Scorched

I recently discovered that I am autistic. One of the decisions I’ve had to make was whether or not to pursue official diagnosis. Writing this story helped me process some of the difficult emotions I’ve had to deal with.


“Okay. Here we are, then.” Monica pulled the car to a gentle halt. “Now, you’re sure—”

Appel already had her seat-belt unbuckled. She suppressed her impatience as her mother put a hand on her arm.

“Sweetheart, you’re sure-sure that you don’t want me to come in with you?” Monica said earnestly. “You know I don’t mind…”

Click click click click click click click.

The turn indicator was still on, the sound nagging at Appel’s attention. 

“It’s fine, Mom.” It took an effort to keep her voice calm and relaxed. She smiled and glanced at her mother’s eyes, establishing that moment of intimacy she knew Monica expected and valued.  “I need to learn to do these things by myself, don’t I?”

“That’s true.” Monica gazed at her daughter, anxiety radiating off her so strongly Appel wanted to lean away from her. “You’re right. I just want you to know that—”

It took an effort for Appel not to say the words out loud along with her mother. “— that everyone’s a little bit magic, and no matter what the tester says, you’re still my daughter, and I love you.”

“Thanks, Mom. I know.”

“Just so long as you remember that, sweetheart.”

 Appel did not wince when her mother stroked her hair back from her face.

Click click click click click click.

To Appel’s immense relief, the driver behind them gave an impatient bip on their hooter.

“Got to go now, Mom.” Seeing the strain in her mother’s face, she relented a little. “Love you too, Mom. Don’t worry. I’ll be okay.”

Before Monica could say anything else to delay her, Appel got out of the car, and closed the door firmly. 

The other diver hooted again, and, after one last wave and a blown kiss, Monica pulled away.

Appel turned to face the building. 

This was it.

She’d seen the Institute often enough, but had never gone inside it. 

She climbed the wide steps to the entrance, half expecting the security guard to stop her, but the man just gave her a cursory glance and waved her through.

Excuse me, where do I go for Magical Potential testing?” Appel recited under her breath.

She’d rehearsed that question many times, and had it ready to use, but to her relief she did not need to approach any of the strangers in the foyer. 

A big sign listed all the venues, and there it was, the information she needed, third row from the top: Assessment, Testing and Diagnostics for Magic Potential: Room 1005

Appel found her way easily along the corridors. The doors were all numbered, and it was easy to see where she was meant to go. 

She saw a few other people, all dressed in standard grown-up office clothes. None of them gave her so much as a second glance, and none came close enough for her to get more than a whiff of their emotions.

As usual, she held her breath to avoid absorbing too much, but she could still sense them. Wafts of distracted calculation and the low level grumbles of petty irritation.

At least she blended in. Monica had been right to insist that Appel should wear her most grown-up, boring clothes.  A white blouse, and a narrow, grey skirt, stockings, and neat black shoes.  

Appel had resisted. She despised wearing stockings, hated being constantly aware of the waistband digging into her, hated the way her skirt swished over her stockinged legs with every step. But she had to admit that these clothes were right for this place. Nobody gave her so much as a second glance.

The door to room 1005 stood open. The receptionist looked up as Appel hovered on the doorstep. “Can I help you?” 

Appel approached the desk and held out her application form. 

The receptionist took the form, glanced through it, then up at Appel.“This is for you?”

Appel nodded.

The woman read the form over again, then typed something into her computer. She radiated a steady, competent hum. Out of habit, Appel stepped back out of range, to a distance where she was no longer aware of the woman’s emotions, and took the opportunity to study her surroundings. 

The room was disappointingly normal. It had a beige wall-to-wall carpet, and soft off-white walls. Several people were seated on the row of plastic chairs. Three boys, and three women.  

 “This seems to be all in order.” The receptionist placed Appel’s form in a file. “Please take a seat. Doctor will call you when he’s ready to see you.”

“Thank you,” Appel whispered, and chose the closest chair.

Everyone was looking at her, so she kept her eyes down so that no one would feel obliged to speak to her.

After a few moments, when no one showed any signs of intruding on her silence, she risked another quick glance around the room.

The boys were all at least ten years younger than Appel. Each sat next to a woman Appel guessed must be their mother.  

Each boy’s hands and arms were wrapped in chokes, the soft but strong spell-damping chords that would keep them from accidentally sparking.

The boy closes to Appel, a delicate, round-faced child with big, brown eyes, leaned against his mother, and she had her arm around him, her fingers playing absently through his fine hair.

They were close enough that Appel could pick up the woman’s thoughts, a gentle flow of comfort and warm scents. Clean cotton, drying in the sun. A book fitting cleanly back into its place on the shelf. And under it, a subtle rasp of worry, stopping and starting, like the gnawing of a small animal.

Nothing from the boy, of course, because of the chokes. 

Appel looked furtively at the carefully knotted chords. She wondered what it was like to wear them.

She’d never asked her parents why they hadn’t bought her chords. Maybe it was because they were so expensive? Or maybe it was because they were mostly a boy thing. 

Appel knew better than to ask them. Spell chords were one of the many things that were Not To Be Discussed. Especially not with Monica. Sometimes Appel thought that her mother considered chords as vulgar and flashy, in the same way she scorned those who wore make-up or flashy clothes.

People like us don’t need to show our value.

But sometimes, she sensed there was something more to it. The few times she’d sensed  Monica’s thoughts on chords, they had had that flavour of judgement she reserved for people who caught mice in glue-traps.

Ignorance does not excuse cruelty.

Appel shifted in her seat, trying to ignore the constricting waistband of her skirt. Her feet felt tight in the stiff, black shoes, and she longed to take them off.

The boy next to her was tapping his fingers, each finger in turn against his thumb in a steady rhythm.

Appel realised that she was tapping too, and suppressed the movement, automatically transferring the rhythm into her head where it became a private melody, the way she always did.

Then she frowned.

She was here to be assessed. To be diagnosed as a magic user, if that was what she was. Diagnosed, so that she could be trained to control and direct her magic, if she had any.

Surely that meant she had to display her symptoms? 

Involuntary, repetitive movements were a classic sign of having the potential to become a magic user.

Involuntary.

That was the problem, wasn’t it? Were her taps involuntary?  She could stop doing them, after all. When she was aware of them, that is.

The trick was to transfer the rhythm from her body into her mind. That was why she nearly always had a fragment of music in her head, playing in a perpetual loop.

She’d discovered this was the best way. If she just tried to stop her body’s movements, the energy tended to come out in unexpected and unfortunate ways, as she’d found to her cost.

Appel couldn’t help noticing that none of the boys suppressed their movements at all. 

The boy next to her tapped his fingers. The boy next to him bounced his knees and swayed where he sat, and the boy on the far side of the room had his head tipped back, twirling his fingers in his hair as he hummed softly to himself.

None of the adults seemed to mind.

Should she try it too? Just let herself tap. Out in public, where anyone could see.

It did not seem right, somehow.

“Appel Lategan?” 

Appel startled to attention. 

“Doctor is ready for you,” the receptionist said.

An inner door had opened, and a man stood waiting there.  A tall man with short,wispy brown hair and plastic-rimmed glasses.

Appel rose to her feet. “What about them?” she asked abruptly, indicating the boys and their mothers. “They were here before me.”

