# 5 / The White Beech Tree

It must have been mid-October when the unfortunate man set out for a stretch of the legs. Frank enjoyed his afternoon strolls. He’d set out precisely after dinner which finished at 6:15 pm. He wore his white woollen socks to the rims of his knees, his khaki shorts with the two hidden pockets, his orange blocked button-up tucked in and secured by his leather belt where he’d punctured an extra hole. Not because he’d lost weight but because the belt was on discount.

‘A perfectly good belt,’ he thought, ‘going to waste.’ 

He was not a man to worry himself about fashion. He was a man of function; deliberate. A man of miraculous punctuality and mirthless structure. Although one could say his yellow-shaded glasses were funny. 

A lukewarm breeze slid over Frank’s cheeks as he pushed open the wooden fence.  Damp mist hung low over the meadow, almost purplish, the droplets cloaking the field in a silvery hue. Briskly he ascended the hill towards the old beech tree which roots dug firmly into the hillside. He didn’t notice the two shades on top of the hillside adjacent of the tree. A pair of men with arched backs and distorted faces.

Those men would come often on late afternoons, sometimes even at nights, when everyone has fallen in a nocturnal slumber. Their business is obscure; their intentions nameless. No good things happen when they are around. The pair is known by Blame and Pride if they’re known at all. They most certainly do not come from the village below. 

Their appearance is quite frightful, unlike anything seen before. Blame is a cup and a half taller than Pride, but Pride could fit into two Blame’s and is not embarrassed to say so. Pride’s somewhat like a creased ball of newspaper that tumbles down busy streets, kicked by leathery feet and taking into the air; a ball of paper with no location to go or a place to stay. His face is that of a fat sluggish-frog submerged in murky waters, eyes bulbous like preying night-cats. Blame on the other hand has the down-determined expression of a penniless salesman; he looks like the kind of dream you might have if you fell asleep drunk on a dripping-wet barstool in a Scottish pub; delirious, but stubbornly persistent, and after waking up, you’d carry a nauseous feeling in your stomach as if something you ate was a few days off. 

There exist no greedier, ruder or nastier pair.

They chuckled wistfully as they regarded the old man taking off his glasses, wiping them with a cloth, peering through the frame, squinting his eyes and wiping them again. At one point he stopped to remove a smudge with the side of his thumb. Mid-October afternoons are always foggy and bad here for the less-fortunate far-sighted folk. 

‘My dear friend, do your eyes spy the same calamity approaching?’ Blame spoke slow with a sound low, creaking like the crushing of desiccated bark. 

Pride, who had been digging the frozen ground fervently, jolted upward and pierced the twilight sky with eyes bright ablaze such as a cold fire. It didn’t take him long to spot Frank. 

‘He’s come too early,’ Pride’s high voice slithered through yellowed teeth.  

Blame nodded. 

Pride started to dig more urgently now, his shocking, slender body appearing to fight off the shapeless identity of time. The shovel slashed through the earth, sometimes with ease but more often it bounced back where it had hit a rock or a root. ‘He’s come too soon. I can’t finish the grave,’ he panted. Blame nodded and made a musing noise that could be interpreted as ‘let’s come back later’. Or perhaps it meant ‘there is still time; he’s stopped again to catch his breath.’ There was no way of knowing.

But it didn’t matter. Pride had had enough.

Both men regarded the shallow hole with jagged rims and strands of unearthed grass scattered through it like malachite shards. It was clearly not big enough for a human body. 

‘We could slice him in two,’ Pride said, ‘he’s very skinny nowadays. We’ll use the shovel; its edges are still sharp.’

‘You seem to think that the body is made of twigs and sand,’ Blame said.

Pride gave an insulting frown. ‘I’m no fool! I know that it has strong bones, thick muscles and lean flesh. In fact, I’m quite sure I know a lot more about many things than you do.’

‘You didn’t dig fast enough; that’s the problem.’

He was probably on time after all. 

The pair stole into the shadows, hiding behind the lowest branch. The hole concealed by the mists’ obscurity.

As Frank reached the top of the hill, he felt the burning of his lungs. He noticed that there were still leaves on the white beech tree, though not as abundant as you might see in summer. Some were fiercely bright as acidic wine and, on the ground, the leaves were evenly speckled like fragrant, sweltering oranges. If you happened to step on one of the old ones, they’d sigh and disintegrate under your sole with gratification. The tree always gave Frank the impression of a large eagle that spread-out its wings. It gave him reassurance. 

Hardly anyone came here except some children, to play. They’d hang upside down from the thick branches and laugh until they looked sick, or they’d bounce their ball against the fat trunk until it rolled down the hill and they had to climb up again. But today they weren’t here, and Frank was glad for it. 

He turned around. From here he could see the bird fountain made from marble that once was white but was now coated with a damp, furry moss that, according to some villagers, added to its magical appearance. And to the right, the Old Roman church where the back of the roof had collapsed and caused dreadful leakages when it rained, and, specifically frightened the tending pastor. 

Frank adjusted his shirt and gave his neck a quick rub, then rolled his shoulders up and down, let out a big puff of air so that his chest deflated. This was good, the walk. It took his mind off the thing he tried to forget so hard. If only his heart would have a little more strength. 

