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Category — Flash Fiction

Nemo Me Impune Lacessit

This week, I present the first stirrings of steam punk. Not so steamy, not so punky — not even convinced it’s one of my best stories — but rather glad to have a new post to pop up on the site, nonetheless. If I don’t stick something up now, months will fly by and I’ll forget the whole point  is not to be too precious about getting things out and about. The more you relax, the better it gets. Besides, Marina is about to throw some light on the situation…

***

I

wind the throw-light – a good twenty-seven times until the spring jumps – and hold it up. As I move the beam across brass tubes, pipes, iron hand-wheels and old machinery, the concentric rings of the lens make the light ripple like a surge of water. Breema is stooped in this bank of bits, and even he (optimisto supremo) has to sniff at the pale gleam he has to work in.

He gets out his bag of spanners and starts finding the one with the right-size head, but this nut is ‘zagonal, while the spanners are all squared.

Lindy sits on an old engine block and swings and dings her heels against it. There’s a brittle tonk, tonk of cat-leather on hollow, corroded brass.

“You need an adjustable spanner,” I says. “You’re rounding it off.”

And sure enough, there’s a soft, toffee give on that tool: metal sheerings gather all magnetic on its square-head and the nut is going way off to round.

Breema puffs out the underside of his tache, and tries to get a better grip “on the sump-infested thing”; even leans in and tries to pin it, hard, but there ain’t no breaking it in to turning – just poor tools.

“Damn it, Marina, hold that throw close-in like you mean it,” he says, shoulders blocking any light, anyhow. I’d have to be a contortionist to get the beam any further round that gleaming pate of his. I end up hanging the throw in on the end of a loose arm, like a tea pot, or some undersea, bow-riding Desdemona.

The shadows swim at my fingertips.

Breema’s side-chops throw out the wavery, whiskery wings of a sting ray.

Two things happen: there’s a spling! And that’s a spanner slipping off and getting thrown half way across the genny room. And Breema utters an oath so barkingly vitriolic I’m just about lady enough to faint pure dead away at the sense of it. Blood gleams on his rusty, oily fingers.

One-one-hundred, two-one-hundred, and there’s a final, clank, bang, tink, tang, crash, as the spanner lands somewhere in oblivion. Eight floors down, maybe.

While I steps aside, sharpish, Breema goes crank-crank-crank off into the gloom, making the walkway rattle on its fixings. He stomps down some cast-iron steps and is gone. He’ll find it better without the light anyway.

And will he find it? ‘Course he will. If you’re as old as he is, you can see things practical by touch – knowing every square-inch of sprue n’ casting – or, like some of them old-old-salts: echo location, tapping a penny.

After a respectful pause, Lindy gets back to danging her heels.

In the huge bubble window that arcs up and over her head like an alien planet, a huge shark is gliding past in the blackwater. Lindy waves cheerily – she likes sharks.

By default, the shark smiles back.

As an Engineer, Woman’s Brigade, Third Deck, I don’t really see these leagues-deep monsters anymore; whiter than ghosts, taller than the cabin trains. I can’t see beyond an inside edge. I see only stressed glass and pressure cracks around the restraining bolts, slippage in the greased clamping seal, and a bucket of cogs an’ gears and a drive chain – cowling removed – that can’t close the iris no more. The unshifting plates give a slight, polygonal straight-edge to the circle.

No, what I’m feared of is glass-spiders – that glass has more pounds per square inch than that shark has had cold, squiddily dinners.

And yeah, I shiver.

“You want we should go now?” Says Lindy. She jumps an undignified jump down onto the walkway, dress entirely dragged down piston block. Her bone-white pantaloons – now oiled up to the nines – is why mama ain’t at all airs-n-graces bout her coming down here. Even Lindy’s boots got fat dollops of grease on the end. What has she been kicking through?

She sniffs at the exposed pump-housing we’re working on. Takes a moment’s displeasure in the valve head which looks rather like the fleshy inside of an oyster – got that creamy, smoothed away shape, anyway. Generally frowns.

“Do you think we’ll ever get this thing going?

“Ah! Course. It’s just a pump. There’s hunners. Plenny of spares.”

