In the forest, leaf sweet darkness, a woman pleaded.
‘Jesus,’ she cried. Then quiet.
Against instinct, Aiden headed to the silence, afraid and alert. Old mute woods, deep night, oak and ash chromed with moon. Fennel spiced his nostrils. Soothed his dusty throat. He tasted the scent and scouted on, sleek and slow in the scrub.
On a dell bank, the woman lay limp and torn. A girl curled in the brackenfern. Aiden approached her, twig breaking steps, and her arm rose.
‘No more,’ she said, her eyes buried under foul swelling.
‘It’s all right.’ Aiden knelt and lifted her head on his thigh. ‘I’m here.’
‘My teeth hurt.’
‘You’re a brave lady.’
‘Tooth fairy will fix it.’
‘Funny,’ she said, and her last breath spent on his arm.
A far ridge, a man loped black against the moon, a curved utensil in his hand, swinging with his stride. ‘Beast,’ said Aiden. He parted congealed hair from the girl’s cheek. Laid her down. Stained and slack in the dirt.
Back at the tent, he retched in his sleeping bag. Sacrilege scenarios breaking his rest. Daybreak, the rain clawed, breezeless on the door mesh. Birdsong and ripe June smells. Aiden rose naked. Peed on a shrub. Squat at a brook and shaved in the humid downpour. He towel pat his face and lit the single burner. Brewed up coffee. He poured a cupful and filled a flask. Spread jam on a raisin scone and ate it with his brew. He had planned to list his provisions but decided against an inventory in the wet. There was plenty, he was sure. Maybe a healthy week’s worth. He dressed, topped a water flask, packed his rucksack, and continued up country.
Mid afternoon the rain died and the sun hurt and birds piped high on summer.
Near dusk, he picked up on a trail. A rut of trodden stems bending off through dense woods. He dropped the rucksack and studied his map and compass. The ordnance showed forestry and rivers and hills. The odd farm. Nearest town was nineteen miles west. He knelt and unclipped the rucksack. Frisked out a can of pilchards, a tin opener and fork.
Dusk cast. Sun sunk and moon thin in a lilac sky. He fastened up and followed the track. Fatigue hurting. He had been thinking of pitching for the night but felt exposed now in open plain. The path seemed recently flattened and he thought it prudent to trail it for a bit, see where it led, if anywhere.
In woodland dark he parted hickory and scanned the log cabin. A glacial moon varnished the roof in a polar hue. Smoke wicked from a brick chimney. There was a chair on the porch. A low fence squared a garden. Aiden sat under the bush and watched. The cabin looked warm, serene, a home. A candlelit window ghosted with shadow. He imagined people. Well people.
He glanced at his watch, the luminous dials at eleven. Normally he’d be camped now. He fetched a flask from his khaki trousers hip pocket. Uncorked it and swigged a nod of whiskey. Resumed his surveillance. Another swig, the alcohol hit. He sank in cushion leaves. Wished his wife’s presence. Exhaustion crept and his eyes closed and the flask spilled.
The shotgun nozzle bunt Aiden’s chest. Moonlight on his face. ‘Fart and you’re weed feed.’ The old man wagged the single barrel and held up a rope. ‘On your belly.’
‘I was passing.’ Aiden fumbled at his rucksack. ‘I’m heading for Vinton.’
The gun cocked. ‘My twelve-gauge says belly.’
‘I didn’t do anything.’
‘Your diseased ass is on my land.’
‘No.’ Aiden slapped his chest. ‘I’m a negative.’
The old man sniggered and stooped over him. ‘You’re a snake, son. Sneaking and peeping on my home. Waiting for bedtime.’
‘I’m immune. I swear.’
‘Sure you are. One in fifty thousand. Don’t insult me, son.’
‘There are six hundred negatives in Ohio. My brother told me. He was a doctor.’
‘And you happen to be one of them.’
‘That would make two on my doorstep.’
‘What are the chances? Two here in the middle of nowhere.’
‘Slim.’ Aiden dusted nettles from his elbow. ‘Say I was a virant. Doesn’t make me a snake. Most are decent people.’
‘Who rots decent, son?’
‘Those that pass with family in their homes.’
‘Hmm. It’s the creepers I hate. Crawlers like you. Gutting anything that moves.’
‘I’ve seen it.’
‘Spite, that’s what it is. Thrill kills before they reek.’
‘I tried to help.’
‘Truth is I can’t tell a snake from a saint in this light.’ The old man lowered the barrel at Aiden’s crotch and waved the rope. ‘On your guts and hands behind your back.’
‘My eyes are clear.’
‘Belly or buckshot.’
Aiden rolled onto his stomach, his face in the dirt. ‘I’m a damned negative.’
