Revised Version of The Turner’s Skeleton Comes to Town

Hello Readers

I didn’t want to lose the previous version and preamble, so I took the easy way out and left it here.

IN the story entitled The Turner’s Skeleton Comes to Town, a being that is trapped in the underworld gets to visit an artist, wreak havoc at Christmas, and remember the experience.

The writer explores the themes of the world of imagination and the kind of immortality available through creative pursuits. The story is attentive to setting, more than other earlier works, references the horror genre, and is more obviously self-reflexive.

Experiments with weirdness continue.

 

The Turner’s Skeleton come to town

I chose that title because I was sick of being an entity without agency, and I wanted to tell my story. I want you to imagine you are me. Afterwards forget May, my dear, that you’ve been unfortunate enough to see me. When these brief Christmas moments ripped from eternity are gone, forget that you thought that this was real. Go on thinking it was a strange dream. That you found your own freedom to celebrate Christmas, no longer working yourself to exhaustion. That’s a lot of freedom for you.

Why did you struggle so much?

Your freedom to this Skeleton who’s done the bidding of your ancestors for two hundred years, seems infinite. Since I’ve had a chance to meet you I understand more about choices, and about surprises. For these brief minutes indulge me as I imagine you are me, and you imagine too.

The ghosts wake your bones from the deepest sleep you’ve had in the past fifty years. It doesn’t matter if you think their reason does not approach the urgent. The head ancestor calls you from your grave deep beneath Devonport. The earth trembles and opens as if it were put into a sifter, and it shakes away from you as you rise. Reaching the surface, you roll in the refuse of what feels and smells like mature bottlebrush. You don’t have flesh to wobble, tremble or bruise but your mandible rattles along with your knees. Like an amputee you experience some sensory stimulus where your failing flesh used to be. Your senses of smell, touch and hearing remain; your sight is you believe controlled utterly by what the ancestors want you to see. Most of the time they lead you blind. You experience continual surprise when you are vertical and moving. You smell and touch things without smashing into them. Vegetation parts around you. A weighty substance drips from your jaws and rolls down your stout bones. It smells like hot metal and murderous mercury. You shudder. When it reaches your knees, you feel the stickiness of webs and the wriggling of avid arachnids. You stand erect, brushing the drooping leaves with your vertebrae. You know that this job is another payback for some Turner descendant’s resented mendacity about the practice of Christmas tradition; briefly summed up with the prosaic words, “someone’s not doing it right”. These words were uttered by the ghost of the two generations’ past Matriarch. You wish that these ancient ghosts were unaware of the attitudes of their descendants. Alas they are, and you are the suffering servant of whims.

Lately, you have learned that May Turner.

Who is she?

You get the answer. May is the great granddaughter of the Matriarch, who has become aware that May is enjoying developing her considerable artistic talent. May is failing in her duty to personally prepare every Christmas delicacy anticipated by her three adult children and their partners.

Begads! There are imprecations galore during the discussion amongst the ancestors. May is enjoying selfish pursuits in no other space than her privileged husband’s shed. She has converted it into a painting studio, with the help of a skylight, some shelving, and reorganisation. While arising from your deep clay grave you were shown in the crystal skull, a magical device that has nothing to with your own cranium, the indifference shown by May. This indifference was displayed when her husband came home from a business trip to discover his shed had become unrecognisable.

Now remember you are taking my point of view, don’t look smug. It’s irrelevant now that you got a fantastical deal on that skylight.

You consider the rumour that has reached you: this past July May did not make Christmas pudding herself. You welcome your remaining sense of smell as the warmth of plump raisins and brown sugar saturated in brandy reaches you. She called Chef Jenny, a local caterer, to make the puddings she would present to her family. You are here to contaminate those heavenly scented creations. A strange sensation like a tic in the middle of your spine starts while molten drops pour from your eye sockets. Words like shame and regret nudge you. You try to control this process, but it does no good; the more you think about those words the more the molten drops pour. Webs and spiders appear up to what used to be your waist.

You approach Chef Jenny’s restaurant pantry. In imagination the morning sun is turning all the melted frost to prisms on the nearby grass. There is a vague recollection the sight might be called beautiful though you are blind to it now. Sensing you are close to the back of the restaurant, you smell cigarette smoke. Someone must be standing there. You go forward and find an unlocked door. Your joints are stiff, and your phalanges seem to rattle as you try to open the door. The smoker is heedless. You remind yourself that no one can hear you unless they have previously seen you. They cannot see you by sun: sufficient LED light can expose you to someone with 20/20 vision.

A welcome thought: perhaps this will make you useless to the ancestors in the 21st century, and they will let you sleep in peace.

With difficulty you open the screen door and find yourself in what must be a food storage. There you smell bicarbonate of soda, spices, dried fruit, and odours you don’t recognise.

As you clank your bones against stainless steel drums, a voice shouts, “Is that you Roy? I’m going into the suppliers to get some fresh stuff. They sent me something I can’t use.”

You wonder about the powers of what you presume is Chef Jenny. It seems no one told her that she couldn’t hear you. Your whole slavery is a mystery, if the ancestors are being mendacious with you, who will stop them?

