‘It’s beautiful Ditte!’ Ditte blushed. ‘It took me ninety-two days to do! That’s me and that’s you and that’s my new daddy, and that’s a rainbow all around us. I made the daddy tall and he has black hair and a flowery shirt.’ ‘And you’ve stitched your hair with golden thread, and you’ve given us all bright, rosy cheeks.’ Ditte looked at her feet. ‘Do you think my new daddy will like it?’ ‘Oh, he’ll adore it! Almost as much as he’ll adore you.’ Ditte bit her lip. Her old daddy had thrashed her until she could no longer walk. ‘God will bring me a daddy won’t He? ‘Cos God can do anything.’ ‘I’m sure He will angel. Now, slide into bed and say your prayers.’ Ditte’s mother tucked her in and kissed her goodnight, and once she had gone downstairs, Ditte clasped her hands together and closed her eyes tight. ‘Please bring me a daddy God. Amen.’ Then she slept. A cold, pink sun ascended, swaddled in fine mist. It lifted into a limpid ocean of spectral clouds; over the naked trees; over the squirrels as they carted acorns through the sparkling grass; over the puddles of musty leaves that would become bonfires. Starlings bobbed for worms, or serenaded one another with songs they had learnt from other birds. Ditte awoke. God had not brought her a daddy. Instead, He had planted an enormous, flaxen beard upon her face. It coiled about her dolls’ house and writhed beneath her bed and tied itself into complicated, serpentine knots. It looped and billowed and concertina’d, all but filling her room, spilling through the door onto the landing. Ditte and her mother set to work untangling the beard, plaiting it with ribbons and silver twine. A whole day expired before they collapsed upon the bed. It looked divine! ‘Why has God given me a beard?’ asked Ditte. Ditte’s mother frowned and pursed her lips. ‘Soon, it will be winter and the swallows will migrate. Perhaps, if you catch one in your beard, it will fly far and high and find you a new daddy, just like the one in your needlework.’ Ditte’s eyes twinkled; she reached over the beard and clapped her hands together and almost remembered how to wiggle her toes. ‘God is so very wise isn’t He!’
The winter arrived. Ditte sat at her window and watched through the frost-feathered glass for a passing swallow to perch on the sill and feast on the breadcrumbs she had scattered there. Children, bundled in scarves and ear mufflers, skated on the pond with their fathers. Ditte hoped that soon she would snip her beard and join in their revelries. When the church-bells declared evensong, the last of the children removed their skates, and the remains of the halcyon sunlight danced and dazzled alone upon the ice. Ditte’s head nodded. Her eyes closed, and she would have relented to sleep had not a tapping roused her. A swallow had come to roost. Tenderly, Ditte cupped the bird in her hands and lashed wispy strands of beard into its plumage. ‘Please find me a daddy to love me, Mister Swallow.’ The bird beat his wings and was gone. Ditte slept and her beard unravelled. Ditte awoke to a gentle tug on her chin. Her mother helped her to reel in the beard. With each span of hair that they landed, Ditte’s heart fluttered a little faster. As the snowflakes began to fall, a tall, black-haired man in a flowery shirt Cossack-danced through the window, his wiry arms folded and his shiny boots kicking high. His cheeks were very rosy and he smiled at Ditte as he unfastened the beard from around his waist. Ditte bowed her head and held her needlework out to the man. He took the gift and admired it at length. Then he knelt before Ditte. ‘Is this me ‘ere?’ chortled the new daddy. Ditte nodded, sucking her thumb. ‘My ‘eavens, you ‘ave made me large and comely! And what are these?’ Ditte could barely restrain a beaming smile. ‘I gave you suns for eyes. And these are lions for your eyebrows.’ Ditte’s new daddy lifted her from her bed and swung her onto his shoulders. He smelled of camomile and tealeaves. ‘Would me beautiful and ‘normously talented little girl like to take a ride on me pedal bike with me?’ Indeed Ditte did.
