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.




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.


Short Story: ‘Love under House Arrest’

B&BSome stupid fun. Enjoy!

At first it was a speck at the end of a tunnel. Then Cecilia’s eyes opened and in rushed the ocean of fluorescent light. She blinked at the shadowy figure taking shape.

‘Wh-who are you?’

‘I am the master of this castle.’

The figure stood tall. His shoulders were broad and his body thick with hair. Cecilia stared into his eyes, the whites of which were not white at all, but a grotesque caramel – the colour of pus. ‘But y-you’re a beast!’

The Beast arranged his fangs into a smile. ‘You’re as perceptive as you are beautiful.’ He bowed with a flourish and, with his right arm, gave the grandiose wave of a magician about to unveil an illusion. In his other hand, clutched to his chest, The Beast carried an ornate gold candlestick.

‘W-what’s with that?’ Cecilia asked.

‘This?’ The Beast thrust the candlestick in Cecilia’s face. He cleared his throat, the candle bobbing in his hand, and said, ‘I’m Lumière, from France!

Cecilia was speechless. She stared at this puppeteering creature, trying to establish whether he was lonely or unhinged. ‘How did I get here?’

The Beast lowered his candlestick. ‘Ah, yes. You were travelling through the woods when you got caught in a fierce storm. Distressed, you entered my castle, hoping for shelter.’

And maybe,’ Lumière whispered, ‘love.

‘It’s a good thing you did,’ The Beast continued. ‘You wouldn’t have lasted long out there. I would’ve done the same.’

Cecilia sat up and looked around. This room – a dungeon, she supposed – was cold and draughty. When she realised she was chained to a gurney, her stomach dropped.

What do you want with me?’ she cried.

The Beast frowned. ‘Come now. You must realise you’re my prisoner …’

‘P-prisoner? Why?’

‘You were trespassing.’

‘But it was raining! You said you’d have done the same!’

The candlestick bobbed in The Beast’s hand. ‘It’s true, monsieur. You did. Not thirty seconds ago, actually.

‘Did I? Oh, yes!’ The Beast let out a burst of laughter. He looked at Cecilia, stony-faced. ‘Even so.’

Cecilia sniffed. There was something pungent, like old washing. ‘What is that awful smell?’

The Beast turned for a private consultation with Lumière. ‘I can’t tell her …’

Of course not, monsieur. If she knew …

‘She’d think I was psychotic! Or worse,’ The Beast’s jaw hung low, ‘ignorant!’ He glanced at Cecilia. Then, to Lumière, he whispered, ‘I should’ve read the stipulations; those murders were so … unnecessary!’

Monsieur, it’s not your fault; ze curse should have specified ze need for a female love interest.

The Beast sighed. ‘Sure would’ve spared those awkward courtships.’

Cecilia snapped her fingers. ‘Hellooo? The smell?’

‘It’s … potpourri,’ The Beast said. ‘Don’t you like it?’

‘No!’ Cecilia tugged at her chains. ‘Look, I’m sorry to interrupt … the two of you … but I’m not dangerous! Must I be chained like this?’

The Beast opened his mouth to argue. ‘Ye— No, not really.’

Cecilia’s fear morphed into disbelief. ‘Then would you mind …?’

Sheepishly, The Beast undid her chains.

Cecilia stood up and shook her ankle. ‘What about this?’

‘That stays.’

‘What is it?’

Lumière chimed in. ‘Mademoiselle, zat is your ankle monitor.

Cecilia threw her hands on her hips. ‘My ankle monitor?’ She gestured for The Beast to explain.

‘You, err, weren’t keen on chains, so …’ The Beast averted his gaze. His voice fell to a low murmur. ‘I need to know you won’t, y’know … leave me …’

With his head bowed and his fingers tight around his candlestick, The Beast seemed somehow softer. Cecilia felt the beginnings of a smile.

The Beast threw back his head and roared. ‘I don’t know why you’re smiling! Haven’t you realised? If you try to escape,’ he snarled, ‘you’ll be stunned by a powerful electromagnetic pulse!’

‘A what!

The Beast laughed. ‘EMP, dear! Do you need me to break out in song and explain it to you?’

Cecilia recoiled. ‘You’re insane!’

The Beast nodded emphatically. ‘Oh, yes, dear! Insane like a fox! But you’re not perfect either; you’re rude and conceited! How would you like it if I pointed out all your flaws?’

Cecilia crossed her arms. ‘You just did, you big oaf!’ The Beast raised a finger to interject, but Cecilia cut him off. ‘And if we’re talking character flaws, I think you should remember you’re the one locking innocent girls in castles!’

