Illustration by Matt Weismantel
The Buckram Carcass | Alexander Tkaczyk
The Middle East.
It wasn’t the frayed weave of Uncle Sam’s heavy canvass walls that made the boy soldier feel so sad, though kind was his pitiful gift. No! Neither was it the vacillating hands of the whimpering children, learning the cruel choice between sound or sight. No! It was but the way the teacher gently touched his cheek as he moved her to the floor. The terror in her eyes did not belong to her in the moment; it was but the reflection of his own. He tugged pathetically at her cotton bargaining. This day was to be her last as a woman and his first as a man. And she whispered, "But what kind of man shall you become? A good boy you are, you shall not succumb to the shadows of these thugs above us." Her hand trembled as she seductively removed a crimson hair-bow atop her head and made comfortable with Libertas strands, a sanctuary in which to hide his shame. He seized her hands; she held his. He cried tears of pain; hers ran with joy. "Struggle I will not, love you I will. Hurt me you do not, love me you will." The nature of he held them close; the kindness of she held them closer.
An extraordinary young English teacher, she had no interest in preparing England’s "little darlings" for economic participation. And later, having broken the hearts of her adoring parents, left guessing her silhouette through the frosted partitions of the departure hall, she would eventually learn to care even less for re-tuning the larynx of the diaspora. Month after month, each camp was predictable as the next. Even to the least astute, the true scale of madness in the conflict was immediately understood; it is quite something to watch a shell- shocked child shake irrepressibly whilst learning the colloquial burp "One fish’n’chips, please." She feared that the warranty of such linguistic exports would eventually lead to the amnesia of a generation. The young humanitarian began to ponder about the forgotten children, who might forget.
Long before orgasms and bills, cut knees and nettle stings, even before letters formed words, there was the stench of old Dziadziu. Nursed under January’s layers in the back room of the house, Dziadziu took ten months to die. Fat fingers turned thin, his rings were the first to go, and by March, those rare miniature porcelain cups had gone too, although one was dropped during the sibling heist. June saw a surprise visit from an unfamiliar uncle, who meticulously inspected the stamps on the silver and the coloured ribbons of the decorated valour. Month by month, the dying man’s world grew smaller with each visitor. By October, no longer held close by the glass clutch of its loving antique frame, the once cherished photograph of his childhood sweetheart was found face down on the floor. All was now gone, and by November, so was he. Dziadziu’s story had been erased by squabbles and cash, a false belief the young girl would soon recant. Less than a week later, on her maiden walk to preparatory school, she glanced at the remains of a familiar book crowning a rubbish heap at the end of the driveway. The book’s title, along with its author, was inconsequential, as were the pages of mildew and decay. However, its two-tone appearance cut by stagnant sunlight prompted a vague memory of where it sat for many of its final years. Why on the shelf, of course, right next to those pretty little porcelain cups, a little girl’s cups! "But Fairies don’t drink tea with grownups," she muttered under her breath. Still visible despite the rot, the indelible stain of a waning blood-moon bared the hallmark of a tilted wine glass. Her forensic thought began snatching at vignetted memories. Something troubled the old man. He sits alone in the company of many, balancing the surface tension from the edge of conversation to the horizon of his glass. Christmas celebrations, an abundance of food, oddly wrapped gifts, that "vicious fucking dog" who father imprisoned in the downstairs bathroom, and the giggles of the children scheming to let it out. Adult laughter, drunk laughter, the exaggerated sound of Dziadziu’s laugh, his crippled hand, the story of the factory and the story of the lathe. The bell sounds in the distance, and Mother teases her pace with a punctual pull. Her neck almost breaks to the sight of a small circular sticker peeling proudly on the wilted spine. It reads: Crocodile Smile. The little girl’s first dental check-up, the dentist’s thick-framed glasses and the magnification of his eyes. All these things tell her everything she needs to remember. All these things tell her everything she needs to know. Everything, right down to those dirty hands between her legs and the dentist’s words, "I’m sorry, Dziadziu, but this room is awfully crowded, to the waiting room you must go." Everything!
And so, she replaced the children’s text of foreign dreams with the cheapest of handmade buckram-clad books. She claimed that expensive gloss prints were a cheap facade and that dust covers are a waste of time for a time of waste. Leather held temperature, but buckram was her favourite; the cloth and resin-bind could tell a story in ways the other formats could not. "If you look closely enough, there are always two stories to a book; one can be found inside its cover, the other lives on the fabric of the cover itself." She would pass her own books around to the children and gesture each, in turn, to smell them, "Where has this book been?" she would enquire. "How was it held, and by whom?" pointing out the antiquity within the creases, the clues in the stains and the witness in the marks. Before long, the children began filling their blank pages. At first, it was drawings, then pressed flowers appeared next. Hair, sand from the floor and the tracings of bullet holes sprayed up the walls. They ate with their books, and they slept with their books. They celebrated the rips, the scribbles and repairs. They trod, and they tore, dropped and made wet. And when friends were taken, some would have two; the graphite bevelled letters of poor Damir were still visible behind an opportunistic Qasim. And long after their teacher had moved on, they continued to fill their books. They filled them with everything they needed to remember. They filled them with everything they knew. Everything, right down to where their teacher was going, what she looked like and what she planned to do. Everything!
