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500: the gleaner (better)

Uglyskins was like patchwork, stitched together from a hundred different types of skin.

I craned my neck to get a better look at him through the letterboxed window. The orderly fumbled with the key to the grimy door.

“All yours, sir,” he said, eyeing the neat cut of my coat and shoes, sleek against the pitted concrete floor. He stood aside.

I went through the doorway, and the door shut behind me. I looked at the man within. The unforgiving fluorescent light winked on and off and on again.

He had come to the stained soft walls of the cell nameless and silent, and he lay on the unyielding cot, arms and legs stiff in the restraints at his sides. His hands were balled into tense fists; they quivered occasionally, in perfect harmony with the tic of his pale blue eyes. I could not tell his age through the ruin that was his face. He was stitched together from a hundred different beings; I could not tell how many of them were human.

“I’m Doctor Sands,” I said, swallowing, and walked towards him. “What’s your name?”

Closer, he looked like nothing that should have walked on two legs, or four, or eight. The stitches were tighter around his eyes and mouth, but it made them none the prettier. His eyelashes were gone. It was impossible to tell how he might have looked in one skin.

The blue eyes kept blinking. His mouth was slack.

“I’m here to help,” I said, lowering my voice. “Tell me what happened to you.”

Last year, fresh out of my internship, I saw a man who bathed himself in acid to rid himself of the invisible ants that crept endlessly over his skin. I thought, for the first time, that a man should have the right to his death.

I saw men who had performed arson upon themselves, men who had pared their flesh from bone, but never anything as hideous as him.

Perhaps it was the guilt that made me reach out and put my hand on his. Perhaps it was the warmth of my hand, and my pity, that snapped his livid gaze to mine.

“I ate them all,” he said. “I ate the girl in the red hood, her wolf, the swan boys, the girl with the goose, that giant man. The snow white girl, the rose red child. All of them playing their parts for centuries. Saying the same words over and again. I set them free.”

I turned the names over in my head. For a moment they seemed familiar, and then the feeling was gone.

“Why this?” I asked, and I touched the threads that ran through his hide.

“Someone must remember,” he said. He shook his head, and whimpered, and shook.

I caught sight of a dark mass on the underside of his shoulder, pushing his arm up from the cot.

Something clumped and ugly sprouted from his skin, breaking through a film of blood and pus. It was hard to see in the cell, but in the wavering light it shuddered and parted, like a clot of feathers.

save the

I took a walk along the bay last winter, past the dying rally. I picked my way through the detritus. Save this, save that. A clump of stragglers circled around me, flagging placards wavering in the wind.

“Save the whales,” one said. I don’t know but that the youth of today have too much time, that’s what. Never saw a whale I cared to save.

I kept walking. Near the factory creek’s mouth where the wet filth collected, I saw a mass of scales, and paused.

There I saw the mermaid. More a fish, you ask me. Her head poked out of her matted hair, flesh rising white and obscene from dusk. Her stunted hands twitched, arms ending in swivelling claws. Shrivelled, her face puckered open and shut, and her moist body flopped. She lay twisted and scaled and dark.

“Save me, madam.” Her voice was barely a whisper.

Save the mermaids! What have the mermaids ever done for me? Mermaids, as far as I’m concerned, are like whales.

“No,” I said, and walked away.

But that night I dreamt of her, ragged and wilting on the shore.

I went out in the morning, following the seaway until I stood with my hands on my hips, looking down at her.

“I’ll give you the greatest treasure of the sea,” she breathed. She was down to half her size, dwindling, dessicating.

“I don’t know that I need that,” I said, thinking of barnacles and weeds.

‘Your heart’s desire,’ she murmured.

‘No,’ I said, and walked away.

But that night I dreamt of Arthur lying limp and empty in his bed.

‘Anything I want?’ I asked.

‘Yes,’ the mermaid whispered. I could barely make her out. She shifted under the dead brown fronds.

‘And if I want to be rich?’

She sang of shipwrecks and bullion that glimmered gold under the deep moonlight.

‘And if I want to be famous?’

She sang anthems and jingles that trailed off into staccato snaps, the furtive camera clicks of paparazzi.

‘And if I want my husband?’

The song twisted, eerie and sullen, and I wished I had never said it.

I scooped her gently into my arms, and headed out and sunward till the water suckled fresh and blue on me, and I knelt and floated her free.

She grew immediately, her dark body billowing, until her ripe flesh blossomed like a plum. Her face peered out at me. Her arm came out to meet me, long and slender, and her fingers danced with sea.

‘What will you ask for?’ she said.

I took her hand, and she nodded, once, and pulled me into the cold water. We turned and rolled and twisted, and the deeps smoothed away my old, broken body. I felt it; the sea change, in me.

INTERLUDE

INTERLUDE INTERLUDE
I was 18 and I spent most of my hours enveloped in the nicotine haze that tracked go-nowhere circles around the pub, listening to the old biddies babble and bitch. I was fresh out of school and future meant nothing to me, so when my friends all ran off to university to incontract some higher learning, I learned to bartend at the village watering hole and worked there every night old Morson let me.
Higher learning get damned. I made all the money I needed for smokes and booze and any fine larks the girls of Shadford wanted. Beneath the guttering streetlamps they let me rut them one by one, in back of Dad’s battered car. I rutted all the ones who were worth rutting and then I turned to the ones who were not so worth rutting, which meant sometimes they put in extra effort and became more than worth rutting. It’s funny how that stuff works.

Every night I got myself in a different girl, but in a small place like Shadford you run out of fresh meat fast. I got bored and tried to get them two together, but I think those days you had to go down to the big cities for that kind of thing. ‘Least that’s what my friends were saying.

I understood Shadford, I liked Shadford.

“I never saw the likes of it.”

“Don’t know what the young girls are wearing these days.”

“Not enough!”

