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Exclusive: Read Cat Hellisen’s ‘The Worme Bridge’, winner of the 2015 Short Story Day Africa Competition

Exclusive: Read Cat Hellisen's 'The Worme Bridge', winner of the 2015 Short Story Day Africa Competition

 
Over the past three weeks, Books LIVE has had the honour of exclusively sharing the winning stories from the 2015 Short Story Day Africa Prize for Short Fiction.

This week, the final story: WaterCat Hellisen’s “The Worme Bridge”, which took home the trophy this year.

Read the previous instalments:

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.

The theme for this year’s edition of the SSDA Prize – Migration – was announced on Wednesday, along with a new editing mentorship programme.

Hellisen is a South African-born writer of fantasy for adults and children. Her work includes the novel When the Sea is Rising Red and short stories in Apex, F & SF, Shimmer, and Tor.com. Her latest novel is a fairy tale for the loveless, Beastkeeper.

This year’s judging panel, Mary Watson, Billy Kahora and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, said: “‘The Worme Bridge’ stood out for us with its brave story and clear, distinctive voice; it’s a wonderfully dark exploration of the water theme.”

In a chat with SSDA recently, Hellisen explained the background to the story:

Tiah Beautement: “Serein” the original story you wrote for Water didn’t meet SSDA’s submission’s guidelines for length, so you sold it Shimmer. You then penned “The Worme Bridge” which took the coveted $1 000 (R10 000) prize. What was it like trying to write a second entry after you’d already invested so much energy into “Serein”? Did you consider quitting after it fell short of our entry rules? Or are you one of those people with a multitude of stories whirling around in your head?

Hellisen: “Serein” came about because I find the non-endings of the stories of vanishing people, people who go missing intentionally, so delightfully and horrifyingly fascinating. After I was done, and realised that it was too short for SSDA, I sent it off to Shimmer because that’s what you do – never stop submitting stories. I needed something new for SSDA but I wasn’t too stressed because water is a pretty open-ended theme and I think it’s clear from my fiction that I am obsessed with people who live in the liminal zones of human community. And water is a perfect metaphor for that – it’s even in the clichéd phrase, “a fish out of water”. Which is essentially what “The Worme Bridge” is about. Once I started playing with that and I had the voice of the character in my head, the initial draft came out very quickly.

Read Hellisen’s SSDA-winning story:

