SCARS - Highly Commended Category
Here are our three 'Highly Commended' category winners. It's a distinctly female winning line-up, ranging from completely new writers to well-known authors which put a huge smile on our faces as this is what MONO. strives to be; a beautiful, quirky melting pot of writers of all ages, backgrounds, and experiences.
These pieces are superbly written, impactful, and not for the faint-hearted... we invite you to journey with us as we publish the winning pieces...
THE DROUGHT - Nelly Shulman
JUGGLING TRUTHS - Gillian Brown
BAPTISM - Theresa Kong
*TRIGGER WARNING* - themes of sexual abuse/assault may be present in any of these pieces.
by Nelly Shulman
The drought descended onto the city. Every morning she woke up to the sun glaring over the roofs. She watered the plants thrice daily, and the wrought-iron railings burned her palms. The copper watering tin reflected her distorted face. Standing on a balcony, she contemplated a walk along the canal. The bushes, ripened with sour blackberries, flanked the footpath. The single raspberry bush, the secret of the children, reddened its yield.
The ball hit the walls, berries stained their fingers. Girls skipped the rope. Children came together for the red rover or hide-and-seek, shrieking, “Ready or not, here I come.”
Kids scattered around the courtyard, the drops of ice cream stained the cobblestones.
They bought ice cream in the ugly shack of corrugated steel and dusty glass. The tiny store marked the path to the canal, being the last remnant of the civilization before the jungle obscuring the ancient waterway.
Kids built the crude rafts from fallen trees. Some even reached the distant point where the canal flowed into a river. Here in the old industrial district, the former factories stood in disrepair. The thick carpet of undergrowth covered empty plant yards. Green patches of creeper climbed on the ochre bricks. Moss hid the rusty machinery. Broken windows let the birds into the vast expanses of former depots. Children climbed the tram skeletons, scouted the wastelands for the souvenirs of the lost empire. The enameled tram sign hung on the wall of her apartment. The route did not change, and the number of the service remained the same. The trams now came from the new depot, busying along the nearby street.
Inside the carriage, it was boiling in summer and freezingly desolate in winter. In December, the sun did not visit the low northern skyline. She disembarked at the school stop. The tracks crossed the narrow canal where the carriage climbed the shabby stone bridge. The metro station lay ahead.
She went to school along the cemetery wall, listening to the voices of the factory locomotives. The remains of the old memorials were still visible on the deserted graveyard. During the war, the trucks carried here the cargo of corpses, put in the wet ground of the seaside. The western wind carried an aroma of seaweed, sometimes bringing the fine sand from the flat shore, reachable by the raft. The cobweb of canals ended up on a beach, next to the flocks of gulls. After the shore trip, the clothing held the pungent whiff of the green mass, littered with shells.
Usually, she walked in the more civilized park, but today was different. Dilapidated depots and shipyards became gentrified. The ugly pavilion was torn down. Gone were the rainbow cones, filled with juices, and the steel blender, spitting the frothy foam of the milkshake. The new cafe served seaweed ice cream, almond flour pastries with chia seed filling. The tram line became the heritage route, equipped by carriages of days bygone, with cracked red leatherette seats and wooden interior. In the past, the ticket lady accompanied the tram. A woman touted a canvas bag full of paper rolls of tickets and loose change. She yearned for one of those coins in the shop when her coppers did not add to the requisite sum. The glasses of cloudy apple juice or even the sharp tomato with a sprinkling of gray salt were a poor substitute for the shake foam.
The current tram ran along the heritage track, stopping at the cemetery with the new memorial to the war victims, continuing to the metro station. The former workers’ dwellings received a coat of paint and railings on the balconies. The canal glistened in the morning sun beyond the red brick of former factories. She hoped it would succumb next to the gentrification. She heard about a future granite embankment, bike paths, boat trips, and a park. The banks were overgrown with nettles and brambles. The blackberry bushes yielded a bountiful crop, although she had never seen anyone collecting them.
In the past, her fingers were stained red, and insects buzzed over the brown waters of the canal. Mosquitoes were especially relentless. She tried not to scratch the bites, waiting for the itch to subdue. If you wait, any pain will subdue. Anything in life will disappear, leaving barely perceptible traces, but the drought could unearth them, and she had to take care of it. The visit to the canal required an accessory, an old spade. It went in the wicker basket, under the old string shopper with the cracked leather handles.