“No, dimmy. The whole marine. ” She manages to wipe rust and oil across her forehead as she scatters hair out of her eyes, and gestures at, well, everything. Her arm takes in that bag of tools, her, me, window, the cavernous space up – to the size of so many cathedrals – the deeps, deeper still, and every last man-jack-rivet of it, stuffed full of enough rust and do-hickery machinery, for a million third class hands like me to round off more bolts than there are salt-fleas on a sump-rat. And that’s just this section.

So, yeah, the whole marine.

“Of course we’ll get her goin’,” I says. I pause in the magnitude of this task. “I reckon. One day. If she’ll rest up out of the silt; an’ if we can take up enough floor for the forge and crack enough water for the burning and breathing; and we don’t get tired of them ‘delicious’ algae cakes any time soon; and rat ‘n’ cat don’t get to figuring out traps too well, or wild shark stop swimming into the cable snares; and we can work out everything that connects to everything else, an –”

An’ I stop there, because Lindy is staring at me with narrowed eyes, kind of mad, and I reckon my hobnails are well and truly kicking-in that lie-to-me reassurance she was really after.

“Course. Sure. Um. The captain can’t have left us for long. An’ remember what he’s got up in steerage, across the wall. What his papa named him for:

Nemo Me Impune Lacessit.  Nobody assails me with impunity.”

Though that can take on a forest of meaning, when you’re stuck so deep, you’re almost always talking about the sea.   

October 17, 2012   10 Comments

Dumua

Marhaba, my friends. 

Entirely bogged down on another piece of flash fiction (in which I am reminded that a vivid visual idea is almost always going to get me mired in static description) I wrote this one to break the deadlock. This kind of thing is both good, and annoying: I’d like to arrive at the destination — thank you — but sometimes it turns out I wasn’t entirely sure where that was in the first place. 

***

B

ackstreet Cairo: behind the school and mosque, crushed up to the Fatimid walls. Corroded stone, unkempt arches, narrow alleys, broken wooden grilles, the occasional golden stone with pharaonic inscriptions quarried from an old monument, electrical wires hanging to neck height, dead potted palms, a few peeling signs in Arabic, a smell of disintegrating waste water and the buffed, slippery grease of human traffic.

And in this house – a little bit back, a little grander with a gnarled gate of rusty iron irises; a second floor, slatted shutters securely fastened – the Cult of Dumua sit on rush mats on the red tiled floor, in the flicker of oil lamps, and watch the passage of the small, crystal vial from hand to hand with a mixture of hope, deference and fear. Fingers are cupped around it in a convenient position of prayer. Occasionally, a forehead is touched to the layered leaves of palm and thumb and vial; a catechism on dry lips.

A hand with blackened fingernails grasps the delicate flower of glass. It is as if well-stuffed sausages have embraced an orchid.  Abasi pulls down his eye lid, rubs a little beneath his eye with a fingertip – smudging the kohl that defines its shape – concentrates, looks remorseful, moues an almost theatrical caricature of sadness. For five minutes he looks downcast and crestfallen, but still the vial is empty. He shakes his head. This is obviously not a man who can conjure his own feelings. Perhaps he is unaware of any at all. There’s a bellicose groan from a toothless old man in a turban, and a squeak of agitated sandal on tile.

To the next man – Chibale – swarthy and still covered in chalky, dusty clothes, from where he has undoubtedly just stepped from the desert. His eyes are hard, standing out on his dusted face like syruped fruit on almond flour. A moment and he merely waves the vial on, staring into the middle distance, chewing his cheek flesh.

The vial finds the men who have known loss: Funsani, whose wife was run down, mid lunge, by a workman’s truck – all crashing panels and screaming plasterers – too fast and angry to note the children playing; Hanif, whose great friend, beyond the brotherhood, was gored when scaffolding collapsed like a jumble of sticks, one pole piercing the top of his skull in a perfect circle.

The vial passes amongst those that have known the death of children; those who have known mothers or husbands to die on the want of a handful of bread. Each with the vial pressed beneath an eye, each concentrating on what has pained them most – beyond, they hope, endurance and the dam of tears – and each leaving it as dry as the next. These men have all cried in their time, rinsing almost to blood, though none would admit it. And yet now, when life depends upon it, they rail against those hard-bitten memories and nothing will come.

To me.

