Slash and burn

Inspired by reading this

I started looking back over some short stories with Stephen King’s ‘Kill your darlings’ command in mind. I would honestly have said that they were finished and ready for sending in whenever I saw an appropriate competition. But I re-read one particular story with adverbs and tags particularly in mind and was disappointed to find how much more needed cutting. It brings me back to my old unanswered question about when you can truly sit back and say ‘enough is enough.’ I’m no nearer answering that one.

This was a particularly difficult story to edit. Because there is little or no storyline, I was relying on description of things and emotions and the adverbs initially cluttered the whole page in a very undergraduate way. I cut and cut again and came up with the following. If anyone cares to suggest where they would have pruned further, or whether they feel the story is too static, that would be great. BTW the story was inspired by a friend who actually had this same experience, though her personal situation was far different. Her description of her heart-stopping hour in the kitchen inspired and freaked me out at the same time. It’s what we get for living in Australia!


From my perch on the kitchen table, I can finally see the three months worth of dust on the top of the fridge. I swivel my eyes to the kitchen window and am surprised to be able to see right across my garden and into next door’s vegetable patch, where swelling zucchinis nestle under fragile golden flowers. I stand every day at my sink and see nothing beyond the edge of the deck. Up in my eyrie, the view is clearer.
I slide my eyes carefully to the base of the fridge and clutch my protective blanket more tightly. I can still sense Dave’s aftershave on it, a shadow rising from the woollen fibres, scentless. He packed his things in minutes and left without so much as a lingering imprint on the sofa. He passed through this house and my life like a ghost and I wonder yet again how he managed to live here for three years and yet leave so few traces of his presence. Other break-ups have given me tiny mementoes, left intentionally or not; an unused toothbrush tucked at the back of the cabinet, half a tub of my least favourite ice cream in the freezer. Even, months later, a bunch of keys stuffed down a sofa cushion, when their owner was deliberately traceless. The mementoes provide links in the chain of recovery. They appear at regular intervals, grip my chest with their unexpectedness, play a movie of half-forgotten memories in my head, move me to screaming tears. I cradle them uselessly and without courage before flipping them into the bin and mentally toasting my returning strength. It is all part of the convalescence, fight it how I will. But Dave tidied himself out of my life three months ago without warning, leaving me defenceless, with no recognisable track back from the abyss.
A quiver on the periphery of my vision. I turn my head excruciatingly slowly towards it but see nothing. I turn my head away but keep my eyes swivelled towards the fridge in an illogical attempt at deception. And this time it works. The shadow at the base of the fridge trembles, dissolves and reassembles itself. Slowly, confidently, he slides his head out and regards the kitchen unblinkingly as my stomach plummets into nothingness. He slides endlessly from his hiding place. As his tail flicks clear, he rears up to survey the room, giving me a clear view of his creamy belly. I sit, frozen to my perch, willing him not to notice me, ready to throw my blanket over his head if he sees me. I long to close my eyes in case he perceives the flash of life but then he might disappear, which would be infinitely worse. I have a consuming, terrified urge to leap down, show myself, surrender – anything rather than this cringing suspense.
He lowers himself and starts across the floor in confident, rippling swerves. The tiles are shiny and prevent him getting the purchase he needs. He wriggles in exasperation as he pulls himself along with the scraping rustle of autumn leaves. The only useful thing Dave did after we bought this house was to pull up the sticky carpet and lay shimmering, creamy tiles across the kitchen floor. I watched in fascination all one afternoon as he slapped the diamonds between the little pegs at top speed and smoothed a damp pile of grout across them. I was mesmerised by his hand whipping aggressively and locking them into place. I have polished the floor lovingly every day since he left, something I sense the snake will not appreciate right now.
He finally takes refuge in the pile of sheets I tossed through the laundry room door this morning.  The fear sinks back into my throat as the sheets shudder and go still. He is in control right now, hiding, emerging, taunting me as I cower helplessly on the table with my checked blanket. Several times I consider leaping down and making for the door but my legs may buckle if I try to stand and I am very sure that he could move faster than me. For now I am trapped up here, at the mercy of his choices and not mine.
I pick up my cell phone and switch it to silent, terrified that the handlers I rang ten minutes ago will call back and alert the snake to my perfidy. I still want to call someone, to make contact with another human, but I hardly know anyone in Canberra – we settled near Dave’s family rather than mine. My sister clearly thought I was stupid to move right across the country for any man, let alone Dave. In public, they were sweetly polite to each other and in private she changed the subject every time his name was mentioned, even during that first dazzled stage where I had to speak his name every five minutes and every topic could be twisted to include a mention of him.
The bundle of sheets lies still and I watch it fearfully, expecting the snake to erupt at any moment and skid across the kitchen towards me, but he lies quiet within his cocoon and the nothingness ticks on. I am getting used to silence. Since Dave left, the air has stilled, no longer ruffled by the movements of anyone passing through it, however softly, reaching into the fridge for a beer or throwing his hands up when the opposite team scores – no longer parted as he stumps up the stairs to bed long after I have snuggled under the empty duvet. This snake is the first living thing apart from me to enter the house for weeks and I resent his invasion of my privacy.
