Passport to a Nation of Talking Slugs and Other Stories by Andrew Kozma

I like writing that makes me think, slow down and think.  ‘Passport to a Nation of Talking Slugs’ and the other stories certainly did that.  Andrew Kozma writes evocatively and elegantly about disturbing concepts.

The first story Stammlager 76 imagines a situation where a notorious prison is reopened.  In this case brutality has been replaced with neglect, by a lack of purpose, by a lack of stimuli; the prisoners are referred to as property.  Property, not like a horse or a slave, but like a lump of organic material on a petrie dish.  It is an eerie and fruitless place.  The story challenged me to read around the story, one thing I found is that 76 means slave, rest and hiding place, among other uncomfortable information.

The next two stories are perspectives on mortality and fleeing from a past that is determined to overpower which I found quirky rather than intense.

The last and the longest story, ‘Passport to a Nation of Talking Slugs’ begins with the central character, suffering from despair, alienation and poverty, desperately seeking solace by visiting a small native reservation.  It is an examination of grooming and exploitation and of how the worm turns.

These are not happy stories, nor are they comfortable or just, but they are captivating and memorable.

Firebirds and Firebirds Rising ed. Sharyn November

 

Firebirds (2003) and Firebirds Rising(2006) are both collections of short fantasy and science fiction stories aimed at young adult readers and starring young adults.  It was a comfortable group of stories for the most part.

I like short story collections.  I like the pithy quality of a short story and its spherical completeness; so I was a bit annoyed with those authors who contributed extracts.   It is a chance to be introduced to new writers.   I was familiar with, and already a fan of, some of the contributors, Patricia A. McKillop, Diana Wynne Jones and Tamora Pierce, and indeed their stories proved to be entertaining.  The joy of this collection though was that there were several electric, clever short stories that has me seeking out more work by those authors: Emma Bull, Nancy Farmer, Nina Kirk Hoffman and Alison Goodman.  The best discovery was ‘Hives’ by Kara Dalkey.

So thank you Sharyn November.

The Long Journey

Finally,

The Long Journey
Maggie woke with a keen sense of anticipation. She got out of her double bed quickly despite the twinges and aches that beset her every move. After she had washed at the basin, she put on her striped dress. The one Dan liked. She frowned at its fit, gaping somewhat around the top and a bit tight in the middle, because she had thought that it was flattering and comfortable. She took the time to apply a little colour to her cheeks and lips.

Throughout breakfast, during the clearing of the table and while she was washing up Maggie ran through Dan’s movements. She knew that he would have finished that inland long haul shift and he would have got the truck to the depot in the City late in the evening. He wouldn’t have called if it was after ten and Maggie also knew that the phones at the depot were not very well maintained. Once at the depot he would do as many checks as he could by the security lights. Then he would sleep.

Maggie shivered with pleasure as she continued rehearsing his routine in the morning. Like her, Dan will have risen early in the morning. While she had been washing her dishes he would have been washing his truck and finishing the checks and time-sheets. Maggie looked out of the kitchen window at the scalped garden. Dan would be disappointed that his vegetable patch was being absorbed by the lawn.

She frowned.

Maggie had put away the dishes and brushed the kitchen floor. The linoleum was beginning to wear in some patches though it was not that obvious in the dark green geometric pattern. She and Dan would discuss getting some new. She looked at the gold carriage clock on the bureau, a wedding gift that still kept excellent time, and realised that Dan would soon be finished his breakfast at the canteen; that he would soon be finished sharing yarns about near misses and road kill and the bloody idiots truckers had to endure on the roads; and that he would soon be at the office to hand in his schedule and wait for clearance. It would not be long before he would retrieve his car from the secure lock up and drive home. It was a trip that took Dan about two hours and, if things had gone smoothly, he would be turning right onto Lower Lake Road shortly after eleven.

It was a little after eleven. When Maggie had heard the clock strike the hour she had put away the dusting cloth and had hastened to the window. She angled the cane bottom chair so that she could see out of the window. She hooked the lace curtain aside so that she had an unimpeded view. Maggie then settled her bones carefully on to the cushions. It continually surprised her how lean and meagre was the flesh on her buttocks and shanks. She panted a little because the roll of fat around her middle and the tight waist of the striped dress impinged on her breathing. She plucked at the striped dress in an effort to make it sit more comfortably.

Maggie lived in a small weatherboard house on the corner of one of many roads out of the Town. Directly opposite her vantage point, the cars came to a standstill at the T junction before turning left to more rural properties or right to the lake. She knew that the junction was busy during the get-to-work and time-for-school hours. It was as busy in the late afternoon with the same cars rushing for the comforts of home. But Maggie wasn’t interested in those times of day; she only sat by the window between eleven and twelve fifteen.

Maggie was waiting for Dan.

