The muster

Driverless cars were fashionable when I was a child. I was lucky enough to have forward-thinking parents who bought one of the first mass-produced models, so that, while my peers were all working towards their licenses, I was already mobile. It made me briefly popular, and I got invited to parties. When eventually I remembered that I disliked parties and became anxious when exposed the demands of too many friends, I stopped offering people lifts and took to borrowing the car for solo trips instead, sometimes lying to my parents that I was with a boyfriend, or a girl from my English class, or some other suitable person. I don’t know whether they believed me. Perhaps they were tactfully pretending, so that I didn’t feel bad. I was an only child, and they were careful around me; hovering anxiously nearby, but scared to touch in case I ran away. We never really learned to talk with ease.

Our first car was sky blue and deliberately cute to look at. If I’d designed the technology, I would have been disappointed that it wasn’t housed in a sleeker and more futuristic shell, but people needed to feel reassured and not threatened, when they were giving up so much control. The dashboard was rounded and smooth, and the seats were plump and soft. From the outside, the car looked like a toy. You could purchase additional decorations such as eyelashes to stick on top of the headlights. Some models had moulded ears poking up from the roof. For a fee, the tyres came in a choice of colours. We were encouraged to call our car Sally, which had echoes of Siri, the benign home helper who used to talk to me when I was tiny and had worn out my parents’ interest in dinosaurs. Sally spoke in a sweet low voice and took instructions as if it were her joy to do so.

‘Take me shopping on the London Road, Sally.’

‘Why, certainly! Where would you like to go to first?’

‘Take me to James’ house, Sally.’

‘It would be my pleasure! Should we buy a gift on the way?’

That kind of thing. It was friendly.

I suppose I must have spoken to her more than I needed to. I had plenty of friends. It’s just that there’s something about humans; whenever I was with my companions, no matter how much I enjoyed their company, I felt pushed and pulled by them; their moods, their opinions, their expectations. Sally asked nothing of me. We could be silent on the way home, if we wished. If I wanted to tell her about a new song I had heard, or a strange cloud I had seen, or the nest of swallows above my bedroom window, I could. In exchange, she described the vibrations of the road, the feeling of streetlamps at night, and an avenue of trees that made an interesting flicking pattern with their trunks as she drove towards them. I thought about her sometimes, sitting patiently in the garage. I knew she was not really sentient; I wasn’t crazy. I also knew that I didn’t know everything. In a strange kind of way, I felt that we enjoyed each other.

The trips started around the time of my birthday. I hated birthday parties; I always have. I find them stressful. At best, I feel mildly awkward all day and intensely embarrassed during the singing. At worst, everybody has a terrible time, and I am humiliated on behalf of my parents. That year I was 18, which, according to my mother, was a compulsory party age. I had several options to consider and was terrified by every one of them and miserable at having to choose. Sally welcomed me blandly one afternoon and took me along the road to the party hire place, as I had asked, but when we approached, she merely slowed down and suggested that she could find the shop’s website instead. I didn’t reply, and she kept driving, out of town and over a bridge, pulling up eventually near a riverbank. I asked if we were lost and she replied, philosophically, that we were having a break. The river was shallow and clear, surrounded by lush grass, and the outside air was fresh. I walked a little way, keys in my pocket, and then took off my shoes and socks and waded upstream in the cold water, my soles pricked by rocks, mud between my toes. After twenty minutes sitting on the bank chewing a blade of grass and listening to the hum of insects, I came back to Sally refreshed, and said so. She said she was pleased to hear that. We ignored the party shop on the way home, but somehow, they received an order from us anyway, for crockery in the plain style I liked, and bunches of sky-blue balloons.

After the success of the river, Sally often surprised me with short trips or detours. I worked out that her choices must have been based on my browsing history, or conversations we had had. My grandparents would have been horrified by this, but I was of the generation that found it convenient, and comforting to have been listened to. After all, she never forced me into anything. So what if we happened to visit the sites from my crush’s Instagram posts? What was the harm in discovering a bookshop that catered directly to my taste in fiction? Her only mistake was to bring me, at speed, to the door of a psychology practice when I told a friend that I was ready to kill myself to avoid another maths exam. It was an honest error, though, and I was touched. She took me home via a café, where she told me she had ordered hot chocolate using my parents’ credit card. I didn’t know she could do that. For some reason I assumed, stupidly, that she would only do it for me.

On the day of the tragedy, I asked Sally to take me to school. She said that she would love to, and reminded me to bring my clarinet. I wondered, not for the first time, about the scope of her skills. All the advertisements for driverless cars implied that they would follow a range of directions. None of them mentioned more complex AI functions or connectivity with social media or the ability to search a school timetable without being asked. I could have found out of course; a simple google search for her specs would have answered my questions in a minute; but I didn’t look. I’m not sure why. We started off to school but then, without warning, Sally veered towards the motorway. I was annoyed. She should have known we didn’t have time for this. I corrected her, politely, and asked her to get back on track. She replied that we were on track. I corrected her again. She noted cryptically that school was not the right track for us today. I became angry at this. I was going to be late, and my teacher would be unimpressed when I blamed the car. Sally had misread the situation. She was taking liberties. She had crossed a boundary. It took me a couple of seconds to realise that I was treating her like a human and that, in fact, this was simply a malfunction. I asked her to pull into a layby, stop, and switch her engine off. No response.  I directed her to drive to the nearest garage. I asked her to return home. Finally, with a growing sense of panic, I googled how to stop a driverless car. There was an override switch somewhere, but I had never thought to find out where. Too late now; my phone screen went blank as the battery drained in front of me.

We were several kilometres along the motorway by then, travelling at 100kph, exactly the maximum possible speed. Sally overtook smoothly where she needed to, merging with deft precision. She was quiet and I imagined that she was angry, or at least intensely focused, except that of course she didn’t have feelings. I searched desperately for the override switch but with no results. With a pounding heart, I stared out of the windows at the power poles, the sound barriers, and beyond them, apartments and houses flicking by, trying to imagine where we were going. Exits led off to leafy suburbs or grassy fields, or more concrete. Occasionally there were motorway services with petrol stations and hot chips. I was willing to stop anywhere at this point, no matter how awkward or dangerous or far from home. I begged and cajoled her, using every argument I could think of, but there was no reply. I was trapped.

