Holden Williams – Absence of Grace





A soul adrift, lost at sea,

Yearning for a sense of grace,

But finds only discord and disarray,

In this world, so out of place.


Where once there was poise and elegance,

Now there's only crudeness and haste,

A world that's lost its sense of beauty,

And leaves the heart and soul disgraced.


Oh, how this troubled soul longs for,

The sight of a gentle touch,

A word of kindness, a thoughtful act,

To restore what's lost so much.


But in this world of chaos and noise,

Grace seems a distant dream,

And this troubled heart must find a way,

To weather life's turbulent stream.

Yet still the hope remains alive,

That someday grace will return,

And with it, peace and harmony,

And the heart's desire, finally earned.





“Save us, Grace. Please.” The young woman is paralyzed in a lucid nightmare, aware of her thoughts, coaxing herself to act upon them. She stands alone in front of her bathroom mirror, speaking to herself, desperate for a jolt. “C’mon Grace, you can do it.” Before it comes, she is consumed by her subconscious. Her surroundings recede in color dulling into a drab palate of grays. Black glossy tiles, embedded with silver flake, crumble into a floor of loose and grainy midnight beads. Charred, slender willow trees rumble from the earth, growing, towering above her. Her heart beats furiously, like the fluttering wings of an injured bird. Her feet sink deeper into the terrain, consumed by darkness. A moon lies beyond the trees, just crossing over the horizon, glowing blindingly, promising absolution. If only she could reach it. If she could navigate over the torn paper landscape ahead of her. Layers of rolling hills in diminishing shades of black that lie upon one another, like the scenery of a puppet show. She, the marionette, yearns to move but struggles to seize control.

Grace looks down upon a figure that is and is not hers. She is barely clothed in torn rags that clutch to her body. Her skin is pale and translucent, white as the surface of the moon. Upon her chest rests a blood red stone. A spirit, encased in a gold heart-shaped setting on the end of a thin chain, created from fired ruby glass and the ashes of her mother. It throbs with a scorching heat, searing her skin. If she could only lift her heavy feet from the swallowing land, she would be able to free herself from this living hallucination. Her frantic arms reach towards the horizon, but are beaten away by shadowy branches. She draws back fair hands and limbs covered in bloody crimson welts. The air smells moist, like an oncoming storm. A fog emerges, gentle at first. Thin clouds arise from behind the hills that double, then triple in heaviness. Menacingly, they approach, surrounding her in acrid smoke. The membranes of her nose become enraged, her lungs engorged. Deliberately being suffocated. Tears pool in her eyes. Salt burns dry corneas. The echo of her pounding heart thuds behind her ears like ancient war drums. With every slowing beat, each weakening pulse, her eyelids feel heavier, the scalding torment in her chest intensifying. Grace hears footsteps approaching from behind, small steps that crunch in the decaying earth. Short, rapid breaths are upon her.

The voice she hears is childish and soft, “I found you,” as is the touch along her bare thigh. Faith, the youngest of the two children Grace is nanny to, has ventured her way from the main house, through the backyard, into the guest home, and into Grace’s bathroom. Her touch is spell-breaking. The fog clears, color reemerges like a drop of watercolor on a fresh canvas, soaking each fiber. Her opulent ensuite bathroom returns: marble vanity, glass framed rain shower, glittering black tiles under her feet that make her feel like she is floating in space.

Faith pinches the loose band of skin around Grace’s stomach, the stubborn paunch she’s gained these months after her mother passed away. “Hey. Stop that. Get out of here, I’m not dressed!” Grace covers her bare breasts with one arm, a polite but trifling gesture. She has been Faith’s nanny since she was born, they share mother-daughter privacy privileges. Grace shoos away the tiny hand, mostly in jest, partly embarrassed, her cheeks flush with rushing blood and prickly heat. Grace is a huskier version of herself, padded with a thin layer of weight, armor she has donned as protection from the mourning onslaught. The ash-blonde, green-eyed cherub turns and tucks her diaper, pity pats back across the floor, barefoot, squeaking like a hungry baby bird.

Grace is positioned on her tiptoes, leaning against the vanity, her fine black hair tied up in a loose bun. Wisps of steam float by, her flesh is anointed by warm water, skin hydrous and plump, pale with a tinge of yellow like heavy cream. Her bare stomach rests against the edge of the marble counter. Grace pinches the lace waistband of her satin underwear a bit higher, providing herself a millimeter’s worth of relief. The bathroom is warm from her shower, the fixtures still cold from a winter’s night, though the sun is already hours over the horizon. She remembers applying eyelashes across her almond lids before drifting away, before the color drained from the room, just before her second heart started beating. Since her mother passed, Grace finds herself drifting between worlds more often, exploring her unconscious.

She bats her eyes open and closed, the carnivorous lashes stick in place, subdued but deadly. In the mirror, her eyes are brilliant. Hazel with metallic yellow rings. When the creature is stirred, her eyes change. The gold in her irises liquifies, melts and spreads, overtaking soft gray. Grace is unsatisfied with her reflection. Annoyed. She can see what the camera will capture if she is in the background of any candid photos. An unstill Grace, caught between two frames, blurred. It cannot be so active during a public event. The creature can only be seen by those it favors, but when it is hyperactive, modern technology can slightly unveil the unbelievable.

“Can you stop playing around. Go away. Go play with Faith!” she pleads. Obedient most times, and fond of the young child, it climbs out of the heart-shaped stone, and jaunts across the floor.







Grace follows two sets of footprints through frosty, dew-sodden grass to the main house. Her eyes and nose are ambushed by the acidic scents of citrus-scented cleaner and a fresh-cut lawn. A pungent effervescence. Both the gardeners and the party rental company have arrived earlier this morning. Grace maneuvers through an obstacled course of folding chairs and tables on her way to the rear of the home. She enters through the glass doors. With her chin down, she addresses the mother, “Good morning, Mrs. Marshall.” Karen Marshall is at the kitchen island, looking into the yard. She checks the hanging clock on the far wall before acknowledging Grace. Through a thin-lipped smile, she replies “Good morning.” She waves a free hand, like a conductor mid-concerto, instructing Grace to finish opening the folding glass doors that convert the patio into an extended living room.

Karen is in between sips of her coffee alternative, a blend of cacao, chai, and cordyceps. A concoction that she tries to convince anyone willing to listen tastes the same as coffee. Something Grace unwisely confided in Faith tastes “Ca-cawful.” They both eye the clear glass awkwardly. “I need you to clean up all the grass Faith tracked in before guests arrive.”

“Yes, Mrs. Marshall.” Grace finishes unfolding the patio doors, flushing the home with crisp biting air. After some time, she slides the dust mat with Faith’s toddler Crocs to the side of the cement landing.

“I told her not to go out there. Then I told her 'put those on.' She just doesn’t listen to me.”

Grace flexes an appeasing smile for Mrs. Marshall, though it scarcely shows through her flat and unremarkable features. She has a face like a porcelain geisha mask – smooth, unblemished, with a dull chalky glow and vacant of emotion. Her hair, freed from the morning bun, is long and shining, like filaments of black velvet. A panther’s coat to match her gilded eyes.

The Marshall household will celebrate Sarah’s eighth birthday today. She is five years older than Faith. Grace’s mother was the previous nanny until she became ill. Knowing Karen was pregnant again, Grace’s mother insisted on retiring. She could not bear to become attached to another child she would not live to see grow up. The Marshalls had been familiar with Grace since she was fourteen, the quiet daughter who followed behind her mother at Sarah’s parties, helping her clean up, munching on expensive catering. They welcomed the changing of the guardian.

“How are you doing Grace?” Mr. Marshall’s voice rails down the hallway and out the open doors, like an incoming train. He is the reason she wears makeup regularly, and eyelashes on special occasions. She is not attracted to him, and believes the opposite cannot be true, but she knows that he has an eye for polished standards. Poignant counsel from her mother. Mrs. Marshall is cinched up in a sports bra that exposes the upper half of her toned stomach and pants that complement her curves. She twirls a giddy pirouette when she hears the sound of her husband’s voice.

“Yay, you’re up! I’m going to the gym before the party.” Karen slides in front of him before he can enter the kitchen, runs a manicured nail along the inside of his thigh on to his stomach, and kisses him on the lips. Before leaving, she turns back, “The Grace, grass. Ugh. The grass. Grace.” Mr. Marshall and Grace share a muted laugh. Despite her Dysport paralyzed face, Karen’s annoyance prevails. Her glare moves from Grace to the guest house, a place she’s been eying since Grace’s mother passed. The perfect space for a home gym.

Karen resisted having Grace’s ill mother in the home, irrationally afraid to go near her as though she was covered in legions and boils. Mr. Marshall insisted that Grace’s mother stay on the property, benevolently selfish, assuring Grace would always be close. Now that her mother was gone, Grace could take the spare bedroom, a move Grace dreaded. At the park, with other live-in caretakers, she has heard whispers from damaged souls, warnings of what can happen in Beverly Hills homes, at parties, after parties. The forty feet of Kentucky Bluegrass between the guest house and theirs is crucial, for all of them.

“I’m OK,” Grace lies, running a fingertip along the pendant hanging from her neck. Mrs. Marshall takes notice as she exits, feeling possessive of the piece. Grace takes notice of her interest, quickly turning her eyes to the floor. The Marshalls paid one thousand dollars to have Grace’s mother cremated and another thousand to have the ashes formed into the stone. For them, an insignificant amount, worth each cent to not be bothered with a gap in childcare. For Grace, the only option to contain her mother. To keep the creature close, under her thumb. Grace edges by Mr. Marshall to gather a bottle of organic cleaning solvent and reusable rags from under the sink.

“That’s good to hear. We’re going to miss her today. This will be the first birthday party of the kids that Rose won’t be at.” Hearing her mother’s name catches Grace unprepared, like she is caught in rain under a clear sky.

What did Mr. Marshall miss more, her stout and sweet mother or the hand-wrapped, freshly fried egg rolls, dipped in chili sauce? Grace thought she could hear the saliva collecting in his mouth, washing over his incisors, slurring his words. Bending down to clean up Faith’s trail, she answers, “I know.” She thinks, What the fuck do I even say to that? She follows with, “I’m sorry” – her go-to response in binds of discomfort, a plea to be set free.

Mr. Marshall steps out from behind the island. Past his legs, Grace can see Faith in the hallway, dancing in a circle with her arms extended, “…we all fall down…” She collapses in a heap. The haunting eyes of a sallow black dwarf on its tiptoes peer over Faith’s blonde curls, longing to pass judgment on Mr. Marshall. Grace curtly shakes her head, but the creature scurries forward. In a blink, the dwarf is behind Mr. Marshall’s leg, dragging spindly fingers and sharp yellowed nails down his sweatpants, unraveling threads. Worry floods Grace’s senses, her skin burns, welts rise from the heat. Her mouth is sucked dry of any moisture. Mr. Marshall seems unbothered until Faith crashes into his other leg. He looks down smiling, cooing at his youngest child. The dwarf opens its mouth, revealing a cavernous black hole lined with shoddy shards of teeth, spotted brown gums, and a mottled tongue. Grace can hear it chittering, taking over her mind, talking over thoughts, prompting her. Through a mouth full of cotton, she manages a few withered words, “I’m so sorry, Mr. Marshall.”




“Stop apologizing. What are you sorry for?” The voice Grace hears is not that of Mr. Marshall. It is the stern scolding tones of her mother in Tagalog. Rose is speaking in her delightfully abrupt Filipino tongue, in an avalanche of additional syllables, heavily enunciating short vowels.

“I don’t know, Mom. I don’t remember. I’m sorry.”

“Ha! Again!” Rose affectionately taunts her daughter. She delivers a four-finger pop to the crown of Grace’s head.

Grace rubs the sting out of her scalp. She is transported from the tile kitchen floor to the cabin of their rusted tan Subaru. Above folded-down rear seats in the hull of the old station wagon, long wooden tables and brown metal chairs bounce and bang into one another. The two are driving home after a church function. Rose is here and there, lost in thought, concentrating on the road, then staring aimlessly. Grace forges an attempt to root out the cause. “Mom, what happened with Tita?” She holds her breath, unsure what her mother will say about her auntie.

“Hmm. Who?”

A chance for Grace to escape, yet she presses forward. Teen spirit. “Tita Ernestine. I saw you two after, while I was packing the car. You looked… mad.” A rare sight. Church gatherings were where Rose was herself. She applied powder and blush, had Grace dye and curl her hair, adorned her wrists and neck with trinkets, and slipped on her best bargain store dress. Glittery and shining. Rose fluttered between booths, linking them with her infectious laughter, dancing along a sparkling path. Her smile glowed warmer than the lanterns strung over the uneven, gouged blacktop.

The leather wrap on the steering wheel squeaked from her tightening grip. “She is not your Tita. She is a, uhhh, yung ano, uhhh …a bruha.”

“Oh!? OK.” Bruha, Grace’s cue to abort. In Filipino culture, the nomenclature of auntie and uncle is loosely assigned, shared as a sign of respect, not necessitating relation by blood, and for Auntie Ernestine, that relationship had been severed. Grace trained her stare forward and stretched for the radio, wishful that 70’s soft rock could temper the moment. Rose preempted the strike, reaching the knob first. Instead, she turned the volume down, hushing the low buoyant vocals of Karen Carpenter’s intro to We’ve Only Just Begun.

“Grasya,” Rose’s word for her, the Filipino word for blessing, “I did something tonight I shouldn’t have. I cursed that woman.” Rose’s eyes became glassy, reflecting the headlights of an oncoming car. “She is too much. Always taking more than she is supposed to, cutting the line, being late. And always I am the one apologizing for her, to her, sorry this, sorry that, you go first, I’ll wait. Ay!” Rose regurgitated a monologue she’d been rehearsing since they left the church, if not longer. The car veered left into the center of the road, tires bumped against raised pavement markers, the Subaru became alive with a thumping heart. The word cursed was like a detonation, like they had driven over a landmine. It vacuumed the breathable air from the cabin, deafened Grace’s senses, allowing only for the muffled, defeated words of Rose’s continued confession, and Richard Carpenter’s attempt to keep the mood light, harmonizing with his sister, “… so much of life aheeeead.” With a gentle hand, Grace eased the vehicle back into the lane.

“Tonight, I saw her kissing your Tito Paul.” Not for the first time, Auntie Ernestine attempted an invasion of another woman’s marriage, trumpeting a forward march, burning land, only to plunder, pillage, and leave lifeless bodies in her wake. “When I told her she needs to stop, she said I was crazy. I didn’t know what I was talking about.” Rose pried a hand away from the wheel to clear her tears. “She won’t stop being that way. I had to. It had to.” And with a final deflated breath, she accepted responsibility. “I couldn’t stop it.”


The cabin air soured, smelling of spoiled rice. The weight of the creature was like a small potted plant in Grace’s lap. It stared up at her with a neatly manicured beard, deep sallow red-rimmed eyes, aged charcoal skin, and a large tattered burgundy hat, hanging off the back off its round shiny head. It sat with its legs crossed, dressed in denim overalls, disappearing and reappearing with every street light that zipped by. It contended for Grace’s affection, flashing a new jocular grimace, pulled from its wiry lips, with each reemergence. Rose’s duende. A mythical creature born from the earth, passed on to her from her father, assigned with her protection. Grace jerked backwards, wanting to escape to the rear bench. The creature thinned its eyes, straightened its playful grin. Restrained and afraid, Grace pressed deep into her own seat. Yellow foam pushed forth from widening cracks.

