How We Stay Alive

I knocked gently on the huge wooden door. It didn’t matter how softly I did it, the air still shook with loud booms every time my knuckles tapped against the timber, as if I had pounded upon it with giant fists, but I was used to it now.

No answer.

I tried again, and again three deep, loud sounds echoed from within, but still there were no coming footsteps, and the door didn’t open.

“Dee?” I called, “Are you home?” I tried the handle and found it opened easily. Out, but expecting me. That would do.

I pushed the door open with my shoulder as I backed into his home. As expected, it was bleak and dirty, heavy curtains closed, candles burning low in their holds. The stone walls were filthy and damp, and the only thing saving the floor from being worse was that it was still dry somehow. The table was covered in debris: scrolls and books, mostly, but there was also a variety of bowls, glasses and flasks half full of unknown mixtures; liquids and solids. Thankfully, I knew the bedroom would be mostly untouched from my last visit, the perks of having a friend who doesn’t tend to use it very much. The smell was immense, but not as overpowering as usual, which was a relief. I could see that he was trying, at least, unless this visit was sooner than usual. Time is a confusing concept when it comes to our friendship. It was the main reason I was there and he wasn’t. The other reason was that he was almost always away with his work, but we always did our best to catch each other when we could.

I laid down my bucket of cleaning gear beside the table, plucked the bottle of flowers from its place on top, and cleared a spot in the centre of the table where I could place it. Then, to the curtains, which I threw open to let the morning sunlight in. Illuminating the room immediately made the state of things clear, but it also made it seem a lot more manageable. Opening the windows helped dispel the stink somewhat, and would keep the smell of chemicals down once I started scrubbing.

I started by clearing the tables, moving all the books and scrolls back to their place in the bookcases in the study, giving the shelves and desk a quick dust as I went. Once that was done, I made my way through the house, plucking the dying candle stumps from their places one by one, dropping them into my bucket; later, I would melt them down to make new ones, infused with the smell of parchment and sandalwood, so that they would cover the inevitable smell of damp that came with living in a cottage that was a running water connection away from being a cave. It’s the little things that make all the difference, I think.

Then came the rubber gloves, the mask and the scrubbing. Usually, I tend to find cleaning vaguely therapeutic, but when it takes as long as it does to do this job, I need a little something to keep me going, so I put a podcast on my phone and got into it. We both love The Blindboy Podcast. He was the one who found it, but we got hooked together. Something about the massive swings of light and shade between Blindboy’s opening banter and some of the bleakest of his short stories really tickled us. We compare notes every week via email – it’s the only means of communication that doesn’t get messed up in the time continuum conundrum.

*****

The first time we met was as client and service provider, so to speak. I’d been seriously ill for weeks with a really bad case of pneumonia, brought about in part by an ill-advised drunken dance in the rain in the middle of a Canadian November. When they realised it was starting to look like I was on my final countdown, they medevac’d me back home to Sydney so my ninety-six year old great grandmother could see me one last time. I was barely conscious most of the time, something I was later incredibly grateful for, yet for some reason I was totally lucid when Dee came into the room. He says otherwise, but I don’t think I’d remember it as clearly as I do if I wasn’t.

I watched him as he pulled out his pen and clipboard – he’s super old school like that – flipping through the pages with a concerned look on his face, which given his features was quite the feat. When people who’ve met him are asked to describe him, they always come up blank, because he’s always shifting it around, a blur of eye colours and hair and genders and cheekbones, but always strangely comforting in that inconsistency. He told me once it’s because he’s always trying to find the most appropriate appearance to calm his client, but he’s seen so many faces across the years and had so many different reactions to his arrival that he can never be sure which one is right. So he phases through all of them, because he figures that way the client will see who they want to see, or more importantly, who they need to see. It could be a friend, or a family member, a doctor, or a long lost love. The last time we talked about it, he told me a story about how one woman was convinced he was Keanu Reeves. He said he did his best to roll with it, but felt like he hadn’t seen enough of his movies to do the star justice.

As he flipped through to the last page, he sighed the most gentle sigh I’ve ever heard. (Again, his voice is never the same twice, though I know it well these days.) It was a happy sigh, one of relief. He sat down on the chair next to the bed, and took my hand, squeezing it slightly.

“Casey,” he said. “I don’t get to say this very often, but today, you get a choice.” He picked up the chart and showed it to me. The first few pages contained my full name, my date of birth, a selection of pictures from the last year and information about the hospital, my family and friends, and various other assorted facts and figures about my life.

On the last page was the current date, a cause of death, and a subheading above two check boxes.

The top line said “optional”, and the boxes were marked “accepted” and “postponed”.

