Short Fiction

Here are a couple short stories for your enjoyment.

Alonzo’s Voice – Blair Polly

Grey rolls in. It’s a mist that clouds my mind and obscures the gnarled trees on the hills across the valley. A diffused light fights its way through the murkiness towards me. Red tiled roofs poke above the treetops and reach for the sky.

My mind is foggy. I feel a camaraderie with the grey. We are brothers, both unsure of what to do. Do we embrace the gloom and spend the day wallowing, or will this dreary cloak burn off giving birth to an afternoon bright and clear?

“Alonzo, why are you staring out the window? You haven’t touched your lunch.”

My eyes flick to the table where a loaf of coarse bread sits on an old cutting board. Pumpkin seeds cling tight to its crust. A hunk of cheese and bowl of plump olives nestle beside it. My stomach rumbles, but I am transfixed by the mist and the light.

I know Natalia means well, but must she interrupt my daydreaming? I have done my chores, fed the chickens, and moved the goats. Does she not see the swirling patterns made by the sea-fog driven inland on the breeze? Does she not hear the softness rolling in as damp curtains of air masks the sound of tinking shrouds and the hollow slap of water on the hulls of the fishing boats in the bay?

Sometimes she treats me like a child who needs his nose wiped, who needs mothering despite her being younger. I may give her reason for acting this way, but it’s not my fault I’m misunderstood. They see me as simple. They don’t realize I see things, understand things — that I feel the deepest of things. I’m aware of the happenings in this room, in this house, in our small village. I see very well when the grey leaves my mind. I just don’t speak of what I see, what I hear, or how I feel.

Not that I can’t speak. I’m sure I could if I tried. There’s just no need. I’m busy making pictures from patterns in the mist, pretty pictures of animals prancing and racing along the ridge-line, pictures of people I know, their faces changing expression as they speak words I can’t quite hear.

For Natalia to treat me like a child is annoying. What have I done to deserve this? I’m neither a fool nor an invalid. I have just made a decision to remain silent.  After 16 years, why should I change?

I’m happy for my words to remain in my imagination. They can linger, meander, and float lightly for as long as they desire. One day the poetry and phrases I construct may well burst forth … just not today.

There is a rustle of fabric behind me. I recognize my mother’s footsteps—the familiar clack of leather heels on slate tile. A whoosh of water sounds as she fills the tin basin on the kitchen bench. The clink and splash of plates being washed echoes off the walls. A melodic humming begins. I don’t need to look at what is happening behind me to see the scene in my mind. The sounds tell me all I need to know. I have witnessed it all before and the pictures remain firmly embedded in my memory. My mind is a photograph album full of pictures.

Mother turns. “If you’re not going to eat, why don’t you walk down to the village and find us some fresh fish for dinner? You have been staring out of that window for hours.”

“Alonzo’s not hungry mother,” Natalia says. “He’s barely looked at his food.”

I wish Natalia would not speak for me. What makes her assume I’m not hungry? I’m actually very hungry.

Mother walks over and pushes some money into my pocket. She rubs my back. “Now run along. Go find us something nice for dinner.”

My eyes glance down the valley towards the harbor. I imagine the sights and sounds of the market. Will it be crowded today? Will Maria’s wild auburn hair be tied back under her favorite green scarf? Will her eyes sparkle as she deals with the customers? Will her bullying stepfather be there?

“Give me a hug before you go.” Mother says.

As I turn for the door, I grab the loaf, breaking off a chunk and step briefly into mother’s embrace before skipping through the door and down the stone steps.

“Don’t spend all that money if you don’t have to, Alonzo,” mother says after me. “See if the fishermen have anything going cheap.”

I scrunch my way down the gravel path. Iridescent rays stab through the thinning mist and glint off the bell hanging from the oak crossbeam above the church. A cluster of masts appear as I sidle down the hill towards a small group of buildings standing near the ancient seawall that gives shelter to the village’s fleet of brightly painted boats.

Market vendors promote their wares with a singsong cadence, their voices merging in an overlay of melody and tempo. I stop and listen, eyes closed, picking out individual voices from the mix, following a single voice for a time as it travels up and down the musical scale, trying to link the voice to a face seen earlier in the clouds.

The scrape of footsteps approach and I open my eyes.

“Where are you going, Alonzo?” Josephina asks. “Does Mamma know where you are?”

I nod, pulling the coins from the pocket of my woolen trousers with one hand, while pointing at my open mouth with the other.

She smiles and ruffles my hair. “You’re a good boy, Alonzo. Now don’t be late back, you know how Mamma worries.”

Josephina has always looked out for me. Being the eldest, it often fell to her to babysit while mother worked. After papa died, Josephina looked after Natalia and me. She cooked for the family, and did most the cleaning and other chores, despite being little more than a child herself. Now that Josephina’s older, she’s the one who gets up before dawn and goes to work.

I stand, enjoying the view as Josephina’s footsteps fade behind me. Finally, I walk on around the last corner and see the water stretching off into the mist. A group of whitewashed buildings cluster together. The market building, its sides open to the elements, is crowded with people.

