Short Story: ‘Bloodsport’

One of my older pieces, ‘Bloodsport’, has found a home in ReadFinReadFin is the final journal to come out of Melbourne Polytechnic’s Writing and Publishing degree, from which I graduated in 2014.

I wrote this piece a few years ago but still vividly remember agonising over the sword fighting choreography. I sought out feedback about it and even watched a few shogun samurai movies on YouTube for reference. It was a fun exercise.

ReadFin received a limited print run, but a digital copy can be found here. Note that the editor has incorrectly credited me as ‘Tim O’Connell’, which is pretty disappointing. I’d hoped they would bring more care and attention to their final issue, but what can you do?

Issuu doesn’t like web browsers very much, so I’m also reproducing the story in text here. I hope you enjoy it.


 

Bloodsport

 

I’m at the meeting point: a narrow cliff-edge. Waves crash onto rocks that jut from the ocean like jagged teeth. Countless samurais have died here coveting clan honour. A wrong step preludes a 300-foot drop. I hear a squawk that seems to echo my name. A lone opportunistic gull rides an updraft, a late-afternoon snack its only concern.

Sensing a presence, I turn. Miguel appears across the way, bathed in the light of the setting sun.

‘Fifteen minutes I’ve waited.’

‘Impatience,’ Miguel says, ‘is the folly of youth.’

I smirk. ‘Is that what this is? A lesson in patience?’

Miguel advances until we stand a sword-length apart at the cliff’s edge. Death, like the gull, is opportunistic, and could wing its way from any direction.

Miguel warns that my insolence will cost me. Unperturbed, I grin, disarming him with false confidence. I’m less experienced, but Miguel’s victory is anything but assured.

White-knuckled, we draw our swords. Our robes ripple in the wind. Miguel adopts our clan’s traditional stance; I fall into my variation of it.

Right legs leading, we lock eyes, each daring the other to strike first.

Miguel takes a quarter-step back. His weight shifts to his back foot. I follow his cue, my heel digging into the soft earth. My flesh is goose-pimpled, my muscles taut. Miguel, expressionless, wholly inhabits this moment.

The distant seabird screeches, her cry puncturing the silence.

I lunge forward.

Miguel guards high; I feint and strike low. We clash violently until my blade slips down the length of his. He shunts me off balance and leads me in a quarter-circle, his position a counterweight to my heavy blow. I hang on, enduring the hideous scraping of steel.

We separate explosively. My arm is nicked. I hiss and force it from my mind. Miguel lunges, hoping to capitalise on his modest blow. He is uncannily quick, but I deflect, taking his wrist and forcing him to relent. He leaps back.

‘Don’t worry,’ I say. ‘There’s still plenty of fight in me.’

Miguel mocks me with laughter.

The reprieve is short-lived. Our swords collide a dozen more times. We circle continuously. Alternately, we dominate, losing then wresting back control, overpowering and pushing back in increments. But our reserves are low. Miguel knows this. It’s in his eyes. For all our discipline, we are but flesh constructs.

We separate, pirouetting in sync. I toss my robe, my legs shifting free. Then I thrust forward in pre-emptive strike. Miguel is waiting. He always is. He parries then ripostes my blow. Sparks fly. Our clashing blades are deafening.

‘Gyaaaaah!’ My voice scrapes in my throat.

Our swords clash repeatedly. Dusk looms. I grit my teeth, my eyes fixed on my opponent. I lust for an opening. My strength is flagging, my mind clouding. Tiny mistakes accumulate. Miguel’s focus sharpens; his cuts come too close.

I take one last stand. With a two-handed grip, I draw back, enveloped by primal fury. I drive my blade with such ferocity. Miguel defends – barely. His face whitens. I strike again, thrashing and thrashing. He can’t match my intensity. This is the virtue of youth.

Miguel panics. He evades my blows, but the near misses spur me on. Relentless parrying exhausts him. Enraged, I draw back and swing again, but miscalculate and deal a heavy blow to nothing. Miguel creates distance and I feel, overwhelmingly, that a vital opportunity is wasted.

We recover our breath over two long seconds. Then, as if of one mind, we surge forward with declarative war cries. Miguel catches my blade in his. We lock in, our poised body language belying our struggle. We each hope to unnerve the other. Muscles quake. Our composure slips. Sheens of sweat form above our brows.

