Exclusive: Read Mark Winkler’s ‘Ink’, which won 3rd place in the 2015 Short Story Day Africa Competition
Over the next three weeks, Books LIVE will exclusively share the winning stories from the 2015 Short Story Day Africa Prize for Short Fiction.
First up is Mark Winkler’s story “Ink”.
Second place went to Alex Latimer for “A Fierce Symmetry”, and third went to Winkler.
Both of SSDA’s previous anthologies have received widespread acclaim; two stories from Feast, Famine & Potluck were shortlisted for The Caine Prize for African Writing – with one, “My Father’s Head” by Okwiri Oduor, going on to win the prize – while Terra Incognita was given an excellent review from the LA Review of Books.
This year’s judging panel, Mary Watson (South Africa), Billy Kahora (Kenya) and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim (Nigeria), called Winkler’s story “imaginative and evocative”, saying that it reveals its “unfamiliar world in a vivid yet delicate way”.
In a chat with SSDA recently, Winkler explained how the story came about:
Tiah Beautement: Your Water story, ‘Ink’, involves maps and ink blots as well as a quest for underground water. What attracted you to the theme and how did the story came together?
Winkler: I’d actually written a few drafts of “Ink” before I saw the call for SSDA submissions, and it seemed an apt entry. I suppose water and the issues around it have been very much in the collective consciousness, now more than ever.
‘Ink’ was initially the exploration of an idea for a longer project, based on the notion that civilisations generally take root near a source of water, and that as they mature, territories and boundaries begin to be defined and drawn up (which is why the narrator of ‘Ink’ is a cartographer). Maps are drawn, and histories and the myths that grow from them are written in ink (more or less), leading to progress but also to inevitable conflict. Both substances, water and ink, are inextricably linked in the telling of stories and legends, from the first hand-print on a cave wall, to the tattoos of concentration camp prisoners, through to Tolkien and the latest Booker winner. The Rorschach blots that fascinate Angela are pretty much maps themselves, similar to the maps of colonists and conquerors that set out to define boundaries in an arbitrary attempt to categorise people – who, being three-quarters water themselves, are a lot more changeable and fluid than rigid interpretations might allow.
Winkler has spent his working life in advertising, winning over 30 local and international advertising awards. He is currently creative director at a leading Cape Town agency. His first novel, An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Absolutely Everything, was published in 2013, and his second, Wasted, in 2015. He lives in Cape Town with his family.
Read the story:
I thought you were only supposed to see one thing, but apparently you’re allowed to find more. You should see a bat or a butterfly or a moth, and also the figure of a woman in the centre, if you’re “normal”. If you’re not, you might see breasts, vaginas, perhaps a penis. I cannot see any of those things. I suppose it’s mostly the men that do.
How can identifying the figure of a woman be “normal”? When I find her, I see she has no head, and her hands are aloft as though searching for it. Or else they’re expressing pain, or despair. The bat or butterfly image is hardly innocent – its wings are shredded, torn, holed. It seems a sad thing to find.
Me, I see the face of a beast. A hellish wild pig, with angry mad eyes and tusks. Apparently that makes me a little paranoid. Tell me something I don’t know. Am I the only one who feels this city shift as if it were floating on water? I feel it shiver in its changes, a tectonic island nudged here and there by what lies beneath, and it feels like the slipping of a carpet on a tiled floor. What could it be other than water? And if it is, why do we have so little, eking out our rations between sunset and sunrise, if and when the Council of Ten allows it, filling pots and jugs so that we may make tea or wash our armpits?
Some nights I dream of walking in the rain I’ve never seen. It falls warm on my bare skin, and when I awake my pillow is soaked with perspiration.
There comes Douglas, scooping his fingers through his long hair. Dashing Douglas, Sindi calls him. I find his teeth rather long and his breath often reminds of yesterday’s garlic. I hide the browser before he gets to my desk, and the pig is gone.
“You’d have much more space in here if you put your desk against the wall,” Douglas says. Again.
