The Run.

The Run.  Or: Two Lovers Flee In The Night From The Strange And Frightening World They Live In.

In the night we ran, we ran away fast, speeding til it hurt, the exhaust jetting out, accelerator pressed against the floor of the car.  The street lights streamed behind us through the windows, their fluorescent light burning lines onto the pages of our eyelids.  We drove so fast that no one could find us.  We drove so fast.

We sat back and we thought about the way the wind against the car sounded like a great river, or a waterfall.  And our hearts pounding staccato.  Like drums.

Beat.  I watched her and she got up and she left with me.  And I watched as her life merged seamlessly with mine.  As if the addition of fear and abnormality was easy but also meaningless.  And we didn’t talk as I drove.  Just watched the street lights as they passed.  Until there were no street lights any more.

Beat.  He said softly when I woke up.  Come Now.  It’s Time To Go.  And there weren’t any other words to describe it.  Just going.  We drove and we drove as the night deepened and we never, ever looked back.  We were strong.

Beat.  The petrol lasted the drive.  We surged out of the city and nobody saw us.  And when we reached the great dark, empty roads outside it, there were no other headlights that passed us by.  We were afraid to look back into the bright city, afraid of what we would see.  And so the cool night sped past us, chilled, frantic air between us and what we lived before now.  And we let that space become wider and wider.

And then the night began to shrink away and when the trees became visible, spiking the horizon, we stopped and we knew we were finished because the petrol tank was empty.  We left the car in the middle of the dusty, broken road.  We sat on the crisp yellow grass with our backs against the splintery bark of a tree.  We watched the night collapse into day.  Then we dug a hole underneath the grass and crawled into the warm earth to lay, like rabbits, away from the sun.  Then no one could find us, and we waited, feeling one another’s breaths on our cheekbones, for the night to come again.

We tried, but after long our tired hands curled into muddy fists and the dirt beneath our fingernails reached deep enough to hurt.  And so we stood and looked at our shallow concave of earth.  Then we sat by the roadside hand in hand, waiting for someone to come by.  We wept onto one another’s shoulders and when one seemed weak the other was always strong.  We waited there until the sun hurt our eyes and the noise of the car metal groaning in the midday sun hurt our ears.  And we could sleep in our stupor no more.

 

BELOW:  inspiration for this post was gained from about the first ten seconds of this song.  The rest is meaningless to me, but nice.

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Rock and River

You keep asking me what changed.  Is that your question of the week, or something?  Why didn’t I want to keep running for my life, changing towns, changing identities every time things got hard?  Why didn’t I want to keep up my lonely, scared existence?  Good question, lady.  Tough one, isn’t it?

I’ll tell you, alright.  It was a lot of things.  It was the way the university campus looked nice no matter what the weather was, the kind lady next door who kept wanting to invite me over to dinner, the cat that always scratched against the windowsill, the trees in the garden, the rent on the apartment, my reflection in the mirror, that time I made a girl cry, the dream I had the night before.  I’ll start with the dream.

It started out and I was in the city, running.  Running towards the outskirts, like always.  Then I was out of the city and I felt relieved, but I thought I might not be far enough so I kept going.  I came to a big river with forest all around it.  All the city noises were gone, even though I hadn’t really gone very far.  There was only the wind in the trees and the sounds of birds and insects.  Nothing sounding like voices.  That was nice.  I thought I could stay there maybe, but it was still too close.  I was afraid that if I climbed a tree or something then I would be able to see skyscrapers somewhere on the edge of the forest.  So I built myself a raft out of wood and vines.  It didn’t take very long and when I took it out to the river it stayed afloat.  Before I climbed aboard I took off my shoes and my shirt and rolled up the bottoms of my jeans.  Became a new person, sort of, without all those clothes, trying to look fashionable or whatever.  Then I got on the raft and floated down the river.

