Shannon Burns is an Adelaide-based writer, reviewer/critic and sometimes-academic. He is a member of the J.M. Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice, and has written for Australian Book Review, Sydney Review of Books and Music & Literature. He won the 2009 Adelaide Review Prize for Short Fiction and the 2015 Salisbury Writers’ Festival Short Fiction Prize. He’s had fiction published in various magazines and journals, most recently in Overland and Verity La.
He was sleeping when I slipped away – I could bear it no longer – he seems to have gone blind – his eyes are grey – they were once like mine – it’s as though they’ve grown younger – perhaps he has too – his body turned inward – an overpowering desire – he will not speak of it – there’s nothing to be done – he sees nothing – he’s deaf as well – I was not quiet when I left – I thought to give him one last chance – if he’d called to me I’d still be there
there’s nothing about – all have gone quiet – I once heard mowers in the distance – every weekend they would hum – that was long ago – there are no weekends – the journey will be long – my only wish is for water – to see it at last will be the last thing – I once visited the sea – it whispered gently – my feet followed it out – when it came in I howled – it marked me out – it seemed to yearn for something – I chased it yelling – for hours we did this – they took me away – I refused drink for days – no thirst could quench my fear of it – it went out and returned, went out and returned – I still see it in my mind – it smiles whitely – it draws close and whispers – I tremble to listen
the road is flat – I picture small inclinations – they spring to life – when I left it was grey – the gate was unlatched – the garden wild – branches torn by something – perhaps the wind – there is no wind – I recall days driven by weather – to go outside or stay in? – today it is grey – yesterday I was inside – perhaps it hasn’t changed – the days are alike – it may be night – the world has spun on its axis – we are at bottom – I am alone – he is too – we may meet again – it won’t be here – someone may walk me back – but they won’t know the way –
my voice is hoarse – perhaps it will vanish – I won’t argue – there’s nothing else for it – I have no say – the weather is fine – I’ll bear it easily – my feet are cold – they never freeze – they’re soft on the soles – when I walk they burn – the road is harsh – there’s no one to clear it – the vehicles are still – they are shells of vehicles – I’ll take cover when it rains – it will not rain – the sky is clear – but there is no blue – I haven’t seen blue for years – perhaps blue is gone– it may have risen further – beyond the grey – I was never fond of it – the word is thick – my mouth won’t shape it – my lips blubber – it is their way – I don’t require them – there is no blue
I seek out the water – once it was green – it seems black in my dreams – it will devour me – I am for the most part water already – this I know – it’s getting worse – I overfill with it – there’s none there – our supply stopped – I left him dry – it felt like a verdict – the taps have deserted us – they do not approve – I cannot blame them – no simpler message – the water is gone – we are to follow – if that then this
the path is monotonous – why so flat? – do I walk on the spot? – how to tell the difference between here and there? – perhaps there is none – I’ve never considered it – my thoughts are clouded – there are no clouds – my thoughts are empty – but emptiness abounds – my thoughts are grey – but grey is the world
there’s something ahead – a large ragged dog – its hair thick and grey – I walk his way – he sniffs the air – I turn back – there’s nothing to be said for it – perhaps the dog is the sea, come to greet me from afar – nothing is friendly – hunger universal – nothing lost nothing gained – I go on bleating – I breathe – I walk – to what? – the devouring sea – opening its wide mouth – inviting – welcoming – it’s made a bed for me – that is where the others are – asleep on the sea-bed – I’ll nuzzle them soon – so long since I touched one
I follow the dog down the road – it lifts its leg on a signpost – nothing comes – an empty pizzle – we are as though one thing – I hang back until he disappears – I cannot watch the performance – he’s dwindling to nothing – everything does – he’ll reach the beachhead before me – I’ll follow his pawprints to the water – lie down by his stinking corpse – smell the sea on his putrid fur – breathe the moisture – close my eyes – hold him
Aaron Peysack is a Melbourne writer who has lived and worked in Japan. His fiction has appeared in Antipodes journal and will be featured in upcoming editions of Page Seventeen and Filling Station. He is currently working on a collection of short fiction.
It was July, the coldest month of the year, and I had no winter overcoat. I sat in my room for an hour thinking about the cold, trembling with indignation. I’ve always been sensitive: the slightest change in temperature or pressure upsets me. In that tiny room I longed for the tropics, for the heat of Angola or Brazil, some burnt-out island where life is slow and undemanding.
