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

Image FreeDigitalPhotos.Net by franky242

ID-100137686

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well I wonder about that,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They were my hands.

 

29# The Sled

Image by Blamethechicken, Freedigitalphotos.net

aurora

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then I will listen as Orkoosh tells Banneran stories.

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

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

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

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

 

28# Vestiges

Image by Pansa. Freedigitalphotos.net

ID-100373553

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s how it goes.”

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.

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.

9: Ritual Sacrifices.

 image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net by Idea go

inferno image

 We both stared into the abyss.

Ready to make the ritual sacrifices.

I had climbed through the lion’s mouth after him, breathless.

He jumping and running and without any fetters to hold him,

I, stumbling and falling and uncertain.

We were like a comet only back to front, the bright burning tail streaking out,

and the dull, burning lump of dust,

desperate to ignite in the wake of that light.

He pointed into the chasm and I balked,

At demons, eyes on fire and bodies plump and greased with sweat.

They were burning, only playing, they had not seen us yet.

“I live down there, with them” he said.

“What, with them, how?”

“Come down and see,” he said.

When I looked into the wake of those long flames

I wondered how a man like him could exist in such a place,

and how I could ever stand the heat to be with him.

“I’d melt” I cried.

He grinned.

To follow him to oblivion, or to wait on the edge like a death itself,

without him.

“Think of all the light left in the world, why are you subservient to shadows?”

He looked at me with those waterfall eyes,

where I, standing at the edge of the abyss was drying up.

“You who were born dancing,” I said to him,

“you’d never let hot coals touch your feet.”

“-and you?” he asked, poised to leap without me.

“All stars are born to burn,” I said,

and I watched his face relent to shock,

as I dived, at last, before him.