Friday, August 13, 2021

Between Writing and Speaking

Why do I write?

I don’t really know.  I do so, sporadically, secretly and typically in solitude.  My output alternately artful and amateurish, but never without ardour for the form itself.  After all, words are such a versatile ingredient, and in the kitchen of my imagination I relish experimenting with the most outlandish combinations possible.  A tasty mystery, their infinite variations of colour, style and complexity allure me with their ability to anger, inspire and arouse.

James Patrik Between Writing and Speaking


However, writing and speaking, while superficially, may seem like common bedfellows but the differences are numerous. 

First and foremost is the element of choice – most of us choose to read, either reflexively or not.  Nestled within this ability is another – that of being able to understand written language itself.  Words make themselves apparent to us a million ways every day, often in the most pedestrian of situations.  Warning signs, food labels, street names and instructions.  These utilitarian words simply “are” and exist only for the conveyance of information.  In tone and delivery, they care not for our feelings or whether or not we subscribe to the ideas they espouse.  Medical reports, exam results, witness statements – all such genres present themselves to us plainly.

Then there are the words we chose to read for pleasure.  Correspondence, love letters and works of fiction both short and long.  These words - arranged in the proper order by a suitably qualified individual - have the ability to transport us from the awful mundanity of our lives to some other more preferable destination.  Such expert wielders of words have held many titles throughout history – a contemporary novelist no different in function to a witch with an incantation.

Of course, the written word can be just as potent when the element of choice is removed.  It’s at this critical juncture that words transform themselves into labels and insults - able to be lobbed vengefully at another person like a clump of wet dirt.  Most people can easily conjure a handful of such words fairly effortlessly.  With their serrated edges, such terms can inflict significant damage to the recipient, and are thusly, rightly expunged from the lexicon.

Written words also carry connotation – an emotional component attached to the use of said word, either good or bad.  This linguistic baggage implores us to use our words considerately, to take heed of how they might be absorbed by those around us.  Lover.  Disabled.  Invited.  How do you feel when you hear these words?

I bring to mind the writer’s process of composing, re-reading and editing – like a recipe being adjusted after each attempt.  Wracked with self-doubt and an honest desire to creatively self-express he or she will tentatively share the fruits of their labour with friends in the hope of garnering praise and adulation - or at the very least - modulated opinion.

So, I ask myself again, why do I write?  Not because I am inherently creative or objectively skilled, but because I am confused.  I write to find purpose.  I write to find therapy and relief from my infuriating, vomit inducing anxiety.  In black and white, my words sit stately on my computer screen composed of trillions of tiny pixels.  As they and their brethren reach forward through time, I have less and less control over how they will be interpreted by any future person who might intercept them.  Their terrifying potential for immortality is an even greater motivation to execute my expression exactly.

Why do I speak?

To ask for what I want, to convey my feelings and ideas and to make an audible sound.  Why then in this particular realm of human communication do I find myself so ill equipped?  So often saying the wrong thing?  When compared to the writer, the speaker is a wild oaf – a clumsy house-guest possessing neither grace or decorum.  If the written word is indeed a finely calibrated tool, then its audible analogue is a bludgeon.  It is as scalpel is to sledgehammer.

Unlike the writer, the speaker need not wait for feedback, as it is often immediate.  The effects of his or her words written plainly upon the faces of their recipients.  Words are short order cooking, conjured spontaneously in the moment with only the paper-thin pretences of decency to prevent us from uttering something catastrophically stupid.

The element of choice plays a role here too, as we can either be talked “to”, or talked “at”.  Who cannot relate to the experience of a harsh word drifting ominously toward our general direction? There it sits at our feet – uninvited – yet able to expertly corrode our self-esteem. 

Equally universal is the scenario of the discourteous dinner guest, spewing words so inappropriate that they are unbelievable.  “I can’t believe he said that!” we gasp through breathless offence, or some other similar idiom connoting disbelief at a poorly timed or acidic remark.  This is one of the truest pitfalls of words – they cannot be taken back, be undone, recovered, deleted or retrieved.  They are sound waves, traversing space and time.  When it becomes apparent that our words have caused some damage, our solution is to issue forth even more words – a socially sanctioned ritual called an apology.

Spoken words also mean the quality of the sound itself – a person’s voice.  Whether rich in timbre, tone, tinny, loud, smoky or of irritating pitch our voices are the unique noise each of us is capable of producing.  Like a sonic fingerprint, each voice is special and capable of evoking colourful emotions.

But it is not merely enough to be able to make noise – most animals have that ability.  Speaking with another person is a transactional exchange, a dance requiring a willing partner of requisite skill.

Our voices change during puberty, prompting us to reconsider our sonic signature, to use our voices more carefully.  Others take a less considered approach, preferring to speak profusely rather than precisely.  Motivated by vanity (or perhaps a fear they will suddenly wink out of existence), they speak only to fill silence and say nothing of any substance at all.

To hear a conversation from the outside is to hear musicians plying their trade, each one exhibiting their relative skill (or lack thereof).  Symphonic or cacophonic, the orchestra of conversation is only as pleasant as the skill of its greatest musician.

Whether written or spoken aloud, words become the threads that knit together the fabric of our lives.  I wonder whether spoken words are merely the three-dimensional renderings of the things I write, or something more – something ephemeral and still outside the bounds of human perception.  At the intersection between writing and speaking lies a third thing – invisible but nonetheless essential.

Thoughts.

Thoughts which build our reality, and in their infinite quality allow me to write about my words and speak about my writing.

Friday, June 4, 2021

SHORT STORY: What We Are

(This article was originally published in Antipodean Sci Fi Issue 271 in April 2021.  You can read a digital version of the original story here at the Antipodean Sci Fi Archives here:  https://webarchive.nla.gov.au/tep/10063)

It was one of those days.  

One of those days where I’d woken up angry without reason.  I rolled out of bed with a belligerent cloud swirling about my head as I stumbled through my day, seeking amusement or distraction from my stress.  Had I the courage to be honest with myself, it was me I was angry with.  I was frustrated at having risen so late, and for expending so many wasted hours upon my couch, staring blankly at various screens as I beseeched them for stimulation. 


Though a tired truism of a sentiment, I was easily ensnared by the technological marvels that constitute modern life.  Inconceivable to our antecedents, such devices stood ready to sate any human appetite no matter how banal or pornographic.  Now the hour was late, and my morning had evaporated into a hazy afternoon, making me feel worse.  One lazy indulgence compounded by another.

So, craving at least the pretence of productivity, I did what I had always done when feeling restless — I went for a run.  Donning worn trainers and an old t-shirt, I left the house and began my laboured shuffle through the unremarkable streets of my neighbourhood.  The topography was hilly, ordinary streets winding through tiny peaks and troughs.  My body moved with difficulty, ungracefully, as though through water — a punishment for habitual inactivity.  But it moved nonetheless, and for that I was grateful.  I ran past some old ladies on an amiable ramble and past a gaggle of absent-minded dog walkers.  A fellow runner — a shirtless Adonis — sped past me with relative ease and soon disappeared into the distance.

