Linnea Cooley is an undergraduate poet and writer at the University of Maryland. Her poetry appears in Neologism Poetry Journal, Boston Accent Lit, and Anti-Heroin Chic Magazine, among others. Her humor writing is forthcoming in Furious Gazelle. More of her work can be seen on her website, https://linneacooley.weebly.com
Ten Reasons why I am not inviting Cynthia Thomas to my birthday party, Mom
Ten Reasons why I am not inviting Cynthia Thomas to my birthday party, Mom
Sitting still, stoic, poised and ready, his ice blue eyes glow in the late afternoon light, his fluffy black tail rustles the dry autumn leaves. Standing over him, a rogue tear rolls down my cheek, spills off my quivering lower lip, and kisses the very tip of his nose. His nostrils flex, his ears perk up, and he whips his majestic head to the right. Dirt and leaves kick up from beneath his massive back paws as he bolts into the thick woods. Back when he was a pup, he often ran off, his oversized head and paws almost making him topple, me chasing after him and calling out his name. Now my chest expands as I inhale, ready to call out, the mustiness of freshly disturbed earth in my nostrils. With my hands cupped around my mouth, as my lips form his name, the stark white bandage wrapped around my wrist causes me to pause. I let my arms drop to my side as though they are made of lead. I do not call his name. I only stand there, he sprints further into the trees.
As I turn and walk back to my car, the dead autumn leaves that blanket the lone dirt road leading into this clearing crunch under my boots. The crackling echoes in the quiet. I leave a trail of footprints behind me. I struggle to open the door to the truck but manage it somehow. I lay my forehead on the steering wheel, the leather cool against my skin, and close my eyes. I will never see him again. I dig in my jacket for the keys. The tag dangling from the key ring, the one with his name engraved in bold letters, snags on my pocket zipper and slips out of my hand. My keys land on the floorboard, next to his woolen blanket. There are jet-black hairs nestled in between the fibers. As I reach down to grab my keys, I wince, the stinging pain radiating from my wrist. Stabbing the key into the ignition, crimson just begins to surface on the bandage.
Several months ago, the first time it happened, we were wrestling with his new toy. He lunged at me. His front claws tore my left thigh. The second time, just last week, a growl rumbled from deep in his chest, his upper lips pulled back exposing his sharp teeth, his ears pinned back, his body rigid. A wolf stood before me.
The engine hums, the leaves rustle in the breeze, the crickets sing. Abruptly the melody is disrupted by a piercing howl. Rabbits scurry to the nearest underbrush. I raise the windows and turn on the radio too loud. My knuckles white as I grip the steering wheel. I swallow hard. I force my foot down onto the gas pedal and slowly drive down the narrow path. In the rear-view mirror the shadows from the trees stretch across the now empty clearing. Beyond, the woods are still. The road ahead is barren.
The Day Birds Flew over the Village
Compared to many of his peers in Idundi village, Nelson is a pretty noticeable kid. With a lankiness accentuated by a 180cm height, he has an unusual presence for a 20-year-old in the Waha tribe. With the unusual height, he is often relied upon to see beyond the tall maize stalks that ring the periphery of the Idundi village during the harvest times of early August.
The ability to see beyond is, and has always been, important for the village. As maize crops dry under the blazing sun of Tanzania’s western savannah, desiccated cobs fall to the ground, making them perfect picking for swarms of birds coming in from the west. Nelson’s job is to kill as many of the incoming birds.
Nelson is widely acknowledged by his peers as the village’s bird-killing expert. Whenever he shouts for help, villagers arrive to find half a dozen birds lay mortally injured on the ground.
Just as Nelson steps into the fields this morning, he is greeted with a couple of black birds flying toward the maize fields. As usual, Nelson hoists his slingshot.
But he does not shoot. Something is different about these birds. As they approach the maize fields, they do not swoop down in hunger. Instead, they continue to drift eastward, with no change in speed or direction.
Upon closer look, he is surprised to find that the black birds have no wings. Instead, two pairs of what seem to be rotating blades keep them in flight. More perplexingly, a medium-sized brown box is tucked neatly under each of the birds’ belly.
Nelson feels he must examine the thing more closely. What is the flying thing? And what is in the brown box? He has to know. The cloudless sky was perfect Nelson’s slingshot.
As one is shot down, the other quickly speeds up and evacuates Idundi airspace.
When he looked at the downed “bird,” he immediately knew he is in trouble.
The brown box is marked: PROPERTY OF REPUBLIC OF RWANDA.
“Sir, we lost another one!” The young officer, large doses of sweat bleeding through his white shirt, shouts anxiously to Francois as he suddenly barged into his office.
Before Francois can respond, the officer was running down the corridor informing others.
With a usual sigh, Francois looked out the window toward the busy streets below.
It has been five years since he was transferred to this little office in downtown Kigali. Even now, he cannot help but reminisce about his old job at the Ministry of Transport.
Francois, after full five years, still cannot figure out why he was transferred to the Transport Section of the Ministry of Innovation. He certainly is no expert in handling drone transport providers.
Before he started this job, he thought of drones as anything more than toys for kids. They have become so common in Kigali that their presence is practically a public menace. Not a day goes by without flight interference, complaint of voyeurism, or someone getting hit.
Considering the public nuisance that drones are becoming, what his team is doing may actually be brilliant. They are buying all drones from the public as transport vehicles. The drones, at least as the idea goes, would ferry goods all the way to oceangoing ships docked on the Swahili coast. Drone owners are to be compensated, but there was little room for negotiation.
On paper, the project makes financial sense. Citizens get money for their drones, and government gets cheap transport vehicles. With auto-pilot and GPS becoming standard drone features, only a couple of supervisors are needed to pilot hundreds to destinations thousands of kilometers away.
But the harsh reality of arranging children’s flying toys into the country’s aerial transport fleets provides Francois with many real-world headaches.
For one thing, the young officer sweating in his white shirt already burst into his office five times today, all bearing the same message. And it is not even 9am yet. The thought of losing five drones in two hours of work made Francois shake his head in disbelief. “…how are we going to explain what are in those boxes?”
A fleeting thought crossed his mind as he remembered what the drones are carrying. He knew that it was time again to make a phone call to an old friend.
“I told you many times before, Francois, I cannot be responsible for what happens to your drones outside our facilities!” Joseph fumed impatiently less than a minute after he picked up the phone call.
Joseph was getting sick and tired of receiving multiple phone calls from Rwanda on a daily basis. His job at the Receivable Office of Dar es Salaam’s Port Authority requires him to process incoming cargo for export. But there is little he can do if the cargo does not show up at the Port. It seems that his friend Francois just cannot understand this no matter how many times they argue over the topic.
“But you work for the government! Can’t you get someone to communicate with the officials in villages?” Francois was not about to back down.
“I work for the Port, not the president. I can’t just get someone to send a decree to tell people to stop throwing rocks at things that fly by.” Joseph fired back, “It is plainly ridiculous!”
After twenty years in his job, Joseph has become quite callous to cargo being lost. Every day another heavily laden truck is steered off the twisty mountain “highways” linking Dar with inland Tanzania. They fall into the abyss, goods and men alike buried deep in the ravine. With many trucking companies too cash-strapped to pay for rescue operations, the goods (and sometimes the dead men) stay down there forever.
But now some pesky Rwandan is insolent enough to request 100% accountability on all of his goods. Goods delivered by drone to boot. There is not even a dying driver and expensive truck to worry about, why should he be concerned with their lost drones?
He cannot hide the feeling of disdain welling up inside him. He was not going to let Rwanda boss him around. To him, the littlest country in the East Africa has now become the regional bully.
Rwanda’s emergence as the regional power is, for all the Tanzanian displeasure, no longer surprising. In the decades since the Rwandan Genocide, the country’s leadership crafted a beautiful narrative to keep the genocide in the collective memories of the developed world. In return, it became the darling of global donors. With genocidal horrors of the past not forgotten and a government keen to feed the outside world with news of the latest investments in modernity, the West is all too willing to make the country the highest per capita aid recipient in the world.
But ultimately, it is how Rwanda used that endless stream of aid money that made all the difference.
It is not news that Rwanda has involved itself in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in the aftermath of the Genocide. An eastward exodus of genocidaires prompted the Rwandan government to fund any local militias willing to contain them. But with much of the original genocidaires in DRC having capitulated, the purpose of Rwandan involvement gradually shifted. Gone is the funding for various fickle militias, and what came in their place were Rwandan investments in DRC.
As the new master of the land, the Rwandan leadership wasted no time turning the region into a cash cow. Government-owned mines popped up everywhere to systematically move coveted underground resources back to Rwanda proper for processing and then export to world market.
The drone transport idea is an integral part of this ongoing economic plan palatable for the outside world. Joseph grimaces every time he imagines a beaming Francois showing foreign donors his fleet of mineral-carrying drones flying off to Dar. The drone transport program is that “wow” factor putting a modern spin on an age-old method of resource exploitation, getting the international press all excited about Rwanda’s façade as a technology pioneer and forgetting about the aggressive opportunist that is behind that façade.
It really hasn’t been a great morning for Francois.
Call up the Port Authority in Dar and they hang up after angrily denying any responsibility. Call up villages to help find downed drones and village leaders find excuses to avoid conversations. How is he supposed to report back to his superiors and give a legitimate-sounding reason for all the lost drones?
He put down the phone, and looked out of the window once more.
Perhaps it was a mistake for his predecessors to take all drones out of the villages. The cost of kids throwing rocks at transport drones is definitely not worth whatever benefits of what is essentially a financially compensated confiscation.
So why did the government decide that villages cannot have their drones? It is all about international perceptions, really. With Kigali trumpeting the concept of drone transport as some cutting-edge technology that revolutionizes the logistics industry in Rwanda and Africa as whole, it would definitely raise a few eyebrows if every village has drones. It takes away the feel of the “cutting-edge” and “cool” to market the idea abroad.
The reality is that perceptions matter much more than substance. If foreigners are shown with visual and physical evidence that drones are privileged items accessible to only a few rich families in Kigali, it will get their “I need to help the poor people” feeling tingling. Money flows in, and a win-win situation is achieved: foreign donors get their “humanitarian satisfaction” and the Rwandan government gets more money to invest.
But the headache is that the transport drone project is bleeding money so fast that the aid money Rwanda gets because of it is not even enough to compensate for replacement drones and lost cargo. Financially speaking, the project is no longer worthwhile. But if Kigali stops now, how can it explain to foreigners who already donated millions for the project? Not that much money is needed to make the project happen? We lied and spent your money on something else?
Who knows, maybe one day the foreigners will have their “buyer’s remorse,” but Francois has no plans to let that happen while he is still in office.
As he is lost in thought, his phone rings again.
“Sir, we found the drone that you were looking for…and maybe something more…” the staff on the other end sounded rather mysterious.
Joseph can’t believe his ears.
“Wait, the President did what?” He has to confirm if he heard what he just heard.
“The President apologized to Rwanda for the lost drones found on our side of the border, and asked me to drop the usual tariffs on drone cargo from Rwanda for the next two weeks.” The bureaucrat repeated himself blandly.
“Wait, why do we have to apologize? Why do we have to cover their export duties? It’s not like we shot down their drones intentionally.” Joseph was practically shouting over the phone. He cannot believe that Francois somehow managed to get to the Tanzanian president.
“Joseph, the Rwandans got hold a broken drone of theirs. And they also have a Tanzanian kid who voluntarily admitted he shot down the drone.” The bureaucrat sounds as calm as ever, “please just process accordingly.” With that, the call is cut.
Joseph fiercely pounded the office table. As if the Rwandans don’t have enough money already. He just can’t get over the fact that his government would so swiftly have its arm twisted into paying compensations for something that it does not have any real control over.
His phone vibrates. “What now?” Joseph impatiently murmurs as he picks up to read the new message.
Thank you for your help in getting back our drone. And we also thank you in advance for allowing the passage of our cargo through your port for free. We at Kigali can never be thankful enough of having a great partner like you. Francois
He can almost visualize Francois’s sneers as he composed the short message dripping with sarcasm. And worse yet, he did not forget to attach some pictures. One is particularly striking: a young kid smiling nervously at the camera. In one hand, he is holding a broken drone, and in the other, a piece of paper with a carelessly scribbled line of text. He had to squint hard to make out what it says:
Nelson, from Idundi
Nelson still cannot figure out if he is just having a particularly unlucky day.
It seems as if his luck ran out the moment he stepped into the village office. Paul, the chairman of Idundi, was amicable enough at first sight. Despite Nelson showing up suddenly, Paul politely received him in his office.
“So, tell me your name again?” Paul inquired with a smile, as he took out a notepad and a pen from the drawer of his table to take notes.
“Nelson, sir,” Nelson did not hesitate to make the purpose of his visit known. “The thing I just gave you, I shot it down.”
“Good, thank you for your honesty!” Paul’s face was almost a display of pure joy. Nelson smiled his best smile in response.
“Now, please excuse me for a second while I make a phone call. I will be back in just few minutes.” Paul took his notepad and quickly walked out of the office.
Minutes later, Paul was back in the office, as quickly and quietly as he had left it.
“Mr. Nelson, we would like a picture of you with the drone, to prove your presence.” He remarked, as he walked over to hand the drone back to Nelson. “Please stand here, and hold the drone with your right hand. Also please hold this piece of paper in your left hand.” Paul tore a page from his notepad, and jotted something down very quickly, as he motioned Nelson to stand against the office wall.
Great, I will do anything to help resolve this thing. Nelson had no reason not to be compliant, even when he saw his own name on that piece of paper handed to him.
Paul was busy on his phone after snapping the photograph, so Nelson just sat back down on his chair and waited. He didn’t have to wait long. Less than five minutes later, uniformed officers emerged in Paul’s office. Without any greeting, an officer took out a pair of handcuffs, and fixed them to Nelson’s hand.
“Sir, you are under arrest for illegal possession of Rwandan government property.” The officer stated rather robotically.
Nelson had no time to react to the sudden turn in events. As his hands are cuffed, his eyes opened wide, and he stared in surprise to Paul. Paul was done with his phone now, and just leaned back in chair, his face retaining the polite smile from the beginning of their conversation.
“Don’t worry, my friend. The officer here is just going through some formalities. We just need to walk you back home.” Paul then raised his phone to show Nelson the photograph taken, “and this picture, we will need to use for something. I hope you won’t mind.”
Seeing that Nelson is still not convinced, Paul casually stated, “This matter is out of our hands now. But rest assured that you will not face any punishment.”
Next thing he knew, Nelson was stuffed into a van, sitting next to Paul and the police officer.
He looked outside. The van was driving through the familiar bumpy dirt paths of Idundi.
10pm. Nelson is lying on his bed. It is pitch dark outside, and an eerie silence envelops the village. The village has gone to rest after an eventful day, but he, the central protagonist of the event, still has his eyes wide open, without the slightest whiff of sleep.
It seems that within the course of one day, his entire world has been turned upside down.
His job as the watcher of the maize field is now in jeopardy after his trigger-happy behavior damaged Rwandan property. And somehow, an innocent-looking picture led to public shaming by none other than the Rwandan president.
Worst of all, however, is the fact that he, vaguely and rather ambiguously, realized just how helpless he felt during the whole incident. He had no influence whatsoever in how the situation is dealt with. His fate was sealed even before all parties involved got on the same page about what is happening.
For Nelson, his tall stature combined with accuracy with a rock-hauling slingshot is the only thing really going for him. In a community where practically everyone is a hereditary subsistence farmer, his skill means that people pay him not to work the fields all the time. It, he thought, is the skill that allows him to change his fate, to something better than just a mere farmer tending maize for an entire life.
It seems like he was overly optimistic, to an unrealistic degree. His skill, he is taught in one day, is not nearly as important as the health of a cheap flying machine. Even a broken drone, no longer capable of carrying goods, is more valuable than his skill with a slingshot, in the ability to make international news after being talked about by a national president.
Nelson, of course, does not understand the significance of the drone as a magnet for Rwanda’s international aid, or its significance in portraying the country as a high-tech destination. All he understands is that, all things considered, his humanly powers are no match for the machines in the eyes of some important people.
For a moment, he saw a young man, guarding Idundi’s maize fields, pointing his sling toward the sky as a bird approached the fields. But the sky was no longer filled with birds, but drones.
A future that he did not understand has already arrived while he is unprepared.
Jackson Strehlow is and aspiring Sci-Fi/Fantasy writer and veteran of the United States Navy. You can follow him and more of his work @jsghostwriter.
FOILS OF THE MIND
I slumped into the worn-out fabric of my second-hand couch, feeling the little energy I had slip away into lethargy and exhaustion. As it turns out, losing the job that puts an ever-so-humble roof over one's head will put a damper on just about anyone. Especially those who don't have fallback options. I sighed and removed the want ads from the local paper, hoping that there was a shred of hope left for me to pick myself up and out of this gutter before I got swept along. I perused the various ads, keeping my eyes peeled for anything promising. Dog walker? No. Babysitter? Ugh, no. Part-time barista? Maybe.
I kept going through menial job ads until I spotted one that caught my interest. Local college professor looking for volunteers for long-term experiment. $5,000 a week, plus free room and board. Good lord, this sounded too good to be true! I quickly spied the number in the ad and dialed it into my phone. I waited for a several pregnant moments before the ringing came to a holt, now replaced by brittle and shrill female tone
"Hello, you've reached the offices of Dr. Farnsworth, may I ask who's calling?"
"Hi, this is Victor Franklin. I'm calling about your ad in today's paper."
The sun beat down on the back of my exposed neck, the outdoor seating area for the family friendly Mexican fast food joint my interviewer had arranged to meet up at neglected to have umbrellas set up for days like this. Damn weather was making me form sweat stains on the one good interview shirt I had left. I fidgeted in my fixed metal bench seat, alternating from running my fingers through my hair to running them over my shirt. Alright, just keep it together Victor. You're going to do fine in this interview. All you have to do is answer a few personal questions, be professional and soon the money will be flowing back into your account. You got this. I looked across the tables, seeing no one else present. I slumped into my chair a little. Where is this pers-
"Good afternoon, Victor." A sudden loud, authoritarian voice rang out from behind me, causing me to jolt upright in my chair just a bit. I turned to see a tall, brunette woman dressed in a beige cardigan stride towards me. "I'm Doctor Eliza Farnsworth. I'll be the one conducting you interview today." As she sat down at my table, I tried to discreetly wipe my somewhat sweaty palms on my jeans before I offered to shake her hand.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Doctor." She ignored my handshake, so I just put my arm down and tried not to look embarrassed. Dr. Farnsworth took the chair directly across from me, quickly removing a small recording device and setting it on the small plastic table we shared. As she settled in, she clasped her hands and cleared her throat.
"I'll keep this interview brief. I'm going to ask you a few questions, which may come across as odd and unusual, and you are going to offer me straightforward answers. Am I clear?"
"Good. Now, first question." She picked up her recording device and flipped a small switch before setting it down. "Why exactly were you fired from your last job? And be perfectly honest with me. I don't tolerate liars."
I blinked hard for a moment, not exactly expecting that particular question to come up right off the bat. "Well, I did have a tendency to daydream on the job, just a little bit. I'd get lost in my own head and zone out for a bit. But it's not a problem anymore, I promise!"
"Hmm, so would you call yourself an active dreamer?"
"Yes, I'd say so."
"And when were you a child, did you daydream often?"
"Yes, quite a bit actually."
"Did you have any imaginary friends?"
I blanked out, completely caught off guard by her rather odd question. "Yes. Why is this important?"
"That's for me to decide. Do you remember anything about them?"
I pondered for a minute, my mind struggling to remember a bygone age when the only friend I had was a figment of my imagination. "Her name was Mary. I remember her having long black hair, always tied up in a ribbon, and she had a dark blue dress that she wore everywhere. She was kind to me Kind of like the sister I never had. Does that help?"
"It does, actually. One more question, how are you at maintaining relationships with others?"
"Oh, well, um, I guess I try to maintain them to the best of my ability."
"Well, they always drift apart. You know, we lose contact, don't see or talk to each other much. That sort of thing."
"I see. That'll conclude this interview. Thank you for meeting with me, Victor." She switched off her recorder and placed her belongings back in her pocket. We stood up from our chairs at the same time, and I tried to keep myself from rubbing my hands together out of anxiety. Dr. Farnsworth wiped out a card from her pocket and handed it over to me.
"You are to report to this address tomorrow at precisely eight in the morning. And be sure to bring a bag of clothes and toiletries for your stay." I took the card from her and looked at the address handwritten on one side. Wollstone Luxury Condominiums, apartment 1818.
"Wait, does this mean I got it?"
"Yes. I know it may seem strange, but you are exactly the type of person I've been looking for. Unless you want to reconsider?"
"No, thank you. I'll be there. Thank you so much, Doctor. You won't be disappointed."
"I certainly hope not."
"Wait, I totally forgot to ask, but what exactly is it that I'll be doing for this...experiment?"
"Just show up on time tomorrow. You'll be given instructions then."
And without another word, Dr. Eliza left the seating area without so much as a second glance at me. I looked back at the card and smiled. This was going to be exactly what I needed.
I knocked loudly on the front door of the apartment when I arrived, duffle bag in hand. I wondered what exactly it was that they were going to have me do. I just hoped I wouldn't end up screwing this up too. I was about the knock on the door again when I heard an audible click and the door swung slightly inward. I moved into the apartment, taking in the spacious, empty front room I'd entered. A hallway to my right lead what must have been the rest of the apartment. The place felt so silent that it was kind of eerie. I had to see if anyone was here.