‘Believe me,’ The Beast said, ‘I’m regretting it more with each minute that passes!’ In a huff, he turned to confer with Lumière. ‘You don’t think there’s anything wrong with what I’m doing, do you?’

Locking mademoiselle in ze castle and fooling her into falling in love? No, monsieur, it is genius! Very Français.

Cecilia tried to run away, but tripped. She hit the floor with a loud thud. There was no point getting up; attempting escape was futile. Cecilia tugged furiously at her ankle monitor.

The Beast looked pleadingly at Lumière. ‘Look! She hates me, Lumy! What do I do?’

Hmm … Why don’t we perform for her an uplifting musical number at ze dinner table?

‘Brilliant! And maybe I could get Gaston over here for a—’ he covered his mouth and whispered into Lumière’s ear-hole, ‘—climactic roof battle! The old dog still owes me for helping him move.’ In his excitement, The Beast shook Lumière about. ‘Do you think pretending to die would be too much?’

Not at all, monsieur! It, too, is very Français.

Cecilia picked herself up. ‘Fine,’ she said, letting her arms fall to her side. ‘It’s impossible to escape, so … I accept my fate. But you should know something: I hate you! I won’t be looking at you, eating with you, or speaking to you – ever!

The Beast looked at her lovingly and said, with a sigh, ‘Lumière, I have a good feeling about this one.’

Flash! Friday #45 Story – ‘Saving Theo’

ImageMy response to Flash! Friday’s forty-fifth prompt (the above picture). Two hundred words was the limit (with a ten-word leeway). This one was tough! I hope you like it.

* * *

‘Saving Theo’ (209 words)

Gretchen found a foothold and pushed herself up. Theo greeted her at the summit. Had he been waiting? Forgetting the stakes, Gretchen drew him in for an embrace.

‘Theo! I’ve missed you!’

Theo tentatively licked her cheek. Then his ears drooped and he pulled away. Gretchen looked up. Ursula the Witch stood across the way, her wrinkled face stretched into a grin. Theo cowered behind his master.

‘Child,’ said Ursula, ‘you’ve come.’

‘I said I would.’

Ursula smirked. ‘Do you have it?’

Gretchen reached into her pocket.

Ursula beamed. ‘Bring it to me.’

Gretchen held out the stone, allowing Ursula to take it. Theo barked in protest.

‘There,’ said Gretchen. ‘Now let us go.’
Ursula closed her fist around the stone. ‘How much do you know about this dog?’

Gretchen glowered. ‘I know he’s loyal. I know he returned alone after my father …’

Ursula held the stone to the light. ‘You think I killed him.’

Gretchen’s fingers grazed the handle of her dagger. ‘He went missing on this very trail!’

Ursula frowned. ‘You insolent shit. You’re not worth saving.’

This was Gretchen’s cue. She gripped Theo by the collar and made a break for it.

Ursula shook her head. Tonight, the malevolent Animagus, Theodore, would claim another victim.

Flash! Friday #43 Story – ‘The Intervention’

ImageMy response to Flash! Friday’s forty-third prompt (the above picture). One hundred and fifty words was the limit (with a five-word leeway). Enjoy!

* * *

‘The Intervention’ (155 words)

At midday, the aliens arrived in their stealth ships. Suspended above the humans’ nesting ground, the city, they observed man’s arrogance. It was time for an intervention.

* * *

Rubin couldn’t understand it. Flash fires raged in buildings. Explosions sounded. Everywhere he looked, the telltales of destruction licked at his peripheral vision.

He grabbed Jason, his girlfriend’s son. Rubin hated the little shit, but he’d sworn to protect him.

‘Woah,’ Jason exclaimed. ‘A laser!’

‘Kid, we’ve gotta go.’

It all happened so fast. Rubin reached out as Jason began to levitate. He gripped Jason’s ankle and began the invisible tug o’ war.

‘Let go, you big jerk! I wanna see!’

‘It’s not safe!’ Rubin shouted.

‘You’re not my real dad!’

Then it hit Rubin. Jason had been at the root of every one of their fights – including their non-existent sex life. He watched as the invisible current dragged Jason away. This would be best for everyone.

Flash! Friday #42 Story – ‘The New Caretaker’

ImageMy response to Flash! Friday’s forty-second prompt (the above picture). Three hundred words was the limit (with a ten-word leeway). Fantasy has been courting me lately, so I wanted to turn in something a little more grounded. This week, I was more interested in character than concept.

Have said that, though, there was also a moment when I flirted with writing a ghost story. See, the first thing this prompt brought to mind was Stephen King’s The Shining and, although this doesn’t really venture too explicitly into that territory, that book was certainly at the forefront of my mind when I started writing. A possible interpretation is that this little exchange between newlyweds foreshadows a later, Amityville Horror-style unravelling. Unfortunately, this piece got a little short-changed by the word count. There’s something faintly undeveloped about it. However, on the whole, I’m happy with it. It evolved organically and, as a quiet little moment, nicely juxtaposes my recent flashier flash.