He stayed with me as we talked about what it meant. He said that he lived in an eternal present, so he couldn’t tell me how long I would keep going if I chose to stick around, just that he would be seeing me again in what was the same instant for him, but a different time for me. He told me that he couldn’t say if there was something beyond life, again because he had never lived beyond the realm of now. Most importantly, he told me that the choice meant one thing: not between life or death, but between two Great Possibilities, and he couldn’t tell me which was greater. Each would be painful in their own way, but each also promised relief. I had to choose which one I wanted to take.

Obviously, I postponed. And he left.

He was right. The pain of recovery was excruciating, not just physically but emotionally, watching my parents and brothers fretting every day, all the while wondering if I was ever going to get strong enough to be a functioning member of society again. He was also right about the relief, as every day I found it easier to breathe, and every day my family and friends breathed easier too.

*****

Three years later, the accident happened. Head on collision at an intersection near my flat, all noise and metal and blood. I’d been walking home from work, and was lucky that I hadn’t left five minutes earlier, or I could have been in the middle of the carnage too. Two drivers dead, one drunk, one kid in the back of the car screaming, one mother in the passenger seat trying to calm her as they waited to be wrenched from the twisted wrecks, their fronts crumpled and mashed together to the point where they were nearly indistinguishable from each other.

I Tapped Him On The Shoulder

He hadn’t expected to see me, and I hadn’t expected to see him. But there he was, two places at once, filling out his paperwork. I noticed that he wasn’t showing it to them like he had to me. I guess they didn’t get to make the choice I did.

Once one of him was done and gone, and the other seemed almost finished, I raced over to the one left and tapped him on the shoulder. He turned, startled, eyes wide. “You!” he cried. “You… no, no, no, no, this isn’t right. You don’t get to do that! Nobody gets to do that!”

“And yet,” I said, gesturing to each of us in turn, “here we are. Doing that.”

He let out a little squeak of panic, not knowing which way to look. “Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit…”

And then he was gone. Not in a puff of smoke, though. Just gone, not even leaving the sense that something had been there before.

And the world moved on.

*****

The water in the bucket is black with grime now, so I get up and empty it into the sink before refilling it, silently thanking past me for convincing him to hook up some decent plumbing. It was really no surprise that he hadn’t got it done before. Have you ever tried to get a tradesperson to come to a house that exists outside the conventional understanding of time and space? It’s an absolute nightmare. Thankfully, I managed to get my hands on some decent books on the subject from the local library, and it turns out that when timelines aren’t a factor in your existence, it’s very easy to get those little DIY jobs done around the house. Given that he doesn’t use it, he did an incredible job on the toilet too.

The walls were leaning a little more towards grey than greenish-black by this point, and were completely dry. I double checked the bedroom almost needlessly – everything was in its place, the bed made perfectly just the way I taught him – then started on the floor, scrubbing then mopping, then a quick final spray of cockroach killer in all the nooks and crannies I could find, and I was satisfied I had done enough. It was far from perfect, but it was presentable enough for me.

I pulled out my phone and typed out an email. “Swung by, but you weren’t in. Then again, you probably already know that…!”

Send.

*****

My great grandmother died when she was 102, with the whole family around the bed. I wondered if I would get another chance to talk to him, this face-changing, voice-shifting mystery Death man-woman-both-neither. This time, he surprised me.

“Hey.”

I nearly jumped a foot in the air. His voice was lower this time (or was it higher?) and breathier (or maybe just thinner?), but I knew it instantly. “Argh! Fuck!” I shrieked, before I suddenly realised that the whole family was looking at me with disapproval. “Sorry. I think something landed on me,” I said, sheepishly, swatting at my forearms in an attempt to persuade them of the existence of an imaginary insect assailant.

He chuckled, walking past me to sit with Gran-Gran. Once again, he pulled out his clipboard and flipped through it. Unlike the accident, I was closer this time, so I could see what was in it. It was just like mine – the details, the photos, the stories – but this time, he leaned in and whispered something to her. I saw Gran-Gran sit up, but not sit up, like she was out of focus with herself, as she listened to his murmurings. She smiled, and I think she winked at me. Then she patted his hand gently, like she did to all of us when she wanted to congratulate us on a job well done, and lay back down into herself.

Suddenly, my aunts began to wail.

And the next day, I found a post-it note with an email address in the back pocket of my jeans. On the other side it said, “Shit timing, I know. But… friends?”

*****

As I’m packing up my cleaning gear and getting ready to head out, I heard a key scratching in the lock. I called out, “You left it open!” but it’s too late; he’d already locked it again.