Ditte’s new daddy sheared away her beard and took her to an antiques fair on the marsh banks where some sailors were racing toads, and then they rode alongside the canals and sang sea shanties and ate roll mops with sticks. There was no doubt that this daddy loved her. Ditte gave silent thanks to God. When they returned home, Ditte was exhausted, her cheeks flushed with jubilation. She nestled at her daddy’s side and listened to the wireless with him until long past her bedtime. Her mother made them all warm buttermilk with nutmeg, and when they had finished, Ditte’s daddy carried her up the stairs and laid her upon the bed. He stroked her legs and her stubbly chin and offered to undress her. ‘I can manage fine thank you daddy.’ ‘Oh, but I mean to get to know me new daughter better.’ He unfastened the daisy buttons on her dress and carefully pulled it off. Then he slipped an index finger inside her knickers, and Ditte was pleased that no feelings remained there. Her daddy said that this was his way of showing how much he loved her. He loved her throughout the night and when he eventually stopped, Ditte slept.
In the morning, he was gone, and God had sown a new beard. Ditte’s mother spread fresh bed sheets and replaced the pillowcases, then sat before her daughter. Ditte hung her head and hid beneath her fringe. ‘He wasn’t a nice daddy angel. But don’t be downhearted: soon it will be springtime. The spring brings hope and also shooting stars; they fly higher than the moon and faster than all the swallows and are certain to find you the perfect daddy.’ Ditte blinked away a tear. ‘I don’t think there is a daddy for me in all the universe,’ she murmured under her breath.
The icicles thawed and the winds arrived, sweeping away dead leaves, breathing new, emerald leaves and may blossom upon the boughs. The great sails on the mills heaved and groaned, and petite clouds coursed across the sky like riverboats. Ditte cast off the last thread and placed the needlework on her bedside table. She wished for a plump, jolly daddy with thin pink lips and ears and a garland of juniper berries. Her mother threaded sequinned hearts and oyster shells into her beard, about the cheeks, and Ditte wove crescents of magnets into the tip of her beard and held it into the warm twilight breeze. The spring pageant began: ribbons of platinum-white and nacre criss-crossed the heavens, as though carving arcane symbols into God’s belly. They tugged feebly upon Ditte’s magnetic beard as they rained overhead. Only when a lilac ball of fire skimmed above the trees did Ditte’s beard leap from her grasp and whisk over the steeples towards the sea, enveloped in the star’s shimmering wake. The beard uncoiled, whipping at Ditte’s rocking horse and thrashing at her toy chest like a wounded sea serpent. Ditte crawled under the bed and buried her face in her arms. She feared that the beard may not be long enough and she might be catapulted through the window, to skip upon the stratosphere for evermore. But her concerns were unfounded: soon the beard relaxed and relented, and there came a firm and gentle tug on her chin. Two days and nights blustered by. Ditte’s raw hands trembled as she and her mother wound in the beard. As frogs croaked in the third daybreak, a crooked man with stubby legs rose from the sunlight and tiptoed through the window. He set to, puncturing Ditte’s heart and kidneys with knitting needles, and gorged himself on her shoulders.
Sunflowers blazed about the pond like sentinels of golden fire, blowing their perfumes through Ditte’s window, into her empty bedroom. Bees and polka-dot butterflies tended to the buddleia and the children flew scarlet box kites. Ditte sat in the sky atop a minaret of cloud. Her beard was gone and she looked down upon the busy town. A man sat solemnly at her side and watched with her until the afterglow doused the flowers with indigo shadows, and spirals of stars held court above the houses like august monarchs. The man turned to Ditte. ‘Could I be your daddy Ditte? I will love you for eternity.’ Ditte looked into the man’s eyes. It was God. She threw her arms around Him, and He rested His face upon her hair. He blessed the sky with rainbows and kept His promise and loved Ditte for eternity.
