Grailing, Vol 1., No. 4
Fall, new short fiction from A. J. Collins
Wish, A numinous(?) story from A. J. Collins
Opportunities Missed; Another Perchance, part 4 of 4 in the Orang Laut series by Captain Warren Blake
150 Novels..., a Literary List curated by Poet-in-Residence Ben Niles
by A. J. Collins
Carlos wobbled. Mid-way across the tightrope and twenty seven meters up in the canopy of the big top tent, he lurched to the left. The crowd sucked in a breath. But they knew it was part of the act. There’s always a wobble and always midway. Those performers are giving the people what they want. A teaser of tragedy, a tempting tremble, the delicious promise of disaster. His right foot twisted at the ankle, his toes gripped the wire. There was no safety net. Adrenaline rushed through the onlookers. The hair on their arms quivered and rose. Goosebumps. Everyone imagined. Do tightrope walkers ever really fall? What would that be like to see such a thing? A boy wondered with perverse delight, would he splat with a thud like a watermelon? Would his eyeballs shoot out of their sockets? Would there be blood? Someone would shriek, “My God!” Then, there would be a moment of paralysis before instincts kicked in, before paramedics arrive, before Carlos’ exotic looking wife runs in, clutching a golden heart shaped locket at her throat. She’d crouch over him, cradle his cracked head, weeping; her face contorted, lamenting in some language they don’t recognize—maybe Romanian. He over-corrects. The long balancing pole dips crazily left. He’s on one leg now. Teetering to the left. No one has exhaled. The crowd leans a bit right. Surely, it’s an act. But they sort of half want it - the fall, the calamity, the thrilling shock, not in their own lives which they prefer on an even keel. Their own lives should be all hunky dory and smooth sailing, bluebird days. They’ll buckle their seat belts for the ride home. But here, they’ve paid good money for someone else to poke death in the eye. Someone says it aloud, “Fall!” Another voice chimes in, “Fall” and another, till the whole crowd chants up at Carlos. Has this thrown him off for real? The wire shudders right, left, right, left, it’s suddenly bouncing. His lower body matches the beat, his torso is still. There is a grim tautness to his mouth. The ends of the pole trill up and down. Fall! Fall! Fall!
There will be relief and disappointment when he recovers and nimbly rockets to the platform at the other side. He’ll bow with a flourish. The applause will be polite but there won’t be much to talk about on the way home. That kid who imagined the tightrope walker falling to smash like a watermelon rides home with his mother and father. With his hands jammed deep in his pockets, he’ll grumble, “would’ve been cool if he fell.” His mother will frown at him, “No, that would’ve been terrible.” The father will say that people should be ashamed of what they did. He won’t admit he joined in. In the end the paying crowd gets what they want. In their imagination: they witness Carlos falling, hear the deathly thud, contemplate a lifeless corpse, crushed skull and measure their lives against his. And - that’s the real skill of the tightrope walker. Those performers know us.
