Category: flash fiction

The dogs of midnight

This is work of friction, where the tectonic plates of real life rub up against a life imagined as real; my name is Everyman, and I went down to the beach today.

It is winter now. Ours is a temperate climate and though it is cool, there are days that feel as warm as a summer’s day in Europe. It’s not unusual for people to be at the beach at this time of year. I prefer winter to summer. Summer is all sweat and flies. It gets cold, usually in the late afternoon as the sun sets and then the hour before sunrise is the coldest time of the day. I believe that is true for everywhere. But there is something else, it is as intangible as air and yet, one senses it. It is like the bitter aftertaste of chocolate.

We’ve had a lot of rain and today has been the first day of sunshine in over a week, so I thought I would make the most of it. Make hay while the sun shines my father used to say. I thought of him today. He never saw where I live, where I migrated to. Where we are settled, dug in. My mind though has never settled.  It tends to follow my body around but remains a trans-continental traveller.

It’s a strange word, migration. It sounds like a combination of migraine and nation. Migraine-nation, national migration, national migraine, the pain of a nation, nationhood migrates to pain? … So anyway, I was down at the beach; not to swim but just to walk, watch the seagulls and the fisher-people casting from the pier. It is incredibly tranquil. I close my eyes and find there a smile which I release into the breeze. I hear the benign rumble of a car’s engine behind me. There are two young girls wearing hijabs, eating ice-cream and laughing while taking their sandals off to walk on the beach. Then a loud, aggressive revving breaks the day. A car full of young boys pulls up into the carpark and they shout at the girls this is Straya, go back to where you came from. They are laughing, slapping one another, having fun. One of them throws an empty coke can in the direction of the girls and then they accelerate away. The young girls put their sandals back on, one of them picks up the can, throws it into the bin and they get into their car and drive away.

Sometimes there are cormorants bobbing on the surface of the water and I time how long they go under water for. It’s usually anywhere between 5 and 8 seconds, depending on how hungry they are, I guess. There is a slight breeze, with a bit of a bite to it. That for me is the best sensation, feeling the heat of the sun on your face but, also the sting of cool air. I feel nostalgic, but I don’t remember what for. Some memory within me that’s been layered with time. On a day, some time in my life, the sun shone warm and there was an iciness in the air and I was happy, and the association has become embedded in my psyche.

Memory is a strange thing. They say (whoever they are? Them that says a lot!) that animals have genetic memory. Mice in America were trained to fear the smell of cherry blossoms and generations of their descendants had the same fear without the experience. Pity humans don’t have that. We forget very quickly.

It has been a good day, for some. But, days end and darkness must follow. The world is old, and this has been its rhythm for aeons. Perhaps all of the inhabitants of earth have this rhythm too. We are made of the stuff that holds us as we go around the sun. We grow out of the ground of this spinning mass. Our mothers ate the roots pulled out of the soil, cooked and ate the animals that had eaten the grass growing in the soil, the earth. We really are just animated earth. We are what we are on. As our bodies carry our souls, so the earth carries us. We are the soul of the earth. 

The days are getting shorter. Electricity does not diminish our animal instincts to withdraw in winter. It is done with relative ease and requires little preparation. We don’t withdraw entirely. Nights are cosy. The dogs sleep too close to the gas heater, I smell burning hair and make them move, I eat too many biscuits. Nights used to be quiet until those dogs started. Maybe they have always been there? If they were, we never noticed because they were quiet but, something has breathed the fire of Hades into them. Every night it is the same thing. How is it that they always seem to come to life at midnight? How do they know?  They’re as regular as a healthy bowel; those hounds that break the night barking. Those beasts who gnash their teeth and growl at everything: shadows, leaves scraping in the gutters, plastic bottles and empty tin cans rolling loudly on the tarmac in the wind, fighting cats, night shift neighbours, loud, drunk kids getting off midnight buses and hoons burning rubber. But, to shout at the dogs in the dark only agitates them. They grow louder, more determined to fight. The only way to stop them is to go to them. I know, one night I tried.

