Elly McDonald

Writer


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Father and Child (1986)

After writing a sequence of horrifying nightmare poems, I decided to attempt a life-affirming, positive poem.

I wrote it in two parts, out of an intended three: I was aiming for a triptych. But after Pt2 I felt my heart wasn’t in it. I abandoned that poem and didn’t write another poem for about 30 years. When I re-read this one I thought it was awful, Hallmark greeting card stuff. I chucked Pt2 altogether. This is Pt1.

I.

A woman pulled a rib from out
of my side
and my heart stepped out.
she looked
just like me: a small
grey-eyed, soft-fleshed, female
me.

My daughter
he said.
I am not ashamed
to recognise love.
I see no shame
in relatedness. Her eyes are
mine, and she
is my heart.

He walks
her up the road.
He holds her hand.
she rides on his back and
she laughs.

My daughter
he says, and her arms
curl around his neck as
years ago he
sucked the breast of a woman

he loves


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Wedding Photo (1986)

limbs contorted, tearing thick air: white fleshy
boomerangs broken
arms, snapped ribs: eyes fear-forced open, bruised and
swollen closed, the smashed
nose and plates, bent knives, kicked in
door
permanent
images, fixed like that clock – one hand
wrenched off, stoved in and reckless, lying
on its side on the living
room floor – no progress, not ever, silenced and
strange; or the door-frame, splintered
as readily as bone – the violated
flywire, the hammer-bashed
lock: glass stabbed curtains and blood
in the bathroom – the bride in the photo
(no sound) lies senseless, scrunched up
and torn
face downwards


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Two Stories (1986)

Unbalanced, tall buildings loom
above us: screening out the sky, too close
together – like cramped teeth they jut
in shades of bone decay. I look quickly
at her
she looks down, and frowns

Uneven, the roadface staggers before
us. Cobblestones: smooth swellings
cemented together, colourless, so cold –
like trampling
thousands of hardened dead
breasts. Now she turns on me
her death’s head, survivor’s stare


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Possums (1986)

black
streets drop away, breath
catches, while rain
– not quite falling – 
hangs in dark clumps of
night and possums sit
in the middle of a fence
nightfall
wide-eyed, they observe – not caring
neither way
we mean nothing, this is nothing
not to them, not us
come away
from here, take care
in this dark, bright-eyed
with cars – we are blinded
by cars –
in public, all observed
two possums stare
balanced on a fence
you and I, eye to eye
you and I, watching on
small blundering familiars
neither comprehend nor care
my hand reaches out
to your shoulder, instinctive – I touch
your neck:
warm and unresponsive – you’re scared
we two, clinging lightly
lean on each other
look up, look and see large
luminous eyes
in a damp-cheeked night


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Ghosts (1986)

walking onwards, then at once
pulled up
pulled back – as if by an image reflected
in a window, a face one-known
your own
aged features – sharp-edged, so
white – a bloodless light hand
reaches out
touch finger touch phantom a skeleton bridge
half-flesh, half-hope: the ghost
behind your eyes steps out, stands beside you
but it can’t be
you at all

not this time.
In half dark (half-light into
night), it’s someone you remember:
someone else.

Your stare mirrors his; the ghost you’ve become
sees itself living, behind
his eyes reflected; in the present, it relives
a scene from the past.
It stares through a window and sees you both
there – profiles overlapping, fingers touch
flesh… the man (who is him) looks up
stops
stares out the window, straight at the phantom, half-sees
through shadow: he says
I once knew her
The girl with him smiles (she is you, and she smiles)
Go on, go and tell her
‘good to see her again. Go out there
and talk but
He looks away and whispers
She won’t talk to me now

now on this street
you stop, you stare
you can see yourself touching (white lip touches
shoulder), phantom lips
plead promise me
don’t ever walk past me, don’t let me
walk past
No matter what happens, whoever
we become, I will always
stop:

Stop here for me now


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Two NQP (Not Quite Poems)

Love letters from the council estate boys

1.
Lady in orange we like you
No real reason
Just your treble clef curves
Those playground heels
The way your hair foofs
Like a TV commercial come
To life
The bow’n’arrow smile
The narrowed eyes
That bag slung over your shoulder shouts
money

2.
You are my perfect woman.
Come out with me.
Here is my phone number.
I have a job.

Photo from UN Women FB

Death Sports

There are no excuses for us.
We are still the savage species
thrilling to
dog fights
bear baiting
cock fighting.
Death sports.
The fall of the fortunate
our enemies hacked to death.
Not even our enemies
The cats in the sack
ignite

We must know
the law is an ass.
We 
only believe
in the mob.

Artwork by Chen Hongzhi


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A few more poems I like, in no order

I find myself unable to work with WordPress Block editing. Apologies to the poets whose poems are not set out as they should be here.

Lee Herrick

Flight

The in-flight magazine crossword partially done,
a corner begun here, scratched out answers there,
one set of answers in pencil, another in the green.
The woman with the green ball point knew
the all-time hit king is Rose and the Siem Reap
treasure is Angkor Wat. The woman, perhaps en route
to hold her dying mother’s hand in Seattle, forgot
about death for ten minutes while remembering her
husband’s Cincinnati Reds hat while gardening after
the diagnosis. Her handwriting was so clean. Maybe
she was a surgeon. Maybe a painter. No. What painter
wouldn’t know 17 down, Diego’s love, five letters?
In a rush, her dying mother’s voice came back
to her, or maybe she was Chinese and her mother’s
imagined voice said, wo ai ni. At 30,000 feet,
you focus on 33 across, Asian American classic,
The Woman ________, when a stranger in the window
seat sees the clue, watches me write in W, and she says
Warrior, and for a moment you forget it is your favorite
memoir, and she reminds you of lilies or roses, Van Gogh
or stems with thorns, art galleries in romantic cities
where she is headed but you should not go. The flight
attendant grazes my shoulder. The crossword squares,
the letters, the chairs and aisles seem so tight in flight,
but there is nothing here but room, really.
Maybe the next passenger will know
what I do not: 64 down, five letters, Purpose.
And why do we remember what we do? We know
the buzz of Dickinson’s fly and the number of years
in Marquez’s solitude, but some things we will never
know, as it should be: why the body sometimes rumbles
like a plane hurtling over southern Oregon, how exactly
we fall in love, or if Frida and Maxine Hong
Kingston would have loved the same kind of tea.

Originally published in Daily Gramma, October 2016.

The Birds Outside My Window Sing During a Pandemic

What we need has always been inside of us.
For some—a few poets or farmers, perhaps—
it’s always near the surface. Others, it’s buried.
It was in our original design, though—pre-machine,
pre-border, pre-pandemic. I imagine it like the light
one might feel through the body before dying,
a warm calm, a slow breath, a sweet rush.
There is, by every measure, reason for fear,
concern, a concert in the balcony of anxiety
made of what has also always been inside of us:
a kind of knowing that everything could break.
But it hasn’t quite yet and probably won’t.
What I mean to say is, I had a daydream
and got lost inside of it. There were dozens
of birds for some reason, who sounded like
they were singing in different accents:
shelter in place, shelter in place.
You’re made of stars and grace.
Stars and grace. Stars—and grace.

Originally published in MiGoZine, March 2020.

Burlee Vang

To Live in the Zombie Apocalypse

The moon will shine for God
knows how long.
As if it still matters. As if someone

is trying to recall a dream.
Believe the brain is a cage of light
& rage. When it shuts off,

something else switches on.
There’s no better reason than now
to lock the doors, the windows.

Turn off the sprinklers
& porch light. Save the books
for fire. In darkness,

we learn to read
what moves along the horizon,
across the periphery of a gun scope—

the flicker of shadows,
the rustling of trash in the body
of cities long emptied.

Not a soul lives
in this house &
this house & this

house. Go on, stiffen
the heart, quicken
the blood. To live

in a world of flesh
& teeth, you must
learn to kill

what you love,
& love what can die.

Copyright © 2016 by Burlee Vang. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on December 20, 2016, by the Academy of American Poets.

Jenny Xie

Square Cells

The screens plant bulbs
of tension inward, but hit no nerves.

River of speechless current.
My gaze faces the screen, laps up

blue-eyed policemen in bloom
and a fat fog fanning out by the inch

across cities in eastern China.
Refresh for a politician yawning

wolfish monosyllables.
In the bed of pixels, I can make out

truth and fiction taking turns,
one imitating the other.

My window faces stone and glass.
My screen faces my face.

The clean square cells of this city
contain so many faces.

Each brightened by a fear
which makes them commonplace.

Copyright © 2017 by Jenny Xie.

e.e. cummings

Amores (I)

your little voice 
                              Over the wires came leaping 
and i felt suddenly 
dizzy 
          With the jostling and shouting of merry flowers 
wee skipping high-heeled flames 
courtesied before my eyes 
                                                or twinkling over to my side 
Looked up 
with impertinently exquisite faces 
floating hands were laid upon me 
I was whirled and tossed into delicious dancing 
up 
Up 
with the pale important 
                                                stars and the Humorous 
                                                                                                moon 
dear girl 
How i was crazy how i cried when i heard 
                                                                              over time 
and tide and death 
leaping 
Sweetly 
               your voice

Jane Hirshfield

Like Others

In the end,
I was like others.
A person.

Sometimes embarrassed,
sometimes afraid.

When “Fire!” was shouted,
some ran toward it,
some away—

I neck-deep among them.

—2017

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Recipe For Happiness Khaborovsk Or Anyplace

“Poetry is a naked woman, a naked man, and the distance between them.”

One grand boulevard with trees 
with one grand cafe in sun 
with strong black coffee in very small cups. 

One not necessarily very beautiful 
man or woman who loves you. 

One fine day. 

Alexandra Teague

Adjectives of Order

That summer, she had a student who was obsessed 
with the order of adjectives. A soldier in the South 
Vietnamese army, he had been taken prisoner when 

Saigon fell. He wanted to know why the order 
could not be altered. The sweltering city streets shook
with rockets and helicopters. The city sweltering 

streets. On the dusty brown field of the chalkboard, 
she wrote: The mother took warm homemade bread 
from the oven. City is essential to streets as homemade 

is essential to bread . He copied this down, but 
he wanted to know if his brothers were lost  before 
older, if he worked security at a twenty-story modern

downtown bank or downtown twenty-story modern.
When he first arrived, he did not know enough English 
to order a sandwich. He asked her to explain each part 

of Lovely big rectangular old red English Catholic
leather Bible. Evaluation before size. Age before color. 
Nationality before religion. Time before length. Adding 

and, one could determine if two adjectives were equal. 
After Saigon fell, he had survived nine long years 
of torture. Nine and long. He knew no other way to say this.

From Mortal Geography by Alexandra Teague, Persea Books. Copyright © 2010 by Alexandra Teague.

Alexandra Teague

Late American Aubade

Man in a chicken suit, you’re the only one today 
not selling beauty: 5th Avenue star-struck with Christmas,
three-story diamonds and flocks of ballerinas pirouetting
clockworking gears as if the Industrial Revolution
were a life-sized music box of desires and we’ve just kept 
on winding. If. And Wish Upon. And shopping bag. And you
with your wind-ruffled feathers and flyers, pleading 
for our primitive hungers. That inelegant grease spot 
and crunch to remind us. The mannequins don’t 
even have bones. I’ll never have a purse nice enough
to hold a wallet worth the money to buy the purse
at Barney’s. And what does it matter? There are drumsticks.
I’m a vegetarian. You are no masked creature worth hugging
for a picture. No Minnie. No marble nymph of Beauty
in pigeon net outside the library:  old yet ever new eternal voice 
and inward word. As if we hear it clear in the gizzard: 
Beauty is God and love made real. You will be this beautiful
if. You are the rock in the crowd-raked garden of traffic,
just past the corner of jaguar-made-of-dazzle and flapper
reading Shakespeare bound in bardic sparkles. Your yellow,
a scant flag to claim us:  ordinary strange as holy chickens
in a gilded cage in Spain. Their ancestors, heralds 
of a miracle. A huge mechanical owl recites Madonna 
in a window Baz Luhrmann designed since February. 
It takes all year for a miracle with this many moving parts.
All of us in a rush to wait for the catastrophe of personality 
to seem beautiful again. As if this is the best we can hope for:  
seeming to ourselves—like panhandlers dressed as Buddhist 
monks the real monks are protesting. Asked for her secret, the model for Beauty said, The dimples on my back
have been more valuable to me than war bonds. Asked for proof, 
one orange-robed woman said, I can’t tell you where, but I do
have a temple. Beaked promise of later lunch, catastrophe
of unbeautiful feather, how can we eat the real you
that you are not? Which came first? The shell to hatch 
desire, or desire? Which skin holds my glittering temple?  

Copyright © 2016 by Alexandra Teague. “Late American Aubade” originally appeared in Cimarron Review. 

Yi Lei

A Single Woman’s Bedroom

translated by Tracy K. Smith & Changtai Bi

1. Mirror Trick

Of course you know her.
She is one and many,
A multitude flashing on, then off,
Watching out from the tidy blank
of her face. She is silent, speaking
With just her mind. She is flesh, a form,
but also flat, a mute screen.
What she offers you, by no means
Should you accept.  She belongs to no-one,
sitting like a ghost beyond her own reach.
And yet, she’s there—I mean me
Behind glass, as if the world has been cleaved,
Though something whole remains,
Roving, free, a voice with poise and pitch.
 She’s there—me—snug in the glass,
The little mirror on the bedside
Doing its one trick
A hundred times a day.
             You didn’t come to live with me.
 

2. Turkish Bath

The room is choked with nudes.
Once, a man tried to muscle in by mistake
Crying, “Turkish bath!” He had no idea
My door is always locked in this heat,
No idea that I am the sole guest and client,
The chief consort, that I cast my gaze
Of pity and absolute pride across
The length of my limbs—lithe, pristine—
The bells of my breasts singing,
The high bright note of my ass,
My shoulders a warm chord,
The chorus of muscle that rings
Ecstatic.  I am my own model.
I create, am created, my bed
Is heaped with photo albums,
Socks and slips scatted on a table.
A spray of winter jasmine wilts
In its glass vase, dim yellow, like
Despondent gold. Blossoms carpet
The floor, which is a patchwork
Of pillows. Pick a corner, sleep in peace.
             You didn’t come to live with me.
 

3. Curtain Habit

The curtain seals out the day.
Better that way to let my mind
See what it sees (every evil under the sun),
Or to kneel before the heart, quiet king,
Feeling brave and consummately free.
Better that way to let all that I want
And all I believe swarm me like bees,
Or ghosts, or a cloud of smoke someone
Blows, beckoning. I come. I cry out
In release. I give birth
To a battery of clever babies—triplets,
Quintuplets, so many all at once.
The curtain seals in my joy.
The curtain holds the razor out of reach,
Puts the pills on a shelf out of sight.
The curtain snuffs shut and I bask in the bounty
Of being alive. The music begins.
Love pools in every corner.
             You didn’t come to live with me.
 

4.  Self-Portrait

The camera snaps. Spits me out starkly ugly.
So I set out to paint the self within myself.
It takes twelve tubes, blended to a living tint,
Before I believe me. I name the mixture Color P.
The hair—curious, unlikely—is my favorite,
The same fluff of bangs tickling my niece’s face.
And my eyebrows are wide as hills. They swallow everything.
They are a feat.  They do not impress me as likely to age.
They are brimming with wisdom. Neither slavish nor stern.
Not magnificent, but not the kind made to crumple in shame.
Not prudish.  Unwilling to arch and beckon like a whore’s. 
They skitter away from certainties like alive or dead
My self-portrait hangs on the narrow wall,
And I kneel down to it every day. 

             You didn’t come to live with me.
 

5.  Impromptu Party

The little table is draped with a festive cloth, and
Light blurs out from a single lamp, making us fuzzy.

A sip of red wine, and I rise to my feet. We are
Dancing, my guests and I, like kids in a ballroom.

We don’t smile or even speak. 
We’ve had a lot to drink.

To a single woman, time is like a scrap of meat:
Nothing you can afford to give away. I want

To hold it in my lap, Time, that sneak, that thief already
Scheming to break free.  Please—I beg

Upon the magnificent extravagance of my beloved stilettos,
I want the world back.  I’ve been alive—could it be?—

Near a century. My face has closed up shop. 
My feet are a desolate country. 

For a single woman, youth is a feast that lasts
Only until it is gone.

             You didn’t come to live with me.
 

6.  Invitation

When it arrived, I was interrupted by relief,
Sitting in my rattan chair, feeling the wind ease in
Through the hole in my life.

I only said yes because of his dissertation. Friends,
Nothing more. We talked—he talked—about modernism,
Black humor. But always at a distance from reality.

Why didn’t he ask me anything?
Tender and petulant, he struck me as cute.
But at heart, only a very well-behaved boy.

He offers his arm. Elegant, decent, gallant.
But how can I prove myself a woman
If he is a child? What can come of that union?

Can any of us save ourselves? Save another?

             You didn’t come to live with me.
 

7. Sunday Alone

I don’t picnic on Sundays.
Parks are a sad song; I steer clear.
But I dug out all my sheet music,
I lolled about in the Turkish Bath
Singing from breakfast to tea.
With my hair, I sang Do
And my eyes, Re
And my ear sounded Mi
And my nose went after Fa
My face tilted back and out rose So
My mouth breathed La
My whole body birthed Ti
Like my cousin said, famously—
Music is the soul sighing.
Music pushes back against pain.
Solitude is great (but I don’t want
Greatness). My eyes slump
Against the walls. My hair
Hurls itself at the ceiling like a colony
Of bats.
             You didn’t come to live with me.
 

8.  Dialectic

I read materialist philosophy—
Material ispeerless.
But I’m creationless.
I don’t even procreate.
What use does the world have for me
Here beside my reams of cock-eyed drafts
That nick away at the mountain of
Art and philosophy?
             Firstly, Existentialism.
             Secondly, Dadaism.
             Thirdly, Positivism.
             Lastly, Surrealism.
Mostly, I think people live
For the sake of living.
Is living a feat?
What will last?
My chief function is obsolescence.
Still, I send out my stubborn breath
In every direction. I am determined
To commit myself to a marriage
Of connivance.
             You didn’t come to live with me.
 

9.  Downpour

Rain hacks at the earth like an insatiable man.
Disquiet, like passion, subsides instantly.
Six distinct desires mate, are later married.
At the moment, I want everything and nothing.
The rainstorm barricaded all the roads. Sandbags.
Isn’t there something gladdening about a dead-end?
I canceled my plans, my trysts, my escapes.
For a moment—I almost blinked and missed it—the storm
Stopped the clock that chases me. The clock of the heart, maybe.
It was an ecstasy so profound…
             “Ah, linger on, thou art so fair!”
I’d rather admit despair. And die.
                         You didn’t come to live with me.
 

10. Dream of Symbolism

I occupy the walls that surround me.
When did I become so rectilinear?
I had a rectilinear dream:
The rectilinear sky in Leo:
The head, for a while, shone brightest.
Next the tail.  After a while
It became a wild horse
Galloping into the distances of the universe,
Lasso dragging behind, tethered to nothing.
There are no roads in the black night that contains us.
Every step is a step into absence.
I don’t remember the last time I saw
A free soul. If she still exists, fire-eyed gypsy,
She’ll die young.
                         You didn’t come to live with me.
 

11. Birthday Candles

They are like heaps of stars.
My flat roof is like a private galaxy
That stretches on stubbornly forever.

The universe created us by chance,
Our birth, simple happenstance.
Should life be guarded or gambled?
Lodged in a vault or flung to the wind?

God announces: Happy Birthday.
Everyone raises a glass and giggles audibly.
Death gets clearer in the distance. Closer by a year.

Because all are afraid, none is afraid.
It’s pity how fast youth sputters and burns,
Its flame like the season’s last peony.
A bright misery.

                         You didn’t come to live with me.
 

12.  Cigarette

I lift it to my lips, supremely slim,
Igniting my desire to be a woman.
I appreciate the grace of the gesture,
Cosmopolitan, a shorthand for beauty,
The winding haze off the tip like the chaos of sex.
Loneliness can be sweet. I re-read the paper.
The ban on smoking underway
Has gotten a bonfire of support. A heated topic,
Though I find it inflammatory. Authority
Flings a struck match in our direction, then
Gasps when we flare into flame. Law:
A contest between low-lives and sophisticates,
Though only time knows who is who.
Tonight I want to commit a victimless crime.
                         You didn’t come to live with me.
 

13.  Thinking  

I spend all my spare time doing it.
I give it a name: walking indoors.
I imagine a life in which I possess
All that I lack. I fix what has failed.
What never was, I build and seize.
It’s impossible to think of everything,
Yet more and more I do. Thinking
What I am afraid to say keeps fear
And fear’s twin, rage, at bay. Law
Squints out from its burrow, jams
Its quiver with arrows. It shoots
Like it thinks: never straight. My thoughts
Escape. One day, they’ll emigrate
To a kingdom far-off and heady.
My visa’s in-process, though like anyone,
I worry it’s overpopulated already.
                         You didn’t come to live with me.

14.  Hope

This city of riches has fallen empty.
Small rooms like mine are easy to breech.
Watchmen pace, peer in, gazes hungry.
I come and go, always alone, heavy with worry.
My flesh forsakes itself. Strangers’ eyes
Drill into me till I bleed. I beg God:
Make me a ghost. Something invisible
Blocks every road. I wait night after night
With a hope beyond hope. If you come,
Will nation rise against nation? If you come,
Will the Yellow River drown its banks?
If you come, will the sky blacken and rage?
Will your coming decimate the harvest?
There is nothing I can do in the face of all I hate.
What I hate most is the person I’ve become.
                         You didn’t come to live with me.

Copyright © 2018 by Tracy K. Smith.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Please Call Me by My True Names

Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow —even today I am still arriving.

Look deeply: every second I am arriving to be a bud on a Spring branch, to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings, learning to sing in my new nest, to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower, to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry, to fear and to hope. The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death of all that is alive.

I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river. And I am the bird that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily in the clear water of a pond. And I am the grass-snake that silently feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones, my legs as thin as bamboo sticks. And I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat, who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate.

And I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my hands. And I am the man who has to pay his “debt of blood” to my people dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.

My joy is like Spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth. My pain is like a river of tears, so vast it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names, so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once, so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names, so I can wake up, and so the door of my heart can be left open, nthe door of compassion.

Öykü Tekten

Mountain Language

the day after the mulberry tree fell on its belly, the army bombed a truck 
full of black umbrellas sent from russia against the tyranny of rain. they 
said, the black umbrellas are no longer allowed in the mountains. hats 
are. guns are. gods are. the trees are offensive to the sky. then 
they called our language mountain, then they pronounced it dead. 

we are in a dream, you said. undo the pain before you speak
against the gods with mouths full of rain. a tongue cut in half 
becomes sharper, you said. date your wound.

Copyright © 2020 by Öykü Tekten. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on October 21, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.

Adrienne Rich

Twenty-One Love Poems [Poem III]

Since we’re not young, weeks have to do time
for years of missing each other. Yet only this odd warp
in time tells me we’re not young.
Did I ever walk the morning streets at twenty,
my limbs streaming with a purer joy?
did I lean from any window over the city
listening for the future
as I listen here with nerves tuned for your ring?
And you, you move toward me with the same tempo.
Your eyes are everlasting, the green spark
of the blue-eyed grass of early summer,
the green-blue wild cress washed by the spring.
At twenty, yes: we thought we’d live forever.
At forty-five, I want to know even our limits.
I touch you knowing we weren’t born tomorrow,
and somehow, each of us will help the other live,
and somewhere, each of us must help the other die.

Poem III from “Twenty-One Love Poems,” from The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974-1977 by Adrienne Rich. Copyright © 1978 by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

December 26, 2020
Emilie Zoey Baker
I

On New Year’s Eve a small river of brown snakes crossed our path
What does this mean? my friends wondered
I said it means we have to stay wide awake this year, pay attention.

Animals are omens. 

II

We got a kitten during lockdown
and I taught him to walk on a lead
we named him Panko, a tiny crumb amid a PAN-demic of CO-vid 
I would push a harness over his crayon sun face,
then let him lick meat cream from my fingers.
Now he’s tethered, clipped to a lead whenever outdoors, to save the honeyeaters, rosellas, whipbirds, cockatoos and king parrots.  
We nicknamed him Clippy.
He comes in and out, making a cat’s cradle with the cord
we have to climb over it as if he’s woven intricate laser beams in a heist movie,
booby-trapped the doorway
Home Aloned us.  

The tomato plant near the doorway is wounded from his leash, a slow cut each day
like me on Twitter
like every night I say it will be a new day
but I wake up and think
I better check if the world has ended
log on to the junk feed and absorb everything

I have to pay attention.

III

I wake up covered in dream post-it notes 
the urgency of action in an actionless day
the news stapled into my stomach 
its metal claws piercing the sides
I kept wishing I’d suddenly change
but there have been way more aspirins than moons.
My belly got big so I named it King George 
because mediaeval royalty wasn’t taught to body-shame.  

The toilet paper part of lockdown feels so long ago now
the Tiger King part of lockdown
the faked dolphins in Venice part of lockdown
the Universal Declaration of Bunnings Rights part of lockdown
the done-all-of-Brighton part of lockdown
the cranberry juice and Fleetwood Mac part of lockdown
the aerial shots of hospital carparks part of lockdown
the marches, violence and justice part of lockdown

I’m world-sick. But the snakes insisted.  

The prime minister waving his Sharkies scarf while we couldn’t hug our friends
the prime minister offering leadership by holding a hammer (not a hose)
the unwanted handshakes turning into gormless grinning elbow bumps. 

The air in China suddenly full of clean-crystal hope, 
now again heavy with particles 
as black as Rudy Giuliani’s skull tears. 
Unprecedented times. I watch it unspool. 
The Moses-sized divides leave me thirsty
for unpresidented times.
Memes blaze 
catastrophes duplicate.
It all thumps through me like bass.  

IV

In the beginning I saw myself like a fossil in a rock placed back into a mountain
the imprinted ridges still there, clicking back like a battery
I stayed quiet as the stone around me.
Now I must prise myself out again.
I tried to cry an ocean so the tides might bring back what was there before, wash me up to my own feet
because only an ocean can dissolve a mountain.
I’m not sure who I have become or what I will do. 
This year is vibrating with such monolithic symbolism there’s little room for poetry.
Maybe making friends with a kitten is enough.

V

The Rockefeller Christmas owl was hunkered on a branch when they chopped her tree down and hauled it to the Rockefeller Centre.
There’s a photo of the owl placed in a box 
looking at us with eyes like angry amber biscuits.
They filled her tree with their city,
added coloured lights and winding tinsel streets 
and called her a “stowaway”.
“She wanted to see the Big Apple!”

Christmas reminds us we’re monsters,
shows up our Pac-Man consumerism.
Blowing up ancient caves, tearing down sacred trees for three minutes of highway.
Waving smirk and coal around in parliament. 

Decimating forests. 

Some cultures believe owls to be messengers for shamans to 
communicate with the spirit world
The Rockefeller Christmas owl “got her own” children’s book.

VI

At yoga the teacher let it slip there’s a serpent coiled at the bottom of our spines
then quickly took it back
you’re not supposed to know that yet
she said
but that’s not the sort of thing I can unknow  
I googled the hell out of it. 

The sickeningly symbolic river of macrocosmic snakes made their way into my spine. 
Now I can stay awake and finally close my eyes. 
Emilie Zoey Baker is an award-winning poet and spoken-word performer who has toured internationally including being a guest at Ubud Writers Festival, The Milosz Festival Poland and was the winner of the Berlin International Literature Festival’s poetry slam. She was a Fellow at the State Library of Victoria, poet-in-residence for Museums Victoria and coordinator for the National Australian Poetry Slam. She teaches poetry to both kids and adults and was core faculty for the spoken word program at Canada’s Banff Centre. 

Max Ritvo

Amuse-Bouche

It is rare that I
have to stop eating anything
because I have run out of it.

We, in the West, eat until we want
to eat something else,
or want to stop eating altogether.

The chef of a great kitchen
uses only small plates.

He puts a small plate in front of me,
knowing I will hunger on for it
even as the next plate is being
placed in front of me.

But each plate obliterates the last
until I no longer mourn the destroyed plate,

but only mewl for the next,
my voice flat with comfort and faith.

And the chef is God,
whose faithful want only the destruction
of His prior miracles to make way
for new ones.

From The Final Voicemails Milkweed Editions © 2018 by Max Ritvo.

William Reichard

In the Evening

The night air is filled 
with the scent of apples, 
and the moon is nearly full.