There was that new store just opened up across the road. From the grimy pub window I could see the storefront. There was a girl’s face printed on the big glass window, or stuck to it, however they do it. Her face was sharp and elegant, like a proper magazine girl. She was not at all like the soft round simpering girls I spent my nights in. I wondered if her hoity-toity sneer would break beneath me.

I walked home one night after everyone had gone to bed, and stopped outside her window and looked up at her. She sang of cities and plate glass and invisible barriers and love and neverending nights. I wondered if I could keep up with a girl like that.

Next night I passed the girl in the window again. She wore a smile that brimmed over with promises and meaning. I put my hands on her dew-fresh lips, under the rain and vicious wind, and I felt warm and wet and quite content.

I didn’t get a village girl and I didn’t go to the back of the car that night. I stayed with her a while and then I went back home and got in bed and thought lots of thoughts about her.

Then I was looking at her so long my hands turned blue and I went back into the pub and gazed at her, and before I knew it the sun was up and Mr Morson was asking what the hell I was doing still there and to get the bloody hell out and get some bloody rest.

My girls got mad because I was never out with them anymore, and one of them waited outside the pub one time and saw me mooning at my stuck-up love. She was Oriel Morson, a pretty name dressed up in a dumpy girl. I had been with her enough times that I was beyond bored, and I told her so. That bitch gave me one hell of a look, but I didn’t give her any back, and eventually she went off.

Night after, I found the glass in front of my girl covered in black spray.

First I scratched all the paint off her with a cloth and scrubbed her until I wore my nails all the way down and my fingers were all black and wouldn’t get clean.

Then I went to find that bitch and I blacked her face with my knuckles until she said she was sorry. I told her I wasn’t sorry and I would do it again, mark.

That night I was a bartender no more. She told on me.

I went back to my girl and I told her that would never happen again, and there in the glow of the sodium lamps she closed one eye and winked at me, and her smile got a little bigger.

And I did not imagine that, because the next night I was back there looking at her again and she was still winking at me.

And her shirt, her pretty silk shirt had slipped past her shoulder a little, and her red lips smiled knowingly at me.

I put my lips on hers. The glass was cold but her lips were warm, warm and soft as the rain fell all down around me.

“Mate,” they said, and I turned around, mad ’cause they ruined my moment.

Five of them all standing there, and that Morson slag standing right behind them looking all smug with her covered-up black eyes.

“I’m busy,” I told the lot of them. “Can’t you see?”

They looked at each other. The one with the bat said, “Is it alright, beating up nutters?”

“Look what he done to my face,” cried the damn girl, pointing at her sockets.

“Improved it,” I declared.

“What you waiting for! Ain’t you men?”

I figured it might hurt quite a lot, and I didn’t want that, so I balled my fists up in front of my face like a shield.

The song started right around then, low and alluring and full of dreams and broken promises. I looked out from under my hands. One by one they ran towards me, and I put my hands up again, but when I heard the first thud I put my hands back down. One by one they ran right at the glass and smeared on it like jam streaking down a kitchen wall.

It was an amazing sight, and I wish I could bring it back from time for you. Anyway, I went and got the girl who was shaking over there, and I best not tell you what I did next because maybe you wouldn’t think so well of me.

Then I went and got the bin and smashed it against the glass until my lady love finally floated free.

She came to my arms, an angel in two dimensions. Her paper arms wrapped tight round my turgid heart, which slowed to beat in time with hers.

I kissed her flat lips and the flat curves of her fat breasts, and hey I took her back to Morson’s where the fire gyrated in the grate and the spirits were calling to me. Long before I knew I would do it, I grabbed the bottles and threw them all over and took the longest swig in my mouth. And I put my Zippo in front of my face and sent my lungs out so it all went up, all went up around me and my lady love.

I’ll say now the saddest part; she vanished in the fire, not me. In the hospital I lie with my face all gone and my body weeping like my eyes would if they could and this is it, the whole story, the real story. They want to keep it alive, this ruin of me.

I turn my face to get the sun from the window. Under the bandages it burns again. I dream she comes. I did it all for love. I did. I did. The door opens and it’s the doctor come to run his tests on me. I dream she does not forget I dream I dream she knows I gave this all to set her free.

.

In Paris, on a school trip, I had a classmate who lost his heart, briefly, to a girl in a poster.
She lined the front of one of those chic Parisian stores in svelte and sulky curves.
He went to the window and put his face against dithered lips and shouted “I love the most beautiful girl in the world!” into the summer night.
We were young.

Time went by. He married, but not the girl in the window.

I came across the photograph the other day. He had his arms around her. Her lips engulfed him, incarnadine and timeless, yearning.

1150: clerk; non-sequitur antinovel interlude

They came on the last day of fall, right before the snow came. My dad ran into them when he was patrolling the roads outside our village, and told me I better spruce up the damn place, so I got to tidying and I was only just done when they got inside our little inn.

“Don’t be difficult,” he said. He was wearing nice sharp clothes and shoes that shone. Bad for winter.

“It’s pokey. There’s a smell,” she said, stroking her fur coat nervously. It looked soft, and dead.

“Well, if you want to sleep in the car–” he said. He gave me a look. “Room for two, my good man?” He was holding the babe, and he shushed it every time it squalled.

“That I’ve got,” I said, fiddling around for the keys. “Twenty pound for two. We can take the babe for nothing.”

“More than the place deserves,” she muttered, under her breath. I heard it. I don’t have much but I got good ears from my dad.

He sloughed off a couple of notes from his fat wallet and added a few coins to the mix.

“No need for that,” I said, and pushed the extras back. “Breakfast eight till nine. I hope you have a right good stay.”

The woman put her little nose up in the air and pulled at his arm, and together they went up the stairs.

.

Next morning they came down to the dining room. It was just them. I noticed that the woman had gone all quiet. She held the baby in her arms and stared off into space. Her man tried to engage her in talk, but she just nodded and shook her head.

“Something the matter with the lady?” I asked all chatty-like as I brought him his coffee. She took water and a collection of unbuttered crackers, but she didn’t touch them. Wasting food’s no good, you know.

