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Through These Eyes
Tales of magic realism and fantasy
Donna Maree Hanson
Through These Eyes , first published by Donna Maree Hanson 2018
Copyright © Donna Maree Hanson 2018
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
All rights reserved. This publication (or any part of it) may not be reproduced or transmitted, copied, stored, distributed or otherwise made available by any person or entity (including Google, Amazon or similar organizations) in any form (electronic, digital, optical, mechanical, audio) or by any means (photocopying, recording, scanning or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the author.
National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication Entry
ISBN 978-0-6482795-7-0 (Print on Demand)
Cover design by Patty Jansen https://pattyjansen.com/store/
Proofread by Jason Nahrung
Table of Contents
Through These Eyes I See
She’ll Be Right
A Vagabond Rhyme
The Doctor’s Pill
Verum Vivendi Sensus
Absence of Mind
In My Father’s Footsteps
About Donna Maree Hanson
Also by Donna Maree Hanson
This collection comprises some of my earliest published work and some more recent work, some of which has not been previously published. I have collected these stories here because they have common themes and feature elements of magic realism.
When I published my collection of science fiction short stories, Beneath the Floating City, I had planned this collection as well. With Beneath the Floating City being short-listed for an Aurealis Award for collected work, I feel excited to publish this collection.
Often my short stories appear to be about what is real and what is not real and how these can be hard to distinguish. For example, in ‘Verum Vivendi Sensus’, Beth sees people without faces. The question is, however, do people really have no faces or is there something wrong with her? What is the truth?
In some of my earlier stories I had a thing for ‘bastard’ products—items that are not what they seem. You will see this in ‘WWPRO’, ‘Veg Out’, and ‘The Doctor’s Pill’. I believe I was influenced by the great storyteller Roald Dahl when it came to the theme ‘be careful what you wish for’ in ‘WWPRO’.
The stories ‘Compost Juice’ and ‘In My Father’s Footsteps’ have not been previously published. Both of these stories have been hard to place and include elements of real life.
I managed to find a copy of my first published short story, ‘Absence of Mind’, and also ‘Verum Vivendi Sensus’, both of which had been electronically published back in 2001-02 and were no longer online or in my hard drive. I couldn’t find ‘Absence of Mind’ anywhere, but finally had a clue as to where a copy might be. Thank god I did some backups all those years ago.
I owe a debt of thanks to Geoff Maloney for encouragement in those early days. He assisted in getting ‘Absence of Mind’ published with Redsine magazine through editor and author Trent Jamieson. I was very new to publishing at the time and I don’t think I would have continued without that encouragement as I was writing novels, and short stories were where I was trying my hand at learning my craft.
In reading this collection, you might notice how my writing has progressed over the years. At least, I hope it has. I would like to thank the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild for all their support from the beginning. From general meetings to short-story critiquing sessions, to publishing anthologies, the members work hard to share their love for speculative fiction and writing.
At the end of each story, I have put a personal note about where the story came from and other anecdotes.
Special thanks also goes to Ian McHugh, Kylie Seluka, Nicole Murphy, Cat Sparks, Russell B. Farr, Liz Grzyb and Keith Stevenson.
Donna Maree Hanson
Through These Eyes I See
Within these silvered walls, I see nothing but me in my skin. A multitude of sad eyes, crooked mouths, grimacing into infinity, with long clumps of tangled hair that writhe. Gazing at my reflection, I dream of being free—walking down the street and seeing the sky and hearing the laughter of the people around me. Then I remember what I would see through these eyes. It would overwhelm me, kill me perhaps.
The door swings open, a slight groan of the hinge. My breathing grows short and my heart beat thumps, squeezing the blood around inside me so fast I think that I will burst an artery. Now there is a gap in the mirrored walls where the doorway is.
‘Mandy?’ My mother talks quietly as she steps through the door. ‘There is someone to see you. Someone who needs you.’
I see her reflected image, her wrinkled skin. By the cut of her mouth, I know she is determined. I whimper. I know they need me but it is so horrible seeing people without their skin. Sometimes they are rotting on the inside, great swathes of blackness eating through tissues and bones. I feel sick when I touch it with my gaze.