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This is my Litopian Laureate-winning entry. The brief was to compose a short story, no longer than 1500 words, on the theme Summer of Love. Judge Amanda Lees (novelist and tv personality) wrote:
'This was the piece of work that provoked the strongest reaction from the judges, a reaction that was profoundly visceral while posing a number of mental and moral questions. In his writing and choice of subject matter, Solvejg Anderson steered dangerously close to the boundaries of acceptability, but it was that very bravery that made his piece stand out from the rest. His confident handling of language was remarkable and his narrative reminiscent of Nabokov and Angela Carter, both masters of the magic realism that pervades Solvejg Anderson's work.'
I wrote this piece shortly after embarking on my experiments with sets of themed words, a technique I later came to label word palettes. My article on word palettes was published in Vision in 2007.
This short was written, again, to a strict 1500 word limit. The post-facto premise was It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time.
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The wormy sun toasts my flesh. When I hold up my hand, it peeps between my fingers and floods the eyelets with lagoons of honeyed light and a trembling aurora ignites in silhouette. ‘I know who you are – you’re Bina; you’re the girl who escaped!’ Well duh; I knew he knew; how could he not know. My finger rubs at the cross on my forehead, and then I pick up the rock and turn it over in my lap. ‘They ferried Kovlishgan in at daybreak. I’ll tell you how to get in undetected.’ I paddle my feet in the rockpool and all the smudgy anemones pull their tendrils inside their bodies and they’re so funny that I laugh and then wait patiently for them to explore the water again and then I kick the water and they all cringe again. ‘You can’t suck me, y’know: I’ve been trained to resist; we’re all trained.’ Ha! He doesn’t know it, but I’m much better at it now. You look at a person and try to peer into the cavity behind their face and then holes squeeze through the pores in their skin and unfurl in the air – ragged holes that are big enough to stick your arm through – and you imagine reaching inside the person. Each hole leads to a different thought, and I can smell them better now: the good ones are sweet and tangy like syrupy kirsch, and the bad ones are yeasty like tuberculosis. I even managed to do it to Pater Friwhop and learned that the holes are called grendls and are like public windows that are bound to private cortical windows with a sinewy energy called wrinkls. ‘Want a choke? Mind if I do?’ His wooden teeth chatter like mousetraps that fuck up, and his face is doughy pale, but not bright like the inside bit of a ghost. He pulls a tablet from his knee-breeches and tosses it down his gullet, quickly so as I can’t see that he is shaking. The delivery boys are paid with mute, and there’s a lot of mute on the island of Carousel-Motion because it stops us opening holes. When you’re muted up, you don’t care about brushing your teeth or bathing, and someone has to do all that stuff for you or else you smell like hyena shit, but none of that concerns you when you’re muted up. I stay my feet and sun-wraiths ripple about my ankles. On days of an occidental crescent, Pater Elaad taught us ethics so as we might not abuse our powers. He told us of consequentialism which is where decisions are judged primarily in terms of their consequences. In consequentialism, the end justifies the means. But what I don’t get is where the end is. Y’see, every consequence has another consequence, and so on. So where is the end that we’re s’posed to use to judge things? If it’s at the end of the universe and everything, then we’ll all be dead and it’ll be too late to judge anything. Anyway, I would’ve asked him but he hated girls except when he was flogging them for pleasure and pleasuring himself or shooting mute into them to arouse a vomit reflex for research, and I was the only girl left. On escape night, I slipped into his room and he was snoring like a puffed-up cockchafer, and I sucked him but Kov hurried me and I retrieved some stupid thought about his dead wife’s titties. His hairy skin came through the hole too and his carcass bounced on the rug like a mulberry jelly set with hedgerows of throbbing veins and hard-boiled eyeballs. ‘D’you know when the end is?’ I ask the delivery boy. He bares his wooden teeth and squints and asks me how old I am. I tell him I am twelve in summer equinox. He tells me that the end was summer equinox twelve years ago. He grimaces when he tries to bend his leg pieces back and I’d smash the other one too if I could be bothered.