by A. J. Collins
It was a big night for Anto and the boys. They were just starting to sober up, as the sun rose over the beach by the wharf. Marcus was coming with coffees. Davo peed in the bushes. Dan stripped off for a quick dip, hoping the cold seawater would bring him back from the dead. The buck’s was a bloody ripper. Sitting on the seawall ledge drinking coffees, they waited for the ferry to take them back to the city - home to flatmates, missus or mums. The only other soul around was a dero riding a scant rusted-out bicycle. He pulled up alongside. “Er, ya got a smoke?” He enquired, somewhat redundant as Anto puffed away on a durry. With the price of cigarettes, he pretended not to hear him. The Dero persisted. “I’ll give you a wish for a fag.” The boys cracked up. “Go on,” Marcus needled as he handed around the coffees. “Get a wish, man.” “Wish you’ll still get blow jobs after the wedding, Mate.” Dan, starkers, was towelling off. He was always going on about blowjobs. Anto delicately pulled out a ciggie and held it ceremoniously before the beggar man. “Ok. Can my wish be three more wishes?” The ragged man shook his head, “Don’t work like that.” He took the cigarette, put it in his mouth, gestured for a light, took a long drag, exhaled, smiling. Smoke billowed around his bald head giving him a strange aura. He flicked his hand as if writing his signature in the air, peering into Anto’s eyes, he said. “Wish.” “Be patient, dude. I gotta think.” The man explained, “wish before I’m done.” The boys yelled out helpful suggestions: win the lotto, lifetime supply of beer, a bigger dick, a threesome...ha ha. Anto weirdly got the sense this was for real. He was a bit superstitious. He wore lucky red socks for Grand Finals, crossed his fingers, wished on shooting stars and never walked under a ladder. The end of the durry glowed red, getting dangerously small. He knew what he should wish for: a happy marriage, his wife’s good health, a long life. He couldn’t choose. All the things he wanted jumbled around inside him, a house, a better job. This was just a joke anyway. He panicked. The beggar was just about done. The cigarette, just a nub when the man asked for the last time. “What do you wish for?” He mumbled, “win the lotto, I guess…” hesitated, pivoted, “world peace?” The guys guffawed at that. “I dunno.” The man stubbed out the smoke, shaking his head. “You blew it. Too bad.” He mounted his bike and rode off down the corso. Davo punched him in the shoulder. “Loser. Man, you could’ve gone for the money.” Dan, now fully dressed, “or the blow jobs.” The ferry was approaching. Anto felt sheepishly like he’d missed out on something. Like the rest of his life he’d never get that big win, and if his wife ever got really sick - he’d think of this moment. Although that was stupid. Wasn’t it?
A.J.C. Is mongrel of the commonwealth- born in Cambridge England, raised in Owen Sound Ontario, Canada, now residing in Manly, Australia. A.J.C. likes to write stories that speak to those dark and humorous moments of everyday life. Someday she’ll manage to complete her half done novels. She can be found on Facebook.
Opportunities Missed; Another, Perchance?
by Captain Warren Blake
In three earlier stories about the “Orang Suku Laut” (People of the Sea Tribe) of the S.China and Java Seas, I told of my personal encounters with these Nomads of the Sea, dwelt on the help I received from them and mentioned my modest efforts to assist them in return. I also touched often upon the steady decline of their unique culture, their enforced move to the margins of their once wide marine domain, and their consequent demotion to the slums of urban Indonesia. Recent contacts with what used to be “Orang Laut villages” suggest that most of their inhabitants now refuse to be labelled as such, suggesting that the perceived disdain of their urbanized neighbors has thoroughly demoralized them. Their distinctive culture is dying.
One vital part of that culture, indeed a unique part, is their extraordinary knowledge of tropical marine life. I have been witness on several occasions to a Sea Nomad correcting expert marine scientists. One such instance involved Jaji Biri, a Bajau Samal from the Sulu Islands who worked with me for five years, and astounded me with his underwater knowledge and skills…several stories there!
On this occasion Jaji surfaced from a breath-holding dive in 20m with a beautiful Venus Comb Murex, of elegant, exquisite appearance. Our two Marine scientists naturally pondered the evolutionary purpose of such extravagant architecture. The first suggestion was protection from predators, but each individual spine seemed too fragile for robust defense.
Jaji was listening and intervened to describe Murex not as prey but as predator. He related that he had seen the animal sitting on the seabed elevated on “a foot and a leg” with its spines curving downwards. In this horizontal position it offers an inviting refuge for a small fish, which promptly becomes its prey when it clamps down , trapping its victim for food.
Our academics expressed admiration, confessing that they had never seen even a live one underwater, despite being much better equipped for leisurely observation with scuba and dive mask, which together offer a much closer view than Jaji’s lungfull of air and tiny goggles. I believe much similar expert knowledge still exists, hidden away in back alleys in Indonesian cities.
That expertise, indeed an entire, unique culture, was much more evident in late ’64, when I first sailed into Wallace’s “Malay Archipelago.” I saw wondrous things, and survived sobering adventures; but took few photos, and even less notes. I slowly came to realize that here was much, seemingly unknown to the World in general, that needed loving documentation. Feckless Youth, however, merely noted that he must come back some day, better equipped, and fill heavy tomes with scholarly dissertations on such wonders…but later, when I did have the “spare time,” and was “better equipped,” most of what had fascinated me had disappeared. You see at that immature age I had no idea that “Human Progress” is unrelenting and barely able to distinguish between the immense damage wrought and the Profits for “Free Enterprise,” these latter enabled, I now understand, by primitive Instinct, individual and corporate.
