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Trentonomicon

Being the Web Home of Trent Jamieson

Trent Jamieson is a multi-award winning novelist and short story writer. 


He is the author of the Death Works series, The Nightbound Land Duology, Day Boy, and The Giant and the Sea.

He can be contacted below.

Some of his short fiction can be read here.

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  • Writer's pictureTrent Jamieson

Cracks

To celebrate the paperback release of The Stone Road this month, I'm putting up the short story that was the seed of the book. I think I use about two lines from the story, and a couple of the character names.


I always suspected that this story, and the world of Day Boy were connected. Another story of mine, in fact my first published short story Threnody has also become a part of this world, which weirdly makes this series thirty years old. (How did I get so ancient?) I guess if you're a slow, but kind of (slightly) prolific writer you end up using everything.


Cracks was first published in Shiny Magazine and won the Aurealis Award for best YA short story in 2008



Cracks



The dark is the dark. The song is the song.

     

The shadows were boiling to midday when Lolly Robson found me by the river, my feet dangling over the bank, not touching earth so I could get some peace. He grinned, that crooked stunning smile, and spat a wasteful spit on the ground like it was a challenge, like everything for Lolly was a challenge to be spat out. "Jean. I got need of you."


"Yes I see that," I said in my old voice. The voice that isn't mine, but that's all me, which you'd understand if you had what I had, and maybe you do. "And don't be all spitting and short with me, boy. Just because I was raised peculiar, don't mean you have the right."


Lolly looked almost abashed, but he didn’t say sorry. Robson boys don't. They're haughty. Pretty too. And we were close enough of age that I had no right in calling him boy.


"I like your dress," he said, kind of charming.


I fixed him with a black stare. "Flattery, boy. Too hot for flattery."  Though I liked it. He was a Robson after all. Not that I'd show my pleasure. "What's your need?"


We'd done our dance. Lolly understood, and took the direct path, and snatched back a bit of the old voice's respect.


"Snake's bit my mum." He touched his right biceps, then a point above his wrist, near where he would be cut when he came of age, like all the Robson boys were cut. "Here and here.  She's dying." He choked a little, at that. And the part of me that was me, the small bit, the nailed to the flesh bit, felt sad for him. Like I felt sad for all of them and for myself as well, if I was honest.


"I'm coming, then. Shall we get a move on?" I let him lead me, down the street and by the river. Past the dulling midday traffic.


The dark is the dark. The song is the song. I was all sweat beneath the sun. And the river was all sweat, too. I could feel the dead humming beneath. I could feel  their rumblings in the dry earth; could hear their miserable voices coming up from the cracks in the ground, and through the cracks in the soles of my feet.


I had worn the blue dress that day, and the sun was greedy. I kept to the shadows, but there weren't that many, and the colour was starting to fade. Sun bleaches everything made, beads your skin with sweat. It tasted salty on my lips. That's what the sun tastes like, salt.


The sun crouched on my back; heavy, endless sun. My head burned. I took a deep hot

breath that caught in my lungs, and I felt the dead pause. Felt their seething restless motion still. They waited for something. I waited with them.


And if I'd had any reason to doubt Lolly's claims, the dead snatched them away. They were waiting for her. Mrs Robson. Matriarch and power.

#


I was born mad. Crazy. Born with teeth and snapping. Bit the old doctor's finger, tasted blood before milk, suckled hard, gave a little pain before I let the world have my tears. My mum says that's all the child I was allowed, that moment of insolence. Didn't stop her treating me like one. Didn't stop the thrashings I got.


I was nasty growing up, given to tantrums. But you deal with what I deal with and you've but two choices. Fight and hiss and spit at all those dead voices, or let them wash over you and drown and become their puppet. Some folks reckon that's what the Husk Gods are, but I can tell you they're not. The Husk Gods are too hollow to ever be filled by the likes of the dead.


Comes a time when you make parley with the chatter, but you've a long way to that point, and it ain't till childhood's been mostly burned away by the sun and the noise coming up from those cracks.



"Hurry, boy," I said as regal as I could. "We've not time for your slows."


Lolly regarded me, his eyes brown and deep, and living - vital. "You know I'm not scared of you."


Which was funny, but I didn't laugh.


"You are," I said. "Everyone is, even my mum."


And she was. My mum was scared of me more than anyone because I got what she should have, what was hers, and that meant something. She'd been scared of me and vicious since, always on the sauce. Drunk, and bitter.


