old and new

At just before midnight last night, and thanks to a writing prompt from Chasing Dreams Publishing, I got the motivation to write a brand new piece of flash.  The writing prompt was simply some words which had to be included in the story – those words are the penultimate line, if it still matters.

I didn’t exactly know where it was going at first, but then slowly I got the idea that this character was racing death to do something for herself, and it all went from there.  I hope you enjoy it.

Old And New

In the morning they sailed into the sun. It lit the water ahead and either side of them, turning the waves to molten bronze. She stared. Over the side, wood and tar meshed into one, living materials bound together to make new life. Brown wood and black tar, it stretched away until it all turned to gold. If the ship hadn’t been so damn tall, she would have thrown her arms into the water to the shoulder, soaking up the light and washing the old world from her like soot.

With the sun overhead they sailed on. Blue above, blue below. The old world was far behind them now and there was nothing to be seen in any direction except that blue, so empty. So alone. They told her to wait below while the day was at its hottest but she couldn’t bear it – somebody had to care for the sea and sky. She coughed into her handkerchief, put it away without looking at it.

When she did that twice more, they urged her below decks with their hands on her forearms.

She dreamed that the sun was at her back, that it opened her dress up like a sail and swept her up into the sky. She sighed with relief – the blue would be alone no more! But like all dreams it ended, and she awoke, and through the wood that was once alive she heard all the others shifting, snoring, moaning. She went back on deck.

Now the sun was nowhere, and this time she looked into her handkerchief when she coughed, wiping the viscous fluid from her lips and inspecting it in the moonlight. The romantic part of her saw silver; every other part saw dark red.

The captain was about. He inspected his crew briefly, giving soft orders and small, inconsequential corrections. He was a good man, they said. A brave man. Satisfied, he left the deck and went back below.

In the port, he had kissed her hand.

The days slipped by. She spent more time below decks, mercifully cut off from the other passengers’ sight – but they could hear her. Some made soothing sounds to her through the timber, though in the end most of them begged her to stop. Stop coughing and let them sleep. She didn’t blame them. It was a noisy, unpleasant business. In the old world she would have been bedridden. In the new world, perhaps, too. But this was neither, this was a world of silver and bronze, a world of blue skies and black tar where sunlight made you fly.

But like all journeys, it ended, and they carried her to the shore, and her dress flowed through their hands, and her necklace clinked softly with every step. She didn’t speak. Her eyes fluttered. They held her still. Finally she forced her eyelids open, her pupils wide, then narrowing slowly as the smile grew on her lips.

“My lady?” they asked.

She didn’t speak. Her tongue was dry. The new world was good.

It wasn’t quite what she expected, but still . . .

But still . . .

Emblem Black (2)

the roots of education

It has been an eternity since I last posted.  You will hear no excuses from me – it is how to is.

Without further ado, here’s something I wrote just now.  I would appreciate any feedback as the style is, I think, a little different from how I normally do things.

Bitter Roots

My whole life, I’ve only ever grown one tree. People say to me: Mateusz, if you only grow one thing, you can’t call yourself a farmer.

They may be right – but I do not accept their truth.

For I, Mateusz, know that I am a farmer, and will always be.

The only place this tree can grow is in the desert. It grows quickly and it grows slowly: quickly undergound, a hulking, twisted mass of roots that goes deep, deep, but never shows – slowly, unbearably slowly above.

Other trees put up a shoot, grow tall, then grow strong, but not this one. It pushes up from the ground, already so thick the stoutest man couldn’t embrace it, but still so small that even a child could step over it.

Every day I walk miles to bring it water, and I eat its bitter roots. Every day the tree grows more roots and I choke them down.  With my teeth I grind the brittle, dusty things to powder. The powder cloys, it sticks, and I spare myself a little water so I can swallow. But I am a farmer and I do it gladly, for the tree teaches me.

It teaches me how to mend my shoes, how to protect myelf from the sun, and how to walk all day without getting lost. It teaches me gratitude for my rare visitors with their gifts of honey and beef and bread. It strengthens my will every time I refuse to leave with them. When they are gone, it teaches me who I am.

