#34 The Lighthouse Men

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A face has been cut into the rock on the walls of the lighthouse, battered by waves since before my grandmother was alive. She would stoop a little once we reached the spot, and run her hands over the rough surface of stone, when the tide was out, and the sea was calm. As we stood watching the moon rise over the rocks she would say to me,

“This is where I’ll always remember him, just like the first time I saw him, standing tall under a winter dusk, and all the stars coming out. He always smelled so good to me then, how I drank him in! He was warm and wild. Standing here, it’s as if I can still feel the salt from the wind off the sea all caught up in his thick, black hair.”

We crossed over to our sitting spot, and there I laid a blanket. On the hard ground of the jetty we ate cheese and pickle sandwiches. My grandmother stretched her shins out in front of her and caressed them roughly with her hands as if trying to rub the stiffness out.

“You don’t believe in curses do you, Herrie?” she asked me. The wind was whistling over the cliffs, making the jetty boards creak, and the gulls squawk and beat their wings.

“Do you, Herrie?” she repeated.

I never answered her, preferring instead to just let her talk. Let her have her visits, three, four times a year to the lighthouse. She came here to relive the same experiences whenever the seasons turned. Now, the wind had slivers of ice in it.

My grandmother looked out to sea. I waited for her to begin the old story I had heard since I was a child. This was how she began.

“He was the lighthouse keeper. He had beautiful seashell eyes, grey-green eyes with flashes of silver. They were shot through like marble, with those thin, silver trails. He had a boat he would take out, and would catch crabs and little fishes to sell when he could. His hands were rough from pulling on the ropes, wet and heavy from the saltwater. I used to bring him a salve I made myself, full of fat and beeswax. At first he scowled at me when I put it on him, but after a while, you know, I think he liked it. He didn’t have anyone. His father had died years ago, and as for other family, aah, I don’t know that he had any. He was gruff and didn’t talk much, and I thought he was the most sophisticated man in the whole town. He was older than me, by a good stretch, and I thought that made him sophisticated. He always looked like he had seen something of the world, things that he didn’t care to talk about, and I liked that. I was entirely enchanted by the mystery of him.

“That night I saw him, he was down by the water and struggling with something. I ran over to him and wanted to help but once he heard my shoes clacking on the wet boards he whirled round and waved me away. Do you know what he had caught in a net that night?”

I did know, but I waited silently for her to continue. She swallowed, and swept a long, steel strand of hair across her face which the wind had caught and played with.

“Well, the thing bit him.” She said.

“I saw it jump out of the net and snatch at him, and he cried out and tried to beat the thing back. Now you know that I’m tall for woman, Herrie, and heaven knows I was stronger then, I went rushing to him. I took a plank of broken wood and I beat at that dark thing until it let him go, and slipped back down into the water. But, before it went, I looked into its eyes, and it saw me. They were like great, white, shining saucers with burning red coals at their heart and behind the redness, a blackness. A darkness without any kind of life at all. It saw me as me as it slipped back down into the tide, with the water gushing into that awful gaping mouth.

“I half-hauled him into the lighthouse, but when I got him to bed, I saw that the wound in his leg wasn’t bleeding at all. He saw it too, and he looked up at me with these sad eyes and pushed my hand away. I tried to put my salve on it but he told me that there wasn’t any use trying. I just didn’t understand what he meant by that.

“Over the next few hours, with me holding him, he changed, of course. I watched it happen. I couldn’t get my head around it, but he knew all about it because it he was a lighthouse man. All I could do was to try and make him comfortable, but it was hard to watch him twitching underneath the blanket of the bed. I loved his face so much.”

At this, my grandmother put her hand up to her face, she covered first her eyes, and then her mouth. Then she spoke again,

“Before the change took hold, he had shown me a book made by someone in his family. It was the old lore I suppose, barely legible, of the lighthouse men. That thing must have taken his father too I suppose. He never had children, or so he thought, but you know what nature is like.”

Tonight, the telling of the story seemed to be affecting my grandmother more than usual. In the moonlight I could see the trails her tears had just taken down her cheeks. She said,

“I took him down to the water, like he had asked me. As I said, I was a strong woman. Still, it was so hard because my heart was broken and I wanted to jump in there after him. Instead, because it was what he wanted, I let him just fall out of my arms into the sea. I barely recognised him. He had become a sleek thing, with a long mouth full of sharp teeth, jagged like rocks, like razors. But his eyes never turned, never became like the one that bit him, because in his heart, he couldn’t be evil. He had a strong soul, and it stayed with him the whole time he was changing and even afterwards. I saw it there in his eyes as I carried him. I couldn’t hold back my tears, knowing there would always be a bit of himself that was left inside.

“He sank out of my sight. My hands were slippery from holding him and I cried all night, and into the next day. When my father found me I was soaked through. They put me to bed for months, and I refused to speak to anybody. Now, here I am, an old woman, and here you are, and I think, out there somewhere, he is too.”

Perhaps because there was something a little different about the way she had told the story that night, I asked her for the first time,

“Did he drown grandma?”

My grandmother just laughed. “Men like that can’t drown,” she said. “Neither could you, if you went into the water.” She looked at me so fiercely then that it made me uncomfortable.

“Promise me something,” she said, taking one of my hands and placing it in hers. “Promise me you’ll never take your father down here.” She gave my hand such a squeeze.

“Okay,” I said, but she worried me, there was something eerie about her that night.

“I love you Herrie.” She said.

We hugged for a while, and she patted my hair, and her tears fell in warm droplets on my cold cheek.

“Now go on to the car,” she said, finally.

“I want to watch the moon rise up over the lighthouse.”

The moon had climbed while we had been talking. Tonight, it was about as large and white as I had ever seen it. I stood watching her for a while as she made her way towards the lighthouse. Her hair flew out behind her, and she raised her hands to catch the wind, making her shawl billow around her tall, frail body, but as I watched her, my vision was torn away towards a shining object in the sea. I thought I saw something flash amongst the waves, two bright orbs of iridescent light shone like other moons in the water. In an instant the orbs had slipped out of sight, making a smacking sound as they vanished.