The thugs drifted invisibly through the village on the tails of their own gun smoke. Unlike his destitute father and consequential double amputee brothers of nineteen and twenty, the thirteen-year-old boy with two hands in the air would offer more utility than threat. And for the next three of his short formative years, the adolescent amounted to a heavy-brass mule, tied to his captor by a chain of lies and driven incessantly by the words "listen and obey." A boy soldier is emerging.
Later that year, in a region that nobody cares to know about, hidden in an even lesser-known place of scree and hopelessness, the deuteragonist is unaware she is closely watched with predatory patience. And from out of the darkness on a ridge line vantage, high above the place where the children sleep in wait for the rescue of tomorrow, five silhouetted thugs pierce the midnight blue and begin racing ahead of the katabatic alarm. Again, once more, alone with personal frustration, the heavy brass mule found himself in their perpetual elastic wake. He hurried his way by the light of several fires that sprang up in the darkness, arriving at a scene of chaos, third place to that same useless breeze that had lost first place to the thugs. One tent remains. It is here, presented on a stretchered canvass made of foreign aid, his moment appeared in front of him like that of a vivid renaissance masterpiece.
(Pictured front-right) A dishevelled young teacher reaches out toward a boy soldier. In the focal point of the scene, a crimson hair-bow can be seen concealed between the opposing hands of the two main characters as they touch. Given the powerfully disturbing nature of her unstoppable fate, and in an attempt to prevent terror from poisoning his sexual awakening, she commits the most profound selfless act by sacrificing her own dignity to preserve his innocence. (Far-right) A senior figure with a kind face and matching smile extends an arm parallel to his captor’s; it carries a more sinister invitation. (Rear-left) Angry subordinates stare contemptuously at the beaten infidel. (Front-left) The protagonist confronts his victim with a deceptively confident demeanour, a facade intended for the benefit of his oppressors. A keen eye will see his true image appear as a reflection in the teacher’s eyes. (Rear-right) A small group of pupils sob inconsolably into their books. Some are too scared to listen, some too scared to look; they naively await the comfort that never comes.
...The boy soldier fastened his fatigues, and one by one, the thugs moved in.
The flies arrived early the next day and harassed the smouldering corpses. They fidgeted for hours, pausing only to drink from the weeping corners of the boy soldier’s mouth. Unlike the dead, he awoke at first to the colour of nuclear orange glowing painfully through the backs of his eyelids. Bulging slices of sun then began bursting out from the shimmering rocky plane as his swollen purple eyes split open like the fragile skin of a ripened plum. The earth rolled further east until the sun fell off the horizon to the west, pulling with it that awful day and the dark shroud of night. Abandoned by the last of his shadow, he lay alone in the miserable company of his own thoughts. His only reference to the passing of time was a world that turns against a backdrop of fading stars. And flung far from the drama, like the spread of a hopeful seed, he noticed the remains of a book, a blue buckram carcass devoid of its inky glyph guts. Its familiar textile-resin face exhibits subtle saline rings of evaporated dreams and phonographic scars cut by nails of the ill-fated. Prone but not yet dead, his starving stylus fingers sweep back and forth over the fabric format replaying the teacher’s posthumous analogue, again and again. The terrifying screams increase with internal amplification, a maddening prelude to the requiem of quarrelling bullets that could be heard in the distance. The unbearable volume of delirium tore the thin membrane of his thoughts, spilling the contents of his mind out onto the frigid surface of space above him. And from here, he sees his loving mother, albeit briefly. He sees his father paralysed by loss and his two brothers mutilated by the poverty that ensued, his teacher, the book, the hair bowtie, love. He sees the children’s tears fall until the end of time, each soaking into the cobalt blue buckram, each creating concentric circles that propagate outwards with a diminishing interstellar twinkle.
A chroma of fantastic colours breaks the seal of the celestial sphere, and the theatre of delirium is over. An abandoned khaki pupa lays empty, drying under the gentle glow of a new morning sun. The soldier is dead, and the boy is now free.
In the shade of the mountain, the jasmine flourishes in abundance more than ever before, and the mosaic peacock shimmers peacefully in the cool of the fountain waters. The elderly, to which there are few, began to sing stories to the children of everything they knew. And they all sang of their late teacher and the first songs that were sung. These songs taught them everything they needed to remember. These songs taught them everything they needed to know. Everything, right down to the teacher’s name, Damir, and his starch pressed collar with a fixed crimson bow.
Alexander J. Tkaczyk is a Welsh-born writer of flash fiction who resides in South East QLD. He is completing a Bachelor of Education majoring in Physics at Southern Cross University. His debut piece of fiction, The Buckram Carcass, acknowledges the lost generation of the Syrian conflict.