The Roving Party by Rowan Wilson, a Review.


NetGalley offered The Roving Party in exchange for a review.  This book is a literary western with magic realism elements. The story is simple enough.  Set in the 1820’s Tasmania or Van Diemen’s Land, a roving party headed by John Batman  set out to track and apprehend an aboriginal clan. Central to the story is an aborigine, Black Bill, who aids John in hunting those of his kind.

There isn’t much of a plot or page-turning action or dramatic character development. Instead we’re immersed in the dreary day to day of thugs tracking the “blacks”. Despite the slowness of the plot, the book does engage, mainly because Black Bill is such a mystery. Why would he hunt his own kind? How can he be stoic in the midst of such agressive racism?  He is a difficult man to understand, but out of the merry band of thugs, he’s the most compassionate, amazingly enough.

Needless to say, if  you’re looking for an easy story to read, this isn’t it. Racism is vicious and ugly and pervasive. Animals are killed without hesitation. Women and children aren’t spared from the cruel calculus of conquest.  I didn’t know much about Tasmanian or Australian history before reading this. Oh dear, I know now. Black Bill’s a historical figure, as much as John Batman.  They really did go out into the wild looking for aboriginal men to kill, sort of like white men in the American West hunting down Native Americans to kill and scalp–A bit like Blood Meridian, you say?

You’ll find a lot of a reviews that compare this book to Blood Meridian, and the comparison is apt. The prose shares a lot of Cormac McCarthy’s style in cadence, spareness, and emphasis on stark descriptions of the landscape. Dialogue is without punctuation, and the narrative voice exudes poetic omnipotence. However Rowan’s style does leave out McCarthy’s  overbearing forcefulness of million-dollar words, paragraph long sentences strung together with ‘and’s, and the unrelenting nihilism of violence.  I’m happy to report that Rowan Wilson doesn’t imitate McCarthy’s penchant of taking climatic showdowns off camera.

Ordinarily, this book would earn three stars because I had to make myself read through too many sections of men being inhumane. But the ending surprised me.  I think it would surprise you too.  The ending only bumps the book from three stars to four stars.

Unflinching and haunting sums it all: The Roving Party.

Cover musings …

I just released a collection of shorts, see here AmazonSmashwordsKoboBNGoogle Play. Stories range from fantasy to absurdist tales to somber literary turns, and so it has been especially hard to decide on a good strong image for the cover.  I took advantage of the free christmas giveaways of premade covers hosted by the skilled Clarissa Yeo of http://www.bookcoversale.com.  I got this below.

birdsoffortune

A simple cover that probably too staid and doesn’t quite reflect the darkly comic tone of the book, but it gets the job done. But something more dramatic is probably needed to attract more eyeballs to the short story collections. Short stories are notoriously hard to sell on the kindle after all.

I had tried with this cover. Nothing to boast about, but I do like the grumpy look of the duck.  I should mention I got that off the flickr, photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tambako/6128825007/

angry bird of fortunelowquality

I was looking through this photoshop tutorial, and I modified it a bit. Ducks came from flickr, photo credit:  nezihdurmazlar.com. The castle from nightstock.deviantart.com.

duck and guns

As you can see, making covers are better left to professionals, but it’s fun all the same to play with covers.

Hard Characters

The first iteration of Luke’s character in Love and Go
was something of a sarcastic, couldn’t-care-less character mucking about in a garden of hurt. Fun guy really. If you’re interested in reading an unedited version of Love and Go with hardass Luke, ask me. It’s probably a better rendition but there was issues with motivation and the like. And I thought I was getting too comfortable writing the same sort of characters, and then I read The Defense by Nabokov which portrayed a disturbed chess player.

And so I came up with a fucked-up Luke. I hope not fucked in a way that’s off-putting, but fucked up in an interesting way.He’s mess of things. He’s gentle, naive. He aims to please. But at the same time, he’s apathetic and can be very unyielding. It’s a challenge keeping his actions monotone and maintaining a constant tension about him.

Can’t say I’ve succeeded because readers so far complain about his lack of emotion. Unfortunately becoming more emotional isn’t part of his character arc. In some sense he’s the impact character. He doesn’t change, which drives Hao completely crazy towards the end, triggering devastating events. But Luke does have an arc, that of finding personal salvation. It’s Hao’s challenge to get over himself, ignore Luke’s strange manners, and help Luke save himself before it’s too late. Whether Hao succeeds or not is still an open question.

Google Play here we go!

Good news! Google has revamped its publishing site for self-pubbers.   The previous platform was a clusterfuck of yuck, damningly incredible for a company as big and innovative as Google.  Glad that’s behind us.

However, there’s still some hesitation about uploading to Google.  For one, I hear Google has a very unkind discounting policy.  Basically, they can choose to discount your novel, whenever and however.  You hear horror stories of books being discounted to 33 cents on Google.  Which might not be so bad because nothing sells there, but then Amazon price matches the discount, and suddenly you find your novel being trundled away for pennies on the biggest site of all.

For someone like me who doesn’t sell much anyway, I’m not so worried about Google’s rogue discounting techniques.  I’m still trying to find readers for my weird brand of fiction.  Nevertheless I’m not that excited about the Google platform.

