Sacrifice by Daniel Adler

Daniel Adler was born in Brooklyn, New York and has also lived in Portland, Oregon. He studied at New York University and is currently pursuing an MSc in Creative Writing at The University of Edinburgh. His fiction has appeared in BlazeVox, The Opiate, ThoseThatThis, Five2One, and elsewhere. 

 


 

 

Sacrifice

 

The man woke the child while the mother was still in bed. “Where are we going?” the boy asked, his voice heavy from sleep.

“We have a meeting, said his father. “I’m making breakfast. Get dressed and come downstairs.” The boy groaned and rolled over. “Come on,” said his father. The boy sighed and threw back the covers, swinging his legs onto the floor. His bones ached; he was growing. He picked up the pants he had left at the foot of his bed, put on yesterday’s t-shirt one arm at a time, and stood, the floorboards creaking under his weight.

The boy’s father stood over the stove. Eggs spat grease, a bowl of oatmeal steamed on the table. He slid an egg from the pan onto a plate and brought it to his son. The boy took the spoon from his oatmeal and dug at the yolk, letting it run over the white, brown at the edges.

“We have a long day,” said his father.

“Where are we going?” asked the boy again.

“You’ll see.”

The morning was still purple. Despite the boy’s coat, he shivered as he opened the car door and waited in the silence. His father slammed the door, blew on his hands, buckled his seatbelt, and turned the key in the ignition. At the light before the entrance ramp to the highway the boy reached to turn on the radio, but his father said, “No music. Too early.” The light changed; the car lunged and did not stop accelerating until the road was passing underneath its wheels at sixty miles an hour. The boy closed his eyes. When he woke large shrubs had replaced the forest, the sun was high and mountains stood on the horizon.

“We’re going to the desert?”

“We’re in the desert.”

“What are we doing?”

“Changing something.”

“What do you mean?”

“I–we have to change how we do things.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’ll see. Be patient.”

“Is it a surprise?”

“Yes,” said the father, but his gaze stayed straight ahead. The boy stared at his father, mouth ajar and then looked out his window.

Soon the car began to climb. The desert became a sandbox, the sky turned gray, and on the side of the road snow patches grew into fields of white, piles higher than the car. They slowed and crunched gravel on the shoulder. The father turned the keys in the ignition, clicked his seatbelt and opened the door. “Come on.”

The boy inhaled the cold air. His father moved to the backseat and the boy ran to a boulder and scuttled to its sloping crest. From here he could see the back of the mountain, a landscape of rock and hardy plants that gave way to more forest. He recalled a mountain goat he had seen once standing this way. When he turned, his father was at the foot of the rock holding a gun.

“Trust me, son,” said his father, cocking it. “We have to believe this is for the best.”

“What’s for the best?”

“The other night I had a dream. God came to me and said, ‘Take your boy into the mountains and sacrifice him to me. And if he believes, if he really believes, then you can point the gun at him and pull the trigger and everything will be made right. I will come to your aid and fix everything in my name.’ Now don’t be afraid. Just believe.”

“Believe what?”

“Believe that everything will be all right. That it will be okay, that God will make it right.”

“Does Mom know about this?”

“Your mother and I are being run into the ground, boy. Every month the bills come and we pay them with credit. It’s getting worse. We can’t feed you, we can’t buy you clothes for school, we can hardly live. But if you believe, if you really believe, then it will be okay. Now I’m going to come closer, so that when I pull this trigger God will have no objection, he won’t be able to accuse me, I’m not going to let anyone accuse me of not believing. Think–do you really want to go on living this way?”

The boy backed away.

“Please, son. Stop. Just trust me. Trust that you’ll be okay.” Tears of fear streaked the boy’s cheeks. “Don’t cry, don’t be afraid, trust me. Make it easier and get on your knees.” The boy backed up but there was nowhere to go but down. “Please,” said his father. “Nothing bad will happen if you trust me. I swear.” The boy looked into the gray sky, as if for an angel to come save him. His father was only a few paces away, the gun at his side. “Listen to me, it’s for your own good. It’s for our good.”

The boy gulped and wiped his tears with the back of his hand. “Okay,” he said, taking a knee. The stone was sharp through his jeans.

“Thank you,” sighed his father, the gun cold on the boy’s forehead. “Now I’m gonna count to three. Nothing is going to happen, I need you to believe that. Because if you don’t…” The boy could not control his tears and he quivered like a lamb. “Look,” said the man. “You gotta say it to believe. Say, ‘I believe I will live and everything will be all right.’ I’ll say it with you–”

“I believe,” said the boy but his voice trembled and cracked. “I believe I will live and everything will be all right.”

“Now really mean it,” said his father. “Say it again. Say ‘I will live and everything will be all right.’”

“I will live and everything will be all right,” said the boy.

“I will live and everything will be all right,” they repeated together.

“Okay,” said his father, “keep saying it.”

The boy went on, “…and everything will be all right.” And then his father pulled the trigger.


You can follow Daniel via his Twitter, @DanielRyanAdler.

 

 

A Moment’s Surrender by Maeda Zia

Maeda Zia is a graduate student based in Karachi, Pakistan. In her spare time, she likes to binge-watch foreign dramas, hoard books and occasionally worry about her dissertation. 

 


 

A Moment’s Surrender

 

The dars is supposed to start in two hours. Nothing is ready. The biryani–mutton, he’s only been dead a year–is still simmering. The white sheets, wet, flap in the breeze. The dars aunty isn’t here. Phone goes straight to a naat. What, did her saintly nostrils pick up the scent of uncooked biryani, the heek of the gosht, and she bailed? Ridiculous. The dars will start in two hours. Aik tau yeh kameez. The collar’s too high; it hems in your throat. You pull at it impatiently; it’s no use. Ittar swirls around your apartment; you inhale it with every breath you take. The scent scratches your throat. You can’t breathe.

Where is Ali? These caterers will listen to a man, they’ll look to him for the cash, eyes straying expectantly to his wallet (empty). They’ll turn to him even though it was you who stood at the funeral, supervising. Just where is Ali? Why must he always disappear? Are he and darsi churail blessed with the same gift of scuttling away when work awaits? Your sandals thump harder and harder as you walk across the apartment. You’ve checked the kitchen. You’ve checked the drawing room–it’s a 2 bedroom flat; where the fuck is he? As you walk by the bathroom connecting Ali’s room and yours, you hear a yelp and a clatter behind the bathroom’s door. Rats? Not today, please, the phuppos will die of glee. You hate this bathroom. Your cousins renovated it when they owned it. You hate the gaudy golden tiles patterning the sinks, striping the walls, the sink. Fuck this rat-infested bathroom.

Your lips are hemmed in anger as you push the door. No rats. Just Ali. Must he be preening on a day like this?

As you take in the sight, you correct yourself: trying to preen, really.

Your brother–blessed, beloved Ali (last in the womb, first in our hearts) is standing in front of the sink. His chin is slathered with shaving cream. He is scrabbling at his face, fingers clawing away the skin. He bites down at his lip as he squints at himself in the mirror. You don’t think. You are at the sink, gripping his chin, skin and cream and all.

“Are you hurt?”

“Choro!” He jerks away.

You pay no heed and tighten your grip. There doesn’t seem to be much damage. A few scratches here and there. You note the razor in the sink, suspended in the cream. A thin line of red gleams and catches on the silver.

“Were you trying to shave?” You can’t believe it. You snatch the razor and hold it up to the light. You haven’t seen one this cheap since you first started shaving your legs. You were embarrassed at the wiry stubble there, you wanted it gone, so you grabbed the first razor you could find. Stubble gave way to scratches and scabs. You didn’t use that razor again. Yet here it is; same brand, different model, still flimsy.

His eyes narrow. “No shit,” he retorts.

You don’t pay him any attention. He can’t be this old, not so fast. Wasn’t it yesterday he was a gangly child, fidgeting, standing beside your father’s’ coffin? What gleamed whiter? The shroud your father was wrapped in or the kurta your brother wore? At your father’s funeral, Ali mourned; you managed.

Seems like you’ll have to manage this too.

You huff. “You suck at this. Let me do it.”

“Like you’re any better,” he says, but he obeys; he hands over the razor; you dip it under the tap and rinse it. Foam and stubble pool at the drain, a heap of ashes. Your brother eyes you warily.

“Dude, chill, I’ve done this bef–” you bite off your sentence. Don’t let your brother know, the phuppos decreed. You’re never to let him know that A Female inhabits this bathroom, with her pads, cotton soaked red, bound up in plastic, disposed of before their stench can ever pervade the bathroom. Instead, you call your wax-vaali on the days he’s not home so he doesn’t see Annie tottering back and forth, huffing at a cup of hot wax balanced in her palms. No bras, no panties to be left on the floor. Not now, not ever. What if he saw?

You hold the blade and look at your brother. Traces of shaving cream remain on his face. Idiot didn’t apply enough cream. Grabbing the tube, you squeeze out more into your palms. Chalo–at least he bought a decent brand. After the heat of the caterer’s daighs, the coolness of the cream is a balm. You pat down the cream with your fingers and pick up the razor.