You stand stiffly by the shelving as Roy’s voice answers the voice within. “I’m still outside. Maybe something has collapsed in the pantry. I’ll check.”

You hear the door bang, heavy footsteps, living-body odour and cigarette smoke.

“Everything’s OK.”

He walks away from you, and then you hear, “I’ll start the stock for the casseroles, and peel the potatoes.”

“Thanks. You should be able to make the sweet and the savoury pastry before I get back too.”

You hear another door slam, and water running. The sound of metal surfaces contacting one another. The thud of a heavy door closing.

You move forward until you feel the straight side of a stainless-steel bin. You reach past it and feel a long expanse of the same stainless steel. You climb onto the bench, and opening the lid of the bin, dangle your phalanges in. There are six bins containing various types of flour and sugar. All of them get the treatment. Your right shoulder twitches as you scent delicious brandy again. Following your senses, you get closer until you extend your forearm, and your finger bones touch glass. You are surprised. Surely you shouldn’t be able to smell through glass. Perhaps there is residue on the outside. You enjoy smelling for a while.

When you leave by the door you entered through, you hear footsteps and Roy’s voice calls, “Who’s there?”

What’s happening? Is there something about this place that causes people to hear you?

You hear a crunching sound and a cloud of dust surrounds you.

You see a bright red automobile pull up beside you. Later you learn via the ancestors’ report that she wore blue, a grey wool hat on her curly black hair and a multi-coloured scarf around her neck. The person walks around the building you just came out of. The perfume of roses and sharpness of oil paint, tempt you to follow the small person you think must be a woman.

She (you decide she must be a woman) returns a minute later with a box containing what smells like raisins and brandy, warm spices, with brown sugar and butter. You realise something could be awry with the plan. Is this May? You sense the answer is yes. You realise you must go with her and determine her identity. Because if it is May, your mission is uncompleted. The puddings she has were already prepared when you arrived and will not be affected by your treatment.

She stares when the back door of her car opens and shuts. What could you do? A word ‘panic’ seems to take form and shimmer around you. You sit tall and silent in the back seat amongst her jumble consisting of a coat, books, a paint smock, and exercise books. She stands quietly staring at her car. She shakes her head and gets in.

You hear her say, “Must have something to do with giving free reign to the imagination. I’ll get used to it.”

The car begins to move, and you struggle to keep your knees from knocking together.

After a while the car stops, you hear a car door open and shut. You hear another door open and you smell the gorgeous scent of the rich pudding again. You hear a beep and a thunk. The footsteps retreat, and the smell gets less and less. The chirping of birds seems louder and louder in the silence. A chill breeze brushes your knuckles.

 You think, how will I get out of this car?

Despite the breeze you are feeling very warm, when you hear a beep and the sound of the locks on the car thudding into place, you jump. The back door of the car opens, and the woman leans across you feeling for something in the mess. Remember she cannot experience you with the senses you have – smell, touch and hearing, and in sunlight she cannot see you. The explanations of the Matriarch seem to echo in your rib cage. She doesn’t know I’m here.

You feel the woman pull out two flat papery things from under your thigh bones. You feel a stronger breeze and take the chance the door is open. Quickly, with a reptilian glide you slip out the door and behind her, she leans over and slams the door. You hear the beep again. You follow. You smell damp bark chips, musty wood, then feel stuffy warmth, and smell oil paint and musk roses. You brush against a wooden bench and sit. You feel the woman right next to you. Pages rustle, you feel the brush of an elbow. You lean away and shuffle until air meets you and you drop to the hard-concrete floor. The woman gasps. You wait for a long time in the silence. Pages rustle again. The woman says aloud, “I am May Turner. I am an artist now and always.”

You nod though no one can see you. You are in the right place.

A long time passes during which you hear the woman talking softly to herself, and the scratch of pencils on paper and canvas. She pauses once, and you hear the grind of a pencil in a large sharpener. You are surprised when you hear quick movements and feel her right next to you. The clatter of wood, the smell of paint, the swish of liquid, the tap of wood against glass, the warmth of roses and oil moves past you again. The canvas is being daubed with paint. You find the sounds and smells soothing.

Bang!

Your skull is ringing. The air is cold, and you hear footsteps. There is silence all around, and as the nagging of the matriarch is remembered: you long for oblivion. Realisation brings the knowledge that you are in the same space, but May is not. Banging your head again, you realise you are lying with your skull under the bench where May stores her paints. Giving a serpentine wriggle you move away from the bench and towards the sound of a metal door tapping in the cool breeze.

Erect, you walk out onto the path. The air now carries wafts of the scent of beef and onion. You walk one direction, and the savoury odour grows faint, you turn the opposite way: it grows stronger and so do your steps. A doorway opens before you.

The rumble of a male voice, answering another male, and breaking into loud guffaws tells you that May is not alone. A steel blade taps against wood. You hear the bubbling of the savoury stew you smelled.

“Evan set the table please”, May’s voice sounds chirpy instead of soft and tremulous. A heavy tread brings a six-foot source of body warmth right up next to you, and the rattle of metal cutlery sounds to your left. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. The heavy tread gets further away,

May’s voice is low and insistent now. “Evan what about glasses and spoons.”