As we all know the name of the game is book discovery.  If readers can’t find or get readily what they are looking for, they’ll look somewhere else. Sadly, it’s not easy finding books on Google Play.   Romances are easier, but every other genre gets the boot.

If I wanted to find fantasy books, I need to go to Fiction and Literature and then look at fantasy.  Even then it doesn’t list the different subgenres. Instead I get a general listing of the best selling fantasy. No new arrivals or the fancy lists you get on Amazon.  I have to wonder if this lack of functionality is because I’m  checking from a India-based location.  Anyway you readers will be sure to tell me.

https://play.google.com/store/books/category/subj_Fiction.Fantasy/collection/featured

Also the platform doesn’t let you the author pick keywords for easy searching. It seems you need to make sure the description or the subtitle hits those keywords you need.  On the other hand, it seems you get an unlimited number of categories to slot your books, which is both a good thing and a bad thing.

As much as it’s nice that you can do text searches on google books, I’m not sure that’s such a great deal for fiction.  Text search is perfect for finding the right non-fiction for research purposes.  But I have never used text searches to find fiction books. Well, perhaps you do.

At the end of the day, I’ll still upload to Google. I could always use more pennies.

Subtle dialogue

I run across dialogue in which people say what they mean and mean what they say. For instance, two characters who sit and talk about their vulnerable circumstances without any hint of obfuscation. They have a heart to heart straight to the bone talk. Or the dialogue in which two characters engage in passionate duel over their beliefs without a hint of subtlety either.

I understand some readers derive some vicarious pleasure or emotions in these scenes, but really to me, they mostly feel syrupy, dull, and utterly trite.

People don’t say what they mean most of the time, especially in emotionally bare moments because people are inherently protective of themselves. We fear rejection, flouting social conventions, wronging someone, confronting unsavory aspects of our psyche, or because you know most of the time, we are not even aware of what we are feeling, we can’t give a name to it. And so we use hedge words, or outright lie, or speak laterally, or be coy and speak in code. If your characters are inherently dramatic, meaning they have inner tensions that threaten to tear them apart, they will have fears and insecurities that will inhibit them from saying what they mean most of the time.

Anyway back to being a crazy fish.

Sex is a distraction in fiction

Obviously this doesn’t apply if you’re writing erotica.

Sure feeling hot and sticky and shit is nice. But I find a lot of it boring  because author’s tend to substitute sexual feeling for inner tension.  And it ends up just feeling cold and sterile.  I might as well just watch porn–easier for me get off.

I was reading Giovanni’s room the other day.  Obviously given the time period when it was written, James Baldwin couldn’t knock himself out with shooting dicks and big load of cum, he had to hide and at the same time express the truth of the occurrence  The  result is he had to get to the emotional heart of the matter. Get to right to  the emotional tension and show characters in their bare and vulnerable moment.

So look at the consummation of the relationship between David and Giovanni.

He locked the door behind us, and then for a moment , in the gloom, we simply stared at each other–with dismay, with relief, and breathing hard.  I was trembling. I thought if I do not open the door at once and get out of here, I am lost. But I know I could not open the door, I knew it was too late; soon it was too late to do anything but moan. He pulled me against him, putting himself into my arms as though he were giving me himself to carry, and slowly pulled me down with him to that bed.  With everything in me screaming No! yet the sum of me sighed Yes.

Nary a word about hard dicks and big blunt cocks, just pure emotions of the moment. I was touched.  No I wasn’t hot and heavy, but touched where good fiction is supposed to touch you.

Now of course if this was supposed to a fuck and dump session, the language and the line of attack will be lot different. But you still need to get to the emotional heart of the matter.  Usually that means finding the character tension even in a fuck and dump session, and making  that the forefront over all the bathroom gymnastics.

Some thoughts for the day.

Mandate of Kendan-Chapter 3

See the beginning here.
The next morning, I awoke alone.  Ogami should have been at a corner of the room, cradling a sheathed sword to himself, rocking to an unsung rhythm of dispossession. Sometimes, he would be set the sword on a miniature altar, and bow before it like one would do before the black idols of the Sister’s Three.  The one time I imitated him, he pulled me off sharply and demanded what meaning the sword had for me. Words and thoughts frothed in my throat as I had thought it would be obvious that since the sword held a meaning for him, then it held a meaning for me.

Here I was alone before the sword on the altar, and the light planing through the door, and the all too disorderly sense of the quiet around.  I darted to my feet with a mind to examine the lacquer finish on its sheath, especially the inlay of five flowerets circumscribed within pearly circles. The sword was a sacred thing to Ogami—I rushed out of the room—I, of the tewai, had no right to touch or to pollute it.

Ogami was not in the common room where he would be carving temple dolls.  I shambled barefoot to the verandah. The morning felt tempestuous with the fast and furious twittering of birds, but Ogami was nowhere in sight in the front compound.  Sometimes, I would find him stilled over the red fan of flowers drooping from the flame of the forest tree.

Maybe he had left?

Of course not! How cowardly. You had to recognize weakness and insecurity in your self, see what it is and beat it into submission.  Practicing a thousand sword strokes was perfect to that aim.