When the hour was up I left my room and headed downstairs. On the second floor I met a tall, lean man with lovely blue eyes.
‘Give me your winter overcoat,’ I said to him. He refused, so I grabbed him. For several minutes we struggled, right there in the stairwell, a silent, deadly struggle that could only end in defeat for someone of his slender build.
But he was one of those people who are stronger than they look and he used his long arms to advantage. It was like wrestling an orang-utan. Halfway through the struggle I knew I was going to lose—I felt like a chess player who has lost his queen—but I wouldn’t concede. Keep fighting, I told myself, at least you’re warm. Eventually he threw me down and fled into one of the apartments. It wasn’t meant to be, I thought, dusting myself off.
Outside, I dragged myself along the street, past law clerks and meat packers and men in half-price suits purchased in pairs … All the wreckage of humanity washed around me … An hour later I was near the sea and the wind was cutting me open. A boy of twelve or thirteen was standing on the sand looking out at the water. A philosopher, I thought, one of those unpleasant children who are old before their time, not quite human. I was one myself so I know what I’m talking about. I walked over and stood beside him.
‘Why are the crests of the waves white?’ he asked dreamily.
‘I don’t know,’ I said, watching them fall, thinking of horses in old movies. ‘Give me your winter overcoat.’
He looked at me curiously then shook his head.
‘It was a gift from my grandmother.’
‘I won’t tell her.’
He smiled and shook his head again.
Children are not as weak as they seem, plus they fight a lot, which makes them dangerous opponents. The boy landed a few punches but was helpless against my knee. As I pulled the coat over his head, he grabbed at it violently, tearing it along the seams.
‘Look what you’ve done,’ I said, ‘you’ve torn your winter overcoat. Now neither of us can have it.’
‘It’s better that way,’ he answered with eyes full of sadness.
I left him there and made my way across the river. It was almost dusk by the time I found the warehouse. The place was filled with coats, hundreds of them, in every size and style. I entered the room where people change and stood in front of the mirror, entranced by my own reflection. He has the face of a tsar, I thought, looking at the man in the glass.
Outside, the sun went down and evening came on, tugging at night’s shoulder. The owner locked up and went home and the sound of the city faded like snow falling on a frozen river. All night I stayed in that winter palace, surrounded by coats, and by morning I felt almost human.
Chloe Wilson’s first poetry collection, The Mermaid Problem, was commended in the Anne Elder Award and Highly Commended in the Mary Gilmore Award. She won the 2014 Val Vallis Award for Unpublished Poetry and was Highly Commended in the 2014 Manchester Fiction Prize.
It would be wrong to say he bought me. It’s never like that. He chose my photo, my description; I received a call from the agency; then we met at a dimly lit restaurant with black banquette seats. He ordered champagne and a platter of sushi and sashimi, the slivers of fish pink and glossy, like tongues.
‘You’ll have to teach me how to use chopsticks like that,’ he said.
‘You’re very good,’ I said. ‘Very natural.’
‘I hired a tutor,’ he said, slurping up a piece of eel, ‘last time I was in Japan.’
We negotiated terms. Of course, it’s not as businesslike as that. He talked about what he wanted – companionship, someone to take to dinners and parties, maybe with a view to the long term, depending on how things progressed – and when I didn’t object, he relaxed, ordered another bottle of wine.
He said he loved the way I had trouble with certain phrases – fifth floor, not at all.
After a few weeks, I had my own credit card.
After a year, he said he wanted to marry me.
I took his last name. But at night, in our futon with the koi-patterned sheets, he would whisper Mitsuki Tanaka, Mitsuki Tanaka. Even then, he was always trying to get his accent right.
Mark Brandi was born in Italy and then spent most of his childhood in a remote country Victorian pub. He now lives in Melbourne, where he writes fiction. He was the grateful recipient of a 2015 Varuna Residential Fellowship and was runner up for the 2014 NSW Writers’ Centre Varuna Fellowship. He was the 2014 winner of the City of Rockingham Short Fiction Awards and shortlisted for the 2015 Seizure Viva La Novella Prize. He was also longlisted for the 2015 International Caledonia Novel Award. His shorter work has appeared in literary journals and been broadcast on ABC Radio National. www.markbrandi.com
It stinks of shit. Heavy and sweet. Like the chow mein Mum cooked for the punters. Fried mince, cabbage and curry powder.
