usir, by teresa garanhel

‘I remember the ocean was as flat as the ship’s deck when the masters appeared. I saw their flag, but at the time I didn’t know what it meant. You know the one, white and red. We were all so scared. I understood later it was the Cross of the Order of Christ, the Empire’s divine right to the spice trade. We were coming from India when they sunk the ship, but not before putting me and a few others in crates.’ A sigh. ‘My sarcophagus. I was reborn inside it.’

teresa garanhel

‘Can a god assume mortal flesh, walk amongst the kings and the merchants, the fisherwives and the sailors?’

Usir lifted his head at the question.

Gaspar came down the steps to the lower deck, his boots making a wet noise in the layer of grime that covered the floor. He sat down by the iron bars, seeming indifferent to the filth now stuck to his clothes. Usir was sitting inside a cell, damp from the spraying water and too small to allow him to get up. The smell of green and brine wasn’t enough to overpower the stench of his own waste.

‘Yes,’ he finally replied. ‘They see all, do all.’

‘Why?’

‘To guide and protect us.’ He shrugged as if it was obvious.

The sunlight pouring in through the porthole highlighted Gaspar’s sharp cheekbones, casting shadows underneath them. The wrinkle between his eyebrows looked more pronounced, and he had a small wound on his chin the colour of sycamore figs. The barber must have cut him again.
Usir moved closer to the bars with a rattle.

‘They won’t let me shave.’

Gaspar stretched his arm inside the cell, let his hand lay flat against the growing stubble on Usir’s head. ‘I can barely feel your hair.’

He closed his eyes at the cold touch. ‘I need it gone.’

Gaspar moved his hand away. ‘A god doesn’t need a shaved head.’

‘Don’t mock.’

‘And neither does a slave.’

Usir stared into Gaspar’s eyes. ‘I won’t be a slave long, not after they come for me.’

Gaspar pressed his lips together before speaking. ‘Tell me the rest of the story.’

‘I don’t remember where I was.’

‘Yes you do, you just don’t want to talk.’ Gaspar rested his forehead against the bars. Rust, the colour of a dust storm, fell from the metal. ‘You told me about your parents, how they were poor and sent you to work on a merchant ship.’

Usir didn’t comply immediately, choosing to stare down at his hands. He’d bitten his fingernails to the quick, when he’d been hungry in those initial days of imprisonment, but there was still dirt beneath them. His skin was stretched on top of bones and raised veins, and they put him in tighter manacles when his wrists began to slip through the loops.

‘I remember the ocean was as flat as the ship’s deck when the masters appeared. I saw their flag, but at the time I didn’t know what it meant. You know the one, white and red. We were all so scared. I understood later it was the Cross of the Order of Christ, the Empire’s divine right to the spice trade. We were coming from India when they sunk the ship, but not before putting me and a few others in crates.’ A sigh. ‘My sarcophagus. I was reborn inside it.’

‘As Mateus?’

‘No, that’s the Christian name they gave me later.’ Usir looked up briefly, as if he could see the deck above, busy with the shuffling feet of masters and slaves. ‘But we were made slaves first, then Christians. Another kind of slavery. Instead of Osiris, I now have a God who sacrificed His son so that His followers can conquer the world. The rest of the crew died so that the Empire could trade cinnamon, rosemary and turmeric.’

‘God is the only one.’ Gaspar briefly touched the gold cross around his neck. ‘You’re now closer to Paradise than you’ve ever been before.’

‘I was named after Osiris.’ Usir ignored Gaspar’s words. ‘His body was cut in fourteen parts, seven for the two regions of Egypt. I was seven when I died.’

‘You didn’t die. You’re still here.’

Usir shook his head. ‘When they finally opened the crate to let me out, the old me was shed like a moulting cicada. They sold me to a nobleman like you. A sailor. I was collared and renamed. Mateus means reward, my master said. A spoil. I’d rather be in Egypt right now, under the reign of Suleiman and his Turks, than serving pink masters with their strange religion.’

‘Yours is odd too. No one in Egypt worships the old gods anymore.’

‘So my rebirth has nothing to do with my forced baptism and conversion to Christianity. Osiris also died sealed in a box, leaded in by his brother, before resurrecting.’ A smile formed on his lips. ‘Sometimes, if I focus enough, I can almost smell the tamarind tree they encased him in.’

‘Even now?’ Gaspar’s long fingernail picked at the flaking iron.

‘I’m too empty for that.’ A cockroach scuttled out of view. ‘It took me a while to understand that these bouts of emptiness that come and go have nothing to do with being a slave. Or in a cell.’

‘You’re afraid of─’

‘I’m not like Afolabi, who chewed his wrists until he drained himself of blood. Or even like the sailors who swallow wood splinters or poison themselves with saltwater.’ Usir grasped the bars, and the shackles clinked against them. ‘But I have something missing inside. My heart beats strong still, but my lungs, my liver, my guts, they vanish at times before reappearing weaker than ever. Before being stuck here I drank that palm wine. Do you know why?’ He didn’t wait for a reply. ‘It washes that hollowness in my belly, keeps it pure. I’m becoming more and more like the preserved bodies they talked about in Sharm el-Sheikh.’ A step closer to perfection. But he couldn’t cleanse himself in the cell. ‘I need more wine.’

Gaspar’s raised an eyebrow. ‘He gave clear instructions against helping you in any away.’

‘I know master said that, but─’

‘And I’ve been bringing food and water down, despite the risk for both of us, but I can’t steal the wine.’ Gaspar’s features were locked in resolve. ‘Only the plague doctor has some. She’ll know if it goes missing and I can’t ask her.

She’ll know it’s for you.’

Even though as a scribe he was a valued member of the flagship, Gaspar was too stuck in his own mortality to rise above emotions like fear. Usir didn’t insist. ‘Do you know what I saw first, when we finally got to land?’ He leaned back again and scratched the reddened skin under his manacles. ‘A woman tied to a post on the harbour. I didn’t understand why back then, and I still remember how her dress was soaked by the water, how it clung to her pale skin with the rising tide. It drooped from her shoulders because of the weight of the water, and part of her undergarment was showing, though no one helped. They were punishing a murderer by drowning her, so they waited until the water was high enough to kill her. Why would I want Paradise with a God who condones that?’

‘Crimes must be punished.’

‘Yes. Like mine.’

Gaspar turned his head. ‘Usir.’

‘And yours.’

‘Usir.’ Gaspar’s voice was low, and he sounded tired.

‘But they won’t punish you. Or any other highborn.’ Usir didn’t need the confirmation of Gaspar’s silence to know the truth. ‘They sin and then confess to the priest.’

‘Your own people practice slavery.’ Gaspar’s voice was chiding.

Usir rolled his shoulders back, stretching. ‘Yes.’

‘The Bible approves it. That’s why the Pope reaffirmed it as a divine act in the Pontifex.’

‘I can’t read.’

‘I know,’ Gaspar said softly. ‘I’ve spoken in your favour. The Captain seemed in a good mood. They might release you.’

The cockroach was back. It tried to climb the wall before falling back down. Usir flicked it with his toes. ‘Not without punishing me.’

‘No.’ Gaspar admitted. ‘But it wouldn’t mean death.’

Usir laughed without humour. ‘Maybe they’ll cut a few limbs instead of keelhauling me.’

Gaspar’s larger hand covered Usir’s, and his thumb stroked skin roughened by years of pulling ropes and scrubbing floors. ‘They won’t.’

Usir tightened his fingers on his. ‘They’ve already started.’

The pain inside his ragged breeches had dulled to a throbbing ache, and it bothered him now as much as a bee sting would. That part of him had been discarded overboard, and after the agony had come relief. All of Osiris’s body parts had been retrieved by his wife Isis, except for his zib, which had been eaten by the Nile fish. Usir’s was somewhere in the Pacific.

Another step towards godhood.

‘I’ll ask the doctor for more ointment.’ Gaspar made to leave but Usir didn’t let go of his hand.

‘No need.’

‘You’re bleeding again.’

Usir glanced down at the dark spot on his lap. ‘It’s dry. I haven’t bled since yesterday.’

‘Liar.’ But Gaspar didn’t insist. ‘I couldn’t bring you more food.’

‘I don’t need to eat.’ Usir moved slightly, his back scraping against the wall, so that he could show Gaspar the tankard full of water and the small piece of salted beef still on the floor.

Gaspar frowned. ‘Why haven’t you eaten?’

‘It’s useless.’ He shrugged again.

‘Because you think starvation is a better death?’

Because gods don’t eat, he thought but didn’t say aloud.

When he remained silent, Gaspar clenched his free fist and banged it against the bars. Usir jumped, and tried to remove his hand at last, but Gaspar didn’t allow it.

‘You want to believe you’re already dead because then you don’t have to be afraid.’ His voice was harsh. ‘But you’re alive and I’m trying to keep you that way. Why do you want to rush your death?’

Usir fought Gaspar’s hold again and finally managed to slip his hand away. ‘How can a dead man die?’

He then pulled at a thread in his shirt and moved until his spine was flat against the wall. The moisture clinging to it seeped into his clothes and a shiver broke down his back. He picked up the salted meat from the floor and scraped the salt with a short fingernail before putting his finger into his mouth. Water coated his tongue, even if his skin only tasted like rust and a sourness he couldn’t give a name to.

‘Why do you keep doing that?’ Gaspar broke the silence.

‘Salt preserves the body.’ Usir wondered why he didn’t feel hollowness, but pain in his belly.

Gaspar’s eyes followed the uneaten piece of beef until it landed on the floor again. ‘The first time we met you pretended to be deaf, remember?’

Light hit one of the harpoons placed against the wall behind Gaspar, the yellow glow making the metal appear incandescent, as if it had been held above a fire.

‘The old Egyptians used to push a hot rod inside the nostrils of the dead until it reached the brain.’ Usir didn’t know how to solve that problem with his own body. ‘Scrambled it into pieces, made it easier to remove it. Only my heart can stay, because I’ll need it for the final judgment in the afterlife.’

‘Why won’t you stop talking like that?’

‘I do remember, of course.’ Usir blinked before looking at Gaspar’s distorted face under the bright light. ‘I was loading the wine barrels into the ship. You were counting them.’

Gaspar’s mouth curled. ‘You worked very hard to ignore me.’

‘I wasn’t sure my master would let me speak to anyone else.’ Usir was the one to offer his hand now and Gaspar held it. ‘You didn’t give up talking to me, following me everywhere.’

‘Not a lot of places to hide in a ship.’

Usir traced a birthmark on Gaspar’s wrist with his free hand, then the bluish, raised veins on his forearm.

The smile that graced Gaspar’s lips faded. ‘I can’t visit tomorrow.’

Usir swallowed a protest, but didn’t speak as Gaspar continued.

‘We’re about to pass San Pablo Island, and their main interest is to glimpse land. No one will come for you now.’

Gaspar undid their hold, and the warmth he left behind quickly grew cold as Usir followed his darkening figure up the stairs. The cockroach scurried out of sight once more, leaving him truly alone to stare out the porthole. The dusty blue colour of the water reminded him of the Nile. It was autumn when he saw it for the first time, so the river was receding and leaving silt and dead fish behind. The canals made by the labourers were filled with water and the crops thrived that year.

Life finding its way through putrefaction and decay.

Usir lifted his shirt as far as the chains allowed. His belly was sunken, and his skin, instead of a cinnamon tint, was stretched over bones like drying papyrus. His protruding navel seemed to retreat more and more inside him with every breath he took, as if it was being inhaled as well. His ribs made him think of elephant ivory, but when he trailed his fingers over them, they reminded him more of a qanun.

He was losing human shape.

He would need to be stuffed with linen to preserve his original form. When Usir pulled at the hem of his shirt, the flimsy fabric ripped easily in a ribbon. His mouth was too dry and didn’t allow him to ingest it, so he licked the salt off the beef, fighting the urge to bite down at the smoky taste. He managed to swallow part of the fabric when his mouth flooded with saliva once more, but the rest wouldn’t go down. Usir pulled it out, and it chafed his throat as it climbed up.

The sound of booted steps woke him up. He turned his head towards the stairs, but the smile already cracking his dry lips froze. His master took a key from his oversized coat, opened the cell door, and unshackled him.

‘Out.’

The word was as rough as the creak of metal. His master’s clothes lacked the caked filth of the sailors’, as he always avoided soiling the fine quality wool, and his boots weren’t as scuffed as Gaspar’s. He clinked the key against the metal as he waited for Usir to leave the cell.