“Shit, shit, shit…” I heard him mutter through the door. I stopped questioning how it’s even possible to do so through wood that thick long ago.

When he finally unlocked it again and swept in, I laughed at him. “I don’t know why you even bother with opening the door, let alone a lock. You’re a potentially incorporeal being. You could just pass through it, surely,” I said.

He shrugged. “It helps me stay down to earth?” he grinned. “Good to see you,” he said, hugging me. “I’d say it’s been too long, but you know…”

“Yeah, yeah. You tell both of those jokes literally every time. You really need to get some new material.”

*****

The reply came back almost immediately, which I couldn’t help feeling was weird as hell. Then again, so was the idea of becoming friends with Death, but in for a penny, in for a pound.

Most of our early conversations were had through email. We discussed his gender (fluid for work, but he tended to roll with male pronouns since it was what most people were comfortable with), compared jobs (turns out being the Grim Reaper requires both more and less effort to achieve work/life balance than being a marketing coordinator) and talked about his most recent clients. He said that he didn’t know when he’d started calling them that (conversations about the past were particularly frustrating at first) but he felt that it gave him the right balance of connection and professional distance.

Since we hadn’t needed them in our conversations, we didn’t use names, but eventually I realised I wanted to know what I should call him. “Death” sounded like a job description now, not a name. He said he’d always just gone with what everyone else called him, so he answered to heaps of different things, but I insisted he have a name just for me, just for friends. And so, I christened him Dee, because I am not a particularly imaginative person.

After what was a few months for me, I asked him about where one lives when one isn’t living on the mortal plane. He told me it was complicated. And it is. It really, really is. I don’t even know how it works, and he’s explained it to me at least a dozen times. But he showed me how to access where he lives, and now I can do it.

Just don’t ask me how I do it, or we’re both going to end up confused.

*****

We spent the rest of the afternoon looking at his experiments and reading stupid stuff off the internet to each other. I suggested he should come meet my friends some time, but he wasn’t up for it. He said it would be too much commitment and he’d be afraid of scaring them. Most people don’t like to think about their own mortality, let alone be faced with the supposedly mythical physical manifestation of the concept. I said he was probably right, but I did add that my friend Belinda had worked with some pretty terrifying animals back when she worked at a zoo, but he just went quiet. I hated when he did that, but I let myself figure that he was just thinking about all the cute animals he had to guide through the death process. Did he even do animal deaths? I decided it was better not to ask.

Then, in one of our more comfortable silences, I asked him, “Hey, I’ve been wondering: Am I your first friend?”

He scrunched his ever-changing mouth in unease. “No. I’ve had plenty of friends. It’s just…” He sighed, reminding me of the first time we met, only this time there was no relief in it. “Eventually, I have to take them as a client. And it hurts. All the time, because for me it is happening all the time.” He looked at me. “So please, don’t ask me again,” he said, softly.

“But this is important to me,” I said. “I need to know that when I eventually go, you’ll be okay.”

He smiled slightly, ripples dancing through his features as his eyes changed from blue to green to brown to hazel to purple to white to black and beyond. “I’m always okay. That’s the other side of the coin. While it’s true that I’m always saying goodbye, I’m also always saying hello. And ‘thank you’. And ‘I love you’. And laughing and hugging and kissing and playing and joking,” he said, wistfully. “Because such is existence, if not life. It’s just now, the moment. It’s the Greatest Possibility there is, and I get to live it all at once.”

He laughed, or maybe sobbed.

“I wouldn’t give it up for the world.”

*****

The illustrations accompanying this story were created by the delightful Daisy Mak, who lives on Instagram here.

The Last Barbecue

Kevin had thought about the ideal location for weeks before settling on this spot. It wasn’t far from his favourite camping spot, where he and the boys would set up for long weekends of fishing and rabbit hunting. Now he was here and it was really happening, all those memories were making him dry in the mouth. He was getting choked up. He wasn’t going to cry, though. Kevin was a man with a job to do. One last job.

He pulled out fifty cents from his pocket, pressed the starter button, and laid his barbecuing tools out on the bench next to the hot plate. While he waited for it to heat up, he opened the esky. He grabbed a beer out from beside the carcass, skinned and shining under the cling wrap. He paused and looked at it, then he ran a finger down the length of its spine. The flesh squished at his touch, just like any other meat.

Suddenly angered, he slammed the lid of the esky and went back to drinking his beer and prepping for the cook up. It might not be the right thing to do, but he was here now. He was locked in.

Skinning it had taken longer than he’d expected. There were so many little toes to get around. He knew he could have just cut them off, but if he was going to go out this way, he was committed to enjoying every morsel of flesh he could suck off those bones.

