Strickland’s Glen

Photo @ Raina Flynn Naidoo / Eilís Phillips – Strickland’s Glen, Bangor, N.I.

The waves crashed up upon the rocks in a rushing swell. The sea was an open wound bleeding foam, the sky a kind of gunmetal. I was blown along the coastal way by gusts, questioning my choices. Hands soggy, my hat in my eyes, I kept walking along the path and tried to greet the very few dog walkers I met along the way, whose pups galloped, their coats shining with rhinestone beads, the drops of water they had collected from the journey.

“She’s wile fresh!” Jim called to me as we passed. His dog, Buster, an old chocolate Labrador, squinted up at me and shivered. Dewdrops cascaded away in all directions, discarded gems.

“Where are ye for on a day like that?” He asked me as I petted the dog.

“The Glen for a bit,” I said, “Just to get out.”

“Some day for it! Hah, we need our heads examined!” We both laughed.

“I’ll see you round – take care now!” I watched them trot away round the corner, that bend where you can suddenly see the whole bay as the cliffs fall away beneath, and the golf course rears into view.

The bay was choppy and split open by dark rocks. A few gulls coasted along on the rough waters but most were dark shapes wheeling overhead. I walked out to the crags. I stood a long time, my coat pulled as tight round me as it would go. The path was empty; there were no more walkers in sight. All the better, I thought. It was about 3.30pm and the sun was sinking. I stood at the water’s edge and brought out the parcel, wrapped in silver tissue paper. It was heavy and cold. I ran a finger over the mother-of-pearl and thought about opening the clasp, but I knew my instructions. A sigh escaped my body as I held the thing in my hands and gazed out at the waves. Now was the time though. I pushed my arm up high. I hurled the box into the bay as hard as I could. It was caught with two pale hands. It was accepted by the water. A shudder cascaded over my shoulders and I turned swiftly.

Behind me lay the old Glen. I was facing it now, the road empty still. The little river marked the entrance and wound its way through the mass of tangled branches and a thick carpet of mulchy leaves and twigs. Shapes rustled in its folds. The wind caressed it. I walked towards the entrance and became aware, as I did every time, of the voices. I saw them only as patterns, not sounds. They were the sounds the trees made without speaking. They were not the sounds of the wind, or the birds or foraging animals, not the sound of the river burbling, or gulls overhead. Not the crashing of the waves or the barking of dogs or the tread of my feet, or even of my own breath. They had a pattern completely unlike any other I had seen in my mind’s eye. The first time I noticed it was as I had been leaving the Glen. I think I became aware of it because suddenly all the other sounds fell still. I could see no other vivid patterns, or shapes. Only this, a signal, repeated over and over again with variations. To see it written it might look like Hebrew or cuneiform. If I stood very still, and listened closely, I would start to see the pattern emerge. It moved across my field of vision like morse code. It was boxy; formed from an alphabet of white squares with black dots and dashes. Some boxes were broken, some underlined. It was continuous, but never uniform.

Once inside the Glen I followed the voices up through the winding path which twisted and turns as the river does. At the place where the branches completely overhang the path I stopped. I saw the small waterfall churning to my left, and the little bench up ahead. I waited. Presently a shape appeared. It flickered in and out of vision, not like a neon light, or a bathroom bulb, more like fireflies through smoke. A man with wide eyes and skin covered in cloth like bark became manifest, obscured in a kind of haze. He had long hair the colour of hazelnuts and his forehead came to sharp points at the temples. I came towards the bench and sat close to him.

“I found that box under the bench in Jenny Watts,” I said to him. He only nodded and smiled.

“Why are they compelled to return these lost things? How do you make them do it?” I asked him.

“I am an arbiter of balance” he said to me, still smiling. He looked slightly sidewise at me, with eyes like the ivy, emerald, shot through with silver. “Only certain boons can be called back, the things that are made with a set of hands: gifts stolen from broken love affairs, human things. They must come back.” His voice was a song. He turned to face the woods again.

“Why does the sea take them?”

He put a long thin hand up to his face then, as if stroking an imaginary beard. He was mocking me, but kindly. He had been my liaison for several months now and we had grown strangely fond of one another. We had established a confidence, a rhythm of speaking and listening and knowing one another.

“And so, the sea. I would love to see it again. I was once of it.”

With each meeting it seemed I gained a new piece of his story, as valuable to me as the other gift I had received each time we met.

“What happened to make you as you are, not of the sea then?”

He looked at me and became forlorn, a playfulness melted into pathos in his forest eyes.

“The winds changed…you’re part human, I’m sure you can understand that feeling, that experience, of change. It happens with us, with nature, but there is a ritual to it. An inevitability. Cycles within cycles of change, and continuity.”

“Human change is inevitable and diverse too, just like that.” I said.

“So it is,” he said smiling and nodding as if caught out, “so it is.”

I shivered with the cold and shuffled nearer to him. His bark gave off a heat, a kind of glow, a fire without burning. His voice changed as he sniffed the air, he was paying close attention to it, he gave me my instructions.

“An old guitar. Mahogany, Maple, beautiful woods, hand crafted. Left in the bus station, in the female toilets. You’ll find it in the last stall if you wait until the last train arrives from Portadown 6 days from now.”

“Alright,” I said. And I wrote the information down in my little book, the pages bound open and shut with a length of twine and a thick leaf.

“But I can’t give that to the water.” I said. “That doesn’t seem right”.

He smiled, still looking out at the Glen.

“Bring it here. To me. The sea can’t have everything you know. Sometimes, we are rewarded too. Things of wood must come home. Heavy things of metal, the sea takes. Like your modern ships.”

“The sea has always taken ships,” I said, thinking of my grandfather then, and he seemed to feel my mood shift suddenly because he placed a bark-like hand on my knee gently, and said to me the closing words of our own ritual.

“You are the one who loves the sea and woods together, who sees the trees speak. Are you ready to receive your reward?”

I nodded and smiled. We faced the woods. He spoke something in his own language which came out only as patterns which floated away into the air. In those moments I always felt a kinship with him that I could not find elsewhere, among humans. I watched the patterns. I felt that longing that struck me everytime I came to the woods to see them speak, that desire to be there always, to become a part of something finally, and not be a separate thing alone.

I can’t recount what the trees said. Their speech is not narrative. It can only be felt. It is an intuition. It is a gift I can feel upon my skin which crackles when the wind changes. Sometimes I have come to know things no one else knows, because the trees have told me. Their patterns follow me everywhere I walk in the forest of my life, down to where the sea breaks itself upon the land, and heals again with each great thrust.

