Amsterdam Scriptum Archives
Treehouse Scriptum Issue #4, January 2003
I love being an editor. Well, not all the time. I hate having to write rejection letters. I’m a writer, too, so I try to be kind. I love receiving a piece that sings to me with a writer’s voice that’s original and melodic. My heart soars along with the words, and I can’t wait to share this find with our readers. I’m sure you’ll enjoy these offerings.
This edition contains six very diverse selections from talented writers.
Liz Pepler gives us an exotic setting and a moral dilemma.
Pat Harrington’s chilling piece of history is told with a remarkable economy of words.
Two poets grace our site this issue. Many of us with aging parents can all too sadly relate to Jean Terry’s poem. Debi Faulkner treats us to lovely word images. Debi won first prize (an AlphaSmart) in the recent FEED THE WRITERS seminar at the ABC Treehouse.
Peg (Margaret) Frey’s story is a modern day fairy tale, with echoes of folk story tradition and elements of magical realism. The ending made me laugh out loud.
Robin M. Allen’s story is certain to surprise you. Removed from the archives by request
Scriptum just gets better and better, thanks to our wonderful contributing writers.
We appreciate reader feedback and hope that Scriptum becomes a popular showcase for talent.
The next issue will be online March 28.
Faisal hadn’t killed anyone for years, so he was less than pleased with this assignment. It was an inauspicious start to the day. True to form, he got it over with quickly; ramming the butt of his rifle into his bony right shoulder and expertly locking his sights onto the brown head scarf peeping over the dune down below, he pulled the trigger and shot just a few inches wide. If the Colonel had seen his smiling eyes as he watched the headscarf hop frantically over the sand to safety, Faisal knew it would have been his turn next. As it was, except for his very young driver who was now whimpering under the belly of the jeep, Faisal was alone.
Once the job was done he flung his rifle over his shoulder and turned and walked back to the jeep.
“Sh…shall I get the body Serge?”
“Leave it to the vultures, Private.”
Faisal was thankful for his dark glasses. As the jeep pulled away and rumbled back over the unforgiving plains, he sat still and silent, staring out in front of him. Faisal sighed and wiped the ever-present soup of sweat and dust from his brow. One day they were going to realise that he wasn’t what they called good party stock; he wondered when that day would come and whether he would ever be ready. True, he was tired of it all, so much so that he was wilfully bringing about his own premature end -- but to face death and feel no fear -- well, if he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes, he just wouldn’t have believed it possible. But he had seen it. Over and over. Each face that had stared back at him from the end of his barrel was indelibly etched in his mind, only to be brought to life and agonised over each and every sleepless night. The eyes haunted him. Faisal prayed he would be granted the same strength when his turn came. He marvelled again how he had come to be in this position, in charge of men, of their lives, their futures, and their every waking moment. Before the troubles he had been a poet. His poems were read by every school child in the land and he had spent the first years of his adulthood foolishly believing this was his future.
Faisal had never shared his men’s enthusiasm, or their thirst for killing. He knew for a fact that this boy driving next to him had lied by at least two years so he could be rewarded with the standard issue kaki trousers and shirt. The boy even had to roll his trousers up. How times changed! When Faisal and the other young men from his village had been rounded up, all the mothers had sung in protest, risking their own lives to keep their sons safe within their homes. That was back at the beginning, of course, when no one really knew why the fighting had begun. Still no one knew, but they had seen what happened to those whose loyalty was questioned and this gave reason enough to pick up a gun.
When Faisal returned back to the base, in accordance with protocol, he reported to the Colonel who had nodded at the chair on the other side of the desk. Faisal sat down. The Colonel turned up the fan and loosened his collar. He quickly poured himself a whiskey and tilted the bottle towards Faisal. Faisal looked around for a glass, didn’t see one and shook his head. He waited while the Colonel recovered from a short coughing fit and watched him pull a wrinkled handkerchief from his pocket and mop his dripping face. As the Colonel wheezed through his request, Faisal could feel his eyebrows shoot upwards and he hastened to regain his composure. The Colonel leant forward in his chair, his short fingers gripping his glass, and fixed Faisal with an expectant look. They sat like this for some time until Faisal felt it incumbent upon him to speak, “Sir would like me to write a poem for the King’s birthday?” Faisal sounded uncertain.
