#38 The Ravine of Umrian

 

lydia-torrey-563677-unsplash

The Faurians clustered around me in the near total darkness, their damp fur bristling with voices. I was their translator. They spoke only in movement, having no mouths to vocalise sound. Each ripple was an intricate message which the other Faurians would interpret and pass on with their own shivering undulations. They operated only in unison, one after the other. The silent music of their speech was so linguistically exquisite that I lamented my own limitations in having to rely on a machine to understand their song.

The Faurians had been at war with the Umgorians for decades, they told me. Venturing out of their dark caverns had cost the tribe hundreds of warriors, and a great many had perished in the Ravine of Umrian. They had longed to regain a foothold in the bright, icy world beyond, but, cave-dwellers, their eyes were ill-equipped in the light. Adjustment would take time, they knew, but now the quest was becoming a matter of necessity. Their resources were dwindling. They had enlisted my help via the company, as an intermediary in the war. For the Faurians, who all spoke with one movement, one voice, the mocking, contrary motions of the Umgorians who would not come out of the ravine to join with them were tantamount to sacrilege. They could bear no more deaths, however.

I stood at the lip of the Ravine of Umrian now, the brave few Faurians who had ventured out to lead me here, hung back. They bristled nervously in the biting wind and hid from the light. Scattered about at the ravine’s base at intervals lay protruding the bones of Faurian warriors, a bed for newer carcasses broken by the fall. Scavengers did not pick all bodies clean, but left some frozen, hideously preserved by frost. But in spite of their numbers, piled awkwardly in clumps, they could not obscure the true marvel at the base of the Ravine. The bodies appeared like stick men on the surface of what was the most perfect ice sheet I had ever seen. It was utterly vast and stretched for miles, clear and sparkling. I saw myself faintly reflected in it; my snowsuit a small, beige blob on that mirror of ice.

In that moment I wondered how the machine would fair in translating the message now forming in my mind. For, when I raised a hand, reflected in the ice sheet the mirror version of myself did so too. I saw there what the Faurians could only glimpse in the hazy agony of their fading vision – my own Umgorian.

Photo by Lydia Torrey on Unsplash

Advertisements

37# The True Ancestors

Moon Heart header

 

I wrote this piece for an event called ‘Honouring Your Ancestors’ hosted by the Portsmouth T’articulation group during this year’s Darkfest.

The story has a science fiction feel, to coincide with the launch of my latest 5 track EP, Moon Heart, which is available now from Spotify, Apple, Amazon, & Google. It’s also available to purchase on Bandcamp, along with many of my previous releases.

Hope you enjoy the story!

*********************

Manoeuvring thrusters should have fired on the final descent, but instead, a high-pitched whine like a dying breath signalled the final demise of the craft. Hurtling through a forest of tall evergreens its hull was ditched into the regolith, and breached instantly. All that remained to break the stillness were gently falling motes of debris, and a rhythmic clicking as the metal of the hull began to cool and to crack.  Moonlight glanced off the ship’s flanks. The light was a shimmering wave cast by twin satellites, who in turn, diffused the light from a nearby red giant.

Cobex woke with a shudder. The first thing he noticed was a humming sound, somewhere on the edge of hearing. His ribs ached, but he appeared to have escaped any serious damage. He looked across at his First Officer. Borand was still inert, his hands limp at his sides, his mouth slightly open, and a bleeding wound on his head. He tried to rouse the man gently, but the Borand just groaned and wouldn’t open his eyes. Cobex became acutely aware of a presence watching at his back.

“The man is wounded,” her voice was melodic and low.

“I can assist you. I am Kora”

Cobex scanned her face, finding concern in wide, opalescent eyes. Her face was tinged the colour of lilac, and she offered up two hands towards him in some sort of cultural gesture which seemed to suggest openness. Kora beckoned out into the landscape beyond the hatch. She must have snuck in quietly while he was dealing with Borand.

“Come,” she said.

“But what about him?”

Kora was placid. “We will fetch him some medicine to revive him.” She said.