A heavy dusk had descended on the Glen, as he reached forward to grasp my hand; his was as light and firm as a thundercloud. I saw the woods at once light up as if the Glen had been draped in a diaphanous sheet of starlight.

And the trees sang.

#33 Now That They Are Gone

 

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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?

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Image by Witthaya Phonsawat, courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

 

 

31# The Tree Father

Photo © Carsten Erler | Dreamstime Stock Photos

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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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26# Ghost Train

Image by ponsulak, Freedigitalphotos.net 

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By the light of our lanterns we gazed at the train, Mandy, Amelia, Roberta and me.

Part of the driver’s cab and a lone carriage was all that was left, hanging out of the bushes in bits and pieces as if it had made a break for it. There were no tracks in sight, just a trail of debris around the carriage that disappeared off into the darkness behind the trees.

It began to rain. We huddled a little more closely together and Mandy and Amelia began whispering to one another so Roberta turned to me.

“There was nothing here before,” she said. “The trains haven’t run here for like, years.”

“How do you know?”

Roberta shrugged. “My brother Cam did a project on it, all about how the trains stopped coming here, and how they closed the tracks and got rid of the old railway bridge.”

“Why?” I asked, as we followed the others towards the carriage in the lashing rain.

“Oh,” Roberta’s face took on a sort of knowing look, her mouth forming a dramatic oval.

“Well, people kept throwing themselves off the bridge,” her voice dropped to a whisper, “I think they hung themselves.”

I shuddered and she nodded with that same knowing look in her eyes.

“And they had to shut down the train tracks because of the accident.”

“What accident?”

“Oh a big crash or something, no one talks about it anymore but lots of people died. It was a really long time ago though.” Roberta said, growing disinterested in the conversation as we approached the train.

It was in a real mess, all broken bits of wood and twisted metal just lying there with the rain bouncing off it. It gave me the creeps but I stood there with the others, just staring at it until my arm got tired holding the lantern.

“Let’s go home.”

Amelia shot me a look. “Are you kidding? This is cool. We’re not going yet, I want to look inside.”

Shivers passed over me as the storm beat heavier on our backs, but I didn’t say anything because Amelia was the boss. We all moved forward, swinging the meager light from our cheap, battery-powered Halloween lanterns at the wreck.

“It must be really old,” said Mandy, uncertain. “It looks like an old steam train, like it’s been here forever but I don’t remember it.”

“That’s because it wasn’t here.” Roberta repeated, hanging back a little, but Amelia shot her a look like murder, and so she trod forward.

“Somebody must have cleared the trees around here, it must have been hidden before that’s all. Don’t be such a baby.”

We got up to the cab and Amelia said for us all to hold our lanterns up so she could see inside. Mandy’s lantern went out with a POP; the vampire face with the plastic fangs suddenly vanishing from view.

“There’s nothing in there anyway,” Amelia said, banging the side of the cab. We all followed her in silence as she moved further back towards the carriage section.

“Gimme that,” Mandy said, snatching at my pumpkin lantern.

“Get lost!” I snatched it back, but it made me stumble and feel stupid. Mandy was older than me, so was Amelia. I didn’t want to go along with it but I was afraid to look like a coward.

“Give her the lantern and stop being such a child.” Amelia said, but again I shook my head, I was tired and cold, and just then I thought about my parents and how late it was.

“I’m going.” I said, and practically ran off because I didn’t want to hear them making fun of me, and I didn’t want them to try and make me stay.

“Pathetic!” I heard Mandy shout after me. I turned after I’d crossed the street and saw Roberta standing a little way behind the other two, looking back at me. I felt bad then for leaving her, because she wasn’t as bad as the others. From where I was standing at the crossroads I could now see Roberta join Amelia and Mandy, her skeleton lantern bobbing along until it joined Amelia’s werewolf. They were trying to get into the carriage, I could hear their voices but not what they were saying.

I was about to give up and head home then when I heard a noise. It was like a door creaking in the wind, and there was a rattling sound too, it was so strange that it made me stop where I was. A light appeared in the wreck, it lit up Amelia’s face and showed her shock. She raised her hand up to cover her eyes as Roberta grabbed for Mandy and pulled her away from the carriage. I heard steam hiss and a whistle blow and suddenly the carriage was moving; the cab reared up in front like a dancing cobra, pulling the carriage back underneath it. Fallen, rusted metal rods leaped up from their place on the grass and reached out like grasping fingers, sweeping the girls off their feet with a roaring whooosh as their bodies disappeared into the darkness inside of the carriage. Their screams lasted only a second before cutting off dead.

I was frozen to the spot, watching speechless as the light within the train-thing flickered on and off in the lashing rain. It stood up tall, big metal arms hanging limp at its sides now somehow attached to the body of the train-thing.

It watched me for a while, and I suppose it was thinking. I couldn’t do anything I was so afraid. In the corner of my eye I could see Roberta’s skeleton lantern fizzle out and die by the roadside. That changed things. It made me want to move as fast as I could to get away from there, and I’ve never run so hard in my life. I ran so hard that I tripped and fell, skidding on the wet concrete and cutting my jeans open. I cried out in pain and looked back because I was convinced the train-thing was closing in on me.

But it was gone. I was all alone in the street.

 

24# The Exhibit

DFQMND

This short story is my entry into @ruanna3 ‘s latest fiction competition, The Dark Fairy Queen’s Midsummer Night’s Dream Writing Contest. I’ve chosen the theme ‘fairytales.’ Hope you enjoy, and please click on the blue ‘froggy’ link at the bottom of the story to check out other competition entries. Thanks!

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Lights flashing on outside the museum appeared to be like the echo of the lights dimming within. I remember them that night because of the exhibit, the sealed box which held all the magic the children came to see in such large numbers. It had been so long since such a place had existed in the real world.

During long summer evenings I would often stay to walk among the exhibits alone. I know that other employees found the experience “creepy.” They were afraid of the paintings with their corpse-like eyes, placid and unfathomable. I never had those thoughts because I wasn’t afraid of death as they were. Mine, and the generations before me crafted stories to cope with the passing of life, but now that transfer from biological, entropying bodies to replaceable mechanical models was possible, death had become unthinkable, so that even these paintings of the dead were horrifying to them.

As I headed straight for the Organic Exhibits room I thought about the stories my father told me when I was a child. I vaguely remember one about children being lost in a place where trees thrived, where a bad woman lived who ate children, or was that another tale? The stories had given me nightmares so my father had stopped telling them. Now I approached the museum’s new attraction with a feeling, wonder, I think it was. I heaved its lid open and gazed down.

