From the Corner of My Eye
(Jillian Butler)

Posted on September 15, 2017 by in Lies To Live By

If singles’ bars are hell, then lesbian bars are the deepest fucking circle. I was a newbie, a baby Dyke, fresh meat and everyone in the place knew it. In this bar, the other lesbians knew your stats: how long you had been out, your age, and your ‘label’ (Butch, Baby Dyke, Dyke, Femme, Soft-Butch, Grrl, etc.) and that is scary. The ‘community’ is small, so everyone knows everyone, but I’ve only been in Boston for three years.

I’ve got a small advantage: nobody knows me.

Women were hovering by the bar. A girl with leather pants and a see-through shirt seemed to be holding court amongst the chattering ladies. It was loud, so I wasn’t quite sure how anybody heard anything. I stood near the door praying Lauren would show up soon. I’ve been to a few lesbian bars, but never by myself.

A cute, pixie-like girl smiled at me as she came through the door. I stared, pushed my hair behind my ears, and totally forgot to smile back. God. I had no idea how to flirt or respond to someone flirting with me. Was she flirting or just being nice? No idea.

I could hear Ani DiFranco blasting from the speaker behind my head. The women were singing along, laughing. I still stood there, staring.

‘Charlie! Charlie!’

Thank God.

‘Lauren! Hey!’

‘Sorry, my meeting with Professor Lyons took forever. Did you order yet?’

‘Not yet. I just got here. Let’s go sit.’

I took off my coat and smoothed out my striped boy’s polo. Baby Dyke. I’ve accepted the moniker. In fact, I embrace it, now.

Lauren was my first ‘gay’ friend. We tried dating, but dating someone you see for (roughly) 10 hours a day becomes a bit tedious. We both played for the women’s soccer team at Boston College and were history majors. So, we decided that ‘best friends’ and, eventually, roommates were better-suited labels for what we were.

‘What was your meeting about?’

The bartender walked over to where we sat nestled in the corner, hovering over the brass and mahogany bar. She looked us up and down.

‘Can I get you ladies something to drink?’

Lauren put her coat on the back of her stool, revealing a tight, white tank top under her ‘BC Soccer’ pullover. I think I heard the bartender’s jaw hit the floor. In fact, I am pretty sure everyone was now staring at us. Well, at Lauren. She had straightened her hair and mindfully applied a layer of shimmery lip-gloss, so she welcomed the attention.

I spoke up, ‘Um yeah, I’ll have a Bud Light. Lau?’

‘I’ll have a tequila shot and a Corona with lime.’

The bartender smiled and walked away.

‘Jesus, shots already? Bad day?’

‘Not bad, fucking long. Professor Lyons would not stop talking. He wants me to consider going on at BC for my masters in English. Blah. Blah. Blah. I told him I have a year and a half left. Let me get through that first.’

Awkwardly, I turned on my stool to find a woman standing behind me, somewhat staring. Lauren turned her head, trying not to laugh in the girl’s face.

‘Oh, do you need to order something? I’m sorry.’

‘Yes I do, but do you go to BC?’

It always scares the shit out of me when somebody I don’t know knows me.

‘Yeah. Why? Do you?’

‘Charlotte? Right?’

I grabbed the bottle of beer in front of me and started drinking.

‘Yeah. Do I know you?’ I yelled as I squirmed on the stool.

‘Oh sorry! I don’t mean to be creepy or freak you out,’ she laughed. ‘I.T.A., your American lit class. I’m Cara.’

From the corner of my eye, I could see Lauren making faces. It was our unwritten rule to not leave a bar or club with anyone we did not arrive with. Since neither of us has family close by, we became each other’s family.

‘Hi, Cara. I’m Charlie, but you already knew that.’

‘Ha ha, yeah. Can I buy you a drink?’

Cara seemed nice enough, but I wasn’t into it, and she completely ignored Lauren who was sitting right beside me.

‘Thank you. That’s really sweet, but my friend, Lauren, sitting beside you, just bought me a drink. Thanks though.’

Cara turned to look at Lauren and smiled, ‘OK maybe another time? See you on Thursday… you know, in class.’

‘Sure, Bye.’

Cara headed back into the lesbian abyss.

‘Jesus. She stood right in front of me. Haha! Do you draw rainbows on your papers or something?’

‘No, but that creeps me out. How did she know I was gay?’

‘Are you seriously asking me that question right now? I’m pretty sure you wear men’s sweatpants, sweatshirts and sneakers all day every day. You look gay.’

‘Really? I guess I never thought about it. But, you wear the same thing!’

‘No shit. Have you talked to your parents yet?’

‘No.’

I motioned to the bartender.

‘What are you waiting for?’

The bartender made her way down to our end.

‘Two beers?’

‘Yeah and two more tequila and lime shots, please.’

She brought the drinks over. I took both shots.

‘Jesus, Charlie. Are you trying to spend your night on the bathroom floor?’

‘I can’t think when I talk about this. It scares the shit out of me. They’re going to stop talking to me. So, I’m trying to drag it out until graduation. At least school will be done.’

I swallowed back the panic lodged in my throat and took a sip of the piss warm Bud Light.

‘You don’t know that. You’re their kid.’

‘My parents…There is a reason they visit once year. I don’t even know how to describe it. They just don’t care. I’m an only child on purpose.’

Lauren put her hand on mine. I could tell she was trying, but just couldn’t understand. Her parents were supportive. I often pretended that my parents knew: that they did not care that I was gay. It was easier than thinking about what their true reactions were going to be. How could I wrap my mind around something so scary? I had to tell them. I knew that. They’re my parents: the only family I have, but I knew that wouldn’t be the case after the conversation.

The bartender came over with two more shots. ‘You ladies look like you need these.’

We pushed them down.

‘Gross. What was that?’ Lauren yelled, lowering her mouth in disgust.

The bartender laughed, ‘Something that will help you forget, well, at least for tonight.’ She smiled at me and walked away.

I liked her.

A few shots and beers later: life was light and the room was a little hazy. I remember dancing on a barstool to a Joan Jett song. I was drunk. It was getting close to last call. So naturally, we ordered two more shots.

‘Hey. Hey! We gotta go soon or we’ll never get a cab,’ Lauren yelled over at me.

I found myself wrapped up in a conversation with an older woman. Rachel? No. Ann? Anyway, she did something important. Lauren maneuvered through a sea of women, over to where the woman and I were standing.

‘Charlie! We have to go now.’

‘Hi, Lauren.’

‘Yeah, sorry to spoil the fun, but we have to go now.’

The older woman grabbed Lauren’s arm. ‘Charlie’s coming home with me. She’ll be fine. I live over on Boylston.’

‘I’m sure you’re great and all, but she’s shattered, so she’s just going to go home.’

The woman got a little possessive and stood in front of me. I saw Lauren’s face go sour. She was a little tipsy, tired and annoyed. I walked away.

‘Charlie, hey Charlie,’ the woman called after me.

My brain was trying to tell my mouth to say something, but neither wanted to cooperate, so I just kept walking. Lauren must have gone over to the bar to grab our stuff, because I could no longer see her in my line of vision.

Shit.

Somewhere between the exit and the sidewalk my balance collapsed, hurling me onto the cold, sticky sidewalk. My jeans were now covered in someone’s spilled beer. My knuckles were bleeding from a sad attempt at breaking my fall.

‘Hey, are you OK?’

I felt someone lifting me up. She kept talking, as she brought me over to the curb and sat me down.

‘I’m sorry.’

‘What? No you’re fine. We’ve all had nights like this.’

‘No. You’re pretty, and I’m drunk. My parents are going to disown me, sorry.’

Words just kept spewing from my mouth, and she sat there and listened. Spools of dark chocolate waves pooled around her face, giving way to iridescent blue eyes. I did not want to look away. In fact, I’m sure I didn’t. When she broke into a smile, even though it was one of pity, I felt like somebody had electrocuted my body. She could see right through me.

‘Jesus. What happened to you?’ Lauren ran over yelling.

‘I fell, so I’m sitting. Oh, this is…’

‘Hi. I’m Audrey. Your friend fell. I just moved her from the foot traffic.’

‘Thanks. I’m Lauren and this mess here is Charlie,’ Lauren said as she attempted to put my coat on me.

I tried to stand, but failed. Audrey grabbed my arm. I wanted to touch her tiny, pale hand.

‘Audrey, do you want to hang out?’

She giggled, ‘Well, it’s late. So, I’m gonna head home, but I’ll write down my number. Maybe another time?’

She took a pen out of her messenger bag, ripped the first page from some book and wrote down her number. As she placed the folded piece of paper in my jeans pocket, I (sloppily) fell on her and kissed her right on the mouth.

‘I’m pretty sure I love you.’

Lauren rushed over and grabbed me, apologising for my drunkenness. I could see Audrey blushing and smiling. I tried to push my hair from my face, so I could see her, but I just kept making it worse. I couldn’t let her leave, but Lauren’s strong hold prohibited any further movement. I waved bye.

She put her hands in her pockets and walked away

Lauren smacked me on the head. ‘I love you? God, you’re drunk.’

***

Fuck. My mouth was dry, and my head was throbbing. I still had the shirt from last night on, with only my underwear and one sock. My face was stuck to the leather sofa and bathed in drool that had pooled at my chin.

‘Good morning, Sunshine. You want coffee?’ Lauren sang at an octave I was currently unable to handle.

‘Oh my god. No. I need a bucket, though. I feel like I’m gonna puke.’

The more I moved my head, the more the room kept spinning. I had to put one leg off of the couch to keep balance.

Lauren laughed at me. ‘I’m not surprised. You were taking down shots like they were water. It was gross.’

‘Please tell me that I wasn’t an asshole or did anything stupid.’

She didn’t answer.

‘That bad? ‘

‘I’m just gonna tell that you that, at the very least, you owe me dinner. I did save you from some woman that looked like she was ready to take you home and put you in a cage, and you were all for it.’

‘Jesus. Thank you.’

‘Oh. You kissed some girl and told her that you loved her.’

I jerked my head from the couch so fast that I gagged. ‘What? Who?’

‘I don’t know. Audrey, I think? She gave you her number. She seemed nice enough.’

I tried sitting up, but forgot my leg was hanging off of the couch. Instead, I fell and whacked my face on the table, spilling the full glass of water everywhere. I laid back down. Lauren grabbed paper towels from the counter and threw them at me.

‘Relax. You were too drunk to be an asshole. You fell or something. She helped you. I found you with her sitting on the curb.’

‘I was that messy, and she still gave me her number. And you didn’t recognize her?’

‘No. I’ve never seen her. You should at least call to apologise.’

I grabbed my jeans (that were now covered in water) from the floor and searched through the pockets. I was giddy. I didn’t remember a lot from last night, but I did remember her. There it was, on the page of some book: 617-222-1003, and below there was a little note: Hi. I’m Audrey. Call me sometime. She must be either crazy or a glutton for punishment: either way I resolved to call her.

‘What time is it?’

‘It’s 11:14. Are you going to call her?’

‘Yeah. Now I’m curious. Is she crazy? Why would she give me her number?’

‘I don’t know.’

The cordless phone was dead, so I had to sit in the living room and call from that phone. Lauren sat and stared at me as I dialled.

‘Hello? Is Audrey there? It’s…’

‘Charlie. Hi. I recognised the voice,’ she laughed.

‘Oh, yeah sorry. I, I just wanted to apologise for, well, being so drunk. Lauren said I may have kissed you? I’m sorry. God… that’s not really like me.’

‘It’s ok, really. We’ve all had those kind of nights’

‘Thanks. I just wanted to call to apologise…’

‘That’s it?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well, do you want to try it again?’

‘Try what again?’

‘You’re killing me,’ she laughed. ‘Meeting. Would you like to try meeting again? I mean…you do love me. So, I think we should re-meet.’

‘If I remembered that, I’d probably be a lot more embarrassed and politely decline. But, clearly, I was a mess, so yes. Yes, I’ll re-meet you.’

‘Good. How about Lucy Café? It’s on—’

‘I know that place! It’s about five minutes away from me.’

We arranged to meet later and I offered to buy dinner to make up for my debauchery the night before. She didn’t say no. When I hung up, Lauren grilled me for details.

‘You heard the whole conversation.’

‘But you’re smiling. What do you think?’

‘I don’t know. It’s weird. It’s like I know her. It feels like it isn’t new…it’s so weird.’

I told Lauren I needed to eat and sleep, since I was meeting Audrey at seven. I didn’t want to be sick or hungover.

My bed welcomed me, but my brain was going a hundred miles an hour. I was twenty two years old and had not had any type of substantial, adult relationship. With Lauren it was less of a relationship and more of two young girls figuring out if they were truly not-straight, and it didn’t end badly because it never had a beginning; it just happened and then changed. I was happy things had unfolded the way they did: Lauren was my rock, my family.

I had never even met this girl, and I was already thinking about our relationship? Maybe this is what a soul mate was? Or love at first sight? I don’t know.

Calm the fuck down, Charlie.

I needed to just slow down, so I ate half of a bag of Doritos while I watched some ridiculous infomercial on TV.

At 5:30 my alarm went off, so I opened my eyes. Fifteen minutes later Lauren came in and threw a pillow at me.

‘Shut it off. Get up!’

‘I’m up…What are you doing? Did you even leave the house today?’

‘I may not have drank half of the tequila in Boston last night, but I had enough to make me feel like shit today. And no, asshole, I didn’t go out of the house, but I did watch, like, three movies. I feel like a zombie.’

‘What should I wear? Do I need to dress up?’

‘I mean it’s not a five-star place, so probably not anything too dressy.’ She started fanning through my closet. ‘What about this? You can’t go wrong with a little black dress.’

‘A dress? Yuck. I hate eating with a dress on. I smell. I need to shower.’

‘Yeah, you do. Wear black converse with it. You’ll look cute. God. Open a window or something. It smells like a brewery in here. Gross.’

I crawled out of the bed, opened the window and shuffled into the shower. I mustered up the energy to get dressed while Lauren made me coffee.

‘You look nice. Don’t be too awkward.’

I grabbed my bag and left.

The street was bright and moving fast. People were swirling past me.

Get your shit together.

The cold air was breathing life back in my body. When I saw the sign for the restaurant, I stopped, pushed my hair behind my ears and fixed my dress. My legs looked like long, white sticks. I doubted my choice in dinner attire, but it was too late to change.

She was already sitting when I got there, but stood when she saw me. Her smile drew me in. The waiter took me to the table.

She smiled, again. ‘Hi, I’m Audrey. Nice to meet you.’

‘Hi, Audrey. I’m Charlie.’

She was beautiful. Her hair was perfectly messy, and her olive skin radiated under the form-fitting white v-neck shirt. The waiter made his way over to the table, breaking me from my obvious staring problem. He approached Audrey.

‘Good evening, ma’am. Welcome to Lucy Café. Is this your first time dining with us?’

‘Oh, no. I’ve been here before.’

‘Great, can I start you with a beverage?’

I stared at the menu. I was unsure of the country the food we would be eating was from. Nothing was recognisable, so I just sat there.

‘Is there anything you recommend?’ Audrey inquired.

‘Well, if you like a sweet wine, I recommend the tej. It’s an Ethiopian honey wine. Or, if you like beer, there’s tella. It’s a beer made from cereal grains. We also have domestic bottled beer, house red and white wine, and soda.’

‘Charlie? What would you like?’

The waiter kept his back to me.

‘I’m just going to have water, for now.’

Audrey giggled, ‘I’ll try the tej, along with a water. Thank you.’

