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Reading5 X 5
Also from Metaphorosis Books
Best of Metaphorosis2016, 2017
The Complete Metaphorosis2016, 2017
Best Vegan Science Fiction and Fantasy2016, 2017
edited byB. Morris Allen
Readers’ editionISBN: 978-1-64076-040-0 (e-book)ISBN: 978-1-64076-041-7 (paperback)
2Writers’ editionISBN: 978-1-64076-042-4 (e-book)ISBN: 978-1-64076-043-1 (paperback)
Reading 5 X 5
Dreaming in Other Colours
Letters to the Earth
The Fourth Pillar Says No
Howl at the Moon
Soft Science Fiction
Time, The Ever-Rolling Stream
The Great Scientist Rivalry on Planet Sourdough
The Visible Spectrum
The Fragments of Others
Between Ashes and Wings
“Where art thou, my love?”
Deus ex Noir
Hard Science Fiction
One of the Cities
In the Absence of Time
The Long View
Child of Flowers
The Tongue of the Chimera
Song and Sacrifice
The Gentlest River
Clayton Memorial Medical Fund
Table of Contents
“Five stories, five times,” the tagline says. What does that mean? Twenty five authors in five genre groups each received a story brief and wrote their own story from it. Five stories, each told five times, in five different ways.
Why do this? Both because it’s fun, and to see and learn from how five different authors approach the same source material. How do the stories differ depending on style and inspiration?
The idea grew from a couple of seeds. Several years back, I was reading The Best of Gene Wolfe. In it, he suggests taking another author’s successful story, trying to write your own version of it (as an exercise, not for publication), and looking at where they differ. He offers one of his own to work with. I’ve never gotten around to doing it, but the idea stuck in my head.
Separately, for a few years, I’ve participated in Novel-in-a-Day (novelinaday.com). In essence, each of a group of writers is assigned a chapter brief — an entry point, a few plot requirements, an exit point, and some backstory. Knowing nothing about the rest of the book (even the genre), they have 19 hours to write their chapter. Then a few hours for assembly, and voila! — over twenty four hours, a novel is born. My favorite part of it is that, thanks to the number of participants, there are usually two or three variants of the novel, allowing authors to compare their chapter to how others handled it.
After the summer 2017 Novel-in-a-Day, the two ideas came together. Why not an anthology highlighting the way different authors work? Give each the same seed, and see where they go with it. After a week or two figuring out parameters, I’d also settled on the Reading 5X5 title, which gave the anthology a manageable size and number of authors. And happily, I edit Metaphorosis magazine, so I had a group of writers and artists whose work I knew and liked. All I had to do was see if they would participate.
Because Metaphorosis authors are a fun and adventurous group, it turned out they would. Lots of them — enough for a full anthology and then some. And five brave souls volunteered to write the briefs. Kat Weaver offered art. And when I say volunteer, I mean it. All the contributors donated their work, and all proceeds go to the Clayton Memorial Medical Fund.
Writers are invited to post their own stories based on the briefs. Come see what they came up with, at x1.reading5X5.com
B. Morris AllenEditor5 March 2018
Dreaming in Other Colours
Letters to the Earth
The Fourth Pillar Says No
Howl at the Moon
Lina steps out into the yard in the late afternoon, hoping for a cooling breeze. The old Hills Hoist with the sagging wires cants among the red natal grass, the soft heads dancing in the heat. She should fix the washing line. She should mow. She should tidy up the yard. There’s a broken chair that she doesn’t remember discarding, and the lemon tree, dried up now into a rattle of branches.
Over the fence, yellow is all she can see; the canola fields stretching out and out and out in all directions until they crash into the open sky. Blue and yellow. Yellow and blue. How long has it been since she has dreamed in other colours?
A hot wind whips around her ankles, not what she wanted at all, but something in it is unnatural even in this climate, and she turns. The sun is growing, a spreading mass sending licking fingers of fire towards the fragile Earth. The blue sky bleeds into black at the edges, the stars flickering madly.
Her grandmother’s voice is feather-light, but that’s what moves her. She bolts inside, thongs slapping across the scuffed lino in the kitchen, through the dingy lounge with the sagging tartan couch, up the narrow stairs, jumping the one that clunks because she’s sure one day it’s going to come off.
She should fix the stair.
There’s a shadow on the wall halfway down, and Lina meets it with her body. “Gran, I’m here.”
The shadow becomes flesh, in a way that Lina can see, but never quite remember, and Gran is there; an old lady, bent, with her wispy white hair and her face creased into a smile. “Lina. Lina. Don’t run about like that in this heat. I was just coming down to make us a pot of tea.”
“I’ll make it, Gran. Come back upstairs.”
The strange shadows on the walls fade as she helps Gran back up the stairs to her room. When she looks out the window, the sun is itself again, the canola fields yellow, the sky still blue. She breathes out.
What would happen if Gran refused to go back upstairs? If one day she just said no? Lina can’t imagine wrestling her up the stairs by force. There are some things that can’t be moved by strength.
She guides Gran to her favourite chair, the cane one with the high back and the hard cushions that she likes.
“And a biscuit or two. Is there any teacake? I haven’t made a teacake in years,” says Gran.
When Lina straightens, there’s a dust cloud on the road, weaving between the yellow fields, and for a beautiful moment she thinks her father is coming home to help her.
It is not her father. It’s a delivery truck, the driver a young man with scruffy beard and a tank top that shows off his arms. They’re not particularly good arms, unless you are starving like Lina is. He’s looking around at the house with its faded iron roof and the yard with the carpet of rogue canola but he’s not really seeing them. Like the guy who delivers their groceries. And the man who reads the meter. And the postman. She’s sure that she disappears from their thoughts as soon as they disappear over the hill.
Sun-drowsy locusts buzz off into the grass, disturbed by her feet as she goes around to the back of the truck. It’s like a secondhand shop in there. Lina climbs in, peering at addresses, some local to Dalwallinu, others further north along the highway; Wubin and Jibberding and Payne’s Find, even as far north as Meekathara.
The delivery man drags a cabinet along the metal floor. Lina pushes past him and picks up the other end. It’s lighter and smaller than she expected. They wrangle it to the ground, and he pulls out an envelope, which he hands to her, and a clipboard. “Sign here, please.”
In the swirling dust of his exit, Lina stares at the cabinet. It is entirely disappointing; old, but not antique old; a box on round wooden legs, with a laminate top and varnished particle-board sides in shades of brown and orange. There are two sliding doors at the front with round metal knobs. She is bemused by its sudden appearance in the wreck of a yard. And yet it fits, somehow; functional but ugly.
The envelope bears the stamp of the Public Trustee. A will. Someone died to send her this cupboard, and she rips the envelope open with clumsy fingers. This will dated Wednesday 10 September 1973 is made by me Mavis Bridgeman of 31A Hemmings Street Dandenong, Victoria.
Lina doesn’t know anyone who lives all the way across the country in Victoria. The will didn’t say much, only that Mavis had left the cabinet to Lina, daughter of Norman. The tip of her nose is hot and she rubs it. She told Gran she would make tea. The house is silent though, so Gran has settled again, maybe to sleep.
Cold air brushes her ankles. Mist is curling out between the cabinet’s sliding doors. Lina crouches down in front of them. Now she can hear something too, a low soft sigh.
Cabinets do not sigh. No matter how strange her life, she knows this. She slides open the door.
Cold air blasts her face, cooling the budding sunburn. There’s a mountain inside the cabinet; sharp, snow-peaked, distant. She leans forward and the view zooms in. Now she can see the slopes, steep and slick with snow, and a long way down, a green valley, green like a long drink of cool water, green like a long-forgotten dream, green like nothing she has seen in her hot, dry world.
The stony soil bites into her knees as she leans into that valley, and she sees houses and people, at least she thinks they are, but they’re not human, not even remotely. The houses are so beautiful she wants to cry, and the smell that comes up to her is in an unfamiliar language. There’s a blessed coolness on her cheek where it presses against the mountain.
She leans further into the cabinet, pushes with her toes, wanting to fall in, down and down to that wonderful green where she can walk and breathe, but all that happens is that her forehead bangs into the back wall of the cabinet.
When she sits back, rubbing the tender skin, there are ants crawling over her thongs and her arms are red.
There’s no sound from her grandmother’s room as Lina climbs the stairs with the pot and the cup and a plate of milk arrowroot biscuits. In Gran’s room, stars slide along their paths, burning bright; nebulas bloom and expand away to nothing, leaving only cold space behind; galaxies spiral out and out until they lose their integrity and send the stars spinning away.
And then with a rush it all shrinks down until there is only Gran, sitting in her favourite cane chair, smiling at her.
Lina puts the tea down. She doesn’t need to ask if there might be other worlds where strange, beautiful people live in the shadow of a mountain. She has other questions.
“Do you know a Mavis Bridgeman?” she asks.
Gran is dipping a biscuit in her tea, and doesn’t answer for a while. “Mavis was my daughter. I didn’t realise she’d gone.”
Gran never talked about other family. Lina assumed Dad was her only child. “Why did she leave?”
“Mavis was never here.”
“But…she was your daughter. You grew up in this house. How could she not have been here?”
Gran smiles, her head on one side, like a bird. “Did you think this is the only part of me?”
Lina’s father was the only parent she ever remembered. Gran filled any mother-shaped hole she might have had in her life. Gran in the kitchen, baking apple pie. Gran in the yard, hanging washing, or digging weeds from the flower beds.
She pauses on the stairs, tea-tray in hand. Gran making tea when Lina and…and…her sister came home from school. Sitting at the old wooden table, school dress limp with sweat.
And then Gran had gone up the stairs one day and she could never come down again.
Nothing much had changed for Lina. She’d kept going to school, every day, but Dad never made her tea and cake when they came home. Dad was no gardener and so the yard had slowly gone to weeds. He’d stopped going to work, but it was years before Lina had understood that her grandmother’s change had trapped him there in the house.
Her sister had figured it out. Those memories were vague, but Lina remembered waking up to find… she couldn’t even recall her sister’s face, now. Couldn’t, somehow, remember her name. Just a shadowy figure hoisting a bag over her shoulder, shushing Lina as she asked, sleepily, what she was doing. A sister who’d made Lina promise not to say a word until morning.
It was the day before her sister’s sixteenth birthday.
The phone rings when she’s in that morning half-doze. It’s hot, but not yet so hot that it’s unpleasant. Lina stumbles downstairs, barefoot, grabs the old handset off the wall.
It’s her sister. She knows the voice like she knows her bones. “Hey.” She puts her arm on the wall, rests her forehead on her forearm. “Where are you?”
“On the road,” says her sister, and Lina can hear the truck rumbling in the background. “Been riding all night down the coast. It’s so beautiful here, Lina. I wish you could see it.”
Lina wishes she could see it, too. “Tell me. Tell me.”
“There’s a roadhouse just a while back where you can get hot coffee and fried chicken legs any time of the day or night. There’s no other houses, not for miles and miles. It reminded me of home, except it’s so flat you can see right to the horizon. And the ocean’s on the other side of the road. Just drops away to the great big blue.”
Lina’s clutching the phone, imagining the road stretching out ahead of her, endless movement, places to go.
“Passed Ceduna yesterday. Going to head inland soon, scoot around the edge of Adelaide and up into the Flinders Ranges. That’s a slow run, lots of tight corners as you go up onto the plateau.”
Her chest is tight, her breathing short and fast. “Then where? Where will you go?”
“From there it’s across the flats to Broken Hill where the mines run day and night and the air’s so heavy with metals you can taste them. I’ll park the truck just outside the town where you can see the lights from the big drag lines and I’ll eat takeout and listen to the curlews.”