Rough plank tables piled high with fish and produce spill out of the building. People congregate in groups chatting, haggling, and laughing. I stand outside under the large tree in the central square and fiddle with the coins in my pocket. There is so much to experience here, so many colours. I smell pots of food and salt from the ocean. The sound of waves crashing on the seawall, and seabirds squabbling for scraps, combine with those of the market, filling my ears with a cacophony of sound.

Maria stands behind a table heaped with mackerel. Customers crowd her stall. Occasionally I get a brief glimpse of her over their stooped backs as they bend down to smell the freshness of the fish. Once she catches me watching, and smiles, waving in my direction. I feel my face warm but I don’t look away. My arm starts to rise to return her wave, but she’s quickly hidden by the crowd again.

By the time I finally approach Maria’s stall, the pile of mackerel is nearly gone. I tuck myself behind a broad-backed woman and watch.

Maria’s smile flashes as new customers approach, but I notice it fades as soon as they move on. She seems to be favoring her right arm, doing most of the lifting with her left. A number of times she rubs her forearm as if to ease an ache. I have seen this gesture too many times before.

Finally, she tires of my attentive silence and stares me in the face. “Well do you want some fish or not, Alonzo? You can have this small one for half price if you say the word yes.”

I nod, pulling just two of the coins from my pocket, holding them out for her inspection.

“So what do you say?” She says. “It’s just a little word.”

Taking a step forward I hold the coins higher, hoping she’ll take the coins and stop this nonsense about me speaking. Maria knows I don’t talk. She looks down at the coins, shakes her head but continues smiling. “Please say yes, Alonzo.”

I’m about to turn and run when Maria’s stepfather dumps a basket of fish on the end of the table, startling us both. “Stop wasting time with that idiot. You have customers waiting.”

Maria winces as her stepfather’s meaty hand squeezes her forearm and jerks her towards the basket. “Now get to work!”

The coins clunk as they drop back into my pocket. I want to flee, but my feet are rooted to the earth. Maria shrugs off her stepfather’s grip and gets to work on the fish. I can see the hurt in her face. She massages her arm.

Her stepfather’s head snaps around. He glares at me. “Have something to say, runt?”

I do have something to say, but I say it in my head while wishing I could yell it aloud for all to hear. He is a beastly man, a man without love in his heart. Maria does not deserve the treatment she gets from him. Most of the people who come to this stall and buy the man’s fish only do so because of Maria’s personality.

I clench my fists inside the overly long sleeves of my jacket. My gaze moves to a filleting knife lying near the basket of fish.

Maria’s eyes catch mine. She shakes her head. Her face says sorry. I nod almost imperceptibly, trying to communicate through my expression. I think she knows how I feel, knows I am on her side.

Once the basket is empty, Maria’s stepfather picks it up – but before he goes back to the wharf, he grabs her arm once again. “Now no more wasting time with that idiot,” he hisses into her ear.

The corded muscles in his arm bulge with the pressure he’s exerting on Maria’s bicep. The pain of his grip is obvious in her eyes.

I don’t even realize my feet are moving until I find myself inches from his chest. My face looks up at his. I tremble with rage and hold my fists out in front of me. “Stop! You’re hurting her!”

Everyone turns to look at me, astonished at my first words. Then they look at Maria’s stepfather and see what he is doing. He quickly drops his hand, and looks down at his feet. There are mumbled comments and scowls from the women. When he sees their looks of disgust, he hurriedly takes the basket and heads off for another load. A couple of the village men follow him, sharp looks having passed between them.

I turn towards Maria. I am still shaking.

“So, Alonzo, you do speak after all.”

I shake my head and reach into my pocket for the coins.

She is flawless, her smile brighter than a harvest moon. I feel blood rush to my face. The coins glitter on my upturned palm.

Maria smiles. “Well my little hero, would you like some fish?”

I nod and hold the coins higher, but she wraps her hand around mine, forcing it closed around the coins. She takes the biggest fish on the table and pushes it towards me.

“Take it Alonzo, you deserve it.”

I stare at the mackerel. Maria’s bright scarf and hair reflect in its silver scales, creating a lovely pattern.

“Go on, Alonzo. It’s yours.”

Hesitantly I take hold of the fish. I smile one last time, then turn and amble off towards the path and home.

Such a beautiful big fish. How will I ever explain this to mother?

*****

The Reluctant Storyteller – Blair Polly

The family has gathered to celebrate my safe return from the war, or so they think. The real reason I’ve brought them together is because I have a story to tell, one that needs telling without bias, exaggeration, or omission. Who better to share the truth with, than those I love most.

‘Quiet people, listen up. I’m only going to tell this story once.’

How do I explain that one telling is all I have in me? That remembering is too painful. That it gives me nightmares, if and when I’m able to sleep.

Mother wipes her hands on her apron and surveys the room, scanning each face in turn. ‘Are you sure you’re ready for this?’ She says to me, her eyes studying my expression. ‘You can leave it for another time you know.’