The Worme Bridge

Cat Hellisen

When I was old enough to walk by myself to the shops to buy my mother her cigarettes, she decided I was too old to believe in rubbish like Santa Claus and the tooth mouse and fairies that live at the bottom of the garden. Instead, I would learn the real stuff, like what really happened to Pa and my older brother Matty, and what was going to happen to her.
        Why ever since Pa had died she’d made me take him as medicine, ground up into my food to ward off the sickness.
        Ma couldn’t walk properly because her feet pained her now that they’d gone all boneless and scaly with sickness, and no one would serve Matthias because of the stink, even if he could have walked to the shops himself. Which he couldn’t. Matty was born like that though, Ma told me, with his legs all melted together like two candles lit too close to each other and forgotten.
        The trips weren’t so bad. I liked the walk past all the square little houses with their concrete ox-wagon wheel walls, with their laundry and their chimney smoke, flicking the lighter in my pocket and thinking about things to burn. I liked to pretend no one saw me, walking up to the corner shop where the Indian men would sell me cigarettes even if I was only ten, because they knew my ma and I guess they felt sorry for her. The walk there and back took twice as long as it should have because I had to go to the second-closest shop. The closest one meant going riverwise and crossing the foot bridge built in 1809 and named after some dead man, I guess the one who built it in 1809. Or maybe he just had other people build it in 1809. He was very proud of it because he put a big stone right by the front that said Built in 1809 so we would never forget. The man was called Matthias too, but they called the bridge Worme instead.
        By the time I got back to Ma, I’d always be wishing she didn’t have these rules about the bridge and the river. Some days it could get so hot the tar would melt under your feet and give you new soles for free, and sometimes it was so cold you wouldn’t even be sure you had feet and would have to check at the door before going in to the house. Are these feet inside my shoes? Or have I got the sickness too?
        Let me tell you for nothing it was a great relief to find all my toes in the right order and with the right amount of skin and bone. You miss them fierce when you don’t have them.
        I would open Ma’s cigarette box for her while she shivered, wrapped in dog blankets she bought cheap at the Pick n Pay. The skin on her hands hurt too much to do it herself. I loved that crinkle of the see-through plastic, thin as sleep, the slow tear. I loved peeling back the silvery paper and finding the twenty sticks, all neat as soldiers. The smell of new tobacco, before the fire ate it. I would breathe deep, then pick the bottom middle one to draw out. The virgin straw.
        If it had been my box of smokes, I would have taken that one and turned it over and placed it back in, filter face out. I am old enough to know about virgins, but too old for fairies.
        Ma was always like that – telling me what it was time for me to believe in. I knew about virgins because one time she decided I needed god, or we all did, so she took me and Matty to the church – rolling him all the way there on a low wooden trolley with wheels from a pram. We had to sit on cold hard pews and listen to the man at the top tell us stuff from the Bible. This was when Matty was alive, of course. We didn’t take his stinking twisted body to church after, even though they seem to love believing in dead guys.
        It was boring in the church, and because Matty couldn’t sit properly, he was rolling around on the pew and flopping about and just being a general nuisance, so people kept looking at us and whispering and shaking their heads. It was also because Ma was single. I had a dad but he died before Matty was born so it was hard to explain to people how that worked. They thought Ma was a whore. Another word I was old enough to know.
        Except for all the idiots, there was one nice thing, and that was the singing. During the boring bits the man at the top would say every body rise and turn in your hymn-books to page and every person who still had their body would shuffle up with whispers and cracks and rustles through their pages until they found the right one. Not Matty, he just rolled about, gasping because he already couldn’t breathe properly then. But I would stand up, and Ma next to me, and we would share this hymn-book which was a thick book with pages made of fairy wings. We joined together in praise of our good risen lord, who I guess was Jesus or his dad, since they were actually the same person. And this Jesus guy was dead and then alive again, and all the church people were okay with that and made songs about it. So you can see why I didn’t understand when they couldn’t deal with Pa or Matty.
        The music was slow and sad and filled with water, and it was like drowning, but nicer. There was an old lady who would play this organ, which was a big thing like a piano but with a different sound, a sound of waves. It made music that crashed down right over your head. Then all the cold deep men’s voices rose up with currents and little waves and eddies of higher sounds, like water that is warm in the sun.