You remember your father. He shaved every morning before he went to work. He swirled his razor in a bowl of water before taking it to his face. He would apply the cream slowly, methodically. If you focus, you can pinpoint the exact moment when he would pick up his razor and begin.

You grasp Ali’s chin and guide it upwards. In the translucent light, his skin is almost yellow. His Adam’s apple bobs up and down. What would it mean for the blade to glide upon his Adam’s apple? How hard would you have to press it down to make a welt? How much pressure to make those welts become large, gaping holes? Why are you thinking this? You can’t do this. The razor feels heavy, foreign in your hand. Your brother seems to tower above you. You want your father. This is his job, not yours.

Inhale.

Exhale.

“Seedhay ho.” Your hand curls over Ali’s shoulder. ”You’ll need to sit down. You’re too tall.”

He nods. He shuffles out of the bathroom. You stare down at the sink. Your father kept an engraved bowl on the left. Where did it go? Was it passed on to an uncle or simply discarded? You can’t remember.

A noise makes you look up. Your brother appears in the doorway, dragging a chair (oh God, it’s one of the dars chairs, he didn’t even take off the white cover) to the sink. As he stands in front of the sink, you position yourself in front of him. Your hands encircle his shoulder and you push him down into the chair.

Now that he sits down, you tower over him. You are suddenly aware of the closeness between you two, the air seems to constrict. If he leans even an inch forward, his face would be right in your chest. You cannot let that happen. You propel his chin upward, ignoring his protests. His throat is bared to you.

Lights catches off the razor as you begin. You are careful. You bring it down in smooth, wide strokes.

“Why don’t you have a shaving brush like the one Abbu had?” You ask. That brush had an ornate, wooden handle. When Abbu would step out of the bathroom to take his shirt, and you, hovering in the doorway, would step inside, your feet light on the cool tiles. You would hold his brush, the bristles damp and limp, and graze it against your own skin. When Abbu returned, you would be back in the doorway. He never saw.

“What? What brush?”

“Y’know, the shaving brush, the kind you use to spread the cream.”

He shrugs. “Don’t know, never used–”

“Don’t move! God, did nobody teach you how to shave?”

His silence is answer enough. Necessity forced you to turn to friends. Absence forced him to turn to the mirror, a blade in hand.

If Abbu had been alive, would he have been the one to teach him? Buy him a razor? Guide his hands as he shaved for the first time? No, that’s not like Abbu. He would have stood at the side and issued instructions. Like the time he taught you to drive. Calmly, methodically. He didn’t bat an eye when you nearly rammed the car into the gate. Too bad he didn’t teach you how to shave. You choke back a laugh and focus on the razor.

The razor glides across Ali’s cheeks; you don’t know why he’s shaving, there’s just stubble. You have to step closer, you’re shaving too wide. You don’t think; you step in between his legs. Fuck. Too close.  You can’t go back now. Keep at it. You dab a towel at his cheeks, the foam dissolves, leaving skin behind.

The new rawness of his skin reminds you of him as a baby. Ammi passed away soon after the birth. It was always you and him and Abbu. Cradling his head in the crook of your elbow. You learnt how to nurture before you learnt how to love.

His skin–waxy yellow, clean shaven–looks just like your father’s when you saw him last. Wrapped in white, peaceful. Doesn’t he look like he’s sleeping, you were asked over and over by hysterical relatives. No, he didn’t. You crept into your parents’ bed every Sunday morning till you were too old. Till Ali. You would lie next to your father, watch his chest rise and fall. His warmth. The corpse before you, was cold. But you didn’t say any of that. You had simply nodded. Bile rises in your throat, lines your mouth. One slash and he’ll be next to Abbu, leaving you too.

You focus on Ali’s face until the bile recedes. There’s still a little bristle under his chin.

Your brother speaks. “Do you think he would have been happy? Would he have let this happen?”

You pause. The razor hovers beneath his chin. What does he want–no, need–to hear?

“No, he wouldn’t. We wouldn’t have had to leave home.”

You’re nearly done. One last glide and his skin is smooth.

Will you ever shave a man again like this?

“All done.”

You step back, assessing your handiwork. You need to make sure you did the job right. You rub a knuckle across his face, revelling in the smoothness. You expect your hand to be batted away but he lets you. You both know you will never touch him again like this.

You pause at the worst of the cuts. If you look past the cuts and the slightly crooked nose (10 years old, fell off his bike, broke his nose), he looks exactly like your father did in that old sepia portrait you found in his cupboard. Why can’t he be your father? Need grips you. Your mouth is dry as you lean in and brush your lips gently against the cut. You taste blood; coppery but nothing like the cotton in your father’s nostrils. Your brother doesn’t react. His chest rises and falls. You have only backed away when he rises up from the chair, sending it clattering back.

Ali shoulders you aside. “I’ll go dress, thanks.”

You’re left in the bathroom. You turn on the tap. The wiry hair in the basin swivels down the drain. The chair needs to be put back in its place.  You’ll have to clean up this mess before the dars begins. Your father is still dead. You have to handle everything. Ali’s blood lingers upon your lips. You let it be. The scent of the foam and ittar mingle and that’s all there is.


Maeda Zia can be contacted at ziamaeda@gmail.com.

 

Tae A Fermer by Jen Hughes

Jen Hughes is a writer from Ayrshire, Scotland. She has been writing from an early age, but began to write more poetry in her late teens. She’s been published in various online magazines, such as the Oletangy Review, the McStorytellers, Paragraph Planet and Pulp Metal Magazine. After taking two years to gain valuable work and life experience, Jen is preparing to study English Literature and Film & TV Studies at Glasgow University this year.

Tae A Fermer is a parody to Robert Burns’ poem Tae A Mouse, and is told from the perspective of the mouse whose house was struck down.

 


 

Tae A Fermer

 

Great, lumberin’ stupit eejit,
Almost killed me an’ the missus
Course a’d start awa sae hasty
Don’t think that a forgot
That all ye thought of were yer tatties
Carrots an’ shallots.

Ye rammed ma hoose doon wae yer tractor
Sae don’t gee me that righteous patter
O’ mice an’ men suffrin’ life together
Best laid schemes
Gang aft agley especially fur the
Dunderheids!

Am a hell blessed compared to thee
This Christmas a’m gonnae freeze!
The missus is less than pleased
She’d just redecorated
Forward though a cannae see
She’ll have me mollicated!


If you liked this poem, you can find Jen’s up-to- date portfolio of poetry and short fiction on dearoctopuswriting.wordpress.com, follow her on Twitter, give her a like on Facebook, or follow her Tumblr blog.

Secobarbital by Asad Zaidi

Asad Zaidi was born in England and moved to Pakistan at a young age, where he did most of his growing up. He has a BA in Biology (with a minor, he is quick to tell people, in English) from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA. He is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where he is working at a public health organization.

Secobarbital is a short story about difficult discussions and decisions, and the complicated natures of life, love, and loss. Readers are advised that this piece contains themes, conversations, and scenes on the subject of assisted suicide.

 


 

Secobarbital

 

My mind was elsewhere as my feet carried me through the corridors as they had done every day for countless days before that. I stopped at the right door and knocked. Salma opened it.

My heart ached at the sight of her. Her cheeks were hollowed; her eyes had puffy bags under them. It was as if the flesh of her face had been reshaped by worry and sorrow. Her hair had escaped its usual silver bun to form a limp frame around her face. She had been crying.

“Salma, I…”

Despite the June heat, Salma drew her gray shawl on her shoulders tighter around her body.

“He’s resting,” she said in a low voice. The tightness around her eyes slackened. “But it’s your turn.”  She opened the door wider to let me in.

The room was dimly lit and stuffy. A mud brown carpet lay on the floor. The single window looked into the next building without offering the tiniest glimpse of the sky. The air in the room, stirred by a wizened ceiling fan, smelled of old flowers. Saleem’s bed sat in the middle of the room, a mass of steel and white linen.

The only splash of color was a dresser at the far end of the room. It was laden with dozens of bouquets, cards, letters, and collages. Someone had even placed a digital photo album there, its screen displaying a loop of happy moments. People had been streaming in and out of the room all week to see Saleem, but today was only for Salma.

And for me.

Salma gave me a small nod and left the room as I sank into her chair by Saleem’s bed. It was still warm. I studied my friend. His eyes were closed, but his expression was still tight and contorted from the pain. New wrinkles seemed to line his gaunt face every time I looked at it. I could not get used to how big his ears now looked. Tufts of white hair sprouted from them. Not too long ago, Saleem would not have tolerated that; he had always hated looking untidy. The wispy hair on his head was white too. Once I had taken in as much of Saleem as I could, I cleared my throat.

He opened his eyes and turned his head towards me. A mischievous grin spread across his face and for a second he was the Saleem from decades ago, the Saleem branded into my memory, the Saleem who surfaced in my imagination whenever I thought of him. “You bastard!” he said. His voice had been smooth and deep once, but the coughing had made it raspy. Wincing, he propped himself up against his pillows. “You’re here.”

“Of course I’m here” I said. I didn’t even try to keep my voice steady. “It’s—it’s…”

“It’s my last day,” said Saleem.

