Shrivelled Heartbeat

Happiness

Is hard

Hating your smile

Though I love you

Is just easier, quicker than

Following it line for beautiful line

For I am crap at object sketching

And still portraits would sooner make me cry

I hate your jaunty laugh and your full lips

I hate your cheery songs: pop, hip-hop, the top hits

So I’ll drown myself in severity and deny refuge to levity

Because it beats passing yearly vision tests through your rose-coloured glasses

And though some days I may smile and wave hello like I’m you

Understand it is temporary, a brief lapse in sanity (or a moment of willpower)

Because happiness, for me, is hard because I’m fond of the old ways (my old ways)

Because I’d sooner turn to envy, or frustration, or grief because I am not strong, no

Just cold and bitter and dwelling on past regrets that sit like judges in Purgatory’s Supreme Court

The Home I Lost in the Summer

 

Roses! See them smell and glow

Roses, really none to show

My winter house’s white and bare

but home, there is no compare

 

Ice it melts and chips and flakes

Instant coffee, German cakes

Summer knocking at my door

It burns, scorches to the core

 

Time is fine, no friend of mine

Stars align, but toe the line

Fate’s a mate, and mine to hate

Fortune’s late, I tolerate

 

The beams they fall, square roof, too

Next go the lamps, and the loo

Locks rust, keys fall in the bin

Home sweet home won’t let me in

 

Summer brings the salt of sea

Autumn, cold and scorching tea

Daytime, faces like soy curds

Nighttime, sweat and swimming words

 

The burgh holds an empty spot

Where ivy curls and dead birds rot

These summer homes still stand tall

Will they think of mine at all?

They were imaginary strings, dove

The lord from London has his head in the clouds

His lady spins his coats from waxy leaves.

 

Snakes, snails, puppy dogs’ tails and well-loved tomes

Let maiden’s cloud-love run down waxy leaves.

 

Wedding for one, a forest by the Rhine

Saccharine, spice – traded for waxy leaves.

 

Madame from France runs an empty salon

Sipping ale, she wastes wine on waxy leaves.

 

A painted sun on the Antarctic sky

Ghost ship, desert sea full of waxy leaves.

 

Giving you a hand, an ear, a red rose

Is like pouring water on waxy leaves.

 

Well-man! Drowned-man! Drag-you-into-hell-man!

Grasp at my saving-hand like waxy leaves.

 

I sing a song for you, my dove, my thrush

Your elf-ears are deaf, stuffed with waxy leaves.

One Shade, Together

Sometimes I wish there were

Not so many colours between black and white;

Right and wrong

It is why old photos are the kindest;

The simplest, the mildest

And that is why this century spins

Like a rainbow breaking wheel

The lights on the billboards

The signs in the streets.

 

If only we could mix

Like watercolours or oil on blank canvas;

Saturate

So I can be kind too, and you, brave

So we could be perfect

And that way men will not suffer, fight

Have gaps they need to fill

Limbs missing from sockets

Empty chest cavities.

 

I like to think boldly

Of empty promises between you and me;

Empty space

Imagine I could fill those black holes

Our cells brushing each other

And then you won’t ever have to leave

Won’t ever want to leave

Vein-to-vein, hand-to-hand

Heart to hard-beating heart.

Tsuta

Note: I decided to publish this in full. The flow seemed better that way. The theme for this was “Tested Control”. The title is the Japanese word for ivy.

___________________________________________________

The apron strangles her hips, rough fabric brushing against her thighs like an unwanted hand. Salt and miso burn her lungs; frost is building up on the tip of her nose. Hibiki grits her teeth and weaves past a customer and the next, and the next and – who is it who wants the extra soy sauce again?
“Excuse me!”
A man in the corner raises a hand, beckoning to her; the wade through half-frozen feet stretches on into forever. She straightens the frilly bow on her neck and clasps her hands at her waist.
“Yes?”
An (accusing) finger points at the empty cups lying strewn over the table.
“More tea, please.” He grins like the damned Cheshire Cat.

