Of the Nightfall

This group of short stories (under construction) are grouped into a rough experimental story which will be included in the novel Ancora Io. These pieces postdate the events of the 2020 Australian fires, the almost war between Iraq and the US and the rapid spread of the COVID 19.

c Peter Quinton
published: Dark Aelf Publishing, Canberra and New York, 2020-21

1. A note to my reader about becoming Meckel

I will not test your credulity with a story of death and rebirth (in any event, the story here is deliberately obscure, and perhaps might make more sense if considered the ravings of a heavily sedated patient, even though that is not the case.)

A death certificate would just create headaches anyway. My life insurer dives for cover when he sees me coming – trotting along to him with my death certificate would be a recipe for disaster.

I have a picture from that time. From a little time after the surgeon discovered i was not quite human, before making me much better than i have ever been and stapling me back together. For a bit there i didn’t feel all that human: more an un-dead collection of scars and tubes held together by a little AI and duct tape (forget stitches, duct tape is awesome).

Three and a half weeks after the, umm, discontinuity, i was back in the wild, feeling about 24, hiking 10-15kms a day, swimming a couple of kilometers and almost in the clear of the hallucinatory pain killers from hospital.

But all is not roses. I am a bit cross about the state of the world since i last looked (not attributing blame to anyone here), and am disappointed about how fast the scars are fading. I treasure each of my scars. The sword cut on my right cheek, the long jagged stingray trail inside my left arm, a cut across my left wrist where i fell through a window... and all the rest. But it would be a lot better if they did not fade. 

I am also a little bewildered about being found to be a Meckel. 

Forget about dashing off to Google to find out what a Meckel is. Google doesn't know. You might trip over some species-ist nonsense about a Meckel being an unusual malformation best put into one of those large glass specimen jars in hospital libraries along with the folk with wings or three heads. Just keep an eye out for overly-friendly surgeons looking out for a tax deductible gift to the faculty.

Of course, like humans, there is no properly documented user manual concerning Meckels (although i have discovered a couple of unpleasant accounts of vivisections). No warranties nor guarantees either. Truth, i probably would not read a user manual anyway, but it would be cool to know stuff, like if i ate more grass would i grow wings or get better at poetry. Which reminds me, i probably need to find a local vet and, i bet, they don't have a manual either.

2. The day after I died, I found Ming Wei and Previ

I was wandering the foothills of the mountains of oblivion.

The sky was full of fluffy white clouds. The sun was poised to fall below nearby hills. The pastures were a verdant green, and small streams tipped falls of pure sparkling water from cliffs. There was no hint of smoke in the sky, no scarred nor fallen trees. Birds filled the air.

I felt no pain, drifting as I pleased, delighting with each new find, promising myself to return with a camera and notebook.

I ignored the scholar for a while, but regardless of where I turned, he came back into sight. I thought it would be rude to ignore him and approached him quietly, trying not to surprise him.

He sat, brush in hand, working on a scroll. His hands moved swiftly, a blur of ink and, sometimes, a touch of color.

He saw me and stopped for a moment.

I saw the tiredness in his eyes: he seemed old beyond counting, a long narrow gaunt face, creased by worry. He wore a scholar's hat, and an old robe, patched but clean and well-loved.

He looked at me, and as he spoke, his hands became a blur again as his work continued to take shape: "I am Ming Wei. We thought we lost you."

There was a sharp burst of clicks, and Ming Wei continued, "And this is Previ."

I wanted to look closer at his work, a drawing of great rivers crashing to the sea but followed his gaze to a small ball of energy, fur, and claws.

Previ gave a sharp burst of clicks. So intense, an echo of hurt.

I remembered pain and recoiled.

Ming Wei said, "Previ will guide you from this place. Before the sun sets."

I protested, "I haven't finished exploring this place. I want to stay here."

Ming Wei shook his head and pointed to the dying sun as he faded from sight.

Tendrils of mist fell from the sky. I looked for Ming Wei, and then I called out.

I turned to Previ and wondered. Maybe she would stay and walk with me.

From the edge of my view, I saw thin clear tubes falling to the sky.

Then Previ sprang. She hit me tummy high, claws outstretched.

And then the pain started, and I screamed. 

3. The little mongoose danced in front of me, shepherding me to the river. Behind me, the sunset red and the westerly wind picked up with the scent of eucalypts and fire

I stopped ease the pain and looked back. The clouds at the world's end were boiling, bruised with hues of earth and fire. Previ nipped me and let go a stream of clicks. Again, I started to move towards a small pier. The sky was alive with sirens, insects, and flying leaves.

At water's edge, I slipped into a small shell of a boat and cast off into the river. Only then did Previ look back, running backward and forward on the boat rail, head high in the air, her eyes lit by evening's fire.
The current caught us, and small waves buffered us from every direction. I held on tight, while Previ ran from side to side, balancing and rebalancing the boat. Every time I thought a wave would surely capsize us, she caught it and smoothed the passage.

I fell into a deep sleep. I was back on the shore surrounded by waterfalls in the glade with the Chinese scholar. Ming Wei was serious but told me that I was safe. I asked: Safe? From what? Ming Wei spoke softly in symbols and words I could not comprehend and then said some kind words to Previ, asleep purring with small clicks on my lap. He finished: While I had you open, I found something else. He smiled a reassuring smile: When you are stronger, we will talk more.

I woke coughing, the air fall of smoke and falling burning debris. Previ opened an eye and nestled in closer, kneading my chest, helping me breathe as the little boat rose and fell on high ocean waves.

Later, the wind changed briefly, and the smoke cleared. Previ kept busy keeping the boat balanced, and I looked back to the shore, illuminated by a full moon. Fire danced across the headlands.

