Flash fiction, short stories, poetry …
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Posts from — May 2012

The Last Kazarine

I have a few stories I want to write involving disembodied heads. Why? I nunno. Here’s one to get started.

A head start… ha, ha, ha… (ahem).

***

T

his is a last supper of hard, flat bread, washed down with water. Black cumin cracks on snagged teeth and gums bleed on dry rises slashed with a knife.

There is no clay-cooked smell of summer’s harvest here – just the aged, malodour of dust.

Father Markus is not accustomed to such fare, but that disastrous girl is fled, so who will get more? And there is certainly no time for him. Sand bulges in the bottom of the narrow-wasted glass; the sun is squeezing down into the hollows of the mountains.

His eyes are drawn to the window latches and the heavy draw-bolts on the door. Pushing back – mouth a gummed hollow – he hobbles to these locks and gates and peers out into desert; an ocean, where stone formations break amongst the long dunes.

And then, the ragged stones beyond – an edge to all things.

Sundered blocks corrode and the torsos of great statues decline. Stoic faces and forms, broken swords and shields, become a harbouring wall, or a causeway, lost to historical tides. But that arrowed line from horizon to horizon is a close-veiled barge – in a few, short breaths, the sun dies in the funerary reds and oranges of crushed lilies.

There is nothing else to do, so he carefully closes the hatches over, with rough hands smoothed to wood and iron.

Forgive him that final tremor.

The ceiling is low, the floor creaks. On the table are four heads – large blocks of stone, crumbling into sand at their severed necks, but very much cold and open in their faces; where white eyes, like blank, stone mirrors, regard the room. The stone is local – a soft, white sandstone from the cliffs of Notumra, not two days away, where great dark pockets of stoneworking can still be seen, open like toothless cavities. The heads are old and dramatically pagan, worn to touch and desert winds, teeth set in the compressed sand of long-dead seas. Chisels have loved them, their hair curled like succulent grapes, dry and rough as the skin of a dogfish.

Their canines, also dog.

Markus desires more than anything to throw a sheet over them, or remonstrate with their blank indifference, but there has been much too much ignorance and beseeching, already.

“Once,” said Kyla, “these heads were brightly painted.”

He imagined – suggested – gaudy, wishful in the gaze of their massive faces.

“Like clowns,” he sneered, “smeared with blood and berries”.

The girl had made a fleeting, pained expression.

“Not so,” said the girl. “These were beautifully painted, to look like gods.”

“Hah,” Markus had said.

Their pupils have the white, blank curve of the horizon.

Now, the lantern is flickering. The goat fat is a thick, pungent tallow that burns fitfully, with too much meat and gravy. If it were not for the importance of light – drawing its long shadows of severed limbs – he would have eaten it on the bread.

Why this unyielding thirst?

The clatter of the clay ewer and the slop of water, to the bright trickle, to the cracked beaker, to the grit on teeth and the warm, almost claustrophobic, swallow of it. It tastes like earth.

Old, pagan things.

Beside the heads, the long iron mattock that struck them from their bodies. His hands still ring with the unyielding severing, and his mind with the fresh, bloody stone he saw at their necks.

The latch rattles. He turns, shoulders a webbed sling of sagged flesh on bone, forcing his eyes to the metal, considering: one more rattle, and it’s not the wind…

But at the slot beneath the door, there is just a fine waft of silt: a twin tributary sliding across the floor, one thread winding over the other. The hidden source is split where a scrubby patch of theselay – grown to the threshold – has a long thorn in its back; scratching back and fore, like an extended cat’s claw flexed with the desert’s breathing.

That white dust coats his nostrils.

The cup bangs down. “Devils!”

1900 years ago, the armies of Kazarine marked the great cliffs and the high valleys with a wall – a great wall of ponderous stone, high as two camels and a hamut, broad enough for wagons and men to pass, and the rolling way passed out across the desert, keeping the might and military of the south, from the great dark places and demesne of the painted people to the north.

