Short Story Competition 2018 – First Place: Through but Behind Hedges, by Dorus Asselbergs

They fell in love in the vineyard,
In between empty barrels
and hanging sweets.
I should have acted,
But I can just remember.

Comfortably leaning back, he sat in a white plastic chair, with his feet resting in front of him on an equally white and plastic table, off which the sunlight glitteringly reflected. On its almost glowing surface stood only one cloudily condensed glass, still full of thin orange soda, which had to share its space with a red-white striped straw, some slowly melting, subsequently evaporating ice cubicles and loads of nonchalantly ascending bubbles. Although most of his body seemed worry and stress free, his hands passionately held the two hostage-like parts of an opened book, sandwiching the paper with every turning of a page. The skin on his forehead was similarly squeezed into several frowning wrinkles and almost unnoticeable, yet shadow shaping bumps.

“What are you reading, Mister Feldner?”

He somewhat stiffened by the quick interruption, but quickly regained his smooth composure. Instead of answering with the name of an author or the title of a work, he lifted his head, playfully set his eyes in her direction and responded with a context-lacking quote:

“Loneliness is the first thing which God’s eye named not good.”
“Well, in that case I am holier than the Lord himself.”

He reflexively smiled, but afterwards rationally silenced her.

“Someone might hear us.”

Her name was Minny, and she was in lots of ways opposite of Mister Feldner. Instead of an angled, slender nose, hers seemed rounder, flatter, more flowingly connected to her face, and way wider; unlike his shining, strictly parallelly combed back hairs, hers were seemingly tougher to handle, and curlingly sought the company of their neighbors, and where his light skin sweatingly tried to get rid of the sunlight, hers seemed to effortlessly absorb it. Yet their eyes were the same. Every time their glances crossed, it seemed like one pair of eyeballs, either hers or his, duplicated and planted itself into the sockets of the other.

Both reminded of their wordless pre-arranged silence, they continued with what they were doing. Minny stood near one of the grapevines close to Mister Feldner and was humming a lovely set of tunes. She tightly held a basket in between her arm and ribs, in which she put all of the carefully selected, and ensuingly picked grapes. With a keen, critical eye she only took the ones which pleased her in their texture and lack of blemishes; the ones whose purples had become brownish, and whose even outsides had been conquered by spots and pimples, were systematically thrown to the ground, and left as irrelevant as their new dirt and dust environments. Yet the liquid-rich contents of both were exactly the same; both contained the usual sugars, waters and pits as any other of their kind. The only differing factors were the place they originally hung, the amount of nutrients they received from their stems, and whether or not they were in range of the sun and its life-supplying beams.

In the meantime Mister Feldner had gone inside, and had afterwards returned with a silver, food-filled tray.

“Stop picking, time for dinner.”

Coercing his body into full concentration, as if he had never done anything like that before, he put the tray, crowded with jingling, jangling glasses, knives and forks, carefully on the table. With the latter set, Minny joined him and they both started eating. Whenever their mouths found the time in between the greedy chewing, they spoke about a variety of subjects, of which most I was not able to hear. However, somewhere before the main course and just after their appetizers, Mister Feldner addressed a painting he had gone to see the other day. He told the story his friend had enthusiastically told him on an afternoon a few days ago. His friend, named Archibald, had found the canvas in his attic, and had later, out of both mild awe and curiosity, through archives and distant memory, found out about how it got there in the first place. Apparently, he had inherited it a few years ago from some uncle he had plainly forgotten about. At the time, this uncle had acquired it at a local antique shop and had fondly hung it upon the chimney, leading out of the fireplace, situated in the chicest room of his house. Yet, Mister Feldner jokingly stated that the person depicted in the painting was not very happy with her current situation at all, and had probably never been so. Framed in between four almost antithetically non-suiting wooden planks, the woman, born out of brush strokes and contrasting colors, had a certain discomfort and disappointment to her. It was as if the paint, through the odd smile and dead eyes into which it once dried up, tried to scream that it had never wanted to be stretched and spread out into this inhumanly bad picture of a woman; as if it tried to say that this level was way below its potential and capabilities, and that it had already grown tired of this laborious display as soon as it had been forced upon it. Nevertheless, Mister Feldner had politely avoided uttering any of these critiques; he had tactically focused on the background, and had said that the garden – on which this imaginary, hellish woman had been abruptly plastered – reminded him of Adam and Eve’s Eden: its striking green, vivid plants, its glittering sun and hanging fruits had been masterfully put together, and formed a scene of nature, of which us earthly mortals could be nothing more than jealous.

Both Mister Feldner and Minny burst out laughing. Laughter turned into giggling, and giggling into smiling. They looked at each other for a while, wordless but communicating, and after just fractions of a second they slowly started bending forwards, as if their foreheads were increasingly becoming heavier and heavier. Just on the verge of the distance between their mouths being smaller than the width of a fist, Minny amusingly filled the few uncovered centimeters with an apple, out of which first she, and consequently he, took a cracking, crunching bite.

At that same moment I was, although dissimilarly, asked to come and still my own hunger. My mum had finished preparing dinner and demanded I would not allow it to go cold:

“Stop watching the neighbors Tommy, it’s none if your business, come inside.”

During the few hours that had past the sun had made room for darkness, it had taken its life-supplying beams and had put them somewhere else, leaving everyone and everything in its shadowy absence. Naturally, the moon and stars had risen, but instead of the boastfully shouting, powerful, eye-blinding white we were given during day, their light was not reflected or refracted, it humbly whispered a blue gloominess onto the exterior of our world: it gave light, but did not illuminate; it made everything blurry, implicit and vague; it blended everything into one big mush of blacks, greys and blues; it made you look at things, but not see them; it made you ignorant of your surroundings, and your surroundings ignorant of you.

