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Dec 2012 /Jan 2013: THE GIFT

Janneen Love, The Gift
Janneen Love, The Gift
Janneen Love lives and paints and works in Auckland.

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Sally Houtman, The seasons, it is said…

It is said they met in autumn, with the shadows at drowsy angles, in the clearing where the field sloped steeply towards the hidden creek. She caught his eye in the curious light, kneeling in the clover, thick curls hooked behind one ear. Perhaps it was the gentle way she clipped the roses that made him want to know her, who she was, how she thought. He approached her, bashful, grinning, buttoning and unbuttoning his jacket, blunt-nailed fingers fumbling slits. A glance of sideways approval and he was smitten. He received her smile like a gift.

*

In spring they wed beneath the petal trestle. She gave him a paintbrush with squint coral pigments. He gave her a drainpipe and a tarnished gong. At home she managed book and ledger, kept the teapot full. He worked on conduit and woodpile, hollowed pits for seedlings in their broad backyard. Winters came with heavy footsteps. Summers lingered, long in stride. Twenty years his senior, he knew one day she’d leave him, as all breathing things will do.

*

It is said the day she died the clocks ran backwards. Starlings wrestled with their warbles. The skies filled but gave no rain. Decades later, some say that you can see him at the window, a silhouette of shadows, searching for her in the hinged wing of the sparrow, in the twisted branches of the cypress tree. Forever he is watching, waiting for the seasons to cycle back around again.

Sally Houtman is a Wellington writer. She began writing fiction and poetry in 2007 and threatens not to stop.

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Kate Mahony, The Gift

Grandmother brought something out from behind her back. Francie saw it was a doll. It was big and pink with a hard body, a rubbery face and crimped hair.

“Happy birthday,” Grandmother said. “It’s from your father.”

Mother sighed. Francie’s father was away in the South Island drying out. His white arms would be turning dark and wrinkled like raisins.

Mother pushed baby Tessa off her lap. “We can’t stay long. Molly’s been asked to a party.” She rubbed at a spot on her wool skirt.

“There’s clowns and a magic show,” Molly said importantly.

“Last minute invitation. At the school gate.” Mother wound a hanky tight around her fingers. “The girl’s mother looked embarrassed, too.”

Grandmother frowned. “Because of–”

“Ssh,’ Mother blew her nose. “I don’t know what’s worse. Avoiding me or asking how we’re coping.”

Francie hated it when Mother cried. She mightn’t stop. “Can I go to the party with Molly?”

“You aren’t invited,” Molly said.

“But it’s my birthday and being here isn’t a proper party.” Francie stamped her foot.

“No,” Molly said. “The other party’s for seven-year-olds. You’re five.”

“That’s not fair,” Francie wailed.

Mother stared out the window. “As if he’s dead.”

Grandmother frowned. “Stop that, Francie.”

Francie wailed louder.

“Or I’ll take the doll off you.”

“Please, Mother?” Francie kicked Molly.

Grandmother put the doll on the floor beside Tessa. “Here, Baby, Dolly’s for you now.”

“I hated it anyway,” Francie said. And she didn’t care if her father found out.

Kate Mahony has an MA in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University, Wellington. A former journalist, she has tried novel writing, short story writing and now flash fiction. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Best New Zealand Fiction Vol 6, Turbine, Takahe, The International Literary Quarterly, Tales for Canterbury, Blue Crow Magazine and Blackmail Press. She teaches short story writing at the Community Education Centre in Wellington.

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Leanne Radojkovich, A Dog’s Soul

In winter, the porch was light-starved and goosebump-cold.

We sat in the kitchen, fire snapping and fizzing, while dog sat on the porch whining to be let in.

Each morning, I’d open the door and she’d knock me down and lick my face.

In summer, dog thought she was a cat, chasing sparrows across the lawn and trying to climb trees.

One morning, I opened the door and dog was lying on her side with her legs poking out.

Thwack! Thwack!

The sound of Dad chopping into the lawn.

The swish of earth sliding off his spade.

“Drag her over,” he said.

Her stiff legs made good handles but I was half out of my body with shock.

Dad rolled dog into the hole, testing the fit with his gumboot.

Something whooshed out, a fleeting pressure against my face: one cold kiss.

Leanne Radojkovich’s stories have featured in the UK’s Flash Fiction World, Turbine and Flash Frontier. Her flash readings on YouTube have had over 2,000 views in the past year.

