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'Valiant Dust' – Prema Arasu

On The Page is a series of writing and poetry submitted to the Centre for Stories as part of the 2019 Centre for Stories Inclusion Matters Hot Desk Fellowship.

Prema Arasu is a Perth-born emerging writer and PhD Candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Western Australia currently living and working on Noongar Boodjar. Get to know more about Prema here.

Valiant Dust is set in the fictional city-state of Morgancast, an East-Asian inspired port city somewhat based on Hong Kong and Singapore under British Rule. The main character, Lock, is a witch, and finds himself implicated in the political affairs of the state while struggling with a personal crisis of identity and gender. The excerpt is set towards the beginning of the novel in which Lock has been expelled from boarding school for an incident involving witchcraft. Witchcraft is considered a feminine profession, and Lock’s interest in it places him outside of the gender binary, which in the hyper-masculine microcosm of boarding school means he is subject to bullying and exclusion. He is displaced and is dealing with depression, which in the world is understood as ‘melancholy’. The seasons in my setting are based on the four humours – black bile (melancholy), blood (sanguine), yellow bile (choleric), and phlegm (phlegmatic), which also reflects Lock’s emotional journey across the book. This excerpt takes place in the melancholic season.


[EXTRACT]

Valiant Dust by Prema Arasu

At new moon the melancholic season gripped Morgancast and Lock took on a chill that penetrated his bones. He layered as many of Effie’s old jumpers as he could and at night, he covered himself in blankets. He had come to the city with a trunk of white school shirts, grey school trousers, a grey school jumper with his house stripes, a grey school jacket also with his house stripes, a house tie, a house scarf, seven sets of grey school-issued socks and seven pairs of grey school-issued underwear. Even his pyjamas had the school crest on them, and they were grey. He also had a grey striped rugby jumper with WIDDERSHINS 13 embroidered on the back.

He had left all but one of his textbooks behind – Metaphysical Applications: A General Introductory Course – which he wasn’t able to part with. Wyvern College had required their students to possess one suit for formal events, and Lock still had his hat, which was all right, and his grey frock coat, which was too small. He spent most of his days drifting around the coffeehouse in his socks, pyjama bottoms, rugby jumper and dressing gown. Effie offered to buy him a new set of day clothes so that he could stop looking like, in her words, ‘a sad ghost’, but he declined. She had better things to spend her money on.

A letter arrived for him. It was from his mother.

He didn’t open it.

Then another, from his father.

Then, a semaphore, then several more.

He ignored them.

‘I’m going send a reply’ said Effie. ‘They should at least know where you are.’

In the early hours of the morning, when the streets were all but dead, he visited the bathhouse and immersed himself in scalding hot water until he felt faint. Lock had only ever used a private bath back at home at the Apiary, and then the horrible communal washrooms at boarding school, where discretion was not an option and teasing was obligatory. Seven years of boarding school should have made Lock immune to the mortification of bathing around others, but he still preferred to be alone.

Bathhouses in Morgancast, even those in the trading districts, were well-maintained and open to the public at all hours. More often than not, Lock discovered, they were attached to a temple so that worshippers could perform ablutions before prayer. The bathhouse Lock favoured was next to the Central Shipyards Temple of Monotheism, which was more of a shelter for the destitute than a place of worship.[1] The water was steaming, heated by deep volcanic activity and brought forth by natural subterranean channels. He scrubbed his skin raw and avoided his catching his reflection in the mirror. Without his spectacles, Lock couldn’t see much more than an orange blur anyway. He knew his hair was getting long, and he could feel nascent stubble on his chin.

Sometimes, in the early hours, young men – in couples or in small groups – would come in, clearly having just been at the clubs. Women too, from what he could hear through the dividing wall. One such night, Lock had been soaking himself in one of the pools for the better part of an hour and was starting to feel a little less horrible than usual when two well-dressed men came through the curtains and started removing their evening finery. They washed their bodies and stepped into the larger pool across the room, the one with a broken mermaid fountain with a missing head. One of the men was fair and well-muscled, the other was smaller in build, pretty, with a full chest of dark hair. They sat close together in the warmth of the bath, and the larger man massaged the shoulders of his partner, who had been assessing Lock with an interested gaze. He winked.

