29# The Sled

Image by Blamethechicken, Freedigitalphotos.net

aurora

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then I will listen as Orkoosh tells Banneran stories.

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

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

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

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

 

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27# The Lovers

Photo: Sira Anamwong. Freedigitalphotos.net

mermaid

“If you come any closer I’ll drown you,” she said from the rocks.

“If I pull you out of the water you’ll die,” he said, reciting the line as he always did when he came too close to her.

The man and the woman from their separate vantage points stood sadly surveying each other from a distance, as they had done, year after year. The man had kept a weekly vigil by the lake for so long now, that people had stopped asking him when he would settle down and take a wife. Now the local people avoided him because they had watched him grow into someone strange. “Handsome, but witch-touched,” the old women would say about him as he walked alone down the street.

Tonight, a lilac moon hung over the heads of the lovers; the last pink of day mingling with the black of night over the dark waters and the sloping pines to the east. The man’s back was to the pine forest, he faced the water’s edge and felt in the pocket of his woollen coat for the gift he had brought.

“I have something for you,” he said, producing a wooden box. It was small, made of dark wood like mahogany, and criss-crossed with a lattice filigree of darting silver lines. It glinted in the moonlight as he held it out to the woman in the water.

“What is it?” She asked.

“Would you like to see it?” He stepped closer, somewhat timidly holding it out towards her. Seeing her reaction he cried,

“No don’t go back, you won’t hurt me!” but she was afraid. “My family will be watching,” she said, and made as if to swim away, but then he opened the box with a click, and laid it on the ground between them.

“What do you wish, more than anything?” He asked.

She looked up at him, blinking her wide iridescent eyes, then answered plainly, “for us to never be apart.”

The man smiled, and a light caught like a spark inside the box. It soon became a glow which spread into the air like smoke, and was sweet smelling, and made a noise like chimes as it floated above them.

“You can drown me now,” he said, and held out his arms.

“You have made magic!” She cried, feeling the smoke tingle as it settled upon her skin, each contact blazing like a star.

“Love makes even ordinary men magicians,” he said, as she gave in at last to her nature, leaning in to grasp him with soft, wet, ivory arms.

At last embracing, with a kiss they froze, and became two stone lovers. The box which had lain between them closed with a click. The waters lapped ferociously at the rocks, and cries filled the air like bleating gulls. A dark hand grasped out to grab the box, and pull it beneath the waves.

Years passed, but no one came back to the lake. It seemed as if the Lovers had been forgotten.

* * * * *

Centuries later, a young couple wandered down to the lakeside. The man was a stranger, but he held the hand of a local girl.

“That’s a funny sort of bridge isn’t it?” he said, pointing to a misshapen stone edifice by the rocks.

“Oh,” the girl shrugged. “Those are the Lovers.” Seeing his blank look she continued with a playful glance back at him. “A man, and a mermaid, it’s an old folktale – oh never mind.” They were quiet for a moment, and both stood surveying the huddle of weatherworn stone which now resembled a little bridge from the land to the water.

“My Grandfather thought there were really mermaids in the lake, so he would never let me come here.” She said. “I once had a joke with him – said that mermaids only drown boys, but he insisted that the mer-people had been very angry about their daughter getting seduced and turned to stone, and that they would likely try to do me a mischief anyway.”

She picked up a stone and hurled it towards the lake. It hit the surface, then seemed to hang right on the edge for a moment, before slowly sinking below the waters. The girl rubbed her eyes, there were ripples spreading all over the surface of the lake like a shudder.

“Let’s go,” she grabbed the boys’ hand and pulled him away from the water, but he said “wait a moment,” and dashed off towards the rocks. He had darted down towards the stone bridge snatching something up from the water’s edge, it was a box. The couple set off back the way they had come, as behind them, a green hand slunk back down below the water.

“Where did you find that?” The girl’s voice could be heard to say.

“I saw it just sitting there, on the rocks.”

“That’s funny, I don’t remember seeing it. What’s inside do you think?”

“Don’t know, I can’t open it.”

“Wait until we get back, we can use my brother’s tools.”

“But I don’t want to break it,”

“Then take it to the Friday market,” Her voice was barely audible now,

“There’s an old man I’ve seen down there who sells things like that…”

Soon they were gone, and the forest had swallowed up the sound of their voices. In time a light rain began to fall, washing over the faces, hands and bodies of the stone lovers, now merged together, indistinguishable from each other, half in, and half out of the water.