“She’s fine,” he said. “It’s the weather. Must be the weather. It was a damn cold night you had here.”

I nodded and withdrew. Always stuff to do.

They went out, and I heard the man exclaiming about how the car was stuck. After he came back and paid for another night, I busied myself and put the vases in the right spots on the mantelpiece above the fire. Cleaned their room too, though it hardly needed cleaning.

After dinner they came back and the man took the woman and the babe up to the room.

I didn’t hear anything from them till half past nine, when the man came down the stairs, his clothes all mussed-up.

“Hullo,” I said, helpfully.

“My good man, is there a different room available?”

“Nope,” I said.

“It’s just …My wife is of a rather delicate disposition.”

I cocked my head at him, quizzical.

“Isn’t this inn empty?” he asked, exasperated. “I haven’t seen or heard anyone else but you in this place. If the other rooms are pricier, I can pay.”

“They’re taken,” I said. “You got the best room.”

“The best room!” he exclaimed, and went back upstairs.

I watched the clock. Put everything back in place for the day, so I just watched the hands chase each other round and round.

Thirteen past thirteen, a magical kind of hour. He came down the stairs again.

“Listen, man,” he began. Upstairs there was a really nasty kind of scream, the kind of scream a man makes when caught in a trap. I heard that noise before. Don’t like it so much.

He ran up the stairs.

At fifteen past thirteen he came back down clutching the babe, his wife clinging to him as best she could.

“There a problem?”

“There was something at the window!” she said, her eyes wide and staring. She squeezed her husband’s arm tighter, until he told her to get off, and she stamped her feet and shook as though she were trying to shake something off.

“No idea, miss,” I said. “You’re on the second storey.”

“There was something!” she said. “Hubert! I want to go.”

“The AA won’t be here ’till tomorrow,” he said.

“I’d rather sleep in the car!” she cried.

He gave her a look. “Fine,” he said, closing his eyes, exhaling.

“Can’t give you a refund,” I said. as he stormed out. He didn’t need to drag her. She was pulling him along.

.

In the morning there was a commotion. I went outside to see if anyone needed me for anything.

“That’s him!” the woman cried, pointing a red-tipped finger at me. Just her and her man. No babe.

The mayor was there, and our good old constable was there, and the neighbours were there.

“Horrible little man, you say,” the constable said, mulling the words over. “That’s no good.”

“Yes!” she cried. “Do something about it, for the love of…”

“Shouldn’t blaspheme, miss,” the constable said. My dad was always a right proper man.

“It was him! My baby…”

“Our baby,” said the man.

“Baby,” the mayor said, looking into the car.

“You were in a locked car.” Dad tapped his pen against his block of paper, fumbling a little through his gloves.

“I told you,” she said shrewishly. “We fell asleep and the baby was gone and we got out to look for him. And then Hubert and I saw this creature,” she stabbed a finger at me, “running into the inn with my child!”

“That’s not very nice,” the mayor remarked. “Let’s check the inn, then.”

We all went upstairs and the man held the woman’s hand tight, and she looked at him.

“Not a thing,” the mayor said, dubiously, surveying the spartan room. “Didn’t see any sign of a baby in your car either.”

“Funny, that,” my dad said. “Maybe the other rooms.” He took us along. All the other rooms were empty, of course. He even opened the closets to show them.

“My baby,” the woman said, again and again, but her voice was growing more and more uncertain, even as her grip on her husband tightened.

“I don’t know that you brought a baby with you,” the mayor said, shaking his head. “The things you young people do these days. The things you think you see.”

She wrung her hands and said, “Hubert!”

But his face was all glazed-over and he said, “Looks like the snow is melting.” He saw her shivering and put his arm over her shoulders.

And it was. It was melting down into the road, slowly, melting away from their tyres.

I watched them get back in their car, holding each other like maybe they lost something and found something they never realised they had lost, or something. Beats me, sir. Not like I’ll ever see them again.

“Now then!” my dad said. “See you at dinner.” He patted my head and grinned with his sharp, sharp teeth.

nanocrap #1: disclaimer: this is what you get when you spew out a couple of thousand words an hour.

Don Giovanni came home one summersday to find himself locked out of his own house, owner of nothing but the clothes he wore and the coins he had knocking about in his pocket.
He had for a long time been tempting fate by disregarding the strictures of his village.  He refused to wear his cap on Mondays. He walked on the grass, spat on the mosaics of the Strada degli Artigiani, laughed out loud in church, and eventually stopped attending altogether. He wore outlandish clothes from modish cities that broke the tradition of his ancestors and affronted the very eyes of their beholders.

He picked his nose in front of Dona Estella, who after ninety-three years had committed but one sin. He picked his nose at her when she refused to speak of that one sin. Dona Estella told him she had not lived to be ninety-three without ignoring the charms of silly young men, and this she said while waving her hand around her, at the great expanses of her estates — those that took up more than a quarter of Parafon.

In short, he had no shame and no honour, and one day he came home after dallying with the minister’s youngest daughter (he was thirty, she sixteen) to find that the key to his house refused to open his door.

Old Paolo told him that he knew exactly what he was doing and he had been letting people into their houses for more than Giovanni’s lifespan, and the only reason Giovanni’s key wasn’t working — well, it did not fit the lock at all. Therefore, he concluded, Giovanni lived here no longer, and had no right to tell old Paolo to let him into another man’s house.

‘But I live here!’ Giovanni said.

‘That,’ old Paolo said, turning up his nose, ‘is what they always say.’

‘How do you expect to make a centino if you don’t do your damn job!’ Giovanni’s face was red, but old Paolo’s was colourless and flat, as flat as the plains of Farandello. He packed up his little picks and wrenches, waggling his finger at Giovanni as one parting blow.

‘You get what’s coming to you,’ old Paolo said, and clumped away on his worn black boots.