"Hello? Dr. Farnsworth? Anybody? I'm here for the experiment. Anybody here?" Just as I thought I had somehow ended up at the wrong apartment, a loud burst of static immediately filled the air.
"Hello, Victor. Yes, I'm here. As is the rest of my team. Please, close the door behind you and come into the living room, where we will discuss your duties."
Dr. Farnsworth's voice was coming in loud and clear from everywhere in the house, which felt rather odd. Where was she? What the heck was going on here? I decided not to keep her waiting and drew the front door closed behind me. The moment it was shut I could hear another click and the sound of a deadbolt sliding into place.
Ignoring the slightly creepy notion of being locked in, I walked down the hall until I entered a spacious open area. To my right, there was a large white carpeted area with a couple of dark brown sofas, a coffee table and a series of bookshelves lining the back wall. To my left, I could see a kitchen area with marble tiles and an island in the middle of the set up. It seemed like a nice place, but like the rest of the apartment, it was all pretty simple and almost empty.
"It's good to see you have arrived and time, Victor. Now we can get started right on schedule." I looked around the room trying to see where Dr. Farnsworth's voice was coming from and noticed that four large black speakers in the ceiling.
"If I may ask, where are you? Why aren't you here?"
"My team and I are currently located at our research lab. We'll be monitoring you through the use of hidden cameras and microphones we've installed all throughout the residence. We need you to be as isolated from human contact as possible for the experiment to succeed."
"Oh. Okay then. What exactly do you want me to do?"
"For the duration of your stay, you will be required to imagine that another person is living with you. Picture them as your ideal self, both physically and mentally. Keep them in your mind for as long as you are awake. Talk them, act as if they were right there with you."
I scrunched my forehead in minor confusion as I processed what the doctor had just told me.
"So, you're saying I have to create an imaginary friend to hang out with? That's it?"
"A crass oversimplification, but yes."
"But why? What kind of experiment did I sign up for?"
"One that doesn't require such incessant curiosity. From this point onward, you will keep contact with us as minimal as possible. In the meantime, I'd recommend you keep a log of your time here. Get to it." And with that, the loudspeaker went dead, the silence filling the apartment. I looked around and set myself and my bag on the couch. May as well get started on this so-called experiment. I leaned forward, propping my chin up with my arm as I focused on the space in front of me.
The ideal me? Well, I guess I could swap out my shaggy brown hair for something shorter. Perhaps change the color. Oh, I always liked red hair. Maybe I should go with that. Maybe change the eyes to something a little greener. Narrow the chin a bit, give the face a few more angles, darken the skin tone just a little bit. Oh, and I might as well add some muscle tone while I'm at it. Ideal me should be at least in shape. Alright, I'd say that does it.
The image I had created in my mind stood out clear as day right before me. I gotta admit, I was a little impressed with myself. This 'ideal me' thing was kind of fun. I wonder what I should name him?
"I think I'll call you...Adam."
Things were pretty slow-going for a while. Maintaining Adam took a lot of work, but I eventually got the hang of it. Took me a week to finally be able to picture him in front of me whenever I was awake. Turns out, having nothing but free time and no one to actually talk to, gave me no distractions from the supposed "work" I was doing. Dr. Farnsworth still kept me in the dark about why they wanted me to do this nonsense, claiming that it was to prevent any "contamination of the process" and such.
After a while, they had instructed me to start talking to Adam. I almost laughed myself into unconsciousness when they gave me the instruction. And I nearly pissed myself with fear when they shut off my utilities and left me in the pitch dark for doing so. It sure taught me not to mess around with these humorless zombies. With my motivation clear, I tried to have a legitimate conversation with Adam. And surprise, surprise, it takes a lot of work at first. I found my groove eventually, where all I did was talk about nonsense, but it apparently satisfied Dr. Farnsworth and her team.
It wasn't long after that, that I was told to create Adam's personality. I'll admit, it made everything feel a little less weird. More like I was talking to a different person instead of myself...despite that person still existing in my head. Well, I'd decided that if I was going to be the crazy, funny guy, perhaps Adam could be the serious guy to balance me out. Make him a real friend, the kind that would have my back and not flake out like normal people. A true best friend.
Everything went pretty well, all things considered. My conversations with Adam felt less creepy and more relieving. Farnsworth wasn't kidding when she said they wanted me to be as isolated as possible. The only time someone actually comes here in person is the grocery delivery service Farnsworth and her team have set up for me, so I don't starve. Even then, the whole place is locked from the outside and no one is there to greet me. I wondered if maybe they want me to rely only on Adam for company. Not a bad idea, but not one I'm entirely comfortable with either.
I've gotten so used to having Adam around. Talking to him all the time has gotten me used to his presence, as it were. I know I should be concerned that this is becoming my new normal, but I try not to concern myself with the idea too much. Adam is really coming into his own. Whenever I've felt anxious about being kept in this apartment or depressed about having nothing to do, Adam is always there to help me feel better. Most days, I just reminisce about old memories. Days that feel pretty far away now. Talking to Adam helps me remember.
Something very disturbing happened today. While I was talking to Adam, I was on the subject of my first childhood crush. I was struggling to remember her name, when Adam told me her name was Shannon, and that she was a cute blonde girl that always wore sundresses. And he was right. But I wasn't the one that recalled the memory. Up until now, our conversations have always been directed by me. I'd think what he was going to say, and he'd say it. But this time, Adam had spoken by himself. When I confronted Dr. Farnsworth about it, she finally decided to let me on the project's purpose. She said that Adam is becoming this sort of sentient connection to my subconscious. A manifestation of my unconscious mind. She called him a Tulpa, some sort of being that's created through an individual's willpower. Essentially, my belief that Adam is real is making him real, so to speak.
The way I understand it, Adam is now a separate person living in my brain, with access to everything my mind has stored over my life time. The concept is amazing. The reality is overwhelming. Dr. Farnsworth was so proud of my accomplishment, that she has asked me to try making another one. Guess it wouldn't hurt to give it a shot.
It took me a little while, though thankfully not as long as it did with Adam. I figured since I wasn't told to make something specific, I could try bringing my old imaginary friend back to life, so to speak. I sat down on the couch and put all my effort into rebuilding Mary's pale skin, her flowy blue dress, and her hair, black as raven's feather's. Before I knew it, I could see her, looking as shocked as...well, someone who just popped into existence. Her eyes lit up and she seemed happy to see me. I guess deep down, I missed her. She actually tried to hug me and for a moment I swear I could feel her arms wrapped around me.
I tried introducing Mary to Adam, but he seemed strangely at bay. He just looked at her with distain, like she was a pile of dog poop he'd stepped in. When Mary tried to shake his hand, he just slapped it away and disappeared. I sighed and told Mary we should just let him get used to her and hope he came around eventually.
It's been a few days, and things seem to be deteriorating with Adam. Mary has approached me, saying that she has seen Adam watching her and staring at her with anger in his eyes. I brought up Adam's behavior with Dr. Farnsworth, and she seemed...strangely uncertain about what to say. She told me that they may have to end the experiment soon. Maybe it's for the best.
Adam and Mary are missing. I tried calling out to them, but they never showed up. I tried asking Dr. Farnsworth what to do, but the intercom has been silent all day. I'm getting worried. This is also something that you could show us. Show him looking for them, show him worried. It would be much more intriguing.
Still no sign of Adam or Mary. And still nothing back from Farnsworth or her team. Also, the grocery delivery person hasn't come by yet. I'm getting scared. Now, I'm truly alone here.
Adam showed up today. I asked him where he'd been, but he just stood there in silence, not doing anything for the longest time. I tried getting him to tell me if he knew anything about Mary, but all he said was, "It was a mistake to bring her here.". I tried going to sleep earlier, but I could feel like I was being watched. I think I saw Adam watching me from outside the room. I'm terrified. I'm almost out of supplies, and communication still hasn't been re-established yet. If I can't find a way out of here soon...
I ran out of food today, and the water is not far behind. Adam just lingers around like a ghost, watching me in silence. I'm too afraid to talk to him. I finally fell to the floor and cried out for Farnsworth to come rescue me. After what felt like hours of screaming, Adam approached me and said he'd already dealt with "them", and now it would just be the two of us, forever.
I ran out of supplies days ago. Adam refuses to leave my side. He goes on and on about how we'll be "best friends forever." But the scariest part is how he's moving me around. Every time I pass out in one room, I wake up in my bedroom, tucked under the covers. He's real, I know he is. Please, whoever finds this, don't let him leave. Don't let him trick you. There's something terribly wrong with Adam. Something I didn't see soon enough. And I think it's my fault...
Kyle Biery is a student at Full Sail University. He enjoys cooking new dishes in his free time.
“I do not like this, old friend,” Jackson said, his eyes focusing on their room and the results of Shay’s business inside.
Shay ignored his tone as he continued to read his newspaper. “Your opinion is noted. I’ll be going through with this business transaction anyways, as I always do after a job,” the Irish-American stated.
Jackson flicked some of his brown hair from his eyes with an angry huff. “You’re hopeless.”
“And you should get a hair tie. How long has it been since you got a haircut? Two months or three? I hardly recognized you with that magnificent muzzle and mane you’ve acquired.” Shay pointed at Jackson’s short brown beard and hair. “You should shave that like yours truly.” Shay ran a hand over his face, devoid of any blond fuzz. “Especially when you need to look like a respectable thirty-year-old, as you should.”
“Don’t you dare change the subject,” Jackson said. “Your little business transactions and jobs are going to be the death of us both.” Shay’s friend stood and stepped back into their hotel room.
Shay took a moment to enjoy the Miami sun before closing his paper and following Jackson. “It’s just a simple set of documents I picked up alongside the usual haul of watches and wallets. What’s so hard to understand about that?” Shay closed the glass door and tossed his paper onto the coffee table between their beds.
Jackson paced along the short distance between the beds and the main door, his hands flexing open and closed as he went. “What is so clear about these documents of yours is that the owners of these papers have had people killed over these things. Have you even looked at them?”
The object of their attention sat on Shay’s bed, a manila folder bound with thread. “I can’t say I have. I was more concerned with getting away from the police when I stole everything from the evidence lockup.” Shay poured himself a tumbler of bourbon before taking a generous gulp. “Considering how much my friends have offered for the lot, I’m willing to take a chance.”
Jackson grabbed Shay by the collar of his tan suit and slammed him against the wall, his nose now less than an inch from Shay’s. “That document has the name of a high-ranking Neo-Nazi on the front. One that’s been said to be from the Third Reich itself.” Jackson shoved off of Shay and stepped away. “Anything they are involved with is nothing I want to be involved with. If you were wise, you’d do the same.”
Shay stared at the manila folder with interest now. “I wonder how much a Communist would pay me for them,” he said. “I hear they’re starting to get a good foothold in the North.”
“Is everything you think about related to money?” Jackson asked, his fists shaking slightly.
Shay shook his shoulders. “Considering it’s paying for my daughter’s medical bills, I think I can be forgiven for my greed.”
Jackson threw up his hands as he started for the door. “A simple vacation is all I ask for. A nice tour of the sights, hit some bars, maybe even meet a few ladies, but no. I take my eyes off you for two hours and you’ve gone and hooked up with your usual friends in the area.”
“Three hours,” Shay said.
“Next thing I know, you’ve robbed the MPD’s evidence lockup, in three hours no less.” Jackson continued on. “So fuck you. I’m going to go down to the bar for a drink. If I find you’ve gone on another walk at five in the evening, so help me, I’ll-” He nearly yelled as he threw open the door, revealing a surprised bellhop. Jackson paused in his ranting and studied the boy. “Yes, what is it?”
The bellhop shuffled nervously under the brown bearded man’s gaze. “A-a call for a Mr. Finnigan, sir,” he said.
“Pipe it through. I’ll take it in here,” Shay called from in the room.
The bellhop nodded and raced away from the intimidating man at the door. Jackson shook his head and closed the door with a huff.
“Well that killed my anger,” he said.
Shay chuckled. “You always got a kick out of scaring other people, even when we were kids. I think Mrs. Gibbs still has a grudge against you for that incident with her apple pie in ’53.”
“We don’t talk about that pie. General rule we both agreed on,” Jackson interrupted with a raised finger.
“Fair enough. Though you never looked at her daughter the same way again.” Shay was failing to hold his laughter at Jackson’s slowly reddening face. The bearded man flipped him off as the phone rang. Shay snapped up the handle. “Shay Finnegan.” Shay listened to the speaker before a grin broke out on his face. “Marcus, my favorite seller. How are you? Never mind, don’t answer that.” Shay grinned at Jackson’s bewildered face. “I came into possession of something that could turn a profit… No, not the usual crowd… Tell me, do you know of any communists in the area?”
Jackson’s forehead met his palm with a great slap.
Roxanne Jewell graduated from Belding High School and lived in Michigan until 2017, traveling over 3,000 miles to Arizona, where she is currently working part time at the local grocery store, utilizing her Customer Service experience in the Front End department. Before moving to Arizona, she worked as a companion for elderly family members and as an office assistant for a small, privately owned cement company.
While attending Full Sail University, Roxanne is a current full time student, striving for her Bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing for Entertainment, where she is learning scriptwriting, world building, character development, and much more. In her spare time between work and college, Roxanne writes all story ideas, in various stages of completion, filling numerous three-ring binders that occupy a bookshelf at home.
Hotel Room 15
Robley Heninger unlocked the door to Room 15 at the Delphine Hotel. Robley and his wife, Rebecca walked into the room.
The room had two full-sized beds that were draped in comforters of brown, beige, and orange colored stripes. One lone tan chair stood to one side of the room, a matching chair and table sat next to the sliding doors that opened to a private deck area. A vase of flowers, the only vibrant colors in the room, and two champagne flutes were on the round table near the sliders.
“Funny how room 15 is available for us. We’ve never been here before, how did they know which room we would like?” Rebecca asked.
Robley just smiled.
“When you called to make the reservation, you told them, didn’t you? What else did you tell them?” Becca asked.
“Oh, that it is our 3rd anniversary,” Robley said.
Becca approached the table, reached out and plucked the card from the flowers. “The flowers are from the hotel manager.”
“What does the card say?” Robley asked. He dropped their suitcases on the bed nearest the deck.
“’My apologies for the accommodations. We are fully booked this week. There is a bottle of champagne in the fridge. Happy Anniversary, Samantha,’” Becca said. “Who is Samantha?”
“Sam is Kevin’s youngest daughter. Kevin Riley owns the hotel. He and my father are school buddies.”
“Oh, Sam is it? Kind of cozy that you are on a first-name basis. Did you speak to Princess Samantha when you made the reservations?” Becca asked, crossing her arms.
“No, I spoke to the front desk clerk, Ryan. You met him when we got here.”
“Is she going to join us, or should I catch the next flight home and leave you and your princess alone?” Becca asked.
“Why do you get ruffled when any females of my past intrude on the present?” Rob asked.
“I’m not ruffled,” Becca said.
“Yes, you are, ” Rob said, holding up the card.
She crossed the dull, drab brown carpet to the window. The curtains were a dark tan, almost mustard yellow with the graying white backing to block out the heat of the day. Becca pushed the curtains aside.
“Sam and I were neighbors. My family moved away, and I haven’t seen Sam since we were nine years old. Kevin traveled a lot and he stayed with us when he was in town. Had I known this was going to affect you this much, I would have booked a room somewhere else. I had no idea Miss Samantha Riley runs this hotel for her father.”
Becca remained at the window, silent.
Rob smiled and shook his head. He stood up, rummaged in his duffle bag and pulled out a fancy wrapped gift. He walked up behind Becca, wrapped an arm around her waist and raised the gift in front of her.
“Happy anniversary,” he said.
Flo W Ryder is 31 and lives in London, UK after moving between Brighton and Sri Lanka. She studied medical anthropology at UCL, London, and yoga teaching and therapy in India. She now specialises in yoga therapy for gut health. She is also a portrait and mural artist and has also written articles for UK and Sri Lankan magazines as well as her personal blog where she also writes poetry.
NUTMEG: Confessions of a narcissistic hypochondriac
She looked in the mirror, but she didn’t see a face. Her eyes zoomed in and slowly traced around her hairline, scouring the skin for blackheads and pimples like CCTV cameras sensing criminal activity. They moved over her eyebrows, scrutinising each hair like an army major checking his troops are standing inline. They followed the T-bar line down her nose, and she winced at the sight of a pregnant pore. Full, fat, beige: everything she despised. Her gaze briefly softened as it fell onto her undeniably full lips, but brittled again as she fine-tuned her focus on the tiny sharp lines lacing each labia. She opened her mouth to reveal an off-white that made her gasp and sigh in horrified disappointment. She slammed her eyelids shut and recoiled. No, not a face, but an image of imperfection goaded her from out of the glass.
V fled the bathroom and dived into her bedside cabinet. She grabbed her sea kelp, vitamin E and spirulina supplements and gobbled them up greedily. For “dessert” she squeezed out a tasteless cream bleach into what looked like a mini ice-tray and stuck one on each line of her teeth. She held her mouth closed with the determination of a police officer harbouring a convict, and as over-secretions of saliva slipped down her throat and dribbled out of the corner of her mouth, she found a little comfort in the hope that after an hour her teeth whitening kit would would make her beautiful again, well, at least a shade closer.
V worked 9am-5pm, Monday to Friday as a civil servant in the Town Hall of Piechester. She left for work at 8:15am in her little (easy-to-park-easy-to-clean) smart car, and returned home at 5:30 – 6pm, depending on the traffic. Her routine had been the same for 5 years. To kick-start her daily regime, at 6am her IPhone 7 was pinging with activity. She didn’t need to set an alarm. Health blog updates, and Google alerts silently squawking the latest diet and exercise tips, were being amassed from the far corners of the ether-world and stuffed into her external cyber-brain-box device. What would today’s algorithmic allopathic ringtone bring?
On this particular morning, on the very instant of regaining consciousness, her arm moved faster than her lifting eyelids and swung for the flickering filament to shove the azoic blue light into her line of vision. What new discovery had fought its way through the endless ethereal ethernet channels? What sales pitch of somatic science had ridden the backs of the latest trends, zeitgeists, fads and fashions in response to the worldwidewaves V had sent out on search engines like siren songs calling for exploitation? What was going to make, or ruin, V’s day today?
Her eyes hastily met with an update on the benefits of nutmeg. Her cerebral cortex was stimulated by the name of that nostalgic little spice that jazzed up her rice pudding back in 1995 at Granny and Granddad’s cosy cottage in Cornwall. Her heart rose as she read about the myriad health benefits: good for digestion, for neutralising bad breath, for the brain, the liver, kidneys, skin, sleep… Everything she needed, she suggestibly surmised. Nutmeg had her name on it. Barely blinking the sleep from her eyes, she logged into her Amazon Prime account and ordered a kilo of the all-things-nice spice to be delivered the next day.
She moved onto the next website alert, and found out that she probably wasn’t getting enough Chromium. She jumped out of bed, squeezed 15 minutes of pilates into 10, 20 minutes of yoga into 15, washed her hair only twice and briefly circled her supposed cellulite prone areas with a hard bristled brush, she could come back to that later, she assured herself. She downed a cocktail of supplements and luckily had some of her green juice left in the NutriBullet. She must pop into Holland and Barrett before work and stock up on the C-stuff.
The next day, she eagerly awaited her nutmeg delivery. She had taken half a day’s holiday to wait in for her package this morning. 10:00am looked up at her from the screen of her mobile phone; the 4 hours she’d been up already seemed like weeks, and she’d scrubbed her entire flat with bleach to pass the time productively, but deep in her heart of hearts, she knew Amazon wouldn’t let her down. Sure enough, at 10:02am the familiar face of Preston, the Wednesday courier, arrived at her door with a parcel.
“Hi V, how are you? Think it’s been nearly a week since I saw you last?”
“Hi Preston, not bad thanks, yes, I bulk ordered the aloe vera, and found a few things on the high street. Shops are finally clocking onto the good stuff.” She grinned with genuine glee, then quickly closed her lips to hide her teeth. She still wasn’t convinced they were white enough to be seen in public, especially by someone she saw as regularly as Preston. In the split second of her lips parting, Preston had to squint his eyes and take a micro step back as her incandescent smile burned into his retinas. He was instantaneously reminded of last Friday night at ‘Wenzdayz’ night club when he was throwing up under the strobe lights.
As Preston handed V her package, he watched her sore red hands reach out anxiously. The smell of strong bleach leaked out of her apartment door and he winced in mirror-neuronic empathy for the raw sting she must be experiencing at this moment. He waited patiently while she signed her electronic signature. She made the machine look so heavy. He glanced discreetly at her skinny body, ludicrously awash with an inch of fake tan. At least the extra layer of weight might keep her BMI in range he thought, half sympathetically and half sardonically. Her yellow hair frayed over her oppressed face like an overly-ironed curtain. She handed back the signed bulk of plastic and metal with a brief “thanks” devoid of eye-contact, and ran inside. Preston shuddered with pity and walked away.
Inside the screamingly clean walls of V’s apartment, she ripped open the plastic outer wrapping of the parcel and lovingly lifted out the bag of ground nutmeg powder like a new born baby. She pulled her over-night soaked chia seeds from the fridge and sprinkled a few well heaped tablespoons of nutmeg over them, added a spoon of Manuka honey, put on her morning breakfast meditation mantra, and tucked in. It tasted strong but good. “Familiar in flavour yet nouveau in form”. She must add this to her blog, she thought. As the glucose induced serotonin eased V into a near state of semi-serene calm, she ran her eyes languidly over the back of the packet. Suddenly, she froze.