I wanted to ask her about everything: her family, her life, but words were not forming in my mind fast enough. I watched her move the plate and napkin to the side, so she could rest on her elbow.

‘Hi.’ That was all I had.

‘Hi. How are you feeling?’

‘I’m good. I mean, I feel ok. This morning was rough, but I’m good now.’

‘Good.’

The waiter came back with a tray full of beverages. He served me, then Audrey.

‘Did you decide on your meal, yet?’ He nestled close and leaned into her with a menu. It was weird. He pointed out the food he liked and stared at her, waiting for a response. She looked over at me.

‘Oh, hi. I’m ordering too. There are two of us here, eating.’

He stood up. ‘Right. Do you know what you’d like?’

‘Yes, I’ll have the bayon-ee-too?’

Bayenetu, and you ma’am? Have you decided?’

‘I’ll have the same.’

The waiter took my menu and stood near Audrey. ‘I have to tell you, your eyes are beautiful.’

Audrey squirmed in her chair, ‘Um, thanks.’

I wasn’t sure if I should tell the guy to leave her alone or let it go. Either way, Audrey looked uncomfortable.

‘Should I go knock him around? Let him know you’re here with me. I’m not sure he’ll care, but hey, I made an ass of myself last night. I could be on a roll. But wait, this is a serious question: what did I order and why are people eating with their hands?’

Audrey laughed so hard that whatever she was drinking spilled out from the side of her mouth. She stood up and leaned over the table, motioning for me to come closer.

‘My turn,’ she whispered as she kissed me.

I kissed her back.

I didn’t care, for once, about people watching.

We both sat back down. I looked over to the waiter’s station. The waiter looked pissed off or disgusted, and I saw him mouth the word, Dykes, to the guy next to him.

Audrey saw too. She grabbed my hand from under the table, ‘You wanna get out of here?’

I nodded and threw $40 on the table.

We put our coats on, grabbed our bags and each other’s hands, and walked out.

 

______________________________________________________________

Jillian (Jill) Butler recently graduated from the University of Massachusetts, Boston with a Master’s degree in English (Creative Writing and Education). She currently teaches high school English. In her ‘spare’ time Jill is a freelance editor and is also the founding editor of Provocateur, an LGBTQ+ literary magazine. As of this summer, three of her short stories will have been published in various anthologies and literary magazines/journals. When she is not editing, writing or teaching, Jill can be found hanging out with her wife and almost three-year-old daughter in Burlington, MA.

The Dunes (Kate Murdoch)

Posted on August 29, 2017 by in Lies To Live By

A single egg separated to form them. Yet Tamasine and Orla had rarely been apart. Once her twin met the boy, Orla spent more time alone. He was heavyset with the air of someone ready for a fight. Tamasine said she felt safe with him.

‘That’s because he’s scary,’ said Orla, eyes narrowed. ‘You’re safe because no one else wants to go near him. He has shifty eyes.’

‘Jealousy,’ sighed Tamasine and flicked a sheaf of blond hair over her shoulder. They sat opposite each other on their single beds, the roman blind tapped on the edge of the window in the late summer breeze. Their beds were unmade and strewn with magazines, nail polish bottles and discarded clothes.

Orla pondered the word. Maybe she was, a little. The boy had dragged her sister into a fast-moving current whilst she stood lost on the shore. Tamasine walked with a saunter, her hips swayed. She wore bright pink lipstick and a trainer bra beneath her school dress. She spoke of them hidden in the high grass at the sand dunes, the rumble of the surf muffling it all.

Orla imagined what it would feel like to be chosen. For a boy to lie down with her and unbutton her dress, his fingers edging up her inner thigh. She blushed.

It was after school on a Friday and she waited for the train. Tamasine had been held back because her English assignment was late. Orla watched a plastic bag billow over the platform as an announcement crackled through the loudspeaker. A huddle of young mothers gathered near her, their prams arranged in a semi-circle. Grey smudges shadowed their eyes and their summer dresses were crinkled. Only a few years older, yet their faces were careworn, their postures slouched.

The sun prickled her skin and she shaded her eyes.

‘Hallo,’ a voice came from behind. She turned to see the boy, Rupe. Tamasine’s boyfriend. ‘I thought we were going to meet on the corner?’

Orla hesitated. His devouring gaze made her stomach swirl and her mouth dry. She touched her hair and gave a tentative smile.

‘Oh, I forgot. Sorry.’

‘Well, what are you waiting for? Let’s go. You’re on the wrong platform, you duffer.’

Rupe seized her hand and led her down the stairs to the tunnel beneath the tracks. It reeked of stale urine and decomposed rubbish.

The train had just screeched to a halt on platform six. A surge of panic rose in her chest as they sat at the back of the carriage. Rupe’s hand was on her knee as they sped towards Cronulla, brick veneer houses a brown blur outside the window, lurid graffiti zigzagged on paling fences.

A pang of nausea as she ventured another smile. ‘Beautiful day,’ she said.

‘You’re acting weird, Tams.’ He shrugged and kissed her neck, his lips warm and slippery. Orla tried not to shudder.

Her mother would be slicing carrots for the casserole. Her snack of two digestive biscuits and a glass of lemonade waiting on the bench. The squeak of the Hills Hoist as Mum pegged washing and her laughter as she bantered with Mrs Anderson over the fence.

At Cronulla station they jumped the gate to avoid the ticket collector. The descending sun turned the footpath orange as she followed. A broad back, close-cropped brown hair. The dunes appeared as they came to the top of a hill. Beside them the road hummed with traffic.

They reached the bottom of the hill and the beach. Salt-tinged air caressed her cheeks. The dunes towered near them, burnished ripples of sand undulating towards the vast sea, its teal waters winking light. The grasses whispered as they moved forward, as high as their shoulders. Orla held her breath—enclosed in a secret, or caught in a trap, she wasn’t sure. The grass tickled her calves and Rupe sat down in a small gap. He patted the space next to him. All she could see was olive green grass, sea, horizon and the deepening blue of sky.

‘It’s time, Tamasine,’ he said in a quiet voice.

Orla’s voice was high and thin. ‘Time for what?’

‘For this.’ He leaned over and kissed her hard, his tongue prying into every part of her mouth, his hand snaking up her thigh. She gasped and pulled back.

‘I’m not ready.’

Rupe panted, his face blotched red. ‘You said you were, last time. We planned this.’

Without waiting for an answer he pinioned her to the ground. She squirmed as he ripped her underpants off and kneaded her chest with his other hand. The metallic sound of a belt buckle as he undid himself.

‘No. No, I don’t want it.’

‘Yes, you do.’

Searing pain, warm trickle, rhythmic grunts. Orla wept in silence, sand clutched in her hands. The susurration of the grass and the endless roar of surf. The vast blue above as she rose from herself, her mind suspended.

It was almost dark as she travelled home on the near-empty train. She held her dress together where he had ripped off the buttons, sticky between her legs and dusted with sand. A middle-aged woman touched her shoulder and she recoiled.

‘You all right, love?’

A mute nod and the woman left her alone. A blue light flashed from her driveway as she staggered up the street.

***

The other women were kind, if a bit frazzled. Orla’s room was tiny, but big enough for the bassinet to stand next to the single bed. Magpies nested in the gum outside her window and squawked in tandem with her boy at dawn. Mum visited once a week and held him while she showered. Once she had seen her friends at the supermarket, shrieking with laughter. She ducked into the cleaning aisle, heart thundering as she touched her greased tails of hair.

Another time she saw her sister in the street. Tamasine stared at the mewling infant in the pram, before her gaze traversed Orla. Pity and scorn flitted across her features. She walked on without a word.

 

____________________________________________________________


Kate Murdoch
exhibited widely as a painter before turning her hand to writing. In between writing historical fiction, she enjoys writing short stories and flash fiction. Her stories have appeared in Eunoia Review, Spelk Fiction, Sick Lit Magazine, Ink In Thirds magazine, and Feminine Collective, among others. Kate’s debut historical fantasy novel Stone Circle will be published by Fireship Press in December 2017. Find Kate on her website and on Facebook and Twitter.

 

The Ship (Nathan Curnow)

Posted on August 1, 2017 by in Flash Fiction, Lies To Live By

The radio says there’s an overnight storm arriving at 1am, so he sets the alarm clock on the floor of his room, beside his mattress in the bare apartment. After twenty years of marriage he was almost back to living in a student share house, but he discovered a cheap one bedroom across town that’s as empty as his allocated car park. He knew calling it quits meant financial disaster, now he’s renting for the rest of his life. He needs time to find his feet and he’ll find them soon, a lie that he’s telling his kids.

The storm driving in is meant to get wild. It’s been weeks since the last one hit. He’s been trying to keep busy with twelve-hour shifts and watching dvds on the laptop. He barely earns enough to contribute to school fees, meet rent and buy fresh food. It takes a month of saving to go on a date because he pays for her meal like a gentleman. Is this what he chose, this separateness, a life he can barely afford? Travelling is out, so he rides each storm, like the one that’s coming in tonight.

His alarm starts squawking like a pirate’s macaw, so he slaps it in the face. What he’s about to do might be an ancient pastime, which makes him feel less pathetic. The gale is battering every angle outside, beating windows in aluminium frames. The gutters are clogged and the rainwater falls, splattering on the concrete beneath. He’s half asleep as the storm hauls the trees, a branch scraping the corrugated fence. A new world has arrived that doesn’t cost a thing, so he lies there just like he’s practised.

He imagines he’s travelling in the bowels of a ship, as if everything led to that. He’s on an adventure, far off the coast, in a liminal wave of chaos. He’s alone but seafaring, lurching along to a destination that’s bound to come—the eye of a storm, the ocean bed or calm water with a fine horizon. Wherever he’s going, something is happening and he’s been waiting for something so long. Tonight it’s as if he rebuilt his life, going places after years of coping.

He stays in that ship as long as he can, before the storm passes and sleep returns, before morning and the choices he’ll have to make, like what he’ll cook just for himself. One day he’ll remember that man on the floor imagining beneath the covers. He’ll have company then, a new wife perhaps or maybe an irregular lover. No one will know that he’d wake at night while his kids across town slept through. But there must be others in their own low ships, with only weather and a way to be.

 

____________________________________________________________


Nathan Curnow
lives in Ballarat and is a past editor of Going Down SwingingHis previous books include The Ghost Poetry ProjectRADAR, and The Apocalypse Awards (Australian Scholarly Publishing). He has won numerous prizes and appears regularly at festivals across the country, although he is often thrown by his notes.

 

 

SIX WEEKS – The Summer of 2006 (khulud khamis)

Posted on July 14, 2017 by in Book Extracts, Lies To Live By


Nairouz, a Palestinian woman from Haifa in her 40s, has to make room in her too-busy life, to care for her disabled mother for six weeks, when the Second Lebabon War breaks in July of 2006. The novel follows her life during six hectic weeks, as she negotiates between her two children, academic career, activism, and caring for a disabled mother.

Day 1 – 12 July 2006

Great. This is just great. Just what I needed to add to all the chaos in my life right now. I put down the phone and sink into the sofa. I hear Yasmeen’s hushed voice from her bedroom, but I can’t hear the words themselves. Secrets of the young on the phone. Razi storms in, his sneakers caked with mud, and before I can say something, he’s already banged the door to his bedroom shut. Not even a ‘Salam, mama.’ His life revolves around football, computer games, and his two best friends. I need coffee. Strong coffee. Then I can think straight and try to figure this out. Maybe by the time Emad gets home from work I’ll have figured out something and I can run it by him.

Everything was set up carefully. Neelam, the Nepalese woman living with my parents and taking care of my disabled mother leaves in two days for Nepal for six weeks. She’s been with us for the past two years without taking any days off. She has three small children back home, and she misses them achingly. I can’t imagine the strength it takes to leave your children for so long to ensure a better future for them. The sacrifice. Rafiq volunteered to go through the bureaucratic process with the agency and find a temporary replacement. I called the agency this morning to make sure the replacement will arrive as agreed, tomorrow, so Neelam can show her everything. The man on the other side of the line was courteous, apologizing that I had to wait on the line while he checked the file on the computer. ‘Can you spell the family name again, please?’ I did, and was asked to wait again. No. They didn’t have any such request on their files. ‘Can you check again? Maybe the file wasn’t updated yet?’ No. He’s quite sure that’s not the case, but he’ll check again. Can I leave him my phone number and he’ll get back to me?

He called an hour later, all apologies again. ‘I’m sorry, but I went through all the papers on my desk, and the computer files, but there really isn’t any such request filed. You’re saying tomorrow? That’s impossible. We need at least one month notice in advance. I’m really sorry, but there’s nothing I can do about it. Yes, I’ll keep your request on my desk, and if anyone becomes available I’ll let you know. Although I doubt it.’

Breathe, Nairouz, breathe, I tell myself. You can deal with it. You’ve dealt with more difficult crises in your life. You’re raising two teenagers and doing a damn good job at it. You managed to get a fucking PhD while raising two kids and managing a household. I take my coffee, cigarettes and mobile out to the verandah and am hit by the thick, hot, humid air of July. There’s no point in calling Siwar for help. She’s so fragile and emotional. She’s always been the impractical one of the three of us. Quiet, sensitive Siwar. I’ll call her later this evening just to update her, after I straighten this out with Rafiq and we figure out what to do. I dial Rafiq’s number, even though I know he’s probably in one of his important meetings and he’ll be angry at me for disturbing him in the middle of his work day. ‘Rafiq? Hey, sorry about bothering you, but it’s urgent – about mama. No, she’s fine. It’s the replacement from the agency . . . there is no replacement.’ I feel my pulse rise again as Rafiq tries to calm me down, telling me it must be some mistake. Somebody must have misfiled the paperwork. He’ll sort it out and call them on his lunch break.

I walk back inside, into the cool air-conditioned apartment. Emad was in charge of the dishes last night, and so I’m not surprised to come to a sink full of dirty plates, cups, and two pots. If you could at least have soaked them! Just because I mostly work from home doesn’t mean I have endless free time, I talk to Imad in my head. I roll up my sleeves and start washing the dishes, when Razi comes bursting in, ‘Mama, I need some money. Just a hundred.’ I turn around to face my son, water dripping from my hands onto the floor. ‘Didn’t baba give you and your sister your weekly allowances only a couple of days ago?’ He stares at his feet, hands digging deep into his jeans pockets. ‘Where are you going?’ I ask in resignation. His eyes light up as he realizes he’s not going to have to beg for it this time. ‘Don’t know yet. Maybe see a movie and then head down to the beach.’ He follows me to the bedroom like a puppy. ‘It’s coming off your next week’s allowance,’ I tell him, but he’s already out the door. He’s like a tornado, this kid.

I sit down on the edge of the sofa, and my eye catches the pile of books on the coffe table. Screw the dishes. I pick up Vikran Seth’s A Suitable Boy and tuck my legs under me. I’ve been putting off this book for so long. I remember when it arrived in the mail, I was both horrified and delighted at the same time at the hugeness of it. I start reading, and am immediately transported to India, finding myself at a wedding. For a few hours, I leave my life behind: my own mother, Neelam, Razi and Yasmeen, even Rafiq. I enter a different dimension, a different time.

I jump when I hear the front door bang. Emad’s strong voice reaches me; he’s on the phone talking business. Immediately, I am flushed with inexplicable guilt. I put the book face down on the table, and rush to the bedroom. I stand in front of the mirror and look at my reflection. Shit, I look a mess. My hair is all tangled up, a pencil sticking out from the back, which I used to secure my hair with. I quickly let my hair down and run a brush through it before tying it neatly in the back with a pain hair band.