        And I would sing too, catching the tune and letting it pull me on, the notes flickers of fish, shoals of bright sounds that raced through the river of the organ swell. And that’s how I know about virgins because they kept going on about Jesus’s ma being a virgin and my ma had to explain it there in the church because I kept asking.
        And then one day Ma decided we didn’t need god after all and we stayed home on Sundays again. She had to drown Matty and there’s no way to explain that kind of thing to church people.
        “Sanette? Is that you?” Ma called from inside the house even though no one else ever comes to us. I sighed and kicked off my shoes so I could unroll my socks and check my toes. It was winter – the third after Ma took Matty to the river and the second after her own feet gave in. All my toes were present which is what you say at school when the teacher calls your surname in home class.
        I always get called last: “Worme.”
        And my answer is to say: “Present, mejevrou.” Like I am giving her a gift, which I am not, unless it is the gift of my presence, which is a pun, Matty says. Also I must call her mejevrou, even though it is an English school, because she says mis is what cows make.
        I wriggled all my toes, one by one. “Ja, Ma,” I said. Then I frowned, because the one pinky toe was stiff and a little blue, but I couldn’t tell if that was because of winter, or because I was going down the road of illness. Ma had always said that I would be fine because my legs were straight and strong, and it was only the boys who have to be drowned and brought back. But that was before her feet went, so now I am extra scared all the time.
        Quickly, I covered up my toes, rubbed them hard to make them warm, and shoved them back in my school shoes, which were black and pretty with a strap and a floral cut-out and were more expensive than plain Mary Janes. I had feet, so all the shoe money went on me.
        “I got your cigarettes, Ma.” I grabbed the plastic bag back up. Cigs for Ma, a Kit Kat for me and a tin of sardines for Matty. I hopped over the little ridge of wood on the front door step, and went inside.
        The smell was very bad in my house. Partly it was because of Matty, but also Ma who sat with her feet in a black plastic tub of hot water and her dog blankets wrapped around her, hoping to stay human, and partly it was because she kept Pa’s bones. Though they were dried out now, they still had a funny stink to them, like the skin of a snake or a lizard. They were in a box covered with sea shells and lined inside with red felt. A very expensive box – almost a hundred rand – but not very big, because there weren’t so many bones left. Ma kept grinding them up and feeding them to me.
        “Here,” I said, unwrapping the box of cigarettes as slowly as I could. I folded the silver paper neat and tucked it in my blazer pocket, took out the first virgin straw and lit it with my yellow lighter that I keep only for Ma’s cigarettes, and not for anything else, like setting fire to the school dustbins. The smoke tasted like the death of fairies and Santa Claus. The smoke tasted like learning the truth and it always made me choke. I handed her the lit cig and crouched down to look at her feet.
        They were going wrong. I didn’t need to be a doctor to see they were turning long and thin and see-through like Matty’s. The skin at her ankles was rubbery, melting together. There were raw bits shining pale red where she’d pulled the skin apart. It didn’t matter. In a few months Ma would be as bad as Matty. She was already starting to smell rotten. Worse than cigarettes and not-washing. “You okay, Ma?”
        She nodded, and blew out smoke so I couldn’t see the expression in her eyes. She only started smoking when her feet started changing, and I think it was because she believed that the stink of the cigarettes covered up the other smell. Which was definitely getting worse. Maybe she and Matty couldn’t tell because they were wrapped in it all day like a duvet, but I still went outside and knew that healthy people with two good strong legs did not smell like cod liver oil rotting inside a bottle left on a windowsill in the sun.
        “Ma, where’s Pa’s old trolley?” I said, because at thirteen I was learning to be practical. We’d used the trolley to take Matty to school, and to church, and then, right at the end of his first life, to take him down to our family bridge built in 1809, which is probably when the first Worme had to drown someone in their family.
        Ma coughed, choking on her stinking cigarette. “Don’t need the trolley yet,” she said and waved at her feet. “I’m fine now, the water’s helping.”
        The water would only help with the pain for so long, we both knew. Towards the end, we kept Matty in the bath, trying to slow everything down with clean water, scraping off his scales and trying to cut his fingers apart. He used to cry when Ma took the little vegetable peeling knife and slit through the skin growing thin between his fingers, gluing them together. He never cried loud, but he turned his face to the wall and his shoulders would shake. Ma dropped the bits of skin in a plastic bowl that I held out for her, and then I buried them in the garden.