Usir crawled out and stumbled when he tried to get up, his useless legs tingling with needles. His bony knees hit the floor with a thump, but his master pulled him up and dragged him to the stairs. His breeches rasped against his sore groin, stings of pain shooting down his legs and curling his toes. The cherry-red stain on his trousers grew larger. The thought of dying didn’t fill him with fear, contrary to what Gaspar believed; it meant he’d complete his transition and be rewarded.

There were no portholes on the corridors, so they were as dark as he expected the underworld to be. Musty, damp and reeking of putrid food and unwashed feet. Osiris had also been forced to walk in darkness until he was transformed into something else, an entity in control of life and death.
Ra’s light blinded him for a moment after he climbed to the deck, an augur of his next life. A tribunal of forty-two divine judges would also await him. Usir’s life had not conformed to the principles of Ma’at, since he had been baptised at seven years old, but he had no faith in the Christians’ God. He would share in Osiris’s eternal life.

A shadow, too thin to belong to the sails, swayed on the floor of the deck. Usir followed the movement up, where a familiar shape hung from a yardarm. Gaspar’s pale face was now purple and bloated like a plum. A thick rope encircled his neck. The collar of his shirt was caught in it, so the hem rose above the cord holding his breeches, revealing the pasty skin of his stomach and the trail of dark hair below his navel.

The emptiness Usir had been feeling for months, the assurance that he was becoming as hollow as the preserved bodies, faded. The palm wine he’d taken to cleanse himself turned solid, weighing him down until he knew he was as alive as Gaspar’s had been not long ago. His heart pushed life through his body again, and instead of the transcendence he expected, he felt his lungs work again with a sharp inhale, his stomach clamp on itself, his guts stir and churn. They shattered his godhood.

‘Why?’ he whispered.

‘He committed a sin against God.’ His master’s voice was callous.

‘I did too.’

‘And here’s your punishment. He can be replaced, the Captain has other officers who can read.’ His hand tightened. ‘I, on the other hand, will not waste reais by buying another slave, so you’ll learn your lesson from this.’

‘He was a nobleman.’

‘So am I. But here he was a sailor, and I outranked him.’

Gaspar’s swinging shade reminded Usir of another. The moving shadow of a quill on vellum, as he tried to position it properly. Usir had wanted to learn how to read and write, so Gaspar took him to his small room, where a single candle was enough to shine light on his cot and piles of books. Gaspar had sat behind him, his chin resting on Usir’s shoulder, his warm breath tickling his neck. Usir broke the feather before writing a single word.

Gaspar was patient, whispering instructions in his ear. His chest warmed Usir’s back, while his greasy hair brushed against Usir’s face every time he moved. He didn’t mind. The lice wouldn’t fester on his shaved head.

‘I give up.’ Usir had nearly thrown it at a wall.

Gaspar laughed. ‘It’s only difficult at first.’ He dipped his finger in the inkpot and touched it to Usir’s bare chest, who shuddered at the cold liquid. Gaspar continued down his lower belly.

‘What is it?’ The black symbols didn’t make any sense to Usir, and yet they reminded him of the language of his homeland.

‘Ana baħibbak.’

As an answer, Usir turned his head until his lips grazed Gaspar’s jaw, his stubble prickling him. He smelled of sweat and ink.

But his master’s voice poisoned Usir’s memories as he shoved him forward, away from Gaspar. ‘Back to work.’

Teresa Garanhel loves the written word in all forms, be it fiction writing or copywriting – and her passion for travelling, mythology, and history often fuels her stories. In her free time, she can be found reading, gaming, listening to music, and having long chats over a pint at the local pub.

Picture credits: Shawn Kelly

EP. 29 | caitlin stobie on nice rejections 

With my poetry collection… I’d send it to places and they’d say it wasn’t quite right but then they would give some really nice feedback… and that’s what kept me going, because they actually took the time to tell me that so that probably is a good sign.

caitlin stobie

In this episode, writer and scholar Caitlin Stobie talks about the start of her writing career and how rejection felt ‘crushing’ but, at times, it could also be encouraging.

We have all felt lost at the beginning trying to place our first poem or the first piece of prose fiction in a magazine or a publisher. But we all also have at least one rejection that was encouraging and showed us we were on the right path. Sometimes, these kinds of rejections can be even more inspiring than acceptances.

What is the ‘best’ rejection that you have ever received?

At the time, rejection always feels crushing, especially if it’s something where you think you actually stand a chance.

caitlin stobie

Listen to this extract to find advice on:

  • Handling rejection as a starting writer
  • Recognising the ‘nice’ rejections – and using them to keep working on a project
  • The value of rejections

Connect with Caitlin:

Website / Instagram

The Wandering Bard podcast is also available on Spotify. You can also find us on Twitter at @TheWBmag.

three poems by natalie sorrell charlesworth

The sea strips / the sand into strata, / shifts the timeline / on the tides. / The village / was Saxon, was Viking / was Roman. / Was here, then gone.

natalie sorrell charlesworth

Picture credits: Andrew

Christ the King, Fishergate Hill

Castle ruin, fairy gate, grey-white mirage

side-eyed from the slipstream windowpane

of a hundred early morning bus journeys.

Octagonal towered, Notre Dame aspirant

pulled flat on all faces but this. A demoted

church, the council’s truncated, votive offering.

One day I will walk up to your wall, press

my palms flat to your bricks. Push.

Picture credits: Preston Digital Archive

Tulketh Hall

Back to grass and heather. The hum

of masonry bees vibrating in their

honeycombed brickwork remnants.

Hidden undergrowth fed on ashes.

Here, a hunter once crouched

in their furs in the long grass,

watching the sedate grazing

of their next rabbit-skin hat.

Here, a monk once set down

his wandering staff, bricked

the world into windows, panes

of glass arching heavenwards.

Here, a man made a manor

of a monastery, rented out

the choral echoes of inherited

nobility, to trade and railways.

Here, they sent the orphaned

or unwanted, the short-trousered

progeny of parents on a budget,

for Latin, Greek and arithmetic.

Here, the army stored their secrets,

then forgot to post a guard. Lost

the lot to trespassers five years later,

ten-year-old Tom with dad’s lighter.

Here, half the roof peeled open

in a storm, like a ring-pull can lid.

The council puts paid to the walls

with a wrecking ball next winter.

Here lies Tulketh, interred in

Avenue, Brow, Road, Crescent.

Foundations’ bones tarmacked

under a car park’s cracked skin.

Picture credits: Tjer77

Domburg Beach

i.

The sea strips

the sand into strata,

shifts the timeline

on the tides.

The village

was Saxon, was Viking

was Roman.

Was here, then gone.

ii.

One winter reveals

a headless Victory.

She was carried

in triumph

to the church. Left

greening

out of salt until

she was reclaimed,

or lost,

to lightning.

iii.

In harder times

the villagers develop

criminal tendencies.

Wind their way

through the wave

forms of foundations,

the worm casts

of superfluous

underwater wells.

Seek plunder.

iv.

The currents change

on the whim of the weather,

call up

the temple of a forgotten

Roman goddess, plying

her faith amongst

the carcass stalls

of Viking merchants,

the graves of Christians

birthed

out of the mud,

heads facing westwards.

v.

For centuries of dark nights,

the villagers’ children

have crept out

through the waves’

boneyard, pillaged the surf’s

hand-me-downs

for the brooches and skulls

they liked the best, ferried

them home through

seaweed snares and crab nests.

Of the rest, little is known

and the locals’ lips

are salt-sealed.

Dr Natalie Sorrell Charlesworth, is a 29 year old Preston native. She won the Poetic Republic Portfolio Prize 2014, was specially commended in Elbow Room 2016, shortlisted for the Bridport Poetry Prize 2020 and Jane Martin Prize 2014 and longlisted for Mslexia 2021. Her work has been published by Poetic Republic, Elbow Room, Beautiful Dragons and Hidden Disabilities.  She works as a Library Assistant for Lancashire County Council, as an Outreach and Schools Liaison Officer for Lancaster University and as a freelance artist and genealogist. She is an active board member for Lancaster Literature Festival and recently passed her VIVA for her Creative Writing PhD at Lancaster University.

EP. 22 | caitlin stobie on writing while doing a postdoc

I don’t have a writing routine for my writing now, it mostly happens in little bursts in between finishing something for my postdoc or maybe on the weekend, in the evenings…

caitlin stobie

Some authors combine their careers with a job in academia. This is the case of Caitlin Stobie, who is a writer and a research fellow at the University of Oxford. In fact, Caitlin’s interest in the intersections between science and literature partly inspired her forthcoming poetry collection, Thin Slices.

In this episode, Caitlin talks about changing routines to find what works best for you wherever you are in life. She also recommends the book Daily Rituals, which describes the creative routines of well-known writers such as Sylvia Plath, Patricia Highsmith and Franz Kafka.

Listen to this extract to find advice on:

  • Combining your academic writing with your fiction writing
  • Writing on the weekends and during the evenings

Connect with Caitlin:

Website / Twitter / Instagram

The Wandering Bard podcast is also available on Spotify. You can also find us on Twitter at @TheWBmag.

Manual mode, by anthony López Get

For those who can afford it, there’s a whole new market of fancy devices that connect to your phone or smart watch and register your breathing patterns, send you alarms, remind you to refill your oxygen tank, locate the nearest Oxygen Station, alert your emergency contacts if you collapse; they got you covered. Martha knows them very well. She was moved to the smart respirator department six months ago and has been selling them ever since.

anthony López Get

Martha removes her oxygen mask to sip her coffee and lets the bitter taste fill her with pleasure. It has been a while since they closed all hospitality venues due to the emergency, but now that everything is going back to some normality, she will make sure she enjoys every instant of it; she is even trying, with some difficulty, to take the otherwise annoying and now ubiquitous sound of the pumps around her as just “friendly reminders” of the current situation, rather than as bad omens. At least they are mostly indoors, for now, but she knows they soon will be everywhere. It’ll become part of the background eventually, she tries to reassure herself but without much conviction.

What amuses her is people’s creativity when it comes to customising their personal masks. Next to her table, a bloke is wearing one with the tubes painted and arranged to resemble Dalí’s moustache; yesterday, she saw one in the style of Mad Max’s Immortal Joe, with the teeth and the big corrugated tubes, and there are of course tons inspired by Star Wars, Batman, and many others. Even her husband Dave made a Cthulu mask, with tentacles and all. She thought about doing an Alien theme on hers, but she is a bit concerned her boss will not appreciate her sense of humour if she shows up to the office with a juvenile xenomorph wrapped around her face; I need to get me a spare mask ASAP, she reminds herself, or find me a new job; that second part has proved the harder, though.

As the air leaves her lungs, she is forced to focus on her breathing, being mindful of the process, in-out, in-out, in-out until she gets her rhythm back. It is so easy to get distracted, but she doesn’t want to spoil this lovely cup of Costa Rican beans brewed into liquid perfection by taking the mask on and off all the time. Her dad would’ve loved this coffee. He was a connoisseur, and he taught her, or cursed her somehow, as she became intolerant to anything cheap or poorly executed. Dave, on the other hand, was hopeless. For years, she battled with his daily transgressions; how dare he spoiling her gourmet coffee with kilos of sugar and milk! Outside, another person collapses on the pavement. It’s a man, in his late thirties, maybe early forties. The woman at the flower stall runs to him with a manual pump, like the ones used by paramedics. She has aided at least seven people in the past thirty minutes, bless her. The man recovers consciousness, sits down for a few minutes and then walks on, not before thanking the lady for her help.

It’ll take a while for people to get the hold of it, she thinks, it takes some getting used to new things. Like the sound, phughhhh hhhaaaa, phughhhh hhhaaaa, all around you, so artificial, like white noise but so dark, so enveloping, so surrounding, so there. Martha hates the sound. She read some Unis are working on cheap and quieter portable models. That would be great. Specially at night. It’s difficult enough to put your mind at ease when you risk suffocating in your sleep, to add that annoying beat with its perfect tempo. During the day it’s just there for the fainters, and the children, in restaurants and public transportation, and of course it’s mandatory for drivers and those operating heavy machinery, health workers and those in jobs that require a lot of concentration. For those who can afford it, there’s a whole new market of fancy devices that connect to your phone or smart watch and register your breathing patterns, send you alarms, remind you to refill your oxygen tank, locate the nearest Oxygen Station, alert your emergency contacts if you collapse; they got you covered. Martha knows them very well. She was moved to the smart respirator department six months ago and has been selling them ever since. But at two thousand quid apiece for the cheapest model, Martha must stick to her noisy and bulky NHS model for home, or the public ones in shops and stations. For the rest, there are signs everywhere, on the pavement and on toilet walls, on classrooms and shops, so that people won’t forget while doing something else. Some people cannot walk and chew gum at the same time, a joke Martha has made all her life but that now is full of significance. It seems the plan of the government is to train people on how to live in manual mode, without external aid, at least while awake, but so far it doesn’t look promising. 