‘Habibi,’ I try not to sound hysterical when I come back out. I have to stand on tiptoe to reach his cheek and kiss him. He wraps his free arm around my waist, and walks with me toward the verandah, still talking into the phone. When he finally ends the call, we stand still, my small body enveloped by his strong arms, and just watch the sea for a while. It’s become our ritual, a few moments of togetherness, of calm, of just him and me, before going back to the chaos of our lives. ‘Mmmm, you smell like oranges,’ he inhales my hair. ‘And you smell sticky and sweaty,’ I reply. His laugh is husky. ‘Should we share a cigarette?’ It’s his way of asking what’s wrong. He can sense it from the slightest touch. ‘You’re so transparent, Nairouz,’ he’d always tell me.

‘Well, let’s wait to hear from Rafiq. If he doesn’t fix it, we’ll think together,’ he says after I tell him about the mess at the agency. ‘As I see it, there aren’t too many options. We won’t be able to find anyone on a day’s notice.’

I’m still hopeful, but another part of me knows what this means. But I’m not ready to think about it just yet, so I push the thought away and focus instead on cutting the vegetables for the salad while Emad prepares the pasta. ‘Oh, Razi isn’t having dinner with us,’ I remember when I see Emad taking down four plates. He raises an eyebrow, but doesn’t say anything. He knows better than me that there’s no holding that hyperactive boy at home. And from the guilty look on my face, he guesses that I gave him some money. ‘Only a hundred, and I told him we’ll take it off from next week’s allowance.’ Emad laughs, ‘Yeah, right. He’s almost an adult and still thinks money grows on trees.’

At seventeen, Yasmeen is a quiet girl. Yes, sometimes I hear her laugh on the phone, a friend or two come over, but mostly she spends her days caved up in her room, with her sketchpads, charcoals, oils, and pastels. She is so much like Siwar. When I call her to dinner, she comes out as if from a different dimension of reality, her fingers smudged with shades of yellow and green. ‘Did you people hear the news today?’ she asks as she washes her hands in the kitchen sink. I quickly glance at Emad; he shrugs his shoulders. ‘No, but I’m sure you’re going to update us.’

‘Hizballah killed three IDF soldiers and kidnapped two.’ My hand, holding a salad bowl, stops in midair. I stare at Yasmeen across the table as I try to comprehend what she has just said, and what it might mean. Shit. Kidnapped soldiers can only mean disaster. Israel will definitely retaliate. As I slowly realize my situation, with three academic articles due by mid-October, the stacks of books I need to read before the academic year begins, the syllabuses I need to prepare for the two courses I’ll be teaching, and the three students whose MA theses I’m supervising, my mother, two confused teenagers on the brink of adulthood, and now this, I put the salad bowl down and sink into the chair, dazed. ‘I don’t think I can do this,’ I say to no one in particular. ‘Here, give me the bowl, mama, I’ll do that.’ Yasmeen takes the bowl and starts dishing out salad for us. Emad watches me and for once, there are no words of comfort that he can think of. We eat dinner in silence. When the phone rings, I rush at it, hoping against hope that somehow Rafiq managed to fix it. That it was some mistake, some misplacement of documents. The moment I hear Rafiq’s voice, I know. ‘I’m sorry, Nairouz.’

***

I try to focus on the book in my hands, and I find myself reading and rereading the same paragraphs, the same words, over and over. Their meaning eludes me. ‘Did you talk to your sister?’ Emad’s voice brings me back into the living room. ‘I forgot . . . but I can’t imagine Siwar taking care of mama. She can barely remember to eat sometimes. And anyway, I think she’s supposed to fly to Spain sometime soon, for some dance therapy workshop. She said she’ll be gone a few weeks. I think she mentioned staying with some friends in Andalusia.’ Siwar, my baby sister, still unsettled, still looking for herself in this world. She’s recently been taking some advanced dance therapy workshops somewhere in the desert. Last time she came to visit she seemed finally at ease in her own body. Like she’s finally found her thing, that very thing that makes her happy and content. I can’t dump this on her now. But I should call her in any case. I put down the book, it’s no good anyway, trying to read in this state. I grab a notebook and start jotting down things. Just the act of getting things down on paper gives me a feeling of control. I can do this. I can juggle around things and fit them around. Most of the things, luckily, are things I can do from anywhere, as long as I have my laptop, Internet connection, and my books. ‘I’ll make you a cup of chamomile tea to calm your nerves down, Nun.’ Emad, the one responsible for my mental health. I don’t protest, only give him a silent, thankful smile. What would I do without you, Emad?

***

Day 2 – 13 July

When I finally wake up, Emad is already gone to work. There’s a note on the kitchen table, scribbled in his untidy handwriting: Be kind to yourself today. Love you. He does this sometimes, reminding me of small beauties. I am taken aback by the simplicity of his words, or maybe just surprised how easily we forget to appreciate the simple things in life, taking them for granted.

Razi is already gone for the day too. I try to remember if he told us where he’ll be, but can’t. I send him a message, and he responds that he’s on his way to the beach and won’t be home till late in the evening. I find Yasmeen in her room, sitting on the carpet, still in her pyjamas, painting on a large canvas. I worry about her sometimes. Siwar says to just let her be. This is how artists are born. Emad agrees with her. I bend down and kiss the crown of her head. Before I leave, I tell her she can heat up some of last night’s pasta for lunch. She just nods and continues painting.

It’s just after eleven when I leave the house. I walk down from Hess street, then through the stairs that lead me first to Hillel, then Massada street. I need the walk to clear my head. It’s all downhill to Wadi Nisnas, and I can use the cardio when I go back up in the evening. Or I can take the bus or have Emad pick me up.

Neelam opens the door for me. She’s in her mid-thirties, a slight body. Long, thick, dark brown hair braided, resting on her left breast, reaching all the way to her hip. Today she’s wearing a lavender colour sari, with thin yellow swirls running through it. ‘Hello, Naroos, how are you?’ Her smile reaches her kind eyes. ‘Namaste, Neelam. I’m good, shukran.’ She trails behind me into the living room, where mama is sitting watching a movie. When she sees me, her eyes light up, ‘Na . . . Nanu . . .’ she laughs and shrugs her shoulders in apology for not getting my name out the way her brain willed it. I hug her, making sure not to put too much pressure on her right arm, and kiss her on both cheeks.

She makes a movement with her left arm, and when she realizes she won’t be able to mime what’s on her mind, she switches the TV to a news channel. ‘Boom boom, eh,’ she points to the television screen, then at the newspaper lying on the coffee table. I forgot all about it. I haven’t listened to the news this morning, so I don’t know what’s happening. I take the newspaper and read about the kidnapping of the two IDF soldiers. The Prime Minister is quoted that there will be massive reaction. Nobody, nobody, will threaten Israel’s security. ‘Don’t worry, mama. We’re safe. Anyway, they know in Lebanon that Haifa is a mixed city, right? They wouldn’t bomb us.’ I see her nose crinkling, then she clicks back to the movie.

Neelam brings tea and sits down opposite me. ‘Where is replacement? Coming today? Have to teach her. So many things.’ She says in broken Arabic. My eyes widen in surprise. We were so busy trying to figure out what to do that we forgot to update Neelam and mama. I scoot over to the edge of the sofa so I can reach mama’s hand. She looks at me and smiles. It’s a lopsided smile, the left side more alive than the right. I take a deep breath. This is it. There’s no going back now. ‘I’m the replacement.’ Mama looks at me, not really comprehending. ‘Mama,’ I say, ‘I’m going to take care of you while Neelam’s gone.’ I don’t explain any further, because that might make her sad, knowing that I’m doing it because it’s been forced on me. The laughter that comes the moment the words sink into mother’s brain surprises both me and Neelam. She slaps her left hand down on her knee, then, with an effort, gets up, supporting herself on her cane, and stands in front of me, waiting. I look at Neelam, and she shrugs. I get up, and mama’s fragile left arm is around my neck. She struggles to pull up her right arm from the shoulder; it lifts halfway, then falls back down. I take her right arm, and gently lift it up to my neck, so that she can properly hug me. ‘Su . . . sukraaam,’ the kiss she plants on my cheek is wet. I didn’t expect this gratitude.

For the next few hours, I follow Neelam around, taking down notes of all the chores she does. It’s overwhelming, and Neelam seems to be all over the place, doing five six tasks simultaneously. I didn’t realize there is so much to do. So much work. ‘No worry, Naroos. At five thirty, we have one free hour. Is when baba Jawad come home. They play chess together,’ she motions to the wooden chessboard on the side of the coffee table, which I only now become aware of. ‘We can sit in kitchen and write down, make order.’ Her words have instantaneous calming effect on me.

***

I sit at the kitchen table, notebook open to a new page. I’m ready to write down every detail, afraid to miss something small but important. ‘Eight thirty, mama get up, bathroom first. Dressing, and breakfast at nine,’ Neelam speaks slowly so I can write it down. She goes through the day, hour-by-hour, breaking down the day into small increments, each hour marked by a chore. ‘After breakfast, Tuesday and Saturday, B12 and folic acid pill.’ I write down the timetable of the pills on a separate sheet. When Neelam has gone through the whole day, she gets up to wash our cups. ‘Is easy, Naroos. After two days, you remember and no need for paper.’ I guess she’s right. Looking down and reading through, it all follows a certain logic, an organized frame, something to hang on to, some control. It probably eases mama’s anxieties as well, knowing what comes after what. It gives her an illusion of control over a life she’s lost control of. ‘I go now to finish packing. Then I give mama shower. You watch, is important. Last thing for today. Then bed.’

She leaves and I am left stranded, suddenly feeling the weight of it all. So much to care for one person. I thought once baba was home, he’d take over. A shower. The most basic action, the most intimate activity of the body. I’m not going to cry now. My mind drifts to the first days mama came home from the rehabilitation center. Two weeks of scrambling for a moment of sanity. Two weeks until Rebecca finally showed up and rescued us all from insanity. Two weeks of arguing, yelling, screaming. Two weeks of tears shed at night, in utter loneliness. None of us had an idea of what we were doing, and mama was freaking out. Until baba set his foot down and called the agency for migrant workers. ‘Obviously, we can’t do this on our own, and you girls have your own lives you need to get back to.’ Rebecca had been with us for six years, then it was time for her to go back to her own family in the Philippines. Rebecca . . . I should write her an email. I’m suddenly angry with myself for not keeping in touch with her, the woman who took care of my own mother, cooking, cleaning, washing. Showering. A woman who became family. I vaguely remember an email from her writing that she’d made it back home safely and the emotional reunion with her own family. I can’t remember now if I ever replied to her. I write down her name next to the medicine timetable for mama so I don’t forget to write her an email.

Showering mama turns out to be an hour-long ritual. I watch as Neelam washes her with the gentleness of a mother washing her own child. The thought crosses my mind suddenly: I’m not going to be able to wash her like Neelam does. Her hands move in complete sync with mama’s body movements. Her movements are at once efficient and graceful. I am entranced at their intimate, silent, slow-motion water-dance, and come out of my reverie only when I hear the absence of running water. ‘Give me that stool, Naroos,’ Neelam’s voice is efficient. ‘One towel for feet, one for body, yes? You can remember this?’ She helps mama lower herself on the stool and starts drying her wrinkled body.

It takes another twenty minutes before mama is tucked in bed. I kiss her on the cheek, and she beams at me. There is something childlike in her smile, the anticipation of something wonderful, like soft pink cotton candy.

I walk into the living room, where baba is explaining to Neelam that he’s taking the day off tomorrow to drive her to the airport. ‘But baba Jawad, train is OK. Is faster, you can take me to train station,’ but he’s not hearing any of it. ‘Nairouz, my favourite daughter,’ he winks at me. ‘You look a bit haggard. Take an advice from your old man, and don’t watch the news tonight. Nothing new, same old story all over again. Don’t worry too much, it will be fine.’ I nod and turn towards the television to try and glimpse some news, but he’s already flipped to a sports channel. ‘Neelam, please leave some room in your suitcase, I have something for your children. Some small gifts.’ She waves her hand in protest, and starts to say something, but I stop her with a hug. ‘I’ll see you in the morning.’ I walk out into the still hot evening, taking baba’s last words with me: it will be fine. Yes, it will. It has to.

I decide to walk back home. As I walk up Khoury street up to Hadar, I call Emad to see if he’s up to meeting me halfway. He stays on the phone with me until we meet in a hug. Ever since the stairs rapist roamed the stairs of Haifa a while ago, I avoid walking them at night. A piece of personal safety that was taken from me. I used to love jogging up and down the stairs in the cool evenings, alone with my thoughts. Not anymore. Now I have to nag either Emad or Razi to accompany me.

‘It doesn’t look good,’ he replies when I ask him about what’s going on with Hizballah, breathing heavily. ‘Sorry, habibti, can we talk at home? I’m not in shape for these stairs. Or tell me about your day, and I’ll be a good listener.’ I’m just beginning to tell him about all that’s waiting for me for the next six weeks, when we hear a sudden, loud crashing noise somewhere. I stop, horrified. ‘Nah, don’t worry, probably just some ship uploading cargo, you know how loud they can be,’ Emad is panting. ‘No, Emad, this was different. And it didn’t come from down below. It sounded like . . .’ what the hell did it sound like? Not a rocket, surely? I run the rest of the way home, any rapists lurking in the dark waiting for their potential victim the least of my concerns at this moment. I need to get to the news.

The kids are both in the living room for once, glued to the television. ‘There’s a war, yamma’ Razi greets me with excitement, ‘like a real war!’ Yasmeen is sitting cross-legged on the carpet, her sketchpad abandoned on the coffee table.

I watch in horror the replaying of the day’s events. While I was learning how to care for my mother, a woman has been killed in her home. An apartment building in Nahariya took a direct hit from a Hizballah rocket, killing her and injuring others. Monica, I test the name silently on my tongue. She was sitting on her balcony when the rocket hit her building. The news blurs in my mind – names of the two kidnapped soldiers are released, IDF attacking in Al-Dahyia, where Hizballah headquarters are situated. More rockets on Israel, Prime Minister threatening on the screen. Then the camera zooms in on a familiar spot. I see the view of Haifa from up above, I can see Bat Galim right below. Stella Maris. How did the news crews get there so fast? Two rockets. I unglue my eyes from the screen just enough to see Yasmeen rocking slowly back and forth, hugging her knees. She’s staring at the screen with wide eyes. I pull her towards me and envelop her body in mine. ‘We’re safe, habbuba, it will be fine,’ I parrot baba’s words and kiss the top of her head. ‘We’re going to be just fine, Yasmeenti.’ Rockets are falling on Haifa. How did this happen? Shit. Never before had the Hizballah fired any long-range rockets that reached Haifa.

Emad suddenly gets up and turns the television off; I can see Razi already half-way up in protest, but Emad shoots him a murderous look and he sinks back down on the sofa. ‘All right, kids. Listen up now. You too, Nairouz. Things are going to change around here for a while.’ His voice is even, but I can see a flicker of confusion in his eyes when he meets mine. ‘If until now you had the idea that your mother is a superwoman, forget it. She’s going to need our help in the next few weeks.’ He disappears into my study and comes back with a yellow legal pad and a pencil. ‘Alright, you people are going to start pitching in some more into this family.’ He draws two lines, splitting the page into three columns. At the top of each he writes Razi, Yasmeen, and Emad. ‘Razi, what house chores are you taking up?’ Razi gives him an incredulous look, ‘But Baba, it’s summer. I just came out from a marathon of finals. I need to rest.’ Emad ignores him and writes down “washing dishes every other day.” Then he looks at Yasmeen. ‘I can take the washing machine,’ she says with a slight tremble in her voice. They go on like this for close to an hour, while I retreat into my study with a bottle of white wine. I hear their voices rising and falling, arguing over who will do what. ‘This is ridiculous! There’s a war out there, and you’re worried about dishes and timetables!’ Then the slamming of Razi’s bedroom door.