Who was it who wanted soy sauce again?
Her nod sends tremors running down her neck and into her collarbone as she rushes off. Outside the snow whips up a storm and rattles the lanterns hanging at the shopfront; the pink-blue spots of light dance over her face like a kaleidoscope lens.
One hand seeks purchase on the teapot while the other balances the tray of soba. Paper flaps against the wall and she wonders if the wind would carry away even those priceless paintings.
Who was it who wanted the soy sauce?
The tea is cooling by the time she makes it back. Someone is tapping their fingers on the table and the sound harmonises with the sledgehammer pounding away at her head.
“Ah, finally. Thank you.”
One second Hibiki is pouring, green liquid streaming into each cup.
The next, there are shards of porcelain mingling with the blood around her ankles.
____________________________________________________________________________

“We can’t keep spending like this, Brother.”
Yen clatters against the table. Hibiki counts what is left of last month’s salary with winter-blue fingers. Her feet are buried in bandages, and those are buried under her socks the way a child hid their messes under carpets. When Hideki reaches out to separate the coins, she slaps his hand away with a dry smack.
The pads of his thumbs are smooth and warm to the touch (she wonders if hers feel like frozen fish to him).
“Hibiki, stop it! I’m trying to help,” he strains, and for a moment he places his hands on his lap, fiddling with something. Onyx eyes narrow. What is he doing?
With a rustle, the package comes out from his bag and he just short of slams it on the table.
“I was getting you this. That’s what I spent the money on.”
The mixed snacks sit innocently on plywood: thin biscuits and chocolate wrapped in light pink. Hibiki wrings her hands, eyebrows furrowing. That sound of crackling plastic seems so far away as if she were sitting cross-legged in a pool of water.
“Why?”
Tawny arms cross under his chest and Brother’s cheeks puff out as he speaks.
“Do you really need to ask ‘why’ with that face? You used to like those sweets, so I bought them for you – “
He jolts as she pulls him across the table, sweater sleeve grasped firmly in hand, as Hibiki’s teeth tease the edge of her lip.
“You’re going somewhere again, aren’t you?”
“Uh . . . maybe?”
Brother watches her from the tails of his eyes as she leans down, until black hair brushes against his cheek.
“France.” His breath radiates heat into the dark of their house.
“For work. They’re offering me work as a photographer – ”
“Don’t go,” she says into his ear as if it would pierce deeper into his mind the closer she got. A scowl spreads across her face (like blood in water) and Hideki rolls his eyes.
“Euros are worth more than yen.”
“There are terrorists in Europe.”
“There are terrorists everywhere.”
“No one will cook you your favourite sanma in Europe.”
“I can make do without it.” Suddenly, Brother yanks his hand away, sitting back on his heels. He rubs his wrist and grimaces.
“You didn’t let me finish. I said they were hiring me as a photographer – do you know how much that means to me?” Her fists curl on her lap, the bones of her knuckles crack around each other, yet Brother does not seem to hear them breaking and carries on.
“Someone like me could never get that sort of job in Tsutami.”
Three paces bring him to the side of their flat where the futons lie sprawled across the floor. Her tongue is bitter in her mouth. Hibiki straightens her back and shuts her eyes to the world.
“Maybe you’re just not trying hard enough.”
Brother’s flinch and the soft “what” that comes after shoot bright crimson across the back of her eyelids. Just what was she doing?
“. . . The interview is tomorrow. Goodnight, Hibiki.”
Her eyes open to blackness and sleep comes only in trickles after that.
________________________________________________________________________
There is a yellow-haired gaijin drinking at the shokudo. He sips at his can of beer and taints the morning air with the smell of alcohol. As Hibiki puts down her tray, the man waves her over with a slight frown on his lips.
“You’re Himura, aren’t you?” he asks. Her jaw clamps down hard, the corner of her mouth quirking downwards.