She takes another sip of her coffee and reviews her plans for the day: first a little walk around the Minster, then to the chippy for a nice meal, and finally the pub. She has been drooling for a pint of Plum Porter and perhaps a nice IPA. Having beer at home is never the same. She wants the pub, the smell of the old, sticky carpet, the conversation, the cheap pint glass, the full experience. She will meet Gareth and Pablo there. It feels like ages since they went out together the last time. It will be nice seeing them, the gang minus one. They will remember Sue, of course, with a toast and a few shots of her favourite tequila. She wants to hug Gareth with all her strength, and to comfort him for his own loss, although it happened months ago, and it might feel way too late now. And they will want to comfort her, for sure; they know what she’s been through. They will cry together at some point, but she hopes there will be more laughter than tears tonight. There have been too many tears already.

Martha unplugs her mask from the pump at her table and leaves the tea-room. At the door, she stops to take a deep breath before heading to the Minster. The timing couldn’t be better for a reopening. Spring is coming, the sun is shining and a couple of degrees up make a difference. As she walks through the narrow streets of York, with the taste of coffee lingering in her mouth, she thinks about all the things she misses – not the people, but the things, the activities, places, food and drinks – and cannot help but feel shallow and privileged. Yes, people have lost everything, jobs and loved ones, millions have died around the world, most in their sleep; she has lost people too, her dad, her friend Sue, and Dave; she has mourned them; it still hurts, but in her immediate reality, in the right here, right now, in spite of her own need for affection and company, more than anything, she wants to enjoy that coffee, and the pub, and a nice beer, and breathing, yes, breathing; such a disregarded process, so underrated and taken for granted until the automatic mode is shut off.

Anthony López Get is an associate professor of English Literature and Language at University of Costa Rica. In 2018, he moved to Lancaster, UK while his wife does a PhD in English Literature. This break from work has given him the opportunity to explore more creative forms of writing beyond academic articles and books. He has been experimenting with poetry, short fiction, short plays and monologues, both in Spanish (his mother tongue) and English. In 2019, he was shortlisted for both the Pint Size Plays Competition and the The Lancaster One Minute Monologue Competition.

Picture credits: Michael Mauger.

an extract from ‘nakadai’, by walker zupp

Hiroshi Nakadai is born into a parallel universe. Here, the study of linguistics has been replaced by Neo-Linguistics: a bold new research-area whose originator, Mardik Snül, famously desired linguists to ‘start again’. The young Nakadai studies Neo-Linguistics at the University of Twickley, serves in the Japanese army, becomes a Benedictine monk, then receives the chair of Professor of Neo-Linguistics at Twickley where, despite his relectuance, he is heralded as the greatest philosophical mind of the age. Unbeknownst to this extreme England, Nakadai’s work springs from his enslavement to an interdimensional being known as the Great Word whose sole wish is to invade this world. Nakadai tells his story to his PhD student, Nicola Hillam-Joiner, whose detailed, written history of Nakadai’s life sheds light on the profound and the absurd which, time after time, appear to be interchangeable…

My name is Nicola Hillam-Joiner. I am a PhD student at the University of Twickley and haven’t had a good night’s sleep in several years. Putting that to one side side, now: the Higher Education Strike, which originated during a pension dispute between the Reperio Society and the University, Work & College Union, had its most extreme incarnation at the University of Twickley in the North of England (bar the quasi-revolution which occurred at universities in the Republic of Cornwall). To exhaustively comprehend the Higher Education Strike we must turn, in the course of our narrative, to a woman who was the hurdy-gurdy to Nakadai’s guitar. Kotori Chiba, that brave maternal aunt who had taken Nakadai in after his mother and father had perished, had been missing her nephew for some time. He had succumbed to the influence of Professor Mutton and the Great Word – as well as the prospect of producing a PhD of merit – and seldom communicated with Ms Chiba. Their sometimes absurd correspondence bore a great tonal likeness to Falla’s opera, Master Peter’s Puppet Show, based upon Don Quixote’s 26th chapter and about half as funny.

Having left her Asian Supermarket in a safe pair of Malaysian hands, however, the 89-year-old Ms. Chiba was in no position to relax her familial ties. Indeed, in one’s retirement, it becomes easy to forget about discipline, rigour and the forged happiness of uneasy emotional toil, so beautifully illustrated by Henry Purcell’s unfinished Indian Queen. Thus Ms. Chiba was determined that she would not go the way of so many retirees, and would instead spend a great many hours with her good friend, Ms. Doris Dingle – the ‘infamous matriarch of the Dingletones’ – and convulse with laughter, tell gratuitous stories, reflect upon past and future success, wiling the time away with something approaching ‘total refinement’ or ‘nirvana’. These would be the happiest of times, Ms. Chiba was determined to prove to herself, especially in the presence of Ms. Dingle who, with her inane head of fiery red hair and pear-like disposition, forever proved to be the ‘finest of listeners’ and the ‘warmest of heart’. And so once again I must retire the reins momentarily to Nakadai himself who, with his own ‘embellished record’, should illustrate an accurate picture of the Higher Education Strike and the part his aunt, Ms. Chiba, played in it.

The Adventures Of Ms. Chiba And Doris Dingle, Infamous Matriarch Of The Dingletones

The following was described to me by my maternal aunt, Ms. Chiba, at her residence in Twickley, after I had received a few stitches on my forehead at the behest of Dr. Vanya Dubey:

It had already been an impulsive day of chores when Ms. Chiba, resident of No. 15 Marlowe Road, was called upon by that infamous matriarch of the Dingletone family, Ms. Doris Dingletone, known affectionately always as Ms. Doris Dingle – for, it was quicker to pronounce and more redolent of the jolly experiential frame she possessed – to attend high tea that sunny winter morning.

Ms. Chiba, determined as she was to pursue her attainment of total refinement through her splendid mindly jaunts with Ms. Dingle, accepted in a heartbeat and set to shutting the curtains, blowing out the candles – as she preferred candlelight to the luminous stuff emitted from lightbulbs – dressing in her jeans, black top and tiny colourful scarf, then locked up her abode and set off down Marlowe Road – which itself was a steep hill lined with a comprehensive school and tall trees – into the city centre of Twickley, which was as busy as a frog pond that day.

In the green-attired and furniture-laden Queen Square Tea Room, opposite the Dingletone family home – the imposingly large and posh No. 2 Queen Square – our two ladies greeted each other with pecks on the cheek, were seated and ordered bancha tea. With this, the dispatched personal host prepared a portable charcoal fire at their table, scooped quantities of water into a stout kettle and placed the kettle onto the glowing embers. As the water began to bubble, the host returned with a plate of unpretentious cakes, a tea bowl from which their tea would be served, and a larger bowl for the melancholy leafings of the tea.

Ms. Dingle initiated polite conversation as the tea was prepared: ‘Ah, we are both single mothers in our own ways, aren’t we Kotori?’

Ms. Chiba agreed, stating that it must be difficult with her husband having died only recently and with all of her children at boarding school.

‘Yes, we all have our crosses to bear, don’t we?’ Ms. Dingle replied. ‘And speaking of crosses – if you’ll excuse the heretical connection – how is your son doing; that Nakadai of yours?’

‘Well, he was never my son, you see. I never thought of Nakadai as a son, more as a – to use the heretical connection, as you say – he was more of a lamb. You should always want to take care of lambs, I think.’

‘This is true, very true…’

Such were the poetic and commonplace topics of high tea.

‘But lambs, too, must grow and they get bigger and bigger. Thank you…’ Their host poured their tea, bowed, smiling, and retired to another table on the other side of the room. ‘Mmm, lovely – but yes, Nakadai is very old now…’

‘Very old? I am very old! Not he, compared to me, he might as well be at school.’

‘In many ways he never left school, wouldn’t you agree?’

‘Yes, yes, I would agree – well put, Ms. Dingle…’ I don’t believe my aunt actually knew the woman’s Christian name. ‘But I haven’t seen him in the longest time, you know; he stays up there, at his school, the university, doing God knows what – Ach! It infuriates me!’

‘I can see, I can see – but why don’t you contact him, tell him to pay attention to his poor aunt.’ Ms. Chiba greatly resented being called the ‘poor aunt’. ‘Why, it must have been some time since you saw him last?’

‘I believe the last time I saw Nakadai was three of your Anglo-Saxon Christmases ago.’

‘What! That is most unsatisfactory! And this Nakadai has no one else with whom to spend his time?’ Ms. Dingle enquired in a state of shock unwitnessed so far in the Queen Square Tea Room.

‘No, I don’t think so – unless he goes back to that damned monastery, I mean abbey, sorry – I am worried, as you can see.’

‘There’s no wonder why you’re so worried! Such a thing would never happen to the Dingletones,’ she added not altogether helpfully. ‘Not with myself as the matriarch; that would never happen – never! No, I think it’s a sin that he hasn’t seen you in three years.’

But the 89-year-old Ms. Chiba and the 87-year-old Ms. Dingle were in no position, arguably, to make demands upon anyone, for is it not true that the world has left behind such people in the later stages of aging? And must we, the young, habitually heed the doddery contrivances of antiquity’s custodians? These are questions, stark queries, for which not even the pampered and proud Ms. Dingle could have begun to articulate answers. As for Ms. Chiba, she was more resigned than her accomplice, thinking herself the ‘last of her race’ as none but herself had survived the age-related dilapidation of her family. Now she was alone.

‘Which is why my nephew is a kind of relic in his own right,’ Ms. Chiba went on to her progressively angrier accomplice. ‘He, too, is the last of his race, if you understand my meaning.’ And she began to weep, a most unusual occurrence for any participant of high tea.

‘There, there,’ Ms. Dingle, with great affection, patted the wrinkly back of Ms. Chiba’s manly paw. ‘Don’t get upset, my dear. I am here, aren’t I? And there should never be any reason to be lonely and disaffected with me, my dear. What is that idiom of yours you always repeat to me? Nanakorobi yaoki. “Fall seven times and stand up eight.” And you, with your business record, have surely stood up eight times by now?’

‘Yes, I suppose I have, but at the cost of seven stumbles!’

‘That is everyone’s story, surely? Tell you what: where do you stand on the Higher Education Strike?’

‘The what?’

‘The Higher Education Strike – everyone’s talking about it. Apparently, it’s brought the country to a standstill.’      

‘Nakadai will know something about that,’ Ms. Chiba ventured bravely, happily. 

‘Should you like me to explain the particulars, causes, as far as I know?’ asked Ms. Dingle.

‘Why, of course! If it means I’ll get closer to my nephew.’ Such mild philosophical discussions, carried out perpetually in a state of universal agreement are, too, the mainstay of high tea, especially when older reflective ladies are involved. ‘Alright then, go on – explain it to me!’

‘Right, you’ve put me on the spot, Kotori! Ha-ha! Let’s see – well, it’s always got something to do with money, hasn’t it? From what I gather, Kotori, all the universities in the country, except those which operate as independents, are run by a thing called the Reperio Society.’

‘I see,’ said Ms. Chiba, ‘and who are the Reperio Society?’

‘They’re a subsidiary of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, who really were smashing in their own way with their emphasis on literacy, et cetera. They even made it to Japan, didn’t they? But you doubtless know more about this than I do, ah yes, certainly you do, you must – judging by your silence you don’t – oh well! Let me continue then on this little tract of mine. Oh, it is excellent tea here, isn’t it – so, Francis Xavier and Ignatius of Loyola started the Jesuits and I’m sure you know this since it’s a part of your country’s strange history,’ she said the word ‘strange’ as though it had caused her an ulcer. ‘So, basically, my dear, Rome seems to have had taken an interest in Anglo-Saxon higher education over 200 years ago, so they founded the Reperio Society and gradually seeped into the running of all these research institutions.’

‘That sounds barmy,’ said Ms. Chiba suddenly. ‘Why, you expect me to believe that some Roman organization squirreled its way into running these Anglo-Saxon universities? Maybe they put something in our tea and plan to surprise us with something!’

‘Oh, really! Don’t be so crude – you Japanese are always so crude!’ Ms. Dingle, the infamous Ms. Dingle, began to seem distressed at Ms. Chiba’s presence alone. ‘The point anyway is that there’s a thing called an Exalted President in the Reperio Society who runs it, you see, and this person – who is a woman I might add – decided to make some alterations to the Reperio Welfare Scheme.’

‘Nakadai’s money!’

‘Yes, Nakadai’s money, my dear; only from teaching, I assume – unless he squeezed a few private pounds in there, eh, Kotori?’

