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Posts from — April 2011

Ya Milango

M

asomakali sneaks to the gas station. In his pocket is a one-thousand shilingi bill, which should be spent on the old woman, but instead, he spends most of it on cigarettes. Safari cigarettes – king size filters – with the giraffe at the gallop.

Out the back of the station, he rips off the cellophane with some difficulty, pops the little paper seal, folds open the foil, and gets a stick between his fingers. It feels tinder dry, like the surrounding bush. Another reason to be careful. One puff. Chokes. Eyes streaming. He doesn’t feel quite as cool as the boys down at the weigh station. But that can only be a matter of time, right? The smoke transforms in flavours and scents; from something spicy and foreign, to something oily and acerbic.

Unable to finish the evil thing, he juts it out on a stone, licks fingers with saliva and smears out the end, still warm, and pops it in his handkerchief – the one that Doto demands – so as not to contaminate the box.

Then it’s a three mile walk down the dusty highway, with Doto’s groceries – all the delicious things you can get from a garage so far out in the bush. A grey-throated spurfowl hangs out of the sling basket, blood around its eye, claws like fists – road kill from a flat-wheeled mine truck – and a brace of sweet cassava root.

Along the way, the school bus rattles by. The girls wave, but as ever, he’s unsure if it’s mockery or commiseration. Just one kiss. He gawps at their round lips and long limbs. The yellow behind of the bus bounces seductively away, and then the dust cloud hits him like a drought.

When he pushes aside the screen door, Doto calls, “You ain’t seen that old door have you? Maso? You ain’t?”

“That’s right, I ain’t,” he calls back. ‘Course he hadn’t even looked.

“Well, you took an age. Thought you’d gotten your bony behind crushed like that fowl. Good boy. Get it to the meat safe. And come read me. Shoes off. And what’s that smell?” There is a note of suspicion.

“Nothing mama,” he drawls sarcastically.

“I ain’t your mama. Don’t go sayin’ that.”

The fowl, the smoke; Doto sees everything, like she’s looking down from the sky.

Maso’s legs are coated in dust. Behind him is a luxurious trail of footprints; he can even make out that scar on his left, big toe. If Doto was fitter, wasn’t dyin’, she’d be up scooping a handful of bush-herbs round his feet, stopping him from tracking all that muss round the place. But as she is dying, he can do whatever he likes right now. As long as he’s quiet about it.

He drops the heavy stone off the ewer, waves away a fly and pours.

Then along the passage, the boards pulling the corrugated iron this way and that; creeking and crunking. The heat of the overlapping plates grazes his right elbow and cheek.

There. Doto-the-old. Sprawled on the bed, like an old pair of bellows, stuffed with shit, spit and sticks. Is she eighty? A hundred-and-eighty? It has been twenty-nine days and about six hours, maybe.

He stares at her blank eyes, which are as cloudy as river water. A chink of sunlight has slipped between the weathered daub of the wall, in which the dust of her parched skin dances, drifting onto her shift, while her grasping fingers, clench and unclench – long-boned and light – knuckles and skin scaled like the leg of a bird.

“You betta’ be staying away from them young ladies, Maso,” she says.

Maso starts, and almost drops the bowl of water.

“Bring that here.”

Maso has to support the bowl with two arms under its base, so as to keep it from dropping. It’s heavy – made from ugly, thick clay – though its surface is as wide as her face. That’s why she likes it, so she can get ‘a full appreciation’, at midday, midnight; various hours in between.  ‘Come read me’ means ‘bring the mirror’. Maso tries to ignore the gaunt, wide-eared shadow that is his own, as it slops around in there. His boxy throat juts out, bobbing like the water. He is, after all, a gangly, boyish sixteen.

When Doto looks down at her reflection, hand to her pursed lips, fingers of her other hand turning and pushing through her silver hair – as arid as an African summer, fading to threadbare on the top of her rocky skull – he can see a certain moisture around her eyes.

“Oh, Maso. I gotta find that door.”

Though it’s not the door she wants. Not really. It’s what lies beyond: the God Woman.

For me or for you? he wonders. Best not say nothin’, or she’ll be off, again.

