The turtle and the crow

Posted in stories with tags , on March 1, 2013 by Richard Holt

‘Two brothers were returning to their people’s land and they stopped at a beach to catch turtles rather than arrive without gifts. One of the boys was hard-working and patient. He built a clever trap and waited all night. Just before dawn a good-sized turtle fell into his trap. He tied the turtle up so he could carry it back to his people.

The other boy was lazy. His trap was made badly. As soon as he’d finished it he fell asleep. At daybreak he woke to find his trap washed away by the tide. So he waited until his brother was away collecting fresh water. Then he stole the boy’s turtle and walked off with it. A crow had been watching from a gum tree above. It flew down and took the form of an old woman who appeared on the track in front of the lazy boy.

‘That’s a good turtle,” she said. “Did you catch it yourself?’

‘Yes,’ said the boy.

‘That’s good,’ said the old woman. Because in this valley a person who takes something that is not theirs will be banished forever.’

The boy wasn’t scared of the woman’s threats. Yes, he had stolen the turtle, but he was just passing through and he didn’t mind being banished because he never wished to return anyway. So he laughed and turned away, ready to leave.

‘And if they are so arrogant as to steal something else and take it from here the penalty is worse. They’ll be forced to scavenge forever for their living, taking only the scraps that have been left behind by others.’

‘The boy laughed again at the old woman, hoisted the turtle on his back, and began striding away. ‘

‘How did you catch it?’ the old woman called after him.

The lazy, stupid boy stopped and, putting the turtle down again, he turned back to her. He told her proudly how he’d dug a deep trap which he’d watched all night until just before dawn when the big turtle had headed up the beach and as soon as it fell into his trap he raced out and quickly tied it up.

He was just finishing his story when he was surprised to see the old lady’s back bend and her curly black hair flatten. She was changing back into a crow. ‘So that’s your story?’ she said, before her mouth became pointed and too hard to make words.

He realised too late that it wasn’t his story at all; he’d taken that just like he’d taken the turtle. He went to pick up the turtle and run but when he reached down his hands were covered in feathers. A moment later the good brother came around the corner of the track. All he saw was his turtle on the ground and a pair of crows dancing either side.

Six by six: the architect’s wife

Posted in stories with tags , on February 26, 2013 by Richard Holt

‘Everything ordered and tidy,’ he’d said.

She kept his word. Orderly rows.

Book boxes, clothes boxes, junk boxes.

She placed them side by side

on the pavement with a note.

Neat enough for you, Harry? – Jan

How they love her

Posted in stories with tags , on February 24, 2013 by Richard Holt

It’s that time when students finishing years of school, moving towards an unknown adulthood, write messages of devotion in texta on each other’s uniforms. There’s a girl at my bus stop covered like that as if all the good will in the world is there for her. Her name is Chrissy. How do I know? I read the back of her school shirt. ‘Best wishes, Chrissy. Always friends’; ‘Chrissy is Ace’ (beside an Ace of Spades). And a poem of sorts that makes me smile and remember, because at my age sometimes you start forgetting no matter how hard you try not to. ‘Missy Chrissie, Makes me Dizzy, Because she is so, good to Kissy.’

The afternoon is warm. People going about their normal, unchanging days circle around her. Once they were her, with the world before them. Once the messages of love and devotion were for them. Now they come and go, come and go, like I do and I hope for Chrissy something more than that.

As if she knows my thoughts she turns. Her eyes are not bright but bloodshot, her pretty face blotchy from the invisible anguish of having somehow fallen so quickly from such love. And the people like me, coming and going, circling around her, care nothing, and in this peak-hour crowd the messages mean little, for she is completely alone.


Posted in stories with tags , on February 20, 2013 by Richard Holt

Vin Donatello died the way he would have expected, a car chase, a hail of bullets. The only kink in the script was his kid brother. Robbie was the good one – a real family disappointment. He wasn’t supposed to be there.

Vin blinked in the blinding white of the first moment of his afterlife. An amazed, ‘Jesus Christ!,’ escaped before he could check himself. He waited for the consequences. There was no lightning. No sudden fall. His eyes adjusted to the scene. It was all there. The clouds. The filmy white gowns of the figures circling serenely around him. The little fairy wings. ‘Where am I?’ He said it almost to himself. Then a thought occurred to him. ‘No, no. There’s been a mistake. This is Robbie’s spot. I need to talk to someone.’

‘That’s how it starts,’ said a voice nearby.

‘I’m not supposed to be here.’

‘Where do you reckon you are mate?’

‘I’m…I…Heaven I guess. But I…’

‘Men’s Cloud Number 9, Mate. Ethereal as all hell. That’s the point. Always with a twist. You’ve copped a ripper. Doubt. I don’t envy you. Well strictly speaking I do. You see that’s me right there. Envy. But doubt; that’s not bad.’ The speaker, a swarthily angelic man with a long facial scar, whistled like a cartoon bomb.

‘I don’t believe you!’

‘See. Doubt. Like I said. Live with it mate. Eternity.’

‘No. It’s Robbie’s. He never did anything wrong. He deserves this.’

‘Does he? Reggie Castle’s the name. Envy’s the game. Jealous of everyone and everything. How’d you get such a nice gown, anyway? Look at the cut of this one.’


‘See. Even here. Can you believe it? Oh no, sorry. Doubt. Still I’d swap places if I could.’ His handshake had a fraternal familiarity. ‘Over there is Carson, merchant bank CEO…you know…before.’ He gestures towards a man who continuously alternates between being seated on his fluffy cloud seat and standing up from it. ‘Can’t make a decision to save his life. Well you know what I mean.’