“Send me a picture,” says Lina. She says this a lot, and her sister says she’ll try, but she never does. Can’t stop for pictures. Can’t stop for anything. She’s moving all the time, circling Australia like a moon in orbit.
But she never comes home.
“I’ve gotta go,” says her sister.
“I can’t remember your name.” Shame engulfs her as she says it. She should remember her sister’s name.
“It’s Angie. Remember, Lina? Angie.”
“Angie. Angie. I won’t forget. Call again soon.”
“I will. See you, Lina.”
“See you.” She hangs up the phone. Angie. Angie. She has to remember that. She scuffles in the kitchen drawer for a pencil, goes to write on the wall.
Angie’s name is scrawled across the wall around the phone. Lina stares at it, at all the times she’s written her sister’s name there and still she forgets.
She finds an empty space and writes it again. She won’t forget this time.
She’s found that she can’t go far from the mountain. She can swing around it, if she leans, see all the villages and towns and the people working, laughing, living their lives.
There’s a girl in one of the houses — she doesn’t know if it’s a girl, or even if it’s a house — who walks every morning from her — house — down a long winding strip that must be a road, to a long, curving structure larger than several houses put together. She goes in, and she stays there all day. School? A job? Lina can’t tell which, or how old her subject might be, but there’s a steadiness to her movement that suggests purpose.
Lina has tried to call, but no one responded, except gran who asked her what she wanted. She’s tried to reach in, but she just bangs her hand on the wooden walls, even though the mountain goes through them. It is not real, and yet when the cold air brings the scent of snow to her she feels it is more real than canola fields and heat.
At the end of the day the — girl — comes out of the building. She’s always carrying a bag, which she takes back to her — house — and disappears inside. She won’t come out again until morning.
Lina rushes to do the washing up. Is the girl also doing the mundane jobs that need to be done? No, she has a greater purpose. A meaning to her life. What’s in the bag she carries? Food? Materials? She wishes she could see into the house. She wants to know what rooms are in there. Bedroom, kitchen, living room with a sagging couch? She transfers a dripping plate to the drainer. Dull old wallpaper on the walls? Ugly lino in the kitchen?
No. Her dreams rebel against it.
The inside of the building is a single room, long and low. It has a bed at one end, and a rudimentary kitchen. The rest of the room is a workshop, where she builds a…Lina looks out the window, the plate in her hand slipping back into the water. The rolling yellow landscape stretches to the cloudless sky.
A flying machine. Lina has never seen a vehicle of any kind among the people of the mountain. The girl is an inventor. She will teach her people how to fly. She will be known and loved and remembered, though now she struggles alone, with no one to share her dreams with.
No one but Lina. Lina believes in her, in her dreams.
When the washing up is done she hurries upstairs with tea, but Gran is not there today; only the rolling universe greets her. Lina leaves the tea tray on the floor by the door, all the while her mind is back with the girl and the hidden workshop and the flying machine.
“I’m sorry, that card is declined.”
Lina clutches the phone in one hand, her Dad’s credit card in another. “Can you try again? I’m sure it’s fine.”
The woman tries again. It’s a different woman than it was when Lina’s father left and she started to do the shopping herself. When she had to order everything by phone because she couldn’t leave the house any more. Back then it was Mrs Hale, the mother of one of the girls Lina went to school with. But Mrs Hale is gone, and the woman after her is gone, and now Lina doesn’t know the names of any of the people she rings — the grocer, the electricity company, the phone company — to pay her bills.
But there is always money on the card.
“I’m sorry, it’s definitely declined. Do you have another card we can try?”
Another card? She doesn’t even have a bank account. She’s always just used Dad’s account. She rings telebanking and checks the balance. Seventy-two dollars. Money always goes in at the beginning of the month. Always. All these years without fail. Why has it not gone in now?
Lina abandons the phone. There is a name scrawled on the wall around the phone, over and over. Angie. She wonders who that is.
There’s a box in the hall cupboard where she puts her father’s mail. Waiting for him to come home and read it. She opens the phone and electricity bills because she has to pay them, but everything else goes there unopened, including his bank statements. She pulls out a handful from the top, opens one. All the withdrawals are hers.
She opens another, and another, sees the balance going down every time she pays a bill.
By the time she has opened all of them, laid them out in order around her on the floor the day has gone. The house creaks and groans as it sheds heat into the cooler night. She kneels in the circle of statements that tell a story, but it’s a mystery story. The deposits stopped years ago. She has been living on the money built up, and now it’s gone.
Why isn’t he putting money in his account? Why didn’t he call and tell her?
She has not heard his voice in so long.
In the weeks after her sister left, her dad sat in the living room, staring at the wall, fingers gripping the arm of the chair.
Lina started to wash her own clothes, to do the dishes after school. She felt bad for him, that her sister’s abandonment hurt so much. She put away her own hurt to try to make him feel better. He used to be cheerful, telling terrible jokes to them over the kitchen table, whistling as he mowed the yard or tinkered about in the shed, keeping the house repaired and comfortable. Now it was as if she had lost two members of her family.
She heard him shouting as she got off her bike in the yard after school. She dropped her bag on the lino and crept up the stairs.
“Just stay in there, you stupid old bitch!” he shouted.
Lina bit her knuckles. He’d never spoken to gran like that before. She peered around the corner.
The room was full of stars. She hoped that Gran couldn’t hear him when she was gone like that. She hoped that Gran would stay away until he was better. She hoped that Gran would appear, sitting in her cane chair, and frown, and tell Dad to pull himself together.
Her dad turned around and saw her crouching on the top stair. “Lina?” He closed the door, rubbed his face. His ears were red. “Why are you home?”
He’d aged, lines deepening around his eyes, grey marching through his hair. And suddenly she was sick of it, sick of having this stranger in place of her father. “Why are you shouting at Gran?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“I lost a sister, too. Why doesn’t anyone care about my feelings?”