The first thing I remember, standing over the encapsulated paradise, was the smell. Fresh and woody, the musty scent assaulted my nostrils and almost made me stumble. In that box lay synthesized the last bastion of poets and dreamers: a dell of miniature trees, their trunks entwined with ivy, their roots adorned with bluebells – a pioneering effort all created artificially, but so real they seemed to me, who had never seen a forest, or a flower. For a moment I experienced calm, until I heard a voice in the woods.

“Is someone there?”

It was like a child’s voice.

I dropped the lid back down, stepped away, but then faltered, and lifted the lid again. There were no other workers in the museum, but still I whispered to the voice:

“Stay hidden!”

Speeding homeward on the fetid monorail, I wondered what on earth had been created in that box, and what I might have to risk in order to protect it.

(400 words)

20: The Guest. Part One.

Image Simon Howden, freedigitalphotos.net

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When we arrived at the the hotel of course there was no one there.

My uncle was nowhere to be seen. The sign hung half-on, half-off the rail; swinging in the wind like a body on a gallows.

We checked the premises thoroughly. Honestly, there was no corner we did not excavate, no corridor not stalked down or bedroom not searched from top to bottom for clues as to the whereabouts of my uncle or his guests. The hotel had been in the family for centuries. Of course, it hadn’t always been open to the paying public. It had been a very grand residence that few saw the interior of when many longed to be admitted. No, it was only my uncle’s folly to try and renovate the place and make it turn a profit at last, when it had “eaten away at the family for years,” those were his words.

Now we stared at the place and wondered if we had ever really known it. Had we felt at home there? At Christmas visits there had been many roaring fires, many carols sung and wreaths hung everywhere so as we never noticed the decay, the maudlin. Now it was overwhelmingly apparent, that aching emptiness, and in the midst of that lay something else. I tried to put my finger on that sensation in particular, but always it eluded me, and slunk back out of sight. Now that I come to think about it, perhaps there had always been something about that house that wasn’t right. It was after our Grandfather died that I remembered feeling unease creep in about the place. “No more jolly winters” Julie had said at the time. I knew exactly what she meant, now.

I don’t know why Julie insisted on eating all our meals in the ballroom, it was dire. Surely we would have been just as happy in the kitchen. When I say ballroom, it wasn’t as grand as all that. It was a very spacious room to be sure, with chandeliers and several tables scattered about with table cloths and flowers, and cutlery gleaming. But it was dire to me, because of that. Because of the expectation of all the guests who would never eat there.

You know I never liked my uncle. Never liked him. I thought he was a empty man. He talked a lot about the great plans he had for this and that, and he was always running from place to place, to do great things, to see great people, but he would never sit down and have lunch with you. You simply could never get hold of him. The letters he sent on special occasions were always written by his secretary. I remember vividly, now, the last correspondence I had with him because it had been a present, and in his own hand writing. It was a diary. On the front was the head of a creature, like a dog, or a lion, I’m not sure which. My uncle explained in the letter attached to it, that this was to be the new hotel’s emblem. He had had the diaries commissioned and sent around as gifts to everyone of note. This one was slightly torn I noticed, one of the corners looked somewhat chewed. A reject I suspect.

Apparently the design had been taken from an etching my uncle had discovered in one of the rooms. He described how he had been “getting the place ready” which seemed to amount to him foraging in drawers more than doing actual renovations. The image had at once caught his eye. I thought it was more off-putting than anything. It was a beast, an amalgamation, not a proud lion or a faithful hound, but a hybrid, possessing neither the good qualities of either. I still have the diary but I try not to look at it. I too, keep it locked in a drawer.

Julie, of course, being possessed of a particularly morbid curiosity, insisted on staying at the hotel in the hope that Uncle would return and explain everything. Maybe, she supposed, this was all a game for him. Maybe he was planning on surprising us, maybe it was a publicity stunt, after all it was autumn, and isn’t that the perfect time for mysteries? I wondered that she didn’t know Uncle better. Why would he go to all that trouble and only invite a handful of relatives and old friends? I had assumed he had invited us so that he could, yet again, prove to us what a blazing success he was. After all, hadn’t we voiced our concern at his plans for the old place? Still, we held off phoning the police. Just in case. In a way I’m glad now.

So some of us stayed and waited. The longer we remained, the more it suggested to me that he was never coming back, and had never meant to leave.

Our rooms had been allocated to us before hand, we found the sheet with each of our names on and the room number written beside. It was left on the reception desk weighed down with a glass of white wine. We each retrieved our keys and had gone to inspect the rooms. Ours was beautifully furnished, but had no soap, no towels. There was no note, no fresh cut flowers. No outward signs of ostentation. The other rooms were the same. The first two nights we stayed I slept alright. Julie slept in the other bed and tossed and turned constantly. She had been having nightmares she said, about our uncle, and about some other people she had never met. I didn’t think twice about it until the third night when I was awoken out of a fitful dream by a strange sound. The dream had been so hazy that upon waking I only had vague suggestions of it. My uncle had been in it, a women, and several men. They were all walking away from the hotel and off into the grounds. But the whole image was obscured by a kind of fog. As I said, I woke up with a start anyway, and so most of the dream was lost to me, but that part I remember.

What I am not sure of, is what exactly caused me to wake. I know it was a sound, I had the sensation of it still ringing in my ears but it was nothing I could place. I had the idea that it might have been an fox, you know how unnatural their cries can sound, but it was lower than that. It was almost like a fog horn, a strange bellowing. But we were so far now from the sea.

That night I got up and I went to my grandfather’s old study. It was the oddest thing to do, I know. But I felt such a strong compulsion to go there again, to see it, when I had not been in that room in years. I knew that Uncle had left it mostly untouched, he had said so himself in his letter; that he couldn’t bear to disturb the sanctity of the place when his father had spent so many happy hours there. I found the door unlocked, moonlight came streaming in the windows illuminating the old desk, my grandfather’s chair, all the bursting bookcases. I went forward into the room in the half-darkness in my slippers and pyjamas. I crept forward even though I felt utterly foolish. It was as if I feared being discovered, or being observed by anyone, or anything, even though I knew that that was a ridiculous idea.

