by Sandra Arnold
FAVOURETTA PRATT WATCHED the sun drop behind the office blocks as she eased off her backpack and rubbed at the grooves in her shoulders. Twisting her head under the fountain, she let the cold water splash over her face. She peeled off her sneakers, sat on the edge of the fountain and gingerly dipped her feet, sucking the air sharply between her teeth. She closed her eyes. When she opened them again there was the bridge at the end of the road. And beyond it the hills and the sea. She thought of her home and her bright empty bottles and began to weep.
Someone coughed discreetly behind her back and she looked round to see an old man in an indigo t‑shirt, saffron shorts, turquoise running shoes and a bright orange backpack on his shoulders.
‘What are you snivelling about?’ he asked.
‘What do you think!’ she sniffed, jabbing a finger in the direction of the bridge.
‘Oh that,’ he shrugged. ‘Well, if you haven’t enough energy you might as well give up now.’
He started running on the spot so she could see the muscles rippling up his tanned calves then shot off towards the bridge. Just before he reached it he called back over his shoulder, ‘Of course there’s always the train—if you can get on that is, there’s a lot of competition.’
Favouretta watched him streaking over the bridge and up the first hill, an orange flash on darkening shades of green. Then out of the corner of her eyes she saw the shape of that other figure hunching in the shadows. Pretending she hadn’t seen it, she patted her blisters dry with a hanky and eased her feet back into her sneakers. Lugging her backpack over her arm, she limped along the road to the station.
Crowds were pouring through exits and entrances. Favouretta looked around for a ticket office but couldn’t find one. Brightly clothed people began running as a train pulled in. She tried to run with them, but it was like trying to run through the sea. The train filled up. The doors slammed shut. All the seats were taken. Reaching a carriage which had one vacant seat left she pushed her arm against the door and crawled her fingers up towards the handle. Someone shoved her aside, yanked open the door and clambered over the top of her. The whistle blew and the train pulled away, leaving her spreadeagled on the platform.
A passing porter remarked, ‘You might catch the next train if you hurry along the track to the other station. It’s the usual procedure.’
She whimpered, ‘How can I? Can’t you see the state I’m in?’
The porter shrugged. ‘I suppose you’ll just have to stay where you are then,’ and walked away whistling.
Glaring at his departing back, she picked herself up and stumbled off along the line. Emerging from the station, she saw the scene had changed again. The city had disappeared and vast empty paddocks stretched out where roads should have been. She couldn’t see the bridge.
The light faded rapidly. Favouretta’s eyes ached with the strain of peering into the shadows. Eventually she couldn’t see at all and had to grope her way in the dark. After hours of only snail‑like progress she was on the verge of giving up and going back, when she saw the lights of the next station just ahead. Behind it was the bridge.
She inched her way towards the bridge and saw a few people already crossing it. Looking back over her shoulder, she saw that the route she had travelled was obscured by thick grey fog. To her left, near the station, stood a deserted cinema. Two lampposts threw pools of pale yellow light onto the tattered remnants of posters stuck to peeling weatherboards. Underneath—to her disbelief—crouched the figure. It began darting wraith-like between the lampposts, silently dissolving and re-forming. She stood up, shivering in the night air, and pushed her feet towards the bridge.
By the time she reached it the others had already crossed and were disappearing over the top of the first hill. Then she saw it had collapsed in the middle. Jagged pieces of wood and twisted metal pointed down to a stinking black river. She threw herself at a post, kicking it with her feet and beating it with her fists. She tore her hair and yelled abuse at the wind. Her backpack slid to the ground. Footsteps pattered behind her and she whipped round to see the figure rapidly advancing in an odd crab-like dance. She looked back at the bridge, crying, ‘It’s not fair!’ And in the moonlight saw an old woman in silver with a cat on her shoulder, gathering wild flowers on the other side of the river. The old woman looked up and waved. ‘Why don’t you fly across?’
Favouretta wailed, ‘I don’t know how!’
The old woman shrugged. ‘You’ll have to stay there then,’ and walked away with her basket of flowers over her arm.
Cursing her lack of foresight, Favouretta took a fearful hop into the air and to her surprise found herself suspended a metre or so above the ground. It felt safe enough and she tilted forward till she was gazing down into the torpid water. That was extremely nerve-wracking, so she fixed her eyes on the bank ahead and moved jerkily towards it. When she reached the bank she crash-landed and lay sprawled in an ungainly heap. She staggered to her feet, rubbed her bruises and looked back across the river.
The figure was now squatting in the spot she had vacated, pulsating like a small, bloated toad. And it was holding her backpack. She looked around for the old woman to ask her advice but couldn’t see her anywhere. While she thought about the risks involved in returning to retrieve her backpack, the figure rose smoothly into the air and glided across the river, landing with perfect balance just in front of her. Ambrose Pigg walked out of the shadows and smiled.
‘Considering what you have been through, Ms Pratt, I do not imagine you would like to lose this.’ He held up the backpack.
Favouretta reached out to take it, but Ambrose stepped nimbly aside. ‘You really need to practise your flying, Favouretta. It wasn’t bad for a first attempt but you must work on your take‑off and landing.’
He gripped her hand and leaped into the air. She opened her mouth to protest but a rush of wind carried away the words. She didn’t dare let go in case she plummeted to the ground. Higher they soared and higher. Further than she had ever thought possible. At last he stopped and told her to look down. When she did she saw tiny red and white lights blinking along interlocking grey strips and miniature ships bobbing along ribbons of black.
