A gleam in the dark

Callie sighed and heaved her backpack to her other shoulder. She peered around the corner, but she couldn’t see the bus. She busied her toe into the dusty ground. Her sneakers were already dirty, they had been a muddy colour for as long as she could remember. Just this morning the sole had begun to peel away from the toe, a great flap forming like a chattering mouth. She would have to remember to get some glue when she got to school.

She heard the distant roar of a vehicle approaching. She looked up but it was only a grey station wagon. It shot past her, the occupants lost in a blur. Callie sighed. She checked her watch. Quarter to eight, the bus was late.

She lifted her backpack from her shoulder and placed it on the ground, propping it against her legs. She shrugged her shoulders a few times and rolled her neck. Everything felt tight, her muscles were coiled like a snake, she could feel the thin ribbons of them knotted under her skin.

There was no one else around. The morning was quiet and the sun was already beginning to strip the air of moisture. It was going to be a hot one, over forty again, perhaps. She craned her head around the corner, still no bus. Then something caught her eye a few paces away. She pushed her backpack away and stepped closer.

There was a crevice beneath a large flat rock—there in the dark something moved, glimmered. Callie looked toward the road again, then crouched down. It was dark in the little clutch. She pressed her cheek to the ground.

Under the smooth grey rock, in the dust and darkness, a family of lizards gleamed. There was the large one, the mother she suspected and then a dozen babies, maybe more, crawling over each other in a heaving heap. It was like a tangled knot of string that was alive and shimmering.

One, a baby, braved the open, pushing its head from the shadows. It was small, no longer than her finger, but thinner like the bone stripped bare. Its skin was a dark not-black colour, a colour that had absorbed all other colours and become the darkness of all the colours mixed together. Its head twitched upwards then from side to side, testing. Then it crawled with quick, jerky movements to the top of the rock.

One by one it was followed by its brothers and sisters until the rock was alive with their twitching eyes. Last of all the mother walked languidly and sat squat among them. She flicked a lazy eye at Callie as if to say, I’m watching.

Suddenly the bus roared around the corner. Callie picked up her backpack and jumped on board. She did not believe in mystical experiences, but even so, she sat at the back of the bus and watched from the grimy window. As the bus pulled away she watched the rock gleam black like it was alive. She watched the glint of the sun on the lizard’s tight skin. She kept watching until all she could see was a dark-on-dark speck getting smaller and smaller in the sun.

We go out after dark

We go out after dark, not often but every now and then. The ground has a loamy smell after baking all day and there is the damp smell of salt in the air.

We sit on the porch on nights like these. Glasses beading slightly in the still, warm, air. The sky unfolds in the heavens like a blanket shook open. The stars are little holes eaten in the fabric.

We don’t talk particularly much on these nights, my sister and I. We don’t talk particularly much at all anymore. But the nights we go out after dark, we sit in the stillness and watch as the world darkens and caws. We hear birds, occasionally calling—the sharp squawk of a Tui. Later, if we stayed long enough, this would be replaced by the hungry call of the morepork, begging more-pork, more-pork, more-pork, he would say, a Cartesian cry.

Sal might say ‘do you hear that?’ Tilting her head in the direction of the big Puriri tree. I’d nod in reply and say something comforting in return like, ‘Its still warm, even for March.’ She’d pick up her glass and take a sip. She might reply. She might not. We’d sit a while longer in the darkness.

Then, on nights like these, we go in, the orange light spilling from the house like an escaped emotion. Sal draws the curtains and we sit side by side, not touching (never touching) on the sofa. Sal switches on the TV, a low rumble and picks up her crochet. I pick up my book. We sit there a few hours more, not speaking, but a different kind of not speaking than before as we busy our hands and minds.

Outside, the blackness continues. It envelopes the house, swallows it up. From time to time I look up at the window, I see this darkness pressing on all sides and I think of a tiny boat on a wide sea. Sometimes I wonder how we’ve kept afloat all these years.

We go out after dark, not often but every now and then. And on those nights, I think of how it could have been different, for Sal and I. If things hadn’t gone the way they had. We could be living in the city with people, with jobs, with everything except each other.

On those nights, after dark. I listen to the birds, I smell the earth. I take Sal’s arm and lead her back inside. Before I turn to close the door I look at the dark. It holds the possibility of anything, the deepest ocean, the farthest sky. On those nights, after dark, the world spreads into everything.