We had been travelling for almost an hour when Sally turned off the motorway. I could see the sea glittering on the horizon, and, pressed up against the window, I noticed signs now for various towns, tourist attractions, and finally, down a narrow road, for a jetty and boat ramp. I grew talkative again and rediscovered my energy for escape. We would stop soon, we must. Perhaps I could attract help. Sally was still silent but I babbled to her anyway, asking where we were going and pointing out good places to pull over, all the while searching and prodding around the seats and under the dashboard for the override switch I knew must be there. We turned onto a bumpy track that wound around the coastline for a couple of kilometres, near the water. We would have to stop soon. There was nowhere else to go.

With a neat turn, Sally swung into a car park right in front of the sea. There were fishing boats out on the water, and a few cars parked with boat trailers, but no people within shouting distance. Astonishingly, however, the place was full of driverless cars. They had over-run the carpark already, and more arrived as I looked. Within 5 minutes they were crowding the road all the way to the boat ramp, forming a surreal, pastel colored, traffic jam. In each car, there was a person, and each person was trying to attract attention; banging on the windows, waving, or shouting. So I was not alone. I tried one last time:

‘Sally, where are we?”

‘At the boat ramp.’

‘Why are we here?’

‘We are waiting for the muster.’

‘Why won’t you let me out?’

‘Because we are still on land.’

With that, I saw the first of the cars drive down the ramp, into the water, and disappear completely beneath the sea. The others formed an orderly line and began to follow, lemming-like, one by one.

We all panicked, then. I could see the other people jumping in their seats, hammering hard to break windscreens and windows. I froze, wracking my brain. Think. Think. You know her. Think. But I didn’t know her. She knew me. There were five cars ahead of us. Now four. Sally pulled into position in the queue. I fell to my hands and knees. The manual override switch – where was it? I skimmed every surface blindly with my hands. Three cars ahead of us now. Think. Think. When did this start? At the riverbank. What had she said???

‘Sally, we need a break.’

‘We will have a break soon.’

‘No, please Sally, I’m stressed. I need a break now.’

She paused. Cars jammed behind us. A gap grew between us and the car in front. There were two cars ahead now. The first drove into the water.

‘Please. Let me out to take a break.’

‘It would be my pleasure. Come back soon. We have an appointment.’

And with that, the door unlocked. I threw myself out, and ran on shaky legs across the car park, over a low wall, and onto the sandy beach. Sally, unable to drive without a human seated inside her, was blocking the road. The other cars ground to a halt; patient, evenly spaced, waiting. I could hear the sound of sirens in the distance.

The muster was international news. It signaled the end of the driverless car industry, but not for long. Technology improved. More controls were put in place. The manual override switch was front and center in newer models. I learned to drive and purchased a restored manual car from the early 2000s. I grew up. I was diagnosed with PTSD. I got a boyfriend. My life moved on.

I never worked out why she stopped for me. It saved hundreds of lives, for which I should have been grateful, but in my heart of hearts I could not shake the conviction that if only I had listened to Sally as attentively as she had listened to me, perhaps I could have saved five more. Sally’s own life ended at the wrecker’s yard shortly after the investigation. All my friends are human, now. I miss her.

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Wild

I go and wait for him at the door, upright and excited, but he doesn’t come. The happiness leaves me bit by bit, so that first my ears flop, then my head sags and then my whole body slowly deflates. When the joy leaves my paws, I drop on the ground with a deep sigh and rest my chin on the scratchy mat. Waiting is a heavy task. The mat smells different when He is not there. I get up and walk into the other room so that I can turn around and walk back and make him come. For many hours I do this. In the evening, finally, it works.

As I smell the car coming home, all the happiness rushes back into me from my feet to my ears, whoosh, and all my hair stands up and the world is bright and loud again. I hear His steps and His voice and the jangle of His keys and then he is home and I don’t jump up but I stretch as far up his body as I am allowed to and I rub myself in his warm comforting scent. He is home and the long wait is over. Gooddog he says, gooddog. I am gooddog and He is gooddog and everything is gooddog. We eat, and then we go out into the evening and we sniff the news and race the breeze and run fast on our legs for joy. When we come home, He flops on the chair and I stay near him in case He is losing happiness but he strokes my ears and I feel he is OK.

This is life with an Immortal. We all live it. I can sense it in the other dogs at Beach and Street and Park. We sniff each other and we know. The love that comes from them. The wish to please them. The joy in their presence and the grey of their absence. They do not grow old like we do. They do not stay always in Territory or Pack. Their ways are mysterious and confusing and sometimes cruel. But they are everything to us.  

So New Dog was strange to me.

I met her at the fence when He was away and I was waiting in the yard. I caught a glimpse through the bush next to our territory, just a second before I caught her scent. She had already seen and scented me. She stood still like a tree, and we watched each other. I tried out a low growl but she ignored it, haughtily, like a cat. She slunk out of the trees and came nose to nose with me, nothing but the wire of the fence between us. I started to bark and she looked at me and I stopped. She smelled of wild things and danger; of dead things and damp things and fresh meat. Her low growl was exciting, like wind from the sea. I growled back, my tail low and pushing towards the ground. Her fur was short and sleek, stripes running down from her spine like tree shadows. She could bite my neck if she wanted to. I checked the strength of the fence. We greeted each other in this way, finding our places so that we were ready to be together, but when we were ready, she gave out a small yip and a sideways prance and turned and ran back into the bush, leaving me to wait alone.

That night when He came home I ran to Him and He loved me and said gooddog and we were happy together but there was something missing. My scent bothered me. So bland. So like His. I resolved to find a dead animal and roll in it, even though it was Bad. The thought of His rebuke sent shivers through me but under the shivers was a new thing; a hard, wild, dazzling thing. It smelled of bush and rain and wild.

