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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Masahiro quickly hands the shovel – at finger length – to his immaculate assistant in her immaculate charcoal suit. She gropes for his hand-wipes.
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
Greetings, Flash Fictionaughts. This week, we have bugoids and space weasels on the fearsome PLANET OF THE MONKEYS.
Set blasters for ‘medium rare’!
As you might imagine, this is an insightful analysis of man’s (and woman’s) eternal struggle for redemption in a harsh universe or artistic criticism and post modernistic expression… or in fact, sci-fi popcorn involving space weasels, bugoids, and (ahem) fashion.
Set brains to automatic and let your imagination coast down hill at warp factor 2.5 to where this story is waiting for you with open claw, Roquefort dip and breadsticks.
polline feels safer in the hours of sunlight. During the day, she can stretch out and sunbathe in front of this yellowy, main sequence star, and not feel the faint pull of transmatic tractors or translocation beacons. She can thumb two Chlachlar at the near invisible ships far overhead. It’s only later, when the solar and magnetic radiation fades into a rolling time lapse of northern lights – the energy equivalent of misty tendrils descending a mountain – she begins to stare suspiciously at the skies.
Before long, the sphere of the heavens rise into darkness and the distant point-lights of fusion burn and twinkle as unimaginable energy expends its power into poetry. But these stars are not nearly as powerful as the Hullian drives that hold newly arrived battle fleets in geosynchronicity. Streamlined hulls slide through darkness – darker than dark – and show on no Earthly detector. The starlight appears untouched as light bends.
Soon the Trovians will be coming.
Frankly, she is unconcerned. And yet – and yet – Apolline has her gun on the kitchen table. The brass and glass globes look archaic against the cracked, gingham Formica. Much she has learned of this planet: QVC, Versace and Jimmy Choo. And B Movies. She loves the giant Ant Men and their whippy antennae – they remind so much of home. But she is somewhat dismayed – as she attacks moving gun parts with Brasso and a shammy – that her erstwhile ‘technology’ would be identified by the more ‘Garshoon’ hoardes of humanity as a sub genus of Steam Punk and Invasion Mars. How embarrassing. She rubs on and grimaces in a symphony of suit servos. Look at that condensing coil – it’s so… Saturday Kid’s Club.
Gun polished, glass glittering with insta-death, she slides aside the patio doors. The night air – as it is relayed to her – is cool. She scowls at galactic north and the no-doubt ships hanging there like paving slabs, and slumps into a lounger. Roquefort dip and breadsticks are close to claw… to manipulator… to hand. It is a hand of rubberised silicate and micro robotics: her skin-suit is an off-the-hanger Angelina Jolie in a weighted morph with the topography of Beyonce.
Inside: funiculus, scutellum, and tarsal claw.
She tunes in, one implant after another, to examine the deployed suggestion fields. Her head hurts. That little rim of a thumbnail the Salorians helpfully embedded in her frontal lobe is encouraging a visit to a rather awkwardly shaped mountain somewhere in the United States; flat topped and unlikely. Looks like a coffee table from IKEA. At this time of night? Pfft! she huffs.
Apolline loads in some cheese dip and stick with manicured elegance and a straight pinky and wishes Steve Jobs had gotten hold of the kill-gun before the Fargon Technocracy, who – in complete contravention of the rules of accessorisation – have created a ‘must have weapon’ which feels as heavy and awkward in a fight as a cheap hairdryer filled with uranium. And what’s with hairdryers anyway? For heaven’s sake, people – would it kill you to just translocate wet-hair water one foot to the right? And then: Oh. Possibly yes. She grins at mischievous imaginings of scorched monkeys, her flesh-suit manoeuvring a hundred micro servos in the complex ballet of mirth.
A Traysian Llachja winks disconsolately near her third, redundant brainstem, hinting at a rendezvous in a nearby corn field…
Geometric resonance and crackling fields of pentronic displacement burn a corn circle into gently waving heads of green barley. A Trovian retrieval ship touches down on silken landing gear, sprung like four counterpoised nail clippers.
Apolline scowls. Pfft. If these weasels want to try the whole abduction thing on her, then they’ll need to do it somewhere with a café, a gift shop and a surface conducive to high heels. Or forgeddabout it!
She delicately pushes a breadstick – an inch too long – into her plasticised flesh mask, smunches the stick bulge until the faux flesh finally sticks back to her real face and then rubs the lipstick and crumbs onto a napkin. She misses distensible mouthparts (they’re there – just folded and folded to the extent she’s constantly eating with her ‘mouth’ full of lobster). But oh god, she wails inside, we look like prawns! Versace does nothing on a prawny theme. You think monkeys are bad – try evolving from fashionless space fry!
She loves her fleshy, monkey face with its paltry thousand or so inflections. So much more convenient than the infinite complexities of a body language where the seventh perithenial antennid inclined at a twenty-seven degree angle on the fourth sun cycle of Epicleas intimates mild confusion mixed with a subtle under-layer of concern over childcare and a toasting fork (well, a Shdada).
Not so much a language, she humps, as exoskeletal Twister.
A cadre of plasticised bodies dismounts the drop ship, looking somewhat like Emo kids, complete with skateboards. The ship’s cammo screen ripples slightly as the Trovian kill-squad pass through its outer layer – a layer that licks like a bulldog though reflects only farmland. Between long, yellowed incisors – snug in humanised plastic faces – the Trovians ‘skreek’, and ‘skrerk’ and curse skin-suit fur-sweat, and monkey physiology. Guns, however, are chick-chacked to vaporise – these weasels know how tricky bugoids can be.
“Flarrrgh! Fan out. Don’t get bit!”
Perhaps, on hind stalks, it had been a mistake for Apolline to listen to her advisors, but hiding her – one of the last Harvanian royal pouchlings – on planet Earth (the most distant, low tech, and backward planet of any the Confederacy could imagine) had seemed a wonderful idea at the time. For instance, it was a fact that no matter how much they might wish and desire a most inelegant probing, the monkeys had never once been visited by a proper, honest-to-Y’sukta, alien – until now. Alas for them, the merest glimpse of a battle-class sauceroid could only be attributed to the mad ramblings of an unwashed, class D, ‘nose breather’.
Still, despite the impending invasion, living incognito on The Planet of the Monkeys had its advantages. For one, Apolline had immediately gotten into this whole four limbs business and had contentedly fallen in love with Prada, Yves Saint Laurent, and every other product she could lapidate onto a skin suit (a suit she, praise Y’sukta, had engineered to a perfect 8). She’d never been into painting and sculpture before, and while she’d rather bump cloacae with a Trovian raddled with Septian Gout Worm than a monkey, she did find the attention of the males rather – quaintly – flattering. After all, as an incipient empress, Apolline liked to win, even if that’s winning at increased persperatory functions and a 5 read on the male meat flakes.
Eat that, monkey fems!
The barbecue goes over. A bin-lid rattles close by. Cool night air ripples onto her micro-pore pressure sensors. Apolline pulls up the kill-gun with practiced efficiency, as servos in the monkey suit whine into bionic assist.
A smallish, hunched, humanoid form emerges with a certain Trovian swagger. A furred head and steely, rodent eyes have been pushed through the mouth of a young, earth-girl monkey-suit (the girl now seems rather snake-like, her dislocate jaw swallowing a mouse).The ‘mouse’ has its eyelids and face pulled back by the silicoid lips it has squeezed between; snout greasy, fur marked with lipstick. The gun it carries is bigger than a Tropecca.
“I have come for you, hideous princess of Harvania! Prepare for the tractor beams of righteous translocation!”
Pop goes the weasel.
September 4, 2012 20 Comments