For Screaming Out Loud

As a writer, I am pedantic about language.  There are certain words, certain phrases that I deem ‘cliche’ or just plain horrendous.  Even more horrendous is when they appear in myown writing.

One of my greatest and most pedantic pet hates is the word ‘scream’.  I have never once used the sentence ‘such and such screamed’ in any writing work to date.  It makes me flinch when people use it.  Describing screams is alright – the screams of the murdered girl, the scream of the baby rabbit, the girl screamed loudly – they’re all fine.  But when it’s used after dialogue, for some reason I despise it.

This all comes to mind because I was just writing a murder scene.  My favourite murder scene, actually.  There are a few, but this girl gets the best death out of everyone.  She’s sitting in a bathroom when a guy (the murderer) comes to the door, where her boyfriend is sitting like one of those suit-of-armour things they have in old houses.  He wants to talk to her, but can only do it from inside the bathroom, not outside.  The boyfriend’s smart and doesn’t want to let him in, but the girl totally falls for it and soon the murderer’s inside, has kicked the door shut (and jammed it) and has taken a knife out of the pocket of his blazer (big pockets, those blazers have).  At this point, my character was about to scream.  But then I thought ‘scream’?  Maria would never scream.  She’s too up herself to scream!’

To me, screaming is for the weak.  It’s for the damsels in distress who scream the names of their lovers when the evil bastard holds a knife to their throat, or for three-year-olds having tantrums.  They are about the only places where the word ‘scream’ belongs.

It DOES NOT describe manly men being put through a lot of pain.  I’m sure there’s another word out there to describe said situation (I don’t know what it is, but then again, I’ve never written, and probably never will write, a situation like that).

It DOES NOT describe unmanly men being put through any sort of uncomfortable trial at all.

(Let me just get one thing straight here: MEN DON’T SCREAM.)

It DOES NOT describe strong women no matter what situation they’re in.

The word ‘scream’ is a word denoting hysteria, wildness and babies.  If your character is NONE of those things, please DO NOT use the word scream.

And for your information, Maria cried out when the knife entered her stomach, puncturing a lung which then filled up with blood, making her drown and choke for breath until she finally died with her boyfriend sobbing by her side.  If that isn’t a manly scene, I don’t know what is.

(I hope the sarcasm was noted)

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Sometimes it Surprises Me.

We smile now.

Yes, that sleepy, grumpy,

Hormonal group.

The ones that called this place

Jesus Camp and

That Bloody Retreat.

Those small smiles mean so much.

It is the picture of

Surprise,

Love

And sadness because

It can only last

Another semester.

And quietly,

In the jukebox of my mind,

A slow, haunting and

Long lost tuen comes

To the foreground:

‘Sometimes, it causes me to tremble,

Tremble…’

The song is actually a hymn that we always have someone sing for our Easter liturgy at school.  That’s about the only line of it that I enjoy.

Teenagers

I wrote this with a particular person in mind.

We are pedantic teenagers.

Our problems are

Everyone else’s, and everyone else’s

Problems, not our concern.

We take but do not give back,

We leave no reason for our actions.

We cry, we laugh, we tease,

We torment.

But we love as well.

Pt. 2

Uncomfortable behind our facades,

Of quiet and lipstick and

Makeup and blush,

Of overly wide smiles and

Boisterous laughter.

Sometimes the cracks show

Only a little.

Graduating Class

Written on and about the last day of retreat.

Over one-hundred people

Sit, stand and walk in this room.

Soon we will be individuals,

On different journeys,

Different paths to become

Different people.

No longer a collective group, we will miss

The indistinction

Of childhood.

The End of a Retreat

On the final night of retreat, I saw something that I knew I could not describe with a photo, only with words.  This is, above all, my favourite poem from retreat.

If I walk out of my dormitory,

My stomach warm and full of

Chamomile tea,

All I see are two empty chairs

And the scraps

Of papers once important.

The circle once filled with people

Is empty and silent.

My cup hangs from my hand as I

Slowly pace and hear

The ghosts of a

Graduating class.

Dedicated to the graduating class of 2011.

Creation Walk

This was written after the ‘Creation Walk’ that I did on the second day of the retreat.