 “Don’t worry, dear, that’s alright.” The receptionist smiled. “They’re here to see a different doctor.”

“Come along,” the man at the door said. His smile did not reach his eyes.

Appel’s mouth felt dry. Somehow she made her way across the room and through the door into the office beyond it. As she passed by the man, she couldn’t sense anything from him at all. 

No emotions. No thoughts.

That was a relief. She’d rather not know what went on behind those grey eyes. And it made sense that someone in his position would be adept at shielding himself.

 “Please take a seat over there,” the man said, indicating a padded bench. 

Appel obeyed. The bench was slightly too low for her, and felt awkward.

“So”. The man pulled out a chair and sat down across from her, all the while studying a piece of paper Appel assumed was her form. “Miss Lategan. I am Doctor Glen. I will be assessing you for magical potential, and diagnosing where you fall in the range. Assuming—” and he glanced up at her, “— that you are in range.”

Appel nodded, to show she understood and accepted.

Her mother’s words echoed in her ears. Everyone is a little bit magic. 

She had to fight the urge to squirm in irritation. If everyone was a little bit magic, why did she have to come to this place to be tested?

“Miss Lategan.” Doctor Glen sorted through a few papers, made a note, then looked at Appel over his glasses again. “I will be asking you a few questions. You must answer honestly. Do you understand?”

He spoke a little too slowly, and a little too clearly.

“Yes.” Appel nodded again.

“You are to give me the true answer, not the one you think I want to hear. Is that clear?”

“Yes.”

“Good. That way, we can ensure the objectivity of this procedure. So. Tell me your full name, and your age.”

“Appel Lategan. I am eighteen years old.”

“Appel. The first question is: would you rather go to a library or a theatre?”

Appel hesitated.

She knew what this question was designed to test. Did she prefer a quiet place of study or a noisy, distracting, socially confusing space of entertainment?

A typical magic user, she knew,  was intolerant of distraction and hypersensitive to the mind-noises of other people. Magic users should value the serious-minded world of books and studying. 

She should, therefore, answer “Library”.

But the doctor had told her to answer honestly, and not according to what she knew she was supposed to answer. What was the honest answer?

Library or theatre.

Did he mean Glencore library, with its noisy air conditioner and distractingly flickering fluorescent lights? Or Central Library, which was lovely and quiet, and where the librarians never scolded you for returning late books? Did he mean the Baxter Theatre, with its big, calm, open space and beautiful drifting orange lights, where it was easy to get away from the crowd, or— 

Doctor Glen cleared his throat.  His eyebrows were raised expectantly.

“Library,” Appel said, and felt an instant flood of shame scorch over her body.

She was faking it. Giving the answers that were expected of her, rather than the ones that were true. 

“Do you prefer to have many friends, or only one, special friend?”

This one was easier. She could answer without thinking about it at all. 

“One, special friend.”

“Do you have difficulty in calling people by their first names?”

“Yes.”

That one was true, too, although she’d never thought about it before.

As the doctor recorded her answer,  Appel suddenly remembered that one of the symptoms of a magic user was a discomfort with making eye contact. Had she been looking at the doctor too much? 

Her parents had always insisted that she look at people. People liked it when you looked at them, it was rude not to, no matter how uncomfortable it made you feel. But maybe he expected her not to make eye contact. Wasn’t that another symptom?

She found herself staring at Doctor Glen’s nose, then at his left eye, and then gave up and looked at a patch of floor. 

The shame rose inside her, like nausea in her throat. 

She was faking it again.

She could look at his eyes, if she wanted to.

“Appel?”  

Appel found that she was breathing rapidly and shallowly.  A niggling ache had started at the base of her skull. 

“Do you need a break? Maybe some water?”

 “Yes, please.” Appel’s voice came out as a whisper.

The doctor poured a glass of water from a jug and handed it to her. Appel drank, trying to ignore his scrutiny.

It was so odd to be so close to another person and not have any sense of their thoughts of emotions. 

“Ready to go on now?”

Appel gave him the glass back, and nodded wordlessly.

“Good. Okay. Where was I. Oh yes. Do you have any strong fears or aversions? For example, are you afraid of insects?”

“No.”

“Snakes?”

“No.”

“Heights?”

“I don’t like heights much.”

“What happens when you find yourself at a high place?”

Appel hesitated. “I am careful. I stay away from the edge.”

“Do you think about jumping off?” the doctor asked.

“No,” Appel lied. 

“Do you ever dream of flying?”

“I do.”

“When you fly, is it like swimming in the air, or flying like a bird?”

“Like swimming.”

Appel realised that she had trapped her hand between her knees, her usual tactic to stop herself tapping too visibly. 

Should she not do that? 

Would he notice, if she tapped?

Was she supposed to be tapping?

The ache in her skull increased, became a band around her temples and her forehead. 

Doctor Glen paged through his file.

“Your school records show some incidents of outbursts.” He looked at her, clearly expecting some kind of explanation.

“I— um— sometimes when I get angry, or upset, things happen.”

 “Things happen.”  His voice was dry, but the judgement was unmistakable.

Should she not have admitted to that?  But surely, this was the whole reason she was going through this process. So she could get trained, and get control of it all.

“What happened, Appel?”

Appel looked down at her hands again. Her fingers were twitching visibly now, even squeezed between her knees. 

“Sometimes, when I get overwhelmed, my fingers, they, um, they spark a bit.”  Appel licked her lips and swallowed hard. She wished she knew what his records showed. “People don’t like it. It scares them. But I’ve never hurt anyone.”

Doctor Glen made a note, tapped his pen on the notepad, considering her. “Very well,” he said at last. “I need you to give me a demonstration. Have you prepared one?”

Appel straightened up. That was better. She was ready for this.

“Yes, I have.”

“Which exercise did you prepare?”

“The whistling balls.”

The doctor’s eyebrows jumped nearly to his hairline. “A multi-sensory evocation? Are you sure?”

“Yes, please.”

“Very well.”  He made another note. “Whenever you are ready.”

Appel released her hands from between her knees, and flexed her fingers, shaking out the stiffness and stress.

This was easy. She could do this. First, the breathing. Steady, in, pause, out. In, pause, out.

She found her heartbeat, and twisted her head-rhythm around it, smoothing it into place so that her body and her mind were in step with one another. The familiarity of the ritual calmed her.

Now for the hand-shape. She positioned her fingers into the correct shape. One more breath in and then— 

She summoned the light, shaping it into a small, neat globe. Once it was firmly established, she split the light into three balls and set them rotating around one another, each emitting a single breathy note, together forming a pleasing harmonious chord.

She glanced at the doctor.

He watched, face impassive, mind blank. 

“That will do,” he said at last.

Appel allowed the light to fade. 

His flat tone and lack of expression doused her like cold water. She hadn’t realised how much she’d wanted to impress him, to surprise him.

To her dismay, she felt her lips trembling, and her eyes sting with treacherous tears.

Appel forced the feelings down, digging her nails into her palms. She would not cry in front of this man. Her head pounded, the pain so bad she had to fight not to close her eyes and curl up into a ball.

“Well.” The doctor closed his file. “That will be all.  You may go now. We will be in touch with your results.”

Appel blinked at him. “You don’t want me to show you anything else?” 