The Colonel hastily cleared his throat.
“Not so much a poem my friend; let’s call it a tribute.” The Colonel half beamed, half wheezed and leant back in his chair, his short arms comfortably cushioned on his belly. “I’ll have someone pick it up in two days. You’re excused.”
Faisal stood up, saluted and marched out of the Colonel’s office, straight past the mess hall and back to his barracks. It was only when he was inside his room that he let his face relax. Faisal didn’t waste a minute; he opened a drawer, took out his pen and book, wiped off the dust and sat poised. His hand trembled above the page. A poem fit for their King was what the Colonel had asked for. He knew whatever he wrote would have to be praise beyond compare, the highest of eulogies. Faisal travelled to times past in his head and let the images, words, sounds fade in and out of focus as he sat waiting for inspiration to rise and lift him. There he sat for the longest time floating in the sea of memories. When the sun slowly crept into the night and wrapped her arms around the sky she saw Faisal sitting still and concerned at his desk, the paper in front of him white and clean. The black Bakelite phone jumped on his desk. Faisal picked up the heavy receiver.
“Sergeant. Slight change of plan. Deliver the King’s birthday consignment to my desk at midday prompt. Parvati Raamasaam would like to practice before the ceremony.”
“Colonel.” Faisal replaced the handset, his heart heavy with resignation. He had been part of the machine long enough to know its every working. He knew Parvati would not be given a chance to practice; the early deadline was simply to ensure the poem passed through the proper channels before reaching the king. Faisal sat, his furrowed brow glinting in the sun. In his mind he watched himself walk across the interminable desert. On the horizon, a cracked signpost rose from the sands and welcomed him; his eyes followed to where it pointed. To one side, he saw promotion, medals, maybe even a statue one day. And to the other -- Faisal smiled -- the other led to where his name would be whispered at night by an unknown army also fighting. Faisal suddenly felt strong, he felt ready. He picked up his pen and wrote.
About the author:
Liz Pepler is a self-employed English woman who moved from London to Amsterdam three years ago. This is her first published story.
The Year of Zero
Saloth Sar nodded and smiled as yet another one of his guests made the required obsequies to him. They bowed, eyes lowered, as if afraid of what they might read in their leader’s. Saloth’s full lips curled in distaste as he watched the partygoers. He drew on a cigarette and blew out a narrow stream of smoke. Let them have their amusements. It would all change soon. It was nearing midnight on the twelfth of April, the beginning of the Cambodian New Year, which according to custom, would last three days. Saloth nodded again, but just for his own benefit. After the festivities, there would indeed be a new year.
At one end of the room, musicians dressed in black with kramas tied around their necks, sat cross-legged on the floor playing percussion and stringed instruments. Lithe dancers in traditional costumes swayed while Saloth’s guests watched, ate and drank Courvesoir replenished by waiters who also wore black shirts and pants.
At exactly twelve o’clock , Saloth stood up, the music stopped, and silence fell as heavily as the night air outside. Saloth left the room without glancing around, and five men swiftly followed him outside. They went to his headquarters where they sat around a mat and listened attentively to their leader. “All is ready for the seventeenth?” he asked. No one answered. Saloth took their non-response as assent.
The man to his right, coughed politely. “Phonm Penh has swollen like an overripe fruit. People have fled to the city to escape the bombing. There must be two million people there.”
Saloth briefly shrugged. “If they survive, no gain. If they die, no loss. Our soldiers are to drive everybody from Phonm Penh into the countryside and labor camps. Empty the hospitals and temples. Every house. In twenty-four hours, no one is to be left but the Khmer Rouge.”
Another man spoke up. “How many people do we need to start our new society, Venerable One?”
Saloth frowned at the salutation used to respectfully address monks. Saloth had ordered all religion to be abolished. An ominous quiet filled the room, and the foolish speaker bowed his head and began to shake. He clenched his trembling hands together. Saloth signaled to the soldier standing behind him, who went to the man and nudged him with his toe. He rose obediently and walked outside with the soldier. A moment later, a shot rang out.