Blackhead gulls shriek and scatter as I climb the plumpest dune. It is branded with canary grass that scratches at the soles of my feet, and it blushes upon a sky that blisters with smouldering storm. Winds gallop from the ocean, coiling serpents of sand and whipping hair across my lips. The lighthouse keeper’s ghost tries to kick sand at me – he’s just as stupid as a ghost. The lighthouse keeper hid in a wardrobe, but he was dead easy to find ‘cos he couldn’t stop from farting. Really, it was hilarious! I locked the wardrobe and left him in there with his poison for over an hour. He’s the only ghost who knows how to make sounds – directly into my head – and he sings the same crappy melody over and over: There’s a girl who’s really sad ‘Cos she has no mum or dad And she takes it up the arse O, la-de-da La-de-da. Anyway, he was dead easy to suck and he told me how to get to Carousel-Motion and, because of him, broad-clawed porcelain crabs are banqueting on delivery boy tripe. The worst thing I ever did was suck my little sister, Nuta. It was the first time I ever summoned the holes and I didn’t know any better than to explore them. She tore really slowly and she was really crying and screaming and flapping her arms like moth wings, and I was terrified but I couldn’t stop the thought coming out and she peeled into four neat chunks and her insides splashed over her feet. The thought I hooked was about Livia who was her stuffed lioness. I know she forgives me though, ‘cos her ghost doesn’t bother me. Sometimes she appears and shuffles along behind me, her head hung and her long spectral hair over her face. You can’t hug a ghost. But still it’s nice when she visits me.
I wade into the sea, where it’s rocky and slippery with witch’s hair weeds, and the lighthouse keeper’s ghost spits at me and evaporates. Ghosts despise water. The caves are near the end of the peninsula, where the sea is loudest and deepest olive green. I hitch up my petticoat, but a rabid wave spews over me and I’m soaked anyway. The delivery boy’s holes were tiny like beads of gangrenous light dribbling through some cockeyed colander and they were all impregnated with a garlicky smell, but I still found the caves. See, I said I was getting really good at it! Me and Kov are going to practise so as we can suck anybody without them knowing or getting skinned. We’re going to hop the delivery boy’s catamaran and sail to the Star-of-Saffron-Page-Seven. There were pictures of the mountains in one of our study books and there’s this warm freshwater lake in the clouds that’s cocoa-brown in the day and glows like a watermelon at night and it’s surging with shrimp and with tasty toads that sing harmonies together, and the shore is brushed with exotic butterflies seduced by billions of spiced orchids. We’re going to build a village there and wear garlands and have loads of children and throw grand parties every evening. I hope I have lots of girls. I’m definitely going to name my first girl Livia.
It wasn’t so dark in the caves, even when I went deep, because pearly light drizzled through pinprick blowholes, but it was cold enough to swell my arms with goose-bumps and the water licked my belly. Echoes dripped and sloshed and trickled, and it was difficult to carve Kov’s voice out of them. He was manacled at the wrists, chained raw to a rock. I barely recognized him because his hair was a season longer and he was so skinny his ribs bilged like ripples in milk. He kept crying at me to clear out, but I was sure I could pull the chains free, and I even tried sucking them apart, but shackles have no thoughts. Anyhow, I shouldn’t have left without him in the first place. Kov told me there was another way and I knew what he meant. So I hugged him until the water salted my tongue and then we sucked one another. It feels like hookworms snagging, tangling your veins, tingling then tearing, and your throat and lungs boil with bile and blood and your breath gargles into your ears. The thought I presented was from when me and Kov snuck into Nuta’s bed after Pater Elaad had burned her fingers black and we took turns telling her about how our lives would be by the lake in the mountains, and she sucked her thumb and pressed Livia to her cheek and went to sleep. The thought Kov gave me was curious. He wanted to know if we had seemed like a good idea once, before we became too powerful. I guess we had because they let us die together.
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Having just read Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, I was eager to have a shot at skaz (a type of first-person narrative that has the characteristics of the spoken rather than written word). As I wrote this piece, I began blogging on the techniques I was experimenting with. You can follow the key moments of my journey here: