Monday, March 31, 2014

Your Scratched-Out Nails Are Beautiful

Truly, your bitten-nail fingers, covered
with scratched-out polish and messy cuticles and
love and
stress and
worry
are the most beautiful thing about you.
When I look at them, I see
you know
you feel
you care.
Beneath the ragged crust of keratin
designed to protect your nerves from harm
are the parts of you that feel most deeply,
need most keenly,
share most openly
And these,
your ragged nails, your scratched-out attempts
at conforming to society’s expectations –
they are just a cover.
These nails, they show
you for what you truly are
and you are
beautiful.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Making of An Overlord

He sits in the shuddering darkness with his arms clasped around the neck and shoulders of his hound. The dog tolerates the confinement for just long enough to show he cares, then wriggles free and abuses his master’s tear-stained face with kisses.
The boy laughs, then wraps one hand firmly over his own mouth, fingers sealing emotions in tight. His father cannot hear. He pushes the hound, still only a double handful of months old, away from his face and into the straw.
The dog is good-natured about the rejection, upending himself to present his belly and waving his paws invitingly.
The boy obliges with a belly rub.
The magic comes questing, prickling like ice, smooth as seeping oil and just as falsely pretty: a slick of shimmer overcoating magic that’s meant to smother and choke and claim.
The boy’s heart flutters like the pulse of a dying bird, and he snatches at the dog. He doesn’t let himself whisper no, because it’s possible his father hasn’t found him yet, is just checking in here to be thorough—but he isn’t hopeful. Dread weighs him down like a bad meal, a meal he has been ingesting every day of his life through all the pores of his skin. His body knows this feeling all too well, and leaps to familiar patterns: his mouth is dry, his fingers tremble, his throat too tight to swallow. The tremoring staccato of his heart marks a rhythm his nerves are all-too-keen to follow, and adrenalin and cortisol play two-part harmonies through his torso.
It is the fear his father senses, like a predator drawn to prey, like an overlord drawn to weakness, like an abusive parent drawn to the only shape they recognise their child in. The magic enfolds him, and his skin prickles.
Overlords will not waste their time on frivolous interactions, Father reminds him sternly in his head. I’ve told your mother a thousand times that dog was a bad idea. But she coddles you. Always has.
The magic winds tighter until it hurts to move. The hound pup quits straining against the boy’s grasp and begins to whine.
The boy can just twitch his fingers to mimic rubbing the dog’s ear, and the dog quiets.
You will be an overlord, Deviran. It’s what you were born to be, and you of all should know that destinies must be fulfilled. Overlords cannot afford emotional attachment; it is unseemly. You want to do well, don’t you? You want to make me proud? His father sounds confused, and Deviran hears the words he doesn’t speak: How could I have fathered this son? Why does he never seem grateful for what I offer?
Tears that have no light to shine in fill Deviran’s eyes. “Yes, Daddy,” he whispers through lips brittle as autumn leaves. I want you to be proud. He wants it so much that his chest hurts, and even if the magic wasn’t drawing tighter still, he’d find it hard to breathe. “I want you to be proud.”
The magic shifts, so subtlely that for a moment he doesn’t understand what’s changed. But then the dog yelps, convulses, and Deviran can’t even move to draw him close, can’t break against the bonds of his father’s restraint to show the only creature who’s loved him in all the world that he’s here, that he cares, that it hurts…
The dog convulses again, grunting and frothing interspersed with whines that shred against Deviran’s chest. Soft fur becomes an instrument of torture, silky ears files that scour away his skin. A paw shoots out in the darkness and claws rake against Deviran’s face. He doesn’t even feel the pain.
The tears that magic bids stay begin to fall.
Now, says Father, now you will be the overlord you were born to become. Say thank you.
Deviran cannot speak, cannot think, cannot move against the weight of the warm slip of happiness lying broken on his legs.
The magic grips him, arching him backwards until his spine protests in pain so hot it could be fire. I said, say thank you!
“Thank you!” Deviran gasps, the words tearing from him like a limb. “Thank you!”
The magic releases him and he falls to the ground on his back. He lies still for a moment, then, when he realises he can move again, twists sideways, curling his body around the hound who is still so warm and soft his dying doesn’t seem real. The shuddering darkness closes in once more as the magic fades away, and Deviran mumbles oaths into the young dog’s ruff.
I will avenge you.
I will never be my father.
I will never be an overlord.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Midsummer Queen

I never understood the ones who said they feared the night. Light was the harbinger of evil in my world. The first rays of dawn meant the yelling started. It wasn’t until sunset that they would pass out again, falling asleep as the sun set. The night gave me strength to live. Under the moonlight I had no bruises.