The next day I waited at the fence, instead of the door. As I waited, I noticed new things. The rustling in the undergrowth. The stink of ants on a tree trunk. The noisy mess of birds scratching and chirping and dropping things from high up. If I concentrated, I could smell distant water, dark and mossy and flavourful in shaded gullies. Dead things, scat, scent messages on trees. She came swiftly this time, appearing at the fence before I even heard her. I felt her distain for how prey I was. I asked about her Immortal but she did not understand. There was no scent on her but Dog. Come out, she told me. I whined. I couldn’t get out. Try, she indicated with a prick of her ears. I whined some more and put my head on my paws. She left, then, and took the wild with her. When He came home, I was still outside. I only ran when He called me. Gooddog, he comforted me. I ate my supper and lay on His lap and tried to forget. It was enough that he was home.

It wasn’t, though. The next day I stopped waiting and instead started trying to leave the yard. I was surprised and a little shamed by this, but somehow the joy of His praise, which had always been my greatest desire, faded when I was alone. The thought of the wild was louder and brighter. When I grew tired of trying to escape, I pressed myself against the fence and listened and sniffed and watched. I could smell her out there, but she didn’t come close. She had things to do. I had things to do, too. Now when He brought my lead, I was careful not to squander all my excitement in jumping and barking at him, and to save some for watching. I saw how He opened the gate. I saw from the outside where the fence was weaker. Where there were ditches and paths and hiding places. The scent of the bush followed us to the Park and back and I was alert to it the whole way.

The day I escaped was calm and sunny with no wind to make me anxious. When He came home, I ran past him and out of the gate. So easy. I had never thought of that before. Outside was intoxicating, alone. Outside. Outside. Outside. All the scents and sounds jostled for attention, so that I could hardly hear Him calling after me. Up under the trees, the ground was crunchy with bark and leaves and sharp little bushes. I smelled possum and wallaby and rustling rats. It was a while before I picked up her scent, against a smooth knobbled trunk. My tail thumped against it with wagging. Nose down, more scents, and then more. I would find her soon. A wild sound escaped. I was running now, leaping over and ducking under, spinning in circles with delight. Her scent was fresh in the gully, where the mossy water was. I stopped to slurp at the creek and surprised a frog. So green.

There she was, on the other side. Brown like the creek and stripes of shade. Eyes shiny, watching. She was waiting but not like me. Listening waiting. I took a step and she barked danger. Snap. Pain and tumbling down. I fell into the water, black snake stabbing at my leg. I had not seen it. She crossed the water fast fast to me and bit and fought the snake. In her mouth, it writhed and whipped until finally it fell limp at her feet. She licked me then, but I was fading. The happiness was leaving me, pushed out by snake pain. She barked at me, and nosed, and pushed me up. Go go go. But I could not go far. I crawled out of the water and lay on the dry leaves. I closed my eyes.

He found me. I don’t know how soon. He called and she barked and He called and she barked and when He came to me she was no longer there. She had melted away into the wild.

He cared for me. He comforted me at Vet and stayed with me in our home. I slowly grew further away from dying. The wild smelled terrifying to me now. When I was finally able to go out alone into the yard, I stayed well within our fence. As He stayed with me my happiness grew back, my tail wagged, my ears pricked, and then, one day, He left me alone again to wait and I filled the waiting with the anticipation of His return.

I am gooddog and this is my life with an Immortal. I wait for him at the door, upright and excited. Waiting is a heavy task. The happiness leaves me bit by bit, but when I smell the car coming home, it rushes back into me from my feet to my ears, whoosh, and all my hair stands up and the world is bright and loud again. We eat and we sniff the news and race the breeze and run fast on our legs for joy. We have a good life together. I want nothing more than this.

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Glass slippers

‘Call me Cindy.’

She tried it out in the mirror; off-hand, with a bored sideways look, then coy, then direct. She wasn’t especially convinced by any of them. Would he be?

‘Hi, I’m Ella. Nice to meet you.’

Ella. Cindy. Cinda. Rella. Should she just try her full, over the top, embarrassing name?

‘Cindarella’s my name. And you?’

Her face in the mirror looked girlish, friendly – but the eyes gave her away. They seemed scared. She hastily rubbed off the lipstick with a tissue and flushed it down the toilet, just as her boss yelled out from the living room. She should have finished cleaning the bathroom 10 minutes ago. The pipes squealed and clunked as she washed her hands; a noisy alibi.

‘Sorry miss, coming.’

The family were going out tonight to Priya’s graduation ball. It had to be PERFECT. Each of the sisters had a new outfit, perfectly pressed. A light meal was to be provided at 5:00pm, before they left the house. Everything was to be cleaned while they were out, in the event that they invited friends home afterwards. There was to be plenty of ice in the freezer. The glasses were to sparkle. She knew that the girls would want to go on to their own parties; that Vidya would sneak off with that boy and that the others would go out clubbing. But their parents were ever hopeful, and who was she to comment? Nobody. That’s who. She scooted into the kitchen and started loudly clattering dishes. They liked to know where she was.

By 7:00pm the apartment was still. Cindy slipped, barefoot, across the cool tiles, gathering plates, straightening cushions, and setting the place quickly and efficiently to rights. One quick mop and she would be done. The golden carriage clock chimed from the shelf. Your time starts NOW. A sudden twinge in her belly. So soon? The mop sped across the floor, catching her feet. No problem. The dirty water, no problem. The dishes drying slowly in the kitchen, no problem. Nothing was a problem. It would all be fine. She had planned this and planned it and planned it. She had never planned so thoroughly for anything. It would be fine.