Footsteps again. The draw is open and the stainless-steel clangs now. He opens an overhead cupboard, and you hear the tap of glass against glass. Three pairs of feet moving around now. Crockery, a waft of beef and onions, the scraping of chairs.

“How was your day?”

No reply except the sound of forks on plates, slurps and chewing.

You can hardly believe it when you lean your tired skull forward, then look up. A blurry image rises in front of you: three torsos floating on a rectangular cloud, two are big, and one is smaller. The black curls you hear about later in the Matriarch’s report appear as a cloud of their own, just for a moment. You nod your skull, and when you turn your facial bones towards the domestic noise again, the image is gone.

Chairs move back from the table, and you hear heavy footsteps move away. A loud sound of cheering, and muted voices talking in the background. Right by you the sound of metal scraping ceramic. A sigh. Softer steps on the move are May’s. You follow. She moves into a narrow space, stops at a door. Creaking sounds and you feel a draft making your vertebrae rattle.

The tap, tap and echo tells you she is descending into the drafty space. You stumble on the first step and feel yourself mess up. Shaking and crashing you descend, landing on cold concrete at the bottom. May almost steps on you as she reaches the bottom of the stairs. You roll away from the faint warmth emitted by her presence. She stops, a cupboard door creaks. The fragrance, the warm spicy fragrance of Christmas pudding is both a pleasure, and the welcome sign that your mission could soon be completed. Muffled thuds, and the snap of doors closing. Footsteps ascend the stairs, as you lie coffin still. You go to the cupboard and find it empty. The fragrance lingers. You haul yourself up the stairs by both rails, hopping onto every second step. The door is ajar, and you find yourself in the hall.

Where is May?

In the kitchen eating uncontaminated pudding?

You feel disorientated but find your way back to the living area. Muffled roaring and cheering, excited voices but none sounds like May. You return through the door by which you entered and listen for the sound of the shed door. You hear it shut.

A gladness that you have no voice is sensed. In frustration you would use it now.

Gah!

The shed door opens to you and you are back in the concrete space, with pungent oil and softer rose. Too late you realise you stand in the glare of an LED lamp.

Insistent words from May, “Who are you? Who are you?”

Turning, you rattle and stumble away. Lurching from side to side, staggering back along the gravelly driveway, down the rough verges of the country lane. Wearily, you huddle under the bottlebrush that marks your entry into the nether realm of the ancestors. Stuck, you cannot return without finishing the mission, and you cannot risk the exposure of LED. A night that seems as long as a century passes.

When you finally feel the warmth of the sun, every bone is dripping with wetness. Standing you find your joints clogged with thick sacks of spider silk that make it cumbersome to move. The arachnids have insulated their progeny from the frost at your expense.

May cannot see you by sunlight. The mission must be fulfilled.

A cloud of dust greets you at the entry to May’s driveway. A film of mud now sullies everything about you. The contact of rough bluestone tells you that you’re entering the driveway. The path to the shed is before you and you retrace your bumbling steps.

Silence in the shed. You move around the whole space. Meditating on each smell, a trance of sensation you have not felt in a hundred years bubbles around you. Let this be the last moment before oblivion. Please.

Does the matriarch laugh, or is that some vividly remembered sound?

You stand. You move to the bench where you heard May’s voice. You sit.

For seconds your vision exists: the canvas in front of you is haloed. A skull of silver in a bed of magenta roses. A tiny blue-winged bird with a black head, and fan-shaped tail sits on the skull. The skull is yours. You without the weight of your body. You objectified.

Macabre beauty for a transcendent moment.

A flash and it is gone.

Your spider bugged cage of being crashes back to your present hell.

Search for the puddings. Search for the puddings. A rhythm of vibrations that you sense as words, as if a heart still beat beneath your rib cage.

On a whim, isn’t it all about whims, you return to the cellar discovered the night before. The cupboard when opened contains the strong smell of pudding.

Why were the puddings taken away the night before?

You place your bony digits inside and shuffle them until arachnidom is awakened. The glistening glowing eggs descend like dew, and the puddings are cursed.

Returning to the place from which you came, you sleep the deepest sleep of regret found in two hundred years. The ancestors awaken you too soon – five months later to the day in fact. They restore your sight, so you can join them in watching their practical pettiness in the crystal skull.

May and the two men, plus another man whom you’ve never seen before, along with two women, sit around a table decorated with red candles and golden tinsel.

In front of each one is an empty, gravy smeared plate. The cheeky blonde woman gets up, and turns to Evan. “Now you can eat the traditional pudding you been trying to steal for months.”

Everyone at the table laughs. The man next to Evan fills their empty, smeared glasses with champagne. The blonde comes back with one of the puddings. Glossy egg custard, vanilla bean ice-cream, fruity brown pudding in deep crystal bowls is placed before them all. The blonde gets the rest of the pudding, in case second helpings can be stuffed into swollen bellies. The Matriarch snickers in anticipation. They eat, and sigh with satisfaction. They are discussing putting on a DVD of The Grinch to nap by when it happens.