Giovanni looked at his own boots. New, striped with a flash of the latest green from the artisan city of Someslo, they had made him rather proud until he realised that they pinched like a demon, or the grasp of a married lady who thought him suited to save her from the hell of domestic boredom. Giovanni was always rather sad when they told him such things; it was when he knew it was time to go.

At any rate, he was not getting into his house, short of breaking down the windows, and they were inexplicably shuttered, just as his door was.

Giovanni did the natural thing and went to the local cafe, where he detailed his woes to a gaggle of spectators. Parafono was renowned for its populace’s sense for the melodramatic, and yet the reception they gave him was shockingly frigid.

‘Oho, lies again, Giovanni.’

‘Should keep your nose out of trouble.’

‘Shouldn’t have played around with our good minister’s daughter.’

‘I saw him…’

‘Where’s the two centini you owe me, devil!’

So Giovanni, feeling rather down on his luck, decided to try his luck with the mayor, Parafono being too insignificant a village to have a polizia. In most of the villages around the region, the mayor’s word was law, if they even had a mayor — Giovanni had his reasons for staying, none of which he liked to disclose.

Sabatini was almost as old as Dona Estella and twice as sarcastic; so mordant that Giovanni suspected him already dead. His pate was so bald it glistened, but his ruffled coat was as sharp and black as Giovanni’s own.

Giovanni explained his story, flinging his hands out in the established tradition, and Sabatini listened, although his face was as sarcastic as his voice.

When Giovanni had finished, Sabatini said, ‘Well, Don Giovanni, that’s a pity.’ Then he smiled.

‘It’s a damn pity? Someone ‘s stolen my house! You’ve stolen my house!’

The mayor lifted his shoulders for a second, then let them drop. He cocked an eyebrow at Giovanni. His lip curled into a tight, thin line.

‘Sit down,’ he said.

Giovanni realised he had been standing and gesticulating the whole time, and, because he did know what manners were and had some respect for the very old, he obeyed.

‘You can have your house back,’ Sabatini said.

‘Well!” Giovanni said. ‘That’s a fine thing to know.’ He rose again.

Sabatini’s finger waggled slowly at him, side to side, like the pendulum of a clock.

‘You think it’ll be so simple?’ he asked, shaking his head slowly, just as he’d waggled his finger. ‘Sit down, Giovanni Aragonesi.’

Giovanni sat, fuming.

‘Think you’re a fine young man, don’t you?’

‘Well, quite,’ Giovanni admitted. ‘What do you want?’

Sabatini’s smile was disconcerting. ‘I know where your money comes from,’ he said. ‘I can’t imagine our fellow townsmen would be particularly happy to learn about it, hmm? Your own father, Don Giovanni the younger. My, my.’

Giovanni’s face went blank. ‘I’ve no idea what you’re speaking of,’ he said. ‘Dirty lies!’

‘I rather think you do,’ Sabatini said impatiently. ‘Would you like me to repea–‘

‘No!’ Giovanni said, rising again, his head darting from side to side. ‘What do you want?’

Sabatini smiled. He didn’t move. Giovanni sat himself down.

‘I want you,’ the mayor said, his mouth twisting into a parched curve, flecked with dead skin. ‘I want you to find me Dona Estella’s only sin.’

And Don Giovanni sat very still.

 

woulds

I was eighteen; I was in Roumania, and I’d just saved enough money to visit my cousins in the old country, the summer before I started my scholarship at a prestigious East Coast university. I was taking math; I liked the way things worked when they summed perfectly, into sense.

My cousins — I didn’t think much of them, when we met; I thought they were bumpkins, and they told me stupid stories about how I should stay out of the woods because they were cursed. They plied me with drink and tried to fix me up with one of their friends, a girl from the city who turned her nose up at me, and flicked lint off her gleaming viscose coat.

Of course I went into the woods. I figured I would get a story out of it all, maybe make some friends at college by telling it, maybe keep some friends. Instead I took a turn down a path I was told not to go, and there I met a woman, flaxen-haired and beautiful.

She told me she was under a curse, and she asked me to stay with her for exactly one year. No more, no less. I was a product of cell division and genetic strands, everything reducible, explainable. Yet when I looked into her soul, through her eyes, something quickened in me, and it was wholly illogical. I gave her my heart. I gave her my soul, and drenched in sweat and lust, I understood love. I gave her her year. Almost.

The woods and the wilderness became home to me, and I thought a year was nothing, a paltry thing, a collation of days that segued into seamless seasons.

It was the penultimate day that broke me. I saw a girl, running in the moonlight, her ankles turned to me, her viscose coat swaying in the wind, the strips on her running shoes silver in the shredded light. It all flooded back to me. My scholarship, the bustle and crash of cities and dream machines — I set my foot down the path that led away from my witch woman, back to life.

But it was my woman who stepped out. She caught my hand.

‘One more day,’ my wife said (she was my wife, even if no paper ever told us so) — ‘one more day, and we would have been free forever.’

And she told me the curse had passed from her; it was on me now, to make a choice, to pick between my life, and that of our unborn son.

I was eighteen, and at eighteen you never realise how you will come to love something you made of yourself.

I chose to live. I left her. I went to school. I lost myself in calculus and figured I had my life worked out.

Nine months later, a rapping sounded on my door.

My erstwhile wife stood in the hall, something pink and mewling in her arms.

Our son died when he was eighteen. I told myself curses were nothing, coincidence, but that day he died, I started to see my life as a dream, something that had ended when I told it to start. I sat at his funeral, folding his shirt over and over in my hands, cubing it, as though I could reduce a lifetime into something solvable, into a simple matter of statistics.

No number will ever equate the death of your child. No equation will ever tell you how many long nights end up spent, rocking alone in lonely chairs.

His mother, long since back in Roumania, posted me letters, and pictures — our boy, growing old as I grew older. He was dead. I knew.

