Stories from Late September

The prompts from which this collection of writers work was taken were:

  1. Write a story containing the words transfigured, cornucopia, desperation and tomorrow.
  2. Like Tears in the Rain
  3. He was the last person on earth… there was a knock at the door …
  4. Fire

 

THE LAST MAN ON EARTH by Ken Morrell

He was surrounded by silence. It was two years since the interplanetary transports had left taking the world population to their new homes. Africa went to planet 457, the Americas to planet 800 and Europe to that odd little one that had somehow acquired a name. Ptolemy.

The only people left behind on a crumbling earth were those looking to carve out an empire for themselves, but they found with the general population gone there was no-one to intimidate or impress or manipulate. They could have their massive houses, their massive yachts even their massive private planes but there was no-one to impress save their own henchmen. They began to try to impress each other and that is how the tribal wars began. With easy access to armaments left behind they killed each other with gay abandon. There no longer were police forces for them to outwit, no border patrols to avoid. They had free reign and they used it to absolute advantage.

The gangs killed each other until there was not enough left to bury their dead so disease ran rampant wiping out the remainder. Carl thought he was the only remaining soul on earth. Tucked away in his isolated log cabin on the outskirts of Chestnut, a dot on the slopes of Victorias Alpine National Park.

He had escaped the roundups retreating to his isolated cabin intent on staying with the planet in its dying throes. Starting a new life was not for him. He liked his old one and if it was going to end, he was satisfied to end it out in the forest with trees all around and the sky above not stuck on an interplanetary transport heading for an unknown world.

He kept a cow for milk and company. A scattering of goats, some hens for eggs and was content although at melancholy times he thought it might be nice to have someone hold his hand when he went. Someone to grieve for him. But he soon shook himself out of gloom and got on with living.

He had made occasional forays down to the former civilization for the few modern bits and pieces that made life easier; some rope, a shovel, a handful of deck spikes to make a bail for milking his cow. He had seen the aftereffects of the war and the subsequent disease but nothing for the last two turns of the seasons. He was the last man on earth, and he was content with that.

He had needed an axe handle so made the trip to a hardware store. It had taken him three days and when he returned, he penned off the cow from its calf, collected the eggs and checked on the goats. The next morning, woken by the calf’s hungry lowing, he rose early, milked the cow and let it out. He cooked up a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs and damper before tending to his regular chores around the farmlet. Midday saw him back inside trying to install the axe handle when there was a knock on the door.

Shocked he froze. It must have been the wind blowing something against it. But there was no wind. He stared at the door not trusting his senses when the knock came again. Slowly he collected his rifle and looked out the window. There was a woman standing at the bottom of the steps staring at the cabin. Carefully he scanned the yard and studied the trees. She was alone. Carrying his rifle, he slowly stepped out onto the small porch and stared down at her.

“Hello” she said cheerfully. After a lengthy pause she continued “I’ve been watching your smoke from the next valley for a few months now and it hasn’t been there for the last three days. I thought you must have died but this morning it was back. I thought I would pop over and say ‘hello’”

He nodded acknowledgment still not sure she was real. He had spent so long alone convinced he was the last person on earth he did not fully trust his own imagination.

She looked around at the sheltering trees, at the bubbling brook fed by melting snows, at his small collection of livestock and observed “it seems the scientists were wrong. The earth did not end in five years. In fact, I think it is improving. Healing itself.”

He finally found his tongue “yes. It appears that way” he said.

“I’m Alice” and she placed a hand on her chest.

He struggled to remember his own name it had been so long since he had needed it. “Carl” he said.

“Pleased to meet you Carl” she replied. Her gaze wandered back to the cow and the animals. “You wouldn’t have a drink, would you? It’s a long walk over the ranges. She stared at him with startlingly blue eyes and confessed “It’s been years since I had a drink of milk.”

He stepped off the porch and wandered down to the little gurgling stream where he laid the rifle down and tugged on a length of twine tied to a post. An earthenware jug appeared from the stream. He twisted the tight wooden plug free and offered the jug to Alice all the while studying her intently as if he still could not believe his eyes.

