All hollows
Type
Short Story Prize

Runner-up VU Short Story Prize: All hollows

1

The first door is split directly from the centre of a swamp gum and is blocking up its home, swaddled in the bush. The timber’s grain ploughs its length and a fist of brass knocker presses its knuckles from the centre of the wood. As I float down the sandstone path, dressed as a vampire, the eucalypts in flower swirl all around me and their scent rains down and the sound of their smell is a bright and comforting chime of sweet wetness. And yet I am frightened – for a long time I’ve been unable to sleep. I’ve been wandering the evening lost, hunting for the wisdom of those who are said to walk this night, crowded and alone. Shocked possums crackling the bark; a car, its engine groaning in the distance over a hill.

As I reach up and grip the knocker I feel both alive and dead. I lift it high like a swing and let it fall and the breeze rushes past its face and then the knocker bellows in shock, startled by the door, its raw voice booming down the hallway and through the rooms of the house. A silence stretches out and then jagged shrieks slice at the night; the plovers have caught my smell. A clock is ticking in my head, a cadence that is echoed by a growing set of muffled steps. The lock relaxes, the door opens, and an old, grey man with a flannel shirt flagging on his white skin stands expectant, unsurprised.

‘Ah,’ he says doubtfully, ‘well, this year I’m prepared,’ and he reaches back towards a wide glass bowl filled with spangled sweets that rustle in their nest as his hand disturbs their rest.

 

‘Wait,’ I say, ‘I am searching for more a trick than treat – though the treat could be embedded in the trick.’ His hand waits and it is dubious, so I hurry to explain all my driven wakefulness to the old man – how I lie in the dark and it bustles me with worries, how my brief dreams are trumpets blasting me awake, how my eyes are thinning and my mind flattening into two dimensions. I have tried powerful herbs and pharmaceuticals, I tell him. I have numbered threads of wool.

‘I am knocking on your door,’ I say to him. ‘Do you remember your grandfather? My grandfather always talked about the war, but he never told me how to fall asleep. But perhaps our generations are bumpy and uneven; there might be those who have passed on secret stories, narratives that will carry us to rest. Can you help me with this trick?’ He continues to grasp and assess the chocolates as though they are what I truly want.

‘Well,’ he says. ‘I can’t say that I’m any sort of expert.’ He scratches at his thinning hair. ‘I’ve always thought about the gold nugget I’ll stumble on in the Kennebec patch at the bottom of the yard. My name written on buildings and sails. These ambitions settle my evenings.’

As the old man speaks my heart groans, for his narratives puff me up with the day; they yell at me and shake and urge me to spring from my sheets and run up the hill and write letters to powerful patrons, and this man has no more wisdom to give me than the wallabies who flee down the unlit gravel roads. It is suddenly unclear to me if I waft forward, felling the slab door from his hands and its hinges, and reach for his neck, driving in my fangs and sucking at his life, his death, his waking and sleeping, or if I accept his proffered sweet – and then, as I stagger away in my cape, bent in weeping and frustration, I appear (from the perspective of a masked owl clouding the sky) to be a bat flying low against the ground.

2

The second door is a screen mesh straining mosquitos and flies, and it fronts a clone-brick house on a patch of land varnished with dry and dying lawn. This grass stretches across the yard, over fruit trees and fences, across the clothesline with its singlets. It is beginning to threaten the house. The yard is bordered by a wall of bored aspidistras sitting on the edge of the street; they watch the pedestrians and the traffic – at any moment they could reach down and hurl a small stone through an open window. The wind follows behind me and the bushes avert their faces, for I am dressed as a werewolf and the burden of fur is hot on my skin; my claws are naked and sharp as they shred the dense night air.

I have been prowling through cemeteries tonight, hunting for a waltz with the bones of an emperor or slave, to whisper hopeless nothings in their skulls as they turn their own bared teeth to me and offer up the secrets of sleep. But the gravestones all stood firm. There was no-one silhouetted in the churchyards, so I was forced to give them up, sauntering instead through the suburbs to this house.

I pad up the firm grass path and rattle the door. It is not locked.

‘Hello,’ I call. ‘Is anybody there?’

I open it a crack. The hallway is paved with tired oak boards and a faded rug. There is a sidetable messed with papers, bills, and in the corner, an overflowing rubbish tin. A bell is nestled just inside the building; when I press at it, a buzzer alarms the house. My ears stand tall, eyes flickering left and right. There is a jumbling sound from a rear room, as though a bookcase has been overturned or a border collie has leapt among the garden furniture, then a door swings open and a middle-aged man staggers up the hallway with two children attached to one leg. They are half-dressed as soldiers or policemen and they turn their attention from the man’s knee; I can see they want to reach out and stroke my coat and then let off their guns and run down the hall. Instead they begin climbing up their father like a palm.

‘Hi,’ he manages, holding them off, and ‘nice costume.’