Her focus caught on a phrase like barbed wire. Her pupils dilated with an arousal of pure fear. She nearly choked. She dropped the spoon and stood up, letting the chair tip back and crash to the floor; bruising her delicate calves… “WARNING: Too much nutmeg can be fatal”.
She darted to the bathroom, stuck her fingers down her throat and regurgitated every last meg of nut. Exhausted physically, and emotionally, she sat down on the bathroom floor and cried and cried and cried. Maybe she should just eat it and die. Trying to be healthy was all just too confusing! With a head full of bleach fumes and tears full of nutty nostalgia, she collapsed upon the cold hard tiles. The snowballing trauma of incessant episodes of hypochondria had finally caught up with her. She was utterly exhausted. Underneath her clinical cleaning routines, her bombastic beauty regimes and her seemingly sociopathic dietary requirements, her state of mind was as painfully loose as a hang nail.
Since her mother died of untreated diabetes when she was just 10 years old, V was flippantly diagnosed with anorexia nervosa and OCD. For years, little V sat watching her mother’s apron gunt grow and grow as she devoured the barely edible insides of infinitely unfolding packaging. Her mother, obsessed with the taste buds on the tip of her tongue, seemed oblivious as her own legs blackened, then greened, then yellowed and finally rotted away beneath her.
V was forcefully exposed to this daily horror show as though her eyes were being pinned opened. Brief breaks from surveying this slow “sweet” suicide were only awarded to her as orders to run to the shops to stock up on “supplies” of shitty excuses for food were screamed at her over shouts from soaps and serials on the gogglebox. As a result, V grew up compelled to keep her own blood sugar down by only eating the absolute minimum when she felt faint with hunger.
Her father took an alternative route to the grief of losing his wife by drinking and drugging himself into oblivion. All day he would get high and play violent video games, ordering V to bring him coffee, booze and cheap maize snacks. Did this guy know how to party or what? V approached her teenage years watching him slowly disintegrate into the festering carpet of crusts, crumbs, ash and ends. Whilst she slaved after him she learnt to look after herself, well, she learnt how to survive, and how not to die.
She peeled herself off of the tiles with a pathetic push and struggled to her feet. As she verticalised her spine her stomach somersaulted and her brain fell back down again. Urgh, I must call in sick, she thought, although she was just feeling so rough she fell on the sofa and fell back asleep.
Six sorry hours passed in silence, her limbs warmed yet her body ached and shivered. Past traumas, new stress and myristicin squirmed around her feathery mind like weevils on a spider’s web. V began to dream, or was she hallucinating? Some of the nutmeg had not been completely jettisoned from her gullet and it sunk into her otherwise empty stomach lining and into her bloodstream. Since she had piled on so much of the stuff, there was still plenty to effect such a small specimen of a woman. Mixed with the strong bleach particles wafting up her nasal flue, a potent chemical compound alchemised at the point between her eyes.
The vision was so vivid…
A shaman came, he was brown and round and proud. He told her that the key to all her health problems and woes could all be cured by just one simple task. It seemed so obvious, so perfect, so pure. Drink the blood of an unborn baby. The information resonated with a moral-less morse code logic intrinsic to V’s over-analytical thought processes.
After a few hours had passed V waded through the theta waves and arrived on the shores of consciousness. It was mid-night, exact time unknown. The blackness pounced on her as she lifted her heavy eyelids rendering her visual cortex useless for navigation. How strange it is to emerge from the sea of subconscious without seeing your feet step onto the sand. She followed her tactile system instead and groped her way along the walls, feeling for the familiar protrusion of the light switch which she eventually found and pressed down upon with a nervous finger. Even that was an effort for her feeble phalanges.
The brightness stunned her and she stood still, shocked by the immediate as well as the recent. What to make of it all…what to do next…?
“PING.…PING..PING ……PING!!” went the iPhone next to V’s crumpled pillow face. She’d barely been asleep when bull-shit beautifying business notifications shot at her like bullets firing from a masochistic machine gun. Guns, germs and coltan were the new weapons of the modern age. But today V was not interested in the soft sell of supplements. Within the split second she awoke she knew it was the hard stuff she needed. She reached for the phone, silenced the squarks, then opened the GP surgery app and booked an 8:30am appointment with Dr. Hyatus.
Since her initial jump start, it took V all of the 2.5 hours up to get up and get herself to the appointment which was just a 5 minutes walk away (she had deliberately moved to a flat located close to the surgery, for peace of mind). Her body ached like she had been squeezed through a washing mangle and back again. For some reason she forgot the spicy OD and surmised that she must have the flu… Or some sort of infection? God, sepsis maybe?? Maybe she fell asleep too close to the toilet and an iota of E-coli found its way into the tiny raw splits that had formed in the crevices of her knuckle skin that the alcohol gel she used 45 times a day had caused?? Meningitis?? Lymphoma??? Despite her fatigue she was panicking. She could barely dress herself let alone adhere to her usual morning routine of tan, tablets and trimtum-tea. Her limbs were shaking and her vision was blurred. She needed help NOW.
She flopped out of the flat and found her way to the surgery by pure muscle memory. Her mind was full of frightening fog. She fell into the reception and onto the desk. “Oh hi V, yes I saw you had booked in, back again so soon are we? Awwww,” the arbitrary greeting came from the woman on reception who had been steeled for such an entrance.
“Doreen, I feel awful, I think I’m going to die,” replied V, bursting into tears.
“Yes, you always do love,” Doreen pursed her lips so that they resembled a cat’s anus. “Take a seat and the doctor will be with you in a mo, and don’t worry,” she patronised, “you’re the first on his list”.
Doreen was used to V tearfully falling onto her frigid lap, it happened once every week at least. She felt sorry for her to some extent of course, but she was a pain in the arse to be honest and didn’t half take up a lot of resources, let alone appointments. In Doreen’s humble opinion, she thought V just needed a few good hot meals, a brisk walk in the countryside, and probably a good seeing to, but what was she to know eh? Anyway, she was just paid to book people in, what happened behind those closed clinic doors was not really of any interest to her.
Although… V did look an especially pale and clammy side of grey today and she hadn’t arrived wielding her iPhone like a town-cryer’s scroll, openly reading out all the symptoms she believed she was experiencing to the entire congregation of patients and practitioners whilst elbowing her way to the front of the queue. Doreen glanced over and saw the pencil line of a person rocking and staring at the walls. Ooo-er, she thought to herself, maybe there was something actually wrong with her this time.
As she sat to wait for her appointment V’s gaze got caught onto the expanding white washed walls directly in front of her like a deer in headlights. In a brief moment of clarity, she tried not to let panic, or the whiteness, consume her completely, so she closed her eyes and tried to breathe deeply. The focus was back on her body. Hang on a minute, her bum felt numb. Or was she floating? She checked the chair was still beneath her. Indeed, something solid was there. She daren’t look down to confirm exactly what it was in case she threw up. People wafted past V leaving trails of themselves in her line of vision. In her palinopsial peripherals, she noticed them melt into seats around her, merging into a mono-mass of colours and coughs.
Through the meaty mist, one woman snagged V’s bleary eye. At first, V didn’t know why. She closely followed the woman’s trailing trajectory travel across the room and lower itself into a seat next to V. V’s hackles bristled. There was something important about this woman. V couldn’t make out any facial features through the delirious distortion, yet this woman’s body shape didn’t melt away into the seat like the others. It stayed round and proud. She was pregnant.
A rush of adrenaline shot through V’s veins. Panic? Excitement? What was it? Only in this instant of this natal recognition did last night’s vision return to V’s consciousness, well, near consciousness. The shaman’s words were suddenly so clear in her head again – “drink the blood of an unborn baby”. The words had no real audible voice, no accent, no language but the Shaman’s message was the only thing that made sense amidst this swamp of brain sweat V was experiencing. They gave her an ounce of strength, a gram of relief, an iota of hope. Was the solution to all this suffering sitting right beside her? For a moment V stopped shaking and stared wide-eyed at the woman’s bulging belly.
“Mrs Gintub?” called Doreen from the archway connecting the reception to the waiting room. “The obstetrician is ready to see you.” Preggo got up and hastily walked away from V’s mouthwatering stare towards Doreen, glancing back at V with concern.
“Is she alright? I mean, should she be sitting here with all the “normal” people?” she whispered in an accent the Queen would be proud of towards the ever-open ear lobes of the arse-lipped receptionist. Seizing any opportunity to gossip, Doreen put her arm closely round the expecting Gintub and led her into the clinic room. “Don’t you worry my love,” she whispered back in her hoarse suburban twang, “she’s in here all the time; we know how to handle her, total hypochondriac that one, harmless of course. Bless her.” Doreen felt a genuine pang of pity as she refocused on the featherweight threat over her shoulder. Must get my angina seen to again, she deduced.
V shook herself as preggo and her precious bump disappeared from view. How could she even think such horrific, abhorrent and evil thoughts. Even if it could be justified, she reasoned that it would probably be logistically impossible to carry out an act of blatant cannibalism, especially in public and in broad daylight. After 10 minutes Mrs Gintub re-entered the reception area smiling smugly. “Thank you doctor!” she called behind her, “I just knew there was a perfect little person in there!” She gambolled out of the door into the sunshine and into a Mercedes Benz convertible waiting for her outside.
That baby’s going to be born with everything it needs, V considered enviously. V was unsure if she’d ever experienced maternal love, if she had, it was long before the female that spawned her had discovered Maoams and marshmallows; beyond V’s memory anyway. Despite the painful pangs of jealousy, she knew she must try and retune her heart strings to be “happy” for the “perfect-little-person” and its privileged life ahead. You will just have to rely on the doctor and healthcare system, she told herself, they must look after you – by law at least.
V was called into the doctor’s office by Doreen who showed her in whilst rolling her eyes in perfect tandem with Dr Hyatus’s. A subtle routine they had perfected over the last couple of years. V had never noticed.
“So my dear,” said the hairy fat man in the short sleeved checked shirt, “to what do we owe the pleasure of your presence today?” He smiled patiently and handed V the floor.
“There’s something terribly wrong with me, I’m hoping it’s just the flu or something, but it could definitely be something more serious – I probably need blood tests… I’m struggling to breathe, my pulse is racing, my heart just… oh god!” She clutched her chest.
“Ok, ok” said the doctor kindly, “Let’s have a listen”. He wheeled his chair, with a little too much mirth, across the floor towards V and applied one end of his stethoscope to his ears and the other to V’s bare bony back which she had prepared for him automatically.
“…And my head is pounding, my muscles are aching…I can barely see! And I’ve been hallucinating! Yes! Terrible visions!” Her exclamations were conveniently muffled by the earpieces the doctor was wearing so snugly.
“Are you urinating ok?” He asked routinely.
“Ummm, maybe, I can’t remember…I’ve been terribly nauseous…and actually vomited!” She remembered just in time. The kidneys were the last thing on her mind, but oh god, maybe he thinks she has kidney failure! She’d read about the dangers of that on the internet. “I probably need some strong antibiotics don’t I?” She pleaded.
“Well you don’t have a temperature…your pulse is quick but regular…have you tried taking a few deep breaths my dear?” He demonstrated some deep breathing and she joined his rhythm, slightly calming as she experienced a brief moment of human connection. “There, you see? Anxiety. That’s all. It’s only anxiety again isn’t it? Just take an extra diazepam, you should have more than enough from the last prescription. Go home and relax. When I’m feeling a little wrung out, Mrs Hyatus cooks me my favourite comfort food: egg on cheese on toast. I have a hot bath, a cup of cocoa, maybe with a dash of Disaronno” he winked, “ feet up and watch the snooker, and there we go, back to normal. I suggest you do the same for yourself.”
He knew V lived alone, and felt a little regretful for mentioning his Mrs. “Now off you pop.” V did actually feel calmer. “Are you sure?” She begged. “I just felt like I was on death’s door this morning! I do feel a little better now…do you think I’ll really be ok?” “There’s certainly nothing sinister going on, I can assure you” assured the doctor. He smiled with the professional technique of a stage magician and V was momentarily convinced. He turned towards his computer and started typing, or seeming to.
V stood up and started to walk towards the door. That was that, she supposed. Her breathing had certainly steadied so she no longer felt her heart was in trouble and the room had stopped spinning. She nipped in to the lavatory to test the urination situation. As she limply lowered herself down to the bowl making full use of the hand rail, she came into direct eye contact with herself.
Directly opposite the toilet was a full length mirror. Who the hell wants to watch as they relieve themselves? How is this useful, even to disabled people? She, and (most of) the rest of the world, wondered. She looked at herself and couldn’t have felt more ashamed. Not only were her pants round her ankles and her eyes lolling to the back of her head, she was reminded that she had forgotten to apply any make up to her greyed out face, or to fine-tune her frazzled hairs. And what on earth was she wearing!?
Adequately satisfied that she was pissing in a straight line, she darted home with her head down. Once inside her own sterile sanctuary, she ran a bath. Obviously there was no way she would dream of the doctor’s disgusting dietary recommendations, you only had to look at his hanging waistband and jangling jowls to see the consequences of Mrs Hyatus’s version of “love”. But perhaps she could follow part of his advice. He certainly seemed relaxed. Numbed maybe. She’d settle for that.
She opened a bedside draw to reveal neatly stacked lines of diazepam packets and popped a couple into her freshly scrubbed and gelled hand. Filtered water washed them down her eager gullet and she slid into her lavender and epsom soup. V’s eyelids began to droop as the nape of her neck dissolved into the hot water. The scented steam increasingly entered her nostrils as the space between them and the water gradually grew smaller.
Suddenly she heard a familiar voice. Or felt one.
A windy wet whisper wound around V’s wispy white blonde hairs, erecting them around the back of her delicate neck. She gasped inwardly and shrugged her shoulders towards her ears to counter the cringeworthy sensation. This sudden motion caused a tiny tidal wave of water to gloop over the edge of the bath and splash onto the tiles.
Whhell? Whhhat…are…you…whhhaiting…for? The effervescent empty voice vibrated over V’s bare body, cooling her skin like the top of a hot cup of coffee being blown before sipping.
She shivered and looked around for its source. V knew that behind her left shoulder there should be nothing but white wall, yet her strained rectus muscles positioned the lenses of her eyes to capture the suggestion of a smile nestling in the rising steam. Her headache migrained.
The smile began to mouth words: Yesss child…it’sss ok…I can sssee you are suffering, I can feel your pain…I’m trying to take care of you…let me help you…I know that you need me to…and I know that you want to help yourself…just listen to meeeee…take my advice…The air and water rippled in unified resonance.
Holograms and hieroglyphs of figures and figments danced above the water behind V’s back, coaxing her to spin round, left, then right, to get a better view of what the hell was happening in her bath tub; salty suds spewing in all directions.
“Who are you? Where are you? What are you? What’s happening? What is it you want me to do??” She frantically fired her FAQs in the general direction of the steamy dream scene lording it up in her lordosis. Finally, like a genie from a very wide lipped bottle, the steam streamed upwards and formed the little fat frame of the shaman she had envisaged in yesterday’s nutmeg led reverie. His hue umbered in the glow of V’s 100% natural beeswax candles. At this moment, she surrendered to the steam scenery and lay back in the bath to watch the shamanic shape unfurl, now straight in front of her and as clear as a cunning plan.
Ssseeeee….it’s only meeeee…. The salty, soapy shaman reassured. I know you had a bad day, but I know you also sssaw the sssolution, the golden ticket to Well-ville, the delicioussss, yesss DELICIOUSSS, recipe for perfect health. Specks of soapy spittle flew at V’s face, her eyes squinted and squeezed in defence. It felt like there was a blade in her brain, slicing through her optic nerves. The shaman’s smooth little belly jiggled as he chuckled, amused by V’s ungraceful reaction to his return. Yet, somehow this smirk subconsciously comforted V and she allowed the warm bath to welcome her back into its cradling embrace. Her head pain quietened as her inner ears relaxed to listen.
And why shouldn’t you have some nourishment? Hmmmm? Why is it always the lucky onesss? The wealthy, healthy bastards who don’t appreciate the luxuries they have attained ssimply by being born…they don’t appreciate the life they have been given, do they? They’ll abuse it, they’ll abuse themselves, their bodies, minds, health, they’ll just take it all for granted. They’ll use and abuse the love, life and happiness served up to them on a golden plate, and fed to them with a sssilver sssspoon. Why can’t YOU have a little piece of the perfect pie? Hmmmmm? YOU will cherissshhh it, appreeeeeeciate it, won’t you? I know YOU will.
And you only need a little bit… He grinned like a Cheshire Cat.
V couldn’t help but agree with the shaman’s wisdom, he was a shaman after all. She’d read about them on the back of a packet of maca powder. They were the medicine men in tribal communities where all the best products were coming from these days – quinoa, tiger balm, shark fins and snake oil: all those expensive essentials. Just a little bit? She asked silently. Her now elongated longing eyes emphasised her desperation which had already stripped her of any shame. She even forgot she was naked and sat up without noticing her tiny tits bob on top of the bath’s lukewarm meniscus.
Just a sup! He replied in equal inaudible volume. A sup for you and a sup for me. His eyes, like conkers, glinted cheekily in the candlelit bubbles and shot a rainbow beam of prismed light straight through V’s hollowed and aching heart space. With that flash she sat up spluttering.
She looked around to see the rippling bathwater had stilled. The calm after the shamanic storm. She rubbed her eyes and ears in disbelief. It must have been real…she could still feel it. Her skin was still goose-pimpling, although admittedly the bathwater was now stone cold. She’d lost time again, how long? Who cares, she thought. The shaman had spoken, and he was the only one who had ever given her any attention. His secret smile was now impressed in her consciousness and seemed to provide her with comfort whenever she visualised him in her mind’s eye. The secret they shared gave her hope and purpose. Why shouldn’t she take back the hope that was ripped from her life by her neglecting parents? Why shouldn’t SHE have a life worth living?!
She wasn’t afraid anymore, she was determined. She finally had support, a friend, a father. But first things first. She jumped out of the bath and onto the internet. As she threw open her Mac laptop, entered her password and honed in on the home screen, her eyes glanced at the digital clock in the top right hand corner: 6pm? That can’t be right? She can’t have been in the bath for over 7 hours?! But she didn’t consider this conundrum for too long. She was on a mission and it began where it always began. Google.
After typing in phrases like “unborn baby blood” with words like “drinking”, V eventually came across the practice of “placentophagy” – the eating of the placenta after child birth. She found that “99% of animals eat the placenta after birth to get more nutrition, increased mood and better energy levels”. Sounds perfect, she thought. She needed all of that. She also found that many Asian cultures are in the habit of this practice, claiming that it “can help the mother and baby to bond”, and “aid relief from post-natal depression”.
Of course, that was of no use to her, but apparently the reason for the improved mother-child connection is that the nutrients in the placenta can elevate levels of ‘oxytocin’; she’d heard of this hormone before. It was said to be the endogenous love and hug drug that increases lactation, but is now believed to be released simply when humans hug. She always felt she had been starved of this at birth and ever since. Well she wanted, and deserved, some of that.
And then she found the kicker. The stamp to seal the deal. Celebrities, January Jones and the Kardashians were now endorsers of the practice. She knew she’d heard of it somewhere before! And if these women were doing it, these magnificent alien bitches from planets only accessible through satellites and magazines, then she must do it to become just like them: images of absolute success and perfection.
However, this was all post-natal. Her shaman was telling her to go pre. Fresh stem cells In Utero. It sounded like a posh nouveau way of dining, like Al Fresco, she amused herself with the idea. Her empty belly licked her lips. The fresher the better. She couldn’t argue with her personal little guru-nut. She liked the sound of all those fresh juicy stem cells. Her mouth watered, bearing in mind she hadn’t eaten since yesterday breakfast, which of course didn’t really go down that well. Nothing else she could think of would sate her now either. Not when there was foetus to fry!
Despite being momentously encouraged by her internet research, she was at a loss as to where to begin her cesarian culinary expedition. And we ain’t talking salads. She needed inspiration. And there was only so much she could do with internet research. Even youtube was disappointing in terms of baby-blood-food-porn. She tore herself away from the laptop table and for the first time in 48 hours felt she could function calmly. She got herself ready, each part of her routine now followed to a T. She even made a cup of trim-tum tea and sipped it through pursed lips as her oat milk and apple cider vinegar face mask solidified on her gaunt face.
She stared in the mirror as she patiently wiped the white hot GHDs over her, now essentially crunchy, white wisps; not really noticing as the broken strands sprayed up around her head like a peliferous golden aura. Now, her gaze just glazed over her imperfections and picked at pock marks as though she could see her transcendent transformation already occurring. One sup and all blemishes would be banished. She glowed with anticipation. Her glassy grey eyes moistened with delight.
She carefully dressed herself in her favourite garms: wet look leggings which made her legs look like the inner tubes of biros and a white T with the words, ‘Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful’ written across the front. She smirked to herself at her own choice of clobber. It seemed so apt, for once. She finished her tea, went for a wee, picked up her door key, and prepared for a spree.
Outside the Autumn wind was still blowing, but her bare goose-pimpled arms didn’t bother V today, even though she usually suffered so terribly from the cold. This time the goose-pimples reminded her of the shaman speaking to her, helping her, soothing her. They were the warmest cuddle she had ever felt.
She drifted towards the doctor’s surgery, half consciously tracing the steps back to the source of her initial excitement. 7pm. The surgery was now closed. Access denied. Or was it? Her mind sought through scattered thoughts for a contingency strategy. It wasn’t hard. Her eyes flicked onto the digital door code. She had been here so many times and often been the first in the queue as Doreen, or one of the other desk jockeys, had opened up at 8:00am sharp (not a minute earlier, mind). Because of her regular visits she realised she had memorised the door code that had been lazily tapped in by fingers still heavy with last night’s Lambrusco. At this hour of a morning, V was always as alert as a five-eyed fly.
So she tapped it in. Muscle memory bypassing moral code. 1969 – was it supposed to be funny? The connotations made V feel nauseous. The door buzzed softly and in she went. No alarm. Nothing. She stepped inside with caution and was instantly engulfed by the darkness and an overwhelming smell of stagnant sorrow. Her visual and olfactory sensations were emphasised by the vast emptiness of the normally stuffy space.
Is this what ghosts smell like? V wondered as she inhaled the leftover traces of illness and worry. Maybe not ghosts. Maybe just the holes people tread into the world with their heavy footed problems; impressions of infirm left in stillness. Despite the heavy atmosphere, V’s hyper mind pinched her attention back to the task in hand. She headed for the computer on the desk and got behind it. Instantly it felt like a space she shouldn’t be in. She loved it. It was the space that stood in her way every week. A hollow obstacle. A solid gap. It was the sacred space in a chalk circle of bureaucracy that shut her out with a Kafka-esque exclusivity.
With a sigh of satisfaction, she sat down in the ‘driver’s seat’. Not before spreading out a plastic disposable apron, of course. She wasn’t stupid. She had seen the detective programmes. DNA gets everywhere. She grabbed a pair of sterile gloves from a box on the desk and expertly slipped them on. She turned on the monitor and after a few minutes of tensely watching the bastard cursor spin like a methodical maniac, she was into the database.
Shit. Password protected. She looked down and saw a handwritten post-it taped to the screen saying “Password for database: Fleetwood Mac”. She would have guessed it anyway considering their bloody broken record background music choices. That or Enya. She scrolled down the list of patients to “G” – Jennifer Gintub.
The Grove, Hambleton Cottages, Hyswith, HY328N.
Hahaha! So far, so good, and way too easy.
Hyswith wasn’t too far. She could get the 44 bus straight there from outside the doctor’s surgery. It was no Merc, but it would have to do for now. V, stood impatiently at the bus stop, alternating her stringent stares between the road stretching into the distance and the electronic sign updating the bus times. 2 mins, 1 min…the lonely wait allowed her to notice that her limbs were shivering and her teeth were chattering. Yet, before she could succumb to her limbic system’s urge for shelter, headlights loomed from the far end of the road bend. Here was the 44 in all its small town glory. Warm relief enveloped V in recognition of its arrival.
She stuck out a handful of flickering fingers, and then, for a strange moment, for some inexplicable reason, she felt invisible, as though the driver could not see her. It was getting dark, but the bus shelter was lit up and she was standing under its harsh white bulb. In a moment of panic she waved her arms ferociously and shouted “STOP! She saw the driver’s eyes lift in sudden recognition and screeched to a halt beside her. Had he seen her before he heard her? Was she fading away? She felt like she was disappearing. She needed it soon: the baby, the blood, the life.
She jumped on as the doors hissed open. “Return to Hyswith please”, she told the bespectacled yet solidly built male driver and pointed a £5 note at the plastic shield between them. Despite her dramatic entrance, he remained unstirred. With his eyes fixed on the road ahead, he took the note, and mechanically issued the change with a few heavy fingered button pushes. It fell down like a tragic win at an end-of-pier casino hall.
V scooped up the change and scrambled to the back of a bus, groping for the poles to steady her sparrow-like gait as the bus took off with an ungainly thrust. There was no one else on the bus, just an empty crisp packet scratching its way around the floor and a fly buzzing steadily above a sticky spillage underneath the fold-up seats. How is it not effected by the momentum? She thought, envious of the fly’s individually volitioned velocity. She flopped down onto the threadbare seat and scooched over to the window side. She was glad no one else was on the bus: no witnesses.
She stared through the condensation on the window and caught sight of her feathery reflection amongst the dark spiky shapes of trees and bushes lining the country roads that were taking them further away from the town centre. Her sunken saucer-like eyes stared back at her through the worn surface of the perspex glass. Jennifer would never have got this piece-of-shit machine to her high-end Hyswith home, she sulked.
The bus hurtled ahead with the numskull driver at the head-end. Sure, he was the brain of this dire contraption yet the whole entity was on autopilot. V had another sudden wave of panic: had she been overlooked? Forgotten about? She saw a sign for Hyswith hurtle past, illuminated by the headlights, and pulled herself up from the corner shadows as though emerging from a reedy swamp. She staggered down the crumb encrusted aisle, finding a bell to press on the way down. “Ting”, it went and the bus obediently halted to another sudden stop. The driver kept looking dead ahead and V glanced at him to check he was actually a living, breathing being. Inconclusive, she decided. The doors hissed open and she hopped off. The bus rattled off without her like a bat out of Hyswith hell.
Relieved to be on firm footing once again, V felt her hernia settle back down in her stomach. She got out her iPhone and opened up google maps. She’d saved the address and now all she had to do was follow the blue dot. There was a stillness in the air that she hadn’t experienced in the long time she’d been living in the city and for a magical moment the smell of damp leaves and dew lifted her attention from the little blue locus. She heard rustlings of unseen species in the bushes and despite her twitchy reactions, something sweet and long forgotten stirred in her sternum. Oh that anxiety, she assumed, it doesn’t half pull on the heartstrings. For a while now, anxiety was all she could remember feeling. Her head promptly hung back down in its familiar position above the iPhone.
A few steps along the road, a fairy-lit gravelled path rolled out in front of her like a terracotta carpet. She saw the calligraphic and ivy-entwined sign for “The Grove” welcome her from the right. No, she thought, I mustn’t go directly down here. They’ll see, or hear me. She saw the house at the end of the gravel drive and followed the hedge row to the left until it led her to the side of the house. She screwed up her eyes, held up her scrawny arms and plunged into the bushes…
…her twig-like limbs fought their way through the dense hedgerow and the dense hedgerow fought back. Eventually, V rolled out the other side into some sort of geometrically aligned herb garden. The delicate moonlit beauty of the silver rosemary and invigorating perfume of oregano was lost on someone who only consumed herbs in tablet form, rarely tasting flavours as the encapsulated dried and powdered plant material bypassed the tongue and headed straight into the stomach and bloodstream. Furthermore, her tainted intentions for being amongst the charming chives kept her eyes on the nearing prize. Crouching behind an aromatic shrub just large enough to conceal her tiny twiggy body V peeped through its pretty plump leaves to a well-lit window a few yards in front. Watching the framed glass like a TV screen, V saw a dramatic scene commence.
There she was, Jennifer Gintub. She was almost too real in front of V’s eyes. She was walking into her kitchen, baby bump abruptly leading the way. Yet there was something different about her energy, the way she was moving. It wasn’t the light-hearted gallop that V witnessed parading her around the doctor’s surgery. No, it was a limp-legged foot-drag that brought her into V’s view. Her head was hung low, weighted by a very heavy brow and bottom lip. Following her closely was a man, her husband, the man who had brought her into the Gintub with him. He was right up her backside, and as she moved away from him he grabbed her arm and spun her round to face him.
Even through the double-glazed glass meters in front of her, V could hear the man’s bellows binaurally beat his wife in the face. Trouble in paradise? V smirked, with a hint of guilty glee. Jennifer’s eyes were screwed up and her head pressed back in a vain attempt to escape the vocal blows. He had her held by the collar of her silk shirt and as he finished shouting he shook her away from him and she fell onto a chair and burst into tears. V hadn’t been able to hear exactly what the severe expression of wrath was about, but it was as extreme a telling off as any she had witnessed on any of her beloved soap operas. She was thrilled.
In the next moment the front door to the left wall of V was swung open and the harrowed husband stormed out and down the gravel path. Although V’s body may have been in full view if Mr. Gintub had looked to his right, this time V knew for sure that she was invisible to him. The husband got to his overly sized Range Rover parked in the driveway, started the engine and sped off recklessly down and around the hairpin bends. V looked back to the tele-esque screen. Jennifer was in pieces on the kitchen table, her bulbous belly stuffed underneath it as she held her head in her hands and sobbed. After a few moments she got up and went to the larder, into the fridge, and yanked out a bottle of Pinot Grigio. She unscrewed the lid, grabbed a glass the size of her currently inflated uterus and poured in half the bottle of wine. She sat back down at the table, stared at the wall with eyes clad in mascara-clumped eyelids, and began gulping.
Disgusting, thought V. What a bloody waste, and how irresponsible! Suddenly the once mouth-wateringly delicious foetal blood tased like pickled gerkin brine on V’s imagined taste-buds. That can’t be good for anyone, the baby, me, or even her. V sniffed in disappointed contempt. She should stop her. This was surely the time to act before too much damage was done. It was why she was here after all, wasn’t it? Yes, the time was now or never. The adrenal driving force of desperation shook off V’s invisibility and she scrambled to the front door. In mere moments a plan had formed in her mind and she was ready.
Another button, another bell to get her through to the next level of her Nutmeg mission. “Bringgg!”
Jennifer Gintub jumped out of her Pino-ed pineal dream state at the sound of the exuberant doorbell. How drunk must she be not to have heard someone walking up the heavily gravelled garden path? She wondered with a little concern and looked into the bottom of the fish bowl she’d just drained. It can’t be him already, he’d be with her, by now, and anyway he had his door keys with his car keys…who could it be?
Her now calmed, almost apathetic demeanour heaved her heavy body from its slumped sitting position and screeched the chair legs along the real oak floor boards as she stood up. She sloshed and waddled her way to the door with an ungraceful Grigio-ed gait, pushing against frivolously dressed unnecessary side tables like a half-cut gondolier making his way down river. As V was about to impatiently ring the bell again, Jennifer wrenched the large wooden and steel door open just enough to stick her charcoal tear-stained face through. She looked V up and down with unselfconscious caution.
“Yes?” She ventured with a curious smirk. This scratched, spindly figure looked vaguely familiar, but she couldn’t be bothered to wrack her brains as to where she might have seen her before. The domestic despair coupled with the baby booze goggles gave Jennifer a somewhat ‘devil-may-care’ attitude towards this sorry looking stranger. She looked totally harmless.
“I’m so sorry to disturb you, um, madam” said V, using her naturally frantic speech and dishevelled appearance as tools in her ploy. “I’ve just crashed my car a mile or so down the road and I can’t get back into it to get my mobile, coat, or anything! Can I please borrow your phone to call the AA? I know it’s getting late…if I could just come in for a few moments, I’d really appreciate it. It’s so cold out here.” Her lip quivered on cue.
“Well I suppose so,” responded Jennifer, feeling a little sympathy for this poor unfortunate soul. What a silly girl, probably swerved to avoid a pheasant or something pathetic like that, she surmised. To her own surprise she was also suddenly desperate for some female company. She opened the door widely and motioned to V to come in. This gesture revealed the yummy bump in all its juicy glory.
“Oh wow, you’re pregnant!” said V with feigned surprise, and walked in towards her.
“Yes yes, 8 or so months now.” She reeled off the verbatim lethargically as she closed the door behind V.
The house was warm, woody and littered with golden lamplight. V slipped off her tatty plastic ballet pumps and felt her tiny tired feet melt into the soft woollen carpet that lined the hallway, like shrews nestling into their fluffy burrow for a long winter of hibernation. A warm shiver wiggled up her spine and her forever furrowed brow relaxed.
“Would you like a cup of tea…or glass of wine?” dared Jennifer who was brazenly pouring herself another.
“Why not” joined in V as she followed her into the kitchen. Jennifer handed V a fishbowl of her own, testing the strength of her feeble wrists. V lifted it to her mouth with both hands and sipped at the rim. A green tinted glow washed down her gullet and (as sensitive as we all know V is) she instantly felt at ease. A little rosy colour even graced her hollow cheeks.
“Delicious!” she gasped.
“Should be,” retorted Jennifer, “it’s from his special collection, fifty quid a bottle or something ridiculous,” her chin wagged mockingly. “Might as well enjoy something of his,” bitterness started to reach the tip of her tongue. “Not that I have been able to lately of course,” she pointed to her belly, “but tonight it was totally necessary to calm my frayed nerves! God knows what stress can do to a baby, and me!”
Suddenly she got on a roll, and it just felt so good to release… “Why shouldn’t I think of my needs hmmm?! All he thinks about is his needs, I mean, I know I’m obviously not my sexy, slim, sensational self when I’m this huge whale and can’t even see to shave my legs properly, let alone anything else, but does that really mean he should be able to go off shagging the next tanned, blonde, size 6, 25 year old who comes along. I mean, he even thinks he can justify it! Says I’m making a fuss, and my role is to bare the children and not ask questions!”
She slumped back on the chair and began sobbing again. She had completely forgotten why V was there, and just finally felt able to vent some spleen, or womb, on this seemingly friendly face.
“I’m sorry darling, god, you must think I’m a total state, and a terrible person! And to be honest, I am! He’s always telling me I’ve not eaten the right food, or done the right exercises, and that I’m harming the baby when I have a nap…as well as telling me I look dreadful in everything I wear and should make more of an effort with his friends even though I’m exhausted. He says he finds me repulsive when I’m this size and is sending me on the baby-weight boot camp when it’s born. All our friends know what he’s like but they wont say anything as he’s the chair of the country club and they all want to keep their memberships! I just want to leave it all behind – him, the club, this life, but he says he’ll leave me with nothing and make my life, and the baby’s, hell if I try to divorce and shame him. He’s a mason from a high up family background in law too so god knows I wont get a penny! But the child will have a good life with his money if I stay with him….Ooooohhhhhh I just want to die!!” She sobbed until she gagged.
V watched and listened and was genuinely moved to outrage. What a fucking arse hole. Is this how the other half live? Is this what she was aspiring to? Is this the perfect marriage? Family life? A nonsensical wave of guilt washed over her. She was suddenly sorry to be slim, in her 20s, blonde and fake tanned to a crisp. With all her dyes, bronzers, bleaches, exercises, diets, vitamins, was she trying to be the sort of girl a man like that wanted to run off with? Is that the dream? Is that the love she was searching for in place of the love she lacked in her early life? This poor pained person in front of her was carrying the purest piece of untainted life in her belly and this is how she was being treated?? Too much was happening in V’s heart, she couldn’t work it out, she just suddenly didn’t want to be all of that anymore….
Instead, she found herself rushing over to Jennifer Gintub and wrapping her arms around her. “Oh you poor thing! He sounds like an absolute sack of shit, and this is all so wrong and unfair! You shouldn’t be treated like that at all! You are so beautiful just how you are right now, and you are so important!” She didn’t know where her words were coming from, the warm green glow settled around her heart centre and her tongue became loose and liberated. She started to sob with Jennifer. They hugged and shook and sobbed together, V’s rickety frame and wispy hair encasing Jennifer like a home-made halo as she stood over the seated pregnant woman.
Eventually, running out of steam, Jennifer looked up at V and stopped crying. “Thank you darling” She said recovering some composure. “Oh gosh, you don’t need all this! You need the phone and to sort your car out and probably get home to your boyfriend or family, they’ll be worried about you!”
“Actually I live alone, and am in between boyfriends, and well, umm family too at the moment actually,” V confessed. She laughed nervously but felt less ashamed than usual. “And oh er, the car is, urr, ok, it’s just on a grassy bank out of the way, no need to hurry really” she remembered the atrocious lie guiltily. “I was just cold more than anything.” She added honestly.
“Well let’s get you warm at least!” Jennifer jumped up clumsily and grabbed a cardigan from the back of a chair and wrapped it around V. Instantly, the cosy cashmere engulfed V like a living creature’s nurturing nuzzle.
“Oh wow, um thank you, this is lovely, a bit too lovely for me”. She would never take this off again if she could help it, she thought.
“Nonsense, it’s just an old one of his. He probably doesn’t even know it still exists! And why don’t you stay here tonight with me? The spare room is all made up and he won’t be back until god knows when! Pete, our driver, can take us both into town in the morning, we’ll sort it all out then”. Her face screwed up, “He’s with Melissa tonight – I even know her fucking name! Ugh! Disgusting!” She held her brow in shame then looked up to smile pleadingly, “it will be nice to have some friendly company, I do get so lonely since we moved away from my family and friends and into the town where he grew up. He says it will be good for the baby to know where its father comes from, and go to the school he went to and all that crap.” She looked back at V and lifted her expression sweetly, “What do you say?”
All the evil in V’s mind started to evaporate as she looked at the bedraggled desperate female in front of her. A strength came over her heart that she had never felt before. For the first time in her life, someone needed her. It was invigorating. Life flooded through V’s veins like Iguacu falls. “Ok!” She agreed and beamed a wide smile. Jennifer’s face lit up!
“Oh perfect! I know it’s a little strange, but what the hell, maybe its fate that we met like this. Just let me know if you need anything, a bath, whatever. Oh and we may as well tuck into these!” Jennifer went to the larder and after a moment of rustling and reaching, and knocking bottles over with her protruding belly, she pulled out a beautifully hand-painted wooden box. “I’ve been saving them for a time like this…it’s just not come up! They’re from a friend I met travelling in Indonesia on my gap year yonks ago. She was from Bali, we kept in touch and she became a chocolatier!”
Jennifer carefully lifted the wooden lid off the box. “Wow”, said V. “They look super special, are you sure you want to have them now? I don’t think I’ve ever seen such luxurious looking chocolates.”
“Yes, I’m certain. It’s perfect. She told me to share them with a dear friend and enjoy them. This was before she knew I was married and pregnant. For some reason, I didn’t want to admit that I’d settled down and became a housewife, she was so exciting and liberated.” Each woman picked up a chocolate from the beautiful box. They were the colour of mahogany and dusted with unrefined sugar and sea salt…and something else…something aromatic, a little bit spicy, and a little bit familiar…
Each woman looked into the other’s eyes as the delicious delicate treats entered their welcoming gobs. “Oh wooooowww!” They said together through slow, deep orgasmic giggles. “That’s ridiculous,” said Jennifer as she grinned a big brown-toothed grin.
“That is the best thing I’ve ever eaten” said V dreamily, a tear coming to her eye. They languidly gobbled up a few more chocolates each. Chuckling and chiming expressions of pleasure.
Suddenly there was a banging at the door. They both swallowed prematurely and were shook out of their shared sensual sojourn. “Oh god, I recognise that bang. He’s drunk.” Jennifer got up to look through the window, as she did so, V casually looked at the back of the box of chocolates for the ingredients, mainly out of habit but this time also out of intrigue. Her eyes widened with aghast. ‘Nutmeg’ was the familiar spicy flavour.
“You’re not coming in!” Screamed Jennifer through the glass of the kitchen window.
“This is my fucking house!!” Came a muffled yet still almighty roar from the front garden.
V was shaken from her chocolate shock and got up instinctively to see what was happening, this time from within the TV screen with one original protagonist now on the outside. It was as though she had entered the Big Brother house. She was certainly trapped in a modern-day dystopia.
“Oh god, he’s in one of his states,” whimpered Jennifer as she double locked the door and put the bolt across. “I’ve got someone here with me!” She called out in desperation.
“I bet you fucking have, you fucking whore!” His slurred public school enunciation increased the vulgarity of his profanities. “I’ll kill him and I’ll kill you!!” He started thumping on the front door after his fumbling keys fell to the floor in drunken vain.
“Shall I call the police?!” V offered, frantically trying to suppress the spiced high rising from her belly to her brain by rummaging through her little handbag, forgetting her lie about it being locked in her fabricated crashed car. She couldn’t find it anyway. An extra surge of alarm washed over her and every hair on her body stuck out of her like a million splinters. Her heart pinched and punched her intercostals as though it was trying to break free from its cage of ribs.
“Oh god no, they’re all on his side!” spluttered Jennifer. “Just help me with this!” She started pulling an antique armchair from the drawing room into the hallway.
“No! Let me do that,” V dismissed her personal painful panic and instinctively relieved the pregnant woman from the heavy task. She harnessed her entire, albeit minimal, bodyweight to the lug the solid wood chair to the front door. Fear fuelling her meagre muscles.
“Christ, don’t let him see you!” shout-whispered Jennifer. “With his whisky goggles on you’re probably his type!” The double edged sword of this statement was too sharp to experience as an insult right now, instead V felt it as a genuine warning. She grabbed and heaved any chair and table she could find to barricade them in.
“You can’t do this you cunt! You can’t keep me out!” Came bellows from outside. “I’ll rip my son out of you and bury your fat, useless body in the garden!” He started to throw his own heavy mass at the door. The locks clanged but the door stayed fast. The sound of gravelly skids inferred a run up as he tried again. The door clanged and a hinge screw leapt out of the aged oak. The women gasped and hopelessly scrabbled for more resources.
“Stop it! Why are you doing this?!” Cried Jennifer. He didn’t respond. They heard footsteps running on gravel away from the house.
“What’s he doing?” V looked to Jennifer. “I, I, ur, do not know.” She replied with a distant tremble in her voice. For the next few moments a deafening silence ensued.
Suddenly they heard the loud rev of an engine. “His bike!” Screamed Jennifer. Headlights lit up the house through the hallway window. The warm amber lamplight was transformed into white heat. The engine roared and to their absolute horror, Gintub’s Harley Davidson motorbike crashed through the antique front door, tearing it off its hinges and snapping through the heap of furniture like twigs underfoot. The bike fell on its side as he flew off it and landed amongst the rubble; he had got in.
V and Jennifer held each other like the doe caught in headlights that they truly were. Gintub picked himself up and stood proudly in front of them. Despite his dramatic entrance, his demeanour was now calmed by the satisfaction of his first victory. “So you’re a fucking dyke now eh?” He smirked at his cowering wife in the shivering arms of an effeminate ball of silly string. His off-kilter eyes shone bright red as he leered at them, “I’ll destroy you both!” He yelled in another fit of rage and launched himself towards them.
