Book of the Month: At the Edge
Our June Book of the Month is an anthology of sci-fi and fantasy stories published by Paper Road Press.
Compiled by award-winning editing team Dan Rabarts and Lee Murray, and including a story by Arthur C. Clarke finalist Phillip Mann and foreword by World Fantasy Award winner Angela Slatter, At the Edge is a dark and dystopic collection from some of Australia and New Zealand’s best speculative writers.
From the brink of civilisation, the fringe of reason, and the border of reality, come 23 stories infused with the bloody-minded spirit of the Antipodes, tales told by the children of warriors and whalers, convicts and miners: people unafraid to strike out for new territories and find meaning in the expanses at the edge of the world.
Step up, as close as you dare…
Below is an excerpt from one of the stories in the collection.
The Island at the End of the World Paul Mannering
In the evening, the village gathers on the beach at sun-fall to watch the sky burn. Mother brings lumps of coconut meal and rice to eat. It’s padded together to make the sticky balls that leave grain-crumbs like tiny maggots on my fingers.
Sarny toasts fish on the embers of the fire while we sit with our backs to the glow, so as not to miss anything on the horizon. We eat, drink kava, and talk until the sun vanishes into the abyss and the sky lights up in rippling curtains of bright green, purple, and red. Amongst the shimmering waves of fire are streaks of white light. Mother says the streamers are the souls of the dead, passing through the veil and going to the beyond. I wonder if it hurts to burn like that once you are dead. Most nights you can see as if the sun was still shining and in the flickering fire of the dark sky everyone’s skin glows with the colours of a polished pāua shell.
I sit next to my friend Gilly and Mother approves. She talks about how Gilly and I will marry when we are old enough. I asked her once what marriage meant and she said it is having one special friend. I guess that means Gilly and I are married now, cos we’ve always been friends.
After a time, the sky-fire fades and Sarny scoops white sand onto the dying embers and snuffs them out. We go home, under the smear of the moon. Sarny says that the moon used to be like a coconut; round, white, and full of milk. Now it’s spread across the dark like a bird splat on a rock.
Our village is small, like the world, which is big, but not as big as it was. Sarny says you can go to the horizon, but then you will die because there is nothing beyond that. I didn’t understand what he meant, so I asked Mother. She said no one knows where the world went, but that the ocean around us is all there is.
They say my father went to the horizon. He paddled his canoe out through the lagoon and raised the sail and waved to the people watching on the beach. He took coconuts for food and drink. He took fishing hooks and lines. He took hope, and he took Mother’s heart. He never came back and now Mother is like copra, the dried coconut. Sarny doesn’t mind. He loves her even though she can’t love him back.
In the morning the sun comes back. Sometimes it rises up behind the village, other times it comes up in front. Some days are over quickly, others drag on forever. The sun doesn’t care. It doesn’t have anything important to do. It just wanders around.
The pigs wake me with their grunting. I give them left-over fish and coconut-rice balls. They squeal and push to get the best bits, though I try and share them out.
Bara, the sow, wriggles to get up from her litter. They are pumping her pig-udders for milk and she is hungry. I feed her a special mix of banana, coconut chunks and fish-meat, then I scratch her ears and she grunts and sniffs me for more food.
We are going to eat the piglets, but first they have to grow up enough. Sarny says we have to feed the pigs like we have to plant the fields. All these things keep us in food, for one day the sky might burn the sea and all the fish will die.
He says that happened before, when the moon died and the world was lost. The people of the village picked up so much fish they couldn’t eat it all. Lots of it went on to the fields and made the taro, the coconuts, and the bananas grow. Everything grows good in our fields because Sarny made people feed the ground with all the extra fish.
The canoes go out each morning to set nets and drag the fish from the water beyond the reef at the end of the lagoon. Sometimes they find things that aren’t fish. Sometimes the things that aren’t fish drag a fisherman out of his canoe and I guess he becomes a streak of light in the fire-sky at night.
When the pigs are fed, I walk down to the beach, past the coconut palms and the other huts. Gilly comes out of his hut and we burst into a race. He’s taller than me, even though we’re the same age, both born under the same fire-sky.
Gilly’s father got swallowed by a whale. He was in his canoe, going fishing, when a big wave came. He paddled through it and then the whale in the wave opened its mouth and the canoe went inside like it was a cave in a cliff at high tide. Swallowed him and his canoe whole. Whales scare me with their tentacles and the stink of their breath when they blow. I wonder if a whale ate Father, or if he really sailed off the end of the world.
I reach the water’s edge, the border between worlds, half a step behind Gilly. I push him in. By the time he’s come up, I’m swimming across the lagoon. There are little fish in the water, turtles sometimes, too. Looking down, we see crabs, snails, sponges, and things that should not be.
On the other side of the lagoon is the reef. Inside the reef, there is the village, the lagoon, the fields, the streams, and waterfalls. Inland, past the fields, there are the jungle trees and the high mountain where the carved stones move in their slow dance.
