Visiting relatives

The air turns crisp quickly in this part of the world, still. Snow falls early and hard, a convenient excuse for the global warming deniers to keep pumping oil in their factories. Every year it snows a little earlier and a little harder.

She shakes out her handkerchief and places it neatly on the stone bench.

Woozee? Woozee fink she iz?

Shut up, Nastya, it’s Ana’s eldest. 

Is it my turn? I want to talk to her about Jakob, he has to get his head on straight, he does and what? What? Speak up girl!

Silence, Magda. 

So cold. Dark.

“Turned out nice today, dinit?” Her voice is a bit breathy from the long walk. She opens her bag and takes out a carefully wrapped package. Her hands work with long graceful moves, unwrapping a china plate, arranging sweets and almonds and a tangerine.

Das for us! See, that girl was always respectful. She is a good child.

Let her do her bit, Nastya, don’t be that person.

So cold.

Andrei, get over yourself. 

She whips out a small cup and twists open her thermos, filling the delicate vessel with hot strong coffee. The steam hits her face and she smiles, fanning a bit of it towards the gravestone. “That’ll do you, eh?”

Oooo, that’ll do fine!

She din’t put sugar, you know how I like sugar in my coffee.

Again with the complaints!

We’re Slavic! It is my god-given right and a duty to complain!

She sits on the bench and fishes in her cardigan pocket for a flask. She takes a long hard swig, then pours a bit on the ground. “Enjoy, you old fuckers.”

Who you calling old, eh? Still some life in me yet!

Oh, shut up already, you always do this, Magda.

She sits in companionable silence for a while, shifting a bit to find the most comfortable spot on the hard bench. She inspects the flowers on the grave and tuts. The pansies were looking a bit off. She should replace them before next year.

Oh. Oh. No, no need for that anymore, is it?

Nice of her to stop by, I always thought. Must be so proud of her, eh Kirila?

She is a dutiful child. Should be more like her. Used to be filled to the brim, come All Saints. Everyone pushing and pulling and there was always coffee and pastry. They stayed all day, too. Look at the state of us now.

Dark.

Can someone slap Andrei?

“Been meaning to get here before, but you know how it is. Work and more work. Auntie, you always told me I should study so I don’t have to work. More fool me. More fool you, too I guess. Two PhDs later and I swear… Well, you would know, now, wouldn’t you.”

That’s MY niece, that is! 

Yes, Kirila, as you so often say. Don’t rub it in.

She pours herself another coffee and takes another shot from the flask. Her eyes rest on the cypress trees that line the graveyard. They’ll be the ones to go, too. She wipes her nose.

I could do with some more coffee. 

She brought pastry, too. Don’t skimp girlie!

Patience is the mother of all virtues, Magda. Now shut up and let me get a good look at her.

“I remember the dinners, Auntie. I really missed them when you stopped inviting everyone, you know. I tried to pick up the tradition, but what with the student housing and then the studio, nobody would have fit. And you know how big Grisha got. I would have needed to rent a separate studio just for him. But I missed them. I think we all did.”

Ha!

Grisha is not big, he’s just a well-rounded person.

Magda, if Grisha got any bigger, you’d need to get a zoning licence for him.

Well! I never!

The whirr of machines started up in the background. She frowned at the noise and spoke a little louder.

“I ran into Cousin Lina the other day. She sends her regards and regrets she can’t come, but she’s really busy with the baby. She doesn’t trust those newfangled contraptions. You’d like them, though, I think. No more babysitters to hire, it takes you a whole fifteen minutes to set up and boom, instant babysitter. And they don’t drink and steal money from the drawer. What’s money to a machine anyhow.”

Huh. New-fangled contraptions. Back in my day…

Oh, shut up Magda. Back in your day, you’d give anything for a robotic babysitter.

Not so! Babies should be taken care of by proper people.

Robots are too proper people, you old bigot!

I’m with Nastya on this one. If we had those back in the day maybe I wouldn’t have ruined my back lifting Grisha when it was my turn to watch the children.

You old hag, how dare you!

You fed that boy like he’s a horse! No wonder Jakob turned out so skinny, Grisha probably ate whatever fat that boy had on him.

She was straining her vocal chords by now, the sound of the machines got so loud. She shook her head and took a bite of pastry, careful to let the crumbs fall onto the grave.

“I suppose I should tell you that he did win, like you always said he would, eventually. The elections were probably fixed, to the surprise of absolutely nobody. You were right and I can feel you gloating from beyond the veil, you know. And everything happened just the way you said it would. I suppose I should thank you for steering me into engineering. We won’t suffer as many cuts, at least that’s what they tell us.”

See. I was right. Although I’d never thought they’d be so stupid as to elect that pizda, after what happened in America.

Our people are morons. We have always been morons.

That’s why I said engineering! Nobody is going to argue that we need them. And it’s sort of like sculpting anyhow, just with different materials. Her mother was also good at sculpting, maysherestinpeace, wherever she is.

Another bite of pastry. She unscrews the thermos again and frowns. Empty. She should have taken the big one. The noise of the machines finally dies down. They will start again soon, she supposes. Once they do, that’s it.

That pastry was good. Your recipe, Kirila?

No, it was one of Magda’s I think.

Too right it was! The secret is to bake it with a cup of water in the oven.

“I came to say goodbye, actually, Auntie. See, when the big budalo won, one of the things he promised was also a way forward, to be interpreted as they see fit. So, the graveyard is going. They say he’ll build warehouses. For what, I ask you.”

What?

She chokes down a sob. “Still, no use crying. Nobody even protested, you know. I wrote letters and articles. Nobody cares anymore. What’s dead is dead, they tell me. They live in your heart, they tell me. A relic of the past, they call me. Idiots, I’m not even forty.”

Is she serious?

What will happen to us?

She gets up and stretches her legs. She puts away the cup and the little plate. She empties the rest of her flask onto the grave. “Enjoy.”