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Mike Crowl, Self-Gift

She reads aloud, “60% of shoppers plan to self-gift on Black Friday.”

“Self-gift?” I snort. “Oxymoron. You can’t give yourself a gift. Giving requires a giver and a recipient.”

“So you say. I’m happy to go out and self-gift any time.”

“Something tells me this is post-modern retail thinking. Our grandmothers would have sniffed, Nonsense.” I glance over her shoulder at the article she’s reading. ‘Perhaps it’d be better if they wrote, 60% of shoppers plan to shop selfishly.’”

“You’re an opinionated oaf.”

“And you believe that shopping is therapy.”

She tosses the paper at me. Misses, of course. It splatters in sheets across the floor.

“You going to pick that up?” I ask. “Put it back in order?”

“An opinionated oaf and a control freak.”

“Better than being someone who thinks that shopping will solve their crises.”

She stands, ignoring the newspaper. Flicks the switch on the jug. “It’s relaxing.”

“It’s a way of relaxing only Westerners can afford.” I put my empty cup on the bench beside her.

“I’m not making you a coffee.”

“So, no gift from you then.”

“Not when you’re doing caffeine therapy.” She tumbles my cup into the already cluttered sink. “That’s your third cup in an hour.”

“Sharpens my brain. Makes me able to see the rubbish behind a phrase like self-gift.”

“Enables you to say things that make no sense at all.”

I grab her round the waist. Kiss her. She yanks my beard. Kisses me back.

Mike Crowl is a 67-year-old writer, pianist, composer and actor living in Dunedin. He has been writing for publication since 1989, with most published material these days appearing on one or other of his blogs. Current projects include typing up weekly letters he sent to his family in 1968/9 when he was at the London Opera Centre, and writing a set of songs in which dogs of various shapes and sizes are the focus.

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Rebecca Simons, The Gift

Fat tears and snot streaming she stood near the closed door, bottom lip uncertain. In her arms she held her favourite dolly tight. Something broke in the kitchen, her body flinched. A soft voice behind her spoke, “Get back to bed. If he catches you up he’ll give you a hiding too.” Eyes fixed on the crack of light beneath the door she stubbornly said, “Dolly can’t sleep.” The other voice hissed, “Don’t be a stupid baby. Do you want to get the both of us into trouble?” She lifted her eyes to look at her brother then back down at Dolly. With a dimpled fist she smeared snot across her face then took Dolly by the hair and threw her against the door, “Stupid baby.” Dolly fell silently to the floor, face down, a tuft of stuffing exposed. Fresh tears dripped from her chin as her body began to shake. Wordlessly her brother padded over to the door, stooped and picked up the doll. With a finger he pushed stuffing back under stained cloth. She began to sob. He growled, “Now what?” She stuttered, “Dolly’s hurt. Kiss better.” He sighed and with a slight shrug raised the rag doll to his lips and gently kissed the new rip before shoving it roughly back into her arms. “Now get back to bed.” She clutched the doll tightly to her chest and then looked up, a broad smile exposing gaps. In a loud whisper she said, “Dolly sleep now.”

Rebecca Simons is an ex-office worker who discovered short story writing while enjoying a mid-life crisis. Although her university years were spent studying European language and culture, she has found an even greater challenge in mastering the use of her maternal language, English, and hopes to continue with this challenge for many years to come.

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Campbell Taylor, Into the Night

“It’s like being shot out of a gun barrel decorated by Frida Kahlo. Apparently.”

Sam realised Leisel’s perfect lips had stopped moving.

“You have to snort it, for it to work.”

“I’ve… never done that,” Sam said.

“It’s not drugs: it’s natural. Magic. The Pigu use it to float above the trees and commune with their ancestors.”

They had met at the Reclaim the Night planning committee the previous week; Leisel admiring Sam’s Witchy-Poo t-shirt, Sam offering to make her one.

“My brother imports it from Bolivia. It’s safe; you don’t fall too hard.”

Sam liked the idea of magic; always wanted to believe; got angry that women had been persecuted for their natural wisdom.

“I don’t know. Being fired out a gun… Have you tried it?”

She had never wanted to kiss a girl: a woman. Maybe this would take her there. She looked at the small pile of powdered bark Leisel was arranging into two lines. She was beautiful; bewitching. Not that she was only attracted to her looks.

