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- Spiral – CWPG810 Creative Writing 1
- The Weight of the Soul – CWPG815 Creative Non-Fiction
- Darkes Forest – CWPG811 Creative Writing 2
- The Monstrous Cycle introduction – LIT871 Thesis Writing
Reflection: Spiral – CWPG810 Creative Writing 1
“Spiral” was the first work of fiction I submitted for critique in my Master of Creative Writing, in Creative Writing Seminar 1. I felt it was a very polished, stylistic nightmare prose fragment that required little rewriting. As an experienced published writing coming into the course, I felt I had the practicalities of writing mastered. However, analysing the feedback I received on “Spiral” helped hone my understanding of narrative theory and the technical arts of storytelling. I rewrote this piece with the class feedback in mind, and especially after analysing the class readings. In the rewrite, I focused on aspects of the narrative such as character development through dialogue (and certain repetitive speech patterns to signify circular themes of helplessness and descent within the story), focalisation, and choreography and spatial and environmental awareness. Frank Moorhouse’s “The Proprietor of Darkness” (week 7 reading) use of repetitive metaphorical dialogue was an influence, as was The Great Gatsby’s masterclass of using physical space, and the concept of time in Rimmon-Kenan’s Narrative Fiction.
By Shane Jiraiya Cummings
Steph remembered the minutiae as the drugs raced through the tubes and into her arm–the knots of the kids’ faces as the blade struck home; the moment of slackness in those knotted faces as death took hold; and the stench as their bodies and their toys burned together. Gwen loved her dinosaur, Leigh his Adventure Man. The plastic had bubbled along with the kids’ skin, the petrochemical smell a poor mask for the stench of burning children.
Steph didn’t see the execution chamber’s grey walls, or the network of equipment designed to take her life, or the mirrored viewing window, no doubt channelling the collective hatred of John’s family–Leigh and Gwen’s aunts and uncles and cousins–on the other side. Nor did she hear the machine beeping the beat of her slowing heart. She only saw the blackness behind her eyes as she mentally replayed the act, quick and brutal in its kindness, of removing the kids from the world.
In a world without mercy, she had been merciful. She couldn’t allow the kids to grow up in the cruel, violent, horrifying place shown on the TV; the world from which she tried and failed to shield the kids. Nothing and nowhere could be worse. So she’d thought. So she’d convinced herself.
She didn’t fight against her restraints or convulse when the chemicals took hold in her bloodstream. She didn’t say a word or move a muscle, although she did shed a tear–her first since the murders–when the weight of her actions pressed down on her at the last.
In her mind’s eye, the fragment she clung to was Gwen speaking her first and only word; her last word: Mum-mum. The rest-the gurgled crying, holding them suffocating-tight until they stilled, mopping up the blood from the bathroom tiles, the stench of their burning bodies, limp bodies, feather-light as she laid them out with care in the backyard with their toys, burning—the rest lingered, lingered, faded.
Burning, the reek of charcoal and burnt flesh, burning, as she opened her eyes.
The room was on fire. Everything, from the medical machines to the walls themselves, raged with flames. The tubes in Steph’s arm melted before her eyes. Free of the straps, she tugged the tubes from her arm, burning herself on the melting plastic. She winced and shook her hand.
“Welcome to your fate, Steph. I can still call you Steph, can’t I?”
A shrunken man, cadaverous in the way his skin clung to the bones in his arms and chest, sat cross-legged in the corner. He wore torn pyjamas, off-white but stained with charcoal, top open, allowing glimpses of his sunken chest. The fringes of his sleeves or hems would catch alight and smoulder for a few seconds before fizzling to smoke, but the flames didn’t seem to bother him all that much.
“Nice place, huh?” He raised his face.
“Uncle Virgil?” Steph’s throat was parched and it tightened at the sight of her uncle. The room was like the inside of a furnace, the air desert-dry, breathable heat. Flames lapped at her execution chair, melting the upholstery. She shrank away as those flames encroached.