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‘The New Caretaker’ (309 words)

Erin stood at her husband’s side, arms akimbo, and took it all in.

‘Nuh-uh,’ she said. ‘Too much like the Overlook Hotel.’

Julian frowned. ‘I thought you were going to be supportive about this. Or, at the very least, show some maturity.’

Erin looked away. It took a moment, but eventually she swallowed her laughter. She cleared her throat, set her tone to sincerity.

‘I’m sorry, baby; I do support you.’

Like everything about him, Julian’s smile was ineffectual. But all, it seemed, was forgiven. Erin wasn’t surprised; Julian hadn’t the capacity for anger. Even Erin’s mother had remarked how bland he was.

Truly, she had said, the only remarkable thing about that man is how very unremarkable he is!

Erin couldn’t deny it: her mother’s disapproval had been a contributing factor when she’d accepted Julian’s proposal. But he was a nice man – honest, dependable, guaranteed never to lay a hand on her. Those were rare qualities. They counted.

In an uncharacteristic display, Julian drew Erin in near. His hands rested upon her hips. His grip was so gentle it was near-apologetic. They stood together at the mouth of Gretchen Lake. Behind them, a thick fog rolled by.

Julian looked at his wife. ‘I know being here … Me taking this job … It’s not exactly what you pictured for our honeymoon …’

‘Not what I—!?’

Julian silenced her with a raised finger. ‘It’s not the Bahamas,’ he explained. Julian fell silent. His head bowed. Then, as if coming back from the dead, he gestured grandly to the building. ‘What I’m trying to say is … will you help make this place home for the next three months?’

Erin smiled. The moment was charged with romance. She had to dispel it.

‘Only,’ she said with a nervous laugh, ‘if you refrain from going all Jack Nicholson on me.’

Worth Checking Out: Flash! Friday Micro Fiction Community

Flash fiction has always interested me. This could be because I’m a naturally verbose writer (see: every post I’ve written to date). To me, short short fiction has always seemed elusive and challenging. My attempts at it feel more like disposable exercises than fully formed pieces with arcs and merit.

Indeed, writing good flash or micro fiction requires a very specific skill set. So to get some much-needed practice, I’ve decided to join Flash! Friday, a flourishing flash fiction writing community.

It’s pretty simple: every Friday morning a prompt is given via Twitter and the Flash! Friday blog. Writers then have twenty-four hours to conceive a seventy-five word response and share it in the comment section of the blog, or by using the #FlashFridayFic hash tag.

Every entry is read and assessed by a judge (a different one each time, I believe?). Both the winners and the highly commended receive exposure and Glory!™. Crucially, there’s no pressure: from what I can tell Flash! Friday is all about having fun, getting some feedback and being held accountable for keeping a regular writing schedule. It’s also further supports the argument that Friday is the best day of the week.

If any of this sounds interesting, follow FlashFridayFic or visit their blog.

Also, watch this space: I plan on sharing some forthcoming flash fiction pieces on this blog. I figure it’s about time I subjected you to my fiction. Let the madness ensue.

Review: ‘The Weight of a Human Heart’

ImageFirst, a confession: I’m not a huge fan of experimental literary forms. Nine times out of ten, as I see it, they come off cheap and gimmicky. Maybe that’s an unfair assessment, but many writers seem to play with form just so their work will stand out. To me, it seems like these writers are unsure of themselves. Maybe they feel their work isn’t capable of grabbing readers’ attentions on its own merits so they dress their stories up in clever framing devices. I know that sounds harsh; I’m sure there are writers out there whose only interests are in having fun and pushing boundaries, but these seem to be in the minority.

It’s not that I’m too conservative for experimental forms – I hope that isn’t how it comes across. Rather, I’m distrustful of gimmicks because I’m not interested in shallow writing. See, I’ve found that clever gimmicks often come at the expense of good character development. And since strong characters and narratives are the whole reason I like to read, the trade-off hardly seems worth it. I admit I could have fleeting intellectual appreciation for experimental forms, but I doubted I could ever become emotionally invested in a story that is presented in an obtuse way.