But then my back would be to the room, I don’t say, and people like Douglas would see whatever I’m busy with. Maps unfinished, dead-end research paths, the black blots of wild pigs.
“How is Jeezette today, anyway?” Jeezette is Douglas’s phonetic version of the female form of Jesus, and when he’s in a flippant mood, it’s what he calls me instead of Angela. A few years ago, I’d had a bit too much to drink at our little Christmas party, and had let on that my mother is a nun. You can imagine the mirth, the virgin birth jokes, the requests that I walk across the empty swimming pool outside the restaurant. They have long forgotten Douglas’s karaoke, and Sindi’s dancing, but they’ve never forgotten that one little comment of mine.
“I’m fine,” I say, like a teenager. Douglas comes around and leans over my desk. He peers at the map on my screen, breathing on me.
“And where are we now?”
“Okay, good,” Douglas says, as he always does. “You have fun now.” And off he goes, scooping at his hair and making sure to show off his broad shoulders and his slim dancer’s hips.
The second card surprises me. I’d thought they all consisted of a watery wash of black ink. Like the others, this is symmetrical, and black, but there are smears of red top and bottom.
I see human forms, clowns or children, each one’s hands up against the other’s as if they were playing a clapping game. Three-six-nine, the goose drank wine. Somehow the song they were singing had stopped mid-phrase, freezing them forever on the page just as their hands touched.
I’m relieved that what I see is regarded as normal. It means I relate to people. The implication is that if you don’t see the blot this way, you’re a sociopath, or worse.
At least I am spared that.
I am a cartographer. Or more accurately, a geography honours graduate who fell into making maps. What else would you do with a geography degree? And now I work for Douglas, who works for the Bond Foundation, as does Sindi, and as James used to before his body was found washed up in the desert against the dry wave of a dune. That his lungs were full of water left no doubt that he had drowned, although nobody could say how, or why.
It was after James’s death that I began to feel our city shift under me. Sometimes at night the slightest wave will lift my bed before putting it gently down again. A sudden subtle movement might cause a stumble on the stairs. Just a few days ago when crossing the Square during my lunch break I saw perhaps two dozen people waver, just once, like reeds in a gust, as the world undulated beneath us.
“Did you feel that?” I said to an old man near me as the lunch crowd carried on about its business.
He held his bottle of water closer to his chest and his eyes narrowed. “Feel what?” he growled, and scuttled off.
I cannot see anything but two figures beating on a shared drum. There is something ancient about them. They remind me of the whispers I’ve heard of the Primitives who – according to City legend – once lived off the land before it turned to dust, and fished in the sea before it withdrew its waves and allowed the desert to claim its sandy underbelly as its own. When we arrived – depending on who you’re listening to – we either chased them into the hinterland with our machines, or killed them off with our other machines.
Most apparent are the breasts on the figures. But above their knees is a protrusion, a broken femur perhaps, or the representation of a penis as painted by someone who has never seen one.
The notes are vexing. To see the figures as female, as I have, is to be homosexual. To see them as male is to be heterosexual. Does this apply to men and women alike? I cannot tell. And the notes say nothing about the foetuses I see dangling in the void behind each figure.
A great beast or man, feet made enormous by the low perspective, threatens from the card, ready to attack.
This, say the notes, is a “bad” answer. You should simply see a standing figure, or a bear, or a gorilla. I learn that it’s called the “father card”, and the way you see it equates to your perception of male authority figures, or of your father.
No surprises there, then.
“What’s it like having a nun for a mother?” Douglas asks one Saturday
morning as he rolls off me.
He probes the issue often, from different angles. I wonder how much time he spends thinking up new ways to ask the old question, while Sindi and I compare centuries-old maps with the way our city is laid out today. Even Douglas must know by now that I will not speak about it.
I get out of the bed. I have nothing on, except too much flesh for a young woman. But I have little – in this sense – to hide from Douglas. He has no interest in the skinny women who wander the City with their crotch-gaps and their tiny tits and their blued cheeks and their hair piled high in stiff sculptures on their heads. He has said as much, often, nuzzling into my softness. This is why I overlook his long teeth and garlic-tainted kisses, and why I forgive him his constant hair-tossing.