When the wolves come, it teaches me how to fight.

I will only ever grow one tree, and it is a tree not often farmed. You must toil to grow this tree, and never stop, and live a bare life, and spend much of it alone. If you are lucky, it may take only twenty years to bear fruit.

But then.

You take that fruit back to your village – it’s the sweetest and most delicious fruit in the country, they say – and they sell it, and merchants come from far away, and they buy it, because it is not just the most delicious fruit in the country, it is more than that: there is no other like it in the whole world.

And only you know the secret.

Only you know how to care for the tree.

And still they won’t call you a farmer, for there is no word for what you are now.

But I, Mateusz, know that I am a farmer, and will always be.

Emblem Black (2)

channelling poe

NeedleInTheHay.net called it “lyrical beauty”.  I like that.  The challenge this time came, fittingly enough, from a dead man: Martin Heidegger.

Man acts as though he were the shaper and master of language, while in fact language remains the master of man.

I say ‘fittingly’ because the brief called for 600 words of horror, into which contestants also had to somehow work the theme of the “power of language”.

Those of you who know me know that I am not the kind of man to write about ghosts and ghoulies and that, when I dip into the horror genre, I like to do so in a more creeping, subtle way.  When the themes of language and horror came together in the same brief, I thought about Poe.  What would he do?

If you go and check out the WINNER ANNOUNCEMENT, you’ll see that Sophie Macdonald took the trophy with her excellent story My Best Friend, a story with remarkable – but not obvious – links to my own.  In both our stories, we explored the question: ‘Can you be cursed by language?’  And although Ms Macdonald and I both said ‘yes’, the way we went about it is different.  In her story, it is a quite literal curse, and in my own – in a humble homage to Poe – the curse comes entirely from the mind of the protagonist.

Following judges’ feedback, I have made some minor improvements which have pushed it over the 600-word mark, but – as always – I am glad to receive any and all feedback from my readers.  Enjoy!

Read up on Sophie Macdonald HERE

Swallowed Whole

It’s time to go out.

The poem will never be finished. I understand that now. For when it’s finished, it will swallow me whole. How arrogant to even imagine I could capture you, trap you down on paper.

The diamond of her face as she slept

Her scent, drawing me as a beacon draws ships to the safety of harbour

The silver sheen of her hair at night. . .

Pure arrogance.

Outside, the night is black and full of everything. Everything. A year I’ve been trapped, exiled in that room, eating because food was brought, sleeping only from exhaustion, my head upon the desk.

And still it isn’t finished.

But outside: Everything. My bare arms prickle with sweat in the warmth of the night, my feet moving as if they’re only now learning what it is to truly walk. Not to pace. Not to pace one room, endlessly, from wall to window, but to stretch and move.

So many smells. So many good smells: seafood; the sharp tang of spices; rich, greasy meat; baked bread; cocktails of sauces and dressings; piss from the alleyway, strong with ammonia – but that’s good, too. Everything is good.

Lanterns festoon the street, end to end, and the colours . . . had I forgotten about them? I must have written the colour of your hair. I must have, but now . . .

All the things I’ve missed, my year alone. You weren’t there.

You aren’t here either, in this street lined with bright pools of light, with tacky jewellery stands, with mountains of deep-fried doughnuts lost in clouds of sugar, all of it undeniably alive. Of course you aren’t here. You don’t belong here any more.

I drink the Everything in, I touch every surface. My senses draw me on, ever further from my door. I want to remember, not to disappear again. At home, there is only silence, and a poem that can’t be finished.

I open my mouth, taste the air. Midnight approaches and still people boil along the market street. Elbows scrape against my ribs, hair brushes my arm, something wet and cold – I don’t care what – splashes my leg.

The voices . . . a mad grindwheel, scratching at my ears like passionate fingernails. After the silence of my room, it’s agony, but if I had the power to stop it, I wouldn’t. I’m alive. You died, I remain. Perhaps I forgot to die with you, perhaps I wanted to finish your poem first. Perhaps, even, I hoped it would bring you back.

Foolish.

Arrogant.