I began with my wooden sword. One … two … three … in due time, with my perfection, would come Ogami’s smile.  123 … 124 … 125 … as Ogami would demand, every stroke had to be composed, full of spirit, just as powerful and effective as the first, or I had to start again. My spirit must be unyielding and yet able to soothe a baby’s cry. Such level of control, I think as a adult, impossible.  But as a child then, I thought Ogami mastered it, and therefore I could achieve it. I only needed to dig deep find that ore of reserve and control. How wrong I was.

778 … 779… 780 …. My legs were trembling violently, and my breaths etched in the back of my throat … 800…801…802… In due time when I was worthy enough, Ogami would bequeath me his precious sword.  I could not lose heart or wax loose to mediocrity … 997…998… 1000.

Kendan isowarei Chawadan!  I crashed onto the hard ochre ground in a splat, the bamboo sword clanging away from my feet. My chest was burning, and my stomach felt vacuous. And the sure sky and silent sun, Kendan had pushed the sky up from the earth and fought the ocean mistress for her sun earring.  He was strong indeed. How could anyone hope to be like him?  Certainly, not me with my pathetic hands trembling uselessly and my lungs that would not stop burning in exhaustion. And Toba wanted to learn how to use this sword—ha! He would not last long against Ogami’s strict training.

I pulled myself upright and remembered Ogami laughing over Toba, his placidity against Toba’s roughness. What was it about Toba that could prompt Ogami to glide with ease and warmth? I thought I might as well find Toba in the village and ask him myself. There was no reason to sit alone and wonder what Toba was and was not.

But first, I ate a small breakfast of barley gruel, did a short musical practice on the wud, practiced fifty characters of Standard Hokima before I could go gallivanting to the village. To prepare for the trip, I needed to get control of my expansive clothes. While the ifa disported in various states of undress in the summer heat, I struggled with billowing robes, voluminous sleeves, overflowing divided skirts, the itchy thick hempen fabric.  I had to bind a sash around my legs and then around waist and chest and then around my arms to control the fabric.  And this had to be done in a proper ceremonial fashion. Too many times, I would slip with a sash that Ogami had to angrily take over its tying. For now, it was only me and my small hands, and devilish loops and knots. Toba would never agree to all these clothes. Perhaps I should protest and demand Ogami allow me the ifa inelegant liberties of their short loin clothes. I was a shunja after all, not a hekare.

Before venturing down the mountain path, I veiled my unmarked face, for I could not dare impose my disorder into an innocent’s view. Light fell through the grille of leaves and branches hedging the path.  The path declined in a predictable grade then steepened abruptly and curved towards the eastern view of the sky.  The view opened to the huts and the wall designs of red, black and white.  Women would mix clay and buffalo dung and fashion geometrical stripes on the walls.  The effect had the same warding effect of the curlicues and glyphs of the sanli. I myself felt dizzy, gazing on these wall patterns.  Maybe it was true that I was a demon spawn if I felt this disoriented.

The sun was high in the sky.  The temple gongs struck, marking the hour of Jade. The air rippled with overtones, and sound resounded through the hull of the valley, up the green terraces and over the house thatches, around the eaves of the Great Temple. Women, with grey braids crowning their heads, were stooped in the fields, planting rice seedlings before the rains would drench the land into paddies.

And far off where the road led to the Grand Temple, I recognized the sleek black profile of Ezo, his baldhead gleaming.  Even the team of buffalo stopped for his upper caste warrior eminence as he walked freely with a bamboo scroll held up in his face.  We could be kindred souls. Bound with a love for learning and martial arts, we could be bosom friends. But that would not be of the good way, of how Kendan would will things, for he was embalmed with pride of a fatriyad warrior caste sworn to defend the Ekio clan—and the shame of a rakki, a disgraced fatriyad. Ifa, shunja, we were all beneath him, even if his baldhead bared to all the fallen status of his family.  Pride and shame were his constant companions, and the book held up to his face like an iron curtain.

Wistfully, I veered towards a wide entrance leading to a copse of trees arranged in a semi-circle.  The last time I came here, a pack of snarling dogs chased after me.  But amidst the energy of boys running around a banyan tree, girls crouched in between the heavy thighs of harridans, no one took note of my little presence—I supposed the Goddess Nadmi herself had blessed my excursion.

I was a stone’s throw away from a group of boys looking up at something in a tree.  Their half-grey braids were loose over their bare shoulders. Though dirty and dusty, they all had gion. They all had faces streaked and dotted with the ash-white sanli.

“Toba, throw me a mango,” one of them demanded.

I could only make the shins and feet amongst the long leaves rippling and drooping from the branches.  The boys yipped for Toba to pluck that mango, not this mango.

“Toba, throw me a mango too,” a girl said. Around her small waist was a belt of small cages containing things I could not quite make out. Her hair was all but grey and she had a cleft lip. It looked like a lacerated caterpillar was stuck above her lips. Her eyes were overhead to the tree, my eyes were on her nose.

“Ayni, you climb up here and get yourself a mango,” Toba growled. “You know how hard it is be up here.”

“But you gave Khura mangoes,” she whined. “Ten of them.”

“She wanted five mangoes for one of her milk balls.”

“You do everything she wants. Five mangoes for one milk ball. How’s that fair?” Her lips worked in consternation. She slowly turned her face towards me, then her eyes narrowed.  The rib-like sanli tightened over her ebony cheeks. I palled.  I was more than willing to climb up and get her a mango if she would stop looking at me.

