. The man was Commander Marcus, the bunker chief.
Wynn was shoved and he shoved back, determined to keep his place at the front of the crowd. Donny was there too, his eyes gleaming. Lieutenant Marcus took a deep breath, his chest growing, and then continued:
“My friends and fellow residents of Bunker 13-A, the man standing before us is Captain Rom Ashe of Battleflag. He comes to us with an important message from his headquarters in the north. He has asked me to deliver this message to you, the good people of Bunker 13-A.”
The stranger nodded and tilted his body to the side, briefly revealing the black and gold insignia of the Battleflag rebel group sewn to the side of his jacket. There was a collective gasp from the crowd. Moments later, all were silent.
Lieutenant Marcus wiped the sweat from his wrinkled brow, then unfolded a large piece of paper and began to read:
“The High Command of the Battleflag Resistance Corps wishes to inform the people of the Red Zone, and particularly the residents of Bunker 13-A — the largest civilian shelter for the Red Zone — that major operations intended to liberate them and the entire region from the brutal tyranny of the Forefathers are now under way. Battleflag has committed all of its resources to the Red Zone Offensive, which will put an end to the death and destruction brought on by the Forefathers and their inhuman regime. The brunt of the offensive is set to begin within the next twenty-four hours. We advise you, the residents of the Red Zone, to stay put and await further instructions.”
Lieutenant Marcus finished reading, cleared his throat, and folded up the paper. After a brief, stunned silence a mighty cheer rang up from the crowd and echoed through the bunker like a blast wave. The residents cheered, clapped their hands, and some giggled like schoolchildren on Christmas morning. For the first time in a long time, Wynn felt hopeful. He smiled and his eyes sparkled with uncried tears.
“They’re coming, Wynn! It’s true!” Donny embraced his friend.
“Battleflag…” Wynn, still dazed, returned the hug. A single tear trickled down his cheek.
* * *
In a matter of minutes, the entire bunker was animated and many were drinking. One man held a crude, handmade guitar and he tugged at the strings softly. A crowd had gathered around him, laughing and singing and dancing.
All were overcome with emotion. All, that is, but one man — the man in uniform, the stranger. He just stood there, quietly leaning against the wall and propping himself up with the walking stick. Every once in a while the residents would walk up to him and offer their hands — he gave each a single firm pump, and sent them on their way. He smiled once or twice, but it was a distant, empty smile.
“Donny,” Wynn snapped. “I have to find my sister. I have to find Nellie.” He shook his friend by the shoulders.
Donnie laughed and nodded. “I saw her playin’ with the other kids, outside the gen-room. You go get her, Wynn. Go tell her!”
* * *
A few yards from the closed doors of the generator room, some of the bunker children busied themselves with their usual pastimes. The boys kicked rocks and fallen debris around and chucked them at the walls playfully. The girls played hopscotch at a safe distance from the boys. Wynn ran past the smaller groups of people that had formed around the edges of the larger crowd, and leapt across the main level of the shelter until he reached the grayish-white walls of the gen-room. There, he saw his sister.
“Nellie, get over here!” Wynn shouted and waved.
The small girl turned. “Winnie!” she screamed, and threw herself into her brother’s arms.
“I told you not to call me that,” Wynn said and held her close, the girl’s long black hair tickling his face.
“Tough luck, Winnie,” she whispered, then giggled.
“I love you, sis.”
She pulled away and looked up at him, her hair draped over her shoulders. “Love you too, bro.” She smiled. “Did you hear? The other kids said that the rebels are coming to save us. Do you think it’s true?”
“I hope so, Nellie. I really do.”
“Me too!” She jumped back into his arms and squeezed tighter. He squeezed back.
* * *
By the afternoon things had settled down and many of the drinkers had drunk themselves to sleep. Donny was slouched over a garbage can, half-conscious, his insides revolting against the oily bunker gin. Once his stomach settled, Donny would sleep it off as he always did. For Wynn, drinking bunker gin was like drinking turpentine, and he couldn’t stand the stuff.
The stranger was now sitting on a small wooden chair not far from where he had been standing. The walking stick was resting on the ground by his feet. He stared blankly into nothing, taking quick, rhythmic puffs of a dwindling cigarette. The bunker folks had left him to his thoughts.
Wynn saw his chance. He approached the man and held out his hand. “Captain, thank you for coming, sir,” he said and smiled.
The man in uniform tilted his head, nodded, and shook the boy’s hand.
“My name’s Wynn, sir, and I really appreciate it. I know you risked your life to get here.”
“Wynn…” the Captain said softly.
“Wynn Caden, sir.”
“Wynn Caden,” the Captain took another puff of the cigarette and calmly rubbed his chin. “Pull up a chair.”
“I’m Rom. Pleased to meet you, young man.” The man took another puff and blew a thick ring of smoke into the air. It floated upward and dissolved quickly, the residue flowing into the air vents.
“Pleased to meet you, sir.”
“You’re the computer kid, right?”
Wynn’s pale face lit up. “Yes, sir. I’ve been helping the rebels for two years now.”
“Yes, of course. You took down the Oakridge Power Station last Fall.”
“I had a lot of help,” Wynn muttered.
“Of course, of course. Good work, son.” He flicked the cigarette away. It died a slow death on the bunker floor.
“Thank you, sir,” Wynn said.
“So Wynn, do you have any family here?” the man asked, his eyes staring off into the distance.
“Only a sister. She’s turning ten next month”
“You takin’ care of her?”
“Yes, sir.” Wynn nodded.
“Good, good. You been alone a long time?”
“More than eight years now. Our parents died in the first uprising.”
The man sighed. “I’m very sorry.”
“There was a raid in our neighborhood, and we were caught in the crossfire.” Wynn paused and took a deep breath. “They died protecting us.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” The man shook his head and leaned over slightly in his chair.
“Yeah. It’s been a long time, you know? Some rebels found me and my sister hiding in a ditch and brought us here, to the bunker. We’ve been here ever since. That’s about it.” The boy’s voice was dry and it cracked as he spoke.
The Captain placed his hand on Wynn’s shoulder. “It’s a tragic story, but a story I hear all too often.”
Wynn bit down on his lip and held back the tears. It took effort. “Have you eaten, Captain?”
The man shook his head, disinterested.
“I’ll bring you some lunch,” Wynn said and flew off his chair before the man could protest. Moments later, the boy returned with canned beans and cracker bread for two. They popped the cans open and scarfed the food down.
“Thanks very much, son,” the man said after he was finished. “So, how’s your sister doing? She’s only ten, you said?”
“Yes. She’s holding up. Some of the women here volunteer to watch the children during the day. Nellie’s with them now.”
“That’s real good.”
“Yeah,” Wynn said and laughed. “I promised I’d read to her later. I do most nights.”
The man nodded and forced a smile, but there was a profound sadness in his eyes. “Wynn…” he whispered after a lengthy pause. “Do you think it’ll ever end?”
“The war, sir? I don’t know.” Wynn lowered his head.
“Do you still hope?” the man asked, his eyes swelling.
“And what about those other days?”
“Those days are hell.” Wynn said and frowned.
There was a long, heavy silence.
“Let me ask you something, Wynn,” the man said finally, raising his head. “If you could help turn the tide of it all, would you?”
“Of course I would, sir. In a heartbeat.”
The man nodded. “And would you give your life for the cause knowing that your sacrifice would give others a fighting chance?”
Wynn thought of his sister. “I wouldn’t hesitate.”
“Then listen closely, son,” the man said and the corner of his mouth ticked up. “There’s something I have to tell you.”
For the first time since he arrived, the man seemed lively and alert. He leaned forward in his chair and the boy sensed a sudden change in the Captain’s demeanor. Wynn saw the man’s ancient face transform, betraying a slight glimpse of youth.
“As you know, this whole mess started with the Augustine Wars some thirty years ago. I’m in my fifties now, though I look a lot older than that, but I was around your age when the damned thing first got going. Everything before that we call the former times.
“By the time the war was over, the fate of many nations rested in the hands of weak leaders and weaker governments. Twelve of this country’s most powerful generals decided to take matters into their own hands, and their armies marched on our cities.
“The twelve generals dubbed themselves The Forefathers, prophets of a new era — the age of discipline and hard work. In reality, it was the age of slavery. As people starved to death on the streets of our cities, the tyrants poured everything worth a lick into the source of their power — the army. We had no running water and no electricity while the army spent our wages on newer and deadlier weapons — weapons they would then turn back on us. The army became judge, jury, and executioner. The Forefathers became gods.”
Wynn nodded but didn’t speak.
“Then came the first uprising.” The Captain slapped his bad leg with the palm of his hand. “It was a long fight, a good fight, but in the end the tyrants proved too strong and the whole thing went to hell.” He wiped the sweat off his brow with the back of his sleeve. “We’re four years into the second uprising now. So many are dead, so many are suffering…”
“But the Red Zone Offensive is coming — that’s why you’re here, isn’t it? We’re gonna turn the tide now, I know it.” Wynn flung his arms in the air and gestured toward the whole of the bunker. “We’ll fight our way out of here soon, I… I just know it.”
The Captain breathed a heavy sigh and lowered his head, shaking. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this… maybe I feel you have the right to know, or maybe I just need to get it off my chest.”
Wynn studied the man’s smirk.
“There are spies here, Wynn,” the Captain mumbled, his face downcast and his eyes fixed on the floor. “There are spies in Bunker 13-A.”
“Spies?” Wynn snapped, stunned.
“Yes, informants for the tyrants.”
The boy shook his head. “No way! That… that’s not true.”
“It is,” the Captain whispered, not looking up.
“That’s impossible,” the boy protested. “I know everyone in here, and there are no spies. All of us are…”
“The spies are here, Wynn,” the man interrupted. “We’ve confirmed it.”
“But… but…” Wynn struggled with his words. “But you told all these people about the Red Zone Offensive. You told them that Battleflag is coming to save us, didn’t you? Why? Why did you say it in front of the spies? Why would you do that?” The boy’s cheeks turned hot and his voice cracked painfully.