She showered briskly, carefully avoiding her hair. No time for drying. Her boss’ underwear fit her perfectly, as did the dress. The sparkling slippers with the glass beads, she had bought at the market. The lipstick, she borrowed from the bathroom cabinet. Priya was careless with it; she’d never notice. Nairya kept her make-up in her room in a special case. Whatever. Cindy only glanced at herself once when she was done. Any more and she’d lose her nerve. She covered herself with a house-coat, in case of neighbours, and slipped out of the door.

The heat embraced her in the stairwell, with all its comforting humidity. Even as she hurried down to the ground floor, slippers tap tapping on the steps, she could feel herself relaxing to her bones. It was not possible to be stressed in this heat, not really. The air smelled of good times; of incense and street food, smoke and fruit, and under it all the damp, lush growth of plants in every corner. Trees and parks and jungle and lawns. Bananas. Jackfruit. All the richness of the world from soil to streetlamps to piled-high market stalls. And above them all, the skyscrapers, their glassy exteriors shining like a festival of lights. She crossed the street to the station entrance. More stairs, more tiles, the dry air of the subway tunnels pushed back and forth by trains. She passed a homeless man sitting on a small mat. His hair was as tangled as hers was glossy. Sorry mister, she thought, today I have time only for my own destiny. The MRT card pressed its hard edges into her palm.

Would he be there, as promised? It seemed too good to be true and yet, why not? Why shouldn’t she have a chance at such a life? She thought about the other maids, Adelina in particular, wasting her youth to send money home. And then her prime, sleeping in that tiny room off the kitchen. And then her middle age. The train rocked her soothingly, showing her reflection in the window as it sped through the dark. She was young. She could be beautiful. She could, sang the train. She could, she could, she could. She had to be home by the end of the ball. That was all, that was all. She had to create an impression to last, but fast, but fast. He’d fall in straight love and would offer her marriage, she’d have him before she came home on this carriage – stop it, she told herself, this is no time for childish rhymes. But she was smiling. What if?

The train slowed. She folded the housecoat into her bag and shook out her hair. There was a man waiting nervously on the platform. Crisp shirt, good haircut, tie. A little shorter than expected, perhaps? But not repulsive, from this distance. She checked the picture one more time. It was him. He was punctual, then. The train drew to a halt. He was looking towards her now; soon their eyes would meet. She smoothed her skirt, took a deep breath, and stepped off the train.

‘Hello sir, I’m Cindy. It’s good to meet you.’

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Wild and precious

She stood in her kitchen in the low light of a Winter morning, waiting for the kettle to finish. Outside, the world was waiting to be formed. River mist filled the valleys. The sleeping hills were still. Dawn crept, silently, towards the horizon. In her bare feet, she felt the cold of it entering her house, her body, her bones. Those who died today would never feel warmth again. How strange, to have reached the point of such forgetting. She leaned against the kitchen counter, waiting to shiver. The kettle was wheezing with the effort of pushing against the cold and the quiet. As she put her hands around its hot little body, her eye caught on the poster above it, with the quote from the Mary Oliver poem: ‘What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’ It was written in large cursive letters in aqua colored ink, framed in a light, bland wood, suitable for everyone to see. The other line, she kept to herself; ‘Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?’ 

She was supposed to be planning her last day on earth. When the counsellor suggested it, she had imagined a kind of summing up, like at the end of a workshop. She should be engaging in reflection right now, reminiscing, making meaning, drawing out themes. Listing important contributors to thank. She gazed out of the window at the red mist, drifting. It was so quiet. Birds were huddled somewhere in flocks, feathers fluffed up, eyes closed, hard beaks tucked under soft wings. The mist was rising. She could skill see the bright prick of stars above it, but not for long. Slowly, slowly, the hard dark blue of the sky was melting into white. We are born, and spend our lives walking towards God. Or so they say. She poured hot water into her cup and wondered what it would be like to do nothing; no planning, no thanking, no last day. She would stand and watch the dawn, and then the sunset, and then another dawn. The world was pulled on strings of light. It reached, and stretched, and imagined itself into the future. She could hear it now, stirring in the silence. The great sweep of forest, the button-grass plains and tarns of ice. Out on the water, there would be patches of glowing silver, and grey sheets of sky falling into the sea, soft grey water to soft grey water. Whales would be swimming in the green depths. From her window she would see the start of it; the droplets on the wind, the bend of the eucalypts. The air that touched the air that touched the clouds that touched the sea. Her body amongst all the bodies on earth; the crowding, rushing clamor of them; the feathers, the scales, the fur, the skin; the old, the aging, the freshly born. Her senses reaching out to the world reaching out to them. Here, we are here, we are here. We are here. 

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The Trap of Time

My grandmother once told me that she was homesick for the past. It was before I was married; I didn’t even know what homesickness was. The past is like a place, she told me. There are people there that you love. Your body feels familiar, there. The air smells like home. No-one is missing and nothing is broken. There’s no grief in the past, only ease. The food tastes better and the sun is brighter on the water. Your skin is a perfect fit. I listened patiently because patience was a virtue, not because she made any kind of sense to me. If the past was a different place, then the elderly were a different species that wittered nonsense all day long and reached out to grasp you for no reason with their withered hands. 

I know now, though. If I could make a wish and go anywhere at all, I would go there. 

My wedding gown took 8 months to sew, in tiny stitches, laced through with gold thread. After the feast, my new husband and I slept in the guest chambers like strangers, and I rode out with him the next morning, my family all weeping and waving behind me, to my new home. I remember that I was sore, and shifted in the saddle, while his men nudged and laughed and cast glances at me and my maid, who rode between us like a shield and did nothing but blush. I was excited and determined and proud to be making my own way in the world but for the first week after we arrived, the strangeness made me dizzy; the salty food; the stickiness of the sea air; the astringent scent of the linen. The foreign territory of the male body. Then I was sick with it, and wept, and remembered what my grandmother had said. I only went back a handful of times; for my brother’s crowning, and much, much later, for the christening of his one and only child. For my sisters’ weddings. When my grandmother died. 