Dad’s lying in bed, the blankets pulled up to his neck.
“Are you okay?”
“I think so.”
Mum’s eyes. Cheap liqueur chocolates. Her mouth twitches a broken beat. Closes the window. Opens it. Looks at me. Says it with her eyes.
I didn’t know who to call.
“Dad,’ I say. Too loud. ‘Is your head okay?”
“Are you feeling sick?”
“I’m not sure.”
Mum’s candy-brittle smile. Crosses her arms. Shakes her head. “He’s just embarrassed.”
I help him sit up. Pull the blankets back – the shit is there. It’s on the mattress. It’s on the floor. There’s shit everywhere.
Mum dry retches.
He swings his legs over the side of the bed. Stands up shaky. Faded cotton undies and short-sleeve Aldi shirt. Chicken legs with hairless skin. His belly is much too big for chicken legs.
His thin, white hair is standing on end. Like a bush cockatoo.
Dad’s outside a country pub.
He just bought it.
He’s with Mum.
A gold-rush pub.
Empty for years.
Full of rats.
But there’s gold too.
Behind the fireplace.
They’ll find that later.
I tell him to put his arm around me.
“We’re gonna walk to the shower. You feel okay to walk?”
“I think so.”
We walk there. His hand on my arm. Soft fingers. Thin skin. Not like it used to be. Dried up leather. Old Blundstones in the sun.
It’s a nice bathroom. It’s better than mine. Dark-grey tiles. A special shower.
I show him how to use the mixer tap.
“I know,” he says.
“Make sure you clean your backside.”
Dad watches me mime the action of washing my arse with imaginary soap. The soap is clean and green in its little chrome tray. It doesn’t know what it’s in for.
Mum doesn’t know what she’s in for.
She doesn’t speak English.
Dad taught himself on the boat.
They’re gonna run it, he reckons.
He’s never run a pub.
He’s a train driver.
Diesel engines and punch-ups.
Aussies with big mouths.
Dad hurt his back.
Mum’s gonna be the cook.
Dad’s family are all insane.
Just ask anyone.
Mum is in the bedroom. She’s in the bedroom on her knees.
“Bloody dis-gusting.” She’s scrubbing the floor. “Filthy bastard.”
I hear the shower go on. “How did he … ?”
“Who knows? I’ll never get these stains out.”
Dad is in a brown suit.
He looks like Bob De Niro.
The judge is Lionel Murphy.
The judge says Dad made history.
A precedent, he said.
It’s about his back.
Mike Willesee wants to talk on telly.
Mike Willessee is all the rage.
But Dad won’t talk.
And Bob De Niro’s not a lawyer.
The shower goes off. So I listen at the door. The dead whirr of the fan.
“Cleaned yourself properly?”
Swish and rustle. Starched towel on flesh. I hope he cleaned himself. I hope he got all the shit off. I hope he doesn’t stink.
It’s three weeks til his birthday.
It’s my friend’s birthday.
His mum drives me home.
Double-storey brick house.
Dad is building it himself.
No need for a roof.
We’ll live downstairs.
This isn’t my house.
So drive me somewhere else.
That’s exactly what I said.
In the kitchen, we dance around it. Like the last ones no-one picked. When no-one else is left.
“Well eventually …”
“He won’t go. It will kill him.”
“What’s gonna happen when—”
“I’ll do it as long as I can.”
Steps on the stairs.
He won’t know anyway.
He comes through the door. Pants pulled up high. Jumper tucked right in. Jacket on. Smiling.
All ready to go.
Schoolbag in the back.
Windscreen frozen over.
Ice, he says.
Get the hose.
From safe inside, I watch the cascade.
The crystal flow.
Until he’s there again.
Through the glass and frost.
Just a shimmer in the morning sun.
As the ice begins to melt.
A thick woollen jumper.
His hair turning grey.
The smile won’t leave his eyes.