The man shrugged his shoulders. “I asked you before if you would give your life for the cause knowing it could help turn the tide. You told me that you wouldn’t hesitate.”
The boy made no reply.
“You said that when the day came to make the sacrifice, you wouldn’t think twice about laying down your life so that others may live. Isn’t that right, Wynn?”
The boy leapt from his chair. “Of course I said it, and I meant it. I would do anything for the cause! You don’t believe me?”
“No, that’s not it,” the man said, smiling a sickly smile. “What I mean to say is that the day for sacrifice has arrived. Today is that day.”
* * *
Wynn stood there for a moment, frozen. He felt a grueling chill creep up his spine. A single drop of cold sweat shot down the nape of his neck and dripped over his back. “What are you talking about, Captain?” he said finally.
The man was perfectly calm. He looked up at Wynn, their eyes meeting for the first time in what seemed like forever. “Battleflag has the nuke. Did you know that?”
“I’ve heard rumors, sure.”
“Yes,” the man nodded with pride. “We snatched up a few warheads last summer, from the Stadt Air Force Base.”
Wynn’s mouth flew open. “So it’s true, then?”
“Yes, it’s true. The tyrants don’t believe that we have the capability to deploy them. But Wynn my boy, they’re wrong.”
“So then we’ll nuke them, right?”
The man shrugged again. “This war has gone on for far too long. You weren’t here for all of it, but you can see the horror, can’t you? So many are suffering — dying — every single day.”
“Yeah, but what are you getting at?” Wynn’s teeth rattled as he spoke. The man was starting to bug him now — bug him profoundly — and he clenched his fists almost instinctively.
“They think we’re attacking the Red Zone at dawn,” the Captain said, grinning. “They’ve sent everything they’ve got to defend it. They think they’re really gonna get us this time, Wynn, but they’re wrong.”
Wynn opened his mouth to speak but couldn’t.
The man wobbled his head back and forth, his arms shaking. “You asked me if we’ll nuke them. We will. We’ll hit them where it’ll do the most damage—we’ll nuke the Red Zone.”
“WHAT?” Wynn erupted, his eyes burning red. “You’re gonna nuke here? You’re gonna nuke us?”
“We have no choice,” the man said, still shaking. “This is our chance to save millions — our last chance. They’ve put all their eggs in one basket — they’ve sent everything they’ve got right here. This is our chance to take them out in one fell swoop — our chance to end the war!”
Wynn took a quick step forward. “So what then, you’re just gonna kill us? You’re gonna kill all of these people?” He swung his outstretched arms across the bunker. “You can’t!”
Instantly, the Captain jumped from his chair and seized Wynn by the collar. “Keep it down, son,” he whispered through clenched teeth. “You’ll start a panic in here. Do you really think there’s another way — any other way at all? I’m in the Red Zone too, Wynn, and I’m not going anywhere. I’m here because I know the sacrifice I have to make — the sacrifice that all of us have to make — here today in this bunker.”
Wynn stepped back, trembling. “You’re a liar, you hear? A dirty liar. You… you…”
“Keep it down,” the Captain said and tightened his hold on the boy. “You told me you were prepared to sacrifice your life for the cause, didn’t you? You told me you would gladly die so that others may live, didn’t you? That’s exactly what you’re going to do — what we’re all going to do.”
“But what about these people, these innocent people? They deserve to live, don’t they? Who’s gonna fight for them?” Wynn paused, holding back tears. “Who’s gonna fight for my sister?”
“We’re fighting for all the sisters and mothers and daughters. We’re fighting for all the sons and fathers and brothers, too,” the man pressed, the aging muscles in his face twitching. “We’re fighting for the future of this world!”
Wynn laughed maniacally. “You’ve lost your mind, pal. You really have!” He turned to the vast expanse of the bunker. “Dear God, I’ve got to tell these people who — what — you really are!”
The man cocked his head to the side, his eyes scanning the length of the bunker. “You can tell them if you’d like, but it’s too late. It’s been too late since before I got here. Listen…” He pressed his ear to the wall. “Do you hear it? Do you hear the roar of their armies? An endless parade of tanks, batteries, harvesters, and infantry transports is thundering above our heads at this very moment. They’ve sent everything they’ve got at us. Tonight is the last night of their tyranny, the last night of the war. ”
Wynn began to cough. It was a wet, whooping cough and when he was done, he could taste blood in his mouth. “I… I have to tell them. I have to tell these people. We have to do something!”
“There’s nothing we can do, son.” The man frowned and turned away, releasing the boy from his grip. “Our sacrifice will end this war, and that’s the way it has to be. If you ask me, these people are right to celebrate.”
“Celebrate their deaths? How can you do this? You call yourselves rebels? You’re nothing but murderers!” The boy’s voice was now a desperate screech.
“We didn’t have a choice, Wynn. Can’t you see that? They’ve got spies everywhere. They’ve known about our plans to launch an offensive in the Red Zone for months. What do you think would happen if we went through with it? They would have slaughtered us.”
“So don’t go through with it. You don’t have to kill these people!” Wynn cried, his palms cold and sweating.
“And what do you think will happen to all of you if we call it off? Face it, Wynn, the location of this bunker is no secret. Not anymore. The tyrants know exactly where you are and how to get to you. If we call it off now, they’ll storm in here and butcher every single one of you. Can you imagine what they’d do to you — what they’d do to your sister?” He sighed deeply. “I’m sorry, son, I really am, but it’s the only way.”
Wynn’s face twitched and the lower half of his body felt numb, distant. “The only way? Death is the only way?” His lips trembled as he spoke.
The man nodded. “It’ll all be over in an instant. There will be no pain, no suffering. Not anymore. When it happens, you won’t feel a thing.”
“We never had a chance… Dear God, we never had a chance!” Wynn dropped to his knees, the world crumbling before his eyes. He fought against the woozy darkness that clawed at the back of his eyes.
“Don’t pass out, son,” the man said and shook the boy by the shoulders. “Look at this place. Take a good freakin’ look. We’re in hell already — this is hell — so how much worse can death be?”
Wynn was silent. Tears ran down his cheeks in steady streams, oozing past his chin and dripping on the cement below.
“You’re really gonna kill us, aren’t you?” Wynn sobbed, his voice now only a whimper. “We’re all gonna die here tonight.”
“No, son,” the Captain smiled, his face scarred by a lifetime of pain. “Tyranny dies tonight! As for us, tonight we’re free — free forever.”
Wynn stopped listening. “I promised my sister… I promised I’d read to her.”
“Now’s as good a time as any,” the Captain said and sat back down in his chair.
Wynn turned away. He stumbled back through the concrete frame of the bunker and toward the filth of the sewers. He felt lightheaded and weak, his knees nearly folding under the pressure of his steps. To the folks of the bunker, Wynn Caden looked like another kid with too much gin in his system. They ignored the tortured expression on his face, and the bloody terror in his eyes. Once in the sewers and out of sight, Wynn felt his insides bubble up and he puked, half-digested beans and blood jetting from his aching gut. Then he wept.
* * *
It was well past nightfall by the time Wynn pulled himself together. He staggered slowly toward Nellie’s sleeping quarters — one step at a time, one foot after the other. He passed Donny on the way, keeled over on his side and hugging the garbage can. At that moment, Wynn envied him.
Nellie was already in bed and waiting for her brother. Wynn embraced her and held her close, hiding his sorrow behind a smile. He grabbed an old story book from beneath the mattress and flipped through it until he came upon a tale they both loved. He was reading about Peter Pan and the land where children never grow old when it hit.
They didn’t feel a thing.
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Nick Wood. Nick is a South African writer, currently resident in London, UK. Nick has published a YA SF book in South Africa entitled The stone chameleon, as well as about a dozen short stories in venues such as Infinity Plus, Interzone, PostScripts, Albedo One and AfroSF. He has also published and presented on (South) African speculative fiction in general. Nick is a member of the Clockhouse London Writers group and can be found at http://nickwood.frogwrite.co.nz/ , where (amongst other things), he is touting his second novel (tentatively titled Azanian Bridges.)
This is the story’s first publication.
Case Notes of a Witchdoctor
He’d reached the age where he’d seen it all—liars, psychopaths, the neurotic… and the completely insane. Psychosis it was, though, that still just about held his interest.
Like the young black man in front of him, sitting and grimacing, but trying hard not to tilt his head. He has some insight, then, not wanting to reveal a listening attitude in the silence of the sickly yellow room.
Not enough insight, though.
Mark spoke, to put the young man out of his misery.
“I’m afraid you’re going to have to stay in for the weekend, Kolile.” (Try as he would, he’d never been able to make the correct click on the X in Xolile’s name.)
This time he could see he had the patient’s full attention. “Please, asseblief doctor, I need to go home this weekend.”
Mark played with the orange government biro on the open folder between them, feeling a little bored, a little helpless. There was a limit to what he could do—and it was Friday afternoon, with rush-hour traffic no doubt building early along De Waal drive.
He took the pen and wrote with finality in the psychiatric notes—Provisional Diagnosis: Psychosis. Keep in for further observation.
He looked up. Xolile was sitting rigid, staring behind him.
Despite himself, Mark turned, to see the thick door and blank wall. He dropped his hand away from the panic button underneath his desk.
“What do you see, Kolile?” he smiled reassuringly and with certainty, keen to wrap up the consultation quickly now.
The young man looked him squarely in the eyes, as if oblivious to customary respectful gaze avoidance for his elders.
“An old white man,” he said. “I think he may be your father.”
Mark laughed then, loudly. His father had been dead three years.
He stood up: “You’ll feel better after a weekend in, on your medication. The staff are very good here.”
The young man stood up and held his gaze, until tears leaked from his eyes and he looked down.
“Please,” he said, “my mother needs me. I am sick, yes, but I think it is because the ancestors call me.”
Mark hesitated; he’d been reminded of caring for his own mother, for a good many months after dad’s death.
“Why do they call you?” he asked, cursing himself for delaying on what was surely a certain decision, but looking for a hidden delusionary system.