 “That will not be necessary.”

“But—”  The headache engulfed her, fizzling down her arms to her fingertips. “How can you know what I can do, if I don’t show you?”

Doctor Glen’s expression grew chilly. “I have seen what I need.”  

Appel could not hold it back any more.

Light bloomed from her fingers, expanding in size and brightness well beyond the polite little globes she’d demonstrated before. The light touched the plastic padding of the bench, and instantly the air filled with the stench of singed plastic.

Doctor Glen scrambled to his feet, his chair clattering over.  His mouth moved, but Appel could not hear what he was saying.

All her focus was on controlling the glow. 

The relief of it was intense. The pain in her head was gone in an instant. She hovered on the edge, tempted to let go, to let it expand to its full potential. It bloomed in a whorl of twisting shapes.

Then, slowly at first, then more and more surely, it shaped itself.

As always, she had no control over the shape it took. It was all she could do to prevent it from scorching her surroundings.

The light tapered and twisted, and then, with a blink and a pop, shaped itself into a mirror-image of the doctor.

The same neat hair. The same plastic-framed glasses. 

The two doctors faced one another.

The actual Doctor Glen was stiff with surprise and shock, his Adam’s apple moving as he swallowed and swallowed again. 

The mirror image doctor studied him carefully, face impassive. Its mouth opened, and a cascade of black words emerged, swarming  like insects over Doctor Glen, who gasped and batted ineffectually at the little crawling symbols as they sank into his skin.

This was going too far.

 Appel gathered her strength, and with an effort, dispelled the glow. 

The mirror doctor vanished, leaving behind nothing but the scent of scorched plastic.

“Sorry,” Appel croaked. Her voice was gone. “Sorry.”

Doctor Glen stared at her, white-faced. His lips moved, but no words came out. 

Appel got up from the bench. Her legs felt unsteady. “Can I go now?”

Not waiting for an answer, she opened the door, and left the room. The receptionist tried to get her attention, but Appel ignored her too.

Outside.

She had to get out. Her right hand danced by her side, making patterns in the air, but Appel no longer cared. She kicked off her shoes, leaving them lying as they fell, and pulled her stockings off, hopping first on one foot, and then the other, nearly tripping in her hurry to get rid of the constricting thing.

Where was the exit?

The floor felt cool beneath her bare feet. The fabric of her skirt brushed over her legs as she ran. At last she found the main door. In a moment, she was through, and out into the street.

The high, open sky, the wind on her face.

Her essence, stale and cramped, expanded in relief, extending to find the connections it needed.

Concrete. Tar. Brick. She spotted a crack in the paving where a few scraggly weeds had rooted themselves. A dandelion plant, and a few bits of grass.

She crouched,  touched the leaves. Breathed in the scent of them, rubbed a bit of soil between her fingers.

Better. That was better. 

The pain in her head had receded completely. The stench of singed plastic was a memory only. 

A beetle perched on one of the grass-stalks. Appel watched as it cleaned itself. Its tiny, horny legs moved delicately over its left eye, then its right eye, then scrubbed one claw over the other. 

She could hear it clearly. Its tiny life-force purred contentedly,  a set of perfectly meshed cogs spinning smoothly. The dandelion leaves hummed their song of sun, air and sap, and the soil added its dark harmony. 

Appel let herself return to her body. Allowed herself to feel the concrete under her feet, and the warm sun on her skin. Her breath moved into her, and out of her. 

So. That was what it was like to be tested.

She’d done it. It was done.

Doctor Glen would compile his report.  

Appel did not know what it would contain, and to her surprise, she found that she did not care. 

She chuckled at the memory of his startled expression as he’d looked at his reflection. Then she stood up, and faced the world.

Deprecated

This short story was written while I was planning “We Broke the Moon”.


Kim kicked the door to her sleeping-pod. The damn thing never closed properly. Then again, soon enough, that wouldn’t matter. In fact she didn’t know why she bothered locking it. Habit, probably.

She leaned against the door until the latch clicked.

The corridors were still deserted, the lighting at early-morning-dim. She walked slowly. These days each step took concentration. She had plenty of time to get to her appointment. No need to hurry.

“Kimbo!”

It was Garry Lategan, opening the hatch of his little shop. Best pusher-pilot in the system and here he was, selling blinks and pins. She would never get used to it.

“Hey. Garry.” Kim nodded a greeting and managed something that felt like a smile. “Early start today?”

“Best to get going before the rush.” Garry leaned on the counter. “They still got you offloading?”

He was a good-looking guy even after all these years. He’d stopped dying his hair which was a relief.

“Yup. Doing docking manoeuvres today.” Kim kept walking as she spoke. Once she got herself moving it was better not to stop. She might not get going so easily again. “It’s not bad. Sort of fun.”

“I’ll take your word for it. See you later, then.”

“Good one, Garry.”

When she reached the main junction Kim glanced to the left as she always did. The doors to the old dock had long been welded shut but she could still see them as they used to be and see, in memory, the bustle and hustle of the bay itself.

Hear it, too. It had been deafening even out here beyond the doors. Engines revving, mechs hammering at some damn thing, the hiss of hydraulics as a suit powered up and the grumbling roar of the generators.

Now all she could hear was the hum of the light strips and her own breathing.

When she finally reached the door to the Memory Unit she had to lean on it for a few seconds, getting her breath back.

She cursed. Moving her body was like pushing a suit with a faulty power-pack. She half expected the irritating meep-meep-meep of a low battery signal.

Getting old sucked balls. Sucked gigantic, hairy balls. Joints seized. Bone density gone from too many months in zero gravity. That wouldn’t have been so bad, all fixable they’d told her, but the nano-bots could only do so much. Turns out the expensive shielding she’d so diligently installed, all up to company spec, had done zero, zip, fuck-all to stop the radiation.

Kim focused on the access screen and flattened her hand against it. She leaned her forehead on the door, waiting for it to open.

When it didn’t she backed away and frowned at the screen again.

“What the hell is this?”

A message scrolled across the screen. “…cancelled, please proceed to med-bay 18…” with a helpful animated arrow pointing the way.

“Bugger that.”

Tried pressing her palm again but the door stayed stubbornly closed.

She peered through the window at the brightly lit space beyond. Cheerful posters filled the wall. “Thanks for sharing your life with us” and “Memories should never die.”

Which was great. That was what she was there for. To share her memories and skills with the simulator. Except the door wouldn’t open.

With a sigh she obeyed the arrow and set off again, checking the signs until she found med-bay 18.

The door swung open to reveal a typical med-bay. Small, neat, well lit, just big enough to hold a narrow bed, a chair, and a nervous-looking med-tech.

“Um. Uh. Miss Senekam?” He glanced down at his clipboard. “I mean, Senekal?”

Kim jutted her jaw at him. “Why am I here?”

He stared at her blankly.

She was being too abrupt again. Young people preferred you come at things at an angle. She tried again. “Why have I been sent here? I’m supposed to be offloading memories. Got a session booked for this morning.”

“Oh. Yes. That’s been cancelled.” He held the clipboard out to her but she didn’t take it, or even look at it. “You want to tell me what the hell’s going on? I’m going to be late for my session.”

“I’m sorry, uh, miss—” He licked his lips and glanced helplessly down at the clipboard again.