Out in the moonlight everything was cool and still. Only the rustle of the leaves of the forest far away to their left broke the tranquillity. Even when Kora spoke, her voice seemed in concert with the world around her, it merged with the rhythm of the hum which resonated across the landscape, and it was as if she was an integral part of it. For she did have a beautiful voice, Cobex realised. Her hair was straight and thick and fell all the way down to her waist, ebony black. They passed across the rocky plain in the pale blue light, and Cobex felt as if they might have been walking on the surface of a vast ocean.

“The compound is just where those rocks are, do you see?” she pointed. “What is your designator?”

Cobex looked blankly back at her.

“Your designator. How should we address you?”

“Zed Cobex. Captain of the Bison.”

“Your ship.”

“Yes. It was.”

Kora nodded, “you will be safe here” she said, and Cobex felt a surge of contentment he couldn’t rationalise. But space was vast; the ship had been a lonely place.

They reached a small cave entrance.

“Come,” Kora motioned him inside. “This is the home of the true ancestors.”

They made their way through stone corridors to a vast chamber lit by long lanterns which gave off a gentle aquamarine glow like luminescent sea creatures. In the centre sat a massive plinth, adorned with dancing figures. Kora’s voice rose in adoration.

“They love us with an endless love. Blessed are the true ancestors! Blessed are those who perpetuate love.”

Another, older, masculine voice joined her.

“And we perpetuate love. Blessed are the true ancestors!”

The old man who had spoken appeared from behind the stone, and came towards them. He wore the same shimmering gown as Kora did, but his egg-like bald head was painted a vibrant shade of blue, and his eyelids were smeared with green and gold.

“Welcome.” He said, and he stretched out his arms in the gesture Cobex recognised from the figures on the monolith.

Kora and the man spoke in a gentle, rolling language, then the man departed.

“Bayo has gone to fetch our medical devices,” she said.

Cobex nodded, relieved. He looked again at the monolith.

“The ancestors, they are your gods?” he asked.

Kora smiled as if his question were quaint. “Yes,” she replied. “In a way. They are our progenitors.”

“Why do you call them the ‘true ancestors’?”

Kora paused for a moment, her eyebrows furrowed.

“Because everything that is beautiful is haunted by darkness.” She said, then after a moment, she added.

“But those ones are now hidden. They will not be revived.” The thought seemed to comfort her.

Joined once again by the old man, now hefting his medical kit, they crossed the great moonlit terrain and it was as peaceful as ever. The rhythmic humming continued. Kora walked beside him silently, smiling obliquely in his direction from time to time. But when they reached the ship, Borand was gone.

His eyes stinging and still slightly blurred, Officer Borand lunged along, unknowingly tracing a path in the opposite direction to where Cobex and Kora had initially set off, and were now returning. His left arm dislocated at the shoulder, his head wound bleeding into his eyes, Borand stumbled like a drunkered, hopelessly concussed. The buzzing noise he had heard since waking was driving him insane and becoming steadily louder, and more insistent. All he knew, was that he had to shut it off. It made his head feel as if it was splitting in two.  Up ahead he saw a strange rocky outcropping. On closer inspection he saw that it was honeycombed with caverns. The caverns were lit by small lanterns which gave off an eerie red glow. Borand groped his way along the stone corridor in painful steps. There was a brighter glow up ahead. It was deep red like the lanterns, but felt hot and pulsing. The noise grew louder with each step Boreand took; the sound rattle his bones, but after a while, he noticed that the pain had become almost mesmeric. He was mumbling to himself a mantra he had no memory of. Just something that ran around, and around in his head:

“We hate them with an endless hatred. The false ancestors.”

Borand could feel something shifting within him. It was as if an urge was living inside his skin, and was pulling him forward. The red cloud. Suddenly it came back into his mind. The cochineal fog he had seen at the door of the ship when he had woken up and realised that Cobex gone. He reached the heart of the caverns, bathed in red light. There, almost as if he had expected it, sat a giant monolith, a finger pointed at the cavern ceiling which seemed to stretch up to the heavens.

