We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget— Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem
A COLLECTION of well-crafted essays by Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem is like going through the looking glass and landing in 1960’s California. It is a time capsule, a love letter, and a history lesson rolled into one. Joan’s writing style is engaging, and it is obvious that she is an expert in her craft.
I MET a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
What you got, son, I call it shinin on— Dick Halloran, The Shining
I HAD been wanting to read The Shining for a long time, ever since I watched the Kubrick movie years ago. I was interested to see if the mood, tension, and the oppressive presence of the Overlook Hotel would be such a strong force in the novel. My expectations were both met and exceeded. The way King brings the Overlook to life through its bloody history and monstrous projections of long-dead ghosts sends chills down your spine. It feels less like a mountain resort, and more like a gateway to hell; a living, breathing thing that swallows up the unfortunate souls that visit there.
EVEN though I always diverge from my reading list plans, I thought I’d still write a little post about I what I hope to get through in 2018. I’ll be writing essays for most of these as well, as I did last year.
Self-improvement can be achieved, but not with a quick fix. It's a long, arduous journey of personal and spiritual discovery.— Lisa Simpson
I MUST admit, I don’t normally go in for self-help books. I find the obsession over self-help celebrities somewhat unnatural. There is nothing unhealthy about the goal of improving oneself at all, just when people continue to latch on to other people selling their ideas and say “If I only I do what this guy says, my life will be great and all my problems will be solved!”
EACH rock he crushed into pebbles with his pick under the blazing sun wore him down a little more. The jolt of the impact surged up his arms, vibrated through his shoulders and his spine. He was hurting bad, sweating like a hog, and the chain gang had only been outside for an hour. The screw paced up and down the blacktop behind them, at total ease with a shotgun cradled in the crook of his arm, spitting tobacco at their feet and daring them to think about running. Not that they’d get far with heavy chains and cuffs chafing their ankles and locking them together.
And where would there be to run? Desert on either side of the highway, nothing to hide behind except a couple of lonely mesas. No water or food for at least twenty miles. And long before then you’d be hunted down like a dog, swarmed by the state police. It was better to keep your head down, withdraw inside your own mind. Hum a tune and try and block out the pain, and maybe that sun would creep a little quicker across the sky.
Not for the first time he wondered what he’d done to deserve this. Breaking and entering, stealing some cheap jewellery, almost getting blown away. The judge handed down his eight year stretch and yawned. Yawned. Like he was thinking about what he’d have for dinner that night. The rocks morphed into the judge’s face, and the bitterness welled inside him again.
A rumble in the distance made him prick up his ears. He glanced down the road while the screw was looking the other way. An old pickup truck was lumbering toward the crew. It would pass right behind him. He’d be lucky if he didn’t wear their trash. The warden encouraged the gentle citizens of the town to teach them a lesson in their own way, for being the scum of society. Heaving the pick again, he sent it swinging to chip at another stone.
The brakes squealed, and a shot blasted. The screw dropped to the ground in a heap, his hat tumbling away into the ditch. Some old boys got out of the truck and came over to him. He squinted up in the glare and saw his brother’s face shimmering there.
Break the chains not the rocks, his brother said, and helped crack the links. The other inmates stared at the fugitive, then at the screw, the keys glinting at his belt and blood seeping through his uniform. The man’s wife would be none too happy about that.
The fugitive grabbed up one of the rocks he broke from the ground as a souvenir. They were over the state line by midday.
Written for the Swinburne Microfiction Challenge 2017. The theme was BREAK.
FOUR days have passed since we last saw familiar ground. Our flesh runs with sweat in the pressure cooker of the deep jungle. I lick my lips and relish the moisture. The last of our water ran out this morning, and there is no stream nor pond in sight. A malfunction with the compass, something deeply wrong with the earth here, led us to be lost in this cursed place. We knew we were damned when our native guides left us, melding into the bush like ghosts. I hack at the vines with a machete, but each time I cut one down two more take its place, like some wild green hydra.
The leeches drink their fill of our blood each night. Cracking of twigs and the hooting of wild beasts are enough to drive one mad in the dark where not even moonlight can breach the canopy. Just like Perkins, muttering in his sleep, delirious with fever. They’re coming for you Perkins. I sharpen my machete and wait for the war cries, though none come. Only glinting eyes in the dark. The next morning we eat the last of our food in silence. There is nothing left to say, and our throats are too parched to say it anyway.
My thighs chafe, my skin itches like fire ants are upon it, and I pass the time by reciting Hail Marys in my head. We discarded the map and compass long ago, seeking to navigate by instinct like our ancestors. All we had to do was find the river, there lay our salvation. Perkins drops dead to the ground at mid-day, doing as he was born to do. I rifle his pockets, find a scrap of food, a flask of water. Seems when he lost his wits he lost his memory too. I leave him there for the jungle to claim.
Whether by fate or the hand of God or by sheer luck, I find the river. I shamble ghoul-like out of the trees, fall to my knees in the grey mud of the riverbank, and suck down the brown water. They find me in the same place later that day, drifting downriver in the barge. I wade out to them, hoping no crocodile or worse creature would take me, and they pull me aboard with a gaff.
“Where is Perkins?” they ask, examining me like some rare insect of the tropics.
I pointed back where I’d come, into the dense tangle of trees.
“Go and find him if you wish.”
Written for the Swinburne Microfiction Challenge 2017. The theme was LOST.