She took pity on him. “Oh. Never mind. My session’s been cancelled. Can I sit down? You can call me Kim.”

“Of course!” He stepped back to give her room and held out a helping hand a moment too late to steady her as she shuffled past him and lowered herself onto the bed.

“Why did they send me here?” Kim said shifting backward till she was sitting steadily. She nodded at his clipboard. “What does it say there? Not more radiation, surely. I’m through with chucking up my guts.”

“They’ve cancelled your memory download. Your skill-area has been deprecated. Says here,” he glanced down at the clipboard “push-ship and suit-piloting have been reclassified non-central and as such are deprecated.”

Kim stared at him. “What the fuck—” She took a breath, forcing herself to be calm. No point in scaring the poor boy. He was just trying to do his job. “What does that mean?”

“If they’ve reclassified your skills as non-central, that means there’s no need to record them anymore.”

“Well.” Kim blew out a breath. “Bloody hell. Sure. The AIs do all the piloting these days. It’s not like they’re training any humans to be pusher-pilots. But I thought the whole point was to record these things in case we have another AI melt-down?”

The med-tech shrugged and turned away from her, opening a recessed cabinet.

“Hold on.” Kim gripped the edge of the bed. “This isn’t— If they don’t want me downloading anymore, is this my termination?”

“Yes, ma’am.” He tore open a sterile package and swabbed the counter with it and discarded the used swab.

Kim closed her eyes. Ice curled in her belly and prickles coursed up and down her spine. Dammit. What was the point of these feelings? Death. She was ready for it, had been looking forward to it, for fucks sake. She was more than ready for the end. What was the point in recording her memories on that simulator, after all? No one would ever replay them.

“You okay?”

She opened her eyes to find the med-tech looking concerned. He licked his lips and swallowed.

Damn. Now she was scaring the boy again.

“Sure. Just didn’t expect it quite today.” She was pleased with how that came out. Calm, steady, and polite.

“You want to reschedule?”

“What? No. No let’s just get it over with.” She had a sudden memory of her sleeping pod closed up and locked. She’d meant to leave the door open on her last day so anyone who wanted to could help themselves to the few belongings she had left.

She tried to swing her feet up onto the bed then realised she was still wearing her boots. Dammit. This was humiliating. She’d never get them off herself. Bending forward would make her dizzy. She might even be sick which would be humiliating as well as inconvenient.

Before she could ask for help he was already undoing the clips and easing the boots off.

“So, you were a push-pilot, then?”

Kim nodded, lifting her leg so he could pull the boot off more easily. “Pusher-pilot. Drove a suit too, for a couple of decades.”

She leaned back, gripping the mattress hard. He dropped her boots and eased his arm around her shoulders, deftly lowering her into the pillows.

“After the melt-down? That must have been something.”

“It was something, alright.” Kim stared up at the ceiling, listening to the rustle of his movements. “Those were crazy days. I was here right from the beginning, you know. Lived through it all.”

She tried to turn her head to look at him but the pillow was too soft.

“I’ll never forget it. Power went down. Bloody alarms wailing. Airlocks all opening at the same time. God. Makes my blood run cold even now.”

“Wow.” The med-tech sounded genuinely interested. “That must have been terrifying.” Something rattled and then he was in her field of vision again, head silhouetted against the soft glow of the ceiling light.

“We survived.” Kim squinted up at him, trying to make out his expression. Was she boring him? “We were soft, those days. Used to the bots doing everything. Then the AIs all bottomed out and suddenly we had to scramble just to make sure we had air to breathe. Never mind food and all the rest of it.”

“You comfortable?” He adjusted her legs so that they lay a little straighter.

“Had to learn quickly, you know.” Kim pushed herself a little higher in the bed. “And no simulators then. Luckily we had the pressure suits and you could teach yourself to drive those if you had the guts. Pushing out to all the derelicts to scavenge what we could.”

“Must have been terrifying.”

“Oh, I don’t know.” Kim frowned, trying to remember. Had she been scared? “We had to learn quick or we died. And I was young. You don’t believe you’ll die when you’re young. It was kind of thrilling, actually. Kicking into a derelict with your team. All dark, except for the bits you point your beam at. We didn’t even have radio at first. Used hand signs. Easy to die, you’re right about that. Run out of air, or get your mix wrong, run out of power, get tangled in some damn thing…”

“But you got through.”

“I did.” She dragged herself back into the present. “Not many of us left, either. Bet I’m one of the last. And here we are, AI up the ass. You’d think the meltdown never happened.”

“Is that why you asked for a manual termination?” He rolled up her sleeve and positioned her arm so that it lay wrist-up next to her.

Kim gave a grunt. “I guess so. Seems wrong to let a machine do it after all of that.” She watched as he peeled the back off the first patch. “So, it goes on my arm?”

“That’s right.” He smoothed a patch over her wrist. “And the other one goes here.” His fingers were cool against her temple.

“Doesn’t feel like anything much.”

“You won’t feel anything.” He drew the chair up and sat in it, glancing at the readouts above her head. “You sound like you were lucky. Never had any accidents?”

“I was damn lucky.” She let herself sink back into the pillows. “Had accidents, everyone does, but nothing fatal. And I had a good team.” She sighed. “Tough as nails, guys and girls. Brave. And we looked out for one another. Had to, out there in the dark.”

She closed her eyes. How could she make him understand? How could she explain what it had been like? She reached for the words but they slipped away from her, drifting like a stream of bubbles from a punctured hose.

For a moment she felt the sting of panic. Had to fix it— pressure would drop, she’d lose air— but even the panic softened, evaporated, bled away until she could no longer remember what it was she feared.

Somebody smoothed the hair away from her face. That felt nice.

She drew another breath.

And let herself slip away into the dark.

Kelp

A short story from the collection “Strange Neighbours

***

Aletta peered through the train window. The passing coastline was just visible through the scratched and milky plastic—rocks, sea and lines of kelp. She fumbled a tissue out of her pocket and blew her nose. Mind over matter. She was not going to let a cold interfere with her grand day out.

This was her first Saturday in Cape Town, and she did not want to spend it hanging around the commune. So far, it had been easy to avoid the other tenants without giving offense. She was always the first one out the door, rushing to attend the training sessions at her new job, and she only returned after dark. But the weekend had been a problem—two whole days with nowhere to go and nothing to do.

She had hit upon the idea of a train trip to Kalk Bay. It was cheap—she could afford a return ticket—and easy; all she had to do was count the stations and make sure she got off at the right one. Maybe the sunshine and sea breeze would tease away the dull ache of homesickness.

Homesick! She had not realised it would be like this, a useless pain, like a stubbed toe, that could only be endured or ignored.

The train rattled to a halt and the doors hissed open. Aletta spotted the Kalk Bay station sign, gathered her things and stepped out onto the platform. It had been a good idea to come. There was the sea, so close, just on the other side of the parapet wall. She turned into the sun, trying to ignore the cold breeze nipping and nagging.

She found her way out of the station through an echoing passage that led her under the railway line and up to Main Road and Kalk Bay village. There was so much to look at. The shops invaded the sidewalks with displays of clothing and second-hand furniture. Couples strolled and argued. Children licked ice creams. A knot of bergies—ragged, homeless men and women—straggled across the road, intent on a private dispute. They erupted, loud and indignant, untangling into a show of slurred threats. One of them, weathered and twisted as driftwood, bumped past Aletta, who stepped back well out of his way.

