David Stevens

Archive for 2019|Yearly archive page

Among the dead

In Uncategorized on February 10, 2019 at 8:39 am

My grandfather sits in the ruin of his house. It is always night when I am here. The sky is my skull, a low dome seen from the inside. His jaw is strong and held hard, grinding the fossils of his teeth. (Even if he still smoked, he could not. His pipe stem could not be forced between those lips. It would be snapped by those teeth. The end of it would stay in that mouth a hundred years, preserved.)

Wind sweeps the ash. I do not feel the cold. I stare at the strength of that head. I remember bending and kissing that head, like a child’s, as it lay on a pillow. The man I never kissed, who only ever shook hands, even with children. The skull beneath the skin.

That he came back to sit here, among the ruins. He does not decay, instead the house does. Each time I come, it has deteriorated further, taking his place in the grave. The elements do not bother him. If the wind wears him, if water drips him away, leaching away the minerals of him a drop at a time, perhaps it is for the best. Perhaps it is what he desires. As he weathers, mountains are ground down, oceans rise, seas fall. Forests grow and are consumed. The constellations shift, all sped up for him. He is the Time Traveller, he is Rod Taylor in his chair, encased in stone, then freed again. In my visits, I am a shadow. I am the flickering ghost. It is I who am death, I am mortality. We are worn down around him.

He gulps sometimes. The throat works, the jaw moves and clenches. He is biting deeper, getting a better grip on the world. Once or twice he has looked towards me. I stand close. He does not stop me. I am calm in his presence, calm with the nostalgia of grief. The longing for those other worlds I can never visit. Childhood. The past. The lives of others. The drowsy warmth of everything will be alright. The knowledge of grief to come.

That he has returned, and so far, not the others. Preserved in his pride, his inflexible ideas of proper behaviour. The feuds that burned silently within, in his room as he read, as he listened to talk back radio.

It is monochrome here. It suits the grey hair, slicked back along his scalp.

I love him, I miss him, I miss them all. All the faces from the Christmas photographs of my childhood, who no longer gather around the table.

My aunt, white gowned against the window, arms raised and pressing the glass. Could only I see her? I am staring at the house, the others have their backs turned to her. Were the adults pretending it was otherwise? My other grandmother, from the other side of my family, smiling, her lips uncertain, her eyes betraying an unease when I caught them. She knew. We mourned when my aunt left, why did no one tell me she was back? Kept inside, a secret.

All the dead are kept inside, a secret that no one else wants to know. We are all haunted, and sometimes they stare out from the windows of our eyes. They come back, but they are not the same.

My grandfather sits amongst the exposed beams, the drooping wallpaper having outlasted the plasterboard beneath. He has made himself comfortable in the chair that was thrown away long ago. Its return is as great a miracle as his. He is silent. Why do we protest? Why do we bother to rage? The brave new world was always coming, and there was nothing we could do about it. We shall consume the whole world, we shall eat our young, the forests will die, the skies will burn.

There is no moon, no stars, no electricity, no peasant mob brandishing torches, but I see him clear in this night. I cannot think how I first found him here. I think I just knew. He cannot be in this house. It was sold years ago, and rebuilt, and another family lives here.  They have covered the verandah, hung a little sign advertising a business. Still, it is where I found him. Perhaps we are in one of those other twenty four dimensions of folded string. I do not know. I just gaze upon him and sit in his quiet presence.

The dead stare. What vision is imprinted on their eyes? We fear what they have seen.

His wife is not there. Will she come? Nobody told me my grandmother was in hospital. I could not answer the phone. I was freezing in a bath of ice, sitting with a child who refused to be comforted unless someone was in there with him, trying to bring his fever down. Later, when I finally was told, in the emergency ward with her as she, unconscious, clawed at the air, as though prematurely buried and scraping at the coffin lid, I prayed and prayed into her ear, a hundred Hail Mary’s to calm her down, and then those arms rested, they allowed themselves to stop. Thank you God for that.

