At first light

I wake you in the morning

when your sheets in swales lie

and in fens and glens of cotton

gathered, places long forgotten,

and your length the range untrodden

upon which, in rose red sky,

clings a cloud, the red sky warning

formed of curtain-filtered light,

as I wake you in the morning,

as you wake me in the night.

 

The lover

Twin sisters shared their girlhood home in a way. One occupied the rooms in front, back to the kitchen, which was in the middle of the house. The other took everything to the rear. A schedule, pinned to the kitchen door, limited their need for further contact.

They were seen coming and going occasionally, but never together. Over time the occupants of nearby houses changed and the knowledge of the family that once lived at the house was lost. In its place a single woman, pleasant but reclusive, emerged, though no one knew her name. Beyond Luskin Rd, in the files of the country’s corporations and agencies the women disappeared as well. Surviving frugally, as their father had, taking only what they needed of the savings he had hidden in shoe boxes beneath the pantry floor, they left none of the usual evidence of their existence.

When the fire broke out – old wiring in the roof space – it spread unseen above them before bursting through old ducting into rooms at either end of the house. It converged towards the middle, the kitchen, where two charred bodies, embracing in death, were to be discovered by fire-fighters dousing the embers.

So it was that a mystery woman, an unknown lover perhaps, became the talk of the people of Luskin Rd in the days after the fire. Only the old cat, who had been with them all its years, knew the women’s real story, but it took that secret with it days later when starvation overcame it.

 

Speck

In the moments of our distant

star revealing, bright in its constellation,

a world forms, humanity within it,

anxious to outrun its destiny, then,

in the last frantic millimetres of

starlight rushing, you and I collide.

 

 

 

Rip

Peter had taken up body-surfing in his forties and now chased waves every weekend. He’d met Clarissa in July, at the water’s edge looking out on huge sets coming through onto Slippers, one of the south coast’s legendary breaks. He’d decided the swell was too big but Clarissa, ten years younger and full of energy, urged him to join her. It was something he’d never forget, the sheer power, the speed of tonnes of water rushing forward and the exhileration of riding those steep, glassy faces.

She lived in the next suburb. Peter started calling for her on Saturday mornings after he’d dropped Gina and the kids at his mother’s. Clarissa always knew the best breaks, secret places away from the holiday crowds. In gravel carparks at the end of obscure sidetracks he’d help her prepare, zipping her into her wetsuit’s sculptural neoprene curves.

One afternoon they drove to Cluster Cove, Clarissa tucked tight beside him in the middle seat he only usually used to carry one of the kids when the car was full. An enormous swell was rolling in. Clarissa couldn’t wait to tackle it. Peter hesitated momentarily. But the sight of her easing the tight suit over her bikini bottoms was enough to convince him.

They each caught good waves in the first set. But the next was twice the size, crashing in under a darkening sky. It scared them both. Clarissa called time. ‘I’m taking the next one into shore,’ she yelled above the surf’s constant roar. ‘This is getting risky.’

Peter nodded.

They took off together on a huge wave, Peter next to her but closer to the lip. Partway in the breaking wave caught his ankle and flipped him. The last he saw of Clarissa before he went under, she was racing towards land.

The wave held him under for so many long seconds that his lungs burned with the need to breathe and the random colours of semiconsciousness obscured his perceptions. When he finally got his head above the foam and recovered his bearings he’d been swept hundreds of metres down the beach. A funneling rip took hold of him. He was too exhausted to fight it. Within moments he’d been swept way past the headland and only the very top of the lighthouse was visible over the towering seas.

The stretch

‘Remember Henderson’s apples.’ Serge drilled his brother with a pointed stare.

‘What? Look. She’s gorgeous. I’m gonna talk to her.’ Jim slid off his bar stool.

‘Henderson’s apples, J.’

‘Eh? Oh yeah. Whatever. Eighteen months ago she was just another chick at school. What does it matter?’