It contained frescos at its base and sumit, of figures, dancing, or perhaps, on closer inspection, they were burning.

“Here,” a voice seemed to say from within him, compelling him forward, beyond the stone, into an antechamber.

The source of the humming came from a metal box, incongruous amongst the stone idolatry.

“There,” the voice insisted, guiding his hands over the metal like a lover’s over skin.

“And there,” the voice said, defiant.

Borand felt exhaltation sweep through him as he pressed first one switch, and then another. The old humming ceased, and a new thrum began, slightly lower in tone. The room became suffused with searing heat and a figure began to materialise before his eyes, a carmine haze taking on shape. She was the last thing Borand saw before he collapsed. A beautiful burning woman, tall and triumphant.

In the ship, Cobex stared at the empty seat, and the trail of blood which led out through the craft door. Kora, and the old man shot each other horrified glances. They began to speak urgently in their language, and Cobex, tired of waiting, stormed outside to search for footprints in the dust. Kora followed him.

“We have to find your friend immediately.” She said, a tremor in her voice.

“Maybe he met one of your people,” he said.

“No,” Kora replied, “no they would have taken him to the compound, we would have seen them.” Her rose in panic, “his steps are going the wrong way!” she cried, and as she did so, Cobex reached out to touch her.

He tried to say, “Everything is going to be okay,” but in that moment, the humming ceased.

Kora, who had been so real and so beautiful the instant before, became suddenly translucent. Her arms reaching out for him, terror stricken, before she vanished entirely. Rushing to the ship, Cobex saw that the old man was gone too.  He stumbled back outside into a wall of heat, and was on the brink of crying out, when he saw, up ahead a woman approaching. Her skin glowed like fire, and a strange smile snaked across her lips.

“Blessed are the true ancestors,” she said, and the essence of her swept through his body like a flame.

 

#36 She Dreams the Souls of Books (for Jo West).

I wrote story for a dear friend, and beloved bookseller, Jo West. I’d like to thank Jo and her team for all their hard work in making the Blackwell’s University bookshop such a wonderful place for the University and wider community alike, and for doing so much to support local writers and creatives. The shop will be very much missed. Best of luck in future endeavours to Jo and the team. Eilís x

Photo by @eilisphillips : Christmas at Blackwell’s Portsmouth 2017. 

Blackwell's Christmas

The lights go out and there is a profound silence.

Display tables with neatly stacked books lurk as bulky shadows in the corners of her vision. Stray fingers of moonlight trespass across the carpet and she stays a minute, just to watch. This is only her second week. This place feels new, and different. She has been used to the quiet seeping in when the bright lights are switched off at the end of a long day. The tranquillity usually ignored because she must gather her things, make sure that she has not forgotten anything, and remember to set the alarm. She’d be out into the night before realising that a dull quiet had settled on the shelves, upon the books. That bookshop was huge. It had an entire wall of gadgets specifically designed for people who go into bookshops to buy gifts for family members once or twice a year in a rush, usually the family members who are otherwise impossible to buy for. That shop had a Children’s section that was like a creche, with rainbow painted shelves, and its own collection of battered stuffed toys. It had a roster of staff like a football team, complete with reserves who no one ever saw, expect at the Christmas party.

This bookshop is different. It’s old. It has a gentle, lingering smell, it breathes. She hasn’t gathered her things or made her way to the door yet. She doesn’t know why she has stopped, but there is something in the quiet that is nagging at her. She almost expects to see a whole shelf come tumbling down the minute her back is turned. But that’s silly, she says. Still, it’s almost as if the room is waiting. She listens. It’s as if there is a low-lying hum just below hearing, an electric current charging the air. She tuts, and gathers her bag, blaming the season, and that book of old ghost stories she leafed through over lunch. She checks she hasn’t forgotten anything, and heads across the moonlit carpet towards the backdoor. She feels it. The breeze over her shoulder, like a sigh.