He continued to smile, and held out his hand. I grabbed it and returned his grip. Once he had been able to crush my hands but now I was the one taking care not to hurt him. I closed my eyes, damming them shut, and bowed my head. Saleem did not need my tears today.

The lump in my throat hadn’t subsided when I opened my eyes again and looked at him; Saleem was busy examining our intertwined hands. For most of his life, his hands had been pudgy. Salma and I used to tease him for having sausages for fingers. But now they were frail, their bones jutting out, their veins protruding from behind translucent skin. My hands had changed as well, weathered and wrinkled now, when once they were pale and slender. “Dainty,” Saleem used to call them, “just like Salma’s”. Once, back when he and Salma were dating, he had dragged me to a jeweler to try on a ring he wanted to buy her.

“We’ve grown old,” I said. My voice sounded hollow.

“We’ve grown old together,” said Saleem. I tried to smile at that, but my face would not move the right way.

“You know,” he continued; I knew that ‘you know’ well. “I’ve been thinking about how to make my exit. When they’ve made me sign all the forms and I’ve taken the pill they give me, I’m going to do this–” he took a deep breath, raised his free hand as a fist and stuck his middle finger out “–and say, ‘So long, suckers!’”

He grinned at me, but his eyes looked tired. I scowled at him and he laughed a surprising, full-throated laugh, the sound reaching out to me from the years before his illness. I never wanted it to end.

A coughing fit cut short his laugher. His eyes bulged and veins popped up in his neck. His body convulsed, spasming with each cough. I leapt onto the bed, grabbed him by his shoulders, and pinned him to his pillows. He had injured his back in spasm like that some weeks ago. I held him until the coughing subsided. When I let him go, he wrapped his arms around me and buried his face into my chest, whimpering.

“I can’t do this anymore,” he said. “I don’t want to. I can’t do this, Afsar. I’m in pain and I’m tired. It hurts so much.” He shook as he spoke and I knew he was crying in my arms.

I wanted to shake his trembling body by its shoulders, to plead and beg him to try, to continue, to not leave me behind. I thought about all the angry letters I had written to him, to the medical community, to God, to myself. I swallowed the feeling rising up my gullet and held him tighter. I kissed his head and rubbed circles into his back.

I let go when he stopped shaking, and he eased himself back into his pillows. I made to get back to my chair, but Saleem placed a hand on my arm.

“I’m doing the right thing,” he said.

Before I could stop myself, I unclenched my jaw and turned to face him. “Who is it right for?”

Saleem took his hand away. “We are not having this conversation again,” he said, his tone venomous. “I’m dying anyway!”

Memories of arguments we had had over the years–many bitter, some that had almost ruined our friendship–surged through my mind. There was no time.

“You’re right,” I said, my voice small.

Saleem sighed. Then he gave me a small, sad smile. “You will be there, won’t you?”

Somehow I had never thought this would actually happen. I had never planned for that dreadful moment, never thought that I might have to watch. “I…”

“You’d leave me when I need you?”

“But Salma…” It was a time for the two of them to be alone.

“I need you, too,” he said. “You’ve been by my side for every big decision I’ve ever taken. Stay. Please.”

I swallowed and nodded.

“Any way it happens, I’m about to die soon. Any way it happens, it will hurt you. That breaks my heart. I’m sorry, Afsar.”

The sound of my name hung in the air, the final note of a sad symphony. My mind stretched into the past, replaying moments I regretted, moments I cherished, things I should have said, and things I should have left unsaid. I scrambled for words to share with Saleem, my friend, who was dying in front of my eyes. I had always been able to trap him with an intriguing conversation. I wanted to start an endless dialogue with him and perhaps distract him from his own death.

The door swung open and a bald man wearing a white lab coat walked in, wheeling an empty wheelchair. Behind him was Salma, her hair back in its bun. I was keenly aware of each thud of my heart as it crept towards unfathomable loss. I wanted to slow it down. Or stop it. But it was time.

*

Salma wheeled Saleem down the corridor, the bald man beside her. I followed a few paces behind them. We shuffled into an empty waiting area with plastic benches and fluorescent lighting. A woman, also in a white coat, was waiting for us there. She gestured for Salma and me to take a seat. Salma stiffened. The woman, noticing the hesitation, placed an arm on Salma’s shoulder and gave her a reassuring smile. There was some final paperwork Saleem had to sign off on, and he had to do it alone. We had been briefed about the process so many times that I could hear the phrase ‘standard procedure’ echoing inside my skull.

Salma let the woman take over Saleem’s wheelchair. She and I took a seat. Saleem turned around to give us a small wave as he was taken out of the waiting area, his mouth a straight line. She returned the wave with an encouraging nod and I lifted my hand up in farewell.

There was nobody else there. My mind wandered, desperate to latch on to something as we waited. The flat-screen TV hung over our heads showed some singing competition on mute. I played with a hangnail until it bled, chewed on my bottom lip, ripping off small pieces of skin, and counted the leaves on a potted plant in the corner. My stomach churned. I gripped my knees to keep my hands from shaking. The silence in the room was viscous, the oppressive stillness before a downpour.

I could tell Salma was watching me. I heard her take a deep breath.

“I’m sorry,” she said to me.

I didn’t look at her.

She paused for a moment. “I’m sorry about yesterday.”

I turned to face her. She was crying.

“I didn’t mean it…” she said. “I didn’t–oh, Afsar–I didn’t. I swear. What I said about family… You are his family. Saleem loves you so much, and I know you love him. I was wrong to tell you to stay away. You–you’re my family, too. We need you. Afsar. I’m sorry.”

I bowed my head. I didn’t know what to say.

The woman in the white coat returned.

“The paperwork is complete,” she said. I marveled at her businesslike expression. “You may visit him in suite 4A. Please note that a nurse will be present in the room throughout. That is standard procedure. All the best.” Then she left.

Gathering herself, Salma took a deep breath. “I would like to spend some time alone with him,” she said.

“You don’t need my permission.”

She nodded and stood up. “I have something for you.”

She began to pull off one of the many rings on her left hand.

“What are you–” But she was already pressing it into my palm. It was simple band, golden, unadorned. I knew it well.

“But it’s yours,” I said, trying to return it to her. She shook her head.

“It’s–it’s from the both of us. And besides,” said Salma, with a small smile, “you wore it first.”

She left the waiting room. I stared at the ring in my palm, my mind transported to a hot Sunday decades ago when a young Saleem had dragged me and my dainty hands to the gold market. Numb, I slipped it on my little finger.

I watched the clock on the far wall, certain that I could hear it ticking from where I was sitting. Five unbearable minutes went by. I thought about leaving. Saleem had Salma. But I had said I would be there for him. Another five minutes. Had I missed some instructions? Would I be told when I was supposed to go into the suite? Had I failed to catch a signal that Salma didn’t actually want me there?

I got up to start pacing when a man with a clipboard walked in.

“Suite 4A?” he said, looking up from his clipboard just long enough to see me nod. “You can go in now.

*

Suite 4A was airy and bright. Saleem was in bed with his arm around Salma who was curled up beside him with her head on his chest and her eyes closed. Saleem looked drowsily at me as I entered.

“Afsar,” he said. It was barely a whisper. He gestured to a chair standing right by the bed. “I did it.”

My breath caught in my chest. I was both shocked that he had actually gone through with it, and grateful that I hadn’t had to see him take those pills. I held his free hand. He thumbed the ring Salma had given me and smiled.

“I hope you keep it around,” he said. He was starting to slur.

“Always,” I said.

“I had it engraved.”

Salma buried her face deeper into his chest. She was crying. He stroked her hair and kissed her on her forehead.

“Thank you,” he said to her, “for making my life as good as it was.”

He turned to me. “And thank you,” he said, “for a lifetime of friendship.”

The lump in my throat was back. “Always,” I croaked.

“I’m going to close my eyes now.”

Silence descended on the room. The late afternoon sun slanted through the window and tinted everything orange. For what felt like hours, I stared at Saleem’s chest as it took longer to rise and fall each time. Then his grip on my hand slackened.

“Saleem?” I said. He was gone.

The attending nurse sad something, but I wasn’t listening. I felt as if I had been torn in half, as if a hot, searing hole had opened up in my chest. I wanted to claw back time, snatch back the seconds and return to when he had been right there, tightly holding my hand. I wanted to grab him and shake him until he opened his eyes and confessed that it was all a joke. I wanted to rage and scream and break things instead of confront the enormity of the fact that he was no longer in my life, that he would not be in it tomorrow, nor for every tomorrow to come.

I continued to hold his hand, tracing its veins and circling the knuckles with my finger. I did that for as long as I could bear and then I kissed it and arranged it beside his body. I did not look at Salma – I could not bear to.

Instead, I pulled off the ring and turned it sideways. There were three words engraved inside. ‘See you later,’ it said. Unlike me, Saleem did not believe–had not believed—in a later. I began to cry.


Asad can be reached via his email, asadzaidi93@gmail.com

 

Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by Angela Hicks

Angela Hicks is an Edinburgh-based writer and editor. She graduated from the University of Edinburgh’s Creative Writing programme in 2016 and was one of the storytellers for Edinburgh City of Literature’s Story Shop 2017. She is currently working on her first novel.