“Go and do your homework, Lina.”
She stormed past him and threw open the door. The universe swirled and she stood in it, with nothing beneath her but space and whirling dust and light.
“Lina!” Her father grabbed her arm and pulled her out of the room. “Wait. What did you see?”
“Stars,” she said. “What do you see?”
“You can see that?” He grabbed both her arms. “Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure. Is that why you were shouting at Gran?”
“Lina.” He squeezed her shoulder. “You mustn’t tell anyone.”
“I know.” As if she would tell. She’d been to school, and she was pretty sure no one else’s grandmother gave up being human and turned into the universe. “So can you stop being so mad, now? Please?”
He smiled at her. Actually smiled, and she knew everything would be okay.
Downstairs in the kitchen, he drew patterns in spilled tea on the benchtop. “You know she can’t come downstairs, right?”
“The world will end.”
Lina tossed her head. “Whatever, Dad.” She was fourteen. The concept of death, of ending, was unfathomable. Death happened to old people. Her father wasn’t old. Gran was old, but she was also the universe, so Lina wasn’t afraid for her.
She didn’t believe it until it was too late. Until she woke up on her sixteenth birthday to the sound of his ute roaring away, and came downstairs to a cake and a card and an empty house.
I’ll look after you. The money will keep coming, I promise. Just don’t leave the house until I come home, okay?
That was all that he wrote in her card. He forgot to write Happy Birthday.
Now she remembers the relief on his face, the night before he left. She hadn’t seen the trap. She always thought he would come home.
Her knees are gritty because she hasn’t swept the floor in … a long time. Not since the cabinet came.
How long has she been in this house?
She goes upstairs to her grandmother. Halfway up the stairs she leans on the wall, thinking she might fall. Gran is sitting in her chair when Lina opens the door, hands clasped in her lap. Waiting for her.
“Am I dead?”
“You’re not dead, any more than I am.” Gran pats the seat next to her. “Come and sit down.”
Lina collapses next to her, and Gran wraps an arm around her shoulders. Gran smells of powder and apples and Gran, just the way she always has.
“Dad’s not sending money anymore. I don’t know how old I am. I keep forgetting…my sister’s name. I hate yellow.”
At each statement Gran pats her shoulder, gives her a little squeeze.
“Mavis sent me a cabinet with a mountain in it. What is it?”
“It’s a cabinet with a mountain in it.”
Lina sits up, exasperated. “I don’t understand.”
“Think of it this way. One natal grass produces many seeds. Thousands. Millions, in their lifetime.”
Lina’s mind skitters around this, like a mouse around a big, dark hole. “Am I a seed?”
Gran pats her hand. “You’re my granddaughter.”
“And what are you?” Lina can’t believe she’s never asked this before. She looks into Gran’s dark eyes. “What are you?”
For her answer the room sifts away like sand in the wind and she is falling through stars. A planet rushes up to her, closer and closer, green fields, impossibly green, and a cold white mountain, and she turns to it like a dying flower to rain.
She’s lying on the floor in front of the cabinet, her hands full of paper. The bank statements. She rolls onto her back on the rustling bed and looks at the ceiling, the old wood beams dark, with gaps where they have shrunk in the relentless heat.
She gets a pen from the old mug in the kitchen. On the backs of the statements she writes, when my sister calls, tell her I need her to come home. She writes it over and over and puts the paper around the house, under pots and on chairs and sticking out of picture frames where she will see them in passing because she will not forget this, she can’t.
If only she could remember her sister’s name.
The girl hasn’t come out for days, and Lina is worried. It would be easier if she could do something to help. She aches for it, to drop down into that green land and knock on the door.
What would she say?
“I know what you’re doing. I’m here to help.”
In her daydreams the girl smiles and steps aside to let her in, and so begins a wonderful new life, the companionship of like minds working together on a project that will change the world.
At school she wasn’t interested in much. The little country school — one building, four rooms — didn’t produce academics. Kids either left school and worked on their parents’ farm, or they went to the mines. The smart ones went to the agricultural college in Wokalup and ended up working for the Primary Industries. None of those lives excited her, but then nothing did: she was young and she had all the time in the world to do whatever she wanted.
She still feels young but her potential is gone, snuffed out by this house and this legacy of her father’s that she can’t walk away from. She’s angry now at herself for not trying, for not doing something, for not having a vision of what her life might be. Something that she could throw at her family and say look what you have taken away from me.
When the sun goes down she gives up on the mountain and goes outside. The old armchair is still warm from the day’s heat and she curls up under the cloudless sky. She wants to hate her father for leaving her here. But she knows his despair. She wants to ask the mysterious Mavis, what did you do?
Did you have dreams, too?
How old were you when you died?
How long will I have to live like this?
Do I even exist?
The stars turn above her. She can smell bergamot and chamomile and old lady powder.
The phone rings just after she’s crawled into bed. She flips on the light. There’s a message scrawled on a piece of paper under the bedside lamp. When my sister calls, tell her I need her to come home.
She thunders downstairs, rips the phone out of its cradle. “Hello?”
“I need you to come home. Dad’s stopped sending money.” This is the most they’ve ever spoken about Dad and Gran and her sister leaving in the night. Lina feels like she’s falling and flying all at once. “If you come home, we can share the…” What is it she does? Guarding sounds wrong. Watching sounds too active. Existing feels right but doesn’t sound right. “We can look after Gran together. Take turns going out. It won’t be so bad with the two of us.” The silence stretches out, Lina’s knuckles are hurting, she’s gripping the phone so hard. “Please. I need you.”
“Lina.” Her sister’s voice is broken. “I can’t come home. Don’t you think I’ve tried?” And now her sister is crying down the phone. “I can’t find the way. I’ve driven past our old school and the post office and the bakery but there’s no road I can turn down that leads to home. And I can’t stop. I buy coffee and I have a bite to eat and I think this is a nice place to settle down and then I’m back in the truck again and the road is moving beneath me.” Her sobs are barely audible over the roar of the tyres. “Why do you think I call? I want to come home. But there’s no home for me anymore.”