‘I wouldn’t lend Nakadai money in a million years! He wouldn’t know what to do with it anyway. He’d probably just buy a few more beach chairs and slim detective novels. Or that Perfect Word he goes on about. You know, he has no clue how to enjoy himself.’

‘Verily,’ Ms. Dingle remarked, ‘but in all fairness to yourself it is just a quarterly pension scheme, my dear. But the Exalted President – who’s a woman, yes! a woman – decided to raise the contribution from 9% to 20%, which I think is a very good thing to do.’

‘Well, that sounds like theft to me,’ said Ms. Chiba wisely. ‘Daylight robbery, that sounds like to me – say, they didn’t connect all this money, the pool of contributions, to the stock market by any chance, did they?’

‘Funnily enough that too is a point of contention amongst the academics, or whatever they call themselves. Readers in X. But yes, so what happened was the University, Work & College Union decided to call a strike and it’s still going on today!’

‘Where is it, I mean – where does it take place?’

‘At the university of course! They’ve withdrawn teaching, all of it. Positively barmy, yes, you spoke of barmy things earlier, didn’t you?’

‘I did, I did – but if I had any idea Nakadai was part of this – no, it’s not very good at all – how do they get away with it, that is, the withdrawal of teaching services?’

‘Well, they just do it, don’t they?’

‘But do they get paid?’ asked Ms. Chiba.

‘Certainly not! The university’s refusing to pay them and these talks are ongoing, negotiations they call them – if they were to keep on teaching, there would be little to bargain with. Meaning the teaching staff, lecturers, professors, have to withhold something so as to put pressure on the university. Actually, now that I think about it, it makes rather a lot of sense to me. Yes, and what about those who love teaching, eh? What becomes of them?’

‘I don’t suppose you have to go on strike,’ said Ms. Chiba.

‘No, quite right, Kotori, you don’t have to go on strike. I say – is Nakadai a member of a union?’

‘I haven’t a clue – I’m certainly not and never have been, as I’m terribly antagonistic towards any organisation who claims to be the emotional and rights-orientated voice of a group of human beings. I don’t see how anybody could get on board with that.’

‘Perhaps, when you are overworked and underpaid, one might begin to think about subscribing to such a movement?’

‘Maybe,’ Ms. Chiba caught a glimpse of another customer’s breath gliding like a cloud across the cool window. ‘But the proclivity for misinformation is much too high for my liking and probably Nakadai’s, too – oh, I do wish we could see him! And as another refutation, so to speak, irregardless of how good the intentions of the union are, I have a right to think I’m correct, even if I’m totally wrong. And so, I have a right not to strike, and for that decision to be respected. So, any organization who doesn’t want me exercising that right is a dangerous one.’

Ms. Dingle, having finished her tea, dumped the leafy fragrant remains into the larger bowl provided. ‘It’s a good thing we agree on so many things – I can’t get behind anything you just said. You’ve got to think about the greater good, my dear. Because if we don’t fight together, then there’s no hope of anything ever getting fixed.’ 

‘Nothing ever does get fixed, Ms. Dingle.’ She thought deeply about what Ms. Dingle’s real name might be and was left none the wiser. ‘Should we go find Nakadai?’

‘Yes!’ Ms. Dingle exclaimed, causing several customers to spill their tea out of sheer fright. ‘Yes, I think that is a perfectly splendid idea! Two old biddies! Off we go!’

With a rapidity that frightened even the ancient finely-toned hosts of the Queen Square Tea Room, Ms. Chiba and Ms. Dingle exited the premises, hailed a cab – as both ladies were of the opinion that only they would spend the capital they’d accumulated – and spied the passing perpendicular housing blocks, beautiful antiquated terraced housing, yellowish buses filled with university students and infrequent grumpy academics, wide frozen fields beset by swollen sheep and finally the grand super-signed entrance to the University of Twickley, which was absolutely rammed with academics from both the regular university and the medical school, as well as what appeared to be undergraduate students. ‘“Students stand with seminar leaders”?’ Ms. Chiba read one of the many placards held up high. ‘I certainly don’t agree with that.’

‘Nor do I, my dear, they’re going to get hurt standing out there.’ Ms. Dingle tapped the glass partition causing the taxi driver to brake abruptly. The wealthy widow paid the fee, took her accomplice by the hand and stepped into the bright chilly January air. ‘Now, this is what I call theatre!’

‘I don’t know, Ms. Dingle – they look – violent.’

‘Nakadai!’ Ms. Dingle began to vaguely shout at the crowd, as though I would appear like a mushroom amongst the bark. ‘Nakadai! Where are you!’

‘Don’t do that! Don’t call his name!’

‘Why not, pray?’ Ms. Dingle watched a group of students with shaven heads waving huge signs. They were shouting, ‘Free Nakadai!’

She said to her accomplice: ‘Hold on a moment – look at that, there! Look at those signs, they say “Free Nakadai!” What on Earth for, I wonder?’

‘Yes, my goodness, this is most peculiar, which is fitting, with this peculiar nephew of mine; shall we go ask them what it’s all about?’ And Ms. Chiba and Ms. Dingle, their expensive clothing drawing the glances of some of the poorer attendees at the picket line, trotted up to the pugnacious pack of pitiless students, their tumultuous screechy voices forming far more vapours than would otherwise have occurred.

‘Look at these old bags, look at them!’ said one student wearing a Nakadai tee shirt. ‘What do you want? Get out of here! You don’t belong here, this isn’t your fight!’ Which immediately confused the old biddies as surely the strike was a matter for the employees to discuss; and students were not, despite their fees and occasional paid work, employees of the university, beholden to it in any way.

‘Nakadai is my nephew!’ Ms. Chiba shouted back. ‘How dare you talk to me like that!’

‘What – you’re his – you’re what?’

‘I’m Nakadai’s aunt, I’ll have you know. Now, tell me, as his name is a matter of intellectual property – namely, my intellectual historical familial property – why do you have his name up in the air like that? It’s most annoying!’

The voice of the elderly Japanese woman had drawn other students around the two ‘old biddies’ and Ms. Dingle began to suspect their intentions were not entirely peaceful. ‘Steady on, Kotori,’ she whispered to her now red-faced accomplice. ‘You’re aggravating them…’

‘Basically,’ proclaimed another student sheepishly, ‘we think Nakadai’s being mistreated – our lecturer, Nakadai, the Professor of Neo-Linguistics – and you say you’re his auntie, which is great and all, but that doesn’t really concern us because we’re anti-family, more or less. And believe that bloodlines are a social construct created by the patriarchy to enforce ignoble securities.’

‘Let me make sense of this drivel,’ said Ms. Chiba. ‘You don’t think families exist – but I’ll have you know that there’s a lot more to families than blood! Families, groups in which everyone is ‘related’ are not necessarily a matter of biological connection – what am I getting at here, Ms. Dingle? Why, it’s very simple and fundamental, it’s a simple fundamental point: if you don’t believe in families, then you can’t possibly believe in love, either! Not in any kind of long-lasting functional love, certainly – you mean to tell me you don’t think families exist, beyond those constructs you mentioned, of course?’

‘No, we do not.’ All the ‘Free Nakadai!’ signs lowered slightly, like a balloon being emptied slowly of its air. ‘More importantly, though, Professor Mutton – emeritus he may be – is a dangerous influence upon this place and he needs to go! Look, look, everyone, look! There he goes!’

Professor Mutton’s car drove through the picket. Eggs and tomatoes were thrown at it.

‘I don’t believe it!’ said another student. ‘He’s crossed the picket line! The yucky fetid tosser! I can’t imagine anyone loves him!’

‘I suspect Nakadai’s crossed the picket line as well,’ thought Ms. Chiba, but she would never in a million years have said that aloud, because despite Ms. Dingle’s sporadic anti-Japanese sentiment, she liked the old widow for her ‘jolly outlook’ and ‘no-nonsense inclinations’ and would never say anything that would put the ‘capital old newt’ in danger.

And so, a better part of the day went by, the students explaining their positions and relationships with myself, chanting mystic rhythmic songs in a Nixonian attempt to levitate the university, laughing and telling jokes with Ms. Chiba, criticizing the infamous Ms. Dingle at almost every opportunity and shooting her untrustworthy glances; then informing Ms. Chiba – whom they were now referring to as ‘Auntie Chiba’ – that she had passed their tests, even though she didn’t really agree with some of the ‘ludicrous out-of-touch views’ they had and believed genuinely that the later impending ramifications of these radical and irresponsible beliefs would indeed be as ‘odious, unholy and crooked’ as the now-retired Professor Mutton they were so determined to irrevocably smear. But they were young and had to be forgiven. ‘It’s essential that we do that,’ Ms. Chiba nobly thought.

The adventures of Ms. Chiba and Doris Dingle, infamous matriarch of the Dingletones, came to a close when Ms. Dingle desired to return home and catch the first episode of the new Inspector Miller series on ITV3. She ushered the now revered and continually hooted-at Ms. Chiba into yet another taxi, after which the thenceforward depressed vehicle pooted into the distance, a duo of disputing exhilarated silhouettes dancing in the back window cut by the dying light of that lugubrious January day…

Nicola here. Nakadai’s account of the Higher Education Strike smacks of Warlock’s Capriol and, therefore, of twisted reproductions of Renaissance dancing. Regardless, Nakadai had crossed the picket line and was a scab forever sullied in the jaded eyes of his departmental colleagues. The strike affected two million students overall and led to the formation of a militant advocacy group known officially as Verified University Learning Vestibule for Advancement and unofficially as VULVA. Like Rudolf Kempe and his oboe, they broke into the accounting offices of the university, demanded their fees be refunded and threatened to kill staff. They were forced out by an accountant who, like the multi-talented oboist Rudolf Kempe, furtively carried his own machine pistol. This sticky deed saw VULVA target academics, one of whom was a lecturer in Chemistry & Forensic Science called Allesandro Dekker. Having made eye contact with a woman for longer than two seconds, he was sentenced to death via galliard and ‘danced upon till he did gasp for breath and dyed’. 

This violent turn of events escalated the strike to an all-out war in which the students – whose views were not endorsed by the strike which had nothing to do with them anyway – and the Upper Loxhall Constabulary were the key players. Thus, on the same day Ms. Chiba secured her rhetorical victory with the students, there came a crushing physical defeat with Nakadai who, having escaped the fortified library, found himself stuck in the university square. One one side the riot police were shooting ‘real bullets’ from atop a blockade, while on the other VULVA members burnt books and sang ‘strange quarrelsome motets’:  

‘There were two things Japanese had trouble understanding when Francis Xavier first visited Japan,’ Nakadai explained. ‘They could not understand how a God who had created everything, including evil, could possibly be good. Nor were they comfortable with their ancestors suffering eternity in hell. When I left the library that day, I found myself asking the very same questions – I seemed to access race memory when that bunch of police officers started making fun of me. They wore dense armour and carried AR-15s. They had been called in to deal with strikers and anti-strikers, but now they were faced with someone who wanted nothing to do with either group. They asked me strange questions: Was this my normal accent? When did I arrive in the country? How long had I been here? I realized they were making fun of me when someone asked me about Godzilla. I said I did not know anything about Godzilla; I had not seen him in years. They did not like my reply. They seemed to cover me; hands hovered over holsters. ‘I bet you don’t have a clue about war,’ someone said; and I replied, ‘I will have you know I served in Japan’s Self-Defence Force – so don’t lecture me about war.’ Suddenly their superior marched through them. He had green eyes and was cultured. He took off his helmet, and said, ‘Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. And what do we have here? You wouldn’t know public service if it hit you in the face…’ He punched my left cheek, and down I went. The ground gave me those stitches Ms. Chiba thought were so malicious. I listened to their laughter and grew angrier by the minute. I could not think of anything to say, however. I was down there, and they were up there. Gradually sinister tones re-entered the group. Their leader, DCI Lumb, wrapped tape over my mouth. He dragged me up scaffolding overlooking the university square and dangled me to the anti-strikers like a frightened hunk of meat. How could God have created people like this? How could God be good when injurious creations like this one marshalled control and got what they wanted through brute force? The man dangling me clearly had no fear of hell; he had reached the conclusion, in his own brutal time, that hell did not exist. Then his inferiors started firing into the crowd. They hit some students; others they wounded. There was smoke and flame and shouting. (Either God willed this or we were all going to hell, I thought.) I was fuming when they lowered me down the scaffolding. I breathed heavily and angrily; I could have done anything I wanted. Their superior continued prodding me, calling me names and slapping me about the head. Then something in me – a momentary loss of faith – stretched the existential elastic too far. I jabbed my fingers in DCI Lumb’s right eye and he screamed like a child. He lunged backwards in pain, then forward, his colleagues aiming to shoot. ‘Stop! Leave him!’ He waved his colleagues away. He spied me with the remaining eye, and said, ‘You can go. You go back to wherever you came from. You remember something, though – I’ll be coming to get you!’ I freed my mouth, grabbed my rucksack and ran as quickly as possible. I cut corners and dodged doors. Finally I reached Arkham Main and went to my office. I slept there that night and by the morning I had found my faith. I remembered Professor Mutton, however, and knew it would be tested.’   