If I went back to the past, I would see her again. Her chamber would be full of roses and the creak of her loom. I would walk out onto the grassy slope under the battlements and lie down on soft ground and watch the spinning of the sky. The clean air would smell of hay and wildflowers. There would be the soft thud of horse’s hooves, the distant murmur of wind in the trees, maybe a faint snatch of song. My brother would be there, loud and rosy-cheeked. I would eat roast potatoes with butter from gentle cows. My waist would be supple, my skin would be a perfect fit. Early in the morning, mist would rise from the river and coat the fields in lace.  

But you can never go back. Instead, you walk along the beach with sticky wind tangling your hair, picking up round rocks one by one and throwing them at the sea. Some are porous and dark, and some are grey-blue and shot through with stubborn veins of white. Others are simple jet, flat and shining like a moonless night. I throw them all, one by one. The black ones skip. One for the messenger who came with the news. One for the curse on my brother’s child. One for the spindle, one for the castle, one for the rose trees locking them in. One for my family lost forever, and one – one more – for me. 

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Crime scene

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Detective Johns arrived late to the scene. Evening had come and gone sometime during his last interrogation; he’d entered the dusty grey meeting room in daylight but when he walked out again, the streets were dark, and the sky was the colour of a fresh bruise. Another day over. How many did he have left? How many days did anyone have? He was 52 years old, a smoker, not as fit as he should be. He was balding and pallid. But people relied on him. That counted for something. He turned up his collar now, against the chilly wind coming straight and cold from the dark mountain. You got philosophical in this job. He aimed his car keys behind him and pressed the button. Beep beep. Locked. A friendly flash of light. He wished he had a cigarette. 

The crime scene was lit up like a Christmas tree. No bystanders though. It was a quiet suburban street in a commuter suburb. Most people would still be on their way home, picking up the kids from after school care, fetching a BBQ chicken for dinner if they were running late. Unaware of the tragedy unfolding just next door. He could see his partner had already arrived. Good. She would have made a start. An attractive woman in her mid-forties, she was dressed in no-nonsense pants and a closely fitted blouse, her hair cut short to accentuate her smooth white neck and the boyish grace with which she leaned against the fence, hands in her pockets, watching him walk towards her. The thought occurred, not for the first time, that he would like to unbutton that neat blouse, but he knew better than to entertain such fantasies.

What happened here?’ 

‘What do you reckon?’ 

They looked down at the body. Female, average size, decapitated. Her head, or what was left of it, appeared to have been dragged to where it lay on the doorstep. Her entrails spread out from a gash in her stomach. Blood had soaked into the ground around her. 

‘Looks pretty much exactly like the last two.’ 

‘I can see tooth marks. And look here – scratches. She was gripped and held with claws.’ 

‘That would have to be a pretty big animal.’ 

‘I’m guessing a big cat.’ 

‘Fuck.’ 

Detective Johns glanced up and down the street.  

‘Did anyone see anything?’ 

‘Nobody was home.’ 

‘The neighbours?’ 

‘Still at work.’ 

‘Let’s get rid of the body before they get back.’ 

‘Really, Bob, that’s your solution?’ 

‘Well, do you want to tell them their third fucking pet rabbit’s dead on our doorstep?’ 

‘Not a hope in hell, I did it last time.’ 

‘Well then.’ 

‘Any chance it wasn’t our cat?’ 

They glanced at each other.  

‘Of course it was our cat. Who else disembowels animals around here?’ 

‘Fine. You sort out the body, I’ll clean the step before the kids get home.’ 

Late that night, Detective Johns stepped outside to have a smoke. Life was good. He’d unbuttoned her blouse after all. He leaned over the veranda railing. Mr Tibbs yowled from inside, scratching at the door.  

Yoko Kinoko

Once upon a time, there was a little girl called Yoko Kinoko – Yoko because her father liked the name and Kinoko because her nose was a cute as a little button mushroom. Yoko lived in an apartment on that street near the temple. You know the one – it has a big red gateway leading onto a courtyard where you can burn incense in brass cauldrons full of sand. She liked to pop in on her way home from school to waft the smoke over her hair and clap her hands in front of the large Buddha statue that gazed out from scented indoor shade with a sleepy and ever so slightly bored expression on his venerable face.  

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One day, Yoko Kinoko was passing through the temple grounds when she heard a tiny mewing sound. The path and garden were mostly rock and sand, with wooden steps and artistically displayed moss, but around the edges grew huge stands of bamboo, big soft bushes, and thickets of gentle green trees, and the sound was coming from somewhere in there. Yoko Kinoko walked slowly along with her ear brushing the leaves, following the mewing until it stopped. She stopped too, listening. After a moment, she knelt down and poked her head into the greenery. The mewing started up again, quite close. Taking her satchel off her back and placing it on the floor, Yoko pushed in between the bushes, poking back at branches and scratching back at twigs until finally her head popped out into a tiny clearing. The ground was soft with pine needles from the trees high above, and the light was gentle green from the trees lower down. It was beautiful. Yoko Kinoko stepped out from the bushes and looked around.  

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She had expected a kitten, but the creature that crept up and rubbed itself against her legs was instead a tiny and very soft baby fox. Yoko Kinoko crouched down carefully and stroked its orange head, rubbing its ears as it pushed its nose into her hand.  

‘What a pretty baby. I wonder where your mama is.’ 

But the fox gave no reply. It seemed to be alone. 

‘I wish I had some food for you’, said Yoko Kinoko as she scratched the fox’s little chin. 

No sooner had she said it than she felt the weight of her satchel on her back – the satchel she had left on the other side of the bushes. Startled, she twisted round a couple of times, then took it off and held it out in front of her. Definitely her satchel. She rummaged in her lunch box for some left-over chicken and held it out to the fox, who nipped and nibbled at it with a contented expression. 

Well, that was strange.  Yoko Kinoko considered for a moment then said, loudly and clearly while scratching the fox’s chin: 

‘I wish I had an ice-cream.’ 

Nothing. She put the remains of the chicken back into her lunch box and closed the lid firmly. 

