“Oh darn and dash these soggy floors!” cried Granny Georgina, for she didn’t like to get wet feet. But that’s what happened whenever she visited her nephew and his wife, for they lived in Wizard’s Swamp — a huge marshy area behind the Wizard’s castle, where all kinds of nasty ne’er do wells, roving robbers, and penniless pensioners lived.
It was also the only place that they could afford to buy a house.
You see, the reason people didn’t want to live in Wizard’s Swamp wasn’t just because of the dangerous pensioners, but also because of the Other Things. The Things longer than a bus, that lived in a deep, gloamy goop which they only lifted their heads out of in the middle of the night — in the witching hours.
But Granny Georgina wasn’t scared of them. No — not one bit! When those awful things came in the night, Granny whapped them on their snouts and sent them on their way.
Her nephew and his wife, on the other hand, were not nearly as brave.
Damian Drudge was a lot of things, but he most certainly was not brave. He could weave baskets with the best of them, and was talented with complicated knotwork, but shrank back at the sight of his own shadow, for it looked a bit too much like a bat creeping along the wall for his liking.
His wife, Debra Drudge, was not much braver than he was. She was a portrait painter by trade, and so long as she was painting in a sunny room, she was happy. But when the lighting in the room cast shadows on people’s faces, making them look a little demonic, she had to excuse herself while she got some fresh air… just for a minute or two.
The house that the two Drudges lived in didn’t help at all. It was a small, creaky thing, well over a hundred years old. Every time the wind blew, the house would shake so much that it felt like it was going to collapse, and the house would sing a wailing, creaking, mournful, kind of a song as this happened. As a result, every time the wind blew, Damian and Debra would cower under their bed, and cover their eyes until the house stopped moving.
And that is the reason why Granny Georgina was at her nephew’s house — to teach him to be big, brave, bold and blustery. “Like a good refreshing Antarctic wind!” she always said.
So, every morning at 5 a.m. sharp, she would knock on her nephews bedroom with a sharp rap-a-tap-tap. “Oh Damian! Oh Debra! Are you ready for your early morning jog? Don’t forget that we have calisthenics to do when we get back as well!”
Every morning, when Damian and Debra heard this, they groaned and grunted and rolled over... and jumped out of bed when they heard the house groan like a moaning ghost, as it always did.
But no matter how many boxing lessons they took, and no matter how many deep sea dives they did, they always shook like leaves when they heard the awful slurping and hissing of those things in the middle of the night.
Even though he knew that Granny Georgina was doing her best for him, and even though he loved his Granny ever so much… Damian knew that the training wasn’t working.
So one morning, when Granny Georgina came knocking at his door, huffing and puffing like a steam train, roaring and ready to go, Damian sighed with relief when Debra said to him “Oh Damian, I love your Granny, but I just can’t keep doing this! My legs are like jelly, and those things…! I know that they usually only come out at night, but there might be one or two of them slithering about even now! Please Damian, tell her that we can’t do this anymore!”
Damian got up out of bed, wrapped himself in his warmest dressing gown, marched over to his bedroom door, and opened it up, only to find that his Granny was not there!
Instead, there was a note pinned to the doorframe. Here’s what it read: “Dear Nephew, sorry I couldn’t wait for you any longer — See you at breakfast for calisthenics.”
So Damian thought that as long as he was up, he may as well get ready for the day, and prepare a nice breakfast too. So, he ran out into the garden, picked a big bushel of oranges, some wild, unidentifiable mushrooms that were growing in the compost, and a big bunch of spinach.
Next, he was off to the chook house. The hens were a bit sleepy, but they didn’t mind Damian picking them up and taking their eggs, for they knew that he was their good friend.
With all this in a big straw basket, Damian was back off to the kitchen. He squeezed the oranges, and got a big zesty smelling jug of the freshest juice that you could imagine.
He cracked the eggs into a big mixing bowl, and his hands rode the egg beater like two expert bicycle riders, competing in a marathon race to get to the fluffy white finish line.The mushrooms, eggs, and spinach went sizzling into the pan spattering and crackling, talking to each other about what they thought they might end up as.
Damian was a true tour de force in the kitchen, and the omelette that he made was perfect. Buttery and soft and earthy, and just a little bit crispy on the outside. No-one could resist it, not even if you had bad news to break to them.
Just at that moment, Granny Georgina burst through the front door, took one look at the orange juice and omelettes, and gasped “No time for breakfast now Nephew, we’ve got to get out out of here before those things—”
The front door came down. Standing there in the wreckage of the doorway was one of those big black slimy brutes… and it was holding a bouquet of roses in one hand, and a big pink heart shaped card in the other.
“Oh drat! Oh drat and bother!” Cried Granny Georgina. I should have known that this would happen eventually.