‘What do you all do here?’ Vin could feel a curtain of melancholy descending over him.

‘Do? What do we do? There is nothing to do, mate. It’s a bloody cloud. We suffer. That’s what we do. We beat ourselves up. Doubt, envy, guilt, uncertainty, unattainable desire, regret. Doc Roberts over there relives his whole life the way other people saw it. Niggles, mate. His bloody water torture.’


‘Him. The big G. Geeze, he sure got this bit right.’


Robbie Donatello blinked in the hot red light. Psychedelic flames flicked around him. Music pumped loud. Beneath his rocky vantage point bodies writhed in unison to the beat. Beyond them a feast of food and excess sprawled into every corner of the cavernous space. A young woman, a wicked flick to her pretty smile, knelt beside him. ‘Persephone,’ she whispered, helping him to his feet. ‘Glad you could join us. I’ll show you around.’

The king of sideshow alley

Posted in stories with tags , on February 18, 2013 by Richard Holt

Custer sleeps all day, waiting for the first spruiker, the diesel splutter, the disco blare, the crowds. There’ll be hot dog stumps in the dust soon enough. He’ll swagger beneath the crush.

He nuzzles Mikki’s legs as she’s unhooking a giant panda from her top row. Someone’s got lucky. Someone’s calling themselves the King of the alley. Someone’s got a girl beside him with cropped hair and platform shoes and a panda under one arm and she’s pulling him close with the other. Custer watches.

Custer follows them. The King and his girl. He slinks past the fake tattoo tent. Ten year-olds clammering to look like B-list heroes. The King and his girl buy fairy floss and smoke cigarettes and flick their butts onto the dodgem track.

At the ferris wheel Custer trots forward to greet the King.

‘G’day fella,’ says the The King, scruffing Custer’s nut. Gotta be good with dogs and guns, he reckons. Yeah. Mongrel dogs and slug guns and tin ducks in a row. Ping, ping, ping, ping. Sweet.

Custer notices the ride attendant distracted by cackling teenage girls. The King sees too.

‘Quick.’ He jumps past the queue of outraged families, dragging his girl with him. She yells and pulls her arm away and calls him stupid.

Custer bristles. Readies himself. The crowd parts as the wheel advances. The King and his girl still arguing as they start to move. The panda is mute at the girl’s side, its legs hanging limp. Custer picks his moment well. He leaps as the big wheel jerks to a stop.

Hot dog stumps might be good enough but Mikki’s treats win every time. As she lifts the returned Panda back into the top row Custer settles under the whirring arms of the Twister with his new bone.

The secret-sifter

Posted in stories with tags , on February 12, 2013 by Richard Holt

Something else I remember that’s gone now is bets scrawled by hand by bookmaker’s clerks. Their elaborate crayon swirls held everything a bookie needed to know; the race, the horse, the type of bet, the odds and the amount wagered. They were like coded messages. Secrets.

My family weren’t racing people. Instead I’d head across town during winter to watch football matches with my grandfather. On the way home my tram stopped outside the track.


The lining of his dirty gabardine coat bulges full of discarded hopes. I’m mesmerised. Though I’m just a boy I can tell this man’s connection to the world the other passengers share has withered until it’s barely a thread. He ignores everyone including the conductor. Everyone ignores him. In the bubble of his pungent self-possession he spreads across the space that spreads around him. Then the tickets emerge in clumps from the depths of his coat. He processes them like a machine. In his crumpled head he might retain little of his past. But he remembers every result from every race at the track today. Tote tickets and bookie stubs fall around him like dirty snow. The conductor scowls, but maintains his distance. No one watches but me. He sees me staring his way. His grin, toothless and vacant, is fleeting. He pulls another clump of tickets from his coat, lingering on one that looks as if it’s been picked from the mud. He holds it to the light, smiles, then pushes it into the side of his shoe. I figure he deserves it. All that work collecting and sifting.

It never occurs to me that this might be a show of victory for my sake alone. But just a show nevertheless. Even a secret-sifter, I realise now, might feel the need to prove the worth of what he does.

The Library of All Notions

Posted in stories with tags , on February 10, 2013 by Richard Holt

The thought came to Giovanni Spirelli between appointments with students. It stayed with him all day, through a lecture on advanced trigonometry, a meal of cod and chips and a visit from his brother-in-law. The next day he set about creating his great catalogue. He would collect ideas and index them and make them available to people who needed them. There were too many repositories of facts. Where did facts ever get anyone. Facts explained past and present. But ideas were like the master-keys to the doors to the future. Armed with a good idea a person could become what they had never imagined. He remembered. He’d once been a shepherd; a man of simple facts—the habits of foxes, the phases of the moon.

On July third, 2015 Giovanni uploaded the first of his ideas (item number 00000001, catalogue reference number 34.585a) Idea, Category: General, Subcategories: Enterprise, Conjecture. A library of ideas would benefit the world. He invited submissions and new items flooded in. The Library of All Notions flourished.

Towards the end of 2018 Giovanni sold a large stake in his library to an American venture capitalist. He packed a few simple things into his ageing Citroen and returned to the town of his youth, where he paid a happy farmer a small part of his fortune. He threw the Citroen in for good measure. Giovanni Spirelli gathered a small flock of black-faced sheep and headed into the foothills and the mountains beyond, stretching away as far as the eye could see.