“Never you mind about the fire. Not yet. Keep it out of your mind and it’ll know its place.”
“Is this Hell?” She sat up, pulse pounding, taking in the place afresh.
Uncle Virgil flashed a mouthful of greening teeth and flicked her a finger-pistol. “Got it in one. Soon enough, anyway.”
She winced, remembering his fetid breath close to her ear when she was young.
“Let me take you on the grand tour, darlin’.”
The whole world was on fire. Virgil led Steph past rusted bars and blackened walls and out of the prison. The intensity of the flames forced Steph to squint; it burnt her vision yellow-orange. She sucked in scalding air. The fire pressed in on her face with every panicked gasp, every flinch, every blink.
In a blind rush, Steph backed up against a concrete wall. The heat blistered her exposed arms, and she recoiled. “Jesus!”
Virgil clucked and shook his head. He paused, crinkled his face, and the flames pressed in. Steph screamed as her prison jumpsuit ignited. The air was sucked from her lungs. She choked on scorching plasma and sobbed, but the tears evaporated before they could form. A scream half-formed in her seared lungs, but the fire quickly receded. Virgil stood in front of her with his eyes closed, his forehead wrinkled in concentration. Steph gasped, and the flames on her jumpsuit sputtered out. Her blistered, blackened skin began scarring up and closing over.
“I’ll tell ya once and once only, darlin’,” Virgil said. “No matter how strong you think you are, there are things here, things a lot worse than me, that will snuff you out.”
Steph wheezed and nodded.
“Good girl. You get strong or you get outta their way.” Virgil stared at some point off in the distance. “Will power, darlin’. You got an eternity to practise.”
Virgil led her through the inferno, through streets she remembered and many more she didn’t. There was no respite from the flames. Here and there, they passed knots of people who carved out their own bubbles of not-fire. People wearing all kinds of clothes. Close to the prison, Steph saw others in singed and smouldering jumpsuits. Some mixed with fops wearing those silly judges’ wigs, others with men in charred suits or soldier boys in tattered uniforms. There was even a woman in a bikini and scorched sarong. Black, White, Asian, Latino. Every type of person lived in this flaming hell, but she could only make them out up close. From a distance, they were hazy blobs lost to the fire.
Screams drew her attention over the crackle and roar of the flames. Virgil gave a wide berth to gangs that surrounded singles and pairs and collectively willed the flames to devour. When the gangs were done, they moved on to new victims, and the screaming would sputter out, along with the flames. Flesh that had sloughed off, that was blistered and charred, red and black, would knit itself together, and the victims would whimper and slink away.
When they were safely out of range of one of these gangs, Steph halted Virgil. “What was all that about?”
Her uncle revealed his rotten teeth in what passed for a smile. “Child, that’s how the damned pass their time. There ain’t nothing else for us to do than to share our pain around.”
Steph shuddered, and in that moment of revulsion, she thought she heard a word through the fire, a mumbled word, that sounded like Mum-Mum. In that moment, she remembered the kids. “Oh, God. Gwen. Leigh.”
Virgil tapped the side of his nose. “You best be careful with that language, hear. You’ll attract attention.”
Steph glanced around. Houses were barely visible through the sheets of flames surrounding her. For the first time, she realised how just little she could truly see, how much was hidden from view, and what horrors might be lurking out of sight. The weight of those flames pressed in on her, and her sleeve caught fire. She smothered the flames with her hand but barely registered her burnt palm.
Virgil tugged at her other sleeve. “Best be going.”
She resisted. “My kids,” she said. “You know what I done. What happens to them?”
“They baptised?” He asked without looking at her. “If so, they’ll go somewhere else. This–” he held his arms wide. “This is limbo, where your sins get burnt away. Or not, as the case may be.”
“Limbo?” Steph stared into the flames, pain stabbing into her heart.