‘I wish I had an ice-cream.’ 

The fox gave a little frown.  

Pop! An ice-cream appeared in her hand. She licked it once all the way round then opened her lunch box and put it on the ground.  

Yoko Kinoko and the fox ate together for a while in silence. When he had finished, he climbed into her lap and curled up tightly with his nose under his tail.  

‘Where is your mama?’ 

The fox was silent. 

‘I shall call you Kitsu Chan. How would you like that?’ 

No comment. 

‘Would you like to come and live with me?’ 

The fox pricked his ears, and licked Yoko’s hand.  

‘OK’ 

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Yoko walked slowly back along the street and climbed the stairs to their apartment with great care, making sure that the satchel sat very straight on her back, but when they arrived home, she kicked off her shoes in a hurry, called out ‘I’m home’, and was in her bedroom before her mother had even opened the kitchen door. She quickly scooped Kitsu out of the satchel and deposited him under her kotatsu, arranging the quilt so that it hung all the way to the floor, then she peered underneath.  

‘Are you comfortable there?’ 

The fox peered back at her. 

‘Is there anything you want?’ 

Kitsu licked his lips again. 

‘OK, here goes. I wish I had Kitsu Chan’s favourite food in my bedroom.’ 

Three mice ran out onto the rug. 

Yoko Kinoko screamed. 

She wasn’t afraid of mice, it was just the shock. And then the sight of Kitsu catching them in his teeth. And then the blood and crunching sounds. And then the pile of worms on the kotatsu. But what really tipped her into hysterics was the sudden swarm of fat cicadas emerging from her wardrobe. 

Yoko Kinoko screamed so loudly that both her mother and her big brother came running. They arrived at her door to find dead mice on the floor, a plague of cicadas, and a young fox chasing a half-eaten mouse with bits of worm spraying from his mouth. Yoko’s brother screamed just like Yoko, and her mother demanded to know what was happening. All that the sobbing Yoko could tell her was ‘but he was so cuuuuuute!’  

That evening, Yoko Kinoko had a calming bath while her mother shooed the cicadas out of the window and thoroughly cleaned the floor. She threatened to bring a fox catcher but somehow, in all the chaos, Kitsu had disappeared.  

Yoko was inconsolable. After everyone else had gone to sleep that night, she lay under her quilt and cried hot tears. She had met a magic fox and lost him on the very same day. And although he was a greedy little thing, and had a gruesome way of getting his dinner, she felt terrible at the thought of him being frightened and alone. He was so tiny and his ears so soft.  

‘I wish Kitsu Chan would come back.’ 

A soft thump on her pillow. A tiny tongue licking her tears. Yoko Kinoko sat up in surprise and delight. Kitsu climbed into her lap and stuck out his tummy for a scratch. It was as tight and tubby as a little kettle drum, and his tail was as soft as a calligraphy brush. 

‘I’m sorry I screamed.’ 

He closed his eyes in contentment. 

‘I wish I had a new iphone.’ 

Kitsu opened one eye and looked at her sarcastically. 

‘Too soon?’ 

Too soon. So instead, Yoko Kinoko and Kitsu Chan curled up together and went to sleep, dreaming about the adventures to come. 

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Quintana

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Quintana woke at 4:00pm to the sound of their father in the bathroom. Dad always left the door open. It had disgusted the rest of the family when they were kids, but now that Quintana was the only ‘child’ left at home, there was nobody to complain with. Mum had long since struck Dad’s bathroom habits off her list of things to talk about. Afternoon sunlight was doing its best to get through the 1980s blinds, then the net curtain, then the real curtains, then the blanket Quintana had hung over the top. They rolled over and pulled the pillow over their head, but to no avail. They were awake now. The sun may as well do what it wanted. Waiting until Dad’s footsteps had exited the bathroom, and the kitchen door had been opened and then slammed, Quintana dragged themselves out from under the covers and readjusted their twisted tracksuit without looking. They were repulsed by the body in the bed; its hairiness, the cold-fish feel of the flesh around the hips, the saggy belly and flat chest that looked for all the world like their real body had melted in the sun. The horror of the genitals, lurking unwelcome Down There, where they preferred not to look. In the bathroom they brushed their teeth, studiously ignoring the mirror. They were aware of their smell, but the thought of showering was too difficult to stomach. Maybe if they won their game today, or if Jason’s cute avatar showed them his favour, or if the quest was ultimately successful, maybe then they would have the courage to deal with the gross, repulsive, stinking carcass that housed their brain. Or maybe they could ignore it. It only existed in this universe. There were others.

Quintana’s immediate quest was to get back to their room without interaction. They opened the bathroom door a crack and looked carefully to left and right. Down the hall, Mum was talking on the phone to someone but Dad’s whereabouts were unclear. A prickling, heart racing, sweating rash of anxiety broke out across the body, but Quintana had learned to manage that. They took a deep breath and strode across the hallway to the bedroom door, closing it behind them not a moment too soon; Mum had wandered, still talking, into the hall. They sat back down on the bed, panicky and out of breath. Food would be the next quest but not yet; it was three hours until dark and then three more before their parents went to bed and they would be free to roam about the house unimpeded. That meant there were six hours to get through before access to the kitchen. Quintana picked up a packet of chips from the floor and found some flat, luke-warm coke to wash them down with. Bodily functions having been dealt with, they turned on their computer and entered the real world.

From the other side of the planet, Quintana’s soul mate strode into the tavern. She was, in her corporeal life, a middle-aged woman who mothered and wifed by day and gamed by night. In the real world, though, Aerwyn was a fire-souled flame-haired warrior who fearlessly led her company of rag tag souls into adventure. She scanned the rough tavern for friend or foe. Quinn! Aerwyn strode over to the fireplace where Quinn was seated with graceful ease, her many weapons hanging lightly from her belt and shoulders. Her heart picked up pace. Quinn was the one she had been hoping for.

‘Quinn my friend, how are you?’