In the next room, Jim 
is reading; a small cat sleeps 
in the crook of his arm. 

The night singers are loud, 
proclaiming themselves 
every evening until they run

out of nights and die in
the cold, or burrow down into 
the mud to dream away the winter.

My office is awash in books
and photographs, and the sepia/pink
sunset stains all its light touches. 

I’ve never been a good traveler, 
but there are days, like this one,
when I’d pay anything to be in

another country, or standing on
the cold, grey moon, staring back
at the disaster we call our world. 

We crave change, but 
turn away from it. 
We drown in contradictions. 

Tonight, I’ll sleep 
blanketed in moonlight. 
In my dreams, I’ll have 

nothing to say about anything
important. I’ll simply live my life, 
and let the night singers live theirs,

until all of us are gone.
I won’t say a word, and let
silence speak in my stead.

Copyright © 2020 by William Reichard. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on November 19, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.

Eileen Myles

Howl

a refrigerator
makes a lot
of sound
so does a bird
people are
always talking
full of love
& pain
we started
a fund
and the dogs
are needing
some money &
I don’t know how
to do
it & I’ll
learn from
one of them
Tom’s blue
shirt & glasses
are perfect.
My teeshirt
is good
my pen works
I breathe.

Copyright © 2020 by Eileen Myles. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on December 3, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.

Tarfia Faizullah

Poem Full of Worry Ending with My Birth

I worry that my friends
will misunderstand my silence

as a lack of love, or interest, instead
of a tent city built for my own mind,

I worry I can no longer pretend
enough to get through another

year of pretending I know
that I understand time, though

I can see my own hands; sometimes,
I worry over how to dress in a world

where a white woman wearing
a scarf over her head is assumed

to be cold, whereas with my head
cloaked, I am an immediate symbol

of a war folks have been fighting
eons-deep before I was born, a meteor.

Copyright © 2018 by Tarfia Faizullah. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on April 10, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.

Bei Dao

Ramallah

in Ramallah
the ancients play chess in the starry sky
the endgame flickers
a bird locked in a clock
jumps out to tell the time

in Ramallah
the sun climbs over the wall like an old man
and goes through the market
throwing mirror light on
a rusted copper plate

in Ramallah
gods drink water from earthen jars
a bow asks a string for directions
a boy sets out to inherit the ocean
from the edge of the sky

in Ramallah
seeds sown along the high noon
death blossoms outside my window
resisting, the tree takes on a hurricane’s
violent original shape

“Ramallah” by Bei Dao, from World Beat: International Poetry Now, copyright 2006 by Zhao Zhenkai, Translation © Eliot Weinberger and Iona Man-Cheong. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

Ocean Vuong

Kissing in Vietnamese

My grandmother kisses
as if bombs are bursting in the backyard,
where mint and jasmine lace their perfumes
through the kitchen window,
as if somewhere, a body is falling apart
and flames are making their way back
through the intricacies of a young boy’s thigh,
as if to walk out the door, your torso
would dance from exit wounds.
When my grandmother kisses, there would be
no flashy smooching, no western music
of pursed lips, she kisses as if to breathe
you inside her, nose pressed to cheek
so that your scent is relearned
and your sweat pearls into drops of gold
inside her lungs, as if while she holds you
death also, is clutching your wrist.
My grandmother kisses as if history
never ended, as if somewhere
a body is still
falling apart.

Copyright © 2014 by Ocean Vuong. Reprinted from Split This Rock’s The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database

Brenda Shaughnessy

One Love Story, Eight Takes

                                    Where you are tender, you speak your plural. 
                                    Roland Barthes 
                                               1

One version of the story is I wish you back—
that I used each evening evening out
what all day spent wrinkling.

I bought a dress that was so extravagantly feminine
you could see my ovaries through it.

This is how I thought I would seduce you.
This is how frantic I hollowed out.

                                                   2

Another way of telling it
is to hire some kind of gnarled

and symbolic troll to make
a tape recording.

Of plastic beads coming unglued
from a child’s jewelry box.

This might be an important sound,
like serotonin or mighty mitochondria,

so your body hears about
how you stole the ring made

from a glittery opiate
and the locket that held candy.

                                                    3

It’s only fair that I present yet another side,
as insidious as it is,

because two sides hold up nothing but each other.

A tentacled skepticism,
a suspended contempt,

such fancies and toxins form a third wall.

A mean way to end
and I never dreamed we meant it.

                                                    4

Another way of putting it is like
slathering jam on a scrape.

Do sweets soothe pain or simply make it stick?
Which is the worst! So much technology
and no fix for sticky if you can’t taste it.

I mean there’s no relief unless.
So I’m coming, all this excitement,

to your house. To a place where there’s no room for play.
It is possible you’ll lock me out and I’ll finally
focus on making mudcakes look solid in the rain.

                                                    5

In some cultures the story told is slightly different—
in that it is set in an aquarium and the audience participates

as various fish. The twist comes when it is revealed
that the most personally attractive fish have eyes

only on one side and repel each other like magnets.
The starfish is the size of an eraser and does as much damage.

Starfish, the eponymous and still unlikely hero, has
those five pink moving suckerpads

that allow endless permutations so no solid memory,
no recent history, nothing better, left unsaid.

                                                    6

The story exists even when there are no witnesses,
kissers, tellers. Because secrets secrete,

and these versions tend to be slapstick, as if in a candy
factory the chocolate belted down the conveyor too fast

or everyone turned sideways at the same time by accident.
This little tale tries so hard to be humorous,

wants so badly to win affection and to lodge.
Because nothing is truly forgotten and loved.

                                                    7

Three million Richards can’t be wrong.
So when they levy a critique of an undertaking which,

in their view, overtakes, I take it seriously.
They think one may start a tale off whingy

and wretched in a regular voice.
But when one strikes out whimsically,

as if meta-is-better, as if it isn’t you,
as if this story is happening to nobody

it is only who you are fooling that’s nobody.
The Richards believe you cannot

privately jettison into the sky, just for fun.
You must stack stories from the foundation up.

From the sad heart and the feet tired of supporting it.
Language is architecture, after all, not an air capsule,

not a hang glide. This is real life.
So don’t invite anyone to a house that hasn’t been built.

Because no one unbuilds meticulously
and meticulosity is what allows hearing.

Three million Richards make one point.
I hear it in order to make others. Mistake.

                                                    8

As it turns out, there is a wrong way to tell this story.
I was wrong to tell you how muti-true everything is,

when it would be truer to say nothing.
I’ve invented so much and prevented more.

But, I’d like to talk with you about other things,
in absolute quiet. In extreme context.

To see you again, isn’t love revision?
It could have gone so many ways.

This just one of the ways it went.
Tell me another.
Brenda Shaughnessy, “One Love Story, Eight Takes” from Human Dark with Sugar, Copper Canyon Press. Copyright © 2008 by Brenda Shaughnessy.  http://www.coppercanyonpress.org

Donna Stonecipher

The Ruins of Nostalgia 59 

We felt nostalgic for libraries, even though we were sitting in a library. We looked around the library lined with books and thought of other libraries we had sat in lined with books and then of all the libraries we would never sit in lined with books, some of which contained scenes set in libraries.   *   We felt nostalgic for post offices, even though we were standing in a post office. We studied the rows of stamps under glass and thought about how their tiny castles, poets, cars, and flowers would soon be sent off to all cardinal points. We rarely got paper letters anymore, so our visits to the post office were formal, pro forma.   *   We felt nostalgic for city parks, even though we were walking through a city park, in a city full of city parks in a country full of cities full of city parks, with their green benches, bedraggled bushes, and shabby pansies, cut into the city. (Were the city parks bits of nature showing through cutouts in the concrete, or was the concrete showing through cutouts in nature?)   *   We sat in a café drinking too much coffee and checking our feeds, wondering why we were more anxious about the future than anxiously awaiting it. Was the future showing through cutouts in the present, or were bits of the present showing through cutouts in a future we already found ourselves in, arrived in our café chairs like fizzled jetpacks? The café was in a former apothecary lined with dark wood shelves and glowing white porcelain jars labeled in gilded Latin, which for many years had sat empty. Had a person with an illness coming to fetch her weekly dose of meds from one of the jars once said to the city surrounding the shop, which was no longer this city, Stay, thou art so fair? Weren’t these the words that had sealed the bargainer’s doom? Sitting in our presumptive futures, must we let everything run through our hands—which were engineered to grab—into the past? In the library, in the post office, in the city park, in the café, in the apothecary… o give us the medicine, even if it is a pharmakon—which, as the pharmacist knows, either poisons or heals—just like nostalgia. Just like the ruins of nostalgia.

Copyright © 2020 by Donna Stonecipher. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on December 8, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.

Suji Kwock Kim

Search Engine: Notes from the North Korean-Chinese-Russian Border

          By which a strip of land became a hole in time
                                                       —Durs Grünbein

Grandfather I cannot find, 
flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone, 
what country do you belong to: 

where is your body buried, 
where did your soul go 
when the road led nowhere? 

Grandfather I’ll never know, 
the moment father last saw you 
rips open a wormhole 

that has no end: the hours 
became years, the years 
forever: and on the other side 

lies a memory of a memory 
or a dream of a dream of a dream 
of another life, where what happened 

never happened, what cannot come true 
comes true: and neither erases 
the other, or the other others, 

world after world, to infinity— 
If only I could cross the border 
and find you there, 

find you anywhere, 
as if you could tell me who he is, or was,  
or might have become:  

no bloodshot eyes, or broken 
bottles, or praying with cracked lips 
because the past is past and was is not is— 

Grandfather, stranger, 
give me back my father— 
or not back, not back, give me the father 

I might have had:                                  
there, in the country that no longer exists, 
on the other side of the war— 

Copyright © 2019 by Suji Kwock Kim. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on December 6, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.

Adrienne Rich

Diving into the Wreck

First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
assiduous team
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.

There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
hanging innocently
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.
Otherwise
it is a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.

I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
will begin.

First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.

And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
lived here
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
and besides
you breathe differently down here.

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body.
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he

whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

From Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971-1972 by Adrienne Rich. Copyright © 1973 by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Copyright 1973 by Adrienne Rich.

Hsieh Ling-yun

Visiting Pai-an Pavilion

Beside this dike, I shake off the world's dust, 
enjoying walks alone near my brushwood house. 

A small stream gurgles down a rocky gorge. 
Mountains rise beyond the trees, 

kingfisher blue, almost beyond description, 
but reminding me of the fisherman's simple life. 

From a grassy bank, I listen 
as springtime fills my heart. 

Finches call and answer in the oaks. 
Deer cry out, then return to munching weeds. 

I remember men who knew a hundred sorrows, 
and the gratitude they felt for gifts. 

Joy and sorrow pass, each by each, 
failure at one moment, happy success the next. 

But not for me. I have chosen freedom 
from the world's cares. I chose simplicity.

From Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese, translated and edited by Sam Hamill. Translation copyright © 2000 by Sam Hamill. Reprinted by permission of translator and publisher. All rights reserved.

Jane Hirshfield

The Bowl

If meat is put into the bowl, meat is eaten.

If rice is put into the bowl, it may be cooked.

If a shoe is put into the bowl,
the leather is chewed and chewed over,
a sentence that cannot be taken in or forgotten.

A day, if a day could feel, must feel like a bowl.
Wars, loves, trucks, betrayals, kindness,
it eats them.

Then the next day comes, spotless and hungry.

The bowl cannot be thrown away.
It cannot be broken.

It is calm, uneclipsable, rindless,
and, big though it seems, fits exactly in two human hands.

Hands with ten fingers,
fifty-four bones,
capacities strange to us almost past measure.
Scented—as the curve of the bowl is—
with cardamom, star anise, long pepper, cinnamon, hyssop.

—2014

from Ledger (Knopf, 2020); first appeared in Brick.

Franny Choi

Hangul Abecedarian 

Gathering sounds from each provincial
Nook and hilly village, the scholars
Discerned differences between
Long and short vowels, which phonemes,
Mumbled or dipthonged, would become
Brethren, linguistically speaking.
Speaking of taxonomy,
I’ve been busy categorizing what’s
Joseon, what’s American about each
Choice of diction or hill I might die on.
Killing my accent was only ever half the
Task, is what I mean. Q: When grief
Pushes its wet moons from me, is the sound
Historically accurate? or just a bit of feedback?

Copyright © 2020 by Franny Choi. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on May 20, 2020 by the Academy of American Poets.

Jane Mead

I Have Been Living

I have been living
closer to the ocean than I thought--
in a rocky cove thick with seaweed.

It pulls me down when I go wading.
Sometimes, to get back to land
takes everything that I have in me. 

Sometimes, to get back to land
is the worst thing a person can do. 
Meanwhile, we are dreaming: 

The body is innocent.
She has never hurt me.
What we love flutters in us. 

From House of Poured Out Waters © 2000 by Jane Mead.

Marilyn Chin

Sage #3

(This poem’s about looking for the sage and not finding her)

Some say she moved in with her ex-girlfriend in Taiwan
Some say she went to Florida to wrestle alligators

Some say she went to Peach Blossom Spring
To drink tea with Tao Qian

Miho says she’s living in Calexico with three cats
And a gerbil named Max

Some say she’s just a shadow of the Great Society
A parody
Of what might-have-been

Rhea saw her stark raving mad
Between 23rd and the Avenue of the Americas
Wrapped in a flag!

I swear I saw her floating in a motel pool
Topless, on a plastic manatee, palms up

What in hell was she thinking?

What is poetry? What are stars?
Whence comes the end of suffering?

Copyright © 2020 by Marilyn Chin. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on May 13, 2020 by the Academy of American Poets.

Conrad Aiken

from “1915: The Trenches”

II.

All night long we lie
Stupidly watching the smoke puff over the sky,
Stupidly watching the interminable stars
Come out again, peaceful and cold and high,
Swim into the smoke again, or melt in a flare of red…
All night long, all night long,
Hearing the terrible battle of guns,
We smoke our pipes, we think we shall soon be dead,
We sleep for a second, and wake again,
We dream we are filling pans and baking bread,
Or hoeing the witch-grass out of the wheat,
We dream we are turning lathes,
Or open our shops, in the early morning,
And look for a moment along the quiet street…
And we do not laugh, though it is strange
In a harrowing second of time
To traverse so many worlds, so many ages,
And come to this chaos again,
This vast symphonic dance of death,
This incoherent dust.

This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on December 23, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.

“1915: The Trenches” was published in Nocturne of a Remembered Spring and Other Poems (The Four Seas Company, 1917).

Jane Hirshfield

I wanted to be surprised.

To such a request, the world is obliging.

In just the past week, a rotund porcupine,
who seemed equally startled by me.

The man who swallowed a tiny microphone
to record the sounds of his body,
not considering beforehand how he might remove it.

A cabbage and mustard sandwich on marbled bread.

How easily the large spiders were caught with a clear plastic cup
surprised even them.

I don’t know why I was surprised every time love started or ended.
Or why each time a new fossil, Earth-like planet, or war.
Or that no one kept being there when the doorknob had clearly.

What should not have been so surprising:
my error after error, recognized when appearing on the faces of others.

What did not surprise enough:
my daily expectation that anything would continue,
and then that so much did continue, when so much did not.

Small rivulets still flowing downhill when it wasn’t raining.
A sister’s birthday.

Also, the stubborn, courteous persistence.
That even today please means please,
good morning is still understood as good morning,

and that when I wake up,
the window’s distant mountain remains a mountain,
the borrowed city around me is still a city, and standing.

Its alleys and markets, offices of dentists,
drug store, liquor store, Chevron.
Its library that charges—a happy surprise—no fine for overdue books:
Borges, Baldwin, Szymborska, Morrison, Cavafy.

—2018

from Ledger (Knopf, 2020); first appeared in The New Yorker.

Jane Hirshfield

On the Fifth Day

On the fifth day
the scientists who studied the rivers
were forbidden to speak
or to study the rivers.

The scientists who studied the air
were told not to speak of the air,
and the ones who worked for the farmers
were silenced,
and the ones who worked for the bees.

Someone, from deep in the Badlands,
began posting facts.

The facts were told not to speak
and were taken away.
The facts, surprised to be taken, were silent. 

Now it was only the rivers
that spoke of the rivers,
and only the wind that spoke of its bees,

while the unpausing factual buds of the fruit trees
continued to move toward their fruit.

The silence spoke loudly of silence,
and the rivers kept speaking 
of rivers, of boulders and air.

Bound to gravity, earless and tongueless,
the untested rivers kept speaking.

Bus drivers, shelf stockers,
code writers, machinists, accountants,
lab techs, cellists kept speaking.

They spoke, the fifth day,
of silence.

—2017

from Ledger (Knopf, 2020); first appeared in The Washington Post.

Charles Simic

Pigeons at Dawn

Extraordinary efforts are being made
To hide things from us, my friend.
Some stay up into the wee hours
To search their souls. 
Others undress each other in darkened rooms.

The creaky old elevator
Took us down to the icy cellar first
To show us a mop and a bucket
Before it deigned to ascend again
With a sigh of exasperation.

Under the vast, early-dawn sky
The city lay silent before us.
Everything on hold:
Rooftops and water towers,
Clouds and wisps of white smoke.

We must be patient, we told ourselves,
See if the pigeons will coo now
For the one who comes to her window
To feed them angel cake,
All but invisible, but for her slender arm.


Copyright © 2005 by Charles Simic. From My Noiseless Entourage, of Harcourt Inc.

C Dale Young

Melancholia

The whirring internal machine, its gears 
grinding not to a halt but to a pace that emits 
a low hum, a steady and almost imperceptible 
hum: the Greeks would not have seen it this way. 

Simply put, it was a result of black bile, 
the small fruit of the gall bladder perched 
under the liver somehow over-ripened 
and then becoming fetid. So the ancients 

would have us believe. But the overly-emotional 
and contrarian Romans saw it as a kind of mourning 
for one’s self. I trust the ancients but I have never  
given any of this credence because I cannot understand 

how one does this, mourn one’s self. 
Down by the shoreline—the Pacific  
wrestling with far more important  
philosophical issues—I recall the English notion 

of it being a wistfulness, something John Donne 
wore successfully as a fashion statement. 
But how does one wear wistfulness well 
unless one is a true believer?  

The humors within me are unbalanced,  
and I doubt they were ever really in balance 
to begin with, ever in that rare but beautiful 
thing the scientists call equilibrium. 

My gall bladder squeezes and wrenches,  
or so I imagine. I am wistful and morose 
and I am certain black bile is streaming  
through my body as I walk beside this seashore. 

The small birds scrambling away from the advancing  
surf; the sun climbing overhead shortening shadows;  
the sound of the waves hushing the cries of gulls:  
I have no idea where any of this ends up. 

To be balanced, to be without either 
peaks or troughs: do tell me what that is like… 
This contemplating, this mulling over, often leads  
to a moment a few weeks from now, 

the one in which everything suddenly shines 
with clarity, where my fingers race to put down  
the words, my fingers so quick on the keyboard  
it will seem like a god-damned miracle.

Copyright © 2020 by C. Dale Young. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on October 13, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.

Jennifer Tseng

Dear Nainai,

Every day you sink into her
To make room for me.
When I die, I sink into you,
When Xing dies, she sinks
Into me, her child dies &
Sinks into Xing & the Earth,
Who is always ravenous,
Swallows us.
I don’t know where you’re buried.
I don’t know your sons’ names,
Only their numbers & fates:
#2 was murdered, #3 went to jail, #4 hung himself, #5, who did the cooking & cleaning, is alive.
#1, my father, died of pancreatic cancer. Of bacon & lunch meat & Napoleons.
Your husband died young, of Double Happiness, unfiltered. 
You died of Time,
Of motherhood,
Of being the boss,
Of working in a sock factory,
Of an everyday ailment
For which there is no cure.
I am alone, like a number.
#1 writes me a letter:
My dearest Jenny,
Do you know Rigoberta Menchú, this name?
There were also silences about Chinese girls, Oriental women.
In field of literature, you must be strong enough to bear all these.
An ivory tower writer can never be successful.
You are almost living like a hermit.
Are you coming home soon?
He doesn’t mention you.
Perfect defect.
Hidden flaw in the cloth,
Yellow bead in the family regalia.
Bidden to be understory,
Silences, pored & poured over.
You are almost living.
You say hello to me quietly.
What is success? Meat? Pastries? 
Cigarettes? The cessation of
Communion with self?
I want to be eaten
By an ivory tower,
Devoured by the power
Of my own solitude.
We’re alone together.
I read the letter every day before death.
Where are you buried, Nainai?
I’m coming home soon.

Copyright © 2019 by Jennifer Tseng. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on January 25, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.

Nicole Sealey

The First Person Who Will Live to Be One Hundred and Fifty Years Old Has Already Been Born 

[For Petra]

Scientists say the average human
life gets three months longer every year.
By this math, death will be optional. Like a tie
or dessert or suffering. My mother asks
whether I’d want to live forever.
“I’d get bored,” I tell her. “But,” she says,
“there’s so much to do,” meaning
she believes there’s much she hasn’t done.
Thirty years ago she was the age I am now
but, unlike me, too industrious to think about
birds disappeared by rain. If only we had more
time or enough money to be kept on ice
until such a time science could bring us back.
Of late my mother has begun to think life
short-lived. I’m too young to convince her
otherwise. The one and only occasion
I was in the same room as the Mona Lisa,
it was encased in glass behind what I imagine
were velvet ropes. There’s far less between
ourselves and oblivion—skin that often defeats
its very purpose. Or maybe its purpose
isn’t protection at all, but rather to provide
a place, similar to a doctor’s waiting room,
in which to sit until our names are called.
Hold your questions until the end.
Mother, measure my wide-open arms—
we still have this much time to kill.

Copyright © 2017 by Nicole Sealey. Originally published in The Village Voice.


4 Comments

Esplanade (25 June 1978)

At night, in winter, in St Kilda
the bayside highway forms a halo. Cars
like comets blazing at and into me.
Walking into lights, the cold, the hard clean bayside night,
their energy recharges me.

Melbourne at night, a winter night, has no sunsets, no stars.
Instead, a rose-tinted, glass-panelled airport and
the traffic current.
There are no stars in the bay. The water reflects
the grey mist ripples, smothered night, that functions as a sky.

In winter, Melbourne nights are tones of grey on black and red and
amber aura light.
An empty Brighton crossroad, tusk-like railway lines.
Each street-light traps a sparkling mist,
electric dew.

Melbourne
is a cage. Held down by tram-wire steel-nets overhead,
this city is straitjacketed,
sedated in the luminous haze of clouded sky and mist and bay.
Bright lights gleaming, flashing meteor
prison bar tramlines, wire sky leveller, cutting down…

By day the Melbourne summer sky
is violet tinged, not azure.
I remember
night-time skies as light,
when dull red dust clouds billowed down
escaped the gully, loomed above the dry town
I once called my home.

Five years, I said, and so with sentence up
I am glad to be on schedule.
Facing into lights, the world, the hard clean unchained wind…
I never called Melbourne home.

Written age 17 on the day I formally dropped out of university.


1 Comment

A few favourite poems, alphabetical by poet’s family name

Cento Between the Ending and the End
by Cameron Awkward-Rich

Sometimes you don’t die
when you’re supposed to
& now I have a choice
repair a world or build
a new one inside my body
a white door opens
into a place queerly brimming
gold light so velvet-gold
it is like the world
hasn’t happened
when I call out
all my friends are there
everyone we love
is still alive gathered
at the lakeside
like constellations
my honeyed kin
honeyed light
beneath the sky
a garden blue stalks
white buds the moon’s
marble glow the fire
distant & flickering
the body whole bright-
winged brimming
with the hours
of the day beautiful
nameless planet. Oh
friends, my friends—
bloom how you must, wild
until we are free.

Copyright © 2018 by Cameron Awkward-Rich. Originally published in in Poem-a-Day on August 30, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.

son/daughter
by Kai Conradi

In a dream my dad fell

from the top of a steep white mountain

down into a blue crevasse
like the space between two waves
where the light shines through just enough
to tell you
you will miss this life dearly.

The falling took years.

I could hear him moving through air and then finally nothing.

In another dream my dad was an angel

his see-through body dangling in the air

floating above me face shimmery like tinfoil

and I cried and cried when he told me

I can’t come back to earth now not ever.

When my dad told me

You will always be my daughter

maybe it was like that.

Will I be allowed to come back to earth

and be your son?

Source: Poetry (January 2019)

Emily Dickinson

I’m Nobody. Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell. they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog _
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

The Embrace
by Mark Doty

You weren’t well or really ill yet either;
just a little tired, your handsomeness
tinged by grief or anticipation, which brought
to your face a thoughtful, deepening grace.

I didn’t for a moment doubt you were dead.
I knew that to be true still, even in the dream.
You’d been out—at work maybe?—
having a good day, almost energetic.

We seemed to be moving from some old house
where we’d lived, boxes everywhere, things
in disarray: that was the story of my dream,
but even asleep I was shocked out of the narrative

by your face, the physical fact of your face:
inches from mine, smooth-shaven, loving, alert.
Why so difficult, remembering the actual look
of you? Without a photograph, without strain?

So when I saw your unguarded, reliable face,
your unmistakable gaze opening all the warmth
and clarity of —warm brown tea—we held
each other for the time the dream allowed.

Bless you. You came back, so I could see you
once more, plainly, so I could rest against you
without thinking this happiness lessened anything,
without thinking you were alive again.

From Sweet Machine, published by HarperCollins. Copyright © 1998 by Mark Doty. 

Autobiography of Eve
by Ansel Elkins

Wearing nothing but snakeskin
boots, I blazed a footpath, the first
radical road out of that old kingdom
toward a new unknown.
When I came to those great flaming gates
of burning gold,
I stood alone in terror at the threshold
between Paradise and Earth.
There I heard a mysterious echo:
My own voice
singing to me from across the forbidden
side. I shook awake–
at once alive in a blaze of green fire.

Let it be known: I did not fall from grace.

I leapt
to freedom.

Copyright © 2015 by Ansel Elkins.

The Colonel
by Carolyn Forché

WHAT YOU HAVE HEARD is true. I was in his house. His wife carried
a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went
out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the
cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over
the house. On the television was a cop show. It was in English.
Broken bottles were embedded in the walls around the house to
scoop the kneecaps from a man’s legs or cut his hands to lace. On
the windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores. We had
dinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for
calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes, salt, a type of
bread. I was asked how I enjoyed the country. There was a brief
commercial in Spanish. His wife took everything away. There was
some talk then of how difficult it had become to govern. The parrot
said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed
himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say
nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries
home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like
dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took one
of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water
glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around he said. As
for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck them-
selves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last
of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some
of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the
ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.

May 1978

All lines from “The Colonel” from The Country Between Us by Carolyn Forché, Copyright (c) 1981 by Carolyn Forché. Originally appeared in Women’s International Resource Exchange. (HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 1981)

Grace
by Sarah Gambito

You won’t
kill me
because I
will not
oblige you
by dying.

I hold all
my hands
under
the cherry
trees.

Clusters of
shyest
pinks
joining
hands.

Laced
like this,

diadem
like this,

we live the
past/
present/
future/
all at once

and even now.

Wouldn’t we tear
seas,
cities,
money
to get to
each other?

The public
garden—

the books
of its leaves,

the leaves
of its books—

denotes privilege,
entitlement
gorgeous belief

that we’ll meet
again and
again
holding

this
feelingtone
of
flowers

Source: Poetry (July/August 2019)

Poof
by Amy Gerstler

Here on my lap, in a small plastic bag,
my share of your ashes. Let me not squander
them. Your family blindsided me with this gift.
We want to honor your bond they said at the end
of your service, which took place, as you’d
arranged, in a restaurant at the harbor,
an old two-story boathouse made of dark
wood. Some of us sat on the balcony, on black
leather bar stools, staring at rows of docked boats.
Both your husbands showed up and got along.
And of course your impossibly handsome son.
After lunch, a slideshow and testimonials,
your family left to toss their share of you
onto the ocean, along with some flowers.

You were the girlfriend I practiced kissing
with in sixth grade during zero-sleep
sleepovers. You were the pretty one.
In middle school I lived on diet Coke and
your sexual reconnaissance reports. In this
telling of our story your father never hits
you or calls you a whore. Always gentle
with me, he taught me to ride a bike after
everyone said I was too klutzy to learn.
In this version we’re not afraid of our bodies.
In this fiction, birth control is easy to obtain,
and never fails. You still dive under a stall
divider in a restroom at the beach to free me
after I get too drunk to unlock the door. You still
reveal the esoteric mysteries of tampons. You
still learn Farsi and French from boyfriends
as your life ignites. In high school I still guide you
safely out of the stadium when you start yelling
that the football looks amazing as it shatters
into a million shimmering pieces, as you
loudly admit that you just dropped acid.