Still, I persisted, as my lungs burned and groaned under the strain.  Undeterred, I proceeded without destination, past the well-to-do houses sporting high fences and fancy security systems.  The sight of them set my mind musing on the notion of urban separation as a light sprinkle of rain moistened my face.  Turning from a trickle into a shower, the precipitation soaked through my clothes and underwear endowing the uncomfortable sensation of being both sweaty and wet.

Exhausted, I clumsily came to a halt in front of a house atop a hill and locked eyes with a cream-coloured greyhound.  His graceful countenance offered me a doleful stare through the bars of a corrugated iron fence.  I watched him, for a moment, his patient breathing evident in the gentle rise and fall of his ribcage as I felt my own heart pounding like a jackhammer in my chest. 

My anxious demons exercised and exorcised, I limped home in unspectacular fashion, dropping down upon my front step to cool down as I always would before entering the house.  The brief shower I’d traversed was now concluded, leaving small pools and patches of water upon my driveway.  As my heart rate settled, I lamented my poor fitness and stared vacantly at a potted plant by my front door.  I’d placed it there, years ago.  Unremarkable in every respect, its few droopy leaves were a testament to floral mediocrity.  Upon the leading edge of one of the leaves I spied a single raindrop — a remnant from before — dangling precariously, only seconds from falling.

As my eyes focused on the raindrop, I noticed with simple pleasure how the daylight shimmered through the small quantity of water, a tiny iridescent display one-tenth the size of a fingernail.  As I examined the drop more closely, I was able to discern an image — the face of a newborn baby, scrunched up and tiny.  Before I could question the veracity of my vision, the image had changed and the baby had become a boy who soon became a man.  Like a life on fast forward, the man in the raindrop raced through his days and years as I witnessed them all.  The peaks and troughs of his trajectory through existence — exciting, mundane, revelatory and boring.    

Caught up in my act of curious voyeurism, I couldn’t help but notice the little man looked a lot like me. As I savoured my wonder, he clutched his chest in pain, and collapsed without fanfare.  The awful occurrence was random, and arrived without warning.  Before the man could summon help, the drop of water finally fell from its precarious position and splattered onto the floor, exterminating the man inside.  Startled, I inhaled sharply at the sudden finality of it all.  Just like that, it was over.

Sharp pangs of grief pierced my chest as I remembered the man and his life, lost to me, yet still speaking quietly in my thoughts.  In that moment, I conjured the faces of the dead and remembered strange words spoken to me in my sleep.  He’d always be there as a reminder of my mortality and the ticking clock embedded in my brain.

In a single drop of rain I had seen the futility of my illusions that life was long, and that each one of us was somehow significant, special.  A repudiation of all my self-importance in a simple act of nature.  I sat there, in my running shoes, humbled and terrified by the display, feeling suddenly fragile.  Transient.  As the fear fermented in my stomach, I knew I’d witnessed something extraordinary.  To think it happened on such an ordinary day.

I replayed all the ungrateful moments when I’d wished my life was somewhere else, had wished that I was someone else.  What a fool I’d been.  The man in the raindrop would be with me like an albatross, even when I was petulant or lost in a wretched mood.  Even when I wasted my life.  I wiped wetness from my cheeks, mistaking it for rainwater but instead found tears as I fathomed the enormity of my revelation.  The very nature of what we are.  

What we are is nothing at all.

 


Monday, April 26, 2021

SHORT STORY: The Box

(This article was originally published in Antipodean Sci Fi Issue 270 in March 2021.  You can read a digital version of the original story here at the Antipodean Sci Fi Archives here:  https://webarchive.nla.gov.au/tep/10063)

Grade six summer camp was always the same. Rustic cabins set in a rural or semi-rural landscape. To a gaggle of angsty pre-teen city kids forcibly separated from our Playstations — it was a fresh kind of hell. Daily activities like bush walking and horse riding existed solely to be endured rather than enjoyed.

James Patrik The Box

The ordeal of this enforced excursion was softened somewhat by the presence of most of my buddies from school. Nicholas Dobson (whose father was having an affair), Michael Cacciatore (whose parents were in the middle of an awful divorce) and Ross Coleman (whose mother took lithium to stabilise her mood).

The first night unfolded mostly without incident. We all ate dinner in a communal mess hall, almost fifty kids all told, boys and girls alike. Unsurprisingly, the food was less than stellar. We often imagined it was surplus from an insane asylum or a nearby men’s prison. Afterwards, there was a giant campfire that made my clothes smell like smoke. I roasted a marshmallow on a stick, not fully comprehending the appeal of the charred, sugary snack served atop a twig.

Lights out was at 10 pm. We slept on ramshackle bunkbeds with mattresses covered in vinyl thick enough to withstand even the most voluminous quantities of urine. The girls and boys were housed in separate cabins and I was lucky enough to be with my friends. Ignoring our curfew, most of us would stay up late into the night, illuminated by flashlight, talking about the kinds of things that could only seem important before puberty.

It was here that our conversation inevitably wound its way towards ghost stories and other tales of the macabre. Our camp in particular was the alleged setting for a particularly bizarre tale in which a camp counsellor had “gone wrong”. Using a cardboard box to conceal his face, he roamed the grounds at night, viciously assaulting campers.

Following a shaving cream attack on the second night by Domenic Bordignon and his goons, my cabin mates and I decided it was high time for some hijinks of our own. On the third night, after lights out, our preparations began in earnest. Clad in our pyjamas and sleepwear, we would burst into the girl’s cabin, brandishing our flashlights, intending to terrify and startle them in any way possible.

Always resourceful, Alex Vasquez (whose mother had committed suicide) had swiped a nondescript cardboard box from the kitchen after dinner. Using a thick black marker, he quickly drew a simple smiley face — two eyes and a mouth — and placed it atop Nick’s head.

Sat on a chair, Nick abruptly froze — his shoulders suddenly going limp. Michael saw the tiny performance unfold and let out an involuntary chortle which soon faded, giving way to stunned silence. Emerging from the bathroom, Ross re-entered the room confused by the surreal scene taking place. Nick Dobson with a box atop his head, now sat seemingly unresponsive while Michael, Alex and I looked on bemused. 

Now inverted atop his head, the smiley face Alex had crudely drawn formed a sickly frown that seemed to stare at us, mockingly. Resembling a puppet with its strings cut, we all wondered if this performance was part of Nick’s sick sense of humour. Was he messing with us?

“Nick!”

Michael was the first to call out to him, his prepubescent voice quavering with growing concern. Nick sat there, motionless, frowny box atop his head for what seemed like minutes before someone (I don’t remember who) uttered the obligatory “this isn’t funny anymore”. The universal catchcry of the frightened when a joke has overstepped its bounds.

Weary of this grim jest, Ross crouched before Nick’s chair, locking eyes with his cardboard avatar. In one swift movement Nick suddenly extended one arm, then another, wrapping his hands around Ross’s throat. Startled, the rest of us failed to react out of pure shock, but quickly piled upon Ross, attempting to break Nick’s vice like grip upon his trachea. 