Lock flushed, or perhaps it was the heat of the steam. He got out of the bath, cupping himself self-consciously. He dried off quickly, dressed, and left.

In these quiet hours before dawn, after the last gambling-hell patrons had stumbled home and before the fishermen would take their boats out, Lock acquainted himself with the surrounding streets of the city-state that had become his refuge. During the day the winds were almost unbearably strong, swallowing the shouts of the fishermen and the racket of the floating markets, carrying them over the mountains and releasing them in the clouds. But the depths of the night were eerily silent, a void of heavy interminability and the distant, almost undiscernible crash of the black waves upon which shimmered the broken, eternally disturbed reflection of the moon. No lights illuminated the tenement windows as inhabitants nestled in the warmth of each other’s embrace, safe from the silence.

Sometimes there was a lamplighter boy, no more than thirteen years of age, who wore shabby clothing and boots that were coming apart. The boy patrolled the streets with a ladder and a long wick and extinguished the lamps as the sun came up.[2]  Sometimes Lock walked with him, but he didn’t know his name.

There was a cat that Lock saw often at night. She was all black aside from the left side of her face, which was tabby orange, the contrast perfectly split in two right down the middle of her nose. One eye was blue and the other was green. Sometimes, when it was raining heavily, Lock would let her into the coffeehouse, where she would lick her fur dry and sleep by the dying fire.

Like the fishermen, the bakers would rise early to start their ovens. There was a popular bakery in the Silk district called Olisbokollix where Effie liked to buy pastries. She loved cakes almost as much as Lock did, or at least used to, before his appetite went missing. Lock promised himself that he’d take her there for tea as soon as he had enough money saved.

Lock forced himself through the daily motions of keeping himself alive. Eating when he could, bathing when he could. Going to bed was easy, falling asleep was hard, waking up was harder, getting out of bed was hardest. He would often awake and forget where he was, and consciousness would come to him in a slow trickle that began with nothing but a cloud of despair; an undirected sense of emptiness before he could even remember where he was and why. He’d struggle, for a few moments, to remember why he felt as hopeless as he did, and then it would become clear as he opened his eyes and saw the ceiling of his small attic room, the dark curtains that shut away the sea.

As a child he had loved the city. His parents had to occasionally meet partners or investors, and they’d take the train in together and stay at The Kraken Hotel. The hotel was the biggest building Lock had ever seen, even bigger than the Wyvern College Assembly Hall. It must have had a thousand rooms and the foyer had a giant golden Kraken-shaped fountain that spouted water from the tips of its tentacles. He had revelled in the excitement of it; he loved the lights and the sheer variety of people to be seen. He knew that many people from all over the world came to Morgancast to trade or to start new lives, and the wealthiest and most famous of them would often pass through The Kraken Hotel. In the evenings, his parents would take him to the opera or to restaurants where they’d eat all kinds of food he’d never heard of, like good luck noodles and tiger paw buns. Lock loved trying new foods, and there was always something new to try in the city, which was famous for its innovative cuisine.

Sometimes, on these trips, he would spend time with Effie and her family, who had a townhouse in the Silk District. There was an old bookshop that he loved going to because they had books they didn’t have in the library in the Apiary or at the local Temple. They’d have books for children, books about pirates and witches and detectives and fairies. He’d save up his red packets for a whole year then spend it all on one go, but he’d have enough books to last him until next time. He loved walking along the coastal path and watching the ships come in and taking guesses as to what they were carrying – spices, tea, stolen treasure. Once, Effie took him to a Judy & Punch but it made him cry, so she bought him ice cream, even though it was below freezing.

Even though he was used to the finer parts of the city, the Shipyards had their own wretched beauty. The thousand-morgan pier, crusted with barnacles, extended past the reef to the edge of the Fathomless Sea, where the arched jawbone of a silver whale, almost fifty morgans high, marked the entrance of the city.[3] When the tide was high, as it often was in the melancholic season, the sea rose above the pier so that it was if the jawbone was coming out of the waves. Lock used to imagine that it was the skeletal ghost of a whale seeking revenge against its killer.[4]

He knew that he should not be as desperately unhappy as he was. He tried, he really did, he watched the ships come in from his bedroom window but felt nothing, the thought of ice cream made him sick, as did the glittering sight of The Kraken Hotel from across the Morgan River. He visited the bookshop on his very first voluntary diurnal outing and edged his way between the dusty shelves, waiting for even just a glimmer of something close to joy, something like what he had felt in the past, but found nothing save for a vague sense of unbelonging.