I saw now that my grandmother had lowered her arms and was crouching down towards the water’s edge. I turned to go back to her, but then I had a sudden change of heart. It had only been an old wives’ tale she had told me after all to cover up some love affair of her youth. The thing I had seen in the water must only have been a trick of the moonlight. I decided to leave her in peace.

Then, I heard the splash.

When I turned back there was no one at the base of the lighthouse. I ran as fast as I could down the jetty. I called her name and gazed out into the water, now rough and rolling in. Somewhere out to sea I thought I saw a shape being dragged away into the darkness of the water. I put my hand on the rock of the lighthouse wall to steady myself, but the sharpness of the rock snagged my skin. I pulled my hand away, I was shaking all over; there in the lighthouse wall I saw it, the face peering out at me with eyes fathomless and empty, utterly dwarfed by a long, gaping mouth like a void, and within it, the rows upon rows of jagged teeth, like rocks, like razors.

 

#33 Now That They Are Gone

Image by Witthaya Phonsawat, courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

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What happens to the house now they are gone?

Hands gather on the iron gate. Fingers that cannot hold are slipping through the bars to grasp the air, left burning even by the faintest touch. A line of desire stretching as far as the onset of night on the plantation fields is visible. Somewhere beyond, daylight has just left, and is streaking away.

What happens now the rooms are all shut up? Locks turned in every key hole, windows barred with thick blocks of iron. Rust is gathering on the panes, on the old door handles and window frames. Gasping, those who wait outside the walls are aching for the decay inside that house.

Dr Barnstable has long since left. He took with him his servant and his big, leather bag. The clasp snapped shut on his box of tricks, the claw hammer has nailed its last. He is going into retirement now, never to come back to this place. The stake and sacrament can be left to someone else, he says, as his servant merrily throws open the gate. There is blood on his collar and cuff, gore trails the trouser leg, but a pipe is lit and a night of comfort is waiting for old Dr Barnstable and his servant.

What happened afterwards? There had been a fire in that old place, just before the sun went down. They all saw it, the ones outside the gate. They saw a burning in the attic window, and a figure on fire, plummeting to Earth like Lucifer, evaporating on the North Wind in a pathetic final puff of desperate half-life.

Now the house is empty. Only the living can enter, and none will buy the place. Left to rot on the old plantation, the house sleeps restlessly, and the dead watch it. They are gnawing at the gate post, digging in the dirt until it stings them. Their limbs disappear, their essence annihilated while others take their place. It is the Holy Water burning them but they will not leave the house of their King, even long after Dr Barnstable dispatched him into thin air.

Slipping past the crowds of phantom watchers the gate will easily swing upon your touch. You put the cold, iron key back in your pocket and proceed because you did not hear them cry to see a living soul walk where they cannot. Down the gravel path to the sound of cawing crows, to the beating wings of ravens and the creak of the bows of the antique scarecrow. Knocked down and losing his stuffing, birds have pecked out his eyes and in the patch, pumpkins are rotting.

Towards the house your steps are crunching on the pebbles. The leather of your newly shined boots is scuffing and your tailored jacket is too fine to resist the cut of the wind through the corn field. It stretches away out to right and something perpetually rustles through it along the rows.

The house is here and waiting. The door you unlock with another, newer key. They changed the locks. Dr Barnstable ordered it done and the man came on Sunday and now the key is small and neat in your hand, and sparkling. But see how it turns uncertainly in the lock. The man has made rough work, the key struggles, you twist and twist. The key snaps. The door, as if aware of the resistance, opens creaking loudly, you think it could almost be laughing.

The house is barren now. Holy Water on the hearth, the door jam smeared with brick dust from a pouch. There is the smell of burnt sage wafting down from the gallery like a host creeping down the stairs to greet you, now that the old host is gone. Trails of blood will never be washed from the floorboards, decades of viscera smeared into the carpet. Half the rooms are shut up, and will never be opened again. The others are places where graveyard earth has been scattered . Consecrated broadcasting, Dr Barnstable was thorough as he sewed the Holy grains from space to space. It doesn’t matter that no one will ever buy the place.

The dead waiting in droves at the gate spend hours just sniffing. They long for the night when the smell of sanctity finally ebbs and flows away. Its sacred atoms scattered to the wind, just like their King. Inside the house you stare out of a French window. Is there something unusual about the line of darkness beyond the tall, black fence?

A picture collapses down the wall, but you only jump inside. Are you afraid to move? The key is broken, you think. You have to call the man back tomorrow, but he will only come on a Sunday. Dr Barnstable has gone back to Germany. There you go, he is saying to you again in your memory, it’s your inheritance now.

Dr Barnstable died in his bed in the brand new hotel. The hotel with the plump towels and the bright lights and monogrammed bathrobes. His servant found him face down in the scatter cushions with lash marks all over his spotted, wrinkled body. They think the local call girl did it. They found a leaflet in his trouser pocket with her picture on it. Vampira. She looks to old to be only 16.

You are standing in the kitchen looking out at the herb garden. You laugh because they won’t be growing garlic in there. You need to laugh because it’s getting colder and you only wanted to see the place. You’re staying at the little inn on the crossroads because you don’t have Dr Barnstable’s bag of tricks. You don’t even know he’s dead. No one can reach you on your room phone, it’s ringing off the hook and hits the ground. The servant replaces his receiver and quickly packs. He’s thinking about driving out to you, but he has a boat to catch.

What does the house do, now that it is so empty? No one can use these rooms. Fortified against the dead they lie waiting, crumbling into themselves. Ivy is tracing a lineage already up through the cracks, plunging its way into the masonry, hunting out the houses’ heart. You take a look upstairs. The beds are writhing. Beetles are clicking through holes in the Egyptian cotton and take no notice of Holy curses. The master bed is positioned in front of the altar. It hasn’t been slept in in years. You think about going to the attic.

Dr Barnstable said the cellar was fine, but the attic was out of bounds, which sounds ridiculous. Everything Dr Barnstable said was ridiculous, including his fee. You push open the attic door and peer inside. Dust motes are swirling delicately in the moonlight. Your lamp is only disturbing them, clashing with the moon, making monstrous light where shadows should be. The room is resentful. A giant cross is hogging the room. Oh, you think, so that’s where my money went. not only on fancy hotel rooms, and monogrammed bathrobes. The cross has nailed a shadow to the floor. It might have been intended to look like silver, but you’re guessing it’s tin plated. You lift the cross, but it’s heavier than it looks. I paid for it. You say this aloud to the room as it watches you. Somewhere outside the gate, the sniffing stops. You’ll never hear it with your ears.