One day, at fifty, fifty-five, what does it matter – the letters stopped coming. I went to her. The cottage where we made love was empty. Empty, or void; I turned back the sheets, and there they lay, tangled bleached bones. Looking closer, curled up on her hand, I found it; the tiniest bones, foetal, a thing so small I breathed out and it was gone. I looked at my hands; the age spots had faded away, and I was eighteen again, and I stood and thought about love, and life, and death, and loss, and where I would go, and what I would do, and into whom I would, eventually, grow.

Now, at sixty, I wait for the dream; there are no letters, there never were. I wonder how it will end, but I already know. I go through the motions, but I have not been alive since I was eighteen, and everything fades, perfectly, to zero.

Francie Faucer gives it away

Francie Faucer began with her arm.
 
It had been bothering her for a while, the fact that her arm was there, and constantly nagged at her, like it didn’t feel quite like part of the body. She found it impossible to explain to her peers, who laughed, or stared.
 
 The doctors were the worst.
 
It was an undefinable urge to remove it, a constant sense that the arm did not belong.
 
Elina D Smithe lost her right arm, from the shoulder down, in a spatter of blood. She was eighteen. The motorbike hit her at eighty. She was a promising young starlet, the daughter of Smithe L Smithe, brightest star in the Hollywood Hills.
 
When Francie Faucer heard about it, she handed her arm over to the Smithe girl. The operation was flawless, and Frankie thought, when she woke, that she was free.
But Francie woke sweating in the middle of the night, and although the arm no longer hung alien at her side, the nagging feeling had shifted. Under the dim moonlight, Francie looked at her foot.

It went to a girl in Connecticut who’d stepped on a cherry bomb, and Francie felt good, for a while.

 

When Francie tried to give away her other foot, the doctors started to get antsy.

You need help, they said.

Francie said the only help she needed came at the end of a rotary saw.

They ran the full gamut of tests on her, but couldn’t disprove her sanity.

So Francie gave her other foot away, took it off at the knee. It went to a lady who’d slipped on the edge of a crowded train platform, who sent Francie pictures of her smiling children.

Still, Francie found herself lying awake at night, staring at the last limb. It burned, without burning. Not a single doctor would agree to help her with the one thing she needed. She couldn’t afford it anyway, because nobody would sponsor her.

 

He appeared on her doorstep one morning, all Hollywood with his sharp cheekbones and sharper suit, and deep hollows under his sallow eyes.

‘I just want to thank you for my daughter. Elina. You know what you are, Miss Faucer? A national hero. You are.’

Francie had never thought of herself as a hero, much less a national one. She felt awkward and unclean, sitting under the glow of his perfect white teeth.

‘You’re a hard woman to find,’ he said. He smiled the smile they plastered across all the magazines.

Francie said she had never expected anything, and she wasn’t doing it for anybody but herself.

He didn’t believe her. People never did.

She asked timidly what he would like from her.

‘I just want to thank you,’ he said. ‘I want to help you.’

‘I’m quite happy,’ Francie said. Then she looked at her arm.

He looked too.

‘There’s just one thing,’ Francie Faucer said.

 

It went on a long time, and each time the lines in Smithe’s face deepened. He always asked her the same thing.

‘Are you sure?’

And Francie said, ‘Just one thing.’

 

But Francie Faucer did not belong to herself, not even when she’d given away her eyes, that itched and burned and wept.

‘Are you happy now?’ Smithe asked, somewhere in front of her..

Francie’s eyes would have seen the deep line that furrowed Smithe’s neat brows.

‘There’s just one thing,’ Francie Faucer said.

There was a long pause. Then Smithe’s feet broke into a rhythm of taps, and Francie realised he was walking slowly away.

‘Mr Smithe?’ she called.

But there was nothing but silence in her house.

Francie Faucer opened the mouth, and then she had the worst thought; that all along, it had been the body that belonged.

Somewhere, Francie Faucer screamed. 

 

clarence poesy

Clarence fiddled with the elaborate poesy for the sixieth time in six minutes. Six hours he’d spent on it, and he was on the verge of scrapping it again. A rose loomed from the centre of the myriad flowers, threatening to spill out. Clarence shoved it back in and wiped the sweat from his forehead. 

He forced himself out of his groaning chair. The hour drew near, the hour that Clarence Cobb’s life rotated around every month; seasons changed, but Clarence lived his life by the calendar of Alicia Corval’s coming.

 

The Corval residence was lively that afternoon. Clarence’s heart had sunk to his feet when the time had come for her to leave for college; it had risen to the level of his stomach when he realised that she was no longer a child — and now, looking at her vehicle parked in the drive, his heart leapt and pounded against the upper bounds of his throat, threatening to sing.

‘Today, Alicia, I’ve come to tell you I have loved you all your life,’ Clarence said to the empty air.

There were voices coming from the living room window. Clarence caught his breath. He could see two figures through the lace curtains. A girl. A boy.

He stopped just outside. ‘I won’t disturb them,’ he said, ‘he must be a cousin, a childhood friend, perhaps.’

Yet he found himself creeping closer.

 

‘…But he proved too strong. What else could I do? I ran forward and snatched the sword from Helmston’s gut, and with a snick and a snack I took his head from him! Then I turned, and… there it was, coming at me from behind — but you know I’m faster than Helmston ever was.”

‘And I took the jewel from the very heart of the beast,’ the young man said.

 ‘Oleander, you are such a liar.’ A giggle.

‘I brought it back for you,’ the young man said, and through the curtains, Clarence heard her gasp, and saw him sink on bended knee.

 

I would have done that. I would have stood under an avalanche for her. I would have fought beasts and dragons and gods. Clarence stood rooted at his spot outside the window, holding his wretched clump of flowers. 

‘I say,’ a skinny beaproned girl said, prodding him with a finger. ‘Might I help you, sir?’

‘N-not at all!’

‘Ah, flowers for the young mistress,’ the girl said knowingly, and the flowers were in her hand. Clarence’s hands hung limp by his side.

 ‘N-no…’

‘Very sweet of you,’ the maid said, giggling. ‘I shall let her know you stopped by.’

Trembling, Clarence watched her vanish into the house. He stood rooted to the spot.