“You see Damian, a long time ago, when I was just a wee lass, my twin sister Gertrude and I were the prettiest girls in town. Young Michael Spoon was madly in love with my sister, but I don’t think she felt quite the same, and something that happened between them broke his heart forever. I don’t know exactly what happened, but whatever she said made him turn to dark magic, and become the Wizard, and he’s been sulking in his castle on the hill ever since.”
“So, where is Gertrude now, Granny?” asked Damian. “Now, that in itself is a great mystery” replied Granny Georgina.
“Something happened between her and Michael Spoon — they were drawn together by something, then the next day everything had changed, and she never wanted to see his face again. Have you ever stuck two magnets together, then turned them the opposite way? It was just like that.”
“The Wizard just couldn’t let go. He thought that he could make Gertrude love him, but the more he chased her, the farther she ran away, until now, she’s gone to who knows where…”
“The last time anyone saw Gertrude would have been about five years ago now. When Gertrude ran away that last time and didn’t come back, that’s when The Wizard threw a huge temper tantrum, and turned what was once a beautiful glade into what it is now — a big mucky mess — which is where we are now!”
“You know what these big black slimy beasts were? They were people once! Until that childish little Wizard had his way. He wanted someone to stay here, on the off chance that Gertrude would come back some day, but the silly things always get her and I muddled up, and I end up with a bunch of roses that I don’t need, or a box of funny tasting chocolates. I ate one once… it gave me a purple face for a week!”
“Oh my Gertrude! My pretty, precious peony! My darling, delightful daffodil! I’ve found you at last, after all these years!”
“Oh… It’s just you...again” said a small, crumpled looking man in a peacock blue robe that was about two sizes too large for him, and liberally dotted with stars. “I suppose I’ll just be on my way. Maybe my darling Gertrude will be back some day, and when she does come back, I’ll be here waiting for her!”
He started walking out the door with his head slumped between his shoulders, mumbling all kinds of forlorn things to himself.
“Wizard, wait!” cried Damian. “Things don’t have to be this way. Can’t you see that there’s life beyond Gertrude?” “Pah! What would you know, boy?” wailed the Wizard.
“What would you know about love, loneliness, and the kind of desire that only burns for one person?”
“Well,” said Damian, “I may not know too much about loneliness, but I do know about love, and I do know that if my darling Debra wanted to go her own way, that I would let her live her own life! How about this? How about you and I take a year long trip together, and I’ll show you all the far away beautiful, terrible places that I know! If at the end, you’re still not convinced that you can be happy without Gertrude, I’ll spend a year helping you look for her.”
“Welll…” said the Wizard, “I suppose that sounds fair. I’ll go. But with one condition. You are to be the one who unpacks and sets up our tent every night… okay?” Damian grinned widely. “No problem at all. Let’s get ready to go now.”
And so they did. After packing a hefty lunch of pickled eggs, watercress and chicken sandwiches, and enough dried fruit for a month, and after a fairly teary farewell to Debra and Granny Georgina, they were on their way, and were soon beyond town limits. Two solitary figures on the horizon.
They marched the whole day that day, and most of the next day as well, through rolling green countryside, dotted with skeletal trees, reaching into the sky, grasping for something that wasn’t there.
Despite some moaning and whinging from the Wizard, it was clear that he was enjoying the trip, for day by day, more and more, his whinges were replaced with appreciative sighs.
After a month, they reached a truly awe-inspiring sight — The Black Cliffs of Kazan. Cliffs that stretch hundreds of thousands of cubits along the coast, and hundreds of cubits down to viciously churning waves like blue and white dolphins, leaping and dancing and playing. Giant gulls swooping and dancing in the wind, crying out to each other against the relentlessly blowing wind. It was a place that felt like it had been, and always would be there forever.
But it wasn’t the right place for the Wizard, for he saw Gertrude’s face in every crashing wave, and heard her voice in the whistling wind, and his heart just couldn’t bear it.
But Damian knew another place, this one ten times more amazing than The Black Cliffs of Kazan.
So off they went, along the lonely, violent, treacherous coast, and after a few weeks, they turned inland. The track that they were following became less stoney, and more sandy. Grit got into their shoes, into their jerkins, into their robes and breeches. It was inescapable, but still they pressed on.
Two months later, Damian and the Wizard arrived at their next destination — The Tomb of Medegia. A massive, imposing structure, hundreds of cubits tall, and made of solid ivory. The leering, arrogant faces of high cheek boned empresses and emperors adorn every wall. Some say these are the faces of The Gods themselves. Whoever they are, they are long gone now. Despite countless centuries of neglect and disuse, it stands tall and proud in the desert, and doubtless will be there long after man has left the earth.
“This… this is a beautiful, blasphemous place” said the Wizard. “Every face reminds me of my darling Gertrude. Every graceful antelope reminds me of her gait, every silverbill perching on this rotten, ancient ivory reminds me of her beautiful, intelligent manner. I can’t bear it.”
