review // this census-taker, china miéville

“He said, you’ll write it not because there’s no possibility it’ll be found, but because it costs too much not to write it.”

 

REVIEW / / THIS CENSUS-TAKER, CHINA MIÉVILLE

18299075_797536730412969_5187529064239333376_n

Among my many disgraceful bookish habits, I hoard books by authors I’ve never read. Zadie Smith, Marilynne Robinson, Don DeLillo, Jonathan Franzen –lauded and loved cornerstones of contemporary fiction, so I know I should read them. They’re bound to be good. And I know I’ll get to Ursula le Guin’s Hainish Cycle one day, so I should have them all on hand at once for when I’m ready, right? China Miéville is been another of those authors for me – I have had The City & The City and Kraken sitting on my shelves for years, untouched, and so, when I saw Miéville’s Hugo-nominated novella, This Census-Taker in a discount store, I couldn’t help but add it to the pile. But it didn’t stay there for long. In my bid to read as many Hugo nominees as I can before the prize is announced, I tossed the slim, 140 page book into my beach-bag for a midweek getaway.

 

When we arrived at the beach, we had a few, blissful hours of sunshine before the weather turned. Dark skies heavy with rainclouds, a cutting wind that all but swept our feet from under us as we climbed the path to the lighthouse, the grim weather and craggy cliff-sides echoing the bleak, gothic atmosphere of Miéville’s novel. I read it nestled under blankets, in coffee shops, curled on the couch and illuminated by the thin, grey whispers of sunlight that broke through the rain.

IMG_2575

So much of this story is built around its atmosphere, which evokes the bleak, Scottish island of Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory, a bridge-town that could be lifted from the pages of Calvino’s Invisible Cities, tempred by an undercurrent of Lovecraftian terror not quite visible on the surface but lurking in the shadows of the novel’s dark palette. For a novel so slender, it was paced at a crawl, with each page drenched in mystery and secrets, keeping answers just out of reach. How Miéville managed to construct such an intricate and probing story in so short a space is a mystery in itself. It begins with the Boy, the novel’s protagonist and narrator, who runs down the mountain to the town below with the breathless accusation, “My mother killed my father!”. The rest of the novel leads readers through his unreliable memory as the Boy tries to gain a sense of what he actually saw – was it his father killing his mother, or did he witness something else entirely? He is returned to his father, from whom he tries unsuccessfully to escape, until he is visited by a mysterious Census-Taker, who has come to find the truth in his story. In the Boy’s telling of his story, he shifts between past-present-future and memories, occupying different points of view as he distances or draws himself further from the story. An instruction from the Census-Taker as he teaches the Boy to write his book alludes to this aspect of the story’s construction: “You can tell it any way you want, he said, you can be I or he or she or we or they or you and you won’t be lying, though you might be telling two stories at once.” The reader is alerted to the construction of the story, a story-within-a-story, and its part in a much bigger picture that we don’t see. Miéville gives us exposition only in snatches, making it difficult to pin the story to any particular time or place. The Boy’s orphan friend Drobe gives readers the closest thing to a history of their world, brief and in passing, as he mentions the wars that have left the villages in ruins, the machinery destroyed, and sent the census-takers into the world to take count of foreigners. Focalised on the Boy’s perceptions of his own childhood terror, we are privy only to what he shows us, and larger aspects of the story are wholly ignored, raising more questions than answers. There are secrets hidden in this book – the Boy alludes to them, as his line-manager tells him, “you can still use it to tell secrets and send messages. Even so. You could say them right out, but you can hide them in the words, too; in their letters, in the ordering on the lines, the arrangements and rhythms.”

 

This Census-Taker has so many things I love in a novel: an ambiguous and unreliable narrator, experimental language and structure, a gothic, fairy-tale-like setting, and an eerie, nascent darkness at its core. It begs a second read. Maybe then will some of its secrets be uncovered.

IMG_2597.JPG

review // the vegetarian, han kang

After reading just the first fifty pages of The Vegetarian, I’d filled almost two pages with notes about this meaty little book. When I picked it up, I wondered how such a slim volume, only 183 pages, could contain the brevity of a Booker prize winning novel. But, it had me spell bound from the first toe I dipped between its covers. Han Kang gives us her first English translation , translated from the Korean into sparse and ethereal prose by Deborah Smith. Dark, dream-like and evocative, it blends the surrealism and ambiguity of a Murakami novel with the grotesque eroticism of Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher.