Dark.

Cold.

She checks her cell for bus times. The last one leaves in ten minutes, so she’ll have to run. She picks up a stone from the grave and picks a pansy from the side. To remember them by. Then she turns and runs downhill, never looking back.

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She knocked on the door

beastbrowne

Picture source

I read a piece once upon a time (see what I did there?) about different perspectives in writing. I wish I could remember where I found it, because I loved it so much I kept thinking about it time and time again. Here it is, best as I can remember it:

The author picked a dramatic turning point in a story and imagined the lead up to it from different perspectives. She chose the fairy tale where the protagonist must refrain from looking at the cursed prince by night, who is by day a huge monster and only turns handsome by night. You might have guessed it, it doesn’t quite work out that well for our heroine and she lights the candle to have a gander at the man she shares her bed with. He catches her, drama ensues, ends in happily ever after many trials.

Easy peasy, right? Well, yes and no. Yes, because hey, you’ve got the hard work of coming up with the actual story all done, you’re just supplying the details. And no, because those details can be, if you’ll excuse the language, a Bitch. The author did a good job, I enjoyed it immensely, as can be surmised from remembering it years down the line, and it is my go-to mental exercise for battling writer’s block.

(Also an aside: I have let things go in the net community for a while. A LONG while. It was not a case of the writer’s block, but I have had and will continue to have them. No idea why I’m telling you this, but I thought I could take this time to share this writerly moment with you, fellow writer, and commiserate on the suckfest that is The Block. There. I feel better, don’t you?)

Please enjoy sniggering at my subpar writing skills by reading about Beauty and the Beast and the moment Beauty knocks on the door to the castle after her father so foolishly promises her companionship to the Beast. In exchange for a rose. Because that’s what passes for fair in fairy tales.


She could taste the bitter bite of vomit at the back of her throat still. She was a coward.

Three times her bile rose and three times she spewed her lunch on the side of the path leading up to the mansion. Heaving until there was nothing left in her stomach.

She was such a coward. Her insides churned and turned with terror as she made her way to the decrepit dwelling. She went as slow as she could, slow as she dared. She looked up the sky and listened to the birds and she cried in great big gulps, thinking this was the last, very last time she would hear their song and very last time she saw them zipping and nipping all across the air, so free, so free. Not like her.

She was a terrible coward. She hiccuped and sniffed, her face wet with tears and snot as she dragged her feet along the path. She reached out and dragged her fingers along every bush, every flower. The softness of their petals. She wondered if there were flowers in heaven? Was there a heaven? When her mother died they lifted her up so she could kiss her blue lips. She brushed them as softly as she dared. They were cold and hard and smelled of something sickly sweet. “Kiss your mother.” That was not her mother anymore. Her mother was gone and was there a heaven?

She was the worst coward. When she was eleven she fell and hit her head very hard. She saw the rushing blackness and then nothing. When she came to it was her sisters and father around her, crying. She began crying too, she thought they had died as well and she was seeing them in heaven. It was not heaven. She then began suspecting the rushing darkness was all there was.

She was an incorrigible coward. When her father said her beautiful, exquisite flower cost her her freedom, her life for the Beast, she cried. She wailed and brayed in loud gulps and begged her father to say it was not so. He could not tell her that. But for a rose, innocent and delicate, sitting in her vase. She took it, pressed it in her little book and took her things. She could barely see through the tears as she stumbled out the house and up the hill and through the forest. She could hear Catherine-Nicole, her eldest sister shrieking at her father and crying after her. “Bella, my Bella, stay, stay, I need you.”

She was a shameful coward. She put her hands over her ears so she could not hear her anymore and ran, more by feeling than by seeing, until she could hear nothing more.

And now here she was, shaking and shivering and staring at the oak door. By sunset, the Beast had said. Would he eat her immediately? Devour her while she was still alive? Or would she suffer a fate that everyone assured her was worse than death?

She couldn’t decide which one scared her more. She reached up and knocked on the door.


She stared up the oak door. How cliche. She looked around and oh yes, there it was. A gargoyle scowling down on her and ooo, wasn’t that nice, a door knocker in the shape of a grotesque beast. She scowled at it, daring it to move.

“So, what of it?” she asked when her father broke down in tears and confessed he had traded her life for a rose. “It’s a nice flower and I asked for it. I suppose you could have double checked if it was guarded by something similar to a ferocious beast, but what’s done is done.”

She went down the village and asked her godmother for her trunk and her dowry. “I might as well get it now Auntie,” she said. “I am to be imprisoned by a beast and I think this particular little detail might dissuade anyone from marriage, so I have come to collect it a bit ahead of time.” Auntie peered at her over her spectacles and pursed her lips with all her might, but still, she gave her the trunk.

“You have nowt of value to put in, I think. It was still early to start thinking about dowry.”

“I doubt the Beast will mind. I have some clothing and some linen, though I have not embroidered it yet. I might do it in the mansion. I don’t believe the Beast is a stickler for tradition.”

When she stepped through her door, Auntie hugged her just a little tighter than necessary and pressed a parcel in her hand. “I think a woman needs a nice pair of gloves,” Auntie whispered, indicating the package. “It helps you stay grounded. The world takes notice of a woman with good gloves. Don’t worry, the Beast is old. With a pretty young thing like you, it’s half a year, two at most before his heart is done for. Write. Visit if you can, though I don’t imagine you’ll be able to.”

Bella played with the gloves as she walked home. They were delicate and fine, but the lace did not scrape against her hands. They were, indeed, good gloves and she would wear them with pride and in memory of Auntie. She did not think she’d see her face again. Auntie was a constant presence in their lives, even more so after her mother died, but she was getting on in years and the last winter had been cruel on the woman.