White Beech Tree

‘You have arrived at the perfect time.’

 Frank leaped around, scouring the dimmed surroundings. ‘Who’s here?’

There was some movement a few meters away near the line of the woodland. The second time the voice spoke, he couldn’t suppress a small shriek. It originated from the tree. 

‘You’ve arrived at the right moment!’ it said.

‘Alright! Heard you the first time.’ He searched for words.  ‘What do you mean, the right moment? Who are you? Where –’ 

‘To make amends for your mistakes,’ it said.

Thickness swelled up inside Frank’s throat. He moved closer, his head cocked, his left ear pitched to the tree, but not too close – he didn’t dare to lose the moonlight. 

‘What is it you want?’

Somewhere a blackbird shot out of the shrubs, screeching into the hastening blackness of the night.

‘Now, don’t be so brisk,’ the voice growled, ‘why assume there’s something wanted?’ 

He sniffed the cool air and tried to pull himself together. There could be no such thing as a talking tree, he knew, because he’d read it in books but never heard of it on the news; and the news always said the truth, awful truths, but things that were there, happening, in the world he was part of. Or used to be. He wasn’t actually sure whether he wanted to be part of it any longer.

Frank then was convinced that something else was at play. Something unnatural that he hadn’t yet encountered. The waxing moon surrounded the ivy on the tree with a halo, translucent as barrel-aged whiskey. 

‘There’s always something needed in life,’ Frank said as he fumbled the rim of his khaki shorts.

It was quiet for a moment.

The higher voice said: ‘Not if you’re good enough. Then, you have everything.’

The lower voice said: ‘There’s always someone who’s better. Who’s more successful than you.’

The soil was frost-bound. Frank could tell from the shuddering heather. He suddenly felt very tired. Tired of this game that was obviously a ruse and how dare the tree talk about being good enough and whether or not he’d had success in his life.

the white beech tree

Then the voice continued. ‘But now that you mention it, we do need something.’

‘Look, I’m not sure what you’re playing at, “tree”,’ he did quotation marks in the air and then felt very foolish since there was no way the tree had eyes, ‘but I’ve had enough. I’m going to start walking back now.’ And he turned around with determination, his eyes fixed upon the small village with the flickering light-bugs and the aged copper-coloured roof-tiles. In the embrace of the falling night, the town invoked a sense of bewitchment and trance. He wished he was back in his chair near the window. He wished he could’ve had more time.

After he’d taken a few steps he half expected to be called back by the tree; most certainly the voice would reappear after he was almost out of ear reach, but the tree remained silent. It stayed quiet for such a while he began to think that he’d imagined it all. Maybe he’d eaten something funny. An odd mushroom. 

But then the tree spoke again. 

‘You know you can’t go back.’

Frank knew. ‘Why?’, he heard himself ask. The white beech tree that suddenly felt like his only best friend. There was an uncanny familiarity to the voices as if he’d heard them before in a dream, delirious and hazy. Were they even real?

‘You know why. You’ve tried long enough,’ the voices both said. ‘You’ve thought about it long enough. Every time you opened your eyes in the morning when you made weak green tea for yourself. You asked yourself the question; every time you watched the creeping shadows engulfing yet another day, another day where it didn’t get better. Where nothing happened or changed. You’re tired, had enough. And it’s alright. We’re here. We’ve always been here.’ 

The silent breath of the wind caressed the clothes around his body and urged him back toward the tree. Was this really why he was here?

For the first time in his life, he felt that he could cry. He hadn’t been able to cry for a long while. He’d felt the emptiness alright, not just in his mind, but the mundane and bland coldness that flowed through his limbs and chest like a late November fall-day where the sky seemed ashen white but it was clouds that covered the sky and it was not truly the sky but the clouds, all over. 

Nothing came and nothing left. 

He’d gone through his life with no particular emotion. He performed every movement as if it were directed by a shadowed entity, face dark, dark eyebrows. He had regarded his life patiently as if it were a long moment to endure and even though he might’ve been youthful when he was young, he’d always thought of himself as old. There had been moments where he found he couldn’t breathe as deep as he liked, only shallow breaths and it had made his head fuzzy. Maybe it was the right time after all.

Frank stepped closer. He noticed the fresh soil dug up in a big pile next to a shallow hole.

The voices seemed to sense the question in Frank’s head. ‘It’s your grave. We’ve started it but you finished it.’

‘You’re not real,’ Frank said.

‘We’re glad to see that nothing escapes on old crook like you.’

Frank sighed and picked up the shovel and started digging. ‘I’ve let a fulfilling life, you know.’ The blade went into the earth and uncovered worms wriggling naked and pink in the black soil. ‘it was just the last years that were tough. After she passed, the only woman I’ve ever loved, it wasn’t the same anymore.’

The white beech tree moaned as the icy wind pushed and pulled its branches.

‘You couldn’t have helped her even if you’d been there,’ the highest voice said. 

The other one seemed to let out a howl so fierce that it rumbled the dug-up dirt and set the leaves to shiver. ‘It is because you weren’t there that she died.’

