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Thirty-five New Stories Celebrating the Wild Side of Australian Fiction
I'd been living in the city for quite a while, lying low, recovering from an unfortunate jaunt that had turned, in the immortal words of my sometime comrade Hrasvelg, 'irredeemably shit-shape'.
Though I had almost completely recovered my sight, I still wore a bandage around my eyes. It was made from a rare stuff that I could see through, but it looked like dense black linen. Similarly, I had regrown my left foot, but I kept up the limp. It gave me an additional excuse to use the stick, which was, of course, much more than a length of bog oak carved with picaresque scenes of a pedlar's journey.
I had a short-lease apartment near the beach, an expensive but necessary accommodation, as I needed both the sunshine that fell into its small living room and the cool, wet wind from the sea that blew through every open window. Unfortunately, after the first month, that wind became laden with the smell of rotting weed and, as the weeks passed, the stench grew stronger, and the masses of weed that floated just past the breakers began to shift and knit together, despite the efforts of the lifesavers to break up the unsightly, stinking rafts of green.
I knew what was happening, of course. The weed was a manifestation of an old opponent of mine, a slow, cold foe who had finally caught up with me. 'Caught' being the operative word, as the weed was just the visible portion of my enemy's activities. A quick examination of almanac and lodestone revealed that all known pathways from this world were denied tome, shut tight by powerful bindings that I could not broach quickly, if at all.
I considered moving to the mountains or far inland, but that would merely delay matters. Only the true desert would be safe from my foe, but I could not go there.
So I watched the progress of the weed every morning as I drank my first coffee, usually leaning back in one white plastic chair as I elevated my supposedly injured leg on another. The two chairs were the only furniture in the apartment. I slept in the bath, which I had lined with sleeping moss, which was comfortable, sweet-smelling and also massaged out the cares of the day with its tiny rhizoids.
The day before I adjudged the weed would reach its catalytic potential and spawn servitors, I bought not just my usual black coffee from the café downstairs, but also a triple macchiato that came in a heavy, heat-resistant glass. Because I lived upstairs they always gave me proper cups. The barista who served me, a Japanese guy who worked the espresso machine mornings and surfed all afternoon, put the coffees in a cardboard holder meant for takeaways and said, 'Got a visitor today?'
'Not yet,' I said. 'But I will have shortly. By the way, I wouldn't go surfing here this afternoon . . . or tomorrow.'
'That weed,' I replied. 'It's toxic. Try another beach.'
'How do you know?' he asked as he slid the tray into my waiting fingers. 'I mean, you can't . . .'
'I can't see it,' I said, as I backed away, turned and started tapping towards the door. 'But I can smell it. It's toxic all right. Stay clear.'
'Okay, thanks. Uh, enjoy the coffee.'
I slowly made my way upstairs, and set the coffees down on the floor. My own cup in front of one white chair, and the macchiato at the foot of the other. I wouldn't be resting my limb on the spare chair today.
I had to wait a little while for the breeze to come up, but as it streamed through the room and teased at the hair I should have had cut several weeks before, I spoke.
'Hey, Anax. I bought you a coffee.'
The wind swirled around my head, changing direction 270 degrees, blowing out the window it had come in by and in by the window it had been going out. I felt the floor tremble under my feet and experienced a brief dizziness.
Anax, proper name Anaxarte, was one of my oldest friends. We'd grown up together and had served together in two cosmically fucked-up wars, one of which was still slowly bleeding its way to exhaustion in fits and starts, though the original two sides were long out of it.
I hadn't seen Anax for more than thirty years, but we scribbled notes to each other occasionally, and had spoken twice in that time. We talked a lot about meeting up, maybe organising a fishing expedition with some of the old lads, but it had never come together.
I knew that if he were able to, he would always answer my call. So as the coffee cooled, and the white plastic chair lay vacant, my heart chilled, and I began to grieve. Not for the loss of Anax's help against the enemy, but because another friend had fallen.
I sat in the sunshine for an hour, the warmth a slight comfort against the melancholy that had crept upon me. At the hour's end, the wind shifted again, roiling around me counter-clockwise till it ebbed to a total calm.
Even without the breeze, I could smell the weed. It had a malignant, invasive odour, the kind that creeps through sealed plastic bags and airtight lids, the smell of decay and corruption.
My options were becoming limited. I took up my stick and went downstairs once more to the café. The afternoon barista did not know me, though I had seen her often enough through my expansive windows. She did not comment on my order, though I doubt she was often asked for a soy latte with half poured out after it was made, to be topped up again with cold regular milk.
Upstairs, I repeated the summoning, this time with the chill already present, a cold presence of sombre expectation lodged somewhere between my heart and ribs.Dreaming Again
Thirty-five New Stories Celebrating the Wild Side of Australian Fiction. Copyright © by Jack Dann. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.