 

‘Shall I find a vase for it, ma’am?’

Alicia Corval gave a light laugh. ‘That ragged thing? Don’t be silly, Lucy. Throw it out.’

 

Clarence’s feet dragged against the cobblestones as he trod the long road home.

flight

The Midnight girls had been passing his house since as far back as Oswin knew. His house sat at the very edge of the world, where land dropped off into mist and nothingness, and where the hours came to die.

Oswin had been watching the Midnight girls die his whole life. Dawns glimmered away, Noons faded gently into the peace of twilight, but Midnights… They were the worst to watch, pale butterflies that cried, burned and rode ash winds into the heartless sky.

It was six in the morning, well past dawn, and the empty sky hung black and sunless. He had given his mother her water and medicine, neither of which seemed to do the least good. Oswin had long since resigned himself to the inevitable.

To take his mind off one problem, he went to visit the other. It had moist blue eyes, and paced the pokey cellar.

“Please, set me free,” the latest Midnight begged. She had been sobbing since the last stroke of twelve.

Oswin had caught her when she made the customary stop just before the edge of the furthest cliff, before she could spiral into the world’s end. He used a fine net so he wouldn’t hurt her, but she shrieked and screamed until he gagged her. He had cleaned out the cellar for her, but it was still sooty and damp, and when he turned the key her eyes flooded with tears.

Her feet were blackened and blistered, and she wept behind the barred iron door. Soot footprints blanketed the rough stone floor.

Oswin shook his head. “You don’t understand. You’ll die, if you follow your sisters. I won’t let you out until you swear you’ll stay.”

She stared at him. Oswin looked at her eyes and lost himself in a deep sea of blue.

“You understand nothing,” Midnight said sadly, turning her face to the wall.

 

The night spread over the land and did not leave. Nights became pitch black weeks. Crops shrivelled in the fields, the land withered, thieves prospered. Even the moon waned and hid her face; she had nothing to reflect. Oswin’s mother struggled feebly to turn in her bed, and Oswin clenched his teeth.

 

“You must let me go,” Midnight repeated, “or the land dies. Your mother is dying.”

“It’s her time,” Oswin said, but his voice brokered uncertainty. “Not yours. I brought you here to keep you safe. I’ll marry you, if only you swear to stay.”

At that, the girl flew at the bars and shook them harder than Oswin had thought possible. “You stupid, stupid boy,” she cried. “You know nothing!” She snatched her bowl of broth from the table and flung it at him. Oswin beat a hasty retreat.

 

“My mother is dying,” Oswin said. He was almost out of coal and food.

Midnight said nothing. She sat listlessly against the wall, her arms out by her sides. A great fear stole over Oswin, and he opened the door and stumbled down beside her. He turned her head to the dim torchlight, and his hand came away with a hank of hair. Midnight’s eyes opened, slow as twilight, and closed. Her head lolled back against his arm.

Oswin began to cry, quietly. He picked her up and carried her into the listless air.

Midnight smiled. She turned her face to the brightening sky, and the wind kited her up into dawn. Oswin watched the sun burst forth and break her into a thousand burning fragments. He kept his eyes on the sky so long that his sight was never the same; but as he was about to turn away, he saw a faint glimmer rise from the falling ashes. Only for a second.

The sun poured through the window and bathed the bed where Oswin’s mother lay. Her voice rang out loud and clear through the young morning. Oswin ran to her.

 

Oswin lived a long time.

He no longer stood at the edge of the furthest cliff. He never went to watch the hour girls. After a time, he married, and had children, and lived a life.

Yet still, on clear nights, he sat and dreamt of midnight bleeding into dawn, of wings sharping through the morning sky.

ghost

So here I am, my little world spinning around me, white sunlines burning up my failing eyes, optic dreams falling into dust and glory.

On the comscreen, Fry says, “We’ll come back — just hang in there–” his voice breaking into a million shards of static. I am a million miles from home. I am a million souls from salvation. I am a billion dollars of Confederacy hubris, sitting at the helm of a trillion dollar ghost ship.

And all that’s waiting for this cow to come home is six months in a vat.

I hit the button and blank the screen.

“So long, starlight,” I say, and I turn off the shields.

and crap to fix (an annotation for myself)

Coeval

One day in November, the telephone rang. It was Darla.

‘James,’ her voice said, echoing across the miles. She was in Manhattan. She had quit her engineering job. She owned a gallery. She sounded sad for me, and happy for herself all at once.

‘Why’d you call?’ I asked.

‘I wanted to make sure you were alright,’ she said, ‘and if you wanted to come to the wedding.’

I laughed. ‘I’m fine,’ I said. ‘And I don’t belong there. And that’s fine.’

The line crackled with static and silence.

‘I love you,’ she said, at last. And it was only when I heard my voice say it back to her that I knew this part of my life had come to an end.

I called our realtor the next morning, and put the house up for sale.

I walked down to the beach, where I had found Lucy.

I waded through the waves, cold salt lapping against the hair fringing my legs. I stood there, no longer a circle but a point on a line, caught between two points, understanding that to move backwards in time can only ever be negative, and deciding, inevitably, to swim for the blue horizon, and forward again, until the land and the coffin and the grave blurred into a quiet and distant memory.

I have no voice and I must scream

I don’t have the energy to write properly, so here’s a brief deconstruction of the whole ‘write a 50000 word novel in a month’ shebang as it applies to me.

I was apparently somewhat cranky when I wrote this.

week the first

-averaged 2000 words a day, which coasted me above schedule

-did not sound like absolute shit

week the second

-stayed on track, but with mounting difficulty. Broke off to write a couple of short stories, one of which made absolutely no sense at all

 -summarily called out for cheating and veering off track by the pep talk author of the week. It went something like this: “Hey, cheater! If you were planning on starting a different story, STOP RIGHT NOW!”

I should probably add another 3000 words to my total to counterbalance that lapse in fortitude.

