Open Pen presents the third and final instalment in a three-part series of flash fiction recordings, written and narrated by author James Vella, titled ‘Devoured Further’.
DEVOURED FURTHER – PART III
An English Dead
Eight Thousand Dirhams
The Passion and The Reason
Full text versions of all nine stories are published below.
An Ecstatic Lightning of Strange Birds
“My son’s leaving,” the fisherman said. “I don’t know what to do. I could give him a job here, a home. But he told me he wants to leave.”
I watched the fisherman turn away and scratch his ear and hang limply against the bar. Above us a dirty fan scratched the heat. Sunlight dressed us in ale gold.
“You could visit him?” I offered.
“I can’t afford it.”
The barman interrupted us, his voice birdlike and stuttered. “I could lend you some money,” he said.
“I could never pay you back.”
“I could give you some money, then.”
“From where? What money?”
The barman looked about the old room, its rust-licked barstools and mezcal and the caravan of flies that lived in its sweat. “I don’t know,” he said.
The Memory Lost to Carob Sunrays
My foot slipped between two rocks. I ran my hand down my calf until I felt a mossy algae and my ankle craning out to one side and I put my head against the cold wet stone of the cave wall. In the inches of water at the floorway of the cave a current licked higher. A seabird yelped ahead.
“What do you call that in Spanish?” I asked the girl, hearing the sandy scuttling of a rock lizard. Her voice, sweet like carob liqueur, made the sunrays on my nape dance gaily. I already knew the word – el lagarto – but I wanted her to tell me. I wanted to taste the carob liqueur on my lips.
“El lagarto,” she said, bringing my coffee to the table, and guided my hand to the cup. She came back to English again. “Be careful with the cup, it’s very hot and very full. You would like me to empty some for you?”
I shook my head. “It’s very pretty,” I said. “El lagarto.”
She laughed. Coffee perfume and carob liqueur. “No no, they are ugly and they eat…I don’t know what you call.”
“Will you walk with me to the beach?” I asked.
“Por supuesto,” she said, and she took my wrist. “You can bring your coffee with you. But be careful with the cup. I’ll tell you about what we see.”
“I can see everything fine,” I said. “I can see your voice and the sound of the waves on the shore.” That was all I wanted to see.
Years later, I asked for the cafe where I met Yolanda. An old Englishman told me Yolanda had married and moved away and he asked if I wanted help. I fumbled down the walkway to the beach, running my fingertips along the limestone so it crumbled away. Yolanda knew a cave on the far side of the beach where the palm trees clapped together like birds’ wings. I believed we had disturbed a flock until Yolanda giggled and asked why I tried to hear the sky.
“I think this is the cave,” I said to myself, feeling around the rim of the entrance.
I Lupi di Syracusa
“It’s all starting to become so familiar,” Gabriele said. He sweated, with Bruno, between eternal rows of high corn under the bursting sunlight. The heat just as brutal as the firing squad, just as precise, as merciless.
“I think we’ve been here before. This cornfield I mean,” Bruno said.
Gabriele looked around him, the bulrush stems and the hopping nosey crickets sucking at his moisture. “I don’t know,” he shrugged. “Forse abbiamo.”
At the men’s feet, a dribble of airy spring water pattered over the soil. Bruno cupped a handful to his lips. “I think I recognise the water.”
A kind of deafness filled Gabriele’s ears.
“What’s the matter?” Bruno asked.
“The water,” Gabriele said. “It’s supposed to be for the corn.”
“You’ll die without water, stronzo.”
“The corn will too. A great job we’ll have done protecting the people then.”
As they bickered, a silence swelled about them, flushing over the ridges of the sweltering cornfield. In iron waves it crushed the earth.
Bruno straightened as the generale called out. His voice rattled between the high reeds.
“We know you’re hiding in there, ragazzi. If you don’t come out, we’ll come in and you’ll die like rats in your cornfield.”
Gabriele drank from the trickling spring then.
“Andiamo, sbrigatevi!” The generale’s wolf voice revealed his pack. There must have been a dozen men with him.
“Maybe we have been here before,” Bruno said. “It looks different in the daytime.”
“Come vuoi, vigliacchi,” the generale yelled. Then his voice dimmed, instructing someone beside him. “Tell him to go,” he said.
A mechanical roar fanned out from the edge of the cornfield, and overhead Bruno and Gabriele saw a grubby red cropduster trailed in a noxious lemon fog.
The plane approached them.
The Last Fight
Billy turned the letter over in his hand. His torn knuckles, sagging with age, caught him in a lost memory for a moment. He read the letter again, from the start. He mouthed every word to be certain he had it right, even the address, even his own name at the head of the page.