So they went on. To countless, amazing places. Places that you or I would be lucky to catch a glimpse of from a distance, and that have been untouched by human hands for untold periods of time.
The jungles of far flung Bluman, where sea touches the sky, and where it was said that a race of lizard-men once lived under the ground. Omor, where you can plainly see the sun rise from the ocean in the middle of the night, a red hot burning ball huge beyond imagining, cast up like a juggler’s ball, just for you and you alone to see. Izik, where it was said that all life on earth began, and where you can see what could be faint handprints on rocks that predate the first vertebrates by several hundred million years.
But all of it reminded the Wizard of Gertrude, and as the year drew to a close, Damian felt less and less sure that he could convince the Wizard of the beauty of the outside world. No matter how much they talked, about all range of topics, it always came back to one thing and one thing only: Gertrude.
Damian wasn’t sure what he could do that he hadn’t done already, and his heart was sinking as they started to turn back towards Wizard’s Swamp.
“Hah!” cried the Wizard with glee. “You see, no matter where we go, no matter what you do, I cannot be happy without Gertrude in my life, I just can’t!”
As he looked over at Damian, tears started streaming down his face, as he realised that he had let down the only person in all these years who had who tried to help him break out of his fortress of solitude that he had locked himself in for all these years.
As he walked back into town, and looked at the faces of what had once been happy families, men, women and children — fathers, mothers, sons and daughters, now transformed into giant black beasts, he realised what an awful thing he had done, and how selfish he had been.
He cast a spell, and transformed everyone back to their former selves. The townspeople understandably weren’t too happy with the Wizard, but they eventually forgave him after he drained the swamp, employed the ne’er do wells, rehabilitated the robbers, and raised the pension. Not only that, but he decided to transform Wizard’s Swamp to Wizard’s Garden — a giant community garden where everyone had their own green space where they could grow fruits, vegetables, and so much more, all with the help of the Chief Gardener himself, the Wizard.
Soon, Wizard’s Garden was a town where it seemed like anything could happen, and anyone could be found. Lawyers could be found among the foxgloves, watchmakers and students could be found side by side among rows of green peas, and happy families could be found everywhere, including Damian and Debra and their children.
It was like being in another world. I already knew that the weather wouldn’t be great. When I saw that the forecast was for thunderstorms, I was pretty excited, because we were already planning to walk on a remote beach that was known for being pretty wild, and I felt like thunder, lightning and rain would enhance the experience, but I wasn’t expecting anything like this. It was pouring down so hard that the rain felt like little ants biting our skin. We couldn’t see anything around us — we were trapped in a glass bubble of mist. The thunder cracked over our heads like the gods laughing at two young fools who had decided to go to the wrong place on the wrong day.
Yeah, that sounded like a pretty good description of Alexei and I — two young fools. We were cracking jokes and talking shit the whole time we were walking. Who was afraid of a little rain, right?
As we kept walking, things kept getting stranger. You could find anything on a beach like this. There were stories of people finding beached whales, human corpses, ancient carvings, and who knows what else. Objects seemed to float and melt, shimmer and transform. On more than one occasion, a piece of driftwood turned out to be a seal, but their big puppy dog eyes weren’t interested in us — not when there was the infinite sea to bask and bathe in.
If possible, the rain has gotten even heavier, and waves of fog have come in with it. But it doesn’t feel like we’re drowning — it feels like we’re swimming in fog — playing hide and seek with each other. Even if we could go back, I’m not sure if we would. But at this stage, three hours into an eight hour walk, that’s not even an option. There isn’t even much of a goal at the other side — just a carpark with my beaten up old Toyota Starlet waiting, but I guess that’s enough of a goal in and of itself, even if the only towels to dry ourselves with are old dog towels.
I wish we had taken some hot soup with us. Damn. That’s the trouble with good ideas, they usually only come once it’s too late.
“Hey Alexei?” “Yeah?” “Do you regret coming out here today?” “...No — of course not” “Well, okay” “Why, do you?” “Nah, I like it this way, with the big ocean, and the endless beach, full of mystery.”
You know how they say that the journey is more important than the destination? Maybe it’s a bit cliché, but it’s true you know, just like so many other cliché things.
To be young, free, without a care in the world.
To not know what you’re going to do today, or tomorrow, or when you’re older
To not know what happened before
It’s all a big, fuzzy, warm blurry mess
Everything feels like it’s always been the same
And always will be the same
The same perfect gravel driveway
The same perfect house, trees, mother, father, brother, sister
But nothing can stay the same
When you try to catch a memory, it disappears
Magic fades in the light of reality
Fairies don’t live in gumnuts anymore
That mangrove swamp?