On other days, I would have stood in the shadows and watched their rambunctious ministrations from a far, but today should be different … maybe not.  What was I going to tell Toba anyway? Give me a mango too?  But mangoes were the body form of the goddess Padmi, so I could not eat them. And I could very well not impugn my Shunja self on his person.

Shadows seemed to seep from the weaves of mango leaves and smear and stretch out from the crown of the tree top. Perhaps I was getting dizzy. Water, perhaps water would be best, but the tree …  something like a storm cloud layered just over the bulbous treetop. I blinked. The cloud still drizzled over leaves, black, grey, forms that seemed to imprint the fabric of space. I stood mesmerized at the silhouette while everyone else yapped at Toba to his bidding, and Ayni was sliding from patient irritation to a petulant whine.  But most worryingly, the amorphous cloud slunk down the edges of the treetop and weaved in and about the heads and torsos. Half-shifting shadows glided over the red ground, glittered in various shades of grey, incomprehensibly balled up to an entity blacker and more solid in front of my person. A face? No face, but malformed indentations of grey, something fibrous could be a hand. It was as if something existed between the real and unreal, between body and spirit.

My blood quivered in my veins. Beats pumped out to panic. Flee or stand tall, as Ogami would have me be before this pestilent incorporeal presence? The field of my vision collapsed onto this being, and the sense of déjà vu swarmed by the moment.  Maybe this was another part of me, the damned part of my being, looking back at me, and demanding I acknowledge it. This was of the tewai, and I was of the tewai, and so we must be one in perdition.

Reader, the truth of the apparition was much simpler as you shall see later. For now, my small legs were wilting wobbly, and I found myself backing away from the odious apparition.

“Kesse, out of my way!”

All became white and stark, as I had backed up against somebody.  I turned around sharply, my veil unraveling off my face.  Kendan’s mercy!  It was Ezo, lips curled raggedly and his eyes tightening.  Kendan’s mercy! I had touched him and defiled his high person. His snarl twisted more fiercesomely, and there the shine of his fatriyad dagger on his waist. All sense of decorum vacated my soul as I fell down prostrate before him.

“Forgive me, forgive me,” I mumbled.

He kicked my head, one, two, three …. “A shunja shit head touched me! I should kill you for this.”

He should. Even though he was thirteen, he had the right to cut down an inferior in the open streets.

My breaths raced, and I could feel the ground heating up under my nose. How much mercy should I expect for my sin? But Ogami had told me never to depend on a man’s mercy. You had to act first, take the initiative and if you could not, force your way to the upper hand even if it meant becoming a man without gion. How then now, when I had clearly transgressed his honor?

“Oi Rakki! You’re the one who keeps walking around with a scroll like an idiot,” Toba shouted from afar. “I tell you one day, you’re going to fall into a ditch.”

“Kesse, mind your business and go shovel shit in the fields,” Ezo barked then kicked my head once more to make his point.

“You kick him again. I’m coming down from the tree and kicking your behind too.”

“Kesse, if you touch me, I’ll cut you down.”

Toba gave a wild laugh. “With your puny knife? Where’s your sword, Rakki?”

Kendan save us! Being a rakki, a disgraced fatriyad, Ezo could not carry a sword like it was the right of the warrior caste. I wished Toba had not said that as I could feel the furious wind from Ezo darting past me and blustering for the mango tree. It would be most evil if thing spiraled out of hand.  I picked myself up from the ground and rushed to Ezo’s side. I managed to get a hold his long sleeves and pulled him back strongly.

“Kesse,” Ezo bellowed, spinning into my face.

“Demei, it was I who dishonored you.” I did not look away to the unlucky left as I should have.  I stared into the fibrils blood feeding into his pupils and waited for his good judgment.

He bared his teeth, tossed his gaze away to the green horizon, muttering, “Why am I dirtying myself with shit-shoveling rabble?” He shoved me off, opened his scroll over his face and walked away.

I took a moment to enjoy the feeling of the sure ground under my feet. Then I came to children peering their tattooed faces at my now revealed shame. Kadmi deliver me!  It took a few moments for them to feel the reprobation of my presence.

“It’s a—” a boy’s eyes bulged. “Shunja!”

They scattered away, leaving me to wilt before Toba up in the tree. I was afraid for a moment that Toba himself might fall down in fright.

I hurriedly tied the shawl around my face. “I thank you greatly for your assistance, demei—”

“I remember you. You’re with Old Tree!” Toba said. “

“Old Tree, demei?”

“Why do you talk like a sadhai stuck in a privy? What’s with me demei? The rakki’s the demei, a stupid one too.”

Well, everyone was a demei to me because everyone was above me. I supposed that would be hard to explain to an ifa with gion. I avoided his searching his brown eyes as I tried to think of a more elegant way to take my leave.

Toba sighed angrily. “The Old Tree took my bush rat.”

The name Old Tree was most distressing to my pure ears. “Please, refrain from calling him such a discourteous name.  He is my Ogami—”

“I don’t get it.  You can play swords, but you let the rakki walk over you.”

Toba was indeed dull, but it would be disharmonious to tell him so.

“Was the sword just for show?” Toba demanded.

I looked at his face, the long grey silver of his hair falling in with the translucent leaves.  “I know all my stances, demei.”

