Last Light on the Sage Flats
So I finally went and done it.
I published a collection of short stories.
Something I’d had on the long finger for a decade thereabouts.
And it’s out now and available in digital and paperback versions.
And the cover is a photo I took a few years ago now, on the Eastern Cape, where springboks bounded past just moments before the sun began to set. It’s one of my favourite photos, and it’s the background for my blog homepage (behind the cover of Unleashing the Pack ) and my youtube channel, as well as my personal facebook page.
And it’s part of the inspiration for the title story of the collection – 23 of them, all from various points in the places I’ve visited and lived in over the past thirty years, from home in Ireland, to Scotland, Madrid and other parts of Spain, to the USA. Of course, many could have been written anywhere you find humans.
Sometimes short stories are perhaps more prone to being analysed for signs of the writers own life and ideas. When writing a novel there’s always a little incident from life you can put in – usually only a few people pick up on them, and they’re like Easter eggs, in a way. With short stories the incident is most of the plot, and so some of these might seem like they’re just me putting down pieces of my life I considered worth recording. But they’re not. There might be a germ of an idea engendered by something that I saw or heard, but the rest is pure speculation on my part, putting my ideas into the being I created on the page, or more often, imagining what ideas such a person might have.
So I hope you enjoy them for what they are, a sketch of a growing body of prose sculpted by an amateur who aspired for self-teaching to reach pinnacles he hasn’t quite attained yet.
Sunflowers on Steroids
Here’s a short story for your spring, now that we see the flowers growing like they’re on steroids – and they are, of course – for a flash fiction challenge about invasive species – a topic I’ve talked about before….
Always said them scientists would mess everythin’ up, playin’ round with Creation like they was God.
The environmental beatniks said it too, course, but they said all kind of whatnot, like the weather was changin’, that we didn’t listen much to them guys. Joel McCallum, though, he reads the scientific papers, and he said they reckoned the canola plants’d be the ones that did it, them being so common and close to weeds anyway. He said the genetically modified canola would mix with the field mustard plants, and lead to a superweed that nothin’ could get rid of. The idea of sunflowers takin’ over like they was on steroids, well, we none of us predicted that.
What we never saw comin’, either, was losing our land to the federal government after trying so hard to keep independent from them assholes in DC.
We bought the land fair and square, set up our town ten years beforehand. We were self-sufficient by then, hundred per cent, and all set for the apocalypse, should it decide to turn up. We never did think it’d turn out this way.
It was the federal government’s fault, though, too. Always knew that would be true. They were the ones invited that crazy sonbitch to plant those damn sunflower plants out our way. Gave him permission to use federal land we used to graze cattle off, not twenty miles from town. Well, we didn’t think no sunflowers’d stand the shallow soil there. No depth at all, after the dustbowl years took it clean away. Even the grass dried up when it didn’t rain in late spring. We didn’t think the plants would stand up in the wind, first time we went out there and they told us what it was they were growin’.
Joel tried to explain what they’d done to the sunflowers – struck in some genes from a creeper, a vine of some sort that was supposed to only change the roots from the deep taproots sunflowers supposed to grow, into wide spreading roots that’d keep the plants upright and get them enough water from what rains came. They’d spread the seeds out farther than normal to compensate. Well, Joel didn’t know what way they’d messed up – whether they’d put in the wrong piece of string or if the gene did more jobs than just make roots of one sort or the other, but mess up they did, good and well. Plants grew up stringy and creeping; stretched along the ground, covering the empty patches between plants till it was just a sea of green, with all trace of the rows they’d been planted in gone. The flowers were small, but each plant had four or five ‘stead of one. We was amazed that first year. The scientists just took notes. They harvested some, but with the way the plants were all higgledy-piggledy, they missed half the seed heads.