I know that he is thinking that I am a little old, but nonetheless he reaches for the rubbish bin and offers me, successively, an apple core, a broken plastic knife and an empty container of souring milk, and ‘please,’ I say. ‘I don’t want or need your treats so much as a trick; the truth is that I haven’t slept in a long time.’ And I describe the dread that hangs over every moment, drowning my clarity, and how I am certain that below this dread there is a true terror that seeps through my skin, for when I sit down at tables there are those who pack up their newspapers and move to another chair, and when I am walking down the street there are many who leap to the side and cover their faces as though I am spread with tumours and boils, as though I am coughing up illnesses, and my sense is that a strange beastliness has overtaken me – my eyes are wide as headlights, I am sullen and ill-humoured, I snap at simple comments and have lost the art of gentleness and consideration; but I am certain that it would all be fixed if I could only get one night’s sleep.

‘So tell me,’ I say, ‘have you any stories left that might trick my system into letting go its hold?’

The man looks me in the eye, and then he turns to his children and he begins to cover their ears with his hands, and when he runs out of hands he pries the children from his leg and picks them up, one in each arm, and speaks to them and promises them picture books filled with lions and geese and ushers them through a nearby door and then returns to me, nearly whispering, and ‘sex,’ he says, ‘although, that’s not quite true. Not the thought of sex, but the expectation. I play out a scenario in my head. I drop in to my wife’s best friend, offering a mattock I’d promised to lend or checking something about her kids; they are going to stay at our place on the weekend. And then we get to talking, and there is an excuse to touch a shoulder or a finger and then after that, well, I don’t know. The conclusions are in dreams I can’t remember; by then I’ve always drugged myself to sleep.’ He shrugs and assumes a normal, louder, business-like tone, as though he is at my home and selling me tonics, and then ‘it’s always worked for me anyway,’ he disclaims, beginning to close the flyscreen door.

My mind is struggling from its well. I want to say that I have tried this story too, I have run this kind of film but it consumes me with guilt and despair and I am left more wakeful than before and needing to confess and beg forgiveness, hunting out anything that resembles the light, and so I lift my voice up to the moon and the stars and I howl, long and mournfully; and in the flurry of confusion that follows I do not know if the screen door clangs against its frame as I turn and lope hopelessly back through the grass, silver threading my veins as I roam through distant hills, or if my howl becomes a roar as I leap forward and try to rip his throat from his neck until he fights me off and screams and runs for his bedroom or the door that guides me to the bedroom of his vulnerable children.

3

The third door is open. It is wide like a cave in the side of a concrete block at the end of a corridor at the summit of an elevator in a massive aggregation of apartments in the middle of a dingy and sparkling city. The light above my head is flickering as though it cannot decide on which side to fall. Ahead of me the apartment is laid out in bright metal and white, and nothing can settle on its surface, no virus, bacteria or dirt, no habits or foibles; it is like the glaze of a new frying pan that cannot grasp at an egg no matter how much it juggles, and I wonder if I will be able to balance on its polish, or if with my first step I will slip and slide all the way down the hall, out on to the balcony and into the smog-filled sky. I am not sure on my feet this evening – I have little grace or poise – I am dressed as a zombie and my clothes are torn, face bruised and bloody and my eyes are hollow and bleached.

I lurch in to the apartment, moaning. In the lounge there is a young man sitting precisely on a cream chair, his neat face in profile. He appears calm and alert. As I stumble down the hallway he slowly turns his head and ‘oh yes,’ he says, ‘I have something for you,’ and he reaches down to a glass coffee table and retrieves a shotgun, glistening and brutal, and he pumps the action and points the gun towards me and ‘wait,’ I say, ‘I am not searching for a treat so much as a trick,’ and I explain that for so long I have been lying down, unable to move, and when I do rise it is impossible to step with crispness or articulation; it is as though I am perpetually drunk, dropping mugs of coffee and running into telegraph poles, and even when I move with relative clarity I am completely unable to think. My brain has become barren, a desert or the surface of the moon or even the void of space in which the moon orbits, empty and freezing, and all through the hours of day and night I remain in the same state, as though my waking and resting have blended and combined in a single inhuman way of being. Yet I am sure these dreadful tendencies would reverse, if only I could find a story that would send me peacefully to sleep.

And the young man, with the gun lowered slightly – yet still firmly aimed in my direction – considers for a moment, shakes his head, and says, ‘truthfully, I don’t have a story for you. I’ve never found that I needed one. Wherever I am, sitting in a bus or jogging by the river, I can nod off and rest for as long as I like, and I’ll always wake up exactly when I need to. In fact, I was sleeping in this chair while you floundered and heaved your way down the corridor, but as soon as you trespassed into my flat I was perfectly awake.’

At this my head sinks, for this man can be of no help to me. And so perhaps I accept his generous treat; perhaps I blunder towards him with my stiff arms raised and he lifts the gun and fires, again and again, and the sound fills the crisp apartment like the silence that follows, and I fall on his spotless rug, and as I keep my blood to myself perhaps I find the depths for which I’ve been longing, drifting in to peace and joining the quiet ghosts waiting on the other side. But it could also be that even here I have completely and utterly tricked and there is no sleep, no rest and nothing that can swell me into safety; there is no-one, anywhere, who will set me apart in their thoughts and call out prayers for my soul.

 
Artwork by Jacob Rolfe.

 
 
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Ben Walter is a Tasmanian writer of lyrical fiction and poetry who has been widely published in publications such as Island and Southerly. He has twice been shortlisted in the Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Prizes, and was the recent guest editor of Overland’s special anti-/dis-/un-Australian fiction issue.

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