I sat down at the desk, and only then did I turn on the lamp. Someone had evidently searched the room earlier, I have a vague memory of Julie saying she would do it, certainly the drawers had been emptied and papers set here and there, neatly and methodically stacked. I sat there for a few moments not knowing what to look at, when a piece of paper caught my eye. It had been set apart, left on the ledge of one of the tall windows. I got up and fetched it. It was a letter from my grandfather to my uncle, which evidently had found its way back there. It was dated not long before my grandfather’s death. So much so that a chill tingled along my spine as I read it. It must have been one of the last things he’d ever written. Most of the letter contained a sad account of my grandfather’s ill health and arrangements to be made in the event of his death. Right at the end, he began to talk about the old house, and what should be done about it. My uncle would of course inherit, being the last surviving boy, but the next lines puzzled me. The hand was shaky but the words were still legible.

“I have, I know, told you often enough of my desire for you to keep this as your home. Your sister has informed me of your plans though, and if money is your concern then that is understandable. I only wish you would not alter the place too much, as it would pain me greatly (and your grandmother were she alive) to have the house gutted, or something awful like that, and made modern, as it were.

One thing I do wish to impress upon you, and this is vital – leave the copse as it is. You know the patch I mean. That little wood at the ground’s edge. You must promise me not to dig any of that up or disturb it in any way. Really it would be best if you had it partitioned off. Now you must agree with me on this, no matter what you think about it. I do not wish to have to repeat the story I told to you last Christmas. You can scoff at me all you want, but it may be my last request to you.”

That was the last line. The letter was signed affectionately enough, but that was it. I did not know what to make of it at all, and I tried to recall our visit to the house that last Christmas but if stories were told regarding the copse, then I knew nothing of it. My uncle and grandfather, as far as I could have told, had given no indication of any pact between them.

I took the letter with me and left the study, and as I was passing through the room I glanced out of the window and onto the long lawn I had seen in my dream. A mist was gathering somewhere at its edge, for an instance I thought I could make out a dark shape creeping through the trees, scattering the moonbeams, but I turned away. It was only the letter and the dream and my Uncle’s disappearance. I told myself that I was being fooled by it all, and went straight back to bed.

To be continued…

 

16: Heaven

Image by Stuart Miles,  courtesy of Freedigitalphotos.net

ID-100277030

The spell worked. I’m in a new place now.

Do you want to know how I feel? Ecstatic. I am every bit as brilliant as they said I was, and more. I’m not even paying attention to what’s around me because it doesn’t matter. I got here and they all said it was impossible. I want that victory to sink in before I start contemplating the rest of my life here. It’s not even as if it will be living, it will be existing, for all time. Eternity. It’s not a gimmick it’s real. He said to me once,

“Even if such a thing were possible, how could it be tolerable, bearable?”

He didn’t believe in Heaven. I should have known better than to talk to him, but he had a little slice of knowledge that I needed so I took it.

“Heaven isn’t a place, it’s– I don’t know how to talk about it really, but even if you could go there before death, even if you could, it isn’t somewhere you can just break in, don’t you see? You have to earn a place there. Wherever you thought you went it wouldn’t be Heaven.”

That’s what she said to me, I came to her because I needed all of her belief. And so I took it, every last drop.

“You’re being ridiculous. Magic isn’t real.” They said.

I came for them as well and took their will, their confidence. I needed it, because in order to get into Heaven you need to know you belong there. You need to know you’re right. You can’t carry doubt into Heaven.

“Heaven is real, and you have no place there. Heaven is for the good, for the meek, for the pious.” I knew that, and so I took one righteous soul. That’s the toll isn’t it?

Magic binds everything together like a fabric. You have to un-sow some stitches, you have to remake what’s real if you want to change anything. You need to be a garment maker, and have a tailor’s knowledge. The Universe is a weaver, so must I be.

I took what I needed and I re-made myself.

When that was done, I called on my new belief and I fastened it down where it would never stray. It became only a part of me, it had to be, because I could not relinquish all of my true self. I could only hide what I really was.

I had the ability, and the strength to make the magic work. I became the hybrid of their knowledge, their will, their belief, with their soul. I was two beings, both the cynic and the saint with one beating heart. Only for a moment. As I died I made the spell, and wished for Heaven.

Now don’t think I meant someone else’s heaven. You see, what you have just missed, is the realisation that as I have made myself new, I have conceptualised a new Heaven too. Half of me never believed, and that half is free to choose whatever heaven it wants. It was never tied to any conventions, any concepts or images. No crucifixes, no altars no lambs. The half of me that believes in Heaven now, has taken me there. Do you understand? I can have my cake and eat it, like no one else. That’s what makes this all so brilliant. I am smiling now thinking about it.

What does my Heaven look like? I wish I could show you. When I died I imagined a place of sensory delights, a place that would be changing all the time; new experiences, new colours, new wonders, just like a kaleidoscope. All I would have to do would be to blink my eyes and I’d be exposed to something fresh. That’s what got to me about Earth, and my life there. Nothing could ever satisfy me. Sooner or later even the things I enjoyed looking at bored me to tears.

Nothing was worth loving forever.

This Heaven is just what I imagined as I lay there, exploding on the carpet, every cell in my body being re-aligned. Now as I look around I can see rainbows everywhere, patterns, shapes, colours. It’s dazzling my eyes and it won’t stop moving. I’m in the midst of everything, this must be the very heart of the universe. This must be the very heart of matter, of every molecule, every particle, every space. I must be just as infinite. I am now the garment maker, I have the tailor’s knowledge.

I want to run and run and never stop. I’m running now and the colours are flying through me and they’ll never stop. Each step is a new vista, unfolding a new fractal, geometrically perfect and never ending. I see blue squares and yellow triangles, purple flowers and orange insects, red balloons and green jewels. I’m going to keep running forever–

Wait. I’ve hit something.

A wall. I’m pressing against but it won’t give. I can see a blur beyond it, more shapes, more colours, but I can’t pass through! It looks so much bigger, and brighter, and better out there but I can’t get through this barrier. I don’t understand, my Heaven shouldn’t have walls…

“Hey this is awesome! I haven’t seen one of these in years. This one has really cool patterns.”

Jim passed the kaleidoscope to Susie who shook it and then held it up to her eye.

I think there’s a speck of dirt trapped in there, stuck to the lense. Shame. Where did you say you found it Suz?”

Oh, it was on the floor of the library, in the reading room on the second floor. It was just sticking out from under one of the chairs.”

Hmm. Funny thing to leave lying around.

I know. But there it was. I used to love these as a kid.

I’m surprised they even let you in there. That’s where they found those students you know.

What do you mean?

You know, the reading room, it was all over the papers!

Susie shrugged. “That was a month ago. It’s funny but I was just thinking how I needed something to cheer me up after all this revision.”

Looks like you got exactly what you wished for then.”