There was sun keeping me warm and I could collect fruits from trees overhanging the river to eat, cup water in my palms to drink.  My hands became all sandy and brown from clutching the wood of the raft all the time.  I rubbed this brown all over my face, my chest, my arms.  Somehow I felt cleaner that way.  I was there for a couple of days, just floating down the river.  I was never hungry, never worried.  I slept in the sun or stretched out like a cat sometimes.  I loved the motion of the raft on the river.

I watched as the landscape around me slowly changed.  I had drifted out of the forest, into bushland where the river was smaller and the muddy banks around me were slippery and steep.  Then the banks became baked rock with perfect footholds, canyon-like and full of shapes.  The forest noises of insects and birds and wind in the trees had gone.  There was nothing except the sound of the river.  Every sound I made echoed and echoed.

I left my raft made in the forest.  It didn’t fit there and I didn’t want to travel any more.  There was a place where I knew I wanted to stay.  There, the river joined another river.  I had heard that river for a while, sometimes seeing glimpses of it snaking through the landscape.  And now this was the place where it joined me, in front of a triangular slice of rock.  There was a flat space on top where I could lie in the sun.  There was a little nook below where I could shelter from the rain.  All around me was water.  I could see for miles.  What did I see?  Nothing.  Nothing but baked rock, maybe a few trees in the distance.  I could yell and the sound would travel for miles and miles and no one, not a single person, would hear it.  I did yell.  I shouted and screamed as loud as I could.  I sang and I yelled meaningless, gibberish words.  Things I’d never said before.  Things I never planned to say.  I shouted and I sang because I was alone, more alone than I ever had been before.  More alone than I could ever be in real life.

I built a fire on a bed of twigs and dried leaves.  I burnt branches and watched the embers travel, the sparks swarm in a cloud when I blew on them.  I compared their light with the light of the stars in the sky.  I couldn’t tell which I liked more.  I slept curled around my dying fire, feeling its warmth on my belly like a feeling inside of it, some emotion I couldn’t understand.

In the morning I admired the mist on the river and broke off shards of rock to throw and watch disappear without a sound.  I dipped my feet into the mist and liked how soft and cool it felt.  I played with it in my fingertips and made animal sounds to hear them echo.  I painted my face with dirt and laughed to imagine what my reflection might look like.  No one to see.  No one to care.

When the midday sun came out, bright and strong, I bombed into the river and let it wash the dirt from me, tug at me like playful hands, rip at my jeans, comb my matted hair.  I loved the feeling of the water on my eyelids.  Then I opened my eyes under the water and watched the mandala of the sun on the ripples above me.  I think it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.  I didn’t want to share it.  I wanted to keep it mine.  It was my secret.

I lay myself out to dry on the flat rock, let the sun brown my skin and bleach my hair.  Then I climbed and climbed and felt the strong muscles pulsing underneath my skin.  I crossed the left river and explored the land, running up mounds of dirt, sprinting across bushy scrubland, eating my fill.  Then I crossed the river again and fell asleep on the warm, flat stone.  When I awoke it was night and I told stories to the stars in the sky.  I tried to tell them about my past life, but they didn’t believe me.  I didn’t believe myself.

But then one day someone else floated down the river.  She came from the opposite side and she had made a raft just like I had.  Her skin was browned and her face was covered with the juice of fruit she had just eaten.  She climbed onto the rock and met me there.  We spoke a little.  My words were disjointed and I couldn’t remember how to say much.  Even when I’d practiced to the stars, I hadn’t used normal words.  I couldn’t remember a lot, but I think she understood.  She said she couldn’t remember much from her past life either.  So we didn’t talk about that.

She had very dark hair.  Still some clothes, all tattered like my old jeans.  She spoke in a low voice.  A quiet voice.  We didn’t ask each other’s names.  What use was a name?  I was boy.  She was girl.  Names wouldn’t have meant a thing to us.