In March the Higher Education Strike, much like Donizetti’s opera of Anne Boleyn’s life, reached an ‘unpunctual favourable finale’. After a series of ‘protracted negotiations’, the Reperio Society and the University, Work & College Union agreed that employee contributions would be raised over a period of eight years. It was also agreed that university employees would be given a ‘Tickely bundle’ of only partial ‘strike-pay’; and it was around the same time that, in light of the ‘Free Nakadai!’ placards, Nakadai was given a ‘verbal whipping’ in Professor Mutton’s office.

Verily, Nakadai would never have expected that one day he’d have become so influential that his actions and relationships would be discussed on as high a level as talks between the union and the Reperio Society. But this was not a good thing. Because it demonstrated the university’s lack of understanding about Nakadai’s relationship with Professor Mutton and the Great Word, as it proved how the latter two egregious forces had been doing their utmost to keep their secrets from the world of mankind. There was ‘no hope’ for Nakadai and the next six years would prove to be the ‘hardest and most fatiguing years’ of his life.

Walker Zupp is a Bermudian writer whose work tackles the socio-political geography of the current age. His debut novel, Martha, was published by Montag Press. His second novel, Nakadai, will be published later next year. He splits his time between Bermuda and Cornwall. 

Picture credits: Bruno Alves

EP. 15 | caitlin stobie on publishing poetry and academic work

With my poetry collection… I’d send it to places and they’d say it wasn’t quite right but then they would give some really nice feedback… and that’s what kept me going, because they actually took the time to tell me that so that probably is a good sign.

caitlin stobie

Caitlin Stobie chose to develop her writing career in different fields, including poetry and academia. In this episode she shares what she’s learned from working with editors and publications in both areas. She also gives us advice on approaching publishers informally before you send them your work. Watch out for Caitlin’s debut poetry collection, Thin Slices, which will be published by Verve Poetry Press in 2022!

Listen to this extract to find advice on:

  • Develop your writing career in and outside academia.
  • Approaching publisher informally.
  • How to research the best places to submit your work to.

You shouldn’t be scared of having an informal chat with publishers before sending them something.

caitlin stobie

Connect with Caitlin:

Website / Twitter / Instagram

The Wandering Bard podcast is also available on Spotify. You can also find us on Twitter at @TheWBmag.

Pretenders, by weronika wolska

The bruise, I saw it on his arm. Summer morning at my old house. The day Grandad came to help Mama with packing all our stuff. Gabriel and I were on the street, playing tag, and he fell over. I helped him up and he tried to get away like crazy, but I saw it. It was big and purple. No bruise would go purple in three seconds. He pulled his sleeves down as much as possible and it became his ritual from then on.

weronika wolska

My responsibilities on Christmas Eve seem simple: play with Gabriel, look good, behave well, put someone in prison and talk like a rich, British gentleman with a top hat. Mama thinks that every British man is like that, and that they are all posh even though she’s never been to the United Kingdom. She likes posh people because Grandad likes them. They were never posh themselves and they are not British, but they can pretend. Pretending is fun. 

The worst part is, I don’t know what to do with Gabriel. I feel like I’m suffocating when I meet his pale, blue eyes; guilt makes my larynx rebel. I’m not posh and it turns out you need evidence to lock someone up, so I might as well screw up this Christmas. Gabriel will be looking for the Star in the night sky; the one that led the Three Kings to Jesus so that they could see him and give him their gifts. The moment Gabriel spots the Star, the present opening will begin. When I find my star – a few words from Gabe, a mark, anything – I will receive my gift in the form of Grandad’s disappearance.

Everything in our house is falling apart, but Mama will not let anyone notice that. The table in our living room is old, has loose screws and stains from spilled wine, kompot and raspberry tea, but Mama put a white tablecloth all over it. I can still remember how Gabriel cried when he knocked Mama’s sweet, red Fresco off the table. She thought that he’d said sorry so many times because he’s a good boy. How can adults overlook everything so easily? I’m sixteen and I see every little red flag thrown my way.

I sit next to the Christmas tree and think. It smells like the Stary Gaj right outside Lublin that I’ve been to with Grandad and Gabriel to look for mushrooms. The sun trying to trespass, leaving patches of light on the ground, the fresh air, the blue spots calling out to be harvested. It was a chilly, innocent Saturday morning. I thought it was going to go easy, that we’d have fun.   

Grandad walked to the car, cursing the mosquitos for following him and I liked him then. His snow-like, fluffy hair, his checked shirt and glasses peeking out of his pocket. I had nothing to be worried about and nothing that could make me go crazy. But Gabriel had to open his mouth.

‘Why can’t I live with you, Tosiek?’ He wasn’t looking at me. He almost never did, so that was no shock. He whispered and that was weird.

‘We have no room,’ I said and watched Gabriel nervously swing his little basket. ‘And Grandad would be lonely without you.’ What was I supposed to say? Sorry Gabe, but we’re broke and my mama’s too depressed to look after you?

‘I don’t care.’ Gabriel said, and this time, his voice was clear, loud, frustrated. What’s his problem?

‘Hey, you’re a big kid now. You don’t need no mama. Besides, Grandad’s nice.’

Gabriel frowned, but he wasn’t saying anything. He was looking past me with the intensity of a hunter, and I realised he was making sure that Grandad wasn’t able to overhear us.

‘He cares for you. Like Mama cares for me,’ I said.

He started screaming, kicking and pinching me. A few moments later, we were back in the car. Grandad did not look surprised; there was no sign of anger or annoyance. Just an eerie silence and a darkness in his eyes that I had never seen before. I was looking at Gabriel, too confused to do a thing. I thought that touching him would wake a beast hiding behind his screams. I saw how stiff his muscles were after he’d calmed down, I saw how his eyes never drifted from Grandad’s face, waiting. That was his first and last rebellion. I thought about it but pretended it meant nothing. I’m guilty. I’m a traitor, a hypocrite, a pretender.

‘Tosiek, are you deaf?’ Mama’s running back and forth; setting the table, wiping counters and making sure she doesn’t burn the carp. She wants to show Grandad what a good mother she is, head of the house. I let Gabriel and Grandad in and wait by the door, bouncing on the balls of my feet. 

‘Good evening, Antoni,’ Grandad says in a low voice. Mama should notice that something is off about him. He called me Antoni. Antoni? No one does that. Sign one, but it’s too subtle, not enough for Mama. Time for action; I need evidence.

Mama gives everyone an opłatek and the wishes begin. Mama comes up to me and wishes me good grades, having friends and a girlfriend, but I pay more attention to the other
two. Grandad says something to Gabriel, but he doesn’t smile. I wish Mama a bunch of clichés
like good health, money and luck. She breaks a small piece off of my opłatek and I do the same with hers. We eat it and hug. And then, Grandad tries to hug Gabriel, but he takes a step back. I want Mama to see it so much that I try to turn her around, but she laughs and pulls away.

‘What are you doing, do you want me to choke, you muppet?’

No, these signs are short. Blink once and they’re gone. I need to get evidence from Gabriel. I have a perfect opportunity just before we’re about to eat as Mama unconsciously helps me.

‘Go wash your hands, boys.’ She smiles and claps her hands. Her fake enthusiasm around Grandad is disgusting. Gabriel runs to the bathroom laughing; his enthusiasm is honest and powerful enough to be contagious. I smile. Go on Star, stop playing up now.

‘Hey, sleeves buddy. Pull them up.’ I sound sensible and maybe a little nervous. He’s only seven, though. He won’t notice. He takes the sleeve between two fingers and slowly slides it up, looking at himself in the mirror. No marks there, right, Grandad’s smarter than I thought. ‘Aren’t you hot in this sweater, anyway?’ I’m close.

‘No.’ I knew it, he hides it, I knew it.

‘Really?’ I ask, drumming my fingers on the sink. I’m crazy.

‘Yes.’ He smiles at me and leaves, stumbling over the doorstep. Why can’t he rebel now? Okay, new plan.

Mama lights the candle on the table when I enter the living room.

‘Gabryś, what do you want to try first? Bigos? Barszcz? Pierogi?’ Her smile doesn’t match her face. Please say bigos, say bigos, bigos.

‘Give him barszcz, Amelia.’ Grandad is ruining everything. I don’t want to hurt Gabriel. Think.

I jerk up and make the glasses wobble. ‘I’ll do it.’

I go to the kitchen, pour some barszcz in the bowl and put it on the counter. Finger in the pan, warm. Yes. I walk fast and pretend to trip over the carpet as I approach Gabriel and just like that my dream comes true. I spill some of the barszcz on his sweater; enough to get what I want.

‘Tosiek, what are you doing?’ Mama’s words cut the air. Not behaving very well, am I? I’m ruining her plan, but mine works so far. ‘Go give him one of your shirts. Now.’ I cough to mask my amusement; if she heard me laugh, I’d be dead.

‘Come, Gabriel.’ I have to turn away, my smile could scare him. I’m close. He follows me, watching his step now, as if our floor was thin ice.

‘Here.’ I pass him the smallest shirt I can find. Short-sleeved, of course. ‘Put this on and we’re all good.’ I pretend to be putting something back in the wardrobe, so that he can change, but he stays still. ‘Hurry, your barszcz is getting cold.’

‘I don’t like this shirt.’ His voice is quiet. ‘Give me a sweater.’

‘What’s wrong with it?’ I raise my eyebrows at him. ‘I don’t have a small sweater. Just take this.’ I’m too close to give up.

‘No.’ He’s looking at me like he was challenging me to a duel. I’m holding the shirt, not moving and I spot tears shining in his eyes. ‘Auntie, Tosiek is being mean to me,’ he shouts, his voice shaking. Oh, stupid, smart kid. If he had nothing to hide, he wouldn’t complain, he would just change right away. I’m this close to getting evidence. I’m this close to see, to convince myself that I’m not imagining things. My star is clearly messing up.

Mama comes into the room and says: ‘What’s wrong, Gabryś?’

His eyes are wide open. ‘Tosiek won’t give me a sweater.’ He’s scared, of course he is.

‘Mamo, please listen, let me explain…’ I throw the shirt on my bed and drum my fingers on the wardrobe door. There was a time when I believed she knew what Grandad was like; there was something in her eyes every time she saw him. Fear. But if she knew, wouldn’t she want to save Gabe?

‘Just give him a sweater, Tosiek.’ She shakes her head and sighs. ‘And stop being weird, please.’ She leaves and I let my clothes fly high in the air when I look for a sweater. I don’t look at Gabriel; if I did, he’d probably cry. 

The bruise, I saw it on his arm. Summer morning at my old house. The day Grandad came to help Mama with packing all our stuff. Gabriel and I were on the street, playing tag, and he fell over. I helped him up and he tried to get away like crazy, but I saw it. It was big and purple. No bruise would go purple in three seconds. He pulled his sleeves down as much as possible and it became his ritual from then on. He did it when he thought nobody was looking, but I always looked at him when he thought I wasn’t.

Stupid, stupid, stupid. I bang the wardrobe door and bite my lip. I want the fury to pass, I want people to know, I want Grandad to disappear. Please, Star, make him disappear for me.

Gabriel is back at the table, laughing that the sleeves are too long. He always laughs when Mama’s there. Grandad gives him a look and he leans to eat, watching his spoon carefully, making sure that he doesn’t do anything that might anger Grandad. I notice that Gabriel looks at him for a split second before he tells Mama that he is full and doesn’t want the barszcz anymore. She nods and gestures at all the other dishes she prepared, but he’s not looking at the table. 

‘What are you looking for, Gabryś? The Star?’ Mama wags her finger at him in a playful manner. He shakes his head and points at a sweet.

‘I thought you were full,’ she says and raises her brow. ‘Besides, you’re not supposed to eat sweets today, you know that.’

He smiles at her like little kids do. She nods and winks at him, so he runs to the tree and freezes with his hand raised. He looks at Grandad, waiting for permission and I bet Mama thinks that it’s adorable. Grandad gives him the ugliest smile ever, which apparently means “yes” because Gabriel takes the sweet and throws it down his throat. I can’t stand it. Is Mama blind?