Rolling onto my back, I look towards shore and the mist shrouded mountain top. Raising my head higher, I see Gilly as he dives for something on the bottom of the lagoon.
I float, my head sinking back, feeling the cool water stroke my skin. The nudge of waves tells me that Gilly is coming closer. I try not to grin or squirm. Instead, I wait until I am sure he is close and then I flip over and splash him. Except it’s not Gilly coming up from underneath, it’s something with a pale face and dead eyes.
Its lips peel back and bubbles rise out of its mouth as long arms reach for me. I scream into the water and thrash, getting my arms and legs in order to swim. The easiest thing to do is dive down, past the thing coming up at me with bared teeth and slack grey skin.
I twist aside, feeling the graze of its clawed hands as I plunge. The surface water is warm but a body-length down, the cold grips like dread.
I’m fast in water, born in the shallows of the lagoon under the burning night sky while Mother wailed and the women sang waiata to call me forth from her body. Swimming hard, I pretend I’m a fish, faster than a whale, faster than a spear, faster than a wraith, zipping through the burning sky. No fish can catch me. Not even a dead one with white lips and teeth of polished grey stone.
I can’t see Gilly. I hope the white-faced thing didn’t get him. Grabbing a coral ledge, I pull myself under it, hiding like an eel. The seeweed swirls, dark fronds of brown and green reaching out to taste my skin, the pods along the stalks opening and the eyes inside turning to look at me.
The white-faced thing floats down, its head turning this way and that, while I lie still under the cover of the weeds, so scared I forget to breathe. The seeweed eye-pods look at the intruder, ever watchful, but unable to do anything.
After a bit, the strange fish swims towards the beach. It looks rotten, with ragged strips of grey skin waving in the current. I hope one of the older boys hunting along the shoreline sees it and stabs it with his fishing spear. When the coast is clear, I slip out from under the ledge and slowly rise to the surface.
Gilly yells and waves. He is standing on the reef, a big pāua in each hand. Good meat lies in their flat shells. I swim quickly and climb out onto the rocks, the spray of the big-sea waves splashing over us. Gilly hands me one of the shellfish and scoops the meat out of the other shell.
‘Didya see it?’ I ask.
The pāua shrieks in wordless terror until Gilly bites its brain off at the stem and spits it into the lagoon.
‘See what?’ he asks.
I strip the second pāua out of its protective shell and bite the brain off. At home, Mother fries the brains in coconut oil and sprinkles them with flakes of dried chili. Out here, we just spit them out.
‘Strange fish,’ I explain and bite into the firm meat of the pāua. It grips the rocks like a limpet, so they’re all muscle.
‘You’re a strange fish,’ Gilly replies.
‘Nah, there was a fish, with a weird head and it looked like it was dead, but still swimming.’
Gilly looks out into the lagoon. The water is emerald green and still in the sunlight. ‘Dead fish?’ he echoes.
‘Yeah. It looked half rotted, but still swimming.’
The sea, always such a safe place and a part of everything I know, now feels filled with unknown dangers. Gilly shivers as if he feels it too.
‘Maybe it washed over the reef in the high tide?’ Gilly says. We both look out past the breakers and the swell. The deep water is shades darker and the fishing canoes are laying their nets.
‘We should tell Sarny,’ I say. We should tell Sarny. He says he’s the smartest person in the village, so he must be.
‘Did it try and eat you?’ Gilly asks around a mouthful of pāua meat.
‘Maybe.’ It had teeth. Things with teeth always want to eat you. I tear a chunk off my own pāua and chew it.
‘Wanna work on the boat?’ Gilly asks, his pāua chomped down already.
‘Sure.’ The boat is our project. A canoe of our own, one we can take past the breakers on the reef and maybe, one day, sail to another island. Sarny says there are other islands, so there must be.
We stand together on the wave bashed coral, neither of us ready to dive into the lagoon and swim for the beach.
Gilly laughs, ‘You scared?’
‘Nah.’ I try to laugh too, but my throat has closed up.
‘We gonna stand here till high tide?’
I manage a loose smile. ‘You can wait till the canoes come in, ask them to rescue you.’
‘Or when they come by, you tell them you forgot how to swim,’ Gilly suggests.
‘Last one back has to sled the pig mud to the far field!’ I spring off the rock and into the lagoon. I dive deep and swim hard. Arms and legs curling and dragging me through the water. Faster than a spear. Faster than a striking fish. Faster than—
About Paul Mannering Wellington-based Paul Mannering’s voracious reading and writing habit began at age eight after his family’s black and white TV set blew up during the opening credits of an episode of Space 1999. This personal trauma and some odd reading material (Forensic medicine textbooks and years of Reader’s Digest) has shaped much of his writing since. His first sci-fi adventure novel Engines of Empathy won the Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best Novel.