"Not an easy thing. That thing that you bear," he said all serious. He reached to touch me, then hesitated. I watched the movement die.


I laughed at that. Kept my lips shut. He might mouth the sympathy, but he didn't know. He didn't know shit. The things I'd seen, the things what had whispered up through the soles in my feet. Silly boys, with their playing at knowing. Folks could speak with their dead kin, yes, but I could speak with em all, and they were honest, and they were demanding, and I didn't like it all hated it.


The sun sucked at us. Burnt the earth, burnt my feet - widened the cracks in both. Out here there's flat and heat, and hills that boiled up from the black soil and the red. And there's the dead. In the ground. Where you'll be, and me, soon enough. We ain't granted much. Just a sliver of heartbeats. Grab a big handful of that dark dry soil, let it slide through your fingers and those grains they're as many minutes as you've got – if you're lucky.


All of us rot, and sooner than we'd like, which is why the dead moan, as they fall, down and down into the deep dark and the circling solitude of the Husk Gods, and why they scramble for as long as they can in the earth, clinging on, grumbling and spitting and singing their song at the cruelties of the universe.

 

 

Way to the Robson place was long and slow in the heat, and even I felt it, for all the chill whisperings, that dry fire. Horizon was thick with dust and smoke. The scrub west of town was burning. Lightning did that, and there were folk out there fighting the sky's work. I could feel them, ’cause they were close to death. We're always ready to die, to fight the world, its flood and famines, in the hope that we might earn our living in it. They were out there fighting now, and I knew Lolly wished he were there too, amongst all that danger.


And I was glad he wasn't. A girl likes some prettiness about her. 


It wasn't that way we walked, but down to the floodplain by the river, the soil rich and dark. And another death that was coming.


We passed a Jersey, all shrivelled up and half drowned in mud, dry and tight about its ribs, like a sucking second skin.


"You hear them cows?" Lolly asked me.


I shook my head. "Just the people. Seems animals don't sit and grumble."


Lolly stopped, bent down and picked up a stone. He threw it hard at the dead thing's head.


"Why's that?"


"I think they're content with death," I said. "They don't rail and grumble and snatch at the still living bits. Life's thin and precious. But it ain't everything."


I took another step and he gripped my wrists, and I could feel the desperate fluttering of his heart, through his bones.


"Not just yet," he said, tears bubbling in his eyes and his voice. "Not just yet."


"But her time's running down."


Lolly shook his head. He wiped the snot from his nose with the back of his hand. He straightened, and tried to be the man he just wasn't yet ready to become. I wanted to kiss him. And, in a moment long as anything I've known, he would have let me.

But the earth beneath me hissed. The ground stung my feet, her bile was that strong.


"This ain't for you," my gran whispered. "No Lolly for you. I've plans that I won't let your hungers ruin."


So I didn't press my chance, but I didn't push Lolly none either.


"You know why she wants me?" I said.


Lolly nodded. "She wants her due. She's done all the things, all the obeisances to the husk gods, the whispering listening ones. She's prepared the soil." He clenched his hands to fists.

"Her life's been devoted to making sure her death is long and powerful."


I wanted to shake my head, and tell him that such a death wasn't power, it was hissing, and vile and made up of threats to those that walk. The Husk Gods are cruel. They rule the beneath, and the worlds above when there is enough death to draw them, but there was more to it than that. That the handful of life we're given was something still.  But I couldn't explain it. Life itself's the explanation, so I let it rest, just stood in silence holding his gaze.


We stood a moment. Then another, the air drying our lungs, even if there was a kind of peace in it. Then in the corner of my eye, I saw it drifting towards us. Huskling, servant of the Gods.


"Keep your eyes shut," I whispered to Lolly. "And your ears, plug em up."


The skin fluttered down to us. I walked in front of Lolly. Checked that he was doing what I said.


The skin shivered, and billowed, it filled with air, man sized and shaped, from toes to cock, to crown. It was puffed up on the fire, on all that death building in the west.


"Huskling," I said. "What's your business here?"


Its voice was a hot wind, a searing gust. "You're slow. Too slow. Time's running out for the mother."


"She made her deals with you. Not me."


The Huskling nodded, bobbing in the air. "Perhaps I should eat the child." It grinned with its flap-of-skin mouth, more than wide enough to eat Lolly.