Still no movement from the sheets, no rasping scales across the floor, just the clock on the wall next to my head, marking out the term of my incarceration. How much longer? My stomach goes into freefall as I realise I haven’t yet unlocked the door this morning. My rescuers won’t be able to let themselves in as I had planned. Somehow I will have to get down from the safety of the table and take the three or four steps to the door. I wonder if I should phone and ask them to break a window but the idea of speaking out loud again inside this airless tomb dissuades me. I try a whisper and force it through cracked lips. ‘Hello.’ The hiss sounds as though I am mocking the snake and I stop abruptly.
The thought of the men arriving and slamming their van door forces me into action. What if they clatter up the steps, shouting, putting the snake on his guard, perhaps angering him? I slide one stiffened leg very slowly straight in front of me and only realise I have been sitting on it as the blood returns, a sickening swoop of ice followed by a string of burning spikes crawling down my ankle. I am unable to move for a full minute. At last I flex my other leg gently and turn to lower myself onto the floor. Eyes appear beneath a pillowcase and arc briefly round the room. I hold my breath as the head glides out and pulls sharply back. He isn’t looking for me. I dangle my legs carefully off the edge of the cliff and wait for the noise of the engine outside. I dare not attempt escape until help arrives.
Four tense minutes later I hear it, a soft throb in the heated air. It grows steadily louder and slows to a soft growl as the white roof slides smoothly past the window and stops. I wait until I hear voices coming towards the steps before I move, then ease my legs towards the floor to take my weight tenderly on the balls of my feet. I force each leg to move in rhythm across the floor while the blood rushes through my legs and up inside my eyeballs, misting my vision to a throbbing haze. I lean towards the lock and slip back the bolt as silently as possible before twisting the door handle. It slips in my damp grasp but I hear nothing from the pile of sheets. As I hear feet on the steps, I pull the door towards me and fall through it, nearly knocking the first man backwards down the step.
‘Hey, steady on!’ he says, balancing me.
He looks like a Martian – helmet, thick protective suit, long gloves and tough, steel-capped boots. Another Martian is walking across from the van, this one carrying a long green bag that hangs limply from a pole. He gives me a quick thumbs-up and walks up the stairs.
‘I’m Jim and this here is Lachlan,’ says the first man.
‘Anna,’ I manage, through stiff lips. I jerk my head towards the laundry room. ‘He’s in there. He’s hiding in a pile of sheets on the floor.’
‘Sounds about right,’ says Jim. ‘Do you want to go and wait in the garden while we sort him out for you?’
I hesitate. I’d like nothing better but I can’t. I have to see this one through.
‘No, that’s alright. I’d like to watch.’ I say it as cheerfully as possible. ‘I’ll stay in the corner. I won’t get in your way.’
Walking back into the house is far easier than walking out. I follow three steps behind them and point firmly at the sheets, then perch on the far edge of the kitchen table, ready for flight. Jim takes the bag and moves unconcernedly towards the laundry room. He uses the end of the pole to lift the sheets back and move them to one side.
‘Yeah, there he is,’ he breathes, admiringly. ‘What a beauty!  Two metres at least. Right, I’m just going to open the bag and show it to him. He might make a break for it but Lachlan’s going to stand on his other side so I’m guessing he won’t.’
He sees my face. ‘Come on, Anna, he’s far more scared than you are.’
His face flickers amusedly as I recoil from this thought. ‘Look!’ He moves his hand gently to point to the snake as it lies, frozen, at his feet. ‘He just needs a way out now. He doesn’t really know how he got here and he’s terrified we’ll hurt him. Snakes are pretty vulnerable you know. He won’t strike unless he’s cornered.’
I exhale without moving my chest and keep my eyes fixed on Jim, trying not to watch the snake as he pushes himself sideways in rippling coils. Jim shakes the bag gently to open it further and lays it temptingly on the floor close to the snake’s head. The game is clearly over. I watch the men standing patiently with the bag. Their steel-toed boots are in such sharp contrast to the snake’s soft underbelly that I wince instinctively on his behalf. He lifts his head and flickers his tongue and I wonder if he tastes my fear or his own defeat. The men move softly closer, narrowing his exit options still further, and he curls sideways, lifts his body in a series of undulating curves and turns his head from one man to the other. He ignores the bag and makes a dart between their feet. I gasp as he slips through the gap, draws his tail across the nearest boot and coils himself close to the wall. Jim turns slowly and offers the bag again. This time the snake accepts, lifting his head to peer into the blackness. Satisfied, he eases his long body into the dark. Halfway in he stops, pulls back and twists his head to look once again at the sun-brightened tiles, before resuming his steady retreat. I watch him trail languidly into the shadows and it’s over.
Jim lifts the bag in one fluid movement, tightening the drawstring as he does so, and the bag hangs motionless from the pole, not a shiver rippling the fabric.
‘And that’s how we do it, nice and easy,’ he grins, turning to me. ‘Are you alright there, love?’
I think about this for a moment. I even manage to smile. ‘Yes, actually I am. What are you going to do with him?’
‘Aw, look. We’ll just drive him out a ways from here into the bush and let him out. He’ll be much happier there – and so will you from the look of things.’
I watch as he swivels the bag smoothly away from him and moves towards the kitchen door. Still no movement. I wonder how the snake feels as he swings through the air. Is he glad of the encompassing darkness or frozen with fear? I can’t begin to guess. I’m glad he’ll soon be free.
‘Well, see you then, maybe –  hopefully not,’ says Jim as he steps down onto the deck.
‘Thanks, really, both of you!’ I call after them. I watch as they open the back doors of the van and lower the bag inside. I raise one hand in a small farewell that I know none of them can see.
‘Just…be gentle with him, OK?’ I say, as I close the door.