No luck. Nick’s powerful hold was immovable — even the three of us combined couldn’t pry his hands away from Ross whose face was now rapidly turning red. Nick stood up, his movements robotic and his grip unyielding, as Ross’s feet collapsed beneath him. The frowning face of the cardboard box seemed to leer at him, challenging him to fight back as he gasped for air, his cries for help nothing more than the muffled sounds of strangulation.

It was Alex who finally came to his senses, letting go of Nick’s hands and quickly tearing the cardboard box from his head. As he did so, Nick collapsed into a heap, as Ross, red faced and teary eyed, heaved and thrashed on the floor as he finally inhaled his life saving breath.

Too scared to call for the camp counsellors, we carried Nick to the nearest bed where he slept for many hours. When he awoke, he didn’t remember any of what had happened, least of all trying to throttle one of his friends.

Even as young men, we had been well programmed to follow the dictates of rigid male stoicism. Accordingly, we never spoke much about that night in the months and years that followed. Though he forgave him completely, Ross certainly always looked at Nick askance. Privately, I suppose we all suspected that we’d been party to some kind of paranormal incident, that the box itself had imparted some manner of demonic permission, that Nick had been possessed, infected or unduly influenced. We wanted to believe that the entire occurrence was the purview of some dark agent from beyond the veil, something or someone outside of human influence.

The truth was something far more sinister. A frightening childhood lesson on the power of masks, whether literal or figurative. You see, when we examined the box, it was simply that — pieces of folded cardboard with an inverted smiley face drawn upon it.

It was just a box, nothing more.

 




Sunday, April 11, 2021

SHORT STORY: The Agony Of Choice

DAY 1

Raymond sat alone at the kitchen table.  Permitting himself a few moments of respite between chores, he stared blankly at the wall, allowing his mind to wander.  It had been three weeks since his master had left for his expedition after promising to return in a matter of days.  Such conduct was unlike his master who’d proven himself fastidious, sometimes ruthlessly so.  Without his presence, the modest house felt empty, with one of its bedrooms and the master’s study now unoccupied.  Except of course for Raymond. 

James Patrik The Agony of Choice


A scarecrow by birth and a servant by nature, Raymond busied himself with housework just as his master had instructed before he had departed.  Gliding from room to room, he rendered the place spotless with the skill and quiet dignity of a practiced domestic servant.  Initially, he complied, fearing punitive measures, but as the days turned into weeks, he undertook his chores with intense fervour. 

What else would I do?  How else do people occupy their time except in service to their masters? he thought as he waxed the wooden floorboards of the corridor.

All food related chores were the first to disappear – as a scarecrow, Raymond had no need to eat.  It was a pleasure denied him by his creator, though he had often marvelled at the transformative nature of food, its innate ability to bestow comfort and satiety.  First tier chores such as sweeping, dusting and the washing of dishes soon gave way to more complicated, second tier tasks like washing windows, cleaning gutters and re-tiling the roof.  Using a not inconsiderable amount of elbow grease (if his body had produced such a substance), Raymond maintained the house spectacularly.

One afternoon, there came a knock at the door.  Raymond was immediately suspicious, knowing that his master would never knock as he rarely left the house without keys.  Curious, he opened the door to reveal a surprising sight – a giant stick insect, stood upright, attired in formal suit and tie.

‘Good afternoon sir’, said the stick insect as he extended his arm in greeting, ‘My name is Julius Wallwork, Esquire.  Might I have a moment of your time?’

‘Of course’, stammered Raymond, as he shook the man’s hand and ushered him into the entranceway.

Remembering his manners, Raymond struggled to suppress his fascination with the strange man’s appearance.  There were of course many and varied sentient creatures in the kingdom, but he had lived a life mostly indoors and had rarely been exposed to such zoological diversity.

Julius Wallwork made his way inside the house, proceeding down the short corridor and into the kitchen where he politely sought permission to sit at a small table.  Raymond replied in the affirmative as Julius placed a scroll and a small wooden box upon the tabletop.  Through his buttoned shirt and sleeves, Raymond could catch glimpses of the man’s peppermint coloured thorax.

‘Mister Raymond, I represent Angus & Altman.  We’re solicitors, specialising in property management and estate planning in this general vicinity’.

‘Okay’, said Raymond hesitantly, still wondering why such an elaborate fancy man would stoop to converse with a lowly scarecrow.

‘I’m afraid it’s my sad duty to inform you of the death of your master, Kevin’, Wallwork announced as he presented Raymond with the box that he had brought with him.

Raymond carefully opened the receptacle.  Inside it was a human heart, the organ partially desiccated and decorated with traces of dried blood about its four chambered structure.  The heart belonged to Kevin, and, had evidently been torn out by whatever agent had caused his demise.

‘I realise this may be a gruesome sight for you, but the presentation of a heart is customary in this circumstance, especially where the transfer of property is concerned’.

Transfer?’ asked Raymond, still enthralled by the grisly sight of his master’s heart in a box.  He was struck by the notion that his master even possessed such an organ, given his sour disposition and proclivity for cruelty.

‘Kevin’s death changes things for you considerably, Mister Raymond.  In the absence of an heir or suitable inheritor, the deed to the current property – this house – legally reverts to any other current occupants.  In this instance – that’s you’.

Julius unfurled the scroll across the kitchen table.  It was an ancient looking document, its text hand written in slanted script that was difficult to read.  At the top of the scroll, in letters larger than the rest were the words ‘Life Transfer Document’, and at the bottom, a straight line presumably reserved for a signature.  At the centre of the scroll was a single human eye, which, as soon as the scroll had been unrolled, blinked into existence, darting about the room. 

Standing to leave, Julius provided Raymond with a final set of instructions.

‘As per local law, you have ten days to sign the document, after which point this house and all its contents will become your legal property.  Should you fail to sign in the allotted time, custody of the house reverts back unto itself, and your rights as a tenant within it will be rescinded’.

Offering a polite bow to excuse himself, Julius made his way to the front door, as Raymond trailed behind him.  This turn of events had been so unexpected and he was brimming with questions for the stick insect lawyer.  But, as evidenced by the brevity of his visit, his time was too valuable for him to linger a moment longer than necessary.  Raymond tried to think of the most pertinent question to ask, but instead his mind went blank.

‘But what about my master?’, he blurted out almost reflexively.

‘Your master is dead, Mr Raymond. You are your own man now.  I suggest you get used to it’.

‘My own man…’ Raymond repeated to himself softly as Julius left the premises.  It was a tremendous concept to digest.

DAY 4

A few days had passed since the lawyer had called on Raymond, casually breezing into his life and leaving seismic new ideas at his feet.  Though not outwardly exhibiting any signs of distress, Raymond had been quite shaken by the visit, and decided it was best to simply ignore everything he’d been told.  As before, he proceeded with his chores, dusting surfaces that were already clean and preparing the house for a master that would never return.