 


 

Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

 

As part of the Harry Potter generation who grew up with the original book series, I was naturally interested when, in 2016, J.K. Rowling announced a new sequel of sorts in the form of a play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (written by Jack Thorne, with story by Rowling, Thorne, and John Tiffany). But I was also apprehensive–would the magic hold after all these years? I resisted buying a copy of the script for several months; the seventh book ended with the line ‘all was well’–did I really want to discover that that might not be the case? A slew of positive reviews from the likes of The Guardian, The Telegraph, and other mainstream newspapers convinced me to give it a go. Nevertheless, I was aware before I picked up the script that a portion of book-fans disliked Cursed Child, muttering that it was little better than fan fiction and resolutely refusing to view it as canon no matter what Rowling said. Thus I embarked on the task of reading the script with much anticipation and a certain degree of trepidation.

The first thing to say about CC is that the plot, in the broadest terms, is fine. It’s a time travelling romp; there are tense scenes and humorous moments. The concept of a character travelling to the past and thereby altering the future is not new (think the Back to the Future trilogy), but CC manages to be an enjoyable narrative for all it lacks in originality. Time travel plots often suffer from their sheer illogicality–if one stops to consider what’s really happening, things tend to fall apart pretty quickly–but CC has so much going on that there’s no time to think, much less care, about whether it holds together. One doesn’t dwell too much on what paradoxes are being created, nor how likely certain things connected to Voldemort are, because you’re caught up in the story. Similarly, it just about gets away with most of its more outlandish moments (such as the transformation of the Trolley Witch in 1:11) because of this fast pace as well as the quick and often light-hearted dialogue.

That dialogue (along with the stage effects) is probably the element which translates least well from the stage to the page, since we’re given no sense from the script alone how certain lines should be delivered. As just mentioned, there are a lot of one-liners or rapid fire exchanges (predominantly between Albus and Scorpius, but also between Ron and Hermione). It makes for a fun read, although there’s the sense that the writers were more concerned with making their protagonists witty and amusing than in having them speak like normal people.

There’s also the peppering of colloquialisms and slang throughout the script. On the one hand, making them sound more like today’s teenagers is a way of differentiating the younger generation of witches and wizards from those in the original series. However, part of the reason that the Harry Potter books have stood the test of time (20 years since the publication of Philosopher’s Stone) is probably because they manage to not be period-specific–they exist in their own private sphere outside most real world influences, and they avoid obvious time-markers such as slang. I doubt CC will age so well.

I also wonder how future generations of playgoers will react to several of the character portrayals. To begin with, there is Albus and Scorpius’ friendship/relationship. The script spends a lot of time and energy setting them up as a couple before finally deciding that they’re both straight. Naturally a very deep friendship between people of any gender can exist without it needing to transform into love; however, the script actively promotes the idea of their blossoming romance for nine-tenths of the narrative. One reason I’m upset that Albus and Scorpius don’t become a couple is because of the blatant disregard for the author-reader contract. I would be annoyed that CC laid this groundwork and then didn’t follow through regardless of whether it was about a gay relationship, or whether it was about Albus getting a pet dragon/becoming an animagus/introducing Irn Bru to the wizarding world. Following the principle of Chekov’s Gun, when a piece of fiction sets something up, your expectations are raised and if–as is the case with CC–it doesn’t deliver, the reader ends up feeling frustrated and betrayed.

In a less literary vein, it would have been nice to have the leading characters being a gay couple. CC as a stage-play has rightly been praised for its representation of minorities through its casting of black actors in major roles (Noma Dumezweni was the first actor to play CC’s Hermione in the West End, followed by Rakie Ayola when Dumezweni reprised that roll on Broadway). However, these casting decisions were made by individual productions and aren’t guaranteed to always be the same; it would’ve been better if the script itself included representation of minority characters. Moreover, leading with a gay couple would have worked well with CC’s plot: the play focuses on people not fitting in and being pressured by society, and other’s assumptions about them, so it would have made sense to add coming to terms with one’s sexuality into the piece. I feel like several opportunities were missed with Albus and Scorpius in this respect.

There are also problems with other characters. There were elements of disappointment with the ‘old cast’, as it were, from the books. Some of these are more overt, such as the fact that Harry–someone who was always portrayed as a caring, well-balanced individual who just happened to be fated to fight the Dark Lord–has transformed into a grumpy and distant parent. Others only occur on reflection; it’s slightly galling to learn that an unmarried Hermione is considerably meaner than a married one. It’s also disappointing to discover that Ron and Hermione, again people who in the original series were generally depicted as nice children who weren’t particularly prejudiced, have raised a snob like Rose.

However, the most egregious discrepancy between the original series and the book with regards to characters is Cedric Diggory. Although he appears for a limited time only in Goblet of Fire (and is briefly mentioned in earlier books), he is clearly depicted as a good person–he helps Harry figure out the second challenge and accepts Harry’s proposal to be joint winners of the tournament. In CC, however, his innate goodness is apparently so flimsy that he turns completely to the dark side when he’s laughed at. Not only is it a shame that probably the most famous member of the often least well-regarded house turns out to be evil, but it’s also infuriating that no one comments on how stupid his reasoning is. Being laughed at is never a good reason to commit mass murder, and I really wish that someone in CC had remarked about how messed up Cedric turns out to be, instead of tacitly endorsing his behaviour. Or better yet, not made him so messed up. It wouldn’t have been difficult to change Cedric from incompetent Death Eater into incompetent good guy–Neville could easily have died shielding Cedric, or in friendly fire from him. Instead, the script goes out of its way to portray Cedric as someone who is only nice when people are nice to him. Moreover, the audience/reader’s knowledge that Cedric became a Death Eater really damages the ending of CC–Harry visits Cedric’s grave and has a sort of poignant moment with his son about how he goes there to tell Cedric he’s sorry (4:15). That would be a beautiful ending if only we weren’t all thinking that Harry is wrong to be sorry because Cedric would have probably turned out to be a terrible person in this time-stream too.

Perhaps my expectations about Cursed Child were too high, both in terms of the script itself, and also in its ability to bring back my childhood. I certainly found it enjoyable while I was reading it; as a play script, especially one primarily aimed at a teenage audience, it was a quick read, and it was nice to romp through the wizarding world again, albeit briefly. But once I’d finished, the illogicalities and odd choices started to pile up, while my regrets at the script’s missed opportunities, particularly with regards to characters, became harder to ignore. While a lot of fans of the original series have embraced Cursed Child, the vocal minority describing it as nothing more than fan fiction remains undaunted. For all that I want to love this new addition to the Harry Potter universe, I cannot help but regretfully side with those who prefer to view the play as an Aunt Muriel of the books–invited to family gatherings when it has to be, but generally best left forgotten.


You can follow Angela on her Twitter, @MS_a_hicks. More of her work is accessible here.

Arbroath by Hannah Tougher

Hannah Tougher is currently working towards her MLitt in Creative Writing at the University of Stirling. She writes short stories, flash fiction, and occasionally screenplays.

 


 

Arbroath

 

She was a beach. That’s what she was.

Alison felt her jacket pocket for her cigarettes and then remembered she’d quit. She wondered how long that would last in this back of beyond seaside town. Already she was sick of the small, squashed streets and the smell of smoked fish that clogged the air. She closed her eyes and then opened them again to the faint glimpse of morning-pink light that curved around the dark, heavy clouds. Almost as dark as the sea below.

But she was the beach and not the sea. The sea did its own thing and the beach just waited for the next wave to hit. That’s what she was doing with this community engagement job she’d somehow managed to land, even though she had no idea how to promote public art to kids. And then there was Jay coming up from Glasgow to move into the flat. She couldn’t quite remember how that had been decided, but here she was, freezing her arse off among the seaweed and the sickening smell. Waiting.

She watched a dog scamper in and out of the frothing water with a figure she supposed was its owner: a man wrapped tightly in a black coat, hands in pockets and hat pulled down over his ears, allowing the sea air as little contact with his skin as possible. He walked with his head down, seeing nothing, his feet leaving the same trail of footprints they’d probably left countless mornings before.

An old woman sat down beside Alison. She’d walked right past an empty bench to settle with a few groans and sighs on this one. Alison shifted to the edge. How could she contemplate what an unfortunate life that man might have with this huddled woman sitting so close? How could she summon the guilt she should be feeling at the fact she was utterly unprepared for work on Monday or that she had been wandering around this town for two weeks now, had watched the sea and the changing colours of the sky, and hadn’t once picked up brush and paint? All she could focus on now was this old woman taking up more than her fair share of the bench.

*

There was someone on her bench. Aud had never had to share her bench before, not at this time in the morning anyway.

Well, never mind. She wasn’t about to change the workings of her day just because this bright-haired young thing was sitting where she wasn’t supposed to be.

It was a fine morning, really. Brisk, Robert would say. There was a chill knocking about in the wind. She rubbed her hands. She’d forgotten her gloves again but never mind. She watched the dark waves roll towards her, listened to the gulls and to the water break on the shore, and tried to breathe deeply, finding a rhythm in it, in the back and forth, in the cold that filled her lungs.