Out in the cold winter night, she closes the door behind her, and listens, waiting for the alarm to beep into silence. This done she can go home with another day’s work behind her. Walking away down the street, the rhythmic click of her boot heels on the pavement is the only sound audible. More than once she turns her head to look back but the shop windows are swathed in darkness.

That night she dreams the souls of books. Flitting in and out of their pages, these are their stories, whispering to one another. Their shapes are various, but smokey, illuminated and shot through with moonlight. The gossamer winged souls of literary classics mingle with bohemian shades in the section on Modern Philosophy. Tortured, wraithlike wisps emanate from the shelf marked ‘Horror’ watched sadly from afar by the War Poetry. The Humanities textbook’s pages are riffled through by the souls of Mathematics tomes, who wear the faces of little old men, and frown deeply. But this is just a dream, she tries to tell herself, tossing and turning, half awake, half dreaming. Did I set the alarm? She wakes herself up quickly, panicked, then remembers, and falls back upon the pillow.

As she drifts back into sleep, she returns to the bookshop, where it has become somehow colder, and darker. Globe-shaped lights emerge from corners like will o the wisps. The souls of books have become goblin-limbed and creeping. They dance in a ring around the display showcasing ‘Local Interest’ and in sing-song mocking voices, they single out the books that are to be bought the next day, because they know, you see.

The door rattles. Someone wants in. She sees the figure at the glass and rushes to open it. But she is dreaming, and can only watch, as the door creaks open by itself. The shop has a new occupant. An old man, his face half hidden by a flat cap, a scarf pulled up towards his chin, shuffles in. His clothes are of thick cloth, in mustards, and browns. They remind her of items she has seen in charity shops, clothes her grandfather would have worn. The goblins scatter at the customer’s heavy footfalls, and as they run, they place a finger to their tiny lips and whisper SHHHHHhhhhhh! to the darkness.

The old man examines the shelves. He needs no light, knowing them just as well in the dark. He has been coming here for over 80 years, and as he shuffles slowly through the shop he inspects the books carefully before returning them to their stands. She has the feeling that he is studying them, one by one, intensely, as if committing them to memory. He picks up one book, and holds it, smiling deeply. He knows this one already, quite well. She watches him, and wonders what his story is, but by now dawn is breaking over the brow of the hill. Shops all along the main street are lit by a glow like the embers of a waking fire. The old man sighs. He turns, and nods to no one, and vanishes in the shadows of the dawn.

The next morning, she arrives to find leaves of frost have crept up across the panes of the windows of the old bookshop. The door handle feels like an icicle under her hand and she has to blow upon her fingers to bring the warmth back. Inside, she sees the pristine rows of books as she left them the night before, sleeping in their covers, awaiting their owners. Though she checks, feeling foolish, they are no wraiths haunting the shelves, no tiny, sooty, footprints around the ‘Local Interest’ display. Only one object is out of place. A book has fallen to the floor by the counter. The sunlight catches its cover, glinting. It is a history of the town. She bends to pick it up, and flicks gently through the pages. A photograph catches her eye, making her rest her thumb upon the spine to hold the book in place, at the picture of the old man. As she holds the book in her hand, looking down into the face of the shop’s founder, a shiver makes its way across her spine, and yet now she smiles, deeply.

 

35# November (For Portsmouth Bookfest)

I wrote this story for Premature Articulation, a Portsmouth Bookfest spoken word event in February 2018. Photo courtesy of longwallpapers.com 

astronaut-wallpaper-background-For-Desktop-Wallpaper

A man in an astronaut suit sat quietly in the corner of my yard with rain pouring down his face, his helmet on the wet ground beside him like a skid-marked egg.

It was November.

“The stress of re-entry can be hard on these older model suits,” he said, taking off first one puffy glove, and then the other.

I could barely think. I remember seeing myself reflected in the visor of his scuffed egg helmet, my silhouette stretched out of all proportion.

“I’m sorry for the inconvenience this may have caused you.” He said.