25# The Egg Lord

Image Tuomas_Lehtinen. Freedigitalphotos.net

ID-100113575

Olthar waited at the lip of the cavern and contemplated its interior. Opalescent shafts of pearly light bounced off the lake’s surface, illuminating all the many nooks and dark corners of the cave but it was surprisingly empty, except of course for the Egg.

It was perched right in the middle of all that water, on its ceremonial pedestal. It looked exactly as it had been described to him as a child, just as it appeared in all wall paintings and parchments, even on the skin of the Egg Guardian who carried the roughly inked glory of the egg on his back; now a wrinkled tableau which upon his death would be re-applied to his successor in the same position and fashion as was tradition. The Egg Guardian was dead now of course, and so his novice would shortly have to take his place, unless there was no longer a need for a new Guardian, that is, if he, Olthar, chose to be the new Egg Lord, and right now there was not a lot to stop him.

He wiped sweat off his forehead, his glance never falling away from the latticed crystal orb at the cavern’s heart, and Olthar mused how pathetic his people had become because no one had mustered the courage in a thousand years to pursue the Egg Dream. They believed that the legend was sacred, and that the Egg was sacred for the hard lessons it had taught them, but that times had moved on, and that it was better to be ruled by the Egg, than to rule by it. It was better, the law said, that adventurous individuals stay away from such quests rather than risk bringing misery to everyone: a return to the immorality which had plagued their society for eons before the last Egg Lord died and the Guardians were formed.

Olthar was not a conformist, and in truth, he had often wondered if the Egg legend was just a load of nonsense which adults told to children in order to teach them not to go wandering off, or not to disobey orders. Now here he was, and nothing all that terrible had happened, not to him, at least. Sacrifices had been made, the Egg Guardian was dead, but he had been very old. Olthar consoled himself with this thought as he began finally to wade into the cool blue waters of the lake.

As he waded, he recalled all the stories he had been told about the egg:

That it was light as a feather to lift (but only to the evil, the pure of heart would never be able to lift it’s burden).

That it was blindingly bright, (and only those with dark purposes in front of them could bear to look upon it).

That to possess the Egg would instantly confer upon the bearer the title of Egg Lord (and bring with it the promise of immortality, unless stabbed through the heart with a golden arrow at sunrise on the first day of the new year).

That to be the Egg Lord was to posses superhuman strength and senses, (skills which had allowed previous Lords to maintain their empires).

Fiinally, that the Egg came with a price which no one knew and which was different for everyone. It was widely believed, however, that this price was insanity, as most Egg Lords spoken about in legends had allegedly met their ends by their own hands. Even when devoted followers had hidden all the golden arrows, in all the stories, always one would remain to be the instrument of the Egg Lord’s death at the dawn.

Olthar wasn’t particularly interested in these stories however. He didn’t believe in mystical promises of strength and power. The Egg was a merely to him, a valuable commodity, and now that foreign traders had been coming to the islands and trade relationships had been established, the time had come to place faith in more earthly assets than the magic of one crystal egg. As he ascended the platform upon which the Egg was placed, Olthar was caught for a second by its extraordinary beauty, the way it absorbed and refracted the light so smoothly as if alive and pulsing. He wondered what gave the Egg its marvelous phosphorescence, and how much it might be worth to the foreign men of his science who desired to know the answer to such questions.

His fingers reached out for the Egg; he heard it singing to him, a ringing resonance which made the tiny hairs arms of his arms stand on end. He remembered errant snippets, the last words of the Egg Guardian as he had tried to persuade Olthar to turn back:

…there are new safeguards, we knew the old stories wouldn’t be enough to keep people away anymore, times have changed, – listen, if you try to take the Egg now…

But Olthar had gotten impatient, the old man had not been allowed to finish his sentence, and the people of the Egg had become swiftly and brutally reaquainted with the act of murder.

Now these thoughts ebbed and flowed within Olthar as he picked up the singing Egg and held it aloft. He felt its beauty surging through him, all its light and wisdom and strength, and he laughed out loud joyfully, only turning at the sound of stone grinding behind him. He was forced to watch helplessly as a giant wall of rock descended on the only entrance and exit to the cavern, cutting him off from the outside world.