After a few moments, she reached for her handbag and felt inside for her sherbet strawberries. Oh, but bother! She’d forgotten to buy some more. She dug into the dark corners and crevices of her bag just in case. It wasn’t a proper morning on the beach without an intake of fresh sea air and the taste of a sherbet strawberry. But her stiff fingers discovered only a used hankie and a scattering of rough crumbs beneath her glasses and purse.

They were his thing, sherbet strawberries. And so naturally in these past five years they had become her thing. She’d never enjoyed the way they scraped along her throat. She made do with staring out at the restless water instead.

She liked looking at the sea. Even when she wasn’t sitting by it she could see it. It tugged back and forth in her head. Although it was not always this stretch of the North she saw, but the edge of the water that had lapped around Leirvik. She could place herself by the deep fjords or by the small bay their village hugged, at the wharf where her father’s boat, Silje-Therese, had sat snug amongst the rows of white masts, its green paint flaked and peeling. The water had been the darkest of blues, almost black in the dim-lit winters. These days she kept dreaming of that round patch of cold sea.

She wondered if it was time to step on a boat or plane and take off across the water back home. She wanted again the smells: her father’s leafy tobacco, her mother’s cooking. Or the sound of the bells that led them down to the small church on a crisp Sunday morning. She wanted to give in to the memories that were bobbing up inside her but how could she go back? Robert was here even if he wasn’t. How could she have forgotten those sherbet strawberries?

The bright red hair of the young woman beside her caught Aud’s eye. It was almost as red as a sherbet strawberry. Well, not quite. There was a flash of reflected light when the girl tucked those free-flowing locks behind a well-pierced ear. What a thing, all those studs curving from the lobe all the way around. And it was the way the girl sat, slouched with her legs stretched out, so casually, so certain, like she owned the bench or the whole town even. She certainly wasn’t troubled by ghosts and dreams and sands that shifted beneath the feet. What a thing.

*

She watched the wind nudge at dark piles of seaweed on the beach. It had to be the worst smell known to man, seaweed. Jay had dragged her out for sushi once and she’d simply spat it back out onto the plate, ignoring his look of disgust. She stood by that reaction, though. Never again.

The woman was shifting around and fidgeting. Alison watched her dig deep into her bag for a few minutes. She wasn’t trying to stare but it was hard not to notice the flash of the woman’s ring. An engagement ring. It was massive and swirled over most of her veiny finger, covering even the wedding band. It looked like the shell of a snail, curving in on itself in a trail of diamonds. It was clearly worth a few bob.

What a pitiful thing Steve had given her in comparison. It was still tucked away somewhere, that ring, that tiny, diamond-shaped diamond, in amongst the clutter and boxes she’d packed into her shitty Ford Escort. She hadn’t thought of Jay ever finding it. But what if he did? By now he’d be on his way up from Glasgow with his own stacks of secrets. She didn’t want to unpack those. She just wanted to hold onto her own and there wasn’t anything in it, although Jay would never believe that. She just liked to keep a hold of things was all. All her life, she’d been a collection of odds and ends.

Alison looked again at the old woman and wondered what it would be like to wear a ring so large, so heavy, so definite. It must hold you in place, a ring like that. The woman gave a sharp tut and stopped rummaging in her bag. Alison watched her fold her hands and cross her ankles. She sat still now and straight, a figurehead protruding from the bench, and the wind gathered up strands of her grey hair. She had eyes much bluer than the sky but not quite as dark as the sea. Rooted. That’s what she was.

*

The girl kept looking at her. It was disconcerting. She was pierced on the corner of her eyebrow as well and had very sharp features; she was like a bird that was trying to peek over and peck into her thoughts. Aud realised she was the one staring now, distracted by the girl tapping her red painted nails against her jacket pocket. She brought her gaze down to her hands and tried to keep her mind still.

Oh, but her hands were cold in this chill. She tucked them into her sleeves. How could this girl be sitting in such a thin jacket? She wasn’t dressed for the October weather at all, with rips and tears in her jeans and her neck and cleavage all exposed. Well.

Mind you, Robert had always teased her for her sensitivity to cold. You’re Norwegian, he’d exclaim, like it was an answer to everything: to why she should enjoy a dark, Scottish winter; to why she might not find his jokes funny; to why she could definitely manage another drink.

The first winter she’d ever spent with him had been her first in Scotland. It was 1963. They’d been snowed in, trapped in the National Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh where they worked. He’d had no intention whatsoever of trying to escape as they all sat huddled amongst the Egyptian statues trying to imagine a warmer climate. He’d just produced an old, battered hip flask full of whisky and passed it around. Go on, he’d said to her when she’d shaken her head. You’re Norwegian.

She’d been twenty then, probably not much younger than the girl next to her. Aud didn’t think this girl was the kind to get swept up in a winter romance and marry after only six months. She seemed hard, independent at least. Maybe she didn’t even like men. She had the air of a wanderer about her and wouldn’t that be nice. Tied to no place and no one. Aud looked out at the water and tried to imagine herself in the midst of those tossing waves with nothing but the wind behind her pushing her farther out to sea.

*

She’d been sitting here for longer than she meant. Jay would be here soon and she had so much to do. There was no food and really she should cook. That was the thing to do, right? See in the new flat and the new life that was better put together. Had she ever cooked for him? It was getting cold, but still Alison stayed where she was. The guy with the dog had long since wandered off. It was just her and the old woman and the wide sea. The chatter of the waves was soothing in its way. There was even a happy clamour in the conversation of the gulls. Maybe if she came here every morning before work, before a sit-down breakfast with Jay, she could manage. If she inhaled that sea air and let her mind drift on the grey tides, she could find a way to get on with everything that came after.

Maybe that’s what this woman did. She probably had her whole day planned out. It would begin with a healthy breakfast. She’d read the People’s Friend and then she’d take a moment to herself on this beach to breathe away from her husband’s pipe and his rants at the television. She’d look after the grandchildren until tea time. She’d impart some long-held wisdom or some handed-down story before the parents came to collect them. Maybe she’d tell them about the heirloom she carried on her finger. Every move she made through the day would be so deeply ingrained–impossible to give up.

*

She should be getting on her way. She never ended up staying for long and her back was bothering her. She was silly for even contemplating travelling all the way back to Leirvik at her age. If only she had the ability to sit comfortably on a bench like she owned it and not fall victim to the cold.

She had been plucking carelessly at a thread on her jacket sleeve. It had been coming loose and Aud had thought to remove it entirely but now it was stuck. She pulled harder but nothing. She’d have to walk home now with this length of thread hanging from her. Maybe she should take a leaf out of this girl’s book and start ripping at her clothes willy-nilly. Expose her knees to the elements. Oh dear no. No. If she were this girl, with her bright red hair and youthful figure, she’d wear long swishing dresses. She used to have a midnight-blue one. She’d loved the feel of the satin against her skin. But it wouldn’t have been to this girl’s tastes. Too tame, perhaps. Too girly. Not enough tears.

She pulled harder on the thread and it tore from her sleeve, leaving a neat rip in the stitching.

*

She bit her nails knowing she should stop. It was the lack of cigarettes that had forced this habit on her. It was nerves and she was ridiculous. If Jay were here he’d tell her to stop. She’d buy some wine, a good bottle that cost more than a fiver.

She heard a slight jingle and a patter and turned to see a dog trotting towards her. It was a Lab: golden but the sea water had darkened and matted its coat. It looked like the dog that had wandered by with the black-coated guy from earlier. Alison twisted around but there was nobody in sight.

*

A dog padded up to the bench. It was soaked and bedraggled and it dropped a ball right on the ground between her and the girl. Where was its owner? Aud thought of the days when dogs roamed the streets freely but such things were no longer acceptable. She and Robert had always been shooing away strays from their garden when they first moved here. She’d never told him that she used to leave out scraps of meat and cheese to draw them in.

The dog wagged its tail and looked at her with its wet, brown eyes. It seemed confused by her lack of enthusiasm for the ball it had brought.

The girl reached down and picked it up.

*

She reached for the tennis ball the dog had placed at her feet. She’d always wanted a dog. She supposed the guy must be around somewhere but in the meantime, why not? She threw it back onto the stretch of grass behind her. It didn’t go as far as she’d envisioned. Had she just pulled a muscle in her arm? God, that was pathetic.

Her hands were dripping in slime and dog slebbers. She wiped them on her jacket, leaving a damp mark. The ball had been squidgy and sodden and she regretted the action entirely. She should leave other people’s dogs to themselves and stop interfering. Maybe she and Jay should get their own. But that was probably a step too far and she wouldn’t be the one to suggest it. Better to wait and see.

*

She watched the dog race after the ball, full speed, and focused on that thing alone. She wished she could’ve been the one to throw it, to just reach for the ball and take it without hesitation. She’d always wanted a dog but her father had refused, of course, in that decidedly quiet way he’d had that allowed for no discussion, and Robert had been allergic. So that was that.

Aud stood, feeling the stiffness in her legs and back. She clutched her handbag tight in her cold hands and made her way back along the path towards the High Street. She should go to the shops before heading home. She needed to buy sherbet strawberries for tomorrow.

