Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Here's how it's done

It's not that I've got anything against Armenians. I suppose I'd never really given them much thought as a people. One of my good friends was called Manoukian and when I was a kid we both used to cry over the stories her mother told us of the dreadful things that had happened to them. The chronology came through a touch scrambled but the sentiments were clear. I wouldn't say I was actively pro-Armenian either; just neutral. An observer, that's me; objective, disinterested--not uninterested, my school beat that distinction into me before I was ten.

I had been standing, observing, not really thinking at all, outside the hotel. There was a little old lady, well, not that little and probably not that old, say 65-75, in black, limping, a cane in her right hand, and handbag and Groppi's parcel -- pastries, sweetmeats, Cairo's best --in the other. Once of those ID labels travel agents foist on you dangled from her bag: Armenian Church Tours, it said. I wasn't close enough to read her name. Suddenly she stumbled down the steps in front of the hotel and I caught her and set her properly on her feet while she clung on to me. She was making, I supposed, for the tour bus parked twenty metres away. I was just about to say something --Take care, Look where you put your feet --when I sensed a disturbance in the pattern, light, shadow; something flickered in the corner of my eye. It took a nanosecond, I couldn't really have registered much; a blur of a covered face, eyes, a gun barrel.

I threw the old lady on the ground and crashed on top of her. I suppose I was trying to cover her, protect her. Afterwards I always said I thought she'd make a softer landing. I'm fairly tall and reasonably fit at 38, if not perhaps quite as acrobatic as I was as a young marine commando at twenty-something. And I don't like falling. So maybe both stories are true.

I thought the firing would never stop, bursts of automatic fire from two or three AK47s. It went on for years, centuries, the dinosaurs rose and fell. It must have been forty, fifty seconds. Beneath me the old darling was sobbing, silently but with great heaves. I nearly fell off her but clung on like a non-swimmer to a life-raft. I felt a sharp jab in my arm and thought she must have inadvertently stabbed me with her cane.

Then silence, awful, deadly silence, for several, long, haunting seconds, before the screaming began: dreadful screams full of pain and fear and loss. I somehow got myself and the little old Armenian lady upright. I remembered, as I started to push us up, the roar of accelerating, getting away, motor-cycles. The terrorist guns had got the hell out. The coast's clear, I said, to cheer her up. They've gone. And then a black hole, searing pain, spurting blood. I felt the wetness of it and the pulsing; a jet, a fountain. I thought it was her and I'd let her down.

The first five paragraphs of The Forwarding Agent by Austen Kirk.
Yes, it's damn good writing.


Kristin Laughtin said...

Wow. This doesn't sound like a genre I would normally read, but the writing has me intrigued. Seriously good stuff.

jwhit said...

You gotta give more clues in the beginning of posts like this! I got to the being shot part and choked. All along I thought it was you telling about something that happened in the city!

Stop giving me heart attacks, pretty please!

Haste yee back ;-) said...

"Here's how it's done!"

Good Lord, Janet! Reading that single line, I deja vuuuu'd back to High School. A warm, late spring Friday night in the middle of old man Boulger's shoulder high corn field , me and Lanette, a la buff, in the back seat of my Dad's car. Moonlight tracing her charms, she smelled like Honeysuckle. The theme from "A Summer Place" came on the radio and she whispered to me... "Here's how it's done!"

Sorry, I didn't read past, Here's how it's done! Got sidetracked!

Haste yee back ;-)

Margaret Yang said...

One thing I notice about this writing is that it is confident. Reading it, I got the sense that I was in good hands, that the author knew where the story was going and how to tell it.

Perhaps this is why agents request as few as five sample pages and know right away if they want to read more or not.

Yes, it's a small sample, but I read an equally small sample in the bookstore before I decide to keep reading or return it to the shelf.

Julie Weathers said...

Ah, this really is lovely writing. It isn't a genre I normally read, but I would be tempted if I didn't already have several boxes of unpacked books I am trying to find space for.

Ryan Field said...

At first I thought this all happened outside the Bodega...and then I thought she must have gone to Cairo this summer. But when the old lady fell on the ground, I knew then this wasn't just a post about a day in the life of Janet Reid.

Seriously though, what a nice voice.

Eliza said...

Wow. This is completely outside of the books I normally read, yet I still feel like looking that up. Great intro!

Just_Me said...

When can I get a copy?