The dress went in at the very last. Bella smoothed down the lace and the ribbons. Her father brought the dress from his travels. It was a beautifully made piece and she was to wear it for a dinner up in the city. It was very expensive and it made her look strong and delicate at the same time. She moved in it like a breeze through a meadow and she laughed and clapped when she twirled around her bedroom, her sisters laughing with her and helping her with the intricate lacing. The dress was why she requested only a rose. It had been so expensive and there were three of them. She had the very fine and very expensive dress and her sisters still needed the jewelry before the big dinner. Her father never said, but she could tell from the meaningful glances and from Auntie’s pursed lips, they were not as comfortable as they had been.

But, and it was an important but, they were all three great beauties with a good education, and from a decent family. An asset. There were whispered exchanges and raised eyebrows and the sisters were given to understand that it was up to them and their pretty smiles and pretty dresses to replenish the family coffers, preferably accompanied by wedding bells. Auntie pursed her lips even more, but Father’s word was final and very, very firm. Claudine goes first, then Brigitte and after a few years, Bella herself. But first impressions matter and Father knew there were many, many gentlemen amongst his esteemed colleagues who had a penchant for rosy cheeks and innocent curves.

Like cattle to slaughter, she smirked to herself. Out of the fire, into the pot. She tried the handle and discovered the crate was light enough for her to carry. She waved away the stable boy. “The Beast might decide to eat you if you come with me,” she said. “And your mother would never let me hear the end of it. Off you trot and tell Father I sent you away.” The boy fled, relief spilling like a river behind him.

The walk was not long and the weather was kind to her. She looked back to the village and shook her head. She loved living there and, she supposed, she was well-liked by the population. Still, if she were to be sold like a fine ornament, better sooner than later. At least she’d be spared watching her sisters being carted away to their loveless marriages. She blinked fast, willing the tears back. No sense in crying. She reached up and knocked on the door.


She stared at the big door looming above her. There was a knot in her stomach, but she didn’t know if it was fear or excitement.

She thought of how he caressed her cheek for the last time. “Remember, Bella, you’re doing this for us all.”

She nodded, her voice small and timid. “Yes, Papa. For us.”

“We all make sacrifices, Bella.”

She nodded, her eyes on the carpet.

“I need you to say you hear and understand what I am telling you, Bella.”

“I understand and hear, Papa.”

“You are youngest and your sisters need me. They will be married come spring and you would need more time to mature.”

She nodded. He raised his brows and inclined his chin. She nodded, swallowed. “Yes, Papa.” Silence. She felt like something more was expected and she thought, blood rising to her cheeks, what else, what else? “Whose fault was it anyway, Bella?”

Relief washed over her. She knew this answer. “Mine, Papa. I asked for the rose.”

“Yes, Bella. It makes me happy that you understand this, you are a good daughter.”

She felt, deep down, that perhaps it was not as simple as all that. She asked for the rose because she was given to understand that modesty is good and will be rewarded. There will be words of praise. No hard floors and scraped knees.

She was wrong. Papa returned with the rose which he flung into her face. She remembered the thorns biting into her hands and his hand on her back, pushing down, down. She did not know, at that point, what she did to make him angry, but she learnt early enough that you bow your head, you zone out and you say all the things that were expected. It passes.

Her sisters put salve on her hands and hugged her, while Papa was stomping around downstairs. “Be brave, Bella,” Genevieve whispered. “You’ll be out of this house soon. We will be out come spring, too, so don’t worry about us.”

“Messrs. Henri and Jules are old, but they’re kind. They’ll treat us well,” Beatrix assured her. “Don’t provoke the Beast and don’t talk back and you will be fine. I hear there is a garden there, with beautiful flowers and exotic herbs. You’ll like that, won’t you?” Bella smiled through her tears. She will like that.

She stared up at the hard oak doors. The Beast wouldn’t be so bad, she mused. Bow her head, zone out, say what was expected. And she knocked on the door.


Have you got a go-to writing exercise?

The smell of smoke

This is a sort of exorcising demons post. Feel free to skip it entirely.

 

I remember the smell of smoke the most. Back in those days, everyone smoked cigarettes. I remember you with a cigarette in your hand, all the time. It was like you were an extension of a cigarette, or perhaps the cigarette was an extension of you. I can’t remember, really, I just remember the first pack of cigarettes I bought with my own money were Marlboro. Reds, because real men smoke real cigarettes, you said. I wasn’t a man, of course, but your words meant something, back then.

I remember the lady, grey, her voice raspy with the damage of smoke, nicotine stains on her fingers. I stared at them, not sure if I even want to buy a pack of my own or not. She asked me twice what I wanted. Annoyed. I piped up, “Marlboro. Reds.” She smirked. I wasn’t old enough to buy them, of course, but nobody cared back then. I bought a bottle of the cheapest wine every week to down in the park, kicking the benches, swearing at pigeons. Nobody cared about that either.

I felt proud of myself because this pack was my own. I didn’t bum if off anyone. I didn’t nick it from anyone’s backpack while they were busy groping me. Mine. The first puff felt proprietary. Mine. My smoke. My taste. My cough. My eventual pulmonary disease, twenty years later.

Everybody smoked, back then. The city was ripe with it, I climbed through the early morning fog, half fog, half smoke. I swam in it every Friday night, at the bar. Every Saturday, I pushed up through my dreams to my morning cigarette. I felt close to you then.

You didn’t know I smoked, of course. You’d have beaten the shit out of me. Back then, hitting your children was nothing more but an educational tool.

I hid my cigarettes, slid them under the little old chair in my room. Right under the little cushion with that stain that looked like the Brandenburg Gate.

I remember one day, you ran out and it was Sunday. You were tearing the place apart, looking for a smoke, cursing the gods and devils for closing the stores, for lending our Mam the car, for being stuck here in this forsaken place with nary a store in sight.

I remember blinking once. Twice. ‘I have one.’ The words strained against my throat, I could feel them rushing out and smothering you in a lovely, soft cloud of reassurance. I can make your day better.