Rebecca Jessen lives in Toowoomba with her two cacti. She is the winner of the 2013 Queensland Literary Award for Best Emerging Author for her verse novel Gap. In 2012 Rebecca won the State Library of Queensland Young Writers Award. Rebecca’s writing has been published in The Lifted Brow, Voiceworks, Stilts, Scum Mag and Verity La. Rebecca’s verse novel Gap is out now through University of Queensland Press. She is the recipient of an AMP Tomorrow Maker grant.
The Late September Dogs
low mist hanging off a high mountain. driving cars worth more than your self esteem. a twenty-nine dollar tax return that feels both like a gift and a joke. waiting two hours for five minutes. leaving with your fifth K10 questionnaire in as many years. hopelessness is always high. nervousness is mostly circumstantial. lying face down in your IKEA furnished study. listening to a Melissa Etheridge LP as old as you. feeling both like an old soul and too young to know what life really is. scoring yourself thirty-five out of fifty on the Kessler Psychological Distress Scale. half listening to your caseworker who is not a psychologist. almost believing when she says you eat and sleep too regularly to qualify as depressed. what you have is chronic low mood. there’s not much help or hope for people like you. sorry kid. not everyone can be happy. here take some vitamins. ignoring text messages from the government. asking your opinion on a safe night out. crying for no reason. listening to the same Melissa Etheridge song on repeat for two hours. crying for no reason. sorry kid. there’s not much help for people like you.
Ella Jeffery was born in northern New South Wales and currently lives in Shanghai, China. She writes poetry and short fiction, some of which has appeared in Best Australian Poems 2013, Cordite, Voiceworks and elsewhere. She will commence her PhD in creative writing at Queensland University of Technology in mid-2015.
It’s always late when I come here. It’s always cold outside. I can see her through the glass-panelled door. She thinks she’s keeping me waiting but I’m watching the patterns of the moths around the glass. Sometimes there’s so many of them I can barely see through it. They probably stay there all night, moving around and around the same ring of light.
She always opens the door with a lit cigarette in her mouth. But this part has happened only since I told her I was quitting. She lets me in without looking at me. The chatter of bats in the mango trees is snapped off when she pulls the door closed.
Here she is: bare feet and white legs. Black underwear and a white singlet with a red bra underneath, showing through like a blush on a pale cheek.
“You didn’t call,” she says, drifting back to the couch. “I might’ve been out.”
“So where would you go on a Tuesday?”
She laughs. She’s watching one of her crazy subtitled films. The directors are European, the women all have faces like crumpled paper and go insane about halfway through. The men are psychologists. The children die early on. Usually that’s the way it goes. She watches to the end.
I make myself a coffee while the psychologist wrestles with his screaming wife. The fluorescent in the kitchen buzzes with moths. More are on the windows, or skittering up in the corners of the high ceilings. There are always so many in here, though the only window I’ve ever seen her open is the one over her bed. Their movement is soundless, sightless. They’re not aiming for anything, except perhaps a higher part of the moulding wall. They just keep switching places and switching back, flickering around quietly, leap-frogging over each other with their chalky wings. I wonder if this is their home. A cramped space; the cupboards like tall men squished in an elevator, stretching up. The moths settle on the tops of them for a moment, and leave again. Hundreds of them bang against the light fitting. They must do this every night.
She lives just off the highway. I listen to the cars while I move over her. She never makes much sound but it didn’t take long to learn what she likes. She’s not a talker. She doesn’t get on top. I use my stubble against her, raking over her neck and cheeks. I hold her hands down. The only noises are the jolting of the bed, and under that is her quiet breathing, and under that is the sound of the moths, which gather in her bedroom more than anywhere else in the house.
I’ve never known a house to be more full of them than hers is tonight. The cars roar by. Where do people go on Tuesday nights?
A moth brushes over my hair as I finish and replace myself on the other side of the bed. She lights a cigarette, smokes from the flat of her back. She doesn’t offer me one, but I’d have taken it. The burning end shows her face in shaking light. When it’s done she ducks off to the shower and flicks on the light as she goes. Her room is never dark enough.
