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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Short Story Competition 2018 – Second Place: Her, By Tom van Veenendaal

 

It came as no surprise to me when I heard Daniel Price had died. We all knew it was coming. All who were close to him had been witness to a long-standing love affair of his that was gradually dragging him into the grave. When he was alive, I wished him better, but now that he is gone I feel little grief. Perhaps it’s just as well that he saves his breath – I don’t think anybody could have saved him from Her.

Daniel Price – DP, as everyone called him – was a classmate of mine from ’87 to ’89 at the Oklahoma Technology Institute. Neither of us ever sought each other’s company, but in the way it used to go back then we would often end up in the same social circles and at the same parties. I graduated when he was in his third year, but we stayed in touch through happenstance. Ultimately we knew each other for years, but our middling, inconsistent acquaintanceship never grew into something warm or enduring. Nevertheless I felt a certain affection for him, the distant kind of affection that is so often created when you see someone with some regularity for years on end. By now I haven’t seen him for over 2 years – I don’t know if he saw anybody but Her.

The sad thing is that DP was in perfect health when I first met him. Physically he was more than fine: a tall, robust, almost brutish looking man of 200 pounds who put his hours into the gym and ate whenever food was near. This was before fitness culture had its heyday: he was uniquely strong among otherwise hedonistically unfit people. While others opened their arms to him with the warmth his big body invited, I distrusted the curved rim of his forehead; his dry, unsteady lips; the poorly washed, fast receding bulge of hair on his head; the slight beard growth he permanently showed; and most especially the cracked dishonesty of his smile, figuring they betrayed a deeply rooted sadness. His gait was disturbing too: it was simultaneously slow and hurried, as if he was always tired and stressed. I felt, when I first met him, that his life had been cracked and mended, that he had experienced great distress and recomposed himself much later. I imagined a troubled childhood, or a painful relationship. His social persona appeared a complete fake, a put-on, a mask that would come off the moment he left a congregation, or was caught off-guard.

The more I talked to him, the more all these assumptions turned out to be untrue. DP had been a privileged young man, raised by a loving family in a small town. His teenage years had been cushioned by an exceptionally happy relationship with a pert young girl; they parted ways, amicably, when he went off to college. He was rarely found not behaving jovially, and no signs of mental disturbance and an anguished inner life were ever visible. Most of these things I first heard from fellow students – girls who were suspiciously interested in his sex life and family background. I suppose that was the way things went in those days. By the end, however, I was to hear and witness them from the man himself. One time, at a party that went on till past the birds chirped and the first morning commuters woke, he was drunk and elated, and found himself next to me on the front porch of the house of a classmate of ours, Lisa. “Hey,” he suddenly said, “Why do you look so goddam sullen all the time?

“I don’t know,” I answered. “It’s just the way I look.”

“Look, I don’t mean to be lecturing anybody, but you’re a good guy, people here like

you, let yourself go once.” He slurred slightly, but his intentions were clearly good.

“Maybe I will. Why are you here?” He accepted my invitation to talk about himself

all too readily, and was too drunk to notice my deflection.

“Well, I just banged Lisa and I’m bored now, chick’s crazy. Ever had her?”

“Had her? No, I’m not really about that.”

Not really about that, he says. Well I’m about having fun and she does know how to

have fun, you know what I’m saying. But I get you, I used to be like you, I went steady for

years, but you gotta try your options you know.”

“So I’ve heard – your high school girlfriend.”

“Yeah she was great,” he answered, not in the least surprised or at least not caring that I knew things about his sex life I shouldn’t. “I came out here, ‘tell you the truth, cause I wanted to think for a bit. I feel like I want something more permanent.”

“In love?”

“In everything. What the fuck am I doing, you know? I’m just – fucking – well that, fucking around, fucking people, fucking myself. Fucking. I want lasting things.”

“That’s very mature of you.”

“Goddamnit man are you a 40 year-old man? I don’t know if it’s mature it’s just what I want. Now come have a beer with me, I’m tired of talking, I feel like a pansy.”

We had a few beers; he shared his wishes again. I almost grew fond of him that morning, but after an extended rest my former lukewarm tolerance of him resumed. Looking back at that night, I wish I had gotten to know him better back then: I might have saved him. But I suppose you can’t change the past. In any case he had his wish: he found permanence in love and life.