-still not sounding like absolute shit. Wrote a couple of sections which I liked more than some of the stuff I didn’t hate in the first week

week the third (present)

-struggling to hit 1000 words a day. I had a 3000 word night. Brutal. Everything starts to sound awkward and vile. I’ve lost any so-called style I might once have had. I haven’t quite stooped to the level of pure padding, but I’m seriously beginning to wonder when I’ll get to that point. Look at this paragraph. Execrable.

further example: marvel at how the construction deteriorates as we continue down the page. Let us examine the horrendous frame transition. You’re quite welcome to fix it.

week the fourth

I’ll get to that.

What happens after the month is up? I need to maintain the discipline required to actually finish a story. The whole purpose of cranking out all the short stories and throwing them up online (even though I know some of them are pretty bad) was to force myself to finish stuff. So far it seems to be working.

Let me summarize my own character conflict for you: stubbornness versus latent laziness. 

 

**update:

-apparently I can write 2200 words in an hour, and possibly a little more if I’m not distracted intermittently by various things.

Let’s make that 2400 words an hour (it’s quite doable if I’m focusing) so we arrive at a nice round 40 wpm. I’m losing 60 words a minute to thinking time, assuming I round my typing speed off to an even 100. Useless knowledge for you and me. Imagine writing at 6000 words an hour, though. That would be something.

My friend and I had an hour-long write-off, which was fairly satisfying, I suppose. At the risk of rendering my other observations redundant, I’ll say that having other people to motivate you works wonders as far as inciting action goes.

Today’s peptalk: “it’s all easier after 35000”. I don’t know.

So? I need more outline and more problem-solving. fuck you, connective insight. how you leave me adrift.

13000 words to go. Let’s say 2000 words an hour. I should be done with the 50k target in 5.5 hours. Huh! And after, hark! the gong show of trying to polish some sense out of the mire. I think this needs to run another 50000 words, another month. A month-long break, first.

 update: max speed so far, 2525/hour.  huh. what do you know.

on Nov 30th, with 8500 more words to go, I was strangely unbothered about the whole thing, since I had the above calculations to soothe my worries. In fact, I look at this like writing a term paper or some such. A 50000 word term paper, no less. I don’t know if I would have been able to do it without the incentive of competition and heaps of moral support. I think next time around it will be much easier.

After a couple of hours I sit here at 47500 words, and decide to take a break, because I will be done with this in an hour. Well, done for now, anyway.

It’s a surprisingly satisfying feeling to be able to sit and think 1000 words is a mere matter of twenty or thirty minutes.

HOWEVER! THINGS I AM LEARNING INCLUDE THE FOLLOWING:

  -apparently I’m undergoing a transitory period of stylistic metamorphosis which doesn’t seem to be working at present

   -evolution probably a good thing, in the long run

-it’s a first draft. it doesn’t matter if prose sounds less than perfect (I’m not talking about grammatical matters okaythankyou.)
 -since it’s all going to be rejigged and reworked eventually

-and frankly, ratifying plotting issues is far more important than fucking around with every other word in a sentence that might be completely eradicated anyway. I need to stop compulsively editing text and start spewing it out, at least for the purposes of a first draft. Let me reiterate and italicise that point for myself.

Left unchecked, I spend hours contemplating the nuances of punctuation.

-I hate how everything on this blog sounds stilted and awkward compared to bullshit I have written on my prolix blog because:

 -I’m stressing out about plot and style

 -protips from wiser people: stumped? make a decision and quit being avoidant.

Things I have come to realise: 

-all my real problems are rooted in plot and organisation, or a distinct lack of either.

-it was wise to shunt aside my natural and immature aversion towards exposing creative foibles. I suck, but attempt to grow.

-having brutal yet constructively critical friends is quite remarkable (thanks).

-I am not at all sensitive when it comes to taking criticism, save in one regard:

SEMANTOFASCISM

  -I’m perfectly happy to take stylistic pointers from people, but I have no patience for people who condescend to me as though I fail to comprehend the grammatical mores of our language as she is written.

-this whole write-a-book thing would be a lot easier if I didn’t have so much shit to chew off my plate this month

-it is far, far easier to find motivation when other people you know are zooming past your daily word count and you are receiving constant reminders of just how possible this task is. Mind you, I haven’t slept too much this month, but that’s my prerogative.

-this has been a learning experience. If you’ve ever considered writing a novel but never actually done it — do it. It sounds hokey as all hell, but when I look at the 30000 words I have written so far, pearls of shit and all, damn me if I don’t feel some small amount of pride.

 PROCESS

-I write in a very haphazard fashion, and usually think up an ending first. Now I have six different endings or something equally ridiculous. I find ending short stories very difficult for some reason. Long stories, not so much.

-so now I have this big accretion of stuff that is all over the place; tying loose ends together is arduous, arduous!

-I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to write sequentially.

-having an outline really helps me, along with a mindmap. (I’m using FreeMind.)

 

*Anything marked “the horror” (or the most recent posts) came from this month’s verbiage fest.

1500: the unlikely fable of Oleander Olivar

4.
On an arid islet off the coast of South America, Oleander Olivar limped up the planks of our ship.
He was a long-limbed, wiry man with a broad smile that shone through his sun-browned skin, a Mediterranean cast to his face. I took an instant liking to him, as did the other men on ship. The women, too. Oleander fancied himself a charmer, and I had to admit he was. He talked to everyone with the same easy air. I even saw him talking to Yardman, who grew progressively sullen and told him to get away.
Longdew seemed to get along with him famously, which made me wary at first, thinking perhaps they were good friends, perhaps compatriots. But Oleander told me, when we were occupied with some dull task aboard the ship, that he was curious about the captain’s motives. He might have been dissembling. I did not trust him all the way, but I relaxed my guard a little. I asked him how he had come about his uneven gait.
 