The branches shook. “Don’t call me that.”

“Forgive me, Demei—”

“If you’re going to call me that, ask your Ogami if he can teach me the stances too.”

“Ifa tend to life. That would be disharmony.”

“Bah!” The branches susurrated as Toba slid from a main branch to the central trunk. “How do you know that anyway? People keep saying this and that is disharmony.”

“I read it in the Tratsa.”

“You can read?”

“Yes? You can’t?”

“Sadhais are the only people I know who read. And there’s the block head rakki…”

I did not like when he insulted the high person of the fatriyad either.  I wondered if insolence was usual to the ifa. Perhaps this was related to their lack of education.

I said finally. “Maybe not a sword, but my Ogami can show you how to use a staff.”

“What good is that? I want a sword like the one Kendan used to defeat the five-headed elephant … Tell him I’ll give him mangoes in exchange for lessons …. Catch!” came the voice overhead.

Green orbs fells from the tree, and I twisted side to side to catch them all. The mangoes were just soft enough to yield under pressure.  How exactly was I to explain elegantly to Ogami Toba’s inelegant request?

“Toba!” Ayni screamed, struggling with the bind of a loincloth around her chest, and tramping over to us. “Shunjas aren’t supposed to eat mangoes.”

That was most certainly true.

“I’m telling your Oppa, that you’re talking to a Shunja.”

Toba’s small black feet jutted out the branches. “Do what you want. You’re not getting any of my mangoes anyway.”

Her auburn eyes narrowed at me, and moments turned irately. With a huff, she tramped away, her bare feet kicking up the loamy soil.  I felt sorry more than slighted.  She made across a lawn littered with strutting birds and disappeared behind a red-black spiraled door.

Toba thumped out of the tree, a raffia bag slung around his chest. “Don’t mind her.”

Well then, I did not like the development.  The prospect of facing his father, making Ayni displeased was most disharmonious.  This excursion was clearly an ill-thought idea straight from the tewai itself.

I looked over the forbidden mangoes in my hands and hoped Ogami would eat them. It would be a terrible thing to waste them. “Forgive my unpleasant intrusion.  I must return to my Ogami.”

Toba held back my shoulder. I shuddered. He really should not be touching me.

He stood in front of me, smiling like he was commander of something.  Of what or whom, I did not know.

“Talk to your Ogami, will you?”

“I shall—” But I descried Ayni behind him zooming onto with … a black furry thing in her left hand.  My eyes flew wide.  I pulled Toba to my side away from her onslaught. Mangoes tumbled onto the ground, and then I saw that the black object was an enormous spider with snapping menacing chelicera.

“GO AWAY,” Toba yelled.

“Give me some mangoes,” she said.

“Take the mangoes from the ground.” Toba swished around me to get away from her fanged hands.

“The shunja touched it. Get me another from the tree.” Ayni darted the giant spider for Toba’s arm, but he swung around me again to evade. I tottered from side to side to every scream of Toba.

“Take the mangoes from the ground!” Toba shouted right by my ringing ears.

As she tried for Toba’s face to the side of my cheek, her black spider blotted out my view with its squamous thorax. And my patience whooshed away to the whimsies of the ugly heat.  I, before the appendages could touch my forehead, dove for her small wrist, spun her away from me. Before I would pop the elbow and dislocate her shoulder, she cried high and terrible,“Ow!” Her cry fell deaf on my ears as I grabbed the spider and smashed it to the ground.

All was still again for an instant. We looked at each other, uncomprehending the vicissitude of the moment.  Toba stepped out from me and stared at the black hair splat on the ground. Her nose wrinkled uncontrollably and her eyes roved madly at the spider legs twitching slowly to stillness.

“You killed Cudi.” She exploded to tears. “I took care of Cudi for three months and you killed my Cudi—Waaaaaaah!”

Kendan save me. The death of the spider was rather unfortunate. Ogami would declaim my lack of self-control. One does not kill indiscriminately. I could only mumble repeatedly. “Forgive me, Tomei-Demei.”

A matron, grey crown, muddy brown loincloth, stopped by, took a good look at me, and commenced a frantic warding, nose, brow, sky, nose, brow, sky. Ayni explained. She cried so more. I gulped, paralyzed without hope. Her wails beckoned all to come and see what the Shunja had done. They, adults, wagged at me, they pulled Toba away from me, they poked their staffs at me.

“The tewai take you!” A crone pelted holy rice at my face.

“Who owns it anyway? It should be bound and gagged,” a man asked

“In my day, they made all shunjas commit the good way,” another said.

The good way, the way of reclaimed gion and blessed eternal rest. Sun and sky were blinkering in and out of view. Around me, faces, crooked teeth, misshapen eyes, were swelling larger and blacker, blotted out the blue and white of sky. I could feel the weight of anger bearing hot and heavy over my face. I stepped back, but staffs nudged me back to the center. And then their voices grew harder and harsher down my ears, “Who owns it? Why was it still alive? What brought disharmony to their threshold? Who, what, why?”

Reader, there are questions one should not deign to ask.  Some questions will lead you to the crevasse of ruin, to the precipice of madness, to the island of dullness.  If Kendan has deemed it unknowable, why risk asking and asking? That is of pride and disorder.