Yeong-hye’s husband comes home in the dark hours of the morning to find his wife standing, trance-like, in the glow of the open refrigerator. A disturbing, blood-drenched dream drives her to pursue a vegetarian diet in order to assume a more plant-like existence. The resulting narrative follows her Kafkaesque descent through the spectrum of human cruelty and obsession

As I was reading, I was struck firstly by how important point of view was in telling the story. For such a seemingly private story, concerning itself with one woman’s psychological transformation, it is told exclusively from the point of view of others, albeit for a handful of dream-like interruptions in the first section. Given such a limited insight into her innermost experience, we witness her from the point of view of three outsiders: her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister, each given a separate section of the text. This conscious decision to exclude Yeong-hye’s narration only serves to heighten the mystery and ambiguity surrounding her character, the inexplicable and dreamlike world that she inhabits that others strive to repress, possess, understand.

The text speaks to me both of the restrictions of living as a woman in a patriarchal society, and also to a larger extent perhaps simply of living as a human in a society dominated by conservative social protocols. We first encounter intolerance in Yeong-hye’s husband, who regards her subversion of the societal norm to eat meat with disgust and embarrassment. Both he and her family use her non-conformity as justification for violence towards her, which leads to her psychological breakdown. No longer the dutiful wife he married, her husband abandons her. Her brother-in-law becomes obsessed with her, fixating on a petal-like birthmark on her buttocks that becomes the muse for his erotic art films. The floral paintings he covers her body with become a talisman for her, guarding herself against the violence of her nightmares and fulfilling her fantasies of transformation. In Yeong-hye’s pursuit for a plant-like existence, and in her brother-in-law’s films, they both seek to be searching for something wilder, something free.

“Covered with flowers and leaves and twisting green stems, those bodies were so altered it was as though they no longer belonged to human beings. The writhing movements of those bodies made it seem as though they were trying to shuck off the human.”

Her sister, In-Hye, perseveres alone in her care for Yeong-Hye, and is haunted by her mental and physical deterioration as she strives to transcend her human body and its physical needs to become a tree. However, she begins to understand the significance of her sister’s rebellion, as draws further away from the limitations of society:

“She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner.”

The Vegetarian was inspired in part by Han Kang’s memories of the Gwanju uprising when she moved to Seoul as a child, where hundreds of pro-democracy protesters were attacked and killed by government soldiers. Contrasting imagery of the constraints of civilisation against the dark purity of nature, the text weaves an allegory of Korea’s political climate. It explores the contradiction inherent in human nature, with its capacity both for violence and innocence. In-hye’s long, rainy bus-rides through the Ch’ukseong mountains give us a glimpse of the “undulating forests which blanket the continents like a heartless sea”, the dark, primeval forests battened against humanity, suggesting something wild and untouchable. Yeong-hye’s transformation reverts her to a primal state of being, connecting her to this sacred wilderness and incorruptible by human callousness.

In The Vegetarian, Han Kang creates a lyrical fable about one woman’s abandonment of self as she seeks to transcend her being to become a tree. It throws into question the nature of our identities and what it means to be human, and binds it all together with swirling, hypnotic prose. It leaves me so much to think about – even now, a day after finishing the book, I’m not sure I’ve digested everything it has to offer.

dark-forest-trees-landscape

bookish updates // the man booker international prize and an almost-half-yearly-recap

 

Congratulations, Han Kang!

I had every intention of reading The Vegetarian, as well as several of the other short-listed novels, before the announcement of the Booker International Prize. But, lo and behold, time slipped away on me. Serendipitously, I went to the Booker website this morning to check the date that the prize would be awarded only to realise that it was yesterday! So, The Vegetarian has been bumped to the top of my reading pile. It’s a book I’ve really been looking forward to reading – the kind of book that blends all of the dark, surreal, unsettling, dream-like imagery that I love in Asian literature.