There were warning signs back then that I debated: Coral Reef Advocates warned of widespread destruction. I conceded that, sure, those reefs close to large population centers were indeed imperiled, e.g. The Thousand Islands on the doorstep of Jakarta; but I had seen countless miles of flourishing reef fronts throughout the Archipel, and labelled the Scientists as Doomsayers. How wrong I was!…Devastation is now widespread indeed.
The Opportunity for me in ’64-’65 was truly unique, because of an unfortunate incident. I and my fellow Kiwis sailed into Indonesia at Kupang, in West Timor. That was a fraught time. President Sukarno had declared “Konfrontasi,” virtual war, against the formation of the Malaysian Federation at the time of independence from Britain. We were regarded as “Australian Spies,” finger-printed and briefly jailed.
Captain fingerprinted in Kupang. [Editor's Note: Captain Blake is incapable of not looking dashing.]
The jail facilities were very basic, so our “hosts,” being quite civilized, accepted our proposal that we should do our jail time, “pending investigation,” on our 30-foot sailing yacht offshore. They decreed however that we should have an armed guard with us. The guard, lavishly fed by us with greasy food, quickly became seasick so we suggested he stand guard on a jetty but 50m away, and sleep in a small lean-to there. We supplied him with a sleeping bag, dinner and breakfast. On the second night, with no moon, after the dim town-lights had been extinguished, and with the first breaths of the offshore land-breeze, we hoisted sail and slipped out of the harbor to return to Darwin, where, befitting our status as Aus Spies we were de-briefed by Aus Security.
This enforced return resulted in a delay of a few months while all our extensive paper work to enter Indonesia was renewed (apparently without the Embassy ever getting word of our Kupang caper). So we now set forth again, not stopping in any place of officialdom until cosmopolitan Bali; although we did ramble ashore in many interesting places to dine with Komodo Dragons, Whale Harpooners, and Sulphur-Miners in their volcanic craters…the usual hum-drum tourist attractions.
Now we had wasted away the favourable East Monsoon winds and were faced with non-stop head-winds in our tiny sailing yacht without engine.
The Captain and Crew
In the end we spent seven fascinating months in Indonesia before fetching Singapore; 220 something days of which a total of 71 were spent “tacking to windward” against the prevailing Westerlies, and the strong counter currents they generated…71 days to accomplish over 2,000 naut. miles, 4,000km, for an average of a mere 2km per hour in the desired direction…walking pace. In all that time we did not see one Western Yacht, and scarcely a dozen Westerners. The Opportunities!...a few embraced, but so many missed!
This dreary chore of tacking back and forth across the way ahead, sometimes with zero progress in strong currents, had one magical recompense: we were very often in the company of Fellow-Seafarers facing the same head-winds: Madurese in their Golekkans, Riau sailors in their Nadehs, Bugis in their Pinisis, Cirebon men in their Perahus, and an occasional small craft that I knew then was different, but could not define by origin, those of the Orang Suku Laut.
We “spoke them” when we crossed tacks, visited them at anchor and inquired a little of their sea-lore. (“Spoke” is 18th. and 19th.C. Sailor’s lingo. The Log of a Tea-Clipper 40 days out of Canton might read: “Spoke PHOENIX, Capt.Moore, 8 days out of Calcutta, for the Thames. Reports General Gordon murdered in Khartoum.”) Isolated for months, they were eager for news. The pics below show the 20th. Indon crewmen, “eager for news.” I took numerous photos, 36 at a time on celluloid rolls that had to be posted snail-mail at a handy port somewheres ahead, thence to Melbourne; then mailed back to an obscure port somewheres West and ahead in our odyssey, certainly somewheres East of Suez. Not all arrived, and of those that did, many have not survived the tropic heat, or have faded badly. None of the Orang Laut has survived; some of the more dominant Indonesian sub-cultures follow:
A Golekkan of Madura, deeply laden, carrying rice from Surabaya to Macassar.