Lina slides down the wall and lands with a thump on the floorboards. She can’t find anything comforting to say. “How long have you been gone?”
“I don’t know. Things have changed, though. Even Dalwallinu.”
Lina can’t imagine their tiny, sleepy town changing. “What am I going to do? They’ll cut off the electricity, the phone. And what happens if…if I can’t feed us? If I die, will the world end?”
“I don’t know.”
“I can send you some money, if you give me Dad’s account number. Wait, let me pull over.”
Lina wants to ask where her sister is, but she’s afraid if she loses focus she’ll forget, and hang up, and she’ll have to wait until her sister calls again. She reads out the numbers.
“I’ll do it first thing.”
“Thanks, um…” She scratches at her memory. “I’m sorry, I can’t remember your name.”
“It’s Angie. Lina, it’s Angie. Please don’t forget me.”
“I won’t. I won’t.”
There’s a long, long silence. Lina feels like she should be crying, but she’s not.
“Promise me you’ll always answer the phone,” says her sister.
Lina waits forty-eight hours to be certain, putting off the moment when she finds out if she has money or not.
“That’s fine,” says the woman on the other end of the phone. “What time would you like delivery?”
She arranges for a morning delivery and hangs up the phone. She washes up. Sweeps the floor. Dusts. Washes anything and everything and hangs it out to dry on the Hills Hoist under the burning sun.
When she comes inside, mist is sneaking out from behind the cabinet doors. She slides them open. There is the town, and the girl’s house, and there, sliding out between the big doors, beautiful thing, is a flying machine. It’s as blue as the sky, stubby body with bright woven wings flapping in the cold wind coming off the mountain. The people are gathered around and as Lina leans in the girl pushes off. Wings spread, colours catching the light, and the world changes.
There is hope.
There is hope.
There is hope.
The phone rings. Lina hurries down the stairs, tea tray jangling in her hands. Her grandmother’s answers are often not answers at all, but Lina is listening harder now, and is making plans.
“Hello?” It’s her sister. Lina has been waiting for this call for days, and the end of excitement is a heart in flight. “Listen, I — what’s your name? I forgot again.”
“Angie. Did the money come through okay?”
“Yes. Angie. Listen. You said you come through Dalwallinu. When?”
“I don’t know. I’m up on the Queensland coast. It could be a while. But Lina, I can’t find the road. I’ve tried.”
“It doesn’t matter. I’m coming to meet you.” As she says it, she remembers bright wings fluttering, lifted above the crowd by the wind. “At the post office. You can find that, right?”
“I can, but what about Gran?”
“I’ll come at night. I’ll be back before morning. We can have an hour at least. Together. And we can talk.” She wants to tell her sister her idea. But she’s afraid that if she says it out loud it will float away like natal seeds in the wind.
When Gran goes to bed Lina gets on her bike. It’s old, but she’s had two weeks to get it into shape for the ride.
Not so much herself. Muscles that she hasn’t used for years complain, burning and tight as she pedals the bike up the long, sloping road to the crest. Everything is yellow until you reach the top, that much she remembers, and then the colours change, grey-green and red and brown and white spread out below.
She pedals faster, up the hill with the red dust in a plume behind her, afraid the town won’t be there, that she’s lost in these canola fields and she’ll never come out again. But there are the lights spread out below her, more lights than she expected.
The bike glides down the gentle slope, past fields dotted with sheep. At some point she’s crossed a line; the air is cooler, and she knows it’s not summer anymore. She glories in the feel of it, the lonely curlew’s cry and the soft smell of rain.
The post office has changed, dotted with air conditioning units, with a dish on the roof pointing at the stars. Lina leans her bike against the bricks and curls up against the red bricks. Crickets creak, cicadas sing. She cannot be lonely in a night so full of voices.
Her sister’s arrival is heralded by the rumble of a truck engine, drowning out the night voices. Lina squints in the light. Angie. Angie is here.
Her heart lifts from her chest and flies to her sister. Angie. She can remember her name.
They’re sipping milkshakes, parked out front of the roadhouse that used to be at the edge of town, but is now nearer the middle. Lina feels out of time. No, she is out of time. A bulrush in a stream that’s flowed on past her. Angie has flowed too, and Lina can’t help reaching up now and then, to touch a brow carved by time, hands worn and hard with cares.
“I stopped crying about home a long time ago,” says Angie. “I keep moving, and that helps. I thought about asking you to come and meet me. But I couldn’t risk it. I don’t even know why I can call.”
Lina doesn’t either, but she’s glad Angie can. “Gran said there are more of…me, somewhere.” She outlines her plan, to advertise in the paper in the hopes that someone will see it and reach out to her. Hopes that Angie can help, can drop letters off, can search in towns and cities all across this wide land.
Angie laughs, and starts talking, and Lina learns new words — iPhone, Google, cable internet — and suddenly the world is spreading out like a landscape below her.
Angie gives her a list, written on the back of a registration receipt, with Angie’s name at the top. Lina clutches it to her chest. Her new life, written on the back of discarded paper.
The sun creaks up over the horizon. “Dawn already?” says Angie, frowning.
It’s not. Fingers of red fire stretch across the sky, reaching for the earth.
Lina fumbles for the door handle.
Angie starts the truck. “Wait, Lina. I’ll drive.”
The truck roars down the road toward home. People are coming out of their houses, leaning out windows, pointing up at the angry sky. They turn a corner, onto the long stretch of road that makes the gentle climb to home, and Lina chokes.
The canola fields are marching across the land, consuming everything; wheat, mallee, sheep, all fall beneath the yellow wave as it crashes across the world.
“Lina—” says Angie, as the truck jerks to the side. The road disappears. “I can’t —”
“Close your eyes,” says Lina, “I’ll guide you.”