You drag the cross down the stairs. It’s not going to help you sell the place and the agent is coming first thing on Monday morning because they aren’t as easily spooked as the locksmith. They want the money too much. It’s a big house. Tripping on a loose board, admitting defeat, you lay the cross down on the first floor landing and it falls like stone. The crash disturbs the dust. Something is making your skin prickle. It’s allergies, you say, speaking aloud again.

Taking a last look around you get ready to leave. It really smells in here, the sage hasn’t quite done its job. You glance in the downstairs rooms again quickly. The stains are starting to get to you, but they can do all sorts of things now with chemicals. You don’t want to have to pay for new carpets. You never even knew you were the last surviving relative. It’s too much work, and your business won’t run without you.

That’s when you stop, and see the stairs.

The cellar. But you don’t need to go down there. It’d be damp and the smell will be worse. Still, people will pay good money for a wine cellar. Your lamp goes out in a puff. You retrieve your matches and light it, but something feels, different. It’s truly dark now. You can no longer gaze out of the French window and see the line of shadows because they are  now indistinguishable from darkness.

Every step is an adventure. You’re laughing a little nervously because it’s just like being a kid. The sloping wall above the stairs is coated with watery slime and you can’t always dodge the drips. At the bottom is a corridor leading to the rows upon rows of empty stacks. The old miser didn’t leave you any rare vintages. You search around and peer into abandoned alcoves, disappointed to find nothing you’d care to keep. You aren’t even creeped out. It’s even warm down here, strange, the rest of the house is ice cold.

The old master is dead. Dr Barnstable had said before you handed him the cheque. Hocus pocus. It was part of the will, something tacked on at the end by a magistrate official you never got to meet. There was something about a county council, Freemasons, you grunted as you read the will, but there was no fighting it. You had paid up, and now felt a little disgusted that Dr Barnstable clearly hadn’t bothered to make the place look a bit more, respectable. After all, how long could it have possibly taken to perform his mumbo jumbo? His servant had called you and said – in a tone you found unneccesarily cloak and dagger – Would you like to be there when he does it? It had seemed like the entire town was crazy and didn’t realise that Dr Barnstable had connived his way through life and was now probably half-way to Germany with a enough money to buy a thousand silver crosses and teenage girls. No thank you. You replied, and hung up the receiver.

You turn to take the stairs upwards again. You feel less certain now than you did because a hot wind is suddenly at your back. You can hear the old Doctor again, The cellar is fine, I didn’t do too much there, just leave the attic well alone for now. Perhaps it would best if you rent the place, and keep the door up there locked. He had a strange accent. He said he had been adopted. It all made sense. Still, now you’re annoyed that he suggested you rent it. Of course you’re going to sell, of course you’re going to open all these locked doors.

Outside the line is waiting. Still reaching out their hands towards you through the gate. Still risking oblivion for one sniff of their dead King. Somewhere underneath the sage, they can still smell blood. They felt the ground tremble while you were in the attic. They waited in agony. Now the hot breeze is blowing at your back and they are resuming their grasping, frantically pawing the ground in front of the plantation gate.

You worry about what to do with Dr Barnstable’s cross, but you didn’t see the shadow slip from under it, and seep into the wood. The warmth you feel behind you is followed by an aching, roaring, hollow sound as the ground suddenly collapses. Licks of fire are catching at the timbers, ignoring the sage and Holy Water trails. It’s just another job, Dr Barnstable had said, as he had closed the door and felt in his overcoat for the pipe, already imagining the cloying comfort of a cheap floral scent on firm, apathetic young breasts. The fix doesn’t hold if you don’t really care..

You don’t know what is happening as you rush upstairs, but the stairs are collapsing under your feet. Then in an instant there’s a hand on your shoulder, you feel yourself thrust by brute strength upwards onto the floor of the entrance hall. You’re lying on your waistcoat within a finger’s touch of the door but your head is tilted sideways. You’re panting and everything spins so you grip onto the floor. That’s when you notice the house is burning. Outside the gate, hordes are stomping and gnashing, amassing in clots of darkness. A cold hand strokes your neck. Fingers are slipping beneath your collar and you sigh as it loosens the buttons, and rips off your tie. Soon you’ll be able to breathe.

The fingers are caressing your skin lovingly, until suddenly, they stop.

Four nails are plunging into your neck, into the arteries, impaling you in a last gurgle. The arm does not only bend at the elbow, it twists and bends and bends and bends…

A shadow is wearing your clothes. It passes through the door, now left hanging on its broken hinges, swinging with creaks which sound like laughter. Part of what used to be you is leaving, and will never come back.

The fire goes out in the plantation house, smoke smoulders and is caught by the wind but no one will smell it for days. No one will buy it now. Somewhere outside the gate, a trail of black figures trickles away, gnawing at the air, following, sniffing.

One question remains.

In a nearby harbour, Dr Barnstable’s ship is leaving with an extra crate on board. A cold fog has rendered the deck unusually quiet. As he lights the Doctor’s orphaned pipe, his servant wonders to himself:

What happens to the house now that they are gone?

 

 

#32 The Library of Things No One Has a Use For

Image courtesy of bugtiger at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Dear Amelia,

Today I gave someone a gift. Only then did it dawn upon me that gift giving can be a crime, and that it could be punishable. I gave somebody, in my haste and enthusiasm, a gift they did not want, and that was when I found myself here, in the library of “Things No One Has a Use For.”