A Perahu of Cirebon, seeking fish to be salted, 75 days out of port, and hungry for something other than salt-fish. We passed them but a live chicken and some canned fruit, being somewhat short ourselves. Hope they had a can-opener.
A Bugis Pinisi out of Macassar, with timber logs for Java. This Ship passed us spicy fried rice. This is the only type that has survived part intact to the present day, but their masts and sails have been reduced to half as high, and bowsprits half as long, and with Diesel engines installed.
To return to the plight of the Orang Suku Laut: I fear their social eradication is virtually complete, because of recent, alarming observations. At sea I have met people of obvious Suku Laut origins, based on their frizzy, orange sun-bleached hair, their children’s remarkable aquatic skills, even their now-motorized craft, who now claim not to be Orang Laut. I have sailed this year with University academics and students to an island village, proclaimed in Government papers to be “An Orang Laut Village” where a spokesman proudly announced that “there are no more Orang Laut living here!” despite clues to the contrary.
The disdain that they perceive in the eyes of their Indonesian neighbors has been sufficiently hurtful for them to deny their own distinct attributes, their very existence as a separate culture.
This disdain is not new. An English Anthropologist, W. White, published The Sea Gypsies of Malaya in 1922. White writes in a very modern, sympathetic manner about his subjects, but a rather haughty Oxford Scholar writes in the Foreword: “These Mawken are, to judge by externals, hardly better off than the mud-fish on which they live. To accompany our Author in one of their reeking dug-outs is a trying experience, even when imagined from the depth of an armchair.” Disdain, or rather Distaste indeed. BUT he continues: “to accompany Mr. White as he makes friends with them is…to make friends oneself." And White in his text explains that the malodorous aroma pervading the Mawken’s boat-home arises because they gut the fish they catch into the bilges…quite specifically because they also dive deep from their boats, so gutting fish over the side would invite the unwelcome attention of sharks. So the distaste is understandable, and its cause forgivable. I am not sure the modern disdain towards the Orang Laut is that forgiving, especially as it has a religious dimension.
I fear that it would be impossible for any well-meaning organization to resurrect that Culture…modern “Progress” hardly needs many of its attributes after all…but I believe, at least I hope, that the portion of inherited, ancient knowledge of marine life unknown to University Marine Biologists still resides in the memories of some of the Elders shorebound in their ghettoes.
To make small amends for my abject failure to pursue a “Study of the Orang Suku Laut of the Malay Archipelago” when my subjects were still afloat and vital, I would like to propose an Expedition in my Schooner “Four Friends." This would visit all of the isolated Isles of the far-flung archipelagoes where they sailed their little craft, where they erected temporary shelter during the inclement N. Monsoon; and where they were born on their boats, and grew up to be schooled in the ancient aquatic skills, all barely touched by modern “Progress.”
I would try to recruit some Elders, perhaps two Men, One Matriarch, from their mainland ghettoes, along with one or two of the respected University Academics who continue, bravely, to study their present condition. We would need a couple of marine Biologists to properly digest such wisdom that we dredge from the depths of the Elders’ memories, and to dive with Ship’s Scuba gear to dredge up still living samples for the Elders to enlarge upon. I believe I can trace Jaji Biri (his children now follow BookFace) who would add further dimensions of discovery, above and below the water.
In addition to Marine Science I believe we could create an Oral History. I imagine something along these lines from a Matriarch visiting now deserted Tokong Kemudi: “My Grandfather was captured by the Illanun Pirates of Mindanao and forced to row as a slave in their Galley. He escaped and started my Parents’ Family at Tokong Kemudi. So it was he who later identified the sails of the Illanuns on the horizon come marauding again, and who urged our Family and all the others to hide in that cave over there so that the Illanuns when they came ashore found the island deserted. They burned our boats and our lean-to’s but we survived. Two of our boats returned from fishing the next day, so we had the means to start all over again. That was when I was about five years old.”
At the very least we could establish a Census of Orang Laut still resident in the isolated islands. No genuine member of the Clan would deny his heritage to one of his Elders speaking his own tongue.