I told her she was beautiful.  That was the first thing I said.  Then she shook her head and said her face was too bony, too many pimples, her mouth was too big.  I said no.  She touched my face and she said I was beautiful.  I sort of realised I’d forgotten what beautiful looked like.  I had really old memories of bad haircuts and picking at pimples in the mirror.  But my face was smooth to her touch.  I must have changed, become a different person, morphed in appearance somehow.  She said she thought she recognised me from somewhere.  From somewhere in the forest or the muddy bushland, perhaps.

There was nothing to teach her.  She knew it all already.  She knew how to talk to the stars and how to see the mandala in the river.  We told each other stories.  In her eyes, I saw the sparks from the fire.  I don’t know what she saw in mine.  One day it rained and we sat together under a ceiling of rock with our hands clasped, watching as a pale screen of water tipped from the ledge above us.  We let our feet catch the rain and wash off the dirt and dust, cool the hardened blisters.  I felt the touch of her hand on mine.  I knew nothing of her except girl.  She knew nothing of me except boy.  There wasn’t anything else to know.  There weren’t any words and there didn’t have to be.  She asked if I was alone before.  I said no.  Alone only has meaning when you remember there are other people out there, somewhere.  Secretly I hoped no one else would ever come to disturb us.  No one ever did.

She lay next to me when we slept under the stars.  I shared my fire with her, but we had our own warmth and didn’t need its heat.

I remembered something from the past one night.  Something about other people and danger.  I woke because I was scared.  And when I woke she clasped my hand and listened to my confused words.  And she helped me remember that now we were the only ones.  No one else belonged to this world, our world of rock and river.  It was only ours to share with each other.  So I went back to sleep and didn’t dream of the past, but of her and of the river.

But it was only a dream.  And when I awoke, the world hurt, it hurt so much.

When I awoke, I felt the light filtering in through the smudged window and it was cold and grey.  Only hours had passed, only hours.  I reached across and could not find the hand of the girl.  She was gone.  She never had been there.  Maybe if she had been there, but then gone away, I might have felt better.  But she never existed, never existed at all.  The rock and the river and the forest, the mud and the sun.  It was never there and I never lived that life.

I couldn’t work out what was real, at first.  I sat there, on my hard bed, not even able to look up at the grey light coming in through the window.  I heard the city, I heard the people next door, I heard my own angry breaths.  Swallowed salt water, rubbed at my face with shaking fists.  Sat for a while, for a very long time, like I do sometimes when I’m having a really bad day.  But eventually I got up and I washed and dressed and shaved and made my little bed in that cramped apartment.  I kept my eyes to the ground all day and I didn’t speak to anyone.  I did the right thing, I did what I was supposed to do.  I didn’t talk to anyone, I didn’t look at anyone, I didn’t meet anyone, made no friends, found no lovers.  So I’d never have to leave again, never have to get hurt again.

So, you asked me what changed my mind.  The dream helped.  Someone said something I can’t remember once, about dreaming in colour.  I dreamed that dream in colour, so then I realised that my world was grey.  And after that, I suppose, then I realised I couldn’t run away any more.  So I didn’t.

 

BELOW: this song helped me write it.  Basically on repeat in the background.  Bon Iver is great.

Something that Shouldn’t be Said

I think therefore I am.
Could our lives be nothing but
Intellect after screaming intellect?
Or what about
I am therefore I think
?

And we are born, we
Become an ‘am’
And we become what it
Means to become some
Thing that is not human.
And for those years we can
Sit on our animal-skin backsides
And gaze up at the sky and
The stars
And never think but
Know.

We can let our small
Fickle bodies wriggle into the grass
And dream dreams of our animal ancestors
While the wind whispers
The cheats to life in our ears.
And when we eat
Hand to mouth, no in-between
Tasting the food that
Keeps us alive.
And
Living
Living

Then:
Come. The question says.
“Let us take the air in a mechanical trance”
And we will conquer the world with our
Hands.
Leave your instincts,
Your whiskers, your claws,
Behind in the earth.
Bury them and
We will
Discover Again.