3. We glided along the coastline, never far out of sight of land, until we came to the mouth of a vast bay. Here the waters would sometimes push us far out into the ocean and then drag us back in close to the breaking waves. Along the shores of the bay, small boats crowded onto sandy beaches, and, at night, tents would appear all around. I slipped in and out of sleep, leaving the management of the boat to my companion.

Once, at night, I awoke to the heavy smell of tobacco, children squabbling, and babies crying. I heard snatches of conversation, fast and excited, Arabic. Near a tall gum, a campfire burnt in front of a tent: men talking in loud tones caught by firelight; women pursuing different topics inside the tent behind.
Despite the surprise, sleep overtook me before the inconsistency of the visage had time to settle.

When morning broke, my little boat, too, had been lifted by the tide, and now rested high on the beach, no longer rocked by the soft beat of the sea.

The tents and campfires of the night before had gone. Instead, all around, in the small boats, I had seen, I now saw sleeping occupants, one apiece, swaddled in sheets and blankets. Some were sleeping silently, others ragged with sweat on brows, sheets cast askew.

Previ lifted her head from time to time, chattering with expectation, but finding silence: there was not another mongoose to be seen nor heard.

Nearby, a man raised himself painfully onto an elbow and gave me a wry smile, before coughing and settling back to a troubled sleep.

A group of ravens landed in the gum tree, and one fluttered down to my station. Previ chattered a challenge, but the raven dropped her head and said, "No need to fear me, little one." She called, and three others joined her.

She said, in a smooth voice, "We are the Pain Team. We have come to see whether you are suffering or thriving."

I cleared my mouth and tried to speak, but nothing but a croak came forth.

Another spake, "Nothing is served by fake heroics. Avoid pain whenever you can. No gold stars here for suffering."

The last asked, "Who are you, and why are you here?"

Previ filled my mouth with cold clear water, the crust of salt and wind, melting away.

I tried to answer, but my voice was far beyond my call.

The lead raven suggested, "Try a deep breath, and then a cough."

I tried to breathe, but my cough was miserable.

Something disturbed the ravens, and they arose in a flurry of feathers and wings promising to return.

During the morning, the beach was raked smooth by the wind. As I fell in and out of sleep, tents were erected around each of the stations.

A woman nearby called to her God in pain, shaking her head in misery.

The man who had looked at me before now avoided my glance, concentrating on managing the pain he bore instead. Later that day, his wife, dressed formally in robes came to sit next to him. She waited until he greeted her, and then, in Arabic, spoke to him for hours without drawing breath. I saw him nod and heard him sob and laugh, but his eyes did not leave hers once in that time.

Family joined the wife. Sisters with children, both newborn and tablet aged, whispered, and planned. Brothers sat around the tent, arguing about the war, the missiles, the cost of a wife, and traded tobacco. Old men came as well, with phones, to be near and talk afar.

The woman who had called to God smiled with the weight of that other family, even as they took her breath away.

At first, I wished that we were back out on the ocean, away from the sounds of others. But when I saw the longing in the man's eyes and the joy in the breathless woman, I recalled the joy of companionship.

4. A woman in army uniform moved deliberately across the sand, a wave of silence following her wake.

She paused in front of a tent nearby and threatened to pounce.

A male voice laughed and said, "Bring it on. Come get me."

She hesitated, "I will break you. Slacker."

He said, carelessly, "Just cancer. I can still rassel with you."

Shadows moved in the sinking sun, "I heard. Got the others coming. We are going to break you out."

"Maybe I am happy here. No patrols. No rations. No more randoms shooting at us."

"Come back to us. I promise you will die happy. Jake said he would cook you a special..."

Movement as others piled into the tent, shadows playing on the walls as fevered rain started to fall.

I turned back to the couple saying their goodbys, the Arabic repetitive, soft and gentle.

I turned, suddenly conscious of a shadow next to me. Previ was curled up in my lap, purring softly.

I asked, "What are they saying?"

A new voice said, "She is saying 'One day more. Please, God. One day more.' He is saying, 'What will be.' "

"Who are you?"

She whispered, "Sleep. Tomorrow we will walk across the sand. And then, maybe, we can escape from this place."

5. In the morning, I was alone.

Shadows dismantled the tents nearby.

When I awoke, an older woman slept fitfully in one of the areas.

I heard one the shadows complaining, "When she came from aged care, she wanted a shower and her hair done. This morning I tried to wash her and told her I would do her hair. She started to cry and said Nononono! No wash hair! But then she was incontinent, so I took her to the shower. She screamed and waved her hands."

The old lady was awake and pulled herself up proud in the bed. She sat, hands clenched, and glared at the nurses doing the midday handover.

A shadow smiled at her, "It's ok, Mama, you look beautiful."

The other voice said. "She threw water at me!"

The old lady let loose a stream of crackly Italian finishing, "Si seniora si, belimisimo."

Later her family came. She was eating her lunch. They waved from the tent entrance, and she pushed a glass of juice off the table. Her daughter cried out, "Mama!"

The old lady cried that she didn't want sugar. She wanted her hair washed.

The family talks about cutting her hair while they get someone to come clean up the mess.

The family's young daughter remembers the time they washed her hair with conditioner, and then the family talks about her father. They compliment her on the clothes they have brought her.

After a while, she joined in, talking in a high, wavy voice. She tells how she looked after her mother, till death. "Gross", offered the little girl.

They see the tiredness in her eyes and agree between themselves to come another time again.

She dips her eyes and begins to cry as they edge to the tent and the beach beyond.

She calls her daughter's name. 

One more strangled raven call into the darkness.


ARC said…
Fascinating - I'll try not to hold my breath while I wait to read the conclusion.

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