“Ay! Stop that. Act normal.” Rose’s voice was sharp and cold and threatening, like icy air before a blizzard. Black dwarfs are playful creatures, fond of young children but temperamental. Capable of excruciating curses. Act Normal. Grace was reminded of fairy tales and anecdotes Rose had recited, stories she had dismissed as wild and fantastic. They came rushing back, a deliberate history written in her, by her mother, for this moment. Act Normal. Grace conjured a child’s curiosity to overcome reality, allowed deep historic, familial bonds to weave their way into a new generation. During the rest of the drive home, Grace developed a clingy fondness for the creature, poking it in the flaps of its belly, coaxing a hyena’s giggle from it. She adjusted and readjusted the hat, pulling it down over its eyes, playing peek-a-boo. She scratched its beard, strumming soft murmurs from its throat like a hollow instrument. ​​ 

Inside of their Glendale apartment, Grace and Rose huddled over a small table by the kitchen under dim fluorescent light. The creature had been seduced to sleep by a lullaby from Grace’s mother. “Does it speak?” Grace asked, wondering why she had not shared any words with the creature over the drive. No semblance of dialogue, only sounds – its high pitched and off beat, hers small and childlike.

“Only two words, Grasya. Pasensiya Na.” The creature was trusted to watch over Rose, to protect her, but living in a world absent of grace, where robust humans so willingly avoid generosity of spirit and action. They enraged the creature, encouraged it to evil. Entrusting upon itself the duty of justice, it became more concerned with retribution and punishment for those who abused Rose’s kindness. “Those words are a spell, a curse, born from tribal magic. A trick that it thinks spares us guilt. There are no words in our language that mean I’m sorry. Not like the Americans.” Rose sounded it out for Grace, pa-sen-si-ya na. “It means forget your anger. It thinks it is clever,” she finished with a dismissive eyebrow over a weary face.

Rose spoke them to Ernestine, the cursed words, in the church by the alter when she could no longer resist the creature’s influence. As the two argued, it frantically bounced about, on pillars, through the aisles, dishonoring signs of the cross. With each emblazoned word Ernestine spoke, it became giddier with anticipation. Hyperactive, excited to dissolve Rose of her empathy. It beratingly chirped in Rose’s ear like a herd of wrens, rattling an alarm. Blood swarmed over her heart, thick and viscous. Her fuse reached its end, the spark flickering away, the explosion loosed. “Ay! OK. OK. Grace is waiting,” she paused, harrowed by the creature, “Pasensiya-Na.”

As the final syllable slipped off of Rose’s lips, her eyelids thudded closed, her heart did not beat. In that blink of her eyes, lights dimmed, sound died in clay tiles, burgeoning flames of altar candles swirled and extinguished. The dwarf leapt merrily, skipping along the tops of the pews. After sufficiently celebrating its victory, it edged closer, taking a seat on Ernestine’s shoulder, an evil grin of ruddy teeth stretched across its face. It whispered an incantation only it could hear and inflicted its spell. Rose watched as a weight lifted from her and forced itself on to Ernestine, like a gust of choking smoke. Ernestine’s skin crystallized, tightening over her high-angled cheeks, becoming frail and colorless. Blue veins snaked their way across the fragile surface, like spidering cracks in thin glass. Her eyes became dull, muddy pools in an arbor of green eyeshadow. The roots of her hair grayed, spindling away from her scalp. Ernestine’s color returned, her eyes soft and accepting of Rose’s apology, unaware of the curse woven into place.

Throughout the night, Grace listened to Rose sob into her pillow, begging for forgiveness.




Uncontrollable, shuddering inhales. Loud bellowing cries. Repeated on end, over and over. Sarah is not the center of attention at the Marshall household, but she is the most fragile. When fruit punch spilled on her dress, it was as though a dog whistle sounded for the other four members of the family, even tiny Faith rushed to Sarah’s aid. The three adults lobbed solutions, all of which required Grace to come to her rescue.

In Sarah’s upstairs bedroom, Grace runs a hand up and down her back, calming her, kneading the knots from her throat. “I’ll get it out. Don’t worry. Everything is going to be OK,” Grace assures Sarah. “Just stay right here, I’ll take the dress and get it as good as new. I promise.” Grace lifts Sarah’s face in her hands, bringing their chins even. “Now, show me your beautiful eyes. Come on, it’s your birthday! You can’t cry on your birthday.” Sarah’s eyes are like bottled blue lightning. Grace leaves her with a faint mark of red lipstick on the girl's cheek.

On her way down, the doorbell rings. Karen flies by Grace upwards on the stairs, the pinching smell of salt and sweat trailing close behind. “Grace, that’s my sister. I still need to shower and get ready, could you let her in?” Karen Marshall requires a full face of makeup and a cocktail, maybe two, to stomach her sibling. Grace will make sure to ready a gin drink for her before she comes back up.

“Yes, Mrs. Marshall.”

“Oh my God! What happened?” Lisa Engel, Karen’s older sister by a year, is dressed in the highest of heels and a bright coral bodysuit, vacuum sealed to her newly, surgically enhanced body. She stands in the foyer, having let herself in. Her makeup is flawless, her undereye concealer applied heavily. She fails to acknowledge Grace as she snatches Sarah’s dress from her hands. “Are you going to be able to get this out before the party?”

“I’ll do my best. How are you, Mrs. Engel?” Lisa Engel is fresh off of a three-year marriage with a Netflix celebrity, and happy to explain what happened and how she is coping. Grace manages to snake the dress from her clutches and disappear in the other direction before the woman can get going. Exit stage left.

In the guest house, Grace sets Sarah’s size 8, sleeveless dress, stained bright red from neck to waist, on her comforter. From under her bed, she slides out a long, flat cardboard box. Inside, she retrieves a package folded in white tissue paper. She removes the price tag from an identical pink chiffon dress and switches the two, wrapping the stained one into the tissue and placing it back into the box. More poignant advice from Rose, “Sarah is clumsy, ah. Birthdays and recitals, especially. It is good to have a backup.” Thanks Mom.

“Oh my God!” Lisa’s voice is piercing. She is multiple decibels louder than any of the additional guests that have arrived, drawing a horde of unwanted attention towards Grace. “How did you even? This is why they never let you out of their sight.” She hurls an evil eye towards her own nanny on the couch, Katie, who is bouncing her one-year-old on her knee. Katie redirects the eye back at Grace with the addition of a nanny-to-nanny scowl. Grace, desperate to escape the crossfire, finishes squeezing a lime into a tall glass of Hendricks gin and tonic water, then hustles away with dress and drink in hand.

“You’re a life saver, Grace!” Mr. Marshall is coming down the stairs, his first appearance at the party, “Hugh, how are you buddy?” He cuts through the crowd, carving a path in the direction of Hugh Stavenow, his client. Also, Lisa Engel’s ex-husband. Also, Grace’s heartthrob. Grace, unsure if he’d been invited, now understands Lisa’s extreme body adjustments, the professional makeup job, and the bright, inappropriate outfit. Mr. Marshall apologizes to Lisa with an “it’s just business” shoulder shrug on his way through the living room. He takes a detour from his path to pour two Macallan 12 Sherry Oak bourbons. Neat.

Hugh Stavenow is the leading male actor in a critically acclaimed, moderately popular streamed television show. His first Emmy sits in the Marshall’s trophy case, a gift to the agent that started his career, after he won a second. Grace fought back a throbbing desire to return to the kitchen for a closer experience of him, to circle behind and sniff in his enchanting essence. She imagines he smells like he has been brewed from a cauldron of whiskey and gunpowder. On screen, his skin is rich and unblemished like full grain leather, tanned brown, the color of milk chocolate. Hugh acknowledges Mr. Marshall while making his way to his son to gather him from the nanny. He approaches her with outstretched arms and a convincing grin. The nanny looks to Lisa for instruction, awaiting orders. Lisa shrugs, clinks ice around an empty glass, and dismisses the annoyance, turning in the direction of the liquor cart.

Hugh picks up his son like it is his first time seeing him. He gazes up on him, his eyes wide, smile bright, taking in all the nuances of his baby face, the slight changes that have developed since the last time they’ve seen each other. The baby responds in kind, poking at Hugh’s elegant facial structure, running stubby fingers along bushy brows, hiccuping giggles. Hugh steadies his son on his forearm, wrapping him around his side. Grace admires from afar, picturing his stomach strained under his shirt. Eternally grateful for Under the Sun episodes, where obliging writers wrote shirtless scenes for Hugh. She knows his abs and obliques are like smooth stones in a rippling river. The rest of the day, Hugh bounces around the party engaged in boisterous conversation with every party-goer that desires a chance at his ear, his son on his hip for every word. ​​ 

“Grace, I need another drink.” Lisa’s heels are too tall to balance her new proportions any longer. She collapses into a folding chair and reaches down to unbuckle herself from the wobbly ride. “Fuck these shoes. And fuck him!” The rest of the guests are inside, gathered around a sprinkle-covered, strawberry birthday cake for Sarah. She is beaming in her spotless party dress and a tasteful tiara. On one side of the table are the adults, phones drawn, jockeying for position to get the perfect picture for their social media. Proof they were invited to Sarah Marshall’s birthday party. On the other side, Sarah is crowded by the few children still left in attendance, those whose parents have announced to Karen that they will be leaving soon, multiple times.

“Oh please, just stay a little longer. We are going to do the cake soon,” Karen begs, more intent on freshening cocktails than lighting candles. Off key, and off rhythm, the group finally begins to serenade Sarah. Some sing Faith’s name in place of Sarah’s.

Lisa asks again, “Grace, could you get me another drink. Now.”

“Oh, yes, Ms. Engel. Right away.” Grace puts down a heavy-duty trash bag brimming with plastic bottles, soda cans, paper plates, and sullied tablecloths. On her way in, she catches the tail end of the song and pauses long enough to finish singing it with the group, flashing Sarah a heart formed from her fingers. Sarah blows a kiss back and returns her attention to the cake and Faith, whose eyes have grown bigger than her head. Sarah slides a finger along the cream cheese frosting, and smears it across Faith’s nose. The two whirl together in the enchantment of sisterhood.

“He needs to sleep.” Barefoot Lisa and her social shuttlecock ex-husband have reached their inevitable collision. The two are out in front of the Marshall’s home, their argument loud enough for neighbors and stragglers at the party to hear. The Marshall’s home is large, but not large enough to keep the two separated, to deny their gravitational pull. Though the hour is not late, most of the guests have departed, all of the children are gone, and sleep is the only excuse Lisa can find to sensibly bring the Hugh Stavenow and Baby parade to an end.

Lisa is exasperated. “If I knew you were coming and you were going to be all over him, I would have given Katie the day off.” Katie, the nanny from the couch, stands within shouting distance by the curb, waiting for an Uber, the head of the baby tucked into her neck, her name purposefully spoken with enough emphasis to be included in their spat.

“Come off it, Lisa!” Hugh’s voice explodes through the unpopulated cul-de-sac, rattling off car windows. He is more animated than he has been at any point today. The combination of Lisa Engel and multiple fingers of bourbon have chipped away his model actor, publicist-approved persona. “You just hate seeing me with him. Let Katie go, I’ll bring my boy home.”

“You’re insane! You drank more than I did.” By her count, Hugh is at six drinks, not counting the one he is waving around. He carries himself like he’s only had a few, the benefit of a six-foot, muscular physique and a scotch-soaked liver.

“What, are you counting how many drinks I’ve had? We aren’t together anymore, Lisa. You can’t control every little thing I do.”  ​​ ​​ ​​​​ 

“Fuck, I hate you. You’re such a fucking phony. Why don’t you go home. No one wants you here.”

“Me? No one wants me here? I’ve talked to everyone in there, and they love me. I am Hugh Stavenow. You’re the one making everyone feel awkward. What are you even wearing?” In truth, Hugh has been stealing piggish glances at Lisa throughout the day, yearning for a moment alone with her. A moment unlike this. Perhaps a chance encounter of the two of them in a secluded bathroom. The physical attraction between the two is undeniable. Inappropriate yes, but undeniably delectable. He has imagined every inch of her, hungering for her. Each additional Macallan making him bolder, more dismissive of their tumultuous history, more aware of his carnal desire to conquer her again. Allowing his eyes to linger longer, so she can interpret them for their truth. Even now, he cannot help but stare.

Creeping tires over the empty street interrupt the hanging silence. A slow, burgundy Honda circles the neighborhood. It approaches hesitantly. The driver buzzes down his window. “Um, Lisa?”

Elated with the driver’s impeccable timing, Lisa leaves Hugh slack jawed, sensing his desire, dismissive of his voracious eyes. “Yes, I’m Lisa.” She spins off, switching her hips. “Come on Katie, we’re leaving now.” Hugh is left standing in the driveway, watching her walk away. Even without the high heels that prop her round curves into place, he finds himself mesmerized by her gait, spun up into a frenzy. Lisa has done what she always does. Hugh needs a moment. He slips back into the house and ducks into the downstairs bathroom by the entry way.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know anyone was in here. I saw the light was on but the handle wasn’t locked.”




Grace is face to face with Hugh, shining star of Under the Sun, Stavenow. She cannot believe it. He is more handsome in person than he is retouched across her 42” television. He smells different than she imagined, cleaner, less rugged, like a pine forest, pure and bracing. His scent rushes over her. His eyes are penetrating, paralyzing. She is struck by the star into silence, desperate to get a word out. Say something Grace, she can hear herself think, but is unable to act.

Accustomed to the dominant role, familiar with this muted reaction to his presence, Hugh speaks first. “You’re Grace, right? Faith and Sarah’s nanny.” Grace looks up at his mouth, watching his lips as he continues to talk. His dark, glistening indigo lips as they rise and fall. His delicious mouth. “You’re probably in here for the same reason I am. I’m sorry all that happened out there. Lisa can be… a lot. I’m Hugh.” He places a soft hand on her elbow, jolting her enough to clear the blockage.

Words tumble recklessly from Grace’s mouth. “Of course, I know who you are Mr. Stavenow. I can’t believe you know who I am. I’ve watched every season of Under the Sun. The first two twice. Right now, I’m on season three, episode four, the one where there’s a fire and you help put it out. I can’t wait to get to the next season. That’s my favorite. I don’t really like Carly though. I don’t’ think she’s right for you. She’s kind of a bitch! Don’t you think so? Oh my God, what am I saying? I don’t think I can stop talking, Mr. Stavenow. Oh! And your son. Oh my God, your son is so cute, and the way you two are with each other. It’s just, well, it’s so beautiful to watch.”