We lived to be sixty. Then poof, you vanished.
I can’t snort you, or dump you out over my head,
coating myself in your dust like some hapless cartoon
character who’s just blown herself up, yet remains
unscathed, as is the way in cartoons. In this version,
I remain in place for a while. Did you have a good
journey? I’m still lagging behind, barking up all
the wrong trees, whipping out my scimitar far
in advance of what the occasion demands. As I
drive home from your memorial, you fizz in
my head like a distant radio station. What
can I do to bridge this chasm between us?
In this fiction, I roll down the window, drive
uncharacteristically fast. I tear your baggie
open with my teeth and release you at 85
miles an hour, music cranked up full blast.

Copyright © 2019 by Amy Gerstler. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on March 21, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.

Failing and Flying
by Jack Gilbert

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It’s the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.

Copyright © 2005 Jack Gilbert. From Refusing Heaven, 2005, Alfred A. Knopf. 

Wait
by Galway Kinnell

Wait, for now.
Distrust everything if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven’t they
carried you everywhere, up to now?
Personal events will become interesting again.
Hair will become interesting.
Pain will become interesting.
Buds that open out of season will become interesting.
Second-hand gloves will become lovely again;
their memories are what give them
the need for other hands. The desolation
of lovers is the same: that enormous emptiness
carved out of such tiny beings as we are
asks to be filled; the need
for the new love is faithfulness to the old.

Wait.
Don’t go too early.
You’re tired. But everyone’s tired.
But no one is tired enough.
Only wait a little and listen:
music of hair,
music of pain,
music of looms weaving our loves again.
Be there to hear it, it will be the only time,
most of all to hear your whole existence,
rehearsed by the sorrows, play itself into total exhaustion.

Copyright © 1980 by Galway Kinnell. From Mortal Acts, Mortal Words (Mariner Books, 1980), Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

I Ask My Mother to Sing
by Li-Young Lee

She begins, and my grandmother joins her.
Mother and daughter sing like young girls.
If my father were alive, he would play
his accordion and sway like a boat.

I’ve never been in Peking, or the Summer Palace,
nor stood on the great Stone Boat to watch
the rain begin on Kuen Ming Lake, the picnickers
running away in the grass.

But I love to hear it sung;
how the waterlilies fill with rain until
they overturn, spilling water into water,
then rock back, and fill with more.

Both women have begun to cry.
But neither stops her song.

From Rose. Copyright © 1986 by Li-Young Lee. The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd., http://www.boaeditions.org.

From Blossoms
by Li-Young Lee

From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.

From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.

O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

Li-Young Lee, “From Blossoms” from Rose. Copyright © 1986 by Li-Young Lee. The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd., boaeditions.org.

The Hour and What Is Dead
by Li-Young Lee

Tonight my brother, in heavy boots, is walking
through bare rooms over my head,
opening and closing doors.
What could he be looking for in an empty house?
What could he possibly need there in heaven?
Does he remember his earth, his birthplace set to torches?
His love for me feels like spilled water
running back to its vessel.

At this hour, what is dead is restless
and what is living is burning.

Someone tell him he should sleep now.

My father keeps a light on by our bed
and readies for our journey.
He mends ten holes in the knees
of five pairs of boy’s pants.
His love for me is like sewing:
various colors and too much thread,
the stitching uneven. But the needle pierces
clean through with each stroke of his hand.

At this hour, what is dead is worried
and what is living is fugitive.

Someone tell him he should sleep now.

God, that old furnace, keeps talking
with his mouth of teeth,
a beard stained at feasts, and his breath
of gasoline, airplane, human ash.
His love for me feels like fire,
feels like doves, feels like river-water.

At this hour, what is dead is helpless, kind
and helpless. While the Lord lives.

Someone tell the Lord to leave me alone.
I’ve had enough of his love
that feels like burning and flight and running away.

Nucleation
by Sally Wen Mao

The harvesting of pearls, the very process, is a continuous systematic violation of flesh: insert the mantle tissue of a foreign creature into the oyster shell and wait for its insides to react. This is called nucleation. Panicked, the oyster produces nacre. Trapped in the nacre, the invasive agent—the parasite or mantle tissue—is subsumed by the pearl.

To domesticate, then, is to force-feed. Mikimoto, in his dreams, wanted a string of pearls to glow around the neck of every woman in the world. Like the bioluminescent waters of his youth, a deep-sea dive, the pearls became warm upon touch, upon being worn.

Women wear the trauma of other creatures around their necks, in an attempt to put a pall on their own. Adorn the self to be adored. What if we fail? What if we are failures at love? A man once called me “adorable” on a date at a museum. It was hailing outside, and we were wandering through the Death and Transcendence wing. I looked into a woman’s tomb, its mother-of-pearl inlays. A limp body looked back, into the gap around my neck. I had no 
amulet, I had no protection.

Source: Poetry (April 2020)

Occidentalism
by Sally Wen Mao

A man celebrates erstwhile conquests,
his book locked in a silo, still in print.

I scribble, make Sharpie lines, deface
its text like it defaces me. Outside, grain

fields whisper. Marble lions are silent
yet silver-tongued, with excellent teeth.

In this life I have worshipped so many lies.
Then I workshop them, make them better.

An East India Company, an opium trade,
a war, a treaty, a concession, an occupation,

a man parting the veil covering a woman’s
face, his nails prying her lips open. I love

the fragility of a porcelain bowl. How easy
it is, to shatter chinoiserie, like the Han

dynasty urn Ai Weiwei dropped in 1995.
If only recovering the silenced history

is as simple as smashing its container: book,
bowl, celadon spoon. Such objects cross

borders the way our bodies never could.
Instead, we’re left with history, its blonde

dust. That bowl is unbreakable. All its ghosts
still shudder through us like small breaths.

The tome of hegemony lives on, circulates
in our libraries, in our bloodstreams. One day,

a girl like me may come across it on a shelf,
pick it up, read about all the ways her body

is a thing. And I won’t be there to protect
her, to cross the text out and say: go ahead—
rewrite this.

Sally Wen Mao, “Occidentalism” from Oculus. Copyright © 2019 by Sally Wen Mao. Graywolf Press, http://www.graywolfpress.org.

Resurrection
by Sally Wen Mao

In the autumn I moved to New York,

I recognized her face all over the subway

stations—pearls around her throat, she poses

for her immigration papers. In 1924, the only

Americans required to carry identity cards

were ethnically Chinese—the first photo IDs,

red targets on the head of every man, woman,

child, infant, movie star. Like pallbearers,

they lined up to get their pictures taken: full-face

view, direct camera gaze, no smiles, ears showing,

in silver gelatin. A rogue’s gallery of Chinese

exclusion. The subway poster doesn’t name

her—though it does mention her ethnicity,

and the name of the New-York Historical

Society exhibition: Exclusion/Inclusion.

Soon, when I felt alone in this city, her face

would peer at me from behind seats, turnstiles,

heads, and headphones, and I swear she wore

a smile only I could see. Sometimes my face

aligned with hers, and we would rush past

the bewildered lives before us—hers, gone

the year my mother was born, and mine,

a belt of ghosts trailing after my scent.

In the same aboveground train, in the same

city where slain umbrellas travel across

the Hudson River, we live and live.

I’ve left my landline so ghosts can’t dial me

at midnight with the hunger of hunters

anymore. I’m so hungry I gnaw at light.

It tunnels from the shadows, an exhausting

hope. I know this hunger tormented her too.

It haunted her through her years in L.A., Paris,

and New York, the parties she went to, people

she met—Paul Robeson, Zora Neale Hurston,

Langston Hughes, Gertrude Stein. It haunts

her expression still, on the 6 train, Grand

Central station, an echo chamber behind

her eyes. But dear universe: if I can recognize

her face under this tunnel of endless shadows

against the luminance of all that is extinct

and oncoming, then I am not a stranger here.

Sally Wen Mao, “Resurrection” from Oculus.  Copyright © 2019 by Sally Wen Mao.  Graywolf Press, http://www.graywolfpress.org.

 

Thanks
by W.S. Merlin

Listen
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

 

Notebook, 1981
by Eileen Myles

I was so willing to pull a page out of my notebook, a day, several bright days and live them as if I was only alive, thirsty, timeless, young enough, to do this one more time, to dare to have nothing so much to lose and to feel that potential dying of the self in the light as the only thing I thought that was spiritual, possible and because I had no other way to call that mind, I called it poetry, but it was flesh and time and bread and friends frightened and free enough to want to have another day that way, tear another page.

Excerpted from Evolution. Copyright © 2018 by Eileen Myles. Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. 

“Have Made Earth as the Mirror of Heaven”
by Alice Notley

my name is Alice Elizabeth, so am I
Allie Sheedy of the movie Short Circuits thus angry
or Elizabeth McGovern self-controlled?
This question is posited
on a television screen where I can’t quite identify
the actress shown—which is she?

I am Allie and I will continue to rant.
____________________

My voice rises in real life often—
because I am ‘passionate’ … that’s
a convenient word.
____________________

I’m still in the forest, darkening
wishing I were ‘nicer.’

Hardwood says, You should stand up soon
I’ll help you
I say, I have cramps
I say, I’m using my period, to get pissed off and to Know.
____________________

I dreamed, last night, about an immense Dead Seal
below the surface of the water in a harbor

pull the curtain down.
For months you would not break the spell
for eternities you have not done so, citing economic
exigencies; the whole thing is a mess.
I might rather be dead
than doing what it takes to keep the seal under water
whale-sized

E is for seal. For spell. For suppression.
____________________

To take part in you is to die
is why one dies
Have I said this before?
____________________

I am Alp the Dizzy.
____________________

The dead seal isn’t a person, it’s poetry the seal
the hallmark
of selfhood, dead grotesquely large and richly hardening.

“Hardwood it was someone like you
you drowned the seal”

“No I’m making both you and it ‘hard.’ ”
____________________

And I’m still in the forest.
____________________

And I’m still in the forest

Money’s more the real live poetry
abstract symbolic imaginary
trade your life for it and trade it for your life
so you’ll have something ‘to do’

Sink the whale
and sleep all day in the real world, up and functioning
more fully imagined and dreamed, in society’s
than in your own, imagination?

I’m standing
I’m standing up Hard
I keep being Hardwood myself, dark and hard.
____________________

Initiating a new ‘broken symmetry’ (spinning to the
Left, like a newborn neutrino)
so that we can have a new consciousness …
am I doing that? Yes I think so.
____________________

The forest contains a French restaurant
every meter or so …
difficult to fast in this dream vision.
We’re a very unpopular group today
We’ve shot off another great bomb
and we’ve shot down a terrorist,
an Arab, young, before
we even found out what he “knew.”
____________________

Tell me something beautiful, bitter
because we are somehow bitter, forever,
a taste included in origin, in love, in you.
So I don’t have to be cloyed.

… soul’s waters are reticent
sly swamps.
It had nothing in it,
that swamp; because I didn’t know how to look for
the parts of its obvious whole—death is
minute, flavorful parts—which are said to spin
as I’m said to walk, moving while else
mostly unconscious of that.
____________________

In the new consciousness

Alice Notley, “Have Made Earth as the Mirror of Heaven” from Disobedience. Copyright © 2001 by Alice Notley. Penguin Group (USA), Inc.

Wild Geese
by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

‘Wild Geese’, from Dream Work (1986) by Mary Oliver.

Kindness
by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

From Words Under the Words: Selected Poems. Copyright © 1995 by Naomi Shihab Nye.

Red Brocade
by Naomi Shihab Nye

The Arabs used to say,
When a stranger appears at your door,
feed him for three days
before asking who he is,
where he’s come from,
where he’s headed.
That way, he’ll have strength
enough to answer.
Or, by then you’ll be
such good friends
you don’t care.

Let’s go back to that.
Rice? Pine nuts?
Here, take the red brocade pillow.
My child will serve water
to your horse.

No, I was not busy when you came!
I was not preparing to be busy.
That’s the armor everyone put on
to pretend they had a purpose
in the world.

I refuse to be claimed.
Your plate is waiting.
We will snip fresh mint
into your tea.

Copyright © by Naomi Shihab Nye.

i swear to god i will solve the rack man case just give me two weeks
by Harry Reid

give me something to wail on
i want instant justice like fly-spray

this train carriage is a court-room
& i’m the judge, handing down

25 to life for the man wearing btk glasses
& getting off at south kensington

at home my kitchen’s a crime scene
i’m the sheriff of the group chat like

cooking dinner i’m mad at 70’s america
do the fucking dishes guys
& take the bins out it’s wednesday

cooking dinner i’m mad at 70s america
like what the fuck were you doing

letting rodney alcala on the dating game
right in the middle of his murder spree

& how come cheryl was the only one
who thought he was a total creep?

i wash up like forensically
leave a fork in the sink like a calling card

fall asleep listening
for footsteps outside my window

watching a documentary
on the hillside strangers

think about paving the driveway with gravel
so i can hear when anyone approaches

wake up & put tiny numbered markers
all throughout the house

march my housemate around the living room
showing him where he missed with the vacuum

he hates it but he lets me
keep these little rituals

like taping off my bedroom
when i need some time alone

or microscopically examining
all the hair in the shower

so i know no-one has broken in
& used all my shampoo

it’s only because i can’t walk
through the park anymore

without my phone in one hand
& my keys in the other

so i’ll keep gary ridgway’s 48 life sentences
in my pocket for good luck

light a candle for every one
of dudley kyzer’s 10,000 years

go home & thank god
i don’t live in california

from six gay bushrangers

What Kind of Times Are These
by Adrienne Rich

There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.

I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.

I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.

And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it’s necessary
to talk about trees.

Adrienne Rich, “What Kind of Times are These” from Collected Poems: 1950-2012. Copyright © 2016 by The Adrienne Rich Literary Trust. Copyright © 1995 Adrienne Rich.
Source: Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems 1991-1995 (W. W. Norton and Company Inc., 1995)

Last on Earth
by Mary Ruefle

It is said that many have been cured of madness by drinking
of the spring in the orchard of this convent, but I
doubt it, for it is a very pleasant place and a surfeit
of pleasantries often leads directly to madness.
I do not have much experience of madness (once
a sister ran naked down the hall) but I have tasted
the water and it is clear and fresh, there is nothing
unpleasant about it. The Abbess said of a certain man
he is a drink of water—meaning he was a bore—
but I want to meet that man, he would be as welcome
in my life as Jesus in the orchard here, though the fat
old Abbess might shoo him away. I would be so glad
to have him drink, to serve him with a round of little glasses
on a painted tray, like the ‘cocktail parties’
in the secular world, and I the hostess, turning her cheek
to be kissed in the fray. I would wear white clothes and
my headdress, and he might carry a scythe and cut
the morning glories, or simply sit and sun his nose.
But they have taken my Lord away, lodged Him in the earth
somewhere, call Him leaves, vines, breeze, bird.
It cannot be true. Looking for Him in these things
condemns us to a lifetime of imbecile activity.
He has a face, arms, legs, a navel. He is a man,
for He is everything I am not. How can it be
otherwise? Before I leave the spring, I lean
over it and weep. I spit upon the flowers. I stumble
up the hill. We are somewhere below the Tserna Gota—
meaning the Black Mountain—and when I reach the top
I count the villages—there are two—where we
are the last on earth to think of Him as having a head.
Here, too, is the source of the spring, and crows
with lethargic dispositions circle and circle the spot.

Mary Ruefle, “Last on Earth” from Post Meridian. Copyright © 2000 by Mary Ruefle. 
Source: Post Meridian (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2000)

The Wife of Mission Rock
by Mary Ruefle

Nothing curves at sea,
and the men there die abruptly,
in imitation of the fact, except
when the ship rises higher than necessary
and then they must drop suddenly
but for a long time,
so that their deaths appear natural
in the end, and the women sweeping the coutyards
pause, thinking the dust
to be the cause of a specific dryness
in the mouth. They leave half of a
pastry to harden on a plate.
They leave all of the lemons and figs
in bowls. They leave fuschia
splattered on the stone steps leading
down to the bay. They carry their brooms
with them, keep sweeping the air,
cleaning it back to the sea.
They sweep the sand from the shore,
feet standing in neat little rows of foam.
Each at the edge of something when
the foghorns remind them:
they will not clearly remember it,
they will not altogether forget it.
They will wait for something to emerge,
like a man at sea carving his children
from soap. One woman will start the rumor
that the sea is deeper than necessary:
Tell her, when has anyone ever come back
for one day’s effort on earth?

Mary Ruefle, “The Wife of Mission Rock” from Life Without Speaking, published by University of Alabama Press. Copyright © 1982 by Mary Ruefle. 

The Letter
by Mary Ruefle

Beloved, men in thick green coats came crunching
through the snow, the insignia on their shoulders
of uncertain origin, a country I could not be sure of,
a salute so terrifying I heard myself lying to avoid
arrest, and was arrested along with Jocko, whose tear
had snapped off, a tiny icicle he put in his mouth.
We were taken to the ice prison, a palace encrusted
with hoarfrost, its dome lit from within, Jocko admired
the wiring, he kicked the walls to test the strength
of his new boots. A television stood in a block of ice,
its blue image still moving like a liquid center.
You asked for my innermost thoughts. I wonder will I
ever see a grape again? When I think of the vineyard
where we met in October—when you dropped a cluster
custom insisted you be kissed by a stranger—how after
the harvest we plunged into a stream so icy our palms
turned pink. It seemed our future was sealed. Everyone
said so. It is quiet here. Not closing our ranks
weakens us hugely. The snowflakes fall in a featureless
bath. I am the stranger who kissed you. On sunny days
each tree is a glittering chandelier. The power of
mindless beauty! Jocko told a joke and has been dead
since May. A bullethole in his forehead the officers
call a third eye. For a month I milked a barnful of
cows. It is a lot like cleansing a chandelier. Wipe
and polish, wipe and polish, round and round you go.
I have lost my spectacles. Is the book I was reading
still open by the side of our bed? Treat it as a bookmark
saving my place in our story.

(here the letter breaks off)

Mary Ruefle, “The Letter” from Post Meridian. Copyright © 2000 by Mary Ruefle.
Source: Post Meridian (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2000)

Blood Soup
by Mary Ruefle

The last time I saw father alive he was using
a black umbrella, closed, to beat off some pigeons
hanging outside the marble portals of a museum.
We were visitors, walking very slowly, so father
could stoop and examine everything. We had not been
in the museum, but were resting on its steps.
We saw it all—the fountains, the statues, the parks
and the post office. Cities are made of such things.
Once we encountered a wedding coming out of the cathedral
and were caught in a shower of rice; as the bride
flicked her veiled head father licked his little finger
and in this way saved a grain. On the next block
he announced he was going to heaven. But first let’s
go back to the hotel and rest, he said: I want my mint.
Those were practically his last words. And what did I want
more than anything in the world? Probably the ancient Polish
recipe for blood soup, which was finally told to me
in an empty deli in a deserted mill town in western Massachusetts
by the owner’s mother, who was alone one day when I burst
in and demanded a bowl. But, she said, lacing her fingers
around a jar of morello cherries, it requires one cup of
new blood drawn from the goose whose neck you’ve just wrung
to put in the pot, and where in these days can I find
anything as fresh as that? I had lost track of my life
before, but nothing prepared me for the onslaught of
wayfarer’s bliss when she continued to list, one
by one, the impossible ingredients I needed to live.
We sat at the greasy table far into the night, while
snow fell on the locked doors of the church next door,
dedicated to St. Stanislas, which was rumored to be
beautiful inside, and contain the remains of his beloved head.

Mary Ruefle, “Blood Soup” from Among the Musk OX People: Poems. Copyright © 2002 by Mary Ruefle. (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2002)

little city
by Sara Saleh

little city, on your scorched days Rania and I pool our

khamsmiyehs, buy Bonjus from baqqal abu Fadi, sell them

for triple the price, “dollar law samaht”, this country has us

believing we are so clever, so entrepreneurial, them

neighborhood kids should be grateful, “khalto, look at

us, don’t we make you

proud?”

little city, on your anxious nights we gather in

balconies, lighthouse beacons with little-to-no

light, wreathed in smoke, we wait, we

sit, we speak, we speak over each

other, “ya 3layeh inshaAllah”, no one

actually wants to hear the answers,

I can’t afford to trust the morning,

I am still learning to believe it when it

comes.

little city, we want to sing, want to giggle silly over

boys and simple things, but you have different

plans, young men on tanks cuss loudly, young

men on tanks whistle at us, eyes open

empty, this dark, this shatter,

we tell them we have God, but

I don’t think they believe

us.

little city, we climb to the top of the steeple

stairs, quiet and quieter, past jasmine

bushes, past bullet holes, confetti

of ‘86, no one bothers with

plaster, is it any wonder we don’t have

mothers and fathers, how long will you

hate yourself into something we can

love?

little city, trying to forget

little city, how did you survive,

what did they call you…

before Syria, before Israel, before France, before

Ottoman…

before, before…

little city, what becomes of history

if there remain no artists to write of it?

your pages are long, your patience

longer.

From bil 3arabi: 6 poems

Fairouz
by Sara Saleh

Fairouz …

The last one of us has left home…

Fairouz sings, “Oh wind, if you please, take me home …”

What does it mean to lose a person, to lose a country?

Whenever I write about mama and baba, I use ellipses,

I am not fond of endings, and we are a people

of kan zaman and kan ya ma kan…

“Upon the rumble of the bus that was carrying us from the village

of Hamlaya to the village of Tannourine, I remembered you,

and I remember your eyes”

Friday lunch we drape boney fish and

spiced potatoes on the table, fighting over

who is to blame for this mess, Amreeka, amo

says or we brought it on ourselves or some other or …

We stay seated for hours, with our oversized

plates and our oversized grief …

“The people have asked me about you, my darling

They’ve written letters and the wind took them

It’s not easy for me to sing, my darling”

We both come from a wartime where

there is only one hospital, and many shrines

to watch over our dead, their bodies inside out,

which is to say, we only know how to love inside out …

So many times I sent word when you were an island,

unsure if it reached you, my darling, and what if

we are not meant to survive everything?

Fairouz sings, and we are reminded,

every love letter is also an elegy …

“Until When, God?”

“Our land is being reborn”

The man on the TV says, burn the mosques,

burn the textbooks, burn our tender,

this city turns our curses to prayers,

our disciples to the wretched …

“My voice, keep flying,

whirlwind inside the conscience of people,

tell them what’s happening,

so that maybe their conscience wakes up.”

Sing to them, we are a free people …

And sing. and sing. And sing. And …

From bil 3arabi: 6 poems

Advice to a Prophet
by Richard Wilbur

When you come, as you soon must, to the streets of our city,
Mad-eyed from stating the obvious,
Not proclaiming our fall but begging us
In God’s name to have self-pity,
Spare us all word of the weapons, their force and range,
The long numbers that rocket the mind;
Our slow, unreckoning hearts will be left behind,
Unable to fear what is too strange.
Nor shall you scare us with talk of the death of the race.
How should we dream of this place without us?—
The sun mere fire, the leaves untroubled about us,
A stone look on the stone’s face?
Speak of the world’s own change. Though we cannot conceive
Of an undreamt thing, we know to our cost
How the dreamt cloud crumbles, the vines are blackened by frost,
How the view alters. We could believe,
If you told us so, that the white-tailed deer will slip
Into perfect shade, grown perfectly shy,
The lark avoid the reaches of our eye,
The jack-pine lose its knuckled grip
On the cold ledge, and every torrent burn
As Xanthus once, its gliding trout
Stunned in a twinkling. What should we be without
The dolphin’s arc, the dove’s return,
These things in which we have seen ourselves and spoken?
Ask us, prophet, how we shall call
Our natures forth when that live tongue is all
Dispelled, that glass obscured or broken
In which we have said the rose of our love and the clean
Horse of our courage, in which beheld
The singing locust of the soul unshelled,
And all we mean or wish to mean.
Ask us, ask us whether with the worldless rose
Our hearts shall fail us; come demanding
Whether there shall be lofty or long standing
When the bronze annals of the oak-tree close.

Richard Wilbur, “Advice to a Prophet” from Collected Poems 1943-2004. Copyright © 2004 by Richard Wilbur. FB post by the Poetry Foundation 27 January 2019

Gone is Gone
by Mark Wunderlich

for Lucie Brock-Broido

I was there at the edge of Never,
of Once Been, bearing the night’s hide

stretched across the night sky,
awake with myself disappointing myself,

armed, legged & torsoed in the bed,
my head occupied by enemy forces,

mind not lost entire, but wandering
off the marked path ill-advisedly. This March

Lucie upped and died, and the funny show
of her smoky-throated world began to fade.

I didn’t know how much of me was made
by her, but now I know that this spooky art

in which we staple a thing
to our best sketch of a thing was done

under her direction, and here I am
at 4 AM, scratching a green pen over a notebook

bound in red leather in October.
It’s too warm for a fire. She’d hate that.

And the cats appear here only as apparitions
I glimpse sleeping in a chair, then

Wohin bist du entschwunden? I wise up,
know their likenesses are only inked

on my shoulder’s skin, their chipped ash poured
in twin cinerary jars downstairs. Gone

is gone, said the goose to the shrunken boy
in the mean-spirited Swedish children’s book

I love. I shouldn’t be writing this
at this age or any other. She mothered

a part of me that needed that, lit
a spirit-lantern to spin shapes inside

my obituary head, even though—
I’m nearly certain now—she’s dead.

Copyright © 2019 by Mark Wunderlich. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on May 23, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.

Say Grace

by Emily Jungmin Yoon

In my country our shamans were women
and our gods multiple until white people brought
an ecstasy of rosaries and our cities today
glow with crosses like graveyards. As a child
in Sunday school I was told I’d go to hell
if I didn’t believe in God. Our teacher was a woman
whose daughters wanted to be nuns and I asked
What about babies and what about Buddha, and she said
They’re in hell too and so I memorized prayers
and recited them in front of women
I did not believe in. Deliver us from evil.
O sweet Virgin Mary, amen. O sweet. O sweet.
In this country, which calls itself Christian,
what is sweeter than hearing Have mercy
on us. From those who serve different gods. O
clement, O loving, O God, O God, amidst ruins,
amidst waters, fleeing, fleeing. Deliver us from evil.
O sweet, O sweet. In this country,
point at the moon, at the stars, point at the way the lake lies,
with a hand full of feathers,
and they will look at the feathers. And kill you for it.
If a word for religion they don’t believe in is magic
so be it, let us have magic. Let us have
our own mothers and scarves, our spirits,
our shamans and our sacred books. Let us keep
our stars to ourselves and we shall pray
to no one. Let us eat
what makes us holy.

Source: Poetry (November 2017)

An Ordinary Misfortune [“She is girl. She is gravel.”]
by Emily Jungmin Yoon

She is girl. She is gravel. She is grabbed. She is grabbed like handfuls of gravel. Gravel grated by water. Her village is full of gravel fields. It is 1950. She is girl. She is grabbed. She is not my grandmother, though my grandmother is girl. My grandmother’s father closes the gates. Against American soldiers, though they jump over stone walls. To a girl who is not my grandmother. The girl is gravel grabbed. Her language is gravel because it means nothing. Hands full of girl. Fields full of gravel. Korea is gravel and graves. Girl is girl and she will never be a grandmother. She will be girl, girl is gravel and history will skip her like stone over water. Oh girl, oh glory. Girl.

Emily Jungmin Yoon, “An Ordinary Misfortune [”She is girl. She is gravel.”]” from A Cruelty Special to Our Species. Copyright © 2018 by Emily Jungmin Yoon. The Ecco Press (HarperCollins Publishers).

What Carries Us
by Emily Jungmin Yoon

First, there was the horse.

Imagine creatures as majestic,
standing. All their lives they stand, withholding.

Imagine being tamed. Learning to be still,
to be speed. Imagine birds as large

as horses. We would be flying, grabbing
a majestic creature by its collar.

In cylinders of metal, we are four-legged
beast-lives of liminal spaces.

One time I was so tired of flying I wondered
if I will spend all my life packing then unpacking.

A complaint of privilege. We are such spending
creatures. And when I say we are beasts,

is that a metaphor? Metaphor, according to Papastergiadis,
is also transportation, between absence and presence,

“articulating action.” Its “very process,”
in times of extremity, is “akin to prophecy.”

I like the idea of transportation
as articulation, that the end of metaphor is a kind

of arrival, like getting off the train at an unknown stop.

So when I say we are beasts, perhaps what I mean
to do is remember that predators

have forward-facing eyes, and we do
grab others by the collar, and we do fly

in metal, in preparation for the kill.