Yet every time he found himself in the kitchen, he’d see the expectant scroll, its unnerving eye watching his every move, waiting for him to either sign (or not sign) his name at the bottom of the page.  The very sight of the offending eye reminded him that things had changed and that Kevin wasn’t coming back.  Not only was he a free man, but if he signed the scroll, he would be a home owner.

Sat in his chair – a brief pleasure that he occasionally allowed himself – Raymond pondered the concept of freedom.  What did it mean?  Kevin had captured and removed him from his family at such a young age that he had never known any other life.  What would he do with his time?  He thought about his family and briefly considered paying them a visit.  From what little he could remember they lived in a small enclave just beyond the forest, but, given the short lifespan of most scarecrows they were most likely deceased.  Later, as he examined the document once more, he pondered the unusual nature of its title – Life Transfer Document.  Was the house somehow alive, and if so, was it a slave to Raymond?

DAY 5

After spending the day washing linen, Raymond was met with the uneasy feeling that his tasks no longer felt as fulfilling as they once did.  As dusk arrived, he allowed himself to stand on the front porch of the house and admire the beauty of the plants and trees around him.  Previously, such stolen moments had been forbidden, but now Raymond wondered if he could occasionally permit himself some rudimentary moments of pleasure.

‘Beautiful evening, isn’t it?’ came a voice from a few feet away.

It was Mrs Gale, the next-door neighbour who was sitting on her own porch evidently doing precisely what Raymond had been doing as well.

‘Oh, hello Mrs Gale’ offered Raymond politely. 

He had rarely had occasion to speak with the old woman, forever beholden to his duties, but he liked her.  She always spoke to him warmly and, despite being confined to a wheelchair, nearly always displayed a sunny demeanour.

‘Kevin is dead’, he blurted out without thinking.

‘I know, dear.  I felt him die.  A shame really, such an angry young man’.

Kevin had often been churlish with Mrs Gale, annoyed by her dumpy countenance and her propensity for dispensing unsolicited homespun wisdom.

‘I was visited by a lawyer who said that I’d inherit the house if I sign a scroll’.

‘Was that the green gentleman I saw the other day?’

‘Yes, that’s right’.

‘So, what are you waiting for, dear?  Sign the contract, and we’ll be neighbours fair and square’.

‘It’s not that simple’.

‘Sounds simple enough to me.  Do you need to borrow a pen?’

‘It’s not that – I already have a pen.  I just keep staring at that scroll, and it stares back at me.  Without instruction, I’m frozen and afraid.  I’ve never known choice, or decision.  I’m scared of doing the wrong thing, so instead, I do nothing at all.  How do you know what to do Mrs Gale?’

The old woman looked pensive for a moment, taking a few seconds to formulate a thoughtful response.

‘I’m not sure, dear.  I suppose I use past experience to guide me.  You have to make your own future – one day at a time’.

‘But I have no past experience.  My whole life I’ve been a slave’.

‘Well then’, smiled Mrs Gale, ‘Its time you started making some choices, dear’. 

She tilted her head in the direction of the nearby tree line where, almost as if the universe had anticipated his need, a rat with a bindle sauntered past their houses.  He walked upright, with his possessions slung across his shoulder.  Moving cheerfully despite his bedraggled appearance, his feet were bare and blistered and his eyes looked weary from travelling.

Sensing a new emotion coalescing within him, Raymond tried his utmost to comprehend the new sensation.  Impulsiveness – the need to act spontaneously and without forethought.  The sensation travelled upwards from his belly, up into his chest and into his mouth where it eventually formed words.

‘You there’, he called out to the rat man, ‘Do you need a place to live?’

DAY 8

Life with Percival was very different to life with Kevin.  Transient by nature, Percival just so happened to be walking past Mrs Gale and Raymond at the very moment in which Raymond had been inspired to make a choice.  Acting in an uncharacteristically spontaneous manner, he’d invited the wandering rat to cohabitate with him.  It was a perfectly equitable arrangement - the rat man occupying Kevin’s former bedroom which had remained vacant for some time.  The terms of his tenancy were loosely defined, with no fixed end point agreed upon in advance.  Refusing to accept any of the rat man’s money, Raymond agreed to be paid in household duties, and his new housemate readily obliged.

The perfect lodger, Percival’s jovial demeanour and colourful tales from the road made him a pleasure to be with.  For his part, he was happy to have a stable home, at least for a time.  He treated Raymond with decency, never once verbally scolding him, threatening his life or setting fire to his extremities.            

After a few days and nights, the two housemates had settled into an agreeable routine.  They would share a meal together, recounting humorous or significant moments from their day.  Percival had recently discovered what he considered to be a superlative fishing hole and frequently returned to the house with fresh Twilo fish.  Raymond, sans digestive system, would happily sit with his rodent companion, so as to politely share the dining experience.  After they had cleaned their plates, they would retire to the living room and read, or sometimes listen to music.  One such evening, as Raymond read, Percival smoked the bark of the Carboline tree.

‘Why do you smoke that?’, Raymond asked.

‘Because it makes me happy’, replied Percival flatly.

Raymond had not been prepared for the simplicity of his companion’s response.

‘What is happiness?’, Raymond ventured, after a few moments.

‘Happiness is that which I pursue’.

‘Why?’

‘Because it is the purpose of my life.  To find those things and people that bring me the greatest joy’.

‘What does it feel like?  Happiness, I mean.  Is it painful?’.

Percival took a drag of the burning bark and allowed his gaze to melt away into the distance as his mind conjured images of past pleasures.

‘It feels like a stillness of my thoughts and an easiness in my body’.

‘That sounds complicated’, lamented Raymond.

‘It’s not’, replied Percival who now turned his attention to Raymond whose questions seemed unusually wistful, ‘What makes you happy?’

‘I’m unsure what will make me happy’.

‘What have you tried so far?’

‘Nothing.  I can’t be certain that any of the things I choose will lead to happiness and so I choose nothing.  Instead, I simply sit in my chair and stare at the wall, and that in itself seems like an indulgence’.

‘Is that why you haven’t signed the scroll?’

‘Yes.  I’m not sure if it’s the correct course of action’.

‘You know I’d sign it for you, but the eye sees all.  And besides, for me, a house would only be an impediment to my happiness’.

Though his intuition where people were concerned was underdeveloped, Raymond believed him.  There was no conceivable way that a creature such as Percival would settle down as a home owner.  He would stay for a while, but his inquisitive nature and nomadic spirit meant that the road ahead was always calling his name.

‘Perhaps it’s time you sought advice from a higher power?’, offered Percival with a raised eyebrow.

DAY 9

The following day Raymond decided to heed Percival’s suggestion.  Over breakfast, he informed his housemate that he intended to visit the area’s foremost seer, the Lady in Waiting.

‘Okay then, but be careful’, cautioned Percival, ‘You want to keep well clear of those dreadful Simians’.               

He was right to be apprehensive – Simian Sands was a valley occupied by a tribe of crazed apes, well known for their extreme violence towards intruders.  Best avoided, they were rumoured to have all been driven mad through exposure to industrial waste.