I asked him how on earth he had come to be there, and he replied,

“I’m waiting for a signal. They’re usually quite efficient about recovery on these miscalculated drops but I’ll be honest, it could take days.” He sounded like an electrician giving an estimate.

“It’s alright,” I said, shaking.

He had a long nose which the rain trickled down; his lips forming a vulnerable bow. He was like a man waiting for a train; easy to trust because he made no sudden movements. Suddenly I found I was offering him a sandwich.

He stayed for nine days, and he refused to be entreated indoors, casually remarking that his suit handled all ‘biological imperatives’. I brought him sandwiches and cups of Ovaltine, which he seemed to enjoy particularly. We began to talk a lot. He would not be drawn on any details of his life and so instead we covered the minutiae of mine, and of grander things, like whether God existed, or the relative nature of the concept of time. He was happy with physics, and metaphysics, but when I tried to turn the conversation back his way, he would only sigh, and say, “I wish I could tell you, I truly do.”

At night, I found it increasingly hard to sleep. My bed was next to the wall which was the boundary between the house and the yard. I swore that as I lay with my head near to the wall, I could feel him breathing through the brick, feel his breath falling softly on my cheek. A steady rhythm, a heartbeat.

It amazes me how quickly I told him everything of importance.

The question, “Do you live alone?” solicited effortless from me, utter honesty.

“I have a partner. We’ve been together a long time. He wants to move in, I keep him at arm’s length. I just can’t see myself, in him. I can’t see him within me.”

He nodded, as if the data were interesting, but not useful. He was not collecting anything. I trusted him.

When my partner came around, the astronaut stayed in my backyard, hidden under a stretch of black tarpaulin some builders had left behind long ago.

I apologised for the arrangement but he simply replied:

“I’ll be fine here. It won’t affect my monitoring of the transmissions.”

I threw the tarpaulin over him and just before they were lost under the sheet, my eyes met his. It was something like an electric shock.

My partner didn’t notice a thing, except he had a habit of throwing his boots at the back door when he pulled them off – something I had previously tolerated. I squirmed.

“Not the backdoor,” I thought.

“and what?”  he said.

That night, he and I became intimate, but when it reached the bedroom I faltered. I was too close to the wall. He realised what time it was and fell asleep. I stayed half undressed and pressed my damp eyes to the wallpaper.

The next day I found the astronaut, monitoring.

“Hello,” he said as if nothing had happened.

“Will you talk to me a while?” I asked him.

When I finally went back to my laptop, my hands shook. When bedtime came, I found myself bringing him the Ovaltine, and as he took it from me he said,

“Are you really happy here, with things the way that they are?”

I bit my lip, and it bled a little. His eyes wandered to the place.

After that he came inside.

His skin felt like static; it was so soft and clean. Our movements were soundless, in sync. I grasped hold of him so tightly, to make sure he was real. He tasted like malted milk, and I felt the rhythm of his breath on my cheek as surely as I had felt it through the wall.

As the sun came up I said,

” I don’t know what to call you.”

“November is fine.” He replied.

Later, we drank Ovaltine, and I went out to clear my head. My skin tingled with static.

My partner rang, and after I hung up the phone, I wondered at how such a mundane conversation was now so impossibly laden with horror. All the way home it haunted me.

At home, the man, November, was back in his corner, reading one of my books.

“Marquez,” he said, his mouth turned down in a kind of appreciative expression. He pointed to the reviews on the back cover, “one of the greats.” he said.

“I love that book.” I replied.

“Do you mind me – ”

“Keep it,” I said. “Keep it forever.”

I strode back into the house. I suddenly wished away my words, and that I had said he might only borrow the book. As I was making the Ovaltine I felt a surge climb up my back, I felt my skin itch, like a subtle charge.

I rushed out to the yard with an ache of regret,

but it was empty,

and he was gone.

#34 The Lighthouse Men

Image courtesy of prozac1 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

ID-100230971

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

 

id-10056150

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?

****************

Image by Witthaya Phonsawat, courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

 

 

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

Image courtesy of bugtiger at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

id-100408285

 

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.