Doto says the gods here squabble like old men. She says that with flecks of spittle, when she gets towards the goat-end of the month.

Doto has different gods; that paddled and walked with her on that long journey from Madagascar. She kept them in her mother’s old Minkisi, the long-limbed, wooden figures sealed with mud and mirrors. She sees her gods in the shadows; in the green shadows that fall through banana leaves.

He cannot forget that.

But was this – this oldness – was this what she’d been expecting with the bargain she’d struck? It must have been the smell of the rain that did it: too many fresh ideas; a promise before the drought.

When he had asked her as to the nature of that conversation, she had said, “It wasn’t really a conversation. More, a decision. She just seemed to know.”

“What?”

“Who I am. How it works. How it all works.”

Maso had shrugged again, miserable.

Doto sighed. “I didn’t want to be like the banana tree no more. I didn’t want to grow old. I don’t want you to grow old. You know that.”

“And children?”

Doto had blown out between withered lips, a snaggle tooth whistling.

“They’ll have to wait.”

And so they would. She had been left as barren as a hot, tin roof.

Maso shakes his head, watching Doto’s reflection shimmer. The irony of her perpetual ‘youth’ is not lost on him. Oh no, not at all. Now she is always growing old, in body and spirit, with just a month to do it.

That had been the beginning of his disgust: the heart-smothering heat, thinking more in terms of her perpetually dying, rather than being particularly blessed. If anything, he now understands why the women and men of those first Malagasy tribes had chosen to be like the damned banana palm. Like everyone else.

He frowns at his wife, overwhelmed by that feeling of change, and that strange lunar rhythm their lives have become.

But still, amazingly, she won’t admit defeat.

When he tells her, he doesn’t want to join her no more, not in the dust, not in no stupid doorway to the other place – as he has already told her many times, before – Doto shakes her head, still defiant. “No one should want to die.” Her dry lips compress. “If I don’t want to, I don’t has to.” She throws those stick-like arms into a fold and stares angrily out through the slatted window, her mood matching the heat in the dusty room.

A bird tink, tinks along the pitched roof of corrugated iron. A faint stain of rust settles on her shift.

Outside, Maso pours the bowl onto the verdant squash growing in their pots. By all rights they should be dust, but it’s all that water he pours out here at the odd hours – every mirror surface fresh for her each time – that makes them grow like a sprawling suggestion of hope. Like maybe, the fresh water is going to show her something different, something she doesn’t already know, some different part of her. She’s obsessed with the changes in her stupid face.

When he’s back inside, bowing and scraping – water-scoured tracks across his dusty fingers, ribbed from the clay bowl like the wandering path of a snake – Doto says, “I only got a day. A day half. Now you go do the chores: the knotted cord on the door; the feed for the goat – none of the thorny stuff. Char that bird.”

The things the old woman cares about are all knotted up with age. The young girl cares for none of this. But she’ll still put him down: knows too much. Far too much. Though sometimes she can be fun. Might like him smoking. His brow knits. Probably not. Or at least, not for long.

Doto says, that there’s an old door out there on the veldt – caught between the iron hammer of the noon-day sun, and the cracked earth – that leaches moisture straight out into the air. And right where it has no right to be, a seedling, fat with life and light. Found it once. Never again. But she keeps looking, though. And gets Maso on the hunt (when he’s not begging off or deliberately going to school, just to spite her).

Of course he hides. She wants him to come with her. But he knows that calling down the powers means nothing is the same way twice. One curse is one thing, but if she gets fixed with a second, and he gets something along with her, whose to say that they won’t be even more miserable? Knowing his luck, he’d be a green beetle, and she’d be a long-beaked bird fixed to snapping him up, or she’d be a gape-toothed croc, and he a fish, and so on in grim cycles. Trapped forever.

A night and part of a day passes.

She kicks him mercilessly in her sleep. If she does dream about him, she must think he’s a dog.

Yeah, well, Doto dies as usual. He doesn’t find the door, despite half-heartedly scratching around in the dust with a sharp branch, and knocking on a few baobab trunks, and listening to the hollow knell of their water stores.

There is only a delicate waking; moving a spidery corpse limb off himself so it won’t break.