The old man crouched, a knee on the spine, shotgun tucked under his arm. He bound Aiden’s wrists. ‘We’ll see in the morning. A spit of pus and you’re in the grave.’
(This is the opening of my novel EDEN DUST. The remainder of Chapter One and Chapter Two is published in Unthology 4 by Unthank Books. You can order Unthology 4 from Amazon. Or the Unthankbooks website)
Top 25, December 2012 Fiction Open: Top 25 http://t.co/IyYiEgFf — Glimmer Train (@glimmertrain)
Dachau’s fat lice abandoned Adele.
A child rag.
Papa called her Eva’s shadow. The sisters had black hair and raisin brown eyes. A wise tolerance to papa’s bad jokes. Adele was delicate. On the train east, herd in a crammed freight car, she had turned fifteen. Mother caressed her chin and said, ‘Tulip.’
Eva yanked Adele’s coat. Two years older and droller she yawned, ‘Weed,’ at her ear.
‘My angels.’ Papa winked at his girls. ‘Close as toes.’
‘You say that nice,’ said mother
‘Our Adele. Tails Eva like a cub.’
‘Am I your cub?’
‘Lady. I have always been yours.’
One precious day, back when he was spruce, papa said it at the bakers. ‘Our Adele,’ he said, and coin-tapped the bread counter. ‘Tails Eva like a cub.’
Asher the baker danced his eyebrows. When papa left the shop, Asher informed his wife he was silly hearing it. ‘Eva this, Adele that,’ he said, arms flung. ‘Little Miss perfects.’
The baker’s apprentice, Sal, told Eva this. They were best friends. Loyal and candid. Eva promised not to tell papa. She said it would poorly his warmth for Asher the baker.
Eva adored her friend. Sal was kind and blunt and sincere when he smiled.
He didn’t pass a day in Dachau.
Eva had wished to be a musician. A concert cellist. Papa praised her devotion and mother nurtured her gift. Adele swore Eva had the nerve. No matter what Eva’s ambition, Adele would swear this.
Adele often reminisced about a chilling event at school. Plainclothes Gestapo crashed in the classroom and seized Mr Kurz. Eva kept stubborn for him. She didn’t cry until she got home. Adele saw grace in Eva. She prayed Mr Kurz saw it too.
Grave and wan, Eva shut her eyes when Adele was lugged from the bunk. Eva too was dead. Faith wilt with grief. She didn’t cry. Not even when they scoot her shadow away in a barrow. Eva’s eyes were dried up and pruned like her heart.
‘Your head is shiny,’ Adele had said on the first morning. Twenty five days ago. The day a lean man in a white coat ushered Sal from his father and said, ‘Left line for you, mister.’
Mother gripped Adele’s and Eva’s shoulders. ‘Play stilts my darlings.’ Her voice was fast and blowy. ‘Tiptoe stilts. Who’s the tallest tree?’
Later, in the dim barrack, as Adele fretted in sleep, a cadaverous woman, witness to the sly abduction, tapped Eva’s arm and said, ‘Tears are an offence.’
‘It’s barbaric. Why did he take Sal?’
‘His walk,’ said the woman. ‘It marked him.’
‘Killed him, you mean.’ Eva had rarely noticed Sal’s limp. She didn’t know what polio was. ‘Say it. Kill. Murder. Burn.’
The woman dipped and picked into a bunk. ‘It is a work camp.’ She tucked a blanket and faced the wall. ‘I make lampshades.’
The trauma broke mother. Dumb on the third day. Ash on the fifth night.
‘Swine smoke,’ a kapo said. She waved her ox tail whip at Eva and widened her leech eyes. ‘Puff puff puff.’
Eva remembered papa, three months before the ghetto, taunting mother at the dining table. ‘You are a fluff woman,’ he said, mocking her for giving cheese to an accordian playing beggar. ‘Soft as a moth.’
Spatula in hand, mother rose from her chair and papa boomed, ‘Sweet as a deer.’
Mother then was glory, a woman mountain, the home’s shoulders. Eva knew this pure now, staring back the kapo.
Curled in her bunk, Eva saw night creep on a skylight. The fear thrived. A contagious dread. She heard it. Kapos were keen with their batons. Women were ordered outside and kapos banded at barrack doors swatting as they came out.
‘Pigdogs,’ a kapo squealed, mouth foamed like she was diseased.
A skip, stoop, and run, Eva took one hit on her shin. She daren’t stumble. No matter how hard they strike, to fall is the end. She had seen it. A week ago a lady fell and kapos beat her life out.
Outside, Eva could barely stand. Her wooden clogs were deep in snow and her leg ached. Her stomach cramped. Lame with hunger. Ashamed as she was to admit it she could steal from a famished neighbour to rest the crude pain. She had often considered doing it.
