‘Island. House.’ by Phil Dodd (England)

Short story selected for the 2010 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology

1

Rain came that evening and instead of a sunset there was a slow greying of the air and decrease in contrast until everything beyond the lake vanished from view.  She lit a single candle while she could still see the matches and placed it on a small, round plate on the wooden floor next to her.  She was sitting on the floor also.  She had in front of her a small pad of paper but her pen had been put down and forgotten about.   The pad had no writing on the sheet that was at the top.  No birds sang.

***

Early one morning she was walking in the garden and saw a beautiful flower that must have opened within the last couple of days.  She wished that she knew what it was called but knew very little about flowers or gardening.  Reaching out to grasp the flower by the stem, just below where the petals branched and sprouted out, she stopped before breaking it.  Instead she moved her hand up, took one petal between her fingers and gently stroked her thumb downwards across the top surface.  It felt softer than she had expected.  It was downy like a peach’s flesh.

***

A line of ants marched through the house sometimes when both the front and back doors were open.  She was annoyed by them as they often wandered off looking for other treats within her house.  Not having anything to kill them with, she kept the doors closed to stop them coming through.  The weather became much hotter around then and it was soon unbearable to keep the doors closed.  On the day that she gave in and opened the doors the ants grew wings and flew through her house instead.  That night she spent a long time brushing her hair.

***

Looking over the lake at the impenetrable forest on the other side one day, she caught a glimpse of a flash in the trees.  It was momentary and had the quality of the light of the sun bouncing off a window or mirror and hurrying away from the obstruction.  The forest played on her mind for the rest of the day and her eyes would often make a journey across its frontage, looking for signs of life on the other side of the trees.  Sometimes she had to look up at the sky to escape the green all around her.

***

There were fish in the lake that she didn’t know how to catch.  They were old fish, large and deeply coloured with huge whiskers sprouting everywhere.  She didn’t know how deep the lake was, or how many fish there were.  There were steps near to the house that went right down to the water’s edge and she would sometimes sit on the bottom step and dangle her feet into the water.  She imagined the fish coming up to her and nibbling at her toes, but they didn’t.  She threw bread for them sometimes but they ignored it, possibly preferring flies.

2

A ripple moved toward the island house through the water one morning.  By early afternoon, the ripple was at the island and then when she went into the garden, to the edge of the water, there was a man dripping onto the patio.  She looked at him and he looked at her.  He was panting and bending at the waist to rest his hands on the tops of his knees.  Periodically he would let his head fall and look down for a while but mostly held it up at an uncomfortable angle, looking at her.  Birds sang in the background.

***

She made tea in the morning and brought it to him where he lay on a mat in the main room.  He nodded thanks and took the cup from her hands.  She pulled over a short stool and sat down.  Resting her chin on her upturned hand, elbow on knee, she stared at him.  She didn’t know who he was or why he was there.  He sat cross legged on the floor, top half naked, bottom half covered by the sheet under which he had slept.  She stood and went to check if his clothes had dried yet, they had.

***

Why did you come here?  It was dangerous / To meet you.  You are my idol, a legend. / Your idol? / I am a campaigner for peace, I follow what you teach and read everything you write. / That does not make an idol.  You can study what I write without meeting me, why have you come here? / I want to talk to you, to learn from you, to study at your feet like a guru. / But I am not a guru, I am a woman in a house who writes.  You will just watch me write…

***

…Has it been what you expected so far? / No, You have hardly spoken to me. / And you expected me to talk to you?  To stop what I was doing to talk to you about what you wanted to learn about? / I expected discussions about important issues, not to be asked how much rice I want. / And the distribution of food is not an important issue to you?  It has been the cause of many wars.  Maybe you should think more about what you can learn through observing the small things, rather than discussing the large things…

***

…You are angry? / People in your country are dying in your name, and you sit here cooking and eating rice and scratching away with your pen.  You don’t even always do that.  You spent all of yesterday looking at fish. / I am angry too.  The difference is that you are young and angry, but I am old and angry.  I cannot teach you how to have my opinions or to use my opinions the way you want me to.  Besides, your people know freedom when mine don’t.  You should teach me. / But our freedom is no good.

***

He tried to explain one evening why his people still strove to find more, greater freedom.  She looked at him with the muscles around her eyes relaxed but the lines above them making an arrow pointing at her nose.  The left hand side of her mouth rose every now and then, especially when he mentioned people buying things.  He passed her the cup of tea they were sharing.  Taking a sip, she placed it on the ground between them and watched as the steam rose up and came between their eyes. His hands played with the laces on his shoes.

***

He was putting the sleeping mat she had lent him away the next morning when she walked into the room.  She made tea and they sat on the wooden floor with the door open and shared the cup while looking out at the lake.  He stood and walked slowly out of the house and towards the edge of the water.  He turned to her and raised his hand but didn’t wave it.  She nodded slowly, closing her eyes as her head came back up.  She heard a splash and when her eyes opened again he had gone.  The ants hadn’t.

3

A lone beetle crawled slowly along the edge of the veranda, sometimes moving to the right and over the edge and sometimes left back onto the top.  It was a deep, opalescent green blue on its back shell and had long, black legs.  She watched it walk until it stopped, seemed to get closer to the ground for a second and became a blur moving quickly away.  She picked up the folded sleeping mat from where he had left it and walked into her bedroom with it.  Sitting down on her bed, she held the mat folded over her arms.

***

Her pen scratched over the surface of the paper as she dragged the stubborn ink into its place.  The page was part of a pad made out of a bundle of roughly cut, coarse paper.  The ink was flowing too well and stained the ends of her first finger, second finger and thumb.  After two pages were full of writing, she placed the pad and pen on the floor in front of her and stood.  She walked into the garden and sat on a chair near the water.  She watched as a heron plucked a fish out of the water.

***

One day she took a chair from the main room into her bedroom and placed it in front of the open wardrobe.  Standing on it, she reached up to a shelf above the rail which held her few clothes that required hanging.  From the shelf, she brought down a cream, textured plastic case.  Having carried it into the other room she placed the typewriter on the table she never used and sat down in front of it.  Placing the pad of paper to the left of the machine, she looked outside to see a large bird wheeling through the sky.

***

Looking up from typing early one morning, she saw a spider crawling across the top of the notepad.  Its front two legs led the way and felt out a path while its rear legs fell into place behind.  It had a large, bulbous body and chunky legs.  Worrying that it might be carrying eggs and could populate the house with hundreds of deadly clones of itself she picked up the pad gently and slammed it onto the desk upside down, crushing the creature beneath.  The mess made the rest of what was written on that page very hard to read.

***

She was sitting on the veranda one morning having a cup of tea when she realised the manuscript was probably finished.  Going inside, she sat for the rest of the day reading it through and making notes in margins.  When she was sure it needed no more than editing, she had a thought and wound a sheet of paper into the machine.  She typed a dedication.  As she placed the manuscript into an envelope she looked across the lake and saw a fish break the surface and hang in the air for a moment, its scales shining in the sun.

Illustration by Katherine Jones

About the author:

Phil Dodd grew up in the West Country of England and is now an English teacher in Cheltenham.  He has self-published a collection of short stories (Collected Shorts, 2008) through his independent record label and small press Polite Books and Records.  He is currently writing for a second collection of short stories, to be published by Polite Books next year.

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