“To become a healer too, like you,” Xolile said, his voice muffled in the blue overalls, head bowed. Mark realised abruptly that the young man’s head was bowed to hide his tears.
“We shall see,” he said, opening the door. Staff Nurse Dumisane, who’d been waiting outside in respect for psychological confidentiality, came in and ushered the young man out.
Mark nodded goodbye and closed the door.
Friday at last, Friday, fucking Friday. The surf must be pumping at Kommetjie by now. Time to wash the working week off him in that frenzied cold water.
He closed the file on his desk; Xolile Ngubane. Shut.
He’d seen so many tears, so much snot en trane, this was no different.
But Xolile’s presence didn’t seem to have fully left the room. Mark could almost smell the lingering pain of his tears, the sourness of his body odour, his leaking desperation.
Still, he had seen it all. He picked up the file to leave the room.
“Where are you going, son?”
Mark dropped the file, having half-opened the door with his right hand. He peered back into the room, scanning the walls, the psychometric test cupboard, the desk, underneath the desk…
He stopped himself. Stupid, stupid, he really just needed a rest; it had been a hell of a week.
No one to go home to, though. Sharon had left eight months ago, and he’d left Jo’burg over a year ago now, to get away from a needy mother. There had been lots of leavings, with so few greetings anymore.
He picked up the file and sighed. At least the sea didn’t judge him. Muizenberg soon with a boogie board maybe, for, actually, he felt like a warmer and gentler swim. So, home first, pick up the board and head waves-side, before the beach bursts with manne jostling for board-space.
He stopped himself from announcing his plans to the air and cursed as he saw the black smear on his fingers. The cheap plastic biros tended to leak like an old man with a dodgy prostate. (At least he could still piss a few bubbles into the pot.) Throwing the pen into the bin, he wiped his fingers with some desk-tissues; it’s okay, man, just so long as he’d kept the file clean.
He hesitated, the wall was dripping sound. Leaning his right ear against the bricks’ clammy, slippery surface, he listened.
A quavering voice, soft but through cold stones, old stones—a leper asylum before it became a mad-house, so he’d heard.
A dim and distant voice, which was just repeating his name, over and over again.
So many voices lost here.
But this one knew him.
He had no answer. It was time to go.
Softly, he closed the door behind him and headed for the nurse’s station, along the banana-coloured hospital corridor. He nodded at a puffed up psychiatrist passing him; Jesus, that guy needed to learn to treat his patients more respectfully.
He took a right turn into the nurse’s station and the adjoining patient lounge, which was empty, as they were all out for their early supper. Behind the glassed sealed area Sister Mbolo and Staff Nurse Dumisane were standing, collecting night meds from cabinets, eyes flickering up to patient charts on the walls.
Mark stepped into the station quietly; file ready to be deposited alphabetically into the cabinet. He’d update online records next week.
He needed a swim badly.
Dumisane glanced at him, sieving a few tablets into a metal bowl. “Xolile to stay in then?” he asked, clicking extravagantly, to Mark’s ears. (He’s Zulu after all; Xhosa clicks come easy to him.)
The old man caught his eye, lounging just across the room. He didn’t recognise him, but he knew it wasn’t—it couldn’t be—his father. But dad had lain a bit like that, in the days following his stroke, limp and helpless and dumb.
Three weeks of silent helpless lying, before dying quietly, in the middle of the night, when no one was around.
But he’d done his grieving, processed his feelings, put it all behind him. He’d known what to do, after all. (Spilling himself verbally and with tears; off-loading to Sharon, while trying to hold mom together at the same time.)
Three months after tossing the last bit of dirt on his dad’s grave with his own hands, Mark had realised he’d put it all behind him. (Well within the stipulated normal grief time parameters: he’d been proud of that, until Sharon had punctured it by leaving without explanation.)
The old man in the lounge bent over and pulled a page from one of the ward Bibles. It looked like he was going to roll a cigarette with it. Despite himself, Mark smiled—certainly not dad, then.
“Dr. Bezuidenhout?” Dumisane was standing up straight, peering at him with obvious bewilderment.
“Um,” he said, “Kolile can go home for the weekend, but will need to be visited tomorrow by the community team, to get collateral information from his mother.”
“The community team’s off this weekend—I can go, I’m on duty and Sister and the others can cover me,” Dumisane smiled.
“Really?” The sister glowered at him and then laughed. “So he’s safe to go out?”
Mark paused, looking at the Sister, short and smiling, but knowing she was also pure steel underneath.
“He thinks his ancestors are calling him.”
“Oh,” she rolled her eyes. “Another ukuthwasa then. Bloody government’s to blame I tell you. They still haven’t created enough real jobs.”
He chuckled to himself as he picked up a pen. It was fine for her to say that!
He hesitated and then, for the first time in a long time, Mark changed his file notes using stale, scratchy white correction fluid, countersigning the change as the traffic grew rapidly louder along the road outside Valkenberg hospital.
He smelt burning and looked up in alarm. The old black man was smoking the Bible.
* * *
Mark woke with the sense of someone watching him.
Without even opening his eyes, he knew who it was.
“Hi, dad.” On opening his eyes, he was unsurprised to find his room empty. His dad had been dead three years, after all.
Mark rolled over, groaning, stiff from a late evening”s bodysurf at Muizenberg. As it had for many months now, the bed felt too big for him.
It was a bright and sunny master bedroom, looking out on a small but neat Rondebosch garden, orange bougainvillea framing razor wire and a hyperactive alarm. It was all somewhat on the dull side in long Cape winters, though. As for the children’s bedroom—well, that never happened, did it?
He walked stiffly through to the bathroom and splashed his face with clear and cold water.
Water always does the trick.
A pale and wrinkled face stared blankly back at him, gray hair hung lankly down alongside his cheeks. Shocked, he took several paces backed, slipped and banged his head against the towel railing. No stars, just a burning red blur in front of his eyes.
And an expressionless dead face.
It was his father’s face, not his.
Mark reeled backwards, averting his eyes.
God, it was as if dad had died without feeling, without thoughts, a pale husk of a once strong and fierce—but funny—man. It was early morning when we’d last seen him, but for moments he’d failed to recognise it was him, so shrunken and waxen he was.
Mark sat on the bathroom mat, its crinkly blue plastic fur tickling his naked thighs—but he couldn’t give a shit about that, quietly crying until thoughts came again.
Including one terrifying and growing thought.
He resisted it at first, hiding it away behind deliberate thoughts of beach or shopping, moving in safe and familiar spaces.
But there was no hiding from it—it kept popping back into his head.
He sighed. He knew he had a phone-call to make. He knew he had somewhere to go.
Mark stood up and faced the mirror. His own tired face looked out at him. He washed his face, shaved and dressed carefully and respectfully in white collared shirt and grey slacks. The house was too quiet, too empty—and the face in the mirror looked even emptier still, although he was just relieved it was his face.
Pulling his mobile from his trouser pocket, he speed dialed the ward.
“Staff Nurse Dumisane? Doctor Bezuidenhout here. I think I should come with you to visit that patient this morning. Ja, I’m ready—half an hour, hey. See you outside my house, you’ve got my address, ja nee?”
The street was quiet, still early on a Saturday morning in a cul de sac set back from the Main Road. The trees were in full bloom but starting to sway from the gathering South-Easter.
Mark jingled some coins in his pocket, deciding to text his sister in Jo’burg as a distraction.
He was going someplace he’d never been before; a place he’d always managed to avoid.
A black township.
The white Government Garage car arrived, an old Fiat, Staff Nurse Dumisane waving cheerfully from the rolled down driver’s window,
Mark got in, feeling even more anxious.
As they pulled off and headed down past Rondebosch station and across the wasteland of the Common, he felt his pulse start to race.
“So,” he said, “where are we going, again?”
Dumisane glanced at him sideways and then focused on the road, swerving to avoid a taxi pulling out suddenly.
“Gugs, been there before, Doctor?”
Ah, Gugulethu, not the worst thankfully, but no doubt bad enough, with very few—if any—white mense there.
Mark shook his head coolly. “”No, can’t say I have, Dumisane—any tips?”
The staff nurse gave a big laugh as he swung past a bus and the streets started to fill up, heading steadily away from the Mountain. “Stick close to me, doctor, and you’ll be fine.”
Houses had given way to wide and dingy council flats surrounding dirt yards, bright washing swinging from lines hanging out of windows or in courtyards.
The men on the street looked rougher and tougher and downright dangerous.
Dumisane pulled to a halt alongside a small brick terraced house, brightly painted in blue, with a small but neat path.
Mark raised his eyebrows discreetly. He’d expected more overt poverty, more visible desperation.
“We don’t all live in corrugated iron shacks, you know,” Dumisane said shortly, getting out of the car.
Mark felt a pang of shame; Dumisane was a damn good nurse and obviously a sharp reader of people. He still couldn’t stop himself looking carefully around, before opening the door and stepping outside to join Dumisane.
The staff nurse was already by the door, chatting in swift isiXhosa with a smiling middle-aged woman in a neat red dress and headscarf. He beckoned Mark over.
“This is Xolile’s psychologist,” he said. “Doctor Bezuidenout, this is Mrs. Ngubane.”
The woman gave a little nod as she took his hand with both of hers. “Please come in,” she said. “Would you like some tea?”
Mark smiled, wondering if the English resonance was intended for him. She led the way inside, into a small but neat kitchen with dining area. Mark noted the door through to the other rooms—or room—was firmly closed.
Mrs. Ngubane lit a gas cooker underneath a battered but ready silver kettle. She turned to Mark: “Five Roses or rooibos, Doctor?”
“Uh, rooibos please, Mrs. Ngubane.”
Dumisane was obviously a Five Roses man. She gestured them both to sit on stools arranged tightly around a small wooden table.
Mark turned as the door creaked behind him.
Xolile stood, the room behind him darkened, but he looked cheerful and neatly dressed.
“Hello, doctor, staff nurse,” he said breezily, stepping inside and closing the door behind him. He leaned back against the door and folded his arms.
