18 September 2008

The (almost) NOVA story

I wrote this story for the NOVA short story competition, but simply could not get it over 2000 words, and then ran out of time. So, I have decided to post it here instead. It is an expansion of this snippet, and, honestly, I kinda love it. Comments and crits are most welcome and invited.

Play

“Please, I need to be able to see,” she says, her voice soft in the early evening air, her hot breath visible as it escapes her lips . I can smell the fear on her, and it drives my hunger.

“No light,” I smile. It is lost on her in the dark. Panic flits across her face. She has played for me before, but it has been a long time since I have needed her.

“Just a single light,” she pleads. “I cannot do your bidding without my sight.”

“A single candle,” I concede. I lean back into the dark and disappear. We always play this game at the beginning of our time together. She nods quietly and drags the bow across the strings.

She looks so vulnerable, the candle flick-flickering next to her, licking up all the fresh air in this small room. The first time I met her, the first time she played for me, she was nothing more than a gutter rat with a piece of wood.

I close my eyes again. I can hear her fingers fingering the strings, her laboured breathing as she holds it between her legs and slowly slides the bow backwards and forwards. I can almost smell the sound now. Deep, rich, like black coffee.

I should not have needed to feed again so soon. It ambushed me. Waited for me in the dark behind my very own door, and wrapped its long arms around me when I least expected it, the serrated edges cutting into my flesh as it tightened its grip. Even now, I can feel its foul breath – like dank water - on my skin.

I drink in the sound. I can feel my vitality washing slowly through my weary body, but it will be hours before I am whole again. We sit in darkness for a lifetime, just her and her wood, me and my broken self, drinking in the melancholy flowing from her fingers.

She has stopped playing. I can hear her heart pounding, and then her inner scream when I say play.

Ambushed. I should have known better. His request caught me by surprise, and I said no in a hurry – I had a storm to catch. I thought I would set the abatwa on me, but, instead, he sent... that thing. I got off lightly, I should have been dead. I can still feel the creature’s blood on my fingers, even after I scrubbed with sand and honey. Only beer will remove this evil from my skin.

I can smell the blood from her fingers. The strings are taking their toll. The smell, vividly red like the setting sun, swirls through my head. I find my foot tapping to the beat she drums out with her hand on the wooden body in between the subtle glide of the bow. It reminds me of home.

It was such a simple request. A simple bag of thunder. One single thread of lightning. His laugh rings through my head again, and I shiver. Unconsciously, she shivers with me, pain streaked across her face.

I didn’t even ask why he wanted it. Does anyone really need to ask? His long standing feud with the Modjadji, and with me, is reason enough, but this goes beyond sibling rivalry. No, Chitauli has something else up his sleeve, and I have had to pay the price for it, as always. Me, and that creature he sent after me.

His voice, the angry threat of revenge, echoes through my skull. He had my sisters heads, tied together with blue and green ribbons, hanging around his neck, the blood of his recent meal smeared across his face.

Mantisssss, it hissed its own name, swinging its arms wildly at me, taking a pound of flesh with every contact. It was touch and go for a moment, but I was older than this creature and my sword was sharp.

We have been doing this dance for so many years; I have forgotten all the steps. In circles we go, across savannah and under the high mountains. I pull my jacket in closer, and catch a waft of the veldt. It has been many centuries since I have slept between the reeds, but the mud is still under my fingertips and the rain on my breath.

I run my tongue across my lips, traces of old whiskers tickling the tip, my sharp teeth cutting into the flesh. I get lost in the taste of my own blood. I hear her voice pleading with me through the euphoria.

“Just one more,” I whisper, “just one.”

Maybe I should return to the country of my bones. I have been in the cold lands for too long. My mother’s heartbeat, the beating drums of her children, can heal me in an instant. But I am not ready yet. My body will not yet survive the long journey. Maybe I have grown too old.

I feel sorry for her, but I need to heal. I lean back and click my tongue. My handmaiden appears at my feet. I whisper in her ear, and she nods.

I close my eyes again and before long, I am swimming the great river, feeling the current through my toes. The music stops.

I open my left eye, and see her hands pinching the contents of the bowl and quickly bringing it to her mouth. The candle, now short, casts long dancing shadows across her round pale cheeks as she smiles. They are damp, but I pay no attention. I know that she is tired, but she will be well compensated.

I remember the fog in Uhlanga like it was this morning, the sun glittering through the moist air. That was where we all met for the first time, where our mother gave birth to us and held us to her bosom between the reeds and rolling hills. We were each given a piece of this rich planet to take care for, gifts glittering like gold under the big sky. My first sister was given her bag of rain and my second sister the rivers, tied around her ankles like ribbons, shimmering in the sun as she danced through the lands. And me, I was given my basket filled with thunder, woven from lightning. He, being who he was, was not happy with his meagre gift.

Words, he roared to the skies, what good is words when you gave them the heavens and the ground?

The words gave him a magic none of us would ever know or understand. But it was not enough, never enough. He has killed my sisters over and over to steal their gifts, their continual rebirth fuelling his rage against our mother. But each time they died, they needed to drink from the land to regain their strength. My sisters were thirsty often.

I shudder again. Those black, teardrop shaped eyes pleading with me when Chitauli’s spell wore off and the pain from our battle finally set in. I had to take mercy on it, and dealt it a swift blow, sending its small head flying, feathered feelers twitching one last time. I could have fed on its spent body, but I swore off the flesh before the words spread through the people and not a drop of blood has passed my lips since. I have found other ways to quench my thirst.

I can hear the scratching at the door. He has sent an army after me. Maybe this will be my last song, after all. I laugh to myself.

“Is something wrong?” she asks in between mouthfuls.

The scratching is even louder now, but only I can hear it. I shake my head, and again realise it is lost in the dark. Maybe I have not escaped the abatwa after all. I am tempted to open the door, but resist. I need to regain my strength before I face them.

“Nothing wrong dear. Just play, please. Play,” I smile softly in the dark. “Play one more for this old man, before the cold sets deep into my bones.” My voice sounds foreign in my throat. Old, like river sand, stretched, like mother’s golden beaches.

She nods eagerly as she cleans out the bowl with her fingers. She licks them gingerly, and wipes them on the cloth my girl hands her.

She picks up the instrument, and sits in silent, as if waiting for permission to play.

The candle splutters in its dying moment. I click my tongue again; my faithful girl brings another candle. The ivory skinned girl struggles to light it, her fingers atrophied from hours of playing and smiles gratefully when the flame licks up the air again and glitters off her sandy hair.

“I promise, this is the last one,” I say again to reassure her.

She slowly drags the bow across the strings again. In the dark, the sound of the cello heals all my wounds.

3 comments:

Emm said...

That was absolutely amazing. Really phenomenal. I really wish I could read your manuscript now, more so than ever.

Vanessa said...

@Emm: thanks :) I have sent you the manuscript. Please let me know if you didn't get it.

Emm said...

Hey gorgeous. So sorry (for the second time today). I did get it this time, thanks! I'm a bit unwell at the moment so in order that you don't get anxious wondering, I will let you know when I *start* reading and also how I get on (being that I read so slowly).

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