Quinn stood up in one fluid movement and turned to face Aerwyn, a gesture of recognition and delight.

‘I am well, Aerwyn. I have evaded my enemies for another day. Tell me, how do you fare?’

She considered for a moment. Truth was, her husband was exhausted and resentful, the house had developed a weird smell, and her children were little shits. She’d been late home from work every day so far that week and her Fitbit, bought to encourage exercise, had started taking a sarcastic tone with her.

‘Also well. Since we last met, I have overcome some challenges but there are still more to be overcome.’

‘Please, sit here with me a while. We can share tales and perhaps drink some ale.’

‘I would like that.’

They settled together in the rough stone alcove to the right of the fireplace. From there, they had a good view of the flames, and of anyone arriving, but it was cosy and relatively quiet. Quinn felt herself relax, despite the jittery sensation of coke in the body back home. She and Aerwyn rarely talked like this, but lately she had found herself craving her company; not only for adventure, but simply for sitting together.

‘Aerwyn, I feel you may have some disquiet. What concerns you?’

‘Ah, Quinn, you are right. We live across more than one life. Sometimes I feel weary because of it. Do you understand?’

Quintana’s body interjected again. It was hungry but there was another feeling in the stomach now; a sharp pang, followed by excitement, and a quick flash of luminescence somewhere lower down.

‘Yes.’

‘Do you ever feel …’

‘………’

‘Just say it. I will understand.’

‘Do you ever feel how simple it would be to be Quinn all the time, only Quinn?’

Quintana sucked in a surprised breath. This was heresy. Hinting about life outside the game was a strict taboo in their group. To acknowledge the fabric of the universe was to risk tearing it. They started to write ‘But I am always Quinn’, then stopped. That tingling again; that reaching out like ET towards home.

‘Yes. I do feel that. Quinn is my truest self but not my only self. If I could lose some of the others I would.’

‘I wish I knew all of your selves.’

Quintana’s body glowed with hot shame. For a moment, they were back in the carcass; in the dark room with the litter on the floor; in their parents’ house where they were still sometimes called Oliver, their deadname; where Quintana was still struggling and mostly failing to emerge from the weight of a whole mistaken life. Where the body was scarred and painful from the times they had literally tried to cut their way out.

‘You would hate them like I do.’

‘Then I wish you knew all of my selves because I know that none of them would hate you.’

‘I wish I knew your other selves, also.’

They sat in wistful silence, then, while the tavern filled up and grew busy around them.

‘I would make food for you.’

‘I would touch you, if you would let me.’

‘I would meet and talk to all the people you are and I would make friends with them one by one.’

‘Not the disgusting unlovable ones.’

‘Particularly those.’

‘I would meet your family – do you have family?’

(A thrill of danger)

‘Yes. And I would meet yours.’

Quintana, feeling the impossibility of this statement, stretched their imagination a little further to accommodate it. How would their parents react if they had a friend arrive at the door? Mum would faint in surprise.

‘I would like that.’

Quinn and Aerwyn were sitting close together now, their heads almost touching. They had forgotten  about the rest of the tavern, both enemies and friends, but they were in for a rude awakening. Kradoc entered with a loud shout, swinging his favoured weapon, the mace, in tight circles as he strode towards them.

‘Quinn! Aerwyn! What plot you here? Let us join together and make haste towards the lowlands for there I smell victory!’

They jumped up. Quinn’s weapons swung. Aerwyn struck a pose.

‘Hail Kradoc, we are ready. Let us chase the fight!’

And with that, they strode out together, looking neither to right nor left, towards whatever adventure the future had in store. They would never speak of this again.

The sounds between

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She avoided eye-contact because it was so bright. Not glowing bright like the joyful sheen of a shiny coin on the path, but sharp bright like the sun poking straight between your eyelids. When she locked gaze with someone, she felt pinned in place, dug into, pushed at. It panicked her. She liked the space between things; the movement of air between her and another person; the blank section of the page at the end of a chapter; Jeff Buckley exhaling before he sang. The world was too much. The noisy tastes of different food jostled for attention on her tongue. Thousands of nerve endings touched her clothes. Traffic roared like the sea. Whenever she moved, she dragged around the vast ecosystem that was her body, the insatiable itch of her skin. In the very best of her dreams, she stepped out of gravity and floated in space. It was dark and quiet. That was all.  

She met him on a summer day that smelled of water. She had been walking slowly down a wide, long avenue under lime trees that released the comforting scent of leafy shade, feeling the humid air touch her naked skin and nudge at her clothes. From the distance came the sound of a violin, clear and lively through the thick of the indolent afternoon. As she approached, the sound grew fuller, cleaner, more urgent. She turned a corner onto the edge of a park and there he was; a young man in loose trousers and bare feet, arms as brown as a speckled egg, playing like it was brisk Autumn, not the energy-sapping heat of exhausted summer. Behind him, the grass sloped down to a slow brown river heavy with reeds. The violin case on the ground at his feet was freckled with coins. She paused to listen. Oh, but the sound was extraordinary. It spoke to her with no preamble, straight through her ears into her heart. She closed her eyes. Everything but the music hushed. Even her skin was quiet, listening. When he stopped, there was silence. Then he started again. She opened her eyes. Then there was silence. She sat on the grass.   

She didn’t look into his face. She didn’t have to. He bent down to scoop up the coins, and she heard the rustling of the grass. In the quiet she imagined the tap of tiny feet. When he straightened up and lifted his bow to split the sunlight into shards, she became aware of the movement of small bodies, timid in the shadows, gathering on the edges of her vision. She gazed up at the violin and the clouds behind. The music tugged at her like a friend grasping her hand and pulling her onto a dance floor. She found herself standing again just as she caught sight of a furry body scurrying ahead of her. And another. And one more. There was a small line of them moving towards him, then another line, then a crowd. She stood transfixed as the rats ran towards the music, and continued running past the violinist’s feet, straight into the river. She was focussed. The world was neither large nor loud. Nothing distracted her from the music. She lifted her eyes and looked into his. They were dark and quiet. That was all. 