‘Mamo, can’t you see?’ What am I supposed to tell her? Grandad is sitting right next to her and my star is refusing to show up properly. What if he freaks out? What if she doesn’t believe me? Or what if she does? Will they take Gabriel to some foster family or an orphanage? Will I ever see him again? I don’t know how the: we’ll-take-the-kid-away-instead-of-actually-fixing-the-problem institution works. I stare at my plate and take a breath. How will I say it?

Everyone is looking at me. Grandad’s eyes – dark and judging. Mama’s – narrowed and focused. Gabriel’s – happy. I’ll tell her, I just need some time.

‘The Star,’ I say. I’m not pretending; I do see a light. ‘It’s right behind you.’

Weronika Wolska  is a writer from Wolverhampton who mainly writes YA and humour. She was born and raised in Poland, and she moved to the UK at the age of twelve. This transition has made her think about the impact of immigration and how location shapes us as people. She just started her MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster University  and is planning to explore this idea further in her final project. 

Picture credits: Quinn Dombrowski

A Photographic memory, by yamuna venugopal

after almost a month passed and we had not heard from you, my father asked your mother if he should approach his friends in the police department and look for you. but your mother refused. ‘I know my daughter. she will not come back unless she wants to. she doesn’t want to, yet.’

yamuna venugopal

Year: 1990

Description:

I am sitting on the dining table, my knees facing out, right foot on the shin of my left leg. I have folded my toes, making my feet look curved. There are exactly seven cake crumbs on the black shorts I’m wearing. The dark brown skin of my legs shines. The long-sleeve shirt is red, with lots of tiny black cars, lorries, aeroplanes, scooters, and bicycles sprinkled all over it. Both my hands are smeared with cream and I am licking my right hand. My mother is holding my left hand, but she must’ve been a small distance away, because only half of her arm is in the photo. Her two thin gold bangles have gathered at her wrist, grazing my hand. I am smiling, but my lips are holding tight the hand I’m licking. Both my brown cheeks shine in the flash of the camera and my glowing mane covers most of my forehead. My big, round eyes are looking at you.

Memory:

The photo must’ve been taken on my first birthday, as we were in my grandmother’s village during my second birthday and my mother wasn’t there for my third. I found this photo twelve years back, a week after my grandmother’s funeral, along with my mother’s belongings, bundled and thrust into the loft. Until then, my grandmother had never let us clean that loft. When I found the bundle, I understood why.

When my mother died, I was only two years and three months old and my father was only 30. My father and I were nursing our sadness and we didn’t want to do anything with my 2-days-old baby sister. My grandmother, who was then 63 and who, after my father’s marriage, had spent her time outside the house, gardening, visiting temples, and gossiping with neighbour oldies had to go back into the house and work. She had to feed us and also look after my baby sister. She had no time to grieve or deal with our grief. So one early morning, before we woke up, she had bundled up all my mother’s things, wrapping them in three of her own sarees and stuffing them into the loft. When we woke up, she told us that she gave away all my mother’s things. My memory of what happened after that is hazy. All I remember is my father storming out and my grandmother softly sobbing over the pan in which she was making sambar.

Like you taught me, I still title my photos. I have titled this: ‘When I knew happiness, I was a baby.’

Year: 1993

Description:

Sunlight is flooding the small garden in your backyard. My sister and I, holding hands, are sitting on the low wall that separates the garden from the veranda, the stalks of flowers standing up a little taller than us. She is plump, her grey frock grimy. She is holding a petal, probably jasmine.  Her head is cocked towards me, the tips of her short hair tickling her neck. I am looking at the camera, but I’m not smiling. I’m in my school uniform, stained as well, and my free hand is on my lap. The photo ends at our knees.

Memory:

This is the first picture pasted on the first page of the photo-book you gave me. The first and only photo-book anyone has ever given me. Below the photo are the words: ‘You look at me, but do you see me?’ 

Did you give me this photo along with the photo-book? Or, did you give it to me even before that? Anyways, whenever it was, I don’t remember. Just before writing this, I took a peek at your garden. There are no flowers now. Or, anything at all. After you left, your sister tended to your flowers, but after she died, the flowers withered away, too.

When it is not raining, or not too windy, your mother sits on that low wall. And sometimes, when your stepmother visits, both of them sit outside on that wall. Your stepmother doesn’t stay for long, though. Thirty minutes. An hour, at most. I’ve never seen them laugh; they just talk. Or, sit in silence. Your mother walks her to the gate and waits until she reaches the turn at the end of the street. Just before she walks out of your mother’s sight, she turns back and shakes her head goodbye. Your mother reciprocates.

When my daughter was a little girl, she looked exactly like my sister in this photo! It’s amazing what trickles through our genes. And now my sister’s hair is down to her calves; dark, thick, and silky. ‘Just like your mother’s’, my father used to say.

And you might not be aware: he died a year ago. A natural death on the same bed he used to share with my mother. That November night, my wife and daughter had gone to visit my wife’s parents; during dinner, we spoke about Mother. It was not a usual topic on the dinner table, but that day Father said, rather casually, that it was he who had suffered more than my sister or me. ‘Yes, you lost your mother,’ he said. ‘But I lost my wife. You won’t know what a loss it is until you have a partner for yourself.’ And my sister replied: ‘Maybe. But you don’t know what growing up without having seen your mother’s face is like.’ We sat there a little longer, not talking much, and then went to our rooms. He died that night. My sister says that she doesn’t regret what she said, but I think she does. On the days she visits us, under the light of the small golden wall lamp, she sometimes sits all by herself in the dining room late into the night.

Year: 1995

Description:

There are people all around. The background is completely green and lit up by the sun. To the right is your mother; she is sitting on the grass, her arms around her legs, her chin on her gathered knees. Her oiled hair is jet black and tightly held. Strings of jasmine pinned to her hair are overflowing onto her violet sari. She is smiling, showing her upper line of teeth and her pale-pink gums. Beside her stands a small, light-green wire bag. To the left is my grandmother. She is sitting cross-legged, her navy-blue sari wrapped around her in her old-school Brahmin style. On her lap is a long umbrella, the U-shaped handle half-buried under one of her sari folds. Her thin-rimmed glasses are resting on the top of her long, pointy nose, and she has her usual stoic smile. A straight parting runs through her silver hair, exactly perpendicular to her broad forehead. Her diamond earrings glint brighter than your mother’s teeth. You are at the centre, and my sister and I are standing to your sides. We three are dressed in white. My sister in a white frock, I in a white t-shirt and shorts, and you in an embroidered white salwar-khameez. You have your white lace shawl over your head, little bursts of your curly hair pouring out of the shawl near your ears. You have your arms wrapped around our hips, holding us close to you. The three of us are smiling.

Memory:

It must be April or May, the time when the park is usually that crowded and that green, the time when the town has its summer vacation. But I remember that it was the day your father brought home your stepmother. 

We were on a picnic, spending the whole day in the park in town. My father had come along and he was the one who took the photo. Only you were going to come with us, but at the last minute, grandmother had exhorted your mother to come along, too.

I still vividly remember the events that followed. It was already beginning to grow dark when we returned home. All along the way, your mother was a little anxious. After serving several months in his company’s Delhi branch, your father was going to arrive that night; she was hoping that your sisters would have started preparing an elaborate dinner.

The next morning when my sister and I came out to play, it was close to seven. Your house and windows were closed, which was weird because we thought it was impossible for all of you to have gone out so early. So we decided to check what was going on. We knocked. There was no answer for a while. So we knocked again. You opened the door and instantly I knew you were crying. Your eyes were a bulgy red and your lips were parched. You looked at us for just over a second and went back into the room, leaving the door wide open. We didn’t come in; we didn’t go away either.

There was absolute stillness in your house. In the front room, your father was sitting on the worn-out sofa and a little further away sat a lady. She was in her salwar-khameez; I don’t remember how it looked, but I remember thinking that it was too grand for early-morning wear. Your father didn’t look at us; he had his hands folded over his chest and was staring at the floor. The lady looked at the 100-watt bulb on your ceiling, riddled with housefly’s faeces, at the framed picture on the wall of a sunset you had captured from your terrace, at the Chinese wind chimes that hung near the door, at the framed photo of your family on the wall opposite her, at the rusted grills twisting and turning across your windows, at the money-plant that had grown around one side of the windows, at the design of the headrest of the sofa on the other side, at the white lace screens, at the vermilion-smeared lemon hanging from a nail above the door frame, at the brown straw mat at the entrance. But not at us. My sister, unamused by the lack of acknowledgement of our presence, walked back to her bicycle. But I was curious.

I removed my slippers at the entrance, quietly walked in, and peeked into the bedroom next to the front room. All of you were there. All three of your sisters were on the bed, leaning against the wall. Your mother was sitting on the folding chair near the door, sitting parallel to your father and the lady in the front room. You were crouching on the floor. No one in that room looked at me, but everyone was crying. I slowly walked out.

I ran back home and told Grandmother and Father all I had seen. They must’ve guessed, I don’t know. You kept your doors and windows closed. Throughout the next two weeks, every now and then I came out to see if your doors were open. Except for your father, who left to work at 9 am, no one went into or out of your house.

Then, one morning, when I had just woken up and was still in bed, I heard someone knock on the door. I heard the door being opened, and without a word, your mother’s sobs. I crawled to the end of our bedroom and strained to listen to your mother saying something to my grandmother. I couldn’t really hear anything and when I went to the front room, my grandmother ordered me to go back to bed. That evening, when Father came back from work, my grandmother told him all about your mother’s visit. This time I hid behind the dining table and listened to every word of it, though I didn’t really understand all of it.

After a month, my father developed the photo and gave it to me for my photo-book. I wrote below it the things I understood: ‘Uncle brought a lady from Delhi. He went to live with her in a rented house in town. He will never come back. Aunty never smiles these days.’           

Year: 2000

Description:

There is a big red dot of vermilion and within it is a small yellow dot of turmeric on the top-centre of the monitor. The monitor, keyboard, and the bulky CPU are placed on a wooden table that is covered with my grandmother’s old shawl. The colour of the shawl is not quite clear as the room is murky in the little light that enters from the small square window behind the CPU. My sister is standing to the right of the table and I am standing to its left. You are beside my sister, and the photo only shows you up to your face, and the right side of your body is cut-off by the edge of the photo. My sister and I have our hands on the table, on either side of the keyboard. Both of us are smiling, but you are not. You are pensive. All of us are looking at the camera.

Memory:

It was two days before my sister’s birthday. The assembled computer was my father’s gift to her for her birthday. When my father brought home the computer in an autorickshaw, I ran into your house in excitement. You were knitting something, the baby-pink wool cushioned on your lap.

‘My father has bought us a computer,’ I said and held your hand. ‘Come with me!’

I pulled you from your chair and you had to hurriedly throw the wool and the knitted piece on the chair before I could pull you out of the room. You ran with me, crossed the road, and ran into my house. My sister was squealing with excitement, and my father brought our camera for a picture of us. You offered to click the picture so that my father could pose with us. But my father said that he knew I liked you more than I liked him. We all laughed at that, but I was glad my father knew. I had always carried that guilt, you know? Until you left, I have spent all of my Diwalis with you, not with him. The number of days I have slept over at your place, on your bed, next to you, far exceeds the number of days I have slept in my house, next to my father. My father never knew about my best friend or my crush. You did. Those times when I just wanted to cry and didn’t know why, I never went to him. It was always to you I went. He was a great father, no doubt. But my sister and I needed our mother’s warmth. And you were the closest we could find.

As soon as my father clicked the photo, even before our smiles for the pose waned, you said: ‘You look after your children well. Even after your wife is gone.’ My father smiled. Below the photo are the words: ‘Father knows.’

Year: 2004

Description:

The photo begins with your terrace. On the left and right, a little can be seen of the houses to the left and right of your house. The photo ends in the middle of the road between our houses. The road and the terrace are wet. And throughout the photo, there are people’s heads, some black, some silver, some a bit of both. Roughly in the middle of the photo are the bodies of your two sisters, covered from head to toe with white sheets, and white and yellow garlands resting on them.

Memory:

It had been raining throughout the previous night and the wind that swept our suburb was chilly. That morning, wearing the sweaters you had knitted for us, my sister and I had come to your house right after waking up. We had Idli for breakfast and your younger sister had made the beetroot chutney that was my sister’s favourite. Then your younger and older sisters went to deliver the knitted sweaters in your scooter. When they didn’t return even after lunch, your mother began to panic. Since I was a grown-up boy by then, you took me to town with you in an autorickshaw. When we got near the bend before the pan shop, we saw your scooter, dented and smeared with blood, lying on the side of the road. You cried out to the driver to stop the rickshaw. And you headed straight to the pan shop. I ran after you from the rickshaw to the shop and back from the shop to the rickshaw.

