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Sulphur: What Happened Next (Part 2 of 2)

The beach spread around into a long peninsula and across the water I watched a bonfire flicker into life and grow. Waves ebbed softly away from us. Foster sat with me where the sand was hard and looked out across the sea. Lights from buoys or boats flickered on and disappeared. I wondered where they all went.

“Why did you bring me here?” I asked.

Foster turned. I saw the moon in his eyes.

“Don’t you like it?” he asked.

“No, that’s not it. I just wondered if there was something you wanted me to do. What you paid me was lot of money just to sit on a beach, you know?”

“No,” said Foster. “For you, on this beach, it was right.”

The bonfire was roaring now. I thought of going over and saying hello. It felt strange just to sit here when we knew there was someone sharing this lonely beach with us. Maybe it was Heiko’s sister, the one who lived near here. I hadn’t seen Heiko since he ran into the woods. I wondered if he was alright.

“Did you pay them too?” I asked. “The people who were in the car?”

Foster looked at me strangely.

“Once,” he said. “Not anymore.”

He reached into his satchel and took out some things. A black box with bright yellow string wrapped around the middle and also a little grey bag. He opened the bag and brought out a thin pair of scissors.

“There is something for you to do,” he said. “I want you to cut my hair.”

I hadn’t noticed his hair before. I thought it was black but in the silvery moonlight it was hard to tell. I could see whole sections of his scalp through some strange, matted parts.

“I shouldn’t,” I said, feeling a twinge of panic. “I’ve never cut anyone’s hair before.”

“We’re friends, aren’t we?”

I didn’t answer honestly because I didn’t know how. I told him yes, I supposed we were.

“Then you’ll do it.”

He slid himself in front of me, facing the ocean directly, and took the black box with him. I realised as he uncoiled it that the yellow string ended in a pair of audio buds. He placed them in his ears. He took a cassette from his pocket and slid it into the box. I heard a faint polyrhythmic beat which sounded like dogs barking all at once.

Feeling like I had no choice, I took up the scissors and began to cut.

It was easy once I started. The scissors seemed to guide themselves around the difficult parts, requiring me only to apply force. In parts, especially when the blades crunched through one of the matted clumps, it felt visceral and good.

When I finished I could no longer see any of Foster’s scalp. He thanked me and stood up, taking the scissors from my hand. The phones were still in his ears.

I was calmer now, no longer feeling quite so strange. I watched the bonfire on the peninsula. Tiny shapes moved around in front of the light. Maybe Heiko had found his sister and they were celebrating.

But I had a feeling this was wrong, and when I felt it something happened to my eyes. They stung like they had been splashed with saltwater and I couldn’t close them. The fire looked magnified. I made out the shapes of three slender dogs circling it and in the middle, tied to a post, was Heiko, burned and sweating, exhausted from screaming, with a bright yellow ribbon stuffed into his mouth.

Something cold touched my neck and I spun around. Foster was kneeling behind me with something in his hand. It was a razor, an electric one, the kind you’d use to shave your head. I asked Foster what he was doing.

“You promised me,” he said. “You said we were friends. It was in the terms. The contract.”

“Was it?” I asked weakly.

Foster nodded.

The razor tore hair out by the roots. It was unmerciful. Foster put a comforting hand on the side of my torso then he reached around and unbuttoned my shirt. His hand slid inside.

Across the water Heiko was no longer on the post. The dogs were gone too. Instead I saw three people, naked and emaciated and bald, with small breasts, watching the dying fire with disinterest. Yellow cords connected their ears to the bulky black boxes they held.

A song started playing in my head. It was hectic and atonal and dogs barked the rhythm. I couldn’t bear it. I screamed and couldn’t stop. Foster told me to stop but I couldn’t. I collapsed. I lay on the ground like a foetus with my head half-shaved and Foster was yelling at me, telling me to shut up, yelling about terms and the contract and our friendship, but I couldn’t stop screaming. I screamed for hours and my tears became thick and starchy. Foster was throwing himself around. He went down to the water and fell to his knees, shrieking and slapping the water with his hands. I had never seen anyone look that upset but I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t stop screaming.

I don’t know what happened next. Eventually I felt alright but it was hard to move, so I stayed on the beach. I had nowhere else to go. Foster had taken his satchel and gone. I was alone.