I would be happy to supply the essential cog in the machinery, that large Motor-Sailing Schooner that can sustain 15 Students in relative comfort, for two or three weeks, with an extensive Library and Wine Cellar, and cover a thousand nautical miles of archipelagoes while doing so. I would appreciate a bit of help in paying for food and now very expensive fuel…but we need some Academic Energy…lacking so far!
The Captain's Schooner, Four Friends, hosting a high school student group
One problem lies in the sheer inertia of Academic Life…the funding covers only as far as the garden fence, or into the next valley, and the paths thereto have already been carefully mapped…but a foreign country?...uninhabited islands??...beyond the Far Horizon???. Easy done I say, dunno about the funding.
There will be other obstacles of course. In all my decades of seafarin’ in SE Asia I have noted that City Folk do not generally comprehend the sublime scope a large motor-sailing Expedition Yacht enjoys in exploring every recess, every bay, river, atoll, lagoon on the surface of the World’s oceans. I suspect they imagine all travel to be more in the manner of boarding a conveyance at an (air or sea) port and disembarking at another port…but Indonesia alone boasts 17,000 plus islands, most uninhabited, many gorgeous, and I can claim to have visited only 500 or so…the scope is endless. And it was out there, way beyond the Far Horizon, that the Orang Suku Laut flourished.
Stay tuned to the next issue of Grailing to read the biography of our Writer-in-Residence, Captain Warren Blake.
by Bruce McRae
No larger than a chokeberry
or tomcat's eyeball
and thick with atoms.
Awash in time,
the stone is older than rain,
its thoughts millennial and chaste.
The stone is an outcast,
an exiled prince of the dirt,
a tear shed for Medusa.
Why has it sat there
for its million years?
Talking to Sheep
by Bruce McRae
All creatures sleep well and are of their place and time. Sunlight harrows the pastures. Whether Afghanistan or Connecticut or the greening downs of Dorset, nothing much perturbs the flocks of God and Country. Whose world-weary sheep are these no one alive can say for sure. In parables and fables this little matters. Nodding in supplication, their work is to chew contentedly while contemplating various distances between horizon and landfall, between women and men, between mothers and children. Only the lamb is courageous, unaware of death in nature. Only the ram is wild-eyed and crazed, unaccepting of his cunning masters.
Bruce McRae, a Canadian musician, is a multiple Pushcart nominee with poems published in hundreds of magazines such as Poetry, Rattle and the North American Review. The winner of the 2020 Libretto prize and author of four poetry collections and seven chapbooks, his poems have been performed and broadcast globally.
150 Novels to Read in a Lifetime is a list of great novels selected by Ben Niles, the Grailing Press 2023-2024 Poet-in-Residence. It is an unranked list that includes works by 150 different writers, so any given author will have only one novel included on the list. Ben is fully aware that his selections (or more probably, his omissions) may incur the literary ire of Dear Readers everywhere, but it’s a burden he is willing to bear. Finally, the 150 novels also fall evenly (fifty novels each) across three time-spans: up to 1935, 1936 to 1979, and 1980 to the present. See Ben’s introduction to the list and explanation of the selection criteria here. Subsequent issues of Grailing will reveal five novels with Ben’s brief commentary on each.
Heart of Darkness
Joseph Conrad . 1899
“But Ben,” you protest, “You said this is a list of novels. Surely a work of under a hundred pages shouldn’t be included?” It’s a fair point, Dear Reader, but don’t call me Shirley… I suspect a page-count stickler may also be non-plussed by a goofy Airplane! reference, but I digress. Heart of Darkness is often classified as a novella, and it is indeed one of the shortest of the 150 books on this list, but its length has no bearing on its greatness, or if anything, its brevity intensifies it. Conrad lays out a symbolic and thematic density and a moral complexity one might expect from an epic, as tangled and nearly impenetrable as the African jungle the narrator Marlowe travels through—all packed into about seventy pages. Literal and symbolic layers abound: there are surfaces and depths; there is a stark exploration of what—or who—is savage, civilized, human(e); there is internal/interior vs. external/outer; there is black and there is white. Conrad’s work contains more profundity than I can elucidate here; you must journey upriver yourself, to know firsthand the thunderous, incomprehensible horror and beauty of the Heart of Darkness.