Aletta huddled herself into her jacket and blew her nose. She really should have dressed warmer, but the blue sky had tricked her. It was too early to think of food, and for a while the shop displays absorbed her attention.

On a sidewalk near the far end of the village was a trestle table covered in second-hand books and knitting. At first, Aletta kept her distance. The woman looked almost as ragged as one of the bergies, all wrapped up in layers of scarves and bits of old blanket. She caught Aletta looking at her and nodded a quiet greeting, which somehow made it easy to approach.

The books were an odd mix of detective novels, history books and fairy tales, as well as a large pile of ancient National Geographics. Aletta picked up one of these, intrigued by the sea horse on its cover. It was filled with images of a magical underwater world, and it was with regret that she put it back on the pile. The bookseller held out her hand.

“You can have that one for two rand. I’ve got another one here you might like too.”

The woman shuffled through the pile, pulled out a copy and flipped to a page that displayed a treasury of sea urchins. Aletta hesitated. Two rand was cheap. Maybe she could afford it.

“Two rand for that one and I’ll give you this one pasella. Look. It has no cover. Come—take it. I can see you like to read about the little ones.”

She touched the magazine Aletta was holding, tracing the curling line of a sea horse’s tail. Her hand was brown as kelp and twisted with arthritis.

“I’ll take these two then. Thank you.” She paid and picked up her magazines. Then she had to clutch them under one arm so she could drag a tissue from her pocket to muffle a sneeze.

“I’ve got no plastic bags,” said the woman. “They all get into the sea in the end, you know, and the seals get tangled up in them.”

Aletta sniffed. “Bags? No, it’s okay. I can carry them like this.” She hesitated, not sure how to bring the conversation to a close. Finally she nodded, smiled an awkward goodbye, then walked away.

Farther down the road she found an underpass that led to the small beach of Kalk Bay harbour. The beach was backed by the arches of the railway line and the harbour sheltered from the sea by two concrete piers.

This was what she had pictured when she planned this trip: the vivid fishing boats rising and falling in the swell, families picnicking on the beach below the railway arches. There were even some swimmers, though the water looked cold and uninviting. She thought about getting lunch, but her headache had grown into a steady throb and her nose was starting to drip. She hoped she had enough tissues to last the day. Maybe she could find a sunny place to sit.

Aletta picked her way among the families camping out with their cooler boxes and umbrellas and found a spot right up against the foot of one of the arches. It was exposed to the nipping breeze, but the more sheltered places were dank and shady. She settled down to read her magazines, mopping her nose with a disintegrating tissue.


A train woke her, thundering by on the tracks above. Wind-whipped sand stung her face. It was almost dark. Aletta’s throat ached and she felt uncomfortably hot. Her cold seemed to have blossomed into a fever while she slept.

The magazines flapped under her hands, and the beach was empty. Water pricked her skin. Rain, or spray from the sea? It was time to leave but she felt too weak to get up.

Aletta closed her eyes. Just a little bit longer. Hopefully that had not been the last train of the day.

She woke again when somebody knelt beside her. Scarves and fringes. A hand reached for her face and Aletta flinched back, but the touch was gentle and cool on her skin.

“Burning up.” A woman’s scratchy voice. “You need to be inside. Come on.”

Aletta recognised her now, the woman from the book stall. She resisted weakly, but the woman took her arm and helped her to her feet. One arm was tucked firmly around Aletta’s waist, the other held her bags.

“Come.”

They set off across the beach.

To Aletta’s vague surprise, they turned right at the underpass, away from the village. The concrete strip of pier lay before them, dark water on either side. Rain was misting down, glinting in halos around the pier lights. To the left, on the seaward side, the waves rushed and sloshed among the dollosse.

Aletta wondered vaguely where they were going. She let herself be led all the way out to the end of the pier. The woman released Aletta’s arm and put down her many bags. She knelt at the rim of a manhole cover, opening it with a practised twist.

“You first.”

A ladder led down into the hole. Aletta could not summon the energy to be surprised. She edged herself down the ladder, which was mercifully short, then stepped off into a dark, crowded space below. She felt a rustle near her face and put up her hands to take the bag. More bags followed and she heard the woman’s feet on the ladder. The scrape and clang of the cover falling back into place followed. Then soft hands moved her aside. Aletta stood, waiting in the dark. There was a scraping clink and an oil lamp bloomed. She blinked.

The space under the pier was larger than she’d expected. The lamplight revealed shelves crammed with books and objects. A small table covered with patterned vinyl cloth, a chair draped with scarves, a little fishbowl filled with shells. The woman turned away from her and cleared a tiny bed set into the wall like an open cupboard.

“Here.”

The woman guided her to the bed.

Aletta sat, and had to hold on to the edge of the bed as a wave of dizziness swept over her. Someone took the shoes from her feet and detached her bag from her shoulder with gentle persistence. Someone leaned over to tuck a blanket round her then hunched down next to the bed to peer into her face. There was a smell of sea-weed, iodine and wet wool. A gentle hand touched her forehead.

Aletta drifted in and out of consciousness. A small paraffin stove glowed in a corner. The sea made deep sounds beyond the walls. Then she had to sit up and clutch at a glass and swallow bitter liquid. She felt a thump and something pressed down the blankets on her knees. She strained to look. A large cat was kneading out a nest for itself among the blankets. She closed her eyes and slept.


Aletta woke, or dreamed she woke, in the dark.

Sea air breathed over her, cold and wet. A gap had opened in the wall opposite her bed. Something moved there. A figure, barely visible in glints of dim light. Something like a scarf was wrapped around its neck. Long fringes stirred against its shoulders. Then it ducked and stepped through into the night beyond. The dream darkened and sucked Aletta back into sleep.


Daylight streamed in through chinks in the walls. Her headache was gone and she felt weak and as limp as an eel. There was no sign of her hostess. A ginger cat stretched on her knees. She sat up and looked curiously around the space. Wooden panelling lined the walls behind the bookshelves, the grooves dark with tar. Books shared space with rolled-up nets, balls of wool, tins and jars. A ledge held a display of sea urchins, beach glass and a rainbow of sand-scoured hair curlers.

The pressure of her bladder prompted her to get up and explore further. She found a hatch in the far wall which opened into a small room—cold and very clean. A pit latrine let in a strong smell of the sea that ran beneath it. She peed, shivering in the blast of rain-scented air that blew in through the vents in the wall behind her.

As she sat there, Aletta wondered why she wasn’t afraid to be alone in this strange place. After all, she was far from anywhere she knew, and in the home of a total stranger who might— Yet somehow she could not summon the anxious fears that usually crowded so close.

Maybe it was just the relief at feeling so much better. Her head felt clear, and her body no longer ached. She was safe, comfortable, and too sleepy to worry about what it all meant.

Aletta made her way back into the nest of blankets in the cupboard bed and slept again.


The next time she woke to the thump and clang of the manhole cover. The bookseller was shaking water off her clothes.

“Getting old,” she said. “Don’t like the wet when it’s cold.” She took off her headscarf. Her kroesies hair stood out in a small dark cloud, sprinkled with raindrops.