‘It won’t take a moment, baby. She is the same age as you but she is sick and only you can help her. Won’t you help her? Won’t you come out here and look?’
‘Does she go to school?’ I ask.
‘Why, yes, she is in high school and very smart too. Before she got sick she won lots of academic prizes. They say she is a genius.’
‘That means she is really smart, doesn’t it?’
The reflected image of my mother smiles and nods. ‘Yes, and you know smart people help the rest of the world, make it a better place. If you don’t see her there might be some great discovery that never gets made, some new formula that never gets calculated...there are so many possibilities.’
‘Can I see her in here?’
My mother frowns. ‘In here?’
‘Yes, that way I can look away when it gets too much and I can talk to her with her skin on, too.’
Her brow furrows over glittering eyes. ‘Very well. But I don’t like people seeing you in here. People will talk, think it’s strange.’
In the mirror, I watch her turn and go, seeing her close the door with a snap. I watch my smile in the mirror. I’ve won a small victory. As it is not my healing day, she couldn’t force me to heal or the government regulator would remove me from her care.
Soon after, the door opens again and a girl comes in. I like the look of her skin. She is slightly brown, a tan, I think it is called. She has bright green eyes and a wide, smiling mouth. Her dark hair is long and curled, bouncing around her shoulders. From looking at her skin you would not think she was sick at all.
‘Hi,’ she says, her eyes scanning the room full of mirrors. ‘My name’s Penny Woods. Wow, this is weird. Where do you sleep? Where do you pee?’
I point to the part of the wall where my bed is hidden and the cubicle where I wash and toilet. They are lined with mirrors too. There is also a television, which comes down from the ceiling, but I don’t show her that. Most of the time, I control when I watch it, but when I am not cooperative my parents take the remote away.
She walks over, presses the stud in the wall that opens to my bedroom and bathroom, nodding while she turns her head left and right. Then she walks back. ‘So you live in here all the time?’
‘Yes.’ I study her reflection as I answer her. I like the look of her skin. Trembling, I think about looking at her, looking through her skin. I wonder what rot infects her, what cancer is eating her, what defective organ she possesses.
‘Do you have to touch me, hold my hand to heal?’
My hand shakes. I feel sick with trepidation. I hate talking about it, because the years of memories associated with seeing with these eyes come rushing out at me. It started with Aunty Lucy. I don’t remember what triggered the change in me—some kind of blow to the head, some kind of trauma. I was three years old. I still remember the awful visage of her: skeleton grin, the fine sinews of her jaw creamy against the white of her jaw bone, bulging eyes and red, raw innards.
Great Aunt Lucy leaned in close to pinch my cheek, with her leering toothy jaw, and the soft flesh of her pink tongue sliding right back down her throat. I reached out and touched my forefinger to a lump that didn’t belong right in the middle of her forehead. I could see through the bone into the gray mass of jelly inside. Later I learned I had touched the very spot of great Aunt Lucy’s cancer and it had disappeared. People called it a miracle. Miracle. That word was often heard in my childhood, whispered and murmured around me, infiltrating my dreams.
‘No,’ I say to her reflection, after pushing the memories aside. ‘I have to look at you, look at you without your skin.’
‘Eww. That sounds disgusting. Go on then. Look. Tell me what you see.’ She stands still and tall, her gaze on me, watching, calculating.
I suck in a breath and try to calm myself, try to steel myself to look away from the mirror and see her, see into her. I said I would look so I must do it.
I turn away from my reflection and raise my gaze. I start at the head, seeing into her, two perfectly formed hemispheres of grey matter, intricately folded, blood squirting through vessels, nerves singing with impulses. Nothing appears wrong there. Her bulging eyes orbit in her eye sockets, held there by sinew and muscle. The skull is perfectly formed. She has braces on her teeth, something I didn’t see before. The breast tissue is growing still, and her lungs are clean and pure; so, too, are the chambers of her heart. Her lunch is digesting, tossing around in acid. She ate in a hurry. I see chunks of food not properly chewed. Lower I go and see nothing in the intestines, the uterus or vagina or bladder. My gaze travels down her legs, looking for tumors in the bone and the muscles. Everything is perfect. I lift my gaze again and do her arms. ‘Turn around,’ I ask her, wondering if I have missed something.