Then there was silence.

The light from the Egg continued to reflect its rainbows across the gentle lapping waters of the lake, a rich scene which Olthar, devoid of golden arrows, would be at liberty to enjoy forever.

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!

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

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)

21: The Swan Man

Image anankkml, freedigitalphotos.net

ID-10032367

I know this way into the woods.

I heard the blacksmith’s daughter say that he lives here still, even after we all thought he had gone long ago. She had seen him once, the Swan Man, picking up wood for to make a fire.

“For why else would you need wood?” She asked, “and if there’s a fire there’s a hearth, and if there’s a hearth then he isn’t gone at all.”

When I was a child I thought about the stories told about him. Late at night when we were bold and wouldn’t sleep, and cried out to be up and running again, not laying in our beds, that’s when my grandmother would tell us these tales.

Afterwords I would still lie awake but pretend to be sleeping. I would stare at the ceiling and imagine him.

“The Swan Man is a sorcerer,” grandmother would say. “He got his powers from the dark one. He steals the girls and leaves the boys and no one knows what he does with them.”

“But when does he come?”

“At night dear, when the moon is hidden behind a wreath of cloud, or there is no moon at all to show him up. He swoops down and pecks at the window pane, tap tap, and you must not get up to let him in! Oh no. For he steals little girls who stay awake.”

“I don’t believe in magic” I told my grandmother one night. I ran outside and I shouted it at her from the gate. She clasped her hands as if in prayer and cried and it was only my sister who convinced me to come back, to apologise, to go without supper and not run off into the woods like the wild thing my grandmother said I was.

I grew up and thought no more about the Swan Man.

People sometimes spoke of him but sure don’t they always talk about those things when night falls and cups are filled and the long walk home needs company and company needs tales to entertain them.

Now here I am at the entrance to the woods. The Swan Man is real, and I know it. I too saw him because I waited, I waited in the spot where the blacksmith’s daughter told me to wait and I saw the thin figure of man flit by. It seemed he was nothing but a long shadow, he came and then was gone, but I know his way.

Now none of the others will so much as glance at me. My sister and her husband are gone and left the cottage gaping, empty.

“Why could you not have married?” My sister had called at me as the gate swung shut. But John pulled her away down the lane and he would not look back.

“Oh why did you have to interfere?” She had said to me when Wedlow’s boy got sick and died.

“He says you cursed his name! How could you be so foolish? Did we not take you in, and were we not kind to you? This is a poor way to repay your only family.”

It was Wedlow’s cottage and I couldn’t sit in it anymore on my own after they had gone. I knew he would come for it. I had been tired of his interfering, of complaining that we didn’t look after the land as we should. I told him what I thought of him and that might have been that, but his hag of a wife saw me. She saw me at the edge of the woods, waiting for the Swan Man. Soon after his boy died, everyone knew where I had been.

I have no option now but to let the Swan Man take me in. I have no money put by, but I am fit and can work. Perhaps he will find a use for me. The journey to the nearest town is too far, and no one will take me. I’ll press on then, and by nightfall I should reach him. I wonder will I know him? Will I see the Swan, or the Man? Or nothing?

The trees are closing in but I can still see a path. Faintly I can trace a way through these grasping branches, though my feet are caught by thorns, and mired in sodden leaves. Creatures scurry past my ankles and I can feel the wind at my back, and the air growing moist, and cold.

I see no light up ahead yet, no dwelling, but he if he needs wood then he must have a hearth…

There, a clearing, a hovel in the rock, a fire. There he is, the thin shape, dark as a shadow; his face is pale like the moon but he is no swan. What a sorrowful face! Such beautiful eyes! Why is he so young, still? He must truly be a magician.

We are watching each other now across the fire. He beckons me over to where the cages are; where he is standing there are many cages, many wings held up over faces. There are furs on the ground, and he has burrs in his hair.

“There are only sleeping,” he says, “I don’t harm them.”

But I don’t look down at the cages. I ask him if he will help me. He agrees.

“I’ll make you like the others,” he says, “if you have no other option.” I don’t know what he means, but I nod my head.

He makes me stand in a circle he has made with stones, and dead bird’s beaks. He goes into the cave and fetches things I cannot see.