Frank’s insides turned to water. His legs felt too heavy and his body cumbersome. He wanted to lay down, just for a moment. 

‘I shouldn’t have left her.’ Frank said meekly.

‘It was your fault.’

The earth felt frosty and the cold seeped through his clothes and his skin and into his bones. He wondered if he’d see her again soon. At that moment, mortality seemed only a thin mist. One that would fade with the rising of the warm morning sun.

‘What do you need,’ he asked as he laid down.

His spine relaxed and he thought of her.

‘To make amends for your mistakes,’ Pride and Blame answered. 

Words: 2193

Inspired by ‘Stoner’ from John Williams

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# 3 / Myrtle

Myrtle – a short story

Rosemary’s hands rest on the ivory keys for just a second and then she starts playing nocturne No. 20 in C-sharp Minor by Chopin. Fingers with nails dark red tap the keys delicately, the small living room zings with a melody that reminds me of zesty oranges, toasted almonds and the slight perfume of lilac. Her curly, thick hair that almost looks dark grey in the twilight sun waves as she moves her head up and forward and sideways to scan the paper, her right foot methodically tapping the pedal. As I sit next to her, I regard her slender body, her long legs, a body that always come when children are spurred into adolescence and I am envious. Although I’m still slender, the skin has started to crease, sink, as if gravity tried to untangle it and stretched it irreversibly in the process. 

 “I like your nail polish today,” I say after she finishes.

 Her smile is shy, a little childlike, endearing, with teeth freshly shaped after braces.

  I tell her that she’s improving and that we can try something different next week, a piece of Beethoven perhaps, and she pouts. I don’t understand why. Jane says that Rosemary has trouble at home. Maybe she doesn’t want to go home now. 

 “Or if you like you can stay and —,” 

 “No, it’s okay Myrtle, I need to go home for homework anyway.” 

 Those blue eyes look daring; perhaps she’s smarter than I give her.

 She tucks her hair behind her ear and swings the schoolbag over her shoulder and leaves through the backdoor, a flurry of warm air rushing through the room. It reminds me of someone who used to be her age. Her hair was curly too, but not as thick as Rosemary’s.  

 I start to clean up and I strike my index finger over the top of the piano. I wipe the dust on my navy blue skirt that I bought a week ago. David said that it looked nice, a rare compliment, and I wear it now so he’ll notice when he comes back from work.

 Upstairs, I absorb the mess of our laundry; has he ever folded his clothes? I pick up a shirt, dark pink with pinstripes and there is a long, curled hair on the right sleeve. I have it short and straight, and I have let my hair become silvery. The hair feels thick between my fingers. It probably fell off my shoulder after playing with Rosemary. 

 He always comes home after 6 pm and I like to make sure that he has his beer cold, his slippers warmed near the heater that stands in the hearth, and that diner is ready. I find that it’s the best way to shake him out of his work slumber and it gives me a certain satisfaction that I can influence his mood. Sometimes, I get a kiss on my cheek and the warmth always flushes my face like a teenager. 

 To amplify the dark, beamed living room, I light long candles and short ones too and place them on the mango-wood side table, the glass desk and the dining table with the chequered table cloth. I pause when I hear the front door open. He often enters the house with certain respectability that changes the atmosphere, a decorum that stems from a dignified charm and a modest vanity that allows him to enchant almost everyone. 

 I watch him eat his sausage uncut, straight from the fork, and I look at mine, neatly cut in slices and then again halved so that it mixes better with the mashed potatoes. Has he always eaten so quickly, hurriedly, almost barbaric? What’s his rush? He pats his stomach. He’s in good shape still for is age. Although his hair is receding slightly and his beard has turned grey 10 years ago, I find he’s aged well. 

 I am about to get up to clean the dishes and turn on the TV for him so he can watch the news when he says that he has to go out. 

 “Why?” I ask.

 He slides the chair backwards over our creme carpet. It makes a hushed sound, like when stroking a hand over a woollen jumper.

 “Meeting with people from work.” 

 I want to ask him what meeting could be so late, but I bite my tongue and see him leave through the front door without knowing when he’ll be back. 

 No kiss on the cheek. 

 In the damp morning, the sun has fled behind a veil of milky clouds, I notice Sandra, bowing over her daffodils and I consider talking to her. She’s always friendly, but more often I sense she’s just being polite. Jane from two doors down told me a few days ago that she’d seen a man go into her house, pretty late in the evening, and he didn’t come out until at least 1:30 am. Jane has trouble sleeping and sometimes she lets out her dog, just for a quick round, across the street. 

 “Sandra is seeing someone we know,” Jane says, “and she doesn’t want us to know who.” Listening to Jane’s gossip is so exciting.

 As I pluck at the weeds underneath the young willow, I ponder over this mysterious man who goes into Sandra’s house and leaves late. It must be exciting to have a visitor in the night, a secret, that only you and this man share. The thrill when he touches you and whispers into space between you, laying in hot bedsheets where the night air puffs up the blankets; your hands cupping his clean jaw and cheeks, and you listen to his calm breathing that forms a melody -silk violin and ecstatic contrabass. Just him and I.

 It’s a thrill I haven’t had for a long time. 

 A lot changed after she left and it never became quite right again.