He drags Doto out of bed with his arms under her arm pits, trying not to inhale that old-lady smell of her; of stale sweat, strange fruity odours and cooking fire. Wraps her in the sheet, or she’ll give him hell, then drags her out, heels bouncing on the baked ground and under a tree. Shovel then. It’s midday. Nobody sane should be out here digging. But the old woman has got to be buried. The blade plinks off hard-packed ground, as unyielding as concrete. Sweat beads just thinking about it. Gotta be a fresh hole, though.

Digging and scratching. Scraping and moaning. Stupid damn hole. Stupid damn Doto. ‘Course if he’d just gone with her in the first place… “Shut up Doto,” he says. That bundle of windings and ripe limbs is probably thinking that stuff straight into his head.

At some depth, carefully calculated to be just deeper than hyena, just shallower than heat-stroke, he drops her in with a puff of dust and starts shovelling the aggregate back in.

Was a time he had tears in his eyes, and white lilies from the river, and had lots to tell her that he’d never said. Now it was all something to say tomorrow, and most of it no longer true. Couldn’t help it. But just ’cause you can’t see the moon during the day, don’t mean it’s not still up there.

That night he does the stuff that he doesn’t tell her about. Gets up, gets dressed. Pulls out that second-hand suit he bought from the station, that make him look like a diamond miner – admittedly from the 1970′s, with its wide lapels, but still – and unpacks that packet of cigarettes, ready for that image of the boys from the shacks, tapping out one cigarette like a finger (something he practices), and a dark-haired, dark-skinned beauty taking it between fingers and lips. Fire flares from a gold lighter, snaps shut, she leans back with a satisfied nod, and they get to talking. Normal. Just like that. Not tellin’ him to go get the water; go get the messages; go find the door. Goddamn, that old woman.

So a night passes, and it’s not one he’s proud of – even though it might have been fun at some points, it still felt like he was cheating on her.

And when dawn comes, he staggers back, neatens up his suit, throws away the cigarette box (three left, though still unable to tap out that solitary one) and pushes through the swing door.

Doto sits at the kitchen table. Beautiful. Gob-smackingly beautiful: dark hair tumbled down to her waist, black as cave-light, eyes like honeyed ivory. That old shift has gone. A new one, a gift from wherever, is a fine damask, white as milk, through which her firm curves are more than suggested.

“Hello,” she says.

“Ha,” he gasps, words caught in his throat.

Every time as the month bears on, he convinces himself that this isn’t worth waiting for, and every time, she proves him wrong.

It was this way. It was this way, before. On the first day.

Doto smiles a smile that sends him staggering to the table, to sit with broken legs, and she leans forward, face glowing, and he almost, instinctively, reaches out to take what’s in her hands, because she moves them forwards cupped and cupped over. Her eyes say, make a wish, and there is a chill in his heart as he looks down, and her thumbs pull aside, and he sees a handful of dust as white as bone, as dry as hot metal, and in its centre is a green shoot that has no right to be there – so green and verdant with life, that it’s hard to look at.

“I found it,” she murmurs.

Ya Milango. The door.

She might just as well have slapped him with the shovel.

 

April 29, 2011   6 Comments

What Burns Inside

T

here are two-hundred-and-twenty-seven tragedies awaiting the flame of a lover’s heart. I have counted them all.

As I run, your flame grows longer and hungrier. You want to mix with things you better not: dry tinder, bin bags, the street-trash that hasn’t seen rain in weeks. I try to cup you with my hands like a cigarette, desperate to keep you alive, but even the breath of my passage through the night is making you waver and tear like a curtain of water.

You would think your flame would burn white – pure white like an angel’s heart, such is my regard for you – but you burn green, and sputtering and foul. You gutter with the smell of paint and window frame; lead and copper flaring like hot venom.

I cross the narrow bridge over the motorway. The cars stream past as uncaring as electric current, their lights dead and yellow, compared to your living green. Around us, the city, is as intact as it was before we started, though the ‘shop on the corner’ – selling its own trash from under the counter, whispering to children – is now a burned out mausoleum. For Sean, perhaps.

Though not you.

As the fire trucks and their writhing hoses tried to extinguish your rage, I slipped in and kindled your revenge: coaxed you onto a narrow spar of wood from the window, left when the gas tank exploded.