Summoning his courage, Raymond left the house for the first time in many years.  Using a crude map he’d found in Kevin’s writing desk, he made his way through a brief wooded section, past several physical landmarks to the Lady in Waiting’s residence. His former master had availed himself of her services often enough, holding her counsel in high esteem.  Raymond hoped that she’d be equally useful to him as he trekked through the forest, trying his best to stave off the overwhelming fear he felt at so many new sights and the ominous sounds of the screech owls above.

Soon enough, a large, hollowed out tree presented itself.  Its proportions were gigantic, with its base several meters in diameter.  It was the largest tree Raymond had ever seen, although he had not had cause to see very many in his life.  He entered warily, through a passageway just large enough for him to squeeze his body.  As the darkness of the inside of the tree enveloped him, he nervously announced himself, expectantly hoping that the lady residing within would reassure him with an acknowledgement.  Proceeding further into the tree he came to a generous circular space, dimly lit by candles.

‘Enter, and be seated’, came a voice from somewhere inside the room. 

Raymond’s eyes darted about until they landed upon a human woman sitting at a small wooden table.  She wore a faded Victorian gown, frilly and ornate and had laid out a deck of tarot cards on the table before her.  He approached, intending to occupy the vacant seat opposite the lady, but as he moved closer, he realised he’d failed to observe a key feature of the woman, or rather, a lack thereof.  She had no head.  By the looks of things, it had been shorn clear off - by what method he was unsure - but the wound appeared cauterised and bloodless.

‘Be seated’, the woman repeated in a clear tone that only now Raymond realised was occurring completely in his mind. 

This was the Lady in Waiting, and even though decapitated, she was still able to communicate using only her thoughts.  Raymond obliged and took the seat, consciously averting his gaze from her headless stump.  Slowly, deliberately, the lady began turning over her strange tarot cards.  The first one – The Sickly Magician – revealed itself.  Bearing the image of a well-dressed man vomiting upon a green pasture, it made Raymond feel uneasy.

‘Interesting’, remarked the lady, mostly to herself before turning over a subsequent card. 

This one was entitled The Pregnant Mule and depicted the eponymous creature with its belly distended.  Without a head, Raymond suspected by the lady’s body language that she was deep in thought.

‘What do they mean?’, he asked tentatively after a few moments of silence.

‘Crossroads’, she began, speaking clearly inside his head, ‘A time of rebirth and great change’.

Turning over a third card, the lady let out an audible gasp at its appearance: The Unbroken Line – the illustration depicting a straight red line rendered in blood.  The lady was silent for a moment, and without a face, Raymond couldn’t read her expression.

‘What does it mean?  Is it bad?’ he ventured, eager to hear her interpretation.  The lady reached across the table, urgently clasping Raymond’s forearm.

‘The time is now, and the message is urgent’, she gasped as her fingernails dug into his skin, ‘You must act now – the eye will not remain open forever!’.

Shaking free of her grip, Raymond stumbled backwards, knocking over his chair.  Her words had shaken him, frightened him, wound themselves around a hidden part of his subconscious that only he could see, and he was petrified - so much so that he ran all the way back to the house and sealed himself in his bedroom.

DAY 10

Early the next day, Percival, somewhat concerned having not seen his housemate in some time gently wrapped upon his bedroom door.

‘Raymond?  Are you okay in there?’, he asked gently. 

He was accustomed to his new friend behaving skittishly, but this was something new.  Raymond had led such a sheltered life after all, and Percival was worried that his visit to the Lady in Waiting had gone poorly.  He lingered a few moments, but there was no response.

‘Okay then.  I just wanted to let you know that I’m going fishing.  I’ll return when the sun goes to sleep’.

Inside his bedroom, Raymond could hear the sound of Percival leaving the house.  He’d had a sleepless night, and he didn’t wish to burden Percival with his problems.  But the Lady in Waiting’s prophecy had disturbed him, in a manner more deeply than he’d ever known.  He was still only new to his freedom, and yet so much was being asked of him already.  So many decisions to make.  Around noon, after a few hours brooding alone, he exited and proceeded to the kitchen where the scroll, with its single eye, was still sat upon the table.  Locating a pen – an ornate one that once belonged to Kevin - he stood before the waiting document, his arm outstretched, determined to finally sign it. 

As he forced his hand closer to the paper, his mind was aflame with the pain of his own crippling indecision – a mental tug of war fought only with himself.  All of the questions of the last ten days flashed into existence once more as the moment of ultimate choice stood before him.  Would signing be the right thing to do?  Did he even want to be a home owner?  What if the decision he made today had terrible ramifications later on? Could he forgive himself for making such a grievous mistake?

As the overwhelming anxiety of the moment overcame him, Raymond’s arms began to tremble.  He sat down on the floor, bracing his back against the wall, but soon realised that not he – but the house – was shaking.  He cast an incidental glance over at the scroll on the table just in time to witness the single eye at the centre of the page close, slowly and with alarming finality.  In that moment he recalled the words of the esteemed Julius Wallwork, Esquire:

‘…Custody of the house reverts back unto itself, and your rights as a tenant within it will be rescinded’.

A low rumble became thunderous as plates and cups and other sundry items flew from their perches, smashing into a million pieces as the doors and walls of the house convulsed.  Leaping to his feet, Raymond ran from room to room, struggling to understand the precise nature of what was happening. 

Outside, the house shook itself free from its foundations and sprouted two enormous three toed feet.  Sheathed in reptilian scales and strong enough to support the house’s considerable bulk, the feet began walking, taking the house along with it. 

 Sat on her front porch, Mrs Gale witnessed the entire occurrence unfold.  She marvelled as the house next door simply walked away on giant feet, leaving a trail of flotsam and jetsam in its wake.  As it moved, each step it took produced a mighty thud that reverberated through the earth.

Inside the moving house, Raymond struggled to stay on his feet, buffeted about by the turbulent journey.  He looked out a window to see a strange moving vista as the house walked itself deeper into the woods, deftly avoiding collision with trees and bushes as it made its way down a steep decline.  Gathering momentum, the house accelerated, moving past the hollow tree where Raymond had been just the previous day.  Past the place where these very events had been foretold. 

The journey had thus far lasted minutes, but to Raymond it seemed like hours as the contents of the house showered down upon him as he surrendered to unyielding terror, screaming until his voice was hoarse.  Moving down into a sandy gully, the house finally came to a complete stop, at which time Raymond, still cowering, managed to drag himself to a nearby window in order to survey his location.

The house had taken him to a part of the woods he’d never seen before.  Mostly devoid of vegetation, the ground appeared dry and cracked, and the landscape barren and dotted with jagged rocks.  From the vague descriptions he had heard over the years, it could only be one place – Simian Sands.  It was indeed, a place no sensible person would hope to find himself.  Within seconds, Raymond’s worst fears were confirmed as he heard an awful screeching coming from outside the house, followed shortly after by a pounding on the walls.  It was the simians, and from the sounds they produced, it sounded as though they were numerous. 