 

We’re nearly half-way through 2016 (where does time go!) so I thought now would be as good a time as any to share a recap of my year in books. In between work and university, I’m falling a little short in my ambitious target to read seventy books this year, but there’s still plenty of time to go, right? More importantly, after a realisation that the majority of books I read are by white male authors, my goal for 2016 was to read as diversely as possible. More authors of different nationalities, more translated works, a greater diversity in gender, unfamiliar genres and more classics. And I think I am definitely on track. Of the 23 books I’ve read (or am reading) so far, six have been translations and fourteen have been by non-American authors. Only eight have been female writers, but that’s a good step up from the four I read last year. Uni has given me an excuse to finally dust off a few of those classics that everyone should have read, but I never got around to (Frankenstein, Jane Eyre). I have strayed outside my comfort zone and read two fantastic young adult books (Lost Stars, Half World), which snapped me out of my literary snobbery and reminded me to enjoy not taking myself too seriously, and I’ve jumped back into the -pages of favourite authors (Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World). I have fallen head-over-heels in love with the dreamy, poetic, visceral prose of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, and I am currently savouring every last morsel of David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men before moving on to Consider the Lobster.

As for the rest of the year? My book hoarding has been out of control, to the extent that I no longer have room on my bookshelves and stacks of books are slowly taking over my office, my bedroom, my coffee table. (Help!) While I keep telling myself that there are books I will definitely finish before the year is done (Infinite Jest, Outlander, The Dune Trilogy), I know how likely I am to become distracted by the next shiny new thing to come along.

 

What about you, reader? How is your reading year shaping up so far? Have you set goals? Are you sticking to them? Or are you simply reading whatever the wind blows your way?

 

-now on Bloglovin-

house of leaves / / the first 120 pages

house of leaves coverI’m finding myself struggling through Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. I’m not sure why. It’s utterly beautiful, intriguing; a dark, labyrinthine story within a story within a story. And yet still I find myself struggling, barely getting through more than a couple of pages at a time. The structure of the book is a challenge, sending me up and down, forwards and backwards through a maze of footnotes, endnotes, translations, appendices and exhibits… most of which turn out to lead nowhere at all, like wrong turns in a maze. It moves between segments of critical analysis, and stream-of-consciousness interior monologue as it alternates narration. One quote in particular resonated with my slow progress:

        “Si on lit trop vite oú trop doucement, on n’entend.”

(If one reads too quickly or too slowly, one understands nothing.)

So, time to pick up the pace. This is a book that deserves study, journaling. Every time I open it, I find something new – a beautiful turn of phrase, an unfamiliar word, a literary allusion to be explored, or a clue to the book’s interwoven layers of mystery. I’ve only made it through 120 odd pages, but already I have so many thoughts on the text as it draws me deeper and deeper into it.

The story itself embodies a trope common to many horror films: husband and wife with a strained marriage and two young children move into a new house in the suburbs that hides a sinister secret. However, it is made unique by the framing of the text. House of Leaves is three stories in one. The main body of the text concerns a fictional film, The Navidson Record, produced by photojournalist Will Navidson and his wife, Karen Green, to document their experiences in their new house. The documentary is described through the lens of a critical analysis by the academic, Zampanó, which is in turn found in the deceased author’s house by waylaid tattooist Johnny Truant, who provides his own parallel narration in the footnotes as he pieces together Zampanó’s text. (It’s hard to make this sound less convoluted.) A story within a story within a story.the house on ash tree lane

As the characters begin to explore their unusual house, the horror creeps up on the reader slowly, quietly, both momentarily redirected and foreshadowed by Zampanó’s segues. In one of my favourite chapters so far, Zampanó discusses acoustic theory alongside the myth of Echo and Narcissus.

“Myth makes Echo the subject of longing and desire. Physics makes Echo the subject of distance and design. Where emotion and reason are concerned both claims are accurate.

And where there is no Echo there is no description of space or love.

There is only silence.”

This evokes both the distance and silence in Navidson’s relationship with his wife, and the limitless, silent space that the house occupies: a space outside of regular space and time, impenetrable by light and sound. The house presents a domestic horror, one that threatens mundane and ordinarily comforting institutions like “family” and “home” as it throws its walls between them.

spiral staircase

The structure of the text is disruptive, sending the reader through a web of footnotes that break up paragraphs, interrupt sentences with Johnny Truant’s narration of the strange happenings in his own life as he uncovers the mysteries of Zampanó’s manifesto, text that reads upside down, back to front, diagonally, occupies only the edges of the pages, or paragraphs that become smaller and smaller and smaller from page to page to mimic the psychological experience of the characters. This structure throws the reader into the strange dimensions of the house, into the confusion of the book’s subjects as they try to piece together this spatial enigma.