I could see ghosts.

They were but fleeting images

Of times both past

And future.

Children nestled on the undergrowth,

Covered with the shade of trees.

Old man trees crooned and groaned

As we walked through

The copse of the woods.

On top of the mountain

Where the ground gave way

To the yawning hills below,

The view was flooded with ghosts,

Crawling to and fro

And waiting for us to find them with

Baited breath.

On Top of the Hill

Another retreat poem.  I banned myself from writing anything depressing, so this was all that I could come up with in those three days.

The soft caresses of the breeze

Playfully toss my hair.

The hills fall below me

And the pine trees bristle indignantly

As the breeze

Tickles their chins.

My hands grasp the pine needles,

The litter

Of the undergrowth.

And for the first time in months

I breathe deeply.

This was written on top of the largest hill in the retreat area.  It was a difficult walk to get up there, but it was worth every minute of it.

 

What Words Can Only Describe

Wrote this on school retreat at the top of a mountain at sunset.  My camera had just ran out of battery, so I thought I’d better use another means to remember what I saw.

We are far away from the city,

From the droning of cars and

Smouldering of human emotions.

With the cries of those behind us

And silence all that lays ahead,

We watch teh sun nestle

Behind the far mountains.

Its final peeping rays cast lines of light onto

The bent wheat heads

As the bird bids all goodnight

And the frog croaks contently.

We see the hills rolling beneath us,

Hear the birds trilling softly,

Smell the wet, woody forest scent

And know that we are home.

As the violet-grey shapes of clouds

Close across the horizon like

Lines of frowns on a forehead,

I look back and think

Maybe there is a God.

But then I decided later that there wasn’t one, so it was all in vain, pretty much.

An Eight-Year-Old’s Philosophy

I wrote this story specifically for the SMH Young Writer of the Year contest, for which the trigger word was ‘chain’.

It was something she saw on the streets near Sniper Alley, coupled with a dream she had that night, which led to the development of Mariana’s philosophy.  In the yellow light of early morning, the streets had seemed to shine in an unearthly light.  Fragments of broken glass reflected the sunlight, bathing the two figures in creamy yellow.  Their shadows were so strange, Mariana thought, one long, tall one, and her own tiny one.  She felt the urge to laugh a little, but Kamil had told her to be silent with that adult sense of urgency that she didn’t quite understand.  Kamil was the tallest person she knew, even though he was only thirteen, the second-oldest person in the shelter.  She began to pretend that she was a princess and he was her bodyguard, leading her by the hand through the streets and knocking away shells and bullets with his bare hands.

They were on their way to the markets.  If they didn’t get there early enough, all the good food would be gone.  And Kamil said the soldiers were lazy, so the early morning was one of the only times that they could walk safely.  They passed by the square – which was hardly a square anymore, only an empty place surrounded by rubble – and the anticipation of Sniper Alley loomed closer.  The houses had started to look more like skeletons now and Mariana huddled close to Kamil.  She remembered what Johan had said about ghosts – that they hid behind the rubble and grabbed you as soon as they thought you were alone.  They liked children because they could eat them without anyone noticing.

They were near the marketplace now, Sniper Alley only to their right.  Kamil’s eyes would quickly dart there, and then stare back in front.  He was looking for Danger.  Older people could sense the Danger, but not Mariana yet.  She could hear it, though.  It was a swift cracking noise, like the firecrackers her neighbours used to have on Christmas day, or it would be the heavy whine of a shell, the painful burst of noise as it landed.  From Sniper Alley, the cracking began and Mariana almost yelped in fright.  Kamil pulled her down behind the desecrated remains of a building, his eyes staring fearfully at Sniper Alley.  A man yelled out – in pain, in fright? – and then there was no noise.  Kamil slowly peeked his head out from behind the wall, saw the blood and ducked back down, pale.  Mariana knew he was afraid.  Kamil was often afraid, but he still acted like an adult.  He pulled Mariana up and they walked on swiftly.  “Wait, wait!” she pulled away from him, “What if he’s not dead?  What if we can help him?”

Kamil shook his head.  “We can’t.  It’s too dangerous.”