The one called Evan vomits wriggling arachnids across the already destroyed repast, and the remains of a writhing pudding. There is screaming. There is running. Your spine aches with regret. The ugly pointlessness of spite.

The warm intent of May’s painting: the curves of Skull amongst velvety roses is the imagining you choose. It is your first choice for ages. The painting of you was a gift, and you responded out of not only duress, but habit. You literally have no heart left. You are surprised to see, in your big toe, a twitch that used to accompany the feeling of shame. Released from the viewing, you stumble back to your coffin for the longest, deepest sleep of your shady career.

A sweet dream visits you there in the blackness. You return to May’s shed studio. You enjoy watching her paint for what seems like forever. Avid arachnids are obliterated by the artist’s canvases infused with awakened imagination and acceptance of death. The dream changes over the weeks, into something that reminds you of life before you were an ancestor’s lackey. Sometimes you quiver with a kind of after world malaria — so the ancestors presume. They are reluctant to trust you with another job.

You dream May has painted a landscape with red waratahs, golden callistemon, blue hills, and plains of ochre. There you are suspended in mid-air at the centre, depicted with your bony digits against your mandible in a landscape consisting of your most beloved elements. In the background between the hills is a miniature selfie of May surveying her work. It’s vibrant, as comforting as a family quilt. You become a kind of muse, and you imagine that you are free from the infinite world of the dead.

You dream the one you visit sees you and hears the story with rapt attention. Your apology is accepted. It will be a secret between the two of you, this weird family secret that relieves the artist from the duty of making pudding when she could be making art.

She laughs saying, “Though you made puddings artful to say the least.”

You both admit to being glad that Evan has learned again to accept the very existence of Christmas pudding made by Chef Jenny.

The tiny bit of agency inspired in you by another’s boldness is spent, but the romancing of the skull in oil paints remains.

Did you really see me?

Will you paint a thousand words about me again?

The End

 

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Table Two: Joseph Suglia

Dr Joseph Suglia demonstrates his erudition with the powerful use of a dream and run-on sentences bringing magic to Table 2 of his work”Table 41″. I almost feel guilty using quotation marks as he eschews them in the work in favour (favor- ok) of an emdash introducing dialogue. This formatting also makes his work more pleasurable and unique.

Table 41: A Novel by Joseph Suglia

And now you slowly awaken.

You are awake. But where are you?

You are not yet alive. Or rather, you are alive. But you have no idea where you are.

The day’s eye closes and then uncloses again. The morning robs the room of its deep shadows, pressing the dead night more deeply into the darkness. Drawing the curtains of your eyes shut, you can feel the light closing in around you.

Rocking your head back and forth in refusal, you are only dimly aware of where you are.

You are in a hotel. That is where you must be.

You are steeped in the swirling sheets of a rent-a-bed at the Lincoln Park Inn, 601 West Diversey Parkway.

Why are you in a hotel?

Bursting into the world of consciousness with the elegance of a rabid muskox, you no longer remember who you used to be.

The dawn undarkening…

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Cheers – Round 1 – NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge

Jen’s back with her great enthusiasm for the NYC Midnight competitions. If it wasn’t for her I never would have tried it. Thanks Jen and all the best.

Jen's Pen Den

Greetings, blog followers! Yes, it’s me. And, yes, I’m still alive.

As you’ve may (or may not) have noticed, I’ve been absent from the blog world the past few months (er, maybe longer). I made a New Year’s resolution to put all of my attention and free time into finishing my novel, which I almost have! By the end of summer/early fall, I should have my manuscript and query letter ready to go for literary agents (eeks!).

This past weekend, I decided to reward my good, focused behavior by participating in my 5th NYC Midnight (NYCM) Flash Fiction Challenge (FFC). To be honest, I signed up for this writing contest a couple of months ago hoping my novel would be in my betas’ hands when the challenge kicked off…Wrong! My betas returned their notes a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve been revising ever since. So, it was really…

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Randall’s Ramblings from May 21, 2017

I really enjoy Randall and he’s a gent who once sent my link to his followers. He always has some interesting tidbits on his life, lets you know his progress on his latest book, and shares sites of interest to fellow writers and creatives. As soon as I go back to reading fiction I plan to check out one of Randall’s action novels. All the best to Randall and other writers out in the big wide world. Besides I was crushing on that picture of a Woodpecker. As an Aussie I thought we had all the colourful birds in the world! Thanks Randall.

Writing by Randall

The middle of the past week brought excellent weather to our area, especially for this time of year. On Wednesday, the temperature topped out at 85F/29C, followed by 82F/28C. I thought we were on to a good thing.

The warm weather brought around the first hummingbird of the season. It couldn’t find its normal feeder, which was still in the garage, so I quickly cleaned the container and placed it in the tree. We also had a visit from our first Baltimore oriole–its special swing (where we can place orange slices) is ready to go.

Of course we saw all of our regulars who braved the cold Michigan winter, but the best surprise came on Thursday, with our first sighting since moving here four years ago.