Finding his last shred of courage, Raymond sprang to his feet and made for the kitchen, intending to find a weapon with which to defend himself.  A knife, or any other kitchen utensil would do in a pinch.  As he entered the room, he heard the sound of shattering glass behind him as a balled-up simian smashed his way through one of the windows.  Hunched over and tightly muscled, the simian’s teeth appeared razor sharp and his eyes were filled with blood lust.  Grabbing one of the chairs from the kitchen table, Raymond swung the piece of furniture at the horrible creature, striking it clean across its face.  No result – the chair merely smashed into smithereens and the hideous ape only roared in anger.  It leapt forward, in one sudden motion, its powerful hands clawing at Raymond’s face. 

Soon, another simian had broken into the house, then another and then another.  All of them dove for Raymond, who was now pinned to the floor, desperately fighting for his life.  One of the beasts latched onto his left leg and tore it clean off, while the others used their hands to rip into his midsection like a knife through hot butter.  In the midst of his death throes, Raymond howled out in agony, as the simians tore him apart, limb from limb.

And that was how poor Raymond met his final end.  The entire, unpleasant affair could have been easily avoided had he simply made a decision.  He spurned the gift that had been lovingly bestowed upon him by the universe – that of free will and choice – and lost his life as a result.  For if we do not make our choices ourselves, others will surely make them for us.

 

 

 

Monday, March 1, 2021

SHORT STORY: The Bird At The End Of The World

(This article was originally published in the July 2020 “Power” print edition of Wordly Magazine in July 2020.  You can read a digital version of the original story here: https://issuu.com/wordly/docs/wordly_power_single-page/s/10774998)

Max walked alone across the empty plains. His parents had been merchants, but they had passed on peacefully many years ago. Alone in the world, Max had determined that his life’s purpose would be to see as much of the sphere as possible before he too expired.

James Patrik The Bird At The End Of The World

Due to the persistent heat, he walked at night, maintaining a steady pace. Other humans spent their days scrounging for food, but Max found exploration a more noble pursuit and his empty stomach easier to ignore than his burning curiosity. He walked past the crumbling temples of inconsequential belief and the old house of records, it too now disintegrating. Both buildings were now half consumed by the landscape. Still filled with artefacts of forgotten lore, they were the last remaining vestiges of a world long gone, and an absent population devoured by sickness.

One day, in search of a place to sleep, Max came across a clearing. It was a peculiar circular space, with great trees lopped off at their bases. Huge sections of earth had been scooped out as if by a giant hand, which made the ground look like an old battlefield Max had once seen in a book. What soil remained appeared chalk-like and desiccated. At the centre of the space, there was a lake. It appeared to be filled with black, oily tar.

Moving cautiously, Max noticed a small hut, composed of densely packed flotsam and jetsam. He approached the door and rapped upon it a few times. No response. Behind him, the lake of tar sprang to life, and bubbles rose to the surface. Soon, a shape revealed itself. Head. Neck. Arms and legs. Slowly it ascended from the muck.

It now stood a full seven feet tall. The slimy humanoid wiped the dark sludge from his face and revealed a large proboscis. It was a beak, like that of some giant prehistoric bird. If the sight of such a creature wasn’t shocking enough for Max, one could only imagine his surprise when it began to talk.

‘Come inside,’ he said, inviting Max into his tiny hut. ‘Thank you, sir,’ Max replied, discreetly noticing three-fingered hands concealed beneath densely feathered limbs. The interior of the bird man’s hut was a profoundly grim affair. Grimy, cluttered surfaces populated by dead plants and dust covered trinkets. The bird man offered Max a drink, but he politely declined, noting the foul state of his crockery.

‘Why have you come here?’ asked the bird man as he towelled off the residual oil from his body with a tattered rag. Now somewhat cleaner, Max could properly discern the strange man. He was covered in feathers head to toe, save for his scaly stick-like legs, which stood atop large webbed feet. Free from the tar, yet still jet-black, Max thought his feathers appeared pleasantly soft.

‘I’m a traveller,’ Max offered. ‘You’re the first person I’ve seen in a hundred days.’

‘A traveller,’ the bird repeated as he sat himself down on what remained of a broken sofa and discreetly began loading a bong. ‘I’ve barely even left this house.’ Striking a match, he placed his face upon the mouthpiece and inhaled deeply as the filthy bong water bubbled beneath.

Max watched with intense curiosity. ‘In the old world, it was called ganja. By my father, and his father before him.’

‘Been no ganja for some time now, boy. I’ve had to make do,’ the bird proclaimed as he exhaled a plume of putrid smoke.

‘With what?’

‘Everything. Everything smoked. Plants. Trees. Animals. Ground up and smoked to sustain my power,’ the bird intoned, his rich timbre resonant and masculine.

‘Power?’ asked Max as he sat before the bird, beseeching the giant ornithoid to impart his wisdom.

‘I discovered it right here in this room. I wasn’t always like this, you know.’

Max leant forward as the bird continued to weave his tale.

‘Hundreds of years ago, this hut was once part of a thriving village filled with people. One day, the sky grew dark, and the villagers became frightened. Through a hole in the sky, I caught sight of the throne. I saw the four beasts awaken. Soon after, they came from the clouds. Faceless men on horseback. They laid hands on the women as they struggled and tortured the men with sticks and ropes. The sounds of their anguish were awful, but I was paralysed by fear, so I chose to stay inside. Through my window, I saw the slaughter unfold. I saw it all and did nothing, said nothing. When the faceless men departed, I watched over their broken bodies until I could no longer stand the sight. I saw the dark man’s hand that day, and it changed me.’ The bird man’s eyes appeared wistful. Remorseful.

Max sat in silence, stunned by the surprising intensity of the story.

‘I was once a man just like you. But that day, I cried so much my face changed. Sadness can transform your body as well as your mind.’

‘I’m so sorry,’ Max offered quietly. They were the only words he could conjure. As he spoke them, he was immediately aware of how cheap they sounded in the face of such bitterness.

The bird man’s face hardened as he caught sight of Max’s expression.

‘No need to serve me pity. I neither request nor appreciate it.’

‘No, what I meant was —’

‘It was only from the cinders of my old life did I uncover it. The infinite power of surrender. The value of doing absolutely nothing.’ ‘Nothing?’

‘Nothing,’ he uttered slowly, his voice now resonating in the tiny space.

Max was aghast. ‘I could never be that cynical.’

‘It’s not cynicism, boy. It’s freedom. Freedom from caring. Freedom from action.’

‘But don’t you have any places you’d like to see, people you’d like to meet? Don’t you have any questions about the world? About yourself?’

The bird man pressed his beak against the mouth of the bong again, lit the base, and inhaled deeply.

‘If the question is pointless, so too will be the answer,’ he replied smugly.

‘For a man who claims to be free, you seem trapped.’

‘It’s all a matter of perspective. Yours might change once you see the horror this life has to offer. And besides, as your eyes will no doubt inform you, I am no longer a man.’

A chill ran down Max’s spine. He stood up from his seat. ‘Well then, it appears we have reached an impasse of ideology.’