Susie laughed. “I know! Isn’t it great when the universe gives you exactly what you wish for?”

 

 

 

 

 

15: The Crypt

Image from Flavorwire

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Charles Doughey died on 18th November. He left behind him a modest family but considerable wealth. After the death of his brother, Charles had taken into his care two young nieces Cassandra and Helen, and a nephew, a rather haughty man named Edward. Their mother, who was still relatively young and not without her charms, gladly accepted the offer of a generous roof over their heads and financial support, but of course there was idle gossip spread about due to her age, and her beauty. Many of the townsfolk pondered loudly over their cups as to exactly why Mr Doughey had moved the family into his home, and not relocated them comfortably elsewhere, as he was not without the means and wherewithal to do so.

The sad and somewhat early death of Doughey put paid to numerous rumours quickly, and encouraged yet more salacious accusations to spring up in their place, as though heads of the dread Hydra. The entire estate and Doughey’s fortune were of course left to his closest relatives: the Widow Doughey and her children. Far from being delighted at this change of circumstance, the young wards were devastated at the loss of their beloved uncle, and none appeared to feel this loss as keenly as the youngest, Helen. A pale girl of sixteen, Helen had never possessed the sociable nature of her brother and sister (nor her mother) and instead could often be found in her uncle’s library amongst the books, sat beside a roaring fire. She was not, however, without graces, and her smiles and gentle conversation delighted anyone who shared her company. These pleasant traits were not to be enjoyed by her loved ones for much longer however, for just as her uncle grew sick, so a sickness stole upon the girl, and made her increasingly wan and solitary.

“I do not know why she sulks as she does, the doctor says there is nothing at all the matter with her but melancholy.” Edward would complain on the many occasions when Helen would not come down to dinner, but would dine in her room alone, feigning sickness. Tucking in his napkin he would go on, voicing his distaste regarding her new choice of reading material to his mother and sister who nodded politely at intervals.

“Really those aren’t the sort of things a girl should be reading. Such dreadful periodicals no doubt encourage these bouts of melodrama, I dare say she is quite taken away with stories of spectral visitations and Counts who carry maidens off to dungeons and whatever else rotten these scoundrel writers and their low imaginations can conjure up.”

There was also much speculation at the house when Helen was discovered weak and delirious outside her bedroom several nights before the death of her uncle. She had been found by a maid servant, her small frame draped half-over the stair rod, her eyes glazed, her night dress torn, faint bloody scratches raked across her breast. At first a male servant was suspected of felonious assault. His disappearance coincided with the night in question, and he had been spotted in Helen’s company on several occasions within the house by some of the maids. However, after Helen had been revived and questioned, she was insistent that she had no memory of the man approaching her, but that a vile nightmare had awoken her, and that the scratches must have been the result of her own tormented hands.

Naturally the incident caused a minor stir and Edward was at the point of having the servants search his sister’s room for what he believed to be the cause of the nightmare – the sensational periodicals – when their uncle, Charles, took a turn for the worse, and expired.

He was buried not long after in the family crypt, and those assembled commented how fortunate it was that Doughey could afford such a resting place. Foul weather had besieged the town and turned the cold earth of the church yard into a quagmire. Fierce winds lashed at newly dug graves, desecrating funeral wreaths and battering the walls of the church was a hellish fury. It also happened that the funeral coincided with a dreadful week of unfortunate events. On the Sunday previous, a  faithful servant was revealed to have vanished without a trace, all her belongings still under her bed below stairs. Then there were continued nightmares for Helen, each one leaving her more deranged than the last, weak and delusional she would wander the house until she was discovered and brought back to bed. Finally, one of the younger maids was found dead in the kitchen garden, her throat slit from ear to ear. The rain had washed away every trace of blood (of which there must have been considerable amount) along with any possible evidence of a crime, and as the knife had been found still clutched in her hand, the doctor concluded suicide.

These tragedies were almost more than the household could bear, and resulted in many servants abandoning their posts altogether, believing the house to be cursed by the spirit of Charles Doughey, angry at a death before his time. The only member of the household who could be relied upon with any certainty was Cassandra. It was she who comforted the ladies and quietly saw to the smooth running of daily chores in the absence of several hands. Edward was particularly occupied with matters pertaining to his profession, and thus, found a great many excuses to be absent. Still, Cassandra bore all of the misery upon her proud shoulders and was a rock to her poor deranged sister and mother, just as her own father had once been, before his own mysterious demise.

If the family had hoped their troubles were ended once the funeral had passed, they were sadly mistaken. Helen began to see a spectral presence in her room at nights. The phantom, she claimed, was no longer a figure in her nightmares but a slim, ethereal entity she saw whilst wide awake. Her mother, too, began to be disturbed by strange noises, eerie sounds, and footsteps rattling past her door as she lay a-bed, trembling. On one particularly dark night, when the moon was too thin to cast even the faintest shadow, a servant on his way to bed had his candle knocked from his hand as if by some terrible unknown force. When the man cried out, another came to his aid with a new light, and perceived ahead of them Charles Doughey’s portrait lying face-down upon the ground. A week later, Helen was dead. She joined her uncle in the dark bosom of the crypt, and the entire town was awash with stories of curses and ungodly goings-on.

“It is he!” Cried the Widow Doughey to Cassandra. “It is your uncle, he walks from the grave to torment us all! The man must surely have been cursed in life. If only I had known he would bring us so low! And where is your brother when we have most need of him?”

“Mother, calm yourself! I cannot believe that our dear uncle would ever wish so much misery upon us, even were he cursed as you claim. I do not believe in curses, give me the key to the crypt and I shall prove that he sleeps unmolested in his grave and that will be an end of it!”

But her mother would not consent to such a macabre undertaking, and refused access to the crypt. “We will wait until your brother comes back from Italy,” she told the girl. But Cassandra, refusing to heed her mother, worked her wiles upon their most trusted servant, who consented to reveal to her the hiding place of the crypt key.

Stealing out of the house as soon as midnight struck and the servants were all a-bed, Cassandra took the key and a set of tools stolen from the house carpenter, and headed off down the path towards the church across the fields behind the great house. Clods of mud clung to her feet and the hem of her gown, but she pressed on unheeding, as if a terrible hunger were upon her. Even though she had no light to guide her, she knew her way perfectly well in the darkness. Owls hooted overhead, and night creatures snuffled and rustled in the woods about her, but Cassandra kept her resolve and only paused for a moment to rest when she saw the graveyard appear before her.