At the weekend, the farmers market gathered at the square. She intended to pick up cherry plums on her way to the canal. The fruit was in season, dark red or greenish-yellow, tart and juicy. She never collected berries from the bushes along the canal, eating them straight from the palm of her hand, feeling the hot August sun on her sweaty face. She had never taken anything home from the canal, only leaving things there which sometimes had to be revisited. The street was yet deserted. The farmers’ market was unraveling. The spade was safely hidden under the string bag she used for marketing.
The heritage tram rolled along the tracks. She spent many frozen and windy minutes waiting for the warm uterine darkness of the morning carriage. The dawn passengers filled the tram with the mixture of tobacco residue and sweat of unwashed clothing.
In winter, she was safe, protected by the heavy coat, the woolen school skirt, leggings, and boots the weight of leg irons. She could not imagine anyone wanting to peel off her the single layer.
The winter was a time for hibernation. By midday, the sun barely skimmed the horizon and soon disappeared, leaving only the cranberry rays shining in the windows, painting the melted snow the subtle color of blood. By the late afternoon, the red faded, and the darkness reigned. The wet wind slapped her face. The doors rattled, inviting her into the warmth of the evening carriage, where she was greeted by the salubrious smile of her sworn enemy, whom she hated passionately. There was no way to avoid him. She tried to take the earlier carriage or the later car, hanging in the library until the teacher started to lock up. On the street, the rain poured, the snowstorm wheezed. She stood at the stop hoping not to see him inside the tram.
He was grinning toothlessly, trailing after her whenever she went, putting himself on the nearest available place. He smelt of the cheap sweets and the stale sweat. In the pocket of his dirty trousers, he carried a melting bar of chocolate or a waffle with the lemony aroma. He opened the rough palm, offering her a treat.
He laughed, splattering her with the saliva.
Those were some of the few words that he knew and could say or sing. He sang passionately, straining the fat neck, trying to stand up on the seat.
“Eat,” he screamed. “Eat, eat!”
The ticket lady would say to her, “Is it so difficult to eat a little bit? He will then calm down.”
He did for a while. The girl tried to hide the wretched piece of the waffle or chocolate, but he was watchful.
“Eat,” the fat fingers crawled to her hand. “Eat, please.”
Even now, she could not touch anything sweet. The sickly taste rose in her mouth, and she curtly refused an offering, but there was no refusal. She had no idea where the man existed beyond the tram carriages.
In winter, he wore a gray jacket with a fake-fur collar. The hat on his balding head was of the same scraggy fur. Behind the protective shield of clothing, he was almost presentable, despite the stubble covering the fat cheeks and the wondering eyes looking somewhere beyond.
Summer was the worst. He put on cheap slippers made of foul-smelling rubber. Fungus yellowed the claw-like toenails, and his soles were cracked. He reeked of dirt and some other disgusting aroma. The stained trousers barely covered the fat on his back. Sometimes they rolled down, baring the top of pimply buttocks. The ticket lady gently helped him to adjust the clothing.
The waffle in the palm of his hand went soggy with the heat of city summer.
“Eat,” he sang insistently. “Eat, eat.”
The ticket lady told her to be kind.
“The poor creature is alone in this world, “the old woman pursed her lips. “He lives in the state care home.”
The dull ochre of the state care home was perched between the cemetery and the metro station.
“He is harmless’ added the lady. “They let him out for the day. He loves the trams. He is helpless as a baby.”
She learned that he was the war orphan who lost his parents.
“Lost his mind as well,” signed the ticket lady. “The hunger affects you such. Maybe, he is trying to feed you because he had a little sister who did not survive the war.”
She nodded, not saying anything, not mentioning the fingers crawling beneath her skirt, trying to get inside the underwear. She clenched the thighs, attempted to leave her seat, but the bulk was solid. In the crowded carriage, the man rubbed himself against her, muttering softly under his breath. She was then in the first grade of the school.
Then he discovered where she lived. He waited on the corner, huddled under the frozen wind or sweating in the summer heat. She tried walking to school but he followed, never getting too close. She decided to wake up an hour earlier rather than endure the tram torture. He was still grinning when she was getting out of the house or leaving the school gates. He missed barely a couple of days during the school year.
She thought he was content with following her, planting himself on the street corners. She never told her friends about him nor acknowledged his existence by a word or gesture. She avoided his nomadic gaze. His eyes were reddish and swollen as if he cried somewhere, in the place she could not and did not care to reach.
In the summer of her thirteenth year, he appeared on the canal banks. She took the same path they used as children. Leaving the factory area, turning left, she disappeared in the thorny bushes, ending on the narrow sidewalk along the muddy water. She walked fast not caring about the sharp stones getting into her sandals. The heat became balmy, enveloping her with the pungent smell of decaying fish and drying seaweed.