From the dresser I take a sheet of paper and hold it up to him. On it is a map I have drawn – in the old style, with ink and water and brushes with points no thicker than a pencil’s – of a place that exists only in my head. There are forests, which I have drawn by clumping together what I recall of images of trees. They are a patchwork of greens, some dark where I’ve allowed the ink to run thick, and some pale where I’ve thinned it with water. Running from the hills are streams and rivers that I’ve rendered in cool blues, and they fill irregular lakes among the forests. I cannot think of a way to indicate the glacial depths of the lakes, and hope that their purple-inked surfaces might be enough.
There are two towns with names I’ve made up to sound like the Old Language, and I have marked them on the paper with a calligraphy pen in stiff serif lettering.
“What do you think?” I ask Douglas. I suddenly feel shy, as if the map has made me more naked than I am.
He sits up in the bed and leans forward, squinting at the paper. I know what he’s going to say, because he always says it.
Usually I tell him it doesn’t matter. This time I say, “Nowhere. Everywhere. It’s how I think the world once used to be.”
“It’s beautiful, Angela.” He holds his hand out for it and places it across his knees and for long moments examines my work while I imagine walking in the shade of the forests and wading through the coolness of the streams in the way our people must once have done. He looks up at me to tease. “Don’t you get enough of maps at work?”
I do better with the fifth card, and see a bat as I’m supposed to. To me, he – I can’t say why it’s a he – has his back to me, and what should be seen as antennae I see as long fluffy ears. I’m hardly the girlie type, but I do find the little soft-edged creature inexplicably cute.
They say that there used to be millions of bats in the caves and crevasses of the mountains behind the City. Silent and invisible during the day, they would mass at night and float shrieking over the streets in great dark clouds as they cleaned the air of the mosquitoes and midges that used to breed in the swamps. There are scratchings on the walls of a few caves that some believe show a close relationship between the bats and the Primitives, although the nature of the relationship is yet to be defined. Sometimes schoolboys will bring home frail matchstick bones or eggshell skulls from their adventures, giving credence to the old stories.
After the swamps dried up, the elders say, the insects died out and the bats starved. In the caves that once dripped with water only stalagmites and stalactites bear witness to that faraway past, even as they crumble to dust.
It’s our job – mine and Sindi’s and Douglas’s – to rediscover the old watercourses that once sustained the mosquitos and the bats and the City itself. Sindi trawls through the City Archives and the only museum that is still functional, and she scans the ancient charts she finds on the machine seconded to us by the Bond Foundation.
The three of us will pore over the scans and, based on the indications of old ponds and wells and streams, will try to determine where the water once came from, using logic and deduction rather than fact to pinpoint the mountain aquifers, old sewers, market gardens, remnants of dams and ponds that may once have held ground water, or reservoirs that once drew the living water from the veins and arteries of the mountain streams to slake the numerous thirsts of the City.
Then I take Sindi’s scans and overlay them on our modern maps, and I mark up our most likely leads. In the four years we’ve been doing this, our recommendations to the Bond Foundation have led to the digging up of disused parking lots, the excavation of the basement of the City Hall – rendering the old building unsafe and forcing the Council of Ten to take up residence in the Old Library – and in one sad case, the relocation of an entire community. The results have been interesting only archaeologically, when old walls that bore the marks of water erosion were turned up, or canals filled with sand uncovered, or the bones of a mother and child buried in a bag found – all of them stained black or purple or deep ochres by the soil.
Not once has water, or damp evidence of it, been discovered as a consequence of our work. And yet when least expected, the city shudders with the power of it.
It’s too easy. After the cotton crops failed and the sheep all died in the sun, the people of the City turned to their dogs for food and clothing. Often in my childhood I would see their hides salted white and pegged out in the sun to dry, later to be turned into coats or bedcovers. The sixth image shows such a pelt, stretched taught across the card. I do not see the mushroom cloud or the men with goatees who may or may not be there. The card has to do with one’s attitude to sexuality, but the notes do not elaborate.