 Tonight it will be different though. I bought steak from the butcher where I used to go when Lawrence still owned the shop. Steak with garlic butter and peas, I know he’ll like that. Maybe we can watch a movie after. As I season the meat with pepper, salt and rosemary, I try to formulate how I can ask him about last night. The lock of the door clicks and I pop out of the kitchen to greet him.

 As we eat, he seems pleased. He’s in an unusually cheery mood, joking, his hands dancing up and down, talking, and he has a boyish smile on him. I smile too. When I stand up, I strike my hands over my new skirt, not the navy blue one, but the one with ombre and dark red autumn flowers, and I pause for a few seconds. I have read that men find women more attractive when they wear red; or was it the other way around? Confidence overflows me and I start to share with him the gossip about Sandra.

 “She’s an attractive woman,” he says, gulping his beer, “so what if she has a lover? She’s been alone for a long time, right?”

 I agree, my voice not as strong as I intended, and I jerk my hands apart when I notice that I’m pulling the lace of the table cover. 

 I think about the hair on his shirt. The thickness in my fingers, the soft bends in which it curled, and the dark colour. Sandra has dark curls. They’re about the same age. They know each other. My gaze scrutinises David’s expression, his pale eyes, his grey, round eyebrows, and in my mind’s eye, I see him, his quiet footsteps disturbing the grass, slipping into her house. 

 I startle when I see David walk across the living room towards the coat rack and he picks his dark leather jacket with lined fur. 

 “Where are you going?” I ask, trying to hide the panic in my voice. 

 “I have to get back to work,” I hear him say, “they’re at the bar and we have to go over some papers. Not very important.”

  He waves his hand, disappearing into the hallway, and then he strides back and leaves a fleeting kiss resting on my cheek.  

 My hands shake when I order the sheets and place them in front of Rosemary.

 “Let’s start with where we were last week.”

 She’s wearing a new perfume, some kind of thick, flowery fragrance that doesn’t suit her age. Her back is straight and she plays.  

Myrtle short story
Myrtle – Short Story

 My mind drifts. I wonder where David goes every night, the bar but a poor excuse. Does he see Sandra? Our marriage indeed changed after our daughter left but it doesn’t justify cheating. It’s greedy, conceited; but I see the appeal. As he said, Sandra is an attractive woman. I search my memory if I’ve missed something, if I’ve ever seen them together; a fleeting touch of the hands, a daring glance that conveyed that they knew and nobody else. The thought buzzes through my head. 

 The telephone rings. Rosemary’s eyes shoot up, the last tunes muffled by the high pitched ringing. For a moment I hope it’s our daughter, Lisa. 

 “Is this Mrs Greywater?” A weathered, female voice on the other side. Lisa has a different voice, or could it have changed over the years?

 “Your husband has been in an accident,” she says and I hear a gasp leave my throat. “He crashed his bike and has broken his leg.”

 I’m nauseous. My gaze wanders around the living room and I think about all the things that I have to adjust so David can be comfortable, laying on the couch and watch TV while he recovers. It’ll be good for us, him being home more.  

 “I have to go to the hospital”, I say and turn around to face Rosemary. 

 She looks aghast by the news. It’s kind of her to be so emphatic to my feelings. 

 “What for? Is David hurt?”

 It strikes me that I never knew that David and Rosemary might know each other. Rosemary always comes during the day when David is at work, and I don’t recall talking about him to her. Maybe she’s seen his name on the mail. Now I come to think of it, they may have seen each other that time when Rosemary had left her jumper and David found it. He drove over to her to give it back. That she still remembers his name. 

 She wants to come with me even though I tell her that it’s not necessary, it’s only his leg that got injured, but she insists and it’s probably because she doesn’t want to go back to her house where her parents always fight. 

 The drive to the hospital is quiet and I try to think of things to say to Rosemary. Her hands are folded tensely on her lap and I wonder about her age. She’s probably about 17, maybe a bit younger. I should’ve asked her, but now I don’t know how to start that conversation. There is a lot of things I don’t know about her, although I’ve been teaching her for almost a year.

 The doors of the hospital are heavy and as we enter, the pungent smell of cleaning detergent and sweat wave through my nostrils. Rosemary looks more nervous than I do – maybe she hasn’t been to a hospital before. 

 It crosses my mind that, if David is having an affair with Sandra, I could let it happen and pretend it doesn’t exist. It will probably end by itself. He won’t be able to visit her for at least 6 weeks and in that time I could try harder. I could buy a new skirt that would reveal a bit more leg, or buy new underwear. He might like that. 

 He sits on the bed and smiles apologetically when I come in. Rosemary follows me shyly. It’s a small room with one window; curtains, bed and side table all in that despicable off-white that hospital furniture keeps.

 “My poor David, how could this have happened?” I reach down to kiss him, but his eyes are fixed on something behind me. It’s a curious gaze, and for I moment it strikes me that he might be in some sort of shock. It must’ve been frightening to have been in an accident. Softly I stroke his shoulder. 

 “I hope you’re not in too much pain,” Rosemary says. 