He started letting the cat sleep on his bed.

She started leaving dead rats on his pillow. He appreciated the gesture.

Effie sent Lock on errands around the city, to his dismay. He went to a poppy den called Yaipan to track down a debt owed, then to a different poppy den called The Gate of a Hundred Sorrows to pay a debt owed. Effie did not deal in poppy, but she associated with those who partook, namely, smugglers, who supplied her coffee beans. Lock delivered mail and picked up heavy sacks from shady warehouses that were labelled ‘POTATOES’ but smelled like coffee. Effie collected donations of food and clothing and sent them to the temple, which she had Lock take over on a regular basis. He ended up at the temple often, but never felt like going in for evening worship. At boarding school, daily prayer had been rigorous – once before breakfast and once before dinner – without it, his life felt wildly unstructured, and time became meaningless.[5]

More semaphores from his parents arrived, and one letter from Wyvern College. It made Lock feel ill, so he didn’t open it. Until a month ago, he’d had his life planned out for him. Seven years of boarding school, then he’d pass his exams, then go to Hallowed Morgan University and study Law, or Enterprise, or Agriculture – it didn’t really matter – then national service, then help manage the Apiary as he worked his way up to an Officer’s position. An unremarkable career fit for an unremarkable boy. And now he had nothing except a school uniform that was too small.


Footnotes

[1] The inhabitants of Morgancast follow over one hundred religions. The largest religion, with over one million adherents including the Morgan Morgan himself, is Temple of Monotheism. Most worshippers of the One God agree that They were the first human and creator of all things including Themself. The central text of the faith is The Lost Book of Mortality. ‘Lost’ is a misnomer; the Lost Book has in fact been ‘found’ over a hundred times over the last six millennia, and over a thousand different variants remain in circulation, differing wildly in length and content. The Morgan version, a translation of the Chance Manuscript written for the Morgan Morgan by The Thirteenth Mandate in the Year of the Sea Serpent, which takes the form of a book of children’s fairy stories, is the most commonly followed variant in Morgancast. It has been criticised by religious scholars for prioritising iambic triameter over accuracy. ‘Religions of the City-state’, Department of Innocuous Data Collection and Very Large Numerals Quarterly Report, Morgancast National Archives, Year of the Scorpion, vol. 54, p. 2254.

[2] The Shipyards district, the Warehouse district and the Fishmarket are the only remaining districts to still have gas lamps. The Minister of Technology and the Department of Urban Beautification are pushing for city-wide electric lights, but these efforts have been met with protests from The Guild of Lamplighters, who claim to employ many at-risk youths in poorer districts who would otherwise turn to crime or be at risk of destitution. DePlume, N. ‘Lamplighter Guild once again at risk of shutdown’, Octavo, Vol. 81, Year of the Viper, p.28.

[3] The Thousand Morgan Pier is eight-hundred and seventy-one morgans in length, with the length of one morgan being the height of the Morgan Morgan in the present year.

[4] The Whalebone Arch is made from the jaw of a silver whale slain by Morgan Lex XVI in the Year of the Tunicate. Lex XVI was an accomplished harpoonist and hunted whales for sport. He is considered largely responsible for the total eradication of the silver whale. See Vol. 93, ‘Silver Whale’. Encyclopaedia Morganica Vol. 33, ‘Lex XVI’, p. 956.

[5] Wyvern College is a K-12 boarding school for boys that adheres to the Temple of the One, and teaches the Monotheistic tripartite values of Intellectualism, Excellence, and Unity. Students must adhere to the Monotheistic religion, although exceptions can be made in cases of high academic potential; however, Infidels (non-Monotheists) must take part in all worshipful practices while at Wyvern. ‘Information for future students’ in Wyvern College Prospectus, Year of the Snow Leopard, p. 9-10.

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