By the time we saw their bodies in the morgue and returned home with them in an ambulance, it had started pouring again. As the hospital men brought the stretchers to your front room and made brown slipper marks on the tiled floor, your mother stood near the gate, drenched in the rain; transfixed, but not crying. My father took the fading golden phonebook lying on your phone table and called up your friends and relatives, avoiding only your father. As the night grew, the house filled up with people. My sister and I sat beside you, around the bodies, and cried. My grandmother made cup after cup of steaming tea and supplied the friends and relatives filling your house. Throughout the night, I held your hands and didn’t sleep.

At around 8 am, your father rushed to our little street in his Ambassador. He later said that he read about the accident in the morning newspaper. When he came to the door in his worn-out white shirt and an old veshti, probably his night clothes, your mother looked up and the first streak of tears flowed. He sat next to her and they quietly cried. The day was grey, but there was no rain. It was decided that the cremation would be at noon, and that the bodies would be kept on the veranda until then. When they moved the bodies out, I rushed to my house, retrieved my father’s camera from his cupboard, and headed to our terrace to take a photo of your sisters, for, during the sleepless night, I had realised that I did not have a photo of them.

When it was time for the cremation, your father got up to take a bath for the ritual, but your mother stopped him. She said that he didn’t have the right. All I remember is that there was a lot of arguing – your mother and you on one side, all your relatives on the other side, and your elder sister, speechless. After a lot of arguing and crying, an old man, who I later found out was your father’s maternal uncle, asked your mother: ‘Okay, now tell me one thing. You do not want him to cremate them. Then who else will do it? They don’t even have a brother.’

Everyone was quiet. So quiet that the old man thought he’d won the argument. He was about to say something, when your mother spoke.

‘He,’ said your mother and pointed at me. The whole crowd turned their heads towards me. I was standing next to my father, near the feet of your younger sister’s body.

‘He will cremate them. He is their brother.’

‘That’s nonsense,’ said the old man. But your mother snubbed him right there.

‘Where were you when your nephew ran away to sleep with a woman his daughter’s age?’

The old man remained silent.

She beckoned me. I slowly walked to her. ‘He will cremate my daughters. Anyone who has a problem with that, please leave,’ she said and turned to your father, ‘including you.’ Your father didn’t leave.

Dressed only in my father’s veshti folded into two, I was shaking all over on the way to the cremation grounds. My father must’ve understood that I was terrified; he walked alongside me and kept telling me that it was OK as they were dead and would not feel any pain. When they placed the bodies on the pyre and handed me a long, flaming part of a branch, I felt my stomach rumble and my legs go weak. Till today, till this moment, my mouth goes dry at the thought of what I did. We stayed there until your sisters’ bodies burnt down, bones crackling, the smell of melting flesh permeating the air.

Below the photo are the words: ‘I became their brother at their death.’

Year: 2004

Description:

You are standing at the centre, wearing a plain red sari with a thin golden border. The light-golden blouse is wrinkled at your elbow pit. I am to your left and my sister to your right; both of us are in our night clothes – tracky bottoms and t-shirts. We are holding hands, our fingers intertwined. My sister’s fingernails are painted yellow. Not one of us is smiling. Behind us, our street stretches on until the lush green trees along the street umbrella its horizons.

Memory:

That morning, when you knocked on our door and woke us up, my grandmother was unwell. Sitting beside her until her fever came down, we had slept only from around 3 am the previous night. So when you said that you were going away and wouldn’t come back and that you didn’t want to tell us where you were going because you wanted to be alone, I didn’t really get you. Nor did my sister, or father. Or, my sick grandmother buried under two lamb-wool blankets.

The next day was the 8th day ritual for your sisters. ‘People will ask for you,’ said my grandmother, clutching the end of her blankets under her neck. ‘I know,’ you said. You hugged my sister. She was gutted. You then looked at my father and nodded. By this time, I had grasped the news. So when you approached me, I hurriedly said: ‘I like you very much.’ You patted my shoulder. ‘Goodbye,’ you said and walked out.

Your mother and sister were at your gate. My father took this picture of us just before y     ou got into the waiting autorickshaw, a red and a black suitcase occupying most of the space on the seat. You looked at us and then at your mother and sister and then asked the driver to leave. All of us stood there long after the autorickshaw took the right at the end of the street and went out of view. I wanted to ask your mother what had happened, but they went in and locked the door.

Throughout the day, we mulled over the possibilities of your destination and the probable causes for this decision of yours. And that night, creeping out of the house to the terrace after everyone slept, I cried. You had left. Just like my mother.

People gossiped about your disappearance. There were theories, from eloping with a guy to going to your father. Your mother said to people’s faces that she didn’t want to answer any questions about you. When your father arrived with his concubine, she asked them to leave, politely, but sternly.

My grandmother couldn’t attend the ritual as she was still unwell. But after everyone left, your mother and sister came home with food. By that time, my sister and I had told G     randmother about your mother not wanting to talk about you. So when your mother arrived, my grandmother sat upright, pulled her blanket up to her neck, and asked your mother ‘How are you?’

‘I’m good enough,’ your mother said, ‘considering that I’ve lost three daughters.’

Sitting on the edge of my grandmother’s bed, I listened.

‘She is angry. For what her father did to us. For what I did to us. She thinks that she and her sisters didn’t get married because of me.’

Before she could finish, she was crying. 

Your sister, who had been quiet since the funeral, spoke. ‘She has been asking my mother to divorce my father since the day he brought the other lady home.’ And she looked at your mother, in a way which made me understand that she, too, held your mother responsible for everything that had happened.

We were all quiet for a while. The monsoon was striking the single window in my grandmother’s room.

‘How can I divorce him? He might have left me, but he’s still my husband and your father. And do you understand what she’s asking of me? If I even think of applying for a divorce, our community will frown upon us. And no sensible family within the community will ask for your hands,’ your mother said.

‘But why has she left?’ said my grandmother, exasperated probably by her fever and her inability to help your sobbing mother. ‘I don’t understand.’

‘She is angry. You know her – always finding fault with society and our culture and rituals. She asked me to divorce her father and let them marry men who are OK with their mother-in-law having the nerve to divorce her husband and their father-in-law living with another woman. Men who may not be from our caste and who may not have our status.’ There were fresh tears. ‘What kind of men would they be? How can we be sure that they wouldn’t leave my daughters for other women?’

‘You married into the same caste, from a family of honour into a family of honour. You were a good wife. Then why did your husband leave you?’ burst out my sister.

‘Talk some sense,’ said my grandmother.

‘I am talking sense, Grandma,’ said my sister. ‘Even after these many years, has Father left us for another woman? A man who wants to leave, leaves. When a man decides to leave, what caste he belongs to is the last thing on his mind.’

My father, who had, until then, been staring at the night on the other side of the window, looked at my sister. And he smiled.

After almost a month passed and we had not heard from you, my father asked your mother if he should approach his friends in the police department and look for you. But your mother refused. ‘I know my daughter. She will not come back unless she wants to. She doesn’t want to, yet.’

Below the photo are the words: ‘The road she took had trees.’

Year: 2038

Description:

You have short hair, like a man. All of it silver. Your cheeks have shrunk and stuck to your face bones. A chain, with drum-shaped brown and black beads, holds a black-metallic dollar. The dollar has a small black stone at the centre. From your ears dangle brown, drum-cut earrings. Your plain, maroon kurta has a round neck. You are embracing my wife, your wrinkled hand on her shoulder. Your nails are not painted. Your lips are glossed a mud-brown and stretched over your teeth in a full smile. Behind you is the wall, painted cream, and spotless.

Memory:

I didn’t recognise you the first time I saw the photo. My sister had come to keep my 15-year-old daughter company during the week my wife was away in Bombay for her teacher training. When my wife returned, she sat us down and showed us pictures from Bombay on her camera. We saw all of them, flipping through the photos. My wife doesn’t have it in her, the photographer’s bug. She is not like me or my sister. Or, you. However much I teach her the techniques, she never quite gets them. We teased her about her photos and heard her stories of Bombay. That evening, my sister left for her house. (The first thing she did as soon as she got a job was to buy a house for herself in town. It is near the school we attended; do you remember? It is a new flat; only about seven floors, and she is on the seventh. She moved there after my engagement. My wife and I told her it was absolutely not necessary, because my wife is her best friend and that’s how we started seeing each other, but she insisted.)

After two days, she called me when I was at work. It was around three in the afternoon. As soon as I picked up the call, I said: ‘Is everything OK?’ because she never calls me when I am at work.

‘I think we found her,’ she said.

‘Found who?’ I asked, but it had already struck me. ‘Where is she?’

‘In your wife’s photos from Bombay – it’s been nagging at me from the time I saw her, but just now, just right now, I understood.’

By 3.30 pm we were at my wife’s school, going through 100s of photos she had taken in Bombay. But this time, the instant we saw you in that photo, we recognised you.

When your elder sister passed away five years back (it was a heart attack), your mother asked if we could try to find you. We tried. We contacted the police and filed a missing person’s report. We gave an advertisement, pleading with you to return, in all regional and national newspapers. My sister gave a heart-wrenching message to you through radio ads. But when there was no response for three days, your mother asked me to cremate your sister (Your father died the previous winter).

‘Let’s wait another day,’ I said. But your mother refused. ‘Maybe she knows but doesn’t want to come. She is capable of that.’

Cremating your elder sister was not as terrifying as the time I’d cremated your other sisters, but it hurt more. For days after that, my sister and I grieved along with your mother. For the daughters of the family reduced to ashes, for the father who had left his concubine for another woman, for the lady who was now neither a wife nor a concubine, for your mother whose hand life held as she outlived her daughters, and for you – lost, living, dead, happy, regretting – we didn’t know what for.

But now I know. Of all the schools in the country, should you be working in the school my wife chooses to train at? I am grateful to the universe for that. 

When we recognised you in the photo, the first thing that occurred to us was to fly to Bombay to meet you. My sister and I hurried to our homes to pack our bags, but by the time I got home, I was anxious. What if you didn’t want to be discovered? So I am writing to you.

I don’t have the heart to tear those photos from my book. What if you ignore this letter? And now, after these many years, I understand what your mother had once said. You are capable of that.   

When your mother dies, I will cremate her. As per her will, I will sell your house and hand over the money to your stepmother. I know you know I am not writing to you for that. I also know that you are capable of something else, too: empathy.

I have printed out this photo and stuck it on the backside cover of the same photo-book. And I have written below it: ‘Until we meet again.’

***

‘Madam,’ the office boy called as he entered Maya’s room. ‘A letter came in for you yesterday.’

‘Thanks,’ Maya said, getting it in her right hand. There was no ‘From’ address; only a ‘To’ address printed on the outside. She drew the scissors from the pen stand on her table and cut it open. It was a letter. In a hand that she remembered teaching how to write.

Yamuna Venugopal could be called a writer, a developmental editor, a mother, a vegan, a holistic lifestyle practitioner. Of course, all of these things are part of her human existence, but she has realised that she is none of these things. She is in search of who she is and what she is on this earth for. 

Picture credits: Garrick Maguire

Red Rock, by Alessandro Pozzolo

I sat on the raw wood bench outside the hut. The sun had yet to show from behind the rugged peaks, and the whole big mass of Mount Cevedale towered over me. Jagged peaks and crevices carved themselves into the twilight, ridges and gorges cut through the rock with surgical precision. The glacier’s soft fur draped itself over these shapes, white amidst the black and grey. I had an urge to reach out with my hand, perhaps to feel the texture of the icy coat.

A creak of tired wood. Good morning Bear Grylls, said Mattia. He was holding two steaming Styrofoam cups. What counsel are the mountains bringing today?

I smiled. They look so close. You feel like you could touch them.

The only feeling I have is I wanna get back in bed, Mattia said.

It’ll shake off as soon as we get going. I took a swig of coffee.

We sat for a while, our breath rising in plumes over our heads and into the crisp air. The only sound was the roar of the many streams coming down from the ices, passing on their way to the green valley below.

You’d think we’ve fallen into a postcard, if not for this racket, said Mattia.

It’s part of actually being here, and not in the postcard.

Mattia lifted his arms and stretched. I don’t know. It unsettles me.

I went inside and packed the jackets and the emergency thermal coat and the water flask in my bag. I thanked the German maid and walked out. Mattia was sat on the bench, wiggling his leg as he scrolled through his phone. It says there’s loads of minerals in this region, he said.

Nice. I shouldered my backpack, my eyes on the Cevedale. You ready?