Mariana thought her heart was going to burst.  She looked out at the deserted street, her eyes finding the puddle of red in the centre, the remains of the man.  She could not pull away, her gaze was stuck fast.  “What’s that?” she whispered to Kamil, still trying to pull her away.  “There’s something silver on him.”

“It looks like a chain,” Kamil answered, “Maybe he got caught in a fence or something.  Come on.”  He pulled her away this time and they continued on to the market.

But the image never left Mariana.  That night she dreamt of it.

As she walked along the deserted street, the menacing Alley, she came across the man, close enough to touch.  He was still breathing, his eyes staring blankly up at the golden clouds.  A chain was wrapped around his wrist, silver but stained with the man’s blood.  She looked up at the building, saw the round point of the sniper’s gun.  In her dream, she could see the sniper clearly.  He wore an expression of agony, as if he were in the worst pain imaginable.  Around his wrist was curled another chain, but this one dug deeply into his skin, until the sniper’s own blood covered the silver metal.  From that point, she woke.  And for the rest of the day she pondered exactly what it could mean, with her determined eight-year-old intellect.

At the end of the day, she arrived at a reasonable conclusion, she felt.  She did not tell Kamil, thinking he would be worried about her, but she told Georgios instead.  He understood her and he would not tell any of the others.  After Catalina and Kamil had told them all to go to sleep, she crept towards Georgios and whispered her theory to him as the soft, black night drifted around them.  The theory was this: that every person in the whole wide world is connected by a silver chain.  If somebody dies, their chain is cut, but the person that killed them is hurt by their own chain.  The chains are there because people have to care for each other – if there were no wars and no shells and snipers, then the chains wouldn’t be there.  Georgios nodded and said that it was a good idea.  Then he kissed the top of her head like her older brother used to do and told her to go to bed.

Over the next few days, it was very difficult for her to forget about the chains theory.  It was everywhere around her, it seemed.  If she heard about a person killed by a shell, she would think about the owner of that shell and how his invisible chain would be cutting into him.  What if his shell had killed more than one person?  Would it cut deeper then?  She thought she could hear the chains clanking and tinkling underneath the soldiers’ uniforms, but when she asked Georgios if he could hear them, he said he couldn’t.  Maybe it was only her, she thought, because she had discovered them, like a secret treasure chest.  Nobody else could see them, but the soldiers could still feel them cutting into them.

She thought about asking Johan about the chains.  He always boasted after Esfir died about how he had shot the sniper who had killed her.  None of the other children, not even Catalina and Kamil, even knew that she had been shot by a sniper.  It had all been a big mystery.  But Johan told them he had solved it.  He had avenged Esfir’s death and killed someone with his gun, like a real soldier.  “See,” he would tell them, “I don’t even need to join the army.  They would take me now, if they saw what I could do.”  Mariana thought he was being silly.  Nobody could join the army when they were twelve.  But Johan always seemed so happy – not sad, like the sniper in her dream had been.  His jumper was too short for him, so Mariana could look at his wrists.  There were never any chains or any red marks or scars that they could have produced.  Perhaps, she thought, Johan never killed that sniper after all.

Sometimes, she thought of telling the others about the chains, but she knew they would laugh.  Georgios never laughed, only smiled and nodded as she told him.  As a group of soldiers walked past the shelter one day, Georgios would help Mariana spot the chains on their hands.  When they couldn’t see any, he suggested that maybe they were a new unit of soldiers who hadn’t killed anybody yet.  That made Mariana feel better.  Georgios always believed her.

When it was nearing winter, Georgios became sick.  A cough grew in his chest and exploded with each breath.  When Mariana sat curled in his lap, she could hear each wheezing breath, as if he was struggling to breathe.  That was why, when his turn came to fetch water from the stream under the brewery, he could not do it alone.

They went in the afternoon.  Georgios had rested all morning, but still he breathed heavily as they walked.  Mariana kept close to his side the whole way, chattering quietly about how many lollies she would buy with the coins she found in the gutter.  The neared the brewery, heading through the quiet, dead street.  There once were houses here, but most of them had been blown away.  Still, half a house remained next to the brewery, the wallpaper singed dark, a couch vomiting stuffing in the front room.  Mariana shuffled carefully past, eyeing the burnt child’s crib, the wood leafing off in matchsticks.