It lies unfinished, and I’m alive And I know now: I want to stay. I cannot embrace your cold, lingering traces any longer. It’s time to colour our memories with new experiences, fresh ones to flavour the old. It’s time to–

. . . drawing me to her . . .

Your scent.

No.

I take the alley, forging into darkness. Here it’s cooler, with vague silhouettes lurking from the shadows. I must escape. I burst out into a street lit not by lanterns, but by streetlights. More puddles lie on the road here, shining–

. . . silver sheen. . .

No!

I run. Why has it come? Why now?

Ahead, the harbour. The last place you ever were. We met here, once. But now I see: my poem isn’t at home.

It’s here, waiting for me at the jetty.

And here’s how to finish it:

A kiss.

It washes my feelings away, washes everything away. The silence feels like bliss. The waters close over my head, harbour lights shimmering above me. Below me, the diamond of your face.

Finally finished.

Emblem Black (2)

a tiny little voice

Good morning everyone, and welcome to Tuesday.  I have delved into the records today to bring you a section from a piece I actually finished before Christmas last year.  I’m still not one hundred per cent happy with it, and of course – as you know – I welcome comments and suggestions.  Today, let me ask you a question: where does authority come from?  Specifically, why do we follow the rules, and who is it who makes them?  This piece is called Passengers.

 

Chapter One

The room was dark; the rods of light that pierced the shutters barely reached the figure on the bed. Michael opened his eyes. It was 6:02, and the voice had already started.

He always woke up around six o’clock, six o’clock being the optimal time for doing everything required of a man before he goes to work, and although today he happened to have stolen an extra two minutes of sleep, he hadn’t required the help of an alarm clock since he was a teenager. He lay in bed for a few moments more, staring into the murk.

The voice chattered away in his head, far more awake than he felt. Prosperity is Good. If work promotes prosperity, then work is Good. Today is Friday, Friday is a work day. Friday is a Good day. Today is a Good day. He did his best to silence it and rolled out of bed.

It appeared that today was yet another Good day.

Michael poured a cup of coffee and eased himself onto his creaky chair. For a few moments, he simply sat there; he had prepared a fruit salad, and he didn’t want it. Fruit salad is Good! insisted the voice. Michael picked up the bowl, tipped the whole thing into the bin, and made toast instead. He didn’t want the toast either, but at least this way the voice was as dissatisfied as he was. A splinter pushed into his back. He smoothed it flat and then leaned over, the chair creaking again as he reached for the radio. The radio was Good, because it prevented loneliness.

“–quavet Hysteria, which still has no cure, has today been proven to be a delayed effect of the heat of the equator and its suppressive effect on the Passengers,” said the voice of Kit Fisher. “The violence that goes with it, however, remains unexplained. For the war itself, there is still no end in sight. Last night, the Equatorial Forces detonated several explosive devices in key areas, cutting off Allied supplies as well as their own. Clearly, they have resigned themselves to defeat, but the Allied victory is coming at a huge cost. To date, the death toll–”

Kit’s news was equally as depressing as if Michael had never turned the radio on.

He killed it.

* * *

Michael’s workplace was walking distance from his house; the Gilbert Ryle building; a giant concrete monolith, perfectly suited to the task of housing data entry clerks in relative comfort, while being at the same time extremely cost-effective in its use of paint and other decorative materials: it didn’t use any. Of course, everyone in the building knew that such resources were much better used elsewhere, and did not complain. As Michael rounded the corner of the building, he brushed his hand on its rough, grey surface. He was careful to do it in exactly the same place every day, and to watch for signs that he was making an impact. To date, there were none.

Michael knew for a fact that he had a Good job, because he knew that prosperity thrived on order, and that he was instrumental in maintaining that order. Every day, new people were born, and old people died. People moved house, people got married, and sometimes – even now – people got divorced. Michael catalogued everything. There could be no doubt; his was a Good job.