Mark sat and drank his hot tea, looking at family pictures arrayed on the wall, while the conversation drifted awkwardly around Xolile’s interrupted studies. He’d been a physiotherapy student at UWC before he’d been picked up by a police patrol, wandering and confused, in the dunes near Monwabisi.
Mrs. Ngubane looked cross, reminiscing on the events, “You sure it’s not dagga, my boy?”
“No, mamma!” he said. His arms dangled by his sides, as she had already reprimanded him for the rudeness of folded arms, following up with a warning against hands in pockets.
There was a man in some of the photos, but only in those with a younger pre-adolescent Xolile.
Mark signaled to Dumisane. Dumisane would be able to get much better information from the mother if both were unburdened from the demands of English.
Mark put his empty mug down and stood up. “Is there a space we can talk in private, Kolile?” (Always, he struggled with the correct pronunciation.)
The young man stood up squarely, a good few inches taller than Mark. “Sure, doctor, the street.”
“The street?” Mark heard his voice almost crack with a sudden surge of panic. “Why the street?”
“A bedroom is too private,” he said. “The street is better.”
Mark wondered whether Xolile had guessed he was anxious there—and even more so at the thought of walking and talking in a township street. He seemed brighter and more lucid today—perhaps indeed it was a reactive psychosis—just maybe drug induced?
He followed the young man through the doorway, down the path and onto the pavement. A few men and women stalked past, turning to stare briefly at him.
Xolile smiled. “You’ll be fine,” he said. “Everyone knows me.”
So, for some minutes, they walked and talked, Mark probing about his past and recent present, looking for cues and clues as to the onset of his confusional state. His father had left suddenly when he was ten; they had no idea where or why. Prior to his admission, all he could remember was a gathering glow inside and his dead grandmother whispering in his ears, telling him he needed to become an isangoma, to heal his people.
Mark stopped. Xolile had turned into a main street, littered with spaza shops and large shipping containers filled with people doing business. There was a particularly appealing cell-phone company obviously doing great business inside a grey metal container jutting some way into the road, people spilling out into the road and pavement, taxis hooting past. Mark was relieved to notice that few seemed to look at him anymore.
Xolile gestured him onwards. Mark hesitated. He wanted to ask Xolile something for his own benefit, rather than Xolile’s. Ethically, such role reversals were generally frowned upon. There was something slightly freeing about being on strange streets, however, so he took a deep breath.
“My father,” he said, “is gone like yours, but dead. You saw him at the hospital and I’ve seen him since. What must I do?”
Xolile stopped. Mark noted he sighed slightly before speaking. “I saw an old man, who I guessed might be your father. Beyond that, I cannot help you at all, doctor.”
“But don’t your beliefs involve contacting the ancestors?”
Xolile looked straight at him and Mark could see amusement and something else etched on his face.
“My beliefs, not yours, doctor. Even then, I’m not sure of them myself. Look!” He turned to gesture at a shop behind them.
The shop had an open hanging canopy, dangling with jars filled with… strange looking shapes in syrup or brownish liquid, organs perhaps—or animal parts?
“Would you consult here? Would you take those things if prescribed, to help you contact your father?”
Mark spotted a placard outside. It was a doctor’s surgery, but not one that he recognised.
It looked as though Xolile had only just started. “Would you sacrifice a chicken—or a goat? Doctor, there are no shortcuts; you cannot pick and choose our beliefs, like a vulture that is fussy for only the best meat. You must swallow all the bones, too.”
The young man looked down, as if suddenly ashamed of his outburst.
Mark looked down too, embarrassed at asking, wishing he could retract his thoughts and words.
There was a muffled ringing noise. Xolile fumbled a cell-phone out of his pocket. “Nomfundo!” he shouted, turning away and breaking into rapid isiXhosa.
Ah, a girl!
Mark looked up as his father walked past.
For frozen seconds, he watched the stooped and familiar gait down the busy street, dad’s slight right-sided shuffle after an earlier warning from a left-sided stroke.
Then he ran, until he was alongside and in front of him.
It was an old man indeed, but with a craggy black face and silver pepper-corned hair, neatly dressed, as if off to a Saturday Church. The man looked at him uncertainly. “Police?” he asked, “or tourist?”
Mark raised both hands, ducking his head in apology as well.
He made his way back to Xolile slowly. He was still busy on his phone, talking excitedly and looking at the ground.
Mark looked around to track the smell of burning meat. A man and a woman were braaing a sheep’s head over a hollowed metal barrel. A few other people were gathering round, bringing drinks, perhaps from a local shebeen.
He felt exposed, isolated.
Xolile finished his call. “Sorry, doctor.”
Mark held his hand up. “Never mind,” he said. “I don’t suppose you saw me running after anyone just now?”
Xolile gave him a puzzled look.
Mark gave a wry smile. “No matter, perhaps it was all in my head.”
Xolile shook his head firmly. “No wonder you umlungu have such big heads,” he said. “You try and fit everything into it.”
Despite himself, Mark laughed. As he laughed, it suddenly dawned on him that just maybe he would never stop missing his father.
He no longer felt so certain of anything and everything, either.
They turned to watch people gather for food. “You fancy some, doctor?”
Mark laughed again: “Just a little taste.”
It was nice to be invited.
There were indeed new things to see—and new things to do.
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Rodolfo Martínez, from Spain. Rodolfo published his first short story in 1987 and his first novel (a cyberpunk space-opera called La sonrisa del gato – “Cat’s Smile”) in 1995 and soon became a leading writer of fantastic literature in Spain, although a feature that defines his work is the blending of genres, mixing them shamelessly with deceptive simplicity and on numerous levels, from science fiction and fantasy to crime fiction and thriller. This makes his work difficult to classify.
Winner of the prestigious Minotauro Novel Award with his novel Los sicarios del cielo (“Hitmen from Heaven”), he has won numerous other awards throughout his literary career, such as the Asturias Novel Award, the UPV Award of Fantastic Short Stories and, on several occasions, the Ignotus Award (in the categories of novel, novella and short stories).
His Holmesian work, consisting so far of four books, has been translated into Portuguese, Polish, Turkish and French and several of his stories have also appeared in French publications.
“Eternal Return” was published in Spanish in Porciones individuales (February 2013, Sportula). This is its first publication in English.
Too late. Again.
The other passengers were holding him down while the flight attendant asked for help over the intercom, and Stephen Perrulla realized that if they got away with it, this time he wouldn’t be able to escape. They were going to sedate him, and that was something he could not afford. He had to stay conscious.
He checked the time.
Only thirty seconds and then he could try again. He could…
He stopped struggling and allowed the other passengers to return him to his seat. He saw the flight attendant coming towards him.
“I’m fine,” he said. “There’s no need to…”
But she was not listening and he could not move.
He saw the hypodermic syringe and felt how she removed his shirt sleeve. No. He could not allow it.
Ten seconds. Just ten seconds more.
“Please,” he said.
The hostess looked at him and hesitated. Then her eyes hardened and she pushed the syringe into his arm.
No, damn it. Only five seconds more.
He tried to squirm in his seat, but the two passengers who held him pushed him back and kept him still.
“Wait!” he shouted.
And, suddenly, everything began to shake, as if the plane had entered a zone of turbulence. The stewardess stopped and looked up. Stephen saw the horror spread across her face and realized it was time.
He blacked out.
* * *
It was like falling and never getting to the bottom.
Only he did.
He opened his eyes.
He was back on the plane, sitting in his seat by the window, looking at the same landscape of clouds he had last thirty times.
He had one minute.
Sixty seconds to prevent the bomb from exploding.
He shook his head.
Take it easy, he said to himself. Try to think. Find a way.
But there wasn’t one, was there?
After all, he had tried thirty times. He had tried to reason with the crew, to get to the captain, to provoke a riot, to…
He had tried everything.
And failed. Again and again the seconds had passed one after another and the bomb had exploded.
And he… he had done all he could: going back in time sixty seconds and trying again.
He looked around. By now, he knew the faces of those around him by heart, and knew exactly how they would react.
They would stop him, as they had done the last thirty times.
And even if they didn’t, he thought, what could he do?
What could he do in a minute?
He had to find the bomb, find it and disarm it. And that was impossible.
He dropped his head back against the seat and looked out the window. There was a break in the clouds and, for a moment, he stared a restless and empty sea.
What could he do in a minute, he asked himself again.
Again he felt the rattle. He closed his eyes and, as the plane fell to pieces around him, he jumped back again.
* * *
When they were children, he and his friends told each other the stories they had read in comic-books. And then they argued. Who was better, Batman or Superman? Was Wolverine cooler than Spider-man? Were mutants better than meta-humans? Did they prefer Justice League or Avengers? Was Power Girl hotter than the Black Widow? Was Catwoman sexier than the Black Cat?
And then they began to talk about ridiculous characters. Petty villains with a pathetic disguise, a silly name and skills that were a bad joke. Yeah, remember the guy with the ball and chain. And what do you think of Paste-Pot-Pete?
Stupid superpowers. Ridiculous superpowers. Useless superpowers.
He had participated, of course. Like the others, he had proposed absurd skills that were of no use.
“Being able to step back a minute in time,” someone said one day.
“A minute?, asked another. “What can you do in one minute?”
“Well,” a third one said, “if you are mugged, you can step back a minute and then go home another way. Or you can avoid a passing car splashing you while you’re waiting for the bus.”
“Or kick someone’s butt, go back a minute and pretend nothing happened… because it never had.”
He joined the game, of course. And kept his secret, as he had been keeping it since he had first discovered it, and would keep it forever.
* * *
In the plane again. Again the landscape of clouds. Again all these people around him flying to their deaths.
He could try to stop it again. And fail, again.
Or he could just wait. Close his eyes and let the sixty seconds pass.
And, then, he would step back another minute.
And he would wait.
And he would step back.
And he would never leave that bloody carousel that could only lead to death.
* * *
Through the years, he had managed to find small uses for his stupid ability.
One minute was not a long time, certainly. But it was enough to take a look at the correct answers to a test, wait for the teacher to throw him out of the class and then go back one minute and write the right answers.