Later in bed, I run my fingers up and down Emad’s back. ‘You handled that quite well, I’d say. Extraordinary. You. Are. Have I told you that lately?’ He slowly kisses my closed eyes, lingering on each one, before turning off the light.

***

Day 3 – 14 July

The alarm goes off at seven, waking me into a new reality. I feel like one of the characters in Murakami’s books, where the reality has slightly shifted, and is now off and out of sync. Actually, I think as I watch my reflection brushing her teeth, it’s close to the after effects of bad hashish. Afghani hasish, Emad would say, though I have no clue if that means it comes from Afghanistan or if it’s just a slang word for bad hashish. Bad hashish is the kind that stays in your body for a few days instead of only a few hours. It makes you see things from odd angles.

The kitchen smells of strong coffee. Emad is sitting at the kitchen table, a steaming pot and two cups in front of him. ‘Waiting for you, hayati,’ he smiles at me. The yellow legal pad is on the table, filled up with various chores divided between the three of them. ‘Umm, hub, do you think this is a good idea when there’s a . . . war, rockets falling on Haifa?’ I’m surprised, but also pleased, that he’s still home. Usually at this time he’s already at his downtown office. ‘Precisely because of the rockets, we need two things: one, order. Two, give the kids things to do inside, so they’re kept busy and safe.’ I see his logic. ‘Anyway, Nasrallah denied that it was him who launched the rockets at Haifa, so maybe it was just a one-off thing,’ he sighs. ‘Also, I did an inventory last night. Kids have food for the day. I’ll stop by the souk after work to pick up some fruits and vegetables. We’ll take it one day at a time, and we’ll be fine.’ Things are collapsing around me slowly, and everybody keeps telling me things will be fine. ‘Yalla, go get dressed. I’ll drop you off on my way to the office.’

***

Afternoon.

Mama has fallen asleep in her reclining chair. Neelam is already gone, and the house is eerily silent after the chaotic morning and last minute instructions from Neelam and baba, heating up lunch, and some miscommunication with mama about some towels that I had put on the wrong shelf. Neelam said that sometimes she dozes off after lunch. It’s the one time of day that isn’t completely predictable in mama’s schedule. Neelam said the nap usually lasts between one and two hours, so as soon as I hear the soft snoring, I grab my yellow notepad and start writing. I scribble down as fast as I can; there’s so much stuff to do, so many things filling up my life, so many deadlines. I start out neatly, breaking things down into categories and sub-categories, but soon the list becomes just a jumble – the jumble of my life. I reread it and am astonished. I need to duplicate myself and soon. How can a single person do all this . . . this . . . stuff – and remain sane?

From the corner of my eye I see the television screen, channel 22 now running only news. I keep it on silent. The news will be fragmentary and chaotic anyway, filled with military jargon and sowing even more fear among the public. They now need to keep a unified front. Everything else becomes unimportant in the face of threats on the security of Israel. It’s what they live on.

I step onto the verandah with a cigarette and a cup of coffee and call home to check on the kids. Yasmeen answers after the sixth ring. ‘I’m just listening to some music mama,’ she replies to my answer in a bored tone. ‘Razi . . . yeah . . . he was gone before I woke up. Nope, didn’t leave a note.’ I ask her not to leave the house, at least not today, not until we figure out what’s going on. ‘Can you call your brother habbuba and ask him not to be late? I should be home around eight. Kisses.’

‘Hada hon, hada hon,’ I’m startled by mama’s voice as I close the verandah door behind me. She’s pointing at the coffee table. ‘The TV remote control?’ I ask her. ‘La, la. Hada hon, hada hon,’ now she’s pointing at her mouth, her hand cupped. ‘Water! You want a cup of water, mama?’ I beam at her, ecstatic that I understood what she wanted almost immediately. ‘La, la,’ she gesticulates with her arm, moving it to the right and then pointing back at the glass. ‘Oh, sorry,’ I hurry to the kitchen. Of course she wants fresh water and not water that’s been sitting there for a couple of hours collecting dust on its surface. Details, Neelam said. Pay attention to details. I notice her chapped lips as I hand her the glass. ‘Your lips, mama. You need some lip balm,’ she gives me a questioning look. ‘They’re dry, your lips,’ I try again. This time, she smiles back at me and nods her head in approval. ‘I’ll buy some tomorrow.’

My yellow notepad with my chaotic life in it lies now forgotten on the coffee table. The next two hours are a mix of watching the news, prime minister calming down the public now but at the same time sending threats to Hizballah, then cameras zoom in on some sites where rockets fell, then back to the studio where ex-army men and political experts on the Middle East argue between them, each trying to come up with the smartest interpretation, and predictions for the near future. In between, mama tries to communicate to me unrelated things that I should be doing. It takes a lot of questions on my part to understand what it is she wants. Laundry. I go and fill up the washing machine and get it started. Stripping Neelam’s bed and putting clean sheets, for what, I have no idea. Writing a shopping list for baba takes almost twenty minutes, as I have to guess the items by showing mama pictures of different food items from her small notebook. It’s a notebook the speech therapist back at the rehabilitation center prepared for mama. It’s divided into sections and has photos of all family members glued in it, then clothing items, food, and activities. When we’re done with the shopping list, she points at the chessboard. ‘Baba should be home soon, so you can play with him,’ I say. ‘La la, ana, ana,’ she points at herself and then at me. ‘I’m terrible at chess, mama, you know that,’ I say. ‘Ana, ana . . . Na . . . Nana,’ I see her struggling to get the word out. ‘Nairouz. Say, Nai-rouz,’ I split the word into two, pronouncing each syllable slowly. ‘Na,’ she pauses, her brow furrowing in concentration, ‘Na . . . Na-rooz.’ If it weren’t so sad that my own mother can’t pronounce my name, it would be funny. Still, she laughs at it, and I join her. ‘OK, one game.’ It’s amazing how, when her mind shut down, she can still play board games and win almost every time. That part of her brain has only become sharper for some unfathomable reason, while her speech is still limited to some forty or fifty words. Baba arrives just in time to watch mama grin as she check-mates me.

Showering mother turns out to be quite the disaster. I get everything wrong; at first mama seems patient with my clumsiness, but within minutes she becomes agitated and starts yelling undecipherable words, swaying her good arm, pointing in different directions. I panic, try to calm her down and understand what she wants; she gets even more frustrated with my questions. Baba comes in a couple of times to see if he can somehow help, but we both scowl at him. Finally, she gives up on me and lets me wash her without any resistance, her head averted from me in a painful grimace. My clothes are soaked through when we finish, and I come out of the bathroom dripping wet and defeated. As mother sits on her bed naked while I massage body lotion into her back, arms and belly, she starts laughing. ‘What?’ I snap, miserable in my failure. She points at my wet clothes, her laugh becoming now uncontrollable, her eyes watering. I grit my teeth, my anger bubbling up, until I can no longer hold it and I burst out laughing too. I laugh at the absurdity of it, I laugh because mother is laughing, I laugh at my complete inadequacy at showering her. ‘I’m sorry, mama. It’s all new to me. I’ll try to learn faster.’ She pats me on the knee, and I see her mouth struggling to get the right word out. ‘Shuk-ran,’ she thanks me, for what I have no idea.

After mother is finally tucked in bed, with the television turned on a movie channel, I collapse on the sofa in front of a cup of tea that father has made me. ‘Difficult first day, ah?’ he asks. I nod and pick up the abandoned yellow notepad from the coffee table. Difficult is an understatement, I want to scream. ‘It will be fine, like you said, baba.’ Suddenly I remember that I have two kids. Shit, I haven’t checked on them for a while. What a horrible mother I am. I quickly dial Emad’s number, and when he hears my tired voice tells me to stay put; he’ll come and pick me up in twenty minutes. He hangs up before I can ask about the kids. Until he arrives, I watch the news with father; they’re showing sites where rockets fell today in the North. A number of injured people, two killed – a woman and her grandson. IDF continues to bomb Al Dahiya in south Beirut. I slip the yellow notepad into my bag, and as I see it disappearing, I feel my whole life is slipping away from me.

At home, I eat the salad that Yasmeen set in front of me. Emad must have talked to them, because after dinner, Razi brings a pile of clean clothes to the living room. Yasmeen folds them, stacking them into four piles, and Razi takes the folded stacks, one by one, into each bedroom. I don’t remember them doing anything together as sister and brother in years. In their teenage years, they’ve become almost strangers, avoiding each other most of the time. ‘Hey, don’t you have some important academic paper you need to be working on?’ Emad asks as he clears the kitchen table and stacks the dishes in the sink. ‘Oh, don’t even think about it! Washing dishes is my new specialty. Yalla, go and get some work done. I’ll bring you tea in a few minutes.’

In my study, I take out the yellow notepad from my bag, put it on the desk, and just stare at it. When Emad walks in with na’ana tea, he finds me crying. He puts the tea down and sits on the floor. I join him. ‘You want to talk about it?’ he asks. Do I want to talk about it? I don’t even know where to begin. ‘Things are falling apart around me, Emad.’ Until a few days ago, I had an organized life. I was in control. I had all my deadlines figured out with a detailed plan. ‘And you feel you can’t hold them together anymore,’ he completes my thoughts. How the hell do you hold things together when all of a sudden you have to free hours upon hours every day to take care of your disabled mother? Hours you didn’t have to begin with? And now this stupid war. How do you make room in your life for a war? Emad stands up and I see him studying the yellow notepad. ‘You’re in the right direction, Nun. Be gentle with yourself. Take a few days off your regular life, and just focus on your mother. Things will settle down in that brilliant brain of yours and you’ll know how to deal with all of this,’ he points at the page with all the work-related deadlines. ‘Come,’ he gives me a hand. ‘Let’s take this tea to the bedroom. Forget work for tonight.’

On my way from the study to the bedroom, I involuntarily stop in front of the television in the living room. Nasrallah is speaking, threatening to attack an Israeli ship. No, he’s saying that they did attack an Israeli ship. Then the screen goes back to the news studio for analysis. I don’t want to hear it, not right now. We won’t be getting any real time truths anyway. The Israeli media is an expert at releasing partial information, usually distorted. Pieces start trickling bit by bit, and we try to piece them together like a puzzle, but the pieces never really fit into each other perfectly. It is as if they were originally cut wrong. I turn the television off.

Before going to bed, I check on the kids. Yasmeen is sketching at her desk. When I take a close look, I can already see that it’s a bombed building. ‘We’ll be fine, habbuba,’ I try to make my voice soothing, but she isn’t fooled. ‘I’m scared, mama,’ she keeps her fingers moving across the paper, not looking up. ‘I know, Yasmeenti, I know,’ I stand behind her and start unbraiding her thick, black hair in slow movements. She doesn’t resist. I can’t remember when we stopped doing this. The moments when time would glide by silently and the world would stop, to allow mother and daughter precious moments of together, of sharing secrets and releasing laughter out the window. ‘You never do my hair anymore,’ she makes it sound like a casual comment, but it hits me hard in the stomach. I had no idea that she missed this. I pick up her comb and start combing her hair. ‘What do you say about visiting teeta tomorrow? We can have lunch together and after that, if we’re lucky, teeta will fall asleep and we can spend some time together.’ Yasmeen looks up. ‘And if we’re not lucky?’ she asks. ‘Then you’ll get stuck in a game of chess with teeta. And believe me, she’s one mean chess player.’

 

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khulud khamis is a Palestinian feminist writer, author of Haifa Fragments, published by Spinifex Press (Australia), New Internationalist (UK), and translated into Italian and Turkish. Born to a Slovak mother and a Palestinian father, khulud grew up in two countries and between two cultures, her identity composed of both, and her multicultural background is reflected in her writing. She writes fiction, poetry and nonfiction. In her fiction, poetry, as well as non-fiction, she deals with political and social issues as they relate to and affect women’s lives, striving to bring forth local marginalised and unheard voices. khulud is a member of the radical feminist collective Isha L’Isha – Haifa Feminist Centre, where she has been an activist for many years, fighting for the rights of the most marginalised groups of women, and the co-founder of the Tuskuteesh grassroots project: a safe space for Arab women to share testimonies of sexual violence. She lives with her daughter in Haifa. Find khulud on her website, on Facebook and on Twitter @khulud_khamis.

Comet Child (Judyth Emanuel)

Posted on July 4, 2017 by in Lies To Live By

Child I was under the weight of dark dark universes. Heavy weighed a lot of scary roars chucked at me but in my mind. Grew short too small for age five years. When in 1964. Ages ago now. In prettified place I lived sixties. Saw these times paths cemented crazy paving led to front doors pleasant houses on Wonga Avenue near Bantry Bluff. Always summer picnics at the beach. Face slathered pink zinc cream melted. Made my nose look stupid. Always sat alone on the sand. Warm sand dreaming between toes. Always not digging the sand with yellow plastic spade. Not even building a sandcastle. But just. Child gazed at far horizons any ones. And my mother got worried. About what. Always far horizons. Where my mind was. So decided it was. Confidence mine needed a boost. Get doing dancing, gymnastics, joining the school choir.

First square danced bite my lip. Dark dark universe this midday heat bore down stared down. At what. No that way. Second grade class all perspiring. What did why performing silly square dance. On boiling concrete. In school playground. Who people these made me. Dark universe roared. I felt this weight of gawking hands, clapping eyes clapped. Parents, teachers, entire school crowded in circle watching twenty wilting children. Started on the right foot. No. No turned this way spun a bit wrong. I trying really hard tried trip sashay allemande left-hand swing. But the dark. The roar. The terror I fled. Celestial child in flight fright. Faster than a comet in orbit. In her blood that solar system streaked through. Jelly legs running. Skedaddled quick. Where cometed straight into concrete kindergarten toilet block. After me fat Miss Hassel let her go. Old Hassel not fast enough this flesh wobbler like elephant in baggy cotton gingham. Stench of sweat underarms wet spit hissing,

‘Come Back Here Ernestine.’

But that darkest and roared. So fragile Phillip awful embarrassment. Turned quite pink at the had to dance twirl, chain right hand star with another boy. Why because. The last girl partner available was on the run. I was. I was. Safe now kneeling in front of the loo smelled of wee. Eyes watering. Mouth vomiting milky breakfast into that toilet bowl. Then trembling hand pressed the flush button. Just as this happened. Roll of toilet paper unraveled life of its own rolling under the door across the floor white strip rolled away away.

Next junior gymnastics got a bit confident in. Skipped wildly with older girls. I flailed little penguin arms skidding along surface of the ocean. Had burst of inspiration like a sea creature darting from its shell. I did shrieked this great confidence.

‘Hooray! If you’re happy and you know it, stamp your feet.’

Stomped little feet of happy. But Miss Hassel grabby dragged me from gymnasium. Into the corridor. Fatty hands shouted slapped me for showing off.

‘Stand in that corner Ernestine. Face the wall. Nobody likes a show-off.’

Struck across the cheek. Slapping stung tears show-off. Stomped anxious in my head. Now this creature. Delicate tendrils hacked off by cranky teacher. Off off off with her head.

 

Third thing to bring myself to self-confidence. School choir rehearsed what for. This gala concert. Mr Wright, the choirmaster instigated. Mr Wright leaden man. Cheap suit, springy hair, disgusting moles, intense eyes all grey. He conducted the choir as if plucking large bugs from the air. Sometimes scolded us kids bug-eyed.