They reached the brewery and skidded down the steep path behind it, soil and stones stubbing their bare toes.  The stream was cool against their feet, the water filled their buckets easily and Mariana drank deeply, cupping the brown water in her hands and sloshing it over her face.  They took the buckets back up the slope and slowly, awkwardly, dragging the weight of the buckets, they walked home.

Night fell before they were halfway there.  The darkness closed around them.  The city, once full of lights, was now darkened and empty.  Footsteps clattered on the quiet streets, a dog barked and shouting could be heard in the distance.  Mariana’s hand grasped Georgios’ tightly.  The city was never this quiet.  The bombs would start soon.

And they did.

A yellow glow bloomed in the distance – the first shell of the night.  Sirens yelled and people shouted.  Mariana’s pace quickened and Georgios started to puff sickly.  The shelter wasn’t too far away, she thought, but in the charcoal night she could hardly see in front of her.  Bullets sounded near them and she jumped up, her breath rasping in her throat, trying to supress her urge to run.  Quietly, she urged Georgios to hurry.

The bullets neared closer, their cracking reminded Mariana of the bright colours of that Christmas day.  A spark of yellow lit up the corner of the building.  The bullets were close, trying to find them.  The Danger had its eye on them.  They broke into a run, leaving the buckets behind them.  A bullet found them and water sprayed everywhere.  Urgency pumped through her veins instead of blood.  Her legs weren’t fast enough to carry her.

In a moment of sheer self-preservation, she broke away from Georgios.  Her hand felt cold and bare after clinging to his for so long.  The bullets continued and there was a small cry and a soft thud.  She turned quickly, her fear momentarily forgotten.  Georgios was kneeling now, his eyes sad but… a small smile adorned his face.  He opened his hand slowly and she saw the silver chain glint softly in the moonlight.  The end was shorn off, it dangled from his wrist.  He let it drop as he fell sideways, a tiny stream of blood appearing at the corner of his mouth.

Mariana ran the rest of the way home.  Catalina wiped at her tears and kept her safe in her embrace.  Kamil gently patted her on the head.  She couldn’t tell them what had happened.  The pain had dug a deep cavity inside her chest and with each breath it stung like an old wound.  She felt as if the chain, the one connecting herself and Georgios, was digging deeper and deeper into her skin, around her chest, around her throat.  She wondered if that one sniper was feeling that same sort of pain.

As she grew she remembered the chain around Georgios’ wrist.  Why had he done that, why hadn’t he just told her the truth?  She began to realise.  Georgios, eleven years old, had understood when she hadn’t the preciousness of that eight-year-old philosophy.

I think this is my favourite short story so far.  I was writing it in English class (illegitimately…) and just as I came to the most heartwrenching scene, my laptop ran out of battery and I made a very strange noise.  Consequently, everybody looked at me and the teacher, of course, knew that I wasn’t listening to her.  Oh well.  It was quite embarrassing, but I got a good story out of it.

Echo Children

This is one that I wrote for a competition in which you were given a choice of three stimulus pictures.  I chose one of a truck stuck in a lake.  Enjoy.

Patrick was the first to see the truck, outside the farm boundary.  Usually they weren’t allowed to stray past the fence, but he was getting older and believed exceptions should be made.  As he sat on the fence it stood out like a shiny, silver mirage, half-submerged in the swampy lake.  It was an ever-present temptation.  He had to see it.

He enlisted Mairin’s help first of all.  She would know how to get there.  Even though there was only a year between them, he already suspected that she was a lot smarter than he was.  When he first showed her, he could feel the scepticism emanating from her, like an unpleasant body odour.  “Why would you want to go there?”

He shrugged.  “I think it would be fun.”

“It might be dangerous.  You could get hurt, climbing all over that thing.”

“I’m fine.  I can look after myself.” He snapped.  She hated that tone in his voice and soon walked away.  She was too much of a goody-two-shoes to help, he knew.  He would have to enlist help from another source.