Kazarine were Markus’ forefathers. Their hatred was directed where it most assuredly belonged, and where the wall lay was a great division between bronze swords and modern war; and the knotted and fierce, brown-eyed spirits of the north, who wore flesh below the sun, and horrific spirals of iron-coloured wode spat through formers of horn and jaw.

Their impurity is here: the lips-pursed blowing of the desert winds. Eyes to the latch. Hooooooooooooooooo-oooo.

Kazarine and painted dogs stood the walls together, eastern clans fighting northern, but one as pagan as the next.

Together, they carved four kings – full bodied, stone blooded – as a symbol of unity and souls best left eternal; uncollected.

Do not. Think not. “Lay aside that iron. Such heads are magical,” wept the desert girl, gathering her skirts, wide eyed – hands covering blasphemous lips, lest more ‘old country’ spilled forth.

And so he struck her, and she fled.

She left him marooned.

Find them in a cup, a well – the heads of severed men – at shrines. All over the desert, staring out at lost ages gone. Standing like an army.

Trivial magics  – long lost, forgotten; entirely diminished. Or so it had seemed.

“Haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa-aaaa,” breaths the desert, hot and warm at the door, though the sun has slid, the heavens gone to stars and wind-blown memories, the metal beaten from the bronze of the day.

The table creaks, gifting its expansion as heat, and a dart of terror, shamefully repressed.

There is but one God. And no severed heads are needed! 

May 25, 2012   18 Comments

“Your Kung Fu’s Pretty Good, Old Man. You’re Not Too Bad, Either – Old Woman!”

ORTHOPAEDIC ORIENTAL ADVENTURES PROUDLY PRESENTS:

Part three of love’s great adventure, and this time we go to a ‘mysterious nursing-home of the Manchester Orient’, where Grandma, Grandpa and wall-mounted weapons await,  in what I hope is a humorous escapade involving throwing stars and a light, eggy breakfast; just as soon as Grandpa has found his way out of the bathroom and Grandma remembers who he is.  

Cue Carl Douglas’ Kung Fu Fighting crackling into life on the phonograph at 45rpm…

***

W

hen Grandma became a Seventh Dan of Chai Gan Wo, Grandpa had to follow suit. Before long, he was also launching rather acrobatic attacks from the top of the stairs, knee joints popping, whopping the wooden practice sword with the natural grace of an abandoned typewriter. His ‘Huy!’ was a potential heart attack.

Over the weeks, the doddery dance-of-dementia escalated, with the slight whiff of Deep Heat.

Grandma retaliated with her own version of Chang Cha – Drunken Monkey Technique – involving no actual monkey, but a generous tot of gin, a sharpened walking frame, and the whizz of nunchucks spun from bird-like wrists.

You might think that Grandpa stood not-a-chance – stuck for over twenty minutes in ‘bullet time’ as his back gave out, or when a nun (or chuck) clobbered his jaw with a plastic chackeroo, and his teeth rattled along the floor like escaped tap shoes. Not so. He gave as good as he got, cackling wildly as he spun – a master of Mr Chaplin’s Cane Gu – on a long-handled walking stick, and swept Grandma’s swollen feet from under her. It was a move he’d seen in The Tramp.

“Use your enemy’s mass against them,” his home-help had advised.

And this, indeed, was fruitful advice, as the continent that was Grandma went over like a plated whale, only to be caught on two fingers, hardened through years of Ko Lung Crochet.

“Think again, old man!” she growled, producing a vicious array of knitting needles and looped chains of spiked macramé.  The sofa was quickly punctured with a deadly volley of knitted ephemera, the weave of death carefully followed from a pattern in Martial Crafts.

Barbed wire, it seems, is knittable.

Grandpa back-flipped behind the sofa, using the simple expedient of slipping on one of Lionel’s – their  grandson’s – toy cars and was lost to view, railwayman’s tie fluttering around his head.

Grandma knew this was not the end.