“. . . Why do you know my name?”
“Ah. Hideki has mentioned you a couple of times. In fact, I’m here to meet him – oh!” One cream-white hand extends towards her and she takes it the way one would touch a spider.
“I’m so sorry; to think I forgot to introduce myself again after what happened last night with the takoyaki guy – agh!” he blabbers.
“The name’s Arthur Lund; it’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Hibiki only nods, before refilling the nearly untouched cup of tea by his elbow.
Thin streaks of pale orange shine from under the door, and it is not long before the wood cracks open, letting in a breeze carrying the scent of winter-frozen sweat.
“Sorry-I’m-late!” Hideki’s satchel is flying behind him as he flops down next to Mr. Lund. He spares her a half-smile: something forced and cracking over dry lips. Did he remember to drink his milk this morning? Hibiki frowns but dips her head in turn.
“Welcome, Brother.”
Russet eyes are trained on azure as the gaijin claps him on the back. The frown deepens, a crevice on her face, as she excuses herself to bring them some tea. Is one of his friends from France? ‘Arthur Lund’ does not sound very French.
Although her digits busy themselves with hand-painted pottery, Hibiki’s ears remain at the table.
“. . . So, like any instruments? I overheard from Monsieur Beaulieu you were good with the piano . . .”
Her lips thin, and she could practically feel Brother blanching as if it were her own skin.
“. . . ah, I haven’t played it since . . . since I was a kid – hmm? . . . It’s a long story, it’s best to save it for another time . . .”
“. . . Certainly you remember a chord or two; your fingers will, even if your mind does not.”
Why are they talking like this? The tray trembles like a leaf in her hands as she turns.
“Some restaurants in the West have pianos,” says Lund.
“Ah, it’s quite a shame there isn’t one here; I’d love to hear you play.” Hibiki can hear the gaijin’s fingers drum a tune on the wood, loud and grating.
“I’d rather not, thanks. It’s . . . embarrassing,” Brother laughs something like the sound of pebbles rattling in a pit. He rests his cheek on one hand and it makes him look so much smaller than the blue-eyed man before him; a rabbit and a fox.
The cups make muffled thumps as she sets them down.
“. . . Hibiki, did you hurt yourself?” Brother’s gaze flits between the bandages around her legs and her face, eyebrows knitted together.
“. . . Yes. It’s no big deal,” she says, but suddenly her knuckles turn white and something strikes her mind.
“. . . I got it yesterday while working; dropped some cups and they broke over my feet.”
His eyes widen, concerned touch reaching out to her arm. It is a while before he stops fussing, and within this time the chef has prepared two meals of sanma: one gutted, the other whole.
A pair of schoolgirls with surgical masks comes in through the door, chatting loudly, and Hibiki slips away to attend to them, mouth twisting. As she smooths down her apron, she catches one last snippet of conversation:
“. . . take you to Versailles . . .”
“. . . Huh? Veru . . . Veru-sai?”
“. . . . It’s a beautiful place. . . ”
The waitress seats the girls at a tatami mat, handing them the menus.
“. . . just like you.”
Who is Arthur Lund?
__________________________________________________________________
The slow thrum of winter continues on the balcony. Concrete is still cold and hard against the soles of her sandals, but Hibiki walks on regardless. She brushes frost from the parapet, watching as it crumbles and falls away into specks of white by her feet.
Her fingers caress a cluster of swelling, black beads. Climbing up the thin slice of bricks are diamond-shaped leaves, stark green against the ice-stone background.
While the sakura sleep and the different grasses bow their heads, only the ivy bothers to blossom and bear fruit. The berries are round and ripe in hand, but eventually, they too would fade, shrivelling away into the deeper part of unforgiving winter. ‘Eventually’ is not ‘now’, so the young woman smiles against her scarf.
Hibiki would be like ivy, she thinks, as she rubs the sap between her fingers and watches as they turn a sour red.