‘Indeed, we have,’ said the feathered man as Max made his way to the exit.

‘Thank you for the hospitality,’ he offered politely as he paused in the door frame.

‘Maybe one day, when you stop walking, the power might come to find you,’ said the bird, clutching his bong.

‘Thank you, sir. But I already have my own. It was a gift from my mother and father. It is my life and the very fact that I am living. That’s power enough for me,’ said Max as he strode out of the small, strange house without so much as a backwards glance.

 

  

Monday, February 22, 2021

SHORT STORY: Uninvited Guest - A Home Invasion Story

My name is Charlie and this is the story of my little sister’s abduction.  It all started many years ago on a day like any other.  I attended the same school as my sister Agnetha, who was two years younger than me.  I was 10 and she was 8. 

James Patrik Uninvited Guest - A Home Invasion Story


My relationship with Agnetha wasn’t always perfect.  Like any little sister, she could be annoying.  The two of us had disagreements, but they were always petty and of little consequence.  The kinds of things only siblings argue about.  Nevertheless, even when we quarrelled, I never lost sight of the fact that I was her older brother, and as such, it was my job to protect her.

Our school was like any other in the prefecture.  A government institution, administrated and funded by the Ministry of Compliance with the express goal of generating young adults ready to assume positions in the labour force.

Our neighbourhood was by no means affluent.  Most of the kids at school were in a similar position.  Both parents working full time, typically manual labour roles.  Every day, we each wore our standard issue school uniform, designed specifically to foster group cohesion and a sense of community.  All except for Sandoval.

Sandoval was the “weird” kid.  You know the type.  Every school has one.  Pale and mostly silent, as a child Sandoval cultivated a mystique few adults were capable of.  He often appeared dishevelled, and on more than one occasion appeared at school with large sections of his head shaved.  Once, during swimming practice, I caught a glimpse of the much talked about surgical scars that adorned his extremities.  Though I wasn’t able to articulate it back then - Sandoval scared me.  I think he scared all of us, and so, unsurprisingly, we kept our distance. 

Then one day, an incident.  While waiting in line for our lunchtime allotment, poor Agnetha bumped into Sandoval as he held his tray.  It was an accident, plain and simple, but it scattered his food all over the floor.  I remember vividly watching the whole affair unfold, as if in slow motion.  Sandoval’s tiny milk carton upended on the floor, the grey liquid slowly soaking into the carpet.

I was sat a few feet away with Alex Vasquez and his second cousin Antoinette.  As soon as I saw what had transpired, I rushed to Agnetha’s side.  She was frozen in terror as Sandoval simply stared at her with his cold, unblinking eyes.  Without emotion, or almost any inflection at all, he brought his mouth to her ear and informed her that she would be taken from her home.  It would occur in the next few days, and most likely at night.

I grabbed Agnetha by the arm and guided her to one of the cafeteria tables as she apologised profusely to Sandoval.  Her offence was nothing more than quite literal spilled milk, but Sandoval’s chilling threat seemed disproportionate and quite frankly, insane.  Among the kids, there were all sorts of rumours about Sandoval’s home life.  His parents were apparently deceased and he was now a ward of the state.

Over the next few days, we tried to put Sandoval’s menacing words out of our minds.  He was after all, only a child and his reaction was more likely the result of social exclusion rather than some pathological need for revenge.  Mundane normality resumed, until that one Friday in April.  That day I’ll never forget.  The day the Fox appeared.

Returning from school, Agnetha and I let ourselves into our house.  “Latch key kids”, old Mrs McGorgom next door would call us.  I never understood what that meant, or what precisely a latch key was.  Mrs McGorgom would do well to mind her own business. 

Mother and Father worked double shifts, so we didn’t see too much of them during the week.  I never knew much about their work, except that it was difficult, exhausting labour.  Venturing downstairs for a glass of water one night, I caught sight of them both dressed in their jumpsuits, stinking of hog fat.

Coming home to an empty house was second nature for Agnetha and I, and of course, we had a daily ritual.  After school we would sit in the kitchen with some snacks and watch the afternoon programming for a while before attending to our homework and chores.  That day, we were halfway through the daily telecast when we heard a knock at the door.  Before I could check the security feed to see who was there, the front door exploded open.

Extending a long, spindly leg past the threshold, a giant Fox appeared.  Humanoid, about seven feet tall, he had to crouch just to make his way inside.  Serpentine, his movements were slow and deliberate.  Bizarrely dressed in a pin striped suit, complete with waistcoat and polished shoes, the Fox appeared attired like an old-fashioned gentleman.

Simply standing there in the front room of our house, Agnetha and I could only stare back at him, our mouths agape at the mere fact of such a creature’s existence.  The Fox did not speak, nor utter a sound; he just stood there, staring at us with his cold, yellow eyes.

In a flash, it was as if the most primitive parts of our brains took hold – components inherited from primitive humans who lived in fear of predation from animals in the wild.  We both ran, Agnetha first, up the stairs to our bedrooms.

The Fox gave chase - he moved quickly, using his long legs to traverse a few feet at a time.  I pumped my calves as quickly as I could, catching sight of the Fox’s glistening serrated teeth.  Agnetha slid into her bedroom and slammed the door shut. 

I’m ashamed to admit it, but I ran straight into my bedroom and hid under the bed.  My heart pounding, I tried my best to control my breathing, but I could barely catch my breath.  All at once, I resisted the uncontrollable urge to piss my pants in terror at the thought of that awful Fox suddenly finding me.  What would he do to me if he did?  I imagined his fearsome teeth, tearing through my flesh.  Why was he here?  What was happening?  I closed my eyes tight, silently praying, willing for the moment to be over and for him to be gone. 

Then all of a sudden – nothing.  Silence.  I was alone in my room under my bed, surprised at the hot tears I found streaming down my cheeks.

“Charlie!!”

Agnetha’s voice, crying out.  I slid out from under the bed and sprang to my feet faster than I thought my body capable.  Freed from my fear, I raced down the corridor and descended the stairs.  I moved so fast my feet barely touched the ground. 

Then, something else, something more my senses became aware of.  A smell, old and familiar.  Acrid and heavy.  Smoke.  The scent of burning wood.  The smell of fire.

As I came screaming downstairs, I saw the Fox throw a lit match onto the living room carpet where a small fire was already crackling.  Slung underneath his left arm was Agnetha, kicking and screaming louder than I have ever heard another human scream before or since. 

“Let my sister go!” I roared, as I ran at the Fox consumed with rage but still unsure of precisely what to do. 

Spinning around to regard me he issued fourth a swift kick, his bony foot landing squarely upon my chest and sending me hurtling across the room.  Agnetha under his arm, the Fox calmly strolled out the front door, casually tossing Agnetha through the side door of an unmarked white van that had been apparently waiting outside, its engine idling.  The Fox entered the vehicle himself, collapsing his spider-like mass into the small space as the door slid shut and the van drove off.

I never managed to get a look at the driver, but there, sat smugly in the passenger seat was Sandoval.  He had watched the entire ordeal unfold, and had most likely orchestrated it as some form of twisted retribution.