They gather, God knows how? All is serene and then they are they are suddenly there. I approached where they were gathered. I became very afraid but, I thought, I am a man and they are just dogs. I must not show fear. As I walked up the driveway towards the gate that held them back they became frantic. They were biting at the fence. As I got closer they went into a frenzy of barking, snarling and yelping. They bunched at the gate, they began snapping viciously at one another. Then there was a high pitched howl. One of them was in serious pain. The pack’s attention turned to a smaller dog being attacked by a much larger one. They tore into it. The victim of the attack snarled and yelped uncontrollably and then suddenly went quiet. Beneath the confusing mass of yanking, brutal heads shook away pieces of the poor thing. Blood was spraying everywhere. I felt warm droplets on my face. In a shadow cast by the garage wall a black liquid ran across the paving into the flower bed. I think they were Marigolds, maybe Chrysanthemums? But, that could not be? Those are summer flowers, and this is winter. Perhaps they were sown late? How do seeds know what season it is if they have spent months on a shelf in air tight packets? I must remember to google that. How would I search for that … winter flowers in Western Australia? I must remember to do that. I never did remember to look properly at the flower bed and it would seem strange to go snooping around a house in daylight. By now I was at the gate trying to see around the side of the house. One of them saw me move closer and bolted to the gate, not barking but baring its teeth. While it fixed its gaze on my face I slowly moved my right hand down to its chest that was up against the gate. I tried, cautiously to stroke the animal to calm it down. My fingers only slightly touched it, it leapt back as if electrocuted and began barking savagely, biting the dog next to it which stirred the pack into a new frenzy. I quickly backed away. Their attention turned to the torn carcass behind them. They were sniffing and frantically licking up splattered blood, gnawing bits of sinew and cartilage. Gradually they began to sit and chew, eyes closed with satisfaction. The sickening sounds of tongues slapping, and licking grew louder. Their blood lust sated, they settled down to scavenge the yard for bits of the small dog. Bones cracked and split, cartilage that had once cushioned bone squeaked, and that was the last sound that poor dog would ever make. 

By now I was forgotten, or at least ignored by the dogs (can we still call them that? Dogs.) and never taking my eyes off the gate, I backed away down the drive. Clear of them I felt a sudden wave of nausea and vomited into a full bush of lavender. I know it was lavender because the sweet smell of it was overwhelming after the smell and taste of iron that blood leaves in your mouth. I wondered what effect the vomit might have on the growth of the plant. 

Regular Saturday evening sounds now filtered through the brutal gauze of night. A few neighbours gathered to investigate the ruckus. They stood close enough to the driveway to indicate concern but kept enough distance to avoid involvement. Their conversation rumbled and masked the echoes down the drive of dog’s tongues smacking. There were, a few doors down, loud jovial voices saying good night, some laughter, one high pitched, a female laughing (I recall that I was irrationally annoyed at her for possessing such an awful laugh and wondered how by now – for she was clearly middle-aged, there was a husky, chesty cackle to the laugh – she had not realised that her laughter was horrible and at least tried not to laugh so heartily, so inconsiderately, so rudely … but how can one expect a person to cease laughing? What an awful predicament for a person to be in, I remember thinking and almost immediately forgave her for possessing such a grotesque gesture to indicate happiness. She ought to have been born sad. Maybe she was? Laughter, is after all as reliable an indication of happiness as a frown is of a death wish). There were the sounds of car doors slamming shut the evening’s visit, which clearly had involved some wine, and across the road the staccato screech of violins from an open family room window reflecting Vincent Price in monochrome (I realised with dismay that I had missed the film I wanted very much to watch, The Last Man on Earth). A police helicopter flew in low over Merriwa, a search light limped through the sky. I always say the world is a good place when, after the weather and doll bludgers, people say the whole world’s gone mad. We don’t live in the whole world mate, we live in bleedin Quinns, I say and last time I looked it’s same as it ever was, it’s a good place cos we’re good people. 

The Minotaur's Memoir: from the Book of Asterion

 ,but, despite the tensions we were soldiers first and Kreet was the land that bound us both, the unwilling and the blind.

The hour before sunrise is the coldest. The wind picks up and the chill settles on the bones. You can run for the whole hour and not feel warmed up inside. But any time away from the camp is a relief. Especially now with the prisoners there. The enemy prisoners. We prefer the 1am duty. The guardhouse is noisy until 11pm anyway and the chance of being hauled away for some dirty job is high. At one in the morning the world feels like a peaceful place. The lights in town shimmer, the lights of the main road hang beneath the horizon like pots of fire. Once a barn owl swooped over our heads as we sat in the grass smoking a cigarette, cupping our hands over it carefully to avoid detection and putting our heads between our knees to suck in the smoke and hide the soft glow. We felt it before we heard it. It sounded like something big breathing out over us. We felt a quick rush of cool air on our necks and then heard a swoosh. Between feeling the owl and hearing it we had rolled away and were aiming at the blackness behind us. After a kilometre we started laughing uncontrollably and sat down again and smoked a cigarette but coughed a lot through laughter. That was one of the happiest moments from that time. It bound us and allowed us to remain friends after the difficulties later. That we could laugh together gave each of us permission to forgive one another later.

There was this evening in the beer garden. Blokes getting drunk and forgetting stuff they had seen or done and finding absolution in the wordless confessional of alcohol.

We have to fight to hold onto our land, Kreet is ours someone said. Maybe the beer had given me courage? Maybe the guilt of silent collusion got the better of me?

Is it really our land? I said. The Company officer, the one who had forced us to leopard crawl over slate and laughed as we had bled, was there. Like dogs we were eager for his approval. We imagined he had become a friend.

You’re crossing a line he said.