What I want to do is slow down time.

Imagine love as a horse.

Think about us—a distance
apart only a flying thing could connect us—

standing and pacing, tamed and watching,

then finally with each other, laughing
as if to collapse, unbridled as wild horses.

In this era of brevity in this era of metal in this
era of abbreviation, yes, I’m trying to make you

think of me longer. Yes, this whole time,

the bird, the train, the whole thing
about metaphor, I said to say this,

that this is what carries us, the slow
consideration of what each other is, can be.

And first, there was the horse.

Source: Poetry (April 2020)

One Art
by Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art” from The Complete Poems 1926-1979. Copyright © 1979, 1983 by Alice Helen Methfessel. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC, http://us.macmillan.com/fsg. All rights reserved.

Caution: Users are warned that this work is protected under copyright laws and downloading is strictly prohibited. The right to reproduce or transfer the work via any medium must be secured with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

Source: The Complete Poems 1926-1979 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983)


1 Comment

The shark with my name on it

It’s edging
into the narrows
between the reef and rocky outcrops.
It inserts its proboscis
its probe
and smiles that smile that is not
a smile.
The shark with my name on it
quivers with instinctive
connective drive
Its pale planetary
eyes dilate.
Sensing my proximity
the shutters come down
nictitating membrane.
Better than an eye roll
a full body twist
a wink that says
silently
I’ve got your number.

shark_elly_mcdonald_writer


2 Comments

Anthony O’Grady d.19 December 2018

Update: I am humbled that Anthony’s sisters Sharyn and Suellen have invited me to read a section from this at Anthony’s commemoration, Thursday 27 December 2018. I am honoured to contribute.

Anthony O’Grady with Bryan Ferry – RAM

One day late in 1979 I was walking along Glebe Point Road in Sydney with my new friend, Stuart Coupe, and Stuart suggested I should write for RAM, Rock Australia Magazine, my bible. He said he’d introduce me to the editor. So I went along to the RAM offices in Crown Street, Darlinghurst, to meet Anthony O’Grady.

The RAM offices were on the second level of a converted terrace building and were kinda funky. People who looked like they belonged in rock’n’roll were fugging up the space. Behind a large desk, with his back to a window overlooking Crown Street, sat Anthony.

Now Anthony had a very soft voice and pretty, feline features. He leaned back in his chair, with a guarded manner. He was watchful and maybe a bit irritated. I did not look rock’n’roll even slightly.

I could not hear a word AO’G said to me above the noise of traffic through the open window. I just kept smiling and nodding, hoping my timing was ok. Then I genuflected and backed out, cautiously.

That evening Stuart phoned me, to check that I was ok. He told me Anthony O’Grady had apologised for being rude to his friend. Anthony had, apparently, told me to fuck off. I had, apparently, just sat there, smiled and nodded.

Anthony said, “Anyone with skin that thick should be a rock music writer.”

Between them, I owe Anthony and Stuart the life I’ve led.

As a writer, I owe incalculably to Anthony.

My first few articles he tore up. Then he took to slashing them with a red pen. He told me what to dump. He told me what to expand. He told me when it pleased. Eventually, he smiled.

About 10 years later, Anthony took several public transport connections from the north shore of the Harbour to visit me in Kings Cross. He was delayed, by about an hour, and we didn’t have cellphones, so he couldn’t text. Back in my first floor, terrace-house apartment, I grew antsy waiting. I went out.

I was not home when Anthony arrived and he was disappointed. It was a hot day. He’d travelled hours, at some inconvenience. He did that, he told me, because he rated me.

Have I mentioned how highly I rate Anthony?

Love, lots of. From me to you, AO’G.

From Anthony:

I met Elly in 1979, in my capacity as founding editor of the rock magazine RAM. Of the many writers who appeared in the magazine during my seven years as editor, I regard Elly as amongst the most outstanding. Her writing was always perceptive, it embodied the attitude that music could be more than satisfactory entertainment, it could be emotionally fulfilling.

She is that rare individual who combines sensitivity with pervading intelligence. I have never ceased to be impressed by her talents as a writer and the vivaciousness of her personality.

Anthony O’Grady
Founding editor, RAM Magazine

Pics sourced online – on the right, cropped from a photograph by Bob King, in a blog post by Debbie Kruger


3 Comments

Untitled (2018)

I nursed my father in my arms as he died
spewing black blood.
Do you think any residue between me and you
means anything
alongside that?

I do a lot of death.
The ones who grow old
The people who don’t
Those who barely made it past the cradle.
I wait in the market in Damascus and
no one is unexpected.

I stand on a bridge and
sooner or later they all pass by.
I extend my hand and
welcome them.

Hello, I say.
I have a room prepared.


4 Comments

Two stories: Yes; and The One Story (1 November 2018)

Yes

Caroline Christchurch sits in a hotel coffee shop, positioned where she can watch the door. Business people come and go. The men are bright-eyed and smartly dressed. The women are dumpy but game, with bright lipstick and over-bleached hair. Caroline notices this kind of thing. This is the way she thinks. How well presented are these people? And: how fast can they move?

A man enters. He veers towards her table, his head slightly inclined, his smile crooked.

He leans the heel of his hand on her table, as if to balance himself, as he passes. He winks. Where his palm was is now a USB. Caroline reaches out, as if in sympathy, and draws the USB towards her. Her hand shelters the USB. She rises abruptly and walks out the door, the USB enclosed in her fist. She walks fast.

Outside on the pavement, she accelerates into a slow jog. The streets are crowded – cars, pedestrians – but Caroline moves purposefully, effortlessly, and people part around her, leaving her way clear. This is how it’s always been. A tall young woman, long hair, clear skin. Long legs. Caroline moves through the world with ease, an actor on a film set, an action heroine.

“Whoa! Show pony!”

A man is in front of her, square on. A man confronts her. He is holding both her wrists, pulling her towards him. His face presses close towards her forehead, as if to kiss her. Deftly, he twists both her hands upwards. He unfurls her fingers. He palms the USB, slides it into his pants pocket. Still holding her right wrist in his left hand, he jerks her towards the revolving street door of a high-rise office.

She screams but it’s a squawk. She attempts a ju-jitsu wrist flick. His grip is firm. He has her bustled through the doorway, now in a foyer lined with lifts. A security attendant mans the front desk. He watches with only mild interest.

The man holding Caroline nods briefly at the security guard and steps her towards a lift. She stops fighting. Outside the lift door she stamps on his foot, spearing down on his arch with her shoe heel.

“Fuck that,” he says. He’s frowning.

They’re in the lift now. He stabs the button that closes the lift doors. He releases her wrist and steps back. The lift is lined with mirrors. There’s a small security camera above the door, in a corner. He addresses it.

“Check,” he says.

The lift is going nowhere. Caroline knows better than to make any move right now. She leans back against the mirror. Her brain works fast.

A disembodied voice speaks into the space.

“Miss Christchurch?” it says. “Caroline?”

Her eyes swivel upwards to the security camera.

“I don’t mean to alarm you, Caroline,” the voice says. “I hope you’re not alarmed.”

Jesus. She thinks, fuckin’ Hal the robot.

“I’m not alarmed,” she says. “Not even wired.”

There’s a pause.

“What we need is calm,” says the voice.

“We need calm?” she counters.

“Calm would be helpful,” says the voice. The man in the lift beside her is silent.

“You realise this is kidnap?” Caroline says. “Detaining me against my will?”

“We are not seeking to obtain advantage,” the voice offers. “This is in your best interests, Caroline.”

“We hope you will consent to meet with us, Caroline,” the voice continues.

“We are waiting. We would welcome a meeting.”

“Do I have a choice?” Caroline asks.

“There is always a choice,” says the voice. “We hope you will consent.”

“Here and now?” she asks.

“We’re waiting,” says the voice. “Level 24.”

“Yes,” she says.

That’s done it. She’s agreed. Was she coerced?

The man beside her presses the button for Level 24. The lift glides upwards. Caroline draws up her spine, lengthens her neck. She is dignity personified. She is scared to the bone.

At Level 24, the lift door opens, direct onto a large conference room. The carpet is a golden beige. The conference table is polished wood. The chairs are upholstered in chartreuse velvet. Caroline notices this kind of thing.

On the far side of the table, down towards one end, backs to the window, are seated three men.

Caroline pauses at the threshold.

“The father, the son, the holy ghost,” she says.

“Let’s not be dramatic,” says the voice. With the light behind these figures, she can’t tell which man spoke.

The men do not rise.

Caroline feels the man beside her reach his arm around her waist, his left hand lightly touching her left hip. He guides her towards down alongside the table, towards where the men are seated.

“Thank you for agreeing to be here,” says the voice. It belongs to the man on the left, the far end.

“We hope we can resolve this amicably. We hope we can help you.”

Caroline does not know what to say.

“Please sit,” says Hal.

The man beside Caroline pulls out a seat opposite the speaker. He gestures for her to sit.

Caroline acquiesces.

“May we have your permission to record this meeting?” the man seated opposite asks her.

“Yes,” she says again. She thinks: This is a sales technique. Solicit agreement. Yes and yes again is cumulative.

“Please allow me to introduce myself,” says Hal. “I represent a client. Not yours. Ours. A legal client.”

Caroline feels a surge of anger. Physically, she is paralysed.

“You unlawfully obtained something belonging to him.”

“No,” says Caroline, forcefully. She hears the italics and exclamation mark. “Your client raped me. Your client filmed himself raping me. Your client took something from me. Your client has no right to the record of that act.”

“I understand how you feel, Caroline,” says the man on the left. “But we need calm here. Emotive outbursts will not help anyone. Your perception of events is not reality.

“We need you to acknowledge that.”

“Why would I give a fuck what you need?” spits Caroline.

Three men sit opposite her. See no evil hear no evil speak no evil. The evil brothers. Marx is funnier.

“We’re here to help you, Caroline,” says Hal.

“We’re sure you’ll agree it would be best if that USB did not exist. It’s in your best interests for it to not exist.”

Caroline does not know what to say.

“It’s in your best interests to make this go away. We can help you. We can make it go away.”

A shiver runs the full length of her body.

“We can handle this privately,” the man says. “Calmly.”

“I want this public,” she says. “I want your client charged. I want him in court. I don’t care who sees the video. I want him convicted.”

“We don’t think you do, Caroline,” says the man across the table.

“We think you understand that is not going to happen. Nothing will happen you don’t want to happen.”

Caroline thinks.

“We have nothing to talk about,” she says. “Let me leave, now.”

“No one is detaining you,” says the man.

“You are here at your own choice.”

“Do you know your way out?” the man asks. “Sometimes people get confused. We wouldn’t want you to get lost.”

Caroline pauses. She glares at him.

“I can find my own way,” she says.

The light behind them silhouettes the three men.

“Technology is so unreliable,” says Hal.

“Here one moment, gone the next.” The voice is disembodied.

“Fuck you,” says Caroline.

She turns to where the lift doors are camouflaged in the wall. The man beside her is her shadow. He stands so close she can feel his breath.

The doors open.

“You can make a better choice,” says the voice. “We hope you will make a better choice.

“None of this needs to have happened. None of this needs to happen.”

Caroline steps into the lift.

Her shadow remains with her.

She presses the button for Ground Level. She presses the button for Close Door.

The lift descends. She can feel her stomach plummet.

They reach ground level.

“What happens now?” she asks the man beside her.

“Now you are free,” he says. “You are always free.

“Your choice,” he says. And he smiles.

USB

The One Story

They say every one of us has a novel in us. One novel. At least one novel, each.

Everyone has a story. I’ve heard it said there’s just the one story. One story each. One story that explains how we see the world.

So, let me see.

Depending on who I am, what would be the one story? The story of love. The story of loss. The story of transgression. The story of redemption. The story of malevolence. The story of deep, unending grief?

The story of forgetting? The story erased?

I’ve heard it said if we don’t tell our story, we can’t be known. If we don’t know our story, we can’t exist.

Can that be true?

I thought I knew who I was. That is, I thought I knew, until the police showed up at the door.

“Kylie Ambrose?” they asked. “Are you Kylie Ambrose?”

I said I was. Because who else should I be?

Kylie Ambrose. Fifteen years old. Bookish. Bolshie. A sharp-tongued virgin. Lives in the suburbs, with her dad and mum. Mixed feelings about school. Hates the classroom. Loves to learn. Some day, will be a scientist.

Rocket science.

The two police officers looked at me solemnly.

“Where are your parents?” they asked.

Then I felt fear, fear like vomit rising.

“Are they all right?” I asked.

“They’re fine,” said the male cop. “Are they are work?”

“You tell me,” I snapped. Smart aleck.

Outside the house, on the street, I saw a squad car parked. I could see another officer at the driving wheel. I could hear the crackle of police radio.

“Come with us, please,” said the female police officer.

I was cold in every limb.

“I’ll wait here for my parents,” I said.

The female police officer turned away and walked towards the police car. She opened the front passenger door, leaned inside and spoke to the driver. Then she returned.

“Your parents will join us at the station,” she said.

“It’s okay, Kylie,” she said.

The story of betrayal. Is it ever okay?

My name is not Kylie. My parents are not my parents. This is not my country. I will never be a rocket scientist.

An ocean away, a woman was waiting. My real mother, who I never knew.

Abducted, they told me. Me, not her.

I don’t know what this life is, but it isn’t mine. My story is stolen.

It can’t be recovered.

Suburbia


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Author’s notes – the Lenny novella (4 May 2018)

[Spoiler alert – discloses ending]

The Lenny novella was written mostly in mid-2012, with one chapter, Death, written late 2013, then the conclusion in early 2018, six years after its inception.

There’s a range of reasons I abandoned it for so long (other than that I was embarrassed by it).

These include concerns about:

  1. The hysterical tone and narrative content.
  2. Cultural appropriation and pastiche.
  3. How to end the narrative.
  4. Plagiarism.

So, some thoughts on those points.

Hysteria

The first 12,000 words were written essentially in one burst, immediately after I was sacked from a temp admin job, where, among other things, I’d failed to prepare coffee and tea for senior staff and clients to the corporate standard.

I was in that temp job after leaving my previous admin job due to injuring my back, an injury that completely incapacitated me for about five weeks and left me unable to move without pain for just over three months. I’d attempted a return to work, but the firm where I worked was unwilling to modify my tasks: three hours every morning continued to be rote mechanical movement with a twist from the waist (don’t ask).

It’s fair to say I felt evil towards the corporate workplace.

It’s fair to say I had a track record as a misfit in conventional workplaces. I despaired of finding employment again. In fact, I haven’t worked fulltime since then.

But Lenny’s hysteria has other origins.

I’d experienced occasional panic attacks over the previous five or so years, and one way back when I was 18 or 19. At that time I worked in the Australian rock music industry, and being backstage was a way of life. On this occasion something had happened earlier in the night that distressed me hugely; when I went to leave, I could not find the exit. I could not see a door, or figure out the direction to get outside. I was standing on a stage with road crew loading up all around me, panicking. I grabbed a friend I trusted – and screamed “Jim! I cannot find my way out!” He looked at me oddly, half turned, pointed, and said “There”.

There was a missing wall with a truck parked halfway through it. There was a roller door fully opened. There was the night sky. Black and stars.

I didn’t identify that as a panic attack as I’d never heard that term. But if someone had used the words “Panic attack” that night, I would have recognised myself immediately.

Lenny is, in effect, one long panic attack. That might make it hard to read. Or unreadable.

Cultural appropriation and pastiche

The Lenny novella is set in a world that shares recognisable elements with ours but is not ours. In among the fantasy elements, I have lifted imagery from many cultures, notably Japan and Silk Road cultures: China, Persia, Moghul India. I have lifted elements from the myths of many cultures. It might be worth mentioning the post-graduate thesis I attempted was on Transformation and Shapeshifting in Early Medieval Celtic Literature.

I didn’t lift images and narrative elements to disrespect these cultures. But I do understand many readers are uncomfortable with privileged white people using the symbologies of other cultures in cavalier ways.

At the time I began Lenny I was frankly unaware of that debate. I chose to create a cultural hybrid fantasy world partly for the beauty of those varied elements and partly to distinguish this world from the reality (realities) we live in. If I thought about it, I thought of it as a postmodern pastiche.

I needed to distinguish Lenny’s world from ours because this is not a factual tale. At the same time, I needed to retain ties to the world as we know it to ensure the themes – genocide, child soldiers, institutional abuse, collaboration and collusion – recognisably relate to this world. I plucked names ad hoc from different languages and cultures, mostly European, to draw attention to parallels between the events in this story and events during the Bosnian War and in World War II.

I pilfered parts of other people’s stories. A big slab of Lenny’s opening address is straight from the experiences of a Bosnian Muslim combat veteran who I met in 2002 when he was a refugee. Thank you, Sakib Mustafic. The woman who steps from a helicopter at the conclusion is an homage to my friends Tara Young, an Australian Iraq War combat veteran, and Dr Barb Wigley, who manages refugee camps in sub-Saharan Africa.

The figure of the Investigator is a tribute to my friend Robyn Dixon, a foreign correspondent since 1993.

The dragons come from the west. Not “the West”. There is no political partisanship intended there.

The End

The way I had set up this narrative there is no escape for these children. I grew more and more depressed, realising any device I used to extract them would be wishful thinking. These children were doomed. Then this morning, I was listening to talkback radio, listening to a woman my age (57) say there was no prospect of employment for her after years of disability. A short while back, a very short while back, I would have echoed her belief. But my instinctive response was, “No! I have two jobs – casual jobs, it’s true, but jobs I love, and I love the life those jobs make possible!”

I might be the lucky exception, but luck does exist: exceptions do exist. The unlikely, the providential, can happen.

I thought, if I am an exception, why should I not allow my characters a Deus Ex Machina? A God from above?

So I sent them helicopters. I rescued them.

Also, as Lenny discusses at the end, these are children. What are adults for, if not to protect children? I, as author, can do that. I am the adult here.

So, I let them live.

Lenny says she can’t speak to the rightness or wrongness of those helicopters being there. I can’t either, and I don’t. This tale is not a justification for wars of foreign intervention.

Quite apart from my pique at being sacked as an admin temp, this story was prompted by issues raised by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague, the court of last resort for crimes of genocide, and by the Court of Human Rights. It might seem to allude to Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Syria, even institutional child sex abuse as in the Roman Catholic Church internationally. It is not “about” any one of those phenomena specifically. It is “about” social prejudice, exclusion, discrimination and persecution as social and political phenomena.

Plagiarism and due credit

As soon as I wrote that ending, I recognised my borrowings from John Wyndham’s classic The Chrysalids. I loved The Chrysalids as a child. Two years back I repurchased a copy, which sits on my bookshelves, unread. I hadn’t realised how much Lenny’s narrative owes to The Chrysalids till today.

Call it postmodern. Call it homage.

All elements of homage are unintended, with love, or intended, with respect.

The Lenny novella (c.26,737 words) – 2012/13/18

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By the way – the photographs in the Lenny novella blog post, almost all, are mine. Other images I’ve lifted can be identified by doing a reverse images search. When I get a moment, I will do a list of credits and update the post.


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The Lenny novella (c.26,737 words) – 2012/13/18

tea bowl

When the war was over the true terror began.  It was the time of the Servants.  It was hard for those of us who had been child soldiers.  The Servants sent us to re-education camps to learn what service means. We learnt the tea ceremony and how to fellate our teachers. We spent dawn hours in the fields and afternoons doing data entry.  In the evening we had group sessions to confess our service failures. Then we poured more tea.

I enjoyed the war.  I lived in the hills, sometimes with other child soldiers, sometimes alone. When my home was first burned – when my family was burned – I escaped into the forest and lived alone for months. Mostly on raw bats. Bats taste foul but they’re easy to catch. Beetles are OK. You have to find big ones to get any juice, but the crunchy thing satisfies. I dreamt of pumpkin soup.

But I enjoyed it. The war. The way the sky lit up. So frequent and yet so unpredictable.  I loved those huge chutes of purple and pink. And yellow. And peach. I wanted weapons of my own, but all I had then was a knife. It wasn’t till I met Chapin that I held my first gun. As soon as I had it I wanted to find Servants so I could try it out.

Finding Servants is even easier than catching bats. They don’t take a lot care to cover their tracks. They’d say they do. They’d say they wear black and observe vows of silence to be unobtrusive. To be self-effacing. But except during the hours of the Silent Vow they talk all the time. They yell, they shout, they gossip, they grumble. They’re men.  They even piss loudly.

That’s how I’d take down my first kills. They were outliers, men who’d left the group to piss or wank or just be alone. Me, I like being alone, but for a Servant it’s a vulnerable place. If you come up with a knife, unobtrusive, you can angle it upwards under their lower ribs and slash the vital organs. Lots of juice there. They generally die silent.

Sometimes they grunt, and once in a while they roar.  If they make too much noise other men come running. That’s when it pays to be self-effacing, and it isn’t something I’ve needed to practice. Though as it happens I’ve accumulated experience.

Chapin taught me a lot. I don’t know how he learned, I think it just came naturally.  He told me that when he was small his older sister said he’d be a good person to have around in a war zone. And that was before the war. I don’t know if she saw the war coming then – if anyone did – but that’s what she said. It didn’t help her any. He couldn’t help her. When war arrived she died just like the others, all the others in his family and all the others in mine.

A war arrives like an unwanted guest.  You’re going about your business – working or playing, quarrelling or hugging – and suddenly there’s this presence that interrupts everything. War is a bully. Suddenly everything, everyone, is enforced into its servitude.

I served the war for countless months and I mean that. I lost count. I have no idea how long the war went on. It just went on. Raw bats and blood and beetles and knives. Guns of various kinds and smashed up entrails. Smashed in heads. Shattered hips and crushed legs. Smears of blood with just traces of bodies. It was good up in the hills where it was green and not red, and where the sky lit up like a pageant nightly. Sometimes there were other kids to talk to, and other kids to fight alongside. Sometimes there was food.

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In the tea ceremony, we have to pour just so.  The tea must reach a certain depth of colour – not lighter, not darker. We use a certain quantity of tea powder and whisk just so. The texture must be entirely light.  We pour precisely to a certain level.  We serve with a smile.

The re-education camps are brothels and I don’t know what end purpose we serve here for.  When we reach a certain level we are disappeared. The Servants tell us if we fulfil our potential we will be permitted into their community to represent redemption and model service values. I think they kill us.

The thing is, the Servants have always killed us, and it’s not like they’re dependent on us to serve them tea. The tea service is symbolic. They could do their own tea if the tea was what mattered. What matters is the service, which is what they’ve always been about. Once we erase ourselves and are effaced into pure service they’ve made their point; they might as well kill us. Or not. We’ve ceased to exist at that point. But they like to kill, so I think that’s how it ends.

But then again, I like to kill too, and I know who I am. I am a soldier. The more I meditate on serving the more I want to serve, just not quite the way the Servants have in mind. So maybe it’s not over. Did I say the war was over?

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The tea ceremony? I could perform the tea ceremony with my eyes put out. Maybe some day I will.

These are the elements for the tea ceremony:  tea, a small knife, a small mortar and pestle, a tea bowl, a bowl stand, tea cups, a whisk, a low table, a kettle, a kettle stand, a stove (with charcoal), a trainee, a Servant (or several). The teacake is pre-prepared. It’s imported from somewhere, I don’t know where. I believe it grows wild on forested cliffs. It’s white tea, rare and precious.  Only the new shoots are picked, when they’re whitish, almost translucent. The shoots are picked at dawn, plump with dew. I’m told they must be picked by long fingernails; finger pads would bruise them.

Who told me this? A girl in the camp. She was a bit older than I am. I only talked with her once, after that she disappeared. I would have liked to ask her more.

The tea leaves are steamed, then crushed, then shaped by a mould into the form of an egg.  Why an egg?  I don’t know. I think it’s just aesthetically pleasing. Then the tea-egg is dried. It’s wrapped in a very fine tissue, each tea-egg stored in its individual container. The containers are carved from fragrant wood but unembellished. The tea-egg and the containers are smooth.

When I am called to perform the tea ceremony I am required to be washed first. I report to the cleansing studio. In the cleansing studio I am entirely passive: everything is done on my behalf. I am stripped of clothing and my intimate parts are scrubbed using sponges soaked in tepid water.  By “my intimate parts”, I mean everywhere there is a hinge joint: between and under my toes, around my ankles, behind my knees, in my groin and where thigh meets hip, under my arms, under my chin, in my elbows, around my wrists, between and around my fingers. Also anywhere they are flesh flaps: my genitals, where my breasts would be (if I had breasts, they wash there anyway), around my lips, my nostrils, my earlobes, around the top cartilage of my ears, my eyelids.

My scalp is washed. If hair has sprouted, it’s shaved again. It’s important that no blood be spilt so they’re careful not to cut me. The women who prepare me are expert. They do this fast and silently, never making eye contact. When they’re done they step me into a simple undergarment and wrap a large shawl around me. The shawl is fine cotton and feels not unpleasant. The women tuck and fold so the shawl covers me entirely. There’s no risk of it coming undone. I can move my arms and my torso without fearing cloth will fall into the tea bowl.

When I am clad the women paint a single spot on my face, a red dot just below my lower lip. I don’t know what it symbolises but I’m guessing it means something.

The oldest of the women then presents me with a tea-egg container. I am escorted out of the cleansing studio and guided to the tea house. As if I don’t know where it’s located. Tea is only ever served in the tea house. Everything is already set up there. The Servants are waiting.

So when I enter the tea house I see the Servants, sitting cross-legged on cushions alongside a low table.  The table is plain and utterly smooth.  The Servants wear black, as they always do. For the tea ceremony they wear their indoor robes. The fabrics are fine textured and deepest dark black, but devoid of ornamentation. The Servants’ Silent Vow applies during the tea ceremony, so they do not speak. I keep my eyes down and kneel before the table with the tea-egg container held in front in both hands.  I place the tea-egg container on the table, pause, than prostate myself, forehead to floor. Then I sit back on my heels and pause again.

I open the tea-egg container and lift out the tea-egg in its tissue wrapping.  Very gently, I unfold the wrapping so the egg is exposed in my hands. I take the small knife from the table and here I always falter. I am expert with a knife. I can kill with a knife. If I smashed it into an eyeball, or up under a jaw, through the soft part, I could kill at least one Servant. Or through the base of the throat, I’m spoiled for choice. I always look too long at the knife. Then I take it – it’s very small – and ever so carefully shave a tiny piece of tea from the tea-egg.  I do this as carefully, as expertly, as the women shaving my body.

Because I shave the tea-egg so carefully the fragment I shave does not break up. I place it in the pestle and crush it with the mortar. I grind for just a moment or two and it becomes fine powder. A kettle has been brewing on the small stove to the side of the room, which is fuelled by charcoal and stoked by the women before I arrived. The kettle is a metal ewer worked in a cylindrical shape – tall, flaring out from a flat small base then narrowing to a small, mouth-like opening. Ovoid, like an elongated egg.  The water is boiling now. The water is pure. It’s been sourced from a stream or lake, or so I am told. The higher in the hills the better. I could take the boiling water and fling it in a Servant’s face. There isn’t a large volume of water, just enough for a few tea cups, but hot water stings and I could use that moment to knife a Servant or simply run.

I don’t do that today. Instead I use a section of shawl to wrap my hand and lift the hot kettle from the stove. I pour a small amount into the tea bowl then place the metal ewer back on the stove.  Very carefully, I smooth the fine tea powder into the tea bowl with its shallow portion of hot water. This creates a paste. Then I retrieve the kettle with my left hand, wrapped in its shawl, and pick up the wooden whisk with my right hand.  I pour and whisk simultaneously, ensuring the paste is diluted only gradually, so that it retains a milky white colour. I rotate the kettle as I pour. As I whisk, using a circular motion, a light head of foam develops. This is known as the Milky Way or Star Flight. It is very important that the Milky Way be frothy yet quite firm, so that it remains in place even as I pour the tea into cups.

The utensils matter. The tea bowl must be thick ceramic, pale duck egg blue.  It must be deep, to get a good head of foam, and wide so I can whisk without spillage. The upper lip opens outwards, the texture is entirely smooth. The tea cups are the same duck egg blue, the same smoothness, but thin to the point that to pick them up by hand appears unseemly, even brutal. They look fragile. But so far I have never seen one break, so there must be something in the way they are fired that results in unexpected strength.

I don’t touch them myself.  They are arranged on the table and my task is to pour tea.  I place the kettle in the kettle stand and the tea bowl in the bowl stand. I bow lightly towards the Servant furthest from me. I say

“May you live in peace.

May you live in harmony.

May the universe shape itself for your comfort.

This is what it is to serve.

You do me honour.”