With cold, trembling hands, Cassandra slipped the iron key into the lock and the old crypt door leaned to with aching sound. Inside darkness swallowed up every object, and so Cassandra was forced to light a candle to grope her way down the stone aisle. As she passed her candle illuminated the alcoves where the coffins were kept, some still rested solemn and intact, but others had long since decayed, their wood splintered and sagging, their contents disgorged and sampled by vermin. These sights, and the putrid air of the crypt made Cassandra feel faint and nauseous, but she was ravaged by a desire to push on further into the crypt in spite of these ghastly scenes.

The crypt was terribly cold; with only a shawl about her shoulders the young girl searched each alcove for the name she sought. At last she came to rest at the end of the hall of the dead, where two newly erected plinths stood straight ahead. To their left was an older coffin, one which bore her father’s name, and which she alone new to be empty. Thus this she dismissed without thought and instead rushed to the coffin bearing her sister, her corpse only days old. Almost feverish, she attacked the wood with her tools, wielding them with an almost unnatural force, until the lid was off, and slid to the floor with a crack. Helen’s beautiful face was now a mask of death. Even paler than she had been in life, and joyless, her body was as cold as ice. Gasping madly, her chest heaving, Cassandra lifted her sister up, and partially out of the wooden box. She whispered words into her ear and caressed her long blonde hair, pushing it back from the nape of her neck to show the place where two pin-pick wounds stared out of the alabaster skin like the eyes of a demon.

Helen’s eyes now were opened, her hands clenched. She too gasped and looked wildly about, her bloodshot eyes finally resting on her sister.

“What do we do now?” she asked.

“Now,” said Cassandra, her eyes burning with an unholy glare, the candle light illuminating her bloodthirsty maw, “now we wake Uncle Charles.”

The two young women set upon the second casket and to reviving the old man. Decay had barely marred him, and he seemed alert and eager when roused. The party of three then processed through the crypt and out into the night. The town and its sleeping inhabitants lay ahead of them, innocent and unawares – soon the vampires would be at their hideous repast…

End

****

Notes.

This post was inspired by a few too many nineteenth century Gothic tales late at night – the last line is an homage to the wonderful Varney the Vampire.

Varney the Vampire

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

14: The Well

Photo by cbenjasuwan, courtesy of Freedigitalphotos.net

ID-100138572

The boys all gazed into the well. Somewhere behind them the sun was dipping; the clouds tinted with a fiery glaze.
“It doesn’t look that deep” someone said, but no one answered.
They were staring into the darkness, looking at the broken ladder coated with mildew.
“It’s getting a bit late now, should we maybe come back tomorrow?”
There were mutterings. Yes, it was late now, they might be missed, there would be trouble if they weren’t home in time for dinner.
It was all because of Joseph’s brother, because he had gone off, but then that was a year ago, and no one talked about it anymore.
“I say we should come back tomorrow-”
“No” Joseph shook his head. He was paler than the other boys, leaner and dirtier. There was already earth under his fingertips from days of scrambling up hillsides and hunting for worms to dissect.
He loved the old farm more than the others. Most of the other boys just found it creepy. They found him strange too, though no one would admit it.
“This farm used to belong to our family, a long time ago,” he would tell the others proudly; it was always Joseph who persuaded them to go on adventures into the abandoned plot.
Now they were at the lip of the old well again. They had stumbled across it weeks before, but it was always too late, or too wet or too cold.
“Let’s leave it and come back another day” someone would always say.
But Joseph shook his head this time.
“No, I want to see what’s down there”
Without waiting to hear the disapproval of the others, he approached the ladder. He turned his back to the sickening sun and grasped the metal. It was cold and slippery under his hands, and as he descended, Joseph could feel a cool wind rising up from below as if to grab him him by the ankles.
“Are you sure it’s safe?” asked the eldest boy.
Joseph pretended not to hear and continued his way down the ladder. Soon he was just a pale, bobbing shape.
“Do you think we should wait for him?”
There were anxious looks exchanged between the boys above the well, they could all see how low the sun was sinking.

At the bottom of the ladder, Joseph drew in a long, damp breath. It was dark, a thick, roiling darkness that shifted before his eyes and contained a variety of mouldy, earthy scents.
The light from above seemed so far away, he could just about make out the shapes of his friends, leaning over the well mouth, peering down at him.They were anxious to leave.

The well was very deep, and its floor was a pool of stagnant water laced with algae and small, moving things, but not much else. Joseph felt a strange wave of disappointment. There had been stories, tales about an old man who had died very rich, whose wealth was never been found.
Those were only silly stories for children though. Joseph placed his hands on his hips and kicked at the well’s sides. The sound it made rang out like a bell. It was louder than he had expected, it startled him and made him slip and fall into the water.

The boys above strained to see what was going on.
“What was that noise?”
“Is he alright do you think?”
“What if something is down there after all?” the youngest boy asked, stepping back a little from the edge.
“Oh don’t be silly Tom it’s just an old well. Has your sister been telling you those daft stories again?”
The young boy grew red-faced and his friend laughed at him.
The eldest boy was growing agitated, he called into the well.
“Joe! Are you alright?”

There was no reply. Joseph was staring straight ahead where a glowing light had formed out of the darkness.
He was going to shout out, he had meant to when he saw the light, until beside it appeared a long thin finger, drawn up against thick, rubbery lips. The hand holding the source of the light extended a green, mossy fist, the fingers slowly curling back to reveal the glow. In the slick, wet palm sat pieces of gold, sparkling, and blood-red rubies, burning like hot coals.

The sun was now just a streak above the land, the night was stealing in across the hills, sending chilly tendrils out and around, cooling the earth.
“Can you see him? Is he still down there?”
“You know I thought I saw a light for a moment, perhaps he’s lit a match.”
“I can’t see anything now, but he must be down there.”
“Joe?”
Only silences greeted the other boys as they watched for movement at the bottom of the well.
“Do you think he’ll be OK? I mean, I would wait for him but I’ll catch hell if I don’t get home in the next half hour.”
There were nods and worried looks, and for the last time someone shouted into the well.
“We’re going Joe. So why don’t you come back up, you don’t want to get in trouble do you?”
There was no reply.
“Blast him then” said the eldest. “Come on Tom.” He took the youngest by the hand and led him away, followed by the other two who cast nervous glances over their shoulders.
“You don’t think-” Tom started to say, but the elder boy shot him a look and he shut his mouth.
Night fell, and sound of voices receded into the distance.