KODAK Digital Still CameraOur first red-headed woodpecker!  What a beauty. We’ve had downy, hairy, and red-bellied woodpeckers and an occasional northern flicker, but this one is definitely…

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Pehlwani Potting Mix

[A weird episode paying homage to the Australian Tall Story – a true form of traditional culture down under.]

Gorgeous bright tomato red orbs floated behind my eyelids. The sun-ripened ones that yield to a knife like butter and give out juicy seed-laden flavour; I dreamed of them with a longing like homesickness. They would be bloody delicious layered on toasted buttered rye bread, a sprinkle of salt, a dash of pepper,and, in memory of my grandma, a pinch of sugar. I would devour the breakfast of my juvenile summers with passion born in boyhood, if I could only grow that premium ingredient.

With some help from my silver-haired neighbour Theo, the first sunny Saturday of spring saw us building a large L-shaped garden box made of sleepers. It reached almost to waist height on me, and we half-filled it with manure and straw.

“ The best thing to do is get some quality potting mix and mushroom compost to add to that,” said Theo.

I was enjoying the digging, sweating and pungent smells. It would be worth it to have real tomatoes to eat and share. He continued to explain how after the potting mix and compost I should add a layer of topsoil ,and plant the tomato seedlings about sixty centimetres apart.

“ Don’t forget your cages. Are you gonna grow Super Beefsteak? “

“ Yeah, I’m gonna give them a try. Eight of those will give me plenty of tomatoes for my needs.”

“ You’ll get the maximum yield out of this small space.”

I was grateful and sent him home with a six pack of German beer, since a cash payment was refused. He smiled, and a little later I heard the sound of the football semi-final through the fence.

My trip to the nursery was expensive. I selected four ten litre bags of compost, and, thinking of my back, eight five litre bags of topsoil. Finally, the assistant showed me bags of potting mix.

“This a new type we’ve ordered from an Indian supplier. It’s meant to be good.”

The tired looking burlap bags with their faded red print were much cheaper than the last lot of potting mix I had bought to add to the garden when I planted red-flowering Grevilleas in my south-east facing front yard. I nodded yes. After I paid for a heap of bags and some Super Beefsteak seeds to be planted in pots to produce the seedlings for my garden, I knew my dream was costing me. I added eight tomato cages and we loaded up the Ute.

It was half-time when I returned, and Theo helped me stack the bags in a neat line, where I could easily open them with the edge of a shovel and transfer the material into the boxes.I emptied four bags of compost into the boxes and my aching back seemed to say call it a day.

I’ve been too long in a desk job, I thought. I trudged indoors and took a hot shower.

Late Sunday morning I finished the job , and gave it a half-hearted turn with the shovel which had lost its new gleam. I sprinkled the top soil over the top, and gave the lot  a water.

Perhaps Theo will turn it some more for me if I ask him.

I schlepped back inside and prepared two cheese toasties and scoffed them down. While washing them down with cold beer, I imagined how much better they would taste with tomato in them.

Mondayitis was exaggerated by muscular pain, and I left for work in a daze. I did remember to shut the rear security gate that sat almost flush with the concrete driveway in the back yard.

I returned from work around 4pm and decided to leave the car in the street because sweeping the concrete free from spilled soil and potting mix seemed a good use of a fine afternoon. After some water and a few stretches, my entrance into the backyard was almost enthusiastic.

A hissing sound caused me to freeze mid-stride.  Instinct raised the hair on my neck and prickles sprayed across my back. To my left was a four-foot black snake rearing up, its’ hood flared.

Cobra!

I bolted for the rear door of the house. Without looking behind me, I kicked the rear door shut, and striding to the lounge I snatched the cordless phone from the lounge side table. I dialled 1223 and asked the operator to connect me to the Hobson’s Bay Council.

What am I going to do if they don’t answer?

It was now 4.20 pm

Holding the phone to my ear I walked down the hall to the small study that overlooked the yard. Raising the blind, I stared at the black horror that dominated the white gravel space beside my garden box. I was relieved that the garage door was down, and the small garden shed was shut. The clipped lawn under the rotary hoist offered no hiding place.

I shivered.

The receptionist put me through to the environmental fauna department.

“Animal control”, a young voice said.

“ My name is Phil Dwyer, and I have a Cobra loose in my yard at 234A Sykes Avenue, Altona.”

“A Cobra, Mr Dwyer? How do you know  it’s a Cobra.”

“It’s black with a hood.”

“It’s black. Does it have any markings.”

“I didn’t stop to see if there were any markings. I walked out my backdoor and there it was, ready to strike, so I came in here and rang you.”

“Would you mind holding please Mr Dwyer? Don’t approach the snake, please stay on the line.”

Don’t approach the snake. DON’T approach the SNAKE. I mocked in my head, as annoying musack played.

I moved as close to the window pane as I could to see what was happening. The snake was gone and in its’ place was a tall, muscular, dark-skinned man in black spandex.

Where did he come from?

He walked under the rotary hoist, and each wedge of the clothesline separated and dropped to the ground. The center pole of the hoist melted into the ground, and the sections of clothesline arranged themselves into a strange fence on each side of the small lawn. A silver snake erupted from the garden bed. As it grew and shimmered before my eyes,a tall muscular pale man in grey shorts appeared. The dampness of drool soaking through my beard told me my mouth was hanging open.