2210 words

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7 Responses to Slash and burn

  1. Kay Camden says:

    If I were you, I’d cut more adverbs. There were at least two spots that had two adverbs in a row. I’d cut as many as I possibly could – either cut them all together (some seemed unnecessary to me), and rework the sentence with a better verb or description so you don’t need the adverb. My goal is to not have any at all, although I always end up with a few here and there.

    And this is probably irrelevant for what you’re asking, but I’d double space between paragraphs to make it easier to read on a blog. My eyes want to cross when I try to read long blocks of text. 🙂

    I love the parallel – removing a snake from her house after her human snake removed himself. Like she learned the first time how to be strong for the second time.

    I just said yesterday that I have a hard time concentrating on blog posts longer than 500 words unless the writing grips and holds me tight. I was shocked to see the word count of this at the end. Either I don’t know my limits, or your writing has that grip. I think it’s the latter. Good work.

    Did you self publish your novel yet?


    • Rosemary Whittaker says:

      As always, thanks, Kay. I think I need to employ you as my part time secretary. Both your comments on clumsiness of The Cinnamon Snail flashback and your comments on my (over) use of adverbs in this one, mirror my own unease that I was ignoring. Note to self – stop doing that!

      The double spacing is a good tip. It actually was but I single spaced it to put it in a competition and never re-did it.

      Never more than 500 words is interesting. I think I tend to be the same way. So I am flattered you ploughed on through. Glad you got the analogy of the two snakes. I am already thinking of a blog post about how hard to hammer a point home when we write. I tend to the ubersubtle by nature and my best friend, who instantly gets even my subtlest analogy because she knows me so well, occasionally tells me I need to be a little clearer and I do a rewrite. But neither do I want to be telling and not showing. It’s the perennial fine line for an author.

      The Cinnamon Snail is going up in three days. Am just working on the cover and contents so it is as smooth and professional as possible. I think I owe that to anyone who shells out even a few dollars of their hard-earned money on it. Had the great good fortune a few years back when I lived in Denmark, to meet a guy who in my opinion takes the most brilliant photos. He has kindly given me one to use on the cover, which is exciting. I love his work. If I am short of quick inspiration for a short story, I just look at his pictures. I have no financial interest in his work BTW!

      Thanks again for commenting.


  2. Rosemary says:

    No, I’m so sorry but I didn’t. I saw you were going to but assumed that, like me very often, real life intervened and you’d do it some other time. If you can possibly re-send then I’ll let you know if it doesn’t get here in, say, 48 hours. I’ll also check my junk mail. My mail server can be weirdly over-vigilant.

    Was doing a final re-read of my book on the kindle last night just to check for bugs and format. Would you believe I am going to spend the whole of today taking out about 50 errors I never noticed on my first twenty proof reads on the laptop? Seeing it on kindle makes it easier to spot. But does it EVER end?


    • Kay Camden says:

      I feel your pain and no I don’t think it ever ends. I’m going through the same thing with my MS and my synopsis. Blatant typos RIGHT THERE and I never saw them. I think someone is putting them in there just to play with me.

      I just forwarded the email I sent. Tell me if you don’t get it!


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