In his cell, in this taunting empty space that had held him and kept him for decades and watched him become old, the handwritten note carried him somewhere else.
A burly man. A nose like an ear, a scalp mottled with cuts and wet with sweat. Billy stood over the Irish fighter and flashing lights blared about as angry insects.
“He’s dead!” a voice yelled. “You’ve killed him!”
The other fighter poured blood out onto the canvas, his mouth and his cheeks flowing vermillion in endless serpentine slither. Billy hunched as a sick dog, trying to see the fallen fighter as he was swallowed and dragged into the crowd and made meat by the mob. He bellowed and felt an allied hand grab his own and take him.
Weeks later he turned his hands over and over, bruised and deafened, in a courtroom.
“He died, Billy,” the moustached lawyer told him, inches from his face. “He died and you killed him.”
The trainer veiled Billy’s face in a white towel as he was taken. Seething rage filled his hood and he lashed out and broke a newspaper man’s jaw. The boxer still violent in his executioner’s mask perversely white read the print next morning.
Billy read the last lines of the letter again.
I’m so sorry, Billy, it read.
I’m a coward. I asked this letter to be sent after my death.
I did it. I laced your gloves. It was for a score.
I’m so sorry.
In a Dark Convent
“It’s difficult to remember, dear,” Sister Claudetta said.
“It wasn’t that long ago, surely?” Marteddu replied. She was playing hard to get rid of.
The convent overlooked a bright copse of flowering peach trees and blue surf under the cliffside. Sun-starched pollen floated through the rooms, into Sister Claudetta’s study where Marteddu sat holding cold chinotto tea whose bitterness reached her fingernails.
“I’m a very old woman.” Sister Claudetta rubbed her crocodile palms together in a kind of prayer.
Marteddu loosened her ponytail. “1943, Sister Claudetta,” the policewoman said. “Twenty years ago, your sister-in-law moved to…?”
“Yes. Where she was never heard from again.” Marteddu had her notebook open, but kept her eyes on the other woman. The old stone room seemed to swallow her words into its brick, siding with the old lady. A mushroom air tried to force her eyes closed.
Sister Claudetta made a crucifix across her breast.
“While another woman,” Marteddu said, “Signora Lucia Becchio – she also disappeared from the village.” Now Marteddu looked down at her notes and found her own handwriting hieroglyphical and magical, not written her uniform cursive, and she blinked at the page.
“I thought you’d ask me about her,” Sister Claudetta said, seeming to rise.
A line of text unfogged in Marteddu’s notes. Claudetta Barone – eye colour: blue
She looked up at Sister Claudetta and saw eyes so dark as to be black. The rest of the room became dark too. Marteddu felt her wrists contort and she dropped her notepad. She turned to the chinotto tea on the desktop and then back to Sister Claudetta, trying to mouth some words. The sister’s impassive tunnelling eyes gave her nothing back.
Marteddu slumped off her chair, her breath trapped somewhere deep within. The old woman remained still on the other side of the room.
Name Heaven Us Hereafter and Enter Heaven Us Evermore
“I can see our children,” Silaluk said. He lay supine in the snow, the night powdered with endless high stars. “And I can see us, happy and old together.”
Yakone craned her neck to see out of the moon-shaped fur hood about her face. Her cheeks red and weather-beaten, the snow was softer than usual. “Can you really see our children?” she asked Silaluk. His ears were bunched in his own hood, made of dark fox hair where hers was young white bear.
“Three children,” Silaluk said, reading the scattered pinprick light above.
Yakone nodded. She felt Silaluk’s hand move inside her glove where they shared one sealskin mitt against the snow.
“There’s a storm coming,” she said.
Silaluk looked across the oceanic expanse of the sky. “I can see it,” he said. He pointed at a bank of stars, grapefruit coloured and shimmering like they were wetted with dew. “That shape there, you see?”
Yakone thought she saw the shape of the storm where Silaluk pointed, and she heard her name yelled from her camp.
“My father,” she said. “I have to go.”
As Silaluk pulled his hand out of her glove and felt the gnashing cold bite, a little voice called his name from the far side of the snow dune.
“You have to come home, Silaluk,” the boy said, padded thick in animal hide so only his round flat face came through the clothes. “There’s a storm coming.”
Silaluk walked with his brother, the indentations of their footsteps filled with falling snow.
“You can’t marry that girl,” his brother said. “She’s not Talikriktug like us.”
Silaluk looked up at the stars and in the dark lines between saw Yakone’s girlish perfumed body undressed from her fur. Crashing waves of snow piled up over the gaps in the clouds and Silaluk lost sight of her. But he knew beyond the boundary of the storm Yakone remained, pure and loving, the mother of his children and his bride.