V fell down and scuttled away from the incoming violence. Gintub grabbed his wife by the throat. His face intruded into her face and he spat words straight into her mouth: “What the hell do you think you’re doing?! You can’t get rid of me!! I own you! You belong to me! My woman! My WOMEN!” He looked around but V was out of sight. He turned back to Jennifer, held her at arms length with one hand and punched her hard in the face with the other. She moaned as the pain soared through her bruising cheekbone, her lip cut on her own teeth. She could feel her baby cry inside her.
V’s blood was effervescent. Her skin was bursting with pure outrage at the injustice she knew was not only Jennifer’s but deeply her own as well. All these years she’d tried to please this monster in its many forms, eventually becoming a monster herself, and now it was destroying the nourishment she needed in front of her very eyes. The veil was lifted. The fog had cleared. Amidst the sounds of blows and howls, she scrambled up to her feet. Alone, she knew she was no match for this fully grown male. However, she knew she wasn’t alone. In her head a familiar fatherly voice was vehemently cheering her on; holding up her arms and leading her into the kitchen.
The Nutmeg shaman was alive and thriving inside her. NOW V! NOW! YOU CAN DO IT! THIS IS THE TIME! IT IS NOW!
Without the need for thought, V wrapped her skinny fingers around the neck of the super-sized bottle of Pino Grigio standing on the table and ran back towards the horror show in the hallway. Just as Gintub pulled his bloody fist back for another thump at his pregnant wife, V yanked back her little arm with a spice-fuelled-super-strength, raised the bulbous bottle high over the man-monster’s sweat-dripping head and brought it crashing done with the weight of a 20 stone sumo-shaman behind it.
The bottle smashed into a thousand pieces leaving V stood clenching the bottle neck and gritting her teeth. Gintub rolled onto the floor, trailing blood from his head all over the cream carpet. Jennifer jumped back in surprise. Through her pain she grinned at V, “Well done! You got him!” as though he was a pernicious pest with a lethal sting. She then slumped on the stairs wheezing, whining and clutching her precious abdomen.
But V wasn’t listening. She turned the bottle neck around in her hand and stood over the scrambling man on the ground. It wasn’t over. He turned to face her. “You little fucking bitch!” He screamed up at her clutching his sodden, aching head. V’s eyes glared down at the damaged beast. “What does my wife want with an ugly little anorexic whore like you anyway?! I’ll bend you over and snap you in half with my….”
Luckily, he never finished the end of that sentence. Instead V stuck the jagged bottle neck straight into his gnarled features. He tried to scream but only gargled his own blood. She pulled it out and felt his flesh suction into the cylindrical tunnel of glass in her hand. She stabbed him again, catching an eye. He gasped and gargled in grotesque fits. His arms flaying around in pathetic attempts to stop her. She did it again and again and again. He fell down and she kept doing it. His face, then his throat, then his chest: swing, stab, suction, gargle, until he had completely stopped moving.
As his heavy body sank into the once super-soft, now sodden wool, V alighted from his body on which she was kneeling and looked at what she had done. She was ecstatically relieved. And ravenously hungry. She turned around to see Jennifer standing in catatonic shock behind her. But it wasn’t the bloody mess of the monster-man oozing a rainbow array of bodily fluid into the luxuriously carpeted floor that had widened her eyes and dropped her jaw.
“My waters have broken! The baby is coming!”
It was as if the monster-man had never existed. As though nothing obscene, abusive or violent had ever happened. And as though nothing else on earth could matter at all. V beamed the biggest smile she had ever allowed on her face; its fluorescent rays putting Jennifer in the spotlight.
“Oh my god!! That’s amazing!” They grinned at each other in a moment of pure joy. Then both women looked around themselves at the hot bloody, splintery mess they were standing ankle deep in. “Well I suppose an ambulance is out of the question,” said V, almost wryly.
“It’s too late anyway, it’s coming now!” Jennifer was gasping in agony; crouching in amniotic fluid.
“I’ll boil some hot water,” said V naively, “and urmm…wash my hands.” She looked down at her dripping red hands, then snapped out of this distraction of disgust and threw the bottle neck over her shoulder onto the twitching corpse. She dashed into the downstairs toilet and threw open both faucets. She could hear Jennifer swearing and deep-breathing her way to the kitchen. She grabbed at the Molten Brown hand-wash on the basin, pumping away at it like it was the one that needed CPR. She furiously scrubbed at her hands, staring hypnotically as the marbling blood and water trickled down the plug hole. Quite beautiful, she thought.
She dried her hands on the the mauve hand-towel, bringing it with her as she dashed back to the labouring widow. Jennifer was looking for something around the back door in the kitchen. V filled up and boiled the kettle. “What are you looking for?” She called out to Jennifer as she opened all the cupboards looking for a large bowl. “The key! To the back door! I need to get into the garden!”
“The garden?” Asked V. “Why?! What do you need from out there?”
“My herb garden. I want to be in my herb garden. I want to have the baby there.”
“Whatever you say,” said V. “We can go this way,” and she led Jennifer through the whole in the front wall. On the way out she grabbed a huge fur coat and wrapped it around Jennifer’s shoulders. Carefully, but with haste, they walked around to the herb garden, where V had started the evening’s drama by creeping into Jennifer’s life only hours ago. As they approached the neat array of fragrant herbs and delicate flowers, something black and shiny caught V’s eye. Her iPhone. Luckily, Jennifer hadn’t noticed it so V stamped it into the earth with her bare feet. It sank easily into the soil.
It was dark and the air was still but the moon was full and high and sending down vibrant beams of silvery light, just enough to light their way into the green patch of grass in the centre. In the twilight, the scent of sweet basil assured Jennifer of their arrival in the right spot and V felt intoxicated as the myriad magical aromas penetrated her once fraught and foggy aura. “Here,” said Jennifer. V helped her lower her quaking body onto the soft turf. She sighed with joy as she landed. “He would never have let me do this! He wanted a caesarian in the hospital. He said we were to-posh-to-push!”
“We?!” Scoffed V. Happy knowing that Jennifer was where she wanted to be, she ran back into the house, poured the boiled water from the kettle into a clean washing up bowl, grabbed all the fluffy towels she could carry from the clean laundry pile, slipped on some slippers she found by the door and ran out smothering herself cosily in the towels and her new favourite cardigan as she did so. She arrived back at Jennifer’s side just a few moments later.
“Are you warm enough?” She asked.
“I’ve never been so hot in my life!” Sweated Jennifer. “Ok, great,” V smiled. She’d never been so happy as she rubbed Jennifer’s back and laid out the towels around her. Jennifer had kicked off her blue knickers and they hung on the oregano bush like a flag. “It’s a boy isn’t it?” V asked kindly as the undies rang a bell.
“I don’t actually know,” replied Jennifer. “I told him it was a boy because he wanted a boy so badly I couldn’t face finding out it if it was a girl. I can’t imagine what he would do to me, and the baby if it was!” she exclaimed hysterically crying and smiling in relief at the change in circumstances.
Suddenly instinct took Jennifer huffing and puffing onto all-fours. V helped her then started to rub her lower back in circular motions. Her eyes started to fixate on her own hand as it appeared to leave trails. Her vision was warping in the dark moonlight. Suddenly she saw the shaman in front of her, sitting amongst the rosemary, smiling. He started to sing to her. She joined in as if she had known the song all her life. Her voice was sweet and soothing. Jennifer’s face began to relax from its pained grimace and her breathing slowed and deepened. The song, the circling massage and the deep belly breathing all synced in a steady rhythm. V moved behind Jennifer’s hips to ‘centre stage’ and held her hands between Jennifers thighs. There was a groan followed by a head, then a scream, then a body which fell neatly into V’s outstretch towel, and then a load of other stuff V assumed was the placenta (after all her internet research earlier that day).
Jennifer let out a huge moan and then a big heartfelt laugh. She looked between her legs to see her healthy baby, wrapped in a white fluffy towel, being shown to her under her protective body. She carefully manoeuvred herself into a sitting position, lifting her leg over the umbilical chord, and sat down to hold her baby. V handed the baby to its mother, herself still in a serene state of song and ceremony. “It’s a girl,” she announced softly. Jennifer smiled through her tears.
They sat for a few hours altogether. V had gone in to the house to get cushions and pillows to make a comfortable make-shift bed as Jennifer was reluctant to leave the garden. Eventually, Jennifer and her baby fell asleep under V’s vigil. The sun started to rise, bringing with it an unseasonable warmth to the garden, and shedding daylight on the birthing arena.
The placenta glinted on the white towels. Can’t hurt, thought V, and she scooped up a piece in her fingers and shoved it into her mouth. It was no less revolting that other superfoods she had tried. Could be soaked chia seeds in coconut milk with a touch of salty saurkraut, she thought. She left the mother and baby for a moment to go inside, grab another bottle of wine from the fridge and pour out a civilised sized glass for the morning. She then enjoyed a celebratory breakfast akin to champagne and oysters. After she had indulged on her share, she put the rest in a Tupperware box for Jennifer and put it in the fridge with the rest of the wine.
Just as she returned to the scene she heard the sound of crunching gravel under wheel. She jumped to protective attention and scurried to the driveway to see who was coming. It was the amazon delivery van, driven by none other than Preston. V could do nothing but stand guard. Preston pulled up beside her, parked, turned off the engine and got out the car. “V?” He started towards her, “Are you ok? What are you doing here? What happened?!” She realised she must look a state; blood all over her clothes and probably her face too. For some reason she just hadn’t been that bothered to look in the mirror.
“We had a baby!” She burst out. “Well, not me, Jennifer!” She motioned over to her snoozing friend in the garden. Jennifer stirred at the commotion and was looking up and smiling and waving at them. “What!? Wow! Oh my god! It must have been a difficult one?!” He surmised from the blood mess. “Well, ur, we did our best, but yes, got a little messy…come and meet our new arrival.” V walked him over to the outdoor harem of pillows, towels and furs.
“Oh my…wow…this is such a surprise…I didn’t even know you were friends, let alone, um, haha, wow!” He knelt down at Jennifer’s side and looked into the baby’s gooey little face. “Are you ok?” He asked Jennifer, who was momentarily distracted by the umbilical chord. Preston hid his gag-reflex politely. “Should you go to hospital?”
“I’m fine actually,” replied Jennifer relaxedly.
“Oh, ok,” said Preston, happy to go with the flow. “I’ve got a delivery for you!” He remembered to his own relief. He got up and went to his van and lifted out a large box. “I think it must be a baby related contraption looking at the Mothercare label!” He said excitedly. “But I can put it inside if you like?”
“NOOOO!” Both women shouted in unison, stopping him in his tracks. “Bring it here! We can open it here, it’s a cot, we can put her in it.” Explained Jennifer quickly. V sighed in relief and Preston walked away from the direction of the bike exploded house and murder scene. He brought the box over. “So is it a girl or a boy?” He asked.
“A girl,” they both replied.
“What’s her name?” He asked.
“Good question.” Said V, “Do you have a girl’s name?” She asked Jennifer.
“I’m just glad it’s not a boy as he was set on the name Barclay.” Said Jennifer, inducing a cringe in the three of them.
“Where is Mr. Gintub anyway?” Asked Preston, looking around nervously. He’d always tried to arrive at a time when he and his derogatory mocking tones wouldn’t be in. He liked Jennifer though, she often made him a “proper coffee” so he would sit and chat for a few minutes after he’d delivered her weekly unnecessaries.
“Umm, never-mind about that. What about the name?” Insisted V.
“Well honestly I never dared think about it, until you were singing that beautiful song. I heard you say, ‘Pala,’ that was my Indonesian friend’s name that gave me the chocolates. What does it mean?”
“You sing V?” asked Preston. He looked at her impressed.
“Did I sing that? I don’t know where it came from or what it means actually.” She blushed beneath the blood splatters.
“Well I think it’s beautiful. I’ll phone Pala and ask her what it means and tell her I’ve had a baby and I’m naming it after her,” said Jennifer, proudly. “I’m afraid I just don’t like the name V, otherwise…” she said bluntly. V was getting used to her frankness, and appreciated the sentiment.
“Actually my real name is Valerie, it means strength, but I never felt strong enough to pull it off,” said Valerie.
“Well I think you’ve bloody well earned it now,” said Jennifer. “It can be her middle name, after her godmother.”
“You suit Valerie!” said Preston excitedly. “I think two beautiful, strong ladies found their names today!”
Valerie’s heart fluttered. She felt beautiful, safe, and strong for the first time in her life. She’d enjoy this feeling for as long as possible before she persuaded Preston into getting his hands dirty. Despite her undeniable newfound strength, she could do with a hand burying the body in the garden.
ENTITY IN THE BOX
“Bailey get the door!” papa bellowed from his recliner.
Bailey slid down the banister of the staircase, skidding to a halt in front of the door. He grabbed his stool and looked through the peephole. No one was there, but the doorbell rang once more. Weird, Bailey swung the door open and looked around. There was no one, just a box.
“Bailey, who was at the door?” papa asked.
“Umm, nobody just a package I think.”
The box wasn’t like any he had seen before. There were vines protruding from the sides, sealing it shut.
“Well is it heavy? Bend at the knees and bring it over,” papa said, cracking open another beer.
Doing as his father instructed, Bailey knelt down to grab the box. When he did, the vines overtook his small frame. Before he knew it, he was trapped. Bailey’s heart raced as he tried to call out for his papa.
“Welcome my dear boy,” A voice rang in the distance.
Bailey tried to relax, listening closely to what the voice had say.
“I’m so glad you decided to touch the box.” the voice said.“I wasn’t sure if you would, you seemed, apprehensive.”
Bailey felt the tension on the vines loosen up as they fell to the ground. He was shocked to find out he wasn’t on his front porch any longer. The pitch blackness caused his heart to leap into his throat.
“Where am I? a- and who are you?” Bailey asked.
“It’s always the same, boring questions but, I will oblige. My name is Nahmor, I was trapped in this box millennia ago by my not so better half. That isn’t important however, what matters is I am a magical being who can grant you one wish.”
“One wish, in exchange for what exactly.”
Bailey was only 8, but his papa taught him nothing was ever free.
Nahmor scoffed as he made himself visible to Bailey. His hair was dreaded and resembled the vines on the box. He wore a jeweled vest that lit up the area around him. He wasn’t wearing pants, rather he didn’t have legs as he glided closer to Bailey.
“What do you possibly have that I want kid?” Nahmor asked.
Bailey thought about his papa and his friends back home. He wished only to be with them. He watched Nahmor as he continued to fly circles around him. How could he not be lonely in this void with no family.
“What happened to your family sir?” Bailey asked, stepping toward the floating entity.
Bailey’s innocence took Nahmor by surprise. He wanted to ignore the question, but he knew Bailey would only ask again.
“We had a bit of a falling out. Hence, I am in this box stuck using my powers to grant the wish of whomever is lucky enough to pick it up.”
Bailey revisited the horror of being wrapped in the vines and sucked into the box, how lucky he was.
“You said you were in this box for millennia, haven’t you granted enough wishes?” Bailey asked.
“My father will decide what is enough.” Nahmor said, the light around him dimming.
Bailey could barely see Nahmors eyes behind his hair. Each lock with a golden clip attached to the end.
“I know what my wish will be.” Bailey said.
“Oh, do you now? What will it be, candy, toys, money?” Nahmor asked, his jewels shining bright as ever.
“I wish your father would forgive you.”
“What, Why?” Nahmor asked, retreating at the request.
“If he forgives you, then we both can go back to our families, right?”
Nahmor flew around Bailey slowly. His fingers twirling his hair.
“You are one interesting mortal. I have been locked in this loop of granting mans desires for an eternity and you are the first to wish me free of it.”
“Well, can you do it?” Bailey asked, eyes gleaming.
“There’s only one way to find out.”
Nahmor flew high into the endless darkness until he looked like a star in the night sky.
“Close your eyes kid, I’m gonna have to turn the lights on.” Nahmor’s voiced echoed through the void.
Bailey cupped his hands over his eyes and instinctively crouched.
“Bailey, what are you doing son?”
Papa? Bailey opened his eyes to see he was back on his porch. He grabbed onto his father tightly.
“I thought you said there was package at the door.” papa said, patting his son on the head.
“There was it’s right...” Bailey turned to see the box and Nahmor were gone.
“You did it.” Bailey said softly.
“Who did son?”
“Oh, nothing papa.”
Marko Modiano, a world traveler with a keen interest in culture, literature, and language, is a native son of California. He currently resides in Stockholm and Amsterdam, where he spends his time writing and lecturing on the magic of the spoken and written word.
The Condemned Man
It was late autumn, quite cold this particular year, with little light in what was day, and with nights growing longer. Among the monks there was a feeling that they were becoming creatures of darkness, never seeing the light, and however hard they tried, they could not deny the impact it had upon them, even though they went about their business as they always have, starting each day before dawn, meditating well into the afternoon, and the same in the evenings, then slumber. They would repeat this pattern on the following day as well, with the same succession of events, in what seemed like an endless movement. They were driven by the understanding that no matter how enlightened one might become, there was always another step one could take. And even if that was not possible, they would nevertheless persevere, and carry on, diligently, with this work, despite the fact that the season had become disagreeable. In the darkness of autumn, they would fall into this cycle, and live, and relive, one day after another, in the same manner, as if each movement was a replica of the one before, and the one that was to follow. It was in these cycles that the men and women that lived in the sanctuary found their place in the world.
Feng had been at the monastery since he was nine years old. His memories of his life before becoming a monk were now fading away with the passing of each new season. His mother and his father never came to see him, which was expected, and when he reached the age of 20, and could leave and return home to his parents, he asked of the elders that he might stay on and continue with his studies. And so he stayed, and many years passed, and he became, in time, esteemed among his peers. This was all that he had in this world, his place there among the monks, and the respect they had for him. His past life as a child in the home of his mother and father was now noting more than the ghost of a forgotten memory, and although he may reflect on it from time to time, he no longer longed to be with them, but instead put that part of his life behind him and looked forward to what was to come. Anything that could possibly take place in his life which was significant would come in the future. He would find peace in the world, and tranquility, and become one with all things.
On this particular day, he was with a group of children who had just come to the sanctuary and were learning about humility by going into the village to beg for their sustenance. The children were nine years old, for the most part, with one or two of them the age of ten or eleven. He had them lined up in the marketplace, each with their beggar’s bowl extended. The village people would come and put rice in the bowls. This is where he was when the messenger came to fetch him. He had his bowl in his hand, and was begging with the children, to show them that no one is too proud to be so humbled. He was watching them, looking into their eyes as they stood there begging, trying to see in them their strength, that they could stand there, proud and unbowed, and feel no shame. He wanted them to be honored, that they could come before these people with nothing, and beg, and in doing so, show the world that they were now denouncing all that is material, and were preparing to dedicate their lives to the attainment of spiritual enlightenment. The messenger stepped forward as he was standing there begging and told Feng that he was called for by the High Priest, and that he must come right away, for it was important. And so Feng asked the boy who had come with the message to stay there, and help the children find their way back to the monastery when they have received their portion, and were satisfied, and had been sufficiently humbled. He then left the marketplace, and the boy who had come to fetch him, and made his way back to the compound. It was unusual that the High Priest would ask to speak with one of the younger monks. It was a great honor to stand before him, something which would make him more respected among the others, that the High Priest had asked to see him, and that he had gone to him, and had spoken with him.
When Feng arrived, he was treated with great respect, and all present bowed before him, and he was given tea, and then they invited him to go in to the High Priest. When he entered the room, he was struck with an odd sense of fate. Something was about to happen. He could feel it. The High Priest was standing before the statue of the Buddha, with his back to him, and he said nothing, but simply stood there. Feng did the same, and stood there in the middle of the room, before the High Priest and the statue of the Buddha. He was silent for a few minutes, then the High Priest turned, and offering Feng a seat, took the seat next to him. He then placed his hand on Feng’s arm and began to explain to him why he had been called to come speak with the leader of the monastery.
He told Feng, “You have been asked to come because there is something which needs to be done, and it is something which requires a person of exceptional integrity, which is why it was decided that we would call on you, to see if you would be willing to accept the challenge.”
Then he stopped and waited to hear what Feng had to say, and Feng told him that he was honored. He would always be eager to serve and would carry out with enthusiasm any task which the High Priest secured for him. The High Priest was pleased, and more tea was brought in, and the two of them sat in silence and drank the tea. Feng did not speak. It would be unwise to speak in the presence of the High Priest. He knew that the High Priest had something to tell him, and that it would be forthcoming, and so he sat there and sipped the tea and waited for the all-knowing one to express himself. It did not take long before the High Priest began.
The High Priest told Feng, “I have spoken with the Commissioner. They have a man who has committed a crime, and they are going to throw him over a cliff, at the sea, so that he falls down upon the rocks, and breaks his bones, and then, there, on the rocks, he is to perish, with the crashing of the waves, and the birds picking at him as he leaves this world.”
After the High Priest had said these things, he fell silent. It was apparent that the execution, and the manner in which it was to be carried out, displeased him. And so he sat there for some time, expressing with his silence his displeasure. Then, looking into Feng’s eyes, he told him, “It has been decided that one of the monks from our monastery can be with the man when he is down upon the rocks, and give him some comfort, in his last hours. In this way the man will not die alone. But there is a condition, one which may not under any circumstances be broken, and that is that the monk who is with the man does not touch him, or make him comfortable in any way, and does not offer him food nor drink. All that the monk may do is speak with the man. I am asking you to go and witness this, see them throw the man upon the rocks, and then go to him, and spend your time there beside him, and comfort him if you will with your conversation, but do not in any other way alter his departure from this world. Will you accept this task, and in so doing give me your word that you will respect the agreement that has been made with the Commissioner?”