“Put your arms up,” he says, “no higher, all the way up.” I comply and as I do, I say:

“They saw me at the edge of the woods,” he shakes his head.

“You should never have come looking for me,” he answers, scattering bones at my feet.

“They think I’m a witch, that I’m just like you.”

He stops what he is doing at this to look at me sideways.

“I thought you didn’t believe in magic?” He asks. He knows!

“I don’t.” I say,

“You’re lying,” he replies, and carries on about his work. “Open your mouth.”

I open my mouth, and in it he places a long, white feather.

“I never came for children,” he says as he stands outside the circle, now motionless, and yet so full of purpose.

“One day I will die, and you must tell them that. You’ll have no master then.” I nod my head again, and wait, afraid.

He was right, perhaps I always have believed in magic.

Now I turn my eyes to creatures in the cages slumbering. For an instant I think I can see faces flash underneath white feathers, but they are just the faces of birds. White swans; big beasts in bigger cages.

He says the words.

For a moment I remember being small and crawling up to see the moon peeking at my window, and hearing a tap tapping on the pane.

The world is ablaze with light and I am floating in white feathers. He must have let the birds out, I think for an instant. Then I am doubled over, the blaze is in my head and limbs. I cry out and extend my arms only to see wings before my eyes, and the voice of a bird calling.

“They’ll never catch you now,” the Swan Man says, as I arch and flap and ache and feel a joy to reach up for the sky.

He throws his hands to the air and I am aloft.

I am going to fly over the village. I’m flying to the old cottage, so I can watch them break down the door and find no one there.

Somewhere in the woods, the Swan Man is building me a new cage.

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

National Poetry Day: For My Friend, the Dragon.

Image cbenjasuwan, freedigitalphotos.net

ID-100133355

Since it’s National Poetry Day in the UK, I decided to publish this short poem I wrote earlier, whilst looking at the moon outside our university library. I hope you enjoy it.

For My Friend, The Dragon.

The moon has been cut in half,

I can only see the head of the dragon.

This fabled dark side a ghost,

Only visible to those who look for it,

Desiring to see where the wings, the tail, are hidden.

Because we, such upward dreamers,

Could not, even for a second,

Bear to believe that half the moon

Could ever possibly be missing.

These moonbeams we bury our face in nightly

Greet us

And we are, in that instant only,

like long-lost lovers, kissing.

Looking up, I feel the age-old tingling returning,

Remembering now,

That I was bequeathed so long ago,

To my friend, the dragon.

 

 

17: The Sand Bride.

Image Sura Nualpradid @Freedigitalphotos.net

image

The man stood at the cliff edge and tossed the torn-out heart into the ocean. The heart was his own. He didn’t watch to see where it had fallen, but immediately wandered off, dripping blood, making a thin red trail that no one could trace through the grass.

He frequented the most popular coffee shop in town and appalled everyone who gazed on him.

“Look at him and his bleeding heart, out in public like that. It’s a disgrace,” said someone’s mother.

“Madam, I think you’ll find the man has no heart. He has torn it out, and the yet wound keeps bleeding,” the waiter remarked as he took her money.

“Disgusting,” the mother’s friend said, the corners of her mouth curling down. “Why doesn’t he just go elsewhere? Doesn’t he know this is a respectable town?”

But the man was unconcerned by those who talked about him behind his back and labelled him an outcast. He would read the paper, and every so often the waiter (who was himself a failed romantic) would pass him wads of napkins to mop up the blood which drip, drip, dripped from his chest under his shirt.

“Will it never heal? And do you feel any better at all?”, the waiter asked him with genuine concern. The man said that he had no idea if the hole where his heart had been would ever stop bleeding, but that he did indeed feel better. Or rather, that he no longer loved and no longer pined for the woman who had so irretrievably damaged his heart in the first place.

“Well that’s something,” the waiter said, and he surreptitiously rushed off to deposit the latest batch of bloody napkins in a special bin the manager had marked as “BIOHAZARD”, as if heartbreak was somehow catching.

One day the man realised that something was missing. He searched his house from top to bottom but he could not recall what it was he had missed. He searched in the kitchen cupboards and under the stairs. He looked in the garden shed and picked up the snails to check in their shells. He searched under his bed and up in the attic, he even went into that room in his house which had been sealed since the day he had been born, but the only thing he found in there was a desiccated corpse and a suitcase full of women’s underwear and old post cards. At last, feeling utterly perplexed and aching from the feeling of emptiness, the man resolved to admit defeat. Perhaps it was just as he had all along suspected. Perhaps it was his heart he longed to find.