An English Dead
“You can call me George,” Mallory said. He swallowed and was rocked fully as if the moisture squeezed through an inner tube. The fringes of his body were numb, not just with cold but with a ghostly freezing oil that seeped through him. The oil followed the fall. It had reached his hands and made them useless.
“Alright then. George.”
“Yes, Irvine?” Mallory said.
“Can you hear me?” Irvine replied. The wind sucked his voice and his breath out. He lay on one side with legs misshapen. His chest against the frigid cragged mountain, his feet without ground beneath them for a terrible distance.
“Yes, Irvine,” Mallory said.
“How far did we fall?”
“A few hundred feet I’d say. But difficult to judge when you’re going down so quickly.”
Mallory imagined he heard Irvine laugh. It was more likely a living breath leaving the man.
With his elbow Mallory tried to loosen the awful cutting rope that wrenched his torso in two and he failed. A kind of snow dance paraded in front of him, made from the rare black-grey specks of rock that freckled the pure mountainside. The specks formed strange language, a mysterious wordless poem that spoke through a howling wind to Mallory, that willed him through his wounds.
“I can’t,” Mallory whispered to the mountain. “I’m in a bad way, you see.”
“What’s that, old chap?” Irvine called, his neck lolling.
“Oh. Nothing, nothing.”
“George, what’s your boy’s name?” Irvine asked.
“It’s John,” Mallory replied.
“John, yes. A fine young man I’m sure,” Irvine said.
Mallory could not reply, not to Irvine nor the mountain.
Eight Thousand Dirhams
Potterwold stared at the glass arc at the foot of the stand. It was sheared as a perfect crescent as if scalpelled or hot knived. Potterwold looked back up, and breathed.
“Eight thousand Dirham,” the souq seller said, sweat in teary droplets on his bald head. He stood taller than Potterwold. “You break,” he said. His voice made the room small. “You break and you pay.”
Potterwold stammered, his eyes up at the souq seller in his hot mint narghile mist. “Now look here,” he said. “I don’t have that sort of money on me.” He touched his braces, smearing them into the sweat that writhed about his linen.
The souq seller pointed with an open palm down to the brandy decanter in shards on the floor. “Eight thousand Dirham,” he said to Potterwold. Then he yelled in Maghreb through the carpet woven walls of his room, a divine old language that coiled from the deepest chambers of the throat. A return shout came back and Potterwold turned to see the doorway closed off by two men. The darkest came to Potterwold, his steps broad under his long thawb.
“He say you break,” the dark man said, clucking. His chicken eyes rounded pink at the sockets.
“I was just looking at the harp,” Potterwold said. He still held the instrument. “I didn’t mean to break the decanter.” He remembered then the hotel boy recommending this souq. “Surely that’s not eight thousand Dirhams’ worth. That’s a lot of money.” He wobbled down to the floor and picked up the half-moon of glass, holding the harp in one hand and the decanter slice in the other.
“Is expensive,” the souq seller said. “Is very fine.”
“I say,” Potterwold said in a trill. “Looks like it’s been cut.” He thumbed the stripe of the edge.
“No cut!” The souq seller rose up higher. “You break!”
“Now just what are you playing at?” Potterwold’s feet started to firm up on the floor.
The souq seller grabbed at Potterwold’s top pocket where his money clip bulged against his clammy chest. Potterwold swung a wild arm towards him and felt the harp crack with a lightning snap against the souq seller’s temple. He fell back into the arms of the dark man and his weight bundled them both to the floor.
When he woke, his cheek stung. He padded along the breadth of his torn shirt in search for his money clip and but found only splits in the linen. He turned on the nurse’s bed and saw a neat parcel wrapped in Arabic-scripted newspaper and tied. The note was written in English poorly scribbled.
Your decanter. Is broken, but is very fine. Perhaps you shall fix in England.
The Passion and The Reason
The Artist sat with his head in his hands. A stuttering silence fluttered about him. At the desk on the side of the room a monogrammed paintbrush case gilted the initials LTLP. The telephone in his studio rang, over and over, like a single chirruping cricket in a wild grass. He knew the call was from his wife. Her insect voice flapped at his subconscious and he let the telephone ring on.
The Artist lifted his feet from the stagnant pond of blood that collected on the dark studio floor. His cigarette hung limp in the ashtray. A string of ants formed a perfect line from the warming sheep cheese on his desk. The light in the room – made of mildewish white – flickered and became dark, then returned.
He finally lifted the phone.
“I know you’re angry-” the voice said. The Artist dropped the receiver back down and the telephone quietened in shock for a brief moment before bleating again.
“Just be reasonable-”
He hung up again, and looked at his half-brother slumped in a balletic arabesque on the floor. The stagnant crimson pond emanated out in an endless chuckling from his half-brother’s chest.