‘Whatever is the matter with you Ernestine? I see a bulge in your cheek Reginald. I forbid bubble-gum. Spit it out this minute. Why are you frowning Ernestine? Quit fidgeting Susie, Bobby, Tracy, Sarah-Jane. You’ll all be the death of me.’

His own eyes got even more alive barking,

‘Do your best children. Sing sing sing from your heart. Yes, that’s it, wherever I may die…’

I squeaky sang. Wondered what death of me was. No one said. And why did Mr Wright’s eyes bark. All at the same time. So this practicing one song. Over and over I love a sunburnt country.

Not long later the night of the performance. Last row lined up tall boys behind us ten girls. Dressed in tartan uniforms. Higgledy piggledy lengths. Skirts supposed to be two inches below bare knees. Those were every school rules. The time choir us all took right places on this big stage behind red velvet curtain blocked out the universe. But I knew. It was out there. I knew it.

Mr Wright raised his arms sleeves rolled up hairy. Flicked the conducting baton. Which was just a pointy stick. The signal. Stage curtains whooshed apart. Saw jam-packed solar system rustled excited parents all staring excitement at us me. Voices hummed. Seemed like growling beasts. Cameras flashed all at stunned choir. This universe came at me. Bright menacing sight blinded. My palms seeped. Great tempest of quivering birds lurched from stomach to bowels. I shut mouth dry tight might heaving. Legs clenched together terrified of peeing my pants. Everything hurtling to me. Avalanched at me.

Mr Wright sniffed. Mr Wright glared me hard. Went into my brain. Don’t you dare. Run. Arched his two pinkies this crooked signaling at that pianist. Erect spine seated at piano. Poised to erupt. She smashed loud out the opening chords. We children us began to sing, I love a sunburnt country…her beauty and her terror the wide brown land for me.

My mouth opened but nothing came out. Not sick birds beauty the wide brown land. Run I thought. So I ran. Comet child dashed away away from devouring faces. From harsh rap rap rapping of Mr Wright’s stick. I beauty. I terror. And wide brown land. This none of it for me.

Miss Hassel stood big angry sweat in stage wings. Large horrified. Hands on hips outrage, she wrinkly mouthed,

Come.   Back.   Here.   Ernestine.

Children’s voices rose in unison sweet I ran. Sounded sort of chirruping. But much louder, higher madder. Every what choir child must stay put face the music. Wherever I may die, I know to what brown country my homing thoughts will fly. I knew. And the brown country homing thoughts flying I might die. But didn’t want anyone to see.

My mother missed the sight of me comet child scarpering across the stage. She just saw this. In the first row, the blank space where I wasn’t. Where should be standing but wasn’t. She did I expected anxiously half rose from her seat. Strained her neck. She must have.

The end of the performance. I heard enthusiastic parents clap talk all at once,

‘That was pretty good.’

‘Those kids knew every word by heart.’

‘Someone should tell Pamela to keep her knees together.’

‘Mr Wright seemed a bit cross.’

I thought he was.

‘Why did the littlest girl run?’

Because of joke of why did the chicken cross the road. Why. To get to the other side.

Chairs scraping I heard scraped on the wooden floor. The audience shuffling outside. I remembered about trestle tables loaded with aluminum kettle pots. Of this scalding tea everyone. Paper plates laden with iced finger buns lamingtons baked by the other mothers and transported inside Tupperware containers to provide supper every person there. I knew about this.

But wondered. Did my mother hurry backstage? She did somehow found me comet stalled bent at the waist. Wishbone shoulders hunched shuddering child retched the dark and roar, bile, phlegm, the showing off, skipping, singing, doing my best tried tried hard, the wherever I may die. Everything of the nothingness left inside child I was. And cried,

‘Sorry Mum.’

All the same time at. All all all. Brown thoughts. Sunburnt homing. Died dying inside tiny child.

My mother, always dying for a cup of tea. Never knowing what to say, except said,

‘Listen Ernestine you’ve got to try harder. Singing will help you grow bigger.’

Now I understood. This obvious. This shocking torment. This terror of performing in public. I now knew had prevented me from growing taller.

 

A slow burning comet waited. And waited to dazzle. I did. Reached far horizons of ten, twenty, forty years. Floods, fires famine stuff like that. Maybe love, hate, sort of a life. Really scorched through my veins. Got to my brain. I mixed them these things. Churned the lot. I whirled whirled didn’t throw up. Again. Faced the dark universe lost the fear. Wrote the roar in my head out with. This. Unstoppable how a comet child blazing across wide brown land. On very path of crazy paving zig zag. Solar system kissed me. Lots. Sloppy kisses. Something tossed bunches of roses. Maybe stars. I caught some. Gossamer comet grew much much bigger. The closer got to the sun. Which everything bright wonderful all okay. I couldn’t explain. Then now. It just was.

 

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Judyth Emanuel has short stories published in Overland Literary Magazine, Electric Literature Recommended Reading, Literary Orphans, Verity La, Intrinsick, Fanzine, Quail Bell, STORGY, One Page and Joiner Bay, and The Margaret River 2017 Anthology. Her stories are forthcoming in Jellyfish Review, Thrice Magazine, and PULP Literature. She is a finalist in The Raven Short Story Contest, semi-finalist for the Conium Review Flash Fiction Contest and shortlisted for the Margaret River Short Story Prize. In 2016 she was awarded a Residential Fellowship at Varuna Writers House NSW. And her collection was suggested for the Writer’s Victoria Personal Patron’s Scheme. In 2013, she was accepted into the One Story Writers Workshop at the Centre For Fiction in New York. Find Judyth on her website, on Facebook and on Twitter @judythewrite.

 

 

 

 

Hello Dolly (Rebecca Jessen)

Posted on June 27, 2017 by in Lies To Live By

It is at once an ordinary and extraordinary Sunday. I am at home in Toowoomba with my girlfriend, and most of the daylight hours are spent assembling an IKEA flat pack bed. A task not to be underestimated. There are sore muscles and coffee cravings by the afternoon. There is a much-needed trip to a café, two mocha frappucinos and a triple choc muffin. Then there are Mum’s missed calls, the text, the urgency of them that makes me afraid to pick up the phone. The feeling that something bad has happened, the feeling that I can’t find out what, not here, in this ordinary café in an ordinary town on an ordinary Sunday afternoon.

I wait until I’m no longer in public—until I’m in the car, driving home with my girlfriend—to call Mum back.

‘Mae died,’ Mum says, through tears.

‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ It comes out quickly, both surprised and not.

‘When can you come down to Sydney?’ Mum asks.

I cry into my frappucino the whole five-minute drive home. Oddly, this isn’t the first time I’ve cried into a frappucino. And I know it won’t be the last.

My life has been steadily punctuated by the loss of loved ones, and still, this will be the first funeral I’ve been to. I was too young when Mum’s dad died. I was too in shock when my stepfather died. My experiences of loss up until this point have been private showings.

Later, my girlfriend sits me down and talks me through what will happen at the funeral. She knows loss as deeply and profoundly as anyone I’ve ever known. Her advice is practical, helpful. There will be a casket, there will be flowers, it will be more about the people who are left behind than the person who has left. This makes sense, in a strange, complicated way. There’s a chance family will fight, people might have a little too much to drink, there may be arguments over property, money. Grief does something to people and it is never what we expect.

The week is lost to work, negotiating days and times, flights, and long messaging sessions with my teenage sister. This isn’t her first loss, but she feels it just as keenly as if it were.

The day of the funeral comes and my girlfriend and I are awake and in the car before dawn. I’m flying out from the new airport, just out of town. My girlfriend waits with me until the security gates open, and as we’re saying goodbye, I say ‘Drive safe,’ and then, ‘Will you let me know you get home okay?’

She looks at me seriously. ‘Bec, I’m not going to do that. It’s a twenty minute drive.’

‘But the roads are dark and unfamiliar,’ I say.

She smiles, kisses me goodbye. When I land, there will be a message.

I leave on a plane too small to contain my nerves. I sit next to the right wing, and as we take off I watch the propellers spinning, the smoke rising from the small wheels, thinking that surely, these wheels will catch fire, with this friction and speed, surely these small wings will not lift us up, keep us there. I think about the way taking off feels so much like something safe being pulled out from under you. How many times I have felt that exact feeling. How quickly it can all change.

We fly into the sunrise and I see the view that I had missed earlier. The airport is surrounded by mountains—or hills, depending on your perspective. As we cross the border, I watch the early morning mist snake through the valleys of parts of the landscape I have yet to learn the name of.

When I arrive in Sydney, I catch the train west. Mum and my sister are waiting for me at the train station. The car ride home is quiet; Mum asks about my trip, how early I woke, what I ate on the plane, how small the plane was. These are easy questions to answer.

My sister sits in the front and sometimes she catches me watching her watch herself in the side mirror. We both smile when this happens. She takes the gum out of her mouth and drops it out the window. I shake my head at her, but she isn’t looking. She turns up the radio and sings along to a song I’ve never heard before. After a minute or so she changes the station and starts again.

When we get home, Mum and my sister both go to their bedrooms to dress for the funeral. Mum asks me to wake up my teenage brother, Shaun, and tell him to get dressed too. I walk into his dark bedroom and nudge his shoulder lightly until he wakes. He pulls me into a hug when he sees me and I wonder how this has affected him.

I stand in the kitchen and make a piece of vegemite on toast. The butter here is soft, even from the fridge. At home in the winter, the butter hardens, refuses to yield.

Mum comes out holding up two black jackets.

‘Which one?’ she asks.

I look from one to the other. I can’t tell the difference between them, so I ask her to try them on. She goes into the bedroom to do this, even though she’s wearing a shirt underneath. When she comes out wearing one of the jackets, I nod, ask her to show me the other. When she comes out wearing the second jacket, I say ‘Can you show me the first one again?’

‘Michael is meeting us there,’ Mum says. Then she picks up the phone to call him. To make sure that is what he is actually doing.

The four of us pile into the car and it could be any other day, we could be going anywhere, perhaps to the local shops to pick up groceries, or a little further, to the Westfield. We leave fifteen minutes earlier than we mean to. It doesn’t rain as predicted, but that will come, later.

My sister keeps her window down the whole trip and I shiver beside her. Mum is playing AC/DC’s The Live Album at full volume. As we speed down the highway ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’ plays and I keep getting hung up on the line ‘knocking me out with those American thighs’, thinking, it’s such a great line. My sister complains the whole way through the song, begging Mum to play some ‘real music’.

Mum sighs, switches over to the radio and complains about never getting to choose the music she listens to in her own car. ‘Cheerleader’ comes on the radio and my sister shouts, ‘Turn it up.’

The first time I heard the song I was convinced that the singer was actually saying ‘Oh, I think that I’ve found myself a jellyhead,’ when really, he had been saying ‘cheerleader’. I was in the car with Mum and my sister at the time too; I had turned to my sister and asked her if he was saying jellyhead. My sister fell into a fit of laughter, and then embarrassment. I had become the uncool older sister. When the song comes on now, on the way to the funeral, my sister and I look at each other and start laughing. It feels strange to laugh like this now, but it doesn’t feel wrong.

We’re all quiet for a while, and as we navigate through the Sydney traffic and the erratic drivers I think about how small the lanes feel. Every time we pass by a car in the next lane I bring my shoulders in, as if the lanes are too tight, or the car too big for us to pass unmarked.

Our family doesn’t talk. We prefer the music loud and the windows down. We talk most when we’re worried about something, like when Mum asks my sister for the third time if she has turned the hair straightener off.

‘But what about the electric blanket, Olivia?’ Mum says.

My sister sighs, ‘Yes, Mum.’

This happens every time we get in the car with Mum.

My sister takes car selfies with me in the background looking miserable. Mum tells me I look nice and I think that my great-grandmother would have wanted that, for me to dress nicely. She loved to dress up, even if she had nowhere to go. Whenever we visited her in the nursing home, no matter the time of day, she was always waiting in her pants suit, with her best jewellery on and freshly sprayed hair.

When we get to Bankstown we drive straight past the turn-off we would normally take to visit my great-grandmother. I look back as we pass and think of my previous visit. How I somehow knew it would be the last.

I had seen her only weeks earlier, visiting Sydney for Mum’s birthday. We had dropped in on the way home from the airport. Marnie hadn’t been expecting us. She hadn’t been expecting us to see her like that, lost in the bedsheets, in her nightgown, her hair uncombed and without hairspray. We hadn’t stayed long: there were too many of us, overwhelming the room with so little to say. As we were leaving, Marnie uttered, ‘Where’s Rebecca?’ She had always insisted on using my full name, she thought it nicer—proper. But we had never used her full name and neither had she.

I moved closer to the bed. ‘Hello pet,’ Marnie said, reaching for my hand. I saw that she still had the framed newspaper article of me next to her bedside. Every time I saw her, she would tell me, ‘I’m so proud of you.’ She was the only person in my family to tell me that I could do good things. She saw something in me, something that even I couldn’t see.

Marnie squeezed my hand with what must have been all her strength. It was like saying goodbye. Perhaps she knew then what we wouldn’t know for weeks.

 

We are one of many cars that drive into the cemetery grounds, and as we pass the gravestones, my sister remarks, ‘Wow, so many dead people.’

Mum finds a park and turns off the engine. We are half an hour early. Who gets to a funeral early? It feels wrong. It’s cold outside so we sit in the car and wait for the rest of the extended family to arrive. Mum opens her door and lights a cigarette. The ash occasionally blows back through my window and settles on my jeans. I realise I have cat hair on my jacket and it feels disrespectful somehow.

‘Imagine if the coffin opened?’ my sister laughs.

I turn to her and attempt a serious look that immediately fades into a smile. It’s so like our family to be early for a funeral, sitting in the carpark making inappropriate jokes about dead people.

It’s nearly time for the funeral to start so Mum shuffles us all out of the car and we walk over to the chapel. The rest of the family are already there, making acquaintances with the funeral director. I can tell this makes Mum unhappy, left out somehow.

This is the first time the extended family has been together in a long time. We stand gathered close together in our own family groups, making small talk about the cold, the venue, our plans for afterwards.

‘I’ve been reading your blog,’ my aunty says to me.

‘Oh yeah?’ I say.

‘Yeah,’ she smiles, ‘It’s really interesting. Are you going to write about this?’

‘I don’t know,’ I reply. But I do know. I had already been writing in the car on the way to the chapel. What else is there to hold onto, if not these moments?

The funeral director approaches us; she tells Mum that the ceremony will be filmed, burned to DVD, sent to the family. In what circumstances would I ever find myself wanting to watch such a thing?

The ceremony goes much like I had expected. It is, after all, just another ritual. There are parts of it that are exactly like what you see in the movies. The speeches; the laying of flowers on the casket; yellow gerberas—Marnie’s favourite—this I had never known; reminiscing about the person who has passed; speaking of them in good stead; the carefully curated playlist. These are all markers of this ritual, moments that can be planned and played out in procession. We cannot plan for our own reactions, our own grief taking shape inside of us, the small details we will learn about the dead, the many things we could never have known, or never had the chance to know.

We knew my great-grandmother by many names. The adults in the family called her Dolly, or Mae. Us kids preferred the more affectionate ‘Marnie’. Her parents called her Dorothy, so in some way, Dolly seemed a natural progression, a mark of ownership perhaps. Some attempt to shift closer to the identity she had shaped for herself, closer to her own sense of belonging in the world.