I am writing to you on this scrap because they have taken all the blank pages away and left only old leaflets which, if you turn over you will see, advertise church tea parties and bring-and-buy sales from, oh I don’t know when. Some are, perhaps, even from before the War. The paper is not old though, which is perplexing. It feels new. I wonder why, for example, someone has taken the time (and presumably expense) to print images of 1940s tea parties onto leaflets and leave them in the library of Things No One Has A Use For. But wait, I seem to have answered my own question…

Here I go, onto another sheet. This one has a Teddy Bear’s Picnic on one side, isn’t that lovely? I thought you would like that one so I picked it out specially. It was on a table with all those other leaflets. They are scattered as if someone dropped them there from a great height. Some have even spilled out onto the floor of the library.You would hate that, I know. If you were here I’m sure you would stoop down immediately and start putting them all to rights! I bet you would have the table polished too. Then you would turn and look at me staring at you, admiring how industrious you were and you would say, “Well look alive Maria!” and I would be all fingers and thumbs and arms the one length, as Mum would say. No one will clean them up. Imagine that.  I could just leave them here, and they would still be lying like that tomorrow.

I know your next question, but yes there are tomorrows here, Amelia. They come in the usual fashion, when the sun comes up. I sleep with my head in the crook of my elbow in between the bookshelves and I lie on old dusty cushions that appear to have no arm chairs to belong to, and don’t match each other, and smell of tobacco. I put my coat over my head to keep out the light because it gets bright here so early and I can’t bear it when the day starts before I am ready for it. You know the coat. It’s the red one that I thought was so smart the day I saw it in the window of Anderson MacCauley’s. Do you remember how much I paid for it? I bet you do. You never let me hear the end of it. And yes, you were quite right, I never did wear it often enough at all. There was that one dance, and Patrick Foy’s wedding, and then it lay in the back of the wardrobe and never saw the light of day again. Now it sees plenty of daylight, and keeps out the sun, and keeps out the chill and is a brightness here. I wish now perhaps I had worn it everyday, and never bothered about it being too ‘fancy’, but then perhaps I would have been too warm in it. I don’t worry about those sorts of things now. It never gets all that warm in the library. Sometimes I hear pipes coughing in the night, and hope that the heating will spring to life, but no joy.

I’m writing all these things, Amelia, and I haven’t even told you about my first day here, or about how strange things get when it grows dark, or about the food I eat which I don’t remember finding. One minute I am starving, and then suddenly it’s as if I have already eaten and am left holding the remains of my dinner in my hand. Yesterday it was a banana skin, a bone of chicken leg, an empty glass. Today I’ve discarded four empty tea cups, an entire box of chocolates, (full only of empty wrappers- of course) and a large casserole dish with crusted bits along the sides. The strangest thing is that I feel as if I have eaten. I never go hungry, or thirsty for long. I just wish I could remember the pleasure of eating, it’s funny how quickly one forgets. I’ve been here I think two weeks in total, but I can’t really say. I realised that I should write to you, because of course it’s what I would do if we were away from each other, in the real world.

Yes, the strange things at night, I was getting to that. I hope I haven’t alarmed you. I guess I might have because it must have sounded terrible. “Strange things when it grows dark” that was what I wrote wasn’t it, and I know you hate to be frightened. Anyway, I am quite alright in the dark, you know I always was. It’s just that here the place only seems to be busy when the lights are out. People are borrowing books in the dark, it’s the oddest thing. I feel the books moving, and the low rustling of pages. People murmuring and “sssshing” each other, like in a real library. Last night a man whispered, “Oh do excuse me” as he shuffled past my cushions while I was trying to sleep. A few nights ago I grew so curious and incensed by the irregularity of it all that I got up and went to try and engage one of the book borrowers in conversation, but I could find no one to talk to in the dark. They were always just slipping past me, or in the next row, and there are no lights Amelia, it’s infuriating!

I am running low on ink now. I’m sorry that the words are so faint, I will try and go over them again tomorrow when the next lot of pens arrive. They always appear in the morning, but all of them are on their last legs with hardly any ink at all. You see, things are always appearing when I need them, though are never exactly the things I want. The pens are, as you can see, multicolour. There are no black and blue pens. There is no blank paper, no cutlery, no blankets, no soap or lamps. No new shoes or new clothes to wear, no radio or piano, no pillows or doors – the windows all look out onto giant over-grown shrubbery except for the one through which I can see a lawn which never ends…There are no other people here, Amelia. Or there are, but they are of no use to me. The library is full of shadows.

I gave someone a gift you see, that they had no use for, and now I cannot forget his face. It was the last thing I saw, in the “real” world, where you, and he, still are.

That face of his. I had always looked into it with a kind of frightened joy; he was like a treasure never seen before, to me, but we human beings can be very selfish. I didn’t realise that a momentary affection, a turn of phrase, could be a selfish thing. That I could give a gift for the wrong reasons. But wait! I don’t think that’s true, because when I saw him on the stairs, I had an urge to be kind to him, and before my brain could say ” now don’t be foolish” I had reached out a hand and touched the shoulder of his coat. He turned, and I uttered some words, and then I saw his face.

Now here I am, in the library. I thought I might read something, now that I have all this time, but they are all the books that no one ever borrows, Amelia. All the discarded novels you would see on railway stands, religious pamphlets that would end up in the bin. Recipes for dishes that are too dull to make and require all sorts of ingredients you never have in the larder and are too expensive to request from the shop. There are books in languages I can’t read, and books about things I can’t bear to, because they are awful. There are books on painting figureheads on boats (I tried to read that one, but it was so poorly written that I abandoned it after three pages and am still none the wiser on figureheads). Some books are old medical journals full of jargon, others are club newsletters for organisations I have never heard of and have no desire to learn more about. There are no sections-by-topic in this library, nothing is alphabetised (oh how you would hate it), the rows of bookshelves follow on, one after the others filled with volumes of writing which I must force myself to read to keep entertained, and some are so dull that I have fallen asleep within their pages.

There is one bathroom. I rush there, thinking I need to spend a penny, and when I get there, I find there is a sink but no toilet. And, when I get there, I no longer need “to go.” I have tried the shower and it works. There are no towels, however.

I have no way of sending this letter, Amelia.There are no post boxes, and no post men. The windows onto the lawn do not open,and cannot be broken. Any tool I might use to break them, dissolves in my hands. There is nothing of use here. Or at least, nothing entirely fit for purpose. But I understand why I am here, and it’s alright, because there comes a point in your life when you know that everything has outgrown you, and found its own little space in the universe but that you have not. Or at least, that is what I have found. I am glad that I have come somewhere where everything is out of place. Perhaps it is a puzzle for me to solve. Perhaps I can pretend to be the heroine, (just like in those old novels we used to read – the girl detective!). I am determined to make myself the most useful thing in the whole library of Things No One Has A Use For. That is what I call it. Perhaps the book borrowers call it something else, I don’t know.