My child, shaking, terrified in the night. Eventually telling us that someone else had been in the house with us, while we all slept. She struggled to get the words out. Her eventual description: “he was like a cricket man”. Cricketers dress completely in white. She could not see his shoes, for his feet were beneath the floor.

The dead are all inside. How many skeleton arms drag torsos forward through the mud of my mind, skulls drooping, exposed spines drifting away to nothing? How many more bony arms are yet to come? When shall I join them? What shall I see?

Or will death be banished forever, all of us infested us with nanobots that work constantly to keep us fit, keep us happy in our jobs, content in the hell we have made?

These are thoughts I think, when I awake after my visits.

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A summer story

In Uncategorized on January 27, 2019 at 2:30 am

Summer time here in Orstraya. Floating in the ocean yesterday in between the waves, all the beach moments of all my life joined together, as though the rest of life is a mundane interruption to that Eternal Now that is me floating, I was reminded of how that is reflected by the end of my story, This Neil Armstrong is not dead. Without meaning to be, it is my (not “the”) quintessential Australian beach story – I will never write a better Australian beach story, than this story which is not about Australia, or the beach. Of course, I hope one day to write a better story, which may be about Australia or the beach. Oh mind, be still.

Straya Day

In Uncategorized on January 26, 2019 at 6:01 am

ALL the beautiful young things are wondering about the place dressed in their swimwear and large Australian flags, so it must be that day again. I was once abused by two bikini wearing teens on this day for not smiling enough (“BE HAPPY! Its Orstrayuh day”) and I will always be grateful that despite the wave of Hulk-like rage that immediately swept over me, for some reason I did not respond. I was pushing a pram overladen with my offspring at the time, and did not notice the two bulky figures behind a tree who were ready to step in with their fists (is that a mixed metaphor, no it is an actual description) to deal with any who sought to disagree with the young beauties / harridans. I remember when nobody celebrated Australia Day, it was just a dusty little public holiday tucked up the back near the start of the school year. It wasn’t the subject of national division that it is becoming, because really, nobody cared much about it. My good mate Stephen used to describe it as “the national day of not working for Australia”. Then along came the 1988 bicentenary, rhyming nation with celebration, and everything went downhill. Just let me have a little rest, is that too much to ask?

FLAG DAY

It was Flag Day

so we wrapped ourselves in our flags

and went to the pub.

Everybody else had the same idea, but.

All the flags were the same

because we are all Flaglanders.

It would have been nice to wrap myself

in the flag of difference

but I was too scared.

Everyone looked the same.

The fun idea had become

A Sad Party Thing.

It doesn’t matter.

The flag unites us.

Our fear of looking different unites us.

All eyes are wary on Flag Day.

Everyone smiles with their mouths

as they lift their beers,

but all those eyes are looking about.

And those eyes are quick.

You don’t want to stand out.

Not on Flag Day.

There are no excuses.

It is not “I pay my taxes” day.

It is not “I am a human being, I have rights” day.

It is fucking Flag Day.

Alright?

You sad party thing

Rejectomancy

In Uncategorized on January 6, 2019 at 4:02 am

Jane Sullivan writing in this Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald, suggests that writers aim for 100 rejections as a new year’s resolution. She cites an American literary writer being pleased with her 43 rejections in a year, and shellacking (there is a word I have not read in a long time) her rejection slips onto her writing desk. Another writer achieved 101 rejections.

I don’t have many rejection slips as such, though I have many rejections. I have a few written notes from the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, before they moved onto email. I don’t know that I would want to waste the paper and ink printing out rejection emails. I don’t think I would varnish them onto a desk either, I prefer Stephen King in his On Writing where he refers to sticking them all through a large nail or hook (I’m too lazy to flip through my copy).