As ever.

Let’s go. I clipped the strap across my chest and we set off.

We trundled up the dusty path, stepping over rocks and down narrow slopes and twisting into the face of the mountain. Our boots thumped on the hard soil like the beating of drums, and this gave us pace and drove us on. Our breaths clung in the cold air like daggers, and they rose over the rumble of the gorges. My heavy and deep breaths, Mattia’s fast and quiet ones, like a constant whisper.

Mattia stopped. One moment, he said. This right here. This is agate.

I looked back. Are you sure?

Mattia was turning a hand-sized stone an inch from his eyes. He squinted at it. Nah, probably not, he said finally.

OK. We have to keep moving.

Mattia chucked the pseudo-agate and it rattled off the slope.

You know not to throw stones downhill, I said. The rattling stopped.

Especially precious stones.

Funny.

I looked at him. Come on, we have a while still.

I think that’s the peak right there, Mattia said.

Could be. Maybe it’s the one behind it. Let’s go.

It can’t be that much further. We’ve been going on for a while now. The maid said two and a half hours.

I sighed. I unslung my bag and put it on a boulder. I took my flask from the side pocket. Water?

We drank and set off again. Stretches of trail appeared in front of us past bends and boulders. My calves screamed with each step, but I relished the pain. Sweat dripped crimson on the red stone and crawled into my eyes. We talked. We felt the textures of each other’s lives. The sweat and the tightness of the path drew our souls out for scrutiny, as if teased by the limpid air. We sensed where they converged and where they differed, but they wound together nonetheless against the hard mountain.

Surely it is that peak there, Mattia said.

We’d flanked a valley up to an escarpment from where a murky gorge scarred its way down. The path zigzagged up the valley’s left wall.

Could be.

Dull thuds as he caught up. We walked. The peak wasn’t this one, and it wasn’t the next one on, either. We crossed that same gorge further upstream, jumping from stone to stone over the rushing water. I held my bag tightly against my body. Mattia eyed the gaps between the rocks with suspicion before taking each leap.

They didn’t think to build a bridge, did they?

Why don’t you build one?

We made our way through a murky flatland of melted ices encased in red stone, a swamp piled with afterthoughts of the land. Here the water’s grumble subsided, but a cold wind swept down from the glacier as if screaming at the two intruders.

I think we gotta cross this.

What? Mattia took the opportunity to stop.

The glacier. The maid said we gotta cross it.

We’d climbed a shelf over the flatland and could now see a great white tongue of ice licking down from the left. Beyond it many peaks chiselled bits from the sky. They were trimmed in white by the recent snow.

I put my bag down and took out Mattia’s jacket. Want it?

Mattia looked ahead. Yeah, sure.

I gave him the jacket and took mine and zipped it to my chin.

Fucking glacier, he said.

I looked ahead, squinting at the sunlight that reflected off the ice.

I pointed at the highest peak in the crest. That must be Cima Rossa di Saent, over there.

Mattia grunted. And that the pass. He squatted to look at a pile of stones.

Damn bloggers find minerals everywhere. Don’t know where they find them, he said. Let’s go?

I lifted a hand to my eyes. I’m still trying to figure out how we’re gonna cross.

How about right through the middle.

I looked at Mattia. What?

Right there, grey line through the middle. Thin air working on your brain? Mattia patted me on the back and started walking forwards.

Shit, you’re right. I slung the bag onto my shoulders and started after him.

We set off across the ice, which was crumpled into small gleaming clusters. It crunched, but our soles left no imprint. We crunched on, and the wind swept across the alien landscape. The going was choppy and the distances ephemeral. We were trapped in this maze of white and the pass loomed above us.

Mattia stopped. Man, it looks like we aren’t making any progress.

We’ll get there. Look behind you.

Mattia turned back. The grey trail cut through the ice straight and true, a downhill reflection of the way forwards. He put his hands on his knees.

This ice just gets me out of the mood.

I lifted my gaze to the Cevedale, peeking out from behind the red rock.

What, said Mattia. What’s that face?

I don’t know, I like this place.

Me too. We could build a nice igloo and come live here. What do you think?

I smiled. Come on, let’s go.

We set off once again. Step by step, we crossed the vastness and soon the rubble wall beneath the pass was upon us.

Almost. There.

Last few steps, I said.

We stepped onto the muddy rock and our mountain shoes gripped the soil as if grateful to be out of the ice.

Whew. Mattia was looking the way we’d come. It wasn’t even that far, after all, he said.

Really.

Imagine skiing down. You’d be at the bottom in like a minute.

Sure you would.

Thirty metres separated us from the top of the rise. We walked halfway up, to where a landslide had torn away a horizontal section of path. The rocky soil was muddy from the ice and when I put my foot forward, a hand-sized stone dislodged and tumbled down.

Careful here, I said. The soil gives way.

Mattia chuckled. I can see that.

I grabbed the side of a large rock which jutted out of the muddy wall and used it to keep my balance. I moved sideways, as if negotiating my way through a thin crevice. There was a small lump of soil sticking out from the steep rubble drop, and I put one and then both feet on it. It sagged under my weight but seemed to hold. I looked at the path ahead.

Jesus –

Falling rubble. I turned and Mattia was crouching low and leaning against the muddy slope. One foot was firmly planted in a depression in the earth, the other was swinging limply in the air. A shower of stones tumbled down the slide, onto the ice twenty metres below.

I crouched and leaned forward. I put my right hand on the stone I’d used to aid my passage and reached out with the other.

Here. Give me a hand, I said.

No. I’m good, man. Don’t worry.

I looked at Mattia’s eyes, two dark spots in his taut face.

Seriously, I got you.

I said don’t worry.

I pushed back and got my balance again. I turned around and scrambled on. My feet sunk at every step and the soil threatened to give way. I flicked a glance ahead and took a last leap to where the path emerged from the rubble, but my hands gripped a rock which came loose and fell past my face. I lost my balance and flew backwards.

Whoaaa. I tore into the muddy side of the cliff with both hands, digging deep with my nails. At last, I came to a halt. I pulled myself back up.

Fucking hell, I said. I was panting. I looked at the stones racketing down.

That could have been you, man.

Mattia was right behind me. He dug his left foot into the side of the cliff and tested the hold, then stepped easily onto the path.

That’s right, I said. That could have been me. I wiped my muddy hands on my trousers and looked at the drop.

We walked up the last stretch in silence. At the pass a wooden pole had been dug into the ground and set firm with a circle of rocks at its base. The sign read Bocca di Saent sud – 3121m. On the other side of the pole, an arrowed sign pointed back the way we had come and read Rifugio Cevedale. Beyond, the path walked into nothing, and under that nothing were the vast floodplains a thousand feet below, where wild grass grew and a stream, pregnant with glacier water, cut through the green.

Finally, Mattia said. He collapsed at the base of the sign.

I set the bag down and looked around.

On either side, the jagged line of the crest carried on and rose and fell like the spine of some prehistoric creature. It curved inwards, enclosing the sea of white out of which we had come. Mount Cevedale towered proudly above it all, gleaming in the dazzling light. Everything else in the sky-blue day was red rock.

What a place, I said.

Sure. Can I have some water?

There isn’t any. I grinned.

Very funny. Give it, fast.

I raised my eyebrows. I reached down and pulled the red flask out of my bag.

Mattia took the flask and started tipping it over his open mouth.

I’ll be damned –

Mattia stopped. He looked at me.

I’ll be damned if you don’t let water fall out that way.

Mattia tipped the flask once again. He kept his gaze on me as he let the water trickle into his mouth, drip by drip, then he puffed his cheeks and gulped it down.

Here you go, he said. I figure you earned it more than me.

Oh yeah? I took the flask.

You got damn close to not drinking any more water in your life.

I shrugged, then took a swig. You know I’m going up to Cima Rossa.

Mattia studied the pile of rocks at the base of the sign. He picked up a small one and frowned at it. You sure that’s a good idea?

I took a long swig. Positive.

Alright then. Mattia chucked the stone. Well, don’t ask.

I’m not asking.

Good.

To the left of the path, the jagged rock crest rose and then dropped out of view and then rose up again to Cima Rossa. White patches of snow winked on its surface.

You want the last of the water? I said.

You’re gonna need it more than me.

I screwed the cap back on. Thanks.

We sat for a while. Wind gushed through the pass, as if trying to drive its two ridges further apart. I stood up.

So here we split, Mattia said.

Yeah.

We lingered for a moment in front of each other, then I turned and slung my bag over my shoulders. I faced the crest, then turned to look at Mattia.

So I’ll see you in a couple hours.

Yes. See ya.

I clipped the strap on my bag shut.

So how am I meant to get down from here?

What do you think?

Well, you’re the one who brought me here, so.

Just follow the path.

He sighed. Alright.

I started walking off.

Hey man, Mattia said.

Yeah.

Be careful. Your mum already hates me.

The hell she does. I pulled on the straps and looked at the ground. Don’t worry.

I began climbing the layers of red rock which laddered their way up to the first rise. I turned. Mattia was trotting down the path right before it bent out of view.

Mattia?

The tiny white face looked up.

If I’m not at the hut in a couple hours, tell them where I was headed.

My voice rolled across the rocks. Mattia raised a hand and was gone.

I made easy progress to the first rise. The crest was several metres wide, and it curved down gently on both sides. There was no path, so I could walk wherever I wanted. My breath coated the silence and I trod across thin patches of snow. They were flaky under my feet, and wet. I looked ahead, and the many fragments of red rock gleamed like shards of glass in the sunlight. Sahara waves were coming off them. I opened my jacket, but no wind blew through it now and I lifted a hand to my forehead. It came off wet, too.

I followed the crest, negotiating my way past jagged rocks. The sharp edges left imprints on the insides of my hands. I scrambled up a shelf which jutted out diagonally, struggling to find grip on its flat, rugged surface. I looked behind me but there was no trace of my passage along the crest. Pink Floyd played over and over in my head, Nick Mason juggling with my heartbeat.

Hello?

Is there anybody in there?

Leather fibre, slithering on rock. I recoiled and lost my footing. I set my left foot behind me, and the stones ground into each other under the sudden weight. I waited, my ears a shower of falling stones. My foot held.

Just nod if you can hear me.

I looked at the steep dyke to my left, fifty metres down to the glacier. Stones were toppling down and Nick crashed on the drums. A rock twinkled in its fall. Perhaps a mineral.

My eyes darted from surface to surface, and every crevice and depression held a hissing menace in its shadows. Tentative steps brought me forwards as I reached out with trembling hands. The mountain. The hard mountain where you are alone. I scrambled on. I passed a small depression in the crest, and then the final climb to the top lay in front of me. Down to the right, the floodplains lay like a dream, and what had to be Rifugio Dorigoni was a tiny black speck in their middle. I pulled myself up onto a large boulder, and a few metres away was the cross, jutting out with a general defiance to the outdoors, its wooden poles held together by a rusted metal wire. I wavered forward like walking barefoot on gravel. I reached. I touched the cross and banged against the faded wood, then I just leaned on it with closed eyes. The summit was only a metre wide, with a sheer drop in every direction. I took a few steps pawing at the ground and reached a tiny pile of rocks. I collapsed with my bag to the side, putting an arm around it for fear that my sole companion would topple down.

In every direction, layers of mountains stretched out under the sky’s blue vault. A narrow, steep gulley cut downwards to the sea of ice. The flatland we had crossed lay beyond, and further still, the land dropped into unseen valleys and rose again to the grey and white forms of the Paganella. Mount Cevedale scrambled out from behind the red ridges which encased the glacier, as crisp as ever under the sun’s slow rays. A gleam on the white summit, perhaps the metal cross. To be there would mean to tower over all.

Compelled by a sudden urge, I started grabbing hand-sized bits of red rock and piling them into a small tower next to where I sat. This barren land would bear witness to my passage. I shoved stone over stone.

A far cry. I leaned to look below. A tiny black dash was cutting through the ice, racing across with uncanny speed. It quivered, adjusting its wings, then dove out of view. I looked from the half-finished pile of rocks, to my palms. A trickle of blood was snaking down the side of my hand. I licked the cut.

The wind had stopped now, and for a while I just sat there, my irises reflecting the dazzling colours. Then I looked down at the whole big mass of the glacier stretching out below like spilt milk. My mouth was parched so I took out the flask and raised a shaking hand. I took a long swig, but the water tasted metallic like betrayal.

My phone buzzed. I marvelled that the connection would work up here. I pulled it out and opened the last of four new messages. A picture of a stone split in half flashed back at me. Inside it, a maze of soothing patterns of violet and purple velvet.

I found an agate! the message read.