At some point in the past, the carpet under Michael’s workstation had gotten damp. He was sure he could smell rot, but his colleagues insisted he was imagining it, leaving him to wrinkle his nose and ignore it. The computer clicked like a beetle as it awoke; soon it was ready to be used. Michael got to work. Adding, editing, and moving, it was an endless sea of information, organised by Michael Cantwell into stackable, bite-sized yoghurt pots of data. He altered and amended, compiled and consolidated, attached commentaries and removed redundancies until his eyes swam with fatigue. He glanced at the giant clock. Yes, 11am; time to go.

The other guys from pillar 14 were waiting for him in the cafeteria, dutifully shuffling along the sofa to make space for him as he approached the machine.

“You got any taste buds left, Michael?” asked Harry.

“There’s a couple still working,” he replied, punching the ‘Espresso’ button again.

“You ever think about taking it easy on the caffeine?”

Business as usual. First Harry, then Jake. Next, would come–

“Yeah, you’re not getting any younger. How about just the two shots today?”

Ah, yes. Rob’s contribution.

“You want me to sit somewhere else? I can go somewhere else, you know.”

“Look, we care about you, Mike. Everyone knows about your heart, we just want you to make a Good choice for your health – nobody knows the systems like you do, what if you…you know…”

“Thank you, Jake. I’m well aware of my importance to society.” It had come off a little stronger than Michael intended. He tried to take some of the sting out of it. “Look, don’t I have a right to damage my own body if I want?”

“Not really, Mike. If one of us has a problem, we all have a problem. It’s not Good to put yourself in danger.”

“Yeah, yeah. Let me just enjoy this one last real cup.”

“Decaf tomorrow?”

“Come on, Harry…”

“Alright, one shot. But no more! OK?”

Michael grumbled incoherently and drank the rest of his cup in sullen silence.

* * *

Three times a week, after work, Michael called his mum and chatted to her.

“Michael! So good to hear from you. Perhaps you could tell your father how the phone works.”

“Well, the war isn’t going well, mum.”

“The last phone call wasn’t anything to shout about. Five minutes, and – poof!”

“The Equatorials aren’t playing by the rules any more. Scorched earth. Suicide runs. I’m surprised he can find the time to call at all.”

“Don’t you take his side!”

“Alright, alright! I’m not. It’s just…I feel like this should all have been over years ago. If the Equatorials are as much of a rabble as everyone seems to think they are, then we should have long since finished them off. What’s the hold-up?”

“Why don’t you ask your father? He seems to–”

Michael snapped. “Why is everything about him!” He took a few deep breaths. She just needs to let off steam, he reminded himself. Letting off steam is Good. “If you two are having so many problems, why don’t you get counselling, or…a divorce? Or something?” Michael’s voice rang of futility, even to his own ears. It was at about this point in the conversation that he always began to grow hoarse. His mother’s problems were like water torture; they were grinding him to dust.

“Why should I? I don’t want the world to know my problems. Normal people don’t have problems. Equatorials have problems. No order, no prosperity.”

“I have to go, mum,” Michael croaked. “Talk to you on Monday.”

This piece will be continued in subsequent weeks

still living forever

Hello, Monday!  Breaking with tradition, I’ve decided to upload something on time.  Please enjoy an update to the story from before entitled: I Live Forever.
I give you the next part, plus the first part again, rewritten for style, sense, and a tie-in to the world of Eormen.
If, for some reason, you want to see the original, it is still available HERE
See you in a week!
Update: the final part is available to read HERE

 

I Live Forever

Why do I do it? I suppose that is the question that most comes to mind when people see me at work. In one or two months, three at the most, everything is going to look exactly as it does now, so why do I do it? Why bother, when nobody else makes the effort? Why waste my time and silver when others clearly have no intention of doing the same?

Why do I do it?

Tonight, I’m working on the window. It is the fourth broken window this year, and it is only April. After the pieces have been taken out and the hole boarded up, after the empty space has been prepared to receive the new window (already ordered, of course), I’ll move on to cleansing the obscene daubings from the windowsill.

I recognise the signature, though naturally I wouldn’t recognise the author if I met them on the streets. There are probably a thousand possible candidates. It is now impossible to count the number of gangs roaming the streets in this quarter of the city; poor gangs, apprentice gangs, some slightly-more-progressive mixed gangs – the rich gangs, more properly called ‘bands’ do not come to this part – and then our new addition: the refugee gangs.