When he was satisfied that the tiny corpse was seared to his liking, he picked it up with the barbecue tongs and threw it onto his dinner plate. It nearly filled the whole thing. Perfect.

For almost a year now, he hadn’t been able eat a single mouthful of sausage, a sliver of steak, even a taste of chicken breast without breaking into hives, at best. At worst, he would go into full blown anaphylactic shock. The doctors had puzzled over it for months; meat wasn’t something you just became allergic to overnight, if at all. Kevin was a medical curiosity, poked and prodded by dickheads with stethoscopes who couldn’t tell him when he’d be able to sit down to a lamb kebab again. Finally, after analysing test after test and realising that there had been a spike in related cases on Sydney’s North Shore, they asked Kevin if he’d ever been bitten by a tick.

“Yeah,” Kevin had replied. “A couple of times. But I flicked it off and it was all good.” He’d laughed. “Don’t tell me that little bastard’s the reason for all this!”

But it was. Kevin had been struck down by mammalian meat allergy, and he would never be able to eat the flesh of another creature again.

All those beautiful Sunday roasts, Saturday night barbecues and late night Maccas runs had been ripped from his grasp, all because one little bloodsucker bit one little marsupial that couldn’t digest animal products, and then bit him, passing on one tiny protein from that furry bastard into his circulatory system, where it multiplied and took over his body, until he was allergic to that one thing integral to every red blooded bloke’s identity (after beer): meat.

Apparently there’d been a massive increase in the number of bandicoots in the area around Kevin’s place, and with it had come an explosion in the local tick population. Their favourite food? Bandicoot blood, although Kevin was apparently a close second.

After six months of nothing but rabbit food, Kevin had almost lost it. He decided he needed to eat flesh again, even if it killed him, which it probably would. He desperately longed to have something that could bleed between his teeth, something you could order on a range from blue to well done. He wanted to devour a victim of factory farming, from paddock to pan to plate.

The worst bit was watching his wife Sharon chow down on anything she wanted. You could do that when you were pregnant. While she was downing a steak and chips, Kev was stuck sucking on a kale smoothie or some other hippy bullshit. Now the baby was here, the smell of breastmilk was constantly wafting through the house, reminding Kevin of veal and lamb and all the other baby animals that were even more delicious than their parents. It was driving him mad.

He knew he had to get his revenge, even if it killed him.

Kevin took one long, final look at his last meal. He could smell the meat juices hanging in the air, making his stomach queasy while making his mouth water. He pulled out the pictures of his mum, Sharon and baby Eddie one last time, kissed each in turn, then put it down on top of the esky.

He tore into his kill. It was such a relief to taste non-plant based proteins again. Plus, it was fucking delicious.

Once he was done with his grisly feast, Kevin lay down and waited for his immune system to betray him. He thought about what the cops would think when they found his body, probably frothing at the mouth, tiny bones strewn around him, an enamel plate smeared with tomato sauce by his side. He wondered if they’d be disgusted by his crime, or if they would find his tastes understandable once they understood his circumstances. Maybe they had always wanted to do it themselves, but never had the guts to do it. Maybe they’d find it ironic that Kevin didn’t have the guts for it either.

But at least they’d know he had gone down fighting. He hadn’t gone quiet into that good night. He’d seen the cause of his own problem and taken vengeance in his own proud way.

At least they’d know he’d taken one of the bastards down with him.

Fucking bandicoots.

Downstream

The rains had come
Upstream
The twins expected thunder
But the river always
Refuses expectations
Instead
The air was still
Save the warbling of the magpies.
Cicadas, light and scorching heat,
Like the rains would never come.

Then we saw it
Slinking slowly
Like the story of the snake
The First of Us have been telling
For thousands of years.

The kids chased its head down the creek bank
As it slithered down the waterway
And I beamed in wonder
At this long withheld blessing.

I saw the twinkle of dew in Mum’s eye.

I took her hand,
And tried to forget all the days
The water had been too late for.

I whispered to her,
Maybe he had to go
Because he knew they wouldn’t listen
Unless he asked in person.

Her grip became a vice
But there was no sound
Despite the streams staining her cheeks.

So that’s how we stayed,
Hand clasped in hand,
As the kids pointed and laughed and raced
The rainbow serpent around the riverbend,
Downstream.

 

*****

This poem won first place in the Open Own Composition section at the 2019 Dubbo Eisteddfod. You can find the adjudicator’s notes on my Instagram.

