Following my humiliating (but not unexpected) recent defeat at the hands of the NYC Midnight judges I have meekly returned to my roots, cap in hand, to bore you with silly poems. Some a lot sillier than others but none requiring any serious thought – on my part or that of the reader.
I remember discovering, to my youthful dismay, that the plural of platypus is platypuses and not platipi. This is an outrage. How can such a delicate and graceful little animal be given such a cumbersome plural when a relatively clumsy oaf like the hippopotamus gets something so much more poetic? I won’t stand for it!
Anyway, I was considering the platypus last night whilst drinking heavily and cursing, yet again, the NYC Midnight judges, and thought it high time to express my feelings on this poorly appointed plural.
We are but mammals, you and I Together with the platypi Our species not in short supply Such is our wish to multiply We live on land yet yearn to fly To hope just once, before we die This gravity to yet defy To rise one day, and touch the sky
By way of factual information, by the way, for those not familiar with this wide brown land, the platypus does not, it would seem, multiply veraciously, as I might have suggested for poetic convenience. Kangaroo, on the other hand (no plural required, they are almost never seen alone) breed like rabbits, and there are eight or nine of them on my front lawn right now.
Some of you may recall my expressions of surprise when a story of mine scored a 2nd place in the NYC Midnight Short Story Competition first round.
I spoke about it here, if you are interested or very bored.
This is an unusual event. I am normally weeded out as a joke in the first round and quickly discarded, but, occasionally, something slips through.
I can report, however, that in a return to normality, the judges awarded me with an equal last place in round 2. So I suppose I can return to writing silly meaningless ‘poetry’ and dine out on sour grapes for a while.
The feedback is always interesting in that it frequently seems self-contradictory. The following extract actually represents about 75% of the total feedback I received for this one.
“ The narrative’s journal structure is phenomenal, with the first section introducing this structure in its incredible and intriguing lines, “I am a survivor. My husband is a survivalist. There is a difference” and ending with the stunning revelation that “The notes will be brief and there will be errors of fact and clarity. For I am writing in the dark.” This section also successfully adds riveting elements such as the description of the bunker itself with its ammunitions stores and combustion stove around which they “bathe, cook, eat, sleep, talk and think.” The journal’s initial entry is distressing and compelling in equal parts, with the evocative metaphor of the “paratroopers, who descended like locusts to squabble over the scraps that the heavy artillery had left behind” and how these were “Evil little boys waving guns and chanting slogans they didn’t understand.” Katarzyna’s torturous experience, while deeply distressing and sickening, is realistic because rape throughout human history as been used as a weapon of war and sets the foundation for her lasting trauma. It makes perfect sense that she is “dying inside” and Aleksander’s expectation of sex underscores his inability to protect her, to understand and show empathy, and how he puts his needs before her own. All the journal entries have something engaging, wrenching, or thrilling about them, and the brief paragraphs that become single sentences generate a quick clip of a pace for the plot as it unfolds. Additionally, the way in which the accuracy of the dates devolve into question marks and finally, blanks, is fantastically reflective not only of the passage of time but also Katarzyna’s emotional trajectory. There’s so much in the story that’s tense, threatening, and/or bleak, from the strain between spouses in the bunker to the nightmares inside Katarzyna’s head to the nuclear holocaust outside the bunker. The final pages create further distress and conflict with the unknown figure approaching. It is a satisfying development when Katarzyna takes up her husband’s rifle and shoots him through the heart. I think you set the scene here wonderfully and create a complex character that the reader can follow throughout the story. Considering her experience, the isolation and cramped quarters, it’s not surprising that we watch this woman slowly going mad. The revelation that she kills her husband is so heartbreaking but makes perfect sense all things considered”
I heard about a competition for poetry addressing the issues surrounding mental health here for which our own Megha Sood is a finalist. Those who know me even vaguely would appreciate that I am not foreign to these issues, and take them very seriously, but also that I don’t think anything should be taken too seriously, all the time.
So whilst what follows might be a bit tongue in cheek, and a bit cheap, and a bit trite, I hope you find it not entirely so. My own mental health, at the moment, seems to limit me to about 5 minutes of cohesive thought at a time. So this is my 5 minutes worth.
Obviously I would be too late to enter the competition, but nor would I dare to do so with this. I, more than most, recognise that 5 minutes of scribbling at the kitchen table wins no prizes.
So join me in wishing Megha the very best of luck.
Some days I’m feeling pensive Some days I’m sort of sad Some days I’m apprehensive Though some days I feel glad Some days are sort of special But other days are bad I do my tricks. I get my kicks But some days I go mad
I’ll admit that I’m impulsive I can be compulsive too You find me so repulsive Because I’m so different to you But it’s not a point of difference Just a different point of view But it’s too late to imitate So what am I to do?