Over at Rejectomancy, Aeryn Rudel achieved 100 rejections this year. Aeryn often comments on the tier of rejections, whether a form rejection is standard, or indicates something positive about a story. I confess that I am happier when I get a template 3 response from CC Finlay at F&SF:

Template 1 is the “didn’t grab me” template. The beginning of the story did not grab me.

Template 2 is the “didn’t work for me” template. Your story was good, I read it all the way through, but some big thing didn’t work for me, usually the ending. I know, endings are hard. But the emotional payoff, what you remember most about a story, is how it makes you feel at the end.

Template 3 is the “didn’t win me over” template. Look, you’re probably a pro. This is a good story. You know it’s good. You’re probably going to sell it elsewhere. Maybe I can tell you the idiosyncratic reasons why it didn’t make me all hot and tingly so that I can’t stop thinking about it day and night, night and day. Maybe I did. But either way, you probably don’t care. It’s a no. You’ve already got your next market lined up and you’re ready to send it out again. AS YOU SHOULD.

I am happier because I think “hmm, I’m probably a pro”. I’m not.

Sullivan quotes the same writer as saying that a rejection is a conversation. That is a nice positive spin. Its probably not true, given the extreme likelihood there will be no feedback at all. That is not a complaint – given the amount of reading slush readers and editors have to get through, what time do they have to provide feedback. Sullivan notes the writer “treasures the rejections that come with some encouraging comment, however small”. I used to think feedback is valuable. However, that is not always the case. Some examples: two of my children have a chronic illness, which required many visits to emergency wards when they were little. In one story, I tried to draw something positive from that experience, and channel some of the frustration and set out some of the experiences. A slush reader from a magazine I once respected responded “Story is a mishmash of misery fiction and purple prose”. Well, even if it was, fuck you. (No, I did not respond. I may not be a pro, but I am professional.) I took that to heart, which I should not have done, and would not have done for another story. However, I cannot imagine a universe in which that comment helps. A rejection from the same magazine of a different story later on demonstrated to me why I should take their comments with a grain of salt. I received two comments:

“… really strong narrative voice and prose control.  …  it’s all developed and described quite well”

and

“This piece is unfocused and almost stream of consciousness and difficult to get a sense of what it’s about”

Guess what I learned?  Flip a coin. I am not complaining here, just commenting that feedback is not necessarily useful.

So, how did I go in terms of rejections? How would I go with a target of 100 rejections for 2019? I have no idea whether such things are of interest to anyone other than myself, but here goes.

In 2018, for the fourth time in five years, I moved myself and (this time part of) my family between continents, returning to Australia from Europe. It has been an adventure, but I cannot see myself doing it again. I had three stories published, which in the words of my old parish priest, I commend to your generosity: The gods of the gaps; Miracle Cure; and Baby, cold outside. (The different colour of the text means you can click on the words and be transported to the story. The first two can be read for free.) I wrote nine stories, which was good compared to recent years. And my stories – this new batch and some older ones – were rejected 145 times. So hell yes, I can be rejected 100 times in a year very easily. When a story is rejected, I look at it again, take on board any feedback, consider editing, and then send it out again. As CC Finlay says above, “you probably don’t care. It’s a no. You’ve already got your next market lined up and you’re ready to send it out again. AS YOU SHOULD”. Rejection does not bother me any more, not much. It hurts more to almost make it, to find out I came close. Rejection does not stop me submitting. However, I wonder sometimes if it might stop me writing, on occasion. I don’t know. I think there are enough other forces at work there, that I don’t have to worry about that one!

Sullivan writes, “seeking rejection … encourages writers to aim higher”. Why aim low? I don’t. I understand what she means though – one should not let the fear of rejection stop one form submitting to a market. You have to be in it, to win it, as some lottery ad said some time.

How is this year going? Two rejections. Two submissions.

I did not know whether it would look unprofessional to publish this. It doesn’t matter. But feel free to check out any of my published stories, which can be viewed here.