It mattered a fair bit. Eighteen months ago Heidi Schwarz had ben plucked from the obscurity of their small town and into the international modelling limelight. Now as she swanned through the old hall heads turned and cameras snapped.

Everyone agreed she’d changed. Her voice was deeper and spokesmodel perfect. She walked with high steps, as exaggerated as they were light. She seemed taller. Her cheekbones more pronounced. Her eyes wider. The locals stopped her for autographs or to be photographed with her, or just to say, ‘well done, Girl, you’ve put the town on the map’.

Jimmy weaved his way between the throng, Serge, at his heels, reminding him, all the while, of those apples he’d wanted so much, just out of reach over the back fence.

Jimmy made a dive between a closing gap, to her side. ‘Eh, Hides.’

The model turned. Paused. Her mouth opened. Shut again. Then the eyes that had been searching the ceiling for a name lowered. ‘Jimmy Valos. Isn’t it? How are you?’

Serge sidled behind his brother. ‘Three months in traction,’ he whispered.

‘Yeah, good,’ said Jim. ‘Y’self?’

Half an hour later Serge was still hovering. ‘When the bough breaks, Jimmy,’ he whispered but his heart wasn’t in it. He had to admit a little familial admiration. How did Jimmy do it anyway? A nerd like him?

Two Islands

I’ve been regrettably quiet on this site for the last few weeks so thought I’d start things up again with a story that recently won The Antipodes Short Story Competition, a small local competition run by Anitpodes Bookstore (in Sorrento, just south of Melbourne). This story is adapted from a story from the manuscript of an unpublished novel, Once.

 

Two islands

‘There was once an Island of Women.’ Sarah frowned. Why did Lu want a story now? Why had it all come to this?

Through the window she could see Mike hoisting a bench onto the roof-racks.

Lu brought the doona around her. Silence. ‘Auntie Sarah?’

Silence…then a thump outside and Lu’s dad, Carl, laughing while Mike, his brother, muttered low.

‘On this island,’ Sarah said at last, ‘there lived a beautiful girl. Her name was Tarantella. The islanders spent their days gathering food. And when the seas were peaceful the strongest would row to their fishing grounds to cast their nets.

‘Sometimes, when they found themselves fishing alongside the boats from the nearby Island of Men, there would be great excitement. The young women would fluff their hair and taunt across the water. The men would stand proud and boastful above the waves. There would be loud mockery between the fleets, and silent admiration.

‘One afternoon the women’s nets came up empty at their favourite reef and they decided to try another spot.

‘Tarantella’s net snagged as she hauled it in. “I’ll join you,” she told her sisters, “once my repairs are done.”

‘As Tarantella untangled her net she heard the dip of oars nearby. Looking up she saw a boat from the Island of Men approaching. “Where are your others?” she called.

‘“I’m alone,’ the man called back. “Elders sent me to check if the turtles had returned.”

‘“What’s you’re name?” said Tarantella.

‘“Pelorus,” he replied.

‘“Can you fix nets?”’

 

A knock at Sarah’s door interrupted the storytelling. Carl stuck his head through.

Lu’s face flashed delight. ‘Sarah’s telling stories.’

‘Sarah?’

‘It’s alright, Carl’ Sarah said.

‘OK then. Mike wants to know if he should take the sofa?’

‘Can’t he ask me himself? Yes, take it. He knows I hate it. Why does he need to ask?’

‘He just…,’ said Carl, and his voice trailed to nothing. He coughed to recover it. ‘Be good for Aunty Sarah, Darling.’

 

Sarah took a long breath. ‘Where were we?’

‘Mending the nets.’

‘Oh, yeah. So Pelorus brought his boat alongside Tarantella’s, and lashed them together, then he jumped in among the tangle of her net.

‘Tarantella and Pelorus began working on it. Tarantella stole glances at Pelorus as he knotted. Pelorus stole looks across towards Tarantella too. When their eyes met they laughed, bright and happy. Do you know what was happening?’

‘No,’ said Lu.

‘They were falling in love. Imagine that. Floating out in the middle of nowhere.’