Feng did not hesitate. He looked to the High Priest and told him that he would adhere to the conditions of the agreement, and that he would go to his quarters at once and prepare for the journey to the sea. He would need to bring food and drink that would keep him for three or four days, and something to shelter him from the elements, and from the ocean in case the man was cast upon the rocks where the waves crash down, sending up a mighty spray of sea water that would surely be disagreeable not only to him but also for the condemned man. The High Priest was pleased that Feng had agreed to help him. At the same time, he was unhappy that the condemned man, whom he did not know, was to be killed in this fashion. He had spoken to the Commissioner many times about these things, and made it known that he felt that it was wrong, and not a good omen, that people in the settlement, and in the villages surrounding the settlement, could be condemned to death in such a manner. But the Commissioner would not listen, and now he was prepared to kill a man in a cruel manner, to make an example of him, so that others would know that the crime that the condemned man had committed was not to be tolerated. All the High Priest could do was to ask that someone from the monastery was there with the condemned man, so that he would not die alone. He could do no more. And Feng was a good man, a man with integrity, who was fast and true. He would comfort the man, and make his transition easier, and would not break the conditions which had been agreed upon. One could trust him.
Feng was told that he would be informed in good time when to prepare to leave, but it did not take long before a messenger visited him, to tell him that the Commissioner would be passing by the monastery on the way to the sea on the following day, and that Feng was to be ready, and have his belongings with him, after his noon-day meal. Feng prepared his things, so that he had food, and drink, and something to shelter him from the spray of the waves as they crashed upon the rocks, and a hat to cover his head, and the next day, in the early afternoon, the Commissioner came with soldiers on horseback, and footmen as well, making a procession that went on for the length of the road, and at the end of the procession there were eight men carrying a cage, and in the cage he could see the condemned man, chained, staring curiously at the monastery and at the people there who were looking at him in awe. Feng was given a place in an empty carriage, and falling into his seat there, he tried as best he could to make himself comfortable. The seats were hard and unagreeable, and it was all but impossible to find a spot where one could sit contentedly and at the same time see the world passing through the tiny window that adorned the door of the carriage. The procession proceeded while he was struggling to find his equilibrium, which he eventually did find, and then, for the better part of that day, and the following day, he sat there, feeling the carriage rolling forward, watching the shifting scenery pass the tiny window of the carriage in which he was travelling. Finally, when he could smell the salt in the air, and hear the waves as they came crashing down upon the shore, the procession stopped and he was asked to come out, and so he did, and stood there before the vast ocean, the soldiers and horses, and the cage in which the condemned man stood looking off into the horizon, over the rocks and the ocean which spread out before him like the giant mouth of some undetermined species of fish.
The Commissioner was there with his Representative. They had been travelling in a much more elegant carriage than the one reserved for Feng, one adorned with cushioned seats, images of carved dragons spitting out fire into the dark of night, and a majestic coat of arms upon the door. A small tent was assembled, one equally as stylish as the carriage, where the proceedings where to take place, and soon they had the condemned man there in front of the Commissioner so that he could hear the accusations and have the sentence read out to him, before the executioner took the prisoner, and bringing him to the edge of the cliff overlooking the sea, threw the man down upon the rocks so that his body would be battered and broken, and he would be left there to die, with nothing to sustain him, as the ocean delivered its havoc upon him, bringing wave after wave to crash down on him, and cause him much discomfort, as he slowly passed into nothingness. The monk did not have any opportunity to intervein, to talk to the condemned man, or to offer him comforting words before he was thrown to his death. He could only watch from a distance. A guard was called to stand with him, and so he was there, some distance from the proceedings, where he could not hear what was said, and if he stepped forward, so as to hear better, the guard stirred, and stood between him and the ceremony going on in the tent, barring him from coming any closer. It was all over almost as quickly as it began. He saw the executioner bring the man to the edge, overlooking the sea, and cast him down. Feng then went along the path leading to the beach below, and there, passed on along the rocks which jetted out to sea, and upon which the condemned man was resting, broken and twisted and breathing irregularly. Feng made a place for himself on the rocks beside the condemned man. He did not speak to the man and inquire of him if he was in want of someone to talk to in these his last hours upon this earth. Instead he was quiet. He would wait.
The man was there upon the rocks, broken, severely injured, but not to the extent that his life would end within hours, or indeed, this day. He could not move any of his limbs, or his head, and when he opened his eyes, he could not see out to sea, but was instead positioned so that he looked straight at Feng, and beyond Feng, he could see in the background the beach stretching out before the bluffs that were covered in grass. It was overcast, grey, and wet with the mist coming off the sea, but it was not raining, and it was not exceedingly cold either, and Feng worried that this man here before him could potentially live for several days, and die not of exposure, or of his injuries, but of hunger and thirst. If that were to happen, he could easily live a week, or even more, before succumbing. Feng was sorry for the man, that in not being so severely injured this would mean that he was unlucky, that his death would be a slow drawn-out affair, and in such circumstances, with his bones broken, and his exposure to the spray of the ocean, he would suffer from much discomfort, and leave this earth not in tranquility but in pain and despair.
After some time, the man opened his eyes and looked at Feng. They had never met, so the man would not recognize him, and it was probable as well that he would not know why Feng was there. It could be that the man would wrongly assume that Feng had simply been passing by, and finding the man there, came to help him, to take him from the rocks, and provide him with shelter and with food and water. He would be shocked to find out that such was not the case. He could not possibly know that Feng was there because the High Priest at the monastery felt that it was wrong to leave a man to die alone. One should never leave this earth alone, but always have someone there to give one comfort in those last moments of life. Feng would have to tell the man this, because otherwise he may misunderstand, and in doing so, have hope, and Feng did not want the man to go through that, to first be excited because there was someone there to help him in this most difficult of trials, only to find out that the presence of the stranger had no bearing whatsoever on the predicament in which he now found himself, and in this discovery, go from joy to anguish. Feng did not want the man to suffer in this way, for his situation was indeed tragic, and to make it worse would be a serious trespass.
The man was there on the rocks looking up into Feng’s eyes. He was too weak to speak. Feng sat there beside him and waited until he was sure that the man could hear what he had to say, and was strong enough to take it in, and understand what it was that Feng said to him. He did not find a chance to speak until several hours had passed. It was when the man tried to lift up his head, so he could better see what was to be seen in his immediate surroundings, and in looking into Feng’s eyes indicated that he was now aware of where he was, and of the seriousness of the situation. Before the man could speak Feng looked into his eyes and told him “I am only here to give you company. I cannot help you, as I am sworn to neither touch you, or give you anything, or in any way help you so that you may somehow survive. You have been punished for something which you have done, I know not what, and the penalty for your misconduct was that you were to be thrown down upon the rocks, and severely injured, remain there until you passed from this earth. This has taken place, and now, you are awakening, on the rocks, with no chance of survival, and it is my charge to be here, to keep you company, until you have taken your last breath.”
Feng could see that he had understood what was said, and so the man closed his eyes, and tried to push his head back a bit, indicating that what he had heard was not received as anything good. The possibility that he was perhaps going to survive this event was, with this knowledge, much less likely, and so what he now had was the simple realization that he was to perish, and seeing as he did not seem to be so severely injured from the fall, but too broken to be able to walk or crawl off the rocks, he knew that he would die upon these rocks, and that it would take a good measure of time, and that apparently made him despondent. He closed his eyes in despair, and tried again to push his head back, as a way of indicating his disappointment over this realization. Feng did not say anything more. He was not there to speak, but to listen.
But the man did not speak to him, at least not for some hours, as the day drifted into early evening, when the sun, setting to the west over the horizon, cast a magnificent yellow glow over the water. When he did speak, it was to ask for water. He told Feng that he was thirsty, and that he desperately needed something to drink, and when Feng did not respond, but simply looked at him, the man told him, “then you are one of my executioners, for your refusal to give a dying man something to drink kills me no more or less than the act of throwing me down upon the rocks. You should leave, for your presence here only adds to my despair.” And with that, the man closed his eyes, and appeared to have fallen asleep. Feng was now deeply perplexed. He knew that there was wisdom in what the man had said. It was true, it was not possible to be there, and at the same time not participate in the killing. Beyond that, he did not know how to express compassion without some form of physical contact, and because he was barred from expressing compassion in that fashion, everything that Feng held to be sanctified was now compromised. He believed that one should never take the life of another, never deny another assistance when someone is in dire straits, never treat someone differently than how one would have wanted to have been treated if the tables were turned and it was Feng who was battered and broken and wanting something to drink. He knew that what the man had to say was true, it was wrong for him to be there, and he should leave. Yet, he had given his word that he would stay with the man until he passed, and not assist the man in any manner, and so he was stuck there, stuck between his commitment to his word, and to the alarming realization that his presence implicated him in the killing, something which, to him, was abhorrent and contrary to everything which he held to be right and just.
When Feng was sure that the man was sleeping he turned the other way, so that, in the event that the man awoke, he would not see what he was doing, and took out some rice cakes, and tea which was sweetened with the leaves of mint, and ate his evening meal there in the half-light of early evening, sensing behind him the descent of the sun which was slipping away just under the rim of the horizon. It was quiet there on the rocks beside the man, and he was greatly fatigued by all that had transpired these last hours, and downhearted as well, and so he tried to sleep. But he was deeply disturbed and found it difficult to seek refuge in sleep. Instead, he rested there upon his back, looking up at the heavens, and contemplated his predicament. For some strange reason he wondered what the man had done to deserve such a fate. Would killing him in this fashion be somehow justified if he was the perpetrator of some terrible transgression? He knew that it did not matter what crime the man had committed. Nothing a man or a woman can do could ever justify the taking of a life. But he could not help wondering what this man could have possibly done to inspire others to plot against him, and in so doing, conjure up the harshest of punishment. Why did he turn his thoughts to this man’s misconduct? Perhaps, if he was aware of the nature of the crime, and knew that it was most insensitive, where, for example, he had inflicted great pain and suffering on the innocent, it would be easier to play this role. Would knowing that the man had done something terrible beyond words make it easier to deny him the water he requested? But Feng knew the answer. It was wrong to be there, if being there meant he could not give the man water, and in other ways as well, show compassion for someone in need. He had made a mistake in coming here.
These thoughts plagued him as he lay there in the half-light of dusk. Then, as it grew darker, so that the sky seemed to be filled with an endless number of tiny dots of light, he fell asleep. All through the night he tossed and turned, for he was restless, and uneasy, and racked with a compelling sense of wrong doing. Everything that he stood for in life, the sum total of his humanity, was compromised, and all because he had given the High Priest his word that he would stay, and offer no comfort, or sustenance, or water to quell the man’s thirst. And because of these thoughts, his rest gave him no comfort. Then, at dawn, he did as he had done the night before, and turned away from the man when he awoke in the early morning, and had something to eat and something to drink, before turning to the man, and there, watch him, perceive his face, his closed eyelids and his twisted body. When the man stirred, he imagined, they would talk.
But the man did not awake until well past the morning hours, when noon was not far off. He began by making terrible sounds, sounds which seemed to indicate a bad dream, but then, as it was apparent that he was awake, Feng realized that the man was crying out, like someone in severe trauma would do, sobbing because, as he awoke, he was realizing that his bones were broken, and he could not move, and there, on the rocks, with the waves crashing down all about him, he would wither away, cold and hungry, and with great thirst. He would die this way, battered against the rocks, the life slowly running out of him. That realization, that he was there to leave this world, caused him such distress that he cried out, like a condemned man struggling against the men who were forcing his head down upon the block, so that the executioner could bring the blade down, and snuff out the divine life within. The man did so for a good while, his eyes closed, mumbling, crying out, sobbing, while Feng sat there beside him and listened and watched in horror. But then finally, as he grew weary, he stopped sobbing, and a sense of the sublime came over him, and so he calmed down, and opening his eyes, he looked at Feng, and gave Feng a sad understanding smile, as if to say that he pitied him, and forgave him, and recognized what a difficult trial it must have been for Feng, to be compelled to remain, and watch, and participate, in this manner, as another human being is forced to endure this slow ritualistic death. He just laid there, his face turned on its side in a most unnatural twist, and looked into Feng’s eyes, and did not speak, or make a sound, but only looked in awe at the stranger who for some odd reason had been chosen to be there, and witness, and experience, the last hours of his life.
The tides were up at this hour, and so the crashing of the waves upon the rocks was more of an imposition now than the previous evening, and the two men were made uncomfortable by the violence of the waves crashing on the rocks, and of the water which was trashing about and turning to a fine spray, above their heads. Finally, the man spoke. He told Feng, “I see that you are still here.” Then he closed his eyes again, indicating that he was in extreme discomfort. Overheard, there was the cry of the sea gulls that were on the beach in the distance, looking for what they could find in the wash where the waves crashed upon the beach. Then opening his eyes once more, he asked of Feng, “Now you must tell me, why are you here?”
Feng was looking down at the man, struggling with an intense desire to put his hand on the man’s shoulder, to comfort him, but he was sworn not to touch him, so he refrained from doing so. He found it difficult to find the words. He was distracted, as well, by the birds down the beach. They were alive, thriving, at one with the elements, and here was this man, ending his life, beaten and battered upon the rocks. How could he explain that he was here because he had promised someone he respected to come and witness what was transpiring, and to stay, and see that the condemned man did not die alone? Would he have come if he had not been asked? He did not know the answer to that question, but he feared that, had he simply heard that a man was to be executed in this manner, he would not have felt compelled to participate in this way. Perhaps he would have even wanted to block it from his mind, to ignore it, as something that took place in the outside world, where there was no respect for humanity, and consequently, no reason to demonstrate with one’s actions that it was always wrong to end a life. Now, he could not ignore what was taking place. He told the condemned man, “I was called upon to see what was happening to you, and then to stay with you, so that you would not die alone. That is all.”
And so the man blinked, looking up, into Feng’s eyes. “Then you are one of them,” he said, over and over, “You are one of them.”
He was silent after that, as the sun made its movement upward, reaching the highest point in the sky. It cast a dim yellow light down upon them, through the haze at the seaside, with the spray and mist of the crashing waves upon the rocks, so that they were both wet, but while Feng was covered with an oilcloth, and wore a tightly woven hat that kept his head dry, the condemned man, having nothing to protect him, was exposed to this constant assault, with the salt water dripping from his face, his clothes soaked through. And despite the fact that the sun was there to warm them, the constant barrage of the waves, and the spray, as well as the breeze coming off the sea, put a slight chill in the air, just enough to make the condemned man uncomfortable, and so he shivered, making a haunting sound and causing Feng to feel ill at ease.
When the sun began making its march across what turned out to be, at least for Feng, a seemingly endless afternoon, the man spoke again. He said to Feng, “Surely no one told you of my transgressions for the simple reason that I have done no wrong. It was all a trick. Those men who brought me here, they are evil creatures. They plot to kill me, not as punishment for something I have done which is wrong, but because they want me out of the way, so that they can take my wife, and my daughters, so that they can abuse them.” He had made much effort to get these words out, and so now, after just a few sentences, he grew tired and closed his eyes, and appeared to be sleeping, as the waves crashed down upon the rocks all about them. Feng listened to what the man had said, but he took no stock in it. He had been warned that the man would attempt to convince Feng that he was innocent, and entice Feng into comforting him, and perhaps even give him something to drink and eat, and in so doing, save him, or at the very least prolong his life in some way, and so Feng listened to the man, knowing that what was being said could very well be a fabrication, and contain no element of truth. They sat there upon the rocks as the endless afternoon got lost in itself, saying nothing. They were just there, looking about aimlessly, in silence. More hours passed, as the winds blowing off the sea increased in intensity, before the condemned man began once again to speak. He wanted to tell his story because he was now fully aware of the fact that he would not survive, and by telling his story to this stranger, his life would somehow make more sense than if he was simply silent, and in that silence, slowly faded into nothingness there upon the rocks.
Looking past Feng as he spoke, he said, “I was born nearly forty years ago in the village of Mặt Trăng. My father was a simple farmer who attended a small patch of land on the slopes of one of the many mountains surrounding our village. He did not speak much, but instead preferred to be quiet most of the time, and my mother, who looked after the children, was a woman of few words as well, and so, growing up in their home was very much a challenge for the children, who became, in time, equally prone to sit in silence and not speak. I was not sent to the monastery like the eldest sons of other families in our village, but was instead taken in by my father’s brother, who was a fisherman on the lake to the north of where we lived, and it was my father’s brother who taught me the ways of the world. He would instruct me daily seeing as we had much time there in his boat upon the lake. He taught me of the respect a man must have for a woman. This, he told me, is one of the greatest virtues, along with honesty, compassion, and reverence for all living things. I went fishing with him each day, and each day we would bring the fish we had caught to the town where people gathered who were selling or purchasing things, and people would pay a good price for the fish which we caught, and consequently we were prosperous. My aunt, who was, like her husband, an outgoing social person, took to me and treated me like a son, and had much to teach me about the ways of men and woman, and so, after some years, I stopped longing to return home, and instead looked upon my uncle and aunt as a child looks upon their father and mother, and many years passed which are now remembered as wonderful and fulfilling.
One day, when I was just 21 years of age, my uncle brought me to an adjacent village, and when we arrived, we were granted audience in the home of one of the more prosperous families. The husband of the household received us, and took us in, and offered us tea and things to eat, but said nothing, as was our custom, to not speak over a meal, but to sit and eat in silence in each other’s presence. After the meal, we again fell into silence. I was certainly perplexed. My uncle had not told me why we had made this sojourn, and I had not overhead anything of the trip before we left. It was when the man’s daughter was brought into the room by her mother that I began to understand my role in this ceremony. She was introduced as Jasmine. Her mother, walking behind her, ushered her in, and Jasmine, her head down, focusing her eyes on the floor before her, seemed to be exceedingly shy. She would not have eye contact with me. When I gazed upon her, I was struck not only by her beauty and her composure, but more importantly by her grace, which was considerable. My heart began beating wildly for it suddenly dawned upon me that this woman was now brought before me and my uncle for the sole purpose of offering her hand in marriage, with me as the recipient, and I was overjoyed at the prospect of having as my companion in life such a beautiful creature.
As Jasmine was invited in, her father told her to sit, and she took her place beside him on a cushion, her head bowed, and said nothing. Her mother, taking her place on the other side of her husband, was also without words. They were offered tea, and then, as they drank their tea, the others, the men there assembled, were silent as well, and so for what seemed to me to be an eternity, the five of us were there, in the dim light of the burning candles, with the tea before us. Finally, the girl’s father spoke, addressing his daughter, but not looking at her, but rather at my uncle.
He said, ‘You will now go with this man, to be his wife.’
She would not be given any opportunity to have any say in the matter, and seeing as her mother did not protest, it was now the case that my uncle, and this man, Jasmine’s father, had made an agreement that the two of us were to wed, and how Jasmine felt about it, and any opinion I might have had on the matter, was irrelevant. It was decided that we were to be joined together, and what was left now was a short ceremony, and then the long trek home. I was taken by relatives who came to the house, to another dwelling, and there I was washed and dressed in fine garments, and then, standing on a bed of rose pedals, we endured the wedding ceremony. Jasmine with a vail before her eyes, looking down all the time, became my wife, but I had never looked into her eyes, and was not given any indication of her sentiments, so that I married her not knowing if she was pleased that I had been selected for her. When the ceremony was over, and we sat and had a meal with her people before leaving to return home, Jasmine retained her vail, and did not look upon me. She did the same all the way home, so that, upon arrival, where she was greeted by my aunt, I had no opportunity to look into her eyes.
It was first when we were to retire for the evening that I had an opportunity to speak alone with her. We lay in our room upon the straw mat, with just a thin blanket to cover us seeing as the evenings in this season were quite warm. I reached out and put my hand upon her shoulder, looking to her, to see if she would look up and in doing so see my eyes, but she did not raise her gaze, and instead continued to look down. I asked her if she was happy that I had been chosen by her family to be her husband, and if she was pleased that she came with me, and was to live with me, here in my village, among my people.
She did not answer right away. Instead she continued to look down, laying there on her side facing me, her head slightly tilted downward as if she was ashamed in some way, or afraid. I could see her struggle to find the words. Raising her hand up to her lips she then told me, ‘I am exceptionally happy.’
Then I could see tears swelling up in her eyes, and she took a deep breath, and with her hand she took my arm, and rested her hand upon me, and said no more. It was then that I understood that she was as pleased as was I, and that we would be good for each other, and love each other. For many years to follow we flourished, and I was quite skilled at catching fish upon the lake, and at the end of each day, in the market, I often sold my catch for a good price, and so I was able to provide well for Jasmine. She gave birth, in the years following our wedding, to three girls, each more beautiful and magnificent than the other, and the girls were all tall and straight, and lovely in every way, and their mother and father were proud to have them. This magic which was our family continued for many years. The girls grew to become fine young women, each more beautiful and lovelier with the passing of time.
It was then that the Commissioner began coming more often to our village, apparently displeased with the taxes which were imposed among our people. He always had with him his Representative, who was a vile man, one quick to enforce the questionable demands which were issued when the Commissioner required some compensation for what he insisted were the inadequate levies imposed upon the people. He wanted more money, and when he could not get more money, he would send his Representative to collect other things of value which the families had in their possession. The village people were no longer living in harmony with each other and with the elements, but now were instead a flock in despair. Each time the Representative came to one of the houses to confiscate something which was deemed of value, all of the other villagers would protest, and gather together, as if they were to rise up against this injustice and through violence, overcome their oppressor. But there was never any violence. If such were to take place, the Commissioner would simply send sentinels, and the villagers had no possibility of dealing successfully with armed men.