I swallowed them, of course. I sneaked into the attic and smoked my last cigarette. I don’t know why I did it.

It tasted like rebellion.

The Coolest Day, by Fiann Mackernon, age 9

The prompt for this one was found somewhere in the mists of time, and it was:

“The skeleton is on fire.”

“So?”

Why is the skeleton on fire?”

“Mama, I am so happy you let me come with you to work!”

Lohne sighed. “I’m glad you came with me, too, chickpea.”

And she was, really she was. It was Bring Your Kid to Work Day after all and she kept promising to Fiann that he could come next year for the past three years. Now he was nine (standard age, ten local age) and she couldn’t avoid it any longer. It was just frustrating, she was in the middle of a huge project and her boss was giving her grief…

Her boss. If harpies were to descend on that idiot’s chest area and rip out every single hair thereabout she would polish their tweezers. Prick. It was his bloody idea to bring the children to work. “Show them what’s what, eh. Eh? Mebbe inspire them to follow in their parents’ footsteps, what! Little tykes running around, pitter-patter of small feet, who doesn’t love kids?”

Me, thought Lohne, resigned to her fate, I don’t love kids. Kids suck. Not my kid, obviously, she mentally corrected herself. My kid is fine. But I go to work to NOT be a mama for eight hours. And she usually dealt with tiny, finicky details. Not exactly an environment for small children. Especially small children that are clumsier than a mastodon in a vial factory. Children like her beloved Fiann.

They rounded a corner and Lohne stopped in front of the door. “Now, Fiann,” she said in her best strict mum voice. “You do not touch anything. You look and you may ask questions, but only at appropriate times. Under no circumstances do you leave the prep area and under no circumstances, no not even if there is a fire, Fiann, pay attention, under no circumstances do you approach the sigil-pentagram.”

Fiann fidgeted. “But Mama, Mr Rhee said I could help. Mr Rhee said it was standard summoning, like peeling an apple or making pancakes.

Lohne growled under her breath and felt a tell-tale wisp of smoke curling from her left nostril, a sure sign of tetchiness. “Mr Rhee can go ki…”

“Lohne, m’dear! You are here! Splendid, excellent!” A small, frail looking man skidded to a halt in front of them, his midnight-blue robe flapping around his ankles. His mouth was spread in a grin, his eyes glittered with part joy and part panic. “I was talking to young Fiann here when you were getting the morning bagels, we thought it would be a jolly good idea if he helped with the Light Demon Summoning! Under your supervision and help of course.”

Lohne tried to stay calm, she really did. “You said what to my kid?”

Mr Rhee shook a jolly finger. “Now, now Lohne, I am your boss. It’s just a Light Sumonning, one skeleton and that’s it. To give the kid a sense of achievement! He’ll just pass you the powdered fireflies and death rattle beetles, what could happen? Been talking to the tyke, a naturally curious young man!”

“A naturally nine year old kid.”

Lohne didn’t add, You stupid bastard, and he’s as accident-prone as a mouse in a cat factory.

Fiann looked up to her with those yellow-green eyes. She tutted and pushed open the door. “Fine. You can help with the summoning. But you stay here too, Mr Rhee. Please,” she added when the man looked slightly less jolly and slightly more panicky. “After all, someone should tell Fiann what’s happening during preparation time.”

Fiann paused at the entrance to the lab in wonder. There was a safety glass separating the prep area from the summoning area. He gazed at the rows upon rows of colourful powders in glass vials and at the standard tools of the trade arranged in a neat row on the sacrificial table. He basked in the sight of various interesting bits of animals and wondered if he’d be allowed to touch any of them. The unicorn horn looked especially inviting, he thought, discharging glitter in small bursts, which meant it was still very fresh. He breathed in the sweet sickly smell of incense they burned to help with the stench of the decomposing bodies.

“Ah, well.” Mr Rhee coughed to mask his growing unease at having to communicate with an actual child. “Our basic lab. See, young Fiann, your distinguished mother is our Head Necro-technician. She has a very responsible job indeed! You know how Necro-engineers train the legion of the undead?” Finn nodded, his eyes wide. “Yes, they need a steady supply of raw material and that is what your talented mother and her staff do! The legion of the undead are then assigned to an individual Necromancer and well,” Mr Rhee chuckled. “The society wouldn’t be what it was without our dear friends the Necromancers! I mean, who would build the roads we take to work? Or grow the food?” Fiann beamed with pride. “And my mama helps!”

Mr Rhee nodded and pushed up his spectacles. “Your very intelligent mother is the best we’ve had in decades. Her skill and attention to detail is legendary. Today, she is just prepping a model-skeleton to show to the new trainees. It’s standard procedure, really, any one of the Necro-techs could do it in three minutes, but your fine mother likes to do it herself.”

“Doesn’t do to lose touch.” Lohne chopped up death rattle beetle’s legs a little faster than necessary, the bits flying around. “Fiann, you can help now. Just don’t touch anything other than what I tell you. Take that vial with the blue powder and pour it into that wooden bowl. The lighter one.”

She dumped the leggy mess into a Tupperware box and moved around to the unsecured summoning area. “You may come and pass me the bowl,” she said, still annoyed at the notion of dealing not only with Fiann’s presence at work, but that her boss seemed to want to make her involve her own kid in every step of the day. She began chanting and poured together the ingredients of various pre-prepared vials with practiced grace. Fiann approached with the bowl and she added it to the mix. The chant completed, she motioned to Fiann to join her back in the prep area.

“The summoning should take hold in three, two…”

Fiann watched from the safe haven behind the glass as a shape of a skeleton began to take form.

Mr Rhee chuckled and tried to hide the note of relief in his voice. “See, Lohne, nothing to it. I don’t know why you were so worried!” He held up his hands, palms outward in the universal sign of peace. “No, no, I won’t interfere in your job anymore! Young Fiann will just watch you from now on.” Mr Rhee turned to walk out, but stopped dead when he heard Lohne’s intake of breath.