Down in the well, the small figure nodded at Joseph, at his wide eyes still fixed on the treasures. The finger beckoned him on into darkness.
Just as the boy slipped into the tunnel behind the beckoner, he glanced down as the light it held briefly illuminated a pair of well-worn shoes that had once been quite smart. The laces were now limp and frayed. Gnarled toes poked out from the rotten black leather.
For an instant Joseph remembered his brother, standing at the door of their house in his new school clothes.

 

 

 

12: The Nature of the Beast.

Image by cbenjasuwan courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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“So, you want to know a story,” the Captain said.

A flicker flashed across his eyes, lightening quick.

“No, not that one, no. And yet, perhaps – “

He wiped a bead of sweat from the arch of his brow with a pained expression, as the candle flames all around him began to flicker in some rogue breeze; the whisper of a tempest from the open cabin window.

“Go on then, tell us it!” Matthew said, his hands clasping his cap between his knees, his back bent, leaning in as if the Captain’s words were like the warmth of a fireside to him. But the Captain rose, and in the dim I saw how Matthew’s face slumped down in bitter disappointment. We both thought the moment had passed, but then the Captain spoke.

“Wait,”

The wind blew again and a weight of expectation fell upon the cabin already so wreathed in anticipation; impregnated with the smell of the salt water, and of men sweating in the dark.

“If I tell you-” he began.

“Yes, if I tell you, don’t ever forget.”

The silence grew around his words the very second he ended them. A rough wave slapped the side of the ship and sent the Captain’s dog slinking away under the bed. Even now when I think of him, the Captain, I hear those words he said.

“Don’t ever forget.”

We looked on at him through that hunkering darkness, through the gloom of monotony brought on by all the days we had spent pent up together on that vast, labyrinthine ocean.

“Did you ever know a fear–“he began again, Matthew tried to speak then, eager to join in but the Captain hushed him with a hand.

“No, wait Matthew wait, don’t interrupt, yes I know you boys have felt it, the fear of death, I have. We’ve all known that terror. Of starvation, of a desperate thirst, the thought of ambush, and of drowning, and of mutiny, and of the knife in the back, but did you ever know a fear that didn’t end in death…that made you wish for it?”

I saw Matthew open his mouth, again the Captain silenced him. He looked right through him. Even in the twilight of the candles you could tell what sort of a look that was. His silence made the Captain smile and half the teeth in his head were glinting, and the skin around his mouth grew taught like he was only wearing that face, like it was just a piece of hide that he used for a mask.

“No,” he said, quietly.

“I wouldn’t expect you to understand that terror, no.”

Then he sat back, and he sighed, and for the first time I saw it: the misery. It was positively leaking out of him. He was smiling again, and yet the sadness was all I could see of him.

“When I was your age Arthur, I met that terror,” he said. “I had met with terrors of a similar kind before, but the real monster, that I met later. I wasn’t young but I wasn’t old either. I was hovering in life.” He stopped and his words sunk into us. One of the candles flickered and died and somewhere under the bed I heard that poor dog let out a whimper.

“I can’t describe the monster to you now, because it would make no sense. You couldn’t imagine it as it truly was, you wouldn’t imagine it right at all.” He turned his face away from us, he sat back lower in his chair and seemed to disappear into the darkness.

“No. Let me tell you how it made me feel.”

“The first time I saw it I did not think it so terrible. I was bold enough to go right up to it, almost to put my hand out to touch the thing, but I didn’t. Maybe in some part of me then I knew that it was a monstrous thing, that the nearer I got to it the worse things would go for me. But maybe that is too easy to claim after events have passed. It was a long time ago now, in the marketplace, in Algiers, and I didn’t know then what I was looking at. “

“Yes, strange things,” Matthew said, half to himself.

“I’d forgotten you knew of it, that you had been there, Matthew.”

The boy sighed. “There were no monsters when I was there, only men, but they were beast-like enough.”

“Of course,” the Captain sighed, “you would say that.”

He turned then, to me and asked, “were you ever in Algiers, Arthur?”

“Yes. Yes I was once.”

“And what thought you of it?”

His eyes were burning, perhaps it was just the candle light, but it seemed there was fire in his eyes all at once.

“I thought it to be like many other places. It was too hot, and there were too many people. The marketplace when I was there was chaos Sir. Absolute chaos.”

The Captain laughed but it was a convulsion, there was no joy in it.

“You speak so finely Arthur, you must forgive me. I do like to hear you talk lad, it amuses me to hear you.” His chuckling continued for a while, like the aftershock of an earthquake.

“When I was there, all those many years ago, there was a trader, his name I forget, but he was an imported Westerner, that I remember. A Dutchman. Had lost his way on a ship somewhere. Had signed up on some grand adventure that had brought him low in a foreign land. He was a sleek fellow with sunken eyes like two cursed saphires buried deep inside his head. In spite of his eyes, I never saw an uglier specimen of a man, and I have seen the foulest, wickedest things this Earth holds.”

Matthew laughed, a loud, cruel laugh and it made me shudder.

“Laugh, yes go on, laugh! But he was the shrewdest man I ever knew. I mistrusted him at first, because he was so ugly and so sleekit. But later, I came to see and hear a lot of him, and it made me know him, and in spite of the devious nature of his trade, I saw how promising his intellect was, and how wasted. What a filthy little prophet he was. He sat there in the middle of that square on his dirty rug, with dust in his old beard an his dirty feet curled up under him, flies beating round his head like acolytes. We came to talking he and I, and haggling over the price of some goods or other. He spoke English in a lyrical, faltering way, and I was impressed with that to begin with. I asked him where he had picked up the language, but all he would mention was a name. “Hatterdale.” He would repeat, “Master Hatterdale” as if it were a mantra. I wondered who this man might be, perhaps some relic from the bombardment of 1816, who can say. But that was when he took to me to see the monster, and I forgot all about his Messr. Hatterdale.

“I thought you said this beast was in the marketplace?” Matthew asked.

“I did see it in the marketplace, I saw it there first, or rather I glimpsed it. I grabbed that little prophet by his scrawny neck and I said, ‘see there, what is that?’ and he got very excited and told me –for a modest fee of course– that I might see it if I wanted. I did want to, and so he took me. We followed that beast down the alleys and by-ways, we hunted after it. I was desperate to know of it then. It was so strange to me. I wondered how no one else was as intrigued as I to know the nature of this beast. I never thought then that to them, it was an everyday thing. They were numb to it now. I could never become blind to such a thing. I was entrapped by it, and it would haunt me night and day without end. I wish now that I had never seen it. No. That is a lie. But it’s taken a part of me now, and I’ll never get it back, and so it has me.”