Lights out! An insanely fast, shuffled attack from Grandpa!

She flicked on the radio and caught the last of the Archers, before his huffing and puffing eventually closed like a steam train, firmly on the siding, and a bony hand shot out with the cutting power of a spatula. This was blocked, minutes later, with the hefted end of a bed pan. K’tang!

Both combatants circled, with the cronk-squeak of rubber feet on walking frames, the shuffled drag of battle-worn slippers, and the gleeful sneering of the infirm. Who would find an opening first? Grandma with her inedible rock-cakes, bundled up in the ass-end of an old pair of tights – heavy as lead? Or, Grandpa, ready with that disgusting pipe of his – to parry a wild blow, create a fug-screen of Old Hoban, or gouge for an eye with the gnawed, plastic stem?

He could wish. Grandma’s eyes glittered in the darkness like a cobra with cataracts.

“Time for your suppository, old man,” howled Grandma, jaw cracking, lips dribbled and speckled with liver spots. The gesture she made with the TV remote control was quite disconcerting.

The white-haired ninja merely laughed, a dull “mwah, mwah, mwah!” in the dubbed on tones of a twenty year old. “You’re fooling no one, old woman.” But he knew she was already tracking him in the darkness, using the smell of his own wee.

Grandpa tried for a Murray Mint – the Heimlich choking-hazard a potential disaster on aged lips. Grandma caught the throaty lozenge between knitting needles clacked together, like those chopsticks catching Miyagi’s fly.

Grandma went for a ginger throwing star  – rolling her lips round her false teeth in an effort to warm up for crunch – but Grandpa slipped through her guard with a cup of Earl Grey in a best, China teacup. The saucer rattled delicately, as the razor-sharp biscuit-of-death was doused in the tepid, near black sea. Half its mass broke away, and the squichy blob bobbed on the surface like an expelled bite of an orthopaedic mattress.

Such dishonour!  The band aides and support socks were off!

There was banging on the ceiling; the yowled, feedback-howl of hearing aids; ugly gouging with rattley old elbows; and – quite disgracefully for a nursing home – the police were called twice.

Eventually, after the Night of a Hundred Arthritic Blows, both insomniacs dropped to the La-z-boy Recliners in front of the TV, exhaustion in every floppy sinew. They glowered at each other over their bingo wings, too proud to admit they were no longer as young as they once were.

Grandma’s hand wavered out. His, too.

They clasped hands.

“I love you, you crappy old ninja.”

“You too, you sloppy old, samurai!”

“Same time tomorrow? After The Voice?”

“Heh, heh – I wouldn’t miss it for the world… if you didn’t fight like a girl one-twentieth of your age!”

And so it went on.

May 12, 2012   30 Comments

Daughter of Cronus

The love-in continues with my next amour-inspired story: this time we join Hera in the park, as she waits for Darren Snider. It looks like it might rain, and that ain’t so good for glasses… 

***

T


his is it! Deep breath, chest forward.

Heels? Check.

Lipstick? Scarlet.

Glasses? Uch – it’s that, or end up asking out a rubbish bin or somethin’.

Leaf in hair?  Shit.

Fussing with the gale.

My, my, the sky looks dark up there, grey as old bobby socks. Don’t think about socks.

This is the way that Darren Snider walks home. I know – I’ve followed him before. Maybe. Once or twice. Livingston Park is four or five miles away from where I live, but, once again, ‘I just happen to be here’.

It’s going to pee down any minute and this frocking frock is going to be round my ankles, weighed down with rain.

Or tears.

Here he comes.

Why isn’t he alone? That’s one, two, three friends – all boys, thank God. Or are boys worse? Hands draped over each other’s shoulders.  Pushing one away, pushing the other. Mock outrage. Hands rough-ploughing hair. Laughing and climbing each other like collapsing columns.  Shoved away, too kool for skool. Bags swinging – swung like maces.

Snider – I, HEART, you.