*

She watched the dog bound along, ball in mouth, looking for someone else to play with. It ran in zigzags, towards the sea and then back again. It had forgotten her entirely.


Hannah can be reached via her Twitter, @hmtougher.

Excerpt from The Angel in the Stone by R L McKinney

R L (Rebecca Louisa) McKinney was born in Boulder, Colorado and was raised in Northern California; she came to Edinburgh as a student in 1995 and never left. In various incarnations she has been a bartender, horse trainer, teacher, researcher, community development practitioner, and local government dogsbody. Her first novel, Blast Radius, was published in 2015.

The following excerpt from Rebecca’s second novel, The Angel in the Stone, gives us a look at Calum as he manages the complicated responsibilities of his life in the West Highlands, working to preserve a present still haunted by the past…

 


 

Mary MacDonald’s Farewell

 

As Calum drove, his mind was a confusion of memories and emotions, all punctuated by the same sense of falling through open space that came to him in dreams. Sometimes when he took a corner too fast, he felt the wheels lift off the road and the vehicle turn in slow motion onto its side, roll and sail out into nothingness. The loss of control frightened him, forced him to lift his foot from the accelerator and wipe his sweaty palms on his jeans.

He found his mother on a bed in A&E, turning the pages of a gossip magazine. She was dressed in a hospital gown and sitting on top of the sheet, knotted white legs sticking out in front of her. Her toenails were long and neglected and he wondered for the first time whether she was even managing the basics of personal hygiene. The acrid stench of burnt plastic radiated from her hair.

‘Hi Mum.’

She looked up at him and seemed surprised. ‘I wasn’t expecting you. How did you get here so quickly?’

‘I drove.’

‘From America?’

He sighed. ‘From Glendarach. What did you do?’

Her eyebrows drew together. ‘What do you mean?’

He pulled up a chair beside her bed and sat down. ‘You started a fire. Jesus… I knew this would happen. You promised me you wouldn’t.’

‘Ocht, don’t be daft. I’ve done no such thing. I’m here for tests.’

‘Tests…’

‘Yes, tests.’

‘Right.’ Calum sighed and glanced around for a nurse.

‘Well if you visited more, you’d know.’

He looked at her again.

‘I saw you last Sunday. I spent most of the day with my head under your sink.’

‘Well I don’t remember. I must have blocked it out because you were unpleasant, as usual.’

‘Aye, no bloody wonder.’

‘Language!’ she said in an exaggerated stage whisper. Nothing wrong with her hearing, anyway.

‘What’s happening then? Are they keeping you in?’

She made an exasperated sound. ‘They don’t tell you anything in these places. I expect they’re waiting for Finn to arrive to take me home.’

Calum rose from his seat. ‘Jesus Christ, what’s the matter with you?’

People in surrounding beds stared. Calum drew the curtain beside his mother, sat down again and took a deep breath. ‘Finn’s gone,’ he said, very softly. ‘Don’t you remember?’

‘What do you mean he’s gone?’

‘Mum… he’s dead. You know that.’ It was not news he’d expected to have to deliver a second time.

Mary’s hands shook as she fingered the sheet. ‘He’s… no… that’s not right, Calum. Why would you say that?’ Her voice crumbled and she moved her head back and forth. ‘Why would you do that to me?’

He lifted his hand and held it above hers, afraid to touch her. ‘It’s been twenty-one years.’

She continued to shake her head, but her eyes had filled with tears and her lips trembled. ‘I… of course… I do remember now. I don’t know what I was… oh dear… I don’t know what came over me. I think I must have dreamed about him last night.’

Calum allowed his fingers to settle over hers, tried to expel his temper with a long, slow breath. ‘It’s all right.’

Her eyes narrowed as the recollection seemed to solidify in her mind, and he turned away from her so he didn’t have to see the accusation that would inevitably accompany it. Perhaps this creeping amnesia would cure her of the need to blame him for something that had never been his fault, but right now he could feel her gathering her energy for an attack.

The arrival of a young doctor diverted her attention. By the state of his stubble and crushed shirt, he looked to be nearing the end of a very long shift.

‘Now then, Mrs MacDonald, I see your son has arrived. I’m Dr Robertson. You must be Finlay.’

‘No, I’m Calum,’ he replied tartly. He wanted to walk away and leave Mary to the mercies of the NHS and Highland Council’s Social Work Department. He wanted to claim no further knowledge of his mother or the dilemma she now posed for ever-dwindling public budgets. He gripped the sides of his chair and held himself down. ‘My brother Finlay passed away in 1993.’

‘Oh… ah… ’ the doctor glanced down at his clipboard and quickly composed himself. ‘I’m sorry, she… asked for him.’

‘Mrs Macdonald is having some problems with her memory,’ Calum said, and glared at his mother.


The Angel in the Stone arrives in stores via Sandstone Press on August 17th; you can follow Rebecca on Twitter and you can stay up to date on her book’s release by following Sandstone Press on Twitter and Facebook.

Personal Essay: Dear Body by Jonatha Kottler

Having previously worked as a university lecturer in Albuquerque, Jonatha Kottler now lives and writes primarily in Europe. Jonatha was one of Edinburgh’s 2016 Story Shop writers and has contributed to ECAS, to the Dangerous Women Project, and to Edinburgh’s Write Like a Grrrl community. Her work has also been published by The Guardian and by 404 Ink in their hit collection, Nasty Women. She is presently writing her first novel, and one of her essays is slated to appear in an upcoming collection entitled No Filter.

The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the authors and not necessarily of The Ogilvie editorial staff.


Dear Body

 

Dear Body,

I recently wrote two articles about being fat. Being fat isn’t new for me, but writing articles about it is. One was published in a collection of essays and was subsequently picked up by a major website in the US. They wanted to re-publish it to help promote the book. It had a moderated comments section and the things people said weren’t all that bad–mean things that I expected, but nothing as mean as I’d heard about, or seen written about other women online (like those who dared to read their own poetry on YouTube and were threatened with death—levels of criticism that Charles Dickens never had to deal with).

I wrote the second article for a major UK newspaper, and there were a lot of comments–about a thousand at the time that I decided I had read enough–and that came as quite a shock to me. They were still not at the level of what some people have come to expect (for doing things like simply playing or writing about video games). I had promised myself that I wouldn’t get caught in the comments–I would take the high road and not read them–but of course, I did read some of them. I was glad that I did—there were many friendly suggestions for places I might consider looking for clothes (it was about plus-size shopping) and some people who felt that I articulated things which they couldn’t say themselves. Things I wrote meant something to someone, and that’s part of why we write things, isn’t it? To share our ideas and experiences and hope they connect with someone else.

But then there was one man’s comment–the one that made me wish I’d never looked at any of them, made me even wish I’d missed out on all the kind and important things that others said. It was a comment about my size, and obesity, and how I look and whether or not I should be allowed to take up the space that I take in the world. He read the piece I wrote and went looking for other mentions of me on the internet (I imagine he found some old comments by my students, too!). When he found a link of me at a reading, on YouTube, he linked back to it in the comments section of the article and said, “This is what this author looks like. I don’t think we should normalize this.”

I was caught in this spiral in my head where I couldn’t help but imagine: he read what I wrote–a piece about my own life experiences–and had been so upset about it, disgusted or angry enough to go out and Google me (it doesn’t take long, I know, but I cannot imagine bothering to do this after reading something in the newspaper. After all, it was the first sunny Saturday in April). He’d had a “ha HA!” moment when he found me, looked at my image–on a day when I was pretty proud and happy, doing my first public reading–and decided my image was an excellent exhibit to submit into evidence in the trial, The People v. How Jonatha Kottler Looks. He’d linked the piece in, to save others the arduous task of finding it. He’d felt that he had a point so trenchant that it only needed the 1,000 words my picture stood for to make it.

I try to keep a positive perspective. I’ve had lots of lovely comments and messages–a woman who used the articles to reconnect with her sister and speak honestly on this topic for the first time. My words broke down a wall between them.

But I was thinking about that link. The case against me being normal. Judged guilty by the comments section of your local newspaper and the sentence pronounced: your words don’t matter because your body isn’t normal. And I’m the one who let him in, invited him to have a lovely place at the banquet in my mind, where the smorgasbord includes my self-worth, my dignity, and my desire to put words in public, and he can devour as much as he wants. All for the low, low price of a Google and a copy and paste.

How utterly fucked up is that? He’s fucked up–a moralising asshole who judges and destroys in a few clicks what took much longer to create. And me, I’m fucked up, too, giving him the comfy chair in my psyche.

So, no more. Last call for assholes. You don’t have to go home, but you aren’t allowed to take up space in my mind, my heart. I will not populate myself with the members of the comment section, or be one of those people, either. I am writing a new comments section: the one my body deserves.

Dear Body,

You have taken some serious shit, my friend, from the outside world, and also from me. This is a letter of apology to you, for things I’ve thought, and things I’ve done, and things other people have said that I have let burr against you. I pledge to protect to you from this, to be your armour, and to shine that armour with my words of praise.

Dear Body,

You are my companion–we have been through everything together. You have held me and taken me places, all the places of my life.