Her fingers are too chilled to feel the pain.
___________________________________________________________
Plastic leaves laced with fake sakura stab her cheek. Hunched shoulders slide to the left as Hibiki cranes her neck; a lantern dips to pet her on the head as she rises – but she brushes it off with a shrug, eyes narrowed and dry lips just slightly parted.
Lund is buying konbu for her brother.
They stand (together) on the opposite side of the street, Brother in his old sweater (she still remembers how to make that pattern, the little swimming fish) and there is a head’s worth of space between his forehead and Lund’s (rabbit; fox, just like she thought).
Suddenly, there’s a gust of wind from her right and a tip of bamboo pierces her side.
“I’m so sorry, miss!” the child shouts loud enough for all of Tsutami to hear, the cat face on his kite staring at her with beady yellow orbs.
Hibiki glances to the osechi stall and brown eyes connect for a moment, before Brother rushes the gaijin off, disappearing into the crowd.
The sweet, but tangy scent of konbu wafts through the air, but underneath it there is a sharper smell. Beside her, chicken karaage sputters in a deep fryer as customers flood in; the stall owner looks quite like an octopus. Hibiki grabs the sticky butcher’s knife from his chopping board, before taking off after Brother.
Slender legs pump against the ground as she weaves past an old lady who has herself swarmed by children.
“There is an old wives’ tale about a demon who married a human,” says the woman, toothless grin lighting up her face, as Hibiki bumps shoulders with schoolgirls and kindergarteners.
“Every day she fed him drops of her own blood, hidden in her cooking.”
A chorus of cringes and disgusted groans rolls through the congregation of kids. Hibiki gasps for air as she makes it past the last pair of little heads.
“. . . why would you tell us . . . on New Year’s day, Grandma? . . . You’ll curse us all . . .”
“. . . she thought it would grant him immortality, you see, children! But she was wrong . . . “
Lund is bringing Brother around the corner and out of the main street. Where did that alleyway lead to again? Hibiki swallows, thinking of stone steps bleeding into soft sand and a vast blue ocean (where he found his sister her first seashell), before breaking into a sprint.
“. . . the demon’s beloved was dead by spring.”

_________________________________________________________
The light of the half-moon casts silver shadows over Tsutami Beach: something even the endless parade of kites cannot stop. Brother walks side-by-side with Lund, black specks of seaweed still on his smiling cheek.
“It’s almost a dream,” he says, and the cold night air carries his voice (loud and clear) to where Hibiki is hiding in the bushes.
“What is?”
“Ah, I don’t know.” Brother shrugs.
“You, the job, travelling abroad – I just . . . I’ve never felt so free before. It’s like some weight has been lifted off of me.”
Arthur Lund laughs and claps him on the back with enough force to make him stumble.
Suddenly they are holding hands under the moonlight: a small thing, just a brush of fingertips. Hibiki sees the rabbit licking at the fox’s mouth, as if in a kiss, and being drawn further and further into grimy yellow teeth. A French kiss. How ironic.
The moonlight glances off something else as well, something metal and sharp and dear.
______________________________________________________________________
The apron is sopping from another round of spilled miso soup when Hibiki cracks open the door. This time there is a chair and a little table blocking her way. A frown crosses her face as wood creaks with the friction of her pushing.
“I’m home, Brother.”
Thin dots of light awaken from their repose when the hunched figure shifts and a grunt rolls through his throat. Hibiki scrunches her nose. There is a reek of musty chemical in the air that overwhelms even the scented candles she bought the week before. It is the medicine cabinet, she figures, as she scrubs at her hands in the sink.
“. . . welcome home.”
She smiles, the newspapers on the floor rustling as she wades through them to where Hideki has set the table for dinner.
“The landlord came today,” Brother does not touch his bowl. Hibiki thinks the rice might be expired; there is a brownness creeping in at the edges. She sighs. Such things are just a monotonous staple for them these days – but the lovely, cheerful man sitting in front of her is not.
(He is not sitting: bony hands are clenched into fists on his knees as the yellow threads of little swimming fish unravel from his sweater.)
“We haven’t paid him this month – “
“I went to the city.” Hibiki shovels the rotten rice into her mouth. Bits of beige spray from her teeth as she speaks.
“I went to the city and bought you these sweets – “
“. . . You spent more money?”
“ – yes, but these are your favourite, aren’t they?” She slides the box of Pocky onto the table, grinning. Hideki’s eyelids seem to groan as they shut; it is like he is sleeping, for nearly every muscle has gone slack. Did he stay up again?
“No, Hibiki,” his fingers tighten over a newspaper that is blackened and dirtied by running ink. One azure eye peeks shyly from the mess of a cover, but there are only angry rips and torn paper in the place of the words.
“They’re yours.”
Hibiki shoves the last grain into her mouth, and her belly bloats from the mixture of tap water and carbohydrate.
“Brother.”
He is rubbing his wrists again; the strands of sunlight peel darkness off of raw, red flesh. What bit him? What could have bitten him to make him itchy for two weeks?
“Brother, do you love me?”
Hideki freezes. A speck of dust floats and settles on his thumb. His hands fumble as they reach for his head, each palm clamping over an ear as if the air was about to flow in and drown him. He grits his teeth and a long – not loud, not piercing, just long (just long and ringing) – cry tears in his throat.
Abandoned by his grasp, the newspaper falls to the floor and so do Hibiki’s chopsticks. Her outstretched hand stops halfway to his face. What is she doing?
Eventually, Brother nods as if his neck is broken, twisted beyond recognition, and she draws his head into her chest.
“. . . y-yes,” he says, but his hands are so, so cold.
Outside, the last of January’s snow sheds tears into the dirt.

