Flash fiction, short stories, poetry …
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Mei-Yin

“Y

our father’s up to no good, Tiff.”

Up above, the black clouds have gone all scribbly.

Tiffany, who is only six, stares at the cat, who is white and bleached, and is tied together like a bundle of chopsticks, without the tying up bits. No wool. No pipe cleaners. The cat used to be – probably still is – called Mei-Yin.

The little girl frowns. “A bad thing?”

“Yes,” says the cat, rubbing against her leg, tweaking her calf with its rough edges. Tiffany shifts her foot, but reaches down and the cat jumps into her arms. Somewhere inside its architecture – empty as a biscuit tin – a faint purr rattles.

Back that ways a bit, past the fences and dumpsters that look like huge cans of cat food, is the family compound. That’s where Tiff stays and it’s very, very naughty to be out – especially at night. This is what Papa would say: Bla, bla, bla… Tiffany, Bla, bla, bla – if I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a millions times!

A ‘millions times’ seems a bit unlikely. But still.

Up that way – the way she’s headed, as soon as stuperific Mei-Yin stops clawing all those little loops out of her jumper – are dark buildings, more like cliffs in the absence of moonlight.

This is what Papa would say about that (you can draw on your own moustache and wag a finger if it helps with the maginings): You are not to go to where Papa works, okay! Play out back. Play with your medical kit. Dress up like a lawyer. Learn to be a heart surgeon or something – for your mother.

By all the levels of Diyu and all it’s insufferable horrors! Look, I got you this, okay?

Another thing crouched in a bamboo cage from the Yangshuo market, bright eyes shining with fear.

Be a good girl.

Tiffany yawns. The truth is, she doesn’t like those sorts of pets any more. They always die.

At least, they always used to.

The cat softly tweaks her hand with a sharp, broken tooth. “Keep it together, sleepy head. Watch your feet on that glass.”

It’s really, really windy.

The pair are soon surrounded by two wings of the Shimao Central Palace Apartment Buildings, rubble everywhere. It hasn’t been lived-in for twenty years. Papa says it was the bad qi – says it with a smile. Makes her want to cry without knowing why. Strips of cloth flutter on brown glass at a window, thorny plants grow from walls and the surprisingly grey rubble, the windows and doorways are empty faces. The gathering winds tousle Tiffany’s hair, and the spaces sigh in a rising and falling susserance.

The cat nods. “Follow the bird.”

Somebody has forgotten to stick the feathers on it. Unable to fly, the nightingale hops along, skittering through the dust devils. Tiffany puts her head down and barges through the gusts, intent on following. Her jacket crackles like a plastic bag.

The cat presses with a claw. “Don’t let them see you.”

The bad men. She sneaks past the black cars – like they’re Mr Wolf coming to get you, ready or not – the glass-polish filmed with dust; and then past the archaeological frames and diggers and mounds of excavated rubble. Jinhai Construction is written in English under Chinese characters woven through themselves like balls of wool.

The grey stone and plaster of demolition, is replaced by spoil-heaps of reasonably fresh earth bearing the odd memento of the building’s construction – corroded, pale yellow plastic; an old coke bottle – to a sudden stain of red sandstone and the huge blocks, that appeared two days ago, hauled out by a really cool, Meccano crane. These stones are so huge, so perfectly finished, they look like alphabet blocks.

Lights twinkle.

The bird vanishes through a hole in the bottom of a building where a window has been pushed through.  A string of bulbs rattle and clank together here like bottles on a line; ten green lanterns hanging on a wall.

A dull cat’s growl, calling for hush. “They’re down below. You know about ladder’s, right?”

“I think so.”

“It’s easy. One paw after another.”

The faint chug of a generator rises up from the guts of the building.

The cat drops down so she can descend. “Take that hat.”

She takes the white dome from the rusted metal rack. If she tips her head one way and then the other it bing-bongs on her ears.

“It’s big-big, silly billy.”

“Don’t worry. Safety first.” There is a faint whispering of cat laughter. “You do look like a shiitake, though”.

Hand-over hand, deep in concentration, she touches down with a splat. Down here it smells of mud and concrete, oil and stale water. Waiting by the ladder are the papa and mama mices, baby mices, two other kittys – once strays – Mr Parrot, the nightingale, Ken Fredric Chicken, the snake. They look like toys made out of teeth, bits of eggshell, and no glitter.

“We’re quite the little army,” says Mei-Yin. “Very well. This way.”

The clatter and whispering click of tiny bones rattles down the excavated passageway, on a ramp of compacted earth.

“Down we go. Hoppity hop. Tiff, don’t stand on anyone…”

It’s only now, toddling along in the darkness, that Tiffany wonders how bones might actually walk. For instance, where does the cat food go?

That morning, Mei-Yin had returned from the great pet shop in the sky. Six months ago, she had been tears and tissue paper, and a red plastic shovel.

Papa, do cats go to heaven?