Mercifully, Hugh slides his touch up Grace’s elbow to her shoulder, calming her, quieting her. The kind, unexpected words thrown to him while he was drifting away in a sea of vulnerability are flattering. His cheeks redden through his brown skin. Grace is in shock. He is blushing because of her. Her heart is beating rapidly, the heart-shaped pendant warming, she can feel it stirring. No. Not now. I’m fine. The creature obeys, reluctantly. Hugh leans in closer to Grace. She can smell the sweet symphony of orange and bourbon barrels on his breath. His empty hand reaches back for the door handle and pulls it closed. Is he? He couldn’t be? Does he want to kiss her? His lips part slightly. His eyes fixate on hers, his deep boring eyes looking inside of her. No, through her. This cannot be. He could not possibly want her. It is all too overwhelming. The walls feel like they are closing in on Grace, but she cannot rebuke an attempt that is not really an attempt. It feels like the ground is shaking. If she is wrong, it will open up and swallow her forever.

His lips press into hers. Her head lilts backwards. Two oppositely charged entities slam into each other. Grace feels the sharp jarring sensation of electrocution. She feels limp, like a rag doll, out of control. No. This can’t happen. Her job, this family, Faith and Sarah. Everything will be at risk. Her hands rise up suddenly, and she slams two open palms into his chest. They melt into his muscle. He does not move. In the mirror behind her, her reflection shifts for an instant, vibrates.

“Woah Grace, what’s up with that? I saw the way you were looking at me today.” He moves his other hand up Grace’s thigh, around her waist and under her pants, sliding his heavy fingers under her satin underwear, pressing determined fingertips into her soft flesh. “Everything is OK.”

“Um, Mr. Stavenow, I don’t think we should do this.” The chittering begins in her ears, like shattered seashells washing up on a shore. An incessant noise she cannot silence, stealing her thoughts.

He continues to press his powerful frame against Grace, pinning her spine against the bathroom counter, trapping two vertebrates between the cold edge. The sharp pain paralyzes her. Hugh Stavenow has transformed from a performer into a predator, grown inches taller and wider, saliva drips from his lips on to her neck. His mouth smells sour, like rotten fruit. His breath is thick and muggy. Her eyes water, welling with tears of panic and irritation. Her heart beats faster, aggressively, strong. The noises in her head become louder, more obstructive.

“You said my son is cute, right? He is. Super cute – well, I mean he does look just like me.” His grotesque, monstrous head is positioned next to hers. His voice has changed. It is dark and garbled. Insidious. He forces the hot whispering sound into her ears. “Do you want one? I can give you one, just like I did for Katie.” Grace is horrified by the revelation. His pressure intensifies, his girth is unbearable, oppressive. His hands are like paws of a mauling animal, ferocious and smothering. She thinks of poor Katie. On the couch bouncing the child, the nanny-to-nanny look they shared, that Grace dismissed as venomous, but was meant as a warning, Katie recognizing Grace’s eyes for Hugh Stavenow, wishing her to stop. Katie handing her child to its father, standing by the Uber waiting to take her son home.

“Mr. Stavenow. Hugh. Please stop!” Grace is pushing as hard as she can, but it makes no difference. It feels like his hands have multiplied, there are hundreds of them attacking, feeling, probing. Her shoulders ache, he is too close for her to use her legs. She can feel his disgusting excitement pressed against her.

Grace relinquishes control. She has given him enough warnings. The rings of metallic yellow in her irises spark to life, concentric circles of amber that widen and band together. The color liquifies. Her gray eyes are consumed with a bubbling fluid. They are a radiant gold, brilliant and sparkling. The dwarf appears, bouncing around the small room, screaming wildly, ready for Grace to end this.

Hugh is shocked by what he sees in Grace’s eyes. He pauses enough for her to shift out from underneath him. He is still in the way, but a moment of clarity is roused. He dismisses the magic he’s witnessed, attempts to preserve his dignity. “Whatever, get the fuck out of here.”

A long-awaited exhale, trapped in Grace’s lungs, escapes, heavy enough to shift a mountain. She slithers by, pulls the door open enough for her to leave. Just before she does, Hugh manages some parting words. “You should consider yourself lucky. You poor, chink bitch. You’ll come around. Just like Katie did.” Grace thinks of poor Katie, trapped in a small space with this gargantuan, his convincing ways, wielding the power he has conjured from stardom.

Grace is enraged. She toes the edge of the cliff, closes her eyes, gives in, falls. She is relieved, freed of her empathy. In the mirror, Hugh watches the door close behind him. He turns on the water to wash his hands. Grace’s pale face emerges over his shoulder, appearing from nothing. Unbeknownst to Hugh, the dwarf sits on the other, large burgundy hat sitting forward, devious grin of ruddy teeth stretched under the brim, feet kicking giddily.

Under a soft breath, with a stunted Filipino accent, Grace delivers the coup de grace, “Pasensiya Na, Mr. Stavenow.”

The lights in the overhead fixture click off and on. There will not be any further seasons of Under the Sun starring Hugh Stavenow.



About the author

Holden Williams writes literary fiction with poetic undertones. His popular short story “A Woman’s First Day at the Convent” was published by Novelty Fiction as a Kindle e-book. His short story “Absence of Grace,” first published here at Novelty Fiction Gazette, was subsequently published as a Kindle e-book. Both titles are also available in PDF format via Novelty Fiction Book Club.


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Maple Klockgether – Scientifically Imperfect

“Couldn’t you notice?” my friend’s mother innocently asked me after she sympathetically listened to my self-pitying tale of my failed experiments.

No, not at all,” was my honest reply.

If someone never needed to do anything, she would live a carefree life. An existence reflecting the natural inner balance given at birth and then nurtured through a harmonious, meaningful upbringing. Like a vintage car without scratches.

Most people need to work for a living. I am a well-seasoned scientist with more than 30 years of research work behind me. I have been feeling safe and sound, wrapped in a suitable layer of experience-driven confidence. But I was still shell shocked when I discovered a few months ago that my experiments were all messed up. The reason: my technician made a tiny error in his programming of my experimental protocols.

When someone is caught off-guard, her mind starts spinning in an attempt to make sense out the situation. It tries to draw a new map, a route for restoration of balance. Unfortunately, I had never noticed that error until one afternoon late last autumn. Since I am the director of my research projects, any errors made by my research team are ultimately my fault. Instead of seeing the problem, I was rather fascinated by a strange feature of my experimental results throughout last summer; this could be a new discovery that no one had noticed before!

Someone has claimed that perfectionism begins before birth, the quest to do right lies within our DNA. I do not necessarily subscribe to this theory. However, I was eager to check the characteristics of my results, including that strange feature, from numerous different angles to come up to a logical brain mechanism that explains my discovery. The painstaking effort eventually led to a finding of a skewness in directions of arm movements that participants made in my experiments. Umm, that’s strange: those directions are supposed to be evenly distributed. Then realization hit me. Oh, no! These skewed movement directions led to the strange feature of my results! No, no! But it was now all clear as black and white – these data were completely useless.

Philosophers – or was it songwriters? – have correctly pointed out that everything has its time and place, and that nothing ever goes to waste in the greater scheme of things. I rather like that thought, but must wonder how my data could ever fit into any food chain. Over three experiments, I tested more than one hundred fifty people. Each participant spent two to three hours for an experiment. It took more than a year to collect all data. I even paid an hourly fee for every participant. On top of that, a year’s worth of my salary and research assistants’ as well. Thinking of the manpower and resources poured into these experiments made me feel sick. What could I do? Nothing. Nothing at all.


Do not collect garbage!” my supervisor in my master course told me again and again 30 years ago. As I started walking into a science field with my baby steps, he was stressing the importance of collecting good, clean, useable data from every experiment.

Garbage is garbage no matter how much you collect it,” he continued.

That was so true… I was shaking my head as I threw away all my experimental data.

I wondered what was best: nothing or garbage. I had been puzzled by these data since I first saw them, but nonetheless excited to have them around. Until I realized they were garbage, that was. Letting them go sure wasn’t easy, but after initial feelings of emptiness and regret came a sense of relief. Supposedly, the data are still shaking their heads up there in the sky somewhere; I sure haven't forgotten about them. ​​ 


A fortnight ago when I visited my old friend in my hometown, I explained the failure of my experiments to her and her parents. I have known them well since my high school. Her parents used to run a ceramic shop, I recall. My friend and I often went upstairs at their home where her room was situated above the shop, and we talked for hours. Now my friend is running the shop, while her parents have retired. All three have been always supportive and curious to hear about my experiences as a scientist.

So, what is new?” is their usual opening question. They seem to find my scientific work exciting to follow. While drinking a cup of coffee after a hearty fish dinner with good wine, I explained to them about my recent setback in my work. After swallowing the bitterness of my messed-up experiments and slowly crawling back from the setback, I was now composed enough to candidly talk about my failed experiments. Although they had no scientific background, they easily understood the gravity of my failure. After keenly listening to my story, her practically minded mother asked me matter-of-factly, “Couldn’t you notice the error much earlier?”

As a ceramic shop keeper, she had keen eyes for imperfection in ceramics. She could, in a matter of seconds, detect even a slightest error in color or shape on coffee cups or dinner plates. It was unthinkable for her that I didn’t notice the error for such a long time.

No, not at all.” I bit my lip and looked away.

Indeed. Why couldn’t I? Her question lingered in my mind for some time.


If someone never needed to account for her prior actions, she could wake up with a smile on her face every morning, greeting the new day with unblemished optimism. She could stretch out her arms, sigh with contentment, and start singing a little in anticipation of breakfast. No matter what errors she might make that day, she could repeat the exact same thing the following morning. Like: “Hey, life, here I am!”

The participants of my failed experiment were clueless about my woes. They could sleep peacefully every night, assuming their strenuous effort had benefited mankind in one shape or form. The technicians had bigger fish to fry than worry about some project from the past, and the financiers of my research had pockets deep enough to take a hit. Everyone seemed at ease with one notable exception: me.

Fortunately, the answer to the lingering question came one evening last week as I went out for jogging after work. Jogging is my magic wand, a secret weapon for my survival in the science world. Answers to many of my scientific questions usually pop up while I am doing this. The steady locomotive movements seem to shake off the clutters in my head from a day’s work, gathering fragments of subconscious thoughts and connecting them together, then bringing answers up to the surface.

No, I couldn’t notice the error earlier. No way. This is because I am a scientist. Scientific work is always pioneering work. If we already knew a result, no one would need to do an experiment in the first place. We explore unknowns and discover things. That is the nature of our work. So, as long as an experiment is carried out correctly, its results are supposed to represent the truth of the matter. That is, in my field, the nature of how the brain works. Even when I started noticing a strange phenomenon in my experimental results, I still believed that it represented the true nature of brain function. That was why I kept looking for a logical mechanism that would explain the strange result. With such a mindset, there was no chance for me to have noticed the experimental error much earlier. I must say that I was even lucky to find it before it was too late. Otherwise, I would have messed up the history of science with my error finding its way into publications. I compare my experience to a boxer who is saved by the bell.


Setbacks may restore one's sense of proportions. As I think back on my career as a scientist, I have been always very lucky about my collaborators. Many of them had a wealth of experiences in their own scientific territories. They knew many pit holes of designing experiments. They generously gave me numerous pieces of advice. Now I am certain that their casual, innocent-sounding advice here and there was worth its weight in gold. Otherwise, imagine how much garbage I would have collected in vain over the last 30 years.


* * *


What is the benefit of your work to society?” my colleague’s father asked us challengingly when he visited his daughter in our laboratory one sunny afternoon.

It was the early 2000’s. I was working as a post-doctoral researcher at a US university. My colleague’s father was a plump retired medical doctor, full of vigor.

Have some chocolate. It’s very good.”

He thrusted a box of chocolate in front of my eyes. I was sharing an office with his daughter, also a post-doctoral fellow, and a male PhD student. We all enjoyed the sweet taste of delicate Belgian milk chocolate. Cheerful words were exchanged.

But the old man wasted no time before interrogating us about our work. “What is the purpose of your experiment?... Who did you test?... How many people?... What were your key findings?”

I started feeling like someone attending a job interview, but I earnestly answered his questions one by one. Then came a bombshell.

You just measure people’s movements and write papers. What does that do to help society?”

What a question! I gasped. My peaceful afternoon doing data analysis came to an abrupt end by this uninvited interrogator. With his shining eyes, I could see that his mood was in full swing upwards. He was obviously enjoying himself.

I then remembered what my colleague once told me. “Papa likes to provoke others in his conversation, but my brothers and I are so used to it.”  ​​​​ 

I could easily imagine his sense of superiority in this particular debate, because he had helped numerous people throughout his long career as a physician. On the contrary, what do we do? We measure people’s movements by doing experiments, analyze them, and write scientific papers. Based upon our findings, we discuss the underlying brain functions. That’s all. We proudly report, say, 200 milliseconds of difference between the duration of movements of young adults and that of older adults. The difference is just one fifth of a second.

I almost became apologetic as I explained the small differences that we were dealing with in our work. But I explained our scientific contributions as the best as I could.

“I know the difference is tiny, but it is a big deal for us. Our movements are controlled by the brain, which calculates and decides the best strategy of movements to perform everyday activities. Unless you carefully study someone’s movements, you don’t know how these movements are controlled. And if movements become suboptimal due to aging or disease, it is important of identify which part is being affected.”

But what’s the problem in being slow? It is natural for older people like me. I have the whole day. I may be a little bit slow, but I can easily make all my movements every day. No problem at all!”

His tone of voice told me that I was in trouble. He was clearly expressing his skepticism about the value of our work in basic science. I had to do something to defend our territory… OK, he was a physician. So I decided to try another line of my work related to neurological patients. This must penetrate through his stone head.

We also examine grasping movements of patients with a certain neurological disorder. Grasping is very important because we do it many, many times every day. For example, like picking up this piece of chocolate. The brain calculates the size of a piece of chocolate; and as we move our hand toward it, we open our fingers slightly wider than the chunk of chocolate. Then we grasp it as our hand reaches the chocolate. Such finger movements before grasping is called preshaping, which is controlled subconsciously. So, we don’t notice. But our brain is working hard to make precise finger movements, so that we don’t drop the chocolate.”

I demonstrated the preshaping and grasping movement, and explained the smooth coordination among the arm, hand, and fingers. Then I continued, “So, we measure how far these fingers are separated during preshaping. We can clearly see the size difference between healthy people and these patients.”

My speech and demonstration didn’t impress him at all, except giving him another ammunition to fire. “How much is the difference, say, for Parkinson’s disease patients?”

He asked drily. He was a retired physician after all. So, he knew that Parkinson’s disease is caused by a malfunction of the basal ganglia in the brain.

It is about one centimeter smaller for these patients than healthy people.”

Ha, one centimeter! So what? It is just less than an inch!” he said triumphantly, waving his hand in front of my eyes to show me a tiny gap that he made with his thumb and index finger.

Yes, it does matter,” I heard myself saying with a slightly high tone in my nervous voice, but I continued. “Our analysis identifies the features of how their movements are impaired. Such an identification would eventually help developing therapeutic intervention techniques. So, these patients can improve their movement capabilities in the future.”

Then he simply said, “When does that happen?”

“Well, I don’t know…” I was checkmated.


Soon afterwards, he left our office. As he was leaving, his face revealed the full satisfaction of having had a fun afternoon at my expense.

His chocolate was sweet enough, but his questions were way too bitter for my peaceful afternoon. After his departure, I just wanted to put a notice on our office door: “Chocolate only, please. Unsolicited questions are unwelcome.” But the afternoon incident lingered in my mind until that evening. Why did I have to feel foolish and uncomfortable with such discussions? After all, everything I said was true. So, what’s the problem?