But there I was, before esteemed superiors, facing questions I had no facility to answer, my lips trembling, my eyes dimming.  In that moment in my ten-year-old self, the seedling of an urge sprouted, the urge to slit Ogami’s throat.

****

Ok readers.  I have been worried about this for a while because I worry the opening chapters are too slow.  But I’m not quite sure how to condensce all the nuisances before layering out the action.  Well, read on tell me if it works.

Too old for old tricks: Chapter 1

It was Easter Sunday. Whatever of life and death, sacrifice and the resurrection were subsumed by the festering jubilation in the grocery store. Buy one get one free rabbit-sized bonbons, seventy percent off honey-glazed ham. Perhaps one could prevision death and its runny afterbirth from the scarlet poinsettias gracing the gardening aisle.

The cold and the diarrheic glimmer of beer bottles billowed from the open-faced fridge before Anton folding him arms tightly across his chest. His bangles felt icy against the scars on his wrists. Something itched, rather wriggled underneath the squamous scars. Ratcheting the cool metal over his wrists, Anton regretted the short sleeves of his tshirt and the white hairs over his arms and the infinite choices for beer.

And oh yes, beer. Brown bottle, green bottle. Gold foil cap, slovenly monk with apricot cheeks. Anton reached for the choice of the past seven years: the case of all-American swill refreshing crisp lager. Emmanuel preferred it and he preferred to prefer Emmanuel’s tastes. But he thought, Easter seemed an occasion for something different, something of spring, leastways a resurrection for better beer. And what perhaps of the all-Japanese swill or the all-Chinese swill—How now beer from the middle kingdom of el-cheapos?

It was decided a case of the house favorite. Then he perambulated the aisles, like a whale that had lost sight of the sea and its obviating vastness, no more content, no less disinclined to feel disappointed in himself for defaulting to the familiar.

Perhaps a different brand of mustard? Emmanuel bought the mustard. Or the organic, natural, non-fluoride, non-sweetened toothpaste? But the regular one with ingredients of unpronounceables looked less frightening. The soft head brush toothbrush should be better than the medium head toothbrush? Emmanuel preferred the medium head, but wasn’t the soft head better?

The dental conundrums were no more clearer than the conundrum in his back pocket: a handwritten letter addressed to Emmanuel Cohen.The letter had arrived three days earlier, but Anton held onto it instead of placing it on Emmanuel’s study desk, like he always did. And in examining the letter again, feeling the ink strokes mark the white envelope, he decided its precise curlicues and the compact loftiness were of a feminine hand. This ‘Chris Winston’ on the sender’s address must be female, which ruffled him.

Why should Emmanuel, work-twenty-seven-hours-a-day Emmanuel, receive handwritten letters in this age where sharing and caring were worth less than a byte? Unsurprising, given Emmanuel’s lucky happenstances, but still, Anton held fast, in tremulous wondering, to his own letter addressed to Antonin Bulgakov. He would like a letter, too. It was just as well Emmanuel would dismiss his want with a pathetic shrug; and therefore Emmanuel should not mind if the letter came from a bronzed ephebe lounging on a far-off Greek Island—warm sands and warm bodies. But Emmanuel would not mind; rather, Emmanuel did not care to mind.

Unnerved, he stuffed the letter back into his pocket and slipped back into deliberating between soft head toothbrushes and medium head toothbrushes. Analyses were still as muddy when the loudspeaker bleated the last chance for six inch round lemon chiffon cakes at seven ninety nine. Randomly, he tilted his gaze over towards the row cakes on display and was immediately and quietly seized by the irrefragable fact of the day being Emmanuel’s birthday. He dumped a pair of medium toothbrushes in his cart and trundled to the bakery section.

The assistant looked young, rudely and flippantly handsome, as he played with his tongue in his mouth, rounding cheek to cheek in a careless rhythm. The boy reminded him of rich acorns and fluffy moss. Anton wanted to reach over the glass display and pop those cheeks. Maybe jump over the display—no, bum knee, bum kidneys—and lay the boy’s face over where his cholesterol-clogged heart was. And he would whisper restfully about hog-tying bucks or practicing the loops of a hangman’s noose—no, none of that—Morse code for SOS or SOB.

Rubbing his wrists mindlessly, he mulled the delicate yellow lemon cake inside a glass shelf.

“Sir, you get an inscription on the cake,” the boy said as if celebration was wanting.

How good of you to call me sir. Anton suppressed the flutter working up his face. Unearned familiarity was always discomfiting, formality comforting, even subtly arousing from the boy now eying him impatiently. Anton, looking down, contemplated the crisp frosting flowers on the cake. An inscription might read, “Happy Birthday Emmanuel, love Anton,” or, “Happy Birthday Emu, many more steaks to you, love Crocky?”

The choices felt dry, wasteful. Emmanuel’s father was a reformed Jew, mother a Jamaican Jehovah’s witness. Birthdays, Easter, the cake being this sop to the crisis of spring, Emmanuel would not understand it or the pleasures of a handwritten letter.

There was the blare of the loudspeaker again announcing the cheapest unbelievable Easter eggs, and Anton’s senses whittled away in the disorder murmuring away to eggland. The cake sans inscriptions sounded better, or perhaps just the unfrosted cake, even better to leave off the cake and take home the empty box.