Miracle-Strong Body,

You have battled germs, and made the tears for me to weep when only tears would do. You are there, strong to hold me up, or tired to drag my buzzing head down to rest. From inside you have cradled my thoughts, and laughed to dizziness and known pleasure, somehow, without any help from my Hamlet-swirls of endless thought and decision-indecision-regret.

Dear Body,

In spite of all of that, you turned some cells into another person, you transformed food into tiny earlobes, and eyelashes, and a brain, and toenails and a heart muscle. Sometimes old brain here has trouble choosing dinner from a menu, and yet you, quietly, steadfastly, made a completely separate and marvellous human being, and brought him into the world, and fed him and held his hand and held the book of stories and read the words over and again. And all of this while keeping me going, heart, brain, toenails, all moving along.

Dear Body,

I have treated you unkindly, giving you too much of some things and not enough of others, and criticizing you all the while. Reducing you into segments to appraise minutely–eyes too narrow, thighs too wide. I have made you into a letter of complaint: the person next to me has got a much better nose, why is she so thin, so beautiful, so glossy, so unwrinkled, when what I got was this.

Dear Body,

Recently I described you as an old reliable car–you keep running but if I try to explain you to someone it is as a list of quirks: the passenger window doesn’t open and you can’t listen to the radio and use the windscreen wipers at the same time…

But, Dear Body,

You aren’t a list of complaints, or a series of regrets, or a mass of scar tissue, or a thing to be judged. You are GLORIOUS–a home and a companion and the only one who has been with me my whole life, and instead of wishing you were thin and unwrinkled and not sore, instead of being a quirky car that I’d keep until it wore out but would never buy in this condition, instead of all of that, I will say:

Dear Body,

Thank you. Perpetual motion chug chugging heart, expanding lungs, gentle touching fingertips, blinking eyes. Thank you. You deserve my gratitude and my care and my shining armour against those who would hurt you with sticks and stones or words. Dear Body.


Jonatha can be followed on Twitter.

Workshop: American Gods, Season One by Angela Hicks & Calder Hudson

Angela Hicks and Calder Hudson were both Creative Writing MSc students at the University of Edinburgh for the 2015-16 year. They set out to workshop Starz’ new series, American Gods, shortly after the show’s debut; once they’d completed its first season, the two conducted the following discussion to express their thoughts.

This discussion contains spoilers for Season One of American Gods. The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the authors and not necessarily of The Ogilvie editorial staff.

 


 

C: As is tradition, we’ll begin by specifying our knowledge of the source material for this show. Angela and I have both read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (in its original 2001 version, rather than Gaiman’s preferred text–the slightly longer tenth-anniversary edition). I don’t think either of us are Gaiman fanatics, but we were both interested in this show and we’d planned on watching and workshopping it for a long time. I was super enthusiastic about this going in; I’d been reading a lot about the show–interviews, promotional materials, that sort of thing–and it all looked promising.

A: American Gods felt like a good book to adapt for TV. It’s a long tome so they had plenty of source material; it has one main story narrative–Shadow’s journey with Mr Wednesday; it has a lot of interesting characters. But the book also has weaknesses–times when characters are underdeveloped, for instance–which I felt that a show could change and redress quite successfully.

C: Yeah, agreed. [sighs] With that said, having watched the first season, I have to admit I’m colossally disappointed in the results. I don’t think this is the weakest show we’ve workshopped but I’m overwhelmingly disheartened by the end product. The show has many positive aspects, but its execution felt wholly underwhelming.

A: Underwhelming is a good word to use for this show. It has the source material, it sets things up, but somehow it fails to deliver, leaving me pretty indifferent with the end result.

C: Now we have the challenge of considering why that is. We do these as workshops rather than reviews because we’re interested in looking at the way certain things work–or conversely don’t work–in shows, and how they can be fixed.

A: That’s part of the reason, I think, that we review the first seasons of shows–because they can often still be in that developmental stage, finding their feet and working things out.

C: Right, and because it means we get to watch lots of new shows.

A: [laughs] That too. But back to AG–what do you think the main reason neither of us were…super excited at the end of this first season?

C: I think if I were to describe the show in one word–and I don’t think this word is necessarily a damning thing–it’d be “indulgent”. That’s true of the book as well–particularly Gaiman’s preferred edition–and on the one hand the detail is often very visceral and evocative. But the negative of this approach is that pacing can feel laggardly and blunted by the excess of interjections and information in the main narrative. The takeaway the show should have had from the book was, put bluntly, the story needed more conciseness and forward momentum, but if anything, it’s worse than the books in this respect. The show had the chance to improve on some of the book’s vulnerabilities, but it didn’t learn from those lessons at all.

A: I think when you talk about overindulgence and slow pacing, it falls into two separate categories, both of which are detrimental to the show. Firstly there’s the drawn out cinematography which overemphasizes many details. We’re shown a gramophone, then we’re shown it being set to play, then we’re shown the needle start, and then we watch the record turn… Any tension is undercut by boredom as the audience waits for things to happen.

C: It’s clearly a conscious choice by the show, but I think you’re right–it doesn’t work, at least not to the extent they use it.

A: And secondly, they add in even more material which doesn’t appear in the book. And it’s not a short book to start with. Some additions work–I think Vulcan as a gun producer nicely brings it into 21st century America. But then we get an entire episode–the seventh out of eight, so really close to the end, when we should be building up to that big finale–which is all about how the Irish fairies came to America via the tales of a random woman called Essie. It just feels like superfluous filler.

C: To be fair, the story behind the seventh episode exists within the books; it’s just not as overemphasized. I expect the Essie narrative was included to try to create a more multitudinous, mystical atmosphere, but given the pacing already felt slow before then, it was exhausting. In some cases this same issue doomed more interesting ideas, too, which is a shame–like how we’re given more backstory for Laura Moon, Shadow’s dead wife. It’s a nice idea to develop her story, but they dedicate an enormous amount of time to it without giving it any drive.

A: I didn’t think the Laura stuff worked. This is one of those cases where less is more. Adding in so much doesn’t make her sympathetic or engaging, it makes her less interesting. Also, by showing her so much from the start, it undercuts the power and impact which she has in the book when she returns to Shadow’s life.

C: I think we disagree about that to some extent, but I do agree that Laura’s enigmatic agency, which really comes through in the book, feels obfuscated by the show’s excess. From a workshopping perspective, you’re right; there are whole shots, scenes and pretty much whole episodes which could all be heavily cut or removed entirely without the audience feeling they’d lost something conducive to the show’s central premise.

A: Agreed. And I also think that they have too many narrative threads which aren’t streamlined or interwoven.

C: Like Czernobog–we meet him in what might be my favorite sequence in the show, and he seemingly joins the core cast, only to never show up in this season again. The book is already sprawling, but the show takes this to a new level and it’s so frustrating. In the book Czernobog’s there in the famous ‘House on the Rock’ scene for the big reveal about the gods–the plot’s crux–which is where I assumed they were going to end the first season of the show. Instead they don’t get to this natural focal point, which would have established the show’s goals and stakes really effectively in a poignant finale. They get seven-eighths of the way there, but because they’re moving so slowly, they don’t make it–but they still want the content from that scene, so they shoehorn it in earlier, lessening the impact of those big, exciting reveals.

A: If they’d cut the Essie episode, they could’ve easily reached House on the Rock, and it would have been nice to tie in Czernobog and Mr Nancy again.

C: Exactly. It’s… it’s disappointing, to say the least. But, on a happier note, I want to touch on all the positive things about the series too–some of the additions and alterations the show makes are really great. Some minor characters are reworked from cameo appearances into much more fleshed-out roles; for example, the character of Salim (played by Omid Abtahi) has only a minor role in the source material, but he is transformed in the show into a more crucial (and interesting) figure. I wish the show had included more of him.

A: That’s true. I also think the depiction of Media (Gillian Anderson) is very well done and an occasion where the show’s penchant for stylization is effective and suits the character.

C: As always, we can’t fault the casting of the show. Anderson does terrifically in the role of Media.

A: And, as mentioned above, the show’s addition of the character of Vulcan (Corbin Bernsen) and his acceptance of the new world order also worked well. The show does a good job of updating itself while partnering certain atmospheres with certain characters. The same is true of Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), whose role has been nicely expanded from the book. The show takes time to set up why some of the old gods take the deals offered by the new regime of Mr World et al., something which the book doesn’t manage as effectively.

C: The show also makes sound choices and changes with respect to Shadow himself (played excellently by Ricky Whittle). He’s far more vocal than his book counterpart–an expected change given the different mediums; as a result we get a bit more of his immediate reactions to situations he and Wednesday find themselves in. Shadow’s been adapted well for the screen and Whittle does a terrific job of bringing him to life.

A: You’re right; keeping him predominantly silent wouldn’t work–though Whittle is very talented and gets a lot across with facial expressions and body language. I found this Shadow more likable and nuanced.

C: Another positive part of the TV series–my favorite segment from the season, which I touched on earlier–is the chess game between Shadow and Czernobog (Peter Stormare). Not only are the individual performances top-notch, but the atmosphere in that scene is excellent–and to give credit where credit is due, when this show is good, it’s good, and it certainly knows how to establish atmosphere. Moments like that are incredibly satisfying. It’s just a shame that too often the show hasn’t considered the book’s vulnerabilities or learnt from mistakes made by other shows of its kind.