It’s not even there
Dinghys moored in harbours long gone
Fantails flitting from tree to tree
As I go to these places
New memories are born as the old are washed away
The endless tides of time
Roll on and on
Green clouds floating under the mist
Twitters and squawks echoing far away
A lone figure in black and white, moving slowly
Carefully stepping over the grass and asphalt
A vast empty space with scattered sounds
Shouts, replies, and raucous animal songs
Swallows dancing in the air
Are you dancing just for me?
We’re too caught up in our dream to notice anything but the present
Mind in the clouds, I keep walking
Trees swaying in the wind
Endless dogs passing like friendly spirits
A distant roar
Cars pass by unnoticed
This green space is not for them
Green sentinels standing tall
Watching over all who pass
With a quiet patience, developed over years
If you listen carefully, you might hear them talk
The young bamboos, chattering raucously in the wind
The tall pines, softly whispering to each other
They talk in other ways too
Sprays of sweet smelling flowers in colours invisible to the human eye
But the intended readers can see them clearly
They talk in other ways, secret ways, ways that you or I could never see
Tiny mushroom threads under the ground
Invisible signals sent to everything around them
If you spend enough time with them, you might hear them talk
Just bear in mind, it might not be a voice that you expect
Or even one that can be heard with your ears
She did not think about it much when she decided to buy a phone charger from that place up north with the mall and the subdivision and the motorway, but she left work early to get there on the bus because the bus had its own special lane all the way north and this wasn’t even that far really. The bus went fast and it stopped where she could see the mall up on the hill, and the man yelled something, and she got out and the bus was gone.
A belt of macrocarpa stood behind the bus stop sign, rambling left and right as far as she could see, hacked back so that the exposed branches pointed at her face like accusatory fingers. She turned around and, keeping the mall in her sights, crossed the highway. Step by step the mall was eclipsed by the blanketed hills of the subdivision, which were in turn swallowed up by a patch of Monterey pine a few kilometers nearer. The mall looked close from the bus, but it was now apparent that in order to get to it she would have to traverse a field of weeds and gorse, a small pine glade, and a hilly planned community. What the fuck have I done, she thought, They offered free delivery, and pressed on.
The field looked sad and flat but the weeds were taller than she, and on the left was a path of clay and rocks that lead to a muddy lake in the centre. A corrugated iron shack stood next to it, and a cute stumpy pier. The insects droned like a chainsaw. Diggers and bulldozers were off to the right, away from the clay path, and had gone to seed, with rats nesting comfortably in the foam seats, and obese furry creatures snoring with open yellow eyes on the roofs cracked and peeling in the hot sun. Some of the weeds, she thought, looked kind of like her mother, if not in appearance then in demeanor. Scratching the cuts from the gorse until they puckered up and stopped bleeding, and plucking from her socks the prickles and cords of the wild vegetation, she stumbled out of the field and into the relative shade of the Monterey pine border.
Like hideous faces the trees descended into a small black stream and up the other side, stopping at the edge of a sports field which yawned its way to a skatepark, netball court, and two storey rugby club. She got muck on her shoes from the stream, dodged seagulls at the skatepark, and smirked haughty past the rugby club, marching up the hill and past all the newly built beige houses. The road looked dusty although it was not. The blades of grass on every berm were dewey and somehow proudly individuated. The area looked like a nineteen fifties barbecue advertisement, and she could feel its humidity causing her skull to shrink, tightening on her brain and causing her sinuses to run with a thick transparent liquid that smelled of ants. It was clear to her that this was an unwelcome development, a wasteland where the grass turns up mud like chocolate mousse and the birds, confused, look like they’ve been kidnapped from their homes and brought here against their will.
At the top of the hill she saw the mall in the distance and felt relieved. There were only a few more hills to go and each rolled gently from the last, never dropping to the level of the sports field below. Before she could resume her usual style of walking however (a bizarre and officious technique that horrified onlookers with its long strides and warlike, jerky movements), a cat slunk out from the fence, and waited for her in the middle of the footpath. She stopped and stared at it for a bit, thinking behind a blank expression, and then decided that she had better pat it. Unlike just about everybody else she knew, she took no pleasure playing with cats and in fact found that their fine fur, so often either waxy or dusty and granular, left a film on her fingers that lightly repulsed her. If she ever did pat a cat she did so out of an imagined obligation to the cat’s owner lest they see her walk past their prized beast with nonchalance and begin to worry about it being somehow less desirable than others. Because she had never made the effort to impress a cat, she did not know that they prefer a horizontal caress to a vertical clap, and so raised her flattened hand and tapped the cat three times on the head, causing its ears to stick out sideways and its face to scrunch up like it was about to sneeze.
The cat, furious, turned around and walked up the driveway to the yard, and the woman, satisfied, continued toward the mall. The cat rolled around in the dirt and then stopped suddenly as though it had been caught out. It began licking itself. Then it sneezed. The yard did not belong to the cat, nor did the house. A man lived there they called The Priest, not because he was involved in the church down the road, but because in a previous life he ran one out of a school gymnasium and performed baptisms at the adjacent Carol Jupiter Aquatic Centre. The Priest now more or less lived in the muggy waters of the gigantic spa bath that came with the house, which he had de-installed and moved to the sunroom out front. He sometimes thought about his congregation out west, but was happy out here with his sunroom and spa bath.