Or, if a conversation was going wrong, he could try again, working out what to say to get what he wanted.
Small advantages. Tiny successes.
But he had grown accustomed to them, and they were good enough. His ridiculous skill had not made him rich or famous, but had allowed him to gain small privileges, to reach a slightly higher position than he could have gotten otherwise.
He was not the king of the world, but had found his little corner.
And it was a comfortable corner.
* * *
The plane. The clouds, the syringe.
He was trapped forever in the same sixty seconds, doomed to repeat them over and over again. He had lost count of the times he had gone back to the minute before the explosion. He had stopped counting.
How much time had passed?
One minute. Only one minute, that passed again and again and again.
He had been caught in that trap for days. Days that would become weeks that would grow into months that…
Would he grow old? Would he get older while he dwelled in that eternal minute? Would he feel his body gradually decline to death?
What if he did not?
He could give up and die, of course. Let the bomb blow him to pieces.
Only he could not. He had tried. But the moment he heard the explosion, he could not avoid jumping back, back that damn minute. His fear, again and again, took the decision for him.
So he was doomed to repeat that minute forever.
There was no way out.
Or maybe there was.
It had happened… when? Yes, the thirtieth time he had tried, when the other passengers fell on him and the flight attendant tried to inject him with a sedative. If she had succeeded, if she had managed to put him to sleep, then he would not be able to go back. He would have died there with everyone else and everything would be over.
Was that what he wanted? To end, forever?
I want to get out, he said to himself.
No matter how?
He took a breath and looked around. In his mind, he summed up what the other passengers and the stewardess would do.
I have to get out, he thought once again.
Then the bomb went off and he fell.
* * *
Small satisfactions. Petty pleasures in an unremarkable existence.
But enough for him.
After all, he was a small man, with small goals and aspirations. And his small skill had been enough to get him all that.
* * *
The clouds. The plane.
It was fast, so fast it almost frightened him. The other passengers overpowered him quickly, and almost before he knew it, the flight attendant was at his side with the hypodermic syringe.
Everything was going to end, finally.
And suddenly, something stirred within him.
Not that way. He did not want to die, despite everything; he did not want to surrender. Not yet. Not that way.
But the syringe was approaching his arm. Twenty seconds, there were still twenty seconds before the plane began to fall apart. He felt the syringe touch his skin.
Suddenly, he was falling back. Falling without ever reaching the bottom.
Only he did reach it.
* * *
His head against the back of the seat. The purr of the engines. The landscape out of the window. All the same, again.
Dazed, he looked out the window.
They were passing over clouds, but the clouds were not the same. He remembered their configuration perfectly, he had seen them over and over again, always the same white landscape, still, vaguely threatening.
Only it was not the same.
Stunned, he shook his head. What the…?
Had he gotten out? Had he escaped the loop? How?
Then he saw it. There it was, the familiar cold view that had accompanied him all those times, and he knew that everything would happen over again, that he was caught, once more, that…
But he understood something else.
He had jumped back, but not to the same moment. However, he was sure he had fallen exactly a minute. But he had started to fall before the previous minute was up. Twenty seconds before.
And that meant…
It was as if something hit him and, for a moment, he sat stunned, unable to absorb what had happened.
Then, with a smile (the first time he had smiled in thousands of years, the first time in a minute), he jumped back again.
And again and again.
* * *
The flight had been delayed nearly two hours, but Stephen did not mind. Not a bit. He acted with the same calmness and indifference when the Police entered the waiting room and arrested a passenger.
The speakers announced a few minutes later that the flight would leave in half an hour.
Without hurry, Stephen took his boarding pass and walked towards the gate. He shook his head and smiled, as if he had heard a good joke, while around him the other passengers were wondering what had happened and speculating about it.
What had happened? He had a few ideas.
The police had received an anonymous call saying there was bomb on the plane. They had investigated the luggage and had found the device. And then they must have found who owned it and arrested him.
After all, there were at least two people who knew there was a bomb on board.
The guy who had set it.
The stewardess processed his boarding pass and wished him bon voyage.
“Thanks,” Stephen said.
Yes, he would have a good trip. Now he would.
And if he didn’t, he could go back and try again.
A minute? Sixty seconds?
Yes, as many times as he wanted.
Idiot, he said to himself, still smiling.
He crossed the walkway toward the plane. Someone noticed his smile and the way he shook his head and asked him if anything was wrong.
“No, everything’s fine, thanks.”
If he hadn’t panicked, he would never have discovered it. He had jumped twenty seconds before the bomb had exploded, before the loop was complete, at the moment a syringe was about to make him unconscious and end his life.
He had jumped.
Just a minute.
Which had taken him twenty seconds further into the past than he had gone before.
Idiot, he said to himself again.
After all, if you jump back a minute, you can jump as much as you want. If you can go one minute into the past, from there you can go another minute — into the past of the past — and from there another minute, into the past of the past of the past…
He boarded the plane and sat down. While they were taking off and the hostess began her life jacket demonstration, he wondered what to do with his life.
After all, he had all the time in the world.
In convenient minute-long portions, of course.
Her stories have been published in The Apex Book of World SF vol II, Crossed Genres, Bards and Sages Quarterly, M-Brane SF and Semaphore Magazine. Her novels are published under the pseudonym J. Damask by Lyrical Press.
This is the story’s first publication.
by Joyce Chng
Noraishah watched the dance of the eagles in the air, her digital camera poised in her hands. She seemed to have forgotten about it, so transfixed was she to the dizzying spiralling movements of the sea-eagles. They were a mated pair, appearing frequently in the skies. As long as she could remember, there had always been a mated pair of Lang Siput. White-bellied sea eagles.
The pair were joined to each other with outstretched talons, spinning downwards as they renewed their pair bond in a death-defying act. Grey feathers flashed in the air, like a comet plunging towards the earth. When Noraishah thought they would hit the water, the mated pair pulled out of their dive and veered away, calling out in that familiar cry which made Noraishah’s heart twinge. They flew above the shimmering water, flapping their wings.
Realizing that she was still carrying her camera, she lifted it up and took a few pictures of the two sea-eagles soaring on the thermals, their vows now completed and affirmed. Seeing the eagles reminded her that she had come home.
The sea whispered, waves hissing on the shore beneath the small cliff she was sitting on. It was her favorite childhood spot, where she would watch the sea-eagles hunt for food, skimming over the bright surface of the sea. She placed her camera beside her and leaned back, her face to the sun, feeling its warmth on her face.
She looked back to see her maternal grandfather slowly ambling up the cliff. Slowed by advancing arthritis, Tok Wan still looked strong and hale, his body sinewy and lean, a testimony to his fisherman days. Noraisah remembered the fragrance of fried ikan selar cooking on hot coals, delectable of course with hot sambal belachan and lashings of lime juice.
“I knew you would be here,” Tok Wan said smiling, his face seamed with age and laugh lines. His temples were grizzled with brown-white, like eagle feathers.
Noraishah smiled back. She stood up, brushing her blue jeans, before walking back to the house with her grandfather. Behind her, the sea-eagles called out to each other in a love song.
* * *
Her family house looked the same, as if nothing had ever changed. She was sure that the corrugated iron roof was still rusty and in desperate need of repair. The well was there; every morning, her grandfather washed his face with the cold water and filled buckets for daily use. Poultry clucked on the dry earth, hens pecking at the grains of rice, followed by their chicks.
Stepping into the house, Noraishah could see the wooden eagle sculptures on the shelves, the stylized picture of a sea-eagle painted by one of her aunts and eagle feathers adorning the walls. Tok Wan loved eagles and imparted that love to his children. She knew – with a quiet smile – that the neighbors gossiped he was part eagle himself. When she was a little girl, he had brought her along on his fishing trips and showed her the areas where the mangrove grew, where the kingfishers hunted and where the sandpipers fed on low tide sand banks. He had taught her the various uses of plants found in the forest, including preparing the nuts of the sea almond tree. She had missed those excursions deeply, especially during the cold of winter.
Her ibu treated her to a delicious meal of rice and ikan selar, topped off with a glass of icy-cold coconut juice, perfectly sweet to her tongue. The fish was freshly caught and fried to perfection.
She had not had such wonderful food, not when she was in England reading history. Nothing beat home-cooking.
She fell asleep, later, and dreamt of sea-eagles spinning in the sky, their song weaving through the air.
* * *
She woke to see her grandfather staring out of the window, his face suddenly dark and anxious. She followed his gaze, to see bulldozers rolling in, their machinery at odds with the peaceful tranquility of her family home. Dust clouds puffed up in their wake as they rumbled into the forest.
“Pak?” Noraishah asked tentatively, feeling her grandfather’s anger like a growing thunderhead. The atmosphere in the house was suddenly grim, and goose pimples ran across her arms, causing her to shiver involuntarily. The only time when she had seen him that angry was the day he had rescued a fledgling eaglet from a mass of fishing wire, carelessly left behind by holidaymakers from the city.
“They plan to turn the forest into a golf course.” Tok Wan choked out the words, his brow furrowed. He did not like modern things, and did not care for amenities like television and radio. He walked into a shopping mall once and walked back out, his shoulders stiff in disgust.
Noraishah recalled seeing the huge sign at the roadside with “Green Acres Golf” proudly emblazoned across, with a young couple posing with golf clubs and fixed smiles. It was going to be an exclusive club, targeted at the well-to-do and the upper middle class.
After a quick breakfast of coconut rice and leftover fish, Noraishah followed her grandfather to the forest, slipping past the stationary bulldozers with their napping operators. He brought her to the center of the forest where the sun turned the foliage and canopy to splashes of gold and green. The forest was alive with bird song and insect cries. It was also humid and warm; Noraishah felt as if her clothes were stuck to her skin. She slapped an errant mosquito on her left arm, wincing to see the small splatter of red blood. Her blood. It was something she did not see often in England. There was the tinge of salt in the air – the mangrove swamps were close by, framing the forest.