I take a long, slow look down her spine, look at her kidneys. There is nothing wrong with her. I frown and turn back to the mirror. My panting fills the room. She is looking at me with those big eyes of hers. ‘Well,’ she asks. ‘What did you see?’
‘Why are you here?’
She nods at me once, then paces the length of the room, her eyes assessing, her lips whispering, counting her steps. I did not think to check her mental state. All seemed so perfect inside her. She walks up behind me, hands on hips, her gaze meeting mine in the reflection.
‘I came to see you. They talk about you—the urban legend—the great healer of our time. What did you see?’
I shake my head. ‘Nothing. There’s nothing wrong with you.’
She nods with a small smile, a look of satisfaction settling on her face, brightening her green eyes. ‘Yes, there is nothing wrong with me.’
I feel anger. She made me look for nothing, for a game. If my guess is right, she paid my parents a lot of money to do that. ‘I don’t understand. Why did you make me look when you knew that already? Don’t you understand how much I hate to look?’
I feel the tears, anger and hurt combined. I really don’t get what is going on with this girl.
‘I had to know if you were a fake.’
She leans in close, her breath fanning my neck. ‘Your parents have become very rich because of you. It could be a scam. Does it mean anything to you that they treat you like a freak, keep you prisoner?’
Her words cut through me. I see her with her perfect sight, her perfect body, her perfect health, and for the first time in my life I want someone else’s life. Not mine...When I was a child my parents held me down as the people came near for me to heal them. I tried to run, to squirm, but they made me look and made me touch. Haunting images: muscles clinging to bones, ligaments pushing and pulling limbs, organs pumping and gurgling, cancers eating, diseases rotting.
My gaze focuses on her. ‘Why? What is it to you?’
She walks across the floor, skirt swinging, legs smooth and long. She pauses and catches my eye in the mirror. ‘I can’t say. I’m going now. Don’t tell your mother till I’m gone. I don’t want—’ she pauses ‘—questions.’
Again I see my eyebrows creasing into a frown. I do not like how it makes me look; it transforms me into someone sad, someone unsure. I hate being sad. I look up. She is gone through the door, now swinging to a close. I’m alone again, looking at me in my skin.
Penny Woods has disturbed my equilibrium. In here I feel safe. I have never hated my parents for what they have done. It makes sense to me that I need them. They feed me, clothe me and let me have the mirrors. My parents took the money the people offered for my healing and they built me a bigger room—one with mirrors all around where I could feel safe in my skin. Without the mirrors, I would go mad. I have been in a room like this for as long as I remember. Memories of outside are so far back into babyhood, I don’t recall the caress of the wind, or the feel of the sun, or even the sound of a bird.
My mother doesn’t come again. My father brings me dinner on a tray, slides it along the floor without coming in. He never looks at me, or talks, unless it is necessary to tell me something. I crawl over to my food on my twisted legs, eat it mechanically, keeping my gaze on my mirrored self. I watch my expression as I chew and swallow, as I taste the sweet and the sour. I exaggerate the movements, making them larger and grander than they really are. I laugh at myself, at my vanity and my poor acting skills.
Another healing day comes. There are ten to do this time. I hate being outside of my room. I hate seeing with these eyes. I want to fight against my mother as she wheels me out to the healing room, but then I see a young child, spine twisted by a birth defect. I reach out and run my hand along the spine and feel it unbend and heal. The child whimpers and the mother cries out and then I am done and the child is whole. The mother’s joy flows over me and I fight no more against the tide of those wanting to be healed and reach out to the next person. My mother never asks about Penny and, by the time I am through for the day, I can barely speak. Sedatives settle me down and I fall into a deep sleep. I hear noises in the night and feel my bed rocking. I hear a door slamming and voices but I can’t wake; something is keeping me under the surface of consciousness. I drift away from the noises, feel my bed settle once again, thinking it all a dream.
I wake up. There is a different smell in the air. I wonder what it is. Had my mother burned the toast and not used the exhaust fan? I crawl out of bed and drag myself to the bathroom. Something is different and I wonder what it is. I think it is the light. It has a blue tinge, not a yellow one. I normally have warm yellow lights, not hard blue ones. I will have to mention it to my mother. Father must have put blue ones in by mistake. It is only a subtle difference. My eyes, though, are sensitive.