One day the Representative came to my house and demanded something of value. He claimed that the prosperity which my family enjoyed from our profits selling fish in the village was not properly appraised, and consequently, we had not paid our share of the village tax. He claimed that we had a debt to pay and must give him something of value as a way to compensate for having contributed too little in the past. But he had misjudged our contribution. It was true that the sales of the fish made it possible for me to provide for my family, but there was little left over after we paid for the things we needed, and I was not in possession of expensive jewelry or other items of value which, if offered to the Representative, would appease his need to take from me that which was mine. Like all the others in the village, we had not been living in any kind of luxury. We were simple people who lived an unassuming life. When we told him that we had nothing of value which we could give him, he then told us that the Commissioner had instructed us to be prepared to give to him one of our daughters, and that he would return in a fortnight to make good on this claim.
Naturally, we were heart-stricken at the thought of losing one of our daughters in such an abhorrible manner. Our first thought was to flee, but unfortunately, we did not know where we could seek shelter. Each day, during the two weeks in which we were in waiting for the return of the Representative, I would sit with my wife and our daughters and think through what we could possibly do to avoid this disaster, but our wits failed us, and we could not imagine any possible solution to our calamity. When the Representative came to our door and demanded that we hand over to him one of our daughters, I was not properly prepared to deal with this challenge despite the fact that I had had ample time to think on it. As I stood there, looking into the man’s eyes, I suddenly understood that there was no possibility whatsoever for me to order one of my daughters to go with him, knowing that they would mistreat her, and force her to become a concubine in the Commissioner’s household. I was not able to allow this to happen.
I looked out at the Representative. He was alone. He was so arrogant that he believed he could come to my home, and take my daughter away, to become another man’s whore, and I would allow it, because I was in fear of his guards, who were surely to come and take me if I indicated in any manner that I was not willing to comply with his whims. He was a foul man, an ugly creature, with his goatee and his tiny black piercing eyes. He leaned backward as he spoke, his head bowed, as if he imagined that he was on some dignified business, and as such deserved respect. He looked at me and simply said, ‘Have you decided which of your daughters you will send with me to compensate for the taxes which have been as to now withheld?’ I head these words much like a death sentence, for even as he was articulating his demand, I knew that such would never transpire, that I would never allow him to take with him one of my beloved daughters.
I turned and looked into the eyes of Jasmine. She too was terrified. It would be, for her, as great a tragedy, to have one of our daughters taken from her. I could see her pleading with me, in her eyes, to find some solution. She was destitute, so that one could claim that in taking one of my daughters from me, the Representative was destroying the lives of everyone in my family; myself, my wife, and all of our children. I did not know what to do. It was then that I stepped outside, to be with him in the open air. I asked him if it was possible that I gave him money, pieces of silver, which I could get from the sales of fish, and over time, pay the tax which was demanded of me. But the Representative was unwilling to negotiate with me. He told me that the Commissioner was aware of the fact that my wife and daughters were the most beautiful creatures to be found in any of the villages in the district. He would have one of them. There was no opportunity for barter. The Representative demanded that I handed over to him one of my daughters, without delay.
As I stood there in the clearing in front of my home, it suddenly occurred to me that my life had come to an end. It would not matter what I did. Any choice I made would lead to my downfall. But as I stood there, looking at this despicable creature, I became sure of one thing, and that was that I would never hand over one of my daughters to this man. He could see in my eyes that I was deciding to turn him down, to not comply, and was about to speak, to inform me of the futility of my actions, when I drew a dagger, and bringing it to him, thrust it deep into his breast. He was looking at me as I pushed the blade into his flesh. He was looking straight into my eyes. The look upon his face was one of unmitigated astonishment. He could not believe that I, a simple fisherman, a peasant, a man of no consequence, would carry out such a bold act. We looked at each other, as I pressed the blade so far into his flesh that my hand, which was holding the handle of the knife, was pressing against him. His look turned from astonishment to horror. As he stood there, the life now rapidly running out of him, like water gushing from the mouth of a grotesque gargoyle, I looked at him, and he looked at me. In his eyes I could see that he was horrified beyond imagination. He was going to die. He was going to die in this moment, standing before the door to my abode. He was going to die because he had come to take another man’s daughter from him, to force the girl to be a slave. He was dying in the act of doing something inherently dishonorable, sinful, and disgusting. He was realizing the consequences of his actions. The knife pressing into his breast was the consequence of his actions. He had lived a repulsive life in the service of a despot, and now, on this day, in the daylight of this afternoon, he was cut down, killed, butchered, for attempting to do something infinitely wrong. He struggled to say something, but no words came forth. He leaned into me, as if, in this human contact, he would experience one last time some sense of brotherhood. He was dying, and desperate, and his eyes were locked onto mine. Looking into his eyes, I turned the blade, to give him further discomfort, to deny him any sense of intimacy, human warmth, understanding, humanity. He leaned into me, and I turned the blade, and he tried to speak but could not, and I stood firm against him, as he died.
It was then that I left the village with my wife and daughters. We took to the road, and made an attempt to escape, but did not succeed. The guards that were sent to capture me were relentless in their pursuit. They had orders to capture me alive, so that an example could be made of me. The killing of the Representative was a serious offense, and something which would demand the most severe sentence. I succeeded in killing three of them. But they overcame me. They took my wife and my daughters, to be concubines in the Commissioner’s household, and condemned me to death, so that I am now here, on these rocks, before you, and I tell you, I am a good man, I have done nothing wrong. If I had to do it all over again, I would do the same, I would kill the man who came to take my child from my home. I would not allow such injustice to take place without standing up for myself, for my family, and for the others in the village who were the victims of such tyranny. Now the Representative can no longer do any dirty work in my village. I killed him, and it was right to do so, for if a man come unto you, to do harm to your children, you have the right to defend the child, as this is god’s will, and no man can say that you have done something wrong, for it can never be wrong to stand up in this manner, and strike down those who do such dirty work upon others.”
With these words he turned his eyes away from Feng and seemed weary and without energy to carry on, and so he slowly fell asleep there upon the rocks, and Feng was given an opportunity to contemplate upon what he had said. He was deeply disturbed by the things he was told. Could the condemned man have made up such a story? There was no doubt, certainly, that such a fantasy would take some time to be thought through, and to imagine a dying man coming up with such drama, spontaneously, in these, his last hours upon this earth, was unlikely. How does one then come to terms with this injustice? Would it now be right, knowing what had actually transpired, to offer the man comfort, and give him food and drink, and carry him away from this place, so that he might mend, and become once again able bodied? Through what was left of the evening, and all through the night, Feng was uneasy with this haunting awareness of the injustice of humankind. He knew that it would be right to offer the man help. After all, he had not in any way instigated the conflict, but was drawn into it, with falsified accusations, and to make things worse, to see the high order make claims on his very children, is something which would inspire any man to carry out acts of violence the likes of which he was now told had taken place. How was it possible to not feel compassion for this man, to not want to alleviate his suffering, to not feel compelled to help the man to survive this ordeal? But each time Feng felt convinced that he must now do the right thing and offer the condemned man assistance, he remembered that he had given his word to not do so, and his word was all that he had in this world. He was penniless, without family, property, or possessions. The only thing he had in this world was the respect of his peers, and of the leaders of the monastery. If he were to disobey the High Priest he would forever be known as someone unreliable, without trust, and prone to mislead. As such, it would not be possible to continue with his work in the monastery. He would be banished, forced to go, and wander the earth, as an outcast. This was something Feng could never endure, so great was his need to be at peace with his life in the monastery with his fellow monks.
In the morning it was apparent that the condemned man was approaching the end. He did not stir until noon, and even then, he appeared only half conscious, and in his eyes, one could see that he was not fully aware of what was transpiring. The waves which came crashing down upon them were of much greater magnitude this day as well, perhaps because of some alignment of the earth and the moon, and as a result, the tides were even more unrelentless in their pursuit. The two of them were there, on the rocks, with the waves crashing down, and the salt spray in the air, so that the condemned man was drenched, his face and his garments. He lay there, one eye open and one eye closed. Then, closing both of them, he would lay still, as if he was sleeping, and this continued into the afternoon, until the sun finally broke through the clouds, and the sea resided, the crashing of the waves upon them now subdued, a compromise secured, between the sun and the deafening waves, so that the condemned man could find, in that relative calm, an opportunity to continue with his story.
Looking up, he said to Feng, “Each time one of the children came into the world, I was overcome with the most profound sense of welfare. It was surely a miracle, to bring this about, that a life began, and would go forth, and experience for decades the wonders of this world. And I was blessed with this most wonderful of emotions not once, or twice, but three times. Each time, I would be called upon to come back, and come to my wife, and see her there with the baby in her arms, and each time, I would ask of it, and be told that it was a girl, and the greatest happiness would consume me, so that, as I came to my wife, I would embrace her, and embrace the child, and there, the three of us would be as one, and know that it was our fate, that we could be in this world together, and live alongside each other. Never have I done anything which in any way can compare with that, that rush of pure profound gratification which comes to a man when he comes to his wife, and sees her, there, in full bloom, with a newborn in her arms. That I was so blessed to have been given the opportunity to have this bestowed upon me perplexed me, but in time I accepted my fate, that I had been singled out, for reasons unknown to me, to have such pleasure in life. And each of the girls, in turn, became increasingly lovely as the years passed, and they all had sweet dispositions, and wanted only good in this world, and were loving devoted children, so that the five of us, the mother and the father, and the three children, lived in perfect harmony with each other, and with the others in the village, and with the enchanting surroundings in which we lived. I had a perfect life, fishing each day, and selling my catch at the end of each day, and then, in the evenings, spending the last hours of each day with my wife and children. I could not have asked for anything more.
But then the Representative came into our lives and from that moment onward there would no longer be a sense of tranquility in our union. Instead there would only be despair, tragedy, and ruin. And now I am to die, my dreams shattered.” With this he stopped talking and closed his eyes. All across his face there were little beads of water, and from his hair, as well, there were drops of saltwater falling onto the rocks upon which he lay. He was desolate, the life running from him, nearing the end. Feng wanted to put his hand on the man’s shoulder, and say something kind, but he could not bring himself to do this, for it would be an act of betrayal, a blatant trespass, and he did not have the courage to cross that line. He sat there beside the man, struggling with his urge to comfort his new friend, when suddenly the condemned man said to him, “I will die soon.” Then he opened his eyes and looked to Feng, telling him, “When I die I want you to go to the fortification, where the Commissioner lives, and ask to see Jasmine, so that you will know that what I have told you is true, and tell her that my last request before I passed from this earth was that you told her that I wanted her to know that I have always loved her with all my heart, from the first time she looked into my eyes, and that I have, with all of my heart, loved each of my children.” With this said, he moaned, his eyes now seemingly no longer assisting him, so that as he looked up, and into Feng’s eyes, it was as if he was a blind man, and looking at you, did not see you. Feng was exceedingly despondent now, realizing that these would be the last moments of this man’s life, and these, his last words.
After some time, the man began again, telling Feng, “Sewn into my garment, at my neck close to my right arm, there is a thin package, one which can easily go undetected, which is why it was never found upon me. When I am dead, I want you to take it from me, and keep it among your own possessions. It is a very powerful poison. What is amazing about this elixir is that, while very strong, and sure to kill a man, it takes nearly a week to do its dirty work. It has no taste, and leaves nothing which could aid in its detection. When you go to see my wife, to tell her of my sentiments, I want you to ask to see the Commissioner. You can do this if you claim that you have news of things which I have said to you before I passed from this earth. He will want to know if I confessed and demonstrated remorse. The man has a tremendous ego and will delight in anticipation of hearing that I gave a confession before I died. While you are with him, you can easily slip the elixir into his tea. When he dies days later no one will associate your visit with his calamity. He will appear to have died of natural causes and not of any poison which someone may have administered to him through trickery. Give me your word that you will do this for me. Make me this promise, as the last thing that you can do for a dying man.” For some unexplainable reason Feng nodded when he was asked to promise to do this for him. He did know why he made this gesture. He nodded, thinking as he did so that the notion that he would do something which would result in ending the life of another human being was such a foreign notion to him, and something which he had never, not once, contemplated. Then the condemned man closed his eyes, and began breathing irregularly, more irregularly than before, and there was great emotion coming from him, as if he was profoundly saddened that he was to be no longer able to appreciate the wonder that was his wife, and his daughters. He lay there, deeply moved, saddened, breathing hard, as the waves crashed down. But he was not as yet ready to leave this earth. He stirred once more, opening his eyes, looking up at Feng, the way a blind man looks at something, and he said, “I forgive you, I forgive you for coming here, for participating in my execution, for refusing to give me something to eat, or to drink, for refusing to move me off these rocks, for not putting your hand on me, and in so doing give me comfort. I forgive you for you know not what you do.”
And then, as he said these last words, he began to choke, and struggle to find his breath. He made the most terrifying sounds, sounds which would, in the years to come, visit Feng in his sleep. The memory of such despair, of the man’s last act before departure, would haunt Feng for all the remaining days of his life. And the waves, which were now violent, thrashing about, sending cascades of water high into the air above their heads, and then crashing down around them, as the man made the most unnatural sounds, and was dying, that too he would remember, for all of his days. Feng wanted to reach out and touch him, but he was too late. When he had finally gathered up enough courage to make that last bold move, Feng could see that he was gone, his spirit had left him, so that only a complacent carcass was now there before him, and on his face there was a faint smile of sorts, the kind one sees on the face of dead men. He was gone.
Feng had never in his life endured such a challenge. He wanted very much to get up and walk away, to forget any promise he may have made to the man, to ignore the condemned man’s request to retrieve what he had sewn into the fabric of his clothes, but Feng found it impossible to do so. Instead, Feng sat there, dumfounded, and did nothing. Above him, there was the mist and spray of the waves, and beyond that, a pale blue sky, with white billowing clouds drifting westward, and down the beach, among the bluffs, where the water pushed up and down on the shore, there were seagulls scurrying about, looking for something, some small sand crab perhaps, that they could take, and eat. And at odd moments, they would cry out, and send their shrill yowl out into the waning afternoon sky. Feng sat there for some time, not knowing what to do. All of his life, when he was unsure of what to do, he would go to his uncle, and later, to one of the elders and ask for their advice, but now, here, in this place, there was no opportunity to ask for guidance. Feng had many choices. He could take the man to the shore, so that he could die there, upon land. He could leave him upon the rocks as well, which is what he was instructed to do. But there was a more important decision to make, and that was to take the elixir or not. Feng sat there for hours, deeply depressed because of the passing of his friend, profoundly unsure of what he would do next, and afraid of making the wrong decision.
Finally, as the afternoon was making progress, and one could sense the oncoming of dusk, Feng reached out and took the condemned man’s garment in his hands. The hidden object he had spoken of was there, and was easily pushed out into the open, and Feng took it, and concealed it among his things, and rising, he walked off, leaving the condemned man there to become one with the elements. Feng then began the long journey home, keeping to the road which led down to the sea, and finally, after three days of wandering, he found his way back to his sanctuary. There he was welcome. The High Priest, as well as the other monks, knew that what he had endured was most difficult, and so they took great care to make sure that he was given the opportunity to regain his equilibrium. Feng never said anything whatsoever of what he had experienced, but instead, returned to his studies and his daily routines, praying with the other monks each day, and meditating at length, to become, as the seasons passed, more and more at one with the god-head. But he could not shake off the feeling of incompleteness, the unfulfilled requests, which were such important components of the encounter he had had with the condemned man.
Finally, a year after the execution, Feng felt that he could no longer put off what had to be done. He must go to the Commissioner and ask of Jasmine and her daughters, not to see if the story which the condemned man had told him was true, but to convey to the man’s wife and daughters their husband and father’s last words. He prepared for his journey with care, packing his things in a sack which he would have about this shoulder. For some reason, he took the elixir with him. As he placed it in the sleeve within his garment, he wondered why he was bringing this with him, but then, as he gave it greater thought, he came to the conclusion that it was appropriate seeing as it was the only thing which he had which had belonged to the condemned man. He would go to the compound where the Commissioner lived and ask for Jasmine and her daughters, and when secure in his knowledge that they were safe, ask to see the Commissioner to give him word of what the condemned man had to say. With this done, he could then return home, and leave this business behind him, so that in time, its importance in his life would diminish, and become increasingly unimportant. He packed things to eat, and drink, and brought along the oil cloth which had he used for shelter as well, the one which he had with him when he was with the condemned man upon the rocks. Then he went out onto the road leading north, so that he could make his way to where the Commissioner had his dwelling. It would take him three days to reach the settlement.
The weather was fine in this season, and consequently, Feng thoroughly enjoyed his walk through the lush fields that followed the river leading north. In the evenings he would eat rice cakes, and drink the mint-scented tea, and then, under a sky bright with tiny dots of light, sleep lost in dream and fantasy. In his dreams he could see himself upon the rocks, with the waves crashing down all around him, shooting jet streams of water high into the air. He could see the face of the condemned man, looking into his eyes, the echo of his requests sounding all around. Then, as the morning light grew in intensity, he could see the face of the condemned man, the eyes animated, looking at him, looking at him as if to say, “now you will do as you have promised me.” And so Feng walked all the way to the place where the Commissioner dwelled, and reaching the gates, asked the guards if they would allow him passage, as he was there to speak with the woman who goes by the name of Jasmine, because an important message from her husband was to be delivered into her hands. The guards at the gates were not willing to comply, but instead told Feng that it was not possible to come to the gates without invitation, and so Feng told them that the Commissioner would want to speak with him, seeing as he had a message from an execution, one which the Commissioner would certainly want to hear. But the guards were not willing to assist in any respect, and so Feng simply stood his ground, and waited, standing, outside of the gates. They would not come and remove him, and force him to continue on his way, because he was a monk, and it was important that the monks were given the greatest respect. Feng stood there for several hours, well into the evening, when darkness prevails, and yet, there was no indication that the guards were going to comply with Feng’s request.
Then, just as Feng was considering leaving the gates for the evening, to find shelter for the night in the monastery which was not far from the settlement, he heard someone cry out, and looking into the guard’s quarters, he could see someone there with a woman, and they were beaconing him to come forth, to talk to her. Feng went forward, and entered the guard’s quarters, and came before the woman. He asked her, “Are you Jasmine, wife of the man who was thrown over the Tarpeian Rock?” And she shook her head, and said yes, and so Feng stood before her, unable to speak, and the two of them shared a moment, standing there, with the guard as escort. They looked at each other, somehow knowing, without speaking, without words, that this encounter was about her husband, and about that which transpired when he died. Jasmine was very beautiful. She was dressed in the finest silks and wore the most expensive jade. Her hair was gathered high up over her head, in what surely must have taken hours to prepare, and she wore slippers adorned with jewels and precious metals.
Feng told her, “I was with your husband after the Commissioner had him thrown over the cliff. I was with him on the rocks when he died. He wanted me to tell you that he loved you more than anything else in this world, as he loved his daughters.” Then he was silent. He watched Jasmine cry. She was very quiet in her distress. Her manner of weeping was certainly, if nothing else, extraordinarily discrete. In the background, in the hall leading to the guard’s quarters, he could see some women looking on in curiosity, and he signaled, with his hand, for them to step forward, and they did so, and Feng asked if they were the daughters, and nodding, they indicated that they indeed were the daughters of the condemned man. And so Feng told them of what their father had said, as he lay dying upon the rocks, and the girls, who were the most beautiful women in all the land, and who, like their mother, were dressed in exquisite gowns of silk, and were adorned with the finest jewels, began to cry, and so they stood there, in the middle of the room, the monk and the four beautiful creatures, sobbing, tears running down their faces in a steady stream.
Then they sat down, and Feng told them everything, everything except the story of the concealment which was in the garment which the condemned man had upon him when he died. He told them of the crashing waves, and of the birds which were about. He told them word for word what the husband had to say to his wife, and what the father had to say to his daughters, and the women, who were there listening, were deeply moved. Feng told them everything which could be told, and answered all of their questions, until finally, the women grew weary and told Feng that they were grateful that he had taken the time to come to them and share with them of his experience. Bowing respectfully, they then took their leave, and went back into the compound. It was apparent that they were well looked after and were without doubt the most respected of any concubine in the land. And so Feng knew that although it was true that they were forced into slavery, and made to do things which were not in harmony with what they would want to do with their time upon this earth, they were not in want of food, or of clothing, or of shelter. He was pleased, knowing that the condemned man would want this, as opposed to the notion that his wife and daughters were physically abused and forced to live in conditions which for all intent and purpose were no better than a prison.
Feng turned and was going to leave the guard’s quarters when one of the guards stepped forward and told Feng that the Commissioner had been informed of the arrival of the monk who had witnessed the execution of the criminal that had slain the Representative, and requested that he returned the following day seeing as the Commissioner wanted to hear of the experiences of the monk when he was with the condemned man upon the rocks. Feng agreed, then went out into the darkness of the night, and with just the light of the stars, made his way to the monastery, and finding a mat in the open court among the other monks, went to sleep. They would recognize, by the garments he was wearing, that he was a member of the monastery across the valley, and as such was welcome to join their ranks while with them, and nothing needed to be said of the matter. He could sleep there among them, and eat his meals with them, and pray and meditate there, without any need to discuss why he had come or how long he would stay. Feng joined them, and in the morning, after he had washed at their well, and had his portion of rice, returned to the compound and waited for one of the guards to inform him that the Commissioner was now ready to receive him. When he arrived, they did not keep him long. He was taken through the compound to the hall where the Commissioner received guests of higher rank, and there, was given a comfortable cushion to sit upon. He was not left there very long. The Commissioner, who appeared alone, entered, and taking his seat which was higher than the place where Feng sat, welcomed him, and pouring out tea for them, asked Feng to share with him his experiences when he went to witness the execution of the condemned man, the one who had killed the Representative.