Today The Priest had with him in the spa one of the large furry creatures with yellow eyes that inhabited the greenfield land on the outskirts of the subdivision. The creature looked nervous. Its bright yellow eyes darted around the sunroom so as to double and triple check that they knew where the exit was. The Priest stared the creature straight between the eyes and refused to blink, employing carefree body language to put the creature at ease. He focussed great physical and psychological energy on dangling his left arm over the side of the spa bath, more than the creature had ever exerted in its life. He sighed affectionately and then inhaled so forcefully that you could hear the oxygen rushing into his body, screaming to get away. The creature felt like it was about to pass out when The Priest rasped in its direction, his eyes bloodshot and watering, the veins in his neck bulging, his reclining body taut and purple.
The creatures weren’t dangerous per se, but more and more of them had been spotted roaming the residential streets at night when people were fast asleep in bed. The Priest didn’t know for certain why the people of the subdivision had elected him as a sort of unofficial sheriff in affairs such as this, but he accepted the position with great pride. He had volumes of Franz Mesmer on his bookshelf, as well as key texts by Abbé Faria. He had boxes full of Elizabeth Ichbald’s satirical Animal Magnetism which he would use to start bonfires in the summer. He didn’t mind the creatures, and if it weren’t for their clay-like faces and demonic yellow eyes he might even find them cute. But as town sheriff, he had a job to do and he was determined to do it well.
That morning he had sent his neighbour down to the field equipped with some trade items (baked goods, magazines, sunglasses), which would be instrumental in forging a relationship with these creatures. Having exchanged items of significance and gaining one another’s trust, the neighbour would be able to suggest that the leader of the creatures come with him for a beer at The Priest’s house at the top of the hill. As is so often the case, however, things in execution did not go according to plan. The neighbour had inadvertently dropped his box of trade items in the stream by the Monterey pine, and the creature currently in The Priest’s spa pool was only there because the neighbour had chased it down in his car and kidnapped it. The creature’s family had all run out of the forest, screaming through their horrible faces after him. Of course he did not tell any of this to The Priest, who said with great magnanimity that things like this require a great deal of trust and patience. For The Priest, a casual spa bath between friends seemed the perfect environment for a creature such as this to drop its guard, knock back a few beers, and divulge any and all information pertaining to the creatures’ activities at night, their weird clay faces, and their intentions in general. The Priest’s neighbour, the one who had gone down this morning and kidnapped the creature, had a theory that they were collecting material with which to build a spaceship or maybe a tank.
The cat was greatly annoyed that The Priest was occupied, so went back to find the woman so abnormally lacking in feline empathy. She was a few blocks down by now, almost outside the cat’s house, so it doubled its pace to catch her up. When it finally did, the cat swerved between the woman’s legs, giving her a fright, and causing her to mutter Argh, fucking thing. The cat’s owner heard this from the front garden and reacted immediately: Why don’t you like my cat? The poor child was on the verge of tears. The woman responded thus, I do like your cat, it’s the prettiest cat in the whole world. Really I do love your cat. This made the child very happy. He ran back into the house yelling Mum, mum! We’ve got the prettiest cat in the whole world! The lady outside said so! and the lady outside continued walking like a deranged marionette, now so close to buying a phone charger from the mall that she could feel it.
To her credit she did not panic when she arrived at the mall to find that Bond and Bond had been bought out by Noel Leeming, and that Noel Leeming were only selling micro USB chargers for smartphones. Nor did she panic when on her way to Kmart she passed a LogoLand and saw in the window what she still with great certainty believes to be a childhood portrait taken of her, printed on t-shirts, mugs, cutlery, and dinner plates. She did not panic when she used the bathroom next to the McDonald’s and saw her name written twice on the cleaning roster stuck at the entrance, the only name there. She felt uplifted when she saw that the food court had a Chilando, not because Chilando made particularly good tasting food, but because a burrito bowl wouldn’t contribute to her paunch the way a Big Mac most certainly would. She felt decent as she poured her own rubbish from the tray into the bin, saving the cleaner from having to do it.
Things were okay. Things were basically good for her. Sure, she felt sad as she thought about her mother, but then she felt relieved as she left the mall, remembering that the afternoon was still young, that she had some good movies to watch at home, and that the bus with its own special lane would have her back there in no time.