Saloth continued, “I only need one to two million Khmer to make Cambodia into an agrarian society and create a purified country without western influence or decadent customs. All currency is to be burned and schools closed.” He smiled, but with no mirth. “Cut off the past and you control the future.”
The leader paused. His presence seemed to loom larger, demanding each man’s unswerving loyalty. “Destroy all calendars. This is the Year of Zero. You are not to call me Saloth Sar anymore. I am now to be known and remembered as Pol Pot.”
About the author: Patricia Harrington writes grants and mysteries. Her stories will appear in two anthologies in 2003: Murder in Mind and Bullet Points. Patricia is the author of the novel Death Stalks the Khmer.
Visiting My Father at the Last Stop Hotel
“I think I know you,”
my father says,
as a barefoot woman
dances down the hall
littered with broken people.
Some shuffle back and forth,
back and forth,
hardly lifting heavy feet
from the cold linoleum floor,
turning at the doors and locks,
not knowing the code to freedom.
One curls in the corner,
a tiny ball;
one tells me she loves me,
“you can talk to me,” while
a man beside the clock demands
to know what time it is.
He’s checking out today
but he needs to know
he knows there are boundaries, he says,
because people keep making
u-turns and coming back.
“I think I know you,”
my father says.
About the author: Jean Terry is a US citizen by birth, a Californian by heritage, an expat by choice, a mongrel by parentage, a Unitarian by intellect, married by choice, teacher by profession, internationalist by inclination, feminist by right, deviant by nature, poet by accident, reader by compulsion, writer by instinct and painter by inspiration. Jean taught the ‘Introduction to Poetry’ workshop at the recent Feed the Writers seminar.
STILL LIFE IN WATER (a triptych)
Shadows slide between blinding
reflections on the water,
bits of light refracted, floating
like liquid mercury slipping
through my darkened fingers. I
look down into the dark
outline of myself - arms out-
stretched: poised to dive, still
Shattered bits of glass - a mirror thrown
to the ground, reaching up to me, swimming
in my eyes. Somewhere birds are lifting, settling,
moving like waves there, then there -
a confusion of feathers coming in on the tide.
muffled voices speak in tongues -
the calls of birds, a lover break
the surface, cling to my fingers
and lips. I carry soft light down,
silver strings sinking
at strange angles. I am
falling beside myself:
arms outstretched, still
About the author: Debi Faulkner had a chapbook published by Wayne State University in 1991. Her work also appeared in small Detroit-area publications before she dropped off the face of the earth only to reappear in The Netherlands where she now resides with her husband and two children. Current work appears or is forthcoming in The San Gabriel Valley Poetry Quarterly and Sea Change Poetry Journal and online at www.flashquake.org and www.braggadocio.org.
The Warp of Rules and Wishes
Margaret A. Frey
In the time before before, there was an old woman who yearned for a child.
She had given birth many times, but those children had grown and left, as children are wont to do. A fat, rosy-cheeked child, she thought, would provide comfort in her twilight years.
The old woman told several villagers of her desire. They laughed and said she was addle-brained.
“A child?” said the butcher. He wiped his bloody hands and smirked at customers huddled before the cleaving counter. “Did you hear that? This crone wants to turn the rules topsy-turvy. And who would be the father, old woman? Have you glanced in a looking glass lately? Mark my words, friends! My swinish guest will fly before a new soul’s delivered to the likes of her.” With that, he cleaved a huge porker, snout to stern, with a hearty “thwack.”
Everyone laughed at the butcher’s words and dramatic gesture. Everyone but the old woman. She limped from the shop with jeers pelting her back.
Once the anger gave way, she thought about the words. How would she produce a child or find a suitable father? It was unfair to be bound by nature’s cruel rules. Why should only the young produce offspring like stupid rabbits? It was wearisome and petty the way life worked out!