Lohne stared at the skeleton, her brow furrowed in thought. Finally, she expressed her concern.

“Fiann, the skeleton is on fire.”

“So?”

“Why is the skeleton on fire?”

“It’s not supposed to be?”

“Fiann, in all your years, how many fiery skeletons have you seen?”

“None?”

“Because they are not supposed to exist. Fiann, did you pour the blue powder in the light wooden bowl?”

Lohne cursed herself for not paying attention to her son.

“It was midnight blue powder in a light bowl.”

Lohne followed the pointing finger and rolled her eyes. “Fiann, that powder is black. Blue, there,” she pointed to the light blue powder sitting on the shelf. “Black, there,” she pointed to a half-empty vial and cursed herself, her boss and that no-good husband of hers for not wanting a dog instead. “Fiann, show me the bowl.” Fiann held up a brass bowl. “I thought it was prettier and it was closer and…”

Mr Rhee launched into a stern yet kind reprimand on the importance of following instructions. Nobody paid any attention to him.

Lohne rolled her eyes yet again as the drone of Mr Rhee’s voice rose and fell. I’m a bad mother, she thought to herself. What I should have said, if I weren’t a bad person who gets distracted by changes in routine, would have been Fiann, pour the powder into the wooden bowl, because wood doesn’t react with the Theta powder, which is the blue thing you were supposed to pour. What I should have said, she fumed at herself, is that the colour of the powder is there to distinguish the innocent Theta powder from the more malicious powders we use in higher-grade summonings. Like the Gherne powder which you just poured into the brass bowl, reserved for demon summoning.

Lohne glared at the skeleton smoking in the corner. This day could not get any worse. “Better get the Repairman on this one. I will have to suffer through a lot of fire jokes.” She turned away from the skeleton and began to walk towards the intercom. Mr Rhee opened the door and half-stepped out to shout down the corridor for a member of the repair squad.

“Uhm…”

“Yes, Fiann?”

“Mama, you might want to have a look at this.”

Lohne turned around to watch as a shrieking, now blazing, skeleton broke through the far wall into the corridor behind. She felt the colour drain from her face as she went through all the options that might have lead to this spectacle. “Fiann?”

“Yes, mama?”

“Did you at any point touch the unicorn horn?”

Fiann glanced about in panic. “I…I might have just touched the glitter.”

“And you did that when?”

“When I brought you the midnight blue powder.”

Lohne felt an urge to scream and break things rising. “And is it possible that a fragment of the glitter came in contact with the bowl?”

“Uhm…”

She covered her eyes. She was never going to live this down. A flaming, destructive skeleton loose in her department. Fuelled by unicorn glitter.

Fiann glanced at her. “Mama?”

“Yes, chickpea?”

“This is the coolest thing that’s ever happened to me.”

“Not exactly the expression I would have used. Come, let’s get the Repairman.”

Denial! More than just a river in Egypt

In a recent blogpost, the very talented A. S. Akkalon explained the regrettable disparity between her perceived day activities and her actual day. I thought it was a neat idea, so I announced my intention to try the same.

7 in the morning (AKA fuck-this-o’clock in the morning)

I think: I get up immediately, refreshed by my 8 hours of sleep. I greet the new day and do my salutation to the sun. My mood is good.

I really: Open my eyes to curse the job that makes me get up at 7. Wonder if I could get away with not eating or dressing or being a functional semi-human being in the morning. Open Pinterest and see what I could make one of these days. This is despite the fact that my phone alarm clearly reads: “Do NOT open Pinterest!”

7.30 in the morning

I think: I eat a healthy and nutritious breakfast while reading the news and having a stimulating conversation with my partner.

I really: Blindly fish in the fridge for whatever we have. I make an effort to eat the veggies, though. My partner grunts in his sleep and turns around. I seethe with resentment for having to get up while he gets to sleep. I make the coffee with more automatic movements than actual thought.

8 am, gods is it really this late already?

I think: I take all my meds and do a simple yet satisfying beauty routine.

I really: Slap on some makeup and hope for the best. Leave the house. Run back to bathroom and take all my meds.

8.30 am, who decided to start the workday this early?

I think: I have a nice walk to work, noticing the singing birds and the crisp morning air.

I really: Have a nice walk to work, noticing the singing birds and crisp morning air. I also notice a drunken man urinating on the city walls and teenagers swapping a bottle of something that probably makes you go blind. Living in the city is great!

9 am, shite…I forgot my pens

I think: I get to work, greet everyone with a smile and grab a delicious apple. I have a wholesome conversation with co-workers about our mutual hobbies and share professional advice. When the bell rings, all of us are in the classrooms and we greet our students with a smile.

I really: I get to work and greet everyone with a smile. One co-worker asks me if I’m ill, another one wonders if aliens kidnapped the real me and replace me with a pre-10 o’clock-smiling monstrosity. I grab another cup of coffee (is this my third or my fourth? I can never tell…). I enter my classroom and smile and greet the students, who echo the sentiments of my co-workers. This reinforces my idea that people don’t want things to be nice, but to be familiar.

Noon Just a little bit more

I think: I have a free period, which means grading. I do this quickly, professionally and with no doubts in my mind. While grading, I think about story ideas and dialogues I need to polish.

I really: Run to the toilet. First break of the day, thanked be the lords of urinary infections and their decision to spare me from my bad decisions regarding my bladder! I down another cup of coffee and read the essays. I read them again. I spend five minutes trying to decipher what Mr Random was trying to tell me about his thoughts on Censorship. I ask three co-workers. We sit together and try to decipher the paragraph. We give up and it is decided that Mr Random needs to see me during my office hours.

4 pm Freedom!