He was from some small village bordering the Black Sea. I have long since forgotten the name.
The wind sired him. So Oleander said, laughing. No, that was just what the villagers said of him, because he ran so fast and so well. He was built to run.
He made his way to the big towns to race, and won, and kept winning, until he was told to go to the largest city in the land. There was a king. The king had once been a runner, himself, and on the longest day of the year he held a succession of races, short to long. People whispered the rewards were stupefying, though Oleander didn’t care. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was the wind whispering in his ear, the land elongating into thin streaks that slurred past him, the sense that he was unstoppable, pushed on by the very gods.
Oleander won his 5th race before the sun lazed into the noon sky.
From morning to evening he was unconquerable, king’s champion, a hero. The king’s daughter wreathed him herself. She was ethereal, with cornflower eyes and flaxen hair. Oleander gazed at her, and wondered how she would look as the white linen of her dress slipped from her shoulders. But the entire kingdom knew she was promised to the neighbouring princedom, matchmade to solidify the land’s safety.
Smilling, the king led him to the treasure chamber and told him he could claim any one thing in the room as his. Oleander took the torch the king himself offered, and looked around. He was surrounded in gold, jewels, paintings, tapestries, weapons, anything you would expect to see in the most opulent vault of the land. Any object would have bought him a lordship.
He walked to the back of the vasty hall, wove in and out of huge and elaborate vases and statues, and turning back, he saw the king’s daughter standing just beyond the doorway, lit by the sconces in the corridor.

Oleander smiled at her, and he made his way back to the two of them, father and daughter. As he was almost at the door he reached out for a goose egg ruby on a plinth, then turned his foot just so, stumbling to his knees. The princess, not only beautiful but kindhearted — remarkable! — reached out to him, and her foot went over the threshold.

They were married the following week, to the fury of the king. The kingdom was happy. A hero should marry a princess. It is right and proper.

Well, now he was a prince, so what else remained for Oleander to do? He decided to grow fat, eating sumptuous delicacies and reclining under the shade of the olives as his wife slid morsel after morsel into his slack mouth. He did not understand her silent moods and resentful stares. He had won, after all. To the victor the spoils. It is right and proper.

The king never spoke to Oleander. Oleander spoke some words to one of the most ambitious of the king’s councillors, and a couple of weeks later it so happened that the king passed in his sleep — a heart problem, so the physicians said — and a councillor became Grand Counsel.

Oleander’s wife spent her time in her chambers, with her books and letters, avoiding him. Oleander, who could not read, left her alone save in the nights, when he awaited her lips and her duties.

On the sixth month of Oleander’s reign, he realised there were a number of men in the council that he hadn’t noticed before; he didn’t tend to bother himself with politics. Yet there were enough unfamiliar faces that a hint of worry began to bite at him.

He went to the Grand Counsel, who nodded, and said they were very good men, very talented, very promising, and did he know there were new delicacies from the Far Far East waiting for him?

Oleander, although he summoned the delicacies (he had begun to use a food taster), still wondered, and he thought about the days when he could have outrun any man in the land. He looked at the sugared candies, and then he pushed the platter away.

He went outside into the sun and made an agonising round of the yard, aware of all the eyes on him. The fat king, running. He used to win races, you know. Oleander struggled on.

By the end of the month he felt something like his old self again, and he could tell the guards no longer laughed at him. Some of them would run with him, and he began to best them. He began to learn about the intricacies of governing a realm, and wondered why the Grand Counsel did things that seemed perhaps not in the best interests of the country, and possibly more towards the best interests of the Grand Counsel.

He ordained a new Grand Counsel, and removed the men who had crept their way in, those responsible for ratifying the most iniquitous of statutes. He was in the process of planning out a set of most benevolent ordinances when war stormed the gates with her bristling panoply of spears and bows and battering rams.

Kingdom marched on kingdom. Oleander knew nothing of war. His own army lay in remnants around him, privatised and appropriated by false statesmen.

The neighbouring kingdom kept coming, sending out more and more men, razing villages left and right. Oleander’s home was the first to go.

War blustered at the gates. Oleander stood on the walls and looked down. The host of the adversary spread over the land for as far as the eye could see. What few guardsmen Oleander had left stood shaking, ready to run the moment the gates broke.

“Surrender, for the sake of your people,” the prince shouted to Oleander, in the tones of one born for nobility. “And for your life.”

Oleander had no choice. The gates came open, the palace traded hands. Oleander and his wife waited in the throne room.

The prince and his retinue stepped through the doors, and in a graceful flutter of skirts, Oleander’s wife rose to her feet and went to her true love‘s side. Oleander’s breath caught in his lungs. Before he could move, the prince’s guards had him by his wrists and ankles, and they stripped off his trousers and pinioned him to the ground so he lay exposed and shivering.

“You, sir,” the prince said, “are a thief.” The axe in his hand swung patiently from side to side. Oleander felt his palms grow slick. His pale and lovely wife, standing by the prince, put her arm through her love’s and said nothing.

“Now,” the prince said, “run.” He raised his heavy iron axe above his head and brought his arms down. Such a ponderous movement, such a sharp and immediate pain.

Oleander screamed a long time.

The prince’s physicians bandaged up the rest of his legs and put him on a beggar’s cart. Oleander writhed and sobbed each time the wheels bounced off the paving stones.

The queen came out through the gates, surrounded by the murmuring of her maids. She looked at him for a long moment, set the goose egg ruby on the cart next to him; the gates shut behind her retreating back.

 

Oleander grinned at me and pulled up his trouser legs. His legs, from the knee down, were made entirely of wood. He dropped the hems and walked around in a circle to show me how good his stride was, limp or no.

“No scampering up and down the rigging for me, though,” he said, laughing as he tapped out a little jig.

“Is that story true?” I asked doubtfully.

Oleander just smiled. “I’ve learned to read since,” he said.

 

***a: fix frame story. last third – the author was clearly in process of falling asleep – style: what style? f: proposition: different ending where olivar keeps his legs, since prince smashing his legs in front of his true love isn’t exceedingly romantic. olivar’s essence is running; how could he charm and smile after losing that? unless he is faking it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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