As she leaves I look up at the ceiling from the same place she laid a moment ago and see so many moths up there, more than I could count, and there is so much movement I feel almost dizzy. And more moths come in, and more and still more, so many moths that the light is now dimming, now blacked out, except the colour’s not black, it’s dusty brown and grey. Soon the room is filled with moths. They’re covering my skin and hair, and my mouth is shut as tight as it can go and I’m worrying about my ears and my nose, whether they’ll try to nudge their way inside me with their bulging alien faces and chalky wings. There’s only the sound of dull ruffling wings. Their antennae move noiselessly, listening or tasting, I can’t remember which. They’re on my face. I can see their tiny mouths, the tiniest mouths I have ever seen. And more are coming, stuffing themselves in through the door, and I can see them pressing their little furred bodies up against the windows, skittering over the walls.
I close my eyes. Moths land on the lids. The imprints of their feet. They don’t go anywhere. They don’t have anywhere to go.
“Hey,” I call out to her. “Come in here.” I keep my eyes closed and press my lips shut again and keep perfectly still under the movement of so many moths.
A second later she’s back and there are moths on the towel around her neck, landing in her wet hair. She shrugs and says “They’re just moths. They won’t hurt you.”
I get up anyway, shake them from my clothes and walk out of the door where they’re still crowded like mystics around the circle of light spilling out. I walk down to the highway and hope the last bus is running late. I look at the bone-coloured moon and I don’t imagine her in that old house, sleeping under blankets of moths.
Blake Curran is currently studying a Bachelor of Creative Arts (Creative Writing) and a Bachelor of Arts (English Literatures) at the Univeristy of Wollongong. He is in his third year. He lives somewhere around Campbelltown, and finds inspiration for his stories in the suburban and natural world around him. He hopes to one day be a published novelist, but also enjoys writing shorter pieces very much.
The uniform houses lie like squares in a patchwork quilt, flung over the undulations of the earth as far as she can see. She sits on a hard, wooden bench on the front verandah, cigarette warm in her hand. She knocks it against a small ceramic dish before it ashes. It is evening. It’s always evening, by the time she gets a chance to come out here and have a quiet smoke by herself, churn things over, cast a meandering glance over the observable world.
Last night, the air was warm and it felt like a summery dusk from her childhood: you could stretch in its luxuriance, and the world went on forever in perfect golden tones. But tonight, the air is sharp and everything looks monochrome. Crickets chirp, and grass glistens like glass darkly caught in the shine of the moon. She hurries to finish her smoke so she can go back inside.
It is a new suburb. Many of the houses have only just been built; some are not even finished. She is lucky, in a way, to be able to live in one so soon. Her previous house, which she had been renting by herself for years, had been demolished at the landlord’s bequest, forcing her to pack her few things and leave. It pays to have a cousin in contracting. What was it her father used to say? It’s not what you know, but who. And blood is thicker than water. Apparently.
How can she believe that when everyone she’s ever loved has left her, one way or another. At the occasion of death, blood turns to water. At least here she doesn’t have to think about it. She can pretend not to, anyway.
She has forgotten about the cigarette, and it has gone out a couple of centimetres from her fingertips, a small heap of ash beneath. What a waste. She considers lighting another, but does not bother. The once-lit cylinder hangs limp from her calloused fingers. There is no point in lighting another. It is cool outside and she can feel the threat of rain close by. She could go inside right now and run herself a hot bath, pour a glass of heady red wine and relax into one more early night, ready for another day of work tomorrow. But she does not move. She remains motionless, except for her eyes. They rove over what used to be rippling bushland, seeing none of it. She is thinking about how she is the only one living on this street, on the whole block, and how this grey light makes her ache in some unexplainable, non-physical way. Not even a car has passed by all evening, and now it is night, and she has not seen another person since she got home. She has been sitting here since the streetlights clicked on down the road, but this block belongs to another transformer, and has not been wired up properly yet. So she sits in dim moonshine, alone on the outskirts of artificial light.
She lets the cigarette drop into her ashtray on the arm of the wooden bench, picking up the carton from the empty space beside her. Inside rattles her last cigarette and a cheap, silver lighter. She holds the cigarette between her lips and flicks it alight between cupped hands. The sky begins to drip. She inhales a hollow breath and thinks empty thoughts that loop endlessly.
Daniel Young is a Sydney-based writer whose short fiction has appeared in Seizure, Verity La, Hello Mr. Magazine, Cuttings Journal, Bukker Tillibul and Mascara Literary Review. He’s developing a novel manuscript as part of an MA (Writing), is the founder of Tincture Journal, and is writing about all the novellas at allthenovellas.com.