“Feeling better, are you? No—don’t sit up. I’ll soon have some food for you. You just lie there and entertain Mr Tom while I finish the soup.”

The old woman crouched over the bed and caressed the cat’s head.

“Got a new friend, Mr Tom? A lady friend too!” She laughed and hobbled back to light the stove, clattering the pots at the far end of the room.

Aletta lay listening to the cooking sounds, looking around her with interest. A lamp hung from the ceiling, surrounded by dangling fishing nets filled with plastic packets and balls of wool. Photographs were thumbtacked to the panelling next to her. They were old, sun-bleached and wrinkled as though they had been soaked. Her gaze moved from a torn picture of a girl in her matric dance dress to a photograph of a baby sitting in a pile of toys and gift-wrap. A row of boys squinted into the sun on a sports field. The head and shoulders of a little girl in her school uniform posed in front of a swirly blue backdrop. A dog with flash-green eyes.

A savoury smell scent filled the room, and Mr Tom opened an eye. He uncurled, stretched and jumped off the bed to investigate. Aletta tried to get up.

“No, stay there. I’ll come to you.” The bookseller made her way slowly to the bedside, supporting herself by leaning first on the little table, then on the back of a chair. She gave a bowl to Aletta then shuffled painfully back to fetch the other one.

“Thank you very much for taking me in, ma’m.”

The old woman snorted. “Ma’m!” She glared at Aletta, then winked and settled back into her chair, fumbling a spoon with her twisted hand. “You call me Susanna.”

Aletta nodded. “I’m Aletta. I’m sorry to be in the way. I’ve been taking up your bed.”

The bookseller frowned at her. “Don’t worry about it. Not in the way. I don’t sleep much anymore. Bed is for storing things these days. Eat your soup.”

It was a spicy mix of fish and vegetables. Aletta was hungrier than she’d realised, and her bowl was soon empty. She watched as Susanna leaned down to let Mr Tom clean her bowl. “This is such an amazing place to live. It feels so secret. Does anybody know you’re living here?”

Susanna sat back in her chair. “Know I’m here? I don’t think so. Some do, maybe.”

“But you must have been living here for years. Don’t people notice?”

“I’ve been here longer than most. I’m careful. Don’t have a fire anymore.” She pointed at a small wood-burning stove in one corner. “I can’t risk lighting that these days. Smoke’s too visible. Only very late at night, in winter, maybe. But I can stand the cold. It’s more to keep the books dry. Books and cats don’t like the damp.”

“And the books. Where do they all come from? You buy them?”

“Buy them, sell them. Trade for them too. Old people like my knitting. Got some beautiful books from the grannies and the grandpas in return for a scarf or two.”

She took Aletta’s bowl and leaned over to place it on the floor. “Might as well get some work done.”

She reached beneath her chair, brought out a bundle of knitting, and set to, tucking and winding, the needles clicking softly. Aletta saw that the twine was not made of wool, but strips of knotted plastic, torn from shopping bags. The small effort at conversation had exhausted her. She lay listening to the wind outside and the thump and splash of the waves. Susanna hummed and buzzed to herself as she knitted. Then she started to sing:

Die see is lief vir die strand

Die see is lief vir die strand

“Jy sif jou sandjies, jy sê jou sê

Jy speel met jou skulpe, jy bly net lê”

die see is lief vir die strand.

Die strand is lief vir die see

Die strand is lief vir die see

“Jy sleep my, jy slaan my, jy maak my sug

Jy kom en jy gaan en jy kom weer trug”

Die strand is lief vir die see.

Aletta closed her eyes. The sounds of sea and the song tugged her once more into the dark current of dreams.


The next time she woke, she felt clear-headed and alert. The room was dark, but some chinks of early morning light showed through the air vents and an opening at the other side of the room. A chilly breeze nipped at her face. She wrapped a blanket around herself and went to investigate.

There was a gap between two shelves and beyond it was a short length of damp cement. It was still quite dark outside, although dawn touched the sky. She tucked the blanket around her and crawled through. The sea slapped and sucked at the spaces between the dollosse. Mr Tom was sitting on an angle of cement. She picked her way over to him. From here she could look out over the tops of the dollosse to the dark water beyond.

Was that a movement out there? Mr. Tom stood, stretched then sat down again, looking expectantly at the water at their feet.

She heard a sighing breath and a thing rose out of the water. Hands grasped at the concrete, a head turning to look up at her. The thing in the water was clearly visible, lit by the light on the pier behind her.

A tight black frizz of wet hair. Pale fronds of gills curved from the tiny ears to the throat. Bright eyes considered her. Then Mr Tom was there, purring and butting his head against a wet forehead. Susanna heaved herself onto the wet concrete. She turned half around so that she was sitting with her legs dangling in the water.

Aletta, gasped and crouched down. Her heart hammered, and she felt light-headed again.

“Susanna,” Her voice was harsh with shock. “You’re—”

She stared at Susanna. An old woman—but was she a woman? What was she, then? Aletta’s mind slipped on the impossible, unable to fix it in words.

Susanna blinked and tensed, ducking her head as though she was about to slip back into the sea.

“Oh—” Aletta held out a hand. “Don’t go.” She felt suddenly ashamed of the shake in her voice. She swallowed, and tried again. “Please, don’t go. I’m sorry. I was just startled.”

Susanna relaxed. Startled, hey?” Her lips curved into a smile, but her eyes were still wary. “You’re wondering what I am.”

Aletta nodded, not trusting herself to speak.

“Mermaid, selkie, watermeid, you can call me all of those.” Susanna reached down into the water, snagged a bundle of kelp and shells drifting there and hauled it up onto her lap.

The familiar calm of Susanna’s voice took away the last of Aletta’s fear.

“But you live here,” she said. “Under the pier. Why? Shouldn’t you be living out there somewhere in the sea?”

Crouching was uncomfortable, so Aletta sat down next to Susanna, bundling the blanket out of the way. She let her feet dangle in the water, too, though it was bitterly cold.

“You know the story, I’m sure.” Susanna tipped her head back and closed her eyes, her voice taking on the lilting tone of a story teller.

“She fell in love with a mortal man and, choosing love, forsook the sea for the land. But forever after, she walked as if on knives.”

Susanna’s legs were dark and muscular and subtly wrong. She could make out the place where her feet should be, half hidden under the water. Each leg ended in a graceful sweep of dark skin ridged with long bones, like a seal’s flipper. Higher up her body, a spiny ridge of fin stretched from her waist down to her ankles and from her nape down her spine and along each arm to her elbows. She caught Susanna’s eye and looked hastily away.

“You fell in love with a prince?”

Susanna snorted. “Not quite a prince, and it was very long ago. Before the railway line. Before the harbour, even.”

She plucked at the kelp tangled on her lap. “I had to choose. Land or sea. And once you leave, you cannot go back.” She darted a bright glance at Aletta.

“That is what they said. You have the choice, and you can never go back. I tried, you know. After he…was gone, I went back and looked for them.”

She brushed a hand over the bundled kelp and it unfolded partway. It was made of strands of kelp knotted into intricate patterns. Here and there a shell or pebble caught the light.

“I never found them. My people. I don’t know if they were hiding, or gone. So I stayed here between the land and the sea.”