Definitely not! (Pause) Ah… well, that is to say, certain Asiatic cultures… Certain postulations… (Pause) Okay, yes. Yes. (Some makings) There: a Christianic cross out of barbecue sticks. Now let me press on with translating. They said these pictograms were almost entirely tenebrous, but they’re Yangshao – 4800BCE. Very, very old.

(Sighs) Err, no… that’s much older than Papa…

Now be a good girl.

Privately, Tiff thought she could do much better with a snappy old crayon: looked like pictures of men messed up with wolves.

Anyways, today’s morning, Papa was away digging, as always and always.

Then there was something scratchy and funny and wise standing right there in the hut. Something that probably shouldn’t be.

Don’t frighten it! Don’t pull it’s tail!

So, standing protectively behind an old trainer, she’d crouched and whispered close to where she assumed an ear would be, “Where did kitty come from?”

The cat’s tail twitched. It whispered back, “Sugar and spice and all things nice. What makes your graveyard grow? Why the pyramid, of course.”

Tiffany was somewhat indignant.

The cat sniffed. “Bad kitty yourself! You can so get pyramids. Egypt’s not the only – Look, it’s down there. Buried. Under.” It patted the metal floor with its paw. Tang-Tang-Tang. “Can’t you feel it? Getting stronger?”

No matter. Every dead thing she’d planted at the back of that portacabin had come back, in one way or another, hauling itself out of the mud like a little white robot, smelling of bad milk.

The cat’s jaw creaked. “And why are we whispering?”

Now the earth underfoot gave way to stone, as they passed through a hole torn in a wall.

“This is the apex. Ah, the ‘top bit’. Of the pyramid; the pointy bit – Meow! Don’t look at those. Keep going.”

Tiffany’s eyes drift past black slabs of slate mounted in the red stone. Bones, horrible eyes, knives. The carvings look shiny in the electric light.

The cat whisks down the steps. “Really, there isn’t much time.”

These steps are so big it makes her legs go funny. Her hips ache. Can legs fall off?

The stairwell descends rapidly. It is a lot of stepping down, but there’s only one set of lungs to register the exercise. Fresh cables twist around the sides like strawberry laces.

Eventually, a dark space opens up. There are statues here, on either side, that have bodies like big fat ladies and their heads are like octopuses; like the ones sliding over themselves in the market tanks. In one hand, a brass lantern, intricately fretted like lace, in the other, a skull – this time a peoples’ skull.

“Okay, quiet as a kitty cat. That means you, Tiff. Mice, birds, spread out.”

The huge chamber, beyond, is filled with bony figures as far as the eye can see – warriors arrayed under great brass, tarnished gongs, the metal jade-green with verdigris. Armour is half sloughed from necrotic bone. Amongst this endless army, are great beasts, twisted with silver-turned-black wire – shapes that should never have been – in the yokes, chains and traces of huge war machines, and carved artillery, more demonic than dragon.

There is one arc-light in the distance, at a central circular set of steps. Her Papa working. Trying, it seems, even this far away, to fit a final piece. Tiffany likes puzzles, but this one reeks of mania. Chinese men in suits. Chinese men lounging with guns.

The dead pets scurry, hop and run through the armed ranks, flitting through the long shadows – minnows dodging the shark’s teeth and corrosive faces – heading towards the gathering of men.

One of the kittys – Little Qing, perhaps – is gnawing and gnawing at a thick trunking cable.

Just like him; if it is him.

Mei-Yin nudges Tiffany’s leg. “Stay off the crunchy bits. If you make a noise, you’ll be dead too. I have to go.”

“Don’t leave me!”

“Don’t worry,” says the empty face. “You know I always come back.”

The cat scampers away, with a creak of ligaments and the tottering tick-tack of upright paws.

Tiffany crouches, bug-eyed in the shadows.

Qing is arring and gnarring. Ages later, there’s a yowl followed by a bug-zap of a spark, that illumes the inside of the little cat, and then the lights go out. There’s a horrible smell of scorched bone.

Shouts of, “Wù sè!”

Screams.

An explosive gun shot. Automatic weapon fire clatters, followed by hollow-pottery explosions, and the rain-maker sound of bone fragments.

A hurricane of dust is blowing down the stairs; the wind wailing in the throat of the pyramid. Grit in her eye. “Mama!”

Something buts her leg.

By feel, she finds a smooth skull, then something metal and glass in the cat’s jaws. There is a rattle of teeth on chain as the links run through her fingers. At the touch of the metal, a chill runs through her – her nails and bones buzzing like an electric toothbrush.

“I got stuff in my eyes!”

A nip to her fingers. “Break it! Break it!”

“Why?”

“If you don’t, then, well… bad things! Bad things!”

“Zàn zhù zài fù jìn!” shouts an accented voice. “Shoot! Shoot!” cries another.