She must have been lost for seconds because Virgil was behind her and slipped his sinewy hand around her waist. “Yes, darlin’, we ain’t even got to the bad stuff yet.”
“So why you, you creepy old bastard?” Steph said. “Why are you giving me this tour?”
“Whoever runs this place has got a sense o’humour, kiddo, against you and me both.” The smile on Virgil’s face was forced, like it was on the way to becoming a rictus.
Virgil grabbed her by the elbow. “It’s just over here.”
“Don’t you touch me!” Steph tugged her arm free and scowled.
The half-rictus on the old man’s face widened into a genuine smile. “Not even for old time’s sake?” He winked. “But seriously, where you get where you’re goin’, you’ll be itching for all the skin-on-skin you can muster.”
Steph folded her arms. “No, thanks.”
The old perv just shook his head. He pointed to a manhole on the street ahead. In the constant blaze, it wavered like a mirage, even as they approached and the flames cleared. He gestured to her side of the blackened steel manhole cover. “This is gonna sting.”
True to Virgil’s word, Steph winced from contact with the superheated steel. When she pulled her stung fingers free, there was a hint of water vapour cooling on her blistered skin.
“On three,” Virgil said. He readied himself to grab his side of the cover.
On the count, Steph grabbed at the cover and screamed from waves of pain shooting up her forearm. Despite the agony, despite her muscles straining from the weight, they hauled and slid the manhole cover clear. A geyser of steam gushed up from the darkness below.
She stood on the precipice, trying to discern any details in that dark manhole, when she was shoved in the back. She tumbled into the darkness, banging her hands and feet in turn with dull clangs against something metallic. She fell, and behind her, Virgil’s “yippee” echoed into infinity, and within that echo, whispered and repeated like a caterpillar chewing a leaf, “Mum-Mum, Mum-Mum”. She tucked herself into a ball, warm vapour wetting her clothes and skin, falling …
Falling, her face warm and moist like inside the womb, but getting colder, wetter, until in a sudden gloom flew into view and she splashed face first into water. Steph’s whole body stung from the sudden stop and pins and needles tingled along her skin. She regained feeling in her limbs and thrashed in the water until her face broke the surface and the dim light was enough to orient herself.
Virgil hit the water in a bomb-splash a few metres away. He spluttered for a few moments until he locked eyes with her.
“Where the hell …” Steph stammered as she trod water “… are we now?” Numbness had crept through her limbs and found its way into her heart. Her stroke evened out with her heartbeat.
Virgil spat and steadied himself. He was never a strong swimmer and it showed, even after death. “Take a look around, darlin’. This here is the River Styx, waterway of the damned.”
When her eyes fully adjusted to the gloom, Steph discovered she was within sight of a cavern wall so huge its upper reaches disappeared off into darkness. Similarly, she could only see a stretch of just few hundred metres in either direction. The other side of the river was also obscured, but she sensed a vast emptiness, as though she were on the edge of an immense underground ocean. A greenish glow shone from a multitude of worms that clung to the cavern wall. A coppery brine smell hovered about the river, and over the sound of their splashing, she could hear a delicate rain dripping onto the water.
“What’s that in the wall?” she asked.
Virgil craned his neck. “The worms?”
“No, those lumps.” Steph squinted, and as her mind made out the finer details, the thousands of silvery liquid threads trickling down the wall and into the river, she gasped.
“Those, darlin’, are the faces of the down-eyed, the depressives, the meek. This is their fate, and their tears are the eternal river.”
Before she could ask more, Virgil turned to regard something on the river, emerging from the gloom. “Here’s our ride, kiddo.”
A dead, gnarled, grey tree bobbed on the water towards them.
“What if I don’t go with you?” Steph said.
“Darlin’, it’s all the same to me, but this ain’t your final rest. Besides, remember those things I told you about, ones that’d use you us as a plaything for years uncounted? They’re pretty common around these parts. Best be moving along.”
