Ruler of Waters

Pristine waters so tempting and forbidden.

Ominous black clouds wrapped Saiylie in a blanket of stifling tropical heat. She had been summoned, among hundreds of compliant subjects now shuffling reluctantly into the palace of King Manzi, Ruler of Waters.

Clad in black, as per custom.

Eyes downcast, as per custom. No witness to the magnificent waterfalls cascading down the façade of the palace, to the rooftop fountains and fantastical tributes to the Ruler of Waters. Eyes downcast, gazing into the moat below. Now devoid of deadly creatures. Now the world’s largest swimming pool. Inviting. Tempting. Forbidden to all but the 10-year-old Prince.

“My legacy,” screeched King Manzi, in a grating voice bereft of the gravitas of a great ruler.

“My legacy, my gift to you my people, is The Speaker,” and the ruling elite beamed in admiration as they gathered en-masse in the palace forecourt. The ailing and bumbling King had emerged from his private sanctum to deliver unto his people ‘The Speaker’.

The Speaker would be the voice of all future AI applications, into eternity. King Manzi was adamant the one single voice would emerge from his people. Thus, Saiylie was now shepherded between a sea of electronic cables belonging to the world’s pre-eminent AI experts tasked with measuring clarity, timbre and resonance before selecting the voice to rule all voices.

King Manzi gazed skywards, addressing the black clouds. Holding the clouds, holding his audience.

The recording began. Saiylie waited; for orders and relief from the heat. None came.

The ruling elite performed at their erudite best in the search for perfection and the hope of becoming The Speaker.

Eyes downcast, Saiylie saw the first drop, then the second. The clouds had begun to empty. An umbrella was thrust into Saiylie’s hands, and hundreds more soon snapped open to protect the elite and their precious recordings.

The rain grew heavier.

“Closer,” Saiylie was ordered.

“Closer,” and she shuffled closer to the surrounding umbrellas to form a compact canopy over the aristocracy. Massive drops of monsoonal rain then pounded defiantly on the King’s forecourt and sent the elite into a harried cacophony of raised voices.

“Continue,” commanded the King.

Louder and louder they spoke until they created their own cloud of steam underneath the canopy.

“Continue,” King Manzi yelled.

Temperature rose inside the canopy. Saiylie began rocking to and fro with uncontrollable giddiness. She felt increasingly lightheaded, and felt her feet leave the ground as the cacophony of voices created their own microclimate. Saiylie began to float, upwards and away from the voices.

Was she fainting?

Was she flying?

She rose higher and higher as the heat and humidity turned the interwoven umbrellas into a hot air balloon. Higher and higher they rose until above the palace walls.

Saiylie spotted the moat below. She released the umbrella and raised her arms skyward, slipping out of her black robes and into the blissful waters of the moat.

Instaworthy.

“I’m not surprised. I just don’t understand why.”

“So true Cody. Chaz Girewski can’t win, but he’s in the start hut for run 2.”

“This can’t be good.”

“Tyler, you’re track side, buddy, what’s happening?”

“Well Cody, I can’t get to Chaz because it’s absolute mayhem here. Officials, doctors, even other riders are all surrounding Chaz and, wait…someone just tried to take his bike off of him…but that’s not his bike, it’s Seth Daley’s, but Chaz won’t let it go, oh boy!”

“Tyler, is he wearing someone else’s helmet?”

“Yeah, that’s right, it looks like Sepp Bol’s helmet, guys it’s pure chaos here.”

“Thanks Tyler. Well folks, Slopestyle finals here at Crankworx Whistler have been stopped while they try to prevent Chaz Girewski from taking his second run, so let’s look back at the replay to see where it all went wrong.”

“Rider no. 4, Chaz Girewski, the Phoenix Phenom. 19 years old and one of the hottest Slopestyle riders on the planet right now.”

“Without a doubt Cody. He’s about to absolutely send it. He’s been posting amazing tricks on his insta @chazzyg lately and this could be epic.”

“Rolls into the first ramp, big air and a Can-Can with double Bar Spin and a Superman”

“Oh…My….God, did we just see that?”

“He’s hunting Emil Bjornssen’s 94.20 folks and he’s all in”

“2nd ramp, what’s he got?”

“Tsunami Backflip with a Tailwhip and a Cork 360 “

“No, this is insane!!!!!!”

“He’s killin’ it, Cody. He’s taking huge speed in to this final jump. Pushes hard into the ramp and rocks a Highland Fling up onto the Whale Tail”

“First time ever in competition. We are witnessing history!!!!!”