Not everything has a place, Amelia. If you were here I would tell you that. I would say it, not to frighten or hurt you, but because you are a little younger than me, and you might one day find life has over-taken you too. The trouble is, you waste a lot of time trying to find the thing that makes you a jigsaw piece that slots into other pieces to make a whole, beautiful picture. It might be of a train, or a valley, or perhaps a scene out of one of those famous French paintings. You might turn out to be part of a lady’s umbrella, or a gentleman’s hat, or even a large lady in a colourful bathing costume staring out to sea.

But there are also jigsaw pieces here in the library, Amelia. I have tried them all out, and they don’t fit anything. I am going to turn them over, and draw on them with the terrible multicolour pens that run out of ink within minutes. I am going to use the half a pair of scissors I found (you know what I mean, the one blade without the other) and I am going to fix them so they can fit together. I want to give my jigsaw its own little glorious, happy ending, and then maybe it will cease to be here, I don’t know. It’s sort of an experiment. Goodness know what I shall draw. You know I never could make anything worthwhile with my hands. How funny to think that, in the library of Things No One Has A Use For, that I should find a sort of purpose in bringing together solitary pieces of cardboard.

The last of the ink is running out now, what a horrible green colour, I’m sorry about that. Oh and do turn this page over because it has an image of a swan on it, and I know they are your favorite birds, and I miss you so much, Amelia. I will try and write more tomorrow, but now I am afraid that if this letter is in any way meaningful that it might go too. Perhaps the letter might reach you after all, and then, maybe that will be a better way to test my hypothesis than the jigsaw puzzle, which, let’s face it, I may never be able to finish. How you will respond to me though, I have no idea.

There are some gifts you cannot take back. Time, and love, are two of those things, which even when given in a moment, (as words exchanged on a stairwell late at night) can be punishable things. If you see him, Amelia, won’t you please tell him how sorry I was to have broken his train of thought as his hand found the hand rail and he bowed his head to descend. I did it because I saw him that night, looking so alone, and so solemn, and it broke my heart. When he turned around to face me, all I saw were how empty his eyes looked, how heavy his eyelids, and how far away he was from me, and it was so strange. Him of all people! It was like we had never shared a thing together, and there I was, offering him the only thing I had, of which he had no use for.

A desperate yearning, poorly disguised as momentary kindness.

But now, let’s not be sad! The sun is going down over my shoulder now Amelia.

I think I can hear the book borrowers shuffling past.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

31# The Tree Father

Photo © Carsten Erler | Dreamstime Stock Photos

dreamstimefree_280762

Thin, spine-like fingers on the window gave a tentative touch. It was a creeping caress, producing a gentle scraping barely audible above the sighing of the wind. Sullivan dreamed he was lost in a forest and that the cold, humid air was flying down his throat like a series of moss-faced devils on broomsticks. Finally they arrived at his lungs, which they poked with their knotted wooden pitchforks. He awoke with a gasp, grabbing his inhaler and gasping in the chemical breath which would soothe him. He relaxed, and fumbled for the light switch, his eyes blurred from sleep, reaching out for a glass on his nightstand. He drank the cold water in long gulps. The light illuminated the room partially, leaving triangular shadows and untouched blobs of darkness lurking in the corners and folds. Sullivan was twenty-eight years old, so he wasn’t afraid of the dark anymore. He reminded himself of this as he settled back down into his bed. He reached an arm out of the duvet to turn off the light, leaving a pale glow from the window to shine across across his bed covers. This sickly glare provided by streetlights was mostly obscured by the sweeping branches of an old lime tree. The wind blew continually, and the tree shivered. Sullivan dreamed again of the forest.

On returning home from work that day, Sullivan hadn’t noticed there had been one more tree on the avenue. No one on the street had noticed. It looked entirely authentic, as if it had sprouted up through the pavement, cracking the stone over a series of decades – more even – so that no one thought to question when it had appeared. It was as if it had always been there. They pushed their prams past it, and detoured around it, and complained about how people should take more care to trim their hedges, and how the council should make more of an effort to improve the roads and pavements and other things that adults talk about. No one had bothered about the tree at all, or noticed that it was not like the other lime trees. Its bark was much darker, though studded with moss. No one had seen the sickly ruby sap oozing from cracks in the wood, though they admired the rich, red leaves.

Sullivan tossed and turned in his bed that night and dreamed he was walking along a corridor of trees with bent branches, hunched over him to make a suffocating canopy which shut out the light. His feet kept catching on rocks and stones, on piles of rotting leaves and branches, on cracks and crevices. That sound came to him; of an imploring hand at the window, the sound of a rough palm being dragged ever so softly down the glass; of a pawing desire. But there were no windows in the forest, he remembered. He continued walking. The wind was picking up, but there isn’t any wind here, he thought. Sullivan trudged on though he had no idea where he was going, only the vague feeling that he was late to meet someone, and that time was marching on. Soon he would be very late. Panic was beginning to set in. He increased his steps. Outside Sullivan’s window there was a rustling, a creak of bark and a snapping of twigs. Something edged closer to the window, brushing the branches of the old lime tree aside, which gave way with a shuddering of leaves. Sinewy ivy tentacles felt the edges of the glass, probing miniscule crevices, grabbing footholds.

Someone was at the window, Sullivan knew, but he couldn’t get up to open it because he was still in the forest. He began to run, but the scene ahead of him was all shadows, and showed no sign of any new horizon. It was always light enough to see his path, but no more. Sullivan stopped running the instant he heard the sound of his window being prized open, the wood screeching as the pane of glass was pushed roughly upwards. All around him the forest closed in and drowned him in its noises. All was relatively quiet, but the faint sounds of the forest were so many that it was like being scratched with a thousand small needles all over. Hands had reached out for his bed. Long hands, long fingers, green flecked, spine-like. They pulled back the covers and crept over his body. Sullivan was still dreaming. The forest had tripped him, he was lying on the ground as tree roots snuck over his limbs and entwined themselves around him. Sullivan felt a new lethargy descend that wasn’t tiredness, but was dream-like. Dreaming within his dreams Sullivan became part of their roots.