At first, you didn’t want to come. You wanted to die, but I wouldn’t let you. I fed you a morsel – you flickered, you writhed, but at last, you bit.

I would like you to become a majestic flame, standing as tall as the justice you felt you were dispensing – rag over mouth, petrol in hand like an alcoholic; so no other parent would suffer as we have done – but you cling to that stick with a barely defined menace, the ground beneath your feet turning to clinker; curling into red ash.

At parts, you try to escape, drifting on the wind, but I hold you as close as I dare.

At other times, you try to bite the hands that hold you; that want to feed and caress you. I don’t blame you – all that is left is your all-consuming rage.

Those masked and hooded savages were not there. The building collapsed before your revenge was complete. So, what? This is it? They’ll move on, peddle again? Other children, other shops arriving and blowing away like smoke?

But you are flame; the flame of you heart, and I won’t let you die.

We cross the canal.

Don’t do that. Please.

I blacken my fingers against your desperate desire for absolution in the oily waters below, but we we both make it over: my crying hot tears, burning a section of my own shirt just to keep you alive.

Now you passion is burning me up, piece by piece.

Two streets. Three streets.

A party is going on. I can hear an amateur band playing three floors up in a Georgian flat. Multicoloured lights phase one after another within a room’s hidden volume, as laughter and boorish shouts slip from an open window. They all make light, but yours is the focused flame.

Don’t let me down, now.

You sniff hungrily at the bottle in my pocket. Be patient. It’s sauce, not a meal.

Up the steps. Quickly. You’re dying. I can see it. That green ball of coach-light is shrinking, pulling back from the walls.

We scrape past sandstone.

The door three floors up is as red, and noisy, and full of lost souls, as a gate into Hell.

Trying to hold onto you – a wild cat, spitting sparks, as if you know what an opportunity this is – I’m slopping petrol from the bottle, the lid cross-threaded from my haste to fill it. But the last of my shirt is pushed into its neck, and then you are running up the taper, writhing up the last of me.

Your kiss ignites the petrol on my hands, but we push you in together, through the letterbox, dropping your exploding rage onto a doormat that no doubt says welcome.

Hell has its flames at last.

Who knows what chemicals were stored in that flat, because I barely make it down a flight before your revenge is so unequivocal and all-consuming, there aren’t any stairs left to run on.

***

In the darkness, as the fire engines come – wailing and lamenting – I flutter along on the evening breezes, watching their red and blue lights bounce around, as if the whole world is pulsing back and fore between just those two colours – red and blue, red and blue – the colours of violence.

Black smoke obscures the belching hole in the ground, but as I watch, a green shred of flame rises up majestically, darting this way and that like a butterfly with the aims of a meteor, attempting to retake the sky. I drift in your direction, willing a meeting of souls on the chill, night air, high above the city.

As uncaring as chemicals, we meet and merge; I consuming your scrap of clear, plastic film, you my scrap of wordless newsprint.

For a while we spiral together, ascendant, until the fuel of our bodies is utterly consumed by the last of our passions.

—–

Time for a footnote. If it wasn’t going to screw up my rather old and shaky drop caps plugin, I’d have put this at the top so you could’ve skipped the reading should you have desired.

Been meaning to do this for a while, but I finally got down to recording myself reading this week’s #FridayFlash. Despite the embarrassment of talking to myself again (while editing the text, and now, recording and editing the audio)  I figured I’d give it a go. If you fancy, click on the arrow below. Let me know what you think. Yes, that is my voice. My neighbours are are probably, even now, barricading me into the flat… icon wink What Burns Inside St.

What Burns Inside – Read by Stephen Hewitt

 

 

April 23, 2011   11 Comments

Nothing but a Cold Digger

T

ammy saw a ghost last night. That’s what Martha says; saw him drifting right through the porch-siding like he was Elvis on a skateboard.

Tammy threw a fit, and threw her nice, new pitcher right through a window. That’s how scared she was. All she got left behind was an explosion of botanical glass and a five-dollar bunch of chrysanthemums, scattered all over, like ten dead, red men.