When the words are said I pour tea for that Servant. He then reaches out and takes his tea cup. The tea should look like cloud against a pale blue sky. Then I turn to the next furthest Servant from me, bow, say the words and pour his tea. Then the next, till however many Servants are present are served.

When the Servants have been served tea they drink in silence. They drink slowly, as tea cannot be rushed. During this time I kneel with my head bent. I do not move until I hear knuckles rapped on the table. This signals that the Servants have completed drinking tea. Now it is time for me to sing. It is always the same song:

“For as long as worlds suffer

I will serve.

For as long as chaos threatens

I will serve.

For as long as darkness rends daylight

I will serve.

For as long as time continues and change holds reign

I live only to serve.

O teach me to serve.

Let me honour you with service.”

Then the Servant closest to me lifts his tunic and I am required to kneel over his crotch. I am required to serve. I serve each of the Servants in turn, in silence. When each Servant has been served, the final Servant, the one furthest from where I started, raps the table to signal me to leave.

I return unescorted to the cleansing studio where the women await me. The roster of women changes from visit to visit but the women who prepare me are always the same team who debrief me afterwards. First they use a sponge to wipe off the red dot beneath my lower lip, assuming it’s survived. They wipe my lower lip regardless. Then they unrobe me. Naked, I kneel then prostrate myself. Three times I say “I have served. I have served. I have served.” Then I extend myself fully like a snake, belly to ground, face to ground, and I say “I live to serve.”  The women pick me up by reaching under my armpits and hauling me to my feet. They hand me back my regular coarse clothes and turn their backs on me. I walk to the door and exit, returning to the afternoon’s data entry, if this had been an afternoon session, or retiring to barracks if an evening session.

Generally I do two sessions a day. Some of us are seldom called but I have much to learn about service. Since I would seem to be a slow learner I’m not afraid I’ll be disappeared soon, but eventually I’ll be deemed proficient in the tea ceremony and then my ultimate self-effacement will be imminent.  I am planning.  I pride myself on being canny at planning, even if my service failures are gross, so with luck I will have a plan that works before I graduate as a tea ceremony adept.

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I don’t know what you look like but I know one day we’ll meet. There will be an investigator and there will be a witness. I will be that witness. You’ll ask me about the Servants, and I’ll tell you there’s a lot I don’t understand, but this is what I know:

In our society there are divisions. The First Division is the lawmakers, military, law enforcement and spiritual guides. The Second Division is the traders. The Third Division is the producers: manufacturers, farmers and artisans. The Fourth Division is the Unclean, those who touch the abject. Outside of the Divisions are the Storytellers. These are singers, dancers, visual artists, writers and anyone who imagines the unknown. That is, anyone born different.

The Divisions are hereditary. You cannot marry into a different Division, or buy your way into a different Division. The exception is the Storytellers, as ever. For example, I am a Storyteller because my grandmother was born without arms. Before that my family was military. Chapin is – or was – a Storyteller because his father had visions. His family was military too. A child, or even an adult, may be taken from their family of origin and re-designated as a Storyteller if the governing committee of their Division determines there is no longer a fit with their birth community.

Each of the Divisions, except the Storytellers, has a governing committee. Theoretically members of each committee are rotated every three years. But some members are requested by their community to continue serving for additional terms. Sometimes they serve life-long. How long an individual might serve is influenced by factors like force of personality, financial clout, family influence and prestige, and sometimes even wisdom.

The First Division has a governing committee headed by a single individual. This is unique. In the other Divisions members of the committees have an equal voice and are expected to reach decisions by consensus. In the First Division, it used to be that the ruler had a time limited term, with a maximum of 12 years. But in recent generations two rulers died in unclear circumstances and factionalism spilled into violence. It was agreed the First Division was in crisis. In times of crisis, strong leadership is needed. Stable leadership. So the committee chose a Ruler for Life.

You can see our problem?  The tendency of the First Division is to get smaller: soldiers die young, spiritual guides are celibate. The tendency of the Storytellers is to expand: no family is immune from the advent of a child who needs to dance, or to make images, or born physically different, or who moves in this world in an other-worldly way.

And because the Divisions are hereditary, there are many within the Storyteller families who have no particular gift and no marked difference from their First or Second or Third Division peers. These people are not telling stories, but nor are they ruling or trading or producing. There starts to be an alignment between the ‘silent’ Storytellers and the Unclean. The Unclean touch the abject, which covers all killing professions (except the military, who kill humans), all cleaning professions (all waste disposal, whether garbage, sewage or corpses), and all healing professions (anyone who deals with illness and injury).  The medicos have psychotropic drugs. The ‘silent’ Storytellers seek out the Unclean for their drugs, as a way to access visions, or find their voice, and in that way to claim their birthright.

In recent times, the crisis times, the higher Divisions came to see the Storytellers as a source of instability. Education and special employment programs were designed to manage the problem. To manage us. Governing committees debated the issue in censorious terms. Radio broadcasts railed against us. There were too many Storytellers. Storytelling had become Unclean. More and more people within the Divisions believed it was time for a clean up.

Then the Ruler for Life was killed.

I truly do not know how it happened. My family were at home watching TV when a newscast came on to say the Ruler for Life had been in a military plane which exploded over the hills. The Storytellers live separate from other Divisions, in villages clustered in the foothills. The Unclean live in villages in the plains between the foothills and the towns. Somewhere mid-air between take-off from the airport outside the city and the hilltops near our home, the Ruler for Life had been assassinated.

That’s when war broke out. A lot of us didn’t know how to respond to the newscast. We stayed by our TVs and radios to listen for updates. We logged on to the internet to find out the facts. But no facts ever emerged. Instead, within hours we were dragged from our homes and slaughtered, our houses set ablaze. The roads were cordoned off and anyone caught trying to escape was killed. I was lucky. I wasn’t caught.

This is when the Servants came into their own. The Servants started as the Ruler for Life’s bodyguards. After the Ruler for Life was killed, their numbers swelled. The Servants became those who serve the memory of the ruler.  The killing was an unspeakable act, so the Servants take a vow of silence. They don’t speak between nightfall and breakfast, nor for an hour either side of meals, and they don’t speak during the tea ceremony. They are required to take part in a tea ceremony daily.  The Servants take a celibacy vow. That’s OK. What they do in the tea ceremony isn’t sex. It can’t be sex, because it involves young boys as much as young girls, and the Servants are not homosexual. (To be homosexual is to be a Storyteller and Unclean.) The tea ceremony is about service, and oral service is not sex. Anyone can tell you that.

Service is the Servants’ highest value. Art is ostentation, is ornamentation, is embellishment, elaboration, lying. Art is self assertion. To be a Servant is the opposite of being a Story Teller. The mission of the Servants is to stamp out Story Telling.

That is why I am in a re-education camp. I am being trained in service. I am being given a new voice to displace my Story Teller tales. I might not like the means by which I am being retrained, the medium by which my voice is altered, but my likes and dislikes are irrelevant. I am irrelevant. That is why once I fully understand, I will be killed.

My mission is to find you, the investigator, and tell my stories before I am killed.

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Strange things are happening.

Last week I was standing in the cleansing studio, being prepared for the tea ceremony, watching the women who never make eye contact. The woman preparing to paint the red dot under my lip was young, maybe twenty. She was dark and fluid, poised for a moment with the pigment box held in one hand, a fine brush in the other. She leaned in to paint the red dot, deftly; then, close to my face, she raised her eyes to mine. She made eye contact. So close to my face I could feel her breath.

My own breath caught.

“What is your talent?” I heard her ask.

I didn’t know how to respond. “I kill.”

She paused, her face still intimately close. “I mean your art.”

She had huge dark eyes, deep set. The texture of her skin was imperfect, the curve of her face voluptuous.  “I tell stories.”

She dropped her gaze, then drew back to a less confronting distance. She nodded. Everything continued as before, except that I felt dazed. I kept staring at the woman. The other women proceeded as if nothing had happened. As if they noticed nothing.

When I entered the tea house I had to take particular care not to fumble or drop anything, not to let anything spill.  My hands didn’t feel as if they belonged to me. Nothing about me belonged in that space.

When the time came to serve, I bowed to the Servant furthest from me, as I should, and I said the words:

“May you live in peace.

May you live in harmony.

May the universe shape itself for your comfort.

This is what it is to serve.

You do me honour.”

And as I said that final word, “honour”, I raised my eyes. I looked him in the face. It was involuntary, nothing planned. For a moment time stopped. I heard the hiss of breath intake and time restarted. The Servant was staring at me. I couldn’t drop my gaze. He looked bewildered, more so than angry. I kept staring at him. He was a large man, strong coloring. His eyes were completely round. He held up his hand, fingers pointing up, palm facing out, as if to fend me off.

I lowered my gaze and moved to pour the tea, but the Servant stood up. He motioned to the other Servants. One still sat there, the others made to stand. There was a flurry of confused movement. When I looked up again I was alone in the tea house. I was guessing I won’t be graduating soon.

I stood alone in the tea house for a few minutes, studying each item on the table. The tea bowl, the bowl stand, the tea cups, the whisk. The small knife. The kettle in the kettle stand.  I reached out for the small knife and tucked it under my right armpit. I am left handed. I wondered for the first time who cleans up after a tea ceremony, but I think I already knew. The women do. The same women who clean up me.

The tea was still in the tea bowl. The Star Flight, its crown of froth, had not subsided. It had endurance, for something so light. I studied the tea cups. There was a luminosity to the empty tea cups. Light played in rings within their emptiness. The tea cups were filled with light. Not empty at all.

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Now might be the time to leave. The camp is a grid of corrugated iron barracks. There are shadows and angles. I am small. The tea house is the sole point of beauty. It is elegant and sparse, isolated, surrounded by a moat of fine white pebbles, smooth and perfect as the Milky Way. There is a small plum tree near its entrance. It would be difficult to leave unobserved, and I can’t imagine I am unobserved. I count the tea cups – four, tonight – bow my head, and turn. I leave the way I arrived, heading back on foot, unescorted, to the cleansing studio.

When I take my place in the centre of the room, as I always do, the women gather round me. The girl with dark eyes raises them to mine again.

“Will they kill me?” I ask.

“No,” she whispers. “I don’t think they will.”

“What will happen?”

She smiles. “How should I know? Am I a story teller? You’ll likely do double sessions of data entry this week.”

“Who are you?” I plead.

She smiles again. As the women strip my robe they touch my skin. I don’t recall they’ve ever done that before. Perhaps I’ve never felt it. I feel it now. I can feel that luminous light that lit up the tea cups, coursing through my skin, pulsing through my veins. My body feels warm, even though only a light undergarment covers my torso and thighs. I still have the small knife under my right armpit. None of the women acknowledge it or attempt to raise that arm. They slide the fabric out from between my right arm and my rib-cage as if that’s how it’s always done, as if there’s always a knife.

I wonder why I’ve never asked myself who these women are. Can they be Unclean?

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In the barracks I worry about the knife. Its absence must be noticed. There is no-one I can talk to. No-one talks to me. We are under surveillance by barracks guards. We sleep in bunks, but no-one talks. The woman with big eyes is the first person who has spoken to me in weeks, other than to issue orders.

The next time I’m called, it’s a different team. I am undressed, I am washed, I am shaved. There is no chance hair might grow. I am shaved every day. The woman who leans in to paint the red spot is tiny, she is shorter than me, and I’m only fourteen. She looks to be in her thirties. Curly hair. As she delicately dabs her brush in the pigment box she cocks her head to one side and studies my lower lip. Suddenly it happens again. She looks me straight into the eyes. Her mouth breaks into a crooked smile and her eyelids crease, narrowing her eyes into two young moons. She holds her arms out, one with the pigment box, one with the brush, and leans in so close her lips almost touch mine. I am startled.

Then she draws back slightly and in eyeblink, she’s painted the red dot.

“What is it?” I ask, and my voice sounds like a bleat. “What does the red dot mean?”

She leans in again and moves her mouth close to my ear.

“It’s a bullet hole.”

“Will they kill me?” I ask again.

“Maybe,” she says. “There are worse futures.”

“Who are you?” I ask again. “You are not Storytellers?”

She draws herself back and speaks at a volume I used to consider normal.

“Who made the tea cups? Who made the tea bowl? Who can make a knife?”

I am dumbstruck.

I enter the tea room and there, on the table, is my knife. Only it’s not my knife, I still have that. I have it hidden in the lining of my mattress. It is a knife identical to the knife I stole, lying there, innocent, giving the lie. I have that feeling again, as if I am not here. As if my hands are independent of my body. As if my mouth is independent of my soul. I perform the tea ceremony, and this time I perform almost flawlessly.  Almost.

As I pour the last tea cup – there are five, tonight – my hands waver slightly, as if nudged, and I spill a fine trickle. It leaks from under the canopy of the Milky Way, so little it could almost go unnoticed, but nothing goes unnoticed. The rim of the tea cup is wettened, there is fine white tea dribbling down the tea cup’s outer surface. I complete my tasks but I know I am no closer to graduation. My service values are not as they should be. My service failings are gross.

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It must be a trap. I don’t know what to make of these women. How can I tell the truth to the Investigator if I’m so confused?

I examine each proposition presented to me. First, the women believe they can speak unguardedly. Is that true? Not necessarily. There is nothing they’ve said so far that could not be said in front of the Servants. It’s just that I’m amazed it would be. I cannot believe we can speak unmonitored.

Second, the women speak as if they understand more than I do. Or am I assuming that? Is there anything they have stated as fact? What the big eyed woman said was hedged in speculation. The second woman, the one with the crinkled features, made two statements. She told me my red dot is a bullet hole, and she told me there are worse futures than being killed. Or is that an opinion? Maybe the bullet hole line was a joke. Maybe they’re mouthing a script designed to scare me.

I think about the bullet hole. I mean the red painted dot. I think about that image, “mouthing a script.” There are similar images in our language.  Shooting your mouth off. Getting mouthy. Giving lip. Giving head. A girl can’t say no with a cock in her mouth. Put a lid on it. It takes a Storyteller to think this way.

I think of the Servants who brought us in from the hills. They told us to kneel. Most of us did. A few of us were too far gone to comprehend, or too physically destroyed to comply at once. One boy just said no. A Servant sprang forward and pushed that child soldier down on his knees. He rammed his gun butt into the boy’s back. The boy fell forward. The Servant grabbed him by his hair and pulled the kid back up into a kneeling position. He twisted the kid’s neck as he stepped in front. Other Servants had their guns trained on the boy. The first Servant tried to prise the boy’s mouth open with the muzzle of his gun. The boy – his name was Ciel – jammed his jaw shut and would not part his lips.  The Servant had the gun rammed hard against his mouth when he pulled the trigger. I remember the back of the skull exploding. I remember fragments of teeth flew.

That’s what you get for talking back. For talking out of turn. For talking.

Yet these women talk. How can they do that? Are they mad?

They had questions of their own.  Who made the tea bowl? Who made the tea set? Who can make a knife?

I thought they were Fourth Division, Unclean, but are they trying to tell me they’re Third Division? Can they be artisans? And how would that ally them with us, with me? An artist is different from an artisan; every child learns that. An artisan is a producer. Artisans make utensils, products with use value. Artisans make things that are useful. Artisans are useful.

Artists, everyone knows, are not useful. Artists are an extravagance. We produce fantasies and distractions. The other divisions pay good money to be beguiled. They yearn for magic: they lust for glamour, for something spell-binding. But once that lust is slaked they’re somehow ashamed. As if they had been conned. Some artists do become rich. Rich and famous. But the other divisions, while lauding those artists for a time, at heart despise them, and resent them. Art is a sleight of hand – insubstantial, meaningless, fundamentally immoral.

There is another possibility. I am puzzled, but I’m prepared to ask the question.

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I am summoned to the cleansing unit. When I arrive there are Servants at the door. They don’t go inside. I wonder if it might be unclean for them to enter? Could that be why the women think they can talk? Surely it is unclean for Servants to observe a young person being washed and shaved? That doesn’t take account of electronic devices. Bugs. A room can always be bugged.

The Servants don’t allow me to enter. Instead, a Servant grabs my arms and forces my wrists behind me. There are three of them. One of them is the tall man who halted the tea ceremony when my eyes met his.  He is the leader. One of his underlings keeps a firm grip on my wrists. The other keeps his gun trained on my back. They frogmarch me at gun-point through the alleys between the barracks, to an open space near the camp gates. There is a utility truck there with an open tray.  In the tray, the woman with big eyes and the woman with the crinkly face and two other women are bound to the railings by nylon cords. The cords are wrapped many times around their wrists and ankles, and upper arms and shoulders.  They are lashed to the railings by cords around their waists.  I can see how tight the cords are. The women’s flesh is bright red and mottled in the area immediately around the cords. Their hands are white. There is no possibility the women can move.

I am forced into the truck cabin, not into the tray. The big man gets into the driver’s seat and the other two fall back. The big man starts the truck’s engine, disengages the handbrake and as the truck moves forward the camp gates open.

I know where the camp is situated. It’s on the plains, near the Fourth Division villages. If the cleansing studio women are Fourth Division, I imagine they go home when their tasks in the camp are done. I don’t think these four women will get to go home. It’s a good road leading from the camp to the hills, a bitumen road, but I can hear something sliding around in the tray. It makes a raspy sound, a scraping sound on the metal base. I don’t have to see it to know it’s a shovel. I’ve seen this before, in other contexts, in other times. I have a fair idea what happens next.

It’s a long drive to the hills but the big man says nothing. He doesn’t look at me. I don’t look at him. I have my knife. A knife like this, crafted for trimming tea-eggs, might not be effective against a man this big. I’m wondering about the shovel’s potential.

I don’t look behind me but I can see in the rear view mirror.  I can see the women’s backs, and parts of the cords that bind them. They are not gagged, but they were beaten up. Their faces are swollen and bruised, and they are bleeding. I’m wondering if they’ll have a chance to speak before they die. I’m wondering if they’re still able to speak. I’m wondering why they spoke in the first place. I keep coming back to the one thought: these women were mad.

What would make them mad? What could drive them mad? I imagine the woman with the big eyes making her case.  I am artist, she is saying. I make fine ceramics, lustrewear. How could I ever be anything but an artist? Kill my cousins and you kill me. Kill me, she is saying. Her voice is husky. Her voice is breathy. Her voice is dead sexy. Soon she’ll be dead.

I imagine the woman with the crinkled face. She is crying. She is answering that question I never got to ask. You took my children, she yells. You stole my babies. You stole my babies then you killed them. When you stole my babies you took out my heart. Kill me, she challenges. Kill me now. I am walking dead.

If I tell this to the Investigator, am I telling the truth? Or am I a storyteller, making these things up? What if these women never get to say their truth? Am I empowered to speak on their behalf? When will I find the Investigator, where, and in what circumstances? What action can an Investigator take? Can I trust an Investigator?

We have reached the foothills, not far from where I’d find the ruins of my home village, if there are ruins to find. The big man stops the truck.  He turns the engine off and sits still for a minute. Then he opens the truck door, and steps out without looking at me. Now is a moment when I could run. I don’t do that. I am here as a witness. Besides, he’d shoot me before I made it to the trees. As well as a shovel, there’s a rifle been rattling around in the tray. Within seconds of getting out of the truck he’s reclaimed his rifle and closed its breech, readying it for action. I note it’s bolt action – can’t get as many rounds off as a lever or pump action, but a classic sniper’s weapon. It’s light enough that I could use it, even though it’s set up right-handed.

I stay seated in the car. The man will come and get me when I’m needed. I can hear him clambering about in the tray, cutting first one woman then the next from the railings, throwing them over the tray sides to the ground.  They thud heavily onto the turf. I remember the crinkly woman as so tiny, I can’t believe she’d land that heavily.

When the Servant opens the car door I step out voluntarily and look around. The Servant pointedly does not look at me. He doesn’t need to. The woman are still tightly bound, cords wrapped around their wrists and shoulders. They’re barely conscious. They’re not going anywhere. There is no-one here to witness, except me, and no-one who can help. It’s been raining. The ground is sodden. The grass grows virulent green and long, except in an area about the size of the ute’s tray.  Here, the turf has already been dug out.  A hole has been dug to a depth of a bit more than a metre. It’s rich soil round here, dark and crumbly, and it’s seeped into the water so I can’t see the bottom of the grave. The sludge might be several inches deep. There are two bodies lying beside the hole. These are children. The bodies are naked and I can see they’ve been there for at least a night.  The uppermost parts are eerily white and the lower parts are black with accumulated blood. The bodies are wet with rain but I think these children were killed before the rain began. There’s no mud on them.  One of them is facing to the sky, his eyes wide open. His earlobes are grey and blue.

I don’t recognise these children and for that I am grateful. It’s too much to expect they might be from my home village, or from a neighbouring village.  The war went on for a long while, and the villages hereabouts have been ghost-towns all that time.

The Servant doesn’t waste time. He kicks the children’s bodies into the grave then without hesitation picks up the first of the bound women and tosses her in too. She lands face down. She will drown within minutes. He’s slung his weapon behind his shoulder, and I see he’s moved the rifle safety to ‘Safe’. So he can’t fire, for now. I’m not sure how to make use of this: he’s in-scale with the truck, and he’s angry, while I am small, and I’m terribly afraid. One of the women tries to struggle when he lifts her, she can’t do more than writhe. She doesn’t scream. When he throws her down she lands on her fellow, and I wonder if they were friends, and how far back. He’s picked up the fourth woman now. She makes feeble sounds. I realise her teeth have been knocked out.

Once he’s flung the fourth woman into the pit he gestures to me to pick up the shovel. He’s looking me square in the face now. I can see anger welling in him, and anger arises in answer within me. It rises in a shock of emotion. I can feel the blood drain from my face. I swear I feel blood surge into my limbs. If I stripped off my sleeves my arms would be red. So I roll up my sleeves, and there they are, red forearms. My forearms and hands are pulsing red. Can the Servant not see it?  I pick up the shovel and I advance towards him. He flicks the right-side handle so the bolt is unlocked. I know how this works: the breech is opened, the firing pin is cocked, a new cartridge slots in place in the breech as the bolt closes. He could kill me now.

I halt, he pauses. He inclines his head to where loose turf is piled up in a mound, just at the lip of the grave. He is staring at me now. His eyes are round, as they were at the tea ceremony. He looms enormous. I stare back in anger and he raises his rifle again. I know my face is utterly white. I take a step towards him and as I move I hear a gunshot. The Servant throws his arms out. I see a red dot precisely above his eyes. It’s a bullet hole, I recognise it at once. It takes a sharp shooter to aim that well. I don’t turn around.  I hear voices behind me – two? three? – and I sink to my knees.

Then I hear further gun shots. They’ve shot the women. I shut my eyes and I hear a familiar voice.

“Get up”, the voice says. It’s Chapin. He’s alive.

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“Lenny,” Chapin says. Once my name was Lenora. His face his filthy. He’s emaciated.

“I see they’ve taken care of your head lice.”

Chapin strides across to where the big man lies. He pats down the big man’s clothing and extracts a revolver. He picks up the rifle, flicks the safety, then tosses the rifle to me.

“For you. You need a gun.”

Many months ago, somewhere in these hills, Chapin handed me my first firearms. He’s taller now, but he’s so thin. It’s hard to believe he’s younger than me.

I gesture at the pit.  “Why did you kill them? They were my friends.”

Chapin is squatting, squinting up at me. “What makes you think that?”

“That you killed them?”

“No. That they were you friends?”

“The Servants wanted them dead. The Servants intended to bury them alive.”

“Lenny,” says Chapin, in that slow careful tone we use with idiots. “Lenny. Listen. You have no friends. And we have no food. What use could we make of housewives?”

“You could have returned them to their homes. You could have let them take the truck and drive back to their homes.”

Chapin doesn’t respond. One of the boys with him kneels beside the big man, pulls a knife from his belt, and slashes off one of the big man’s fingers. Then another. And another.

“What is he doing?” I ask, alarmed.

“We have no food,” says Chapin absently. “Fingers are tasty, roasted in charcoal. He’s meaty. He has potential.”

“How many soldiers do we need to feed?”

“Soldiers? There are no soldiers now. Soldiers only make sense as part of an army. The armed resistance was wiped out months back. What we are now is bandits.”

He laughs.

I notice for the first time that Chapin’s eyes are all iris. He has no pupils. He must have a source for the drugs he’s taking.

“Come,” he says, after the longest time. “We have business to finish here. Then we can go home.”

The other boys have shovelled some soil on top of the bodies in the grave – not enough to cover them, more a token gesture. The body of the big man is missing some figures and an ear but is otherwise intact. He lies spread-eagled atop the other bodies. The colours are arresting: emerald, pale blue sky, rich loam, black, white and, uppermost, in a broad white forehead, a perfect red dot.

I lay down the rifle and step into the grave. I have business of my own to complete. I kneel astride the big man’s body and reach under his tunic. I place one hand on the base of his prick and use my left hand, the hand holding my knife, to flick up his balls, slicing swiftly as I left. In my right hand I’m now clutching a wretched entrail-like fistful.  Chapin is watching as I stuff the shredded flesh down the big man’s throat.

I climb out of the grave.

“Are we taking the truck?” I ask.

“No,” says Chapin. “We’ve left enough of a trail. From here we’ll walk.”

We walk into the woods. I love the silver birch woods. They’re infinitely elegant, and easier to navigate than deep forest. I love the slender white and grey trunks, the thin arms and fingers, the sparse leaves. I love the way our path is strewn with fallen leaves, whispering and ssshushing us as we tread our way. We’re easier to spot in here than in deep forest. We’re easier to track. But I can see the pale sky and I can still hear birds, and I realise Chapin is right: I am going home.

No-one is talking and it makes me smile: no-one converses anymore. No-one talked to me in the camp, no-one talked to me in that truck, and no-one talks now. Of course, I’ve seen what happens when someone speaks out of turn. Chapin has often been right, it’s that intuitive talent he has; he might be stating the obvious when he tells me I have no friends. I have no friends. I turn that thought over in my mind. I have no family, and I have no friends. I am walking in the direction of home, but I have no friends and I have no home.

It must have been mid-afternoon when I got out of that truck and now the sky is starting to turn a bruised colour. It’s been a pallid blue since the rain stopped, the blue seeping out and emptying into pale grey, with smudges of white, and now there are flushes of pink, like blood diluted by rain, and darker greys with intimations of violet and mauve. The mauves will deepen into that colour of pooling blood, a kind of prune. The greys will mottle and darker blue tones will emerge. On the edge of a barely visible light cloud bank is a corona of palest yellow. That must be where the sun hides. As the sun dips an aureole of peach will fringe the horizon.

It takes me back to those long nights of exploding skies. Is it possible to be nostalgic for violence? I chew on that a bit. I conclude it’s not possible to be nostalgic for something that hasn’t past. I don’t think the past ever goes away, anyway.

Just as I think that thought, there is the past, looming solid in front of me. I am so shocked I can’t move. We have stepped out of the cover of trees onto a stretch of open ground. The foreground is threaded with tree roots and moss but some way ahead the green and dead leaves give way to dun and ochre coloured dirt, lightly strewn with fine sandy pebbles. Some way ahead of that a walking track emerges. And some way further again is a village. A village where there should only be rubble.

I am beyond astonished. I turn to Chapin with my mouth and eyes round as coins.

“Welcome home,” he says. There’s a slight dilation of his pupils. It’s mostly him there now, the drugs are wearing off.

The village is perfect. It’s not quite my village, not quite as I remember. It’s been rebuilt, with the foundations of burnt-out houses forming a guide, but no attempt has been made to replicate the way it looked before.  I walk down streets laid out as they once were, and on every side I see structures set on the base of structures that are no more, new structures intact and entire, painted, blinds open, houses semi-furnished, unstocked shops. It’s a whole new town, built as if in homage to what went before, waiting to be repopulated.

They must be kidding.

“What is this?” I ask Chapin.

“This is a Storyteller village. Minus the Storytellers. Except for us.” He isn’t smiling.

“What does it mean?” I hiss. I’m asking this question a lot, these days.

He purses his lips and twists them to one side.

“I’m not sure. It was left in ruins, even after you and the others were taken, then construction workers came and rebuilt it. It was a fast rebuild, swarms of workers. The Servants supervised. It’s not just this village. Last we checked they were working on another two.”

“Do they mean to repopulate?” I fret. “Who would they bring here? The re-educated ones? Or another division?”

“I don’t know,” says Chapin. I’m used to him knowing, it throws me that he doesn’t. “There’s a man we see sometimes who I’m hoping can tell us.”

The other two boys are kicking at the gutter. I can’t believe the roads are repaved in the side streets, the older streets rebuilt in the old style. The main roads are bitumen, macadamised, modern.