I crawl out into the mirrored room. The strange smell is here too, stronger. I inhale, trying to place it. ‘Mother?’ I call out. Normally, she can hear me through the monitor on the wall. I wait there, feeling slightly queasy and hungry. I do not like feeling this way. I dare not look at myself. I know there is nothing wrong with me. It is the sedatives and sleeping too long. I need my breakfast. I squint at the light around me. Here is it bluish, too, and its sharp edges hurt my eyes. A headache leaps up behind my eyes and I lean over, rubbing my forehead. The door swings open silently.
‘Mother?’ The tray slides in, gliding on the floor farther than normal. My mother doesn’t answer. ‘Father?’
The door shuts. No one speaks. Father doesn’t normally talk so maybe my mother is out today. I look at my reflection. I talk to myself. ‘You can talk to her later. She will fix the light, explain the smell.’
On my rear, I shuffle along the floor to the tray and inspect the food. There is a tub of strawberry yogurt. I pick it up and look at it. I’m allergic to strawberries. How could my parents forget? There is a boiled egg. I tap it open and yolk runs out. I nearly vomit. I eat hard-boiled eggs. There is Vegemite spread on my toast. I hate Vegemite. There is no peanut butter on the tray. I check the cup and it is full of dark liquid. I sniff, realizing it is instant coffee. ‘This is not my breakfast. Mother! Mother!’
No one comes into the room. I am really hungry, but I can’t bring myself to eat what is on the tray. Did I do something wrong? Are they punishing me? Have they gone on holidays and left a sitter who is an idiot?
I stare at the door. I will have to go out there and ask for food. I crawl over and then use the cool surface of the mirrors to help me stand. I curl my fingers around the rim of the door and pull. It doesn’t budge. I’m not normally locked in. I choose to stay in this room. Why won’t the door open? I slap it and call out more. Still no one comes.
Later, I push the tray by the door so it can be collected easily. I move from my usual position so I can see through the door when it opens. I want to know who is not looking after me properly. I press the stud in the wall for the television to descend. It doesn’t come down. I try again and again, but no television. I am definitely being punished, but I don’t know why.
The door opens but it is dark on the other side. I see the skeletal hands grasp the tray but nothing else. ‘Wait please. Who are you? Where’s my mother?’
There is no response. The door snicks shut. I feel helpless...angry. Turning to my reflection, I see the tension around my eyes and the grim turn of my mouth. No tears now. I wait for something to happen. I wait a long time until I wake from a doze. There is another tray there. I crawl over to it and inspect the contents. A dry meat pie, a glass of milk and an unripe banana. More food I can’t eat.
I have been watching myself in the mirror for hours in the hard blue light. The door opens and someone steps through. My blood sugar is low now and I’m tired and sleepy. I turn to look at the person, seeing their ripe red muscle tissue pulling limbs. My gaze slides to the silvered mirror. It’s her.
Goosebumps break out on my skin. Seeing her there makes me feel very uneasy. My mother didn’t announce her and I already know there is nothing wrong with her and so did she. ‘Hi,’ she says as her green gaze sweeps the room. ‘Feeling okay?’ she asks.
‘I...you...what are you doing here?’
Penny flashes a smile. ‘Just checking up on you.’ She walks around the room, examining things like she did before. I feel very uneasy, like there are things inside me rolling around. I watch her, and come to a conclusion that seems ridiculous and true at the same time.
‘Where am I?’
Penny turns back to me and walks up to the mirror where I huddle on my twisted limbs. I watch her with widening eyes as she approaches fast until her face is next to mine, right next to mine, breathing as I breathe.
‘No point in hiding it. Though I do wonder how you knew. You are here in Mr. Sexton’s house.’
‘Who is he?’
Penny steps back, giving me space. She laughs and then her eyebrows arch. ‘You don’t know who he is? Why, he’s a fucking legend: media tycoon, billionaire, computers...you name it, he has a hand in it.’
‘Really...so what does he want with me...or you?’