They found me on the street one night And they kicked me in the head They had no right, but I had no fight So they left me there for dead I suppose that I had stumbled on A place I shouldn’t tread Though way down deep I’m still asleep I woke up in this bed
So now I’m in a hospital That treats insanity Where they tell me that they have this plan Of understanding me They’re pointing down a tunnel At a light I cannot see But they give me lots of tablets So now I get my kicks for free
Occasionally, however, due possibly to heavy drinking or illicit drug consumption on the part of the judges, something gets a bit off track and I enjoy modest (and transient) success.
Such was the case with a story I shared with you Here that was awarded a miraculous 2nd place in the first round of this year’s short story event.
Fear not, however, for my 2nd round effort has not a snowball’s chance in hell of impressing the judges similarly. They rarely get fall down drunk twice in a row.
Nevertheless, here it is, for those with nothing else to do.
The requirement was for a horror story featuring the concept of ‘winterize’ and ‘paratroopers’.
It is horrific in perhaps more ways than one. The formatting didn’t work when copying and transferring it here, but I’m too lazy to fix it with this block editor thing.
Let the Darkness Take Us
(A woman, traumatised by war, hides from the Nuclear Winter but cannot hide from her own demons.)
I am a survivor. My husband is a survivalist. There is a difference. Long before the war began, he built a deep bunker in the Bialowieza Forest, below a dilapidated shack, purchased from his meagre earnings working as a professor of science at the University of Bialystok, here in Poland. He is a good man. A clever man. He cares for me deeply, I know. And here in that private bunker he tries to shelter me from the storm. I am surrounded by thick concrete. We have food, water, firewood, torches, batteries, a rifle, ammunition, and so on. There is a combustion stove at the centre of the room, which burns for 24 hours a day. Around it we bathe, cook, eat, sleep, talk and think. It has become our shrine, upon which life depends. There is a trapdoor above me accessible by a sturdy ladder, opening into the shack, and whatever may be beyond. The bunker measures no more than 5 metres square, but we have supplies sufficient to last for 12 to 18 months. We are fully prepared, physically at least, to withstand the nuclear winter. I will try to keep an occasional journal of events and of my private thoughts. The notes will be brief and there will be errors of fact and clarity. For I am writing in the dark.
2023/11/23 We always knew it would come to this, one day, though this war started no differently than those before it. First came the sabre rattling and the clashing of egos. Then the aeroplanes, the bombs, and the missiles. And then the troops. The worst of them were the paratroopers, who descended like locusts to squabble over the scraps that the heavy artillery had left behind. Stupid children waving guns and chanting slogans they didn’t understand. Thugs, thieves, and rapists. When they came to our city; to my house, they looked at me with distain; with disinterest. But they took me anyway. When the fourth of them, the youngest of them – young enough to be my son, had finished and was readjusting his trousers, he grinned down at me. “Thank you, Ma’am,” he said. I vomited for 3 hours. Aleksander found me lying on the dusty concrete floor of what once had been our home. He had been in the forest, making final preparations for our departure – so his efforts to save me had effectively left me at the mercy of the beasts. He carried me to the van and drove me away to the forest. Few words were spoken. What was there to say? 2023/12/11 It is already difficult to receive news. But it has happened. Nobody knows who was the first to push the button. It matters not. The monster has been released. The madness has begun. 2024/01/18 The nights are growing colder, though it is increasingly difficult to tell night from day. The cracks in the trapdoor at the top of the ladder are our only source of natural light and even that grows dimmer. The shortwave radio, our only means of communication, is increasingly unreliable and we must limit its use to conserve battery power. We have heard though, a few times, of other survivalists venturing out into the open. But, of those, we have never heard again. 2024/03/01 We speak less and less. He asks for sex, from time to time. But I cannot bring myself to it. It is not just the sex. “You have no passion within you for anything at all, Katarzyna.” Aleksander has complained. And he is right. My heart isn’t in it. He assures me always that we have sufficient food, water, and firewood to last this thing out. And that we have each other. I am not sure that that will be enough.
2024/04/18 I have tried to make this place inhabitable. There is a mirror on one wall and on another a crumpled photograph from our wedding day. I cannot bear to look at either of them. Conditions are horrid. There are no internal walls down here and no hope of privacy. The toilet is little more than a hole in the ground. One must squat over it and hear the echoes of one’s own ablutions returning from the deep. We turn away when the other is using it. The stench of everything is becoming intolerable. Although good manners seem now, to me, ridiculous. Aleksander has warned me that the toilet will eventually become a serious fire hazard. The build up of gases within it will create an explosive mix and, were I ever to throw a match into it I could, in one blinding flash, destroy everything for which we have worked. “It is science,” he informed me. “And it is science that got us into the shit in the first place,” I replied. It had never occurred to me to throw a match into the toilet. Why would I? But since hearing about it I cannot get the idea out of my head, fearing that some inner demon may compel me to do so.