“Look,” Tok Wan said, his anger gone now, replaced by a reverential whisper. “Up.”
She did and her mouth fell open. It was an eagle’s nest, huge, almost as broad as the tree holding it up. It was composed of an intricate network of twigs. Gazing up, Noraishah could see that the nest was fairly new, because some of the twigs bore green leaves.
“Lang Siput,” her grandfather said, placing his hand on the gnarled tree bark. “Our brothers and sisters.” Sea eagles. Their kin.
Noraishah had to laugh. Grandfather could be so literal. What did the neighbors say about him? Part eagle? Yet listening to his rich voice comforted her. She had indeed returned home.
They walked back to the house. By then, the bulldozers had begun digging ugly trenches across the earth. Tok Wan kept quiet and glared balefully at the machines.
* * *
Noraishah did not think much about the bulldozers. She met up with old friends from her secondary school, chatting amiably about old times over cold latte and capuccino. Sitting in the cool interior of the trendy cafe, she could see dark specks in the blue sky. Eagles. She showed them photographs of the mated pair and they oohed and aahed at the clarity of the wings, back lit by the sun, and at the crystalline spray of water beneath clenched talons.
“Tok Wan still talking about his eagles?” Siti teased her, grinning playfully. Noraishah noticed that her friend had put on weight. She was now a full-time mother to a rambunctious two year-old boy. Back when they were teenagers, they used to walk to school together, chatting about boyfriends and their dreams for the future.
“Yes, he does,” Noraishah sighed. The dark specks had disappeared. She stifled an odd pang of disappointment, smiling at Siti.
When she made her way back, she was shocked to see the forest half-destroyed by the bulldozers and excavators, the trees and shrubs all ripped away, exposing awful gouges in the brown-red soil like dreadful wounds. She was more shocked to feel as if her heart was being ripped away as well, and she gasped, placing her hand on her breast. She could see the surveyors and architects in yellow hard hats, inspecting the land and making notes with their tablets and styluses.
Something moved, like a fast-moving shadow, in the forest. It was not an animal, nor was it a bird. It moved like… sludge water. Like the sickly flow of oil, hovering about the broken tree trunks. As each tree fell, it seemed to grow larger, bolder. Hungrier.
Noraishah blinked, shaking her head. When she looked at the forest once more, the thing was simply not there. An optical illusion, she thought resolutely, and walked determinedly towards the house.
Her mother was standing at the doorway when she finally reached the front porch. Wearing a green kebaya and sarong, she cut an imposing figure, her face regal and her dark hair tied in a ponytail, covered by a thin light green shawl. Her expression, however, filled Noraishah with an uncommon dread.
“It’s your grandfather,” her mother said quietly, casting a worried glance at the forest and at the bulldozers steadily removing the trees. “He’s missing.”
“He might have gone to the beach,” Noraishah shook her head. Suddenly she wished she was back in her cosy dormitory room, cut off from all these worries, her only concern finishing her dissertation.
“Not there. I checked.”
Noraishah’s heart sank. Tok Wan wasn’t a man to go wandering around unannounced. Even when she was growing up, he would inform the family, and Grandmother would leave some food for him on the floor, covered with a straw hat to keep the flies away.
“Did he take anything? His parang? Ibu?”
Her mother looked away, her way of saying “No.” Outside, the bulldozers clanged, making an unholy din.
“The forest. He must be in the forest!” The memory of her grandfather standing beneath the giant tree flashed vividly and Noraishah was gripped with an acute premonition. She opened the door, driven by a wildness to look for her grandfather.
“Aishah!” Her mother called out. “Aishah!”
Noraishah did not turn around, paying no heed to her mother, but headed straight for the roaring bulldozers. The supervisor, a plump Chinese man, his stomach round with good food and beer, yelled at her to stop. She paid no attention to his words. The dust churned from the bulldozers filled her lungs, stinging her eyes. She fought it as if she was fighting some unseen evil. Things rose around her, hissing and snarling incoherently at her. There were voices, sarcastic, hateful and mean-spirited. Leave us be. We are here to take over the land. Go away.
She swatted at those voices. Just dust, just dust. She coughed and pushed her way through the remaining thicket, the branches tearing viciously at her skin.
Noraishah emerged into the center of the forest and the tree was there, solid and infallible. She stared dumbly at the eagle’s nest dominating the entire tree, her face covered with dust and streaked with tears. The bulldozers had removed most of the foliage; the tree was a lone survivor in the middle of a clearing.
It was unusually silent. The birds had all fled.
A figure, wearing a blue tattered sarong wrapped around the waist, sprawled beneath the tree, prostrate as if he was praying. Somehow Noraishah thought she might have shouted something. It felt so much like a dream. She, rushing forward, kneeling down, touching the cool neck of her grandfather. Crying loudly. Grandfather! Grandfather! Time seemed to slow down. He was holding something in his right hand. Two tail feathers.
Someone pulled her away and she struggled with all her might, fighting back with the ferocity of a raptor defending her nest. The hands were too strong, too insistent – and she let them pull her away, her vision blurred by tears.
* * *
They buried Tok Wan in the nearby cemetery after performing the rites. Noraishah did not speak for the entire funeral, holding onto her mother who hung limply against her. Their family gathered around both mother and daughter, silent and united in grief.
The tail feathers rustled in her hand.
Her dream that night was filled with screaming. Her screaming. An eagle’s scream.
* * *
After the last of the relatives had left, Noraishah helped her mother clean the house, her beloved ibu not wanting to touch her grandfather’s belongings. It had been two weeks since he had passed away. Massive heart attack, the coroner had reported. That was Western medicine talking. He died of a broken heart. She could not bear to stay in the house, fretting as if she was a trapped bird. She grabbed her camera and ran to the cliff, glad of the temporary respite.
She scanned the heavens for the mated sea-eagle pair. Nothing. They were gone.
Sorrow warred with rage, an unbearable riptide within her. She wanted to lash out and shred the foreman and his workers into bloody strips. They had destroyed the forest. They had taken her grandfather away from her. She pressed her hands against her temples. “No,” she whispered to herself. “No!” She had a degree in Asian maritime history. She was a rational person. Logic. Reason.
Noraishah shuddered, adrenaline coursing through her body. Something beat inside her ribcage. Pounding heart or flapping wings – she did not care. All she wanted was to confront whatever was inside the forest and powering those bulldozers.
She marched towards the forest, or what was left of it. They were already bringing in the piledriver and the cement mixer. Stacks of equipment were arranged next to barrels of oil.
The thing came out to meet her.
It was a mish-mash of many things, like many mouths all open and moving at the same time. A Greed incarnate, always hungry, always wanting more. It moved like an oil slick, making her eyes water just by looking at it. It flowed around her, taunting her, mocking her. It plunged straight at her, trying to intimidate her, to scare her away, a shadow given life. It sought to corrupt her, its dark tendrils insidious and toxic. Feed me, the mouths said like the flickering of snake tongues. Feed us. The forest is nothing. We grow strong every day and when the new place is built, we will feed on the people. Join us. Join us.
Iblis! Noraishah opened her mouth. What came out was an eagle’s defiant shriek, a hunting shriek. Everything happened simultaneously: feathers sprouting from her body, bones shrinking, pulling in and re-structuring. She spread her arms, embracing the wind.
Her new body threw itself at the black miasma, tearing into it with sharp talons.
* * *
Lim had a splendid meal of nasi bryani and chicken curry. It was mid-day: bristling hot and dry, perfect for taking a brief siesta. His workmen were busy trying to clear out the last of the trees, including the one with the eagle’s nest. A few of the men refused to cut it down, because they argued that the tree was sacred. He wondered idly if he should dock their pay.
He did not know what hit him.
* * *
The workmen told the TV reporter that it was a huge sea-eagle which appeared from nowhere, plummeting from the skies like a lightning bolt. Its talons raked across the supervisor’s neck; he passed out from sheer pain and shock.
They swore it was true. A giant sea-eagle, with a wingspan as broad as a full-grown man with his arms stretched out. A huge Lang Siput. A Garuda come to life.
The forest is sacred, they said with awed and frightened looks. We should not harm it. The Lang Siput is its guardian. We should leave!
* * *
From her room, Noraishah watched the bulldozers roll away one by one, escorted by the trucks still heavy with earth. She drew her knees up to her chest, closing her eyes. Brown-grey eagle-feathers, the plumage of a young female eagle, covered the bed, scattered across the sheets. They radiated from her like an aura. Absentmindedly, she rubbed her hands, still twisted as if they were talons. Her talons.
The black thing, the greed-beast, had fled shrieking. It wouldn’t be back for a very long time. The forest had a new guardian.
Somewhere, Tok Wan smiled.
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Henrietta Rose-Innes. Henrietta is a South African fiction writer based in Cape Town. Her most recent novel, Nineveh, was published by Random House Struik in 2011, following two previous novels, Shark’s Egg and The Rock Alphabet, and a collection of short stories, Homing. Her short stories have appeared in various international publications, including Granta, AGNI and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011. In 2012, her short story ‘Sanctuary’ took second place in the BBC International Short Story Competition. Henrietta’s website is www.henriettarose-innes.com.
‘Poison’ won the 2008 Caine Prize for African Writing as well as the 2007 South African PEN Literary Award. It is included in Henrietta Rose-Innes’s short-story collection Homing (Random House Struik, 2010).
Lynn had almost made it to the petrol station when her old Toyota ran dry on the highway. Lucky me, she thought as she pulled onto the verge, seeing the red and yellow flags ahead, the logo on the tall facade.
But it was hopeless, she realised as soon as she saw the pile-up of cars on the forecourt. A man in blue overalls caught her eye and made a throat-slitting gesture with the side of his hand as she came walking up: no petrol here either. There were twenty-odd stranded people, sitting in their cars or leaning against them. They glanced at her without expression before turning their eyes again towards the distant city.
In a minibus taxi off to one side, a few travellers sat stiffly, bags on laps. Everyone was quiet, staring down the highway, back at what they’d all been driving away from. An oily cloud hung over Cape Town, concealing Devil’s Peak. It might have been a summer fire, except it was so black, so large. Even as they watched, it boiled up taller and taller into the sky, a plume twice as high as the mountain, leaning towards them like an evil genie.
