#33 Now That They Are Gone

Image by Witthaya Phonsawat, courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

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What happens to the house now they are gone?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One question remains.

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

What happens to the house now that they are gone?

 

 

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

Image FreeDigitalPhotos.Net by franky242

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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.

 

28# Vestiges

Image by Pansa. Freedigitalphotos.net

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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.

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.

 

Dead Men Telling Tales: Maritime Gibbet Lore in Nineteenth-Century Popular Culture

Image: National Maritime Museum (BBC News London Website)

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While not a piece of original fiction as is usually my remit here, I wanted to plug a short  factual piece I wrote recently about how the link often made between pirates and the punishment of gibbeting (hanging in irons or hanging in chains) such as you might see in films such as Pirates of the Caribbean is traceable to at least the nineteenth century. This fascination with maritime gibbets is certainly visible in various literary works during the century, and in newspaper articles appearing around the latter half of the Victorian period. In this post I examine this phenomenon; delving into the history of gibbeting and into the folklore which sprung up around the practice.

The post is featured on the Port Towns and Urban Cultures website, a research group attached to the University of Portsmouth. Please check out all the other great maritime themed scholarship while you’re there!

My article can be found here: http://porttowns.port.ac.uk/dead-men-telling-tales/

Thanks for reading.

Eilís