Hesitantly she put her mouth to the opening and tilted it sipping the contents. “Ahh!” she exclaimed before tipping her head back and taking a long swallow. “That was good. Marvelous.”

His mind finally clicked into action “How long have you been in the valley?” he stoppered the jug and returned it to the stream.

“About six months now. I was down in the city hiding from the roundup and the fighting but when the disease started, I got out. Have been travelling the hills and forests since. Living in houses until whatever food was there was gone and then moving on. You’re well set up here aren’t you. Self sufficient with your animals and the garden.”

” It’s taken a while, but I don’t need society. Are you the only one out there?”

“No, I don’t think so. There might even be communities out there, but I kept away from people once the fighting started. I went into hiding and stayed there. It could have been bad for women” she mused. “It probably was bad for women” she reflected.

Carl did not know what to do. He had been content being alone. Happy even. Part of him did not want this person near him but part of him liked the sound of her voice and the news she brought. Scant though it was. This new situation would take some getting used to. Ken Morrell Sept. 2023

 

The Pretty One by Susan Schrader

He was the pretty one left

At the end of the world

When it rained the tears of death.

His life was transformed by fire and fear

Fixed by the Reaper’s grim grin.

In desperation he walked the Earth,

Found an empty cornucopia of company,

A dearth of faces, a famine of hope.

He sheltered where choirs once sang,

Where people prayed, believed,

Assumed tomorrow would always come,

And like tears in the rain

And fire in the fields

His life was transfigured.

 

The pretty one left

At the end of the world

Was destined to dine alone,

Crunching on remnant packaged chips

Scavenged from intact vending machines

In the hollow wells of subway stations

Or silent movie theatres.

He found a bed in a basement flat

Where the noiseless streets screamed,

And it was here,

Despondent and desperate,

He heard the knock at the door.

 

© Susan Schrader                              15th September, 2023

 

Of Women’s Magazines Past
by Gary Ireland

 

When we travel into the Sydney CBD my wife usually buys a New Idea or a Womans Day to read on the train, a habit retained from decades past when such magazines usually had something or other in them worth reading. Invariably, she is finished with it well before we reach our destination, suggests we swap, and snaffles my Herald, leaving me to read about the hot new lover of some woman who is sort of famous as a result appearing in various similar magazines, or about her baby bump, or new miracle diet. It leaves me longing for the women’s magazines of my teens in the 1950’s. I liked them, even though they were not designed for adolescent boys.

The Woman’s Weekly– and it really was a weekly back then- was the widest read and most influential of these, but Woman (the predecessor of Woman’s Day) and New Idea followed the same format, in a progressively down-market fashion. The Weekly and Woman were tabloids, with the Weekly featuring more colour plates and better known contributors, while the New Idea was even then magazine size, and its illustrations were markedly inferior and rarely more than single coloured. All were targeted principally to housewives, and the back half of the magazines was devoted to housewifely matters- recipes, sewing and knitting patterns, household tips and the like.

It was the half preceding their stapled centre-pages which captivated me, for, although it contained a few news stories and a double page spread of society items, it was principally filled with fiction, often of quite reasonable quality. Neville Shute’s then controversial In the Wet was initially serialised in the Weekly, as were some of Agatha Christie’s mysteries and works by Daphne du Maurier. Certainly the stories that appeared in these magazines were not Chekhov, but they were certainly much closer to him than the sleazy fictions about card-board “celebrities”, which are the mainstay of women’s magazines in their current incarnation.

The quality and flavour of these stories is perhaps illustrated by this outline of a story which appeared in, I think, The New Idea in the mid-fifties. Like many of the stories it was English, and told the story of an elderly art teacher taking a party of girls from an exclusive school on a cultural visit to Paris. In a small gallery she comes across a nude canvas of herself, painted by her lover when she was studying in Paris immediately prior to the First World War.  Confronted by the reminder of how she once was, and recalling the lover’s disappearance in the conflagration which followed, she breaks down and is found helplessly weeping in front of the painting by two of her students. In response to their enquiries, she lies, stating that the girl in the painting was a friend who died soon after its completion, as she fears that the truth would cause a scandal at her puritanical school, resulting in her dismissal. The students accept her account at face value, as they cannot conceive of the lovely young girl and the withered spinster as the one person. Not Chekhov- but certainly more adult and more subtle than anything likely to be found in the equivalent magazines today.