Like, this is a terrible idea. Why am I wearing a Christmas frock in April?

Wilted daffs are crawling from the beds, heads black. Time is running away – like I should.

Ok, head up, chest –

Oh for  He knows I love him. He has to. The stuff on the book? On the cover? Open? Facing him? Drawing hearts on my forehead like a freak. Glitter everywhere – even between my teeth, in my hair – in my pants, for God’s sake.  

A woman coming the other way, wearing grey – white hair wafting up like detached eggshell. Little, puckered dog straining against an orange pistol grip and strapping.

Yeah, don’t want to be alone like her. Huh!

Och, what a terrible thing to say – you’re going to Hell.  

Tottering forwards on heels, real ‘profesh’, like I wear them every day; hand swinging nonchalantly… this way up – no, that way up. Fingers gentle, as if bridging a cigarette. Think cool, like the back of the porta cabin.

Lips pouted? Too far? Not enough? Hair shrugged back – me channelling Jesse J.

It’s going to ‘dump it’ any second. Look at those clouds. It’s a race isn’t it? Between me and water molecules.

His nose, his hair – perfect. I say the word, “perfect”, like an exhaled balloon. In my head, that word is form – he’s tall, with arms that can enfold like Anne Rice; when I read – in tears – in my window nook, bloody heart exposed. He wears an American jacket – immaculate, striped. Basketball – Chicago Bulls. I Googled that team. I love basketball, now – so much in common.

More laughter ahead. I think he’s seen me – stopped, staring.

That sneer – he doesn’t know it’s me!

Stomach compressed with doughy hands.

Mates nudging each other, behind – beta dogs.

Alpha says, “Hera?”

Time stops – the world cracks into freeze frame. I focus on his eyes, which are glistening like marbles, strangely crystalline, his lips framing my name in the way that Michelangelo must once have said, “Venus?” A warm riffle of blond hair on his lip. A perfect hand just reaching, one move short of a caress. His trousers folded like a dropped cylinder of clay. The giggling of the other boys stilled and stopped by flooding syrup. Trees are sticks. The tarmac solid and dead – everything moves, I realise; you can tell the still-frame from the video.

And then, I’m moving again: my Aunt’s stilettos hurting the balls of my heels, the little toe aching as it presses down the side of the lay-over straps. My long, deep breaths from deep within my stomach, blowing in and out with the light, last sound before the kettle begins to boil – almost an anti-climax, as the chips of air clink around.

I have the shoes in my hand, now – dangling, rubbing my heel. This is the grit and stony roughness of the path below my feet. Toes damp. Tights soiled.

I pit pat up to him. He is as still as a Snide-cicle.

I examine that expression, minutely – in itself, a micro expression writ large. It must’ve sprung from the country of that earlier sneer. I might have missed it, if time were not on my side. I can touch his face – move my fingers along the grooves. I can feel that expression like a thought, and it says: “I don’t –”

What? “Like you”?

That’s not it. Let’s try again – staring at those lips, teeth and tongue, trying to thought-read the next monument of words.

“I… hate – ”?

No. What?

It’s not a phrase, and I shudder. It’s a cruelty: something that words cannot form – that my words cannot form.

Tiny flecks of rain are on my glasses, clouded now. I tear them off; roughly smear them on creamy taffeta. Throw them back – the world is on a slant in pink frames.

See evil, say evil, and hear evil all stand behind him – equally still – hooped in wide-armed gestures, waiting to expand into shit-throwing gibbons.

It’s a near miss – a near mistake; that last second of car crash before you hit the rear bumper –where everything telescopes forever.

I shrug bare shoulders to the rain, and, on tip-toes, kiss his cold, dead, lips.

It’s like kissing raw steak.

I shake my hair.

I sniff with a whistle of snot.

I head for the gate.

There are plenty of cherry trees here, their blooms so thick and perfuse I can’t see their branches. Such love is eternal for moments, while for me, there is plenty of time.

May 4, 2012   12 Comments