‘Wow.’

‘Remember, Lu, this was a magical place.’

‘I know.’

‘It was not until the sun began setting that they knew they’d have to part. They embraced with tears in their eyes.

‘Just then Tarantella heard another boat. Even at a distance she recognised it as her sister’s. “Hide, quickly,” she said, pushing Pelorus onto his boat. He ducked beneath his own nets, listening as the dinghy approached, barely daring to breath.

‘“Tarantella, what’s this? A boat from the Island of Men?”

‘“I found it adrift,” she replied.

‘“You can’t keep it. You know what our mother will say. We’ll have to cut it loose.”

‘“Such a waste, though.”

‘“Yes, but it’s not ours,” replied the sister, slicing the boats apart with her knife. “Now row quickly or it will be dark before we’re home.”

‘When Tarantella reached the Island of Women the evening star was bright. Gathering her nets she glanced down. Submerged in the slop of water was the carved shell amulet that had hung on cord about her young man’s neck. Tarantella scooped it up and tucked it beneath the band of her skirt.

‘Later, as she undressed for the night, she realised her own shell necklace was missing.’

Sarah took a sip of water, and the laughter of the men downstairs drifted into the silence.

‘Wanting to keep him close about her, she dared, that night, to hang Pelorus’s charm about her neck. If her mother found her with it she would be in a great deal of trouble. So she went to bed before the others.

‘Her sleep was heavy, as if a net had been cast across her. Soon a vision came to her of Pelorus, wearing her necklace. In her dream they talked of being together. Then he was gone and Tarantella was in the company of an albatross. The bird whispered to her. “I’ll show you where you can be together. Follow me. Follow the moon.”

‘Tarantella looked down. She had become white with feathers. She tried her new wings and they lifted her easily. With long strokes she set off after the albatross in the direction of the moon, which was rising bright and round.

‘They flew many miles across the sea. Eventually they came to a ledge of rock that stood above the waves. “This is where you can be with him forever,” whispered the albatross.

‘“But how will I get here?” said Tarantella.

‘“As you have just now,’” said the albatross. “With salt spray under your wings. Follow the next moon.”

‘On the next full moon, Tarantella crept from the house the moment the others were asleep. At the sandy beach she prepared herself as she had been practicing since the dream. She shed her clothes and transformed herself, instead, with feathers and wings. Then she set out towards the place where she and Pelorus could be together.’

‘She really made herself a bird?’ asked Lu.

‘An albatross. Have you ever seen one?’

‘Only in books.’

‘She flew all the way across the sea. If the rock wasn’t there she might not have the strength to fly back. Besides, the clothes and the signs of magic would have been discovered. No more would there be a place for her on the Island of Women.

‘At last she saw the rock, as she had seen it in the dream. She flew down, and as she landed she regained her old form. She lay, naked, lonely and exhausted, wondering how she could have done such a thing. She looked to the sky all around. Not so much as a cloud broke the inky blue. No bird coming to meet her.

‘Then she heard a splash at the water’s edge. A sea lion, shiny skinned and muscular, shook itself onto the rock. As it shook it transformed and Pelorus was there. The lovers ran to each other and embraced. They fell upon each other with kisses and questions.

‘When the questions were over they wrapped themselves up in each other so close they became one.

‘Tarantella and Pelorus were still holding each other when Tarantella felt something cold beneath her feet. The tide had risen around them and the platform that held them was about to be swamped. Waves began to buffet them and Tarantella feared they’d be washed away.

‘“Transform yourself, Tarantella,” cried Pelorus. And squeezing her hand he dived into the sea. Tarantella shook herself free. Moments later she was circling overhead. From high above she watched the sea claim their sanctuary.

‘Even in magical places, things are never so simple. Each day, when the tide rose, their rock was swallowed by the sea. Pelorus and Tarantella had condemned themselves to spending half their lives divided; he unable to join her in the sky and she unable to share the depths with him. Only when the sea was at its calmest could they float on the surface together, and that was small comfort for it was only on solid ground they could be who they truly were.