In Sullivan’s bed, newly formed branches rested. The long green hand retracted, pulling its new limb with it, out of the window like a retreating snake. The dark-barked tree held the new limb high up as if to observe it, and then sent the branches down towards the ground. There the tree-limb lay, and upon contact with grass and soil, part of it seemed to wither away, leaving only a sapling. The new tree threw out roots like tentacles, rippling. It shook, and grew and became tall. It raised its branches to the moon and sprouted fresh leaves. These leaves began instantly to fade into the deep, rich red of autumn, and its new bark cracked, and became dark, as the ruby sap oozed.

The sapling, now grown, departed. Darkness obscured its path. The Tree Father retreated from its place opposite Sullivan’s window. It began to creep up the sleeping street past the neat rows of houses facing one another amicably, their inhabitants asleep, and dreaming of forests.

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30# Men of Ice Have No Business Being Near Fires.

Image FreeDigitalPhotos.Net by franky242

ID-100137686

I am a man made out of ice. No, I’m not your Jack Frost. I don’t leave glinting white fern trails on windows overnight. I just walk around in the dark, and I try not to touch anything.

When the sun comes up I’m face down on the grass. I can’t feel the wetness of the morning on the green blades as they pierce right through me. Exhaustion makes me grab at the ground to pull myself up, but I pull up no clods. There is currently no earth under my fingernails. I am transparent in the sun, the world walks right through me. I can barely see my own hands.

During the day I find myself inside houses, trying to open doors. It takes a lot of concentration, but if I try I can open them. I know there are things inside but I can only vaguely see objects huddled on shelves, furniture in corners. Afterwards I always feel disappointed. I know shouldn’t touch anything, but I don’t know why. It’s just a feeling I have that it isn’t right for me to be touching them. Sometimes I can’t. I reach out for a door handle and find my  whole arm is gone. In the back of my mind I can hear screams, as if I someone was in those rooms with me. I turn around thinking I must not be alone, but all I ever catch is the edge of a skirt, or the heel of a shoe, and a tap-tapping, frantic, down the stairs.

I said I was a man made out of ice. This isn’t strictly true, but I make things cold. I know this because voices tell me. Cats sneeze when I come near them, and back away. I can see the breath of animals. I know that I carry my own cold with me everywhere. I don’t know if I feel cold, because I always feel the same. Exhausted. I don’t remember things like warmth and comfort. I can see a fire burning in a hearth and sometimes I’ll have a recollection of what it meant to be beside one. I can put my hands out now, towards the fire, and I see only a fog around my hands. Men of ice have no business being near fires.

At night, I feel more substantial. I don’t know quite why. I think perhaps it has something to do with the way the darkness fills up the spaces where parts of me should be. I hold my hand up to the sky, and when I look through it, I can see stars sometimes. The moon makes me feel like I have an outline. Sometimes, I think I can see people. For a moment there will be a face on the street, lit up with a sudden panic. They vanish after that, and the street is empty again.

Once, I met someone just like me. He was standing in the graveyard, under an old yew.

“Do you ever wonder why the trees, and the animals and everything here looks real, but you never see any people?” He asked me. I shrugged. It had been so long since I had seen anyone like me that I had forgotten about talking.

“Well I wonder about that,” he said.

I thought perhaps the conversation was over. I thought about leaving, but part of me wanted to try to talk to the man. It had been so long, but I was sure that I used to talk to people, and feel warmth, and eat and laugh and do all those sorts of things.

“There’s just the cold now, isn’t there. It eats right through you. You just feel like an icicle, walking around, spreading the fog, and the chill-”

“You have it too?” I asked him. I couldn’t hear my own voice.

“Yeah course.” He said. “Course I do, everyone like us does. Once you get to this stage, it’s hard to thaw. You want to, but when people come near you and feel the cold they scarper. You can’t get enough warmth from them to put out all that ice inside. Can’t even hold yourself together. You fall away in bits. That’s what happens if you don’t thaw.”

I mused over what he had said. I told him about about how my hands fogged up when I went near a hearth. “I’ve come to the conclusion now that it isn’t worth your while trying. Men of ice have no business being near fires,” he said.

I last saw him a few months ago. He was in a state because a girl had started coming to the graveyard at night. There are no fences around it, only the road which winds round a little stone wall. Foxes dart about between the trees, up and over the wall, and into the traffic, They give night drivers quite a scare. I see the cars, but not the drivers.

He was agitated because the girl was coming regularly, and it made him feel uncomfortable. He worried she would know he was there, and it would get awkward. He was older than me I think, but I don’t know. He just seemed like someone old. Thinking about that made me wonder if I was old, because I couldn’t remember. But he definitely seemed older than me. I thought it was funny that he was so worked up about the girl, but I sort of knew what he meant. I didn’t like having to see people either, or being seen.

I saw her in the graveyard, she was vague at first, but the more I saw her, the more she became quite real. He had said she was a girl, but I thought she was more of a lady. I think the old man called her a girl because he was old. I like now to measure myself somewhere in between the old man and the lady, in terms of age. It makes me feel more substantial. I like knowing that something about me can be measured.

She reads books on the benches, or on the grass at the edges of the graveyard where a little light from the street lamps floods in. The foxes don’t know what to do about her either. She tries to talk to them but they panic and run. She saw me one night, and looked at me for a while, her eyes grew very wide, but I think she could tell that I didn’t like it, and so she went back to reading her book. I could see that her hands were shaking though, and I felt bad, so I left.

I keep coming back to the graveyard. Sometimes I sit on the bench and watch her read. she talks to me now and I think I reply but I can’t hear my own voice most of the time. Sometimes the words come out though, and it makes her smile.

One day she asked me. “Why are you always so cold?” I told her the saying, “Men of ice have no business being near fires.”

The next night she brought me a candle. She showed me how to hold it. “The trick is not to let go,” she said. Somewhere beneath the wisps of fog I thought I could see a pair of hands.

They were my hands.