This is a story about so many things. It is a metaphysical horror, a rumination on existential philosophy, classic literature and Greek mythology. It is a story about a family, a marriage, a love. A house that is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, and a journey into unknown places. Most of all, this is a novel about space, both interior and exterior, both physical and spiritual, occupying the dark, secret ambages that within the walls of our selves.

“This desire for exteriority is no doubt further amplified by the utter blackness found within.”

I’ll update as I work my way further through the text. If anyone else has read this incredible book, I would love to hear your thoughts. And if you haven’t, read it!

ash tree lane

T O T H E W O O D S

Image

Image

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening, Robert Frost

 

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,

For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,

Here is a strange and bitter crop.

Strange Fruit, Billie Holiday

 

Aokigahara Forest, at the base of Mount Fuji in Japan, and the setting for my newest project. Wild, overgrown and haunted. Apparently the trees are so dense that parts of the forest are in total darkness, even when the sun is at its peak. The wind cannot breathe through the canopy, and the forest is eerily vacant of birds and animals. In the 19th century, it was said that those stricken by poverty and famine practiced ubasute, leaving their elderly relatives and children in the woods to die. Aokigahara is populated by their spirits. It is also the location of over one hundred suicides each year, giving it the second highest rate of suicides after San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. The boughs of the trees are strung with nooses, and signs mark the pathways urging those who wander them to consider their lives before taking them. There is something poetic, a sad kind of beauty, about this verdant, primeval paradise marked by centuries of human tragedy.

 

This is the story that has been keeping me awake at night, urging me to put it down on paper, and it’s the first time for a while that I’ve had such a clear idea of where I want a project to go. I will have a snippet up for y’all to read in the next couple of days :)

 

Image

 

(Photos from http://www.travelx.com/photos/aokigahara-japan/)

lila, stay

Image

The desert air burns his nose. Dry and dusty in the July heat. He watches the highway. A black oil slick tapering into the horizon. Cars pass like cometsand disappear and he is alone again with the sun and the wind and the flies. If there was a place on earth more godforsaken he didn’t know it.

Lila, come ‘ere.

He taps his thigh and the ragged mutt comes and rests her head at his feet. Licking the condensation from his beer bottle while she swats the lingering flies with her tail. He picks the bottle up and she looks at him with dark eyes as the cool liquid slides down his throat.

What are you starin’ at mutt? Don’t you look at me with them eyes.

He empties the beer and tosses it onto the highway. Swaggers into the kitchen and gropes amongst cartons of juice and curdled milk until he finds another bottle. He takes two deep swigs and slams the door. A photograph falls to the ground and he picks it up. Him and Gracelyn. All those years ago. He balls it in his fist and lets it drop. Swaggers across the hot dry earth to his chair where Lila is waiting doe-eyed and dumb. His foot slips in something soft and dark. The stench wafts to his nose and his face lights with rage.

Fucking bitch get here.

She slinks towards him. Tail between her legs. He grabs her by the collar and pushes her nose into the mound of shit.

What’s this? What’s this?

He takes off his shoe to beat her but she whimpers and wriggles free and he throws the beer bottle after her. She skitters onto the highway and in front of a passing car. A silver comet that catches her in its wheels and drags her behind it as it slows to a stop. He chases after her and the driver gets out of the car white-faced but the man pulls a gun from the back of his pants and says get back, what business is it to you what happens ‘tween a man and his dog?

The driver gets back in the car and speeds away and he kneels on the ground beside his dog. He cradles her head in his lap and she looks up at him with sad dark eyes, but they’re Gracelyn’s eyes saying please baby don’t shoot it’s this fucking desert you’re not right in the head you’re not yourself don’t shoot don’t shoot and he says for the last time shut your fucking mouth bitch and he pulls the trigger and shuts it for her.