They were such freaks they got off school saying they were gonna get the shit kicked out of them (true for one but not the other), then they built an elaborate house from tarpaulin and sheets woven through the trees that they called the bunker and stayed out there with stolen beer and cigarettes and the intention of spotting a UFO. One of them had seen one once, she said, out on the beach, but also she wasn't sure. The other one was happy to go along with this because it was a hangout with an objective or theme attached, and things made more sense to him when they had an objective. The park that housed the bunker was just over the fence from his, so they could always climb back over to grab food or warm clothes as by five o'clock the ground was already getting chilly. They talked about things that the other was not interested in, but which they wanted to hear about because they enjoyed listening to one another talk about the things that excited them. They talked shit about their school and how when they got older they would do this and that. He wanted to move to the country and she wanted to get lost lost in the desert then die and turn into a ghost out there. Eventually they disassembled the bunker and rebuilt it over the fence, in his back garden. His father came out and grumbled something that neither of them could understand. Then his sister came out with a plate of dinner for each of them, hers with beef and potatoes in a stick of French bread, and his with beef, potatoes, and a green salad. Over the course of the evening the bunker crept closer and closer to the house, to the downstairs room with the spare beds and television. At one stage they had the television pulled right up against the glass sliding door so that they could lie down in the bunker and almost see and hear what was on. More and more reasons were given for repeat trips back into the house until it was decided that they need only be in the bunker when the possibility of seeing a UFO was most likely, which is to say four or five hours from now.
Birthday merriment, our mother’s land, broken pipes that spill putrid shit into the grass by the hill. Down to the forest. With the cows.
My son slips there. We bundle his little face, his sobbing legs kick our sides leaving bands of the stuff. His eyes are wild and his hair is stuck to his face. He saw him.
The sand there was so yellow that it gulped. Its teeth ran cold like it forgot the day already, always changing like that. Who will be the one to take stock. There used to be a village. Can you imagine anything sadder than sinking and being sunk.
The man with black eyes is the warden. He lives down there past where we went when we were kids. Where all the trees sing. He burned himself into us. You set the river on fire to get rid of him. None of them know that but I do. I’m still so proud of you.
Always will be.
My sister was never allowed to go over there, but then one afternoon she did. The house was just along from mum’s friend John’s, where we house-sat one school holidays. It never stuck out before that afternoon picking Christina up, because why would it: most of the houses in the area were colonial villas with front steps and external garages, all painted white, and from the outside Rachael’s looked much the same as John’s and everyone else’s. The area they lived in wasn’t given a name to differentiate it from any of the surrounding roads and reserves, but those who lived in it maintained that it was special and it seemed that way to outsiders as well. The difference was palpable: the roads hadn’t been widened in over half a century, and along every street were trees that changed colour in autumn and grew so tall that their branches could reach out and shake hands with those on the other side of the road. Being a hillier, greener place, the shadows that stalked grim in the day were so unrelenting that they would turn the grass into the coldest mud. Even when the sky was blue and the light was dappled you could see the breath leave your face to be lost in the cold forever.
Rachael and Christina became friends when Rachael joined her class in term two that year. She and her family had arrived from somewhere like Singapore or Canada and on hearing their daughter tell stories about the year six curriculum in New Zealand, her parents decided that she needed to be put with the year eight students. Principal Barrett put forward the compromise that Rachael could move in with the year seven class, as the school had a fairly rigorous intermediate education programme designed to prepare students for the high school experience in year nine, but Rachael’s parents had made up their minds and were very much used to getting their way with these things. When Rachael started in her class, Christina found her precociousness every bit as insufferable as the other kids did, but she felt bad about the ostracism Rachael faced as a consequence of this behaviour, and started sitting with her out of pity. In the beginning Christina picked Rachael’s prickliness as a sort of defensive thing to cope with her family’s always moving, but over time it became clear that to remove the prickles from Rachael would be to expel her very being, leaving only a desiccated husk of the child that would in a second float down with the newspapers, rotting leaves, and ACT party brochures, to be enveloped in the cold mud that followed her wherever she went.
When I asked Christina in the car home why before that evening she had not been invited to Rachael’s, she explained that the house was currently under the tyranny of a man named Uncle Chambers whom the family all feared with such intensity that they felt they had to endure alone. Rachael, teary eyed on the way there, had bemoaned the fact that not even her grandmother was allowed into the house when she was visiting from Toronto, and that her mother and father would instead leave to meet her at a nearby café. She also took that walk as an opportunity to give Christina a rundown of the method that the family had decided on for best navigating the house and avoiding Uncle Chambers. Doors in the house, Rachael said, could only be opened if Uncle Chambers had without a doubt passed the door and so would not be waiting outside. When Christina asked how one might know for certain whether or not Uncle Chambers would be standing outside any given door, Rachael explained that he would rush to any door that had just been opened, and so the only way to leave a room would be to listen out for another door in the house opening, at which point you would be given safe passage to the room of your choice (barring of course the one that now had Uncle Chambers waiting outside it). Christina asked why one could not just take a peek to see if Uncle Chambers was currently outside the door, but Rachael went pale and said that such a gamble doesn’t bear thinking about. The thought of actually encountering this Uncle Chambers was evidently too much for her to handle. Any number of pulleys, intercoms, and radio systems were discussed on the walk but it all came down to the conviction held by Rachael’s family that in order to avoid Uncle Chambers one must believe with certainty that he is at all times outside your door until you hear another door open at which point he is certainly on his way to that door instead.