I hold the finger-ting of glass there a moment, beneath the shadow of my winding scarf, still as the rest. Feeling foolish. I am the only woman here, waiting and wanting a solitary gathering in that corner of parched muscle. But I can never bring what others can bring. I look around to roof fan – hear the whuf, whuf, whuf of moving air – to hangings, to floor and chalked symbols, to the grim beards and faces of the circle of facing men.

Some hands raise at some unconscious movement I make; a seeming suggestion I have given, perhaps, of a clever and industrious way of raising a tear of true sorrow.

I’m intrigued by the empty shape of the glass, feeling the cool curve of it beneath my eye. I can hear the flutter of my own eyelids upon it: a moth, not moisture, at the precipice. But it is soon clear to all: I’m as empty as the rest of them.

“Ach,” I say, the sound jerking a few heads from the silence. “Those men that wish to survive the night would do better to find forgetfulness.”

Another old Bedouin pipes up, voice quavering: “Surely, this monster will suspect crocodile tears?”

Chibale spits, his face pockmarked from childhood tragedy and smallpox. “Any tears – any – would do. Crocodile?” he shrugs, “excellent.” But to follow this, he simply pushes up-and-on his large sunglasses.

The others murmur and nod. “Mayhaps you should have spat in the glass instead, old man, for all the use you are.”

Chibale’s hooked grimace, cheeks pouched.

Pained laughter.

Try again.

I pass on the glass in an upturned palm, fingers like bars, nails giving it over with a sharp squeak, wondering at what they see in my dark, Arab countenance: this scrappily bearded face and two milky eyes.

A mirage.

Sad stories ensue. Surely this will make them cry? Envisaged deaths and loved ones lost to imagined disaster, picked at and bludgeoned by a hundred tailored catastrophes: gulping, falling, strangled, smashed.

Then to slapped faces; yawns; anything to raise a tear.

A poke in the eye.

Reddened flesh.

The tall glass of white sand says four past midnight and it pours on like a torrent. There are bloodied eyes, some rubbed with mashed onion – even chilli – and yet, not one dishonest tear will fall.

The chalked symbols and circles are rubbed, the priest hesitant, the voices falling to blame and recrimination, even a forceful rattle at the lead seal on the chained door. But the wood is solid and massive and – regardless – heavily bolted from without.

Some give to worried moans.

At last the cock crows – a thin, reedy and altogether early crow, from a gizzard as tight as walnut.

Thin or no, it is still enough to cry an end to the Cult of Dumua (the Seekers Beyond Torment; followers of ‘Our Lady of Tears’). Alas, for the easing of all earthly cares, a true tear is the one and just payment for my attentions, and if not… well… as their women and children break down the medieval door with road working hammers, and break the seal with a jangle of chain, they find only a fine, grey ash and a pale blue scarf puddled upon it – silver thread shimmering – as if it were, in itself, a ribbon of tears.

September 23, 2012   17 Comments

Katsumi

Hello there. This week, one of the stories that came together when writing something else. I thought I’d edit it up and pop it in the Café.

Please note that the name ‘Goro Nyudo Masamune’ came with several diacritical marks (macrons*) that refused to render in the site’s font. As a lover of unusual font furniture (it’s Café, after all) I’d love to have that name correct, but there you go. I’d also like to have my pay-as-you-go mobile topped up, but I need to have money in it to talk to the support staff to fix the problem with getting it topped up…   so you can’t have everything. Thanks Vodaphone.

On the plus side, I’ve adjusted the e-mail subscription functionality on the right-hand side of the site. This should now just send a summary of the first couple of lines of a post — more of an indicator that something new is up here, than an effort to send out the whole post in a horribly wide e-mail. A simple flag for something new was what I’d intended in the first place.   

Anyhoo, prepare, now, for some polite applause.    


* You know, ‘macron’ – like graves, circumflexes, that sort of thing. Rather than ‘macaroon’ – a small coconut cake – which would be most appropriate for a café. 

***

K

atsumi is weathering white rubber boots and is talking to Masahiro the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry. A ladder has let the Minister down into this muddy trench, and let him down gently, because this project languishes. They both have white hardhats. Yellow ribbons dance on a chrome shovel in the Minister’s hands, with which he will single-handedly begin what has already been six months of site work.

Polite applause.

Masahiro quickly hands the shovel – at finger length – to his immaculate assistant in her immaculate charcoal suit. She gropes for his hand-wipes.

