37# The True Ancestors

Moon Heart header

 

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

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

Hope you enjoy the story!

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

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

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

“I can assist you. I am Kora”

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

“Come,” she said.

“But what about him?”

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

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

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

Cobex looked blankly back at her.

“Your designator. How should we address you?”

“Zed Cobex. Captain of the Bison.”

“Your ship.”

“Yes. It was.”

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

They reached a small cave entrance.

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

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

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

Another, older, masculine voice joined her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kora paused for a moment, her eyebrows furrowed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And there,” the voice said, defiant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Blackwell's Christmas

The lights go out and there is a profound silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

35# November (For Portsmouth Bookfest)

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

astronaut-wallpaper-background-For-Desktop-Wallpaper

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

It was November.

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s alright,” I said, shaking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I apologised for the arrangement but he simply replied:

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

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

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

“Not the backdoor,” I thought.

“and what?”  he said.

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

The next day I found the astronaut, monitoring.

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

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

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

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

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

After that he came inside.

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

As the sun came up I said,

” I don’t know what to call you.”

“November is fine.” He replied.

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

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

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

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

“I love that book.” I replied.

“Do you mind me – ”

“Keep it,” I said. “Keep it forever.”

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

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

but it was empty,

and he was gone.

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.