Christina has said that whenever Rachael comes to mind she will have generated more questions than the last time, least of which is how the door opening cycle would each evening begin. The answer, Christina understood implicitly at the time, and still accepts now, was that a member of the family would every night take a sort of leap of faith for the sake of the other family members; breathing deeply, opening the door with the belief in their heart that Uncle Chambers would not be there waiting for them. The one detail she remembers from the walk, and she thinks about this regularly, was regarding the name Uncle Chambers, which Rachael failed to elucidate in any helpful way, as the man, she explained, came with the house.
The man who lived there drunkenly charged at a rock and disappeared into it. By complete chance the rock is now here, on the hill bordering their backyard. With all the haggard trees. They look out the backyard over the fence and see a man in an owl costume laughing like an opera singer. More and more people congregate around the rock every night but they’re always gone in the morning, so nobody believes them when they say. If this happened now they would be closer to their parent’s age then, but if they were the same age now as then, they could catch it on camera and show it to the nonbelievers. But it happened then. They ate chicken nuggets and played with an RC car that moved like it had a mind of its own and it made them both giggle. They played Sonic the Hedgehog and read Goosebumps. Then after everyone had gone to bed they planned what they would do about the rock, the owl, and the grey faced congregation.
Otranto. Train ride down from Lecce is a typically rattling trundle in a museum piece, all faded fascist paintwork, brown leather seats and red curtains flapping out the windows to greet the olive groves. Before long, sun on my back and feet in the Adriatic and the decision to come is vindicated.
Hair dried and saltwater shaken out of the ears, I issue a few ciaos and non parlo Italianos and am successfully ensconced at a table on the promenade. Squint out and marvel at the way two azures — sea and sky — quickly disappear together in the near distance. One sip into caffe espresso and cellphone rings, a New Zealand number. Sweat already prickling the nape of my neck I answer.
I immediately regret the irritation in my voice.
Can't read his tone, but he surely read mine.
"A surprise! What are you after? How are y–"
Three mistakes — it's not a surprise, I know what he's after, and my attempt to re-configure the mood of the conversation comes far too slowly.
"You know damn well why I'm ringing."
"I have a commission for you."
He sounds cheerier saying this. He once told me he loves the 'taste of doing business' which I never understood because he doesn't really 'do business'. Just asks people to write and pays. Never makes the money back on publication, so could hardly be described 'business'.
The pace of life here has made its way under my skin. Mere impatience would be the least of Liam's reaction if he knew my silence was less to do with tossing the proposition over in my mind and more with continuing to squint at the holy union of azures before me.
I mutter something about the fee and a modest sum is agreed. Meaningless anyway. I owe him a significantly immodest sum, so I won't see any cash. Servicing debt by writing about — writing about what?
"Cosmic horror? What is that?"
"I don't think I need to tell you what cosmic horror is."
The line dies. Did he hang up on me? Or did my roaming SIM card finally burn its reserves and deliver its last minute of talk time to me?
So hot I'm not sure the sun even went to bed last night. Stewing on the sand with notebook in hand. What the hell is cosmic horror? Horror on spaceships, perhaps. No. I start to doubt I know what the word 'cosmic' even means. So troubled by this I do nothing to stop the stinging sweat rolling into my left eye. I invite it in, blink hard, sharp pain. Optic horror.
Wake with a start and realise all Liam wants is some derivative Lovecraftian trash written. Good god. Three days to realise that.
Still smug in the comfort of my revelation, hours later I am seated again on the promenade, pen dancing across the page generating a cast of B-literature terrors and victims. Waiter approaches, cordless phone in hand. Short exposition in Italian. I grimace and open my hands in a show of non-understanding. He frowns and passes the phone.
"Larry your cellphone doesn't ring, it just says something in Russian."
I'm not sure what I expected to come through the hot black plastic of the phone's earpiece, but Liam's voice somehow makes sense.
"It's probably Italian. How did you know to ring me here?"
I glance around, irritated. I don't even know what the name of the cafe is and I'm sitting in it. How on earth has he?
"Instagram. Anyway, change of plan."
Instagram? Change of plan?
"Forget about cosmic horror. I want you to adapt some poetry."
"Yes. Owes me money."
We all do. He names the author.
"Do you know him? Owes me money, so I've assumed ownership of his poetry."
I know him but I don't want to get into it because the waiter is still standing, one hand a fist, the other wrapped around it. Hard to strike a neutral pose when waiting for a phone to be returned, I think.
"Kind of. Anyway, what are the poems? What do you want done with them?"