At some point it started to rain and I could feel droplets landing on the bald parts of my scalp. It felt new and exciting and I wanted to laugh, so I did. I laughed like that forever.

The fire on the peninsula had gone out but I could smell it, smoky and suffocating with a strong gassy note I couldn’t identify. I realised my eyes had stopped hurting and I could no longer see. I laughed harder. I lay there, blind and laughing, drawing the dead fire into my lungs, until the tide came in and water started to creep into my mouth.


I'll start by saying that I haven't seen the film clip or even heard the song that inspired this piece, and quite frankly, I don't want to — that's partly out of a fear that this story isn't as original as it feels to me right now, and partly because this is such an intriguing piece of fiction that combining and attaching it to other media would lessen its impact on me. So this review is based on having no knowledge of Sigur Ros. This review is also covering both parts of this story.

There is a lot to love about this story. I especially like the way you describe people with just a few of their attributes and leave the rest to be filled out by my imagination. And I love the trance-like, almost emotionless state of the narrator's telling. At first, the narrator's seemingly deadpan reaction to some pretty horrific events felt out of place, but once I reached the end and applied the narrator at the end to the rest of the story, it was a stroke of brilliance.

I couldn't tell for certain whether the very short length of your phrases is a stylistic choice in this piece, so I went and read some of your other prose and found that it does seem to be a trait of this. For the most part, the short sentences worked very well and it added to that sense of "something not quite right" I felt about the narrator while reading the first part.

However, there were some areas where the short phrasing was more of a hindrance than a help to the manufactured jerkiness of the flow. One of those areas is your use of dialogue tags.

It improved a lot in part 2, but in part one, there was quite a bit of "said X", "X said", "I asked", "he said". The first type was the worst for mine. "Said Foster", "Said the hitchhiker", "Said the officer". Dialogue tags are supposed to blur into the background of stories, and studies have shown that when they're effectively used, readers can't even remember them being there. A lot of the time when you're using dialogue tags, you're using them simply to tag who is speaking. Literally. There is no continuation of descriptive action or mention of tone or anything apart from a label for the speaker.

In your story, you juggle characters well and you don't have many, so there isn't really a great need to tag the speakers so obviously. I know it's a small gripe, but I felt the need to mention it because I noticed it when I was reading without any intention to review. It's just something to consider.

“Evening boys,” the officer leaned toward the car window. “Do you know why I pulled you over?” 

The other area where the succinctness of phrases caused problems came in cases where it stopped sounding like emotionless description and started sounding like a list of bullet points. An example of this problem, as I see it, is in the first paragraph of part 2. It feels like a set of instructions in a screenplay more than a narrated story. I was able to get through without really noticing it on my first read through, though, and picked this up as an identifiable area when I started to review.

There's a few grammatical anomalies in both pieces — eg., a strangely placed comma before "until" in the last line of part 2, a strange, narrated piece of dialoge "I told him yes, I supposed we were." — but I can tell that you would find these yourself when going over the piece with an eye to review; you have great control over the rules of language.

The last points I'll make are about a few weird issues with tenses. This story is told from the first person in past tense, but in this second half, you foreshadow things that the narrator now knows. You talk of ifs and maybes with Heiko, but later, in the same tense, you reveal that Heiko was in the fire and then gone and you know that Heiko's sister was not near the fire:

Maybe Heiko had found his sister and they were celebrating. ...
Maybe it was Heiko’s sister, the one who lived near here. I hadn’t seen Heiko since he ran into the woods. ...

Followed by:

I made out the shapes of three slender dogs circling it and in the middle, tied to a post, was Heiko, burned and sweating, exhausted from screaming, with a bright yellow ribbon stuffed into his mouth.

With the way I believe this story is being recalled, those first couple of lines could maybe be altered to better reflect that it's what the narrator is thinking, more than what the narrator knew. I hope that makes sense, I find it hard to explain now that I have begun.

So there we have it. I really enjoyed this piece of fiction. It has left me with a lot of questions but I still don't want to watch the film clip that inspired it because you have painted some vivid images in my mind. The things I have noted in this review I have noted because I was reviewing; it doesn't matter what it is, there is always room for improvement. This is a great piece and I hope my thoughts make a lick of sense to you. I'll look forward to more of your work.