‘Hello Dolly’ plays as the funeral concludes and all I can think of is how none of us will ever say those words again. I think of going home and downloading the song, downloading all the songs they played at her funeral. This is something I have done before; my own private ritual. This is the way I mark loss; the carefully curated playlist; the yearly, almost devotional listening.

It isn’t until I’m forced to grieve with others that I realise how private an act of grieving is. But perhaps I have always known this. I have always grieved privately, in my own time, on my own terms. Funerals feel so public, even when they’re not. You’re asked to lay yourself bare in front of others, all the while grief is turning you inside out.

As we leave the chapel, walking solemnly one behind the other, there are other families gathered outside. All around the funeral grounds, in fact, are families, waiting to play out their own rituals. I think about all of those people and who they might have lost. And all of the people after them, all going through what we have just been through. The endless cycle of grief and remembrance playing itself out over and over every single day.

In the carpark the talk is of directions and logistics. My grandfather is attempting to organise our procession, working out where everyone has parked their cars, where we will all meet to follow behind him.

‘I have no idea where I’m going,’ Mum says, lighting a cigarette.

‘Just wait there,’ my grandfather says, ‘I’ve got some timber to give to Shaun before we leave.’

‘Go help him,’ Mum says to Shaun, who lopes off after my grandfather in search of his car.

My older brother Michael stands by our car, waiting, then says, ‘What’s this doing here?’ and points to a piece of chewing gum stuck to the car door.

I smile at my sister.

‘Bloody Olivia,’ Mum says.

Shaun comes back with a grin and an armful of timber offcuts, motioning for Mum to pop the boot so he can unload them. Every time I fly down to Sydney to see my family, Shaun has a new project on the go. Years ago I helped him build a mini skate park using Paddle Pop sticks and a hot glue gun. He’s moved on to more sophisticated projects now. This time he’s building a small replica of a Boeing 747, using wood, cardboard, and—to Mum’s dismay—power tools.

Mum follows behind the other family members to the Bankstown Sports Club for the wake. We are going to lunch at a Chinese restaurant in the club. This had become Marnie’s favourite place to eat. Before the oxygen tank, before she could no longer leave her room except to go to hospital, before she became bedridden. We form an unconventional funeral procession; two 4WDS, a ute and Mum’s black Commodore with the pink numberplates.

My sister takes a grieving selfie to post on Snapchat. I look over and see myself in the background again, both of us looking miserable this time. I stare out the window as we rush through suburbs I’ve only ever known as names of train stations. I see a man carrying a small, yellowing mattress, hoisted up on his shoulder. Behind him walks another man, carrying a wooden bed frame.

Lunch is civil, respectful. There is a toast to my great-grandmother and her fondness for an afternoon shandy; a table full of Chinese food; a plate of fortune cookies—mine says ‘make the most of time with family’. There are photo albums passed around the table—even a few family portraits taken of our own; there is talk of future reunions that we’re all too polite to admit will never happen; and a final course of deep-fried ice cream.

My grandfather settles the bill and we all slowly leave the restaurant. Mum and my cousin slip out quietly for a much-needed cigarette, my older brother lags behind the rest of us, answering the third phone call in as many hours from his girlfriend, my sister checks in on her Snapchat selfie and my aunty tells me again that she’s been enjoying reading my blog.

We all stand in the club foyer, waiting for Mum and my cousin to finish what must by now be their second consecutive cigarette. There are the obligatory hugs and kisses from everyone, and when Mum and my cousin come back inside, we do it all again.

‘Well, have a nice life up in Toowoomba,’ my grandmother says, and it almost feels final.

‘You better not write about me,’ my cousin says, grinning but not joking as he waves goodbye.

As we’re driving home, the rain starts, just as predicted.

‘Yep, here it comes,’ Mum says.

‘There’s a Hungry Jacks, Mum. Can we stop?’ my sister asks.

‘You just ate,’ Mum replies.

When we get home I help my brother unload his timber from the boot. We take it out the back and leave it on the outdoor dining table.

‘We’ll put it in the shed tomorrow, okay? When it’s not raining, cause I don’t want it to get wet,’ he instructs me.

Inside, I see Mum place the single yellow gerbera from the funeral in a vase with no water. I know that by tomorrow, it will have wilted.

 

____________________________________________________________


Rebecca Jessen
lives in Brisbane and is the award-winning author of Gap (UQP, 2014). She is the 2015 winner of the QLD Premier’s Young Publishers and Writers Award. Rebecca’s writing has been published in The Lifted Brow, Meanjin, Overland, Going Down Swinging, Cordite Poetry Review, Tincture Journal and many more. Rebecca is currently studying her Honours in Creative Writing at QUT. She is writing poems about the queer future. Find more at Rebecca Jessen.

 

 

Sanctuary (Linda Godfrey)

Posted on June 9, 2017 by in Lies To Live By

Sticking out of the grey and white choppy water are four grey and white shapes. Not waves; they don’t break and roll to the shore. It has to be more than water. ‘What are they?’ I can’t work it out. They look like paddles.

Marcella shrugs.

We are sitting in the front room of my house above the dressing sheds, overlooking Austinmer Beach. We’re relaxing in armchairs, enjoying the warmth of the July sun through floor to ceiling plate-glass windows. Looking straight out to sea it’s as if you could see all the way past the horizon to Chile.

One or two people walk up the steps from the pool, towels over their shoulders, goggles dangling from their fingers, hair dripping, lips blue. There’s a breeze, the water is breaking onto the sand in small, messy waves. We’ve been talking about Marcella returning to Santiago for a holiday.

Some of her family is still there. Marcella’s husband was in the army, jailed because he knew a secret. Marcella petitioned hard to get him out. She didn’t elaborate on what she had to do in those interviews with his superiors. When he was released, they found sanctuary in Australia, with their two small children. He is permanently damaged by his experience.

Because she is a good friend, because Chile is on the other side of the Océano Pacifico, because Santiago is almost the same latitude as Sydney, I have this fantasy that the Pacific basin is one big cradle, rocking back and forth, lulling us with the movements and sounds of water. Both of us come from the rim of this basin (for this fantasy to work New Zealand has to sink or rock along with us in our cradle of water).

‘More tea?’

I come back with the tray of tea and biscuits topped with dulce de leche.

‘Dolphins?’ Marcella suggests.

I can’t make sense of the shapes, shades, colours, spots, size. ‘Sharks?’

Orcas? But those whales are not here, not at Austi.

‘It’s quite shallow there.’

The paddles are waving in the air. Waving’s exactly what they are doing, like when you have your hands above your head, dancing to a techno beat. The beat of these arms are more adagio.

They’re fins. Long, grey with scalloped edges, white and spotted.

Humpbacks. Humpback whales travelling north, heading to warmer water to breed and birth their babies. It wasn’t that long ago that they were killed for soaps, paints and their tough, flexible bones that predated plastic .They were almost extinct. Now they can frolic off the coast, looking forward to their summer holidays in Queensland, playing with their calves until they are ready for the long swim south.

I’ve lived here for a long time. I know this beach. The southern end has deep ripples of sand, rocky underfoot and treacherous. It’s where the rips develop; if they catch you they will drag you out past the saltwater pools.

We’ve been talking, drinking tea, eating caramel and watching the fins sloshing about in the waves for an hour.

I ask Marcella, ‘What are they doing?’

‘Where are my keys?’ She’s talking to herself.

‘They must be on their backs.’

‘Yes,’ she laughs, ‘scratching an itch.’

Rubbing their barnacles off on the ridged layers of sand, probably finding a rock near the surface to really get rid of those last stubborn ones.

The whales have found sanctuary.

Marcella breaks my reverie. ‘I need to get going,’ she says.

We are witness to whales resting off our beach but all I say is, ‘You good to get down the steep driveway?’ I stand and farewell my friend in broad morning light, after tea. The bulbuls sing in the oleanders, the waves lap the sand and the fins wave noiselessly in the air.

I come back from saying goodbye and the fins are gone. Itches scratched, the whales continue north in the big warm basin of the Pacific.

 

____________________________________________________________


Linda Godfrey
— Poet. Writer. Editor. Program Manager of the Wollongong Writers Festival. Curator of Rocket Readings, readings of poetry and an open mic, part of the Sydney Writers Festival and Wollongong Writers Festival. Series editor of microliterature anthologies, reader, manuscript assessor, teacher, judge. Fiction and poetry has appeared in journals and anthologies.

Made For You
(David Adès)

Posted on May 26, 2017 by in Lies To Live By

‘You’re not good enough for any woman,’ Miranda screamed. ‘What you need isn’t a woman: it’s a blow-up doll.’

Even Chester acknowledged it wasn’t his finest moment.

Whatever heat there was in his relationship with Miranda had been cooling. Lately, they had been going through the motions and they both knew it. She had been telling him for months that she was too good for him. He wouldn’t admit it to her, but he agreed.

They both knew, too, that if anyone were going to end the relationship, it would be Miranda. Chester was both too much a coward and too entrenched in his own inertia to take decisive steps to effect change. He also preferred to be in a relationship, even one trending towards misery, than not to be in one at all.

Of course, he found a way to goad Miranda into action, though that was never his intention.

Miranda had been doing overnight shifts at the hospital. The one night she changed her pattern and came home in the middle of the night, it was to find Chester in her bed with Tiffany. Tiffany beat a hasty, undignified and totally naked retreat, leaving Chester to face the full glare of Miranda’s rage. He enraged her further when it occurred to him, though he was not stupid enough to say it, that this could be described as a lover’s tiff. He couldn’t hide his amusement at the thought and Miranda saw a smirk on his face. If she could have killed him with her glare, he would have died on the spot.

Miranda was gone within hours, taking her bed and much of the furniture with her. She did not say where she was going. Neither she, nor Tiffany, answered or returned any of Chester’s calls. He found himself suddenly very much on his own, feeling rather sorry for himself despite the predictable consequence of his conduct. He was not fond of his own company and solitude was no friend.

Three weeks after Miranda’s departure, the air thick with both her absence and silence, a large box arrived addressed to Chester. There was no indication of the sender. The handwriting on the box was definitely not Miranda’s. Strangely, it looked a lot like Chester’s own writing.

Puzzled, Chester maneuvered the box inside the apartment. It was surprisingly heavy. Opening it, he found a large capsule and an instruction sheet. The instructions were simple: open the capsule, taking care not to damage its contents, peel back the capsule’s outer layer, and then allow two days for the contents to self-initiate. Chester assumed that the final instruction meant to leave the contents alone for two days.

The capsule’s outer layer was soft and pliable but opaque. It was only when Chester peeled it off that he could see what it contained: a woman, completely naked, extraordinarily beautiful, with blue tinged lips and long eyelids on her closed eyes. Chester’s immediate impulse was to cover her with a blanket. His second was to panic: she wasn’t breathing. His third was to notice that she wasn’t actually a woman at all. He had no idea that technological advances had made such strides: how could something so lifelike be a doll? In the end, feeling awkward with the doll’s nakedness, though not awkward enough to refrain from gazing at her intently for a few moments, he succumbed to the first impulse and covered her. He felt a strange flush at this unaccustomed gesture of near chivalry.

The next two days were a strange mixture of anticipation and dread.

Chester was unsettled. He went to work and came home, the doll inert on the floor where he had left her. He couldn’t stop thinking about who might have sent him the doll and why. Given her parting remark to him, it seemed like Miranda’s handiwork. If so, it greatly surprised him. He didn’t credit her with that much imagination. Nor did he think she would bother: if she was done with him, it was final and she would be looking forward not back. But if it wasn’t Miranda, who was it?

Chester was a mid-level accountant leading an innocuous life. Monogamy was not exactly his strong suit. There was the debris of a number of failed relationships courtesy of his poor judgment and personality flaws, courtesy of repeated infidelities, but nothing setting him apart from a generation of other flawed and wayward men. It had been more than two years since his last transgression, if he left out that little fling with Erin that had remained undiscovered.

Mystified, Chester trawled through the litany of his failures trying to determine who, apart from Miranda, might still bear him a grudge or might otherwise have reason to send him such a doll. There was no shortage of possibilities, he realised, but no real clues. He remained at a loss.

Chester couldn’t help stealing glances at the doll.

She looked alive somehow, sleeping. Her presence infiltrated the apartment. A glow seemed to emanate from her.

The self-initiation period ended on Friday evening.

When Chester checked again on the doll upon returning home from work, nothing seemed to have changed. Then he noticed the slow rise and fall of the blanket. The doll was breathing, and now truly did seem to be alive, sleeping. Chester wondered how on earth something that had been inert could now be ‘breathing’. Was it some kind of simulation? If so, it was remarkably realistic.

Chester waited for several hours for something else to happen, but nothing did.

Fatigue overcame curiosity. Chester went to bed on his old retrieved futon on the floor and slept fitfully. Dream fragments rose towards consciousness and submerged again: running through endless corridors trying to escape pursuit; writing his name and address on a box of old clothes when he was moving to the apartment leaving behind the wreckage of his engagement to Amber, a box that never arrived; meeting a man who was wearing the same tattered sweater as him, also with holes in it; Amber disappearing abruptly and totally; the confusion of love, lust, passion, sex, flight; police knocking on the door, asking questions, calling him ‘a person of interest’.

Sometime during the night he dreamed a naked, warm body sliding into the bed next to him. He was sleeping on his right side. The body settled in, snuggling close as if it were accustomed, familiar. A hand found his left arm, placed his left hand low upon a smooth belly, close to the pubic line. A dream of a voice: hold me. Soon after: the slow, even breath of a body entering sleep.

Chester awoke with a start, aroused. It wasn’t the usual morning pressure in his bladder arousal. It was arousal responding to touch, the touch of a hand feather-light on his skin, a sure hand, stroking, squeezing, applying pressure and releasing, a hand using fingers, fingernails, palm, cupping, tugging, fondling, a hand prompting a groan through his lips as he opened his eyes to a room already brightening with morning light.

The doll seemed impossibly more woman now than doll. She was sitting beside him on the bed in her nakedness and he could feel the pressure of her body alongside his, the weight of it, the warmth of her skin. She released him as he opened his eyes, leaning over him, her breasts swinging a little, bequeathing him with a radiant and welcoming smile.

‘Good morning, you’ she said, startling him with speech, startling him with the dream of a voice that was, in fact, real.

‘B-but…’ he stammered before trailing off at a loss.

She seemed to enjoy his confusion, something gleeful finding its way into her smile, the face almost that of a child playing a trick on an adult.

‘We can talk later. Right now, I need your hands, I need your lips; my body needs your body.’

Chester’s body was asserting its own needs such that he couldn’t think past them, a problem he was not altogether unfamiliar with. He yielded to them. Questions could wait.

The doll guided his hands and his lips to where she wanted them. Chester needed little encouragement. He inhaled her scent, her taste, both pleasant, hinting at vanilla. Her body responded to his every touch as no woman’s body had ever responded to him before. She seemed soft and strong at the same time, her body warm and yielding and alive, her breath coming faster as he licked and sucked and stroked her, becoming jagged, moans rising to her lips.

‘I was made for this’ the doll said, more to herself it seemed than to Chester, ‘I was so made for this.’

Chester was helplessly aroused by the doll’s arousal and responsiveness. He felt her sense of urgency as her moans quickened and her hands pressed his head harder between her legs, as she arched her back and shuddered, letting out a cry of release.

After a few moments, the doll gave Chester an appraising look.

‘Now I know what all the fuss is about,’ she murmured. ‘I’ve been machine tested of course, but that was my first ever human induced orgasm. I have to say, there is absolutely no comparison.’

The doll giggled abruptly at Chester’s look of incredulity.

‘I told you, I was made for this. I was made for you.’