Midsummer was the worst. Long days shortened the hours of my freedom. I despised the spring blossoms, hated that they meant the night was quickening away. Sometimes I prayed for an early winter. Deep frost, snow, hunger, starvation... none of those mattered if I could wrap myself in a blanket of darkness.

It is noon by the sundial and the garden is in full bloom. Lanterns are being hung throughout the town as people embrace the summer solstice. From the caverns of the kitchen I can hear the bickering of two old woman. Years of jealousy spill between them, a vile acid that’s etched itself into the stone.

From the balcony above I hear the snide mocking of another pair who feed on that acid hatred and give it life in their bosoms. Daylight makes a solemn mockery of all I love.

Quietly, I pull my sleeve down to hide the hand prints that blacken my flesh. Others think I do it out of some kind of vanity, that I hide my moon-pale skin from the sun because I do not embrace the summer’s golden glow. It is not true. Had I no horror to hide, I too would embrace the sun. But how can I when the cold and distant sun is nothing more to me than the witch’s pyre?

“Iulia!” a maid calls my name and I am stolen from the gardens to the goblin’s den. Beautiful as the first true spring morning is the woman I have called Mother all my life. She is radiant and fair to behold. Praised by men, idolized by artists, all who see her bow in awe. They should tremble in fear, for that fair face hides a cruelty that no other creature can possess. Not even a cat tormenting a mouse matches her for cold-hearted pain.

Yet I bow before her, fearing the lash of both her whip and her tongue.

“You are an ugly child.” She has said so all my life.

“Forgive me. I know no other way to be.”

Her gold slippers glitter in the sunlight as she stalks around me, a lioness looking for a weakness. “When I was your age there were men that avowed they would die if they could not dance with me. Kings went to war to win my hand. Maidens took their own lives because they saw me and knew they could never compare.”

“M’lady is the greatest wonder of the modern world,” I said. “Not even the sun is more radiant than she.” This is the prayer I learned in childhood. My scripture is a paean of praise to the woman I hate most.

“Who would see my beauty slip away?”

“No one, my queen. The world would die for want of you.”

“True.” A leather crop caresses my cheek. It is her form of endearment. “Once I hoped you would reign beside me, the Little Queen. The moon to my sun. But it cannot be.”

The cold leather dug into my cheek and I feel hot blood well up where the rough edge cuts me. “M’lady has other daughters, both radiant and fair.” All were dead. The gravestones bordered the garden like a white marble fence. No beauty that competed with her was allowed to live. Yet she birthed daughters like a queen bee, always searching for her destruction. It made her feel alive.

“Tonight we will have visitors to help us celebrate the solstice. Won’t that be nice?”

Victims for the altar. Suitors from abroad. “They are lucky indeed that the most beautiful of all women allows them to walk in her presence.” No matter what my heart feels I must keep to the well-worn script.
The leather crop strikes across my back, a brief riff of pain between my shoulder blades. “Go. Make yourself presentable. Our guests will be on the altar before the sun sets.”

So it is every year. Her sacrifice to the elder gods. Her assurance of power and beauty.

I flee the room and catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Pale skin, white as a winter moon, with hot red blood crusting on my cheek. My pale green dress is marked by the same blood on my back. My hair, crimson as my blood, is matted and filthy. Still, I lift my chin as I walk. The moon is rising, a pale assassin in the sky, and I can feel the strength it gives me.

No one marks my appearance. The servants never rush to help me. They know all too well that the queen only meets out the punishment deserved. Why else would she beat her only living child?
In the cool darkness of my room near the dungeons I bathe. The water sluices over me, washing away and the pain and fear. Resolution strengthens my bones. Tonight the moon rises early. 

Tonight, I too will ascend, either to flee this golden kingdom or to stand upon the altar as a sacrifice myself; I do not care. All I wish to do is escape the woman who gave me life. The woman who makes my every nightmare come true.

The bells ring in the square. The visitors are here. For them I shed no tear. Greed led them here, or lust perhaps. The wealthy widow queen whose beauty is beyond compare. They come to claim her, to take what is not theirs. In return she takes their lives to lengthen her own.

“Iulia.” Her voice crawls through the darkness like a spider.

“Mother.” I step out in my pale gray dress. My crimson hair is bound up under a dark gold veil. Tonight I am no more than a statue in my mother’s menagerie.

Her cold fingers grasp my chin through the veil. “Do you not love me child? Have I not given you everything? Have I not laid aside my own desires to see you well? When you were ill, was it not I who sacrificed everything to win the favor of the elder gods and see you healed? Your father would have let you die, but what did I do?”