“You’ve been living here all this time? All by yourself?”

“Oh, I do have my friends. And books. And Mr Tom.”

She seemed about to say something more but became absorbed in teasing loose a tangle of kelp, tucking a shell firmly into place. Then she sighed and looked up again. She spoke softly, as if to herself.

“Sometimes at night I go looking. Out there under the water. I leave them messages.” She stroked the pattern of shells knotted into the kelp web. “But there’s never a reply.”

You cannot go back.”

Susanna’s words had struck a chord in Aletta, and they were still reverberating. It was a truth she’d been afraid to face, the knowledge that her choice to leave home and come to this strange city could never be undone.

Susanna broke the silence with a sigh. “And your people? Will they worry about you?”

Aletta pulled herself out of her thoughts, shook her head. “My parents are up in Pretoria, and I don’t have any friends in Cape Town yet.”

A train wailed on the tracks and the slow rattle and whine of its progress echoed over the harbour. Susanna sighed and rolled up her kelp web. She reached down and stored it in an angle between two dollosse.

“Well, however that may be, you must be thinking of getting back to where you belong. You don’t seem to need my medicine any longer, sitting here on the damp cement. Hand me those things over there. There’s a towel you can use.”

Aletta found a bundle tucked into a space near the opening in the pier. Some clothes, an old scratchy towel and a neat roll of bandages. She dried her cold feet quickly and passed the towel and bandages to Susanna. The old mermaid drew her legs out of the water and dried them carefully. Then she bent one leg and took hold of the graceful bones of the flipper.

Now that the skin was dry Aletta saw that it was ridged with calluses and seamed with old scars. Susanna tucked the end of a bandage into a folded flipper and wound it round into a tight bundle. Then she shifted her weight, drew her other foot into her hands and wrapped it too.

“Hand up.”

Aletta helped her up. Susanna balanced for a moment, clutching her arm. She allowed Aletta to help her with her dress which clung to her damp skin and snagged on her fins. Susanna pulled the fabric into place.

“Come, out of this wind. It’s too cold for you.”

Inside, Susanna soon had a kettle boiling on her little stove.

“Must get you home now. Some tea to get you warm and then you can catch the next train. Cups are in that cupboard down there.”


Soon enough she was standing up on the pier again, watching as Susanna dropped the manhole cover back into place. The wind was tugging at her hair and flipping and riffling through Susanna’s scarves and layers. The old woman waved her on towards the underpass.

“Don’t wait for me. Too slow. Go ahead.”

Aletta turned to face her. “Thank you so much for all your help. I don’t know what would have happened to me.”

Susanna nodded. “Come visit me again some time. Just one thing, though.” She hitched a bag into a more comfortable position and looked at Aletta. “Don’t tell.”

Then she was making her slow shuffling way down the steps to the beach. Aletta stood for a moment, watching her. Then she turned and walked quickly towards underpass. If she hurried, she might be in time to catch the next train.


Susanna’s song is in Afrikaans. Here is the English translation:

The sea loves the beach

The sea loves the beach

“You sift your sand, you say your say

You play with your shells and you just stay.”

The sea loves the beach

The beach loves the sea

The beach loves the sea

“You drag me, you beat me, you make me sigh

You come and you go and you come back again.”

The beach loves the sea

Backyard Visitors

The neighbourhood’s cats have started coming into my backyard now that Pippin is no longer around. This is Harley. She’s very small and very friendly.

I don’t know this cat’s name. I suspect it’s a stray. It usually runs away when it sees me. Today it found a cozy, warm spot sleeping on a mop.

Pippin left the world on this day

Pippin died on this day. Thirteen years old He’s been very sick, but still able to do his twice daily walk. On Saturday that changed, and today we asked the vet to come to our home and euthanize him. He chose his spot himself, lying in front of our hose on a bit of lawn. It was all very calm and gentle. We chatted to one another while he slipped away. My gentle, serious, gentle boy, I miss him desperately.

Started another one! :)

I have started writing my next book. I spent the week getting the outline to an acceptable state, and this morning I got going with the story. It has been several months of world building, research, and story planning, but as commander Helmuth van Moltke said, no plan survives contact with the enemy so we’ll see how things go once the plot holes make themselves known, and the characters get ideas of their own. There’s no way out but through! Working title at the moment: “The AIWar
Will definitely have to come up with a better title than that.

Writing planning is reaching critical mass

I’ve written more than 10 000 words on my new book, but not a single word of description, dialogue, or exposition. Yes, it’s all planning.
World-building, actually, I’ve not even started the outline yet. All I’ve done so far is work out the details of the setting. I don’t like the world-building to govern the plot too much, but I do like it to inform the story. The characters must be shaped by their setting. By now I’m starting to feel as if it’s all getting a bit out of control and I need to rein it in and decide what the story is about.
Below is a screenshot that shows all the aspects of the world I’ve been working out. And this is just the start. There is some hope, though, notice the character section! That’s where the heart of the story planning for me.

Is Science Fiction a Dangerous Lie?

The research I’m doing for my current WIP book is raising some uncomfortable questions about my responsibilities as a science fiction writer. I wrote about it for the Skolion blog.

Pippin update! Good-bye Giardia

We just got the test results back and the giardia is gone! I am so relieved. Pippin is not out of the woods yet, he has all the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome which is apparently not uncommon after a giardia infection. He’s doing much better overall, but he’s an old dog so we’ll just have to take it one day at a time.

Nerine Dorman on Skolion

Skolion has a new blog! Skolion is a writers’ cooperative. We write speculative fiction, horror, fantasy, or science fiction. You can read Nerine Dorman’s explanation of what Skolion is all about at the brand new Skolion blog.

Pippin’s Giardia Saga

This is a long post! For practical information on how to treat a dog that’s sick with giardia, scroll down to the end and look for “Giardia advice and information”.

My dog, Pippin, is twelve. I used to love it when people asked his age because of their surprise at the answer. Until recently he was an active, healthy dog and he did not look old at all. I walked him for an hour in the mornings and about forty minutes in the afternoon.
In December there was a sewage spill in the vlei and Pippin got into the water despite my attempts to stop him. I can’t be sure that’s where it started, but it seems very likely.

Pippin at Park Island

He started getting diarrhoea. I ignored it at first because he likes eating rubbish and has had runny poop before, although not often. But when it didn’t clear up, I took him to the vet.
The vet prescribed the antibiotic Metronidazole. Pippin had several courses. Initially it seemed to help but each time the diarrhoea came back, like clockwork, 5 days after the last dose.
The vet got Pippin’s poop tested and we had an answer. Giardia. A single celled parasite that thrives in water contaminated by sewage. I was happy to get a diagnosis. The vet was confident that the correct medication would clear this up.
Long story short, it didn’t. Pippin went through two courses of the anti-parasitic medication Panacur and some more Metronidazole – by now I’ve lost track of how many courses of antibiotics he’s had. Each time the symptoms came back, like clockwork, 5 days after the end of the treatment. I quarantined Pippin in a clean room and blasted my house and backyard with disinfectant, threw away all his bedding and toys, in case he was reinfecting himself. Didn’t make any difference.
His symptoms got worse. Not just diarrhoea, but blood. And getting him to take the medication was stressful for everyone involved. Pippin hated being quarantined too. It was a bad time.
I made mistakes, some of which might explain why the medication didn’t work. Before the giardia diagnosis the vet recommended an anti-diarrhoea medication called Diomec. I continued giving Pippin this stuff, not realising that it contains kaolin and prevents medication from being absorbed.
I also didn’t realise that the fluid medications, Panacur and Rhonidazole, have to be shaken really, really hard because the active ingredient settles into a sort of gunk at the bottom of the bottle. I couldn’t figure out why the doses I was measuring out didn’t add up to the volume of the (opaque) container. When I did eventually figure it out, even shaking didn’t do the trick, I had to stir the damn stuff with a chopstick. The fact that it took me so long to realise this might mean he just didn’t get enough of the active ingredient.