Know nothing,
Forget everything and
Let your small mind
Take over and give
Commentary on the world.
See not.
Hear not.
Your senses have lied.
Your mind tells truths so
Listen hard.
And you will learn

The

Right

Way.

In the Forests of Leigh

Entered into a competition.  A story told in five stages.

Stage I

Paolo stole his father’s book from the tottering bookcase in the second-floor study.  It was heavy and large, quite too big to hide under one’s sweater or cleverly behind one’s back.  He thought himself lucky to get down to the first floor with it, after not being noticed once.  He imagined it would be speculated long after by historians.  They would scratch their grey beards in wonder of what sort of sequence of events could have placed into the small hands of Paolo Montorelli that book, The Origin of the Species, which would change forever human behaviour and compel this young boy to make history.

He sat on the wooden floorboards in his bedroom looking at the diagrams mostly, tracing the lines with his fingers and allowing his tongue to practice the names of all the various scientific words.  His concentration undisturbed by adult antics, he was left to study for hours the masterpiece.  Of course, he already knew what the bulk of it equated to, without even needing his eyes to stumble over the complex language, for they had gone over Darwin’s theories in science class the week before.

Survival intrigued him.  He knew now why he had been born a man, given strong bones, nimble fingers and a quick mind.  He was meant to survive out there, in the forests, in the wild, where food had to be hunted for and danger was a constant companion.  Where he was, in that ancient and enormous house, where everything was provided, even love, which he did not want, he felt suffocated.  He would have to leave.  In the space of that small, cold and sparsely decorated bedroom, Paolo dreamt up a plan.

 

Stage II

The next day he led them into the forests.

There were seven other boys in Paolo’s group of friends.  There was Jon, who was smarter than some of the others, and older too.  Tim was the same age, but not nearly as smart.  Hans was the youngest, and quite fat, though Paolo thought he might prove strong if he put his mind to it.  Mark was a shy boy who had a problem of some sort, which gave him no excuse to infuriate Paolo.  James was young, but as loud as someone twice his age.  Little Fred was somebody’s younger brother, Paolo could not remember who, and was dragged along for only this reason.  The last boy was Abe, who was good for nothing except following, the characteristic Paolo valued most in his friends.  A motley crew gathered from school, parent’s friends, friends of friends and from the local neighbourhood, they ranged in age from nine years old to fourteen.  Paolo was the oldest – fifteen, and his birthday in March, before midyear, making him one of the oldest in his class.  He was tall too and boasted of muscle on his arms and strong legs for walking.  In his mind’s eye, as he held a tree-branch as a walking stick, his feet finding footing easily amongst the flotsam surface of the forest floor and his legs pulling him through the strides uphill, he looked the picture of man as Darwin had imagined him.  His friends were not necessary – he had brought them along only to teach them.  He led the way now, and they trusted him, but he would teach them to trust no one.

Paolo had often walked into the Forests of Leigh, not too far away from the town, but far enough for the noise to fall away and for the stars to emerge each night without the competition of electric lights.  He walked further that day than he had ever been before, and the boys followed him.  They had brought with them a few loaves of bread, some cold meat and some stone fruit.  More important to them, however, was the array of hunting knives, arrows and trap-making utensils that Paolo carried in his own rucksack.  For did they think they could exist on fruit alone?  Men needed meat to survive.  Without it, they would be skinny, scrawny  beings, useless as rabbits, with not a bit of muscle between them.

They set up camp in between two massive conglomerates of rock, one which looked like a bear (they called this Bear Rock) the other which looked like a sneering face (this one they called Father Rock).  A large sheet strung between two trees served as a shelter in rain, a hole dug spontaneously by one of the boys as a latrine and the stars as the only roof over their heads.

