Flash fiction, short stories, poetry …
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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! 

18 comments

1 John Wiswell { 05.25.12 at 4:39 pm }

I thought the “Their canines, also dog” was really cute.

2 Steve Green { 05.27.12 at 9:52 am }

Aaaah Stephen, the eloquence quill has been strutting its stuff again. Beautiful writing, poetic, intense.

3 John Xero { 05.28.12 at 7:23 am }

I love the feeling of this, the weave of history modern and ancient, the dry stone and sand, the old priest’s anger and reminiscence, the gods that never quite reveal themselves… Kind of wistful.

4 Joan { 05.28.12 at 3:06 pm }

Ah – it is probably always this way, when one belief-system has given way to another – the old beliefs having to be demonised in an effort to curb their power. Powerful once – what does it take for that power to come back and haunt? If artefacts of the old world have to be desecrated, the old world still holds enough power to terrify.

5 bill { 05.29.12 at 6:10 pm }

Hi Stephen, loved the cat’s claw not at the desert door very apt image. see you again, bye from bill.

6 Harry B. Sanderford { 06.02.12 at 1:12 am }

Intense and poetic as Steve said. Grim and leaning towards insanity as well but in a splendid way. Your’s is a unique talent I never tire of. Well done once again, Stephen!

7 Aidan Fritz { 06.02.12 at 2:41 am }

When you first mentioned heads, I thought of talking heads for a moment. I like the direction this went. Desert scenes enthrall me even though central valley california is the closest I ever want to get to desert.

8 Stephen Hewitt { 06.07.12 at 8:23 am }

@John — thanks John. When I switch the safety off on my brain, it does rather like to spring on double meanings or more.

9 Stephen Hewitt { 06.07.12 at 8:25 am }

@Steve — thanks Steve. ‘Twas where I left it, plume rampant. Perhaps not the easiest read, but — as you know — I do like to throw in the odd, picaresque piece, here and there. Well, okay, quite often ;)

10 Stephen Hewitt { 06.07.12 at 8:28 am }

@John — wistful is probably the right word. One of those stories where I’m not quite sure where it came from, but I found myself reading it along with writing it. And was interested to see where it went. Despite the splurgy words, it managed to neatly restrain itself.

11 Stephen Hewitt { 06.07.12 at 8:33 am }

@Joan — I like what you say here Joan. And it is interesting thought that when faced with old belief, an attempt to remove it entirely may indeed gift it a resurgence in power through the act of confrontation.

12 Stephen Hewitt { 06.07.12 at 8:34 am }

@Bill — thanks Bill. No actual cats were harmed in the writing of this story, but I did rather like that scratchy twig drawing in the sand. :)

13 Stephen Hewitt { 06.07.12 at 8:38 am }

@Harry — thanks Harry. I’m really glad you enjoyed it, and that the words didn’t get too much in the way of the story. All those experienced elements you mention, do make me happy as a writer :)

14 Stephen Hewitt { 06.07.12 at 8:51 am }

@Aidan — Talking Heads, the band? That kind of popped into my mind too, though no relation to the story. I guess that group have the highest ranking brain SEO on anything to do with heads. Snow scenes tend to do it for me — I may need my dictionary confiscated if I get onto describing one of those (be afraid) — but I’m glad desert is your thing. Probably best not to get too close: their kind of spiky and raspy and like to deprive things of water.

15 Peter Newman { 06.15.12 at 1:42 pm }

I must admit I struggled with this one. I loved the imagery, and some of the turns of phrase, and the mood that permeated but I got a bit lost in all of that.

It took me a couple of reads to get the story. I have no idea if that is a good or a bad thing! (For me or you). :)

16 Joan { 06.19.12 at 10:56 am }

Yes. I’m beginning to see what you mean by being ‘gifted’ things. If something has no power it can be safely ignored – just left there to moulder. I like the way you see this as confrontation – when you (they) don’t feel safe enough to just leave it, but must go back and poke at it.

Oh! This must be a basis for many stories . . .

17 Stephen Hewitt { 07.17.12 at 8:37 am }

@Peter — I’d say that was more about my writing. Sometimes I bake a rather heavy cake: from how the story forms, how clearly the narrative is presented, and the mood I’m in; to editing and punctuation that turns into a slippery python when I try to recreate the reading rhythm in my head. Always a battle to balance what I hope is evocative language with a forward running story. Sometimes it doesn’t work as well as it should. In a few months, I’ll likely read back knowing I should have gently folded in those wordy egg whites rather than beating them. Still trying to make sure I’m kind to the reader. :) St.

18 Stephen Hewitt { 07.18.12 at 7:38 am }

@Joan — as many films have proven, going back and poking the thing is rarely wise. See: ‘The double tap’ in Zombieland. :) St.

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