Miguel swiftly sidesteps and I stagger off-kilter. My balance is again misplaced; I strike a knee into my opponent, but the move is crude and proves my undoing. It happens so fast: I lurch sideways, my feet flirting with the cliff-edge, and—

I feel it before seeing it. It’s a clean hit. Miguel has saved me from a 300-foot drop, only to finish me himself. His blade protrudes from between my shoulders. We remain like this, outside time: Miguel savouring victory, perhaps contemplating the complexities of our relationship, while I am caught in the throes of death.

Miguel is static a long while, his form effortlessly arranged for the execution of his final blow. The light is changing. Dusk is becoming night and I am where I deserve to be: skewered on my brother’s blade.

I’m fading fast, my vision waning. But all’s right: this is the natural order of things. I focus, as if to immortalise the moment, find beauty in death. But the gull’s incessant screeches return and now the sound is frenzied. With the last of my strength, I look to the source, expecting the sky to be blotted with seagulls.

Instead, I see a barmaid from a neighbouring establishment. Her stride is long, her expression unamused. She proceeds to her announcement, a cross-armed harbinger.

‘Daniel! Cody! I’ve been calling for ten minutes! Dinner’s on the table!’

I stand tall, exhaling frustration. The illusion’s ruined: she’s no barmaid. My brother Cody releases his hair from its authentic samurai bun and steps down from the wooden stage-cum-cliff edge.

‘Sorry, Mum.’

His face broadcasts disappointment. I pat between his shoulder blades, in the spot where his character slew mine, and assure him that our rehearsals have not been in vain, that our depiction of cartoon samurais Jack and Miguel are eerie in their accuracy, and that our scheduled display will be the highlight of FantasyCon.

Cody, looking serious, Miguel-esque, casts me a sidelong glance.

Flawless.

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Update: Publication News + Reflection

My story, ‘The Reunion’, has been accepted for publication in literary journal Page Seventeen. As part of the lead-up to publication, editor Beau Hillier asked each contributing writer to reflect (in 250 words or less) on the process of writing their respective piece.

I fear it won’t make much sense without first reading the story, but it does effectively document the way disparate influences can come together and inspire a piece of fiction.

From the Busybird Publishing website:

Reflections-4

The P17 launch date is fast approaching – not long now until the latest issue of page seventeen is available!

It’s an open invitation to come on down to our launch event and open mic night at the Busybird workshop – 2/118 Para Rd, Montmorency – from 7pm onwards on 19 November.

In the meantime, a couple more of the Issue 11 contributors have offered a little more insight into what went into the latest P17 edition.

*             *             *

Tom O’Connell on ‘The reunion’

My inspirations for ‘The reunion’ are threefold.

Firstly, this story was written in response to the Murakami short ‘All God’s children can dance’, wherein a young man, lied to about his supposed birth by Immaculate Conception, searches for his true biological father. The search culminates on an empty baseball diamond, a final image which has remained with me.

Years ago, I took regular evening walks around the streets of Northcote. On these walks, I often passed sporting grounds where local AFL teams had their weeknight training sessions. During training, the stands and grounds would be empty. The field would be lit, but only coaches and a dozen or so players were present. (I love how this contrasts the bustle of Game Day. Empty sporting grounds are so serene.)

One night, I noticed a hooded figure watching the boys train. The stands were unlit, so he was shrouded in darkness. I passed another night and he was there again. He came regularly. No one paid him any notice. He was probably one of the boys’ fathers, but that didn’t stop me turning over the possibilities. What if he was a spy, or homeless, or generally unhinged? (Amusingly, an earlier draft emphasised this angle.) The idea developed and he became an absentee father.

Finally, I suppose this story was written, in part, to satisfy an innate curiosity about my biological father, whom I have no relationship with. Paternal bonds often figure into my fiction, though never usually this explicitly.

Tom O’Connell is a writer, editor and tea-enthusiast. He is currently studying for a Bachelor of Writing and Publishing and has been published in [untitled], n-SCRIBE, Vine Leaves and Crack the Spine. Follow his writing at artofalmost.wordpress.com.

Short Story: ‘The Wall’

Mandi Kontos has featured my story, ‘The Wall’, which was published late last year by Crack the Spine, as part of her blog’s Sharing Sunday segment. It’s probably the most direct way to read the story (as Crack the Spine is a somewhat fiddly online-only interactive PDF thing). Enjoy!