“No. I wanted to share our first time. As a thank-you for making me this,” Leisel said, smoothing the shirt over her breasts.

Sam was scared, but she was less scared of barrelling into the air. She did not know what women did. Well, she did.

She smiled at Leisel and gazed out into the night.

Campbell Taylor is often a phlebotomist, sometimes a sound-man, occasionally a performance poet. His short stories have been published in New Zealand and overseas. Born in Christchurch, he lives in Titahi Bay with his young daughter while he chips away at his first (or second) novel, depending on his mood.

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Rachel J. Fenton, Young Girl with a Sheaf

Avignon glows golden as an August field of ripe corn. A walled town: there is a sense of what it feels to be a mouse lost in sheaves, drowning in stalks. Will grips my hand and we go on.

*

I expected screams, terror-curdled wails, not this:

D

D

D

D

D

our heels echoing our hearts the only sounds as we make our way along the gravel path. The light, pied, in need of an artist to paint it, and there she sits, the so-called nightmare, just in view between the laddered shade of a sentry of trees, and the doorway of the madhouse.

Will adjusts the camera. I walk the last few yards alone, see in Camille’s hands stalks of corn; in her eyes, so blue, even now, it is eighteen ninety, I am not sixty-eight but twenty-nine, looking at the exhibition catalogue, yearning to meet the maker who would become my dearest friend. She did not disappoint.

*

D

D

D

*

There was a rumour she should not be in Montdevergues, as there was a rumour the rumour she started (Rodin stole her ideas) had her committed. Every rumour holds at least one ear of truth.

My forehead to felt: her hat.

“They told me you were mad.” A tear’s lost in the creases of my face.

“You pester me.” She has woven the corn into a sunwheel.

“Avenie ventosa, sine vento venenosa, cum vento fastidiosa. Forgive me.”

She gives me the sun. The camera clicks.

Short-listed for The Royal Society of New Zealand Manhire Prize, Rachel J. Fenton was winner of AUT’s Creative Writing Prize. She lives in Auckland.

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Maris O’Rourke, A Fairy Tale for Feminists

Once upon a time there was a brave little girl. She watched knights adventure forth while maidens stayed home. She decided she would rather be a knight and set about getting gifts to achieve that: from her parents a horse; from the groom riding lessons; from the mapmakers maps and navigation lessons; from the blacksmith a suit of armour and shield; from the tanner a saddle and bags; and from the carpenter a lance.

When everything was ready she set forth on her huge red horse Firefox. At first she was not a very good knight. She had had no practice but eventually she learned to kill or be killed. She travelled far and wide learning truths too strange to tell.

One day in a faraway land she met a tall, blond, blue-eyed Prince. “I have been searching for you all my life,” he said. “Come and be my Princess.” And she did. There was great jubilation throughout the land. People came from far away for the grand wedding bearing wagonloads of gifts and jewels.

She laid down her knightly gear and became a proper wife. She wrapped her three beautiful baby princes in her hand-woven blankets of many colours. She watched others adventure while she stayed home.

But she kept all her things locked in a sandalwood chest that smelt of strange lands and faraway places just in case she ever needed any of them again.

And lo and behold one day she did… .

Maris O’Rourke has been published in a range of poetry journals in New Zealand and overseas (including being Guest Poet in Poetry NZ #44) and placed in a number of competitions, including the South Island Writers’ Association National Competition, the Caselberg Trust International Poetry Prize and the Robert Burns Poetry Competition. Her first children’s book Lillibutt’s Big Adventure has just been published by Duck Creek Press and she is now working on her first poetry collection while exploring flash fiction.

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Kathryn Jenkins, The Ticket

When I won Lotto the boys insisted that, because they’d bought the ticket for my birthday, we should split the winnings three ways.

Henry took his share and went cruising in the Mediterranean where he met a Portuguese model called Maria. They emailed from Lisbon for more money so he could bring her home to meet me.

Ben took Sally and the girls to Africa on an extended safari. When they came home they decided Jade and Lucy needed a private education.

“We don’t have much left,” said Ben. “You’ll help out won’t you, Mum?”

And I did help. Henry and Maria as they flitted from country to country and Ben and Sally with school fees.

“But surely you want to travel, Gran?” Jade said when we’d gathered for my birthday, ten years after the win.

“No she doesn’t,” said Ben. “Besides any money left she’ll need for a retirement home. We must start thinking about that, Mum.”