The truck forges ahead. The canola wave hits the bonnet and everything is a sea of yellow, the crunch and stink of plants crushed beneath their wheels. The canola clears and there is the house. The truck lurches to a stop.
Angie is frozen, staring ahead, not seeing anything.
Like a visitor.
Lina tumbles out of the door and races to the house under a sky black and empty of stars.
She bursts through the door.
Gran is in the kitchen, the Gran she knew so long ago. Before she went upstairs. Before everything changed. “Tea cake’s nearly ready. Put the kettle on, will you?”
In a dream, Lina presses the button on the kettle. It’s solid and warm under her finger. A locust smacks against the window and sits for a moment, dazed. Washing flaps on the clothesline. There’s no truck in the yard. There’s no sun in the black sky.
“Gran —” She can’t catch her breath. Is everything gone? Her sister? The world? “Gran, you need to go upstairs.”
“Hand me the oven mitt, Lina. Would you like tea or milk? I can put sugar and vanilla in it.”
She knows there’s no vanilla in the cupboard. “I don’t — Gran, what about the world?”
Gran bends down and takes the cake out of the oven. “Isn’t this what you’ve wanted all along? Not to have to watch, all the time? Not to have to stay? I heard you, Lina. I always do. I don’t like seeing you sad.”
“But everything is gone.”
“Ah, well. I didn’t say the other way was better.”
Lina’s cheeks are wet. “Can’t I have both, Gran? Can’t I have the world and you?”
The tea cake steams on the benchtop, the top cracked, showing slices of apple browned by the oven. Gran dusts it with cinnamon and sugar and the smell is childhood and comfort. “No.”
The silence outside seeps through the walls. Lina doesn’t understand how it’s so bright outside when there’s no sky, no sun. “Is this a lesson?”
“I’m not your teacher. I’m your grandmother. If you want me to stay, I stay. I only care about what you want.”
Lina walks around the bench and wraps her arms around Gran, feels the bird bones beneath her, smells the soft powder smell. Thinks about forever in this kitchen, her grandmother and teacake and peace. The world no longer her responsibility.
She never wanted to go away. She just wanted to be free.
“Come on, Gran. I’ll make the tea. We can eat upstairs.”
Gran smiles, and makes her bent way up the stairs while Lina carries the tea tray, but she thinks there is approval in her eyes when she sits down in the cane chair.
Outside cicadas sing again, locusts crackle in the long grass and the Whistling Kite screams to the blue sky.
Lina goes out into the yard in the evening. There are tyre tracks in the dust at the end of the drive. She pulls out the piece of paper where her sister wrote the instructions.
It doesn’t matter that she can’t remember her sister’s name.
Inside, she leaves the door to the cabinet open so she can watch the mountain as she makes her calls. She needs internet, and a computer, and a lot of practice with new ideas and concepts.
Maybe she can never leave, but she doesn’t have to be isolated anymore. She’s going to find the others, wherever they are. In Australia. All over the world. Maybe further than that.
There are wings on her mountain. She watches them tumble and dip below the alien sky, and dreams.
Meryl Stenhouse lives in subtropical Queensland where she curates an extensive notebook collection and fights a running battle with the Lego models trying to take over the house. She’s currently revisiting Le Guin’s Earthsea and finding it just as magical as when she first read it. She has stories in Shimmer, Aurealis, and upcoming in the Mother of Invention anthology. She’s currently co-writing a book on writing science fiction with two other scientists. Find her on Twitter @merylstenhouse.
I had to lock Meemaw in her closet to keep her from coming down while I wrote this. The envelopes were in her room, and she kept asking me if I was writing a letter. She grabbed a hold of my wrist. “Jacob,” she said, “you ain’t got the handwriting for that, Jacob son of Isaac. You gon’ let me do that. Who we writing to?” I have no idea who Jacob is. Dad’s name was Joshua.
I didn’t bother telling her I was typing it out. Didn’t bother to correct the name either. Do you know how bad the alz’ has gotten? I keep trying to tell you, but I guess you just don’t get it. Anywho, I’m writing this and addressing it to your company. Maybe they’ll find a way to get it to you. Don’t know. Don’t know how those things might work. Don’t know if you’re even alive. Company says you are. Says you’re on a route to Minneapolis. So I guess I just assume you don’t answer your phone anymore.
Anywho, getting off track here, I’m writing for the same reason I keep calling: I need money (remember Malcovich? “Geeve dat man hiz mooooneeey”). Please paypal it to me. Just google how to do it. Your checks are all well and good, as little as they may be, but I can’t do much with them. Can’t do much with the green stuff either. Again, nice gesture, I’m not trying to say you aren’t sending money. I just need the digital kind.
I can’t leave the house.
Maybe you’ll believe it if it’s actually written down. You were here. You saw what happened when she came downstairs. Now I’m stuck here trying and failing to keep her on her rocker and off the ground. No. Maybe you don’t remember. Maybe people forget about it when they leave. Maybe you just like ignoring it.
So let me give ya a refreshah.
If she comes downstairs, if brings those feet of hers in contact with good old terra-firma, then bye bye. Hasta La Vista Baby. Fissures’ll split from here to the Androscoggin river valley. Darkness will blot out the sun. Rivers running with blood. All that happiness. And I can’t keep her locked up long. No matter what I do, those locks disintegrate.
Regardless, need the money to pay the bills. I can get to the mailbox to get your checks but I can’t goddamn well spend them or cash them anywhere. So yeah, send money please.
Wouldn’t mind a phone call either, asshole. Or at least a letter back. I have the same conversations with Meemaw every day. Mostly about when this Jacob guy apparently built the stairs to that old house. Most days I just go along with it. Some days I just can’t stand to hear the story again and shout at the poor old gal. If I had my way, the stairs would come right out and Meemaw’d be up in that attic until her bones crystalmogrified or something.
Anywho, you know where I live.