You surely do not need me to tell you that peace, whether through victory or defeat, is the most distant of dreams. My generation was the last to know what it meant.

Happily, I am no refugee, in as much as I never fled from war, though I will never belong here, either. When I was young, coming to the city to study the medicine at the Great College of Thenos, my colour clearly set me apart. When I returned to my own land, I was still the outsider; I had learned too much. I was able to watch as freedoms were removed, as whole families were removed – first from sight, and then from the face of the earth.

And because I had learned too much, I knew that they would come for me too, one day. My knowledge of freedom was a threat, my ability to speak my mind, to speak through the filter of experience, and not of prescribed doctrine, was a threat. I returned to the city that had educated me from my land, and I returned to making sick people well. But I was not a refugee. There was no war.

Not yet.

Why do I do it?

During my college years, I had some neighbours unlucky enough to have their window put through by some drunkard on their way home. This window was replaced not with glass, but with a rough cut of wood that I suspect they had liberated from an unattended warehouse. I’m sure it kept the wind out, but it also very perceptibly changed the character of their dwelling.

Was it perhaps due to this that empty bottles began to accumulate before their door, and that it became necessary to step over the unconscious owner of said bottles some mornings? A definitive answer it difficult, but the fact is that, not long after, their house – that precise board, in fact – was chosen as target practice for some rather foul eggs, while my own was spared.

It was when a group of quite ordinary-looking men who should know better started pitching stones at the upstairs window, hitting the houses either side – including my own – that I decided that not only people but places, too, could get diseases. This, I realised, was how a quarter became a slum. It took only one broken window, one daubed wall; without immediate treatment, that wound became infected, and the boil began to rise.

And then I went home, to the land of my birth, and saw how the mind could be as diseased as the body, and twice as contagious. The Black Prophets came, spouting their ‘wisdom’, and my people succumbed to it in their droves. The older I get, the more I realise that there are very few things that can not become diseased. But the question is why do I do it?, and I’m not doing a very good job of answering it.

Emblem Black (2)

we are sisyphus

I have to ask for forgiveness.  In the first*, for leaving for so long with no explanation and nothing, not so much as a pilfered link to make up for my absence.  The explanation is simple enough: I moved countries.  The work involved with packing one car with everything you might need for the foreseeable future, renting out your apartment, securing a job, opening and closing your bank accounts, etc. is not to be sneezed at.

It also makes for incredibly dull reading, which is why I won’t bore you with it here.

Instead, I’d like to share with you a recently-completed writing exercise from The Art Of Writing‘s blog, to paraphrase: ‘When do pointless things have a point?’  This was, at least, where I started from though, as usual, things developed.  It also helped me to become once more the Pilgrim of Eormen, rather than John Falconer, as I used the exercise to help me build my world.

Since it is a little longer, I’ll upload it in two (or three) parts in the coming weeks.  Comments, questions, feedback, you know the procedure.

*and in the second, for attempting to appear clever by name-dropping a Greek legend.

This post is now available in updated form HERE

 

I Live Forever

Why do I do it? I suppose that is the question that most comes to mind when people see me at work. In one or two months, three at the most, everything is going to look exactly as it does now, so why do I do it? Why bother, when nobody else makes the effort? Why waste my time and silver when others clearly have no intention of doing the same?

Why do I do it?

Tonight, I’m working on the window. It is the fourth broken window this year, and it is only April. After the pieces have been taken out and the hole boarded up, after the empty space has been prepared to receive the new window (already ordered, of course), I’ll move on to cleansing the obscene daubings from the windowsill.

I recognise the signature, though naturally I wouldn’t recognise the author if I met them on the streets. There are probably a thousand possible candidates. It is now impossible to count the number of gangs roaming the streets in this quarter of the city; poor gangs, apprentice gangs, some slightly-more-progressive mixed gangs – the rich gangs, more properly called ‘bands’ do not come to this part – and then our new addition: the refugee gangs.

You surely do not need me to tell you that peace, whether through victory or defeat, is the most distant of dreams. My generation was the last to know what it meant.