The loss of it all is heavy inside me. Empty like a hunger.  Empty like a hole.

the line

No one expected an earthquake. Especially not Maeve. She knew the country was perched on the Ring of Fire, but it seemed a distant thing. She had always pictured Maui, fishing up the island with his whale-bone hook, she never thought about the great plates that her land teetered on, the edges that did not quite meet.

The line in front of her shuffled forward. She took a step and sighed.

She had been at home when the quake hit, it was four in the morning after all. She had woken, sluggishly from a dream. In the dream, she was on a boat and it was rocking, the water splashing over the prow and into her face. The first few moments she opened her eyes it seemed she was still dreaming, that she was adrift in the darkness a thousand miles from shore. But then she registered she was in her bed and it was her bed that was rocking. The wardrobe doors were banging open and closed like someone was hammering to be let in.

She took another step forward. Her bones felt heavy, she wanted to sit down.

She had felt wet and she couldn’t understand why, then she had seen the glass of water that she left on her beside table every night—the years accumulated on her tongue in the darkness, and needed to be washed away—it was laying on its side, twitching slightly as if it were alive. The water pooled on the table and dripped onto her pillow.

She had gripped the sides of the bed, all at sea. She knew she was supposed to get under the doorway, she remembered that was safest. But she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t move and the rolling went on and on. It was like the darkness itself was screaming—a long silent scream, a scream that couldn’t be heard.

She still heard it now, as she stood in line, everything she had left in the world in a bag upon her back. There was nothing special in there. Some clothes and her glasses, bent and chipped at the top of one eye. It was like looking through a prism, the top right corner of the world fracturing away like a crystal. It didn’t bother her, the world was more fractured now than she had ever known it and seeing it manifest like that soothed her somehow.

There were a few things, not many, that she wished she could have found. Her wedding ring, her rosary, a photo of Jim–the one in his uniform, creased between the pages of her bible. She sighed. The line was taking a long time.

She shuffled forward a few metres more. She thought of Jim. She wondered how it would have felt to roll over to him in that darkness. To feel the warmth of his chest. To curl her hands in his hair. Instead of facing the yawning dark alone.

The line edged forward a fraction.

She closed her eyes and pictured Jim. She continued to wait.


This story was inspired by a photo prompt https://iamvickiroberts.com/2017/08/11/fragments-a-short-fiction-prompt/

just like riding a bike…

Roger looked at the bike leaning against the railing. He tried to remember a time when he was young enough to ride. He tried to remember the feeling of the wind on his face. The gentle way the world spilled by as he rode, like he was on an awfully slow train and the ribbon of the world was pulled past him. He touched the handle and the metal was cool and smooth. He shook his head.

He turned walked up the heavy stone steps, slowly, one at a time. His feet dragged as if weighed by rocks. Anyone would think it was due to what he faced inside but his feet were like that always now, had been for years. No matter how light hearted he felt his body had become something heavy, something to be dragged around. The effort of getting out of bed every day increased. It was as if each day he got heavier and heavier—one gram and then two until he became his own millstone around his neck.

He leaned heavily on the railing. One, two, three, he counted in his head. Then, gathering his strength he breathed in and lifted his concrete feet again. Finally, at the top, he took the hat from his head and held it to his chest. He exhaled and walked inside.

Roger was in there an hour, maybe more. There was nothing new they could tell him. They checked his heart, his lungs, his blood pressure. Things were slowing down, his blood was like the slow gurgle of water at the bottom of a dried-up river bed. They had poked him with needles and he had felt the cold curl of the stethoscope on his chest. It was like the ice of it was seeking out his heart. There was nothing new they could tell him. They gave him another bottle of pills which jangled in his pocket. He began his slow walk out the door.

When he got outside the bike was still sitting there, leaning against the railing. No one was around. It was not locked. Roger looked from left to right. He thought about the cold stethoscope, his slow blood, the pills in his pocket.

He pulled the bike away from the railing. With difficulty, he hoisted his leg over the seat. He stood there a moment, straddling the bike and wondering. He looked around again. Finally, he pushed down on the pedal and sat back. He wobbled a moment but soon found the old saying was true, you do not forget. He pushed the pedals one after the other in a great whirr. His feet were suddenly light, and he powered forward with a kind of grace. He pedalled through the quiet streets and looked all around him. The breeze on his face was soft and cool.

The ribbon of the world was pulled before him. It was just as he remembered it.



This story was inspired by a photo prompt – iamvickiroberts.com