 

Stage III

They stayed for two weeks before problems arose.  Despite Paolo’s attempts to foster some sense of belonging in the group, introducing a group whistle, a secret knocking code and giving every boy a group-name, unhappiness yet reigned.  Their food had lasted only due to Paolo’s furious rationing.  Jon-lo was perpetually hungry, Tim-lo’s rash was coming back, Mark-lo’s wounded knee (from a tumble in some scrub) had become puffy and sore and Little Fred-lo had been complaining of stomach aches for three days.  What was more, their food source was diminishing quite quickly, at a rate that alarmed most of the boys.  Paolo stayed placid.

“What must we do?” said Hans-lo.  Of course he was worried about food, Paolo thought.  He probably dreamed food, it was so constantly on his mind.

“We’ll have to get more food from somewhere,” James-lo caterwauled, “or we’ll all starve to deaaaaath!”  He had an irritating manner of lengthening words for extra emphasis.

“Gotta steal some from town.” Said Mark-lo, whose eyes never left the ground, not even when Paolo addressed him.

“No!” Paolo spat.  “We never steal anything from town.  It’s against the rules.”

“There are rules?” Little Fred-lo said, his eyes growing wider.  If he had been perhaps ten or eleven, instead of nine, then Paolo would have taken it as an insult.

“Of course there are rules!” Paolo barked.  “The rules of survival!  You do what you need to in order to survive and you never, never,” he repeated to Mark-lo, who continued to stare at the ground, “rely upon anyone.  If we go crawling back to town now, we’ll lose and we’ll break all the rules!”

“So it’s like a game?” said Abe-lo.

“It’s exactly like a game.” Paolo intoned.  “Survival is a game and whoever is the most cunning, the smartest and the best fighter will win.  Everyone else is a loser.”

“Only one winner?” a boy cried.

“Yes!  And if you’re a lousy wimp, you’ll be the first to go.”

The boys all lowered their eyes to the ground, shuffling their feet in the dirt.  Their shame gave Paolo time to think.  With Darwin’s theories pulsing through his brain, the answer came soon enough.  Of course, it was the right answer, for it put into practice every principle of survival that criss-crossed Darwin’s great book.

The next morning they had meat for breakfast, then for lunch and for dinner.  There was enough to last them for the next four days.  Men need meat, and the boys were happy, satisfied.  Hans, the pig, however, had disappeared.

 

Stage IV

For a long time they played this gave of survival.  They were growing strong on the meat that Paolo was bringing.  Every day it would be the same – meat would be roasting on the fire as they awoke, ready to be consumed heartily for breakfast, and one boy would have disappeared.  It was accepted by all the boys, none questioned, none complained.

By now, Paolo’s copy of The Origin of the Species had grown quite tattered, so he set to work carving select words and phrases into the trees.  He could not remember how to write letters very well, and his hand was so unsteady that the legibility of the words was hardly better than that of his soiled and broken copy.  But none of the boys ever minded, and none noticed that Paolo had added a few clauses of his own to Darwin’s manifesto.

“See here,” he told the boys, pointing to a tree trunk covered with his words, “it’s not enough to survive without anyone else’s help.  Any adult could do that.  But most adults won’t do it.  Society is weak.  A town is little more than a group of suckling babes.  We should teach them, shouldn’t we?  Teach them how to survive properly!”  The boys cheered and hoorah-d Paolo’s declaratory speech.  In the next few days, they sought to put it into practice.

One morning, they climbed up to the top of the hill.  Paolo had timed it carefully, so that the first signs of sunlight, the dull, washout grey of the dawn sky, were just beginning to appear.  Below them lay a little village, the first signs of civilisation they had seen for months.  Some of the boys were beginning to wonder if civilisation still remained beyond the Forests of Leigh.

“Look,” Paolo said, “this town is desolate.  No one moves.  You would think all of them were dead in their beds.  But you will wait and see.”

As the sky coloured to a more greyish hue, the first signs of life appeared.  First came the sound of a door opening.  Then, of a dog barking.  The metallic sound of a bucket being dropped, sawing in the distance and the slow, methodical sound of water being pumped.  Within an hour, the town had fully awakened.