The women lined up near the barracks. Parade still and skeletal. Eva stood in the middle row. Raw hail hit from the north and skirts rippled like they might shred.
‘Caps down. Caps up,’ the kapos shouted, rubber batons whacking palms.
Caps were swiped from skulls and flapped against thighs and hurried back on bare chilled scalps. Everything was grey. The striped ragged uniforms. Gaunt haunted faces. Barbed wire fences. Barracks and watchtowers. Dead grey snow.
For an hour they were drilled near the fence, the kapos snorting vapour breath. ‘Legs up. Caps down. Caps up. Arms out.’
Women jumped and bent, arms raised, caps down belting thighs. The weakest crumpled and were booted and ox whipped to their feet. A woman lay quiet and kapos circled, a frenzy of batons and wheeled to the coals.
Watchtower spotlights blinded and held them in wide shifting beams. Blackcaps leapt from trucks and baited with leashed fiend dogs. It was a day without soup and bread and Adele and God.
Eva’s strength failed. She gave on her knees and was lifted, her clogs raking slush, two women with hands under her armpits. They bossed and begged and Eva was standing when the obscene drill halted. She had spoken to these women and was aware their children were thieved on arrival. Perhaps they saw a daughter in her, she thought. They could easy perish for this charity.
Blackcap dog handlers raided the barracks and marched out hidden children. Eva’s two guardian’s tried to shield her. Dogs were set on desperate mothers as infants were dragged from them. A chief saw Eva and tapped his chin with a gloved finger. He shouted and waved. A dog handler sprinted, silhouetted in the light, steam blowing from the beast’s ham nostrils.
One of Eva’s guardians said, ‘Up, child, chin up,’ and it felt like mother was with her.
Kapos led the children toward the chimney. Smoke belched white into the black. Orange sparks fled up in the draught. A boy no older than five came beside Eva and held her skirt.
‘It’s on fire,’ he said, pointing.
‘No.’ Eva took his hand. ‘Those are stars.’
‘Must be baby stars.’
‘That’s right.’ She watched with him. Ember shoals spinning darkward. ‘Baby stars.’
The boy stared at the building. ‘Are stars in there?’
‘They’re born in there.’
‘Can I see one?’
‘Yes. But you have to shut your eyes until the starman is ready to show it.’
‘Shall I shut my eyes now?’
‘Not yet. I’ll tell you when.’
‘Will there be lots?’
‘More than you could count if you lived to be a hundred.’
‘My grandma is more than a hundred.’
The boy kept at her side as they undressed and entered the icy block of showers. Iron doors bolted. In the cold blackness and thick screams, Eva knelt feeling for the boy.
‘Close your eyes.’ She held him hard. ‘The starman is coming.’
I am a writer. I live on Scotland’s west coast.
Summertime, I like open water swimming. I’m a member of a team who swim in lochs and rivers and the sea.
I like cycling. I have a tourer bicycle. There are mornings I load the panniers and tail the coastline. Pass the day on the bike. Fat miles. I’ve done my share of 100 milers. Cycling is a favourite spring/summer passtime.
Wintertime I write and read and play chess and swim at a health club.
My parents and grandparents were readers. They read the big novels.
Mother read the Russian and Asian and North American and South American authors. She read Scots and English and Welsh and Irish authors. And the poets. She cherished James Joyce and Joan Didion and Carol Shields and Dorothy Parker and Leo Tolstoy.
Grandpa championed Samuel Beckett and Ernest Hemingway and Saul Bellow.
Gran loved Katherine Mansfield.
Grandpa was my pal. I grew up close to him. Not ‘living near him’ close. Spirit close. He took me places. Up the town walks. Museum visits. Library trips to swap gran’s novels. We hiked woodlands and hills and pole-fished streams. He was funny and chatty and warm. A storyteller. And a joketeller. Here’s a typical him and me day…
Grandpa and me fishing. I’m nine…
Me: ‘I’m bored.’
Grandpa: ‘Wheesht, Mike. The fish’ll hear.’
‘It’s been ages. Nothing’s biting.’
‘There, you spooked it. A moby dickler. Set to gob my worm.’
‘So it was.’
‘Me too. Cod you pass me a sandwich?’
Here’s another time. Grandpa and me hiking. I’m seven…
Me: ‘Wow. See that bee?’
Grandpa: ‘Big buzzer, eh. See the warrior on its back? Waving his axe.’
‘Ha ha ha. No there wasn’t.’
‘Knock knock, Mike.’
‘Beezer black and yellow.’
That’s my grandpa. One day he quiet left me. I carried his coffin. He is my ever friend.