 Something in her voice, the easiness with which she speaks those words, the familiarity and warmth with which she addresses him, reveals a level of intimacy that makes me swerve around. In that split second, I see her blushing, her demeanour giving away an infatuation for the man sitting on that hospital bed, and then she recoils, her features mystify into a fabricated concern and I know. It’s not Sandra. 

 I shiver. My heart is bruising my ribcage, my head is a whirl of which I cannot make sense. I resist the urge to collapse, right there on the off-white floor. Instead, I regard the husband that I’ve had for 22 years, that has influenced my life so greatly that I cannot begin to fathom who I would’ve been without him. 

 He averts my gaze, denying that something significant just happened. I need him to look at me. I find my voice; my feet finding the ground. 

 “Don’t you dare to look away from me,” I hear my voice say with such imminent malice it frightens me.   

 He tries to stand up and grab my arm, but his plaster leg prevents him to do so.   

  “SHUT UP YOUR CRYING”, he screams at Rosemary and she scampers.

 How could he treat her like this? Poor girl.

 “Myrtle, please —,” he begs. Are those tears on his cheek?

 Their affair wasn’t as great as mine. I did love him; he doesn’t love Rosemary.  

 “It was nothing. She was just passing time.” He sobs, quietly, his hands cupping his face like a child, his shoulders jerking up and down. It strikes me that he’s not who I thought he was. He is not a price husband to be placed on a pedestal. Our bond was lost long ago. The love I had felt had become unquestioning loyalty, for I felt guilt. Guilt for what I had done. I had made a decision then, to stick with him at all costs. 

 Look what it has resulted into.

  The fury changes into something powerful, an encouraging strength, resignation, and I hear the coldness in my voice. 

 “That’s a shame.”

 David’s eyes look pitiful, his body is pitiful, and I can taste the disgust in my mouth like bitter, cold coffee. 

 “A shame? Is that what you think this is?”

 As if he wants me to acknowledge that it was a worthy affair. I feel my lips curl. 

 “Yes, a shame. You’re a pitiful man, sleeping with a girl that’s almost 35 years younger than you. It’s a shame that it was not worth your while.”

 The words reverberate through the room. The tears seem to evaporate from his eyes the moment he looks up at me, his posture changing, enlarging as if ready for a brawl. 

 “Don’t you think I knew about you and Lawerence?” The words slither through his clenched teeth. 

 To hear him say his name is as if he grasps my neck and tightens his fingers. He’ll never take the memories I have of Lawerence, sweet Lawrence. 

 “I let you stay with me and tried to accept what you had done, for the sake of Lisa. And then, when he left, I had to endure your sulking. Don’t you think I fought, for us?”

 “And then you sleep with my teenage piano pupil?”

 He looks away, his fingers pressing against his closed eyelids.

 “She’s still so young!” I say.

 “She’s almost 18.”

 I pause for a moment. Suddenly, I want to sit on the bed next to him and be hugged. 

 “She’s Lisa’s age.” The tremor in my voice surprises me.

 I thought it would have made everything worse, but instead, he starts to cry again, long, heaving wails and I look around to see if anyone is seeing us. Two ridiculous adults, who are incapable of continuing to live and finally crumble under the unforgiving weight love carries.  

 “She was Lisa’s age.”

 I sit down on the bed next to him. 

 “It’s my fault she left, stormed out the house that evening. She found out about me and Lawrence, and I always knew she already hated me but stayed for your sake. She found this little note, Lawrence and I used to write on, little things that made our days a bit better. I suppose I’d become careless, the note fell on the floor from my pocket and, I can’t quite remember what it said, but next thing, I see her eyes filling with so much anger and then she left. I couldn’t say anything and it would not have mattered.”

 “Our little girl,” David says in one breath as if the words disappear from him as she had done. 

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# 2 / The Ivory Dragon

Once there were three daughters, equal in birth, blood and colour. In the morning they went to get water from the well, at midday they ate bread and cheese, and in the afternoon they listened to music. They were equal in interests, plays and smiles, though the youngest was unequal in beauty. As the days grew shorter, Ariana’s cheekbones sharpened, her deep ocean-blue eyes became deeper and her roselike mouth became softer. The two other sisters watched her grow more beautiful by the day and envied her, though their strong sisterly bond withheld them from jealousy. When they were old enough, their father accepted the hands of two men who married the oldest sister and the middle sister, while Ariana watched them with envy.  

“Don’t worry,” the two sisters said, “there will be someone for you as well.” But no one came, for all the men thought Ariana too beautiful to be within their reach. She spent her days going to the well, eating bread and cheese, and listening to music in profound loneliness she had not known before. Her father watched it quietly and sought to find her a husband. A rugged man came to him and said: “I see Ariana is lonely and yearning to share her life with someone. If tomorrow morning, when the peaked hill is still hidden in mist and the heather is still damp from the night’s tears, she goes up that mountain and stands on the cliff, she will meet an ivory dragon to take her to her fate.”

It was dusk when Ariana climbed up the mountain alone, her body chilled and her hands muddy. As she reached the peak, she watched the bleak morning sun rise over the rugged hills and waited, weeping from fear. A strong western wind came and a monstrous ivory dragon with crimson eyes landed before her. “Don’t fret. Climb on my back if you want to meet your fate, but beware of my scales. They are made from the pearls of the Red Sea and sharp to the flesh,” the dragon said. Ariana stepped back in fright, but then climbed in between his wings. As he took flight, she saw the magnificent pearly scales of the dragon and stroked them gently. 