Evening jogging brought me an answer to the source of my discomfort. All I said was true, but it was not the whole truth. The truth was that I really like my research. As simple as that. I have never tired of thinking about movements. Even as I was explaining things to him, I knew deep in my mind that it didn’t matter whether my research benefits society or not. I'd be happier if it does, but that is secondary for me. I will do my science as much as I can and for as long as I can. That was the only certainty I had at that point of my life as a scientist.


Basic science is a precarious thing. How our work benefits society, if at all, depends on how society will develop in the future. Indeed, good news landed on me a couple of years ago. A physiotherapist whom I met at a conference told me that physiotherapists nowadays teach stroke patients to make a preshaping of fingers to grasp an object. I knew that preshaping was first reported in late 1970’s, and frantic research activities of preshaping ensued in our field. It is still a popular topic even today. In recent years, the field of robotics is reaping the fruits of our hard-earned knowledge to develop the control system of robotic hands and arms. But it seems it took more than 40 years before preshaping became a part of an intervention technique. It finally and actually happened. That is simply great!


About the author

Maple Klockgether is a well-published neuroscientist and occasional essayist. Her essay “Science and Music” was published in Novelty Fiction’s second anthology and subsequently as a Kindle e-book. Her essay “Scientifically Imperfect,” first published here at Novelty Fiction Gazette, was subsequently published in Kindle e-book format. Both titles are also available in PDF format via Novelty Fiction Book Club.

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One Poem, One Inspirational Message by Don Beukes

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Olusola Akinwale – A Journey to Her Final Home

Edward trudged along the linoleum floor of the hospital corridor—past the familiar wailing of the bereaved, past sunken people propped up in wheelchairs, past a cleaner swabbing a mop over the floor, through the terminal reek that hung in the air. His heart clenched at the thought that he was no longer married to Marvy.

Death had ended his first marriage, too. Was this a curse or a coincidence? His eyes stung with held back tears.

He hated to make the call, but courtesy—or was it necessity?—demanded that he reach out to AY, who should call his father, Sanya. How he wished he was phoning Marvy herself, as he had every day, telling her about the deliveries to her stores or something else, before she’d entered the hospital.

Marvy had endured her marriage to Sanya for eight years before she’d mustered the courage to defy her family—who’d always implored her to persevere for her children’s sake—and free herself from his violence. Edward had met him only once, when he’d accompanied Marvy to the christening of AY’s child a year before. On that day, Sanya had smelled partly of weed and partly of schnapps. When Edward had congratulated the man, their hands barely grazed each other’s in a handshake.

People had sat at round, white tables under a big tent, and Sanya glided from one end to the other, beaming with a pride that made Edward envious. It made Edward wish it were for his grandchild’s christening that people had gathered to celebrate. But he would have to wait at least seven years or so for his two teenage daughters to reach the child-rearing stage of their lives.

AY had often been present at his mother’s bedside in the hospital. He would help her sit up and tuck pillows behind her back. When she vomited, he held a basin beneath her chin, and when she retched, he rubbed slow circles on her back and then wiped the spittle from her lips. Could a son have done less? He had two sisters who lived outside Lagos—the elder, Shikemi, was with her family in Port Harcourt; the younger, Mosun, was studying at the Federal University of Technology in Akure. Unlike his sisters, AY had been a constant in Marvy’s life ever since he’d been deported from Warsaw, visiting her regularly at their Festac Town apartment.

Whenever AY breezed into their home without as much as an acknowledgment of his stepfather, Edward had to excuse himself. It seemed an unspoken rule that the two wanted to talk without him, leaving him to suck in breath through clenched teeth. Sometimes, Marvy would take her son into the bedroom for their discussion, as if AY were the real husband, the husband on whose behalf Edward had been acting all the while. Edward knew it wasn’t because mother and son both lived in Lagos. It was because AY couldn’t get over the hurt of seeing another man being his mother’s husband—a man eleven years younger than her, at that. And it was also because AY depended on Marvy for his meal ticket.

AY’s conceit burned Edward’s stomach; he wanted nothing to do with his stepson. However, ever since Marvy had been admitted to the hospital for what was diagnosed as pancreas eruption, the fog of aloofness between Edward and AY had somewhat cleared. They’d found a common ground to dash through the small talk and share a hope of seeing her back on her feet.

Now Edward walked to the red-brick-paved parking lot. He felt sweat seep through the back of his shirt. It had always seemed like the hospital was another planet, with a different system of time that passed either too fast or too slow, depending on the complexity of what had brought him there. After leaving, a person either rejoiced in their life or walked back into the world with a burden that made life a darker place. The rose may have lost its bloom, the verdant field may have turned brown, the fountain may have dried up, the barn may have collapsed, or a favorite song may have lost its melody.

A mass of clouds clustered in the sky, snuffing out the light from the sun, bringing an early twilight. Edward’s phone felt heavy. He stood beside his Sienna—Marvy had bought it, really—and, with a trembling hand, dialed AY’s line. A car beside him inched out of the lot while he listened to the melody from his stepson’s phone.

Finally, AY answered. “Hello, Mr. Abioye.”

In the background, Edward could hear a comingling of noises—an orchestra of car horns, hawkers selling minerals, and the voice of a muezzin calling Muslims to the four-o’-clock prayer. ​​ 


Ever since Marvy had been admitted, Edward had no reason to call his stepson, not even on the night she had gasped for breath and was hooked up to oxygen. AY had been the one to call him, twice before he came over each day, to ask how his mother was faring. So Edward wasn’t surprised when his stepson said, in a sharp voice quivering with anxiety, “Mr. Abioye, is something wrong? Please don’t tell me it’s . . .”

“AY . . .” Edward’s voice tremored, his blood pulsing against his cheeks. “My wife is…” He choked on his words. “Your mother has passed away. I’m very sorry.” It was tough to pull those words through the tunnel of his throat.

“Oh my God. Oh my God!” AY cried above the noise, which seemed to have taken on a cruel decibel.

Edward couldn’t summon the words—the kind of balm he needed for his own wound—to console his stepson.

The note of the muezzin’s call dipped as though to allow AY’s wailing to be heard. He sniffed over the other line. “Where is she now?”

Edward bit his lower lip. He couldn’t bring himself to say that Marvy’s body had been deposited at the mortuary. They both fell into a miserable silence, more deafening to Edward than the cacophony in the street.

“I’ll call my father,” AY said. But the voice belonged to someone else. It was small and spread out slowly to fill the moment.

It was his issue to tell his father about his mother’s death. Edward wouldn’t ask for Sanya’s phone number or call him for any reason. They weren’t friends, not even now when Edward needed one. It appalled him that AY’s father hadn’t visited Marvy on her sickbed, not even once.

Edward got into the car, leaned back against the driver’s seat, and sucked in a horrified breath. He imagined AY sinking onto a bench, his head drooping like a wilted flower in the harmattan, processing the reality that he’d become motherless. For the first time, Edward conceded that he’d been jealous whenever AY had visited his mother at home. He’d been angry seeing his stepson leave the house with a check or a bundle of cash. There was no doubt that AY had flaunted the money to mock and tell him that he wasn’t capable of stopping him from obtaining from his mother. Once, his sex with Marvy after AY had visited had been rough and revengeful, and Marvy had slapped him and tried to push him away for hurting her.

The guilt of his anger and jealousy pushed on him. He released the wipers to clean off a gray film of dust that had blurred the windshield. He didn’t move. There was nowhere to go.

Marvy’s image, her eyes shut in death and her body on the gurney and covered with a white cloth, flashed before Edward. It came with a stab of pain that caused him to groan. He let his tears flow.


* * *


At 7:00 A.M. on the Friday of Marvy’s burial, Edward and his daughters, Damilola and Sade, together with AY, Shikemi and Mosun, got into the Sienna and drove to the mortuary. Edward wore a white caftan and matching trousers that had hung in his closet for the past year. AY was in a white Atiku fabric that had looked tailor-fit on previous occasions, but today the long-sleeved buba looked big on him and seemed to harbor a secret. Shikemi and Mosun wore matching newly sewn skirts and blouses of white lace, their faces coated with thick makeup that looked like cake frosting. It dazed Edward that while Marvy’s daughters had grieved to soreness and hiccupped profound sobs until their voices croaked, their minds could still process the idea of buying stylish new clothes. He sighed.

The morning had emerged with a trough of sunlight parting the sky. Later, the sun came out in bursts, emitting white-hot fire on Festac Town that would have made hell envious. Reaching the mortuary, they saw the idling hearse—a white Toyota Hiace with the red inscription “Adonai Services”—out front. The driver, a lean man with three vertical ethnic marks on each cheek, had boasted he would be there before seven. Mr. Sharp-Sharp granted the dead the honor of conveying them to their final home on time.

A few steps to the mortuary’s entrance, Shikemi and Mosun stopped dead in their tracks. Perhaps the bold placard above the doorpost—“WE WERE ONCE LIKE YOU. SOONER OR LATER, YOU WILL JOIN US”—stopped them. Three weeks had passed since Marvy’s death. In the first two days after her demise, grief was a viper biting Edward and spitting its venom into his soul. As more days passed, however, he got hold of the snake and defanged it. As he now entered the long room, with AY tagging behind, he felt the viper strike him again. Bodies were arrayed on a row of steel tables and even on the floor. The hair on the nape of his neck stood on end. Despite wearing a mask, he could still smell the embalming fluids that tainted the air. The reek grew sickening. But then, who could help feeling sick just being here? No one except the two attendants, who were used to the environment, their faces blank and flat like wooden sculptures.

As the attendants brought Marvy’s body to the dressing table, a shadow slipped over AY’s face. Something like a rush of water filled and inflated Edward’s head. He shut his eyes and swallowed hard. For the first time, he appreciated the luxury of grief he’d enjoyed when his first wife was buried. Gbemi’s family had arranged the removal of her remains from the mortuary to the cemetery. Marvy’s siblings, however, had shown indifference to the arrangements for her funeral. They’d accused Edward of marrying their sister for her money and milking her dry without considering their welfare. Therefore, he alone should bear the burden of her burial. AY carried a similar cynicism about Edward’s motives—the false notion that he was in control of his wife’s accounts.

Marvy had been a plump, curvy, light-skinned woman whose imposing statuesque presence made her the center of attention wherever she went. Even a sightless man would have sensed her basking in the stares she drew. But Edward’s throat clamped tight at the sight of her now, her shrunken body and darkened skin. It struck him that he hadn’t paid attention to Gbemi’s body in death, hadn’t noticed the deformation death might have done her. Perhaps, if he’d looked intently at her powdered face during the brief lying-in-state, he would have seen one or two distortions, but he hadn’t cared enough. A pang of guilt made him catch his breath.

Marvy, bedecked in a white, sequined dress, was carefully placed in a brown dome-shaped polished hardwood casket with gold stripe and pink velvet interior. Edward hadn’t thought twice about picking the dress as her final adornment. Among all her clothes, she’d adored it the most. She wore it to church—mostly on special Sundays—with her fair complexion glossed by her lavender body cream and set off by the fabric’s immaculate whiteness. Her spicy perfume, a beatific allure in itself, would enchant the bedroom.

On such Sundays, he could tell that she felt celestial, floating across the floor—making imperceptible the usual limp in her gait—as though God were about to take her, like Enoch, into heaven. Once, he’d wanted to tell her that she couldn’t ascend into the sky because the Bible didn’t record any woman who had. He held his tongue, however. The joke might sour her mood, which in turn could scar the house. As the church sang, worshippers dancing and waving their hands above their heads, she would fall to the glittering marble floor in ecstatic weeping and rolling. Her theatrics embarrassed Edward, but who was he to complain? When she got up, long after the worship had ended, her eyes red-rimmed, she’d grin at him, a mischievous smile that seemed to mock him for not experiencing God the way she just had. The perk of it all was that on those Sundays, he didn’t need to plead with her for sex—she’d offer it to him. And on those nights, he’d feel her girlishness, seeing her cry as she came—a sort of consolation and triumph for him.

Edward’s friends and other mourners had joined them for the procession to Badagry, the touristy coastal town where Marvy had been born and where the funeral would be held. Once the pallbearers dressed in aso oke had carried the casket into the hearse, Edward sat beside it as though he wanted to have a final conversation with Marvy. Green lacy curtains covered the windows that framed the whole length of the hearse. An air freshener hanging in a top corner bestowed the air with a floral scent. It reminded him of Obsession, the new perfume AY had spewed on Marvy’s body. He hadn’t let go of the opaque bottle afterward (even when the tallest of the attendants had reached for it), as though the body spray was his inheritance. He hadn’t been a perfume person, which made Edward wonder about his stepson’s sudden longing for Obsession.

The driver pulled away but halted before he reached the main gate, causing Edward to lurch forward a little. What could have made Mr. Sharp-Sharp stop? The door swung open, and AY climbed in. Sanya, reeking like schnapps, followed. Edward’s stomach clenched as he shifted uncomfortably in the seat. He hadn’t imagined Sanya would come to the mortuary, and none of his stepchildren had told him that their father would meet them here. Both father and son sat across from him, the casket lying between them. They shared bloodshot, hooded eyes—the father’s red from age-long boozing, the son’s from the grief he’d worn like agbada.

Sanya wore a colorful, floppy cap and a lavishly embroidered, sky-blue agbada that gave his wiry body an illusion of bigness. From the long chain on his neck dangled a fake diamond cross nestling on his chest. He crossed his legs and entwined his hands on his knees, revealing a silver bracelet on his right wrist and faded cocktail and skull rings on both middle fingers. How could he bejewel himself on a day like this? It seemed he’d come to do eye-service, saving himself from condemnations if he hadn’t appeared. After all, he hadn’t visited her at the hospital. He must have prevailed on his son to alight from the Sienna, where he’d rejoined his sisters, and come over to sit in the hearse.

Edward said, “Good morning,” and Sanya muttered the words back, as though to remind him that there was nothing good about the morning. It was the first time they’d all shared this proximity together. Edward would have done anything—gone without food for thirty days, traded his political science certificate from the University of Lagos—to avoid sharing space with these people, who were strangers but also familiar in such a burdensome way. Although he loathed Sanya now, he couldn’t order him to leave; he shouldn’t create a scene. But he could bang on the side of the hearse and make the driver stop to get out himself. When he gazed at the casket, Marvy seemed to say, “Would it be good of you to concede this last honor to my ex-husband?” in the clipped tone that always underlined her denouncing stare. ​​ 

As the hearse proceeded through the gate and into the road, Edward felt small and odd. AY was Marvy’s son. Sanya was his father. All of Marvy’s children were Sanya’s. It pained Edward that he didn’t have that kind of triangular connection with her. She hadn’t reached menopause when they’d met, but they’d decided it would be a marriage for companionship and not procreation. She’d raised the proposal and he’d concurred. Why wouldn’t he consent when he already had two daughters with Gbemi? Which woman in her late forties would want to be pregnant, anyway, unless she’d birthed no child at all? His only consolation now was that she’d borne his surname—Abioye—till death, which appeared in the press releases of her funeral, and should be enough to make Sanya mad.