‘Can you imagine, poor Tarantella? All those hours circling above him, watching him? And Pelorus, seeing her silhouetted against the sky, so close but so apart?

‘They became so tired of it they stopped transforming. Had a sailor passed their rock at low tide he might have wondered about the big white bird and the sea lion perched there, cheeks pressed together.

‘Later the lovers stopped taking to the sea and the sky at high tide. Instead of being washed from the platform they became part of it, so a sailor might have described a rock of an amusing shape, a sea lion and a bird embracing. And in this way their dreams came true, for on that place they would always be together.’

 

There was another knock. Carl again. ‘We’re done, Sarah. Do you want to come down?’

‘No. I don’t think so. We’ve said everything.’

‘OK then,’ he said. ‘Oh, and Sarah?’

‘Yes.’

‘We can still pop by from time to time, if you want. Lu and me. Lu would like that, wouldn’t you Lu?’

Lu nodded.

‘I’d like it too, Carl,’ said Sarah.

‘Best be off then. Take care, eh. C’mon Lu.’

Sarah listened as they went, and when the door closed behind them she listened to the silence of the house and in the distance the ocean crashing against the shore.

 

The home front

It got so their partings seemed to no avail. Every time Lonnie’s battalion prepared to sail a new problem arose—dysentery in the barracks, a storm at sea, a change to battle plans. Four times she saw him off—kissed him among the steam and clatter of the locomotive, held him until the guard’s whistle, until the train’s slack carriages clanked taut and slowly moved away. Only to have him returned to her

On the fifth occasion they laughed about it. ‘What’ll it be this time? Maybe snow on the tracks—not likely in this heat?’ The guard called all aboard, the train whistle sounded and Lonnie pecked her cheek and leapt aboard. As he disappeared in the steam and smoke, Alice had the odd sensation of not having properly said goodbye this time. And all at once she knew. She knew.

(this is an edited version of the story Soldier boy, published on this day, 2010. See about small stories about love)

Classic

I was in love the moment she moved next door. I admired its curves across the fence; its chrome trim, its white-wall tyres.

She saw me desiring it. ‘All original inside,’ she said. ‘I’m going down the coast tomorrow. ‘D’you want to join me?’

The trim inside was star-specked vinyl. The bench seat was three wide. She stretched her arm across it as she backed out of the drive.

The suspension slopped like warm treacle. The gearbox popped out of second and crunched into third. The old motor spluttered like an emphysemic grandfather. As we threaded through the last of the suburbs she tuned the radio to a country station, a cowgirl song I half knew. At the chorus she came in, her sweet twang filling the cabin.

Pulling into her driveway at the end of the day I was still in love. But not with her car. No, not with her car.

(this is an edited version of the story Two tone and chrome, published on this day, 2010. See about small stories about love)

Again

If I hold your head you’ll stay awake, won’t you? You’ll keep your eyes on mine until they come. You’ll hiss through your drool that you’re sorry. You’ll try to smile but your smile will be filled with demons. You’ll squeeze my arm weakly. You’ll smell of vomit and plead for forgiveness. For what? It’s you after all. You’ll keep afloat in this world until they come to jab you back…if I hold your head in my hands again.

Her bedside

When she was first diagnosed Shelley’s friends came every day. But in time their visits dwindled. Her prognosis worsened. Only Lenny kept coming. Every second day he’d pop in on his way to work. Sit with her a while. They’d talk about what was happening at uni. Sometimes he’d bring in a new track he’d mixed and they’d share his headphones. He’d always seemed like just one of the crowd. But now he was everything she’d imagined about leaving school and leaving home and finding her way in the world. She’d always been the one with attitude—the one with the weird hair and a knack for staying just the right side of trouble. But when Lenny said, ‘Hurry up and get better, there are things you and me oughtta be doing,’ she smiled so much the nurses thought he might have slipped her something, or perhaps she’d had some sort of turn.