Grey shorts man stepped across the fence and the two men began to wrestle. They were well matched physically, and a few minutes later sweat had soaked them and was dripping into the ground. Their heavy breathing became audible.

The voice was back on the phone. “Mr Dwyer, two animal control officers will be at your residence in about forty minutes. Don’t approach the snake, but do what you can to stop it  escaping from the yard.”

“Yes,” I croaked. The man asked for the address again and I repeated it.

“ Is there anything else I can help you with today?”

“No.”

The line went dead. My hands trembled. The wrestling pair had locked arms and their heads seemed to press against each other’s shoulders. The ground was turning to mud under them, chunks of ripped up grass thrown around by their gripping feet. Black spandex man was gaining the advantage now. The panting grew loud enough to hear beyond my yard. Theo’s head appeared over the side fence, and he stared at the wrestling match. I raised my hand to wave, but he couldn’t see me from where he was.

I was grasping my hands together, leaning my forehead on the glass. My breath appeared as a mist on the glass.

Grey shorts man was now doing well, and locked his arm around black spandex man’s neck. Quicker than I could blink black spandex man had his arm locked under grey short man’s left shoulder pulling it forward, while pushing against his right shoulder. Black spandex man twisted his body, throwing grey shorts man off balance with a swiftness that made me gasp. He pinned the man’s head and shoulders against the muddy ground. The lower half of the man’s body writhed in the mud.

Black Spandex man threw back his head and laughed. The kind of laugh I’d heard as a kid when I watched Victorian melodrama on a school trip to Sovereign Hill in Ballarat.  

My heart rate slowed. I would have put my money on grey shorts man for a win, based on first impressions.

The men got up and began to wrestle again. Maybe I was in with a chance, best of three bouts?

I will never know what happened but right at that moment they became snakes again.  The pole rose out of the ground, and the rotary hoist looked as solid as the day it was installed.

There was a thump on my front door. When I opened it Theo was standing there. His hair looked like it had been gelled into a spiky do.

“ Mate, was there a wrestling match in your backyard?”

I nodded yes.

“And now there are two snakes?”

I nodded again.

“Do you have any of that beer left?”

He headed for my kitchen fridge.

The front door was still open when the animal control officers arrived.

Ha hem. I mean environmental fauna officers.

They called out, “Hobson’s Bay Council, Mr Dwyer?”

Darn.

When I opened the screen door they showed me their identity badges, and followed me through to the back yard.

When the Cobra was in the sack, one of them said, “Do you have a licence to keep a snake, Mr Dwyer?”

“Call me Phil, and no I don’t have a licence. I don’t know how this snake got here. It appeared after I started my gardening project. For that matter after I bought this potting mix from India.”  

I lifted a discarded potting mix bag to show them.

The officer eyeballed me, tapping his pen against his left fist. The other officer left the yard to put the sack and its’ occupant into the council van.

“Where did you buy the potting mix?”

I told him and he wrote the details in his notebook. When he asked, I showed him my car licence.

They left, and Theo and I had a second beer.

“You can have some of my tomatoes Phil. I decided to plant some too, but I won’t be using any of that potting mix. It’s probably to blame.”

We discussed the wrestling match a bit, but after that night we never mentioned the weirdness again. I was grateful for that but I always wondered where that silver snake went, even after we emptied out those garden boxes.

 

—The End–

 

Albert’s Phenomenal Pitch

[ Hi readers, all the best for 2017. This is my first post for the new year. It features a story I wrote for a competition. One of those competitions where you entered because you felt bad that you hadn’t submitted anything lately. I am yet to enter a competition because I really wanted to: I do it because I feel I should do something/ anything to earn from my writing.

There is one challenge that I enjoy in the way of competition: The #shortstorychallenge2017, The NYC Midnight Madness Short Story Challenge. You are challenged, you are treated as creative under pressure, and you get feedback. I was terrified in 2015, but this year, 2017, I was excited. Where else can you hear a lot of what’s wrong with your  writing in one go, and get the chance to improve. Another bonus: you get to test the accuracy of your gut feeling about the quality of your story, and that is invaluable for a writer.  I finished my first round in the challenge on Wednesday : subject : blackmail; character : a parking attendant; genre: comedy. It was like a good stretch after a long nap to create something outside my own inclination. I’ll hear if I’ve progressed to the next round towards the end of February. Regardless of all that, I will have my feedback from reputable editors, and respected peers.

The silence is what I think can drive writers crazy so I avoid it. I have my trusty friends, my writing groups, my detractors, my “get a real job” acquaintances, and the ones that will workshop a story every couple of years to help me with a fresh perspective. I love them all; they are all provide grist to the mill. Iron sharpens iron you know. Never give up. Kudos to all the persevering writers and discerning readers out there.

I do apologise to anyone who has noticed my tendency to put punctuation outside the dialogue/quotation marks. It’s something I tend to do when in creative rather than analytical mode.

I hope you enjoy Albert’s Phenomenal Pitch (nothing to do with bowling ).]