That summer he remained the silent figure, standing in the bushes with unzipped trousers, moving his palm, widely grinning. The older kids warned the younger ones not to come closer but judged him to be harmless. He was not the first such visitor to the canal. They never did anything except move their hand, listening to the voices of the kids. She did not share with others her tram memories. He did not approach her, but she was aware of the wandering eyes searching for her in the bushes.
Stepping onto the clearance she involuntarily pulled down her linen skirt. That summer she wore the kitschy white frock with the cornucopia of brightly colored flowers on the tight bodice. It was not a good choice for the canal expeditions, but she loved it so much she could not bear to be separated with it. Here she rose a hand to drive away an irksome mosquito. Here, leaving the bushes, widely grinning, he caught her by the wrist.
That day was hot and humid. The kids did not come to the canal so early, but she was a dawn riser. Now the banks were also devoid of the human presence. The new inhabitants of the area did not permit their kids to wander around unsupervised, to devour the wild blackberries, build the rafts and fight with other children.
She leaned over the likeness of the shrine, set onto the top of the hill. The soil lost the moisture, crumbling under her fingers. She set up a circle of stones in the wet March eight months after that long summer morning.
Nobody questioned her desire to lie in bed with a feigned spring cold. She waited until her parents left the house. Collecting the spade from the balcony, she went into the bushes. When the spade went back to her school bag, she arranged a circle of stones on the hill.
The stained towel she threw into the dark depth of the canal. The ice thawed but the sky remained grey, without a hint of the timid bluishness of the inevitable spring. She knew the heat was coming when the berries ripen and seagulls soar into the azure sky. Life will overcome the death that was kept under the stones.
Blowing away the warm ashes of the drought, she looked at her secret under the glass of the broken bottles. Girls made such secrets from beads and buttons, fake pearls, dried flowers, and precious trinkets. They were safely hidden, intended to be searched for, and discovered. The lucky girl, stumbling upon somebody else’s secret, could claim its contents. Nobody claimed this one. She did not raise the glass pieces. The dried immortelles surrounded the tiny skull, and the fake pearls shone on disintegrated bones. That morning it did not live, emerging in the scarce trickle of blood. It was a chunk of flesh with only the head resembling something human.
Carefully covering the secret, she took an old lemonade bottle. Somebody picnicking here did not clear the trash, leaving the debris of human indulgence. The sweet taste rose in her throat. In the long summer morning thirty years ago, she had to endure a lot of it.
The water from the canal also smelt of sweetness. Nearby stood the plant, producing the waffles and biscuits, marshmallows, and candies. The industrial waste polluted the water, but the smell now became lighter.
Thirty years ago, she swam to the other shore, unable to face people. Hiding in the abandoned building, she waited for the pain to subside, for the dress to dry, and for her life to come back. Eventually, it did.
Some of the cheap sweets she carried today in her wicker basket. Generously moistening the soil, arranging the stones in the circle, she went back to the land of the living, picking blackberries on her way. She ate them walking along the tram tracks, coming to the dull wall of the state home for the mentally disabled. She heard that the facility was going to close after the death of the last occupants. The elderly guard nodded in the wooden booth.
His mass of decaying flesh sat on the bench. Festooning sores covered his feet, and his milky eyes were rimmed with red circles of crying. Mushroom-like growth was feeding on the cheek. He moved the bulbous nose, smiling toothlessly. He must have been in his late seventies by now.
She sat on the other side, taking care not to come close. The paper wrapper rustled, the cheap waffle went into the outstretched palm.
“Eat,” sang she sweetly, serenely. “Eat, eat, eat.”
Copyright. Nelly Shulman.
Nelly Shulman is a journalist and writer currently based in Berlin. She is the author of four popular historical novels in the Russian language. She is working on the fifth novel in this series and on her first English-language novel, a historical thriller set during the Siege of Leningrad. She is a Hawthornden Fellow and an alumna of the Nachum Goldmann Fellowship. Furthermore, Shulman is the first female rabbi from Russia and was the first female rabbi in Belarus, having served as the chief reform rabbi of Minsk, Belarus. This makes her the first Russian-born woman to be a rabbi in the former Soviet Union. She was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and received her rabbinical ordination at the Leo Baeck College in London in 1999.
by Gillian Brown
North West Australia 2004
Jarrah wipes the dust from his eyes. Gonna be another scorcher today. Tipping over 40°C. The rains are due but the sky says different. The fishing’s no good. The river is as dry as old wallaby bones. Sheltering in the shade of a gumtree, sweat trickles down his back. Bindi has gone. Taken his spirit with her. Something else is no longer on tap. The cause of all his troubles. Petrol.