Pippin after one of his medicated baths.

I kept Pippin out of our backyard in case it was contaminated with the giardia cysts. Every time he needed to pee or poop I had to take him for a walk. We developed quite a bond over this. Pippin would come over and look at me meaningfully, I’d get up from whatever I was doing and take him for a toilet walk.
I grew jealous of the random dog poops that I saw lying around outside. If only Pippin would produce something so firm and brown! I also had to be extra careful to clean up his poop as I didn’t want other dogs getting infected.
To Pippin’s alarm I had to wipe his bum for him for him each time he pooped to stop infected poop from spreading onto his coat and into our home. He also got washed for the very first time in his life. He accepted this and everything else with dignity.
The vet tracked down a new type of medication, another anti parasitic drug called Ronidazole. I gave Pippin a seven-day course of this, which was fairly traumatic as it became progressively more difficult to persuade him to take the medication. It’s a fluid that I either mixed with his food, or, eventually, squirted directly into his mouth. The stuff made him feel groggy and he quickly got very good at detecting its presence.
It’s a few days after his last dose and so far he’s doing OK. I’ve decided not to go on with any treatments even if the giardia comes back. It’s too traumatic. I’m going to keep him as comfortable as possible, but not do anything that will upset him further.

UPDATE! We just got the test results back and the giardia is gone! I am so relieved. Pippin is not out of the woods yet, he has all the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome which is apparently not uncommon after a giardia infection. He’s doing much better overall, but he’s an old dog so we’ll just have to take it one day at a time.

Giardia information and advice
The symptoms of a giardia infection are diarrhoea, often yellow, often with mucus, often with blood. In the early days the diarrhoea can be intermittent. The only way to diagnose it is with a fecal sample. Don’t wait till your dog is very sick before doing this. Get a diagnosis as early as possible.

Disinfecting and preventing infection
If a dog is infected the parasite will colonise its gut and produce cysts, which are like tough, microscopic little eggs that can survive outside of water and outside of the dog. These cysts contaminate the dog’s poop.
If a dog (or a cat) sniffs and or eats poop contaminated poop or licks contaminated soil they can get infected.
The cysts survive outside for quite a while but they prefer wet, cool conditions. They’ll last for a few days on dry sand in direct sunlight, but for weeks in shaded soil.
To stop giardia from spreading, pick up poop as quickly as possible and disinfect the area thoroughly.
You can kill giardia cysts with diluted bleach, (1 cup in four liters of water), or a cleaning solution that contains Quaternary ammonia, like F10 Veterinary disinfectant. F10 works well because they have a range of products that are easy to use, for example a soap for washing your hands or your dog, a spray for soft upholstery that doesn’t need to be rinsed off. F10 is also comparatively eco-friendly as it’s biodegradable and smells OK, a sort of piney scent that fades quickly.
Disinfect everything that might be contaminated and wash the dog, especially its bum, on the last day of treatment.
There are different strains of giardia and apparently it is very unlikely, (although not impossible) for a human to get infected by the type of giardia that dogs or cats get. Humans and birds get the same type of giardia, but it’s unlikely that a dog will get giardia from eating bird poop.

What medication to use
Your vet will guide you here. Panacur seems to be the most widely successful although in my case it didn’t work. That might be because, as I described above, I made some mistakes in giving it.

The importance of probiotics
Dogs can be infected with giardia without getting sick. There seems to be some evidence that it’s not the giardia that is the problem but the “bad” bacteria in an animal’s guts. If the gut bacteria isn’t healthy, the giardia can open up the way for that bad bacteria to attack. That’s why it’s so important to establish a healthy gut by making sure that a dog is getting enough probiotics. Unfortunately the treatment, antibiotics or anti parasite medications, kill the “good” bacteria so its a catch 22.
From my experience with Pippin I doubt that treating a dog only with probiotics will help much. You have to actually kill that parasite once its taken hold but the probiotics make an enormous difference to how quickly the dog recovers. As soon as I started giving Pippin probiotics he improved remarkably.
Oh, and just giving a dog live yogurt is not enough as it doesn’t contain all the different types of bacteria needed. A good probiotic for dogs is Protexin, it contains multiple strains of bacteria. I also use Pro-Kolin and Canigest but both contain kaolin so shouldn’t be given while the dog is getting medication. Pro-Kolin and Canigest are good for helping with diarrhoea. You can give a dog human probiotics, but you need to check that it contains the right strains. Look for the following:

  • Enterococcus faecium
  • Lactobacillus acidophilus
  • Lactobacillus casei
  • Lactobacillus plantarum
  • Bifidobacterium bifidum
  • Bifidobacterium animalis

Pro-kolin and Canigest both contain Enterococcus faecium and Protexin has got pretty much all of them. Protexin also seems to be tasteless and easy to mix into food without the dog realising.

These are the most helpful articles I found on:

General information on giardia in dogs and how to deal with it

Cross infection of Giardia in humans, dogs, and birds

The importance of probiotics in treating giardia

Probiotics for dogs

My overflow bin is overflowing!

My overflow bin is overflowing! Seems autumn is here. It’s been pouring with rain since early this morning. Feels surreal after all this hot, dry, windy weather. Having a little trouble switching off my internal “GO GET THE BUCKETS AND FILL ALL THE CONTAINERS” alarm.

Manybooks Interview

Check it out! I got featured as “author of the day” at Manybooks. You can read the interview here:

Birthday Swim

My sister took me to Silvermine for my birthday and we swam in the dam there. The water was just perfect.

Pippin watched over our clothes while we swam.
A dragonfly sat on my knee.
Afterwards, Pippin was exhausted but relaxed. Had to bake in the sun for a bit to dry off! 🙂

The Devil Thorn method of planning a book

I’ve started planning my new book. I always do a lot of planning before I even start the outline, and a lot of outlining before I start the first draft. And no matter how much planning I do, I always have to go back to the drawing board halfway through that first draft, because, as Helmuth von Moltke the Elder said, no plan survives contact with the enemy.

I used to use the Dog Walking method of story planning. This meant going for lots of long walks with my dog, Pippin, while I thought about the story. Now Pippin is a little bit sick and twelve years old, and not really up to hour-long walks anymore. This forces me to use the Devil Thorn method, which involves clearing our neighbourhood of every single devil thorn plant I can find, while I think about the story.

Don’t worry though, I still take Pippin for walks. He gets into our car via a ramp to save his hips and spine from jumping, and gets driven to Park Island or the Vlei for short outings.

And the book? It’s not a sequel to any of the books I’ve already written. It’s something completely new.

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