        But even with all that cutting and burying, we couldn’t stop his insides from changing, or help his lungs work. We had to drown him. It was the quickest way to set him free, in the end.
        We’d gone at night, Matty crouched and covered with a sheet on his trolley, and rattle-bounced down the gritty tar road that was always full of potholes because of the summer rain, all the way to the river and the Worme Bridge.
        Ma had drowned him. I had just sat on the edge of the river with my knees right up against my chest and cried because ten is too young to know that sometimes your parents have to do what’s best for you even if it hurts you. Even if it hurts them.
        Afterwards we had dragged Matty back home, wrapped in his sheet again, and three days later he’d said he felt much better and he was sorry that Ma was so sad.
        I watched Ma smoking her cigarettes and smelling like rancid fish, before I left her and went to the bathroom. The door was closed, so I knocked, and after a while Matty said to come in.
        “How was school?” he asked. He could still talk, though it could be hard to make out the words unless you knew what he was saying. Also, he was really smelly. Not in a rotting way, like Ma, but like a harbour full of seals and seaweed.
        “Okay,” I told him. “You lucky you missed all this, I think this is the hundredth time we are learning about the Great Trek.” Which is basically the story of how a bunch of Dutch people in the Cape got mad at the English and missioned off up the country, and mostly they had a horrible time of it but they said god was on their side so he helped them kill a lot of black people, which seems a bit unfair to the black people, really. This god guy, I don’t know.
        “I brought you something,” I told him, and peeled open the tin of sardines.
        Matty took them with a wide grin, which was horrible because all his teeth had fallen out and his mouth was full of needle white splinters. I was used to them, but I could imagine if anyone else had seen him they’d be grossed out. And scream, and probably try bash his head in with a spade.
        I waited till he finished his meal, dripping the last of the fishy oil down his throat, and handed me the empty tin before I told him about Ma.
        He frowned. “I was wondering why she never came to visit me any more,” he said, and I could hear how sad that made him. “Thought maybe she was sick of seeing me.” He waved at his legs, which were under water, fused all together and silvery green and scarred with white ridges. In the beginning Ma had tried to scrape the scales off with the back of a knife, but she gave up after he died and now they’ve grown in funny. Some scales were beautiful, silver and the size of my thumb nail, others were twisted and small and a dull grey. In places the scales never grew out at all, and the skin was white and puffy-raw. I knew they hurt him, those raw scars. We would never do that to Ma, but we couldn’t stop her doing it to herself.
        “She’s definitely going funny,” I said. I curled my toes in my shoes, and felt the one twinge and ache. Not me. I wasn’t going. My legs were fine. I wasn’t going to die. But Ma was. “I’ll dig the trolley out of the garage tonight. We’ll need it soon.”
        Matty didn’t say anything after that, just swirled his webbed fingers through the little bit of water he could move in, and sighed deeply. Every now and again he would shift his body so that he could put his head under water for a moment to wet his gills. He could breathe out of water for a little while if he had to but preferred it the other way: gillwise.
        I pulled the plug to drain some of the water, and ran in fresh cold water from the taps. Matty didn’t feel the cold like I did. He said it was better, the cold. Being warm made breathing hard, even though he tried holding on to it, because it made him feel human still. “If I have to drown Ma,” I whispered to him, “you’re going to have to move out to the river.” There was only one bath in the Worme house. The Wormes who had died couldn’t survive out of water. Just look at Pa. Or what was left of him.
        “It won’t be so bad,” Matty said, which was a lie. Matty would be in the river, and Ma would live in the bath. And I – I would have to keep grinding up what was left of Pa and sprinkling him into my sandwiches to keep me from turning. I would have to buy Ma sardines with the little bit of money she kept under her mattress, and change her bath water, and watch her be alone and dead.
        “If it happened to Ma,” I said, “Chances are it will happen to me.”
        Even Matty couldn’t lie that much, not right to my face. “Perhaps,” he said. “But Ma is old, it only took her now. You’ve got years to live.”
        Years. A whole lifetime of living in the Worme house, with only my dead ma in the bath tub for company, and being able to spend time with my big brother only when there was no moon and I could pray to the dead Jesus who rose again that no one would see me sneak down to the river.