Chá Yè Dàn
The buildings on this street were old, blackened by age and pollution, and of widely disparate heights. Billy came to a food stall, the vendor selling home-cooked food alongside a few pre-packaged items: bottles of tea, rice crackers, biscuits.
“Hello,” shouted the lady, engaging Billy with kind eyes. On his last visit to Shanghai, ten years earlier, the locals had treated him like a bizarre novelty. They chased him, shouting hello, laughing and even wanting to touch his light blonde hair and stare into his round brown eyes; all in a generous spirit of friendship. This time around, the younger generation were more confident, aloof to foreigners, keeping a casual distance.
Billy smiled, but didn’t answer her, suddenly ashamed of his poor mandarin skills. He spotted a shiny metallic bowl on the table beside a mound of dark green bamboo-leaf parcels. Sticky rice, which he had never enjoyed. It was the bowl that grabbed his attention, filled with tea eggs.
They used to make tea eggs together, in Brisbane. When they lived together like love-birds, for that one short year. In their two-bedroom apartment on the banks of the murky Brisbane river, where the jacarandas bloomed purple as spring raged into summer and final-year exams approached. Brisbane and Shanghai were linked, both bisected down the middle by these turgid brown snakes, rivers twisting through the landscape, disorienting to the uninitiated, and with the occasional bridge providing a means to get around the city.
Qiang held Billy tight, calling him a good boy. Billy mixed the tea, spice mix, star anise and soy sauce, placing the eggs onto the heat. Qiang delivered instructions in his quiet, yet firm and confident voice, and Billy followed along, eager to please, happy to be learning these cooking secrets. When the eggs were half-done, he smashed the shells with a spoon, allowing the rich dark liquid to seep into the gaps, forming brown marbling patterns on the cooked egg white.
Billy blinked and bought two tea eggs from the lady with an awkward combination of pointing, holding up fingers and fishing around for the smallest coins he could find. He knew the words: chá yè dàn. Cha for tea, dan for eggs. Dan-dan for testicles, Qiang had reminded him with a laugh, grabbing Billy’s hand and forcing it towards his crotch.
Although he recalled the mandarin words, his mouth remained fixed in silence, unable to even try and pronounce them. He stood at the stall, peeling one of the eggs and eating without taste, paralysed by memory.
Natalie Chin lives in London. Her writing has been published in The Quietus, Ellipsis Journal and Living In The Future.
‘Low-hanging fruit’, he says
6pm, the sun disappears in another poem. The surrounding buildings are emptied like the day is ending. Everywhere we look people are swarming towards the train station like it is the hive. There is a heaviness to the air, to the movement. It all seems to slow down in one direction. I pause on the corner, turn to Alex — Alex, who I only met earlier that day, and now he’s here with me. We light another cigarette and look through the crowds. Let’s play a game, I say to Alex, let’s see who can spot her first.
A minute later, I see her: At the train station, the only stationary figure in an unrelenting stream. There is no one else there waiting. I don’t say anything, begin walking in her direction until she is only a crossroads away. Though we move with the river it feels like I am sleep-walking. She looks exactly the way I thought she might. Funny how that works: like I should always trust my instincts after all.
The way she re-arranges her face from one of anxiety to casual excitement is the same way I would re-arrange my body language when I wait for him: she waits, too. Already, the ache overrides every other feeling. Alex looks at me, he is holding my luggage. He says, Maybe we should just go to the airport. I say, Yeah, maybe. We cross the roads, and she is still in sight, and then we are with the crowd passing her.
As I turn, I see her take out her phone, presumably to ring him. There is a dry ache that seems to drop from the back of my throat, that signals to me that I am losing my voice. Somewhere else up the road, his phone is ringing, but I no longer care: this isn’t about wanting to understand.
I close my eyes, take a final drag of my cigarette, drop it and stamp it out under my foot. I walk up to her, this girl who would shrivel up and die without the male gaze. I punch her in the stomach. She screams as her eyes focus on me. I laugh as I do it again, and then she grabs my hair. The whole crowd splits wide open, like a mango hitting the ground. Someone calls for the police. My flight leaves in five hours. There are whole worlds that none of us know anything about.