Happily, I am no refugee, in as much as I never fled from war, though I will never belong here, either. When I was young, coming to the city to study the medicine at the Great College of Thenos, my colour clearly set me apart. When I returned to my own land, I was still the outsider; I had learned too much. I was able to watch as freedoms were removed, as whole families were removed – first from sight, and then from the face of the earth.

And because I had learned too much, I knew that they would come for me too, one day. My knowledge of freedom was a threat, my ability to speak my mind, to speak through the filter of experience, and not of prescribed doctrine, was a threat. I returned to the city that had educated me from my land, and I returned to making sick people well. But I was not a refugee. There was no war.

Not yet.

Emblem Black (2)

The blog from which this challenge came is called ‘The Art of Writing’, by Tobias Mastgrave.  You can see the original post HERE

 

want to go back to the circus?

My dearest darlings, today we find out if the circus master really does always have a plan, or if – as the whispers on the street seem to say – he has lost his wits altogether.
Perhaps you would like to refresh your memories with PART ONE

It will be a quick fight. The tiny humanoid seems terrified of the monstrous man, and who could blame him? For years, Chran has fought with axe and shield, leather trousers for dignity, but otherwise naked. What need has he for armour? There are few that can get close to him, and for those who do, death comes swiftly. Smash! goes the axe, and the body parts bounce off the dirt. Well, usually. This little one is particularly fleet of foot; it manages to avoid the first blow and to dodge behind Chran’s back, amid jeers and riotous applause.

And once more, the applause turns to laughter, as Chran’s opponent hops onto his back, wrapping arms and legs around his torso and holding on for life. Chran thrashes this way and that, but cannot dislodge it. His massive muscles prevent him from reaching behind his own back. Why doesn’t he simply fall down? That is an easy question. Chran knows that once a fighter is off-balance, he is doomed. What is to stop the tiny creature from leaping off Chran’s back as he falls, stabbing him in the heart with its little dagger?

Gasps, now; gasps from the spectators. Where did this dagger appear from? The creature did not have one at the start. No matter; it has one now, and it jams the blade between Chran’s shoulders, making the big man bellow with rage. Not pain, no. Surely not pain from Chran, who has destroyed so many men, borne so many wounds without complaint. Anyway, the knife is tiny, too small to damage such a man as Chran.

And yet, does Chran not seem to be growing desperate? See his limbs flail without clear purpose. Hear his mighty roars, becoming more and more like howls. Around and around he spins, his opponent still holding on – but no. It cannot be the same opponent. This one has thick thighs, bulging with muscles. And Chran, too, looks different. His skin, before of solid white marble, now is shot through with blue, furiously-pumping veins.

The axe and shield fall from his fingers. Chran takes a knee. What can be happening to the hero of a hundred fights? Nobody knows. They can only watch as his throes become rhythmic and mechanical, but no less ineffectual. They can only watch as the bones of his ribs begin to strain against his skin. They can only watch as the strange creature on his back continues to swell and grow, sucking the very life from Chran not through a dagger at all, they can see that now, but through an elongated thumb. The thing on Chran’s back begins to shriek in joyful gluttony; it is now the same size as any normal man, and as fat as any king.

We will never know whether, as Chran struggled to his feet, he had already planned to crush his opponent, or whether it was the effort of standing that finally finished him, but what every man, woman, and child will remember to their dying day is the sound that the swollen monster made as it burst. As best as this old man can describe it, he will: imagine a butcher’s cleaver cutting through a steak in one stroke. Imagine, at the same time, a chamber pot being emptied from an upstairs window. Imagine, too, the sucking sound of horses’ hooves as they walk over a muddy river bed.

And now…the circus needs a new hero. And they will get one, as sure as the sun will rise in the morning. I may be an old man, but I knew what I was doing when I bought that strange little creature from the eastern pirates – though I do not think I will have them bring me another. It is always so disappointing when the slaves must roll two bodies into the flames.

It is true what they say; the circus master always has a plan. And it will forever be true that no man – and there are no exceptions – no man escapes the pit forever.

Emblem Black (2)