WE just need some space, she breathed, taking another sip of awful filter coffee out of her porcelain mug. I barely heard her over the conversation of the others in the diner, the clang of utensils on the griddle. I took a drag of my cigarette, dribbled ash onto the formica. A wave of nausea built up inside of me that had little to do with the smoke.
I suppose I should have seen this coming. We’d drifted away from each other these past months. Her mother died, and I wasn’t there to comfort her between work and school. There was nothing to bring us back together, like we’d pushed off from each other in the vacuum of space.
The ding of the order bell brought me back down to earth. She was staring at me expectantly with those big brown eyes, waiting for me to say some thing to try and save us. Steam wafted over from the kitchen. It smelled of old grease and burnt potato. I gaped my mouth like a fish but no words came.
A ghost in a blue apron came over, tried to fill our cups. I shielded mine with my hand as if it was poison being poured. It sure tasted like it. I asked for the cheque instead. A slice of cold pie wasn’t going to help us now.
After she left I stared at the space where she sat only a moment ago, the cushion of the booth slowly re-inflating.
Written for the Swinburne Microfiction Challenge 2017. The theme was SPACE.
MY FATHER was a coal man, and his before him. Wasn’t much other work you could do in those days. Not where I grew up anyhow. Ever since I was a tyke I remember him leaving off for work every morning, clean as a whistle, kissing ma on the cheek. She wouldn’t touch him with a ten foot pole when he got home at the end of a day. Not until he washed at least. I remember her laying down newspaper from the front door to the bathroom so he wouldn’t track so much soot all over her damn floors.
Hard as he worked he still had time for all of us. Whenever there was a work stoppage, or some union problems at the mine, he never spent it sinking beers at the bar like the others. He’d play ball with us, or have a make believe tea party with my sisters. I guess we were lucky he never took out his problems on us. I guess that’s why I looked up to him as much as I did.
Eventually I started doing some, I guess you could say, peculiar things. I’d go out in the yard and find the biggest, nastiest puddle of muck I could and cover myself head to toe in it. Ma had a king size fit every time I did it. After a while she quit being mad about it. Having four other kids to keep track of, she decided I wasn’t worth the trouble. My old man just laughed and laughed. One day he gave me an old cracked helmet he’d found at work. All I wanted in life was to be like him.
Things don’t always work out that way though. I went off to the city when I grew up, chasing the horizon like every other kid in history. I’d see the family at Christmas, call on birthdays, the usual. All the while he kept going back to those mines, day in day out. One day the phone call was different. It’s his lungs, ma said through tears. He’s coughing blood. The dust and the dirt’s killing him.
It didn’t take long. He’d held off going to the doctor as long as he could, so they found it late. Last time I saw him alive he was as clean as a whistle again, lying in a hospital bed. I could tell he hated it, but he smiled at as all just the same. On the day of the funeral I stood at the edge of his grave and crumbled a clump of soil onto his coffin. It was the least I could do for the old man. Ashes to ashes, said the priest, dust to dust.
Written for the Swinburne Microfiction Challenge 2017. The theme was DIRT.
AS A little introduction, recently the Digital Writers’ Festival with a few different events, projects, and livestreams that emerging writers could participate in. One such event was the Swinburne Microfiction Challenge, where for ten days a single word theme was released, and you could submit a five hundred word piece on that theme. I managed to submit for five of those days. This is the first, where the theme was HOME.
The trees had not changed, nor had the hills or the meadows, in the years Ignacio had been at war. Golden stalks of wheat rippled in the breeze by the roadside, and his horse puffed and snorted now and then at some familiar scent.
Pain nagged at his thigh, a reminder of the arrowhead that had lodged there. He was one of the lucky ones. Injured rather than sent screaming to his judgement. Mud and sweat clung to his skin in the throes of battle. That washed off at least. Many a man’s blood was still on his hands.
Home was never driven to the dark corners of his mind, even in such a hell. It was the only thing that kept him and the other soldiers going most days. You’d know each man by the name of his village. Cortegana. Mojacar. Inazares. They’d fought and died together, and most never made it back to tell their tale.
Not Ignacio though. He was there when the tide had turned, when the great gates of the capital came crashing down, when they had charged forth to sweet victory. And now he idly rode among the fields he’d known since he was a child. Home to his beloved Maria, and a lasting peace, warm hearth, and honest work. No more killing.
Though some nameless dread nagged at his mind. Once there had been goldfinches chirping, flitting here and there across the wheat, clamping insects in their tiny beaks. There was none of that now, only the lonely sigh of the wind. No woodsmoke hung in the air either. Could it be that the wind had merely swept it away?
Ignacio urged his horse into a trot. The village would be just around the bend in the road, right where he remembered it. Blacksmith’s anvil ringing, the laughter of children at play, the baying of dogs and goats. The sounds of peace. His sweet Maria waiting to take back the favour she had given him for good fortune all those years ago.
It looked as though it had been razed some time ago. Weeds grew among the clumps of charred wood and stone. The bleached bones of a dead dog were scattered in the street. Not a single building was left standing. Despair threatened to drown him, so he dug in his spurs and galloped toward his cottage. Toward home.
Maria did not wait for him there. She was gone, called back to the Lord with the others. He dismounted and limped toward the threshold. A deer raised its head from the wreckage at his approach, turned its great sad eyes upon him, then fled from that place of slaughter. Ignacio fell to his knees at the lintel, sifted his hands through the ashes to find proof that his beloved had ever existed.
A silver cross. It had once dangled from her slender neck and caught the sun. He kissed it and held it close, and wept until the sunset.