When I go see her, she’s still sobbing over the corner of a handkerchief.

All the rest of the Golden Acres women want to have it out with Tammy, grab her by the pink lapels, and shake some sense into that haze of permed hysteria, but I don’t. I just want to sit her down and feed her brownies – big, soft, brick-brownies – like I’m posting them into a letterbox.

You see, I think I’ve seen that ghost too, and more to it, I’ve got a notion he’s cheating on me. That you’re cheating on me. But I’ve got to hear it from her; from those chocolate-crumbed lips that are ‘umming’, and ‘awing’ over the old recipe Gramma’ Kennedy taught me, right down to the walnuts and the golden molasses, sticky as sin.

I can be patient, and, sure enough, she’s had a shock.

As I once did.

That’ll change, though. Sure, it’s all fresh and easy right now (she’s a spring-chicken sceptic at seventy-five, a hundredth of your age, if she’s a day). But you know what, something will go out of it. I don’t know what or where or when, but the spark will just leave – that little frisson of terror I thought would never go; that punch to the heart with every creak about the house, or a burst of static on the old B&W set with its Y and O of an aerial, or a flash and flicker of a light bulb, like something is squeezing along the wire – it’ll just… just slowly drift away.

I sleep well, these days – alone, but well – and maybe I don’t see anything quite as I should.

Now, ‘psychic’ or ‘sensitive’, or whatever you want to call it, are pretty big words. Not so long ago, I was just an honest soul who hadn’t seen so much; who only knew what I could see in front of me. I liked to bake of a Sunday, or clip roses on the front stoop – cupping their lip-kissing petals in the sunshine – or sip on a lemon soda, watching the bubbles fizz up out of the glass with the sound of a miniature steak cooking where the ice ought to be. And that’s the kind of person Tammy is, when she’s not scared half out of her wits, and throwing things through windows like she’s got an electric current shorting out her wiring.

And when Tammy pats at the corner of her lips – now with that handkerchief, mixing tears with chocolate – I wonder if those lips have kissed the frigid air my lips once kissed; perhaps howling wide in terror. Or she got electrified in a cold spot, tingling like teenage indiscretion; or clutched at a heart she thought might break ‘for the love of God’, stammering for whatever it was to go. Waiting for it to go. And it not leaving; deliciously intensely, horrifyingly, pulling out that moment like a gut string, tightening and tightening until…

It’s gone.

But only for a while.

Stubborn. Cold. A presence she feels in the house like a pit in a plum – dig it out with her fingers, right under the flesh – until one day, down the line, when she gets complacent, you won’t come any more.

Sure I got a home. But now it’s just a stack of firewood with a screen door and a porch, and a fridge that runs like a street car, and a few sticks of furniture, in a place that ain’t got no heart.

The horror didn’t get too much. It didn’t stop. It just grew convenient and familiar. We settled down you and I.

For a while, I did the dutiful thing: sat pulling the stuffing out of a goose-down pillow most nights, dull and unmoving, heart bursting, watching mama’s old tooth-glass move with jerky scrapes across the table and up over the plaster, only to drop like a crystal meteorite, while the energies got me twisted up to puking.

But it turned out, that my body and mind, and maybe my soul, couldn’t stay terrified indefinitely; that the promise of what could be manifest, never materialised; that I couldn’t stay hanging on forever, waiting on whatever that dark, toothed shadow in the cupboard had in store for me.

You had eternity; I had the last flutter of a graveyard moth.

So, guilty as I am now, sitting here on Tammy’s couch, Tupperware in hand, I’m trying to tell you – whoever you are – that I’m sorry. That I’d make you brownies, too, if you had the bones to eat them. But that’s just what I’m talking about: goddamn brownies when I should be shrieking and cowering.

Like Tammy.

Look at all that flooded mascara.

I know the times you’re going to have together. She’ll find life will never be so bright and precious than when she’s with you, floating by like a knife in the darkness.

I never felt so alive.

God damn. The Tupperware lid pops.

Then I’m standing up too quickly and telling Tammy that I’ve got to go.

I’m so sorry. So sorry, darling, but I can’t understand how this terror-stricken dolly-bird will ever make you happy.

 

April 16, 2011   9 Comments