-Your brother Stan
Shouldn’t have expected a return letter/call. I know that. I should have known that anyway. Thanks for the money, though. That at least lets me know you got the letter. We’re afloat another day! Still have internet for another day too. I can’t really find the time to do much on it but flick over Twitter. No time for porn when you’re living with a geriatric, am I right? Slow as balls out in the sticks anyway. Why watch anything if it can’t be in HD, yeah?
Anywho, Auntie Diana sent me a package. FedEx guy dropped it off just two days ago. Wanted to tell you about it. This thing’s supposed to be Meemaw’s. Maybe I thought since you’re reading these letters you must at least believe what I’m saying or remember or be humoring me. It’s a sideboard. Got a mountain in it. I think it’s that old Sinai. The rust colored peaks and plateaus stretch into a yellowing horizon every time I open up the doors to look in the side board. It’s always sunrise every time I open it.
Auntie sent a card with it too. “Happy Early 22nd” she had written on the outside fold. Inside: “I remember when I hit that century. Enjoy! You’ll only be this young once! I know it’s super early, but I needed to get this to you. This sideboard belonged to Meemaw. Maybe it will bring you as much wisdom as it brought her.”
Early happy birthday to me I guess. Lot of good that wisdom did for Meemaw, though, right? She can’t even remember to use the bathroom. Maybe—if you knew anything about what alz’ does—you could already guess it. She wears diapers, Gabe. She shits her pants on the daily. Guess who does the changes? I’m not resentful, just saying. And no matter what I feed her, her shit always comes out like yellow puss and leaks all through the diaper. Then I have to clean her pants too. Too much for a letter, I know. I hear you. I just wanted you to know.
For now, I’m just going to keep gawking at the mountain here. The FedEx man helped me put the sideboard in the laundry room. I didn’t want Meemaw to see this old thing. I didn’t know what would happen.
Here’s something else: Meemaw came downstairs when I went to drop off that first letter in the mailbox. Do you remember any tremors in the Earth? Maybe a little blood in your drinking water? I bolted back to the farmhouse. The sun was low in the sky and the yellow siding looked burnt red. A family of raccoons ambled out from under the south porch and all at once their eyes exploded out of their heads and their bodies convulsed to some hidden apocalyptic gong. A murder of crows dropped stone cold dead out of the sky.
I nearly tripped over some Ten-Commandment lawn ornaments as I ran across the yard. They were Styrofoam political lawn signs meant to look like the two stone tablets. They were old, from when people were freaking out about courthouses taking them off their lawns.
“Come on in, Jakie!” Meemaw called as she heard me rip open the screen door. “Making your favorite! Roast brisket and some babka. Need some meat on them bones!”
I found her in the kitchen pouring flour into a blender. Something had caught in the oven too. Actually caught. I could see a flame there. It smelled like burning human hair. I tell you though, bro, I thought about letting her stay down there. What did I have? What do I have? I’ve got a brother that won’t write me back or call; a granny that insists on coming down and accidentally destroying the world; oh and Mount Sinai in a sideboard.
I sure as shit wasn’t going to eat whatever monstrosity that Meemaw created, but it felt nice, you know? To have someone doing something for me for a change. Saw something the other day, some motivational meme or something. It said, “We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions.” I hate memes. As a rule, I hate them. But as I stood in the doorway to the kitchen and watched Meemaw destroy both the countertop and the world, I thought about that phrase in all its platitudinal goriness. Here was a lady that couldn’t remember who I really was, didn’t know up from down or shit from shinola. Here she was trying to make me something. Every day that she tries to get downstairs she’s trying to do something for me.
I guess you wouldn’t get it. You send money and do the old Pontius Pilot dance (ain’t that the hip new swing all the kids are doing, ha!). And here I am judging you by your actions and not by your intentions. So let me do that for a second.
You are not intending to help me. You are intending to get me off your back. That much is so painfully clear. You don’t respond. You just do the dance, wash your hands, and keep on shuckin’. Keep on truckin’ if you’ll excuse the pun. Get it? Cause you’re a truck driver? Whatever. All this is one big fucking digression.
Obviously, the world didn’t end. I scooted granny upstairs again. Soon as I did, the rumbling stopped. The earth quit its dance too.
“This ain’t right, Jakie,” she told me as I all but lifted her up Jacob’s stairs. The bastards were steep too. Jakie built them more like a ladder than actual useful stairs. Then Meemaw must have had a moment of clarity. She screamed and slapped at my back, at my face. “It ain’t right you keeping me locked up here like you’s ashamed of me,” she said over and over again. I got her upstairs and into her room.
With a bit more necessary prodding, she laid down on her bed. She went to sleep a few minutes later, tired from the episode, unable to keep screaming. I tucked the flowery yellow comforter around her, and I left and shut the attic door behind me. I sat down on the bottom step of Jacob’s stairs and let it all wash over me. It was a deep feeling of shame, like being caught in the middle of a naughty act. I don’t know why, but it tied my stomach up in one big fucking knot. Like a fist, that knot sat there and squeezed at my insides.
I didn’t have time for the kind of reflection I’m doing now, the kind that helps untie those knots you know? I had to clean those dead raccoons up while Meemaw was asleep. While I did that, I half-hoped she woke up again. If she did, I decided that I would let her stay down there. I just couldn’t push her back upstairs again like that. With her screaming at me and wailing on me with her boney arms. I couldn’t do that again. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t take my sweet time cleaning up the bloody mess of raccoons. I couldn’t think. I just wanted it over at that moment.
Anywho, figured I’d tell you all that crap and then ask you for more money. I’m not blaming you at all. It was me who went and had to go send this letter via good ol’ snail mail.
So yeah, if you could send it along via paypal again, “that’d be great” (remember Office Space?). Not a threat, but if it were I guess it would be a good one.