“Do you stay in these houses?”

“Not usually,” Chapin answers. “It’s too dangerous. Servants come here often. They keep an eye on the buildings. They’re not going to let them deteriorate. Would you like to see your house?”

I can see my house, in my mind’s eye. I live, in my mind, in a large family home. I had a large family. I had two sisters and three brothers. I had a mother and father and four aunts and seven uncles. I had a gang of cousins. I had any number of friends. I had a dog and a cat and a pet goat. My cousins had horses. I had two grandmothers and a grandfather. I went to school. At school I learned Civics and International Politics. And art and history and dancing, singing and oral tradition.

My house – the family home – had a big garden. In our garden there was an almond tree, a cherry tree, a willow, a tree we called a liquid amber, a peach tree, flower beds tangled with white and violet stars, a retaining wall my parents built themselves, and a row of poplar trees demarcating the property’s edge. As you approach my house you duck under a canopy of wisteria. There is an entrance way, an entertaining area, for visitors, a large family enclosure adjacent to the kitchen, a flight of stairs along the left hand wall, and a landing upstairs, with bedrooms and bathrooms leading off the landing. There’s another stairway out the back, leading to an attic with a huge skylight we children would lie beneath to watch the moon in its passage across the night sky. The sky at night was filled with uncountable stars. The Star Flight.

I don’t want to see what the Servants have built. They’ve built a tombstone over my family.

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Night has fallen and we haven’t eaten.  Right on cue the smaller of the boys pulls a severed finger from his belt and starts to absently suck on it.

“Roman,” says Chapin, indicating the small boy. The child smiles up at me, the severed finger in his hand hovering a short way from his mouth. “Roman can’t speak. He was born deaf. And Roberto.”

The rangy boy with a prominent adam’s apple nods.

“Roberto doesn’t speak either. He’s gone to Jupiter.”

I know just what he means. I went to Jupiter once myself, briefly.

“Are they all there is?” I ask.

“No,” Chapin tells me. “There are others, mostly children. We don’t hang together. We use signs and signals if we want to meet up. The Servants do a semi-regular patrol through the woods and the edges of the forest. Mostly we live in the woods and drop back into the forest when we must. Sometimes we spend more time in the rebuilt villages, and once in a while I travel to the Fourth Division villages on the plains.”

“Are the Fourth Division people our friends?”

“We have no friends. But some of the Fourth Division people help us. We have no food. The children eat bark and leaves. There are streams nearby and the lakes not far from here, so we catch fish when we can and we trap small animals. Tinned food appears in the forest sometimes, sometimes packaged food, flat bread, even biscuits. We come into this village and there’s food left on the tables. Dried meats. Salami. Dried fruits. Sometimes something fresh. If we’re lucky it’s still edible when we find it.”

“They’re taking a risk coming out here, aren’t they?” I don’t need to say it. “If they drive across the plains to the foothills they could run into Servants, or be spotted from the air. Are there many who do this?”

“Some of them I know, at least by sight. Some I get to talk with. I can’t say how many. Not many, I think. And they do it by night. Most of them go into the city by day and work in the hospital. The ones I’ve met are medicos and psych workers.”

“Are they your drugs source?”

“Of course,” Chapin says. “You think I know what leaves to boil?”

He’s laughing, silently.

“We can’t stand around here.” And now he’s all action. “We need to be under cover.”

The modern streets are lined with streetlights, but it’s dark now and the streetlights have not lit up. It’s eerie in the village in the dark. In the older style streets most of the houses are in the traditional style, built primarily of wood, steep sloping rooftops with turquoise tiles. In the main strip, the buildings have wood trim, a nod to tradition, but the structures are mostly slab concrete. Some facades have been overlaid with small glossy tiles, in a milky translucent shade a bit like the foam that tops fine tea. A very few have more complex tessellations. It takes time to install a traditional tile façade, and it does not appear the Servants invested time in these rebuilds.

Roman leads the way, still sucking on a finger. He clearly knows where we’re headed. Down the main strip, to the town square. There’s a fountain and stele, an engraved upright stone, located in the heart of this village, just as there was in its predecessor, my village, and in the other Storyteller villages. The stele looks to be a salvaged original but when I come close I see it’s a crude reconstruction. A true stele is sacred to the memory of our forebears. Our steles are deliberately rough hewn, with a subtle kind of sparkle – marcasite or pyrite crystals embedded in the rock. Both marcasite and pyrite occur in the hills. Marcasite is brittle and breaks down in humidity. The foothills, where the Storytellers live – lived – are a temperate zone, so in the absence of catastrophic fire our stele can last many generations. The pyrite is a mainstay of the Third Division jewellers – they set tiny pieces of pyrite splinters into silver, creating a miniature mosaic that glitters and winks and sets off dark eyes. True pyrite pieces can be costly but the jewellers also offer false pyrite items made using shavings of cut steel.

I turn 360 degrees, spinning slowly as I take in the full panorama of the town square. There is the community hall, except that it isn’t quite as it was; there is the courthouse, not looking at all like the courthouse I knew; there is the open air café, tables and chairs stacked up indoors, table shades furled; there is the bus station, without buses; and there is the arts complex: the visual arts gallery, the large theatre house with its specialised theatres for dance, music and drama. At once it hits me what’s missing from this square. Our public art. Where are the sculptures, the light shows, the video strips? This square was once ablaze with light and images. Not advertising. We had conceptual art, and dancers and musicians. We had mimes. We had people singing. People ran across this square holding hands, people kissed. People talked passionately and argued. We did all this in full public view. We were citizens and artists, and we were unashamed.

And now it’s dark. It’s a sparse graveyard, a gesture to what was. I am cold in the night, and I shiver.

Roman has gone to side of the arts complex and disappeared behind a buttress. Roberto follows him. Chapin grabs my hand, as if he’s read my mind, and pulls me towards the building. Behind a courtyard wall, just out of sight of the square, there’s a door that’s unlocked, leading into the arts centre. Roman and Roberto enter the building.

Chapin and I follow and emerge in a storage area just off the main foyer. The internal doors are not locked. We walk into the foyer, which seems enormous empty. The Servants have skimped: where there should be a massive decorative light fitting overhead, there is an empty socket. The fittings in the arts complex were works of art in their own right. It’s hard to know how they could be replaced. Craftsmen can construct them, but it takes a Storyteller to design these pieces. The Servants have not attempted to address their absence. We walk through the foyer, bypassing doors that lead into theatres. There are short flights of steps interspersed with expansive landings. The landings are trapezoid in shape, narrowing at each successive stage towards an apex at the farthest reach.  I know the layout of this building, as every Storyteller school-child does.  The Servants have stuck pretty close to what once was. I know that at the farthest, topmost corner there’s a final door, opening wide into a large green-room. This is the area where the performers relax. It can be reached more easily from the other direction.  The other side of the complex, furthest from the town square, is blunt-faced with multiple street level entrances. Artists can reach the main green-room via a stairwell or a private lift.

The main green-room was always luxurious. Around performance times it was a private sanctuary, but school tours meant every Storyteller citizen was familiar with the green-rooms from a young age. After all, this was our promised future. The green-rooms, the theatre spaces, the stages.  All the backstage areas, where the mechanics of performance takes place. I can’t see that Servants could reconstruct any of this. I doubt they will have tried.

The main green-room is a ghost of its former self. It is green – green carpets, cheap green lampshades, the Servants’ idea of humour – with two or three large black lounge couches.  A coffee table.  A bar, with no alcohol or glasses. A large area pregnant with space. A long, narrow, external window, a slit the length of the blunt-side façade. If the streetlights were on, that slit would be illumined by the lights below and the lights in the living-rooms of town-houses opposite. Except the town-houses opposite are unoccupied, and there are no lights.

“Here is where we’ll sleep tonight,” says Chapin, indicating the couches. “If the Servants come, we’ll know.”

I’m uneasy. I expect the Servants to come. I still have my knife, and now I have a rifle. I have Chapin, and the boys, and they are armed too. We have no food, except for Roman, who has his fingers, and I think Roberto has the ear, for what it’s worth.

Roman takes a couch. Roberto takes its opposite. That leaves a couch for Chapin and me. Instead I sit on the floor, leaning my back against the couch, which is well upholstered. I don’t want to sleep. Chapin sits beside me.

Elly_McDonald_Writer_Lenny6

They come, as I expected. We don’t have to wait long. I hear a chopper first, then I see its light, a swooping red arc that probes the window slit, backs off, disappears, then feints again. The chopper comes in close, several times, but not so close I can see anything but that sweep of intrusive red light. It doesn’t see us.

I can hear voices. They’re in the street, not in the building. The sound rises up to us, the sound of doors slamming, men stomping, shouted orders. I am terrified.

“Where you there when they took me?” I murmur to Chapin.

His neck is slumped into clavicle, his shoulders are hunched. He looks at me through slit-like eyes.

“No,” he tells me. I don’t believe him. “I ran. I wasn’t there.”

I remember how they came at night. The chopper overhead, the trucks pulling up, the squeal of breaks. We had sheltered in a house by the lake, someone’s weekender. It was cold that night, the kind of cold you can’t survive outdoors. There were maybe eight of us, clustered in the living room. I remember the fireplace. We hadn’t lit a fire. I remember it for the stonework – a dry-stone wall of pale beige, coarse to the touch, three-dimensional in texture. I remember the Servants bursting into the room, their torches flooding its space, a Servant shoving me up against that wall, bruising my back, banging my head. I collapsed to the floor but he lifted me up and beat me, smashing his fist across my face, again, then again, dropping me, twisting my arms behind my back. My arms were pinioned as I fell to the floor, the Servant astride my lower back.

There were five of us left, taken alive. Three were young boys, one was a girl about eight years old. I remember their names. There was Lenny, Ciel, Ramon, Trajan and Polixeni. I never saw what happened to Polixeni. I didn’t see because the Servants were on top of me, thrusting their rifle barrels up my arse. I was screaming and crying and desperately struggling. The Servants are celibate, of course, but when the first Servant raped me the others soon followed. Anal sex doesn’t count as sex. That’s when I went to Jupiter.

It’s an odd sensation, going to Jupiter. You disappear totally. You retract in an instant and in that instant you’re light years away. So far away you wonder how you’ll ever get back. It’s far far far and deep into space. It’s dark out there, dark and cold. There’s a hollowness to far space, there at the outermost edge of the galaxy. The sun is unimaginably far. The rest of the cosmos is barely a concept. Where is the Milky Way from here? It took me a long time to find my way back.

When I did return to my body, Ciel was dead. Polixeni was gone. Trajan and Ramon and the other kids the Servants had rounded up, in different raids, were taken to the camp with me but incarcerated in other barracks. I wonder what happened to them next?

Elly_McDonald_Writer_Lenny26

Sometimes I wonder if I’m talking to myself. But then I know I’m not. What I’m doing is remembering: I am committing to memory, like a burning brand scorching my mind. The memory will stay, fixed, until the time comes when I can tell the Story. Until I meet the Investigator.

Elly_McDonald_Writer_Lenny27

All of us are alert, Chapin and me sitting up, the boys laying low on couches. The commotion in the street and overhead goes on for what seems like endless time. At one point I’m sure I hear thudding boots echo through the building. But no-one enters the green-room.

When silence comes, we can’t relax. I see Roman’s eyes gleam like marcasite chips, Roberto’s adam’s apple bobs. Chapin and I are seated with our tailbones on the floor, our backs pushed against the couch, our knees drawn up, soles of feet flat on the carpet. He turns his head to look at me. Our faces are close. He moves his right knee slightly so it touches my left knee. His right hand takes my left hand, our fingers interlocked.

I breathe in as I turn to face forwards once more, then exhale as I tip my neck back. I study the ceiling. The shadows are dark grey, black and malachite green. I shudder.

“We can’t know they’ve gone,” I whisper. “How long must we wait before we know they’ve gone?”

Chapin says nothing.

“How can you take any food left in this town when you can’t be certain who has left it? Why wouldn’t the Servants use food as a lure? Why wouldn’t it be poisoned?”

Roberto looks glum. I notice he has long, straight eyelashes.

“What makes you think the Fourth Division people you think are helping are not spies for the Servants?”

Roman has curled up now. He has an absent smile on his face and I remember, he cannot hear.

Chapin’s hand is still holding mine.

“We won’t know they’ve gone. We’ll have to take a guess. It’s all one big guess. It’s all risk.”

I curl my lips over my teeth and bite down.

“Listen,” says Chapin. “We could be dead, many times over. We should be dead. We could die any minute. We take what we can. If we get it wrong, game over.”

“I think I’m going to be sick.”

“Fine. Don’t throw up in the toilets. The plumbing isn’t connected.”

I have to laugh.

“Lenny,” says Chapin, with urgency. “Remember we have no friends. We kill or be killed, any one, any time.”

“I have to pee.” I walk behind the bar and piss on the vinyl floor. My urine spreads like spilt wine.  Then I stalk back and lie down on the couch. Chapin stays seated, his head leaning back against my hip.

I’m certain I won’t sleep but almost at once I’m boating on a lake, in a small row boat, with my younger brothers, laughing. Overhead the sun smiles down.

Elly_McDonald_Writer_Lenny22

When I wake up I wake from deep emptiness, the blackness of no dreams. Chapin is standing with Roman and Roberto a short way across the room. He is glancing my way as I open my eyes.

“We’ve been out,” he says. “There’s no sign of Servants. There’s no food either. But there’s a signal telling us to meet a man I know.”

I have no confidence in this. I feel tired and sore and terribly heavy. Also hungry.

“What kind of a signal?” I glare.

“A dead bird. By the fountain in the square. It means we should meet at the old well.”

I am unenthused.

“You go,” I say.

“I want you to meet him. He can help. I’ll go ahead.”

Suddenly I want to hug him. I want to thrust my fingers between his fingers like we did last night.

“Chapin,” I ask. “Is anyone coming? Can anyone outside help?”

“I don’t know.” He keeps saying that. “I think this man can tell us things we need to know.”

So we pick up our weapons and leave the building, using the back stairwell, exiting into the street our window looked out onto across that infernal, eternal night. The old well is fairly close, near the traditional town centre. Chapin gestures to the three of us to stay behind as he steps from the shelter of town-house walls, into the clear space around the well.

He stands there alone, such an easy target. I am uneasy.

The well is hand-dug, in the ancient style. There is a structure built of heavy, flattish stones, flatter and wider than they are thick. The stones were a lightish brown shade, with red-brown streaks, but now they are charcoal-singed, since the fires.  The structure extends down to a depth of about forty metres. Back when it was a water source in daily use you couldn’t see the bottom. I can’t say whether there’s water in it these days, or whether it’s clogged up with half-burnt lumber, maybe human remains, but it does it appear to be the original. This is not some simulacrum created by the Servants.

Chapin picks up a pebble and tosses it over the well lip. He must be reading my mind. I don’t hear any sound from within the well.

We Storytellers believe there are water spirits in a well. The water spirits are benevolent. We talk to them when we need soothing. When their babies are due expectant mothers spend time by the well, hoping for an easy labour. The water spirits guide us through life’s difficult passages. I’m hoping this well’s water spirit is still in residence, and not too pissed off.

As I conjure up the image of a water spirit – a beautiful woman with a snake wrapped round her waist – I hear a pebble strike the pavement in front of Chapin’s feet. He turns towards the laneway it seems to have been thrown from.  He steps out of the full light that surrounds the well and walks, unhesitatingly, into the laneway. A moment later he steps back and motions us to follow.

Almost as soon as we enter the laneway an open door appears on our right. It’s the second town-house in the row. There is a narrow hallway leading from the door, which doubles back to become a wooden stairwell. Eighteen steps up is a small landing, with a sliding door leading to the left, another to the right. We turn right and enter a wood-panelled room, in single file: Chapin, Roberto, myself and Roman. There are no chairs, no tables, no cushions. There is nothing in the room except a short, nervous man, who is seated.

The short man nods to Chapin, then to the three of us who stand behind him. He motions for us to sit. We do, our rifles propped up pointing at the ceiling, the boys cross-legged, me on folded knees. The short man nods to each of us in turn.

There’s a silence while the short man observes us and we observe him.

“Have you got what I need?” Chapin asks. The short man nods.

“Who is the girl?” he questions. “Has she come from a re-education camp?”

“Of course I have,” I answer. “I wouldn’t shave my own head. I wouldn’t dress like this. Who are you?”

“I am Milos,” he tells me. “I work at the state psychiatric hospital. Chapin knows me.”

“Are you a friend?” I ask.

Milos looks at Chapin.  “Storytellers have no friends,” he says gently. “I try to help you.”

“Is anyone coming?” I need to know.  “Is anyone coming who can really help?”

Milos looks thoughtful.  “What kind of help do you have in mind?”

“Is there an investigation? Does anyone in the world outside know what has happened? Does anyone outside know what is going on?”

He frowns.

“Is anyone asking questions?” I persist. “Is there someone I can talk to? An investigator? I have a story to tell. I have stories that must be told.”

I hear my own voice and I sound quite mad. For a moment I feel ashamed. Then I draw up my spine. I am unashamed. Shame is a weapon of the Servants.

“I can ask questions, if you want to talk.”

Here is someone who says he wants to hear my story, but I don’t trust him. I decide I’ll be the one who asks the questions here.

“What do you do in the psychiatric hospital?”

Milos barely hesitates. He no longer seems nervous. “I ask people questions. Mostly Storytellers. Many of the people who are brought to us for help come from other divisions. It used to be that if their condition was intractable they were redesignated as Storytellers, and then we brought them to your villages and helped them transition. I’ve been visiting your villages for many years. I know my way around.”

“And now? What becomes of the people who cannot be cured?”

That prompts a soft laugh. “Fewer people are brought in by their families now. Mostly we diagnose transient mood disturbance, or transient behavioural disturbance. We’re slow to diagnose conditions as chronic. We medicate where we can. Where we are left with no other options, we take them to the re-education camps.”

“Do you understand what happens in those camps?” I am brutal. I am irritable.

“I understand in the camps they are re-educated. Fourth Division specialists helped design the programs.”

“I beg your pardon?” I struggle to manage my irritable urges.

“The young people in the camps are re-trained to provide support services for First and Second Divisions. We designed a program to inculcate service values. Some of our staff monitor for quality control. The fugitives from the hills are quarantined, washed, re-clothed, provided with adequate nutrition and exercise, taught to work in teams, trained in impulse control and encouraged to participate in group therapy. The program is highly successful.”

Chapin is focusing on the floorboards. I’d like him to look up at me but he doesn’t.

Milos continues, as if to convince me. “Our program promotes traditional values. Without the Storytelling.”

“Damn right,” I laugh. “There’s not a lot of Storytelling in the camps.”

“So what’s your version?” challenges Milos. He’s starting to look irritable himself.

“I can tell you the truth of what takes place in the camps. Hard labour, sexual exploitation, sometimes torture, and crude attempts at brainwashing or re-programming. Those who don’t conform are murdered.”

“Have you seen this?” says Milos, cautiously.

“Seen it? I’ve done it. I’ve had it done to me.”

“I see,” says Milos. He considers.

“You know,” he says. “Lenora? May I call you Lenora? I’ve worked with all kinds. Some of the people I’ve tried to help are not very sympathetic. It’s sometimes hard to like them. But I do what I can, because I care for them. How many people have you killed?”

He’s got me there. I really don’t know.

“A few,” I glare.

“A few.” Milos nods. “Wouldn’t it be better it you found another way? Why keep killing? What’s so wrong with admin support? What’s wrong with a smile and a soft word?”

I’m bereft of words, soft or hard.

“I don’t think you’re fully familiar with the programs as they are practiced in the camps. I sometimes find it hard to like people, too.”

Milos tilts his head very slightly to one side. He’s smiling, slightly, and speaking softly.

“The work in the camps is highly sensitive. Fourth Division health-care representatives do go in, by invitation, to observe and record outcomes. We’re satisfied that what’s being done is a humane response to a difficult situation. Everyone wants reconciliation. Reports are made public and footage has been screened on TV-1. It’s a most encouraging process. Once we gain the trust of leaders like Chapin, I have high hopes we can persuade the hold-outs in the hills to allow us to help them reintegrate into society.”

“There.” I am angry at Chapin. How could he be so stupid? Chapin is still looking at the floor.

“And has this TV footage been shown internationally? Have these reports been offered to international bodies?” I am so angry I could spit. “Is there a plan approved by the international community? What did you tell them about the war? How did First Division explain that to their counterparts abroad?”

“Please be calm, Lenora. I am not your enemy, there’s no need to be hostile.” Milos looks pained but sympathetic. “The war was caused by disruptive elements. It was an internal matter, regrettable and damaging for everyone involved. It was discussed at length at the Pan-National Forum. First Division remains in constant communication with Forum representatives to ensure we’re in compliance with international law. And besides, we are now rebuilding.”

“The villages? You mean the villages are being rebuilt?”

“Nooo,” says Milos. “Although I believe they are. That will take time. This village is a test case. We are rebuilding our society, with some modifications. First, Second, Third and Fourth Divisions are working together to find ways to make best use of human resources following restructuring of the Storyteller class.”

I turn on Chapin. “We don’t have to listen to this. This man cannot help us. It’s time for us to go.”

Milos shakes his head, a slight motion, sad.

“If you go, you will die. There’s nothing for you out there. There’s nothing left for any of your kind. The fugitives will die if they don’t come in.”

“Why are the villages being rebuilt?” I demand.

“That, I can’t say. But it isn’t for you. Storytellers will never inhabit these villages again.”

“Can I kill him?” I plead with Chapin. He looks up at me as I unlock the rifle’s safety.

“Have you got what I came for?” he asks the man who calls himself Milos. Milos nods. Chapin rises and holds out his hand.

Milos remains seated but reaches into his tunic and pulls out a medical hygiene bag. He holds up his hand, offering the bag to Chapin. Chapin takes it.

“You will stay here,” says Chapin, speaking to the man. “We will leave the way we came, and you will not follow.”

Milos seems entirely calm as he smiles and nods, again. He is utterly still.

The boys stand up, rifles in hand, and Chapin ushers them out to the stairwell first, then me. He follows last. Milos is still seated. Instead of heading down the stairs the boys slide open the door to the second room, the one that was on the left, leading off the small landing. The second room has a narrow balcony. Chapin slings his rifle across his back, sticks his handgun in his belt, and places one foot on the balcony rail. He swings himself up, then hauls himself onto a gable on the roof. The boys and I follow. We are on the turquoise enamelled tiles before Milos has reached the bottom of the stairs. We are moving across the rooftops before Milos is in the laneway.

“Are we going to let him go?” I ask, touching my knife. It’s too light for throwing, and the rooftop is too steep for me to stand and steady myself to fire the rifle.

Chapin doesn’t look back at me. We keep moving, scrambling across the tiling. Scrabbling like crabs beached by a sudden low tide.

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There was once a great lady who was beautiful beyond telling. She had sleek black hair, perfect skin, and almond-shaped amber eyes. Her lips were cherry blossoms. She was born into a very great family, and married into another. Both families were thrilled when the lady conceived.

The great lady, whose name was Milk, was very happy for her families. Everything about her had so far pleased them. She hoped her child would not disappoint.

When her time came near, she took to spending hours by the water well in her husband’s family’s private gardens. There she would sit, surrounded by her maid servants, staring into the well and wishing.

“I wish,” thought the lady, “I wish with all my heart that my child is special.”

As soon as the thought occurred she felt abashed. After all, was she not already so blessed? Was she not privileged? She looked into the depths of the mossy green well and saw the surface break up. Bubbles of air clustered on the surface. The water spirit must be laughing.

“I mean it,” she said fiercely, to the water spirit. “I really mean it. I want my daughter to be different. And by the way, I do want a daughter.”

The bubbles clambered one above the next, creating a crystalline froth. The lady saw it as the head of froth that forms on finest quality whipped tea, the Milky Way, and she dedicated it to her daughter.

The birth was easy. It was almost too smooth. There was no screaming, no remonstrations or urgent pleading. Instead the great lady delivered with the slightest singing sigh. No one at the birthside spoke, and no cry was heard from the child.

“What is it?” asked the lady, as her maid servants drew her up to the squat position.

“It’s an egg,” said the doctor.

“An egg?” gasped the lady.

“My lady, you have given birth to an egg.  It is soft blue-green, and appears to be fragile. I might need to assist its contents into the world.”

“You mean my baby?” said the lady.

“I mean whatever is inside that egg.” The doctor looked extremely apprehensive.

The lady was standing, supported by her maids. She looked down between her legs as the doctor lifted a medium-sized egg, using both his hands, and raised it to chest level.  The doctor and the lady and the maid servants all looked at the egg. The doctor snuck a glance towards the silk curtains, hoping no reports had yet been conveyed to the families. All he had in his favour was that the birth had been so quick, no-one would yet be expecting an outcome.

Vain hope.

The silk curtain was drawn aside abruptly as the father’s father intruded. Close behind him was the lady’s husband, followed by senior advisers, with the grandmothers and sisters and their ladies’ maids crushing towards the fragile egg.

“My baby is different,” faltered Milk. Then she gathered her courage. “My baby is special.”

As she spoke the words, the egg-shell began to crack. First the finest fault-lines, then the smooth carapace fell apart. The shards dropped to the floor, leaving the doctor enfolding in his hands the tiniest child the world has ever seen, a perfect female child, with wings instead of arms.

“My baby,” breathed its mother.

Her husband looked at her helplessly and turned to his father.

“My wife has given birth to a wonder.”

The father’s father was astonished. He stared at his son, then frowned, then laughed.

“It is indeed an age of miracles. My youngest heir is a song-bird.”

So that is what they named her: Song Bird.

Song Bird grew up enclosed in the father’s family home. She never saw beyond its walls, and the people beyond its walls never saw her. But word spread fast about this magic creature, this tiny female with translucent skin, amber-bead eyes, and soft feathered limbs.

She had the range of the gardens and her mother’s apartments. Her mother loved her. It was difficult for Song Bird to learn to walk, as her toes were bent double, like small talons, but she fluttered her tiny wings and stroked the air for momentum. It was difficult for Song Bird to learn to speak. When she opened her mouth, high trills emerged. She loved to explore her vocal range, and the sounds were melodic, but what came out of her mouth did not resemble human speech. Her tiny pursed lips were not formed for that purpose.

Her father worried.

“Song Bird is special, in fact miraculous. But she’s different. You do agree, my dear, she is tremendously odd.”

Milk smiled sweetly. In her heart she thought “Yes! My baby is different.”

The father grew anxious.

“What is the difference between unique and odd? Between magic and monstrous? What will people think? What must they be thinking?”

Milk bent her head meekly.  In her heart she thought, “My baby is the gift of the water spirits. She is air and water. She is wondrous beyond words.”

The father grew fearful, and lost patience.

“This cannot continue,” he told his wife. “The doctor advises there are strangers, magic people, who can help us with this problem.”

Milk thought, “What problem? Magic made my baby. Magic is her friend.”

So the families called in the magicians from abroad.

There were three magicians, a woman and two men.  They approached the father’s father’s divan and bowed.

“What is it needs doing?” the woman asked, her voice low and resonant.

“I have a grandchild who is different,” the father’s father pronounced. The assembled courtiers stayed deeply prostrate.  “She is different in ways that cannot continue. She has wings. She cannot walk but flutters. She cannot talk but sings. She is tinier than ever a girl should be. We need this fixed.”

“In what ways does the great lord wish his grand-child fixed?”

“We wanted her to be just like her mother,” the patriarch continued, and Milk blushed. “We want her perfect.”

The female magician took a long look at Milk. She stared at her so long the courtiers bent limbs ached.

“As you say, great lord,” the female magi replied.  “We shall make it so.”

The father’s father clapped his hands. “Bring the child,” he commanded his senior adviser.

“It is not necessary,” the second magician spoke. “We see the child, and we know its nature.”

“When nightfall comes,” the third magi said, “The child will transform.”

Then the three turned to leave, turning their backs on the great lord, his families and retinues, and made their way out of the audience hall. No-one made to stop them.

The great lord turned to his senior adviser and his son.

“What just happened there?” he asked. But no-one could say.

As twilight drew near, Milk sat in her rooms with her maids and Song Bird.  Her husband and his father’s senior adviser sat opposite. The doctor stood to one side.

Song Bird had been chirping all day, but now she fell silent. The tiny creature shivered. She shivered and shook. She seemed to shrink.

Her mother touched the child softly, then picked her up in the palm of her hand.  She stroked the child’s wings and sang to her, under her breath. She enclosed Song Bird in her hands and bent in close over her, so that Milk’s fine shawl fell across the child, caressing her and shielding her.