“You saved me.”

“Yes, I saved you. I gave up everything I held precious so I could see you live.”

How generous were the elder gods to give her endless life when all she asked for was a child’s health... but this I do not say. I did once, and I learned how long it takes for bones to mend. “You are more generous than I can say,” I whisper.

“Come, child. Walk with me. Our visitors must see how much I love my child.”

The stone walls feel like a tomb, although I know my life will end in fire. One day my mother will tire of me. One day she will cease to toy with me and will slit my throat. Drink my blood. One day, she will offer me to the elder gods to capture another season in the sun.

Our footfalls lead to the garden, then down to the gate, and finally to the long white path to the square. The setting sun heats our backs. To the people waiting we are two figures – one glowing and golden, one dark and severe – walking out of the light. They wait, hearts racing in their chests. The queen’s magic stretches out, ensnaring them, entangling them in their own wanton wishes.

I look up at the high and pale moon. The sun is falling. The moon reigns.

Almost unbidden, the silver knife appears in my hand, hidden by the fall of my sleeve.

Beside me, my mother pauses. Sunlight dances along the knife edge and the whole world holds still. Which heart calls to this blade? Whose blood will drip from its curving silver tip?  

“Iulia?” My mother looks so confused. “Whatever have I done to you, child, to make you hate me?”


The blade leaps for her throat and I whisper, “Everything.” 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

At the Shrine of the Godless

Deep in the woods
where the light filters down,
and the godless kneel
with their heads to the ground,
not a creature stirs and
the wind is still
as it pauses to hear
a dead man’s will.

For this is the shrine
of murderers, knaves;
people whose fingers
outnumber their days.
This is the place
where the scoundrels go
before they are tied
in a hangman’s bow.

For here, if they cry
there’s a chance they’ll be heard
by the creature who’s bound
by iron and word—
and if they are lucky, and
if they are blessed,
the darkness won’t hear and
their death will mean rest.

But if they are cursed
and their mutterings true,
they’ll waken the demon
whom God never knew.
They’ll take their place
in the deathcap row,
spirits entrapped here
forever ago

by the violence and evil that
sooted their hearts,
withered their conscience,
corrupted their arts. 
Yet still they will kneel,
though they hear the cries
of the dead men before them
who clung to their lives,

for this is the place
where the dead men grow,
this is the shrine
of the godless.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Purity

The parking lot is covered in a foot of storm water, and the wind whips up waves like it’s a sea. I’ve no idea how we’re going to get to the service station—or what we’re going to find once we’re inside.

Beside me, Reg shifts, his lined face twitching and flickering like it has a life of its own. “Think we should do it?” he mutters.

I jerk my head in a nod that feels precariously like falling. “Of course we should do it.”

He rearranges the shotgun under his trench coat, and we set out.

The dark concrete of the parking lot turns the water inky grey, and oil slicks float on the surface. It seeps into my boots, icy cold fingers that set me shivering even through the garbage bags I’m wearing under my trousers as waterproof knee-high socks. The wind cuts through my thin coat—it doesn’t help that one sleeve has nearly been torn off and the buttons are all missing—and all that, combined with the hunger gnawing in my stomach, is almost enough to make me wish we hadn’t set out on this foolhardy adventure in the first place. Sadly, when you’re hunting a unicorn, there’s no stopping till it’s dead—or you are.

Reg trudges resignedly on, heavy steps sloshing and splashing the foul water, and I follow. All over town is like this now: half submerged, water leeching oil and tar and carbon monoxide and other cloying chemicals from the buildings. It’s only been a week, but already the southlands are crumbling; their concrete was cheap, sand-filled stuff, the bricks half-backed clay, and none of it is strong enough to withstand the onslaught.

One of Reg’s splashes catch me on the cheek, and I reel for a moment as the water zaps me like electricity. I wipe it off with the back of my sleeve, knowing that where it’s gone, my skin will be left glowing and fresh. I can totally understand why the first victims fell willingly, bathing themselves in water that seemed to create perfection. Thank heavens I have goggles.

The wind brings steel-coloured clouds that boil overhead, and I prod Reg in the back. “Storm’s coming,” I say.

He glances up, exhales through his nostrils, and carries on.

A downpour will be the end of us if we don’t find shelter—but we’re close now, touchingly close, and we couldn’t break away even if we tried.