She laughed with delight, forgetting her fear. ‘It’s just like the Peter Pan Ride at Disneyland.’
‘You’ve seen nothing yet, Etty,’ Ambrose called, taking both her hands and stretching out horizontally to face her.
She matched his movements and they glided round and round in ascending circles. Spirals curled and coiled, upward and outward, descending, diminishing to a darkening edge. All around and above and below were pinpoints of light spinning in the blue-black sky. Favouretta felt light-headed. She was tingling from the tips of her fingers to the ends of her toes. Looking up at Ambrose, she tried to remember why she’d set out on that ghastly journey in the first place, when all the time she could have been up here, spinning with Ambrose. She noticed he had a very nice smile.
On a vanishing curve, on the outermost edge of the spiral, she realised she couldn’t breathe and her nose was bleeding.
Ambrose called, ‘Just sway from side to side. That will correct the balance and the bleeding will stop.’
Clinging tightly to his hands she followed his instructions, but the blood still flowed. ‘I have to get down,’ she insisted. ‘And go slowly this time.’
Ambrose got into position for the descent, but without warning increased the speed and they hurtled down so rapidly she was blinded. The wind blasted her eardrums until she thought she would drown in sound.
Abruptly the uproar stopped. She prised open her eyes and saw the ground just below. Ambrose let go her hand and she crashed to her knees. While she massaged her limbs, checking that nothing was broken, Ambrose floated down feather-like onto his toes and began pirouetting on the grass, spinning with perfect control. His dance ended with an impeccable arabesque.
‘You see what I can teach you? There’s no need for you to struggle on your own, Etty. Look at your poor bleeding feet.’ He held out his arms. ‘Let me give you strength, Et. With me by your side your potential is unlimited. And there are many directions we can choose to follow from here. I personally recommend exploring the network of caves within these hills.’
Favouretta picked herself up and held her head to steady her swirling vision. He edged nearer and whispered softly, ‘All I ask in return is a promise that you’ll be nice to me, Fay.’
Laughter scratched at the back of her throat, but she said politely, ‘Thanks for the tutorial. It was great fun, but I have other plans and it’s time I was off.’
His eyes narrowed. ‘Just because you’ve crossed the bridge doesn’t mean you’ll reach the sea. Not by yourself, Miss Pratt. You’ll never get over those hills.’ He looked her up and down, chewing his lip. ‘But even supposing you do make it, you won’t like it. It’s frightfully boring! Nothing but rocks and seaweed and stunted plants. Why do you want to go there anyway?’
‘To meet the Gatherers,’ she answered. ‘All the most experienced Gatherers will be there to harvest the lichen and mix the dyes and share their secrets. There will be colour combinations that are not obtainable anywhere else or at any other time. Colours and shades you can not even imagine.’
Ambrose threw back his head and roared with laughter. ‘Is that all? Is that the extent of your ambition? All this effort for that, Pratt?’ He laughed so hard tears splashed off his cheeks. ‘That ‘tutorial’ as you called it, was only the edge of my genius—a mere peacock dance to impress you—dull bird that you are.’
‘Dull?’ she queried. ‘Dull? Who are you to say that?’ She stretched her arm in a wide arc above her head and coloured the space emerald green, breathing deeply to absorb its strength.
His eyes bulged. ‘How did you do that? Where did you learn? When did you learn? How long did it take? Who taught you?’
Ignoring him she coloured a crescent of gold and frosted it with silver. She painted bands of ruby red and deep sapphire, rich purple and pale rose, magenta, lemon and cornflower blue. As she worked, his face grew pale, his jaw dropped open and his false teeth clattered to the ground. While he scrabbled for them in the dust she drew her fingers lightly through the arc, stretching it and separating it into fine transparent filaments. Catching hold of one end, she danced round and round enclosing herself in spirals of colour.
Spasms of fear contorted his face as he stretched out his hands, snatching at the strands. She let go the end she was holding and the spiral shattered over his head as if someone had thrown a stone through a stained glass window. Kaleidoscopic fragments lay at his feet.
He stared at her in disbelief. Her hair was standing out from her head and crackling with energy. Sparks flickered from her eyes.
His lip curled. ‘Am I supposed to be impressed with party tricks, Pratty? How ridiculous you look, Ratty Pratty. Like a birthday candle.’ He grabbed the backpack and lunged at her head.
She opened her mouth and blew into his face. Flames licked and flared and blazed. Howling and gibbering, Ambrose Pigg rolled down the bank to the river. Favouretta doubled over with laughter and little multi-coloured birds flew singing up into the trees. She picked up the backpack and swung it over her shoulders. Turning one last time to watch him floating on the fetid water, Favouretta waved and climbed the first hill.
Sandra Arnold is a novelist, short story and non-fiction writer who lives in New Zealand. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing. Her awards include finalist in the 2018 Mslexia Flash Fiction Competition, the 2018 University of Sunderland Short Story Competition, winner of the 2015 New Zealand Heritage Short Story Award and the 2014 Seresin Landfall University of Otago Press Writers Residency. She is a Best Small Fictions and Pushcart Prize nominee. Her work appears in Fictive Dream, Spelk, Flash Frontier, Tales from the Forest, Bending Genres and Connotation Press among others. Her third novel, ‘The Ash, the Well and the Bluebell,’ is forthcoming from Mākaro Press, NZ, and her first flash fiction collection, ‘Soul Etchings’ from Retreat West Books, UK. She is a guest editor for Meniscus: the Australasian Association of Writing Programs and Flash Frontier.
Learn more at www.sandraarnold.co.nz.