I think: I go home, eat my lunch and do some light cardio. I plan my lessons for the day, then enjoy an intellectually stimulating podcast and meditate for a bit.

I really: Come home, dump all my essays (of course they’re not finished) and wolf down whatever my gracious partner left on the stove. I thank the gods for a living companion that cooks. I read the rest of the essays while nibbling on whatever cookies I managed to scrounge from the deep recesses of the Nibble Pantry. Then I watch Scrubs for the fifteenth time. I glance at my half-finished novel. I shudder and go back to Scrubs.

 

7 pm Writing time

I think: I write two pages effortlessly, my characters do whatever I tell them to and my world-building is elegant and detailed.

I really: Argue with the Main Baddie about their motivation and give up. I write a short story that has nothing to do with my novel. I blink back tears of frustration and decide I will never be an author.

9 pm Free time

I think: I relax, read the literature I need for my work and wait for my partner to arrive home.

I really: Do the planning I ignored right after work because I was too tired. I can’t find the right activities. I curse at the screen, then play on Twitter for a while. I glance at the blog, then close that tab and leave it for a calmer time. I remember with a start that I forgot to do the paperwork. I frantically click between my planning and paperwork.

11 pm Sleepy time!

I think: I greet my partner, who has returned from work. Together we sit down, drink a relaxing mug of herbal tea and talk about our days. After an hour, we prepare for bed. We read for a while, then fall asleep early, to be ready for our next big day.

I really: Shout Howsya! to my partner from behind the laptop. The tea is brewed, but it’s gone cold and manky. The partner shouts back he has still some work to do and if I had a good day. I yell that no and ask about his day. He describes Dante’s seventh circle. He also asks where the wine has gone. I pretend I didn’t hear him, but put wine on the shopping list. We have tea after it’s the approximate temperature of Antarctica and complain about how tea used to be much better in our day. We get ready for bed and catch up on the news on our phones. I play around on the Internet and fall asleep around one-ish.

 

So, here’s my day. I think I’m beginning to understand why my novel is taking so long.

The power of boredom

I think I read a quote once by Casanova how an intelligent man can never be bored as long as he has a supply of paper and writing implements. I like the thought of that and so I bring it out on any even remotely appropriate occasion. Sometimes the only excuse is that my partner has given me three minutes’ silent window.

Or, I could be projecting my own ideas and the quote doesn’t even exist.

Be that as it may, I am seldom really bored. I think the above quote has a LOT to do with it, so I try to carry a notebook with me when I know I’ll be spending copious amount of time doing not a lot at all.

Boredom is, for a writer, an incredible opportunity.

A few weeks ago I had the dubious pleasure of attending a conference, courtesy of my day job. Conference means talks.

Talks mean boredom.

Imagine a soft chair, fuck-this-o’clock in the morning*, a de-coffee’d Anders, and a lecturer who has said the same thing for the third time in a row.

Time to go playing with the fairies! I imagine the lecturer going home to his wife and children and donning a supersuit. He becomes StatisticsMan, his super power to implode a person’s mind with the strength of his annual budget planning alone.

I imagine the lady next to me, the one doing crosswords, is actually an alien in disguise, the crossword her means of communicating with the rest of her hive-spawn. Soon, they will unleash death and destruction upon this lecture hall.

The scrawny man scribbling notes next to me is actually StatisticsMan’s arch-nemesis, ChaosGuy. He’s discovered StatisticsMan’s secret identity, oh no! Who shall save us?

It’s our dashing heroine, CrochetGirl, by day a mild-mannered writer. With her SuperHook she will quickly crochet a treble stitch mesh around ChaosGuy and…

“Ms Woolf?”

Hu?

“Ms Woolf? Everyone’s gone, I have to put away the chairs now.”

Ehehe, right, right. Gone, you say? I’ve been sitting here for how long?

“Fifteen minutes, miss, everyone’s at the bar already.”

 

Okay, so maybe the overactive imagination can be a bit of a bother.

 

*fuck-this-o’clock fluctuates based on amount of sleep squeezed in on the previous night, manner of awakening, presence of muffins for breakfast, presence of breakfast, presence of coffee, phase of the moon, moods of Jupiter, hue of grass and colour of tablecloth. It is usually before 10 in the morning.

On Days Like These

This piece was written as a response to a prompt on Writer’s Circle. We had to take a phrase from pop culture and write a story around it. I tried to make it as unconnected to the actual context as I possibly could.

I ended up writing quite a few short stories focusing on the world I made up here and I might develop them into something longer at one point.

Charla picked at her food listlessly, ignoring the hustle and bustle of the cafeteria as best she could. She momentarily contemplated getting up and running to the Student Office, demanding her papers and then just leave the Uni. Never stop running until her shame stopped burning.

A heavy hand dropped on her shoulder followed by a growling “MindifIsithereokaynice.”

She tried to get up, but the hand remained. “Saw you sitting here and figured, I figured that there girl, she got some troubles. Storm inna cup, yeah? So, tell me about it.”

Charla tutted softly and got up, shaking off the stranger’s hand. “I don’t know you and I am fine. I am also late, so excuse me.”

The stranger let out a loud guffaw. “Exactly. You don’t know me, so I won’t judge. And believe me, you will feel better. This Uni can break the strongest of us.”

Charla stopped. She sat back down, not really knowing why. She coughed. “Okay. I mean it’s probably all over for me, might as well tell someone.”

The stranger’s eyes gleamed with mirth. “Believe me, we’ve all got our own problems. No-one is likely to notice or care too much. Say, you’re from the Zeta quadrant, yeah?”

Charla nodded, “Third parsec. Charlasandis. Call me Charla.” She hesitated for a second, then spoke up. “You’re a Grys.” The stranger nodded. “Perceptive, Charla. Was it the tail or the horns?”

Charla smiled faintly. “Neither, it was the arrogance.”