(this is an edited version of the story Lifer published on this day, 2010. See about small stories about love)

Covered

The walls of Skeeter’s room are smokey yellow. Next to his mattress there’s a bottle of pills, cheap whiskey and a radio. No one visits. No one would know if he got up the next morning or not. He unscrews the cap of the whiskey.
A song crackles onto his old transistor. He knows the chords. He wrote them decades ago in the glimmer of fleeting fame. Top ten for a couple of weeks.

Ronnie Madison yelps when she hears the chorus drifting from her daughter’s room. ‘Turn it up. ‘
Out of habit the volume drops.
‘I said up.’ Ronnie opens Rebbekah’s door. ‘I know this song.’
‘Yeah, Hangin’ on his Words. It’s Cyrus Blake. It’s huge.’
‘It’s a cover. It’s The Metronomes. I knew them.’

Skeeter’s thinking about her now. The song he wrote when the world was at their feet.

‘You OK Mum?’
Ronnie laughs. ‘I wonder whatever happened to him.’
‘Who, Mum?’
There’s no answer.
‘This is about you, isn’t it?’

The song slips into a minor key.

The long haul

The first thing he saw was the dust cloud beside the distant line of river gums. Dean put the kettle on. By the time Hattie eased down through ten gears and rumbled to a stop he had her coffee made the way she liked it, milky instant with three sugars.

‘Good run?’

Hattie jumped down. ‘Easy. Bit of rain outside Dubbo.’

‘They fixed up the road yet?’ He’d driven that same pot-holed two-lane a thousand times before his back went.

The injury could have been the end for them. Everything they had was in that truck. That’s when Hattie said, ‘teach me.’

‘You mean it? It’s no picnic.’

‘You want us to chuck it all in instead? Nah, I reckon I’m up for it.’

Now she was known in every roadhouse on the East Coast and the loan on the rig had been paid. Hattie acquired a cowboy hat and her own line in truckstop small talk along with the girth of a long distance driver. She rolled across the continent while Dean waited, the way she’d once done for him.

With the sun setting across the dam Dean and Hattie settled into yarning.

‘Like a couple of old sheilas,’ said Dean, chuckling. Crickets struck up nearby. Stars flecked the darkening sky.

 

2011-Richard Holt / small stories about love (smallstoriesaboutlove.wordpress.com)

 

C.S.

You said, ‘Tell me a story?’

‘What sort of story?’

‘A story about love,’ you said.

‘Ah, but I know nothing about that.’

‘Nothing?’ You moved closer, your breath warm on my neck. You whispered, ‘please.’

So I told you about my grandmother’s letters. How we found them in a parcel beneath folded linen.

After we’d read the first we regretted our intrusion. But we read the rest regardless.

They were addressed to her but written in her own hand and signed with the initials she’d had before she married. Your love forever, C.S.

My Grandfather, though his surname was Hansen, had the given names Charles Stanley. A blacksmith by trade, he never learned to read or write. He’d had her write his love letters to her. ‘Imagine that. Sitting together across a table dictating your affections.’

When I finished telling Grandma’s story you said thank you. You kissed me and asked if I’d tell you another the next day. Each night you repeated the request. I fear one night no story will come. But more than that I fear the night when you no longer ask for a story the next day.

 

2011-Richard Holt / small stories about love (smallstoriesaboutlove.wordpress.com)

Persona

I cannot move so I cannot touch. Only be touched, which is not the same. My limbs do not respond to my desires. My body resists. All I have is my voice, and, now, this machine that writes what I say. It heeds my commands. I tell it to send my messages to you. It sends them. And I wait.

You respond, describing our intimacy.

I tell the machine what to write back.

We are responding each to the other. Our words touch, stroke, explore. Our words admire.

Our words deceive.

Bidding farewell I rise and stretch. I make a sandwich then logon again. Another site. Another fiction. Your message describes what I cannot see.

 

2011-Richard Holt / small stories about love (smallstoriesaboutlove.wordpress.com)