Before Chester could ask or say anything, she resumed her ministrations of his body. Again, his questions dissipated in arousal and desire.

Not only was the doll unbelievably responsive to Chester’s touch, she seemed to have an innate understanding of his body. Several times, with hand, with mouth, with her body, she brought him to the verge of release and then withdrew her touch.

It was finely gauged. Chester knew that each time just one more touch, one more movement, would have been enough and he marveled at the doll’s ability to sense exactly when to stop. Each time she left him to subside before touching him again.

As much as the process excited him, Chester’s frustration and need for release grew more and more intense. He didn’t want to wait any longer. ‘Please,’ he pleaded silently to himself, ‘please, please, please.’

The doll lay beneath him, glistening, the sheen of something like sweat on her skin, her whole body an invitation. She was the most beautiful ‘woman’ Chester had ever seen, his eyes drinking in her flawless skin, her tautness and curves, the vanished blue of her lips, the gloss of her black hair, the lost worlds of her eyes.

‘Come,’ she said, and there was hunger in her voice, anticipation, and other nuances too complex for Chester to discern. She received him then, his urgency, his rhythm and thrust, her body once more responding, her breath and his, her moans and his, her ardor and his, her destiny and his.

Even had he wanted to, Chester was past the point of stopping himself now. Everything pent up in his body – a lifetime of infidelities and errors of judgment, guilt, frustration, shame, poor choices – was seeking release, a release Chester had not even known he needed.

The doll moved with him, responding to his rhythm with hers, urging his body’s release. ‘Come,’ she whispered again, and again, ‘come’ and as Chester’s body surged into her, she arched once more to receive him, her legs tightening around his waist.

Chester was riding a wave, larger than any wave he had ever ridden, up and up towards the crest, pulled along by its surge and power. Immersed in his own body, he was nonetheless very conscious of the doll beneath him, of her apparent abandonment to lust. The doll’s body answered his body’s every question, even as all his other questions remained unasked, unanswered.

A cry rose up in her as her body answered his. ‘I was made for this,’ she cried upon his orgasm, her legs tightening further in some compelling reflex, impossibly strong, her arms around his chest squeezing him, squeezing the breath, the very life out of him.

There was a tender smile on the doll’s face as she quietly left Chester’s apartment. She had completed her first job perfectly and was already anticipating the next. A thrill coursed through her: she had been engineered so well that her work gave her irresistible pleasure. There were so many men deserving her ministrations, so many possibilities. Something sparked in her artificial mind. Yet another possibility beyond the parameters her creators thought they had put in place. Her smile lit up her face as she began to make her plans.

____________________________________________________________

David Adès returned to Australia in 2016 after living for five years in Pittsburgh. He is a Pushcart Prize nominated poet and short story writer and the author of Mapping the World (Wakefield Press / Friendly Street Poets, 2008), the chapbook Only the Questions Are Eternal (Garron Publishing, 2015), and the recently released Afloat in Light (UWA Publishing, 2017).

David won the Wirra Wirra Vineyards Short Story Prize (2005). Mapping the World was commended for the Fellowship of Australian Writers Anne Elder Award 2008.

David has been a member of Friendly Street Poets since 1979. He is a former Convenor of Friendly Street Poets and co-edited the Friendly Street Poetry Reader 26. He was also one of a volunteer team of editors of the inaugural Australian Poetry Members Anthology Metabolism published in 2012. His poetry has been published in numerous journals in Australia and the U.S. with publications also in Israel, Romania and New Zealand.

David’s poems have been read on the Australian radio poetry program Poetica and have also featured on the U.S. radio poetry program Prosody. He is one of 9 poets featured on a CD titled Adelaide 9. In 2014 David won the University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor’s International Poetry Prize and was shortlisted for the Newcastle Poetry Prize. His poems were also Highly Commended in the 2016 Bruce Dawe National Poetry Prize and a finalist in the Dora and Alexander Raynes Poetry Prize 2016.

The Warlock (Robert Feeney)

Posted on April 28, 2017 by in Lies To Live By

.

1

It is 8:14 again. The alarm claws its way out of the chalkboard box in your head. You make a mental note to change the settings to a softer tone later. For now, your energies are devoted towards restarting your senses. The light tapping on the windowpane turns out to be rain, so an unpleasant walk to work lies in store for you. Flatulence propels you out of bed and into the bathroom. Do you brush your teeth first (turn the page to paragraph 45), or take a shower (turn the page to paragraph 33)?

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2

You have seen this episode before. It is the one where the man finds himself in an unusual situation, and has to do humorous things in order to escape. Will you change the channel and watch something else (turn to 2), change the channel and watch a film instead (turn to 34) or decide to shave your genitals (turn to 10)?

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3

You text out a nonsensical message – gekquraqqef – giving it your utmost attention. The sound of tiny wheels recedes behind you. You breathe out a sigh containing equal particles of relief and shame, and absent-mindedly wipe the droplets off your mobile phone screen. Turn to 22.

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4

You have left something at home, your wallet. This day is a write-off. Without money, even lunch is beyond you. Why not return home and construct a system for never forgetting it again. Perhaps if you keep a lot of change in it, you will notice the absence of its weight. But change is meant to be kept in a jar, and later sorted neatly into small plastic bags provided by the bank. The sky starts to darken again. Turn to 28.

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5

The doorbell rings a few more times, and each one sends a sliver of panic into your heart. You start humming. A good excuse will be needed to explain this to the boss. Luckily, you have the rest of the day to think of one. Turn to 42.

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6

You listen to a sports podcast while working out on the floor of your bedroom. One of the hosts makes a joke about a rival sports team, and the energy consumed by your laugh makes you wobble on the nineteenth press-up. You wonder for a moment if it is worth going for twenty one. No-one will know you quit early. But you push through the laughter barrier and hit your target. Will you reward yourself with a glass of orange juice (turn to 23) or a slice of processed cheese (turn to 12)?

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7

The pharmacy has an array of creams, oils, washes, lotions, spreads, salivas, but you are reluctant to ask for help due to the delicate area of your problem. After thirty minutes of reading unreadable ingredients, you settle on a tube with a picture of a coconut. The shop assistant tells you the price is €14.35. In your wallet you have 2 €10 notes, a 50c, 3 10c and 3 2c pieces. If you know how much you want to give the assistant, turn to the paragraph with the same number as the cent value in that amount. If that paragraph makes no sense, or if you just want to hand over €20, turn to 19.

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8

You reach out a trembling hand and take the occult book from the shelf. Inside, the mystery of your predicament is revealed. Turn to 30.

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9

He does not ask you if you want a bag, and it is too late now to ask him for one without losing face. You put the cardboard box under your jacket to keep it protected from the rain and onlookers. However, the bulge now makes you look like a bomb disposal expert. Indulging the fantasy, you imagine a friend’s funeral that you have been asked to speak at, and how the church crowd murmurs as you step up to the pulpit. Oh look, they say, there is the famous bomb disposal expert and true knower of the deceased. He will know what to say, they say. If you say an Our Father and three Hail Marys, turn to 21. If you say oh fuck, turn to 38.

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10

They say you should do one thing everyday that scares you. Perhaps this mantra can become part of your daily routine. You make a note in your electronic calendar, undress, and shower with hot water to soften the hairs. The shaving cream dispenser is rusted and empty, so you make do with seaweed oil shampoo instead. However, after finishing your inner thighs, you recall reading somewhere that re-emerging hairs can cause irritation. You decide to do some more research before continuing with this project. It is getting late. Turn to 50.

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11

It is still raining when you leave the house, and your eighth umbrella of the year is bent and will not open properly. The walk uphill to the office is character-building. On the way there, you see a woman pushing a pram towards you. Even at this distance, you recognise her as a half friend from university, an economics student with a fake bindi who was named after a tree by her progressive parents. Do you avoid this awkward meeting by crossing the road immediately (turn to 25), pretending to look at your mobile phone (turn to 3) or pretending not to know her (turn to 47)?

.

12

Too late you realise that the cheese will give you weird dreams. There was that one time you ate a quattro formaggi pizza, dozed off, and dreamt about clanking sounds. You somehow knew it was the sound of your childhood bicycle being repaired. You walked down a flight of stairs, and saw your mother fixing it, even though she had no idea about how to do so. And you never had a childhood bicycle. You feel very tired. Turn to 50.

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13

How will you justify this laziness to your brain? You did some exercise yesterday (turn to 29), your leg hurts (turn to 24), there’s a good film on TV (turn to 34), or exercise could potentially make you sick after eating that pasta (turn to 41)?

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14

You are probably right. Turn to 32.

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15

Yes, it could be a parable about the economic crisis. Successful businesswoman buys flat in uptown development, but finds herself trapped in a sort of alternate reality. You resolve to buy a notepad tomorrow so you can begin to flesh out the characters. The TV screen has dimmed from lack of input. You turn it off and go to bed. Turn to 50.

.

16

You notice that the inside of your thighs is blotchy and red raw. Perhaps it is the result of chafing, or something more serious. A few internet searches sets your mind to unease, as the diagnoses are varied. Exposure to air, you feel, is the cure to all life’s ills, and an empty office is an opportune time to test that theory. Are you content to spend the rest of the work day pants-less (turn to 40), or will you buy some cream instead (turn to 7)?

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17

You lift the mobile to your ear, and utter a rising hello to complete the illusion. Outside the rain has stopped, and the air is fresh and clean. You are shocked when your phone starts vibrating. An incoming call from your mother, ironic punishment for the previous lie. How will you justify not answering it? You are very busy at work (turn to 49) or you left your phone at home (turn to 4).

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18

The friend is all smiles, and once she has the laptop, she leaves in an uncomplicated manner. When you close the door, a gust of air informs you that your zip is undone. You cannot be sure if she noticed. Turn to 42.

.

19

The assistant mumbles an apology as he hands you a load of change. You doubt that he is truly sorry. On the way back to the office, the wallet feels like an extra limb. Turn to 42.

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20

The queasiness subsides as the day continues. You have probably just been eating too much mayonnaise recently. You make a note in your phone to switch to a low fat alternative, watch an internet documentary about the perils of dairy, and consume the office milk supply glass by glass, in an experiment to determine if you are lactose intolerant. The results are inconclusive. Turn to 42.

.

21

You walk past a church and overgrown graveyard on your right. If you wanted, you could go in and say a real prayer. You could go to confession. You could light a candle, or turn one on, as they are probably electric these days. You could look at the rafters, where you used to imagine the pagan monsters were kept. You could splash your face with holy water. You could reach into your pocket, take out the office door key, and open the office door in front of you (turn to 42) or you could go home (turn to 32).

.

22

The office, a converted house, is quiet. The rest of the staff are out on the road, and you have been left behind to man the phones and ensure that the fax machine is fed regularly. After the seventeenth game of solitaire, you realise the freedom available to you in this situation. An out-of-office message can be recorded for the phones, and the fax sated for at least a few hours with a thick wad of A4. The scroll containing life’s possibilities is unfurled before your eyes. Will you watch some pornography (turn to 16), walk down to the corner shop to purchase an out-of-season ice cream (turn to 39), or just go home altogether (turn to 28)?

.

23

Too late you realise that the remnants of the juice’s acidity will prevent you from brushing your teeth for a hour or so, and it is already midnight. To pass the time, you try to listen to some music. However, the shuffle feature on the MP3 player has randomly sorted the first three songs in perfect alphabetical order, and the pattern disturbs you. You stand on one foot, lightly brush your teeth, and go to bed. Turn to 50.

.

24

Your leg does hurt. You should see a doctor. Or, maybe, wait a week and see if it gets better. If it is still hurting then, will you go to the hospital (turn to 35) or wait another week (turn to 37)?

.

25

The traffic is heavy. For a horrible instant, you think you might be stuck on this side. The sound of the pram is getting closer. You avoid looking, in case you lock eyes. There is no option but to dash out and rely on the kindness of drivers. A brief ray of sun illuminates your passage. You reach the other side unscathed. There, for the purposes for motive, you pretend to be engrossed in a shop display. Turn to 22.

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26

Yes, it could be a parable about modern ennui. Woman gets new job in office, but a mysterious force prevents her from ever leaving. You resolve to buy a notepad tomorrow so you can begin to flesh out the characters. You get up to turn off the TV, but find it has automatically done so already. You go to bed. Turn to 50.

.

27

You play a video game. As the commander of a large space armada, you are asked to determine the fate of a world infected by a new form of Black Death. Will you devote your resources towards finding a cure for the pandemic (turn to 46), or fire bomb the planet surface (turn to 46)?

.

28

You manage to get your umbrella open for the trip home, but the direction and strength of the wind force you to hold it in front of your body, like a shield. Vision impaired, you collide with a lamp post, further bending the frame. The rain stops. You manage, with great effort, to close the umbrella. A BMW is parked next to you. With childish force, you jump into a puddle next to the passenger door, and send dirty streaks rolling down the metal. Turn to 32.

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29

Your brain is about to inform you that this is a lie, when it is distracted by a familiar piece of music coming from the TV. It is the theme for a seventies comedy show. You realise that this is the tune you hum when you are nervous. Will you consider the implications of this revelation (turn to 43) or watch the show (turn to 2)?

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30

If you are reading this paragraph, you have made a mistake, or cheated, you naughty person. Please return to 1.

.

31

He nods and smiles, and places your cereal in an insufficiently sized paper bag. When you leave, he says he will see you tomorrow, which you find presumptive. Turn to 42.

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32

The apartment is cold. You throw your umbrella onto the carpet to dry out, and prepare a pan of boiling water. After adding the pasta, a search in the fridge reveals no conventional pasta sauce of any description, just a jar of white stuff and a bottle of soy sauce. It could be the next taste sensation, but it does not turn out so well, and you eat a disappointing meal in front of the TV. There is a film on where people are murdered in inventive ways. You scratch your leg. Tonight is exercise night, and you are due to move up to twenty one push-ups and seventeen pull-ups, but it is difficult to get enthusiastic about it. Will you do the exercise anyway (turn to 6), reschedule exercise night to tomorrow (turn to 44), reschedule exercise night to the day after tomorrow (turn to 13), or try to forget about it (turn to 27)?

.

33

The water is very hot. Halfway through the shower, you realise you meant to shave beforehand. Now the steam will have fogged up the mirror, rendering a clean cut impossible. You tell yourself that stubble is fashionable these days, as you knead seaweed oil into your curls. Turn to 11.

.

34

A man is transformed into a talking coconut. You have seen this one before, but you watch it again, in its entirety, to confirm your opinion that it is bad. You are sure you could write a film if you wanted to. You have lots of ideas. Would you write something about a haunted hotel (turn to 15) or a haunted office (turn to 26)?

.

35

Listening to your body is a good idea. It is a very natural way to live. A pain means go to the doctor. A fart means go to the toilet. A yawn means go to bed. Turn to 50.

.

36

You unburden yourself of the many coins in your possession. The assistant slides the tube over the counter, and thanks you by name, even though you are sure this is the first time you have met him. You leave feeling slightly light-headed. Turn to 42.

.

37

Time, and exposure to air, heals all wounds. It will probably be fine tomorrow, no reason to worry. You yawn. You could watch another film on TV (turn to 34) or go to bed (turn to 50).

.

38

A driver has just powered through a pool of water next to you, sending most of it spraying over your trousers. The cereal box is unharmed, but you feel disempowered by the experience. You resolve, some day, to jump in a large puddle next to a car, and restore balance to the world. In the meantime, you return to the office, and fold your damp clothes over the radiator. Turn to 40.

.