Flanders Fireworks

 

My dear Edith,

Your last letter has been pressed to my chest for the last month, and I apologise for not replying sooner. The rain has been unrelenting, and I did not want to spend ink and paper on a letter that would likely be destroyed by the wet. Please know that the delay in my response does not mean my love for you has in any way diminished. On the contrary, it grows each day, as does my longing for your touch and your company. You are the heaven I carry to get me through this hell.

One of the photographers from the War Office visited recently to take pictures of how we’re all getting on. He was here two weeks; he got lice after the first, and took ill with a fever by the second. It must be nice to be able to head back home because you’re itching and have a warm head.

Before he left, he showed us some of his photographs from his last visit to Ypres. Some of them showed just how ghastly it is here, but some were strangely beautiful. We spend our days and nights living under the constant shellfire, so it’s hard to see any kind of bright side to it, but one of this fellow’s pictures of the night sky over the trenches was remarkable. He had let the exposure of the film run longer than usual, so you could see the trajectories of all the artillery fire overhead. Upon seeing it, I was struck with immense awe, the paths of flying gunpowder, metal and death somehow breathtaking. (The irony that they also take away the breath of those they hit was not lost on me.) The sky was lit up like Guy Fawkes Day, lights streaking along high above the horizon. I feel grisly thinking about it, but it was so beautiful, perhaps more so because it was trapped on film and not aimed at our positions.

But none of those fireworks could ever shine as bright as the torch I hold for you, my dear Edie, and no photograph will fill the ache in my soul that comes from being robbed of your darling smile and wit. (Please send me one all the same – I would love to show the lads what a prize and joy I have waiting for me back home. They will be terribly jealous, and I will be terribly proud.)

I love you forever, my darling. Give Mother a kiss for me, and thank her for the socks.

With all my heart, and all my kisses, I miss you and love you dearly.

Forever yours,

Bert

 

*****

This post was inspired by the photo at the top of the page, highlighted by a post on r/WritingPrompts. Click on it for a link to the Flickr page for the original recolouring.

Please note: this story was written on the fly as an exercise, so I can’t guarantee that any of the historical elements are factual.

Don’t Tell Him About Vincent Castiglia

I could have picked any of a number of actually confronting images, but I want my blog to be relatively SFW.

It’s such a rich colour, full of iron and platelets and life. We need it in our veins, in our hearts and brains, or it’s game over. When you think of all the symbolism, it makes sense to use it in my work. Portraits are, after all, a portrayal of life, committing something fleeting to something permanent. By using this as my paint, I infuse the canvas with life itself.

Mix it with water and you can get all kinds of lovely shades. I add aspirin to keep it from congealing on my brush, or to make a putty that I smear on with a small trowel when I want to add texture. It’s not dead like monochrome, but it leaves room for imagination in a way that full colour cannot. You get to decide whether his hair is brown or black. Are his eyes blue or green? As long as all the shapes and strokes are right, you can tell who it is or what they are thinking. You don’t need all those other details. They’re already in the paint.

He is going to make a fine subject. His long, black hair flops over his face so you can’t see his eyes. He laughs with friends in a way that makes me think of kestrels – he doesn’t screech like they do, it’s more that the sharp decline in pitch as he pulls out of the hoot reminds me of the sharp drop they make before they capture their prey. I wonder how I will integrate that sound into my painting. It seems so intrinsic to his personality that I feel a need to incorporate it somehow. Perhaps I will perch a bird of prey on his shoulder, wrapped in his dark locks.

I watch him as he leaves the bar. He stumbles on the step, despite the fact that he spends enough time here to know full well that it’s there, and it’s always been there. I can tell that he’s had quite a lot to drink. That should make painting him easier. Alcohol thins the blood remarkably well. I may not even have to knock him out.

But I do, just in case. I am so thankful that I live in a ground floor apartment, and so close to such a wonderful bar, full of beautiful people, coming and going at all hours of the night. It makes it so much easier to bring home supplies and subjects. The fact that it all comes in the one package helps too, I guess.

I work quickly, and he is drained by morning. But by god, the final product is incredible. When I was studying, my teachers told me that my style was unoriginal and lacked life; my technique was stale and my work would need something to stand out from the crowd. I guess I found it, huh.

Eventually the canvas starts to smell, so I have to throw them all away. Again, there is symmetry in this. I could seal them and keep that stale smell in, but instead I discard them like others have discarded me. The same way they discarded my talent and my originality.

Fuelled by the glee I take in proving them wrong, I have become hooked on this new, exciting artistic endeavour. I could have a harem on my walls, every colour, creed and gender represented, all with a limited lifespan, as they were when my supplies were flowing through them. They are short-lived, but they shine bright, and only for me.

 

*****

This post was inspired by a prompt from youshouldwrite.com.