Polite applause.

Rising up around them is a maze of foundations for what will be the new Miyagi Prefectural Government Matsushima Building in Sendai, once all these rusted metal ties and concrete teeth are capped with a hundred floors of concrete, steel and aluminium; glass overlooking the delicate pines of the bay.

Rather stiffly, Katsumi explains how the work is slow but steady; the workers very much enjoy the presence of the Minister; and how all such enterprises for the glory of Japan are to the glory of all.

This is accepted with a sharp nod. Of course.

The Minster most likely thinks of Katsumi’s wife’s – Kiriko’s – squid bento, which is only minutes away, while Katsumi thinks of what is beneath his feet. Somewhere.

Five yards away, long ladders drop down into a particularly muddy shaft – the circular remains of a country well and – stone upon stone – this is the singular reason for Katsumi’s passion for this project.  And regrettably, the long surveys and delays.

Any who might approach this private excavation are shooed away, leaving Katsumi free to descend at the sun’s first touch on the blue-green hills, like liquid gold in water; ascending again each evening, with his scored trowel, when these self-same hills appear in the full-blooded, dusty ochre of a shrine offering.

Under the pretext of securing against subsidence over an underground spring – there are plans and plans of it – and his degree in geology from Tokyo, it’s Katsumi’s bamboo scaffolding that drops through the years and excavated silt: the leafless knuckles of the poles like lashed bone; the soft slime of the passageway covering everything; the lantern chain of cables and bulbs descending into ever decreasing circles, casting up the organic, sphincterish feel of it.

Three stories and the stones are still in descent.

Occasionally a litter of ancient bamboo, or stone, or organic matter – like plugs, blocking its throat – at other times false hollows that bring a rush of indigestion, but no sign of what may be a package wrapped by priests – bamboo, leather and oil.

Some days he imagines the sword will just be there as if floating on top – shining in the electric arcs and foul smelling mud – his breath huffing in the chill as he takes it, pinched between fingers; light scintillating along its mirrored edge. That’s for the child in him.

Other days he sees it as it must assuredly be: a rusted chunk of folded, folded metal, and a faint gleam of gold thread from the hilt – a hunk of corrosion reduced through time and decay to its pitted, meteoric origins once more.

Scrolls show a great star falling over the hills, and a curvilinear mirror blade formed from its core in the forge beneath: this is the Sword of the Heavenly Star.

“Goro Nyudo Masamune made me,” so those scrolls say.

It is Meibutsu – a noted sword.

Family, friends – his son – are not supportive of this quest, what little he’s shared. Their mood borders on disrespect, though they say nothing. Kiriko, especially. With the long hours, his wife thinks he is having an affair: ‘well, you know what he’s like around women’ (though he only found that out through a chain of neighbours).

If anything these relationships weather like the descent: in cold, tight-lipped humidity that gives little away but disapproval, as another platform arrives and is broached and more problems are packed back with poles; where the mud bulges and the stones begin to slide. Water seeps, the well seeks solace.

This morning, the tiny tink of trowel on metal revealed a small cast of a Shishi lion-dog resting in the mud, over bamboo browned and flaking like over-cooked chicken bone. Water lapped around its teeth as if it were laughing. It was iron and remarkably well preserved – gape-jawed, beard curled – and rendered in remarkable detail.

A frisson of excitement: perhaps the chill and litter have kept out the air and dulled the passage of time. Perhaps. And this number of platforms is a holy number (as all the numbers he has concocted before).

There is no way to appease such a guardian, so best to remove it. As the notably pert assistant to the minister rubs a finger, delicately, on the back of her neck, Katsumi waits impatiently for an end to the official functions. Then he can descend with a carton of pen and ink, and daub the circle of magic papers he has down there. The papers are plastered with the well’s own mucus to the curving walls – each blank, each awaiting his message.

The Minister takes the trench elevator, while Katsumi take his eye off the well – for a moment – to look up his assistant’s skirt as she climbs the entirely undignified ladder, boots bowed on every rung.

A flash of white.

That afternoon they find graves dug up and urns and ashes already gone – no one knew of those ancient burials. Katsumi is missing and there is a circle of collapsed ground.

Fierce winds lash Sendai for several weeks.

September 12, 2012   10 Comments