The tree struck them both with its weight, and Virgil latched on. Steph allowed herself to be carried for a few metres before giving in and gripping a branch tight.
They floated that way for endless hours without much changing. The glow from the cavern wall was constant, as was the trickling, the dripping of tears on the surface, and an occasional moan or whisper from one of the damned. To her ears, they whispered “Mum-mum” like some cruel joke.
When she was lulled to a stupor from the boredom, the constant whispers and dripping, Virgil startled her. “You watched a lot of TV topside, didn’t ya?”
“TV?” she blinked.
“That’s why those kids of yours had to suffer. All that jibber jabber from the tele you believed.”
“I thought-” she stammered. “I thought they’d be better off dead.”
Virgil sidled closer along the tree trunk, but she shied away from him. “Thought they’d go to a better place?” he said.
She sighed and nodded.
Virgil laughed that mocking, wheezy laugh of his. “You’re a goddamn horrible person, kiddo.” Virgil clasped a hand over his mouth and glanced from side to side. “Oops, I said the g-word.”
“You’re one to talk, you godforsaken perv.” Steph slapped at her uncle but managed to splash more than strike. “You took everything—” she screamed, but was interrupted by bubbly, choppy water.
The coppery smell intensified until Steph gagged. Virgil kept glancing at the water. The rictus he once flashed her had returned, but gloating had become terror.
A green, glowing, writhing shape appeared below them, way below them, deep in the abyss, and it rose rapidly, enlarging, spreading out, growing to enormous size with each passing heartbeat.
Steph tried to clamber onto the slippery tree trunk, but Virgil fixed her with a stare that stayed with her and looked beyond her. “It’s no use, darlin’.”
He signed and stilled. “Had such wonderful places to show you. Know its ways and this river’ll take you to all of ’em. The marsh where the psychopaths tear each other to pieces. The suicide forest, with those poor saps and their nooses. My personal favourite circle of hell is where the power-hungry go. Those feral bastards live underground, burrowing through the dirt—and each other—to dig out the biggest hole. It gets messy down there, bloody messy. This whole place is one endless downward spiral—”
Water sprayed everywhere. There was a terrible crack, the sting of sulfur, and something blasted up and past Steph. When she opened her eyes, an expanding pool of blood floated where Virgil had been, and half the tree was missing, shorn in half by whatever had arrived. The green glow was almost blinding, a vast spotlight just metres below her kicking feet.
“Steph, darlin’,” Virgil spluttered from somewhere behind her.
His severed head bobbed half-submerged, spitting water in his struggle to talk. “This thing’ll take you where you need to go. It might have its fun first, even though I called dibs.”
Steph’s eyes widened as the glow pulsed and grew in size, inching closer, and at the centre of it, a darkness expanded, and something or things lolled around in it. At times, the shape was familiar, like a dinosaur, at others, it was like nothing she could imagine.
“One more thing,” Virgil’s head spat. “The kids, they weren’t baptised, were they?”
Steph shook her head like a dog shaking off muddy water, and the chill of the river finally reached her heart, even through the veneer of numbness that had settled there.
“Expect they’ll be waiting for you then, darlin’.”
The water rushed and bubbled, alive with turbulence and a garbage tip of stenches that overpowered her senses. Something bright, slimy, and puckered rose up and enveloped her, splintering with a neck-snap crack the branch she clung to, dragging her down with a slosh of water. The darkness was absolute, and she kicked and punched in the vortex of water, but her fists and feet found nothing solid to punish.
Down and down she was dragged inside the maw of the monster, inside a rushing, suffocating, bubble of foamy water. Down and down she sank, her splashing, her struggles, beating out a rhythmic vibration in the monster’s gullet, a mumble of meaning from a life now abandoned; down and down into a spiral of her own making, to the sound of the word that beat out the rhythm of her rising terror: Mum-mum, Mum-mum, Mum-mum; down and down to whatever final hell awaited her; down and down and down and down and down …