The next day he awoke early, running over to Ly’s house and knocking hurriedly on his window.  “Ly!  You have to come see this!”  The blonde-haired boy rubbed his bright eyes sleepily.  When they reached Pat’s house and looked out over his fence, Ly’s eyes reclaimed their brightness.  “What’s that?” he said excitedly.

“I think it’s a truck.”

“How did a truck get there?” Ly couldn’t take his eyes off it.

“Maybe the owner crashed…  Ly, maybe there’s a dead body there!”

“We should go see!”  The hurdled over the fence and into the dense scrub.  Soon their boots were covered with buzzies and bindies, which they picked off before they entered the swamp.  The truck was now incredibly close, and the boys could see it was quite large in size.  They had seen the sort of vehicle on the highway – the sort of carrier that might hold petrol or cement or another liquid of some sort.  “What if it had petrol in it, Pat?” Ly said anxiously.  “It might blow up!”

“It’s been there a little while.  It would have blown up way before now.”

Ly nodded, reassured.

They entered the dank swamp.  The water swirled around their feet as they negotiated their way from dry patch to dry patch.  “Don’t fall in,” Pat warned, “We would be killed if we got all wet!”  Finally the two of them stood in front of the immense vehicle.  The top of the lights were just visible, poking out of the water like two great big eyes.  Pat touched the cool metal, stroking the truck like a jewel.  Ly was already climbing, having found a ladder to the top.  “Phew, it stinks up here!  Maybe it did have petrol in it after all.” He said.  Soon Pat joined him on top of the truck.  From their position balancing on top of the vehicle, they could see the whole swamp and make out both of their houses in the distance.  Pat imagined that he was the truck driver, stranded in the swirling sea and waving for help.

“Do you think he was stranded here?” Ly said.

“What if there’s a body somewhere here?” Pat said anxiously.  He slipped across the silver side of the truck and swung his head down to look through the window.  The driver’s seat was empty.

“Perhaps he got out.” Ly suggested.

“He must have.  There ain’t no body here.”

“What if he got trapped inside the silver bit?”

“In the silver bit?” Pat repeated, incredulous.  “How’d he have managed that?”

Ly shrugged.  “I don’t know.  Maybe we should check just in case?”

Pat crawled to the end of the long silver vehicle, where the circular hole gaped.  “It’s so smelly!” he gasped.

“Baby!  Hold your nose!” Ly laughed.

Pat did so, wishing he had a peg like they used in the TV shows he watched.  He peered curiously into the hole.  The blackness inside swirled around like swamp water.  “I can’t see anything!” he yelled back to Ly.

“Try calling out.”

Pat took a deep breath.  “Hello?” he yelled into the hole.  His voice reverberated eerily and a chill played on the back of his neck.  Three times he heard his own voice come back to him.

“I think there is someone in here!” he called to Ly.  “Three people!  I can hear them!”

He yelled again.  “Who are you?”

Who are you?

Who are you?

Who are you?

“I’m Pat, who are you?”

I’m Pat, who are you?

I’m Pat, who are you?

I’m Pat who are you?

He frowned, looking to Ly.  “They say that all their names are Pat.  That’s strange.”

“Maybe you’re not doing it right.” Ly came over.  “Let me try.”

“Hello!  My name’s Ly.”

Hello!  My name’s Ly.

Hello!  My name’s Ly.

Hello!  My name’s Ly.

Ly sat back up, crouching next to Pat.  “Silly!” he punched him.  “It was only your voice echoing!”

“Really?” Pat said warily.  “I honestly heard someone!”

“Yeah!” Ly cried.  “You heard yourself!”

They padded back through the swamp.  Pat looked behind him every few steps, keeping an eye on the truck.  Suppose the three people had gotten out somehow, wandering alone through the bush.  They were probably very hungry, having sat in the truck for days.  What if they died?  Pat would think it was his fault.  Ly didn’t seem to notice Pat’s anxiousness, chattering on about how his father might teach him how to drive the tractor soon.  After a while, they started to play, tramping back through the bush, playing tips and jumping over logs and bramble bushes.  The sun was coming out now, warm and fun to bask in.  When Pat returned home, sweaty and panting from the run, he imagined himself as a cat, warming his belly in the sun and falling asleep in its yellow light.  But the memory of the people in the truck kept him awake.  His mother was out on the land already, tending to the sheep while Mairin milked the cows.  He managed to sneak inside without being seen by both of them.  Carefully, he filled a plastic bag with food from the fridge and cans from the cupboard.  Soon the bag was full of tinned spaghetti, cauliflower (which he figured he had a duty to give away), beans, some cheese and a tomato.  He tucked this motley bundle inside a backpack and, scurrying so as not to be seen, he bounded over the fence and into the bushland once again.