 

29# The Sled

Image by Blamethechicken, Freedigitalphotos.net

aurora

We live in West, in the realm of ice, Banneran and I, and the wolf-dog woman Orkoosh. I have no memory of being born, unlike them. I used to think I was their child but Banneran said, no, I had come to them from across one of the ice plains to the East. One of the old women had put me on a sled and sent me cascading across the plain wrapped in coats of pelts. He said the sled bounded and danced – Orkoosh saw it coming as she was out hunting and came running to him saying, look, a wonder! There is a child in the sled Banne!

I had asked, but how did you know it was an old woman?

Orkoosh had said that it was because she remembers. I don’t understand it but that was all she said about it. Except that the East was a land basked in Sunshine, where we had only the Moon. Sunshine was a different kind of light, she said, which was much brighter than ours, but that, as we had the beautiful stars and the emerald light, we had nothing to complain about.

I mentioned to you just now about not remembering being born. Apparently that’s a gift that the people of the West have, they remember being born just as the people of the East remember dying. I have lived a long time now in the snow of the West and I don’t remember being born and I don’t remember dying. This has led Orkoosh to wonder if I am from the East at all. What memories do you have? She asks me all the time. I answer her, only of you and Banneran. Then she laughs as if it has all been a joke, and pats my head and will say, of course.

She then motions to the sled I was brought on. Go and play, she says. In an instant she will turn from me and slink gracefully into her wolf-dog form and I will harness her to the sled and we will race about the snow plains under the purple-black sky covered with emerald lights- the lights that come from some other place, and know us, and watch over us as we play. Sometimes when we stop for breath I will ask Orkoosh to turn back into a woman and ask her questions. I ask her how long I have been with them, and she will say, don’t you remember? You have been here for one hundred and eleven years. I will question her,  how does she know this? and she will say it’s because all shape-shifters know the passage of days.

When you talk of the old woman, what do you mean? I say to her, and she replies Old age is something that happens elsewhere, and I say to her, what happens elsewhere? She will shake her head as if she thinks I’m silly, and then off she goes again -ZIP!- slinking back into a wolf and we fly across the ice back to the hut, and to Banneran who loves us. Then Orkoosh will change and they will always greet each other as if they been apart for a long time, and don’t quite know each other. He will ask her if she would like to sit down, for example, and then we will all eat. After dinner, Orkoosh and Banneran will seem to remember that they know each other, and will sit in the warmth of the hut and comb each other’s hair. This will take a long time because Orkoosh’s  long, unruly locks will have gathered many tangles from the ice wind. Banneran will nod over to me and say, well, where is your comb young man? Then I will put my hand in my pocket and there it is, the comb made of wood inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Orkoosh says that the old woman gave it to me. I begin to comb my hair too, because Orkoosh says fondly that the old woman would want me to look my best.

Then I will listen as Orkoosh tells Banneran stories.

It is tradition that Orkoosh tells him stories each time that we return. I don’t know where she gets them from, they are always fantastical. My stories are about little fish that I see, glinting in the ice pools, or bears in the distance, or the moon rising. Orkoosh, however, always has stories about princes and magicians and priestesses and treasure and great ships that roam the sky, flying along on the vapours left by the burning emerald lights. Banneran responds to Orkoosh’s stories. He says playfully, no no Koos, you have told that one before I think, even when she hasn’t. Or, akakaka, (he clicks his tongue) Koos I don’t like this story, the prince is too arrogant, the priestess would never grant him an entire kingdom for rescuing just one golden key. Be serious!

When I ask Banneran how long he has loved Orkoosh he smiles and says he doesn’t know. When I ask Orkoosh she laughs and says, almost forever, and that she knows this because she remembers being born. Then, after the stories are told, they say goodnight to me, and I creep through the pelt curtain on the East-hand side of the hut and am in my own den. Banneran has lit a fire in there for me with his magic, and from my bed I look up to the space in the roof where one brick is made of glass, because I asked Banneran to put it there. I asked him to make a glass brick, so that I could see out and watch the emerald lights fade, and the clouds race across the stars. The fire crackles with blue and lilac flames, Banneran’s magic will keep it burning while I sleep.

*
Sometimes I wonder, as I look up through the glass brick to the sky, what we are, and why we live apart from others. I wonder how Orkoosh came to be a wolf-dog woman, or how Banneran came to have magic. Or who I am, and why I will never grow old, or remember being born, or remember dying. Orkoosh smiles at Banneran, rolling her eyes, when I ask her these questions, and says only Because we are in paradise.

When I ask her what that means, Banneran answers. He says that sometimes the people in the East have dreams they don’t wake up from, and that we live in one of those dreams. That somewhere, a boy exactly like me grew up, lived his life, and then died, and in that final dream he imagined that he was a little boy again, and that his grandmother wrapped him in pelts and sent him across the ice on a sled to the West, where the people remember being born. When I say I don’t understand, Orkoosh answers, you said you only remember me and Banneran, is that true? I nod. Then you are from the East after all. She says, and smiles. I crawl to my den and sleep, and when I wake, I wonder why it is that I never remember my dreams.

 

28# Vestiges

Image by Pansa. Freedigitalphotos.net

ID-100373553

They dissected his heart with fine tools, certainty and unwavering hands. Dr Plowers had performed the operation a total of one hundred and forty-six times before and his assistants were equally well trained and experienced men and women. The viewers watched on from the gallery and took notes, nodding, sharing the odd flat whisper, admiring technique and the technology. Dr Rawl looked down at the heart of the dead man being so carefully manipulated by his colleague and felt nothing out of the ordinary. There was no body for context, only the heart, penetrated by blades.

“Here we go, here’s where the magic happens,” Plowers said in a monotone. His catchphrase drew no smiles, it was routine. There were more nods from the viewers. Dr Plowers held open the now exposed chambers, making sure to get the best angle for the cameras above the operating table. There, sure enough, were the memories. They moved within the heart like living figures in a doll’s house.

“The vestiges,” Plowers said, indicating with a scalpel a particularly active figurine in one upper section which waved its tiny arms, demanding to be noticed.

“Patient history,” he demanded, and one of the shorter attendants shuffled forward and began speaking in clipped tones.