2024/05/01 I have lost weight. It is difficult, and pointless, to stand up and move around. Aleksander has begun talking of getting out. He wants to ‘rescue’ me. “We know what happens to people who ‘get out’,” I told him. “Do we?” he replied, “maybe they have found somewhere else, somewhere safe. A beach somewhere.” “Don’t be ridiculous. Why have they not come back to rescue us?” “They don’t know where we are.” It is too late to rescue me, anyway. And I cannot forgive him. 2024/07/12 Aleksander loaded the rifle today. I wondered if he was planning our suicide. “Why don’t we just lay down in the snow and die?” I asked. I have heard of people falling asleep in the snow and never awakening. It is a peaceful way to go. He looked back at me sadly. 2024/-/- I can no longer keep track. Time ceased to have meaning long ago. The world has stopped in the middle of a freezing night. Time is measured only by the dwindling supply of firewood. I am having nightmares. If we speak, we argue. Aleksander clings defiantly to hope on the other side. Hope for what? He is determined to re-enter the world. I wish I were dead. I wish Aleksander were dead. Him more than me. I told him so. Then I turned away from him and went to sleep. Sunday morning? When I awoke, he was gone. He had taken his heaviest clothing, one of the torches, batteries, a little of the food and a water cannister. Not the rifle. I noticed also that he had removed our wedding photograph from the wall. I take this to be a message of some sort. On Saturday nights, long ago, we would sometimes drink too much and would argue. He would then make a show of storming out and finding somewhere to sulk. Or just to frighten me. But by Sunday afternoon he was back, with roses, chocolates, and apologies. He is trying to frighten me again. But there will be no roses or chocolates. I climbed up the ladder, of course, to see if I could find him. I shone my torch around the hut, thinking that he might be hiding from me there, huddled cold and pathetic in a corner. But he was nowhere inside. I gingerly opened the door and peered out of it to take my first look at the new world. There was nothing to see. Aleksander is gone. He is dead and feels nothing. I feel little more. Everything feeling swallowed by the freezing blackness.
-/-/- It has probably been two weeks now. I don’t miss him. But the nightmares grow worse. Paratroopers. They come in the night. “Thank you, Ma’am.” I have ventured into the shack a few times and looked out the door. I doubt that there is anything out there that could hurt me. More than I have already been hurt. -/-/- I spend more time up in the shack now, for as long as I can bear the cold, although climbing up the ladder is becoming more difficult. I occasionally venture out onto the veranda and once I even stepped off, only to sink to my waist in snow. It took an eternity, and all my energy, just to climb back out. I have discovered that there is, in fact, a dull light in the sky differentiating night and day and sometimes I can pick out things in the near distance without the use of the torch. Sometimes I see something move out there. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of his dead body lying in the snow. -/-/- I hear noises. Sometimes in my sleep, sometimes when I am awake. I can scarcely tell the difference. They may be aeroplanes. They remind me of the distant dull roar that came before the dropping of the paratroopers. Perhaps, there is another war. Perhaps, it is starting all over again. -/-/- Whenever I awaken (do I ever truly awaken?) it is in terror. For I have seen them. Again. Falling from the skies. They are coming to get me. The paratroopers. -/-/- And now, I am sure. There is something out there. I stood on the veranda and I saw movement. This is not a dream. I saw a torchlight in the distance. It flashed once and then disappeared. I must load the rifle.
-/-/- Something is moving towards me. Slowly and laboriously. But deliberately. About seven hundred metres away. Falling, with every few steps, into deeper snow. Struggling to it’s feet again and continuing. Falling again. On and on. A stumbling zombie of the apocalypse. Always towards me. I have never fired a gun. I have no hope of hitting anything from this range. I must wait. Lure it into my trap. Only then will I strike. I looked away for a second, just to test myself, hoping, when I looked back, that the spectre might have disappeared. And then, returning my gaze, I panicked until I saw him again, imagining him about to burst through the door. But no. He had still two hundred metres to travel. The waiting is an agony.
-/-/- When it was within fifty metres of the shack, and I was sure that it had seen me I went inside and climbed down the ladder. I waited there until I heard the ponderous footsteps and the heavy breathing above and I pointed the rifle upward. When it opened the trapdoor and peered down at me, I fired. The first bullet struck it in the shoulder and the second in the upper chest, where the heart should have been. It staggered backwards and I heard it crash out through the door and onto the veranda. When I climbed up there, it was still quivering, so I pointed the rifle and fired again. This time into the forehead. It lay still. I leant cautiously over it and reached out to touch. There I felt the bloody warmth of another human seep between my fingers. He had removed the glove from his left hand and was clasping a scrap of paper. I took it from him and flattened it out, shining the torch upon it until I recognised myself, in a white wedding dress, smiling for the photographer. There was no need to remove his balaclava . I had already recognised the ring on his finger. I pushed him gently off the veranda and back into the snow. I can’t remember if I cried. I climbed back down the ladder and began lighting matches and throwing them into the toilet. Nothing happened. -/-/- So now I must climb back up into the world for a final time. I will step from the veranda and lay beside my husband in the snow. And let the night take us both.