"You eat the boy. Then I walk slower."  I sat down. "Maybe I'll stop here a while.


The Huskling hissed its frustration, and then popped like a balloon. Bits of skin dropped, leaving a ring of dry rinds.


I shook Lolly and he opened his eyes, and gasped for breath. "I said, your eyes and ears. Nothin' about your mouth and nose."


"What did the Huskling want?"


"To hurry us," I said. "Now run."


Lolly did, with me on his heels, careful though to avoid the skin ring of the Huskling.  I yelled at him all the way, told him to speed it up, and tried my best not to look at that pretty face, all grim with the hurrying to his mother's last breaths.

 

 

 

They were waiting out the front of the house. Not that they could meet my gaze. Robson boys, the young ones. Lolly's older brothers were out fighting the fire. Still, the ones left had managed to build a coffin. And it was done right. I could feel the dead regarding it with approval, Nan seething, because it was too good. Made with fear and love. Oh, them Robson boys loved and feared their mum.


"Run your nails over it, lass. Anti-clockwise." Nan hissed through my feet, her dead bones communing with my living ones. "Dull it a little."


I did, but they were on to me quick, and counter marking, and all the while nice, because they needed me, and they were just boys, and almost as afraid of me as their mum. They guided me, swift and surely from the coffin.


"Ah," Nan spat. "You give her what she wants, but not too much, hear?"


Not too much.


There wasn't too much you could give the dead, and they knew it, even the powerful, which was why they grumbled so.

 

 

Nailed to the veranda was the dead snake, a parody of power now. A brown snake. She didn't have much time left. The Huskling was right. I went inside, and could feel the death impending.


His mother got her eyes in me: still living sight that could burrow deeper than any dead regard. Her breath came shallow and swift like one of them fabled carriages of the gods, pulling her to death, as it puffed its smoke and crashed its engines.


"You ask her where I am to be put?"


I knew what she was talking about. Could feel her. The numbing presence nearby. The stark jealous intensity. People reckon the dead's all rage and vengeful and there is that, in the powerful ones at least, the ceaseless grumbling and grasping. But mostly death is stillness. Mostly death is drifting. Unless you're buried right. Then you've a chance at influence, at matriarchal power. And you can watch over your young'uns, and direct them, subtle but definite. And sometimes not subtle at all.


"You tell her," my gran said, with that sudden weird loyalty that the dead have for the dead. “You tell her, neath the eucalypt. The tall one, back of the house. She'll have what she wants there. She's lived the life.”


I told her, and her boys, then she turned her gaze to them all, and they trooped out of the room. And then she started crying.


"To live the life you've lived isn't easy," I said. "Never easy."


"No," Mother Robson said. "But I've had my kids. I've them to keep on with my life, and they may find pleasure in it yet."


Not likely, I thought, thinking of the lash of a dead matriarch's tongue. She'd be demanding this, demanding that.


I told her that, told her to settle her rage and her misery at death or none of her kin would find pleasure. She laughed at that, and for the first time I saw the fear in her eyes, behind the determination, behind the acceptance. "I ain't your gran," she said.


"Dead's all alike," I said. "All grumbling."


She laughed at that again, and then she stilled.


"Peculiar," she said, and that was the last thing she said.


I shut her eyes, then marched the Robson boys through to see her, to kiss her head, as kin must, then out the back to start their digging. Keep them busy in their grief. Let them cry later when the work was done, when their brothers came home.


Once they left the room, I sat and stared at her, in this moment of stillness, these first moments she had had since birth. Soon they would pass and she would be in the ground and chattering. Her skin was already finding the blue pallor of death. A fly settled on her nose, then lifted and landed on the corner of her lip. I brushed it away, and admired her momentary peace.


She'd be all talk soon, relishing her power, then realizing its diminishment, feeling her body decay, feeling the slow march of rot, in and out. Things would start eating her, the worm and beetle. And, from her position of power, she would be one of the loudest. I wasn't looking forward to that.


An hour, then another passed, just me and her. Then the boys came in. Carrying the coffin. Lolly at the back. They lay it on the bed beside her, then looked at me, all anxious, some of them sniffling. Not Lolly. I could see he was done with his tears. His back was straight, his eyes dark.


"You've got to lay her in the coffin," I prompted. "Gentle now."