Again Penny snickers, throwing her head back and running her hands through her hair, shaking it out like a beautiful wave. She is comfortable in her skin: I can tell. ‘I work for him. He pays for my school, for anything I want. All I had to do was check you out, give him the specs for this...he wants to see you.’
‘Me? Is he sick?’
Penny shrugs. ‘Not that he says. I don’t ask questions. I do what I’m told, get the money and then I’m gone. Before I head off you better tell me what you eat. He doesn’t want you sickening.’
I give her a list of my foods. She doesn’t write them down, only nods and smiles and then stands up. At the door, she glances a flash of green sparkling eyes over her shoulder before she closes it behind her. I shake a little after I am alone. I am scared now. This is not my home. My parents are not outside the door. I have no idea what this man wants with me. All I can do is look and heal. The door opens again and another tray slides in. After the door shuts, I crawl over and check it. I see that it is all okay and I stuff the food in my mouth. I chew and swallow, keeping my gaze on my reflection. The only thing that seems real and normal is seeing me in my skin.
It grows late. I don’t bother to go to the bed. It’s not my bed. I wash and use the toilet and lie down on the floor, my gaze on the mirror. I am asleep there when I hear a voice call to me.
Penny is there. ‘Hi, Mandy. I’ve brought Mr. Sexton. You know, the good friend I was telling you about. Won’t you meet him?’
I push myself up on my arms, try to shake the sleepiness from me and talk to her image. ‘Okay.’
She reaches through the door and brings a man through by the hand.
‘Mandy?’ The voice is deep and gravelly, like it has spoken more than its fair share of words.
I start, blink a few times to see him standing there behind me. He’s an older man, I think. Sort of like my father, but his hair is black and neatly combed. He wears a dark suit, and a thin moustache underlines a rather large hooked nose. The mouth is pursed, like he has been eating a lemon. I don’t like the look of him. I’m not sure why but I don’t like his skin. I look away but his reflection is in every mirror, multiplied to infinity. I have never seen that happen before. This room is not quite right, not quite like my home. I pant, and my palms sweat, and there does not seem to be any way I can escape his image. My eyes center in front of me, on the image immediately behind, on his face. His dark brows draw together when I don’t speak.
‘I want you to look at me.’ His voice is a sharp cut.
He waves Penny away. She goes to the door, smiles at me once before leaving.
He tries to make his voice soft and coaxing, but it’s no good. His voice sounds dead flat. His eyes are a no man’s land: lifeless, endless holes. I close my eyes, shake my head. I don’t even want to see him in his skin.
‘Look. At. Me!’
My eyes snap open. I see him standing there, shoulders clenched, fists balled. I suck in a breath, my heart racing. What will he do if I don’t look at him? Will he beat me? I have never been struck before, not since I was three years old. I’ve seen violence on television and I’ve seen people who have been beaten, cured them with my touch. I could heal the flesh but not the mental scars.
‘Mandy. If you want to see your parents again you will look at me now. You will cure me.’
There is a weight to his words, like his throat has never laughed and joy is alien to it. I lift my eyes to study his reflection—the pallid cheeks, the slackness of the skin below the jaw, the dark menace of his eyes. His skin frightens me and I steel myself to look into him. Biting my lip, I turn. My vision lances through him and, at first, I am confused as revulsion fills me. I am vomiting up my meal before I even process what it is I see. It is corruption, rot, and death. The man before me, this legend of modern times, should be dead, yet he walks and talks.
I blubber and shake my head, pressing myself against the cool surface of the mirror to get away from the sight of him. My vision once again darts into him. I see how he is held together, bound by some unnatural force, a kind of sick energy that pulses within. Even his bones are yellow and brittle, as if they have been dug from a grave.
He stands there while I cry and writhe, fighting the awful image of him.
‘You can fix it, can’t you, Mandy?’ His voice is as coaxing as chocolate on a turd.
I shake my head and cover the cry that escapes from my mouth with a trembling hand. ‘No, I can’t.’
‘You will fix it. I will be whole again.’ He turns and leaves me alone.
I collapse to the floor. My thoughts jitter and jump. I don’t even know what he is. I don’t know if I can cure him. I know I don’t want to. ‘I won’t do it,’ I say, and the words echo around me. I say it louder. No one comes to punish me.