‘I need to get it out, Mum. It’s festering inside me.’

‘I know everyone’s keen to hear about your adventure, but you’ve only been home a week. You’ve got a lot of recuperating to do.’

‘I’ll be okay. I just want to get it over with.’

My little sister and cousins run around the lounge, sticks in hand, pretending to shoot each other like the soldiers they’ve seen on TV. They die dramatic deaths, only to rise and start play once more. My brother scowls at them and covers his ears with his palms. He looks towards father to do something to ease his discomfort.

Father is getting annoyed too. ‘Settle you lot. Put those sticks down and sit. Richard wants to talk.’

It is more than wanting to talk, I need to talk. I need to explain how being missing, presumed dead, for three months, and being decorated with medals and ribbons upon my unexpected return from behind enemy lines, does not make me the hero I’ve been portrayed as. They need to know that I was one of the lucky ones to be thrown clear of the fuel slick when the ship exploded, unlike so many of my shipmates who were consumed by the inferno as it spread quickly across the water. They need to know that it could just as easily have been me screaming in the flames. That it could have been the stench of my burnt hair and flesh wafting on the salt-laden air.

Sometimes at night when I jerk awake, I think the lucky ones are those who died instantly, those that never had to witness the despair and pain of their shipmates swimming for their lives, being caught by the flames. The fortunate ones who don’t have the scene replayed in their dreams each night when they finally fall into an exhausted sleep.

I look at my parents, my brother, my sister, my aunt, uncle, and cousins, and remember how the overwhelming desire to see them again kept me going that long night in the water—a dozen of us huddled together, cold, afraid, watching the ship slowly submerge in the light of the fire, hearing explosions boom from deep inside the stricken vessel, waiting for dawn, and praying we’d see land when the sun rose. I remember looking around in the pale light of morning, shocked at how few of us were left, seeing other smudge-faced, battered, and distressed young men, bobbing in their life-jackets, exhausted and leaderless.

I turn my chair to face the gathering. ‘Before I start, I want you all to promise that once I’ve finished, you’ll never ask me to speak of this again. Okay?’

My family sense my reluctance and quickly nod their agreement, initially to each other, and then to me. For the first time today, the room is silent. The young ones squirm in their seats, eager for me to begin. But expressions of unease fill the faces of the adults, unsure of where all this is leading.

‘Can I ask questions if I don’t understand something?’ My little sister inquires.

‘Believe me sweetheart, if you listen carefully, you’ll understand.’

She gives me a sheepish grin, tucks her bright pink ballet slippers underneath her, and snuggles in beneath father’s arm, getting comfortable for the real-life drama about to unfold.

I look up at the WELCOME HOME banner stretched across my parents lounge, and remember the pile of cards and messages on their hall table from those who couldn’t make it today. I only hope those gathered here will remember my words, so that they can tell this story without bias, exaggeration, or omission the next time it needs telling.

I lean forward, rest my elbows on my knees, and clasp my hands together. I close my eyes for a moment and inhale deeply. Now that I’ve decided to do this, to relate what really happened rather than regurgitate the propaganda cooked up by the brass, I want to do the story justice, not only for myself, but for the boys that didn’t make it home. It is their story too, after all.

But where do I start? Do I explain how, at sunrise, sharks, drawn by the blood in the water, began to pick off members of the remaining group as we dog-paddled as quickly as we could towards a distant speck of land, and that during this seemingly endless ordeal, I was anything but a hero? Will they understand that I was a frightened animal doing anything I could to stay alive, and that while my friends burned, and as the sharks feasted, I was thankful to be one of those still afloat? How do I admit that once the last six of us made it to land, we hid, with our bellies in the dirt, that we scavenged for scraps in villages so poor they could barely feed themselves, let alone afford to lose the precious food we stole? How do I justify stealing a goat that provided milk to children just as hungry as I was?

I look down at my nut-brown arms, poking out of crisp white sleeves, and remember the dusty robes we stole to disguise ourselves and shield our skin from the sun’s burning rays as we cautiously made our way eastwards, desperate to find a way past the enemy positions and back to our own lines.

I hope I’m forgiven for the deaths of the young soldiers we ambushed in the desert, their eyes round and pleading—faces that could easily have been our own reflections in a mirror. How do I justify those killings, knowing that families will never have a chance to hear their son’s stories? That their missing-and-presumed-dead are buried in the shallow graves where we left them, and that they will never be coming home, all for the want of a full canteen, some tasteless rations, and a political party’s ideology.

Still, I have to try, because if I don’t, guilt will succeed where fire and sharks have failed. I hope telling the truth will liberate me. That once those I love know about the friends I’ve lost, the horrific sights I’ve witnessed, the things I’ve done, and more importantly, the pointless waste of it all, I might feel capable of moving on in a world that will never be the same.

I take another deep breath and open my eyes. ‘Right then,’ I say, feeling a little stronger already. ‘Listen carefully. I’m only going to tell this story once.’

*****

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