“Off the Whale Tail with a Nac-Nac into a Cash Roll and…”

“Oooooh, eeeeuuuwwww, yuk, no…”

“Oh no, that’s nasty”

“He’s slammed into the ground super hard and he’s not moving.”

“Doctors are on the course and holding his neck. Chaz is still not moving and there’s an eerie silence over this huge Crankworx crowd.”

“Let’s see what happened. Off the Whale Tail and then halfway through the Cash Roll he loses his rotation and we can see his foot off the pedal, then the rear wheel hits the lip hard and he flies over the handle bars.”

“Oh guys, this is hard to watch”

“In slowmo we see the visor snap and part of his helmet crack, his goggles fly off, snapped spokes and parts of his bike, I think it’s his brake mount, go spiralling into the air…”

“Wow, that’s nasty”

“We can see now that doctors are asking him to press on their hands”

“Well, that’s to check for a spinal injury, Cody”

“Wow”

“That’s how it happened folks, now we’re back live and Tyler is finally with Chaz in the start hut.”

“Chaz, buddy, that was a massive crash, you should be in hospital dude, what are you doin’ here?”

“I have to do that run again, I forgot to turn on my GoPro.”

Lennie.

A substance thick as honey ran down Lennie’s shirtfront. It was one of the many he had spilt, smeared, dribbled or dropped on his person over the last few hours, during which the general frivolity had afforded him a degree of freedom. But soon his mother caught him.

“I gave him that shirt just this morning,” she bemoaned, as she wiped away the stains and her maternal guilt.

“Leave it,” said a voice of similar vintage, and Lennie recognised the delicate perfume of his aunty Suzie.

 “Charlie was exactly the same when he reached that age.”

As his mother and aunty mourned the loss of their baby boys, Lennie wrestled himself from their attention and set off in search of another prize. He’d spotted the red heart-shaped delicacies the moment he arrived, but had been obstructed by the customary platitudes and gushing sentiments from friends and relatives as they’d arrived one after another.

Now he stumbled to his feet and bumped his way through the blur of bodies surrounding the food table. Countless guests insisted on kissing him and smothering him with affection, but Lennie was obsessed with other matters of the heart. He thrust his hands into the bowl and clawed as many little hearts as possible, before plonking himself on the floor. Nearby guests simply laughed and shuffled away to avoid stepping on him, and Lennie focussed his entire concentration and limited dexterity on extricating the chocolates from their wrappers, before gorging himself on mouthfuls of pure pleasure.

Lennie was then captivated by the golden glow of the beer fridges. Had such a wondrous sight ever existed? From his vantage point on the plush but soggy carpet, Lennie gazed up enraptured at the two towers of temptation gleaming with hitherto undiscovered flavours.

Lennie will one day hear a theory that alcohol labelling is deliberately designed to evoke associations with positive childhood memories of certain shapes, colours and images. Well, it was working today, and he reached for a bottle containing a pleasure he had not yet known. Just as he touched the ice-cold bottle, a strong and dominant hand pulled his away.

“Bit too early for that Lennie,” the owner admonished light-heartedly.

“Already going for the imported stuff,” another voice joked.

“Maybe another day my boy!” and the men enjoyed a concomitant chuckle as they downed the bottles they were holding.

A clink on a glass and the room fell silent and still.  

Lennie was ushered to the stage, and his eyes lit up with wonderment yet again on this fantastical evening. A giant cake covered in thick, luscious, colourful icing sat before him. His hands extended instinctually, and simultaneously his father swooped to snatch the razor-sharp knife that lay beside the cake.

Lennie smashed through the icing and plunged his forearms into the soft and doughy interior of the cake. He swam unabashed in the innocent, creamy, sensual pleasure until his mother’s voice pierced his reverie:

“Happy 40th Lennie!”

Image: Jess Bailey

Show Me.

“Show me”

No, sorry Dad, I can’t. Not now, Sophia wanted to say, but she knew even one word would release a torrent of emotion. The brisk winter morning and the flecks of salt water whipped into the air had already moistened her eyes and loosened her tear ducts.

“Show me” he cajoled, but to no avail.

Sophia’s parents and her eldest sister were the only people permitted to see her off from the terminal. Friends, family and colleagues had farewelled her at the dinner two nights earlier where her mother had told the large crowd,

“Sophia’s work brings joy and hope, plus opportunity to so many people. We wish that for once she would focus more on herself and find…

but before her mother went there, Sophia shot her a look which said ‘not now mum, not now’ at which her mother changed tack,

…or at least that she could do this work closer to home.”