The stranger’s smile froze, then she exploded with laughter. “Touche, my new friend! We do know what we want and how to get it. Ytres is the name, world-formation is the game!” Charla looked around self-consciously, “Um, you’re a Worldbuilder? What are you doing here then with us normos?”

She noticed that the students at the table stopped their conversations and were exchanging excited whispers. A Worldbuilder!

“Call me stupid, but I never thought isolating ourselves in ivory towers of knowledge did anyone any good. Not to be too arrogant, but I make good worlds and that’s because I like talking to people. Heard of Grytt IV? That’s one of mine,” Ytres added proudly, savouring the adoring looks she got from the eavesdroppers. “Won Hoo’s Worldbuilder Award this chapter. Judges said they never saw physics like that and it was all because I got drunk inna pub with a guy from Freher the night before the competition who tried to explain floating oranges to a stoned Terran. But enough about me. What’s up with you?”

Charla sighed and shuffled uncomfortably. “I blew up the Timegrid.”

Ytres stood up abruptly. “Okay, let’s talk somewhere else. This is way bigger than I thought.”

Charla nodded miserably and slouched after Ytres as she made her way across the cafeteria. The Worldbuilder moved with a self-confident grace, Charla noticed with a pang of jealousy. Like she owned the universe and it only existed there to serve her whims. She kicked at a discarded can and buried her hands deeper into her Dayformer robe.

Five minutes later she sat daintily at the end of a bench and wondered where to put her hands so they would be in minimal contact with the grubby surface of the table. She stole furtive glances at the patrons of the pub as she waited for Ytres to come back with the beverages.

Hoarder’s Inn was a bar famous in this Quadrant of the Galaxy, although it begs the question why. The music was a bland mix of oldies and obscure bands from less visited parts of the Quadrant, the beer was poured with the minimum amount of care or fuss and the menu was mainly dishes made with whatever was on sale in Ber-mart this week. Despite Yupp, the owner, trying very hard to make the place as cold and without personality as possible, it was frequented by celebrities of a dangerous sort, smugglers, drifters and petty criminals of a more glamorous kind. Everyone who was anyone in the Quadrant proudly recounted days and nights drinking, brawling and singing at Yupp’s. Star-crossed lovers whispered in dark corners, promising they will at least always have Hoarder’s Inn. Smugglers desperately fidgeted on the hard haemorrhoid-inducing chairs, waiting for their contact but never worrying, because it’s Hoarder’s Inn. If someone says they will be there, Death herself couldn’t stop them. There was also a healthy dose of students from the Universe drinking their joys or pains away and even a tourist or two, who will be lucky to only get pickpocketed and have their less valuable organs stolen by the end of the night. Yupp got a hefty commission from that, probably the only reason why he kept the place, at the cost of two wives and several partners of all genders who had strong opinions about organs staying on the inside of the body.

And, of course, here was Charla. She sighed again, wondering if she was really that desperate for company that she agreed to have a beer in this cesspit. She made up her mind to leave and was just starting to get up when Ytres plonked two mugs down. “Drink ‘em while you got’em! Bottoms up, pants down, hey!” She clinked her mug against Charla’s that remained on the table. “Now, talk. Blew up the Timegrid, eh? Takes some skill to do that.”

Charla blushed scarlet. “It was an accident.”

Ytres snorted into her mug. “Kiddo, Timegrid could withstand me going to town with the Doppler Effect strapped onto Hrrtn’s Equations. Pull the other one.”

“It was!” Charla hissed hotly, “I tried to adjust the sunset to reflect the emotions of the buyer and it just collapsed on itself!”

Ytres looked impressed. “You wanted to include the buyer’s emotions? Were you doing a sponsored project?”

“No, what’s that?”

“Well, sometimes, one of the patrons of the Uni comes and gives the Dayformers a commission. Like, they say they want to order a special day for one of their friends and have students design it. Gives you real-life practice in building a day from scratch and it gives the patron a warm and fuzzy feeling of taking care of the education of future Dayformers. Plus they get a hefty discount, because nobody pays a bunch of kids.”

Charla shook her head, “No, it was nothing like that. I was trying to input a matrix which would adjust itself based on the flow of emotions from any person accessing the Day.”

Ytres whistled softly, “Whoo, kiddo, you don’t mess about. I never heard of anyone even thinking about that sort of thing. No wonder the ‘grid went kablooey. You need some heavy-duty machinery for that. Not sure it even exists yet.”

Charla nodded miserably, tears pooling in her hazel eyes. “Professor Lhu kicked me out after that. He said if I ever come near his class he will personally stretch my body over two weeks.”

Ytres rolled her eyes. “Lhu is an idiot. What you did was revolutionary. Even if it doesn’t work.”

Charla wiped angry tears from her eyes, and spoke through her sniffles, “Look, I know the rest of Uni sees Dayformers as pushovers. Right, we make single days, people give them as novelty gifts, like here, have this day as an explorer in the early Thacian period. Or Granny, re-live your younger days and dance the night away like you used to. But for some people it means the world. They get to experience planets they never would have otherwise or do things they are physically incapable of. I know it’s not as glamorous as world forming, but we make people happy.”

Ytres pushed her mug away and aimed a stern glance at the sniffling Charla. “I never said you were subpar. Each of us does our best.”

Charla let out a hollow laugh. “Not me. I’m out of this Uni, Lhu won’t let me into his lab and I can’t pass my exam if I don’t have my Day ready by next week.”

She looked up to see Ytres giggling softly. “What? What’s so funny?”

“Oh, nothing. Listen, you can have access to the lab anyhow. All you need is a commission.”

Charla scoffed. “Yeah, wonderful. Where am I going to get a commission? I’m forever going to be known as the girl who blew up 6 million credits worth of Uni equipment.”

Ytres’ eyes gleamed with evil pleasure as she downed the rest of the mug. “Me. I’m giving you a commission. Better yet, I’m giving you free rein. Whatever you want, goes.”