Douglas comes over to my desk and once more I hide what I am looking at. He asks where Sindi is and I tell him she is out scouring the City for maps, even though her pickings are becoming thinner with every passing day. He looks around to make sure of her absence, and then he pulls her chair towards my desk and sits down.
“I have heard that the Bond Foundation is considering closing us down,” he says. “Apparently our inability to deliver water has frustrated them.”
I am not sure what he wants me to say.
“There isn’t much work for us map-makers in the City. I can’t see what we will do to make a living.” He sounds close to tears. I try to recall a moment when Douglas has allowed his confidence to flag like this, slipping like a bathrobe from his shoulders, and I cannot.
“Perhaps we should move away from this dry place,” I say. “There must be a need for our skills somewhere else.”
Douglas snorts. “And how are we going to do that without dying in the desert?” he says. “Sail?”
Two little girls, rendered in soft greys, face each other with their ponytails flying in the air. That’s what I’m supposed to see, and it’s what I do see. What the notes don’t mention are their little thalidomide arms or their jointed crustacean bodies. These aspects give the girls a certain vulnerability, and if their ponytails are flying, they must be jumping, which makes me wonder what will happen when they land.
The City is a dangerous place. People are sometimes killed for a bottle of water and a few coins. Thirst-crazed bands have been known to invade family homes for their last drops of water, and if they are caught they try to deflect blame to the Primitives.
The Bond Foundation has for some years deployed a private security force to protect citizens buying water from its stores. You get inked on a thumbnail every time you buy a bottle, and the ink fades in the time the Bond people have decided it takes to consume the contents. Being discovered with a bottle of water in your hand and no ink on your thumb could see you arrested, so it’s best to drink up before the ink fades and to buy another bottle. At the office we have to display a current certificate, known as a “Bond”, on the front door. The Bond is replaced, newly stamped and sealed, along with our weekly container of water to confirm our compliance.
It is illegal to investigate, or even to ask questions about, the source of the Bond Foundation’s water. I suppose they have yet to find a way to make it illegal to think about it.
They say that beyond the walls of the City other dangers lurk. The gates are closed and barred at sunset, and male citizens between the ages of twenty and forty stand guard through the night as the annual roster decrees. In all my life, there has never been an attack, but the old people say that there are still Primitives in the desert, that they are gathering their strength and their resources, and that it is only a matter of time before they bring their spears and their anger to the City gates.
In the heat of the day the children are called inside to play in the shade and the adults take to their beds to prevent precious sweat escaping their pores. Crying, even in the face of bereavement or pain, is frowned upon for the water it wastes.
Douglas is twitchy today. His fingers scrape through his hair more frequently than ever. I wonder whether the rumours of our disbanding are weighing on his mind, but when I ask him he retires to his little office in the corner and closes the door.
It has an internal window, so it’s not much of a hiding place, but I suppose it’s all he has.
The colours are at once jarring and soft. I’ve seen black cards and grey cards and cards with splashes of red, so the vividness of the eighth is a surprise. To my eye, the oranges and pinks and blues show damp lungs, wet innards, the hint of a spine capped by the grey skull of some animal. A vivid and semi-living thing with no skin and the head of a dead creature. Climbing up its sides, and using the horns of the skull for purchase, are two pink beasts. I cannot decide whether they are hostile or benign, whether they seek the succour of the skinless being, or are bent on assaulting it.
This is what you’re supposed to see, but the notes do not mention a skull.
We have been irresponsible with our water this working week, and on this last day we share the dribbles left in the container among the three of us. My urine is a dark amber and has a bitter smell. I remember reading somewhere that we are three-quarters water, and as the last sour drops fall from me I wonder how this can be, when we have so little, and whether it might be illegal to ask the question aloud.
I don’t know what to make of these oranges, pinks and greens. I wait until Douglas and Sindi are occupied with other things before I print out a copy so that I can view it from other angles. Ninety degrees this way, ninety that, and still I see nothing but blots of watery colour. I turn it upside down, cock my head and give up.