# 2 / The Ivory Dragon
The Ivory Dragon

The dragon landed in a valley so lush and prosperous, the pine trees and white ashes had grown twice its size. “This is the valley of Zedoaria,” the dragon said. “To meet your fate you must walk towards the forest between those two hills and then follow the stream until you come to a palace of coral marble. You may drink from the stream and eat from the pear tree, but you must not pick the yellow flowers or touch the red leaves.” Ariana promised she wouldn’t and the dragon flew away. She felt tired and slept in the dense grass. Then, she walked towards the forest between the hills. Just before the treeline she became thirsty and bent down to cup her hands into the clear stream, but she heard a cry from the shrubs. 

“Help me, please,” a bee said, “I’m so thirsty, but I cannot reach the yellow flowers for my wing is torn.” Ariana took pity but hesitated to pick the yellow flowers that bloomed around her ankles since the dragon had warned her not to do so. “Please, beautiful stranger, I’m so thirsty. I only need one yellow flower.” And so Ariana picked one yellow flower and gave it to the thirsty bee, who thanked her and drank. 

She entered the forest and saw glorious, deep green ivy and moss falling down the high trees like curtains. Ariana walked until she came upon a sunlit grass field surrounded by trees. A lone pear tree stood in the middle and she reached to pick a pear so juicy that the sweet sap dripped down the round belly of the fruit. Then she heard a cry. 

“Help me, please,” a deer said, “I’m so hungry, but I cannot reach the red leaves for I’m with child and my belly is too heavy.” Ariana reached towards the red leaves that grew from shrubs around the pear tree, but she thought about what the ivory dragon had said. “Please, beautiful stranger, I’m so hungry. I only need one red leaf.” And so Ariana picked one red leaf and gave it to the hungry deer, who thanked her and ate. 

Ariana walked until she saw the magnificent towers and walls made from coral marble and she entered through the large, hard oaken door. A servant came to her and gave her bread and cheese, and another servant gave her a bath. Then, Ariana laid down in a plush bed with golden curtains and fell asleep. In the night she was awoken by a rustle beside her. Frightened, she reached to the candle on the bedside table to illuminate the stranger that had crept into her bed, but a friendly hand touching her shoulder stopped her. “I am your fate,” the voice whispered. “I will love you, but you may never see me.” Ariana reached once more for the candle but the voice said: “Because you picked the yellow flowers to quench the bee, you cannot see me. If you do, the ivory dragon will come and will devour you.” There was a kindness in his voice that Ariana had yearned for in her loneliness. She let go of the candle and allowed the stranger to kiss her and to stay the night. 

When she woke the bed was empty. Ariana searched the palace and asked the servants about the stranger, but they only said that he was a handsome and wealthy master. The following nights she was again awoken by the stranger and, although she found it hard to accept in the beginning, started to enjoy his company more every day. With her hands and lips, she felt His face and she found that she could see him now in her mind’s eye. The desire to see Him faded as the years past and Ariana was happy. She spent her mornings walking through the tall grass, her middays eating bread with honey, and in the afternoon she bathed. 

It was a crisp night and the cool wind sighed through the bedroom and caressed the silken curtains. Ariana let her hands follow the outline of His chest and asked why she had not become pregnant yet. “You cannot conceive a child,” the voice whispered. “I love you, but because you picked the red leaves to feed the deer, we cannot have a child.” This saddened Ariana so that she asked how she could make this right. “For building a castle in this sacred valley I was cursed by the ivory dragon for he is its protector. I am never to leave this valley and my life is always under his influence.” Ariana asked if he could destroy the ivory dragon and his voice became so soft she could hardly hear his words. “I cannot destroy the ivory dragon for his scales are made from the pearls of the Red Sea. His skin is impervious.”

When He had fallen asleep and Ariana listened to his regular, deep breaths, she thought of what he had said. Would the ivory dragon truly come if she now let the candle unveil his face? Hesitantly she stretched her arm and felt for the candle. The heavy metal of the candle holder felt cold in her hand as she allowed the flickering flame to pour light over His face. In his sleep, he looked calm. He had handsome features, a strong jaw, a brown mole above his dark eyebrows and his hair had the colour of freshly polished copper. Ariana admired His face, but then the candle dripped hot wax and it fell on his shoulder. His eyes shot open. “What have you done! Now the dragon will come.”

As he uttered the words, a strong western wind came and the ivory dragon landed on the balcony of the bedroom. His enormous body crushed the coral marble columns as he approached followed by the morning sun. “You have seen his face,” the dragon’s voice bellowed. “You have broken the promise and now you will die.” He lurched forward, his knife-like teeth aiming for Ariana. “Hide!” He said and he pulled a glimmering sword from underneath the bed. He puffed, then took one deep breath and moved forward, sword pointing at the neck of the dragon. He jumped over the tail, his body glided to the left and then to the right and then he sprang forward, allowing the sword to come to the dragon’s neck with fantastic force. But the sword did not pierce the shiny scales; it fell in fragments on the marble floor and He was swept sideways against the strong wall by the dragon’s sharp paw. 