39

Walking to the shop, you wonder if this is the influence of subliminal advertising. The film you watched last night had a character being stabbed through the heart with an ice cream cone. By the time you reach the shop, some of that influence has faded, and the rain has made you self-conscious about buying a cold dessert. But the shopkeeper has noticed you. Will you pretend to receive an urgent phone call which demands you take it outside (turn to 17), or buy something at random (turn to 48)?

.

40

The afternoon passes in a wonderfully uninhibited fashion. Then the doorbell rings, and you remember that a friend of your boss was due to visit today in order to borrow a laptop. You know that if you delay too long in opening the door, she will suspect you of watching pornography. Will you pretend to be out (turn to 5) or dress as quickly as possible and answer the door (turn to 18)?

.

41

The noise from your stomach means either that you should eat something, or that you should definitely not eat something. You decide to never listen to your body in future, as it is just a confusing mess of biological signals. To spite it, you go to bed early. Turn to 50.

.

42

You spend the next few hours reading comments on the internet. Virtual persona Duffydack08 writes that the football team you support is akin to a terrorist organisation. You are about to type a witty reply when you notice the clock has reached 5pm. Leaving the office, you realise you might have wasted your life. Thinking further on it, do you come to the conclusion that comment boards are bastions of free speech (turn to 14), cesspools of humanity (turn to 14), or another thing you should probably not think about too much (turn to 14)?

.

43

It probably just means you are emotionally stunted. Revelling in this newfound state of childhood, you consume an entire packet of biscuits with a pint of milk. Then you remember that the last time you did this, it gave you terrible gas. You go to bed, wary. Turn to 50.

.

44

You will have to remember to change your shower routine, but the rescheduling should work. You sink further into the sofa. The film has finished, but a new, bigger and better one is starting. Watching two films might be overly decadent for a work night. Will you watch it anyway (turn to 34), watch a short, safe comedy instead (turn to 2) or look for alternative entertainment (turn to 27)?

.

45

You brush standing on one foot. A magazine article you read recently said this was a good way to stay fit. But your leg starts to ache when going over the gums, so you cheat and balance yourself on the towel rack. Turn to 11.

.

46

The screen freezes. The game has crashed, taking with it an hour or so of galactic unification work. You scratch your leg and temples in frustration. Some research on the internet informs you that this is a common bug in the game. Virtual persona Duffydack09 writes that the developers are akin to a corrupt religious institution. By the time you have finished reading his post, three hours have passed in the real world. You feel very tired. Turn to 50.

.

47

As you get closer, you realise that you do not, in fact, know her. It is just a woman pushing a pram. You walk on, feeling a heaviness in your chest. She must have broken her umbrella too. Turn to 22.

.

48

You scan the stationery for a moment, but then move on to the breakfast cereals. There are several factors to consider – vitamins, iron content, value, box size, colour, fear of cartoon animals, wholegrain, multigrain, ingrained eating habits, price as indicator of social status, the environment, starving children in Africa, font, that bee looks more like a wasp. You take your choice over to the counter, and the shop assistant asks how you are in a friendly tone. Will you maintain a customerly distance (turn to 9) or inform him of your physical and mental well-being (turn to 31)?

.

49

Actually, there was something you needed to do at work. You eat a sandwich in a nearby pub while trying to recall what it was. There, the large amount of mayonnaise overpowers the taste of the fillings, and you start to feel queasy. The rain taps on the window logo. Will you take a sick day and return home (turn to 28), or tough it out in the office (turn to 20)?

.

50

You sit beneath the covers with your knees drawn up, and think about what you are going to do tomorrow. Your plan to treat yourself to two bowls of cereal turns into a swarm of bees, and you know you are falling asleep. You are sure you have forgotten something. The bees are tapping at the window. Turn to 1.

 

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Robert Feeney taught English for six years in Japan before returning home to pursue a Masters in Creative Writing at University College Cork. He is the author of several short stories, articles, plays, and a sitcom script that was kindly rejected by the BBC. His favourite colour is either blue or grey.

Unburied (Lauren Butterworth)

Posted on April 10, 2017 by in Lies To Live By

The Unburied climbs from her grave and all the little pieces of her fit like unshattering glass. The femurs groan into the sockets of the hip, the ribs crack into the sternum. She picks at the dirt gritted into the dents of her finger bones and looks down at all the holes of herself. She sighs. It hadn’t been an easy climb, prodding at the dirt from so far below. It had fallen relentlessly onto on her tongue when she’d had one. Filled up the deflated cavity of her lungs. He’d done a good job of it, she had to give him that. It had taken years to claw her way out.

As she shakes loose decayed cloth from ankle bones, the tibiae and fibula, she looks down at the disturbed ground. No headstone marks her place, nor is there any other indication of a loving and unhurried burial. Not even a name. She cracks into place the vertebrae, so troublesome in skin but now easily rearranged, and casts her hollow eyes around her. The ground is sunken, bordered by lumps of dirt and clay like ant hills. Beetles scurry over capillary veins of old roots and sodden leaves. Otherwise the garden is much the same. She’d planted the wisteria herself, and the nasturtiums that the chickens loved so much, though not the birds. They preferred the fruit trees, mulberry and persimmon. In summer she’d hear their rustling from the kitchen window and entice them with seed. The cat, as she’d tried to explain to him, was much too obvious. Stalking in the undergrowth was all very well in the wild but it wouldn’t do in the suburbs. Here you had to be alluring, entice with sweets and smiles. The Unburied grits her crumbling teeth. She knew too much about that.

She limps to the tomato vine and rests her fleshless fingers—the phalanges, she remembers—amongst the wilted green. Stakes stand in graveyard uniformity, but the produce is long gone. What a shame. Her romas won ribbons once. They were always the sweetest, the boldest, and she’d pluck them from the vine and eat them right there in the garden, or, best of all, peppered on toast with avocado and cream cheese. She’d allowed herself little pleasures now and then. Not that it had mattered in the end. Imagine, she thinks, running her fingers along the curve of a rib, all the cream cheese she’d have eaten if she’d known she’d come to look like this. Even though she lived alone, she’d creep into the kitchen to lick the Philadelphia foil at 3am. It was silly, but, as she told herself every time she caught her reflection in the wide kitchen window, life was just too short. She stopped though, when Angus started staying over.

Angus was a skinny man with a flat brow and thin, wiry glasses. He wore checked shirts buttoned to the top and taught middle-grade maths but she couldn’t begrudge him that. He approached her at the farmer’s market and offered to trade a punnet of romas for a bag of zucchinis, ripened in his own backyard three doors down. He told her she looked beautiful, as though they’d known one another for years. When she puzzled at him he blushed, told her they were neighbours. Hadn’t she seen him around? She wasn’t used to being called beautiful and she laughed awkwardly at him and stumbled. She had always been too tall with flat wide feet and felt ungainly in her skin. She would squeeze into too narrow shoes so that her little toe blistered red, perpetually disfigured. She borrowed Angus’ gumboots that afternoon when he showed her his veggie patch, and pretended her ankle was swollen from tripping on a step. Must be why they didn’t fit properly, she’d said. She used to imagine shaving the sides of her feet away as though from marble. Metatarsal, the arch is called, that joins the toes to the foot. Angus told her that. She crouches. She wonders if, in death, her hobbit feet, shed of skin and tendon, had narrowed to delicate points. She measures the distance from side to side. She sighs. It was bone all along.

And where is Angus now? The house is empty, or seems to be. The garden is overrun, and paint peels from wooden slats on the porch. Dislodged shingles collide in the gutter and on the ground by the fence. She’d wanted to do the repairs herself, and one of the benefits of such an Amazonian form was the strength it afforded her. But Angus had insisted, and she didn’t like to argue. He’d never officially moved in, but his things began appearing in the house in tiny increments: a toothbrush, differently-branded milk and spare trousers, then books, a guitar, lawnmower and car keys that hung perpetually on the spare hook. It bothered her that he’d taken for granted that she wanted the same things as he, but she never could quite tell him that. It was easier to let things take their course. It was the same when he’d started buying Philadelphia light and frowning at her when she’d add a teaspoon of sugar—raw, she’d rebut—to her coffee. But what could she say? He knew what she wanted to become and he was only being encouraging.

She grips the twin bumps of her hips. She used to run her hands along the skin because it was one of the few spots where she could feel the bone underneath. Angus liked them too. She pulls her thin legs through ankle length weeds. Pushes against the back door. She is almost surprised when, softly, it opens.

‘Hello?’ she calls, or tries to. She has no larynx or diaphragm to project the sound. She knocks her fists against the wall so it echoes. There are juvenile tags on the floral wallpaper and though she has no nostrils or any olfactory glands to speak of she is certain it stinks of rat shit. She can see the evidence in the gaps of the floorboards and digs the shaft of her toe into the crack to clear it away. She stumbles along the hallway stupefied by the stillness, the strangeness of it all.

She’d lived alone for many years because she preferred it that way: space to potter, to paint and garden and besides, she had the cat, what else did she need? Her heel bones click on the wood like the stilettos she never wore. She feels as though she’s breaking and entering. One of those abandoned semi-transportables by the railyard, graffitied, with sunken floors and piles of empty beer cans. She stoops to brush away the leaf litter by the front door. Turns into the front room. The layers of dust would choke her if she had lungs, but otherwise everything is just as she left it: a stack of unread books against packed shelves, a comb on the mantle with hair in the teeth, a photograph of Angus and her askew on the wall. As she takes in the remnants of her life like debris it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore that which niggles her. The question she can’t ask herself. She picks up an envelope from a stack on the coffee table. It is addressed to a name she is only beginning to remember, and dated a year she can’t fathom. She slumps into a chair and feels the heart that isn’t there sink into the chest that once held it.

Why has nobody come?

She tells herself she can’t have a panic attack because she no longer has a nervous system to ignite muscle spasms or adrenal glands to make her hands sweat, but her bones tremble just the same. She runs her hands down the femurs to her knee joints. She notices a thin, hairline crack at the top of the tibia. She can’t recall, at first, what the injury could have been, but the effort is enough to stop her trembling. Then it comes to her, a fury of a girl charging through her into second base. She’d fallen, one foot stuck between the girl and the plate. The bone snapped when she landed. Her mum warned her about softball. She was too clumsy, she said, too awkward. But that field was a space where she needn’t pretend to be graceful or prim, where her size was a barrier to petite things that would try to sneak runs. The softball girls exuded a strange kind of femininity, confident and earthy, so different to those at school who seemed to know something she didn’t. She wished she could take that power off the field. For there she became what she was again, tall and chubby, without any idea how to shape her appearance to express the woman she was becoming inside.

The Unburied stretches her legs and twists her ankles. Tilts her head and looks at her toes. They aren’t particularly feminine. She’s already established that. But what makes toes identifiably male or female? She knows that the male ring finger is longer than the index, with the reverse the case for women. Angus told her that. He told her lots of things he thought she should know. All the fleshy indicators of her body, the ample mounds of breasts and thigh, lips that guarded inward passages, are gone to dust. Would the investigative stumblers who finally come to find her—if they come to find her—be able to tell of her softball injuries and clumsiness in stilettos? Would her bones lie to them of the person that she was? For what is there, she suddenly wonders, to indicate she?

She looks down. There’s an absence in her pelvis where her womb used to be. She rises and walks to the mantelpiece, marvelling at the emptiness. There’s a mug with mouldy dregs of tea, a thriving succulent. Strange. She would have liked to cultivate life, she thinks, picking up the little brown pot. Once she thought she had. A little seedling failed to bloom and was washed away in a stream of red. But she was twenty-three then and he was a backpacker in the laundry room of a London hostel, and if she still had the cheeks or the blood vessels to dilate she’d blush with the memory of the relief she had felt. She had begun to want though, near the end. Not with Angus though. She realised that the second time she was late.

She hadn’t planned not to tell him, but, like everything, it was easier. To add the weight of her decision to terminate to the anxious list of reasons she couldn’t love him proved far too difficult. Was it cowardly, she wonders, looking at down at her empty pelvis, or simply self-preservation? She remembers the way her stomach churned in the weeks it took to gather her strength. How she’d cringe when he made reference to the types of toys he’d allow their children, or how he’d like to extend into the back patio to allow for more northerly light, something they’d appreciate when they were retired. In the last year she’d taken to yoga and developed a new ease with her body. The bulges at her hips and thighs became striking in their curvature. It wasn’t because she’d changed measurably, though her muscles were defined, lifted and pert. It was her eyes that were different. The girl who had tumbled on the softball field and not shed a tear was still buried in there somewhere. She couldn’t be that girl with Angus. Crouching to poke her fingers back into that dent she realises, suddenly, that he knew it too.

But her fleshy impulse to swell with child was lost when the beetles and mites devoured it away. She couldn’t feel guilt anymore for what she had done. She wouldn’t. So she turns to the mirror above the mantlepiece. Runs her fingers along the bumps and hollows, the impressions of tendons and muscle insertions. The holes are soft. So are the joints in her shoulders. She traces thin fingers along the scapula. There is a dent. It is not a impression of tendon, it is not a muscle insertion. She remembers that heavy thunk and all her yellow bones rattle.

She turns. Sees the dent in the wall. The heart that isn’t there thumps hard. Her legs quiver, then break out to escape the room where the memories are erupting like vines from the dirt. They grasp. She runs. Back down the hall past the rat shit and graffiti, into the garden with the shingles that Angus didn’t fix. She collapses into the dirt by her unmarked grave. She rakes her fingers, tilling clumps of clay and worm warrens. She pulls them into her chest. Tries to fill her empty spaces with dirt.

The sky rumbles and rain turns the earth to mud. And so she begins to mould herself from sludge. She packs it onto the neck and clavicle, the spine, fills out the breastbone with pert little mounds. She rounds her hips and ass, big and womanly, just as they’d been in life. She can’t make them whatever she wants, she thinks, so fuck it. Let them be as they always were.

As she works, black birds gather. They peck at the ground between her feet, pulling worms like spaghetti. She ploughs her fingers and gathers the slithering bugs, presses them into the mud that fills the empty cavity of her womb. She had, after all, nurtured them there under the earth, along with all the other creatures that from her flesh made life. The house flies and blow flies, and the larvae that they laid. The flesh flies—Sarcophogidae—that birthed maggots with hooked mouths that scooped her oozing fluids. Moths that foraged through her once long hair. The birds, devoid of dinner, rustle their wings and fly away.

There’s a sound from the house. Footsteps that echo above rain on the tin roof. Rustling growing closer. She finishes rounding out her tummy, alive and squirming. She rises, striking now in her height. She’s never felt so like herself.

The backdoor creaks and Angus emerges. The Unburied turns her skull and widens her brittle teeth to smile. There is a gap where an incisor would have been. If she had a tongue she’d run it along the fissure as she had in that brief moment before the final blow.

Angus is white like a ghost. Like chalk. Like bone.

The Unburied and her squirming belly of strange fruit creep toward him. He is so still with shock it couldn’t be easier. She takes him by the hand, warm and wet with nervous sweat, and pulls him toward her. His grip melts her mud-hands to claws. She leads him to the disturbed and sunken ground. He struggles, but she is stronger. She always had been. And so she pulls him under. Puts all the pieces of herself back into the earth, fills in all her gaps with mud. Angus hardly makes a sound. Softly, softly, she packs them into the ground.

 

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Lauren Butterworth is an emerging writer with fiction and essays in Wet Ink, Libertine, Indaily and forthcoming in Crush: Stories About Love. She is co-host of the podcast, Deviant Women, and co-director of The Hearth, a creative readings event in Adelaide. She is also an academic advisor at Flinders University, where she completed her PhD in creative writing. You can find more of her writing at laurenbutterworth.com.