Lila whimpers and her mouth fills with blood. He pulls the trigger and her head drops. He goes back to his seat on the porch. Flies pool in the wound in her head. The cars turn to dust as they disappear into the horizon.

sweetdreams

Image

 

This has always been our favourite place. We lie side by side and peer over the edge of the jetty. Our faces are reflected amongst the stars in the glassy water and little silver fish flit beneath the surface, pecking at the stars like breadcrumbs. I dip my fingers in the water and they dart away. The night is still and we are alone. For all we know we could be the last two people left on Earth. I feel Claire’s hand in my hair and I prop myself onto my elbow to face her. She is so beautiful, skin as pale as porcelain like a big white moon. “Don’t you ever change,” I whisper. Her eyes glint as she smiles, pressing my fingers to her lips.

I look back to the water, wanting to freeze us there forever but in her reflection she isn’t Claire anymore. Sad, hollow eyes peer out from a skeleton face with a smooth round head and I jump back, recoiling from her touch as though this creature in the water was really her.

“What is it, my love?” She kisses me softly but her lips are like ice. I keep my eyes on the water and ripples break the surface, shattering the night sky into fractals. Long, clammy fingers grasp the edge of the jetty as the creature slithers out, its body smooth and grey and naked.

He’s come for her, and death is a man with no face and long limbs that stretch out like the cables on those damn machines tangling her wrapping her up like a spider until i cant see her theres nothing left  and his face opens wide and its a big black hole and he swallows her up in one bite and theres nothing i can do i can’t reach her im falling falling falling and i remember the water the water will catch me but the water is glass now and it shatters beneath me a million little pieces like stars i scream i love you into the falling sky but the stars are screaming with me their voices drown me out like broken glass…

 

He wakes with a start, sweat on his forehead, shivering, shaking. The clock by the bed reads 2:46, but the letters are warped like a funhouse mirror through the mostly empty whisky bottle and for a second he panics, thinks that he is still dreaming but then he notices the silence. The whole world is still, and he is alone. Alone. He searches for her face in the darkness but he can’t see it anymore. He breathes deeply but even her smell has faded from her pillow. In the dark he fumbles, knocking the whisky bottle aside to find the little gold band on the bedside table. Only the tip of his thumb fits the empty loop that once circled her slim finger.

How We Learned To Live In The Waste

winterforest

The wind whispers like ghosts, teasing the falling ash with its breath. Maggie twitches her nose to it. A strange smell she can’t place. Animal? Human? She listens. The snap of twigs intrudes upon the stillness. She can hear his breath, hoarse and quick. Frightened. He’s seen her. She follows the crunch of feet upon detritus, searching for a flash of colour in the graveyard of trees. A blue shirt, the colour the sky once was, weaving between the pallid boughs. Light as frost she chases, ignoring the bite of branches on her bare arms. He stumbles and she pounces on him and presses her knife to his throat.

“Scream and I’ll slit your lily neck wide open.”

He whimpers.

“Are there more of you?”

“No, ma’am. Just me.”

“What’s your name?”

“Jacob.”

“Jacob. To your feet.”

She hoists him up by the scruff of his shirt and pushes him through the leafless woods.

 

He smells the campsite before he sees it. The acrid sweetness of decaying flesh and human waste. He retches but his stomach is empty and the bitter bile catches in his throat. She thrusts him towards the campfire and he falls to his knees.  His head swims.

“Whatcha got for us, Maggie?” A boot, duct-taped, nudges his shoulder and rolls him onto his back. A kaleidoscope of faces stands over him. Four dark eyes, two green, like Siamese triplets joined at the forehead.

“Found him in the woods.”

“No meat on his bones. Won’t feed us for long.”

Green Eyes cackles, “We’ll boil him for soup.”

The kaleidoscope spins until the eyes and lips and teeth blur together and become black.

 

He wakes in the dark to the smell of the fire and charred meat. The grove echoes with shrieks and wails, the smash of glass upon stone. He feels the weight of cold iron around his ankle as he stumbles through the blackness. The viscid shadows cloak ghouls and monsters in their coils, but Jacob wonders if the beasts he imagines are truly worse than those outside his tent. He fumbles for the tent flap and peels it open, just a crack.