My mother. A steel-honest woman. Witty and kind and sillyish and smart. A crossword solver. Cryptic specialist. My infanthhood I felt safe with her. Small hour nighttime, when I woke feary, her lamplight came in my open door. I heard her breathe. Heard her page turn. I liked hearing her read then. When the house was silent and creaky and dark. I easy fell back asleep to her breath.
I see her at the stove, open book in hand, pot stirring, away with the words.
Boyhood, I liked folklore stories. The dark ones. Black deeds of connivers, pot stirrers, forest peddlers and child-hater witches.
I also liked Science Fiction stories. And ghost stories.
Memorable childhood books –
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken.
The Death of Grass by John Christopher.
Ghost Stories by M. R. James.
The Witches of Worm by Zilpha Keatley Snyder.
The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick.
The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guen.
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
Child of God by Cormac McCarthy. (Early me read it).
And when I was puppy young – The Brothers Grimm Tales.
On my tenth birthday, grandpa’s gift was a Jack London anthology.
Jack London WOWED me. That raw world.
Bedtime, I lived Alaska. I heard midnight wolves sing to the moon lonely. I saw the moon huge. Silver sad above the wolves. I loved and feared the gold prospectors, the good and blackhearted. Men grizzly as the bears. I saw many beaten gibbery in the white wild.
Reading Jack London, my want to write happened. Within a month of reading him I had written a notebook of stories.
Aged 14, I wrote a short novel. Schoolpals and teachers passed it around. They were in it.
I have since written many stories. Enough to fill a dozen books. And perhaps a dozen stories that would make one good book.
Up the lane I joined a writers group. I read more books. Past and contemporary authors. After a learny while I left the group.
I read and read and reread.
In 2011, I was shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. And The Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award.
December 2012, my short story – Bone Dirt – was a Top 25 Finalist in Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open Prize.
I was happy.
Glimmer Train is a world elite literary journal .
The Fiction Open is Glimmer Train’s top prize. Unpublished writers take on established published authors.
My short story ‘Gomorrah Shade’ is a winner in the Fish Short Story Prize. The story will be in the Fish Anthology 2014. I’m delighted and honoured. The Fish Anthology is worldwide revered.
My novel – Eden Dust – is written. Three years work. Ninety thousand words.
My story combines naturalism – the way people talk and behave – and big unnatural, dehumanising situations.
How I describe my novel – Think esoteric Twin Peaks. But adulter.
There’s grief and guilt and cowardice and perversion and loneliness and regret. And grey humour. And death. There are four characters. One is the earthscape.
I’m near done with editing. I plan to submit the novel in September 2014.
My novel extract – First two chapters of Eden Dust – is published in Unthology 4 by Unthank Books. A prestigious short story anthology.
I have posted two reviews of Unthology 4.
It was a proud day for me when my novel extract was selected by the editors in Cambridge. I am among fine authors in Unthology 4. I read at the book launch in November 2013.
Unthank Books editor, Ashley Stokes, is a fine author of literary fiction.
I’ve posted an extract of Eden Dust here on my blog. The opening of Chapter One (meet the protagonist).
There are authors I return to. Rereading them I remember the first time I read them. My age and place and feelings when I found them.
I like many authors, from many countries, past and contemporary authors. Recently I read the African authors. I have a sunshine spot for Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi.
My top ten novelists, in random order, are…
Flannery O’Connor; Carson McCullers; James Joyce; Charles Frazier; Saul Bellow; Christina Stead; Carol Shields; William Gay; David Foster Wallace; Cormac McCarthy.
My top ten short story authors, in random order, are…
Katherine Mansfield; Jack London; Flannery O’Connor; D. H. Lawrence; Edna O’Brien; Shirley Jackson; Franz Kafka; Sherwood Anderson; Ernest Hemingway; Denis Johnson.
Hemingway was a bull novelist. But I think his master work is his Nick Adams short stories. And I’d say The Old Man and the Sea is a fat short story.
My favourite short story author is Katherine Mansfield.
A cosy-thinky fireside treat is J. G. Ballard short stories.
Poets I reread: Emily Dickinson; Elizabeth Bishop; Robert Frost; Robert Tannahill; Robert Burns; Sorley MacLean; Alastair Mackie; Seamus Heaney; Ellen Bryant Voigt; Betty Adcock; Claudia Emerson.
My hallowed most writer is Cormac McCarthy. I think his novel, Suttree, is a masterpiece.
I love Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children.
Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams is a precious read. I reread pages every other day.
Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio is a bedside keep.
Oftentime books I dip into…
A Life in Letters by John Steinbeck.
Selected Letters of William Styron.
Dear, Dear Brenda – The Love Letters of Henry Miller to Brenda Venus.
James Ellroy’s memoir, My Dark Places.
I like John Fante. I recommend his book, Ask the Dust.
Favourite far-past writer – Jonathan Swift.
Presently discovering William Faulkner.