He rakes his fingers through his tangled black hair. He needs no mirror to tell him it needs a wash. An unpleasant odour rises from his tee-shirt and jeans. Without Bindi, he’s let himself go. Bindi was everything. People say the sky’s the limit. They’re wrong. She is. Or was.
Jarrah remembers how he always walked in a straight line. He never slurred his speech. Was never aggressive. Things sure changed once he began work at the pumps. Getting high every night and upsetting Bindi. Now she’s gone and left him.
He’d managed to hide his habit from his boss, Luke, by only sniffing at home, crouched behind the outside dunny. It was easy enough to siphon off tiny amounts into a jar each time he filled a customer’s tank during the day. But he should have known he could keep nothing secret from Bindi. She could see a fish hiding beneath a stone at the bottom of the river or spot a kangaroo with a joey in her pouch, five kilometres away. She didn’t see, as such. The bush spoke to her. Her intuition covered humans too. Especially himself.
Before she guessed, his job at the petrol station made his habit easy. Bindi and he lived together in the community behind the pumps and the store. The job paid for their food and clothes. And when Jarrah’s extra need grew – no worries – that was free, right at his fingertips.
Until the day he lost his head.
He didn’t wait until he got home, where it was getting almost impossible to hide his addiction from Bindi. He sniffed right there at the pumps. His boss caught him red-handed. Already blasted. That was it. ‘Federal law,’ Luke said. ‘You’re fired.’
Bindi moved in with another fella. ‘A good, honest man,’ she said. ‘Not a tosser like you.’ As she left, she spat out the words, ‘Bastard! Sniffing makes you crazy.’
Now that she’s gone, Jarrah still lives in the two rooms behind the store. He hardly eats, except when occasional pots of tucker arrive outside his door. He can taste Bindi in the home-cooked soups and stews. He tells himself the high he gets from eating this is better than petrol. It’s not quite true. Or only for a short time, before it becomes a lie again.
A month passes. His last pay packet is history. Being careless, he only went and kicked over his emergency jar of petrol. The thirsty earth swallowed it up right before his eyes. Fumes and all. Some days the craving is so strong it burns a hole in his gut. Life aint worth a cent. He tears at his hair and bites the inside of his cheek. No job. No money. No high. And no Bindi. Self-pity takes hold. Tears run down his cheeks. Then a wild idea takes shape. He changes his shirt, washes his face and idles over to the store.
The bell rings as he pushes open the fly-screen. The day’s date that Luke always hangs on the door says May 4, 2000. Jarrah grins. Piece of luck! His former boss comes to serve him. Nice guy. Cool. No hard feelings.
‘Gooday, Jarrah. How you going, mate?’
‘Good. I’m 40 today.’
‘Good on you! Happy Birthday!’
‘Thanks. Got a six-pack?’
‘Jarrah, I’m sorry. I cannot sell you alcohol. Not even beer. You know as well as I do about the rules. Bullshit or not. Made in Canberra. Not by me. But I need to keep my job.’
Jarrah knows it’s more than that. It’s about his addiction. And something else.
A distant ancestor of Luke’s was a whitefella and he carries this guilt around with him. About the past. How the gubbas came to this country, stealing indigenous land, killing every blackfella who wasn’t quick enough, and raping their women. Introducing them to ready-made alcohol and manufactured sugar. Then came petrol. Most never touched it. Jarrah couldn’t resist.
He thinks a minute, remembering the look on Luke’s face when he fired him. His anger seemed overwhelmed with guilt. Jarrah feels ashamed in turn for preying on Luke’s weakness, but he can’t stop himself. He’s desperate. ‘Bindi left me, you know.’
Luke scratches his beard. ‘You don’t drink. Never have. Bad idea to start now.’
‘Guess you’re right.’ Jarrah casts his eye along the shelves, another idea forming. When his gaze lands on the tubes of glue, his heartbeat quickens. He has heard it’s better than beer, cheaper too, though he’ll need credit.
‘Oh, well,’ he says, pretending to leave but soon turning back. ‘Almost forgot. There’s something else.’ He gives Luke a lopsided grin and keeps his voice casual. ‘Bindi left me my favourite dinner plate. And bugger me! Yesterday it dropped clean out of my hands and smashed on the floor. I’ll need glue to fix it.’
Luke puts his elbows on the counter and rests his chin in his hands. He looks Jarrah straight in the eye and shakes his head back and forth for a very long time. Jarrah should have known, Luke could have seen the lie from the other side of the Great Sandy Desert.