She leaned in, close to the glass of the window, every time a car approached the junction and prepared to pull up at the stop sign. If the flicker of the oncoming car was signalling right her heart picked up to a pace to match the flashing light. The driveway of the house was immediately off Lower Lake Road. Dan would signal right and signal right to pull into the driveway.

She studied each driver carefully. She had a blank about the model and colour of his car; Dan changed his car every five years. His very own five year plan he would joke. Good thing his face was so distinctive and Maggie smiled to think she would be giving it a kiss very soon.

It was a dull day and the drivers were neither wearing sunglasses nor squinting which made them easier to see. Sometimes a driver would see her and give her a wave and Maggie would courteously wave back with a queenly hand, even though she had already lost interest because it was clearly not her Dan, and she waited impatiently for the next car.

When the clock struck twelve, Maggie began, reluctantly, to inch herself out of the chair. She dawdled through the moves that took her to her feet. She shook the down cushions so they filled their chintz covers. She replaced the lace curtains and fussed with their sepia folds. She eased the striped dress into a better shape on her standing body. She wanted to give herself every opportunity to see the man for whom she was waiting to arrive.

At two Maggie spread the uneaten lunch on the grass near the back door. The crows and magpies took the meat and the more colourful birds scratched and pecked at the vegetables. They had grown to expect this largess and in the moment before she flung the food to the ground it was as if she were the eye of a storm of calls and feathers.

Usually Maggie would be calmly resigned to a delay for another day. This time she felt the pressure of her disappointment rise up as if it might choke her. She was used to Dan’s trucking contracts keeping him away from home for days but this one had seemed to have taken him on a particularly long journey.

She knew Dan would not be home today. The routine was fixed.

Maggie leant against the sink as she placed the empty plate into the plastic wash basin. She was breathing as heavily as if she had just run a race rather than walked across the linoleum of the utility and kitchen. She even felt a tear on her cheek.
Maggie put on her coat. It was a warm, spring day but she was unaware of such external considerations. She was totally focussed on exiting her lonely home. She found her black handbag and left. It wasn’t until she was standing at the bus stop that she realised she still had on her slippers and her pinafore. The prompt arrival of the bus distracted her from going back home to change.

In Town Maggie sought the solace of the enclosed shopping centre. The air conditioning hummed, the canned music thrummed; it was as if the bright window displays had a voice as well as a look. Maggie pressed a hand, strange how that hot hard light made it look a bit misshapen, against the glass of the jewellery shop and sighed over the hard glitter of the diamonds and the gleam of the lesser gems. She breathed a fog of appreciation onto the window of the lighting shop as she admired the Tiffany lamps.

Maggie turned to proceed further into shopping centre; she always liked seeing the display of the buttons and bows of the haberdashery, and she saw Dan. She was engulfed with the joy of the seeing him. He looked so well and strong. No trace of the ‘trucker’s belly’. He must have kept to that diet the doctor had suggested for him. Maggie felt a brief wave of guilt that she had cooked up sausages and mash for his lunch.

She called out.  ‘Dan. Dan!’ He looked at her. She could see that he was shocked to see her. Actually he looked appalled. Maggie felt her heart plummet. Dan began to walk quickly towards her. A pretty young woman accompanied him. ‘Dan, where have you been? I waited and waited for you.’

Any answer given was swamped by the realisation that the young woman, dressed far too skimpily for decency, was holding onto Dan’s arm. Holding on to her Dan’s arm!

Maggie gave a cry of rage and tried to smack the woman. She felt Dan prevent her hand from falling on that smooth face. ‘Don’t. Don’t,’ he said. ‘It’s Cathy. It’s my wife. Don’t hit her. ‘

‘Wife, wife,’ Maggie turned her rage on to Dan. ‘How can you have a wife? You have me. You have me! Maggie was gripped by dreadful realisation. ‘Is that why you have been away on such long journeys? Are you a bigamist now!’ She could hear Dan speaking but his words didn’t penetrate the roaring in her ears. Her heart was hammering. ‘What about us. What about the children?’ Maggie was banging her fist on the arm that restrained her. ‘How could you be with her when I was waiting for you? How could you be with her when I made lunch for you?’

Maggie’s wails were attracting attention. The arm around her tightened and she could hear Dan’s gasps as he began to guide her out of the shopping centre. For a moment she was silent and she could hear that Cathy making high pitched coaxing noises. ‘This way, Maggie, come along. We’ll go home and have a nice cup of tea. A cup of tea and we will sort it all out’.

She cried out louder in despair and pain.

Suddenly she was aware that she was outside. The sky had cleared and the sun was warm and casting shadows on to the pavement. Maggie stopped struggling and stopped crying. She felt as if she had been hollowed out. She was weak with the horror of the betrayal. She could feel Dan shaking. She could hear Dan speaking in a trembling voice. ‘Oh don’t, Mum. Oh please don’t. It’s me, Pete. I’m Peter, Mum. I’ll take you home and we will talk about Dad when we get there.’