“Male, Caucasian, fifty years of age, death by drowning. Survived by a brother and sister. No offspring. Two nephews, one niece. One cat. Member of a local neighbourhood watch scheme. Played poker with colleagues once a fortnight. Considerable savings. Maintained a dating profile-“

“How active was this profile?” Plowers asked. He was staring down at the heart, and the little figures which phased in and out of being under the faint lavender light shed by lasers pointed into the chambers.

“Very active. Particular interest in a woman named Valerie Smythe. They had been dating on and off for approximately seven months, signs of significant attachment.”

“Yes I can see that. Describe Ms Smythe please, in terms of physical appearance.”

The attendant began to talk, his voice was pleasing, plain and without any significant inflections or flaws.

“Five foot five inches. Caucasian, freckled. Dark red hair, shoulder length. Grey eyes, wide set, hooded eyelids. Size twelve. You can see all these points from her account picture, plus some additional information listed on her voting profile.”

The attendant tapped the tablet he was holding and an image was projected onto a large screen both behind the operating table and in front where it was displayed on the glass in front of the viewers. Valerie Smythe surveyed them joyfully from out of her profile picture: her prominent teeth, her pink lipstick carelessly applied, the wind in her hair, the park backdrop with blazing greenery in the sunlight, the freckles on her nose.

Plowers nodded, he was staring intently at something inside the heart. “There she is,” he said, and turned to the viewing gallery. He let Dr Rawl shuffle into his place. Rawl took command of the heart with one hand as he adjusted the laser with the other in an almost offhand, effortless manner as Dr Plowers addressed the crowd through a small collar microphone.

“As you can see, here we have evidence of this patient’s love affair with this woman, Valerie Smythe.”

As he said her name, the woman’s image vanished and was replaced by a close up of the heart. There inside was a tiny shape which exactly matched the description of the woman, only in a different outfit, a distinctive vivid blue cocktail dress. She was waving her arms, pacing up and down and shouting, but no sound could be heard. She kept pointing to herself and then pointing outwards. There were many craning necks in the audience, the scratching of pens on paper, fingers jabbing at screens, notes being made and compared.

“As you can see,” Dr Plowers intoned, “using the Victor Phase-Light enables us to create memories from out of the past, holograms of emotions, not just artist reconstructions but images fashioned from genetic imprints left by human experience. Notice the snazzy outfit? She’s most likely dressed just as the patient chose to remember her best.” From over his shoulder, Rawl heard one of the attendants begin to hum, The Way You Look Tonight. A ripple of recognition shuddered through the nurses, mouths smirked behind masks. An old joke. Plower drawled on.

“Now as you can see, this man is dead, but Valerie is very much alive, both in the real world (according to her current voting status) and also in this man’s organs.” Here, Plower leered at Rawl who happened to be in his line of sight, Plower was ready for the big reveal.

“Of course, we use the heart as the example, because it is the organ most often associated with love,” he raised a hand to silence the murmurs, “yes I hear you, we could just as easily have opened up this man’s testicles, it makes no difference, you see any part of the body might retain these vestiges, see here:”

A trolley was wheeled into the centre of the room, on it was a foot. Even though he had seen this trick many times, Dr Rawl now found himself recoiling a little from the severed body part, from its disembodied coldness, its redundant flesh.

He did not watch as Dr Plowers began to dissect the foot under a new set of lights, revealing more vestiges within, and continuing with his spiel about how attached humans had become to the human body’s constituent parts as separate entities with separate imagined personalities when in truth, every part was ultimately composed of the same mixture of particles on a fundamental level. “Its all the same, everywhere you look,” he was saying, pointing to the Valerie, still storming up and down under the lights, still voiceless and irritated.

Dr Rawl was watching her also, but within the heart. In there too he saw the little tabby cat, licking its paws, beside it a ball of twine. He saw strange shapes flicker in and out of the light, people who had almost made an impression, but were not important enough to leave an indelible mark in the man’s heart. Heart Rawl sighed quietly under his mask. Heart, foot, testicle. Dr Plowers was debunking it all now, reducing the symbolism down to nothing, to atoms. Inside the heart Valerie had stopped shouting and was looking intently at Rawl. Is she looking at me? He felt a sudden shiver rush over his skin, he wondered what it would be like to have a little irate Valerie, pacing indefinitely throughout his own organs, forever catatonic. But in a moment the figure was moving again, storming off into another part of the heart. Rawl straightened up, sweating uncomfortably in the restrictive protective clothing which blocked out the radiation from the Victor light but not the heat. He felt unusually tired.

“My, look at the little woman go!” Dr Plowers was saying, cranking up the ringmaster patter for the final delivery. “You’re lucky to be able to see this folks because usually our vestiges aren’t so active. Guess Valerie must be a real cracker, and hey, good news, she’s single now!”

The audience laughed from behind the glass. The presentation was brought to a close and the trolleys were wheeled away. Dr Rawl stood for the ovation and the applause, realising that the demonstration had all passed him by in a blur.

Back in the executive locker suite, Plower addressed Rawl as he was pulling on his clothes after the precautionary decontamination shower.

“So how’s Pamela?” he asked in a light-hearted voice, with a winched up smile he perhaps intended as an indication that he cared about the answer.

“We broke up six months ago,” Rawl answered, tying his laces.

“Joel, I had no idea, and after all those years too-” the smile fell down like a stage curtain, but was not replaced with anything.

“That’s how it goes.”

“You got back out there yet?” it had only taken a minute for the jovial tone to be resumed.

“Yes actually, I’ve been on a few dates.”

“That’s my boy, you go tiger.” Dr Plower left the room. Joel Rawl watched him waddle away, pawing at his thinning grey hair, off to meet his acolytes.

Outside the skies emptied a waterfall onto the streets as Rawl ran to the car park. He hefted a duffle bag onto the back seat of his brand new car and slipped into the driver’s seat. The car smelled like plastic. The wheel felt smooth, the dashboard shone. He wanted to admire it for a moment, to admire the way he had picked up his life, how he had transitioned from aching, wrenching futility into a blank emotional canvas everyday with seemingly little effort. Inside he started the ignition. He thought about Valerie Smyth, and the realisation that it didn’t matter how well he recovered from heartbreak, because one day, some glib Dr Plower was going to pull open his chest, take out his heart, or his foot or his testicles and reveal inside them, all the people he had ever loved and could never be free off, even though they were gone.