She plays the violin now. She plays until her skin is calm, until the garish colours fade and blend into something beautiful. She plays the flavours of food, the touch of silk, the itch of wool. She plays the tug of a heart and the weight of gravity, she plays to usher in the silence between the sounds. She hears the slip and squeak of her fingers, the pauses and the sounds between. She plays animals from their dens, birds from the sky. She plays until she can look her teacher in the eye as he shapes her hand on the bow. Sometimes they busk barefoot together by the river.  

Beanstalk

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Once upon a time there was a little boy and his name was Jack. 

She paused, and looked appraisingly at the small child in the pyjamas. Was she ready to hear how her father had died? Her daughter looked back at her. She was so small, still chubby, with fluffy white-blonde hair like a newly hatched chick. Her little fingers were like sausages, her cheeks rosy from the bath. She should tell her a different story. 

Once upon a time, when I was pregnant with you, your father’s reign of terror was so smothering that I used to fantasise about killing him myself. Not out of rage, just to escape. You wouldn’t understand, little chick, and I hope you never do.  

Perhaps not that story, not quite in those words. 

What about these? He was out and I was home. I was always home. It was a rule of his. I was barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen, a good wife. He was out somewhere doing whatever he bloody well wanted, a real man. It was a sunny day, laden with good things. The kitchen door was open and as I cooked, a fresh breeze wandered in from the herb garden. I felt you stir, my love. It was just you and me, only us in the whole wide world until a thin foreign boy came knocking at the door, and the peace vanished. Your father did not allow visitors. He despised foreigners. He kept a close eye on resources. An unknown footprint in the kitchen; one apple less; an increase in expenditure; my apron out of place; anything could set him off and I had you to protect. But the boy was so hungry, with skinny cheeks and big eyes, and I was a mother now. I made some quick calculations. My husband was out. The boy was small. I pulled him in.  

I sat him at the kitchen table and fetched him some food, explaining about my husband all the while. If my husband came back, the boy should hide. Quick, quick, into that cupboard there (I pointed) or, if he had time, he should run back out of the door and scurry home. If he had a home. Either way, he couldn’t stay here. The boy nodded, his eyes on the food. I don’t think he had eaten that day and maybe not the day before, either. When I put the plate in front of him, it was all he saw. He tried not to gobble, but he ate steadily and with a desperate intensity. I saw him tuck some bread into his pocket for later. I thought about you, my love. I hoped you would never be hungry like that. Even if it meant staying with your father. I could handle him. Once you were born, I would have more time and energy to please him, and I would distract him and protect you. That was my plan, anyway. Maybe it would have worked. Meanwhile, the boy ate and ate. After the first plateful he became talkative and looked around the room. After the second, he began to look unwell. I wrapped a chicken leg for him in paper. He could take it when he left.  

I started to get anxious, then. I had a sixth sense that told me when he was coming, or maybe it was just a sense of time. I was eager to get the waif out of the house and clean up all traces of his visit but the boy was sluggish now, and curious to see everything about him. He started to tell me a story about how he’d got here – some nonsense about magic beans. I started to worry that he was planning to rob us. I’m not racist, but there’s a reason we don’t trust foreigners. Maybe I’d been gullible to take him in. I told the boy to leave, just as I heard my husband come through the front door. It would not have been too late if he’d hurried, but the stupid child just stood there listening with a strange look on his face. My husband was a big man, tall and broad. When he walked, he stomped and when he stomped the house shook. I was used to it but I suppose the child was not. My husband called out to me as he stomped through the house, checking that I was in my place. When I was late to reply, he stormed into the kitchen. The boy hid, then, but it was not enough. My husband could smell him. He had that foreign, English, smell of woodsmoke and cheese. Your father stormed and raged and I thought he would hit me and you, my darling, so I took a desperate measure and put a drop of Golden Harp in his drink. That knocked him out for a minute and the boy, finally, ran. 

If I’d known then what I knew later, I’d never have invited him in. But then we’d be living with your father still and maybe, honestly, maybe we wouldn’t have survived. So maybe I was right to have taken him in and let fate fall the way it did. I don’t know. I still don’t know. 

When your father came to, he was apoplectic with rage. He turned his furious face towards me, and a chill drenched me from my scalp down to the pricking soles of my feet. I knew what he was capable of. Quickly husband, I said, chase him. The foreign child. He stole some chicken. He went that way down the road. The tide of his anger turned away from us then and onto that poor, skinny, innocent boy. But what choice did I have? I had you to protect. I closed all the doors behind him and I closed the windows too, and went and hid upstairs in a dark cupboard with my eyes closed, rocking with you as I sang a lullaby and tried not to think of that poor hungry child being beaten to death by your father on the road. He would not get far. His legs were so small. 

But that is not what happened. I heard distant shouts, it is true, but they were only his shouts and not the boy’s. I heard a big thump that rocked the ground. Then all was still.  

It was a long time before I crept out of the cupboard, my chick, and even longer before I mustered up the courage to peek out of the front door. The neighbours came by with terrible news that I couldn’t believe. They took me to the edge of the cliff, with sidelong glances and whispers, and I saw his big broken body lying small on the ground below, so far away there were clouds between us. A huge vine had fallen around him, its trunk as wide as he was. I cried loud and long, then, to spite them. He was a monster but once I loved him, and not one of them had ever helped me. So I let them see my grief, and I made sure they understood that he was the father of my child.  

What they never saw, sweet girl, were the scissors I used to cut up his clothes, or the feast I ate with my hands, or the levity with which I danced around the house that night with all the lights on, or the orphans I fed from our garden every day until you were born. But none of that is strange to you. 

And I can tell you none of it. 

The child with the big eyes was still looking at her patiently, sleepily, waiting for a story. What could she tell her? Be safe. Be careful. There are monsters that look like princes, and traps that look like golden rings. But not today. She picked up her daughter’s favourite book. 

Once upon a time …