Anton saw the boy’s fingers uncurl over the glass counter like it was surrendering to the Easter din around. A line of a shadow trailed up the short fingers and its hairs up to the arm and his folded sleeve, and to the face, evidently suffering a gaze on him. He must be new here. Anton decided not to smile or soften; the boy braved to keep up his stare. His face could be more gentle, could be more innocently boyish. And pink grilled around the temples. The eyes, blue as the twilight, as those myriad eyes that flickered and watched him in his dreams like ghosts roused rudely from stupor.

Anton hoped the boy was docile as his stance presupposed. He was too tired to fight or boast illustrious feats, much less conquer or claim.

His wrists troubled him again, causing him to fidget with the tight clasps of the bangles. There were inscriptions embossed over the dull metal; inscriptions held no meaning, drove no need in him. And yet casting them aside never occurred to him as a possibility.

“Cool bangles,” the attendant interjected.

“You like them?” He regretted his too eager reply and quickly blurted, “Titanium. They’re made of titanium”

“Titanium? Get out of here.” The boy’s smile was the glitter of clear water. “Now, where does anyone get titanium?”

Anton saw now the squareness of his hairline, and the mole underneath the brow. The boy could be … Francis, truly? The name had the ring of the faint clink of pebble ricocheting down a well. No face fastened to the name, or smell, or touch. But the name had the surety in his mind, and Anton concluded it had to be this Francis who gifted him the bangles. But that could not be. Or was it Wilson, the military orthopedic surgeon, who had given them to him before he was discharged dishonorably for gross sexual misconduct.

“Must have been someone important,” Anton said noncommittally.

The boy looked more serious. “You want the cake?”

“Since you insist, I shall.”

“Hehe, doing my best to make more money for the Man,” the boy said. “You want an inscription?”

Anton chuckled. “Sure. ‘Happy birthday Emu, love Crocky.’”

“Man…” The boy guffawed. “Your name’s really Crocky?”

Anton looked back at the discolored incisor jutting out of the laughing mouth like misshapen stump. And the puns followed with more laughter and feelings warmed expansively.

“Crocky?” The boy repeated to himself, feeling the size and girth of the word. Then he removed the cake from the shelf and placed it on the counter. He raised sharp eyes to him. “Pink, all right for the inscription … Crocky?”

“Green … if you don’t mind.” Anton’s voice rose a little. “And you don’t get to call me that.”

“Emu sure can.”

“He stuck around in spite of my balding head. I think he earned the right. You’d have to give me some of those napoleons for free before I might let you …”

“He—I should get this done.” Cake unsteady in both hands, the boy turned away to the table in the shadowy recesses beyond the light display.

Anton was amused with how fast his eyes narrowed and his cheeks lost their high mien. But it was all right for dreams to last a moment. A flame that flickered for an instant was no less a flame, after all.

The wrists bothered him impolitely now. They felt as if a hot wire were boring down his wrist and piping up his forearm. Anton examined the clasps of his bangles, the darker-colored scars underneath, the reticule of thickening veins. Something was clawing from beyond the grave of his youth, where names were whispers and faces were chimeras ghosting the deep. Whatever was coming, he did not feel ready.

The boy returned without expression on his face and with the cake yellow, blue and green in a clear container.

“Enjoy,” he said, deadpan.

A tub of ice cream and dishwashing soap, completed the groceries. At the checkout counter, conversation plodded about the involuble weather, paper or plastic, cash or credit, if forty is the new twenty-five.

The cashier’s cheeks were thin and her eyes darkly deep. But there had to be something delightful in her because she smiled and chatted and smiled and chatted a lot. Even though she smelled of the earthy mushrooms in the forest damp, Anton could not help but think of her smiles like lipstick on a skull.

“Forty, wow, I have got five more years till then,” she chimed then defaulted to a careless laugh. “Age is all in the mind. My three-year-old son runs me around all day. I feel old and young at the same time. You get what I mean?”

Anton nodded, fixed his gaze at the automatic doors, open, close, toddler in a tutu, open, close, man gnashing teeth, in search of coffee. And then the burble on anxieties he was the wrong sex to understand. And of course the son.

“Did I tell you, the kid put a frog in his mouth the other day.” She clutched her breast dramatically. “It scared the bejesus out of me. The last time, it was a cricket.”

Anton thought of the crying, the puling, the mewling of the wobbly things. Those wobbly things were supposed to his lottery ticket to meaning, to immortality. Beautiful things want to beget beautiful things. Good things want to beget good things in the transcriptions of DNA and RNA.

Her words floated on him, floated through him, floated away from him. He was rotating his wrists now to wish away the renascent discomfort.

“You have any?” she asked.

Anton blinked. “Children? Happily … no.” He pasted a smile then took hold of the handles of the grocery bags. “Here’s to remaining thirty-five forever.”

“Thanks.” Her smile wilting on her lips, she dumped the pair of toothbrushes into the bag. “Wish Emmanuel happy birthday for me.”

“I shall.” Anton sighed, moved to lift the bags away, but his wrists hiccupped in pain and the bags dropped with a light bang.

The cashier’s eyes narrowed. “You okay, there? You need a carry-out?”