George Orwell . 1949
No matter the era, humanity has always needed to be mindful of the dangers of succumbing to totalitarianism, of being subjected by those who would strip us of our individuality and shackle our ability to think and speak freely, and of living a life of unquestioning acceptance beneath those in power who define what is true. So, if you’re looking for a nice escape from such existential angst… don’t read 1984! But if you’ve ever wondered where the concepts of Big Brother and the Thought Police originated, you’ve picked up the right novel. (I’ll attempt to inject some levity by saying that ‘Big Brother and the Thought Police’ is a damn good band name, no?) 1984 imagines a future where England is simply known as Airstrip One, as three global superstates engage in constant territorial war. The novel is Orwell at his most Orwellian, leaving behind the more palatable construct of his shorter allegorical novel Animal Farm and handing us a haunting depiction of a world of ubiquitous surveillance, propaganda, and revisionist control. And as you read this fascinating and discomfiting novel, consider social psychologist Erich Fromm’s cautionary statement, from his afterword to 1984: “It means us, too.”
In the Light of What We Know
Zia Haider Rahman . 2014
It would be inaccurate (let alone a dishonor) to call Zia Haider Rahman a one hit wonder, because one hit wonders have other music; it’s just that their other music isn’t all that good by comparison. With Rahman, perhaps a proper analogy would be to call him a one song wonder, because he hasn’t published anything else, but his one novel is very good. James Wood aptly observed that “In the Light of What We Know is what Salman Rushdie once called an ‘everything novel’,” and it is indeed a tapestry of storytelling, betrayal, geopolitics, physics, belonging, maps, mathematics, empathy, secrets, and even footnotes, set against the backdrop of the war in Afghanistan and the economic crisis at the end of the first decade of the 21st century—all thoughtfully interwoven and masterfully achieved by a British first-time author who calls himself an investment banker by trade! A fantastic story of the bonds of friendship between two men, Rahman’s novel is a novel of ideas, but not in an esoteric, inaccessible way; there is something grounded, something deeply human about the book, whose characters—and ideas—make us consider more closely what it is we know.
David Foster Wallace . 1996
It takes a certain chutzpah to title one’s novel after a line from Shakespeare. You’re either immediately among rather impressive company (as evidenced by four other entries on this list of great novels: The Sound and the Fury, Pale Fire, Brave New World, and In Cold Blood), or you can come off looking a bit pretentious. For the record: Infinite Jest well deserves its place among the great novels, and if ever there were an author who could pull off a Shakespearean title but mean it ironically, or even unironically, or perhaps be casually yet pointedly ironic about how unironic it is meant to be, you know?—that would be the late David Foster Wallace. Probably better known for his brilliant essays, DFW was himself “a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.” His magnum opus is sprawling and encyclopedic, hilarious and melancholy, and (as was his wont) abundantly endnoted. Some may find it frustrating in style and/or content; I would counter that one must instead recognize Infinite Jest as the literary equivalent of that moment in the film Gladiator, when Russell Crowe bellows “Are you not entertained?!”…and the answer is a resounding ‘yes.’
Toni Morrison . 1987
A late refrain in Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece states: “It was not a story to pass on.” The layered interpretations of this line are threefold, each deeply rooted in the powerful narrative that is Beloved. The first—that it’s a story which shouldn’t be passed on, shouldn’t be told—is unequivocally untrue from our perspective as readers, outside the world of the novel. Within the novel, however, there exists a perspective of self-preservation; it’s a story of such emotional depth, perhaps the pain lies too much in the telling. But the very same truths point to the second and opposing interpretation—that it’s not a story to pass over; it very much should be told. Not to tell it would be its own tragedy. Finally, in spite or perhaps because of the contrasting tension of the first two interpretations, the third meaning surfaces—it’s not a story to pass on, which is to say: it’s not one that will die. It will endure, as well it should. Beloved is more than a post-Civil War narrative, a remarkable ghost story, and an examination of a woman’s lifespan from enslavement to anguished freedom. In short: don’t pass on it.
[cover photo: Rob Potter]
Grailing, Vol 1., No. 4
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