“See how they crawl about like ants,” Paolo remarked, “every day is the same – fetch the water, go to church, clean the stable, shovel manure.  It’s pitiful.” He spat.  Then he turned his back to the town.  “We’ll go there tomorrow.  Go there and teach them the proper way to do things.”

Before they went to sleep that night, Paolo made a serious effort to clean the grime off The Origin of the Species, the other boys sharpened sticks and cleaned the blunt hunting knife.  Paolo spoke words of ferocity and leadership to them long into the night – the sort of words he could imagine warriors being made to listen to before going into battle.  He slept with a smile on his lips.

 

Stage V

The town looked bigger once they had reached it, much bigger than the model-village they had seen from atop the hill.  Nevertheless, it was quiet, dead.  Paolo continuously ran his finger over the blunted blade of the remaining hunting knife until he could feel a wound opening up in his skin.  He had prepared for a confrontation, a battle, a war.  But there was no one here.  Were they to ambush them?  He would kill them in their beds, like he had done to so many others.

They had formed one line now and were snaking between the houses.  Each followed the boy in front of them, and Paolo followed nothing but his own instinct.  He felt his bare feet in the mud, could smell the embers of the blacksmith’s fire, tasted the smoke in the air, heard when footsteps as cautious as his own were making their way steadily towards them.  He motioned for his group to stop, and they did, piling themselves awkwardly behind him.  Slowly, Paolo advanced forward in the direction of the sound.  A giant would be there, a giant of a man, probably the town blacksmith, with a white-hot poker in his hand.

The footsteps belonged to a boy.  He had bright red hair and large green eyes and stepped out when Paolo did the same.  He held in his hand a broomstick, and on his face, a fierce look.  Paolo’s expression settled into a disappointed frown.  He motioned the boys over with a look.  They encircled the red-haired boy.  Then the boy motioned his friends over.  Paolo’s boys stepped back.  They were outnumbered.

“Who are you?” Paolo demanded.

The boy answered immediately.  “Onslow.”

Paolo narrowed his eyes.  The intruder had a group-name already.  He was obviously a leader, too.

“You think you’re so great.” Paolo spat, unable to think of any other phrases.

“I’m in charge in this town.  You don’t belong here.” Onslow said quietly.

“Whoever is the oldest is in charge!  Isn’t that right?” Paolo looked to his group, and they cheered in response.  He would win this battle.  The other boy had an immature look about him – he had to be at least two years younger than him.

“I’m fifteen.” Paolo gloated.  “What about you?”
“Fifteen.” Answered Onslow.  Paolo showed no surprise, but pressed his wounded thumb again to the blade of the hunting knife.  Blood was beginning to seep into the pocket of his trousers.

“March.” Paolo replied.  His trump card.

“February.” Said Onslow, and the battle had shifted.

“You’re not in charge.” Said Paolo through clenched teeth.

“Whoever is oldest is in charge.” Onslow quoted him.
“I said that to trick you.  Whoever is the best at surviving is in charge.  What do you know about surviving?” he sneered.  “You live in a town.  You don’t need to survive.  Your mother makes your food for you and your father tucks you into bed at night.  We’ve lived in the forest for months now by ourselves.”  He poked Onslow’s small chest.  “You don’t look as if you’d last one week in the forest.”

The boys around Onslow eyed Paolo with looks of malice.  Onslow stayed completely placid.  “Are you going to teach us how to survive, then?” he asked Paolo.

“No!” Paolo laughed, and the other boys laughed too.  “Come back with us to the forest and we’ll see how long you last for.” A smile spread its way across his face.  Onslow still showed no emotion.

“Do you accept?” Paolo smirked.

“Yes.”

Paolo’s pocket was full of blood by the time they had returned to the camp.  He had almost lost his game, almost broken the rules, but despite this, he had managed to triumph.  But he told himself not to celebrate yet.  There would be hard work to come, but ultimately he would prevail.

 

Stage VI

Onslow never slept.  Paolo never once saw him close his eyes.  It was infuriating, unrelenting, impossible.  And as Onslow stayed inhumanely awake, so did Paolo.