Glorious Home Call

Marvy Pentho Abioye

April 11, 1965–January 14, 2022


The hearse halted. Edward lifted the curtain and peered out. A queue of cars from a gas station around Trade Fair had stretched into the road, which in turn pressed the vehicles into bumper-to-bumper intimacy. Fuel scarcity had struck the country again over the past week. People gathered around the fuel pumps, tearing into one another. A shirtless man clutching a machete hunted a limping man, who ran between the cars through the gridlock. A uniformed man poked a finger into the face of a towering woman. Once again, the country had turned its citizens against each other. At times like this, Marvy would never go to a gas station. It was Edward’s job to queue for fuel for Marvy’s two cars and the house generator. When he returned with the fuel, she would thank him in the matronly effusive voice a headmistress would use on a pupil who’d pleased her.

Mr. Sharp-Sharp switched on the ambulance’s klaxon, which howled like a coyote in a trap. A dissonance of car horns and chants that could rattle a baby in the womb rent the air, but the din wasn’t as disturbing as the menacing silence that hung between Edward and his unwanted companions. AY, who seemed fragile, nothing like the swaggering conceited young man Edward had known, sat slump-shouldered. In the days after his mother’s death, his words came out in a soft moan. It seemed he’d suffered mouth ulcers that made talking painful. When Edward had told him Marvy should be buried in her hometown, he’d simply stared ahead—perhaps at the image he’d created in front of him—and nodded in agreement.

The silence bloated like a balloon in Edward’s throat, which itched with the urge to prick it. AY gave a sharp sigh. His mouth moved; perhaps he wanted to utter something the ulcers prevented from flowing. He wiped his palms down his face. Sanya glanced at his son, then hung his head, tapping his feet on the floor. It was apparent something was on his mind; maybe something he wanted to confront Edward about. Was a showdown imminent—father and son versus him? What else could have made Sanya ride in the hearse with his son? ​​ 

“She shouldn’t have died,” AY said, finally, in the voice of someone rousing from sleep.

Edward felt a prickle of irritation in his gut. What nonsense was this boy spilling? Marvy hadn’t been given a choice between dying and living. If she had, would she have chosen the former? This boy had better defang his grief before it made him lose his bearings.

The hearse shuddered as if it were running out of gas, almost throwing them out of their seats. Edward had never seen or heard an ambulance break down on the road. He hadn’t for once seen any at a gas station, and he wondered, with a chuckle he didn’t mean to give, whether it was a taboo for an ambulance to drive into a gas station for a refill. The hearse picked up speed.

AY planted himself firmly on his seat again. “My mother wouldn’t have died if she hadn’t remarried.”

The words cracked the air. Edward looked from the casket to AY and then to Sanya, who pulled his lips into a sardonic, knowing grin. Edward clenched his teeth. How much had father and son discussed him? Had they seen him as their common enemy, who’d come to reap where he hadn’t sowed? What they didn’t know was that Marvy had wooed him. He’d been the dark-skinned, handsomely built man with neatly trimmed beard the street loved, the man they called “The Prof.” He’d swaggered about, the scent of his jasmine cologne mixing with the pomposity of one whose opinions on politics and global affairs others treated as sacred. Despite being a widower and a single father of two girls who wasn’t gainfully employed, who made ends meet betting on sports, women still flocked toward him. He didn’t have to spend a dime on them, and he’d dated more than a few before Marvy approached him.

Her supermarket, Marvy’s Place, had moved to his neighborhood around August, occupying the first and second floor of a three-story building. He’d patronized the store week in, week out with Damilola and Sade in tow. Marvy had been generous, giving them additional items as gifts: a packet of chocolate, a bowl of ice cream, a bottle of wine. Then, in December, she handed his daughters red chiffon frocks and matching pumps as Christmas gifts, which turned Edward’s tongue into an unmovable boulder. He hadn’t recovered from the shock when she shepherded him to her second-floor office adorned with a rainbow of ribbons and garlands and ablaze with candle tree lights. She may not have had a senior secondary school education, but the artworks in the cool, air-conditioned office—chrome-framed drawings on the walls, rose-painted antique vases, and Lucite sculptures on the mahogany shelf—exuded a cosmopolitan air. He’d wondered how she’d had an eye for such exquisite pieces. He later learned she’d been to Dubai and Milan several times to order goods for import.

She sat at her glass-topped desk while he sat across from her. “I understand how difficult it must have been for you to raise your daughters alone.” He confessed it hadn’t been easy since his wife had died four years before, then thanked her for her thoughtfulness. She held his gaze with softness in her brown eyes. His girls needed a mother figure in their lives, she added, especially when they were on the verge of puberty. Could he teach them about cramps and menses?

A smile threaded her plump lips. “I could be a mother to your lovely girls. I’m capable of being the mother they’ve been secretly hoping for,” she said in a measured, self-assured voice that made Edward’s cheeks radiate heat. “My daughters were once like them. I successfully navigated my daughters through their teenage years. I could do the same with Damilola and Sade.” A tone of ownership underscored her mention of their names. She’d been observing him for some time, she told him, and her heart had expanded to love him and his girls. Since she was single and he was too, they could all be a family. He dropped his gaze to the tiled floor, her words unfolding inside him.

“Maybe if the first man she married hadn’t abused her,” Edward said now, “she wouldn’t have been Marvy Abioye.”

Sanya’s blackened, chapped lips lost their smug smile. “Do you have to drag me into it?” His voice had a nasal cast his son shared. He jerked a thumb toward AY. “Why don’t you face him?”

“Tell me how I’ve dragged you into it? Have I mentioned anyone’s name?”

“Isn’t your meaning clear enough?”

Edward’s jaw tightened. He would dish out subtle affront for subtle affront with equal animosity as far as Sanya and his son could go. It pleased him to see his reply had jabbed AY back into silence—a poked centipede provoked into curling into itself. The traffic had loosened up, and now the hearse cruised down the fresh asphalt of the Badagry Expressway, its siren still blaring.

AY’s look grew remote, as if he was recalling something hurtful. “Edward isn’t wrong.” He eyed his father with misgivings. “I grew up watching you make her a punching bag, seeing her nose broken and lips bruised and face swollen. When I heard her cries, even as a six-year-old boy, I shivered, wondering what she’d done to deserve the beatings.”

Sanya’s brows dipped low. Hadn’t the boy confronted his father about the violence before now? Edward considered telling him that it was too late to raise the issue, but then, Marvy’s blood might as well still be crusted under Sanya’s fingernails for the damage he’d done. Those yesteryears felt like yesterdays. She’d been eighteen, about to finish her hairdressing apprenticeship, when she met Sanya, who was nine years her senior. He would start and end his day binging on gin; he would beat her and yell at her over trivial issues. But she’d ignored his bad behavior—she’d told Edward when he’d visited her house the first time, her hands clasped on her dining table—because he gave her money every day for food. The sixth time he’d pummeled her—complaining she’d added too much salt to his stew—she left his house. When he showed up at her guardian’s house two weeks later to seek forgiveness—terming his action as devil’s orchestration, which he’d overcome—she’d found that she’d conceived. The pregnancy cemented her marriage to him. Two months after she’d given birth to AY, the abuse resumed. The year Mosun turned five, Sanya broke Marvy’s femur. She had her leg wrapped in a cast and hung on a bed at an orthopedic clinic. By the time she left the hospital, she’d had enough of him and had to leave to live.

Marvy’s voice had carried rough edges, which bespoke unvarnished horrors as she narrated her ordeals. Edward had imagined the pain of the brutality still coagulated deep in her soul. He’d felt pity for her more than he’d ever felt for anyone else. It was at that point—when he was too emotional to eat the rice and spinach fish stew she’d served him—that he tucked his chair in deeper against the lip of the table. He reached for her hands, and she stroked his fingers. The furrows on her brow disappeared, and a smile brightened her face. She touched his hand to her cheek. His daughters had already fallen in love with Marvy. When he told them she’d proposed to be their new mom, they leaped from their seats and danced round the house. ​​ 

“I don’t think you ever apologized to her,” AY grumbled. “Not even once.”

“I wasn’t as bad as you painted me.” Sanya leaned his head against the window. “Your mother was problematic as well.”

Edward shot him a piercing look. What nonsense was he spewing?

“You say that because she’s no more alive,” AY barked, finally overcoming his ulcers. Sanya quivered. “Because she can no longer defend herself. Look at her”—he gestured toward the casket—“she isn’t useful for us anymore. Do you know what she meant to me, to—?”

“Your mother,” Sanya said.

“To Shikemi and Mosun?” AY scowled. “To her grandchildren? She meant much more to me than you’ve ever been.”

AY couldn’t have exalted Marvy more. Since his deportation from abroad four years before—after ten years of crossing from one border to another with nothing to show for his sojourn—Marvy had found herself paying his rent and supporting his family. It had sickened Edward to overhear Marvy on the phone condemning AY for being a spendthrift. Once, she’d berated him for wasting three hundred thousand naira. Another time, it had been five hundred thousand. She hadn’t told Edward she’d given her son such substantial amounts, which left a knot in his throat. But the little tumor had grown malignant the night he’d eavesdropped on a mother-son discussion and heard AY whine he suspected Edward had hardened Marvy’s heart against him.

“I don’t want to be a man who beats his wife,” AY said to his father. “I can’t be you.”

Sanya’s head flopped as if he were slumbering. When the mortuary attendants had washed Marvy’s body, an amoeba-like scar on her shoulder blade from Sanya’s beating had stared back at Edward. The image assailed him right now. Perhaps he would grab Sanya’s chain and twist it around his neck. But then he considered the animal not worthy of his attack.

“I can’t be you,” AY repeated.

Sanya jerked up his head. “Would you stop insulting me? You can’t be me, fine. But what have you made out of your life? You were a fugitive in Europe for ten years.” He held out ten fingers at his son. “You came back home empty-handed. You took a wife you couldn’t care for, had a child you couldn’t afford to buy Pampers for. You depended on Marvy for everything—”

“She was my mother,” AY said. “My pillar of support.”

“That’s why you crumbled the pillar with your financial recklessness like an accursed child. Or do you think no one was aware of how you wasted the hundreds of thousands of naira she gave you on many occasions?” Sanya glanced at Edward as though wanting him to validate his claims. Edward averted his gaze.

“When I was your age, I wasn’t living off my mother,” Sanya continued.

AY’s mouth curled into a sneer. “But you could shamelessly return to my mother who you traumatized to solicit for money.”

“We still had a connection,” Sanya said. “I’m the father of the three children she birthed in this world—something no one can take away. I commend myself for the feat.” He darted a mischievous grin at Edward. “Is anything wrong with seeking help from the mother of my children?”

Edward’s stomach hardened as though it were lined with concrete. He wanted to hit this foul he-goat for mocking his childless marriage to Marvy. For bragging as if nothing trumped the fathering of her children. He unclenched his fist. A thought sneaked up on him, as if to compound Sanya’s scorn: When Marvy was lowered into her grave, the children Sanya had boasted of as his achievements would perform the dust-to-dust rite before him. The thought seared Edward’s chest, and he cursed whoever had decreed the tradition.

“Nothing was wrong until you defaulted in paying back the loans.” AY’s voice had risen. “Until you told her lies to avoid repayment.”

Sanya pulled off his agbada and unfastened the buttons of his sweat-darkened buba.

“Because she refused to loan you another three hundred thousand naira before she fell sick,” AY continued, “you didn’t visit her at the hospital.”

Sanya wiped his brow with the agbada. “You think that was the reason I didn’t come to the hospital?”

“I don’t have ears to listen to your excuses.”

“I did call her then, didn’t I?” Sanya said.

AY hissed, flapping his hand at his father. Sanya’s eyes sank deep into his face. He opened his mouth, closed it, and hung his head. Sanya’s humiliation spurred a warm glow in Edward’s heart, and he felt briefly triumphant. But then it hurt to realize that he’d been more on the periphery of Marvy’s life than he’d known. She’d given Sanya several loans he wasn’t aware of, whereas her son was. She’d compartmentalized the triangular connection and locked it with a key she’d given him no chance to access. What else had she done that he didn’t know about? How many loans to how many people now rendered irredeemable? A spigot of rage opened inside him. The anger frothed from his stomach, worked a path through his gut and up to his chest.  ​​​​ 

“You didn’t have any excuse,” Edward said in a condescending tone meant to bite Sanya. “It’s a shame you didn’t visit her even once. If you didn’t consider any other thing, you should’ve at least considered the kindness she’d shown you—the loans she gave you which you aren’t going to repay.”

“How dare you insult me, fraudulent husband?” Sanya snapped. His eyes narrowed to slits. “He who judges others must be clean. Are you clean? Do you think no one knows of your house at Isashi?”

The words came like fiery darts, piercing Edward and disorientating him. AY turned a stunned face at him. Edward felt weightless and disembodied, as though he were hovering in the air, watching Sanya uncovering the secret of some other person.

“Do you think no one knows that you robbed Marvy to build it? You must be delusional to think Marvy didn’t know of the shady deals you carried out as the manager of her stores.”

Sanya stared hard at him, daring him to counter the revelation. But Edward had no shield to defend himself against the darts. His face burned. The damp patches under his armpits grew larger, and his undershirt was sticky with sweat. He might as well have been in a furnace. He pulled off his buba and folded it on his lap. Sanya cackled, the shoulder-shaking but dry laugh of someone who’d outwitted his enemy. Edward’s tongue grew arid.

How had Marvy found out about the two-story house? Edward had been the manager of Marvy’s Place and its two branches. His monthly salary was a little over what he would have earned in another store. He hadn’t intended to skim from her until the second time he’d overheard Marvy rebuke AY for wasting the five hundred thousand naira she’d given him. It galled him to work for Marvy, while her useless son strutted in every month to collect sums of money four times what he was paid. Besides, she’d never granted any of his own requests for money.

“What do you want to do with it?” she’d ask. “I take care of the expenses incurred by your daughters. Have I ever bothered you to foot any bills in this house? Why do you lack contentment?” Those words, spoken in a quiet but arrogant tone, stung him.  ​​ ​​ ​​​​ 

He’d connived with suppliers to overbill the stores. Then he and the vendors split the difference between the inflated price and the actual price seventy-thirty. He’d run this arrangement for two years before the construction of the Isashi two-story building commenced. As the carpenters roofed the house, he assured himself that he wasn’t a crook or an unfaithful manager and husband. The house was also Marvy’s. When construction was finished, he would tell her one night, perhaps on the eve of her birthday, that he had a surprise for her. Then he’d drive her to the house. He’d have added her to the title—sworn to a court affidavit—to make the documents bear her name. Mr. and Mrs. Edward and Marvy Abioye. He’d received the first rents, yet he hadn’t told her anything before she fell sick and died.

The ensuing guilt had been a flame blistering his heart. How could he quench the fire and be at peace with himself? As reparation, he’d bought her the imported gold-striped casket—so expensive at five hundred thousand naira—that had drawn stares as the pallbearers carried Marvy’s body to the hearse. He’d arranged that the inside of her grave be tiled and the outside be built of the finest of marbles. She’d be happy to have a final home as elegant and prominent as her physique.