Still reeling from the Fox’s assault, I chased after the van, but it was no good.  It was too fast, and soon enough, it disappeared over the horizon.  I stood there, alone, in the middle of the street once again gasping for air as my house burned behind me.

Through her upstairs window, I could see Mrs McGorgom watching wordlessly from her wheelchair – too afraid to call the local constabulary for fear of being labelled a ‘subversive’.  Evidently, someone cared enough to eventually summon the fire suppression services.  I could hear their distinctive sirens blaring in the distance, the sound growing louder as they grew nearer. 

As hot tears streamed down my cheeks, I summoned the courage to place one foot in front of the other and slowly began walking back to the house.   Tall flames now burst through the windows of our front room, peppering the front lawn with shards of shattered glass.  In that moment, I had no words.  I wondered what had just happened. 

What would I tell my parents? 

What would I tell myself?





Tuesday, February 16, 2021

SHORT STORY: Waste Management

As a young girl, I revered my mother.  We lived together, just her and I, in a plain looking house nestled in a sleepy outer suburb.

‘Good morning, starshine’ she would say each morning as she energetically drew back my bedroom curtains, filling the room with sunlight.

James Patrik SHORT STORY: Waste Management


I idolised her, though childish pride prevented me from verbalising my feelings.  She was a woman of immense contrasts, and I wanted to be just like her when I grew up.  At once, strident yet demure.  Educated, yet still of simple tastes.  Some days, as she moved about the house, I’d study the elegant way in which she moved.  I’d try my utmost to imitate her graceful gestures precisely, often failing.  It was only due to my diligent observation that I was able to discern a subtle change in her fa├žade.  She seemed suddenly stressed, guarded.

Each night, after dinner, Mother would excuse herself and go down to our basement.

‘Just catching up on some laundry’, she’d say, typically emerging half an hour later with folded clothes. 

One night, things felt different.  It was just after my ninth birthday.   Gone for only a few moments, she returned empty handed, her face looking flushed.  Was my perfect mother hiding something?

I’d been raised to abhor secrets, so I resolved to investigate for myself.  That night after bed, I crept from my covers and into the hallway.  Up past my bedtime, the house was a strange, nocturnal place – one I was never supposed to see.  Confident I wouldn’t be punished for my infraction, I nonetheless armed myself with a white lie.  If caught, I’d claim I’d awoken for a glass of water or some other such thing.

Clad in my pyjamas, I crept past Mother’s favourite chair.  Working on her computer, her face was the picture of concentration illuminated by the harsh light of her screen.  Sat beside her was a half empty bottle of the dark liquor she’d once forbidden me from tasting.

After slipping through the basement door, I cautiously descended the wooden staircase, activating the tiny flashlight I’d brought.  As I reached the bottom, I used it to scan the room.  The circular spotlight danced about, left to right, revealing the washing machine, dryer and the other sundry items we’d abandoned there.  Suddenly – movement.  A darkened blur caught in the periphery of my vision.

‘Who’s there?’ I managed as my heart rate jumped.

Slowly piercing the circle of light was the unmistakable outline of a woman’s bosom.  I moved my flashlight slightly to reveal a woman – completely naked, her body covered in an unusual coating.   Resembling clay or thick chocolate, her dark blanket accentuated the smooth contours of her hips and made her appear slimy to the touch.

‘Good morning, starshine’, croaked the naked lady in a tone both terrifying and familiar.

‘Who are you?’, I demanded, somewhat stunned by my bravery.

‘Don’t you recognise me?’

‘You’re a naked lady in my basement!’

‘Look closer.  I am your mother’.

Instantly my mind conjured the image of my Mother upstairs.  I’d seen her with my own eyes not sixty seconds ago.

‘I am she’, continued the naked lady, ‘That part of herself she discards.  That which is unacceptable.  It is a blackness she must release in order to be your mother’.

Alarmed, I began moving towards the staircase, but before I’d moved a muscle, I felt the naked woman’s hand close around my bicep.

‘In nature, everything has balance.  Perfect people exact a price.  I am the skin she has shed.  Erupting from her subconscious.  She has done this deed for you, child’.

‘Don’t hurt me’, I pleaded.

‘Hurt you?’, the lady seemed to take umbrage, ‘I am as much your mother as she is, I am simply her shadow.  I still recall her feelings your first night home from the hospital.  Such resentment.  Her revulsion at the very sight of you, knowing she’d have to sublimate her needs for another.  As you soundly slept, I watched her resist the urge to smother you’. 

‘It’s not true!’, I spat as I tried to twist my arm from her grip, unsuccessfully.

‘Deny me all you like, but all relationships are this way.  We discard those parts of ourselves we deem distasteful so we can summon kindness and compassion.  Everybody does it.  Those feelings have to go somewhere.  You might call it a form of…waste management’.

‘I have to go’, I declared, struggling more forcefully this time, still to no avail.

‘You cannot leave.  Not now that you have seen me’.

A moment of silence hung between us as we acknowledged the uncomfortable impasse.

‘There is a way - only one - for you to ascend your stairs and return to your delusion’.

Before I could respond, the lady pressed her filthy hand into my chest.  Her fingers were ice cold and the sticky substance covering her clung to the fabric of my clothes.  Within seconds, I felt the uncontrollable urge to cough.  The naked lady released her me as my body convulsed and crumpled.  I fell to my knees before her and hacked up a terrible quantity of what looked like phlegm.  The vile, black globule presented itself on the basement floor, writhing and moving of its own accord.  Had that come from inside me?

My coughing fit complete, I jumped to my feet and bolted up the staircase, dropping the flashlight as I went.  I fully expected the naked lady to give chase, but she didn’t.  She seemed much more interested in the phlegm I had produced, inspecting it with fawning adoration.

‘A mother does what she can for her child.  Never forget your shadow, dear.  It will always be waiting for you’.

I never saw the naked lady in the basement again, nor did I tell my mother what I had seen.  I decided to allow the memory to atrophy, and so it did.  The decades passed.  I finished school.  Got married.  Got divorced.

Now I am a mother myself, with my own child - a boy - a bitter avatar of my own disappointment.  I’ll never forget the day I brought him home from the hospital.  After Mother’s death I inherited my childhood home, the same one with the basement.  I lived there with my son, just him and I, in a perfect symmetry of circumstance.

Every now and again, I would look down upon him sleeping in his cot, his tiny face a scrunched up blank canvas of limitless possibility.  I’d heard many a new mother gush about the bond between mother and child – an unspoken, immediate connection - primal and ancient.  I’d watch him sleep, and feel cold inside.  Empty.  As if the very sight of him filled me with hatred.  I swallowed my venom and vowed to fulfill my obligation.  As he began to grow into a young man, I became determined to be for him no less than the perfect mother.

I never told him what I keep hidden in our basement.  The black waste.  A disgusting biproduct of human relationships.  I hope he lives as long as possible before he too learns the truth.

 

 

 

SHORT STORY: The House Always Wins