He went down to the beach. He gazed up at the cliff from whence he had tossed the heart and tried to plot its likely trajectory. After all, he told himself, he had not seen the heart swallowed by the ocean. Perhaps it had landed somewhere along the pebbles of the beach and lay there still, alone, just as he was. But as he searched for it, terrifying thoughts began to cloud his mind. What if it had indeed been washed out to sea, or eaten by birds, or dashed to pieces in the fall? What if a wild animal had spied it and gobbled it up in one juicy mouthful? Well then, he thought to himself, then that animal would feel the pain that he had felt and would surely die. No one could survive a pain like that without wanting to rip the offending organ out of their body.

He found no dead animals and no birds and no trace at all of his heart and he despaired. He did not want the heart but he could not live without it. In his misery he fell to his knees and tore with his fingers at the sand. I will dig and dig and dig until I reach hell, he told himself. Night came on and he was still clawing at the earth. The rain lashed his back and still he shovelled the handfuls of wet sand over his shoulder. He wanted to weep but without his heart the emotion seemed trapped inside him, incapable of movement, unable to be expressed at all. All he could do was continue to bleed from the wound in his chest where his heart had been. The blood trickled out into the hole he’d made in the ground until the sight of it all swelling under his feet disgusted him, and he could dig no more. He was no nearer to hell than he had ever been.

Exhausted, he stumbled over to the ocean and lay down where the sand met the water. The waves lapped over him and where they touched his body they turned the foam pink. Dusk came. It flooded the beach with a cold mist and the sky began to resemble the inside of a cut peach. That was when he heard the sound like a sucking. At first he thought it was the movement of the water washing over the hole in his chest but then he realised it was changing. It became now a scraping sound, then a trickling. He raised his head and looked about him. On the beach he saw a woman, made entirely out of sand. She came close, and watched him for several minutes. He knew she was watching and sizing him up, as her head was cocked to one side in a vaguely human gesture. The man sat up and sized her up too. Her breasts had no nipples, they were all round, her seaweed hair was full of urchins, and her legs were studded with chips of driftwood. Her eyes shone out of the sand of her face where the moonlight struck the shells within them. The space in between her legs was uncovered, she was exactly a woman. It did not matter that she was different.

His heart no longer resident in his body; all the man could embrace was lust and confusion. Perhaps he felt excitement too, and became at once keenly aware of the emptiness dragging at his guts. He stood up and felt as naked as the sand woman. He said hello and she nodded. She pointed to him, to crimson stain on his shirt, where underneath the blood was gushing out half-red, half sea water. Oh this, this is nothing, he wanted to say, but the words just vanished from his mouth. He tried to say, if you break your arm, or your leg or you vomit then people know you’re sick and they leave you be, and maybe they are even kind to you. But when you have a broken heart no one can see how much it hurts, and no one knows unless you tell them, and then they pity you and that’s worst of all. The sand woman nodded even though he had been unable to utter a sound.

Encouraged and undaunted by this the man continued. I cut out my heart, not because I thought it would make me feel better but because I thought then at last people would see how much I had been hurt. I thought then people would know that I wasn’t weak, but that the pain I carried around with me every day was just more than I could stand in silence. That a broken promise hurts infinitely more than a broken arm or a broken leg. That no one knows how to put a splint on broken memories. That no doctor can crawl into your head and remove the dreams you have of the one you love after they are gone.

They stood for some time together on the beach watching each other. Birds settled on the sand and hunted for worms; the man idly wondered if they were the ones who had eaten his heart, but again knew that this could not be so. Finally the sand woman approached him and pulled up his shirt with her fine grit fingers. She plunged her fist into the space where the heart had been, and filled it with sand. In an instant the gap was closed. The man sighed, he felt complete again. He embraced the sand woman clutched at her seaweed hair. He wept and the tears came out in grains, sand trickled from his eye sockets.