They fell in love in the vineyard, DP and Her. The Institute had a beautiful vineyard in those days, meant for serene contemplation of nature’s beauty but used by all the students for not so-serene hanging around (and several associated vices). A mutual friend of us, Marquez, had just “finished” with Her. Marquez was always about experimenting: he found something new in every girl, every concert, every study, every party, every drug. Funny how he never had much to do with Her, and went on to get some stale job in a nearby town – but this story isn’t about him, anyway. Young Marquez introduced DP to Her that day, and if his story is to be believed, it was love at first sight. DP never got over Her.

It was not long before his behavior changed. It seemed his relationship with Her brought him everything he needed, satiated him totally – and so college, social life, ordinary human conversation and all the other day-to-day things that made up his life grew progressively more inconsequential to him. Marquez told me DP immediately let Her stay in his room. That first morning after, I already noticed something different about DP. He did not put up that cracked smile of his – instead he grinned with a pure pleasure of a kind I recognized from the made-up faces of young actresses in exploitation films right after an orgasm, and from my mother when I told her that, against all odds, I would graduate. I felt jealous, briefly, of how he felt, although I did not yet know the cause. Then class started and I forgot about it. Marquez only told me about Her a few days later, when DP’s permanent contentedness started to become more obvious.

Relationships, it is said, tend to consist of an aristocrat and a peasant: always there is one who kisses, and one who only accepts the kiss. DP was used to merely accepting women with an opaque, distant affection that was almost paternal, and implicitly cast his girlfriends as inferior, secondary actors in the drama of his life. With Her it was different: for the first time DP was clearly the one seeking out the love, with open arms and an open heart. He was enchanted, laid himself bare, changed quickly. I wasn’t close to him in those days, I never was, but those who were close to him felt neglected by the first week. They’d tell me he would retreat to the vineyard with Her, and later enter evening classes so contented he dreamed away like a teenager enjoying dreams of his crush. He showed up at no party that weekend – I had two – and came to fewer classes the next week. His whole life changed: he saw his friends less, saw his teachers less, never went to visit his parents anymore, as far as anybody knew. He seemed more than happy to stay in his room with Her for hours on end.

That was early on; nobody was worried yet. We were all growing up. I wasn’t the only one he’d told about his plans to change his life – perhaps, many figured, he is getting older and wiser. I was focused on school those days; I graduated; summer came; I left to visit friends in California and enjoyed my last real period of intense drinking and partying. A company in Edmond offered me a job and I took it happily – my parents lived nearby and I wasn’t ready yet to leave life as I knew it behind. The hours were long, the job was dull, and days started to weigh on me with an obscure sense of finality, a feeling that this was my last stop in life, but I went onwards. In an attempt to salvage some sense of youth from somewhere in my mind I decided to join another party in Oklahoma City’s suburbs – once more at Lisa’s house – to see the old gang again. Most students I knew were younger than me, and many who had graduated with me had a job in the nearby area and still joined the most exciting parties. I drove over there with considerable excitement, and entered with the confidence of a freshman. The scenery immediately deflated my hope: the young kids, the cheap beer, the modern music, the ragged clothes – it was like entering a chapter from my life already finished: I felt distinctly unwelcome, and was met with a middling, niggling disappointment. I realized quickly that I could not live my old life anymore, that seeing the busy clubs of California and knowing the passive struggle of a 9-5 had barred me from such parties forever.

I am sorry to bore you with my story, but rest assured DP is right around the corner. Indeed, as I went to the bathroom after downing 3 beers, I had my first chance encounter with him in months. Lisa’s parents’ house was massive, and the toilets were all the way down a hall in the back where there was nothing save her parents’ porcelain and some drawings from Lisa and her sister’s childhood. Consequently the party did not extend into that grave, dreary hall, with its dim lighting reflected towards you in expensive porcelain. I felt a sense of unrest there that I had not known since sifting through my grandfather’s stuff in his crummy apartment after his death. I walked towards the bathroom briskly, wishing to leave the hall – and, truthfully, the party – as soon as possible. But when I opened the door ready to walk, I saw DP crouching on the floor, his legs in a sort of semi-split, his hair thin as bristle, sweat covering his face.

“I’m all right, I’m all right,” he muttered defensively, instantly. I only stared. “Help me up man.” There was the old DP in his tone, that DP who had told me to lighten up, but there was also a strange note of obscure desperation in there that I had never expected to hear from him. It made me feel a power over him that gratified me immensely, and the comfortable superiority I felt made me upfront with him.

“You’re a mess man. What happened?”

“Help me up, don’t mention…” He spoke in a single breath, and his tone was careless, disinterested. He wanted this to be over. The truth is, I wanted the same. I helped him up.

“I’m going to leave. Join me.” I was surprised by my own steadfastness. He accepted, and I drove him – home. All the way home, that is, to his parents’, at the other end of Edmond. He seemed flustered all throughout the drive, and so I didn’t ask him much. What I did ask received only monosyllabic answers. How was his study going? Not good. Quit. Was he still seeing Her? Yes. Was he living with his parents again? Yes. Feeling good? Yes. Better than ever. In the inside of my car I could study him with greater care. He had neglected, it seemed, not only his study but also his physique. He looked thinner, paler. I saw signs of strange bruises and blood cloths. He kept watch on me, defensively, seeking to avoid being scanned too thoroughly. I dropped him off at his parents’ house and drove off rather quickly, with other thoughts and feelings than I will ever have again. With him in that state, the dream of youth had truly crumbled. Goodbye, college.

My job often required me to drive to the other end of town – a local assignment – and the only other times I saw DP was while there. Truth be told I deliberately drove through his neighborhood; he was often on the porch and we would wave at each other, if he could. He looked, weaker, paler, skinnier each time, as if life was being sucked straight out of him by some parasite. The bruises got worse, and his face became sunken and wooden. The only thing he retained of his youthful self was that contented expression he wore after first meeting Her. I once stopped by, only 3 years ago, and briefly talked to him. “I’m doing – great… Great, feeling so good.” That’s about all he could muster up.

Well, he is dead now, so what’s it matter. No surprise, as you can see. I made the responsible choice by finishing my study and getting a job. I must admit, though, I felt progressively less satisfied. Something was missing. And wouldn’t you know, out of nowhere, I actually met Her the other day. Talk about a chance encounter! Lots of people in the city know her, it turns out. I met Her several times since then – we’re seeing each other more and more. I understand now how happy their relationship made DP. I think we’re going to be very happy together too. If you like this story and know a nice publisher and want to help a man out, please tell me! I need more money for Her. I love my time with Her. I’ve never felt so good.

Short Story Competition 2018 – Third Place: The Unlikely Bird, by Chaakir Benzina

The Unlikely Bird

By Chaakir Benzina

Have you heard of the unlikely bird? They say he was everywhere. Everywhere, yet always nowhere. Nowhere, yet always somewhere. They say his wings were as resilient as his company. Effortless, yet never careless. They say he was unlikely, and a rare breed. Untroubled and unlimited. Sometimes unwelcomed.

There was a time when he flew with the blackbirds. The white coats called them redbreasts. They say it was an unlikely match. The redbreasts had a habit of breaking out in unfamiliar song, carrying a curious culture on their curious wings. They were dominant, but gentle. The unlikely bird was still a young one, so he grew to consider the redbreasts as his own, slowly singing the alluring hymns of the red-breasted blackbirds. But one day, things changed.

There was a time when he fluttered with the ravens. They say ravens sense suffering, and loss was fresh on the unlikely bird’s mind, so soon enough he found himself embracing new wilds as the ravens rinsed his bruised wings. The ravens were true hunters, and soon taught him, too, the ways of a hunter. They say his first prey was a tiny fish. They say his second was a vixen. He adored the ravens, and was close to becoming one. But one day, things changed.

There was a time when he perched with a ruby-throated hummingbird. They say she was a lonely creature. He was lost, and stumbled upon her nest in a quiet orchard. She was vigilant, but allowed his presence. They never communicated. He would sit and watch her fly around the orchard with remarkable speed. They say he learned from her, and although things eventually changed, he would always spend a cold day of winter flying around the orchard to watch her.

Have you ever heard of such a bird? Unlikely? Untroubled? Unwelcomed? They say that one day, things changed, and he disappeared. They think he settled down. That he found a home. A family. That he encountered a lovebird, and they fell in love in the vineyard. They think that together, they flew. But not everyone agrees. Some say he just got tired of searching.