As afternoon approached, the traffic thinned. Each time a car drew up, the little ceremony was the same: the crowd’s eyes switching to the new arrival, the overalled man slicing his throat, the moment of blankness and then comprehension, eyes turning away. Some of the drivers just stood there, looking accusingly at the petrol pumps; others got back into their cars and sat for a while with their hands on the steering wheels, waiting for something to come to them. One man started up his BMW again immediately and headed off, only to coast to a halt a few hundred metres down the drag. He didn’t even bother to pull over. Another car came in pushed by three sweating men. Their forearms were pumped from exertion and they stood for a while with their hands hanging at their sides, exchanging words in Xhosa with the petrol attendants. There was no traffic at all going into the city.
Over the previous two days, TV news had shown pictures of the N1 and N2 jam-packed for fifty kilometres out of town. It had taken a day for most people to realise the seriousness of the explosion; then everybody who could get out had done so. Now, Lynn supposed, lack of petrol was trapping people in town. She herself had left it terribly late, despite all the warnings. It was typical; she struggled to get things together. The first night she’d got drunk with friends. They’d sat up late in front of the TV, watching the unfolding news. The second night, she’d done the same, alone. On the morning of this, the third, day, she’d woken up with a burning in the back of her throat so horrible that she understood it was no hangover, and that she had to move. By then, everybody she knew had already left.
People were growing fractious, splitting into tribes. The petrol attendants and the car pushers stood around the taxi. The attendants’ body language was ostentatiously off-duty – ignoring the crowd, attending to their own emergency. One, a woman, bent her head into the taxi and addressed the driver in a low voice. He and the gaardjie were the only people who seemed relaxed; both were slouched low on the front seats, the driver’s baseball cap tilted over his eyes. On the other side of the forecourt was a large Afrikaans-speaking family group that seemed to have been travelling in convoy: mother, father, a couple of substantial aunts and uncles, half a dozen blonde kids of different sizes. They had set up camp, cooler bags and folding chairs gathered around them. On their skins, Lynn could see speckles of black grime; everybody coming out of the city had picked up a coating of foul stuff, but on the white people it showed up worse.
A group of what looked like students – tattoos, dreadlocks – sat in a silent line along the concrete base of the petrol pumps. One, a dark, barefoot girl with messy black hair down her back, kept springing to her feet and walking out into the road, swivelling this way and that with hands clamped in her armpits, then striding back. She reminded Lynn of herself, ten years earlier. Skinny, impatient.
A fit-looking man in a tracksuit hopped out of a huge silver bakkie with Adil’s IT Bonanza on its door and started pacing alertly back and forth. Eventually the man – Adil himself? – went over to the family group, squatted on his haunches and conferred.
Lynn stood alone, leaning against the glass wall of the petrol-station shop. The sun stewed in a dirty haze. She checked her cellphone, but the service had been down since the day before. Overloaded. There wasn’t really anyone she wanted to call. The man in the blue overalls kept staring at her. He had skin the colour and texture of damp clay and a thin, villain’s moustache. She looked away.
The dark girl jumped up yet again and dashed into the road. A small red car with only one occupant was speeding towards them out of the smoky distance. The others went running out to join their friend, stringing themselves out across the highway to block the car’s path. By the time Lynn thought about joining them, it was already too late; the young people had piled in and the car was driving on, wallowing, every window crammed with hands and faces. The girl gave the crowd a thumbs-up as they passed.
A group was clustering around one of the cars. Peering over a woman’s shoulder, Lynn could see one of the burly uncles hunkered down in his shorts, expertly wielding a length of hose coming out of the fuel tank. The end was in his mouth. His cheeks hollowed; then with a practised jerk, stopping the spurt of petrol with his thumb, he whipped the hose away from his mouth and plunged it into a jerrycan. He looked up with tense, pale eyes. “Any more?” he asked, too loud. After a while, the group moved on to the next car.
Lynn went to sit inside, in the fried-egg smell of the cafeteria. The seats were red plastic, the table tops marbled yellow, just as she remembered them from childhood road trips. Tomato sauce and mustard in squeezy plastic bottles, crusted around the nozzle. She was alone in the gloom of the place. There were racks of chips over the counter, shelves of sweets, display fridges. She pulled down two packets of chips, helped herself to a Coke and made her way to a window booth. She wished strongly for a beer. The sun came through the tinted glass in an end-of-the-world shade of pewter, but that was nothing new; that had always been the colour of the light in places like this.
Through the glass wall, she could see the petrol scavengers had filled up the tank of Adil’s IT Bonanza. They’d taken the canopy off the bakkie to let more people climb on. The uncles and aunts sat around the edge, turning their broad backs on those left behind, with small children and bags piled in the middle and a couple of older children standing up, clinging to the cab. What she’d thought was a group had split: part of the white family was left behind on the tar, revealing itself as a young couple with a single toddler, and one of the sweaty car pushers was on board. The blue-overalled guy was up front, next to Adil. How wrong she’d been, then, in her reading of alliances. Perhaps she might have scored a berth, if she’d pushed.
She sipped her Coke thoughtfully as the bakkie pulled away. Warm Coke: it seemed the electricity had gone too, now. Lynn picked at the strip of aluminium binding the edge of the table. It could be used for something. In an emergency. She opened a packet of cheese-and-onion chips, surprised by her hunger. She realised she was feeling happy, in a secret, volatile way. It was like bunking school: sitting here where nobody knew her, where no one could find her, on a day cut out of the normal passage of days. Nothing was required of her except to wait. All she wanted to do was sit for another hour, and then another hour after that; at which point she might lie down on the sticky vinyl seat in the tainted sunlight and sleep.
She hadn’t eaten a packet of chips for ages. They were excellent. Crunching them up, she felt the salt and fat repairing her headache. Lynn pushed off her heeled shoes, which were hurting, and untucked her fitted shirt. She hadn’t dressed for mass evacuation.
The female petrol attendant opened the glass door with a clang, then pushed through the wooden counter-flap. She was a plump, pretty young woman with complexly braided hair. Her skin, Lynn noticed, was clear brown, free from the soot that flecked the motorists. She took a small key on a chain from her bosom and opened the till, whacking the side of her fist against the drawer to jump it out. With a glance across at Lynn, she pulled a handful of fifty-rand notes from the till, then hundreds.
“Taxi’s going,” she said.
“Really? With what petrol?”
“He’s got petrol. He was just waiting to fill the seats. We made a price – for you too, if you want.”
“You’re kidding. He was just waiting for people to pay? He could’ve taken us any time?”
The woman shrugged, as if to say: taxi drivers. She stroked a thumb across the edge of the wad of notes. “So?”
Lynn hesitated. “I’m sure someone will be here soon. The police will come. Rescue services.”
The woman gave a snort and exited the shop, bumping the door open with her hip. The door sucked slowly shut, and then it was quiet again. Lynn watched through the tinted window as the money was handed over. The transaction revived the inert gaardjie. He straightened up and started striding back and forth, clapping his hands, shouting and hustling like it was Main Road rush hour. The people inside the taxi edged up in the seats and everyone else started pushing in. The driver spotted Lynn through the window and raised his eyebrows, pointing with both forefingers first at her and then at the minibus and then back at her again: coming? When she just smiled, he snapped his fingers and turned his attention elsewhere.
Lynn realised she was gripping the edge of the table. Her stomach hurt. Getting up this morning, packing her few things, driving all this way … it seemed impossible for her to start it all again. Decision, action, motion. She wanted to curl up on the seat, put her head down. But the taxi was filling up. People were being made to leave their bags and bundles on the tar.
Her body delivered her: all at once, her digestion seemed to have speeded up dramatically. Guts whining, she trotted to the bathroom. Earlier, there’d been a queue for the toilets, but now the stalls were empty. In the basin mirror, Lynn’s face was startlingly grimed. Her hair was greasy, her eyes pink, as if she’d been weeping. Contamination. Sitting on the black plastic toilet seat, she felt the poisons gush out of her. She wiped her face with paper and looked closely at the black specks smeared onto the tissue. Her skin was oozing it. She held the wadded paper to her nose. A faint coppery smell. What was this shit? The explosion had been at a chemical plant, but which chemical? She couldn’t remember what they’d said on the news.
She noticed the silence. The slightly reverberating stillness of a place just vacated.
When she went outside, there was nobody left on the forecourt. The battered white taxi was pulling out, everyone crammed inside. The sliding door was open, three men hanging out the side with their fingers hooked into the roof rim. Lynn ran after it onto the highway, but the only person who saw her was the blond toddler crushed against the back windscreen, one hand spread against the glass. He held her gaze as the taxi picked up speed.
The cloud was creeping higher behind her back, casting a murk, not solid enough to be shadow. She could see veils of dirty rain bleeding from its near edge. Earlier, in the city, she had heard sirens, helicopters in the sky; but there was no noise out here. Standing alone on the highway was unnerving. This was for cars. The road surface was not meant to be touched with hands or feet, to be examined too closely or in stillness. The four lanes were so wide. Even the white lines and the gaps between them were much longer than they appeared from the car: the length of her whole body, were she to lie down in the road. She had to stop herself looking over her shoulder, flinching from invisible cars coming up from behind.
She thought of the people she’d seen so many times on the side of the highway, walking, walking along verges not designed for human passage, covering incomprehensible distances, toiling from one obscure spot to another. Their bent heads dusty, cowed by the iron ring of the horizon. In all her years of driving at speed along highways, Cape Town, Joburg, Durban, she’d never once stopped at a random spot, walked into the veld. Why would she? The highways were tracks through an indecipherable terrain of dun and grey, a blurred world in which one glimpsed only fleetingly the sleepy eyes of people standing on its edge. To leave the car would be to disintegrate, to merge with that shifting world. How far could she walk, anyway, before weakness made her stumble? Before the air thickened into some alien gel, impossible to wade through, to breathe?