I ignored him. “I’d like to trek to Everest Base Camp.”

“Cool,” said Jade.

Ben laughed. “She’s joking.”

I’d never joked in my life.

Maria said, “Good of you, Mama Jill. Then come too to Portugal?”

Henry sniggered. “Not likely.”

“Actually, I’d quite like to ride a donkey through the Grand Canyon,” I said. “Europe doesn’t really interest me.”

The boys smirked and rolled their eyes.

*

Today I posted a letter to each of them from the airport. I might not be a comedian but the last laugh feels good.

Kathryn Jenkins unexpectedly started writing flash fiction as a result of a workshop exercise and has written at least one a month since. She’s still surprised at what turns up on the page and wonders where the ideas come from. Hopefully they will never dry up.

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Daphne Clair de Jong, The Gift

Morning sunlight paints the shed next door. The children are sleeping.

I must get up, live another day. Life goes on. They say.

They who sent cards: “sorrow” rhymed with “tomorrow” (the sentimentalists), and “at this sad time” (the culturati), or “happy with God” (the religiosi). I never want to see lilies again.

They who attended the funeral: long-faced at the church door, chatty afterwards, catching up with old friends and distant relatives over ham sandwiches and lukewarm tea accompanied by occasional jarring laughter.

Our bizarre stiff upper lip mourning rituals. Don’t wail and scream and tear your clothes, like the bereaved of Eastern cultures. Stay calm, controlled, especially in front of the children.

“Be brave,” they say. “For the children.”

So I rise inexorably in the morning like the sun, and like the sun inch reluctantly into the day and move slowly through the hours, make light for the children through immeasurable cloud. At night I close the bedroom door and fall into a cold bed and inside me another woman screams and wails and tears at her heart.

I hear the children already. Oh please, one more minute.

I close my eyes.

They are at the door. Opening it slowly, gently. “Shh,” the older one admonishes. “Mummy’s asleep.”

Thank you.

I hear their breathing as they tiptoe closer. The mattress moves when they lean on it. Wait.

A small hand fleetingly touches my cheek. I open my eyes.

And smile.

Daphne Clair de Jong, author of almost 80 romantic and historical novels published worldwide, is a past winner of the Katherine Mansfield BNZ Short Story Award and other awards, has had numerous short stories and articles published in magazines and anthologies, and some poetry in literary magazines. She also tutors writing in nearly all genres and runs the world-famous-in-New Zealand Kara School of Writing and Karaveer Writers’ Retreat at her home in rural Northland. Find out more here.

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Anonymous_Author©, Cursed

Jules picked at the cuticle of her left thumb until it bled. “I’m cursed,” she said. “Your voice makes me feel ill, like the shape of a headache slowly expanding.”

Dr. Jones didn’t look up. “You have a rare form of synesthesia,” he explained, tapping his keyboard. “Certain sounds cause discomfort.”

He wasn’t a real doctor. Well, he was real in that he existed, but the fact he had a Ph.D. in sociolinguistics didn’t make that any truer.

Jules shuddered. “When you type it’s as if I’m being trampled by a herd of goats.”

“You must re-frame this.”

Jules pictured a crayon scrawl elevated to fine art by an ornate border.

“Language is a powerful change agent…” Dr. Jones paused, “despite its arbitrariness.” He’d convinced himself of this in order that his patients (is that really what they were?) believe in him.

“I hear a ladybird flap its wings and my eyes burn,” Jules casually noted.

“Persuade yourself that what you feel isn’t. Rewire your Self to induce visions that are.

Really?” Jules asked, “I can’t imagine how that will work.”

“You don’t have to imagine how it will work. Just imagine that it does work. Just imagine.”

Dr. Jones looked up. “You have a gift, not a curse,” he added.

Dubious, Jules rose from the couch and left the room. She repeated her new mantra: just imagine, just imagine, just imagine. An impalpable wind slammed the door. The air filled with dazzling cascades of stroboscopic light. She felt nothing.

Anonymous_Author© is a literary voice who resides near Puhoi. He is an existentialist suffering from an identity crisis and exists only through the benevolence of language. René Descartes categorically stated: “I think therefore I am.” Anonymous_Author© ambiguously offers: “You think you exist.” As well as poetry, flash fiction and short stories, Anonymous_Author© is currently working on his unauthorised autobiography, The Ghostwriter in the Machine. Follow his progress on Twitter (@anonauth).