The service station looms ahead, casting a shadow even in this dim, directionless light. It’s a toad hulking in the corner of its pond, waiting for a fly to mistake it for a boulder, ready to dart out its tongue and consume the unwary. Light radiates from windows that are crystal clear, dripping sludge marks below their panes the only remnants of their former dirt-and-oil coatings. Somewhere in there, working to purify the whole damn world, is the unicorn.

We duck under the shelter of the awning right as the rains begin. As usual, they’re torrential, a flash downpour that blocks the senses: everything is grey, rushing water, the smell of wet concrete and oil.

I cock my head; underneath the roar of the water, something else is groaning. I glance up. “Look out!” I tackle Reg to the ground and roll, and the collapsing roof misses us by inches. We’re stuck between the wreckage and the building now, and all I can see is the pitted, metal girders that have twisted and torn.

“You right?” I ask Reg, offering him a hand.

Muttering under his breath, he ignores me and shoves himself to his feet. He resets his bucket hat on his greying head, adjusts the shotgun, and tightens the sash on his trench coat.

Once I’m sure he’s okay, I pull my own coat tighter around me and fold my arms to stop it flapping. The comforting weight of the frabah powder weighs down my pocket.

Our eyes meet. It’s time to go in. With a deep inhale, I place my palms against the sparkling glass door of the service centre.

Reg stands shoulder to shoulder with me. “Go on, then, lass.”

I push. Sweet, fresh air wafts out to meet us; the unicorn must have been here a while.

We ease ourselves through the door and stand staring at the aisles. Water covers the floor here too, though not as deeply, and instead of deathly grey it’s brilliant: rainbow hued, swirled like a Paddle Pop of old—though in a strange way that twists the mind, ‘of old’ is only last week.

On the shelf next to the door, just to our right, a chip packet has survived unscathed. Halfway down the aisle in front of us, a packet of Tim Tams seems intact. I wade over to the ice cream freezer and peer in. It’s a riot of colour from the plastic and the ice creams, and chocolate sludge coats the inside. The glass that covers it, though, is pristine.

I push my goggles up and wipe my hands up my face then back down over my eyes. I’m tired. This has to end. Maybe if we’d been out bush this wouldn’t have mattered so much; if we hadn’t lived in a jungle of concrete and steel, artificial chemicals and preservatives that pervade all the food we have, maybe the unicorn wouldn’t have mattered.

But we don’t. If we’re purified, we’ll die.

A noise sounds behind the counter. Reg and I whip around in the same instant, and light, blinding, glorious, perfect light, streams out from the unicorn and burns my eyes. I throw up my arms to shield them against it and the shotgun barks beside me, once, twice, and again.

That’s my cue. I dart my eyes open for an instant to check that the way is clear, and then running blind I sprint towards the counter—towards the unicorn that is our death. I wrap my hand about the pure hemp bag holding the organic herbs that, crushed together, make frabah powder. I can feel the unicorn’s power burning me; my tatty, filthy clothes fall away, first the coat, then my shirt and pants, the garbage bags, and finally my elastane-blended sports bra. Thank heavens I went for cotton undies. But I’ve no time to be embarrassed (and I’ve nothing that’ll bounce anyway), because the light is burning my skin now—though at least if I come out of this alive I’ll be unicorn-bathed, my skin flawless and glowing.

But I’m at the counter, and I launched myself over it, scrabbling on the little shelves that once held chocolate bars. I’m kneeling on it and the unicorn, blindingly white, pure bliss, perfection incarnate, stands before me, eyeing me with one glorious golden eye before swinging its deadly point towards me. I reach into hemp bag, grab a handful of powder, and as the unicorn stabs I toss. The powder sticks to the unicorn like glue.

It freezes, death-point half an inch from goring my stomach. My heart’s pounding in my ears so loud I can’t even hear the rain any more. The unicorn’s glow turns gold. All over it, hairline cracks run likes spiders, faster and faster and faster until—

The unicorn shatters like crystal. The chime of it sounds through the air and I cringe, hands over my ears. A sharp pain pops in my left air and my hand comes away wet with blood. Crystal shards rain down, slicing into my skin.

Something sweeps over me and I struggle wildly, but it’s Reg, covering me with the coat he’s stripped out of, and the noise I can here in my good ear is just the alarm system of the building as he helps me down off the counter.

I stand beside him, shivering. The ceiling drips, rainbow water swirls around our feet, and outside the rain has stopped. Something golden burst through the window and my heart stops for a second because it looks like the last light of the unicorn—but it’s just sunshine, and already the window it shines through is grimier, and the water in the parking lot’s clearing.

Reg grunts and hands me that last chip packet. “Okay, lass?”


I nod, accepting it. “Okay.”