“Thank you, but I’m all right.” I’m fifty-three, not ninety. He gritted his teeth as he jerked the bags off the counter in a show of his lusty strength. The pain was definite, like gears turning the bones in his wrists. Useless hands. Useless body. Futility was on his mind as he glided from the store, to pavement to his car. Inside the car, he refrained from starting the ignition, instead wriggling his fingers and clenching and loosening his fists, trying to feel the strings of pain each action effected. Its prickling sounds lulling him, the wind assaulted dust and pollen upon the windshield and flurried the dry leaves onto oil slicks. He looked at the sky maddeningly bright, maddeningly blue, and waited. For what? For how long? The pain called to pain, his worries called to Emmanuel.

Gently and precisely, he got his cellphone from his pocket. After a glance at its artic blue screen, he tossed the phone aside and wriggled the letter from his back pocket. It felt warm and damp. There was the graceful name again, ‘Chris Winston’.

Emmanuel always had truculently asserted his right to identify as bisexual. Anton dismissed his view as droll; after all seven years of monogamy should decide it one way or another. Yes, but they had had seven years now of what exactly?

His pusillanimous thoughts so appalled him that he flung the letter into the grocery bags on the passenger seat and stuck the keys into the ignition.

“Ow!” Gently again, he cradled his right hand to himself, but burls of discomfort grew wilder in his forearms and his hand flamed. He could see the ash black roots curled over his digits, stretched and spiraled over his biceps, and clawed its pin tendrils up his neck. In that great revelation of pain, he lifted his eyes to the eastern horizon. His mind, in an instant, expanded, warped, sheared—a great tree darkening half the sky, its leaves of magnesium-blue flame, its fruits hanging like massive lanterns during a Chinese New Year. Today was Easter; more importantly, it was spring, and therefore the season of its pollen celestial tide.

The pollen streamed from the east, covered all over rooftops and electric pole, passed through windows, open hands, open mouths—diamond dust, metaphysical dust enthralled his eyes and prickled his skin. But his hands, the inky roots were bulging and pulsating underneath his taut skin, and neural darts harpooning and bursting the myriad corpuscles in his brain. His vision swooped close in from the sides. Lost in a shattering darkness behind his skull, he slumped onto the steering wheel. Then he remembered.

Francis was not Francis. Wilson was not Wilson. The bangle was not made of titanium. It was simple iron, as old as himself; it was an emblem, a seal gifted to him from his parents.

Light and its variegated hues bled down his vision. And his arms felt like postulating appendages. The air was thick and dry in his nostrils. He moaned, “Why now? Why now after thirty seven years?”

The tale of the crazy piano

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Our man, translator of time and space, plays the Revolutionary Étude to an audience stiff-necked with wonder. The song is quite fitting because what everyone doesn’t know is that the universe is about to tunnel out of its false vacuum. Now what, you say, do I mean?

Some think that the universe inhabits a false vacuum, a metastable state. Imagine, a ball perfectly balanced on the back of a spoon. It is stable but any slight motion will set it rolling away, and so is the same with our universe. It has lived this long, why roll now? I cannot give you an answer nor can anyone else. But back to our distinguished pianist.

A bubble of unrest sparks in his left hand. He feels nothing because it is just a nanoscopic bubble. Hear those glissandos. Hear the rumble of the lower keys. The audience are too afraid to blink, or they might miss a laudatory moment from the Chopin genius.

But that bubble is a pesky bubble. It fizzes into other bubbles, eating up tendon and bone. But harmony plays on. The left hand is a like mad octopus over the keys. Silence enthralls the audience. Four fingers are gone now. The fan whirrs an appreciation to one-fingered left hand playing. What of the chords, you say? The pianist is a master of interpretation. Lessons since he was three, an adolescence sacrificed to fugues and scales then adequately rewarded with a trophy at the Van Cliburn competition. A master of melody he is, even after the left hand is a raw stump to nothingness.

The woman dabs at her runaway heart. Another woman holds back her cough in reverence. The audience lean towards the piano and player. The show does continue. Finger pecking does deliberate a genius.

Hands are gone, stumps bang out discordant chords. At last the triumph of atonality at the end of world. Arms crumble into the void. Head bangs against the ivory keys till that itself is gone.

The silence and void become one. Only then does a man propels out of his seat and darts for the fire exits. Panic calls upon panic. Blah, blah, blah.

Rest assured, the universe does fall into its true vacuum, kicking and screaming.

An Absurd Oddity

Welcome to open mic.

People yak, they wonder why if Henry is twenty minutes late because he’s screwing the perky intern, they spill coffee over their precious macbook pro. A minute ago, someone exalted the pleasures of cannabis and organic shea butter. Now someone is playing their acoustic guitar, singing about love, true love, great love, deep love, love, love, love. Then someone comes through the backdoor, a glock in hand.

Bang. Next! Bang. Next! Bang. Next! Bang … I will not bother you with the blood and screaming because there’s no blood and screaming. People are still yakking, still wondering if Henry now had been screwing the best friend Amy, and now they spill coffee over the iphone. And the music… love, love, love. The singer is less canorous than before, definitely less vibrato in her voice.

And bang. Next! Bang. Next! Bang.

The gunman stands before the singer now. She lifts her head and raises her hands in the air, says “I’m just the guitarist—” Bang.

The gunman takes the stand, and the guitar. He plumps himself on the stool and begins a movement from the Concierto D’Aranjuez.

:p