Albert’s Phenomenal Pitch

Albert’s mother had told him the night before to be sure he wore his boots and long pants when walking in the vegetable gardens, as snakes were apt to cross it toward the river.

“Yes Albert,” intoned Mr New, his stepfather, “it is that time of year.”

His mother sighed and decided she would say more prayers to the Virgin, a habit she had learned from her Italian ancestors. Her prayers would ask for more wisdom for Mr New and herself, and less contrariness for Albert.  Albert walked down toward the river with dark soil crumbling between his bare toes, adorned with only his favourite pair of board shorts which hung loosely from his waist, and a pair of binoculars dangling from his neck. He had a stick with him, and was whacking the upright sprinkler heads as he went along, watching the black poly tubes bounce back and forth. No one had mentioned whacking sprinklers; he was doing it to amuse himself.

Albert Petrolli was thin enough to be called Beanpole by his classmates. Beanpole was appropriate since his stepfather was a market gardener who owned the rectangle of black soil in which he walked, stretching down to the brown river that curved around three sides of Lilyborough. Albert strolled down to the vegetable garden each morning. He savoured the organic odour of warm Broccoli heads, and trellised French beans. He was starting high school soon and he thought about the advantages and disadvantages of school ceasing for the Summer holidays. Albert was strong but not athletic, fond of academic excellence, and relished educating his peers even when they didn’t ask for help. His parents might have warned about snakes, but they did not say they wished he’d return to piano lessons, and writing essays, for which he’d shown a talent in his upper primary school years. They feared he would demand they pay for his education in Astrophysics, to both assert his interest in a visit to NASA, and to prove the ineffectiveness of prayers about his contrariness.

Albert stopped to watch a hawk gliding on the far side of the river. Its slow glide became a plunge toward what Albert presumed was a scampering mouse.  Watching through the binoculars that hung on a black leather strap from his long neck, Albert was enthralled by its plunge towards the ground. He flung away the stick that was in his hand, and heard a distinct hissing that made the nape of his neck prickle. A glance to his left, and he gaped at a black snake coiled with its head raised. Albert could see the white vulnerability of his legs next to the darting fangs. Saliva wet his lips, his heart raced and a screech agitated his vocal cords. Rippling light encircled Albert, the snake was flung away like a black streamer snatched by the wind, and he heard a smashing sound. Stunned, he stared toward the sound, and saw that a whole section of the nearby greenhouse was ripped away, and the transparent fiberglass was in splinters all over the truss tomatoes. It looked like a giant foot had stomped on the southern end of the greenhouse. Albert lifted his binoculars and inspected the damage. He did a 360-degree inspection of the sky; nothing on the horizon. Apart from the carolling of Magpies, there was silence. The atmosphere was still, and the sun was low over the river. It promised to be a perfect day.

Heart pounding, sweaty faced, Albert arrived back at the house. He saw Mr New halfway down the block on his way to the greenhouses. Albert got straight in the shower and was dressed for school when his mother appeared.

“I’m surprised to see you all dressed, and ready to go. Didn’t you go walking this morning?”

“No,” snapped Albert while avoiding his mother’s eyes.

His mother frowned. It wasn’t like Albert to dissemble

He’s usually painfully forthright, she thought.

“Would you like some eggs?” she said, and Albert nodded.

He finished getting ready for school without a word. This resulted in him getting his least favourite sandwiches: peanut butter. He didn’t even ask for money for the canteen.

Albert didn’t answer one question during his science lesson, which meant that no one could possibly ignore him. His one friend at school, Tony, was bemused by his silence. “Cat got your tongue?” he inquired.

Albert grunted and turned toward Mr Nagle. At recess time Mr Nagle asked him to stay behind.

“What’s wrong, Albert?”

Albert looked down and scratched the bridge of his nose. He shifted from foot to foot. Mr Nagle leaned back against his chair arms, as he gripped the edge of the desk.

Albert raised his head and looked his teacher in the face.

“Is it possible to have a random lightning strike out of a clear sky? One powerful enough to smash a building?”

” It’s possible Albert, the available statistics globally show that lightning strikes the ground in excess of 40 million times a year, and due to lightning’s ability to travel, in what you call a tunnel ahead of a storm front, lightning can strike up to 91 kilometres ahead of that storm front. Even in places where the sky is clear, you can get a bolt out of the blue.”

He gave a wry grin, and patted the desk before getting up from his chair.

I don’t think that explains the snake, or the smashing of half a building, thought Albert. The rest of the day at school passed slowly for Albert.

After struggling to converse with his parents at tea, and concentrate during the evening current affairs show, Albert excused himself and went upstairs early. His mother was murmuring near her statues and candles as he wearily climbed the stairs. After brushing his teeth and changing into a pair of blue pyjama pants, Albert stretched out on his bed, and worried about the day’s events. Falling into a restless sleep, he dreamed.

He was out in the vegetable acres but  he was  flying about five feet off the ground, and hovering over the spot he had stood in that morning. Three hawks flew over his head, and a bright purple cloud appeared from which bolts of lightning in a rainbow of colours struck the ground as the cloud raced toward him. Then three black sheep appeared. Finally, he saw Uncle Nolan in the blue suit he had worn to Grandma Petrolli’s funeral. Albert jerked awake, “Oh no!”