The brown-eyed man passes a bottle of murky liquor to the one called Maggie. Green Eyes tends the pot on the fire. She snatches something from inside – a foot? – and tumbles into Brown Eyes’ lap, licking the juices from her arm. Brown Eyes steals a bite between teeth bared like a dog, and Green Eyes growls back. The one called Maggie sits apart, her dark skin made bronze by the light of the fire. He watches the sparks dance in her midnight eyes and in the empty, silent grove he is transported to a different world before the trees died where she is a cannibal queen, a chain of skulls and teeth between her bare breasts and her dark skin painted red with blood.

The shadows shift and groan and Jacob staggers back with a yelp as he realises that he is not alone in the tent.

“Hello?” he whispers into the darkness. He hears shuffling, ragged gasps, but no response.

Maggie throws the tent flap open, bathing his moaning cellmate in ghastly light. A mound of naked flesh, though there was not enough of the man left to still call him a man. An arm missing and ragged stumps for legs, blackened at their tips. Jacob screams but Maggie crouches beside him and covers his mouth with her hand. Her face was so close he could smell the liquor on her breath, the iron tang of blood.

“Shh,” she coos, holding his face with her free hand. “Don’t mind him, he wasn’t much better’n that when we found him. Half-starved, half-frozen in the snow. If I take my hand away, you won’t scream?”

He shakes his head. She takes her hand away.

She throws a blanket over the body but he can’t take his eyes off the amorphous, writhing bundle that used to be a man. The cold air and the taste of rot fill his mouth and he can’t breathe and his heart pounds against the cage of his chest for freedom.

“Oh god, you can’t do this to me. Kill me now. Don’t keep me alive.”

“It’s not so bad. After a while you don’t feel a thing. You sleep. You dream.” She slides her fingers over his chest and laughs like grated glass. “Your heart is beating like a rabbit.”

She squats beside him, hunched over her pointed knees and offers him her bottle. He takes a sip, and then another. Almost whisky, but muddy, gritty. The burn of alcohol numbs his humming heart.

“Tell me a story, Jacob,” she says. “Who were you before this god-forgotten planet turned to dust?”

“I was a teacher. A professor at a university.”

“And a family? Little wife and two kids waiting for you at home behind your picket fence?”

He searches her words for spite but finds none so he tells her. He tells her about the little wife he had waiting for him at home, but no kids, not yet, just the one that is big and ripe like a peach in her swollen belly. He tells her about the day the meteor hits, the day the sky turns red and then black and his wife decides she doesn’t want to raise their little peach in a world with no sun and she doesn’t want to live in a world with no sun neither. He tells her about the crack of the pistol from the garage and the blood that pools on the floor, and the silence that follows it.

Maggie’s sorry she asked. “No happy stories left in the waste.”

“What about you?” he asks.

“Don’t remember. Woke up one day in the ash and snow and was born again. Started a new life.” She takes the bottle back and gulps until it is empty. “Probably best I don’t remember.”

Brown-Eyes and Green-Eyes have gone back to their tent and the fire has dulled to embers. They sit in silence.

“Why do you care, if you’re just going to…” He can’t bring himself to say the words. Eat me.

Maggie shrugs. “A girl gets bored. New faces hard to come by.”

She gets up and leaves the empty bottle behind and says goodnight and closes the tent, leaving him in darkness. He falls asleep to a groaning he can’t be sure is the half-man under the blanket or the trees aching beneath the wind.

 

The grey dawn creeps across the campsite, a thin vein of light that tickles Jacob’s face. He wakes to silence and peeks through the tent flap to find the glade empty. He gropes at the chain around his ankle and follows it to its source, beneath the blanket that covers his cellmate. He peels the blanket back and sees empty sockets, a mouth twisted and crusted with spit. His stomach heaves. The spike pins his chain to the ground in the crook of the man’s neck and shoulder and Jacob holds his breath and rolls the carcass onto its side to expose it. The earth is hard and the spike does not yield as he tries to free it. He remembers the bottle that Maggie left behind and breaks it, using the sharp glass to loosen the soil.

He does not hear the footsteps that approach his tent or the hand that slides the door open.

“Little mouse, burrowing to China are we?” A voice that lilts like honey, that cuts like a knife. Her green eyes catch him, a rabbit frozen in their light. He stands, wary, holding the broken glass outstretched, and as she moves towards him he plunges it deep into her shoulder. She laughs and throws him to the ground and straddles his waist, pinning his arms above his head. Blood drips from her wounded shoulder and streaks his face.