I took Matty down to the river first. Three months had gone past since we’d talked about killing Ma, and winter was softening a little at the edges. Ma could hardly breathe most of the time, and she’d stopped sending me out to buy her cigs. She’d turned down the last pack I bought, and I kept it now, sealed and new. Like a reminder. “It’s time,” I told him. “There’s no moon tonight, and it’ll be dark enough.” I could wheel Matty down on the trolley, wrapped in his sheet. He could breathe long enough for me to get him to the river, we knew that much. If people heard the midnight rattle of the pram wheels, they would just think it was some homeless guy, looking for junk, rooting through the rubbish bins. No one would come to see what I was doing.
        We waited for the dark to fall and for the stars to light up. When there is no moon, the stars shine much brighter, as though they’re trying to make up for all the time the moon takes from them. When the cat’s away the mice will play, I thought, and pictured the stars as little bright mice leaping here and there, looking for crumbs in the night. It was better than thinking about what we were going to do.
        It was better than thinking about the toenail I found in my sock, and how my pinkie toe had started growing long and thin, and how I could see the bone through the skin, how it bent easily as the quill of a small feather. How spongey the skin on my legs felt.
        I carried Matty, half-dragging him out to the trolley, and when he was firmly wrapped in place, I grabbed the thick plastic twine of the pull, feeling it bite into the softening skin of my palm, and tugged him down the road to the Worme Bridge. Matty went easily into the water, and stretched out, flicking the long bones of his feet. Of his tail. He belonged here. It would take a blind idiot to think he didn’t. And Ma did too.
        “I’ll be back,” I told him. He nodded. He’d promised to do the drowning. It would be easier for him, already there in the river. No sense getting me all wet and I’d already had to do all the heavy work of hauling both of them down to the water.
        Ma didn’t argue with me. Her legs were mostly grown together by now, and her feet were gone. Just a big split tail like a fish’s stuck on all wrong. She’d given up on scraping away at her growing scales sooner than she’d given up on Matty’s, so she was already silvering. Her legs were bare and sexless, but she wore a big loose T-shirt.
        “I’m not about to go around naked like a whore,” she told me. “I’ll go to my death with dignity.”
        She was much heavier than Matty, though at least she was able to help me more. After a bunch of heaving and swearing we got her on to the trolley, and I started the final trek down, the trolley practically racing me so that I had to run to keep up with it and Ma, so that they didn’t career off into the pavement and send Ma rolling downhill like a giant dead tuna.
        I pulled the trolley to a stop near the bank, tearing open the puffy skin on my palms, and hobbled over to Ma to help her down to the water’s edge. My new toe was paining me, crushed up in my shoe. Luckily we’d talked it all through before, the three of us, and Ma went to the water like a woman going to John the Baptist, who was a friend of Jesus and also had to drown him first.
        It didn’t take long, though she thrashed a fair bit while Matty held her under.
During their struggle, I kicked off my shoes and sat on the bridge, my bottom getting soaked through with early dew, and my legs dangling over the edge of the water, as I leaned between the railings and watched. My toe shimmered in the starlight, silvery pale and new. I pressed my knees together hard, and felt the skin give slightly, the blood and veins underneath calling out to each other, moving toward a joining.
        Matty’s head bobbed up, and his needle teeth shone as he smiled.
        “Done?” I asked him. In my pocket, I closed my fingers around the box of cigarettes and pulled it out to slowly unwrap the thin plastic, to fold the silver paper and choose my virgin straw. I tapped it with one fingernail, waiting. A moment later, Ma’s head came up alongside Matty’s. She was staying in the river, there’d be no three days of rebirth for her. It was better this way. Better to let your dead go than to try hang on to them.
        I took the yellow lighter from my pocket and thought about how quickly the Worme house would burn. By the time the fire department came, I’d be gone. They’d have no idea where to find me. I slipped Ma’s cigarette between my lips and closed my eyes. The fire sparked and even through my closed lids I could see the warm redness of it. I breathed in the smoke from my final cigarette. It tasted like acceptance of growing up.
        Drowning would hurt, I knew. But first, I had a house to burn down.

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Author photo credit: Credit Nerine and Thomas Dorman

 

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