A veil of distrust descended over us. Things continued as normal after that but dialogue strained as if emerging every time tired from a long journey through an internal labyrinth where pre verbalised thoughts were considered according to possible interpretations and consequences. Everyone became cautious, having to hold the thread of the original thought while surveying the various landscapes that began to form and take shape as a result of the words spoken. Conversation collapsed under the pressure and became chatter skimming along the surface of things: the weather, physical ailments, safe complaints about people mutually agreed upon to be fools and the camp dog, Asterion. It was always safe and comforting to share stories about Asterion’s antics as if talking about him bridged the abyss deepening between us.

That was all a long time ago and Kreet is reclaimed now. Those who were once prisoners now lead and those who used to lead have been imprisoned. I wonder now if we were soldiers protecting the land or minotaurs prowling the imagined idea of a country in the subterranean labyrinth of some nameless terrain in wait for a name change? The friend with the owl now farms the land and I exiled myself from it.

The new country has a name but I have become weary of names for land. Also there is nothing new. There or here. So how does one talk now about place? The words I have are from a different time? The ears that would have understood are gone, if they were ever there. There are leaders here, but I’m not sure yet whether they lead soldiers or minotaurs.  I was a minotaur once.  Now I look for Asterion instead. There is always an Asterion.  I only saw an owl once. There are prisoners here, they are everywhere. Here the street lights do not struggle against the dark. Days are much like nights, just with slightly sharper shadows.

The dogs of midnight

This short fiction piece was published in the bezine’s September issue on Social Justice.

Follow this link to read it: https://thebezine.com/portfolio/the-dogs-of-midnight/

Thank you for your continued support of my work.

Mike

Notes from a window

I do not know her, the old lady at the window. But, she is familiar to me. I see her almost every day when I approach the cross section. I look for oncoming traffic, then look for her. It has become a habit. She is consistent (a necessary requirement for a habit to form). I do not know if her looking out of the window is the result of habit or the lack of alternatives. She sits to the right of her window. (would it alter the narrative if I called it the window?) So, now I have designated the window as hers. Naturally, she does not own the window. Ownership in old-age homes are a complicated business. Usually it is strictly limited to private possessions: blankets, clothing, books, toiletries, jewellery, false-teeth. Unlike their owners, these items retain value. They are handled with tenderness, treasure-like, as if the care shown them might somehow reach the dead. Perhaps we treat their things as sacred in the hope that these gentle gestures might have retrospective powers. Maybe kindness in the present has currency in the after-life. Nevertheless, domestic rituals emerge around the debris of life. Clothing and blankets are held up to the face, breathed in to detect traces of the dead. Unopened cakes of soap sit in drawers scenting underwear, rosaries gather friction, grief adheres to old toothbrushes, broken spectacles, roughly scribbled champagne corks and postcards from Egypt written in illegibly elegant script. The physical disappearance of someone is shocking. These objects absorb the after shocks of their leaving. As for the places where they lived; in old age homes a bucket of disinfectant, wide open windows to release the miasma of death and a lick of paint re-sanitise the venue for the next itinerant. Ownership may be complex in old age homes, but the simple certainties of death and departure compensate for it. I do not know the contractual details of her facility. I know there are places like these where inmates are expected to purchase a space that is recycled every time the current owner/s die. A safe investment that just keeps giving.

In First World countries we tend to pack the aged and infirm away when their maintenance outweighs their value. One must contribute positively to the GDP to warrant state concern. Otherwise, one finds oneself gradually removed from society. Folded up like well worn tablecloths and placed in the back of the linen cupboard, until the next Salvo’s run. In Third World economies, the aged are generally valued and, if not valued, at least respected. Those who struggle for material security understand the emotional and spiritual value of people. They know that dignity is priceless and owed to their parents who have struggled to hold onto it all of their lives. The aged are respected for being there, for having carried on, teaching their children that value lies in endurance, not assets. They build their lives on people, not money. They have community where individual well-being is everyone’s concern. We, on the other hand, are a loose collection of cocoons. Each of us spinning silk and blind to the world around us.

I knew a man once who did a brave thing. I did not understand it as such at the time. I was young and had not yet been called upon to endure anything more than my adolescent neuroses. He lived on a large piece of land. We flew over it once in a small plane. We had travelled in a straight line for ten minutes and all the time it was his land beneath us. It was beautiful, rugged, arid African Bush. The memory of it fills me with nostalgia. In the evenings Impala herds settled around a thorn tree near the home. He had resettled vultures that were endangered. One day he walked out into the bush, undressed and then shot himself in a place where he knew the vultures would be. I believe he was a brave man. In the end he understood a thing or two about real value.

She, the lady at the window, has draped over her knees a crocheted patchwork blanket. Coloured squares of lilac, blue, purple and pink are bordered by yellow. The palette of severe bruising. I’ve not seen her do anything but sit and look out of the window. I have willed her to lean forward, possibly smile but it feels like a prayer, more for my sake than hers.

Her curtains were drawn today. If tomorrow the windows are open wide, I will be sad.