The ivory dragon smiled an uncanny smile and came closer to Ariana and he swallowed her whole. Her dress was torn by his teeth, her hair and body wet from his saliva. She felt the dragon move and she feared for Him. In the belly, she could hardly move. But in her hand, she held a pearly scale she had taken when the ivory dragon had flown her to the valley, and now she pierced his flesh and cut so fiercely that the dragon halted and screeched in agony. Ariana let her hands guide her through the flesh and she then stepped out of the belly of the ivory dragon, who wobbled and screamed and finally fell on the floor. The blood she was covered in was thick and sticky. 

Ariana sprung to Him and took his hand. “You’ve set us free,” the voice whispered. “We’re free.”

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This story is inspired by the Greek Myth ‘Psyche and Cupido’.

The artistry of small talk

His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wing. At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred – Ernest Hemingway

It felt like an overwhelmed young butterfly in a field of ripe, fragrant and sweet flowers. Uncertain where to fly to first, where to land first and where to dip in my innocent butterfly mouth into.

Small talk is not a craft I have a natural talent for. I am all talk with friends and family, though when I find myself in a new environment with new people, I jam. Lacking confidence, I tend to carry myself awkwardly, clumsily through social events and conversations, where I often remain quiet or mumble something incomprehensible that’s completely off topic. I am sure everyone has their moments of self-doubt and what I’m describing here is anything but new. It, however, was a recent issue I had to overcome, which I thought I had conquered years back.

Hospitality is an area where you constantly work and interact with people. There’s no escaping it unless you opt to dedicate yourself to a life of repetitive napkin folding (which I reckon isn’t too bad; it’s quite relaxing). Yet, either as a waitress, food runner or bartender, I had no choice but to engage in conversation once every 5 minutes; it completely unbalanced me. Even though I’ve been working in hospitality for almost 9 years now, this job required me to socialize more than I ever had to.

With a queer fondness, I think back on when I was just a small, hyperactive kid who one day got struck by the realisation of self-consciousness. I similarly remember the day and the actual situation when I felt shame for the first time, and I’m sure most people do. Anyway, I went from a constantly talking child to a nervously shy one, where I would turn purple any time someone talked to me. On many occasions, I even fled the site of confrontation. After a few years of social anxiety and loneliness, I decided this was not a living and I planned to throw myself into it all in order to gain friends. It worked, despite the occasional failure. I taught myself how to talk, even though it didn’t come naturally. Eventually, it was easy.

Coming into a new environment like I did last year with no one around me I knew well (besides my partner), made me recall those shy days and how I went through a lot of effort to conquer it. And even though it’s not great still, I did put myself out there. The most amazing thing I realised later, is that people generally don’t really care if you act in a reserved way or sometimes laugh awkwardly or remain quiet when you ought to have said something. Besides the fact that most people roughly remember 90% of what they said themselves in the social interaction, they also recognize their own social insecurities and look past them. In the end, everyone’s self-conscious in one way or another.

In addition, it’s beautiful when people do open up to you. I find it impressive and exciting when someone tells you their story. On how they travelled to Australia from Ireland after meeting her Dutch husband. How they’re happy to finally have the weekend so they can celebrate their 2 year anniversary with some champagne. In the end, it’s worth the effort to try to make small talk, for it can be so rewarding getting to know random strangers and making new friends.

A report on Australian hospitality

The Islanders are renown for their unconditional friendliness and genuine warmth, and I can vouch for that. Throughout my stay in Australia, I feel like their constant hospitality utterly astonished me. Besides the odd grumpy one, they have such a developed sense of empathy and an understanding of how the human mind likes to be treated.

Hospitality is the immediate environment where it can be noticed. ‘Instant gratification’ -the need for humans to feel acknowledged and praised-  is common sense in the world of beer pouring and cocktail making. An instant smile appears when I tell them that Hendriks Gin is also my favourite gin for a GT. I am still amazed by the laid-back way a bartender can ask ‘how their day’s going’ and how the lazily leaning-on-the-counter Australian would reply with a genuine report on their day’s activities. “Oh you know, I just finished a tough workday, got some bad news from my auntie in New Zealand, she might need to be hospitalized, – yes, the Panhead XPA would be great, thanks- but yeah, everything’s fine, just having an easy afternoon with my family-in-law. How’s your day going?”

In my head, I keep comparing to what I’ve been used to in my almost 9 years of experience in hospitality in the Netherlands. Hardly any words are exchanged in the transaction of a Dutch individual requesting a Weihenstephaner Hefe Weissbier at any bar and if I even have the nerves to ask them how their day’s been, I’d receive the bluntest reply possible. Not that I’m here to rain down on Dutch mannerisms, though there is something to learn from this massive difference in culture. Although I have to admit it was rather hard for me to get to understand their small talk, it now feels as if I’m building an emotional bond with every customer who lands at my bar for an Afternoon Delight. I absolutely love it.