The backpack was heavy and the sun hot.  Pat had to sit down regularly to slow his breathing and wipe the sweat from his brow.  The hills were alive with life at this time of year.  Birds chirruped happily around him and small, unknown creatures moved in the grass at his feet.  He wasn’t afraid of snakes and besides, he had listened to what his father had told him.  If you ever meet a snake you had to stay still and not move a muscle!  But Pat was a little uncertain that he could do that, especially with the sun beating down like it was.  When he reached the truck, his backpack had made a painful rift in his shoulder.  He would be glad to be rid of the food.  The swamp water had soaked his shoes, a comfort in the hot summer, but now it would be difficult to climb.  As his slippery feet met the rungs of the ladder, he hoped he wouldn’t fall.  He was too far away for people to hear him cry out.

He reached the top of the truck and admired the view once again, sitting the backpack beside him like a small, lumpy friend.  He could see his mother’s minute form tending to the tomatoes in the veggie patch, he could see Mairin bringing the milk in.  If he looked to the right a little more he could just make out Crissie and Gordie walking near the shed.  They were far away from the property.  They probably wanted to be alone.  Apparently when people fell in love all they wanted to do was be alone.

Finally, he stood up again, dragging the rucksack alone the silver edge to the hole at the far end.  “Hello?” he said, with trepidation.  What if they’d found a way out while he’d been gone?  No, it seemed they hadn’t.  Three times they replied back to him.  Hello?  Hello?  Hello? 

“I have food for you.”  This statement was repeated back to him three times.  Pat was confused.  How could they have food for him when they had been trapped in a truck?  Nevertheless, he unpacked the contents of his backpack and slowly dropped them down.  The tomato was the last to go, making a squashy plunk sound as it hit the bottom.  Pat hoped it hadn’t smashed.

“I hope you like it.” He called down.  The words were repeated back to him.  Pat was confused – what did they hope he liked?  Perhaps Ly had been right.  Maybe he was only hearing the sound of his own voice.

“If you’re real, why don’t you say something original?” Pat yelled down.

If you’re real, why don’t you say something original?

A thought came to Pat.  What if, just as he doubted they were real, they doubted he was real?  But then again, he had dropped down the food.  They hadn’t given him anything.  Perhaps they had nothing to give.  Pat felt such pity for them.  They sounded as if they were only children, his age.  Perhaps their father had been the truck driver, and then he had crashed into the swamp and gone to get help, leaving his children alone.  He could only imagine how frightened they’d be, all three of them.

“It’s alright,” he said, “I’ll keep you company.”  And when their three voices replied, Pat felt a warm feeling inside his chest.  They would stay here for each other.

He followed the sun’s journey across the sky until it buried itself behind the trees.  The golden light of afternoon spread through the hills.  The metal of the truck started to cool as the sun set.  Although he was certain his mother would be worried, Pat made good on his promise to stick by the children.  They would be so lonely if he left, unbearably lonely – although they never talked to him anyway.  He could imagine them sitting huddled together in the dark, four boys sticking to each other for comfort.  As the evening dropped into view and its dark coat enveloped the hills, Pat wrapped his arms around his feet and began to sing softly.  He didn’t really know any songs, so he made ones up.  He sang songs about small children, about his home and his family and what he did on Saturdays.  They didn’t make sense, most of them, but they were a comfort to him.

In the end, Mairin came for him.  Her small figure startled him at first, thinking it was one of the children who had managed to find a way out.  Eventually she spotted him and, calling him silly, led him home.  “Mum was so worried about you!  What were you thinking?”

Pat shrugged.  “You wouldn’t understand.”

I ended up winning a prize in the Aussie Schools Writing Contest for this piece.  Check it out: http://www.affordablemanuscriptassessments.com/