“Oh, you are a brave one,” she hisses and her breath is warm and rancid on his face. “But let’s see how far you can dig with one arm!”

Jacob writhes beneath her but she is too strong and too fast for him to break free. The machete that hangs from her waist is a wisp of smoke and his terror rises like a white sheet and masks his pain as the knife strikes his forearm once, twice. Blood surges from the wound and paints her skin. She picks up his severed limb, its fingers coiled, and the white sheet suffocates him in its folds.

 

He wakes in the night to firelight and a tender touch to his throbbing stump. Maggie wipes the blood that stains his flesh with a damp rag and wraps it in a bandage torn from the hem of his shirt.

Jacob groans. “Please. Help me.”

She gestures to his ankle, which has been freed from the chain that bound it. He makes to run, but Maggie pushes him back to the ground.

“Not now. They’ll catch you. Wait til morning.”

“Why are you doing this?”

She does not answer.

“You’re not like the others.”

“No. I’m not.”

The silence is heavy between them, punctuated by the crackle and hiss of the fire. She breaks it slowly.

 

“When the world first turned to shit, me and my little boy ran for the woods, as far from the riots as we could. We lived like beasts we thought, before we knew what beasts men could become. Foraging what we could before the leaves fell from the trees, hunting what we were fast enough to catch. My boy cried and cried the first time we killed. He held the rabbit’s limp, bloody body to his chest like it was a toy. We were too scared to light a fire so we ate its flesh raw off the bone. The nights were cold and dark and long and we counted the names of the stars we could remember because there were none left in the sky.

But the nights grew colder and darker and longer still. When the first snows fell the trees had long since died and the forest creatures too. We found their bodies, frozen and wasted with hunger, and saw in them our own fate. Hunger ate away at our bellies like an ulcer, a sore, flayed flesh from our bones and wore the strength from our bodies.

The moon was a smudge of light behind cloud the night my boy stopped shivering in my arms and I knew he was gone. And more than anything else I felt relief that he wouldn’t have to grow up in a world slowly dying. Relief that I was freed from worry.

 I looked at his body, poor withered rabbit, precious gift, and thought of my own hunger.

I wished the snow would swallow me up, a blank slate a white canvas to pardon the horror that I committed and so for two nights and two days I walked until my heart was a blank slate too and his name and his face were no more than a smudge on a white canvas. They found me, a wandering wraith, and they gave me a choice. My soul was already damned so who was I to say no?”

Her eyes are hard. Jacob raises his hand to touch her face and she flinches but she doesn’t pull away. He folds his arm around her slim body and holds her close and for a moment he remembers another slim body he once held, in a different lifetime, in a room with blue wallpaper and an empty cot in the corner.

 

A boot, duct-taped, kicks Maggie awake.

“So the hunter lies with the prey,” the brown-eyed man drawls.

Maggie jumps to her feet and stands over Jacob. “Leave him be, Aaron. Give him the same chance you gave me.”

“One more to feed when food is so scarce.”

“Please, Aaron.”

Aaron lunges at Maggie, grips her small neck tight in his hand. “Who are you to stand against me? Just a whelp we found in the snow. Are you not grateful for the life we gave you?”

Her lungs burn for air. She gasps, but Jacob doesn’t see her.

Jacob sees the tent door open. His captor distracted. Escape.

 

His legs are not his own. They carry him from the campsite, through the forest that nips his flesh with wooden teeth. He does not feel their bite does not feel the tearing cold does not feel his throbbing arm. He does not hear Maggie’s screams. He runs until the forest breaks to a field of hungry snow, a white canvas, and he feeds himself to it willingly, a memory at a time.

 

 

(This is a piece that I’ve had in the pipeline for a couple of years now, and I’d actually forgotten that I’d finished it. So, that was a nice surprise when I reclaimed this story from the vaults. I’ve shared it before in bits and pieces, but never in its entirety. So, here it is, complete.)

winterforest

blank page.

A petal,

fragile,

furled open to await the black dew-drop stain of ink

or a field waiting to be sown with

spidery, disobedient plants that strive to grow

beyond the confines of its

neat, orderly furrows;

like Jack’s beanstalk, a ladder to

another world.

All you need to do is climb its rungs,

feet following hands,

and gently part its crisp white leaves

to find the land above the clouds.