Mister Feldner and Minny seemed to be gone. The garden was empty. The open space was filled by the static rustling of trees, and the creaking chirps of crickets. However, all of a sudden, as I was listening to even nature going to sleep, a before unheard background noise belligerently made its way to the front. Soft moans came out of the vineyard. Awing sighs, alarming wails, appalling cries all became more apparent and apparent. The sound closed in, and was quickly distorted by the threatening footsteps that probably accompanied its source. The cliché snapping of twigs; the pattering of dry leaves; the thumping of the rock-rich ground. My eyes were fixed on the darkness in between rows of grapevines, curious and unknowing of what was going to come. The moans became screams, howls, hoots and were abruptly personified by an image appearing from the shadows.

“So is this your little paradise?”

The voice hissingly emphasized its swishes by its pugnacious lisp.

“Secluded and screened off by hedges and grapevines? What made you think you were any more special than the rest of ‘m?”

The masculine figure stepped forward and then aside. A big lump of blue shadows appeared, muttering a few soft, sly voices and the moans. The voice spoke again, this time less threatening or devious, but in a more uncaring and demanding way.

“Light.”

I heard the clank of a metal and a plausibly luxurious lighter, followed by a greedy inhaling and saw the emerging of a fiery orange dot within the darkness. There was an awaiting silence. The cozy crackling of the burning paper and tobacco courteously echoed through the entire garden. He took three more drags and threw the cigarette onto the ground. The dot disappeared, but its energy did not: small flames developed, grew into larger ones and finally, within seconds, formed an abruptly created fire. I could see now.

My eyes still had to adjust to the newly given light, but as I looked into the blazing reds and yellows, vagueness became detailed, and I could see how they were not fueled by sticks, leaves nor gasoline, but by clothes. I zoomed out and tried to grasp the scene in its entirety. Quickly I saw Mister Feldner and Minny, shivering, sweating, terrifyingly scared. Naked. They sat on their knees, with their chins up high. Their eyes were no longer connected or similar, but both emptily dazed into a state of worrisome staring. Their hairs were tightly being clutched by the hands of two other men, naively proud of their control. Caught by suspense and an inexplicable joy they expectingly looked at their leader, the voice I heard just minutes ago.

“You thought you were gonna get away with this, didn’t you?

He loudened his voice.

“With us around?!”

He leaned in and put his mouth next to Minny’s ear.

“You filthy, niggling –––.”

The last bit he whispered, leaving me to fill in the blank. He straightened his body again. He turned his grin into a smile, exhaled once more, lifted his leg backwards, and concentrated all his power into one carnage-planning kick. Minny fell to the ground. She couldn’t find the air to scream, resulting in a hopeless, sour, croak-like sound. He kept on kicking. The man that was holding her joined in, while the other one still forced Mister Feldner into remaining powerless. They kicked and kicked, punched and punched, did damage after damage, made blemish after blemish and just before life left her body, they stopped. Her face was no longer her face, Minny was no longer Minny. The skin had been forced into something unnatural, into something it had never wanted to be. Her dark colors had been reddened by shining blood and purpled bumps. The two men backed off, exhausted by their literally breathtaking actions. They stood back, with their hands in their sides, and watched the unconscious body for a while.

Their leader was the first to move. He walked up to a tree in the garden and took something out of a bag he had probably put there before. He lit another cigarette, and gestured his partner in crime to take Minny’s body and to bring it to him. The thing he had gotten from the bag was a rope, and, as casual as some sailor adjusting sails on a summer day, he threw one end over a thick, strong branch and grabbed it as soon as it fell down again. They laid Minny down up against the lower stem and its egressing roots. With his cigarette in his mouth he knotted the rope around her neck. He took a few steps back, watched the entire scene as uninterested as watching paint dry, and signaled his comrade again. They pulled her up, stumbling grip by grip. With her head hanging, and her toes desperately reaching for the ground, they left her bungling. Her body had been molded into something it never should have been, the scarlet had been plastered all over her and blueish blemishes and had been spread out across her entire body. Under these tranquil moon and stars, from this blossoming tree and within these vivid greens, a vicious image, even unjustifiable in hell, had been abruptly forced to be displayed.

Their turbulent spokesman turned around and directed his attention to Mister Feldner, who was still being held to his knees and was staring away. He put his hand forwards, and tightly snagged Mister Feldner´s jaw . He forced him to look to that what he did not want to see. Just as desperation was getting the fullest control of his victim´s body, he started to speak. He set his eyes, glittering because of the fire, together with pure passion, towards heaven.

“Destruction is a form of creation.”

He victoriously licked his lips.

“Do you see it Feldner? We made your girl into that what she picks every day – a hanging sweet.”

Tears began to ran over Mister Feldner’s face, but his eyes did not change. The anger they contained only grew. He started to tighten his muscles, and tried to make his hairs escape the awful grip. He wrestled the other hand holding his arm, and tried to make his gripless feet grasp the ground. Within seconds he stood up, spit in his enemy’s face and ran, ran away from there. The leader stood still by surprise, but his companion professionally took his gun, made it fire-ready and emptied his barrel into Mister Feldner’s back.

“You fool! Someone might hear us!”

The three of them escaped the scene, they re-entered the shadows, and were never heard of again. They left Minny lifelessly on that tree, in a state unworthy of her being, and Mister Feldner as an irrelevant sack of flesh and bones within the dirt and dust. I did not know what to do, to say, to think or to know. I heard another voice arise.

“Stop watching the neighbors Tommy, it’s none of your business, come inside.”

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