The point of this precursor? Ryan O’Neill is a writer who has developed a reputation for openly experimenting with literary forms. I thought it best to reveal the mindset I was in when I approached The Weight of a Human Heart, Ryan’s debut collection. Admittedly, I had read some of Ryan’s fiction before (in [untitled] and Best Australian Stories 2010), so I had some idea of what to expect. It was in his story ‘The Eunuch in the Harem’ that I first evidenced Ryan’s refreshingly original wit. In fact, ‘The Eunuch in the Harem’ (reproduced in this collection) stands as one of the best epistolary stories I’ve ever read. It’s what drew me to this collection – that, and Ryan’s developing reputation as one of the country’s seminal short story writers. I guess what I’m saying is that I sought The Weight of a Human Heart out despite Ryan’s widely documented experimental leanings. And I’m very glad I did.

Ryan O’Neill has a penchant for trickery, but there’s no hint of affectation in it. If there was, I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to stomach it. Ryan, who I’ve never met, strikes me as less of a show-off and more someone wholeheartedly in love with language and literature. Case in point: The Weight of a Human Heart is overflowing with allusions to classic literature and knowing winks towards what some might consider arbitrary fictional conventions. It’s a love letter to literature in all its forms, and it’s not afraid to poke fun at the very thing it’s honouring.

‘Seventeen Rules for Writing a Short Story’, for instance, is a wild, rambunctious ride in which famous author quotes dictate the direction of the unfolding narrative. Similarly, ‘A Short Story’ delights precisely because the turns it takes are so unexpected. ‘A Marriage in Figures’ is what it sounds like: an analysis of the ideological differences between men and women, one made all the more interesting by its use of graphs, charts and other tactile examples. ‘Typography’ is another effortless visual affair, one that turns its namesake into a plaything. I expect Ryan and the design staff at Black Inc. had a lot of fun laying these stories out.

For a sudden change in direction, I’d like to air a minor grievance I had with a particular story. ‘The Examination’, I felt, though gloriously sub-textual, never really broke free from the shackles of its device. In this story, a disadvantaged African youth confesses his hopes and hardships within the response sections of a written examination. While far from a bad story, it’s a perfect example of everything I don’t like about experimental fiction: the form is limiting and the story too disconnected to offer any emotional resonance. The fact that it tries to be affecting, and succeeds in getting some of the way there, makes it all the more frustrating.

Of course, ‘The Examination’ is the exception, rather than the rule. For the most part, the experiments in The Weight of a Human Heart perfectly complement the stories they’re attached to. In some cases, they even enhance them.

Writers, publishers, or those aspiring to be either, will get an extra kick out of The Weight of a Human Heart. It’s a fun and stirring read, and has an accessible prose-style, but it does demand things from the reader: namely, a similar appreciation for language, literature and everything else it celebrates. It’s a bit like Ryan wrote this book for a secret, undefined sub-culture of literature nerds. While it isn’t completely inaccessible to others (i.e. people without an interest in publishing or with knowledge of literary tropes; people who just want an easy, ripping yarn), I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend it to them. In short, the very thing that makes this book unique – its unrelenting cleverness – is also what will turn some away. A few of these stories – perhaps a quarter – are like little puzzles; the reader must read very closely to discern hidden meanings and gain a fuller appreciation. It’s never more work than it needs to be, but I feel it may deter those after a quick, simple read. (Different strokes n’ all, but gosh, the thought of someone turning this book away because it’s too challenging is very disheartening!)

I fear I’ve portrayed this book as some sort of self-aware comedy. It is, in parts, but it’s also much more. Ryan O’Neill shows great versatility in this collection. Juxtaposing his aforementioned experimental stories are some incredibly poignant reflections on loss, hardship and the infallibility of the human spirit. Ryan has spent time in Europe, Africa and Asia, and it’s clear that these places have influenced his work. Rwanda, for instance, is beautifully rendered in several stories – most notably in the sublime ‘Africa Was Crying Children’ and ‘The Cockroach’. Ryan’s keen observational eye brings these exotic locales to life. The Rwandan stories are powerful, affecting and, crucially, unsentimental. The child protagonist in superhero story ‘The Speeding Bullet’ (my personal standout) is as endearing as you could ever hope to find.

For a collection that prides itself on its willingness to experiment, it’s funny that the more traditional narratives seem to pack the most punch. Neither style would work as well without the other, though; a whole collection of lighter, experimental pieces could feel frivolous, while one with nothing but deep, stirring pieces might seem overwrought.

Excepting ‘The Examination’, the slight accessibility barrier and an over-reliance on the theme of adultery (seriously, at least seven of the stories feature it), I can not recommend this highly enough. Short story collections usually take me a good while to get through, but this I devoured. It’s thrilling being able to surrender to a writer, knowing full well that where they’re taking you is somewhere new and unexpected. The Weight of a Human Heart is full of such surprises. Its commitment to defying my expectations left me constantly smiling.

I genuinely can’t wait to see what Ryan O’Neill comes out with next.