At first, Paolo did not have the courage to show this intruder boy how it was they survived.  But soon he was fed up.  Tim-lo was annoying him, and there had not been meat for three days.  He waited until after the sun had set, the moon had disappeared behind the trees and the only face watching him was that of Father Rock sneering at him.  Onslow was staring into the fire.

It took one moment to slit Tim-lo’s throat, and one lonely cry from the dying boy to set Onslow’s gaze upon him.

“So that is how to survive.” The intruder boy intoned.  Had these words been laced with realisation, epiphany on Onslow’s part, Paolo would have been satisfied.  But they dripped with mockery, sarcasm and loathing.  The boy had to be dealt with.

Paolo first attacked the boy when he had wandered off to the far side of the camp, near Bear Rock.  Onslow had thrown him off and hastily picked up a large tree branch to defend himself with.  Paolo could not get anywhere near him.  The next time, he swung at the boy with a knife while he had his back turned, but the boy turned suddenly and Paolo missed, leaving him standing without explanation before Onslow’s searching eyes.

The only way was to lynch Onslow.  But Onslow’s group was far bigger than his – they would overthrow him, exile the rest of his group and live in their place.  The only way was for Paolo’s group to move away – but that wasn’t fair!  The camp belonged to him!  Or, if worse came to worse, Paolo himself could move away.  But he would be alone, with no one else around, no meat on the fire, no one to prey upon.  His hands began to shake when he thought about this.  Onslow was driving him from the hunter to the hunted, with nothing more than an unrelenting stare and a gift for luck.  He would have to kill him, or he would be killed by him.

He took the boy far away one day.  Far enough away so that none of his group would hear him cry out, no one would know to intervene and no one would know who had been the victor until either one or the other made it back to camp.  As he led the boy away, Paolo realised with a smile that there would be meat on the fire again the next morning – the best meat yet.

The boys waiting at the camp heard nothing.  They saw no sign of either boy from when they opened their eyes in the morning to when they closed them again that night.  When they rose the next morning, it was to the smell of meat.  Not an unexpected smell, though it sent a thrill through the boys.  The battle was ended and the loser in front of them.  Though it was impossible to tell from the disembodied pieces of meat which leader it belonged to, each boy had his theory.  But neither Paolo nor Onslow was present in the camp.  The boys waited until evening.  Finally, a party was sent to search for them.  Perhaps they were still fighting.  Perhaps they were both lost.

The party came back, incoherent and frightened.  Some had the dry tracks of tears on their cheeks.  There was no explanation for the report.  Both boys had been found, still locked in a final fighting stance, though both were dead.  One pair of glassy eyes stared into the other.

The boys eyed distrustfully the meat on the fire.  The same meat, human meat, that they had been eating for months.  But with all boys present in camp, both leaders dead behind Father Rock, the mystery sunk like a weight in their full stomachs.

The Taxidermist

This won an award.  Even if my English teacher last year didn’t think so, at least the judge reading it thought it was good.

The disfigured shapes twist and turn, talking to one another, laughing at him, staring with vacant eyes.  But the taxidermist is already asleep, his lips curving into a tiny smile.  The shadow-animals grow and curve around the walls and ceiling as, outside, the wind claws at the rafters, the tiles on the roof.  The largest animal is pushing against the window, peering through the gaps in the curtain.  She can see the wilderness, and her lion-paws scrape against the window pane.  The taxidermist rolls over in his sleep, uttering a low moan.  The animals fill his dreams as well.

In the morning, when the winds have calmed and the shadow-animals have diminished, the taxidermist wakes once again.  He partakes in his small breakfast, sips habitually at the bland tea and eyes his artworks, lined up against the back wall of the room that doubles as his bedroom and workshop.  The glassy eyes of the animals already mounted meet his gaze.  He can remember those leering shadows from the night before, though in his mind they comfort him.  They are his friends.