The last time he had seen Uncle Nolan was at the funeral when he was six years old. He had seen Unci No, as he called him then, every year until that time. The last time he saw him was memorably unique. It was unique because Albert had asked, “Unci No, can I have something special?”

Unci No had stood up, knocking over his chair, “You’ve done it now Albert. I told you never to ask me for something special. You coulda asked your mother. She’d woulda prayed to the Virgin.  You coulda asked your Aunt Amy who loves eBay Auctions and the National Geographic Online Store.  But you hadda ask me, me of all people.”

He rolled his eyes and lifted his hands to the ceiling. Slamming the front door, and sliding into the driver’s seat of his old blue Chevrolet, he drove away in a cloud of dust.

Albert had not seen his Uncle Nolan in the flesh since the funeral. The last time he had heard from him was on his tenth birthday when a small parcel had arrived. Inside was a black box with a green ribbon around it. When Albert opened it he found a stiff cream card with the word “Pitch” on it in gold letters. There was another card with it on which Uncle Nolan had written the message:  Phenomenal pitch is something special. When you are in your twelfth year you will know what I mean. Be careful with its use. I wish you all the help you can get. Love Unci No.

His mother read the card, and Albert noticed that her hand trembled, and she looked sad for a moment. Albert had asked if Uncle Nolan, as he called him now that he was no longer a baby, would be coming to visit for his birthday. Both his mother and stepfather shook their heads.His mother added, “but Aunty Amy is going to drop in.”

Albert was sad for a moment but then three boys from the history club turned up to eat cake with him, and he threw the box into the back of the wardrobe. Later that day Aunty Amy had turned up with the binoculars he still used, and Albert had forgotten to be sad. His tenth birthday had been the best so far.

Albert got out of bed, and went to his desk.  Thoughts of the dream, the last time he saw Uncle Nolan, his tenth birthday memories, and the little black box filled his head. He went to the wardrobe and under a pile of dusty National Geographic Magazines, wedged against the back wall he found the dusty black box with its wrinkled green ribbon. He opened it, and the letters spelling Pitch floated out in a green glow. Albert screamed, and the front wall of his room crumbled. Waves of sound wrapped around him, and he flew out of the top floor, up into the air and crash landed causing a hole in his mother’s Oleander bush. He wriggled his legs, but received only scratches for his trouble, he remembered that Oleander was poisonous when ingested. He began to spit to dislodge the leaves, and hope the scratches didn’t let poison in.

Mr and Mrs New stumbled onto the front verandah. Holding each other in a daze, they looked around at the fragments of house scattered all over the front yard, and lying along the edge of the road that fronted the property. As they side-stepped their way up the drive avoiding nails and jagged wedges of brick, they spotted Albert in the Oleander bush.

“Good grief,” Albert mother’s cried, “look at you spreadeagled like a stranded turtle.”

She was distressed about the fact that Albert had Oleander leaves in his mouth. “They’re poisonous, you know.”

She tut-tutted, as Mr New got the ladder, then extracted Albert in an awkward fashion from the depression he had caused in the bush. This forced Albert to climb a branch at the edge of the bush and shimmy sideways onto the ladder. At one point all their weight was resting on the top of the ladder. Mr New leapt to the ground  to stop the ladder falling sideways, onto a bed of broken bricks. They were both bruised by the landing.

Albert’s mother led her son into the cracked, dusty, but still safe kitchen and contacted the poisons information centre.  Mr New sat at the table and sighed every 30 seconds in between going in and out of the room, and looking at the pile of plaster fragments and  door splinters that littered the stairs and living room. Albert took his treatment with strange meekness, though he protested that he hadn’t actually chewed the leaves. His mother made salami sandwiches and they sat at the kitchen table, bowed with shock, staring at the plate of sandwiches in front of them.

Mr New sighed again, “So I guess I should presume that the damage to the southern end of the tomato hothouse is the result of Uncle Nolan’s something special.”

Albert nodded, and sweat appeared on his brow.

“I guess this means you’re going to have to do what you’re told from now on, and keep your mouth shut.” Mr New reached for a sandwich, “It’s amazing how a midnight feast takes the sting out of strange events.”

Albert’s mother got up to put the kettle on

“I don’t think a midnight feast is going to deal with all the problems in Albert’s future, dear.”

Albert’s mother banged the cups on the bench, and got out the hot chocolate.There was silence until the kettle whistled. They heard the distant rumble of a V8 Chevrolet engine.

“I guess we’ll need a fourth cup now,” said Mrs New “that’s Nolan if I’m not mistaken.”

“I blame the Virgin,” said Mr New, with a smirk on his face.

“I’m not sure even the Virgin’s got the whole answer to this problem,” said Albert’s mother ignoring Mr New, and reaching for the matches to light another candle.

She turned to Albert. “Mind you, your little something special could be handy if you ever got trapped in a car, or a mine.” Her eyes lit up.

Mr New looked thoughtful, “Perhaps some lucrative demolition contracts are in your future.”

“I don’t plan on any of that,” muttered Albert, resting his head on his folded arms.

The End