Vergissmeinnicht: Part II

Read Part I here.

.DREI.

That card brought him to a little alcove underneath Door Street. Moss squelched against his socks as the remains of last night’s rain lounged lazily over chipped stone stairs. Hugh lifted a curtain of overgrowth over his head and ducked into a short, gaping tunnel.

What exactly did that creature have to show about this place? He wrinkled his nose as he trudged past clumps of plant-life.

The manhole was a few paces away. Thin licks of yellow-orange sunlight bounced off the metal cover, and Hugh crouched to unscrew it. As he climbed down rusted ladder rungs, a waft of that creature’s reek drifted fast his face; it was a mix of must and red meat that choked him, trumping even the smell of sewage.

His feet hit the sewer with a small thump: one that echoed around walls and seemed to go on forever. Now, where was that flashlight?

As slender hands dug the satchel for his light source, something scuttled over his foot. The spider’s carapace was stark against the artificial white shine and Hugh wanted to move, to jerk away and yet his feet remained still. Something else had caught his attention.

The mural on the wall was of an oak tree, sprawling and heavy with leaves. Embedded into (or perhaps simply an extension of) the oak tree was a woman with eyes the colour of those forests Hugh had seen in picture books as a child. In the changing shades, he saw his mother’s watercolours: there were dark tones of pine blending into basil, with little dots of shamrock and fern as highlights.

By the tree-person’s knees were a ring of villagers – men, women, and children – their skin blending in with the bark of the roots as they surrounded a lone five-petalled flower.

Hugh felt the spider scramble off into a corner, as he moved to closer inspect the drawing. By God, this was a treasure! Framing the mural were strings of Old Waldtic symbols, the black-brown pigments just faint ghosts on stone.

He didn’t know when his feet had crossed the border into the next corridor.

All along the wall were drawings of the same village and the same tree, and each time the houses, stones and vegetation remained as they were (albeit aged) while the people fluctuated in numbers. Sometimes they were depicted at war with gun-toting foreigners by the borders of their home. Just who were the Old Waldtics? The answer was right at his fingertips!

Throughout all this, the woman in the tree still smiled, her eyes the only speck of colour in the drawings.

A small splash broke Hugh out of his trance.

How could he have forgotten he was in a sewer? That reek came flooding back to his senses, but the man stood his ground. He had to see this, all of it.

A quick cadence of paces brought him to a locked door at the end of the passageway. The chains were cool to the touch, rust flaking off at his ministrations. He prodded at rotting wood, gaze searching for a crack, a crevice – anything – before at last arriving at the keyhole. Hugh had to squat to even come face-to-face with the door handle.