Will I have to tip the waiter after all this? I suppose so, but it's not like I wanted a phone call.
"Simple — the poems are about sea monkeys. And I want a space opera. Same fee as we already agreed — this is easier if anything, so you're lucky. The poems are all hand-written so I'm mailing them to you, what's the address?"
I rattle off the apartment address and, this time, am sure I am hung up on. Phone back to waiter, he hovers, grimacing. Two Euro coin produces a grazie and I am left alone, with a space opera and sweaty knees.
The poems arrive, sure enough. A shoebox's worth, delivered by courier. I start to leaf through them as I wait for the percolator. Some of the poems are decent, others a bit muddled. Lots of experiments with form and genre. More puzzling is a note from Liam. It simply restates the detail shared during our phone conversation, before providing musings on various actors whom might be approached to play some of the roles. But what unsettles is Liam's use of apostrophes. Throughout the note the project is addressed as both a
Exhausted, stow the poems and calm the gas and bubbling coffee pot.
Have spent two days circling the apostrophe issue. The effect of both renderings of 'space opera' troubling. The single quote marks suggestion subversion, critical irony. So should the piece twist and snark at the conventions of space and planets and rayguns and aliens, or at the form and expectation of an opera itself? None too familiar with either cultural code I am stalled, either way.
Wake with a start again. Does he mean 'space' or does he mean space? That is to say, is Liam's preoccupation simply with an opera composed about the spaces we inhabit? I catch myself. 'Simply'? Is this 'simply' what it is? The hell is wrong with me.
Decide to wrestle with the poems instead. Realise quickly that author does not seem to know what a sea monkey is — writings fall into three categories. Poems about small fish. Poems about monkeys living under the ocean (Planet of the Apes meets the lost city of Atlantis). And one poem actually about sea monkeys.
A quiet, strained voice appears on the end of the line.
"Hey it's me."
I've given up on the beach for now. I need air conditioning, a table, and dry skin if I am to have a hope of succeeding.
"Oh. I wondered if it might be you Liam had given all my work to."
"Yes, it is. He wants them adapted."
Through the crackling of the international connection I make out a guttural sigh.
"And adapted into what?"
"A space opera..."
"Oh yeah. That would work."
Not what I had expected to hear. My face collapses into a grimace, confused and angry. Impatience on the other end.
"So what do you want from me?"
Two priorities jostle for attention — space opera and sea monkeys. I start with the latter.
"Well, I'm just wondering what you mean by sea monkeys. Reading the poems I'm not actually sure you know what they are."
"I know what the hell sea monkeys are, thank you very much. Goddamnit, you ring me to ask what sea monkeys are? Get the fuck out of here."
Another dead line.
My sea monkeys are alive right now.
But I'm running out of food for them.
I bet they never even liked that green stuff anyway.
The other poems are gone. Into the raccolta differenziata bins. I am left with the one poem that actually displays an awareness of the sea monkey as novelty aquarium shrimp.
The project haunts me. Have extended my stay at Otranto another month, as I have pinned story drafts around the walls of holiday apartment. Can't leave now. Final line of poem declares, in the voice of the last surviving sea monkey:
"SEA MONKEY FOOD IS PEOPLE!!"
But this is untrue. Sea monkey food is mostly comprised of yeast and spirulina. My calls to the author are now screened, so no possibility of clarification.
Soon there will be only one left.
And it will slowly waste away.
Poem taunting me.
Liam rings. This time the waiter finds holiday apartment and knocks on door, cordless phone thrust into my hands. How much will I have to tip him this time?
"How's the cosmic opera going?"
Why do I lie? I don't know, but I do.
"Excellent! I knew you were the right guy for the job. How many pages in are you?"
I need to stop lying but I can't.
"Fucking brilliant! Okay, well we've actually scouted a good venue...and do you remember that guy we went to school with? The Corsican one who acts now? Yeah he's in and he's helping with the rest of casting too."
"We're getting a huge aquarium rigged up too. How many sea monkeys will we need?"
A long pause. Just one? I mumble.
An even longer pause.
Has he hung up again?
Laughter. Rumbling and breaking through the ambient fog of the phone line.
"Had me going there, man! Christ I thought for a second you didn't actually know what sea monkeys are. You're a funny guy that's why I knew you'd be perfect for this space comedy."
Space comedy. Cosmic opera. I feel the blood draining from my body.
"Look, I'll level with you, I've already ordered the monkeys. That's how much faith I had in you, I've cleared out all the Australasian suppliers. We'll have enough of the little fucks to run this show for two, maybe three weeks."
Eyes closed, swallowing and nodding silently in resignation, witnessed only by the waiter standing on my doorstep.
"You still keep a diary every day?"
"Great, send me the pages for the past couple of months. We're putting a zine out tomorrow and I think we could use it to hype the sea monkey show. Generate buzz. 'Behind the scenes' you know?"