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Vivienne Merrill, Afterwards

You have to know this – I knew nothing of what had been planned. I was not much more than a doll passed from maker to husband. Predetermined to please him with my beauty and subservience.

Until the day my husband left me alone. I remember spring sunshine distilling through windows and great shafts of yellow lighting upon the vessel we’d been given to mark our marriage. The decorations livened in the sun, stirred a yearning.

I retreated to the gardens where peacocks’ harsh voices screamed coward. My palms bloomed small flowers of blood from my nails as I fought – in vain – to stay away from temptation.

Afterwards, I discerned a rush of air, a strange lingering, if that is the way to describe the whirling motion where nothing else moved. The sense of laughter, mocking and cruel.

I stayed kneeling for some time, the lid again pressed down, the weight of disobedience, the fear of punishment upon my shoulders. I would be cast out – disgraced. I recalled my husband’s gentle love and for a moment I raised my head, but lowered it again.

In the bower, at my feet, a dead dove. Jasmine flowers curling brown upon the vine. Like a bud opening, my mind suddenly filled with wildness.

A strange feeling drew me upright and my hands closed in man-like fists. Know this, I cried, I will not weep for trickery or fate but for the way all generations hence will l curse my once sweet name – Pandora

Vivienne Merrill lives on the Kapiti Coast where it is all too easy to beachwalk and dream her days away. Sometimes, when she’s lucky, some of these dreams become stories and poems. Writing as Vivienne Joseph, she has won several awards for her work, particularly for her children’s books.

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Sian Williams, Les oiseaux du Québec

When she was young she fell in love with a hippie. Half Iroquois, half French, tall and sinewy, he had long sensuous hair but no money. Instead he taught her the names of things: of butterflies, of trees and stars, and of birds. Their names, their calls and their ways – this knowledge, he said, was his gift to her.

Later she found his bohemian lack of avarice and his naivety less charming. She began to covet her friends’ lovers who arrived in shiny sports cars proffering bouquets, jewellery, and silky underwear. So she left him for a salesman prone to extravagant gestures of which she soon tired. But there was no going back.

*

Today she is wheeled out onto the terrace to breathe the crisp air and feels the tingle of the new sun on her face. Her cataract-clouded eyes reflect the pale spring sky which she can no longer see, but she hears the blue jays bickering in the woodland and, in the distance, the shrill piping of a bald eagle. The hairs on her arms stand up; she smiles. She is still connected, still attached. Not yet dispersed into the shadows, ash blowing on the breeze. The call is a thread tying her to the world of living things – of blood and bone and feather. Or perhaps it’s not a thread but rather a ribbon – a shining ribbon – such as might be tied carefully around an exceptional present.

Sian Williams is editor at Flash Frontier. She’s been given some exceptional presents, as well as some real lemons!

~ ~ ~

Michelle Elvy, Shine

Huck, Buck and Pluck were jewels in their mother’s eye. Shining stars, brilliant in mind and sparkling in spirit. Each different in his own way — a chemist, a baker, an unpublished poet who wrote beautiful things for his ma. They weren’t really named Huck, Buck, and Pluck, of course — this is what they came to be called. Huck was Henry, the oldest. No one remembered who started calling Sebastian Buck. The third was Peter, but at his birth, his mother looked down at his curled fingers, his ferocious sucking, the light in his eye, and said, “Hello, Pluck.”

When their plane burst into flames and turned the brothers to fire, fury and falling ash, their mother flew out the back door and ran mile after flat mile down the cold west coast beach. She eventually stopped because, against her will, her lungs kept pulling oxygen into her chest. Her mind kept moving; her heart kept pumping. She collapsed, willing herself to sink into sand and disappear. Then three stones caught her eye: emerald, ruby, diamond. She lifted them from the debris, fingered them one by one, then tucked them into her pocket and began the long walk home.

The stones remained on her mantle for years — all that was left of her boys, glowing through layers of dust. Those and the poem that Pluck had tacked on her fridge on his last morning, yellowed in the afternoon sun that came in through the window above the sink.

Michelle Elvy is founding editor at Flash Frontier. This year she’s finishing a collection of flash fiction set across the New Zealand historical landscape. This story is not in that collection.

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Please also see this month’s interview with Auckland novelist, short story writer and editor Tina Shaw.

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Coming in Febraury: the travel issue. 

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