Course, we didn’t like to let the food go to waste. We was self-sufficient, but it’s a sin to waste such bounty as the Lord places before you. We planted some in our own plots – and planned to keep plantin’ it, till we realised it didn’t need no plantin’. The wind came through one night, the way it does, and the seeds flew everywhere on it. Next year, it was everywhere. It invaded the wheat fields, covered the town. It was kinda pretty at first. We used the oil for our trucks, couple of years. But we soon saw it was gettin’ serious when it covered the forest floors, started cloggin’ the creek, and broke half the corn plants before they got to cobbin’. It wrapped around everything – I mean everything – like vines, like morning glory, or that Japanese knotweed and them other invasive species they’re always goin’ on about. These creepers blocked out the light from every other plant, till there were was nothin’ else we could grow.
Well, we thought we could at least use the oil to cut and burn it out, but eventually, much as it galled us to do it, we had to ask the federal government for help. It was their problem, all said and done.
They came, in helicopters, since the roads were practically overgrown by then. One fella told Joel they was comin’ anyhow, whether we asked them or not. Their scientists told them to shut down the whole operation – and more. They was goin’ to move us – would’ve paid us to up and move sticks someplace else. But what we asked for help, they just took us out, told us to gather up our belonging, and make damn sure it was all clean of vegetative material, they called it.
We did as was asked – we weren’t no fools, wishing this upon everyone, or anyone else. That would be a sin not even God might forgive. Besides, we weren’t ready for this kind of apocalypse. Nor were we ready for any kind of reckonin’ without our land, our shelters, our supplies.
When they took us up in the helicopters, we saw them start the firebombin’ straight off. That shit smelt like the end of the world. No wonder them Vietnamese hated us, using that shit on them. I asked the pilot how much they was going to burn. Five thousand square miles, he told me. Hell of a lot of Napalm man. Of course, we had some Napalm ourselves, just in case. When I saw the town explode, I thought, well, there’s an end to it. We might not survive the next apocalypse, but at least we helped the world avoid this one.
That’s what I thought. That’s what we all thought, true as the Lord is lookin’ down on me.
Thing about sunflowers, though, even these crazy ass ones, was the seeds were real tasty. The kids in town used to go round all day, biting on them and spitting out the shells. Well, how can you put the blame on the shoulders of a little kid, not eight year old, instead of the scientist that made them seeds? She meant t’ eat them, of course, and all would’ve been well. But when she saw the explosion from all the stuff we’d in storage, well, she jumped so high she near enough fell out of the damn chopper herself. Only natural the bag slipped out her hand.
The end of the summer
So August wasn’t so treacherous this year. I got the final edits and cover art for my second novel, Five Days on Ballyboy Beach ready for its release on the 19th, I did some more rewriting of a novella and had it accepted for publication in the new year with Tirgearr Publishing, and I wrote a short story based on my safari in South Africa last year, called At Last Light on the Sage Flats, which will be the title story to a collection of short stories I’m putting together for the end of this year. Oh, I finished that first draft of The Ecology of Lonesomeness, too.
I also started the sequel to Leaving the Pack – not quite sure of the title yet, but the working title is Leading the Pack.
And I am three-quarters way through reading The Count of Monte Cristo, which I have had on my shelf for about twelve years! I didn’t get around to season five of Breaking Bad yet, though – but the autumn is coming (feels like it even here, too – we didn’t have what you’d call a Spanish summer this year), so I’ll get to that, when I have a second draft done of Lonesomeness….
Meanwhile, here is one of the few poems I had a chance to finish, about doing very little….
Getting Old, Slowly
Along the ridge a row of windmills go slowly round.
You can hear them when the wind turns south.
Twenty-five years they’ve ringed the valley
And show no sign they’re soon to fall.
Similarly, we inhabitants stand around,
Eating from our gardens here, seasonally
Watching flight of swallows and their fellows,
Observing numbers (often) ebb and (seldom) flow,
Grass get cut instead of grazed and oak trees grow tall,
New abodes are built and others crumble to the ground,
Sitting upon a porch of an evening, the sky yet
As wonderful as youth, and starry as can still get,
Achieving only that act of getting old slowly.