His meal consumed, the plates washed and stacked, he makes his way over to the animals.  He strokes the thin fur on the badger’s paw, carefully dusts the beak of the duck, peers into the solid eyes of deer and caresses the lion’s muzzle.  Then he turns to the unfinished piece on the work bench.  The owl’s delicately spread feathers point towards the heavens, in anticipation of flight.  The taxidermist’s calloused, practiced hands reach for the needle and thread.  He gently sews the plumes together over the light wood of the model, delicately arranging the feathers so that the stitches cannot be seen.  Then he picks up his paintbrush and delivers a few careful strokes of paint – a combination of Naples yellow and raw umber – to the owl’s beak.  The animal is finished but for one aspect.  The dark eye-sockets still stand out blank against the pelt of feathers.  The taxidermist reaches for his jar of eyes.  The glass objects stare out in many different directions, taking in the workshop, the animals, the blank sockets in the owl’s tawny face.  Two are carefully picked and installed with a touch of white glue.  After a moment’s adjustment, the taxidermist steps back.  The owl stares now as the other animals do.  But this is not another to add to his collection.  It is to be collected in the afternoon.  A tinge of sadness touches the taxidermist’s heart.  He strokes the sturdy feathers on the owl’s head, checks to see whether the paint on the beak is dry, then sits down in his chair and leafs through an old book.  His fingers find a well-read page, marked with coffee-stains and fingerprints.  He reads aloud the words that he has already committed to memory.  He reads them to the owl.

At dusk from the island in the river, I’ll wait for the moon to rise, then take wing and glide to meet him.  We will not speak, but hooded against the frost, soar above the alder flats, searching with tawny eyes

That evening, in the bitter twilight, a vehicle comes.  It splutters down the frosty road, knocking down tree branches and flattening grasses.  It reverses into the narrow driveway of the taxidermist’s secluded house and the boot flies open.  Large, greasy men climb out and drop unceremoniously a garbage bag on the front doorstep.  They ring the doorbell three times.  The taxidermist comes, with the precious owl clutched to his chest.  Reluctantly, he gives it over to the men, and they kick the garbage bag towards him.  The vehicle throws up a few handfuls of snow in its wake.  The taxidermist opens the bag and peers inside.  He lifts the carcass out with shaking hands, laying it on his workbench – now empty – as his eyes grow wider.  The blank, dead eyes of the enormous bear stare back at him.  Its cold claws scrape at his clothing.  With reverence, he lays it on his workbench.  He will begin in the morning.  When darkness falls, there is a new shadow adorning the wall.

 

Before daylight comes again, the house is plunged into commotion.  Another vehicle roars up the dirt track.  With cries of anguish, the protesters rush into the taxidermist’s house.  They screech when they see the bear carcass, the glassy eyes of the badger and the deer.  They knock the animals over one by one, and the lion’s muzzle cracks as it hits the floorboards.  The taxidermist is run out of the house.  He sits on a small patch of ground, his night clothes wrapped around him, his eyes still clouded with sleep, as the first flames grow like vines out of the windows.  Soon the house is wreathed in gold, the smoke forming a billowing tornado into the clouds above.  Tears bud in the taxidermist’s eyes as he watches the foundations slowly crumble until, like dominoes, they topple onto one another and the house becomes nothing more than a pile of wood.  And in amongst the sounds of crashing beams, of splintering wood and combustion, the haunting, thunderous roar of a lion is sent out into the cold night.  It disrupts the birds in nearby trees and sends the protesters, in a melee, back to their vehicle.  The taxidermist is left alone in the winter night, his only possession the smouldering ruins in front of him.

Slowly, he takes a piece of paper from his pocket.  It is a page, ripped, from an old book.  He reads the words aloud, sending them like a message into the night.

… And when the morning climbs, we’ll part without a sound.  Fulfilled, floating homeward as the cold world awakens.

(Poetry written by John Haines, excerpts from If The Owl Calls Again)