“The bad men,” gasps the cat. “Now or never, Tiff. Now or never. On the ground. Step on it, step on it!”

By feel she presses the metal under her shoe, almost falling over, almost stepping on her own fingers. Then she balances and fumbles upwards in the darkness. Hanging from a lantern chain, swinging like a monkey, she presses to her tip-toe.

Nothing happens.

Other foot on top. A little jump.

“Who’s there?” cries an ugly voice. A bullet burns through a brass belly, close by. The metal rings like a prayer bowl.

Then a big, big, bouncy, pointy jump.

There is a pop of crushed crystal and a blue flash outline of her sole. Her toes tingle.

“Well done,” says the cat with a strangled sigh.

The wind abruptly dies, to be replaced with the gathering roar of bone collapsing in the darkness, like a flood in a butcher’s yard.

“Kitty? Kitty?” But the cat’s voice is nowhere.

 

10 comments

1 Icy Sedgwick { 06.11.11 at 12:20 am }

As always, I’m amazed and humbled by your awesome powers of description.

2 John Xero { 06.11.11 at 9:17 am }

Not sure I entirely understood what happened at the end, but I love the way this supernatural event, that resurrects things and brings gangsters to architectural digs, is drawn through Tiff’s imagination and recollection. The image of Tiff creeping through the dark with her skeletal pets about her feet is great.

Really like the new blog banner too. =)

3 John Xero { 06.11.11 at 9:19 am }

Oh! There are lots of different ones! I was looking at the one with the angel and the flower at the time… =)

4 Stephen Hewitt { 06.12.11 at 10:47 am }

@Icy — thanks Icy. Glad you liked the descripty bits in there.

@John — I sometimes forget to make important details concrete. Afterwards, when folks are confused, there’s a ‘doh!’, as I remember certain facts need reiterated so that the reader doesn’t have to concentrate too much. It’s tricky, though, as 9 times out of 10 leaving things to intuition is fine. The intent, at the end, was that the bone pets steal an amulet from her father which would have been used to raise the army, but instead Tiff destroys it, taking out the power of the pyramid, but, alas, also the power of the pets…

Thanks for the comp on the blog banner. When I get a bit more time, hopefully more to come.

And thanks, too, for connecting on Google Friends.

@John x2 — Ah, yes, there’s five on rotation. In the words of Pokémon, “Gotta catch ’em all.” 😉

5 Harry B. Sanderford { 06.13.11 at 8:55 pm }

Stephen you have such an extraordinary imagination. Wonderful stuff!

6 Aidan Fritz { 06.14.11 at 4:45 am }

Nice mix of anglo & chinese together. I love how the pets work together even ones who wouldn’t normally stoop to working together and great description of chinese characters.

7 Mark Withers { 06.16.11 at 1:02 pm }

Great story! I liked the way the darker sub-plot concerning the father slowly revealed itself. Very believable child’s POV from Tiffany, too. A difficult trick to pull off, but you’ve done it.

8 Stephen Hewitt { 06.21.11 at 1:19 pm }

@Harry — thanks Harry. Managed to sneak a pyramid in there, along with undead pets, so always a good day 😉

@Aidan — I’m happy that mix of Anglo and Chinese worked. I wanted to do it implicitly, but wasn’t quite sure what the effect would be. Alas, yes, Tiff had a small army of dead pets to call on — as I probably would have done as a child; they just seemed to wear out too quick.

@Mark — I like trying to gradually reveal things, instead of chucking them out there — feels more real to me, even if you’re talking about the unreal. Along the way, I thought it’d be interesting if her dad was (A) a horrendous intellectual with no time for kids and (B) not a ‘good guy’. Always fun trying to write from a kid’s POV — they always make me laugh or cut straight to insightful.

9 Joan { 06.22.11 at 11:23 am }

Exquisite details again – especially loved Tiffany’s wondering of ‘where the cat food goes’ when the cat is all bones.
Yes. It’s lovely – towards the end – ‘the cat’s voice is nowhere.’
I think your capacity for finding ideas is incredible – it seems to me you must think something, or see something (or hear), and just have the guts – or the wherewithall – to run with it. It must take courage to be able to do that, or great curiosity, maybe.

10 Stephen Hewitt { 06.24.11 at 11:47 am }

@Joan — the ideas do often flow from something I looked at or saw, that sparked an inquiring note of interest. Once I have a kernel of a situation and something my character wants, the rest seems to pop out as I write (if I’m lucky): partially through free association, I think, and partially through my sense of humour. Even if it’s a dark story, quite often it grows from something that amused me in some way and, as humour often tends to be observational — or wryly juxtaposed, sometimes ‘cruel’ — I think the combination quite often leads to something interesting. At least I hope so. I guess the other thing is, that ideas (and imagination) really do respond to practice. Game designing for years with horrible deadlines means I can’t have ‘creative block’. I just have to get on with it. The courageous part comes from exposing these skritchings to others, I guess 🙂

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