Guest Speaker Recap: Sam Cooney, Editor of The Lifted Brow

Sam Cooney was my most anticipated guest speaker this semester – partly because I’ve long enjoyed his ‘sweet petite tweets’ and partly because he’s been currently killing it (from my perspective) as the editor and publisher of one of the country’s most respected literary magazines, The Lifted Brow. I don’t want to blow too much smoke up his dress (unless he’s into that), but suffice it to say his CV, entrepreneurial skills and general work ethic impressed me. For someone just a couple of years my senior, he’s accomplished a hell of a lot. He also wears many professional hats. I wouldn’t be surprised if his business cards have stapled-on amendments that enfold two or three times.

Sam began his presentation by telling us about his unconventional career path. Apparently, with the advent of the internet, unconventional is the new conventional (like, hadn’t you heard?). Old career models are becoming obsolete; these days, a professional writer’s career path is invariably defined by its random discursions. It’s unsettling to think that the degree I’m working towards could count for everything or nothing, but that’s the nature of the gig. Unlike more traditional careers, the trajectory of a writer’s path is seldom linear.

Sam’s was no exception. His journey began with a false start university enrolment where he worked towards a business degree. He considered this avenue partly because he’d yet to realise his true calling, but also because his all-boys private school had conditioned him to aspire to traditional work. Fortunately, Sam spent his leisure time indulging hidden literary aspirations and it wasn’t long before he realised writing was what he really wanted to do with his life. Though he didn’t say as much, I suspect Sam’s business classes contributed to his entrepreneurial edge. If this is true, it shows that no life experience is ever truly wasted; writers will always find ways to draw from their pasts. It saddens me, though, that there are high schools out there actively discouraging students from pursuing creative or unconventional career paths. But it’s not particularly surprising, given society’s low opinion of the humanities. Continue reading

Worth checking out: INSCRIBE Community Magazine

Today I thought I’d take down two enemy choppers with one rocket: in this post I’ll be sharing one of my published pieces of fiction and drawing attention to a lit mag that is fast becoming an iconic part of my local community, the City of Darebin.

‘inScribe’ is an arts and culture magazine that is distributed freely around the Darebin area (typically in cultural hotspots, like cafés, libraries and community halls). It is produced by students of NMIT’s Bachelor of Writing and Publishing course and an editorial committee composed, I believe, of council workers and locals from the area.

‘inScribe’ exclusively publishes work by writers who live, work or study in the Darebin area. This gives it a distinct aesthetic and effectively showcases the diversity of our culture. ‘inScribe’ publishes poetry, short fiction, book and café reviews, articles and visual art. The articles they’ve published in the past have been about writing, publishing and the community at large; I recall there were some rippers in Issue Six about the state of the publishing industry.

Though it is a print publication, the PDF of their current issue, Issue Seven, can be found here. My piece, ‘Nostalgia Coast’, can be found on page seven. Though I don’t wish to sound too self-congratulatory or go on about my experiences, I did want to mention that I really enjoyed working with their editorial team. I found them to be both thorough and respectful.

I’m also a big fan of Emma Wiesenekker’s accompanying artwork (evidenced below). I feel it really complements my piece – and that’s true of all the other illustrations, too. ‘inScribe’ is a very striking publication.

Image

I wanted to write about ‘inScribe’ because I think it’s a great council initiative, one that deserves the support of all Melbournians if it’s to be sustained. Before I moved to the area – from the Gold Coast, an area bereft of culture – ‘inScribe’ was the kind of thing I dreamt about having in my community. It’s great for emerging writers and artists, and it can add a touch of class to any café window front. Council-funded art initiatives are hard to launch and even harder to sustain, so we have to make sure we don’t take them for granted.

If you’re reading this and don’t live or work in the Darebin area, you can still access PDFs of every issue here. The team at ‘inSribe’ welcome feedback; the magazine is constantly evolving in accordance with the comments they receive (as evidenced by last year’s transformation from a newspaper format to a glossy, vibrant magazine).

If you do live, work or study in Darebin and you’d like to submit something, check out the submission guidelines.

Photo credit: Emma McVinish © 2012, http://foxinahat.wordpress.com/