As twilight became dusk, Milk sat there with Song Bird. The others in attendance were mute. Finally shades of purple gave way to darkest blue, and the moon could be seen through the window, rising.

“Night has come,” the child’s father said. “Where is my true child?”

Milk said nothing, but lifted the edge of her shawl. In her lap sat a golden eagle.

“What’s that?” the father squawked.

“It’s a raptor!” exclaimed the doctor, then wished he’d held his tongue.

“A raptor?” said the father.

“A hunting bird. A bird of prey.” The senior adviser was on his feet. Within moments the father’s father would be told.

“She’s an eagle,” said Milk, mildly. “She was born to fly.”

And at that, the great bird winked an amber eye at its mother, and took off, spreading powerful wings. It flew straight out the window, towards the moon. It could not sing – it never sang again – but it flew straight as an arrow, up and up and up, through the night-sky to the heavens.  As it flew the moon shuddered, a pearl pendant on a woman’s breast. As the great bird flew, the Milky Way shattered, scattering diamonds across the cosmos. This is why the foam on the highest class of white tea is known as the Milky Way or Star Flight.

On and on the great bird flew. It flew on endlessly on powerful wings, into darkness, and beyond.

They had silenced a fragile song-bird. But what had they let loose?

Bird

“That’s a Storyteller’s story,” says Chapin admiringly. “Is it yours?”

“Thank you. My mother’s,” I respond.

“You know,” Chapin says, “I don’t think Milos set a trap. I don’t think there are Servants near. I’ve visited him in Fourth Division villages and if that was his plan he could have had Servants take me then.”

“There are four of us now.”

“Yes, but he couldn’t have known that. He only expected me. And the Servants last night had a chopper. If there was still a chopper in the area it’d be on top of us by now.”

We are crouched alongside a rooftop gable, wedged into the cornice, clutching the decorative tiling that lines the gable’s dorsal fin.  Roberto and Romano are metres away, pressing back into the elbow of a parallel gable. It’s precarious, but thanks to the tiling being newly installed, and the structures newly built, I’m confident it’ll hold. That might be the only thing I’m confident about.

“Milos is right though. If we go, we’ll die. There’s nothing for us out there.”

Chapin narrows his eyes and shakes his head dismissively.

“Why are buying into what Milos says? You say I was naïve, but there you go buying a story from an amateur. He wants us to believe we have no options.”

“So what are our options now?”

Roberto is listening to every word. Roman is scanning the skies. I note that: not the streets, the skies. Chapin notices too.

“I say we pause here for a short while. Milos wanted to demoralise us. I say we tell stories till we remember who we are.”

“Tell stories?”

“You know, that thing we’ve been doing since before we could crawl? I say we sit here on this roof, with nothing but birds between us and the clouds, and tell stories to the open sky. It’s been years of deep forest and grey woods. I want to tell a story to the sun.”

Roberto breaks into a beaming smile. It’s crazy, but it’s true to us. I like the plan.

“What will your story be about?”

Chapin is smiling too, now. He looks remarkably relaxed. We’re mad, us Storytellers. Mad and dangerous.

“Well, you told a story of water and air. How about my story be fire and earth?”

I nod. “How about it? Go right ahead.”

fire-orange-emergency-burning

 

A warlord had a mighty host. His hall was the biggest hall ever known. The main table on the dais seated one hundred warriors, with one hundred maids in attendance.  The length of the hall was filled with tables, and every table was filled with warriors, with a maid to attend each warrior individually.  The warlord was wealthy and known to be generous; his fame had drawn warriors from every corner of the world, from the tiger lands to the south, to the dragon lands in the west, the turtle lands to the north and the snake lands in the east.

Their armours were of every type: some were lacquered leather, some buffalo or rhinoceros hide, some were disks of bronze stitched together with leather thongs, and some were made of multiple fine layers of paper, capable of stopping arrows. Each warrior had a weapon of choice. Most had a halberd, a long staff with a spear-tip at one end, a hatchet to one side – a hook on the back of the axe-blade could be used to unseat horsemen. Some had a sabre mounted on a long staff, or simply a sabre. There were longbow archers and crossbow archers and cavalry archers. There were broadswords and the finest weapon of all, the long silky blade forged by the great masters, two softer layers of steel surrounding a hard inner core. The softer outer steel makes for resilience, while the hardness at the centre keeps the edge sharp. All of these weapons were murderous, and all of these warriors deadly.

Every night the warlord and his warriors feasted on game in the great hall. Every day they hunted or played war-games. Other lords petitioned the warlord for the use of his men as mercenaries, so always contingents were coming and going, making war, bringing back the spoils.

One day a man came from the west requesting an audience. He was tall and thin, and around his head, shoulders and upper torso was wrapped a red scarf that covered all his face, except his eyes, which were burnished bronze. The man had no weapon except a knife. His knife attracted great interest: it was long, with a single-edged blade that curved forward, the opposite of a scythe. Like the swords of the masters, it was forged ingeniously, softer steel on its back, for resilience, hard steel on the cutting edge. The hilt was slimmer than the blade and was covered in gold embossed designs, which might have been writing.

“It’s a magi,” the men muttered, but the warlord granted an audience.

“What is it you want?” the warlord asked the magi.

The magi bowed low.

“Great lord,” he said. “I come from a land a long way to the west, but even in our territories your armies are harassing peoples who are under our protection. I ask you to stop.”

“To stop?” said the warlord. He didn’t know which territories the man could mean, or which peoples, but the possibility of simply stopping an offensive action, just for the asking, had never occurred to him.

“Stop,” repeated the magi.

“Why would I do that?” the warlord asked, his combative instincts rising.

“To stop would further your prosperity. To continue will bring you ruin.”

“I cannot believe you are making threats.” The warlord really meant this. “Do you have no understanding of protocol? Do you have no common sense?”

“I understand the protocol of civilised lands. Here, to you, I must speak direct.”

The warlord was incensed. “Seize him!” he yelled to the men nearest the guest.

The men made to rise but as they did, they burst into flame. A roar went up across the hall, but no-one moved. No-one except the human torches, staggering into each other as they burned.

“I will return tomorrow,” the magi said. “Think on my request, and come up with a better answer.”

Then he turned and walked out of the hall, each foot-step marked by a burst of flame.

The hall was in uproar. It took many minutes to restore sufficient order for the warlord to be heard.

“This is outrageous!” he shouted. “Tomorrow when this Fire Steps charlatan returns, we will receive him in the manner he deserves!”

So the warlord and his council made plans for Fire Steps’ return.

Sure enough, part-way through the feast a tall figure stepped through the great double doors. As instructed, the men let him pass.

“Are you ready to accede to my request?” the magi asked. “Will you stop harassing the plains peoples of the west?”

“Absolutely not!” screamed the warlord, and on the word “not” a bank of archers with curved horn-bows amassed to the right of the dais let fly their arrows. But as the arrows reached the peak of their arc they burst into flame, just as the men had. The flaming arrows fell on tables throughout the hall, setting multiple small fires the warriors attempted to douse. Sounds of shouting mixed with maids screaming.

The magi stood motionless, his eyes fixed on the warlord.

“Bring back your hosts from the plains to the west,” he ordered, and everyone present heard it as an order. “I will return tomorrow to hear your answer.”

This time as Fire Steps wheeled around towards the doors, warriors fell upon him, but every weapon turned on Fire Steps burst into flame, causing the warriors to drop their swords and halberds, their sabres and daggers, frantically beating out the fires instead.

‘This has to stop,” the warlord growled. The warlord and his generals conferred.

On the third night, the warlord’s warriors had drawn up in battle-lines. The tables – those still intact – had been pushed back against the walls. The women were expelled to the smaller dormitory halls.

“I don’t think this will work,” said a young boy helping fasten the clasps on the warlord’s armour.

“You don’t?” said the warlord. The boy was his grandson, and he liked the lad.

“No,” said the child. “He’s already shown twice over that anything you throw at him will just burst into flames. If we launch a full military action against this man the whole hall will go up.”

“I’ve thought of that,” his grandfather replied, indeed, thoughtfully. “But we can’t let him get away with insulting us – insulting me – in the great hall of power. He must be punished.”

“One thing at a time,” said the boy. “If he can’t be punished, he must at least be stopped.”

“Do you have any better ideas?” his grandfather asked.

“Let me try,” said the child. “Before you let loose your armies, let me give it a go.”

So that night when Fire Steps pushed through the great double doors, in front of him he saw the entire forces of the warlord, arrayed as if for battle, and at the very front, standing alone, a boy, unarmed.

“Stop!” said the boy.

The magi stopped.

“That’s a good start,” he conceded, going down on one knee in front of the child. “You have made a reasonable request. Now I make my request of you.”

Turning to where the warlord stood, he asked again, “Will you stop harassing my people?”

“I speak for my lord,” the child said quickly.

“That’s an even better step,” Fire Steps said, approvingly. “Two sensible responses. I am encouraged. But I thought weapons speak for the great lord?”

“Weapons only speak the language of war. It takes a man or a woman to speak words of peace.”

“You are a remarkably wise child,” the magi smiled. “Are you born into the wrong tribe?”

“What will happen if we do not stop?”

The magi barely paused. “I told you. To continue to kill the plains people will bring you only ruin. To attempt to harm me will bring this hall down on your heads.”

The boy turned towards his grandfather. “I think we have no choice but to stop.”

The warlord suppressed a groan. “We cannot stop. We are born to kill. If you don’t understand that, the magi is right: you are no child of mine.”

With that, he motioned to his banner men. “Kill them!” he said.

As he said the words, the arrows flew, the men fell forwards, and the magi scooped the child into his arms. As he did so a halo of fire rose around them. The headscarf unfurled and extended into the long ridged back of a copper-coloured dragon. The magi became a great serpent, its long tail fanning flames that incinerated warriors in its sweep.

“Climb on my back,” the magi instructed the boy.  “You won’t be scorched.”

The child climbed onto the dragon’s back and wedged himself between where the ridge of spines started and the base of the serpent’s neck, clutching its flaming mane. As the boy looked at his hands he saw he was glowing like an ember.

The dragon beat its wings and a hundred warriors fell. It threw back its head and breathed fire at the rafters. The great beams collapsed, crushing burning men who milled about below. The dragon rose onto its hind legs and took off through the roof. The sound of fire roared in the boy’s ears. As the dragon took flight the great hall fell, a heap of smouldering charcoal.

“Where are we headed?” the boy yelled into the dragon’s tufted ears.

“Home. The end is always home,” the dragon replied, its great voice husky. “You were born out of place. I came to fetch you.”

“Am I a dragon?” the boy screamed.

“Not yet,” the dragon answered. “But in time you will be. You have good genes, and the capacity to learn. Hold tight now!”

And with that, he wheeled towards the west and burst through the sunset.

Elly_McDonald_Writer_Lenny17

 

“That has to be traditional,” I tell Chapin, laughing. “Or was it your father’s?”

“As a matter of fact,” Chapin grins, “It was. What we need now is a golden eagle or a flaming dragon to lift us from this roof!”

“My turn.”  I’m shocked at the sound of Roberto’s voice. Chapin is too. Even Roman, who is deaf, turns in amazement.

“Let me tell my story,” says Roberto, voice husky as a dragon’s, but much softer.  “When the fires tore through our home the roof made a sound like breaking ice and I grew deathly cold. The flames lit up the sky, my sisters were ablaze, but I plunged into darkness. The Servants in black were flame illuminated while I receded. I fell through time, through dark and cold and space. I screamed but my voice rang hollow, then silent. I screamed but nothing came out of my mouth. All around me people were killing, dying, running, falling. I ran and ran and I know I was on fire, but the deep chill had me.

“I ran into the deep forest, where no light penetrates and everything is dark. The deep forest is so thick I couldn’t run further. I couldn’t stand up. I fell to a floor of pine needles and I didn’t move. It was so cold I didn’t think I could live, but I have, and I am here. On a rooftop, telling stories. Truly, I am a magi. I am a Storyteller, and I’m still alive.”

The three of us stare at Roberto in wonderment. Here we are telling myths and fables and in front of us sits Roberto, clutching the corrugated tiles that are a dragon’s mane, pressed close against the serpentine line of the gable. He is transformed, and he’s right: we’re still alive.

“Are we ready to continue?” Chapin asks, directly facing Roman.

Roman, who cannot hear, understands at once.  He scrambles to his feet and leads the way onwards.

—Elly_McDonald_Writer_Lenny32

It’s hard going trying to move along the roof-tops. The tiles are slippery, and the angle is too steep. We make very little headway but we make a lot of noise. Roman is the best of us. Me, I’m afraid of falling.

“Stop!” gasps Chapin, when we are only two town-houses farther along.

“Stop?” I ask.

“Yes,” he grunts, clinging to another gable. “It’s like the boy in the Fire Steps story. I’ve been fretting about how to get off this roof, and it’s as simple as ‘Stop!’ All we need to do is, get off the roof.”

“Why are we up here?”

“To evade Servants. And I’ve already said, I don’t think there are Servants near. I also said I don’t think Milos is right. He’s wrong.”

I’m hugging tiles. “How so?”

“Let’s get off the roof and I’ll explain.”

I let go and immediately slide towards the gutter above a small balcony. It’s a balcony much like the one we used to access the roofs. Beneath it is the lower floor of the building, not the street side, facing onto what would normally be a small enclosed garden. Except that the Servants have not planted gardens.

From the gutter I swing down the balcony supports onto its railings.  From the railings I swing down towards the garden, then drop. The impact hurts. The others are falling alongside me, thudding pine-cones from a tree. In our legends there are stealth warriors who climb, who jump, who drop, always silently, always landing on their feet. That isn’t us.

Everywhere in this town the imaginary rises up before us, fleshing what the Servants have omitted. Here, in this small enclosed space, dry and brown, we see the garden in memory: a small maple tree, an ornamental brook, a pond, a wooden shelter with a seat. Mosses and leaves. Textured stones. This is the space we inhabit as we stand in a circle.

“Okay,” says Chapin. “Here’s the thing. Milos told us there’s nothing for us out there. He said there’s nothing left, and we’ll die if we don’t come in. What he means is we have no food or shelter, no friends, no home, and we are being hunted.”

“And he’s wrong?” Roberto asks.

“He’s not wrong about that. But he doesn’t see what we see. He does not live in our world. He doesn’t begin to know who we are.”

“I’m not following,” I say, looking quickly across at Roberto.

“Look around you,” says Chapin. “Do you see what I see?”

“You mean the garden?” says Roberto, slowly.

“A garden which isn’t here. There’s nothing left,” nods Chapin. “Yet we all see it, right?”

I see the garden. I know we all do.

“And these houses, what do you see? I know they’re shoddy re-builds, but what do you see?”

I see a dragon lying across the length of the rooftops. I see turquoise tiles on the roof and my mind’s eye fills in the more complex tile mosaics that gird these houses’ outer walls. I see finely carved woodwork in place of what is there, which is utilitarian. I see a small child peep out from over the balcony rail. I know she’s not there, but at the same time, she is.

“I see history,” I say. “I see life.”

“You see life.” Chapin steps very close to me. He’s shorter than I am, but somehow hyper-real. I have a momentary impression of Chapin as a flame-red dragon. He blazes.

I blink.

Chapin turns to Roberto and Roman. “We have no future, we are told. We have no way forward. What we have is a very rich past, and I think all us Storytellers know the past is never past. It lives. What is remembered and what is imagined has untold energy. That’s where we will find our resources.”

“But what about food?” Roberto looks pained.

“Am I alive now?” demands Chapin. “Was I alive last night?”

“Yes,” stammers Roberto.

“Have I lived so far? How many months in the forests? Why would I permit myself to die now?”  He’s agitated. “If I survived on nothing for such a long time, why would I roll over now?”

He sighs. “It’s not like suddenly, we have nothing. We’ve had nothing for so long. Who are they to tell us it’s over? I swear it’s only just begun.”

He stops, then repeats himself. “No food, no shelter, no friends, no home, and all the time hunted. This is new? This is our life. But still we live.”

“What do we live for?” I step forward now. “This is how it is, but this is not enough. We need a purpose. And Chapin is right, we’ve always had a purpose: we live to tell stories. We live to keep alive the stories of the past and the imagined stories that might have been.

“I believe,” I state. “I believe there is an Investigator coming. I believe we will be called on to tell our stories. And even if the Investigator never finds us, our stories still matter. Even if no-one cares, our stories matter, and as long as we live, our stories live with us.”

“If the Investigator never finds us, we’ll need to find the Investigator.” Roberto is thinking.  “Our stories matter, but are they enough? If our purpose is to keep our stories alive, do we not need to collect other people’s stories too? Do we have that responsibility, to the others?”

The four of us are standing close together, almost shoulder to shoulder, height differences allowing.

Chapin is resolved. “We do. That makes our plan simple. We can’t go back to the forest. We need to move outwards. We need to take our stories out there and trawl for other stories as we go.”

I’m troubled. “There are loose ends even in my own story so far. I still need to know, who were those women? Why did they help me? Were they trying to help me? What was happening there that I don’t understand?

“And you,” I lock eyes with Chapin. “Was it chance you were at the grave? Did you know I would there? How could you know?”

“I didn’t know you’d be at that grave,” says Chapin. “I thought you’d be at or in a grave somewhere, but I didn’t know we’d meet there.

“What I knew was that the Servants were coming back. They’d killed two of ours and the grave they forced Robin and Stavros to dig was sized for more. So I knew they’d be back.

“It was luck that it was you, and luck that only one Servant brought you. Usually they never work alone. I don’t know why he did that. I call it luck.”

“So we’re lucky?” I like the sound of this. So far I haven’t thought of us that way.

Roman is smiling up at me. All of a sudden I’m certain it’s him. It’s Roman – Roman is our luck.

“We need food first,” I say. “Come on, let’s find some.”

Elly_McDonald_Writer_Lenny29

 

The vizier’s son was an enigma. He didn’t like to fight up close but he was lethal with a horn-bow. He disdained knives but was an artist with the long blade sword. He designed gardens, and wrote poetry, but was not interested in participating in the lord’s council. In short, he was not rounded. He was, in truth, not balanced – ludicrously skilled in some respects, he abdicated other key tasks.

“What will we do with him?” worried his father. “He’s not suited to service, and he isn’t a conqueror. Poetry is not a way of life.”

“Perhaps an architect?” wondered his mother. “I don’t mean a workman. I mean a master.”

“Does he draw?” asked his father, gloomily.

“’Fraid so,” his mother admitted. “He’s really rather good.”

Her husband glared at her.

“He’s good at lots of things, but that’s no good at all. I need him to be good at what is required of him, to the degree required. No more, no less.”

His wife shrugged sympathetically, and went back to her embroidery.

The boy took to staying out all night, attending long sessions of theatre and dance under the moonlight in the company of expensive women.

“Is he any good at that?” his father snapped.

“Singing? Sings like a bird,” the mother confessed. “The women adore him.”

The boy became a wine connoisseur. The finest foods were prepared for him by the most ambitious chefs, eager for the style-maker to become their patron. He had a palate, but food was not his passion.

“Could he be an orator or a judge?” mused his father.

“They’re rather different functions,” his wife murmured.

“Either. Any. As long as it’s recognised as useful. I can’t have my son spend his life being elegant.”

One day the young man showed up for formal audience with his father.

“I have an announcement,” he said (his name was Caspar). “With all deference due a son to his father, in all humility, I must inform you I have taken a wife.”

“A wife?!” shrilled the vizier. “How dare you? You must realise the son of someone with my prominence is a marketable asset. You don’t dare marry without my permission. You must marry my choice.”

“I’ve married already,” said Caspar, bowing.

“I’ll have her killed!” his father snorted.

“I don’t think so,” Caspar answered, without raising his head.

As he spoke, a young woman slid through the crowd (there was always a crowd for the vizier’s public audiences).  She was tall and slim, and wrapped from head to toe in dark green fine fabric.

“I am Serpa,” she said, addressing the vizier. “Caspar has married me.”

The vizier looked her over. His heart was suddenly heavy.

“What are you?” he asked. “Are you a magi? A serpent? A water-dragon?”

“That’s right,” smiled Serpa, her green eyes gleaming through the fine veil.

“That’s right which? All of the above?”

She nodded, and bent to one knee.  “All of the above, my lord.”

The vizier stared glumly. Then he motioned to one of his aide’s to come close. The aide left the room and returned moments later with a good sized gold casket, inlaid with jade.

“Here,” said the vizier. “You see something in him. You’re smarter than I am. Take him as my gift, and take this gift too. See what you can make of him.”

The aide presented the casket to Serpa, who turned her head demurely to the side, a traditional indication of acceptance. The aide raised the casket’s lid.

Inside the golden box was a necklace and earring set. The necklace had multiple strands, the earrings had loops and long dangles. All was green: malachite, jade, emerald, tourmaline. The stones covered every filament of gold.

“Thank you,” said Serpa. “I will treasure your gifts.”

And with that, Caspar and Serpa departed his father’s house.

In a fortress to the east, they set up home in the highest turret. The fortress was home to the snake clan. Here, elegance was a way of life. The snake clan had mastery of long thin blades and poisons, but also poetry, drawing, garden design and calligraphy. They sang epics which lasted nights, sometimes weeks, stories with sinuous plots and exquisite verse structures. The songs of the snake people had multiple voices, some singing harmonies, some singing narrative, some singing wondrous emotional effects. The songs of the snake clan entered the body, infused the bloodstream, pierced the heart.

To experience the song fully, the snake folk nurtured all their senses. Prior to an epic song event, they bathed, for hours, in perfumed waters. They engaged in ceremonial massage. They opened their voices, practising wailing chromatic scales. They performed traditional exercises that lubricated every joint within the body, working sequentially from the toes to the neck. They nibbled at blind-tasting smorgasbords, to tantalise the tongue.

And there were drugs. The snake clan had the most amazing chemistry. They were alchemists who transformed what is outer – what we see, hear, feel, touch and taste out there – into a wealth of inner astonishment. Their drugs created refinements of experience – and elaborations – beyond the imaginings of those who’d never partaken.

“I live life so much more fully now,” sighed Caspar. “My life has expanded.”

One day as Caspar and Serpa walked hand in hand in their garden he looked up into a tree, and saw himself. There he was, a bird sitting on a bough. The bird was red, white and black, with blue eyes. It cocked its head and acknowledged him.

“See that?” said Caspar, speaking as the bird, looking down at his wife in the garden.

His wife Serpa swayed her head slightly, and would have smiled, except that she was a long green snake. Her scales glistened, like cut emerald.

Caspar, back in his human body, was surprised, but not disconcerted. Life with the snake clan was never dull.

From that time, more and more often he looked out at the world through the coloured bird’s eyes. Of course, he was the bird. There was no disjunction. It’s just that it happened so suddenly. One minute he was a young man, the next a flash of red feather on the underside of a wing. More and more often, Serpa elongated and extended, sliding through their quarters as a glorious green snake.

“Are we suited?” he asked her.

“Of course, my love. Bird and snake. We were made for each other.”  He had to laugh.

Then she started playing her game. It was fun at first. He’d be in the tree, she’d be kneeling underneath. She would sway and sing, and he’d sing with her. As he sang he’d get drowsy. Eventually he’d slip off his bough, and as he flapped his wings to regain height (that flurry of red as the wings beat upwards), her long neck would strike towards him. Her green eyes would snap and then there she’d be, his Serpa, his beautiful wife, smiling coyly, smiling seductively, her green gems winking in the light.

It happened too often. The thrill was intense, but that moment when snake lashed out at bird had a definite edge. It scared him.

“What kind of child would we have?” he asked Serpa.

“A poet. A singer. A storyteller,” she told him. “Not someone you could trust.”

Caspar remembered how he’d betrayed his father and his blood ran cold. Cold like a snake.

“My father is an administrator,” he said. “Perhaps our child might be a genetic throw-back.”

“Not with the drugs,” Serpa drawled. “The drugs change everything.”

“Drugs are not a way of life,” Caspar frowned.

“No?” said Serpa.

Caspar began to think.

In the fortress of the snake clan, there was little room to move. He and Serpa lived in the highest turret. His way was blocked on every side. There was no way out, if he wanted out. Except above. As a bird, he could fly. Did he want to fly?

“My love,” said Serpa, “You do understand? You are our nourishment. I need you to bring forth what comes next. You are the father of something great, but you won’t survive fatherhood. It’s always that way.”

“Always?” asked Caspar. He wished now he had studied logic.

“Always. For a new story to come forth, we need nutrition. You’re it. You are spectacular, my darling. You are your father’s gift, and you will not be wasted.”

“What will become of me?” Caspar whispered.

“I’ll eat you,” she answered. “Don’t worry, you won’t feel much. It’ll be an adventure. Then I’ll send our offspring back to your father in the gold casket. It will be a boy, and he will spawn countless generations of Storytellers. Your people won’t trust them, but they’ll be fascinated. They’ll pay gold and precious jewels, they’ll stay spell-bound for hours and days, and they’ll make celebrities of our descendents. But you won’t know, my darling, because you’ll be gone.”

As she said “gone”, she licked a few red feathers off her jaw. There was no sign of a bird, no sign of Caspar.

Serpa slid across to a pile of silk cushions and lay on their cool surface. She admired her reflection in the gold casket’s lid. Wide face, narrow chin. Green eyes. Soon she’d send a gift to her father-in-law.

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“We have drugs,” says Roberto, brightly.

Chapin reaches into his belt, where the medical hygiene bag is wedged. He pulls it out, unseals it, and passes the bag to Roman. Roman takes a pinch of white powder between thumb and forefinger, and snorts it. Roberto follows. Then Chapin. I look at Chapin and I see Caspar, a red, white and black bird with blue eyes, his head cocked to one side. I do as he did.

“Now,” says Chapin. “Not hungry any more. But let’s find food for later.”

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This time finding food is simple. We move out of the back streets towards the town square. We almost glide, and all around is silent. With each breath I feel myself expand, contract. Breathe out, breathe in. I feel powerful. I feel as if with each step I could leap leagues. I feel as if I elevate towards the clouds. Chapin and Roberto, Roman and I are one. There is an eye in the sky and we are it.

I’ve heard it told that way. That’s how it is today.

As we walk into the square Chapin raises his rifle and fires once, twice, three times. Three Servants drop. They’re in full daylight, where the outdoor coffee shop is. There are three others there, but these are not Servants.

“Who are you?” Chapin yells.

The three throw themselves down on the paving stones.

“Fourth Division!” one screams.

“Third Division!” screams another.

“What are you doing here?” Chapin shouts.

“The Servants made us do it!” the third person says. We’re right on top of them now. He’s not yelling but croaking.

We stop and take in what we can see. There are two boxes of food: flat breads, fermented bean paste, pickled vegetables. Salted fish. Dried persimmons. Wine. A feast.

“How many of us do they think are here?” I ask.

“They don’t know. We brought food to flush you out.” The person who spoke second, the Third Division person, is a woman.

“Are there more of them about?” Roberto asks.

The three look at each other.

“Not right now,” says the woman. “We left two trucks in the main outbound street. There are others coming but I don’t know how many or when.”

“Kill them?” asks Roberto, gesturing with his rifle towards our captives.

“No,” Chapin says. “Not yet. I need to question them.”

To the captives he commands, “Pick up the boxes and come with us.”

He tilts his head to indicate the arts centre, and we herd our captives towards its foyer. We enter but only go as far as the first tier level. Then Chapin sits down. Roberto pushes the Fourth Division man down to his knees, and the others voluntarily kneel.

“What is your trade?” Chapin asks the Third Division woman.

“I prepare food,” she whispers. Tears are forming. Marcasite eyes.

“And you?” Chapin nods at the man who spoke third.

“Fourth Division. I dispose of bodies.”

“Your friend?”

The man who screamed first says, “I’m a medic.”

Chapin considers. “All useful functions.”

He reaches into the box, feels around with his fingers, and finds some roasted chestnuts.

“Mmm,” he says, stuffing a handful into his mouth.

“There are boiled chestnut balls there too,” the woman tells him. She seems eager to please. “I make them with honey and sesame and pinenuts. They keep quite well.”

Roman starts to forage in the boxes. I know he can’t hear. Perhaps he can smell sesame.

“Thank you,” I say. I sound foreign to myself.

The woman bows. “You’re welcome.”

“Yes,” says Chapin. “Thank you. Thank you for the feast.”

He studies his feet. The shoes are worn out, held together with filthy strips of plaited fabric.

“Get out of your clothes.”

The woman starts to cry in earnest now. She bows over, very low. With her head against her knees, her private parts are covered: we can’t see her breasts, can’t see her pubic mound or where her groin meets thigh, or the soft flesh inside her elbows, behind her knees, at her waist and at the base of her throat. The back of her neck is exposed.