Matthew lent forward, “which part?” he asked.

“Idiot,” the Captain said, and he shook his head, tossing his grey-black curls in a rage because Matthew didn’t understand.

We were quiet again for a time. I almost thought the Captain had fallen asleep. The ship rocked us to and fro like a hand on a cradle; the waves beating like birds’ wings against the ship’s sides in the dark. The dog came out again from its hiding place and scurried amongst us all. To the Captain it came last, and he roused himself, and he gave it a pat on the head.

“Good lad,” he said, but the Captain was staring into darkness. I saw his eyes flash again as old memories must have been working their way to the surface of his mind.

“Sometimes I shudder all over when I think about what I’ve seen. In darkened souks, in dirty hovels at the ends of the earth. You know, I remember when I was a boy and my uncle would stop in our room late in the evening, and he would lean on the doorframe, drunk out of his mind, but he would speak to us like a prophet. He was a sailor too you see, and he knew more than you or I will ever know. He was a great man my uncle, but he was a hideous drunk when he came to port. My mother dreaded him coming and our father hated him with such a passion, but come to see us he did from time to time, and such things he brought with him! A little mahogany box, inlaid with mother of pearl so as it shone like a rainbow. It smelt like sandalwood, rich and sweet. I used to keep stones in it, and shells. But he told us stories too, about the things that lived in foreign lands under scorched earth and in caves deep, deep in the ocean. I never forgot them.”

I was now straining to see the Captain through the gloom. The glow of the candles was a poor light to sit in. They were nearly burnt down to the nub, but it was the Captain’s words which compelled me. I felt that as he talked, I was falling down into a vast well and that I might never crawl out, but still I listened.

“The first time I visited the beast I was shaking all over,” he continued. “I was so young, and I didn’t know the true meaning of courage. But that was how I came to know it. Not through rough seas or harsh words or beatings, or fray. I learnt how to be a man just by looking at that thing. I wanted to touch it, I wanted to know it was really real but I didn’t dare. The filthy prophet took my money from me, and he shook his head in amazement at me every time I came because I wasn’t as bold as the others, I never touched the beast. I knew that the second I did, it would destroy every last part of me. So I waited, and waited, and waited.”

He hung his head a moment as if a thought had struck him, “I never touched it, yet it destroyed me all the same.”

He laughed. The sound of his laughter in that cabin was so mournful and sweet that it made my blood run cold. It was a laugh you had to earn through trial.

“What did it look like?”

“Hmm?”

The Captain roused himself as if from a dream. His eyes were like black marbles shinning in the dark. I noticed then that the Captain’s arms never reached out for anyone, but his eyes did, perpetually. They cried out of his head, trapped in his scarred face like jewels in a panel of stone.

“Oh, Arthur,” he said, and he turned away.

The dog was softly snoring, I heard its wheezing breath rise and fall. Matthew was slumped over too, but he slept as if he were dead and so I had forgotten him. Nothing mattered but the words of the Captain, flowing out into the room like a river.

“I’ll never forget it,” he said. “Never. I could live a thousand lives and see a thousand wonders, terrors, everyday ordinary things too, and yet I’ll never forget its face. Ah the sound it made as it moved! Its way of speaking to me, yes it spoke! Does that surprise you?” He looked over to me, and I nodded, I knew he was not expecting an answer and so he rolled on.

“I’ll never forget the sound of its voice.”

As he said it, a strangeness came into his own, a strangling of the throat, a convulsive emotion gripped him so that I was compelled to look away, though I doubt he could see my face in the dark. I was not in the light of the remaining candles as he was.

He said, “I came to see the thing as often as I could. I know that others came too, that they came as frequently as that little man would let them. I knew that in some part of his heart it caused him pain to be the warden of such a thing, and to be its guardian and custodian and nothing else. But still he took their money and I waited outside until it was my turn. Yes, I waited at the wretched mouth of its den like the great, clay lump of a man that I was, and yet I cannot deny it was worth the waiting. I waited until the last, until all the others had gone and dawn was about to break over the market. Then the prophet would call me forward and there it was, lurking in the lanterns and the shadows. And it seems to me now that I only ever saw the beast through endless reflections and refractions, like light through a prism. That it had a thousand faces, and that it spoke in a thousand voices, and that it had a thousand hands that could reach out and grasp at me; could reach right through me. It broke through my heart, through my soul, through everything that I was.”

His voice wavered again, he sighed. He slapped his hands downs on his thighs, and the motion blew the remaining candles out but one. For a moment, the sudden descent of darkness made me wonder who the man was who was sitting in front of me, and if I knew him at all. He seemed about as far away from me then as any one human being could be from another.

“You want to know what it is I saw in that place don’t you,” he said.

“Yes”

He seemed to hover for a moment in uncertainty, I feared he was almost at the end of his energy. He said:

“Maybe one day, you’ll meet it too. I hope that it will take a different form for you than it did for me, Arthur.”

“I am in no hurry to return to Algiers, sir, I assure you.”

“Algiers!” he laughed. “Algiers!” he mocked kindly.

“No, you may not meet it there, that beast is gone. I tried to barter with the little man, I offered him all the gold I had, that I would return to him with all the gold in the world, but he would not take it. “

“For what?”

“For the beast,” he said.

“Why?”

“Arthur, have you ever seen a monster? Do you know what one looks like? Have you heard one speak, or say your name? No of course you haven’t. You would know if you had. The monsters you’ve seen are in storybooks, or they are tales told by old men like me, who’ve spent their lives cooped up in holes in the ground or buckets in the water like this one. You could see a dog with ten heads, or a child with no eyes, or a man eat his own brother and you would think that it was monstrous, but you might never know a monster until you felt one awaken, right here.” He clutched at his ragged shirt with a giant’s fist.

“Love,” he said, in answer to the question I had not yet asked. The silence swept in to swallow us up until we were nothing at all. I thought I heard Matthew stir, once, but if he had been listening after all he gave no more indication.

The Captain spoke in a whisper so ragged that I had to strain to hear it.

“A hollow woman,” he said. “a hollow woman, for a hollow man.”

The lone candle died and total darkness fell upon us.

“Love is the most monstrous thing of all,” he said, and the ship creaked, heaved like the serpent of Midgard turning in its sleep.

“It has made me a hybrid of myself. A missing part. A heart swallowed up by a beast. I have had other women, and for far, far longer than she, but I can never be whole again, without her. She was myself.”

His voice was his like his ghost speaking. Tears fell in quick silver torrents from the Captain’s eyes. Even in the dark they glinted, washing over his face like a veil.