He visited the beach every day. He brought things for the sand woman. A watch on a chain, a scarf made of turquoise silk (which he wrapped around her, but which fell off and was carried away by the tide), a ring that he had found in the suitcase with lingerie and the old postcards, a bell that was so exquisite he was almost afraid to touch it himself, and a bird in a cage (she threw away the cage and the bird took up residence in her seaweed hair). He told her how she was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen and how even though she never spoke, he would never grow tired of talking to her. When he tried to hold her in his arms the salt of her skin stung him but it was a pleasure of sorts, and even though he couldn’t feel love he could feel the excitement of her nearness. Often times he thought about the people in the coffee shop and how they would wrinkle their noses and call out in horror at the sight of him and his new sand sweetheart. But he never went back there, and the manager eventually replaced the BIOHAZARD bucket with an expensive wicker basket for discarded paper hand towels, because since the man’s disappearance business had doubled.

In the meantime the man completely forgot about all his old loves, all the women who had broken his heart inch by inch. The sand woman had erased them all the instant she had replaced his heart with her own essence, with all the grit and stones and sea creatures so small you could never hope to know of them. Each dawn the beach reclaimed her, sucked her back into the earth and he would return to his bed. On the long walk back to his empty house he would think of her, imagine that it was her shape he saw rounding a hill, or walking somewhere behind him. Every tree was the beauty of her body, and all nature had something of her in it. He would lie awake and feel his guts churning and wish that he could be just like her. So one day he told her, in his way of speaking but not talking, and she reached out and ripped at his skin and tore out the strands of his intestines and he didn’t feel the pain because as she removed his insides she replaced each ounce of flesh with sand. I love you, he said out loud, because all his insecurities were gone now. The words blew away on the wind and the sand woman nodded.

They bottled his guts into jars which he buried (although glad to be rid of these, he had not forgotten the worry that the loss of the whereabouts of his heart had caused him). Standing beside his love he thought he felt whole, that she balanced him. But then dawn came and the ground swallowed her up again, leaving him shivering and alone, and ripped apart, half-made. He went home and tried to cook a meal but his appetite was gone, food was now meaningless to him so he threw out everything he found in the fridge. He even rooted out the toffees from down the back of his settee, and poured away all the fine liquor he kept for Christmas. Finally, he resolved to make his love his forever. He found the local vicar and dragged him down to the beach after sunset. He didn’t want to dress the sand woman in yards of material that would hide who she really was, so he compromised with a garter he had found in the suitcase and a bunch of wild flowers he had gleaned from the road side. The vicar put up quite a fuss at the lateness of the hour, and the damp and the lack of witnesses and the gaping holes in the man filled with sand, but he went along anyway to see what all the fuss was about.

The sand woman was waiting, as still as stone, tall and inelegant. The man swore to the vicar that he would know her silhouette anywhere, that even if she were transformed into a real woman, he would know her instantly by the way she stood. They approached her, and the man gave her his gifts, but the bird that had taken up residence in her seaweed hair stole the garter to make a nest, and the flowers he had held so tightly in his hand were now wilted, so the man scattered them to the wind. As the moon rose high in the night and the stars punctured the purple darkness with yet more holes, the couple stood before the vicar.

“Dearly Beloved,we are gathered here-” he began, and there was something like an earthquake. For just as the man had reached out to grasp the cold, soft hand of the sand woman, the beach became alive with shapes. A man rose out of the earth as tall and improbable as the woman. The sand bride stepped back to join the man and before anything could be said or done, the whole beach was filled with watchers, shells for eyes, seaweed for hair. The man searched the figures for his bride but in vain, for as he watched they had become a series of sand dunes. They had joined hands and hips and arms together and become each other. The man roared out at them but nothing stirred, no shape resembled his beloved, and he could find no trace of the bird or the bell or the garter, or any of his gifts to her.

The vicar went home and said his prayers vehemently, kneeling before his bed. He clutched his wife all night as if she might disappear into thin air the second he let go of her. The man waited on the beach until the dawn came, and the sand dunes had disintegrated into pitiful humps. He began to dig again through them, searching for any trace of his bride or the jars that contained his entrails, or his heart. But he found nothing, and so he went back to his house, utterly bereaved but emotionless, empty as a glass jar filled with sand, but without a message inside. When he returned to the beach that night the shapes were waiting. I only ever wanted to be one of you. He said. The shapes nodded. In a rush they came forward, and swallowed him up like a pebble in the tide.