It was mid-afternoon but it felt much later. Towards the city, the sky was thick with blood-coloured light. It was possible to stare at the sun – a bleached disk, like the moon of a different planet. The cloud was growing. As she watched, a deep occlusion spread towards her, pulling darkness across the sky. She ducked reflexively and put her hands up against the strange rain. But the raindrops were too big, distinct – and she realised that they were in fact birds, thousands of birds, sprinting away from the mountain. They flew above her and around her ears: swift starlings, labouring geese. Small, rapid birds tossed against the sky, smuts from a burning book. As they passed overhead, for the first time Lynn was filled with fear.
* * *
Approximately fifty packets of potato chips, assorted flavours. Eighty or so chocolate bars, different kinds. Liquorice, wine gums, Smarties. Maybe thirty bottles and cans of Coke and Fanta in the fridges. Water, fizzy and plain: fifteen big bottles, ten small. No alcohol of any kind. How much fluid did you need to drink per day? The women’s magazines said two litres. To flush out the toxins. Would drinking Coke be enough? Surely.
So: two weeks, maybe three. The survival arithmetic was easy. Two weeks was more than enough time; rescue would come long before then. She felt confident, prepared. Boldly, she pushed through the wooden flap and went behind the counter. The till stood open. Beyond were two swing doors with head-high windows, and through them a sterile steel-fitted kitchen, gloomy without overhead lighting. Two hamburger patties, part-cooked, lay abandoned on the grill, and a basket of chips sat in a vat of opaque oil. To the right was a back door with a metal pushbar. She shoved it.
The door swung open on to a sudden patch of domesticity: three or four black bins, a clothesline, sunlight, some scruffy bluegums and an old two-wire fence with wooden posts holding back the veld. A shed with a tilted corrugated-iron roof leaned up against the back wall. The change in scale and atmosphere was startling. Lynn had not imagined that these big franchised petrol stations hid modest homesteads. She’d had the vague sense that they were modular, shipped out in sections, everything in company colours. Extraneous elements – employees – were presumably spirited away somewhere convenient and invisible at the end of their shifts. But this was clearly somebody’s backyard. It smelt of smoke and sweat and dishwater, overlaying the burnt grease of the kitchen. Through the doorway of the shed she could see the end of an iron bed and mattress. On the ground was a red plastic tub of the kind used to wash dishes or babies. Two plastic garden chairs, one missing a leg. A rusted car on bricks.
Lynn laughed out loud. Her car! Her own car, twenty years on: the same model blue Toyota, but stripped to a shell. The remaining patches of crackled paint had faded to the colour of a long-ago summer sky. The roof had rusted clean through in places, and the bottom edges of the doors were rotten with corrosion. Old carpeting was piled on the back seat and all the doors were open. Seeing the smooth finish gone scabrous and raw gave Lynn a twinge at the back of her teeth.
She walked past the car. There was a stringy cow on the other side of the fence, its pelt like mud daubed over the muscles. A goat came avidly up to the wire, watching her with slotted eyes, and she put her arm through and scratched the coarse hair between its horns. The cow also mooched over in an interested way. Smelling its grassy breath, Lynn felt a tremor of adventure. She could be here for days.
She felt no fear at the prospect: nobody else was here, nobody for miles around. (Although briefly she saw again: the hand sliding across the throat …) Out here, the sky looked completely clear, as if the petrol station marked the limit of the zone of contamination. She shot her fingers at the goat and snapped them like the taxi-man, spun round in a circle, humming. And breathed in sharply, stepping back hard against the wire.
Someone was in the car. The pile of rugs had reconstituted itself into an old lady, sitting on the back seat as if waiting to be chauffeured away.
Lynn coughed out a laugh, slapping her chest. “Oh god, sorry,” she said. “You surprised me.”
The old lady worked her gums, staring straight ahead. She wore a faded green button-up dress, a hand-knitted cardigan, elasticised knee stockings and slippers. Grey hair caught in a meagre bun.
Lynn came closer. “Hello?” she began. Afrikaans? Hers was embarrassingly weak. “Hallo?” she said again, giving the word a different inflection. Ridiculous.
No response. Poor thing, she thought, someone just left her here. Would the old lady even know about the explosion? “Sorry … tannie?” she tried again.
She’d never seriously called anyone tannie before. But it seemed to have some effect: the old lady looked at her with mild curiosity. Small, filmed black eyes, almost no whites visible. A creased face shrunken onto fine bones. An ancient mouse.
“Hi. I’m Lynn. Sorry to disturb you. Ah, I don’t know if anyone’s told you – about the accident? In Cape Town.”
The woman’s mouth moved in a fumbling way. Lynn bent closer to hear. “My grandson,” the old lady enunciated, softly but clearly, with a faint smile. Then she looked away, having concluded a piece of necessary small talk.
“He told you about it?” No answer.
So. Now there was another person to consider, an old frail person, someone in need of her help. Lynn felt her heaviness return. “Tannie,” she said – having begun with it she might as well continue – “There’s been an accident, an explosion. There’s chemicals in the air. Poison, gif. It might be coming this way. I think we should go out front. There might be people coming past who can help us. Cars. Ambulances.”
The old lady seemed not averse to the idea, and allowed Lynn to take her arm and raise her from her seat. Although very light, she leaned hard; Lynn felt she was lugging the woman’s entire weight with one arm, like a suitcase. Rather than negotiate the series of doors back through the station, they took the longer route, clockwise around the building on a narrow track that squeezed between the back corner of the garage and the wire fence. Past the ladies, the gents, the café. As they walked, it started to rain, sudden and heavy. The rain shut down the horizon; its sound on the forecourt canopy was loud static. Lynn wondered how tainted the falling water was.
She sat the old lady down on a sheltered bench outside the shop, and fetched some bottles of water and packets of chips from inside. Then she urgently needed to use the bathroom again. The toilet was no longer flushing. Her guts felt liquid, but she strained to force anything out. The headache was back.
Outside, she saw the rain had stopped, as abruptly as it started, leaving a rusty tang in the air. The old lady had vanished. Then Lynn spotted movement out on the road: her car door was open. Coming closer, she saw that the woman was calmly eating tomato chips in the back seat. Having transferred herself from the wreck in the backyard to the superior vehicle out front, she was now waiting for the journey to recommence.
A neat old lady, Lynn noted: there were no crumbs down her front. She seemed restored by the chips. Her eyes gleamed as she whipped a plastic tortoiseshell comb out of a pocket and started snatching back wisps of hair, repinning the bun with black U-bend pins that Lynn hadn’t seen since her own grandmother died. In contrast, Lynn felt increasingly dishevelled, and embarrassed about her tip of a car: the empty Heineken bottles on the floor, the tissues in the cubbyhole. She should have kept things cleaner, looked after things better.
“My grandson,” the woman said to Lynn, with a nod of reassurance.
“Of course,” said Lynn.
Evening was coming. The clouds had retreated somewhat and were boiling over the mountain. The brief rain had activated an awful odour – like burnt plastic but with a metallic bite, and a whiff of sourness like rotten meat in it too. Lynn sat in the front seat, put the keys into the ignition and gripped the steering wheel. She had no plan. The sky ahead was darkening to a luminous blue. The silent little woman was an expectant presence in her rear-view mirror. Oppressed, Lynn got out of the car again and stood with her hands on her hips, staring east, west, willing sirens, flashing lights. She ducked back into the car. “I’ll be back in a sec, okay? You’re all right there?”
The woman looked at her with polite incomprehension. Lynn just needed to walk around a bit. She headed off towards the sun, which was melting into smears of red and purple. The mountain was no longer visible. The road was discoloured, splattered with lumps of some tarry black precipitate. She counted five small bodies of birds, feathers damp and stuck together. Blades of grass at the side of the road were streaked with black, and the ground seemed to be smoking, a layer of foul steam around her ankles. It got worse the further she walked. She turned around.
There was someone stooped over her car. At once she recognised the moustache, the blue overalls. Her first impulse was to hide. She stood completely still, watching. He hadn’t seen her. The clay-faced man was holding something … a box. No, a can. He had a white jerrycan in his hands and he was filling her car with petrol.
Lynn’s stomach roiled and she crouched down at the side of the road, vomiting a small quantity of cheese-and-onion mulch into the stinking grass. When she raised her chin, the man was standing looking back at the petrol station. Deciding, she made herself stand, raising her hand to wave. But in that moment he opened the door and got in; the motor turned immediately and the car was rolling forward. She could see the back of the old woman’s head, briefly silver as the car turned out into the lane, before the reflection of the sunset blanked the rear windscreen. The Toyota headed out into the clear evening.
* * *
Lynn sat in the back of the rusted car and watched the sky turn navy and the stars come out. She loved the way the spaces between the stars had no texture, softer than water; they were pure depth. She sat in the hollow the old lady had worn into the seat, ankles crossed in the space where the handbrake used to be. She sipped Coke; it helped with the nausea. She’d been here three days and her head felt clear. While there’d been a few bursts of warm rain, the chemical storm had not progressed further down the highway. It seemed the pollution had created its own weather system over the mountain, a knot of ugly cloud. She was washed up on the edge of it, resting her oil-clogged wings on a quiet shore.
Sooner or later, she was certain, rescue would come. The ambulances with flashing lights, the men in luminous vests with equipment and supplies. Or maybe just a stream of people driving back home. But if that took too long, then there was always the black bicycle that she’d found leaned up against the petrol pump. The woman’s grandson must have ridden here, with the petrol can, from some place not too far down the road. It was an old postman’s bike, heavy but hardy, and she felt sure that if he had cycled the distance, so could she. Maybe tomorrow, or the day after. And when this was all over, she was definitely going to go on a proper detox. Give up all junk food, alcohol. Some time soon.
Lynn snapped open a packet of salt-’n’-vinegar chips. Behind her, the last of the sunset lingered, poison violet and puce, but she didn’t turn to look. She wanted to face clear skies, sweet-smelling veld. If she closed her eyes, she might hear a frog, just one, starting its evening song beyond the fence.