Feng told the Commissioner everything that had taken place. He saw no reason to censor the things which he had experienced, or what he was told by the condemned man. The Commissioner listened in silence. He was a disgusting man, one obviously used to getting his own way. His mannerisms were indicative of self-centered individuals, people prone to demand greater attention and a larger portion of anything which was on offer. But he was respectful and showed Feng the admiration which a monk of his standing deserved. In his descriptions of what he had endured with the condemned man upon the rocks, it was obvious, in the manner in which Feng expressed himself, that the notion that the Commissioner would demand of someone their daughter, as a penalty for proposed unpaid taxes, was repugnant to say the least. The Commissioner listened to what Feng had to say and did not in any manner indicate that he recognized the criticism inherent in the manner in which Feng explained what he had experienced. He simply listened, with no show of emotion. Feng was displeased. He would have preferred some sort of regret, or remorse, expressed. After all, the Commissioner had kidnapped a man’s wife and daughters, and held them prisoner, and to make matters worse, in killing the husband and father of the women he had abducted, secured their fate forever. There would never be a respectable place for them now, after they had led this life. Women who were forced to be the concubine of some powerful man could never return to their village and there hope to marry, and in that way, have children of their own, or secure for themselves a respectable home. In bringing these women here, the Commissioner had secured their fate as condemned women. They belonged to him now and existed only to bring him pleasure when he so demanded.
Feng looked at the Commissioner. He looked into his eyes. It was then that he realized that the condemned man was wise in his desire to have this man executed. He had no rightful place among civilized people. He was a parasite, a bully, someone prone to cause others distress. If Feng were to slip the elixir into this man’s tea, he would be granting the condemned man some form of restitution. He would not have died in vain. It is true that he had accomplished as much by killing the Representative, but the Representative was merely carrying out the orders which were issued by the man before him, the true culprit in the misconduct. It would make sense, surely, to carry out the task which the condemned man believed Feng had promised to complete and deliver the condemned man’s poison to the chalice from which the Commissioner was drinking, and in so doing, end his life. The condemned man’s wife and daughters would in that case most likely be set free, so that they could return to their village, and there, although without husbands to support them, they could at least be freed from the degradation which they were forced to endure when the Commissioner demanded that they pleasure him. It all made perfect sense. The Commissioner must die.
Seeing as Feng had finished his description of his experiences, the Commissioner took that as a signal to embark upon a grand diatribe, the purpose of which was to explain the morality and wisdom in all that took place in respect to the condemned man. It was an attempt not only to give false witness, but moreover, to bring disgrace upon the memory of the condemned man, who, in the Commissioner’s rendition of the chain of events which led up to his death, was a criminal of the highest order, one not only prone to withhold taxes, but also to murder those called to demand payment from him. When the Commissioner got up from his seat, and began walking about the room as he spoke, Feng saw his chance, and leaning forward, allowed the powder which was enclosed in the concealment he had found in the condemned man’s collar to mix with the tea in the chalice from which the Commissioner had been drinking. In doing so, he had broken the most fundamental belief of his creed. It was monumental, his profound sense of betrayal, of wrong doing, of unmitigated sin, but it was now no longer wrong. Feng was joining the condemned man. He was there with him, in front of his door, when he pushed the dagger into the breast of the Representative. He was righting a wrong. It was all good now, it was poetic. He was simply extending the will of the condemned man in delivering that which the condemned man had reserved for the Commissioner. Both of them must die, not only in exchange for the killing of the man on the rocks, but also for the violation of the dignity of the man’s wife and daughters. Surely, there can only be death for such transgressions.
The Commissioner had told his story, and seemed pleased with himself, that the noble monk had listed to what he had to say. One could almost get the impression that the Commissioner saw this as a type of purgation. He was setting the story straight. Now he could go forward and enjoy the spoils which the destruction of this fisherman allowed him. He had the four most beautiful women in the land at his disposal, they belonged to him. He was free now, because he had delivered the distorted truth to the monk and the monk did not challenge the validity of his tale. With the look of one highly pleased with themselves, the Commissioner took the chalice in his hand and drank down all of the tea therein, and in so doing, sentenced himself to death. The circle was complete, the condemned man had received restitution. He had gotten his revenge.
Feng sat there, now filled with two conflicting emotions. One was his disappointment in himself, that he had made this transgression, that he was now someone who had committed murder. He promised himself, as he sat there, that he would never under any circumstances ever tell another soul what he had done. He would live his life as he had always done, and be the man he knew himself to be, but with one reservation, that he had this one wickedness which he and only he knew of, and which he would take to his grave. At the same time, he was greatly pleased. He felt much closer to the condemned man now. They were brothers in arms. Both of them had done something right, had acted, so that others would not be subjected to the evil which exists in this world. Both of them, in their own way, had made this world a better place. The Commissioner, and the Representative, would no longer have an opportunity to wreak havoc upon the lives of others. Feng was pleased. He told the Commissioner that he was now forced to take his leave as the hour was late, and the Commissioner, smiling embarrassingly, like a child who had just eaten all of the sweets which were reserved for his younger brothers and sisters, bid Feng adieu.
That night Feng was content. He now had his secret, which in some odd way gave him satisfaction in that it made him more complex, mysterious, even a bit sinister, but in a good way. By doing wrong, he had made the world a better place. That night, in the neighboring monastery, he slept well, and in the morning, after washing and praying, he walked out of the monastery and headed south, back to his rightful place in the world, back to the place where he belonged. He would return and be there among the monks as one of them and conceal his secret so that no one would ever know of what he had done. He would hear, in the weeks ahead, that the Commissioner had unfortunately passed away as a result of natural forces, and that a new Commissioner was to be appointed shortly, and it was said that his replacement was a kind and gentle man, one known far and wide for his efforts to help the children in the settlements along the river who had only one parent, and were in want of food, and clothing, and shelter. It was reported that the concubines who were held up in the Commissioner’s household were set free, and given compensation for their suffering, and were returned to the villages from which they were taken.
Many years passed
One day, when Feng was more than 60 years of age, and now slowed in his movement and in his ability to carry out his duties, he was sitting in the rose garden adjacent to the Temple. It was a quiet day, one filled with sunshine, and the song of birds, and the sweet smell of the flowers as they blossomed in the bright midday sun. A woman came into the rose garden. She was much younger than Feng, and exceedingly beautiful. She approached Feng, as he sat there listening to the bird song, and took his hand into hers, and looking into his eyes, she said to him, “My mother, and my sisters, wish to thank you.”
Feng, who was surprised by this unexpected visit, asked of the woman, “You thank me, but I do not know why. Is it for keeping your father company, in the last days of his life, so that he would not die alone, or is it for coming to visit your family, to convey his last sentiments, so that you would know that when he died, he wanted nothing more than that each of you received word that you were deeply loved?”
The woman standing before Feng did not let go of his hand, but instead stood before him, her eyes upon him. As Feng looked up, he could see the rays of the sun upon her, framing her in a bright yellow hue, and in her face, he could detect a most profound sense of tranquility. She was lovely, as lovely as the beams of sunlight that filter down through the leaves of the trees in the forest. As lovely as the song of the birds that there linger. As wonderful as the sound of the waterfall on the mountainside, and of the swirl of the water in the pools below. And grand, certainly grand, which Feng could see in her eyes and in her manner, and in her way of expressing herself. She was all that she could be, all kindness and sweetness, being all that her father ever wanted her to be, to honor him. And so standing there before Feng, and holding his hands in her hands, she said to him, “We are grateful for all that you have done for us, but I was referring to something else.”
And so Feng said to her, as he looked into her eyes, “I am grateful to your father. He taught me what is perhaps the most essential of all values.”
“And what value is that,” she asked.
And Feng told her, “The love of a father for his children.”
“Tobias Bennet is the greatest composer of my realm. Music such as his cannot be inspired by this mortal world; although whether it is from Heaven or from Another Place I fear to ask.”
Attributed to James I.
“He came to Shrewsbury by boat, on his shoulder was a black crow who whispered to him all sorts of spells and incantations as he rowed along.”
The rest of the choir had heard the story before, not just from Ezekiel, many of the conversations in the pubs and inns in the town were about Tobias Bennet and his alleged conversations with the devil in the shape of a crow, the satanic symbols supposedly in his music and more mundanely his consorting with various wanton women. He was stood in front of them now, talking with an underling from the Abbey, and the choir eyed him fearfully but also with respect because whilst he might be wicked he had the air of a genius about him.
“His poor, sweet wife.” Ezekiel continued in tones less hushed than he imagined that they were “I remember when she was Miranda Sikes, the curate’s daughter. How could her family allow her to marry such a Sorcerer?”
The other members of the Choir agreed; until she had married, Miranda had been a sweet and happy girl unblemished by her poverty, but now she always looked pale and over-burdened and with rarely a smile on her face. But who could be surprised with such a husband?
There was a harsh tap on the abbey’s stone floor and the choir stood to face their Master; small and dark, his faced pocked but he was dynamic with his eyes, dark brown and unknowable.
“O Lord, Hath the rain a father? or who hath begotten the drops of dew?”
They sang, the setting Bennet’s own, dark, and solemn, but also with a power and strength; and the more impressionable of them thought they felt the disturbance of a crow’s wings above their head, and a swirl of black climbing into the roof of the Abbey.
“Out of whose womb came the ice? and the hoary frost of heaven, who hath gendered it?
The waters are hid as with a stone, and the face of the deep is frozen.”
He comes in wig askew and sweating, and then he hurries to the chamber pot and pulls down his britches. The children giggle at the noises that he makes.
“I have so much in me, but I cannot expel the half of it” he mutters later, as he emerges pale, and then the house smells of faeces and something rotten for hours afterwards. With sweat still running down his brow he sits down, and I give him meat to eat and watch him devour what is in front of him without his paying it any attention. Oftentimes he scribbles as he eats; those black notes that in the hands of the choir or in front of the organ make such a haunting noise. The pieces he composes are short, perhaps in case he has the gripe again and needs to rush off, however his trouble does not seem have harmed him; he has written such music and everywhere is full of his praise, even as far as London and the Court. He is a man in demand, as difficult and harsh as he is.
He is off now; to cavort with women or other low-life, or to walk along the river, talking to himself. Everyone that he meets seem to feed his music; everything is secondary to that, me, the children, even God; it is as if we are of no account despite the sacrifices that we make. When he came to this town he lodged with my father and mother who were grateful for the money he gave us for rent, and my father was happy for someone learned and clever for him to talk to. But even then he was rarely in; either in the Abbey or in the Low Parts of Shrewsbury, and there were the rumours about him; conversing with crows and other familiars of the devil, seen dancing naked in a grove with strange women and his music written to conjure up spirits, although what I heard was full of beauty and a frantic energy that was unlike anything that I had heard before.
One day I sat pensively by the river, the ground was cold and damp and I watched the water flow past the town and out, away, somewhere fresh and new. And then he was standing above me, his shadow making him look taller.
“Well mistress” he murmured, “the water inspires me too. The onward flow of it. It is an open invitation to sail on.”
“Don’t fly yet awhile” I told him, “or if you do, take me with you.”
He gazed down at me, for the first time seeming to be startled, as if I was something new. Soon we were married, and then he had money enough to rent a house of our own close by the Abbey, where he disappears ever day, when he is not drinking or frolicking.
In bed, I smell his body of cinnamon and wild garlic, and he holds me tight, so that I am part of him; all that talent and power contained within me, at least for a few moments. And when I stand in the Abbey and hear his music crashing out on the organ or sung by young and old in the choir, then I am proud, and I don’t care if he is of God or of the Devil, he is mine and I am his.
He is Evil. The smell of him is from the Pit, and the music he writes, Discordant and Strange. The Devil and his minions are everywhere, even in the Holiest of places, and he is of their number. I can sense him as I walk through the doors of the Abbey; at times I have to hold onto something as the smell of him Overpowers me. And when he looks at me; there is such contempt in his eyes, but there is fear too. He knows that I perceive him and see beyond his music making. I Know Him.
Once walking around the graveyard, I saw him, he was muttering to the Devil as he walked, and there were crows high above his head. He looked up and saw me, giving a most contemptuous look.
“How are you old man?” he asked most saucily.
“Begone out of this Holy Place” I told him, “you don’t belong here. Go back from whence you came.”
He laughed, and then studied me most carefully, as if he were measuring me for my Grave, and after a few moments he turned away and left me, but I knew that he was shaking with Anger and Fear, and now he avoids me, and so he should.
I spoke out against him at the Chapter. I am nothing in the Abbey, just a minor Canon, old but undistinguished. And they distrust me because I used to belong to Rome before Queen Elizabeth came to the throne. Many of us changed our allegiances back then, had no choice. But I am a true member of the Church and loyal to God and his Holy Son, Our Lord Jesus.
“That Man is Evil” I thundered, but they ignored me.
“He is known to the King, and his music brings us Fame and Glory.” One spoke, and another told me to hush, “you are just an old man, with the taint of Rome about you.”
And Bennet looked at me, his eyes dark and brooding. But I looked back most steadily. I Know Him. I Know Him Well. And his Wickedness that seeps into our Church.
He comes to me in the evening. Comes into the house with stealth and laughs at my fright. When he first came to Shrows-bury I saw him from the shore as he rowed, even from a distance he seemed strange and attractive, and then a few nights later he was there at my house and so I gave him drink and took him to my bed. He sensed my lonely-ness, that was like a cloke, and that pervaded my very being; I had had lovers, but they deserted me when I wanted more than sex. And Tobias was the same; he married that plain Curate’s daughter, but he still came to me.
I heard him shit outside and then a few moments later he was with me.
“Your enemy is dead” I told him, “that clergyman who hates you.”
“Yes I have just come from the river,” he told me, “Reverend Thomas Garrett, who thought I was from the devil”.
“Aren’t you?” I asked, “you seem devilish.”
“Don’t believe what you hear” he told me, and then kissed me, so that I knew he did not want talk but rather my body, and as ever I obliged, as if I could say no.
“Did you kill him?” I asked, as he lay, next to me, spent, at least for a little while.
He laughed, “he was always drunk, he must have fallen in the river.”
“But the townspeople say that he did not drink and that there was a bruise on his head, and bites as if was attacked by a crow.”
“You are fool to listen to the people of Shrows-bury. They gossip and pretend virtue; you are better than such nonsense. One day we will leave this town you and I, go to London where you will be at home, and I will have a more discerning audience.”
They talk about him all the time; gossiping. When I am out and about people I have known all my life look away with scorn or embarrassment. I visited my father, and he suggested that I come back to them, they did not mind his having other women or conversing with the devil but now this silly story about him killing that old fool from the cathedral, they are worried.
“Rev Garrett was seen fighting with a man dressed in black” I was told, or “a crow drove him into the river.” They think my husband cursed him or killed him himself. And yet Tobias is oblivious; his mind full of music and possibly women. The children are just playthings to him, something to amuse him whilst he is at home, and I suspect that I am the same; someone to clean the chamber pot and to feed him.
Will he leave now this trouble has come upon him? I would go with him to anywhere, but would he think to ask me? Does he even perceive me, or the children? Does he care about any of us?
“Lord, what is man, that thou takest knowledge of him! or the son of man, that thou makest account of him! Man is like to vanity: his days are as a shadow that passeth away.”
We sing and we look at the conductor, austere and pale. The music is divine, but he, he looks like a man possessed. In front of us there is the empty seat where Rev. Garrett sat, often his mouth mumbled like someone in their second childhood, but he was a saint in his way; humble and spoke out against evil even though it frightened him.
We are getting old, and soon others will take our place, and the Abbey will change too and all that goes on in here will be forgotten. Can it be that Tobias Bennet, that self-regarding man will be the thing that men remember of this place, not the good that was done, the quiet good and acts of kindness? Can a few beautiful phrases and harmonies excuse wickedness and selfishness? Do we bow before the gifted as if they were gods?
We sing and the harmonies rise above our head and spread throughout the town and out, out into the countryside for the rich and poor alike, and then out over this country; from the Tacksmen in Scotland, to the places of learning in Oxford and Cambridge and even to the Court where the King, a flawed but learned man sits and governs his holy people.
They say he came from Shrop-shire; a small man with the darkest of eyes, and rather ugly of mien, but a rare musician; I heard him before His Majestie and he was most impressed, although his hands shook with nerves or fever, and he sweated all the time that he played. He has a woman with him, Regan she is called, a fine red-haired woman, but rumour has it that she is a common whore and that he left his wife back home.
There is scandal about him; that he sups with the devil, that he killed the dean of the cathedral, that he is possessed. But all crimes are forgiven at court so long as there is wit and talent, and although he has none of the former he has what passes for the latter, at least amongst the king and his sycophants. And yet he smells of faeces. When he played that is all I could notice; his awful smell, and I tried to catch the King’s eye, but he either could not smell it, or he paid it no account. But then we all machines that masticate, defecate and, if we are lucky, fornicate.
But the King loves him and so for the moment the world is his oyster, let us pray that he makes the most of this royal favour and saves his coins and does not rely too much on this most fickle of monarchs.
He disappeared; was gone when I awoke, and that evening he did not return home. I enquired at the Abbey, but they looked at me with pity and sadness and so I walked away. No doubt I will return to my father with my children, but I suspect I am accursed, no-one will touch me and in truth I want nobody else.
The rumours grew, perhaps that is why he left, or maybe his Demon told him to go, to go and leave his wife and children. Wherever he goes he will be writing music and performing. They still sing his music at the Abbey; his settings of psalms and hymns will outlive us all. Perhaps we are not a Christian people, not really, but we recognise the Divine, whatever form it takes, and he was a channel for something unearthly and everlasting.
Sometimes when we sit together in our rooms, tired he asks me.
“Are you happy Regan?”
“Of course my lord.”
He looks at me sadly, “do you not miss Shropshire?”
I live in the centre of the world, I have met the King and the Queen as well as the ladies of the Court. I have money and dress well. Every day is an adventure, but always an adventure with a happy ending. Do I miss those ignorant men and those doltish men? I have found my home at last. Yes I know that some of the Lords and Ladies sneer at me and whisper, but then they did that in Shrows-bury and at least they are polite to my face.
The King is most languid, but he is kind, one look into his eyes shows that, and he appreciates my love’s music and will often have to play when he is weary and cannot sleep. A servant is sent and Tobias hurries over, wig in his hand, jacket half-off his shoulders, and then he returns in the early hours of the morning full of tales of a melancholy king with various favourites disporting themselves whilst Tobias plays and sings to help my king sleep.
His bowels ache constantly, and some days he is on the chamber pot for hours when he should be elsewhere, and then he emerges pale and I wonder if he is dying of the plague, but soon he is back to what he once was and once clean he is off out somewhere to make music or to wait upon his majesty. Perhaps if his stomach was right then he would be happier, but I think it is just a sign of his turbulent spirit.
Tobias earns and saves. He has written music for the theatre, for All Hallows Church and sometimes songs for the King or his children.
“This is the best part of me” he says when he plays me something that he is written, “all else is naught, just this music.”
But it sounds dark to me and unsettles me. How can it help the King relax when I hear it I want to run out into the streets and see the common people of London. Oh Tobias, enjoy your life; all of us might die from one day to the next. Enjoy your fancie clothing, your visits to the King and your patronage by the great and good.
Live and be happy Tobias.
I came into Shrewsbury by boat, just as I did last time, over thirty years ago. No Regan on the shore this time, alas she is dead of Flux, which is why I returned, with nothing to stay for, just the false praise of kings and courtiers. The Abbey was still there, in fact the town looked the same; the same grey Shropshire faces, and oh the everlasting mud and water.
I walked to the house, where I bred two children and made my wife unhappy, but it is empty now, as if cursed. At the curate’s house where we met; a harried but comely woman (oh does lust still yet master me) answered my knock.
“Does one Miranda Benet live here?”
“The murderer’s wife? She is long gone. Her father died and she married a clergyman who took her to a village in the north. Her children were dead and so she was happy to go.”
“Of the damp, both within a week. Poor deserted lambs. I was but a child myself and I remember the funerals; such tiny coffins. The whole family is dead or gone.”
She gave me some water and she asked me about myself.
“I am a wandering musician” I told her, I had my violin with me and played her some popular ayres I had picked up in London and she offered me payment, but in the end it was I who gave her money as she rented me a room, the same room where I lived before and which is still as cold and dark as it always was.
Fortunately, I am frugal and I have saved some money from my time of fame in London, and I make more from playing in the streets and teaching the children of gentry. Nobody recognises me; sometimes there is a strange look when I hurry down the streets, but the person will be old and they shake their heads and carry on, perhaps with a shiver, and when they get home they think of the past and their mortality, and sleep less soundly that night.
And often I sit in the Abbey on hard wooden pews facing the choir, rather than looking down on the congregation as I used to do. Sometimes I recognise a piece of music, a setting, or a voluntary on the organ that I wrote so many years ago, although they are not as I played them. And I listen intently as the choir’s voices sing praises to someone I barely glimpsed and I feel my soul reach out for a better self, a self in touch with the beautiful and divine and then I cry knowing that for a moment that I have seen God’s face and that is all we can hope for as we strive through the mud and shit that we call home.