But here he was feeling the peace stagger and fall—the peace he thought he’d restored buying the imported casket and arranging the marble-finished grave which anticipated elegance he now saw as vain—and he was helpless to yank it up. He queried the righteousness of his grief. If grief were a burnt offering, would his and that of these two men be acceptable when they’d drained Marvy before she died? They all sunk into a separate silence that had humiliation as the common denominator. Hadn’t they successfully ripped off the shrouds of each other’s swaddled scams and lies?

A hard clot grew inside Edward. Had any of his collaborator vendors gone to Marvy and snitched on him? Perhaps Gbenguse, whom he’d denied a five-percent increase. He would deal with the bespectacled idiot when the funeral was over. The hearse had driven past Agbara, Ilogbo and Comforter, and was cruising on Mowo Road. The trip was faster than he’d expected. Within the next fifteen minutes, they would be in Marvy’s family home. The blaring klaxon must have freed the road for Mr. Sharp-Sharp, who sped past a couple of vehicles.

Tears streamed from AY’s eyes. Sanya fiddled with his ring, sliding it up and down his knuckle. It could have been Edward too, twisting his own ring to distract himself. But his ring had faded eight months after his wedding, just like Marvy’s, and he’d thrown it away. Marvy had accused the jewelry merchant who’d sold them the rings of scamming them. Later, she’d bought a new one, which she’d used till she died.

It unnerved him to realize now that Marvy had changed to a different woman after his ring had lost its luster. When they’d been newly married, he’d felt sheltered in the suite of her affection and joys. She’d carried him along in all her endeavors. Then she began to treat him like a character with a cameo in her life—someone whose opinions didn’t matter. She stopped him from holding her hand in public as though they’d become Hasidic. When he voiced out his concern, she said, with a glimpse of exasperation in her eyes, that it was his imagination, that he was wrong.

She’d been a wonderful stepmother to his daughters, pampering them the way Gbemi mightn’t have, going into their bedroom every night for what she’d called “girls-only talk.” When he’d eavesdropped on them and heard Marvy tell the girls not to allow any man to abuse them, he’d felt she was seeking revenge on him for the trauma of her days with Sanya. In his first marriage, he’d been the alpha and omega of the home. Gbemi had deferred to him and apologized profusely even when he’d been at fault. In his second marriage, however, he’d succumbed to Marvy’s wills. The voice she’d lost in her first marriage, she’d regained in her second, which turned out to be the wrinkle in the fabric of their home. She’d had the iron to smoothen it. But she hadn’t—for her ego.

A riotous blend of emotions convulsed through Edward: the guilt of his fraud, the anger of losing his manly voice, and the embarrassment of being a doormat in Marvy’s house. The weight of it all pressed down on him. He cast misted eyes on the casket.

“Mommy Marvy, I’m sorry,” he said under breath, calling her the way church members had addressed her, as if that would be enough as propitiation for her.

The casket blurred. Not wanting the men to see his tears, he peered out the window.


* * *


The hearse glided down the Marina Road and past the old Akran Palace. It slowed to a stop in front of a cherubim and seraphim church, and mourners—mostly women—crowded round it and picked up wailing from where the klaxon had stopped. A symphony of drums and trumpets hectored the air. The trumpeters announced, “Mama has gone to her heavenly home.” A funeral wasn’t complete without their performance; they must play to let the world know that a wonderful mother or father had gone to meet their Creator.

Edward slipped into his buba. As he rose, a spike of pain shot through his back. His breath tightened in his throat, and he flopped back down on his seat.

Sanya leaned toward him. “What’s wrong?”

“I’ll be fine.” The last thing he wanted was help from these men.

AY and Sanya climbed out. The pallbearers climbed in and carried the casket out. The drumming and trumpeting grew louder. Edward stood again, pushing his palm against his back. At the door, Sanya held out his hand as though he knew Edward’s legs couldn’t bear his weight. Edward hesitated. But when another arrow of pain hit him, he accepted Sanya’s hand. Climbing down, he rested his weight on Sanya, who guided him to a chair under a fruitless mango tree luxuriant with green leaves. Damilola approached them, her features creased. Edward waved off his daughter. He would be fine.

The houses on the street overlooked the lagoon. Speedboats rumbled as they arrived and left the jetty. Marvy had been popular on the beach, selling pap and stew to picnickers before she’d moved to Lagos at fifteen to learn hairdressing. The pallbearers bore the casket on their shoulders as they danced toward Marvy’s family home, the mourners following. Sanya left to join the horde. Canopies and white chairs had been set out on the sandy yard of the house, where a short funeral service would be held.

Two days before, Edward had met with Reverend Kojah again to finalize preparations. Marvy would be laid to rest at Badagry cemetery—a stretch of earth with crusted hardpan, surrounded by a low fence with an iron gate dotted with rust. When he’d inspected Marvy’s vault, he was stunned to find that it didn’t look even six feet deep. “That’s the depth of graves these days,” said the chief workman, who’d been coordinating two other laborers to tile the inside of the grave. The concrete tombs that had sunk into the earth and broken headstones screamed of neglect from the deceased’s families. Edward’s throat clogged. He wasn’t different from any of the deceased’s families. He hadn’t visited Gbemi’s grave since she was buried. Might it not have sunk into the earth, too?

He closed his eyes now, trying to visualize his first wife’s grave, and was shamed to realize he couldn’t picture the spot where she’d been buried. The sap of guilt soured his tongue. His lips trembled as he saw two caskets side by side, Gbemi’s white and Marvy’s brown. His tear-filled eyes snapped open at the sound of feet shuffling toward him. Damilola had brought him a bottle of water. He drank it and washed his face, then thanked his daughter. ​​ 

“The reverends were asking for you,” she said.

“You may go.” He tightened his grasp on the empty bottle as though he wanted to crush it. “I’ll join them shortly.”

She strode back to the house. He couldn’t help marveling at how many of Marvy’s mannerisms his daughter had adopted—the modulation of her voice, the shrapnel gesture of her hands as she spoke, the way she unloaded complaints as if unpacking a suitcase, the unflinching stare she gave, the arching of her eyebrows. Wasn’t it surreal that a woman could reincarnate even when she hadn’t died? ​​ 

A voice boomed “Shout hallelujah” on the speakers. The wind blew at him, carrying the smell of wet leaves that reminded him of Marvy’s marinated African spinach that she’d made a delicious fish stew he wouldn’t have again. He went to meet her for the last time. ■


About the author

Olusola Akinwale grew up in Ibadan, Nigeria. His works have appeared in the Hamilton Stone Review, Silk Road Review, Prole, Western Post, the Monarch Review, the Cardiff Review and elsewhere. He was a winner of two national essay contests in Nigeria and a finalist for the 2017 Galtellì Literary Prize in Sardinia, Italy. An alumnus of the Fidelity Bank Creative Writing workshop, he can be tracked on twitter.com@olusolaakinwale

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Zamo Gina – The House of the Land




Of all my many, many treacherous voyages and journeys across ravenous seas and dark oceans, seldom have I come across a destination as broken and dilapidated as this.

It was hardly a year ago when I received the kindest of invitations from Mr. Boyle to attend a gathering taking place at this house. I had paid the land a visit once or twice prior to that, each time on Mr. Boyle’s behest. On what would be my fourth visit, however, Mr. Boyle had not reached out to me. In fact, the retired statesman and myself hadn’t spoken for the better part of three months – a fact that had me perturbed. No, this time I felt a strange sensation gravitate me towards it. Indeed, it was an unexplainable force of power, strength, and sheer will that compelled me to visit The House of the Land once again.

When I arrived there, a rather peculiar-looking fellow – Heinz Van Muller, as was etched into the name tag he wore upon his left breast – greeted me at the front gates, mere moments after I stepped out from my horse-drawn carriage. He stood by the gates, as if longing for my return.

Taking off his top hat in a sign of respect, Heinz looped one arm around one of my own, before ushering me through the large steel gates that swung gently to the left and to the right. The pair of us walked together upon the tarred stretch leading to the mansion of a house – crushing any loose rubble beneath the weight of our bodies. Heinz, in his remarkably feminine voice, informed me of the many joys I was bound to find during my stay here. He bragged about the flowing streams that ran not far from where we currently treaded, as well as the brightly lit sun that never failed to shine its glory down upon the land. He spoke to me as if I were a stranger here; which, to him, I was.

The House of The Land was a great, majestic house to say the least. Built by hard-working, determined, and talented hands over centuries, the house stood proudly in glorious grandeur. Outward, it’s appearance stood tall in the face of many who tried to find fault in it during last year’s daytime gala. Oh, I still remember Pascal pointing out the roof’s slope, claiming its angle wasn’t steep enough to let rain flow over; only for Mr. Boyle to quote, verbatim, the calculations he had done to the contrary. Doctor Lycoudi, the esteemed botanist, remarked that the vines growing at the base of the house would uproot the structure, and so Mr. Boyle lifted the vines to show they grew upon a bed of impenetrable concrete. I shall forever recall Mr. Boyle’s words: “Even if one were to spend a decade analysing The House of the Land from head-to-toe, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a single imperfection.”

Soon, Heinz and I scaled the short flight of marble stairs that led us to a pair of strong wooden doors that guarded the house. With his white-gloved-hands, he pushed open the doors, allowing us in. Quicker than lightning, I was hit with a truly unforgettable odour – one which haunts me even to this day. The smell of burning gasoline mixed with charred bone marrow, with a hint of freshly mined sulphur, threatened to exhume any and all meals I had previously eaten since my inception into this world. For the sake of my host’s dignity, however, I compressed all feelings of nausea deep down back into my soul.

Heinz, undeterred by the smell, continued onwards, dragging me with him towards a set a finely vanished stairs. These stairs were one of two stairways that curved with the bulging walls on either side of the room, converging to form a large balcony a good three metres above ground-level. We trotted between the two stairways, avoiding what would otherwise have been a climb that, for someone of my health, would’ve been akin to scaling Mount Everest.

As we walked along, I distinctly remember inquiring about the house’s owner, Mr. Boyle, expressing to Heinz my deep worry. Heinz immediately stopped and stared. His entrancing gaze pierced the very nature of my being, forcing me to stare deep into his moss-green eyes. The pair of us stood in an emotionless state, neither one of us capable of speaking. Finally, he spoke a few words: “Shall we continue?” His smile was eerie and unwarranted. Wishing to remove myself from this perverse entanglement, I obliged, and our proceeding path led us to a narrow corridor, capable only of fitting us both.

Through this corridor we went, passing many open-doored rooms that stood equidistant on either side of the corridor, regular intervals apart as we walked. On each door head was a name. Heinz was proud to explain each room and share its history, which was evidently important to him. With each passing room on either side, he told about the great it had done, and how proud he was of the accomplishments that have only been made in that specific room. Each piece of history he explained was old news to me however. The greatness of Pascal and his discovery of the relationship between the force applied to a surface and it’s cross-sectional area was a season I shall forever remember. The tireless efforts of Gay-Lussac led us to the Ideal Gas equation we use today, one I was very proud to aide in. The door head with Doctor Lycoudi ingrained on it reminded me of the joint discovery into the relationship between plants and fungi she and Mr. Boyle made.

I had to personally correct Heinz when he claimed Doctor Lycoudi did this in the absence of Mr. Boyle. In total, we passed six rooms before arriving to a pair that were both closed shut, and whose door heads, I remember, had been scratched out. Notably still, the stench that had threatened to terminate my subscription to this world grew ever stronger. When I enquired on the two rooms however, Heinz replied with a response so defensive it boarded on the edge of ludicrous: “We don’t talk about that.” Sensing the hostile rattle in his suddenly deepened voice, I chose to leave the matter at that, and allow Heinz to proceed with the tour as he saw fit.

At the corridor’s end was a truly magnificent balcony, one whose beauty I pay homage to today. Together we stood. With our arms uncoiled, we rested them on the top of the thin mahogany beams that ran around in a semicircle, supported by many more beams cut from the Swietenia mahagani tree.

As my eyes scoured the vast expanse of the plains that stretched for kilometres ahead, my mind was at ease and my heart at peace, as my mind conjured memories of standing there alongside Mr. Boyle and the others just one year prior. The air here was much cleaner, which was a great refresher, and allowed me to submit to The House of the Land’s majesty. Heinz, ever the enthusiast, unwittingly interrupted my séance and directed my attention to a site some five hundred metres in front of us. It was a large body of water which Heinz claimed quenches the thirst of exotic birds, wildebeest, gazelles, elephants, hydrophytes, and even some humans. Upon questioning him on the black hue the water had, Heinz rebutted, accusing my eyes of playing tricks on me. However, for the life of me, I cannot recall the water ever looking quite so ominous.

Succeeding the sightseeing was a walk with Heinz back downstairs, this time to enjoy a warm, home-cooked meal he had the help – which was neither seen nor heard – prepare for the pair of us. I graciously accepted his offer when he gestured to me to have a seat on one of the rickety, old wooden chairs, sitting across from his equally tethered seating. Ignoring this – and the torn tablecloth – I smiled at the sight of the meal being brought before me. Such feelings were quickly displaced by their antonyms. While I could bypass the grime of the table, I could not get past the roughness of the ceramic plate and rusting silverware. Nor could I accept in my own mind the grit of the food presented to me, which has left granules of the undesirable lodged between my molars to this very day. Despite my discontent, I continued as if all was well, and welcomed an unexpected side effect of this meal… the smell filled my nostrils no more. ​​ 

After what one can hardly describe as a pleasant stay, Heinz escorted me towards the large wooden doors, and opened them, taking a step to the clean outdoors. Before exiting, I looked to the top of the two doors, where I expected to find a square-framed portrait of Mr. Boyle, Gay-Lussac, Pascal, Doctor Lycoudi and myself. While my weary eyes saw the same portrait, it was not the same as it used to be. Each of the aforementioned persons had their faces scratched out like, presumably by an enraged child. All except my own.

Out through the large doors I went to join Heinz, landing us back onto the rubble of the tar-way. We walked towards the gates, where my horse-drawn carriage remained, unharmed and untampered. Heinz listed the many wonders he would show me if ever I were to return to The House of The Land, including walking on the plains, and possibly visiting the upper level of the building. Before I entered my carriage, he leaned over, and asked for my name. “Rose,” I replied, “Gerald Rose.”


After having absconded from that area for several months now, I do wonder just what Heinz did with that information, or what he still plans to do with it.

Therefore, I am left with a terrible unease as I write what vivid details I can scrape together in the form of written dialect. Pinpointing just what about my visit there has me this unnerved is a task beyond my aging abilities. Perhaps it was the black water. Perhaps it was the bizarre china. Perhaps it was the closed rooms. Perhaps it was Heinz Van Muller himself. Perhaps I will have to pay The House of the Land another visit if I am to find out. Perhaps, instead, I should make contact with Gay-Lussac, whom I have not heard from since the gathering.





On my latest visit to The House of the Land, I recall Gustav, the coachman, telling me: “Should you receive an offer of dessert, it will be the time to leave.” I did not reply, but sat there on the backseat chewing on what he had just said. “I'm not supposed to warn you,” the man added, “but my conscience demands I do so.”

I thought the coachman was merely trying to insulate himself against having to wait for me too long. I had hired him for the day, and maybe he was looking forward to go home to his wife and children. Today, I dearly wish I could speak with him again. I'd be willing to pay a pretty penny for his insights.