They did. And then they hammered the lid on, with old black nails, round which she had wrapped her hair, and dipped in blood. When the last nail was in I led them boys, all carrying their mum, out the backyard to the grave they had dug.


It was getting dark, there was only a lighter darkness in the west now, like a cave's dream of sun. The ground was chattery, roaring with the dead. Old voices, distant for the most part, now rose up.


"There. There. There." The ground was chattery, yes, and bubbling. I caught glimpses of fingers, of dark flesh, curled and chewed on flesh, and bone, eyes sunken and black. Death darkens everything with its tar touch.


 They were too excited, and me too intent on getting it done. I tripped at the edge of the grave and fell in that hole, all Alice, and tumbling, chasing important dates or fish or whatever nonsense. The fall knocked the wind out of me and the dead rushed round me.


My gran's face pushed through the dirt. Her lips pressed against mine. Most times I feel them; this time they felt me.


And I wanted to scream, but I wasn't bought up to give utterance to my fear.


"Back," I spat. "Back, your time is done."


"So is hers," my gran whispered. "Done. Done. Down here with us now. Do you want me to eat you, girl?"


I laughed at that. All that threat, and how she didn't understand. She'd already eaten me. I pushed her face away with my palm, felt the spongy flesh give. I laughed.


"Why not? This is a powerful place to die, and for me to do it willingly, I could have a nice time of lording it over you all."


I closed my eyes and lay down on the dirt.


And I was suddenly bigger than my flesh. I was the sky and the vast dark beyond, and the raging boiling stars. I was everything, with a scrap of me attached, a tiny flake that seemed so insignificant. I knew in that moment that I could scrape it away. I could scrape everything away, and just be that big everything.


The Husk Gods shuttled around me. The Husk Gods whispered such promises in my ear. “Ruin it. Ruin it.”


Their tongues lashed my back like whips.


But I thought of Lolly and his wanting face. And I stilled my power, pushed it away, cut it out of my flesh. My gran was screaming, and cackling, and cursing my name. “You’ll rule us all.”


But I did not want to rule such an emptiness. I did not want that great dark to be mine. I just wanted this brief happiness.


“What you doing, girl?”


I pulled myself from the dark earth, I pushed away their reaching fingers. They snatched and tried to hold me, but I knew that I was stronger, that my will was iron, and for the first time in a long time, maybe ever, I did not listen.


#


I got up, and out of the grave. I smiled at Lolly, and he smiled at me; uncertain, but a smile all the same.


I nodded to the coffin and the ropes they'd placed under it.


"Lower it now," I said.


And they did.


"You can look down now. Your mother's in the grave. Your mother's to her power." I held his hand. "You can look down, and listen. But you don't have to."


I thought of him. Me and Lolly, leaving this place. And I'd like to think he considered it too. Maybe, for a second, because he didn't pull away, not as swift as he could have. He squeezed a little then he let go and walked down to the grave's edge


Lolly looked down. He looked down for a long time, and when he turned around, he wasn't the same Lolly any more. He was older, smaller, his back bent with a weight that hadn't been there before, even in his grief. And I knew I'd lost him.


"Thank you," he said. And he said it all formal, all polite.


"Nothin'" I said.


"Thank you, all the same,"


I already had my back to him, already started the walk into town. And he was digging, throwing spade after spade of that black earth into the hole he had dug. His other brothers helping, his family closing round him, closing me out. Listening for the mother. I could hear her, so loud, and spiteful.


"Not a proper choice, boy," Dead Mrs Robson said. "You need yourself a sane one, a real one. Don't curse our line with that. Surely you understand."


He must have because he didn't come running. Oh, the weight the dead have, and their judgments. The other dead whispered, whispered, whispered, through the cracks in my feet; almost all the family allowed me.


I walked home, to my mum, and her bottle-dreams, and gran whispering up to do this, pick that, help this one and hinder that. Only I didn't.


"What you doing, girl? What you doing?"


I ignored her, and bought some food, and a lot of water.


"You can't. The power, the song."


I walked out of town, into the cooling dark.


"You can't."


I didn't walk far that night, just far enough. But I would. There was days of it ahead, and no guarantee of anything but sore feet, and heat.


"You can't."


I found a place to rest, by the river, where the roos were mobbing. They didn't mind me none. I lifted my feet. It was quiet. So blessed quiet.


The dark is the dark. The song is the song.


But not my song.


Not anymore.

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