The notes say that most people struggle to find anything in it.
Sometimes my normality amazes me. But I do find this trickery annoying.
Douglas has retreated into his office, and again he has closed the door. I see him through the window, though, hunched and anxious as he talks on the phone. I wouldn’t be surprised if he tells us it’s all over when he emerges. But instead he leaves without a word, screwing his hat onto his head as he goes, and then slamming the door behind him.
I glance at Sindi, but she is bent over an image and hasn’t noticed Douglas leaving. I look at the door. I wonder why fate would set two random vectors – call one a and the other d – on their individual arcs to intersect at precisely the same place and time on the infinite map of the universe.
I am surprised that there are only ten cards, and also that they are so specific. I’d always imagined them as a random infinity of black patterns, put together with a bottle of ink and some blotting paper between consultations in the back office of psychologists’ rooms; each counsellor’s interpretation no more objective, nor more accurate, than the patient’s.
I am irritated, too, that the last card is once again a trick card. No matter how I cock my head or narrow my eyes I see nothing in its symmetry of colour. But the notes say that seeing sea-creatures is the most common, and most acceptable, response.
How could I see sea-creatures if I’ve never seen one before?
I cannot imagine these spiny, many-legged things alive. How big were they? Microscopic, or as substantial as a wild City cat? Did they smell? Could they bite? Did they cause disease? Make a nun pregnant? And what was their concentration in the sea, say, in parts-per-million?
Perhaps they have by now evolved to live beneath the sand, sculling their way through the endless grains, somehow sucking oxygen and sustenance from the lifelessness around them.
I close the image of the last card. I have learnt that I am no more normal or abnormal than the dull median. I close the other maps – the inaccurate old doodlings that Sindi has dug up and scanned, the precision of the modern ones supplied by the Foundation. It is early to go in search for lunch, but I need the air.
Instead of food, I find Douglas at a table in the shade across the Square. With him is an emaciation of a woman, her cheeks sunken and her cheekbones protruding, burnished with the fashionable blue. Douglas has before him a bottle of cactus liquor, and he pours generously into two glasses and dilutes the stuff with precious splashes from his bottle of water. I step behind a pillar and watch them toast, glasses held high above their heads. Then they drink and the woman leans in and says something. Douglas laughs long and hard and so does she.
Sindi sometimes brings back images that have nothing to do with the Bond project. The three of us huddle around them like children over a storybook even though there is always work to be done. Sindi selects these superfluous pictures for their curiosity value, and they invariably feature long-ago scenes of life with water.
She has shown us City streets glistening wet, and through them people running with umbrellas, or their coats over their heads. A man in the sun with no shirt, pushing a handle to propel a small machine across an expanse of the richest green. A lithe woman who has stretched herself into the shape of an exclamation mark, hanging suspended in the air above a pool of pale blue. Toddlers in a bright yellow tub in the sun, splashing water into the air, and you could all but hear their shrieks of joy.
One of Sindi’s images comes back to me as I watch Douglas from behind my pillar. It shows people wearing the smallest items of clothing. Adults are lying on the sand of a beach while children play. A brief – and surely dangerous – distance away, rolling white waves crash in the shallows while people cavort among them with their hands in the air. Across a bay of an impossible blue stand the mountains behind the City. It’s disconcerting, in the least, to see your hometown in this way, at a time when it was almost subsumed by sea, when today the half-basin of the bay is no more than a repository of sand and rock and dust and household garbage dumped by City workers. Stranger even than this is the thought that the people in the image would have ventured smiling and laughing into a sea full of the beasts shown on the last card. But the ink and the water say it was so.
Perhaps the City floats on ink rather than water. Perhaps it is not water but ink that has written its story, in blacks and blues and fathomless deep purples. Perhaps without the ink there would be no City, and without the City there would be only water.
Douglas is laughing again, and I see that the woman has moved around the table to be closer to him. She rests her elbow and she holds her glass aloft between thumb and forefinger.
I lean against the pillar and through my shoulder I feel the world quiver as another slow wave disturbs the City beneath my feet.
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