Home again, she stooped over her garden, lifted the delicate faces of her beloved flowers. The miniature tea roses had opened. The fuzzy stamens peeked out like tiny, soft eyes. She sighed and sprinkled ground fox bone about the slender roots to make them healthy and tall. She yanked weeds from between the vegetable rows—early spring lettuce and vines blooming purple trumpets. She inspected the herb garden, sniffing, and then swiped a dusty moth’s flutter. Any other evening, the fragrance alone might have given her joy. Now the odor offered only dissatisfaction.
She stumbled inside her cottage, hastily prepared and ate her evening meal, and crawled atop her pallet. She pulled a thick quilt about her neck, the one she’d carefully assembled during the chilly autumn. The meticulous stitching, the clever arrangement of squares and triangles in a tumbling block pattern blackened her mood. So much wasted time! She scarcely remembered the small thud of triumph when the design appeared curiously animated, a testimony to her skill. No, it was the crick in her neck, she remembered, and the sting of pricked fingers. The joy had been a momentary flutter at best.
“It isn’t right,” she whispered. “It’s an insult to live all these years, work hard and not have your heart’s desire. “If I were God . . .” She drifted into a fitful sleep.
She woke with a shudder. The beautiful quilt lay ripped and tattered. The colorful squares and triangles were stacked like raggedy pancakes on the floor. Shivering, the woman swung her weight to the side of the bed. She gasped. Her legs had disappeared. An iridescent tail swished and flapped.
A child’s laugh made her think she was dreaming. The chowder last night tasted a tad off. Perhaps the butcher had cheated her, tainted her stomach and now her dream. She pinched herself. Again, the laughter. The monstrous tail slapped as if to play a childish harmony. With the third swish, the woman tumbled to the floor. Her lower body convulsed up and down, down and up. “Help,” she cried.
The door swung open and a plump child smiled from the threshold. In one hand, he held a pair of shiny, gold scissors.
“Snip, snip,” he said with a giggle.
“Who are you?” the woman said. Her eyes rested on the scissors. A moist stain marred one gleaming edge. “Was it you who did this?” She pointed to the piles of ruined fabric.
The child nodded with enthusiasm. He clinked the scissors again. From behind his back, he displayed a wilted bouquet of roses and dahlias and peppermint stalks. The woman groaned. A grip in her chest made her breathless.
“My garden? You’ve taken your blasted scissors to my flowers? What else have you laid your grubby hands on?”
The child pointed to the woman’s tail, which had once been a pair of arthritic but quite serviceable legs. “So’s you could have the child,” he said. “’Cause fishies of the deep blue lay eggs till the day they die. At least, they did before the rules changed. Now, cows lay eggs and chickens pull carriages and the sun rises high in the noon-night sky. Each broken rule fractures another until everything jiggles and wiggles like wobbly blocks. Didn’t you know that?”
The woman blinked. “How could I know? I didn’t mean to change the Universe. All I wanted was a child.” She paused. If she had the child of her wishes, even the cumbersome tail might be manageable. She could conceal the peculiar appendage beneath a blanket. As for the quilt, she could certainly fashion another. And the garden? Hadn’t she planted many gardens? The wish-child could build a chair with smooth oak wheels and comfortable platform. They could spend quiet hours planting the garden anew.
Ah yes, she understood. She could have her heart’s desire despite the silly rules. She need only accept a minor concession or two. As for making sense of the Universe—that was God’s domain. She was merely an old woman.
She smiled. “And the sweet child?”
The boy giggled. “I’m here to harvest the bounty of your wishes,” he said.
The old woman recoiled. The moist streak slid along the scissors’ edge, welled up at the tip in a single, red droplet, and fell ever so slowly to the hard, stone floor.
At precisely the same moment, the village butcher stood before his shop with wide-eyed amazement. In the chartreuse sky, a pig sailed by with large, dusty wings. The animal smiled a crooked smile, unperturbed by the catastrophic wound along its underbelly where the hide was plainly rent from snout to stern.
About the author: Margaret A. Frey writes from the foothills of the Smoky Mountains where folklore is rich and mysterious. Her work has appeared in the Asphodel, Writer’s Digest Chronicle Series and elsewhere.