As for Sinai in the sideboard? Seems I can’t fit through the door, so I’m stuck just looking at it. Sometimes it’s more interesting than Twitter, and it’s definitely more interesting than most of what Meemaw has to say. I can only look at it when she’s asleep though. I barely get any time to myself.
Okay, okay. I’m done complaining and ‘poor old me’ing. Send the money. Give me a call.
(That was hard to write you asshole, and I had to erase it a thousand times. Just so you know!)
-Your brother Stan
Thanks for the money. All I do now is watch the mountain and keep Meemaw upstairs. I buy a new lock online every three or four days or so. Sometimes the locks break quickly, sometimes they don’t. Depends on how bad she wants to get downstairs. They do all disintegrate eventually. Can’t keep a grammy down apparently. Or up, I guess. Buying them every few days keeps me in steady supply of them. I can’t really afford to buy them all at once, given your rate of sending me money. You’re the only one who does. I write to others, you know? Not long diatribes like these, but I do write. And call. You seem to be the only one answering them. In money at least.
Also, happy birthday to me, and late Merry Xmas to you. I remember Dad always made sure to give me a birthday and a Christmas even though they were only a day apart. One of those great sorts of things where intentions and actions are one in the same, don’t you think? And the man never even thought about his own birthday. Never asked for a damn thing.
How’s the mountain? It’s all I really do any more, look out across that mountain. That’s probably why you brought it up, right? You can see how much it means to me. I figured out if I leave the doors open, then time passes. I’ve been able to watch the sunset over the rocky cliffs quite a few times. About a week ago I started seeing the small forms of people meandering just below the summit. Believe that? Well there’s this too: just lately the people seem to be gathering. A whole mess of them down there, looking like a heap of black spots on the golden sand.
Sometimes I can hear them chanting. Other times I hear them weeping. Strangest thing. I keep wondering… is that what made granny wise or is it what made her lose her mind?
She didn’t come downstairs when I delivered the last letter to the mailbox by the way. Not for lacking of trying, though. I don’t really want to get into the particulars of it. She’s been getting more violent lately. I think it was the last taste of the downstairs she got. That feeling of normalcy or something. I’m trying not to get too navel gazing with it. Suffice to say I trim her nails when she sleeps now.
Anyway, just thought I’d keep you updated. That’s all I got for now. Wish I had more. But if wishes were fishes we’d all be vegan. Or something about nets. I don’t know.
-Your brother Stan
Broke as shit. Send money.
Last letter. When I put this one in the mailbox I’m letting her come downstairs. Don’t worry. I’ll give it some time to get to you. Maybe a week or two. Given how long it takes for you to send money after letters, that seems like a safe bet. I hope it reaches you earlier than that. Give you some time to put your affairs in order. Maybe you can get in contact with our other brother, you know the one. He’s the one who needs to get his shit together.
I told Meemaw about the sideboard.
“Do you remember your old sideboard, Meemaw,” I asked her. “The one with the mountain in it? Pretty weird.”
“That’s that old Sinai,” she said, and her eyes lost their usual cloudiness. She rubbed the thumb of her left hand against the palm of her right. “Bit worn down. Smoothed it all out after a while.” She yanked away her thumb like her palm grew suddenly searing hot. She stuck her thumb in her mouth, and when she took it out I saw a cut across the pad. It oozed blood from between her deep wrinkles. “But damn how they’re still sharp enough.”
“What did you do with that?” I asked her. And I felt like laughing then. “What could you do with a whole mountain?”
She looked at me, but she also looked through me. “Didn’t put it in there to keep. Put it in there to keep it safe.”
“Safe from what?”
Her eyes darkened. I didn’t know eyes could do that. But like a switch I saw the light of recognition go out of them. “Don’t… Can’t… I think I’ve seen you before. Do you know my Jacob?”
“We’re talking about your sideboard, Meemaw. Why do you need to keep the mountain safe?”
The light half returned. “My sideboard? You got that old thing?”
“Auntie gave it to me for my birthday.”
“My sideboard… I’d sure like to see that old thing. Can you take me to it?”
“I… I can’t, Meemaw.”
Every day I used to try and tell her that the world would end if she came downstairs. I stopped because she never really got it. Of course, I never explained it properly, I’m sure.
“Well, Meemaw, if you go downstairs then all the people die. They die like…” I searched for something, “they die and go away like Jacob went away.”
Meemaw smiled then. Smiled like I had just said something ridiculous. Like I said the sky was pink. “Jacob ain’t dead, honey-dear,” she said. “Jacob safe in my sideboard. Don’t know where I put that damn thing, but he’s there all right. I’ll show you if I find it sometime. He’s safe. Him and his kin for a long while yet. Now did I hear you say it’s your birthday?”
How she only remembered that I’m not sure. Her brain is a soup and sometimes only the most useless things float to the top. “Yes,” I told her.
“How old you turning?”
“This will be my 22nd.”
“You going to let me bake you a cake? I may not be much to look at, but I’m at my best when I’m making stuff. Cakes especially. You know what’s so great about making cakes? You get to make every bit of it. Each layer like a little bit of you. And of course, you cover the whole thing with a whole gob of icing. And then you get to eat it! Can’t do that with craggy old mountains.”
You can stop sending money, Gabriel. We won’t need money for any longer. I was under some delusion that my task would end, but it won’t. Not ever. And for God’s sake I just want someone to do something for me for once.
I’ve opened the sideboard up. And when she comes downstairs I’m going to show it to her. Maybe she can show something to me. Maybe she’ll not be bothered and want to make me a cake instead.
I’ve decided. I’m going to eat whatever she makes. And when the earth opens up to swallow us I’m going to be smiling.
I’m writing this letter in the hopes that you’ll find something to smile about too.
Your beloved brother, Stan
Happy New Year!
Caleb Warner works as the Assistant Coordinator of Indiana University East’s Writing Center, and he spends what little free time he has writing works of fiction. His work has previously appeared in Metaphorosis, The Literary Hatchet, Fickle Muses, and Chantwood Magazine.