My favourite, though, was The Australian Journal, which disappeared some-time in the mid-fifties. Strictly speaking, it was not a women’s magazine, although it was principally purchased by women, but rather a collection of Australian short stories of variable quality, a few by professionals but the majority by amateur contributors. It contained towards the back a marvellous little column headed Mainly for Contributors, which featured an amusing collection of solecisms and mixed metaphors found in these amateur efforts. The column was a good place to hone one’s self editing, and the magazine as a whole a godsend to budding writers. Sadly, the flow of contributions declined to a trickle in the ’fifties and, after a year of syndicating overseas material in an effort to maintain production, The Australian Journal and its position in our national identity were no more. So completely has it vanished that I was unable to find even a Google entry acknowledging its existence, despite the foundation editor being no  less than Marcus Clarke, the author of the very first Australian classic, For the Term of his Natural Life.

Its disappearance and that of fiction from present day women’s magazines to my mind represents a serious loss. Fiction takes us into another person’s life, encouraging understanding and sympathy for others: gossip, which is the staple of the equivalent magazines today, especially salacious gossip, leads to a lack of empathy that coarsens us.

I feared that my perception might be hazy with rose-coloured nostalgia until recently, when visiting the Museum of Sydney I came across a ’fifties themed exhibition which contained a few old magazines. Yes, they really were better.

Gary Ireland

 

 

The Knight of Wands: Part one by Olivia Masterfield

 

“Bring me the wizard,” the kings voice bellowed like a lion’s roar, ferocious and powerful, as the guards obeyed their command and stormed out of the throne room. When they returned, it was with a man in dark robes dangling from each arm, his face bloodied, and his long hair knotted.

The observers of the court could see as clear as day the thick, steel cuffs and chains that latched firmly to his wrists and neck, restricting his movements to do nothing more but turn. Some flinched when the slack parts of his chains swayed in their direction, a few mumbling prayers as the imprisoned wizard was dragged past them.

At the foot of the throne, the guards threw the wizard down and onto his knees. They kept a firm grip on his chains and held him up in a seated posture like a puppet on strings. The wizard could only look up at the fat, grey king with disinterest as he raised a hand for silence amongst his court. The whispers died like mayflies in the sunrise.

From his shadows beside the king, a small, withered man emerged with a scroll and unfurled it loudly. “We all gather in the court of King Gerrad Hawkbourne to see the accused ‘wizard’ Taliesin Airellson face justice for his crimes of arson and murder which took place in the fields of Cosgrave, mere stone throws from our fine kingdom of Jeriea.”

A collective gasp filled the room from where the audience stood, and once more they were alive with whispers until they were silenced once more. The old man tugged at a non-existent kink in the parchment before rolling it back up. At the same time, the king extended his hand toward the front of the room and jerked his wrist upwards. “Would the accused stand?” he requested sharply.

Taliesin allowed the guards to pull him to his feet, even when the shackles hurt his bruised wrists and the collar choked him. He stood a head taller than both his guards, but he did not match their muscle. But even then, he could see them tense as they gripped his chains tighter in their gauntleted hands.

“You have been accused of some dire crimes boy, the kind that puts your people on stakes before the holy clergy,” the king grunted, folding his hands together over his lap. “Not to mention you have no tower to associate with. I certainly hope you have good reason for such foul acts.”

He nodded slowly, despite himself. The court made no sound this time.

“I do have good reason my king, and it is that I did neither of those things,” he said casually, despite the dryness in his mouth choking him. “It was a wyvern and its rider. I did not kill anyone-!”

“You dare to lie in my court?!” The king snapped, his stubbed hands gripping the ends of his throne’s arms. Taliesin could see the vein bobbing in the corner of his forehead, and the red in his eyes grow. “You either speak true in my presence or burn in dishonesty.”