“You’ll do great things” is all her father could manage, lest he cry endlessly in front of his friends and family. That was not the done thing for an ex boxing and wrestling champion.

His little girl was departing, again, but this time there was no scheduled return date and a much greater risk which no one wanted to acknowledge verbally.

As Sophia felt the familiar warmth of her mother’s embrace, she found herself contemplating which melancholic musical score would best accompany this moment. The girl who eschewed modernity, who chose sailing over flying, paperbacks over kindles and letter writing over messaging, thumbed mentally through her vintage record collection searching for an appropriate title, until she switched her attention to her big sister.

The longest hug was reserved for her father. She was the baby of the family, and even when her work thrust her into battles with world leaders, corporate heavyweights and, on one occasion, a feared local warlord, she was still Daddy’s little girl.

The ship hauled itself from the dock, and once Sophia had finished waving, she slid her chilly hands into her coat pockets. There she felt a piece of paper. Unfolding the paper, she saw a stamp pasted in its centre. The stamp featured a koala, and it was the stamp which had sat proudly on the first letter she had sent to her father, all the way from her nextdoor neighbour’s house where she had embarked with boastful pride on her first epic adventure – a sleep over.

Her father had even sprinkled glitter on his letter in honour of Sophia’s insistence upon decorating her letters well into adulthood. She imagined her burly father hunched over his work bench surrounded by power tools and trophies, adding glitter ever so delicately to her parting gift.

The letter comprised of four words. Four words which always elicited a smile from Sophia, even in her darkest days. Four words her father had used to slice through her despair and sadness, her anguish and tantrums.

“Show me your teeth.”

Carrie’s Cafe Crawl.

Receptacles at the ready, the competitors in Carrie’s Café Crawl sized up their opposition.

A great challenge lay ahead.

Seven cafes.

One ingredient acquired secretly from each café.

One sandwich combining these ingredients.

Detection equals disqualification.

The casual weekly competition had morphed into a serious battle, and this week a heavy tension hung in the air. The source of the tension was abundantly clear, but no one would let it distract them from tantalising the taste buds of their own children who served as judges. Sandwiches would be judged on taste, presentation and one exotic ingredient. As to what qualified as ‘exotic’, Ambitious Annie was still impatiently seeking clarification.

Stealth was imperative. Stingy Steve thanked his equally-stingy parents for inculcating him into the practice of hoarding breakfast pastry and fruit at holiday resorts.

“That’s your lunch,” they would say, as his deft hands slid a muffin into his lap.

Dizzy Dave broke the tension temporarily when he asked;

“Who’s having coffee here?”

Dave had consumed a short black at every café on his first crawl, and had buzzed at dizzying heights for days.

Steve and Roddy ordered coffee, as Kylie arrived with adorable baby Ned and a stroller bursting with baby accoutrements. She also bought the Earl’s Pearls, which glistened in the tropical sun and hung proudly from her neck to signify her victory in last week’s competition.

Upon sitting, Kylie noticed the source of the tension. Ambitious Annie wore a pair of pearl earrings, in subtle protest at Kylie’s victory. Kylie’s own son had awarded 10/10 to the anonymous sandwich and its side of ice cream. Even an eight-year-old knew that Kylie was the only competitor equipped to transport a cooler box large enough to preserve a scoop of ice cream for hours in the tropical heat. Annie called the decision nepotism. Kylie called it her Baby Bonus.

Competitors performed their weekly Snack ‘n Slide at one café after another, while the judges worked up an appetite at tutoring college. The Saturday morning tutoring gifted the parents four hours of serenity and adult company, and now only Ambitious Annie expected any academic improvement from the extra classes.

At the fifth café, disaster struck.

Bev broke out in violent, lumpy welts, spreading rapidly from her neck. She was rushed to hospital for fear she had been bitten by one of the tiny, deadly bugs which inhabit these lands. The café crawlers dreaded the news from medical staff.

When doctor and patient emerged, all were relieved except Bev. Dijon mustard and tropical heat had caused the rash. The same Dijon Bev had smuggled from home in her top pocket.

“The Condiment Conundrum,” she offered as a paltry excuse. Condiments were the hardest ingredients to pilfer, but could make or break a sandwich. The sachets had burst when baby Ned writhed and twisted in her arms. The competitors thanked the doctors. Kylie thanked her Baby Bonus.

The Dijon Debacle had thus nullified this week’s competition.

What of the Earl’s Pearls?

Image: Van Thanh