There’s something to say for both parties. Sometimes you’re just not in the mood to discuss your reason to decide to drink a double bourbon-coke at 11am. Nevertheless, these brief conversations offer someone a brief peek into their personal life, which gives the general Australian a feel of vulnerability and neighbourliness.  Even if I tried really hard, I couldn’t find a way to not love this country and its inhabitants.

A Game of Books and Restlessness

… I climbed the three staircases, raised the trapdoor of the attic, and having reached the leads, looked out afar over sequestered field and hill, and long dim skyline – that then I longed for a power of vision which might overpass that limit; which might reach the busy world, towns, regions full of life I had heard of but never seen.. I could not help it; the restlessness was in my nature; it agitated me to pain sometimes.  – Jane Eyre from Charlotte Brontie.

I always felt that Brontie explains Jane’s emotions so well in this paragraph, where the reader can easily identify with her too. Restlessness has always been a major puzzle in my life, both physically and mentally. Reading books did not come naturally to me. Neither did being able to sit down quietly or having the patience to finish something properly (to the frustration of my parents). High school was a trial, especially getting the grades needed to graduate. I like to think back with a curious fondness to the moment I received the call from my mentor whether I had graduated or not. That man in particular was a dry, wrinkled and humourless teacher, though an honest man which he confirmed when he spoke to me that day on the phone.  “Hi, Elise, I have received the results from your tests and well,” he uttered in his slow, monotone voice, “I did not expect this but you have passed.” No hint of sarcasm, no sound of a quick smile. I was happy nonetheless and continued to struggle with my restlessness throughout university.

As I got older though, I actively undertook steps to learn to sit down for a while in order to read. First, a page or two were almost unbearable for me, but after a while, I read page after page and now, if I feel like I have absolutely nothing else to do, I can read a book in a day. I read ‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’ and ‘Silence of the Lambs’ in one day each – yes, I feel I’m allowed to boast a little about this. On the road trip around Australia, reading was my main entertainment in the evenings. We collected half a library in the back of the car and in order for me to stop buying books since I’d finish them rather quickly, I decided it was more profitable if I bought larger books. Naturally, I started to read Game of Thrones from George R R Martin. I can assure you when I saw the books for the first time, I could’ve never dreamed that I’d be able to read through all of them, but I did. It feels like an accomplishment, besides the fact that it was made easier since the books are utterly captivating.

Now, reading books is a relaxing experience for me, though I still have to tell myself to sit down and stop fussing about all the other things that need to be done. Rather to think of reading as a mandatory exercise needed to learn something or maybe for the aesthetic of it all, it truly opens up a new world filled with wild dragons, heated discussions, stonecold zombies, fiery passions, unsalted opinions and unexplored universes.

 

The man on the bus

A lovely sunny morning had made way for an ominously cloudy afternoon, and so I took the bus to work. While the drizzle softly ticked against the windows and streetlights flashed by like fireflies in the night, I noticed a man sitting in the corner. Now, since a bus is a public form of transport and since the evening was not so far advanced that everyone had retreated to their bedrooms, it was not particularly unusual to see a man on the bus. Neither was the fact that this man had his head rested against a yellow pole, snoring peacefully yet noticeably. To be fair, I reckon everyone’s had had their share of bus napping.

However, what caught my eye most was the way he was dressed. He was a man of advanced age; silvery streaks through his dark brown hair, prominent eyebrows (and a prominent under chin, I have to add) and a large belly, where his hands rested on. Yet while this man slept harmoniously, I observed that he was wearing a beautifully coloured jumper, which could’ve been handmade. Horizontal stripes in a vague orange, pink and blue, made me think of the type of jumper the Weasley’s would wear. I expected to see a wand tucked in the back of his trousers at any moment. In the same style, a woollen scarf, casually draped around his neck and shoulder and on his head, a tweed flat hat like the ones from Peaky Blinders. I absolutely loved his appearance. He was the perfect fusion of a slightly more sophisticated George R R Martin, Ron Weasley and a golden retriever.

I suppose he caught me examining him when the bus suddenly stopped and the man roughly awoke from his fine dreams, looked around startled and caught my eye. An awkward moment followed where he clearly felt embarrassed,  even after I’d smiled at him.  And in the gloom of the afternoon, he shuffeled out of the bus, adjusting his hat firmly to his head and taking his cool jumper with him.

Frosty the Snowman

He was not that type of guy who would willingly dive into anything serious. Although his heart would secretly yearn for commitment and safe affection, he could not find it in himself to put his restlessness at ease. He had tried, believe me, but all had failed. Some he would have wounded, some he would have neglected, some he would have forgotten, and some he would have vexed, though not her. Despite his rebellious ego, his besieged pride, he could not let go of her. It was a paradox; like a maze he could not escape from. There were moments he felt as if he was wriggling and kicking against strangling hands wrapped around his throat, yet the same feeling gave him excitement, ecstasy. She was as menacing, frustrating, displeasing, puzzling and perplexing as a woman could possibly ever be, yet the same she was exhilarating, invigorating and addictive. She felt like a cool, misty breath taken on a frosty morning, with a sky painted icy azure. Your lips would tingle, your hands would prickle and your nose would turn red, and even when the cold would freeze you through to the bones, a passion of life would capture you, as if you have not lived ever before.