Taliesin set his jaw and pressed his tongue flat against the roof of his mouth. It was a familiar process for him. In such a holy city, a wizard who knew not when to hold his tongue would surely lose it or his life, although the results were all the same regardless.

With a scoff, the king fell back into the depths of his throne and waved at the wizard. “I have been told you specialise in fire magic. It was fire who killed my subjects in the fields. Not only are you a destruction wizard, but a rude liar too. One would think someone like you would want to keep your head, but I suppose your people can be foolish too.”

The tension of the court grew thicker as the silence pressed on between them. With a scowl, the king turned to address the little old man beside him and Taliesin patiently waited for the king to address him again. Although, he knew how it would end- how it always ended for wizards who lived in holy cities without a tower to take them in. and unlike many before him, he didn’t waste his breath or tears on cries of mercy.

Every now and then, a whisper would be heard. Some said to just burn him and get on with life. Others declared him a murderer. Nothing Taliesin was unfamiliar with crossed the lips of gossiping commoners. But then erupted a sudden shout.

“The wizard is innocent!” a voice cried out, slicing down the order of the king’s court like an axe through firewood.

One by one, eyes flitted down the rows of people and guards until they at last found the owner of the voice. Taliesin looked too and was surprised. A woman stood at the end of the court, dressed in riding leather and a ruby dagger attached to her waist. In her hand, which was raised high enough for all to see, was a thick piece of parchment depicting a gruesome looking wyvern with a helmed rider upon its back. An ugly, familiar face.

Upon seeing her, the old man groaned loudly. “How dare you disrupt a court session and speak without being spoken to woman. You have no sway or authority in this court to warrant so!”

The king stared her down in turn. But rather than cower, the woman started to strut forward with the poster still raised until a guard halted her at javelin point.

“This wizard is innocent, your majesty,” she continued, her tone sharp and straightforward yet slicked in venom. “And he speaks true. It was a wyvern rider. I am a member of one of the best monster hunting guilds in the land, and I am willing to hunt your true ‘criminal’ down.”

Cruelly, the king snickered. The old man did the same. However, the woman shrugged it off and shoved the parchment into a pouch on her hip, crossing her arms as she looked up at the two men on the pews ahead. “I will bring the monsters heads to you. all I ask in payment is 50 gold and the wizard himself.”

Taliesin frowned. Of course, he was going to be a bargaining chip. And to a guild of monster hunters no less.

Eventually, the king turned to face her and straightened his posture. “Very well, the wizard is yours. But expect no gold until I have the heads of the wyvern and rider to examine myself and expect only twenty-five and no more after this rude interruption.”

Taliesin did not fight back as the guards dragged him towards the woman and handed his chains over to her like a leash. He frowned, hoping they’d do him the kindness of undoing his chains. He did however glare at his new jailer as she carefully coiled the chains around her wrists and began to lead him out of the court. “I thank you greatly your majesty,” she called out before abandoning the court once and for all.

They walked like that until at last stopping by a carriage near the edge of a thick forest. It was there that she finally removed his chains- all except for one, thick cuff she left on his right hand. Regardless, he massaged his sore joints gratefully.

“I’m going to leave that cuff on in case you’re not as innocent as I originally thought,” the woman beamed, hoisting herself up on the cart and gripping the reigns. “Now, let’s not waste any time, shall we? The wyvern and its rider were spotted riding north and there’s a chance they won’t be staying there for long.”

“Wait,” Taliesin snapped, but the woman was not listening. She had already gotten the horse to canter away. He quickly hoisted himself up on the stoop beside her as the cart started its journey down the root riddled road ahead. He waited for the ride to steady before talking again. “Who are you? and what do you want with me?”

At that, the woman smiled and jabbed her gloved hand in his general direction. “My name is Venetia, a ranger in the guild of fangs. And you are our new guild’s replacement wizard. Congratulations.”

 

© Olivia Masterfield                                                 September 2023

 

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