Inside, was a soup of darkness, like oil, dotted with just the tiniest specks of indigo-blue. When he shifted his position he could see something rectangular in the back: a desk, perhaps? Was this the Slyth’s office?

There was a light flowery scent seeping out from the cracks. The man swallowed, the palms of his hands steadily excreting a film of cold sweat. As time went by, it felt like there were things moving in those shadows, voices whispering in the dark. Still, one hand found a crack in between the door and the wall, administering the torch to it.

Countless flowers were littering the floor: forget-me-nots, he remembered. Vergissmeinnichten. They were piled up high enough to mask the scent of rot and must from the room. He would have to ask the Slyth about this later – if he managed to find it, that is.

He thought he saw a flash of white, underneath the hill of flowers that leant against the back. The flashlight was slipping in his hands; his fingers tightened around it. Slowly, he shifted the spot of light toward the large, fungus-infested desk, and saw it: a powder-white skull with eye sockets the size of dinner plates.

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Vergissmeinnicht: Part I

.EINS.

Waldton at seven in the morning smelled of smoke and dewdrops. A certain Mr Emmerich Hugh leant against the edge of his desk, textbook in one hand and marker in the other.

“ – and that’s about it for your mid-terms. Any questions?”
Silence met him; only the sound of a pen scratching against drawing block rang in the air.
“Vivi, if that’s not a historically accurate map of eighteenth-century America I’m afraid I’m going to have to confiscate your sketchbook.”
Pudgy arms propped the drawing up on the table, girlish lips pouting.
“It’s house!”
“It’s – a – house, you mean,” said Jane from beside her. The kid stuck her tongue out at the older girl, and Hugh uncrossed his arms, sighing. How that brat weaselled her way into ninth grade, he would never know.
The instant she was done, Jane put her head back on the table, drifting off again into slumber; half the class was asleep with her.
“Late shift last night?”
“Mmm . . .”
“Ah, don’t even bother then.”
“Wasn’t going to . . . “
Hugh turned to look at the drawing as Vivi bounced on her seat.
“No! I meant this is – my – house, not – a – house.”
He raised an eyebrow. On the paper were rough lines depicting one of those old Victorian-esque dwellings on the side of Ash Street. Blue eyes squinted, eyebrows knitting together.
“Alright, that’s enough. Let’s get back to the lesson okay?” he said, sighing, and Vivi slipped the sketchbook under her desk.

Hadn’t the Ash Street area been Deleted that morning? He remembered the photograph in the news: an image of flattened land and smoke, accompanied by quips about new residencies, budgets and investors. Hugh sauntered to the teacher’s table, whipping the cap from his marker.

“Do any of you know who the Old Waldtics were?”

A needle of light poked at his eye from the window, blinding him from the bumpy skyline. At her desk, Vivi shook her head, resting her chin on folded arms. One of the ceiling lamps creaked and popped off its spring, crashing to the ground, but none of the kids budged.
Hugh turned to the yellow-stained whiteboard and drew squeaking lines over its surface.

“They were the people who lived in these parts two-hundred-or-so years ago.”

“Native Americans?” Vivi toyed with her hair.

“No – immigrants that got here before the rest of Europe did, and stayed quiet about it. They defended the soil: kept the Brits out at all costs.”

In black ink, the image of sprawling branches within a closed circle came together.

“They called themselves ‘Waldmiraa’: ‘guardians’ or, more accurately, ‘preservers’. This is one of their symbols.” Hugh tugged free a book from his satchel, flipping to a page stained dark with age-old strokes.

“As you can see here, they were avid lovers of History – unlike you kids – which they documented using murals.”

“That looks like a Crawler,” said Vivi, pointing at the four-legged figure standing behind a tree in the picture. Hugh adjusted his glasses and raised the book to eye level. What exactly was that?

“Is it a Crawler, sir? I thought they didn’t have Crawlers back then.”

“That is . . . well . . . “The book closed with a thump.

“I don’t know.”

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