Charla snorted a bit of beer in her nose and dissolved into a coughing fit. “You? You’ll commission a Day from me?”

Ytres smiled and spread her arms magnanimously. “Sure. Go ahead. Make my Day.”

The totally no-nonsense foolproof recipe to tackling writer’s block dynamically and for real

So, you’ve got a writer’s block, huh? Sucks to be you, mate. Really.

I imagine you must have scoured through some reputable sites full of sensible advice and are now sifting through the dregs of internet, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading me.

you-must-be-truly-desperate-to-come-to-me-for-help

Again, sucks to be you.

We’ve all been there, no worries, happens to the best of us. It’s not your fault. It’s probably never happened to you before either. I sympathize.

So, without further ado, here are the steps to breaking the block.

Step fun: Accept that you truly and indeed have a writer’s block. Admitting that you have a problem is the first step to solving said problem.

Step two: Stop glaring at your laptop. It’s not its fault. It’s always treated you well and doesn’t deserve it. Close the poor beastie and go outside and get some healthy fresh air. Conductive to creative juices, don’tcher know.

Step three: Preheat the oven to 200ºC

Step four: Eating won’t solve anything. You should read some authors you admire and think of some alternative endings to the story.

Step five: Melt 100g of quality dark chocolate, adding a pinch of salt to it.

Step six: Now, I’m disappointed in you. Put down the chocolate and check out some of the writing prompts freely available on the web.

Step seven: Remove chocolate from heat and add 100g of creamed butter. Stir until completely incorporated.

Step eight: Look. I am trying to help you. When I said recipe, it was a metaphor. Pick a metaphor and write a short story about how this particular metaphor came to be used for the first time.

Step nine: In a separate bowl, beat 2 eggs with 70g of caster sugar, then add to the chocolate mixture.

Step ten: I’ll stop drawing attention to chocolate. Pick a different expression of your creativity and go do that for a while. Painting, drawing, music, dancing and knitting all work well and will set you in creative mood.

Step 11: Sift 50g of plain flour, 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder and 1 1/2 tablespoon of unsweetened cocoa powder into the chocolate mixture. Mix together using a wooden spoon.

Step 12: Oh for f… Listen, just take your existing piece and write from the point of view of the antagonist, huh? Can you do that? Leave the fondants alone!

Step 13: Grease your muffin pan and pour in the fondant mixture. Chill in the fridge for half an hour before baking for 7-8 minutes. The fondants will be crisp on the outside and soft and melting on the inside.

Step 14: Give up and eat the fondants.

Step 15: Try again tomorrow.

Loss?

The day was cold and dark and dreary, like that Longfellow poem. A crowd turned out, which was nice, objectively speaking, and I imagine you would have liked that. You had many friends, it seems, and your wife seemed genuinely upset at your parting. I followed you from a distance, not sure if I belong, half-sure you never wanted me there anyway.

I wanted to classify my thoughts and what feelings there were, but I have a hard time even finding a word. This can’t be loss, because I didn’t even know you. You left so long ago and made a whole new life, without much space for me or my sisters. Complicated, is how I feel.

I heard the scrape of wood against the dirt when they lowered you into the ground. The tears came, but I didn’t know what exactly to do with them. They seemed to be there without my invitation or desire. I wiped them, angry at myself. I have no claim of you. I have no right to mourn you, together with your family and your wife. Those tears are not right, they are little thieves of some other family’s mourning.

I cried a lot, when you left. I felt alone, I felt not good enough. I felt like you owed me a goodbye, an explanation. You didn’t of course. You did what was best for you and that made me so angry. I felt like you should have spared a thought for me as well. But you never wanted me anyhow. I must have been such a nuisance. You must have been so angry when I announced my unwanted little presence in the womb. Little bastard baby from a woman I’m not sure you ever really loved.

I paced the graveyard and then walked away from the proper mourners. My partner followed in silence, I suspect he was as confused by this all as I felt. I looked back at your family and I thought you must have had a pretty good life. That’s all we can hope for, any of us. A good life.

I remember when I was very, very little, you’d carry me on your shoulders. I didn’t understand why daddy doesn’t stay with us all the time, but it was something normal in my small, tiny world. You stayed more often and then you stayed all the time and we moved and I had a sister. And, long after you left and came back, and left and came back, there was another sister. I often wondered what made you stay with us for so long. Perhaps our parting would have been better, if you had left earlier. Perhaps it would hurt so much less if you hadn’t stayed ‘for the kids’.

The bench was cold and wet and my partner complained he was cold. I didn’t hear him, which was terrible of me. He is ill and should be in bed, not following my flight all over the graveyard. I felt out of place, like a discarded tissue. I sat there and let the curious looks of the few mourners who eventually walked past wash over me. Did any of them know I was your eldest? Remembered me from so long ago, when I was just a small, big-eyed presence hiding behind you?

You left more than once. And then you left forever. Such is life.

I came back when all the mourners were gone. I dropped one of your books of poetry in your grave. Tagore. A fitting companion to your afterlife. I cried a big, shuddering ugly gulp, then forced myself to stop. Even the tears I now shed feel stolen. This sorrow doesn’t belong to me, just like you never did.

I hope your family finds peace.

Of reading tastes and importance of giving the finger

There was, once upon a time, a period in my life where I was acutely embarrassed about my love of sci-fi. Let me elaborate, put that pitchfork down.

I studied English Language and Literature back in the day, like a bunch of other aspiring authors. At the time I was  convinced that I am never, ever going to be a writer, because reasons. I also brought with me to uni a burning passion and deep respect for sci-fi. This is what I wanted to do in my life, I decided. Editor of a sci-fi publication, despite the fact there were but a handful in my country. This was before the Internet exploded into the Behemoth of today and anyone can blog and publish to their heart’s desire, so my dreams involved buildings full of books. Continue reading