The village is dull and quiet. I am glad to be sitting at the tavern in the company of two respected men. Both, it is my understanding, have been regular visitors for some years. Father Wright came to pray with Mr. Boyle from time to time, more frequently when the statesman found himself in doubt over some international crisis. Doctor Lucas has confirmed that he did what he could to dull Mr. Boyle's horrific pain from lung cancer. He was unsuccessful in his attempts to persuade Mr. Boyle to seek proper care in a hospital or – at the very end – in a hospice.

“Dr. Lucas, what is your impression of Mr. Heinz?” I ask.

“Strange fellow, actually,” the youthful doctor replies. “In some ways, he has what I would call a typical north-European temperament.”

I ask him to explain, and so he does.

“Reserved at first, but once you get him going, he becomes like an open book and doesn't know when to stop. He brags about his accomplishments, shifts to moaning.”

“Funny you should mention it,” Father Wright injects. “I've never talked with the fellow, but Mr. Boyle did say that his new manager tended to swing between highs and lows within minutes of each other.”

“I see. Dr. Lucas, would you mind saying what he complained about in your presence?”

“Not at all. Imagine him going in his high-pitched voice. Heinz complained that he didn't get many visitors to The House of the Land and, considering he had only worked there for four months, he hadn’t seen many at all. However, he did recall receiving a visitor a few months earlier who reminded him of one of Mr. Boyle’s former associates. The visitor's frame was taller than his own, but not of giant proportions. His shoulders were broad but not excessively so. The visitor spoke slowly, almost melodically. Based off of pictures Heinz had seen, he would swear the two men were identical.”

Without thinking, I knock on the table twice, unable to articulate what I want to ask. My sense of discomfort is growing. The two men look at me with surprise, but I wave dismissively.

“This next part I recall almost word by word,” the doctor continues. “He told me as follows: Just as they were approaching his carriage, Heinz asked the visitor his name. Why, he had to of course! The answer the visitor gave, well it wasn’t at all what Heinz was thinking: 'Rose. Gerald Rose,' ​​ the gentleman said. Gerald Rose? Really? Heinz remembered asking himself as soon as the carriage rode away. Certainly that couldn’t be the case…”

Heinz immediately went back into the mansion. Heading up the grand stairs of The House of the Land – or as he likes to call it, The Boyle Mansion – he landed himself on the balcony that overlook the entrance.

Heinz somewhat arrogantly said that the balcony isn’t nearly as impressive as people make it out to be. He still remembered the first guest he hosted, Mr. Gay-Lussac, who bragged to Mr. Boyle about how incredible the whole layout was. He complimented everything from the vanished wooden railings to the grand chandelier that hung from the ceiling. He even bent down to smell the carpet, which he exclaimed smelled 'Most exquisite!'

“Heinz had been told Mr. Gay-Lussac is always this eccentric and excitable.”

“Is or was,” I say. “Has anybody seen him alive recently? He has not responded to any of my letters or telegrams.”

“I have no idea,” the doctor says. “I guess that is one of the reasons we are here.”

I nod.

“Me neither,” the priest says.

Along the balcony Mr. Heinz had gone until he reached its east end. In that place, there was a landscape group photograph of Mr. Boyle and his associates. Mr. Boyle always had Heinz lay it out there and clean its frame every so often.

“The photograph was of the faceless bodies of Mr. Boyle, Mr. Gay-Lussac, Mr. Pascal and Miss Lycoudi,” Dr. Lucas adds. “The only body whose face was still present was that of the supposed Gerald Rose he had just seen. Naturally, he grew more suspicious and more weary of this man. He returned the photograph with great care, and retreated to the center of the balcony, where he stood and stared straight ahead. There, right in front of him, was a portrait similar to the photograph he had picked up just moments prior. Just like before, it was only the face of this Gerald Rose that remained untampered with.”

I am having goose bumps right now. I do not like where this seems to be going.

“Please, Dr. Lucas, if at all possible, can you tell me what he told you next?”

“He said that if this man was not whom he claimed to be, he may have missed his biggest opportunity for vengeance yet.”

“Let me grant him another,” I say.

My companions look at me intently.

“Mr. Hyde, are you certain?”

“As certain as I will ever be. He must be as afraid of me as I am of him, if not more.”


The ride back to the House of the Land serves as a reminder of its desolate location. Gustav brings the three of us across narrow roads with few signs of civilization apart from some railroad tracks and a few shattered farmhouses. The property is self-sustainable with its large, fertile lands and diverse animal life, and no person of authority has any interest in going out there. Mr. Boyle was famous for his open-door mentality, and Mr. Heinz appears to follow in his footsteps.

“Gustav, I've been meaning to ask you something. I took your advice, didn't stay for dessert, but why did you feel the need to warn me against doing so?”

“The others overstayed their welcome,” he replies. “I saw Mr. Heinz walk them down to the pond somewhere between 2 and 3 in the afternoon. None of them ever came back.”

“Who were they, Gustav?”

“Two men and one woman.”

“I believe I know who they were,” I reply.


Finally, it is reckoning time. Heinz will greet me with a handshake and fake smile, which will stiffen when he sees my two companions. While he and I have a chat, Dr. Lucas and Father Wright will attend to the kitchen help, servants, and any children there may be on property. I have described my last visit in some detail, and the two men appear to be preparing themselves for the worst.

“I have elected to speak with you under four eyes out of respect, Mr. Heinz. Your secrets are safe with me, I can assure you. But I need you to be truthful with me, because I have this power to make life miserable for you. If you hurt me in any way, your days on this property will be numbered. I've made the arrangements to see to that.”

“Well, sir, I was about to say: Please have a seat!”

“I'd rather stand if you don't mind. Moreover, I'd rather not come ​​ inside with you.”

“We'll make it brief. What do you wish to speak with me about?”

“Please continue where you left off with Dr. Lucas about your reaction to my previous visit.”

“Where was I?”

“You had found some photos that included me. The other faces had been cut out.”

He grins. “Right! With haste, I made my way down the winding staircase, and onto the entrance again. I paced to the passageway that Mr. Boyle revered so much. Oh, how I miss him so. He gave me more than a job… he gave me a livelihood. He gave me… a purpose. After the lung cancer got to him, I gave him a proper burial, I did. I even buried his body in the pond out on the range, just as he requested; and I did so without anyone’s help. Digging a grave out of the bed of a pond is a laborious task I hope never to repeat for as long as I live.”

He is being truthful so far. “Please go on.”

“Certainly. I sent out letters to each of Mr. Boyle’s associates, notifying them of his passing. Yet, not one of them turned up on the day of the funeral, and none of them wrote back.”

“That is a lie! I never received anything.”

“Yours may have gotten lost in the mail. Anyway, standing by Mr. Gay-Lussac’s door, I was reminded how fondly Mr. Boyle would speak of him. He considered him his protégé, his student, the man who was to continue his work after he died. He paid for Gay-Lussac’s tuition, and funded his studies afterwards, yet the young man couldn’t be bothered to pay tribute to Mr. Boyle.”

“So you killed him?”

“We'll get to that in a moment. Mr. Pascal was Mr. Boyle’s senior, and often tutored him on most things science. Mr. Boyle spoke of how patient Pascal would be with him, never once getting mad or upset when he would make mistakes. He would often remark how if Mr. Pascal were a general, everyone would sign up because he would be the nicest general there ever was. Yet, even he was too proud to attend the wake of our beloved Mr. Boyle.”

“So you killed him as well?”

“Like I said, in a moment. Miss Lycoudi, the botanist, was the most disappointing in my eyes, for she was Mr. Boyle’s one and only love interest.”

“You were in love with Mr. Boyle?”

He blushes, looks down, then pulls himself together and sends me a bright boyish smile.

“He loved Miss Lycoudi so much. Not a day would go by without him commenting on one of her many wonderful features. 'Oh, she’s so gorgeous, Heinz. She has the finest taste in fashion.' 'Oh Heinz, she wrote to me again, I cannot wait to read her letters!' 'Oh Heinz, her penmanship writes sonnets better than those of Francesco Petraca.' Goodness, how he loved her. Despite all that, despite all their alleged correspondence, even she shied away from the funeral. Outrageous, I say!”

“So you killed her?”

“We'll discuss that in a moment.”

“Maybe something about you made them reluctant to come here. Ever thought about that possibility?”

“It has crossed my mind,” he admits. “Although I cannot imagine what it might be.”

“And the fourth associate?”

“Indeed. Then there was Mr. Hyde. Yes, yes… Mr. Hyde! Not Gerald Rose, but Mr. Hyde! Mr. Boyle’s closest associate and most trusted confidante. Had he not professed his love for Miss Lycoudi, I would’ve thought he fancied Mr. Hyde. He spoke of Mr. Hyde with such reverence, you would think he practically worshipped the man. He said it was Mr. Hyde who encouraged him to build The House of the Land, upon which the pair of them could form a team of scientists who would revolutionize the planet. It was Mr. Hyde who initially financed construction of The House of the Land. It was Mr. Hyde for whom Mr. Boyle cried out in his last moments. It was Mr. Hyde who did not show up at the funeral.”

“As I stand before you, I'm telling you I never received any invitation. The three others presumably didn't either. Why? Because there was no funeral! No body to be buried! You had seen to that, hadn't you?

Heinz shakes his head slowly. “No funeral, I regret to say. Mr. Boyle wanted it that way. He wanted simply to vanish without a trace, the wonderful unpretentious man.”

“My three colleagues came together to see you. I'm sure they wondered why you were still residing here. They demanded that you pack up and leave?”

“Not after I showed them the will, they didn't. It all belongs to me, anyway.”

“Then why did you kill them?”

He shrugged. “They said they had done some homework and found out I have a history, if you get my meaning, of becoming an heir to wealthy men I've only known briefly. I have this charm, believe me. Unfortunately, they didn't see it that way. They threatened me to go, tried bribing me into leaving. I offered them dessert, took them down to the pond to show them his so-called grave. I got myself behind them and shot them one by one with the loaded gun I keep down there at all times, just in case. Since I am incapable of synthesizing my own batch of hydrofluoric acid, obtaining enough of it has been the result of one minor miracle after the other. I think I’m out of minor miracles, and out of space for dumping waste as toxic as that. I know Mr. Boyle wouldn’t approve of my methods, but I believe that his associates, all four of you, betrayed him. Justice must be served!”

I look him straight in the eye. “Speaking of which: I have something of direct interest to you, Mr. Heinz,” I say. “My lien against The House of the Land trumps Mr. Boyle's last and final will any day. He owed me a large sum of money at the time of his death, and I will have you evicted within weeks. You may soon find yourself behind bars or in a mental asylum, where you belong.”

He looks at me with disbelief. “Show me the lien!” he barks.

“I don't have to,” I say calmly. “Go fetch the property records inside Mr. Boyle's study, and you'll see it for yourself. Naturally, it is a matter of public record.”

Since meeting me the last time around, Heinz was unable or unwilling to track me down. I hadn't stopped by for a visit either. He probably thought it was better that way.


Posted in Short stories | Leave a comment

Abigail George – The Waking

In the dream, Mariel felt as if she was hiking alone in the mountains. Something was said. Something was not said. An understanding passed between her and the mountains. She tramped on a twig, and a bird fluttered in front of her like thunder. It sounded like an alarm in the depths of the forest. And she felt her hidden sadness like a mirror, her reflection in a pool of water. She knew she was living in a fairy tale. Then she was in a room burying the castle. She looked through the keyhole. She thought of her laments, how she taught herself to breathe underwater. How her flat in adulthood, years after her mother had passed away, always felt like an autumn house. Leaves scattered on the floor at great risk. When she was younger, she heard her father crying in the bathroom. Her father's depression had annoyed her a great deal. She didn’t want to go in there. Didn’t want to, as they say, face the awful music. The scene was terrifying to her. She was just a child. She didn’t know how to cope, didn’t want to cope with the situation.

Her mother was lying on the bed, awake, smoking a cigarette, her hair held back from her face with a pink barrette and bobby pins, with the sheet over her face, pretending for her own sake that she could not hear him, either. Mariel stood there for a long while, outside their door, before going into her own bedroom to play New Order. Waiting for the reality of the music to cut into her own reality, she felt as if she was listening to the last words in the world, as if somehow her own world had come to an end. Her innocence too.

She later remembered how she had felt no sympathy and how, when she prayed in church, she felt like a robot calligrapher. She thought of the suddenness of the belief in God when she was baptised in the local swimming pool with her mother and father hovering in their late thirties. The day was pleasant. There were younger girls, prettier than she was. You could see they were popular and nice, not like the girls Mariel went to high school with. After the ritual, the three of them went straight home. They drove past Mariel's high school to their home, a modest one-story house which was some distance from the church.

Her mother drove the compact 4-door sedan. Her father looked at her sadly, and said, "Hallelujah, God is good!" He put his hand on his wife's knee affectionately, but she ignored them both. Just stared straight ahead, parked the car in the driveway, and went straight to the kitchen to smoke another cigarette, then make coffee in three mugs.

"My mug is chipped, Mother," Mariel murmured.

"Oh, rookie mistake," her mother answered breezily, blowing out the smoke from her cigarette. "What’s wrong with you? Find another mug yourself, then," her mother continued tersely. Mariel and her father just looked at each other. Her father tried to smile, shrugged his shoulders. Mariel felt like crying. She felt like throwing her arms up in the air in desperation, and yelling, "What the hell is the matter with the two of you? I want to be normal. I want a normal life. I want a normal father and a normal mother who love each other. I want to come home to normal. Not to have a banshee as mother, and a trick pony as a father." She began to have lucid dreams after that. After the baptism.


I am complex and reactive, the river seemed to say. I am detailed. Colour in my perspective, the sky said in return. I am layered like ice, said the ghost of the sunlight of the day that danced around her. "I believe I am repressed, that I am going in circles, that pain is the most normal feeling in the world," Mariel said in returning to the order and routine of the day. "The people we love the most push us far away!" she then said out loud to her reflection in the bathroom mirror.

Mariel moved out of her parents' house when she left for university. She thought of her mother’s breast cancer, years, how silence seemed to come upon her, how she never found the time to visit her father anymore after her mother’s death. She blamed him somehow. On the telephone, she would be pensive, and her father would be begging. That was her favourite part. "You could never be there for us" lay on the tip of her tongue. "You could never love us, mum and me, properly. Not the way she deserved to be loved. Not the way I needed to be loved. You left us before she left us. How did I get here, Dad? I want to know. When I thought I knew you so well? You didn’t even try."


"Not even once to get to know your own daughter." She’d have an imaginary barbecue with her dad, pretend conversations, long walks on the beach where they would just talk and talk. The dawn was already stale when the grownup Mariel decided to get up.

She thought of the wildflowers she had picked in the cemetery, how beautiful the day was. The mayonnaise from the potato salad on her father’s chin as he absentmindedly ate a ham sandwich in the church hall. All she could stomach was the split pea soup. People were always going on about how food was supposed to bring folks together in times of happiness and extreme sadness. She looked around her. Cousins she never grew up knowing had turned into young men and women. Uncles and aunts that had done a disappearing act on the three of them over the years feigned concern over Mariel and her father. "Your mother found God, never forget that, Mariel."

Her father had found her outside smoking a cigarette. "Can I bum one of those off you?"