‘I like you too much for that, Jarrah. Tell you what. Just this once, since it’s your birthday, how about a bar of chocolate? On the house.’ He reaches out and slaps Jarrah’s shoulder. ‘You’ll be right, mate.’
Jarrah chews on the chocolate, stuffing one comforting square after another into his mouth. He appreciates Luke’s gesture but it’s not enough. His mind races around in circles with no destination in sight. He needs a plan. Calming himself, he eats more slowly, letting each piece melt on his tongue. The plan evolves, bubbling up darker and darker the way tea brews in a billycan.
By nightfall, his craving reaches its peak. He waits until he hears Luke switch the main generator off and all goes dark in the store, then he creeps out to the pumps. The moon peeps up from behind the giant eucalyptus, lighting his way. An empty tin can clatters across the dusty forecourt. A dingo howls. He stops. Silence returns. He walks on.
Jarrah reaches under the rock where Luke hides the key. He removes the battery from the alarm system, then he flips a switch. Petrol flows to the pumps. He treads gently, barefoot. A gust of wind flaps the awning. He tenses briefly before hurrying on. His breath rasping, he fits the pump’s nozzle into the top of his empty jar. The fumes send his pulse racing. Logic flies into the bush. He drops the hose to the ground in his rush to inhale.
His head tilts back as the initial euphoria kicks in. The stars crowd together and dance in the sky above him. With the ease of a lorikeet, Jarrah flies up to join them. He takes another sniff. Another. A numbness infuses his body. He slumps to the ground like a bag of sand. His back comes to rest against the pump. His vision clouds. Everything goes black.
Jarrah doesn’t hear the 4 x 4 vehicle roll in with the faint light of dawn. Nor the cursing and shouting. He’s unaware of hands grabbing him under the armpits and dragging him to the police van. He doesn’t see the cloud of red dust they leave behind in their wake as they drive to town and the local jail.
A month later, Jarrah’s prison guard enters his cell. ‘Your wife’s here.’
His heart stops. ‘You mean Bindi?’
‘If that’s her name.’ The guard scowls. ‘Five minutes. No more.’
Jarrah straightens himself up and tries to coax some order into his hair, pushing it back off his forehead. If only he’d known she was coming. He wipes his mouth and sets a wide smile on his face. His heart pounds. He hasn’t seen a woman in weeks. And this isn’t just any woman. This is Bindi, his one-and-only. Though ‘his’ doesn’t apply anymore.
As soon as her gaze settles on him, he drops his head from her accusing eyes. ‘I’m sorry, Bindi.’
‘I’m not forgiving you until you’re cured.’ She never was one for getting poetic. Always straight to the point. ‘Can you live a normal life again without sniffing that filthy stuff?’
Jarrah looks up. ‘Yes,’ he says, although it might be a lie. Then the hurt rumbles in. ‘What about the fella you moved in with?’
She jerks her head away. ‘Not saying.’
A spark of hope flickers inside him. ‘Will you come back to me, Bindi? I love you. I’m clean.’
‘No use lying to me. I can see right through you. You’re a mess, Jarrah.’
She turns to face him, her eyes moist. Jarrah holds his breath. His love reaches out to her. Her face lights up, showing a brief flash of pearly white teeth, before turning serious again. ‘Well, maybe – and that’s a big, big maybe – we can get back together. You’ll need to prove yourself first. Listen. I’ve spoken to Luke. He says you used to be real good with the customers and worked hard until your addiction got in the way, and if…’
Jarrah lays a hand on her arm.
‘No touching,’ the guard says. ‘Time’s up.’
Bindi flashes the guard a seductive smile, then leans in and whispers in Jarrah’s ear. ‘Luke says he can get you out within a week. He’s offered to give you a trial run once you’re fit.’
A rush of blood runs to Jarrah’s head. His feet take off the ground. He’s flying.
Bindi frowns. ‘Not so fast. First, you have to agree to rehab.’
‘No way! I’m clean. You think it gets delivered here?’ That’s no lie. The hell of withdrawal is still messing with his head.
As the guard chivvies Bindi to the door, Jarrah struggles to order his thoughts. All he can see is the hose. The nozzle. Fumes tickle his nostrils. He holds his breath. Surely he could hide the sniffing from Luke. No-one would know. Not even Bindi. He’d be careful this time. Extra careful.
‘I don’t need rehab.’ A grin is fighting to burst out on his face. He masks it with a frown. ‘I’m fit,’ he says, almost convincing himself. Everything can be his again. Everything.