“Just do it,” Chapin says, evenly but firmly. “I apologise. If this was a real theatre there’d be a wardrobe department. We’d have clothes to change into. I checked where our heritage museum should be and there are no costumed dummies there either. We need your clothes. If you want, you can have ours.”

I can tell they don’t want. Why would they? The boys’ clothes are crawling with vermin. I’m in the robe of a re-education camp inmate, and there’s blood on my sleeves. Also, now I notice, on the robe tie. I stink of piss.

“We’re one short,” says Roberto.

“We’ll share what we can. Roman is smaller in any case, this stuff won’t fit him.” As our captives disrobe, I pick up each item and distribute it to whichever of us I think it will best serve.

It’s late afternoon now and it’s getting cold. The man who buries bodies has tattoos. They’re symbolic, and I can’t read what they mean. Within minutes his symbols are hidden beneath the rags Roberto wore.

“You should go now,” says Chapin, neutrally. “Go to the trucks. Wait there for the Servants. Don’t try to find us.”

“Wait!” I say abruptly. The woman shudders. “There are Third Division women in the camps. They prepare us for the tea ceremony.”

“Third Division?” asks the medic. “Are you sure you don’t mean Fourth Division?”

“Yes,” says the man with tatts. “Fourth Division women, who prepare the dead?”

I’m confused. “I don’t think so. I think they made ceramics.”

The woman who prepares food is too scared to meet my eyes.

“That’s a higher calling,” she tells me. “The artists don’t mix much with us, except sometimes to design wares for ceremonial feasts. Artists stick with artists.”

“They’re not artists,” I correct her. “They’re artisans. Everybody understands that difference.”

“Sorry to offend,” the cook murmurs. “I’m not sure all of us do.”

I think I’m beginning to understand. I feel sad for her, my re-education camp robe wrapped around her body.

“Do you have drugs?” Chapin asks the medic. The medic reaches into a bag hung round his neck and hands over another sealed hygiene bag.

“That’s good,” Chapin grunts. He pushes the man towards the foyer door. We exit back into the square.

“Go,” directs Chapin. We watch them as they stumble, then run, towards the main through-road.

“We should have killed them,” says Roberto. I’m thinking the same thing.

Chapin ignores this.  “Now we have food,” says Chapin, “and we have Servants coming down on us any time now. Where do we go?”

Roman has already started to walk. I can tell where he’s headed. We’re going back to where the water well is, where the heritage museum once was. The old heritage museum was once a castle keep. It isn’t there now. There are remnants of burnt walls, or rather, singed foundation stones. Huge square stones burnt black. I can’t see how stones can provide us with shelter. It gets so cold at night we’d freeze, and the Servants have search lights.

When we reach the well Roman doesn’t hesitate. The well is on a rise, with a large flat area of higher ground beyond it, the area where the castle keep stood. Roman clambers over the blackened stones and disappears from view. We follow, Roberto and me carrying the food boxes, together with our rifles. Past the first ring of shaped stones. Past a few loose stones strewn at random. On the other side of a massive stone is a hollow. I gasp as Roman slips into the shadow at its base and disappears.

“There’s an entry way,” Chapin marvels. “It’s a tunnel under the stone.”

“Our food boxes can’t fit through,” I respond, with a groan. “Will we have to leave them?”

“That’s not happening,” says Roberto. “You go through. I’ll stay here and feed through the food items one by one. We can wrap them in our outer robes and carry them as bundles.”

He means the loose sheets that wrap around our under-garments. Everyone has an outer robe that can double as a sheet or blanket, or a funeral shroud. Everyone except half-clad renegades and prisoners. We’re properly covered now, like regular citizens.

I slide through the lips of the tunnel and sink down a little over a metre. If I stand on my toes, I can pull myself up and lever myself back outside. The tunnel continues on in darkness. Roberto passes the food and drink through to me and I place it aside, in the semi-darkness, till everything edible is with the three of us: Roman, Chapin and I, under cover. Roberto’s feet appear first, then his legs, which are long like a mantis. His feet are encased in leather slippers, not durable, but better than what he had. He slides his torso and his head through, and here we all are. Safe, for the moment.

The tunnel is wide enough that we’re not forced into single file. We do have to bend, or crawl. It’s toughest on Roberto. But Roman isn’t stopping.  We follow him past a bend in the tunnel and light starts to filter through. This tunnel is not long. It’s just long enough to take us under the stone, doubling back towards the water well, then sideways some distance towards another entrance. Beneath the hole where the light penetrates is a space larger than where we gathered at the point we first came in.  Here, we seat ourselves again. We start to unpack the food knotted in the bundles we made from our outer robes.

“We could probably make a fire here,” says Chapin, appraising the earth chamber. “There’s ventilation.”

“But then there’d be smoke,” I point out. “We don’t want the Servants to see our smoke.”

“What do we need a fire for?” says Roberto. “We have food. We have clothes.”

He reaches for some flat bread and tears at it with his teeth. His teeth are jagged. Somewhere, sometime, they’ve been stoved in.

“Can we do this the traditional way?” asks Chapin. Roberto stops.

Chapin stands up and turns a full circle.

“We have food. We are nourished on stories. We have clothes. We are clad in tradition. Storytellers live through all generations. We honour each meal by starting with a story. Roberto, do us honour. It is your turn.”

He does a half-bow towards Roberto and resumes his seat.

Roberto puts down the torn strip of flat bread and swallows. He returns the half-bow: to Chapin, to me, to Roman. We all know how this plays. This is Storytelling. This is how we live.

Elly_McDonald_Writer_Lenny13

The turtle swam lazily up the river. He was in no hurry. He had a mission to accomplish, but there was time. He took his time.

The river was wide, with enormous meanders. In its centre it ran deep. Some of the meanders created shallows. There were mud flats stretching out from the shallows. Where there were villages near by, people worked and played in the shallows: cleaning clothes, washing themselves, swimming for the joy of swimming, trapping fish. On the mud flats in these areas, people appeared to be planting. Canoes shaped like thin fish manoeuvred through the shallows and channels in the mud flats. Slightly bigger canoes ventured farther towards the depths. Away from the villages, tall reeds grew up all along the river’s edge.

The further up the river he swam, the deeper it became. Its colour changed from muddy brown to a mix of brown and blue, with shades of green and yellow. The reeds along its banks were no longer dry brown-green and instead grew a deeper, stronger green.  Set back from the river, behind a stretch of plains, mountains could be seen.

As the turtle progressed further up the river, the mountains closed in. At some places they squeezed the river, forming rapids. The turtle was strong and persistent and negotiated the rapids. He was practiced at negotiation. He focused on his mission.

Canyons rose either side of the river. The mountains were so high their tops disappeared into mist. But the turtle knew exactly where to come ashore. He found the place were rocks gave way to man-made moorings. He admired the streaked orange, white and yellow of these rocks. Very laboriously, he made his way up the long flight of steps that led from the moorings to a flat open space above. This was the common-ground where people in this community met. He knew if he placed himself in the middle of the open-air landing, people would congregate.

And they did.

First just a few people came, and stared. Then some darted off and came back with friends. Before long a large number of people had gathered. They pointed at the turtle, and talked a lot about him, but no-one addressed him. They waited for their leaders.

Before long a small group of men and women arrived accompanied by attendants holding parasols above their heads. It was not particularly hot, but the turtle understood these people’s ways. The parasols indicated status.

The men and women in this small party were dressed in loose robes in shades of red, yellow and orange. The others in the community wore similar robes in shades of blue, violet, mauve and green. The robes were held fast with wide sashes in colour contrasts: a woman in intense orange might sport a dark blue belt; a man in green might wear a belt in pink.

“We welcome you,” said one woman solemnly, addressing the giant turtle. She wore a dark red robe with a vibrant green sash.

“And I greet you,” replied the turtle courteously. “I am the turtle who carries the weight of the cosmos.”

“That’s a tortoise,” a man in sage (mauve sash) retorted without pause.

The turtle fixed his pale yellow eyes on the man. “I am a turtle,” he stated. “I have always been a turtle, and I have always been. I swam in the sea of consciousness before any other creature existed. I was there before God recognised herself as God. I know all things that have ever been, and all things that will be.”

“I stand corrected,” the man murmured, as the woman alongside him (pale blue and flesh) cuffed his shoulder.

The party of leaders bowed deeply.

“It is our custom that guests in our land must earn their safe passage by telling us a story. We grant you safe passage, but please, we beg of you a story.” The man who spoke wore marigold and white, with gold embroidered trim.

“I can tell you a story of the future,” the turtle proclaimed, adopting a Storyteller voice. It echoed off the carved rock plateau and carried up the mountain sides.

“It’s a short story. A long way ahead, in a time far away, men and women came to loathe Storytellers. The balance had shifted from fascination to fear. Other folk mistrusted the Storytellers, who they saw as manipulators, tricksters and exploiters, fluid with the truth.”

“Fluent with the truth?” asked a girl in the crowd.

“Fluid. Fluid like water. It leaks everywhere.” The turtle was patient.

“Where’s the problem with that?” asked a teenager.

“Storytellers could not be believed. They could not be counted on. Their intentions were unpredictable. A long way ahead, in the future, loyalty came to be seen as essential for stability. Conformity was valued. Storytellers did not conform.”

“Why are you speaking as if this is in the past, when you say it’s in the future?” An older woman wanted to know.

The turtle turned his great neck towards her. “Because the past is never past. You of all peoples must know that. What has not yet been is still to come but exists already. I have swum the endless seas for all time, and I know everything time and space can contain.”

“What happened?” breathed a small child.

“The people who mistrusted Storytellers decided the Story must end. They conspired to kill the Storytellers. They killed almost all of them.”

“How could that happen?” asked a man in his prime. “We’d tell each other, wouldn’t we?”

“The Storytellers were wiped out in simultaneous attacks. No-one who was found was spared. The only survivors were children.”

“But they survived?” a nursing mother squeaked.

“They still survive. But their survival is not guaranteed.”

The first woman, the leader robed in red and green, frowned. “O cosmic turtle, you who know everything, do you not know what happened?”

“O lady, great seer and wise word-smith, it is still happening. The story never ends.”

“I thought you said it was a very short story,” the lady smiled weakly.

“You people are picky!” the turtle fussed. “Everybody’s a critic. I said the story was short. Time began and time continues. The Storytellers came into being and the Story must be told. That is the beginning and the end of it. There is no beginning and there is no end.”

“What should we do?” spoke another woman from the leadership group. “Is there something we can do?”

“It’s your responsibility,” the turtle told them. “It is your fate. You must tell the Story, and keep the Story going. That is your mission.”

The people fell to talking amongst themselves. Their voices were excited and incoherent.

“Great turtle,” said the red and green lady. “Thank you for being our guest, and thank you for your gift of this story. We thank you, too, for holding up the cosmos. It must be a burden, but it is your mission.”

The turtle swayed his neck back and forth, his pale eyes studying her. “We understand each other, then.”

With that, he used his flippers to manoeuvre his great bulk around, to face down the stairway, then pushed off with his flippers and skidded all the way back down to the mooring. He flipped himself into the river and submerged.

“Farewell,” said the lady, softly. To her people, she said in a loud voice: “This story must be told!”

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“Are you an actor?” I ask Roberto. He smiles.

“I’m sad there are no costumes in the theatre’s costume department,” Chapin says. “If we are the future of the Storytellers’ memory, we should be properly dressed.”

“We can be,” says Roberto.  He places his palms together, raises his hands, and then – as if holding something precious before him – he turns to Chapin. He opens his palms and mimes picking up something from his left palm with his right fingers. He holds the something up and gazes at it admiringly.

“Chapin,” Roberto says. “As our leader, you need marcasite earrings.”

Very carefully, Roberto attaches the unseen earrings to the cartilage at the outer edge of Chapin’s left ear.

“As our leader, you need a leader’s markings.” Roberto places his forefinger on the point on Chapin’s forehead midway between his eyebrows. He draws his forefinger slowly down the length of Chapin’s nose. At the tip of the nose, he raises his forefinger then places it, so deliberately, in the centre of Chapin’s chin.

“Lenny,” says Roberto. I present my face to him. “As a high lady, you should have a pearl pendant. I should draw a teal-coloured line in a bow-shaped curve beneath your lower lashes.”

He lifts the pendant over my bowed head and hangs it gently around my neck. He draws the line under my eyes that mark me as a lady.

“I should also loop my hair up so the nape of my neck is exposed and then drape a fine shawl or veil over my head,” I protest. “I’m not a lady, Roberto. I’m bald. I’ve been whored. If I’m anything, other than a Storyteller, I’m some kind of mutant warrior.”

Chapin is listening. “Lenny, you are a great lady, like the great lady in the turtle tale. You are wise and you see things. You’re also a truly awesome killer. What I’m thinking is this: we are all we have. We are like time – we are separate and we are one, all at once. So it makes no sense to say ‘Chapin is the leader’, or ‘Lenny is the lady’, or ‘Roman is luck’ or ‘Roberto is an actor.’ We are each of us everything. I am a leader, yes, and I am also a lady, an actor and our luck. So are you. Each of you.

“Roberto,” continues Chapin. “May I have a pearl pendant too? Can I wear the teal eye-line and also the leader’s markings?”

“Me too!” I butt in. “Can I wear leader’s markings and a marcasite earring? And can Roman?”

Roberto takes his time, as the turtle taught him. He draws, exquisitely, markings and eye-lines on the three of us. He affixes the marcasite drop-earrings and loops pearl pendants over our heads. And when he’s done, Chapin returns the gift.

“Are our robes correctly draped?” Chapin asks. Roberto considers each of us, then solemnly nods.

“Now we are ready,” says Chapin. “Now we are properly prepared to eat; and when we’ve eaten, we’ll continue the Story.”

Elly_McDonald_Writer_Lenny31

 

When we walked to this village we walked in silence. In the re-education camp, the silence made me ache. No-one talked to me. Now, all I want to do is talk. I love the sound of Roberto’s voice.

“Roberto,” I ask, smearing bean paste on a slab of flat bread, “What does the white mark on a leader’s chin represent?”

Roberto barely pauses. “It’s a full moon. The same as the pearl pendant a lady wears.”

“The same? How can a leader’s marks mean the same thing as a lady’s pearl?”

Roberto squints at me. “The moon is the woman. It gets bigger and smaller. The full moon is a pregnant moon. The moon represents the female side.”

“So traditionally, leaders have a pregnant moon on their chin?” I digest this. “Are you making this up?”

“No, really,” Roberto protests. “The white stripe painted from the forehead down the nose is the male side.”

“For real?”

“Um, yes. The male and the female together make energy. The two signs together represent power.”

“And the teal line under a lady’s eye? Is that for beauty, or does it mean something?”

“It’s beautiful, we think, but it’s also for Serpa. In every division, from First to Fourth, pearl pendant signifies ‘lady,’ but it’s a Storyteller thing – a traditional stage thing – for women to draw the teal line beneath their lower lids. Snake eyes.”

“I thought Chapin made that story up? Because his dad saw visions?”

“No,” says Chapin, “That story is very old. There are variations, but I didn’t make it up.”

I turn to Chapin. “Do you prefer handing on old stories or making up your own? Do you make them up as you go along?”

“Lenny,” says Chapin, “You know our tradition. You know there are the five classes of story: the old tales we hand on; the tales we embroider; the ones we make up as we go along; the ones we plot; and the ones we report, what the others call ‘factual.’ You know we are charged with preserving the old tales and a responsibility to keep them fresh. That’s the first two classes. The highest form of creativity is making tales up as we go along. That’s what I like best.

“The ones we plot are learning exercises. And the factual reports are the lowest form of story.”

“But the other divisions don’t see it that way, do they?” I’m stating the obvious. “They think factual reports are the only stories that should count.”

I consider this as I roll some flat bread round pickled cabbage. The other divisions believe that meal times should be silent. When you place food in your mouth, you should keep your mouth shut and complete the eating process – all that chewing, all the swallowing – then pick up another piece of food and do it all again. All the time in silence. Drinking tea in silence.

“So when we meet the Investigator, will we be believed? Won’t the Investigator think we are making things up?”

“Yes,” says Chapin. “That’s what they’ll think. And the other divisions will tell them to ignore anything we say. Never believe a Storyteller, my dad always said.”

“And you believed him?” We laugh. It’s an old joke.

“What difference does it make, then?” It bothers me. It’s been bothering me for as long as I can remember.

“Lenny,” says Chapin. “We can’t predict what will happen. All we know is this is our purpose. Our mission is to tell. And you know, factual reports might be the lowest form of story, but they’re still stories, they’re still part of our brief. I’d rather sit around telling stories I make up, about magical creatures and transformations, but we have a duty to tell these other stories. About what happened to us, what happened to the people we loved.”

I’d rather tell stories about transformations too.

“Chapin, do you think sitting around telling stories about magical creatures is our way of avoiding telling the stories that need telling?”

He puts down a drink bottle. “No. No, Lenny, I do not. I think they have their place and are just as needed.”

“But we’ve been telling stories from every point of the compass, about snakes and dragons and turtles, but we’ve left silences between each other. I haven’t told you what happened in the camps, you haven’t told me what’s happened since I was taken.”

Roberto says, “I told you what happened to me.”

“Everything?” I sound accusing.

Chapin looks at me. “We don’t need to tell everything at once. There are stories within the snakes and dragons tales. We’ll get to the tiger tales.”

I am relentless. “In the camp, the Third Division women – the ones in the grave – prepared me every day for the camp version of a tea ceremony. They painted a red spot just under my lower lip. They told me it represented a bullet hole. I think it was another woman symbol, a parody of the full moon pearl.”

Chapin is looking directly at my face. He says nothing.

“Roberto,” I ask after another moment’s silence. “Roberto, an actor is a kind of interpreter? Would that be true?”

“That would be true,” Roberto says.

“Could you read the tattoos on that man who buries bodies? Did you understand his symbols?”

“He disposes of bodies,” Roberto repeats. “He is afraid of the dead. He’s afraid they’ll come back. He has tattooed messages on his skin in case they come for him. He thinks those symbols will keep the dead away.”

“He must have been terrified of us, then.”

“I hope so,” replies Roberto, softly.  “We should have killed them.”

“No,” snaps Chapin. “They gave us food. Don’t tell me it was a trap or ill-intentioned. The bottom-line is they prepared food for us. We are their guests” – he gestures at our meal – “and we are grateful.”

Chapin is a traditionalist. I admire him for that.

The pit where we’re eating smells earthy and moist. I look across at Chapin, in the semi-darkness, with his invisible pearl pendant and his invisible leader marks. I like his male-female fusion. I like his power. It astonishes me he’s only thirteen. I find myself silently reaching out across time to the Cosmic Turtle:

O turtle, thank you for holding up the cosmos. Please, keep Chapin alive.

Elly_McDonald_Writer_Lenny14

When did death enter Lenny’s life? When did she slide from the domain of fruit trees and storytelling into the sphere of silence? Did it happen all at once, the night of the killings? Of did death enter stealthily, sliding like a serpent from some moss-covered well, grey and white tessellations camouflaged against the smooth pebbles of the formal rock garden?

Lenny had known death. She’d loitered by death’s door, then crept forward quietly and sat by its bedside. It looked out at her through her grandfather’s eyes, and it fixed her in its gaze. She recognized death for what it was: finality. Death, somehow, misidentified Lenny.

“Edie,” said Death, speaking through her grandfather’s thin, scaly lips.

“I’m here,” she replied, taking Death’s hand. Her grandfather’s fingers were mottled flesh and bone.

“Edie,” the ventriloquist voice of death repeated. “You’re here.”

“Of course I’m here,” said Lenny, holding Death’s gaze, holding her grandfather’s fingers. “Where else would I be?”

“I thought you were gone and now you’re here. I still have you.” Death smiled at Lenny.

“I’m always yours,” said Lenny, and now her voice was not her own. “I’m always here.”

The body on the bed was long and lean. If it raised itself up, it could run marathons.

“You’ll never escape me,” it whispered.

“I’ll come to meet you,” Lenny said. Silence smothered the room.

Silence filled the space and squeezed out the air. Lenny couldn’t speak. There was nothing she could say.

“I met you under a plum tree,” the living corpse said suddenly. “You were maybe thirteen. You look just the same.”

The death’s head turned towards her. Its face flushed pink and her grandfather’s eyes animated its eye sockets.

“You are unchanged, Edie,” her grandfather said. “You will always live.”

“Tell me the story, grandfather,” Lenny pleaded. Time stretched forever on that bed but now she felt urgency. Her grandfather was with her.

“You were just thirteen,” he smiled. His tongue moistened his lips. It was not quite blue.

“You stood beneath the plum tree and the petals showered down. You were laughing. You were beautiful and I knew you were the one. The one who would live. The one who would live always.”

“What was I doing, under the plum tree?” Lenny asked.

“Doing? You were being. You were being the eternal one. The one who cannot die.”

“But grandfather,” she said. “I know I must die. I’ve seen it. I’ve dreamed. We will all die. Buildings will burn and my family will be torched. There was blood. Blood everywhere.”

“Petals were falling. Stars burned in the sky.” Her grandfather’s words were suspended in air. His mouth hung open. Lenny was afraid the silence would return.

“You were standing in the moonlight. You shook that tree and its blossoms fell. You laughed at the sky and then you saw me. You put your fingers to your lips and told me ‘Shhh. Don’t tell.’”

“I said that?” Lenny laughed. “A storyteller telling a storyteller to hush? What was I thinking?”

“I have no idea,” her grandfather smiled. “I never understood your stories, Edie. But here’s what I think. I think you knew the end was coming. I think you had dreams. You woke up screaming. But I know you always laughed at death.”

Lenny felt abrupt grief. Her voice fell flat. “How can I laugh, when I’m not allowed to speak? How can I live, when the silence rules?”

The bones entwined in her fingers squeezed lightly. The bones were lightly padded and lightly veined. She could feel their faint warmth, feel their faint pulse.

“You will climb to the heights and hide in the depths. You will cloak yourself in silence. You will learn to use the silence to punctuate your tales. You will bury yourself in your heritage and live forever through it. You know who you are.”

“The one who cannot die.” Lenny breathed the words.

“The one who will not die. The one who refuses.”

“How can you know this?” Lenny demanded. “How can I know who I am? Even you don’t know me, grandfather!”

“Of course I know you, Lenny.” It closed its eyes. “You are the one who evades and confronts. The one who lives.”

Lenny stared at the death’s head and knew her grandfather had gone. Where had he gone, her grandfather and Edie? To what night-land of star-lit plum blossom had their spirits flown?

She let go of the bony hand.

“Grandfather,” she said softly. “Can you hear me? Is it silent where you are?

She paused, and listened. She thought she heard voices, soft murmured voices. She thought she heard laughing.

And she knew. She knew who she was.

“I am a story teller,” she said to the silent room. “I am the one who will not die. I am the one who tells.”

blossoms 2

She woke up, screaming. Not a memory, then; a dream. Or a memory embedded in dream.

Here, in this hole in the ground, she lay in damp mud, a fugitive curled up alongside three survivor comrades.

“Chapin,” She said, grabbing Chapin’s arm. “I’ve dreamed. I know what I need to do now. We need to get out of here.”

Chapin, half asleep, nodded.

“We need to get back into the light to tell our stories. Not the mythic ones. The stories about what happened to us, about the killings, and after.”

She pressed her face close to his. “We’ve been in a hole. We’ve evaded and hidden. Now we need to confront.”

Chapin, now awake, rolled towards his rifle and rose to his knees.

Elly_McDonald_Writer_blood-moon

Tonight, the moon is full. It glows like a bronze disk, like polished amber, like a memory of fire. The night is warm. I am seated on the lip of the water well. In my hands I toy with a small ornamental knife. It’s the same well I knew growing up, the same well where Chapin and I waited, exposed and vulnerable, for a signal to meet with the man with drugs.

I am ten years older now. Still alive. So much has changed.

It was Roman. Our luck was Roman. We emerged by night from the mud-hole, shy and skulking, and shadowed birch trees through woods that seemed endless. At the edge of the woods, there was open land. It was grasslands that stretched towards a wide river. The river was flat and still but with strong currents visible like molten folds of metal within an iron sword. On the far side of the river was a symmetry of grasslands, and beyond that, birch woods again. Past the birch, we could see violet mountains.

The skies were pale grey with primrose streaks. There was wispy cloud cover, and emerging from the clouds we saw choppers, again. These choppers were giant silver dragonflies. Or maybe silver dragons. They grew bigger, flashed like lightning, their sound a disturbance in the natural order.

I was afraid. I could not contain more terror. But Roman stepped from the cloak of trees and walked forward into the pale grasslands. He didn’t hesitate, just kept walking. The choppers flew over the river and kept coming. Their bellies loomed above us, like luminous, aerial fish. They hovered overhead, conversing in a high, hysterical language I could not translate.

Roman raised his arms and waved. Big windmill arm waves, rhythmic, constant. The choppers dipped their noses towards him. They paused, dropped, and settled, bowing to the boy. They landed not far in front of him.

Roman ran towards the grounded choppers. I wanted to cry out, to yell to him to stop, but I was mute. Roman ran and waved, a tumble of arms, a lash of feet.

A short distance from where they sat, dragon-sized and silver, he stopped. A door opened from a dragon’s side, and a woman paused momentarily before stepping out. She was dressed head to toe in pale beige, a grey scarf wrapped around her head.

Roman ran again, and threw himself at her. Her arms opened wide. He disappeared within them. She knelt, holding Roman close, and rocked gently, side to side. She knelt there, rocking him, a long, long time. The helicopters remained stationary. It was just that woman.

Eventually we saw Roman reappear from within her mass. He held her hand and stayed pressed close between her legs. He pointed towards the woods, towards us.

I shrank back. I could barely breathe. I looked to Chapin, but Chapin was looking towards Roman.

“We have no friends,” I said.

Chapin’s eyes turned a wash of silver. I recognised tears, and I remembered: he’s a child.

Roberto, gazing at the woman with Roman, said, “If we’re to tell our stories, we must tell them to someone. To tell them to someone, we must trust, sometime.”

Chapin stood for a moment. He turned to me again, dropped his rifle.

This is Death, I thought.

Then I thought, this is the afterlife. These are the fields of the dead. There, the river of the dead.

“We can only die once,” I said. Then I thought, I am the one who cannot die.

I took Chapin’s hand. Chapin reached for Roberto’s. The three of us stepped out of the forest shade. We stood, exposed, vulnerable, by the fringe of trees.

Ahead, the woman looked up. She saw us. She was motionless for a moment then turned to her dragon steed, her chopper, and waved, windmilling, as Roman had. From the hole in its side, two figures emerged.  Like her, wholly covered in beige fatigues. The three, with Roman, walked towards us.

I have been afraid, and I have gone to Jupiter. I didn’t now. Now, I thought of the turtle who outlived time. Who was here before the beginning, and will be after the end. I thought of the golden eagle with its golden eye. I thought of the green snake woman, and the water spirit woman with a snake around her waist. I thought, I am the blossom bloom, and I am the stars. I am ephemeral, and I am eternal. I waited.

When the three adults reached us, the woman knelt before me. She stretched out her arms. And I, god help me – I stepped into her warmth. I laid my head against her breasts. I cried.

And here I am ten years later, still alive. I was warmed, I was held, I was fed. I was transported on a dragon’s back, back across the river, to the place beyond. I was cared for and tended. Eventually, I was questioned. They questioned me as if I were blossom, as if I might scatter, might fall apart. I didn’t.

I told my story. I stood witness. When the silver helicopters flew en masse across the river, towards our lands, I watched them on banks of monitors from safety far away.

I thought, it was never down to me. Never down to us. Me, Chapin, Roberto, Roman – we were children. How could children be the sole hope for the future? Where were the adults? Where were the others, the outsiders, the onlookers? Surely someone knew, someone would come?

Someone came.

I can’t speak to the rightness or wrongness of those river crossings. Should the outsiders have remained onlookers? Could they, if they knew?

I can’t speak to that. On that, I am mute.

What I know is I am alive, I had the chance to grow up. Now I am an adult. There are now others counting on me. I know now that children, while not the sole hope, are the best hope for the future, because children, with luck, grow up, and transit past to future. They tell stories of what has been, to the children yet to come.

Now, I sit by the well where a water spirit dwells, watching over our times of transition. My job is to travel my homeland, my damaged homelands, where order has collapsed, where our institutions are now rubble, and to find the ones who can share the stories of change.

I know who I am. I am the one who cannot die.

I am the Investigator.

blossoms

When you’re in a hole, stop digging (2 June 2014)

Author’s notes – the Lenny novella