"You don’t smoke, Dad."

"Well, it goes with the day, don’t you think? One won’t hurt. You shouldn’t be starting this, Mariel."

"Starting what?" Mariel snapped. Her father looked at her, that same look in his eyes the day she got baptised. She looked at him as well, blinking back the tears, and walked to her car.

"You’ll conceive. You’ll see, you'll live your own life," her mother had told her. Her mother had held Mariel’s hand at the hospital. She had looked closely at her mother, who was smiling at her in the bed in her pyjamas – thinner, paler, with no crown of hair.

"Look at me. Now, who would have thought I would have married, would have got out of Johannesburg, would have had a daughter? I was happy. I am happy, Mariel. And you?"

She smiled and said, "Yes, Mother, I’m happy too, but sad that we’re losing you."


She thought she was leaving her sorrows behind in the cemetery with the light of that day. She held onto her father’s arm as if she never wanted to let go. Drove them both to the church hall afterwards.

"Dad, put your safety belt on. Want to listen to Johnny Cash on the radio?"

Mariel got kissed on the cheek by male cousins and uncles that she had never seen before in her life. She got hugs from aunts with golden hair, who looked like her mother, then from her father, and telephone numbers were punched into cell phones. People promised to stay in touch and bring more food. Casserole dishes and bredies. "You need to eat at a time like this, dear," Mariel was told. You people need to have better tongues, Mariel thought to herself. Pack of wolves. One of the women was handing her father a napkin and a glass of iced tea.

"Come meet my sister," her father said.

Mariel shook her head. She felt rejected by the scene of the day. As day turned into evening, people still hovered. Cars and more cars. Foot traffic and more foot traffic. Neighbours asking her why she never said anything, asked for help when her mother had been diagnosed with cancer. They would have come. They would have offered to help. Relatives expressing surprise. Oh, her mother was just like her, never one to ask for anything, never one to ask for help. Not even when Mariel was a baby or when her husband had a brief stay in a mental hospital.

Mariel felt isolated, interloped upon, estranged from her family because of the way her mother chose to live her life. While observing her father speak calmly with the guests, she toyed with the idea of screaming at him, “Look at all these people and think about how many birthdays, gatherings, family functions we've both missed because of Mom!” Well, Mariel said nothing, silence being the only true manifestation of how proud she felt of being just like her mother, who guarded their privacy at all costs.

She went to the kitchen as the house emptied out and her father said his goodbyes to his family. She nibbled on a slice of apple crumble as the kettle boiled. Mariel's father was about to close the front door behind him when she suddenly put on her coat, grabbed her handbag, and kissed his cheek on the way out. ​​ 


About the author

South African Abigail George has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize (“Wash Away My Sins”), and Best of the Net awards for her poetry, which was published in Deaf Poets Society, and for an essay published in Synchronized Chaos. She is the recipient of two writing grants from the National Arts Council in Johannesburg, another from the Centre for the Book in Cape Town, and one from ECPACC in East London (the Eastern Cape Provincial Arts and Culture Council). She won her first writing competition for Upbeat Magazine (a national magazine in South Africa) while in high school.

She is a blogger (her blog is called African Renaissance, and she blogs with Goodreads, and also writes for Great Health Watch and Newslineplus). She is an editor, aspirant filmmaker and playwright, poet, essayist, chapbook, novelist, novella, grant, and short story writer. She briefly studied film at NFTS (Newtown Film and Television School) in Johannesburg.

She was educated in Port Elizabeth and Swaziland. She is the Contributing Editor for African Writer Magazine based in New Jersey, and an editor at Mwanaka Media and Publishing, which is situated in Zimbabwe. She has written op-ed pieces for local newspapers in the past, has written columns for the South African travel magazine Go, and has one forthcoming in Weg.

Her latest books are “The Scholarship Girl: Life Writing,” “Parks and Recreation,” “Of Smoke Flesh and Bone: Poems Against Depression” (Mwanaka Media and Publishing), and “Anatomy of Melancholy” (Praxis), a chapbook released in 2020. Her next books will be published by Scarlet Leaf Publishing and Gazebo Books. She was interviewed by the BBC Radio 4. In the meantime, she has worked on a gender-based violence screenplay. She also wrote for a symposium for one year for Ovi Magazine in Finland.

Her latest book is Letter to Petya Dubarova, which was released by Gazebo Books (Australia), and her publisher is Xavier Hennekinne. She is the editor of The Migrant Online, and was recently appointed as an editor for The Compendium. She is the Portfolio Head for Campaigns and Projects for the National Writers Association of South Africa, and is currently working on establishing satellite libraries and applying for funding.

She recently completed a creative writing course with the award-winning South African Writer Finuala Dowling called “I Remember,” a short course on writing from memory to brush up on and hone her writing skills.

Letter to Petya Dubarova was Pick Of The Week in The Sydney Morning Herald, Brisbane Times and The Age. It was mentioned in the August Gleaner 2022. She is the writer of twelve books. Four poetry books, one self-published collection of short stories, a book of life writing, two collections of short stories, two novellas, and two e-books available for free download from the Ovi Bookstore. Her African publisher is Tendai Rinos Mwanaka. Her Canadian publisher is Roxana Nastase.

She was a judge for a writing competition, keynote speaker, panelist, and ran a poetry workshop at the Mandela Bay Book Fair Roadshow in September 2021 . Her essay “The Case Of The Pelican” was chosen as one of Afrokritik’s 20 Remarkable African Essays for 2021. This year, she was invited to the Deep South Writing Retreat, and spent a week on a farm outside Makhanda/Grahamstown alongside Joan Metelerkamp, Siza Nkosi, Alan Finlay and Mxolisi Nyezwa. She was interviewed about her book “Letter To Petya Dubarova” by Professor Darryl David at the Madibaland World Literary Festival held in Richmond from the 2-5 November, 2022.

J.D. Salinger, J.M. Coetzee, John Updike, Ernest Hemingway, Rainer Maria Rilke and Sylvia Plath have had a major influence on her writing, as have Nadine Gordimer and Alan Paton’s “Cry The Beloved Country” to a lesser extent.

For additional information about her writing technique and literary influences, read this recent author interview.


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An Interview with Abigail George

NOVELTY FICTION – You have published a number of stories across different publishers and platforms. If someone wants to familiarize themselves with your work, what books and stories should they read first, and why?

ABIGAIL GEORGE – If you want to start at the beginning, then I suggest begin with my poetry. That is who I am. I am a poet first and foremost, but the language in the short stories speaks of the despair and hardship found in family life. My first three books Africa Where Art Thou, Feeding The Beasts and Winter In Johannesburg are available in the Kindle Store. My short stories are often bleak. In the Winter stories and the poetry in the Africa book, I write about political figures, love and romantic entanglement. The stories speak to people about a woman who has had a rather difficult upbringing. There is a sinister and dark unhappiness in her childhood that threatens to sabotage the discipline, will and faith she has for herself. She cannot face up to her own loneliness. There is an upheaval in her relationships. There is the strained mother-daughter relationship, the shadow of a father, the sister who has "made it," landed in Europe and made what seems a success of her life, but the sister is distant. Maybe the stories are successful since they aim for depicting the reality of a woman who has a lacklustre life, who has missed out on certain opportunities because of ill health, opportunities for a happy life, happy relationships with others because of a grim childhood filled with a neglectful mother, who abandoned her daughter to the wolves of the world. In most cases, in most stories, perhaps in all of them, the mother chooses the other daughter. The other daughter grows up, is sometimes happy, sometimes unhappy, dramas play out in her life, but she isn't damaged or deeply wounded by it. The middle daughter somewhat makes a success out of her life.

For someone who is interested in shorter introspective pieces, I would direct them to my blog. My characters are not happy people. They are almost always dissatisfied with their lives to a certain degree, and try to find a way out. But I do try to write life and soul into my characters. Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, and Vanessa Bell are real-life people. They have transformed me. Writing stories about their lives transformed me. All women are happy or unhappy in their own way. It can differ from individual to individual to varying degrees. Life taught me that, as do my characters and the women in my family. If you want to start with my life, begin with The Scholarship Girl.


NOVELTY FICTION – Your stories are often written in a subjective style that focuses on your female main character's point of view. She debates her life, values and relationships – as opposed to others debating her. Does your main character always hold the moral high ground, or can she be partially to blame for things not working out?

ABIGAIL GEORGE – Of course, the main female character's to blame, I reason. There are times, moments when she is tough, strong and mentally fit. The writing, my writing about her, restores her, her senses, energies; her powers are reinvigorated by love or work, overshadowed by her love, her relationships and work in these stories. If her life worked out, if there was a balance in her life that counteracted the bad stuff, the mistakes she makes in her thinking or over-thinking, in her simplifying the complicated nature of her relationships, not finding lasting happiness, she could attain that moral high ground but she fails to. So much unhappiness is hard to bear and cope with, but the protagonist in these stories finds a way, she finds her way, and it's the natural inclination to accept her lot in life, to show up for her life and to believe it will get better. That things will change. I think this state of unhappiness, this general display of not being in your personal comfort zone, reveals a deep yearning for acceptance, for truth and trust on the part of the reader. Accept me, the protagonist asks and says: If you do, I will offer you up truth. Trust me, the character asks.


NOVELTY FICTION – We recently published your short story entitled “Clarissa, Hector and Septimus Redefined.” Clarissa is 15, her male friends 1-2 years older. Clarissa is unhappy with how she was treated by them. With such a modest age difference, is exploitation even possible, or is it a matter of simple seduction as in “All is Fair in Love and War”?

ABIGAIL GEORGE – I think that there's submission, there is the individual who submits, and dominance and who plays what role in relationships. There is both exploitation and seduction in this story but varying degrees of both. At the end of the day, was Clarissa taken advantage of, was she genuinely loved and cared for by her male friends, was she the naive wallflower, events just playing out around her in her environment, and afterwards did she play the damsel in distress? This is what I am wrestling with as the writer. Clarissa is a toy, a plaything, and these situations can turn dangerous. Is she desired? No, she's toyed with, and the dangerous part comes in when she's discarded. She can't deal with that. It's too much for her to handle. She's rejected. When you're loved, it's different. You move differently in the world. She suffers. I don't think the boys are aware of this suffering, they are not aware of their cruelty and that their treatment of her is a game. It is nothing but a game to them. She is being used. Poor Clarissa, she means nothing to them. She badly wants attention. She badly wants to be desired. Neither of her male friends love her. She wants to be seduced. She has no understanding of the self, no understanding of her ego, and no understanding yet of the guilt trip. Her identity becomes a ​​ fractured identity. This is what happens to young girls, the loss of innocence in the developmental stages in these types of relationships. I think she wants to be corrupted. She is willing to engage in this behaviour, so therefore she wants to be corrupted. She wants to do away with childhood and childhood things and the nature of all of that.

I don't dislike Clarissa. I also don't feel sorry for her. If exploitation takes place, it's mostly her fault. In these situations, girls are supposed to know better. Already we know that there is no strong male father figure in her life. If there was, she would care more about herself and not have placed herself in this situation. This attempt of hers to want to please her male friends, to seek acceptance from them... I have to ask myself: what exactly is her motivation in the scheme of things, why does she care so much about their validation of her? Life doesn't treat girls like Clarissa very kindly. Not only do these young males reject her, she's also rejected by society and her mother. I think she's willing to be taken advantage of. The males are more interested in their own inner life world, anyway. She's confused and tragic in the sense that she is not the femme fatale. This is not the Disney high school fairytale ending. This is what happens when you don't understand what it means to be abandoned and you are not wanted in the male language.


NOVELTY FICTION – In your forthcoming short story “The Waking,” Mariel struggles to make sense out of her parents' behavior and blames them for creating a disharmonious family. If, hypothetically, she had confronted them, would they have been able to explain their behavior, or is it a lost cause?

ABIGAIL GEORGE – No, to me, for me as the writer, there would be no confronting them. It would be a lost cause. In my own relationships, sibling, parent, other confrontation was always a lost cause. Mariel would get absolutely nothing out of it. Her energy would be wasted on confronting these two individuals. I sometimes wonder why people have children in the first place, and to me it is this: they want someone to look after them in old age, or they want to be happy. They think having a child is easy, raising a child will be easier for them than it was for their parents. So, I am really fighting with my parents in this story. I am saying to them: you people thought this would be easy. It wasn't. I am angry at myself for my poor decision-making over a lifetime. I am confronting myself as Mariel confronts herself in the kitchen eating apple crumble. The house empties itself out of people, and she has a decision to make. Does she stay or does she leave? To live, how to live, is not the easiest decision to make in the world, and how do you make your way in the world after rejecting the one half of the people who raised you?


NOVELTY FICTION – Your writing style tends to be poetic, colorful and filled with delicate surprises. Some of your writing can be fairly abstract, such as lengthy streams of consciousness. What authors and poets inspired you to write like this, and what else have you done to develop such a distinctive style?

ABIGAIL GEORGE – I would say that it comes from the queen of stream of consciousness writing herself, Virginia Woolf. I think it started in high school. The building of my own technique and particular style came and was developed from myself reading widely, reading with a purpose in mind. I was heavily influenced by the confessional poetry of Anne Sexton, all of my English teachers in high school and the novels, then especially the poetry I was reading at the time. It started in high school, but even before that I aimed high – or rather, my mother aimed high for the both of us. My mother introduced me to speech and drama classes with Miss Marjorie Gilbey; and so the foundation was set in stone for the rest of my life, I believe. I received a kind of training in all my future writing from Miss Gilbey. I was acting on the stage, her stage, and I would recite poetry and monologues back to my mother and Miss Gilbey, but it was preparation for dialogue, conceptualisation, characterisation, and laying the groundwork for narrative.


NOVELTY FICTION – Anything else you would like to share with our readers?

ABIGAIL GEORGE – As a writer, I find that I tend to have a lot of issues with self-doubt and insecurity and that inevitably finds its way into the behaviour, the mannerisms and adverse childhood experience of my female characters. The males wear a kind of armour to protect themselves from the indecision of the woman, the fragile woman, the sad woman, and she's always complicated. Her relationships are always problematic. If you look at my poetry, the short stories, the writing itself, I take on the difficult subjects of loneliness and fear, and anxiety plays itself out with ripple effects in tandem with depression. The depression hangs like a cloud across the page. I think that although my characters might not find happiness, they do reach a certain level of satisfaction in their own lives. I have made it thus far, so I'll keep on going, is what the character tells herself inwardly. The female character overcomes her adversity, and she endures, she struggles, she encourages herself, and therein lies the triumph, but she survives through instinct alone sometimes. She finds her way.

Read Africa. Write Africa. Buy books. Invest in them. I have reached a point in my life where I buy books every month. Educate yourself by reading everything you can. We all have the power to do that. African writers, and writers in general, should read and read what is coming from the continent. As for writers in Africa, I believe we should be more supportive of each other and we should read one another's work. I hope Novelty Fiction's readership supports my books. They all speak to the lonely heart, the lost, the vulnerable and the dazzling heroine who doesn't wait upon anyone to save her.


© 2022 by Novelty Fiction. All rights reserved.

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Clarissa, Hector and Septimus Redefined – Introduction video

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Issue 15, Fall 2022

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