A: Such as its often iffy portrayals of women? The book also isn’t always excellent at its female characters, but it was admittedly written some time ago–TV shows today should get less sympathy, given they have a chance to modernize.

C: I think the way this show tackles some issues like race and sexuality is quite effective, but yeah, I wouldn’t really say it tackles anything relating to women or femininity.

A: I don’t know that it really is that good at portraying different races and different cultures–it has quite a cherry-picking approach to representing their mythologies which perhaps means it veers closer to voyeurism than true representation. But to focus on women for the moment–there are certainly some issues regarding its portrayal of women. There’s Laura, who sort of… asserts her dominance through espousing a fondness for sex, and through distancing herself from other women in this regard.

C: Yeah, you can tell a guy wrote a lot of that.

A: Yes. It’s… it’s whatever–lazy, under-developed, out-of-touch, cheap. And then there’s the voice-over line uttered by Mr Ibis of “Intelligence has never been uncommon among women”, which is at best weird, and at worst incredibly patronizing and insulting. It’s one of those lines you can’t quite believe that all of the writers, editors and actors read and thought was good.

C: It’s one line, but it’s an immensely disappointing line indicative of overarching issues with the script.

A: Speaking of immensely disappointing…

C: Sure.

A: That opening scene of episode one–the prologue–the scene which is meant to hook viewers in. I hated it. It’s one of those many times where the show’s languorous style really doesn’t work. It could have been a powerful scene, but it ends up being tedious and, as is so often the case in this show, raising too many questions which it has no interest in answering–for example, why do the Vikings, when they decide to fight to please the gods, fight each other and not their enemies inland? I think that the book’s opening–of Shadow in prison–is a better beginning, and more coherent.

C: I had fewer problems with the show’s opening, but yes, if you’re going to change things from the source material, then you need to be damn sure that it’s better; this show doesn’t manage that.

A: And about the show’s ending, which, as you mentioned earlier, is not that similar to the corresponding scene in the source material. I got the sense watching AG with you that, while I was annoyed at it from pretty early on, you gradually lost patience with it throughout the season. But did that dramatic finale redeem it for you at all?

C: Sadly, it didn’t. This show takes so much time–a whole season–to establish one of the central tenets of the story: for the gods, belief is power, with worship strengthening them and disinterest making them atrophy. And yet the show repeatedly overrides said rules; in cinematic situations this central rule is thrown out the window. The show ends with Easter (or rather, Ostara)–who is described as having only a sort of proxy-power at present through her alliance with the modernist cabal–essentially depriving America of all its crops and agriculture. This is a much greater display of power than any other god or deity has shown in the show thus far, so it’s disorienting, given that Ostara has supposedly been living off of referential praise and not true worship as the show asserts. The rules don’t seem to matter all that much.

A: I had similar questions about AG’s internal logic in other places too. For example, it adds in deities like Jesus who are still worshipped today. The plot of “old, forgotten gods versus technological dominion” is good, but through adding in religions which are still followed in the present day, the premise starts to get a lot more confusing and woolly–why does the character who believes in Allah end up with the Egyptian god then, and so on? I think having ‘modern’ gods was an unnecessary move which clutters things up. The show would’ve been better to shore up and improve what they already had rather than introducing more partially-explained concepts to the narrative.

C: I actually disagree there–I do think they could have made the inclusion of the different representations of Christ work, had they exerted a bit more effort. But you’re right–the world’s rules are very unclear in the show, which is disheartening given that it has time to make them clear. The show has plenty of source material–what it needs now is gumption.

A: And to return to your comment about the finale–yes, if it’s going to invent an ending which diverges quite heavily from the book, it needs to have increased its pace and plot a lot, because otherwise viewers have too much time to consider plot-holes, and to find faults in what you’re watching. The show should either have done a whistle-stop tour of action, or a very pared-down adaptation with respect to characters, but with a lot more depth. Instead it fails on both fronts.

C: Yes indeed; though there are benefits to the show’s indulgent approach, this indulgence causes significant problems in relation to depth and pacing. To go back to the show’s opening, we spoke about the prologue, but not the credits; I think–if this isn’t too cliché a thing to say–the opening credits are emblematic of the show with respect to overarching flaws. They aren’t ugly, but they’re excessively long, and don’t do much other than take up time. This show has a very specific visual aesthetic–one achieved predominantly through a lot of vibrant colors and CGI–which actually works well by and large; some of the animated sequences are very pretty. But it all adds to the feeling that, for all the show’s glitz, there isn’t enough substance beneath it; it’s all frosting with no cake underneath. And look: I understand that this show is beginning with some preset laurels it can rest on. Similar shows are doing well on TV; they clearly paced this out to have multiple seasons; Gaiman’s book is already beyond celebrated. But their desire to set up a long-running saga has resulted in a bumpy introduction.

A: You said, after the end of the last episode, that you’d grudgingly watch a second season of this show; I’m not sure I would. The show isn’t abysmal–as you argued, the visual style works at times, and some scenes are wonderfully atmospheric–but I gave it eight hours and it couldn’t bring it together for me.

C: That’s tough, but fair. Though I quite liked the book and though I had immense hopes for this show, I’m not sure it deserves the second season which will assuredly follow this one down the line. Even if they failed to learn from the book’s missteps, I hope the writing team behind the show can learn from the mistakes they made when starting out; moving forward, I hope American Gods can find the momentum and substance its first season lacked.


Angela and Calder are available at their respective Twitter accounts, @MS_a_hicks and @CMA_Hudson. Their previous workshop of The Last Kingdom is accessible here.

Commentary: Self-Publish and Be Damned by William McIntyre

William (Willie) McIntyre is a criminal defence lawyer and the author of the Best Defence series, a continuing saga of Scottish criminal law novels enveloped in themes of noir, wry humour, and social commentary. Having been both published and self-published, Willie is readily familiar with the ins and outs of the Scottish publishing scene.

The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the authors and not necessarily of The Ogilvie editorial staff.

 


 

Self-Publish and Be Damned

 

At the Writer’s Museum in Edinburgh, there was recently an exhibition celebrating the 30th year of Ian Rankin’s famous fictional creation, Detective Inspector John Rebus. One of the items on show is the first rejection letter the author received from a publisher. Brilliant. I know if I’d had Mr Rankin’s good fortune I’d be sending those rejecting-publishers a Christmas card from my yacht in the Caribbean every year. Not that I’m knocking publishers. They’re running businesses–they need to use their best judgement and sometimes they get it wrong (but, seriously, Inspector Rebus? There’s wrong and there’s really wrong).

Speaking as someone who submitted his own book (Relatively Guilty, first in the Best Defence Series) to a number of publishers several years ago, it’s the ones who don’t give writers a fair chance that annoy me. One of my first submissions was to a publisher whose guidelines refused electronic transmission–it might have been the 21st Century, but they wanted it in size 12 font on paper, double-spaced and with one inch margins. That’s a lot of ink and paper for a 95k word book. Fortunately I ran an office with a large stationery cupboard; I printed it off, put it inside a large brown envelope and placed it and my covering letter in one of those large grey indestructible plastic bags, along with a similar plastic bag stamped and addressed to me for return of the manuscript if, inconceivably, it was to be rejected. And returned it duly was… more than three months later, with a standard rejection letter. This surprised me on two counts: firstly, I thought it was a good book (admittedly, I’m biased) and, secondly, it was clear to me that the brown envelope containing the manuscript had never been opened. Unlike Mr Rankin, I didn’t keep the letter, and, although I don’t remember the date, what I do remember is that it was the day I thought, ‘Stuff this’ (or words to that effect) and self-published the book on Kindle, where five years later it remains my best seller.

Many traditional publishers complain about those who self-publish. One never hears of artists being criticised for self-hanging-paintings-on-a-wall, or would-be popstars for self-singing-to-folk-in-a-pub. Literature is different. Publishers and agents view themselves as the gatekeepers to quality, and that’s fine, so long as the gate is kept open and your book, or even part of it, is actually read by someone–and you don’t mind waiting… and waiting… and waiting.

On the other hand, publishing an e-book is straightforward and immediate. The finished product may not be quite as well-polished as it would be had it gone through editing and proofreading by professionals, but then again, one doesn’t have to hang on for months only to receive a pro forma saying how much the publisher ‘adored *insert title of book* but don’t think it’s a good fit for us’. Moreover, it was self-publishing my books on Amazon that acted as a portal for me to being traditionally published by the discerning folk at Sandstone Press.

If the ink is in your blood, you will write. Do not be ashamed to self-publish. Let the world see what you’ve written. Somebody might like it. I don’t mean to come over all Gray’s Elegy about things, but think how many potential Ian Rankins and JK Rowlings there are out there who can’t wait forever, hoping that some astute publisher will take a chance on them. Think how many budding Ian Rankins have given up on that rejected manuscript which could have made them famous, or at least could have made them a living?

Do it yourself. Publishers don’t always get it right. Mr Rankin has that in writing.


More of Willie’s writing is accessible via the Best Defence website. The next book in the Best Defence series, Last Will, arrives in stores this November.